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On board for peace

08 May 2015

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WAR makes strange bedfellows. Take the "Peace Ship" mission in 1915. Peace Ship was the common name for the ocean liner Oscar II, in which sailed a motley assortment of activists, diplomats, and business and religious figures. At the helm were the Hungarian leader of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, Rosika Schwimmer, and the organiser of the mission, the industrialist Henry Ford, who, when the ship finally docked at Oslo, promptly made his way back to the United States.

Needless to say, the expedition - intended to encourage a public call for a peace conference - was unsuccessful. The Peace Movement during the First World War was made up of those for whom war was, incontrovertibly, wrong, and those whose motivations were less absolutist. The machinations of a character such as "Colonel" Edward House, President Woodrow Wilson's unelected adviser, cannot be compared to the principled stand of pacifists such as Fenner Brockway, whose opposition arose from a faith-based socialism.

Like Ford's ship, Michael Portillo's The Great War of Words: Peace before annihilation? (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) suffered from an inability to reconcile different forms of history.

It started well enough, with an archive recording of the pacifist song "I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier", and some promise of a bottom-up history of popular opposition to the war. But, for the most part, this was a top-down "chaps with maps" view of the landscape. At one point, a historian explained to us that, in this period, the citizenry of Europe lacked the autonomy to think beyond what was being told them by their leaders. In this context, it sounded like a cop-out from engaging with the stories of those who did think and act differently.

Soul Music (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), by contrast, is a show that privileges the stories of "ordinary" people above all other; in particular, their relationships with iconic pieces of music. It has produced some memorable shows; but, in its 20th series, I am starting to wonder whether material is starting to get a little thin. There is, of course, an endless supply of songs that have moved people at crucial times of their life; but finding stories that are truly noteworthy seems to be getting harder.

Thus, last week's feature, on the Cat Stevens/P. P. Arnold classic "The First Cut is the Deepest", was largely taken up with showbiz stories of the "then X introduced me to Y" variety. The sort of thing that sets Soul Music apart from a dull documentary was the story of Rachel Batson, who, having fallen out with her church after her pastor father's fall from grace, was learning again to have faith. Sadly, such stories are not commonplace.

The news of the rise in numbers of nuns was reported by my press colleague last week. If any more of a reality check were needed, then More or Less (Radio 4, Friday) provided it. The rise from 15 to 45 of those entering formation, represents an increase in proportion to the adult women population of the UK of 0.00008 per cent to 0.0002 per cent. So respect to the press officer who got the story into the news; she has undoubtedly earned her fee.

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