War stories and peace talks

by
06 June 2014

Last weekend's Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, sponsored by the Church Times, wason the theme of war and peace. Reports by Malcolm Doney, Meryl Doney, and Paul Handley Photos by K. T. Bruce

K. T. Bruce

Bloxham School

Bloxham School

THE legacy of war, the desire for peace, and the relationship between the two exercised those who gathered for the third Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, last weekend.

Several hundred people attended a weekend of seminars, talks, and performances at Bloxham School - a member of the Woodard group - in north Oxfordshire. The sun shone, the yellow Cotswold stone glowed, and animated conversations took place on the lawns and in the school refectory.

The weekend began with a gala dinner, hosted by the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard. After the meal, the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, presented a collection of her poetry, aided by the versatile musician John Sampson.

Duffy set the tone for the festival by reminding her audience that "fairytale, religion, history, mythology" are means by which "we understand our humanity". And the First World War poets, she said, "changed poetry for ever". Towards the end of a set - in which sheand Sampson cleverly pirouetted around one another - she said that poetry could be very close to prayer. She then read her poem "Prayer", which begins: "Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer utters itself. . ." The applause was warm and affectionate.

Under the shadow of Syria and Ukraine, the former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries, interviewed Lord Hurd on the ethical question of military intervention. Lord Hurd, a senior figure in the Thatcher and Major governments, served as Foreign Secretary during the Bosnian War (1992-95). In his book Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary, a review of his predecessors in office, he makes clear his admiration for caution when it comes to "putting peoplein a position to kill or be killed".

He listed three key rules before agreeing to military intervention: "First, be sure of your facts; second, try everything else; third, get some degree of consensus in the international community." The second Iraq War - "a tragic, tragic miscalculation" - failed the first rule. The use of the veto in the UN Security Council, which he described as "in decay", made the third rule hard to follow.

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His Christian faith, he said, "did make me a little less inclined to rush into action - to take sides, to jump to conclusions - though, of course, there are dangers in that attitude". Lord Harries picked up this last point, pointing to the cost of not going to war.

This was vividly illustrated that evening during the concert by the North Cotswold Chamber Choir. In a selection of songs and readings on the festival's theme, they sang a setting by Antony Powers of a diary written by a 13-year-old girl, Zlata, during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992-93: "You can't hide all the bad things that are happening from us children. . . War has suddenly entered our town, our homes, our thoughts, our lives."

One of the readings at the concert was the poem "To Stretcher Bearers", by the Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, better known as "Woodbine Willie". Earlier in the day,his grandson, the Revd Andrew Studdert Kennedy, a priest in Wiltshire, joined a panel with the Ven. Martin Poll, a former Archdeacon for the Royal Navy, and Bob Holman, the author of the latest biography of the First World War army chaplain.

We heard that the generous distribution of cigarettes which had gained Woodbine Willie his affectionate nickname - part of his mission to "keep the hope of heaven alive in the midst of a bloody hell" - has been replaced these days by Mars bars. His poetry was not as well-known as other First World War poetry, it was suggested, because he wrote it for the men in the trenches, a conscript army, many of whom were not highly educated.

On the topic of peace, one of the best-attended sessions of the weekend was a conversation about silence between the Revd Lucy Winkett, Vicar of St James's, Piccadilly, one of the noisiest places in London, and Graham Turner,a journalist, who, like her, has written on the revelatory nature of silence.

Turner spoke of his habit of sitting in silence for 20-30 minutes each day, making a note of what his "companion God" says to him. His diligence in acting on what he heard was impressive: writing a letter of apology, changing his career - even confessing things to the Inland Revenue.

Winkett described a month-long silent retreat she had attended, and the knowledge she gained of a fellow retreatant without speaking to her. It was like a weather report: "I could tell what climate she was experiencing. . . With words, howeverbad you're feeling, you're offering people your best self. But youcan't kid people without words." People were afraid of silence, she said, "because real stuff happens".

Silence was one of the correctives to a weekend when the spoken and written word was inevitably predominant. Another was dance. Students from the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance returned for second year, directed by the choreographer Ross McKim, and accompanied by Barry Ganberg, musical director. The young dancers expressed through movement emotions that words can capture only imperfectly.

Perhaps their most striking piece was Atonement, a three-part ballet that moved from remorse to celebration, tempered by a questioning klezmer theme.

Women in war were not forgotten. Lord Hurd saw off a challenge about warfare as something inflicted by men on women by reminding the questioner about Margaret Thatcher. More pertinently, perhaps, two novelists, Jane Thynne and Elizabeth Buchan, spoke about female secret agents during the Second World War.

In the second of his appearances, Lord Harries showed the work of two war artists: Stanley Spencer, and the painter-poet David Jones. Jones is the harder to read, and Harries brought out some of the many allusions in his work. Spencer, he said, managed to show how things felt, particularly the lives of hospital orderlies and ordinary soldiers, based on his own experience inthe Royal Medical Corps in Beau-fort Hospital, and in Macedonia.

Bloxham School had mounted an exhibition about the fate of its pupils in the Great War. One photograph showed 15 young men. Five of them were killed, and another five severely wounded. David Walsh, an archivist at Tonbridge School, collaborated with Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Wellington College, on the book Public Schools and the Great War: The generation lost. He spoke on the high casualty rate among public schoolboys, most of whom became junior officers, the most dangerous ranks in the trenches. Overall, one in five public schoolboys lost their lives - twice the national average - and some schools lost more.

The characteristic of these young men that counted for most, he concluded, was endurance. While other nations buckled under the strain of the losses, the courage of Britain held out, thanks to the example set by those who had imbibed this quality at school.

Richard Van Emden, continuing the theme of youth in the frontline, showed a picture of the 12-year-old Sidney Lewis, who spent six weeks at the Somme in the machine-gun corps. About a quarter of a million under-18s fought, most of whom were enthusiastic volunteers.

Many of these were from poor backgrounds, whose families gave their consent: they were sure that the war would be over by Christmas, and felt that a short period in the army would help their boys and feed them up. Lord Kitchener was reported to have said that the army did not have to work hard to enlist soldiers, because there was so much hunger.

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But the army was also hungry for officers, apparently commissioning a 17-year-old, Peter Llewellyn Davies, as a second Lieutenant, because he had been a cadet at Eton, and because his brother had once scored 59 runs at Lord's.

A defence of war by Professor Nigel Biggar, a theologian, and Major General Tim Cross, who commanded British forces in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and Iraq, held up under probing questions by Canon Angela Tilby. Neither had much respect for a pacifist argument that relied on the protection of the United States, "which allows us to imagine that the world is more secure than it is", Biggar said.

Cross, who had a conversion experience ten years into his time in the army, did not see anything in the New Testament that challenged his calling.

On the question of intervention, he had seen "bad people doing nasty things", and shared the view ofLord Harries and Lord Hurd that "decisions not to do things have consequences". He defended the second Gulf War on the grounds that it halted the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime, although he was critical of the conduct of the Allies after the initial victory. "We're prepared to spend a fortune on war, and not a fraction of that on peace-building measures."

Asked about Syria, Cross believed that there was often a case for quick, early intervention, using minimum force, but felt that the military threat had been ramped up too soon. Both men conceded that it was impossible to fight a "pure" war: once war was unleashed, it often led to unintended costs.

Camilla Carr and Jon James knew that it was a risk to travel to Chechnya in 1997, after the bloody war between Russian federal forces and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. The capital, Grozny, now reduced to rubble, was an unstable place. But they were determined to set up a permanent centre to help rehabilitate children who had been traumatised by the years of conflict. The first two months went well: children came to them, and came to healing through the expressive arts - painting, writing, dance, and drama.

Despite precautions, Carr and James were kidnapped in a night-time raid, and held to ransom. The couple, now married to each other, described in detail the unfolding nightmare of 14 months of captivity, much of it in the dark, in bleak and insanitary conditions, often with little food, and summer temperatures in the 40s.

Subjected to mental torture, rape, and casual brutality, they kept their humanity intact with prayer, imaginative mind-games, spiritual exercises such as t'ai chi and yoga, and a refusal to see their captors as inhuman. Their mantra was: "We stayed in our truth." After intervention - and money - from Russian oligarchs, they were eventually freed. Both are now involved in the work of the charity the Forgiveness Project.

Mpho Tutu has written a book with her father, Desmond, on forgiveness. Together, they have developed a programme known as the "four-fold path to forgiveness".

The path involves: telling your story; naming the hurt and letting go of the injury; and choosing to renew or release the relationship. At this last stage, you either get to know the perpetrator, or you say " I forgive you, but I never want to see you again."

Forgiveness, she argued, was a process much like grieving, where you thought you had got there, and then found yourself back where you started.

Rhidian Brook's novel Aftermath opens in September 1946, as the Allies begin the process of rebuilding Europe after the war. The story is loosely based on the experience of the author's grandfather, Walter Brook.

An English captain and his family are dispatched to Hamburg, where more bombs fell in one weekend than during the entire London Blitz. Rather than displace the German family whose house they have requisitioned, the captain allows them to stay, causing tensions in relationships.

"The book is about the reconstruction of a country, and the reconstruction of a marriage," Brook said; but the book also engageswith larger themes of justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, and rehabilitation.

James Cary is the co-writer, with Richard Hurst, of the BBC3 comedy Bluestone 42, which follows thelives of a bomb-disposal squad in Afghanistan. In conversation with the broadcaster Simeon Courtie, he talked of the minefield of ethics and sensitivity they had to tread to bring the series to air. He said that they were "trying to tell the truth of what it's like to be a soldier".

Writing a series about a conflict that is happening now placed limits on what they could portray, he said. "We can't say to the families of the people who died that they died for nothing." With distance, however, he believed that it was possible to write comedy about almost any subject. "If you can make a quite funny movie, set in an Italian concentration camp - Life is Beautiful - then almost anything is possible."

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The work of Stephen Raw is based on letters and language, and he collaborates regularly with Carol Ann Duffy. His exhibition "Wasit for this the clay grew tall?", which was on show at the festival, tookas its starting-point Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, which included the words of the poet Wilfred Owen, and also the Latin mass.

Raw, who describes himself as a "textual artist" rather than a calligrapher, used different media to bring the dark realities of the war alive in his work.

Clive Aslet used the war memorial in the Dartmoor village of Lydford as a means of thinking about how we commemorate those who die in conflict.

Starting with the list of 22 men and women from the village lost in two World Wars, as well as the Falklands and Iraq, he had researched their lives and their deaths, to turn them from mere names into flesh-and-blood people with a story: the stonemason Archie Huggins, who died of dysentery in Suvla Bay; Samuel Voyzey and Mancel Clark, who emigrated to Canada, but returned to enlist, only to be killed on the Somme.

Two very different poets, Malcolm Guite and Pádraig Ó Tuama, joined forces to read, from their collections, work that explored the territory of conflict, suffering, and resolution. They were united by their love of form, such as sonnets and sestinas, which helped give shape to otherwise overwhelming themes. Both of them are storytellers as well as poets, and were happy to explain the genesis of their work.

Guite observed that physical violence "is preceded by a violence of language". He also said that "Quiescence ends in acquiescence." Ó Tuama spoke of the deep-seated conflict in Ireland, where children were sometimes taught to lie about themselves simply as a means of survival, and where people were still trying to learn "who we are to be with one another".

He concluded the session with a poem of his that had been quotedby Martin McGuiness, "Shaking hands", which we need to do:

Because it's a small thing; shaking hands; it happens every day.
Because I heard of one man whose hands haven't stopped shaking since a market day in Omagh.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine resounds more loudly than the Irish troubles at present. Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, have immediate experience of the consequences of violence: both of them have lost a child to it.

Elhanan's 14-year-old daughter was killed when a suicide-bomber exploded his device near to her; and Aramin's ten-year-old daughter was shot by a member of the Israeli Defence Force.

After joining the Parents Circle Families Forum, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organisation, the two men became the closest of friends, and fellow advocates for peace. "We bang our heads against this high wall of hatred and fear, and put cracks in it," Elhanan said.

Aramin, who, as a young man, had spent seven years in an Israeli prison for attacking the occupying forces, said: "I want no revenge; there is no revenge." Instead, he wants justice and peace.

Elhanan concluded that the conflict could be ended only by pressure from beyond the region. "Ruling and oppressing and humiliating four million people is not Jewish, and to be against it is not anti-Semitism."

IT IS good not to stick to a theme too rigidly, especially one as emotionally draining as war and peace. And so there were some delights, distractions, and fascinations on the programme.

The novelist Jenn Ashworth always wanted to be a writer, but she was born into a Mormon family in Preston, Lancashire, where missionary zeal trumped fiction. But Ashworth discovered the public library. A voracious appetite for stories became "part of my mental furniture, part of my landscape".

In her teenage years, she turned her back on Mormonism and went on to study English at Cambridge, where she embarked on her first novel. But it was when working as a prison librarian that she learned some of her most valuable lessons. She discovered that "there are no monsters in the world," and also the "ordinariness of bad behaviour". This helped her to develop a belief that characters need to be written from the inside.

This was crucial in the creation of her most recent and most successful novel, The Friday Gospels, in which she explores life in the Church of the Latter-Day Saints.

The love between William and Catherine Booth, the founders of the Salvation Army, sustained their drive to bring the gospel to poor communities. Cathy le Feuvre, a Salvationist, said that their love letters revealed that they broke the Victorian stereotype, and their passion for each other was as fieryas their message: "It was definitely not lie back and think of Eng-land!"

As their misson grew from evangelism into social outreach, and they saw less of one another than they wanted (although there was enough contact to produce eight children), the correspondence sustained them.

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Michael Arditti read from his latest novel, The Breath of Night, which is about sanctity and holiness, set against the background of liberation in the Philippines. He and his interlocutor, Lord Harries, talked about how you wrote good characters, which, they agreed, was more difficult than the creationof baddies. Proust, Dostoevsky, Richard Hughes, and Tolstoy, they agreed, were models of expressing good behaviour. John Ames, the central character in Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead, and Eric Lomax, the hero of the biopic The Railway Man, were good men, well drawn.

The poet Kenneth Steven wrote his 11th collection of poems about good men on a holy quest. Inspired by a Hebridean map, which put the island of Iona at its centre, he conceived an Iona that was too noisy for some of St Columba's contemporaries.

Steven read from his book, narrating the imagined, intrepid journey of a group of monks as they followed "the moon road north" in the direction of Iceland, to discover "the island sent by God to find us". He was accompanied by the plaintive violin of John Maksinski.

The comedian Paul Kerensa doesn't do plaintive, but he does do autobiographical. In a knock-about hour of (often deliberately bad) jokes and conversation, he talked of the trials of being Cornish, ginger, a father, and a Christian.

A self-confessed maths and film nerd, he said that, in the past few years, he had felt confident enough to involve elements of his faith background (he studied theology at university) in his act, and in his comedy writing for TV.

Most recently, he had turned his attention to the Bible, and had written a comic volume about the book of Genesis. With one down, he now has another 66 to go. So we may see him at Bloxham Festival next year.

The festival ended in the village church, where those who fell inthe two World Wars are commemorated. The school choir joined forces with the parish choir and the Hook Norton Brass Band for a programme of hymns and readings related to the Great War.

One of the most moving readings was from a letter sent by a captainto his young sister, promising to build a sandbag house in the garden for her on his return. It was followed by two letters: one fromhis batman, the other from the medical officer who tried, unsuccessfully, to save his life after he had been struck by shrapnel. They were read by the captain's great-nephew.

The music in the service, and the late-afternoon sun that bathed the church interior, offered consolation and refreshment.

The Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature is sponsored by the Church Times. We are immensely grateful for the generosity of Bloxham School and its staff, the speakers, and the many volunteers whose contribution made the festival possible.

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16-18 February 2018
Church Times Festival of Faith & Literature

Our literary festival with a theological slant in Bloxham, Oxfordshire. Choose from 37 events including poetry, literature, history, politics, music and drama. Find out more

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