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The plans of a future war was I all saw on Channel Four

07/08/2012

On trips north to visit friends and relatives I’m often asked “so, what’s it like in that there London?” After more than four years in the capital I should have a proper answer by now. But invariably my response will depend on what mood I’m in. I’ll either wax lyrical, like some Review Show wannabe, about gigs, museums, poetry readings, galleries, parks, walks by the Thames…..or I’ll start moaning about tube journeys to work, the price of beer, the proliferation of bags on wheels or the sheer bloody rudeness of many.

I always get the impression though I’m boring folk with low key stuff when really all they’re wanting to hear about is what Singing in the Rain is like, whether I’ve seen Jessie J yet or, ooh…didn’t the Queen look lovely during the Jubilee river pageant thingy. The truth is, most people tend to associate London with the big touristy stuff; the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament, afternoon tea in a swanky hotel, West End shows or red carpeted blockbuster movie premieres in Leicester Square. I was the same before moving here. The memories that linger from a couple of day trips to London as a kid are things like sitting by the Thames gazing at Tower Bridge and feeling gobsmacked at seeing teletext for the first time at the Science Museum. It’s the big stuff that folk remember.

Now London has something even bigger. Last week, a laser show heralded the opening of The Shard on the south bank close to London Bridge. At over 1,000 feet, it’s the tallest building in Europe and dominates the London skyline. It’s so large that viewed from Hampstead Heath it appears to tower over St Paul’s Cathedral like a gigantic pencil nib, yet the two buildings are more than half a mile apart. Funded almost entirely by Qatari cash, and with luxury flats available for £50 million, it says as much about the everyday lives of ordinary Londoners as the Abu Dhabi funded Manchester City does of ordinary Mancunians.

One of my favourite bits of London is on a slightly smaller scale. It’s a lump of grey volcanic rock, probably no more than four feet tall at its highest point and about eight or nine feet wide. It’s situated in the gardens of a square in the centre of town only five minutes walk from Euston station. Tavistock Square to be precise. Many will recall this as the place where a bus was blown apart by a suicide bomber on 7th July 2005, killing 14 people.

Tavistock Square gardens were originally developed as private gardens for the surrounding townhouses as the Bloomsbury area of London expanded in the early 19th century. They were opened to the public for the first time during the First World War to assist with the war effort and have been public gardens since the 1950s. It’s a lovely spot to relax away from the hubbub of central London, a tree-lined, green open space accompanied by the sound of birdsong, and with several interesting monuments to admire.

The lump of rock I’m particularly interested in is the Conscientious Objectors’ Memorial. It’s dedicated to people of all nationalities who either stopped fighting or refused to take up arms to fight in wars with which they do not agree. The rock sits close to a cherry tree, planted in 1967 to remember the victims of Hiroshima. And elsewhere in the gardens there is a statue of Gandhi. Indeed, there are several other nearby memorials to people who committed their lives to resolving conflicts by peaceful means.

Last year I visited the Conscientious Objectors’ Memorial on the afternoon of Remembrance Sunday and it was sprinkled by the white poppies of the Peace Pledge Union from a service earlier in the day. The stone was unveiled on 15th May 1994, International Conscientious Objectors’ Day and bears the inscription;

“To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Their foresight and courage give us hope”.

Conscientious objectors were first recognised in Britain in the First World War, the first war that didn’t simply rely on volunteers but also required thousands of conscripts. The total number of military deaths in the first world war was over ten million, of which about two-thirds were killed in battle. Many regarded this as mass slaughter and far too high a price to pay for victory. Men like John and Arthur Hunter, two brothers from Belper in Derbyshire, who in 1918 after three years on the battlefields of northern France said, enough was enough, and became conscientious objectors. Sadly, they were seen as bringing disgrace to their family, lost the right to vote when they returned home and were publicly humiliated. Their parents never spoke to them again.

Conscientious objection to war tends to take two main forms. There are “absolutists” who refuse to take part in any aspect of the war effort and “alternativists” who decline to fight but will still assist in non-military activities. The reasons for stopping fighting or refusing to fight can be religious, political, ethical or simply a matter of conscience. Historically, conscientious objectors have often been labelled as cowards or shirkers and have been executed, imprisoned or otherwise penalised for their beliefs. Even today, more than sixty countries refuse to recognise the right to conscientious objection to war.

There were more than 16,000 conscientious objectors to the First World War in Britain. I first became aware of the courageous stance taken by many of these people, and how difficult this made their daily lives, through the writing of Pat Barker in her wonderful First World War trilogy that includes The Ghost Road. From there I discovered the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon which reveals the true horror of trench warfare. Wilfred Owen was only 25 when he died at the end of the first world war. His poem Anthem for Doomed Youth contains the unforgettable first line “what passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”

When it comes to a choice between sipping champagne at the top of The Shard or remembering the courage of people who refused to go and shoot or bomb fellow human beings just because someone told them to, I know where I’d rather be. That lump of volcanic rock in Tavistock Square gardens is a very small part of London but represents something to be admired.

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From → London, Politics

One Comment
  1. Peter Chapman permalink

    Great read! Beats the metro on a Monday morning!

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