Some years ago, I recorded my best friend’s grandad, Stuart Gilbert, talking about his experiences as a conscientious objector and of doing voluntary work at home and overseas with Service Civil International (SCI).*
I asked Stuart why he refused to participate in national service in 1948. The most common reasons for conscientious objection to military service were either religious or connected with a specific political ideology.
For Stuart, it was something different. ‘You enter an organisation that requires you at some specific point to kill somebody at the command of somebody else. And I decided that that was just wrong. I think that was the nub of my objection to going into the armed services. The surrender of that decision to somebody else that I should kill. I wasn’t prepared to accept that.’
Stuart said that the decision was particularly important because the Korean War was lurking on the horizon, and this sharpened the reality of the potential for him being put into a position where he was expected to kill another human being on someone else’s order.
Stuart volunteered instead with SCI for two years, engaging in manual labour as part of a broader peace-work ideology. He harvested potatoes in Lincolnshire, prepared building sites in London and planted hedges in Herefordshire. He helped to build roads in Italy, spent a few weeks gardening in an Italian convent, spent months helping to build houses for refugees in the Black Forest in Germany, and laid water pipelines for a Kabyle community in Algeria.
All of this work was enacted with an ever-changing community of international volunteers, all coming with the explicit aim of building from the ground up the peaceful world full of global citizens that they believed was possible.
Stuart said that after eight hours of hard labour, volunteers were ‘expected’ to sit around the campfire and sing international folk songs. Of course, I was delighted to hear this, and presumed that he would have been singing ‘Bella Ciao’, ‘The Internationale’ and ‘The Red Flag’.
But they didn’t. They were almost discouraged from singing more explicitly ‘political’ songs, apart from a broader umbrella of ‘peace and unity’ songs, and instead sang folk songs together in different languages.
Part of the process of building a different, more peaceful global society, was about finding shared ground. They were able to discuss their differing cultural perspectives and political ideologies because they had already engaged in manual labour together, and had often sung together.
This became their shared ground, and so those songs had to start from shared human experiences rather than being located in more specific political or national contexts.
The SCI had a pocket-sized songbook called Work and Sing: an international songbook which opened with their theme song, ‘L’Amitié’, a song of friendship and peace sung in French, English and German. ‘Thou who lightenest our burdens and removest half our woes, come to make us live as brothers and forget that we were foes… no more fighting, no more trouble, and peace through all our days.’
It might sound to us like just a simple friendship song, but if we remember how recently the whole world had been at war with each other, it was radical to want to sing anything together, and it was pretty radical to assert that wherever we are born, all humans are brothers (and sisters).
This tiny songbook somehow contains over 200 songs, across an incredible spread: English, Danish, German, Slovak, Welsh, Estonian, Mexican, Italian, Finnish, Swedish, Austrian, Swiss, US ‘cowboy’, African-American, Native American (Zuni), Czech, Greek, Jewish-Israeli, Venezuelan, Bengali, Yugoslavian, Japanese, Spanish, Latvian, Scottish, Argentinian, Filipino, Dutch, Hungarian, Norwegian, Polish, Belgian, Russian, French-Canadian, Chinese and Australian.
When working in Italy, Stuart remembered the voices of the women working in the fields. ‘I can still hear the voices of those women,’ he said, as we watched him retreating into memories that were obviously still vivid, so close to the surface that he was hearing them now, sitting at that dining table in England.
For Stuart, being a conscientious objector went hand in hand with being a global citizen, and the experiences he had and the people he met during this time (not least Margrethe, who he later married and had a family with) laid the foundation for how he tried to live the rest of his life. And they kept singing some of those songs for many years. Songs that may not have sounded radical, but that were.