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The Personal Column: A matter of conscience
A few weeks ago, I was surprised to see my local paper, the Stroud News and Journal, had run a decent feature headlined ‘Global peace party to be held in Stroud’s Bankside gardens.... to celebrate peace around the world and to collectively call for an end to war’. The party (held on Sunday 18 September) was followed by evening events and the paper gave a detailed listing.
World Peace Day followed on 21 September and I guess it was observed throughout the world during that week. In Stroud, it kicked off on Sunday with a picnic in the public gardens right in the heart of Stroud, which were the scene of rock, jazz and folk events in the recent Fringe Festival. There was music, songs from the Community Choir, and group art projects at the picnic. All followed by an evening meeting/discussion about conscientious objection in the two world wars. This was held in our Old Town Hall (ancient town hall a better description) followed later by a music and poetry evening in which PN contributor Dennis Gould and myself took part.
Altogether, a deal of ambitious and inventive planning has gone into these events celebrating peace and it is very heartening to live in a town which publicly acknowledges World Peace Day. ‘Think global – act local’ is clearly the motivator here and I would that every town across New Albion would do the same. William Blake always called the British Isles ‘Albion’ and memorably wrote:
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And love, the human form divine,
and Peace, the human dress.
I was invited to speak at the meeting about conscientious objection because one of the organisers mistakenly believed me to be a CO. I had to gently point out that I was too young to have been eligible for military conscription and so never had to register as a CO. In fact, national service (after the Second World War) had come to an end while I was still a student and I was never put to the test. However, as I’ve mentioned before in this column, my inspiration as a pacifist came from my Uncle Bert who was a CO during the Second World War.
He was absolutist in that he refused to do any work which supported the war and he therefore served two terms in Wormwood Scrubs. This had an incalculable effect on me when a child and it’s never worn off.
The shadow of that war will hang over my life forever and it was the subject of all our playground games. Uncle Bert’s younger brother Syd, first registered as a CO, then changed his mind and volunteered for the RAF. He became a sergeant pilot and was later commissioned. He flew North Atlantic patrols to spot submarines and survived these hazardous missions and lived on into his 80s. As seems the rule with combatants in the Second World War, he rarely mentioned the war although in later life he always wore his RAF Association tie and remained in touch with his diminishing band of fellow pilots. It was only towards the end of his life he told me he was originally a CO.
My uncle Bert was equally reticent about his terms in the Scrubs. All he ever said was that the Quaker prison visitors were his ‘lifeline’. He was 19 or 20 at the time I think and he had a hard time in prison. He’d married very young and my aunt Win drove a horse-drawn Co-op milk float to keep the home fires burning while he was inside. My cousin Paul came to live with us while his father was in prison and, rarely, I imagine, as a family of East Enders, not one of us was killed or injured during the war.
Anyway, I enjoyed taking part in Stroud’s global peace party and performing the poem I wrote to celebrate PN’s 75th birthday. I thought of my uncles as I read and felt modestly proud to have written for PN on and off since the mid-sixties.