Hazel McHaffie

conscientious objection

At the Going Down of the Sun

Thiepval memorialMy uncle Harold lies somewhere in France, killed in the battle of the Somme. Well, actually ‘missing presumed dead’. His name is carved at the top of a list on the Thiepval memorial on the site.

He was 21 years of age. Much the same age as the main characters in At the Going Down of the Sun by Elizabeth Darrell which I’ve just finished reading. And in a way he has come alive for me through this epic tale of World War I.

At the Going Down of the SunIt’s not a book for the faint-hearted – either in size (a doorstopper at 591 densely typed pages) or in content. But look past the horrible cover and occasional grammatical lapses and it’s well worth the effort.

The Sheridan boys were born into wealth and property, but they grow up deprived of the love of parents. Roland is the steady responsible eldest, surrogate father to his brothers, looking forward to the life of a respected surgeon, enjoying his beloved horses and the family estate. Rex is the handsome fun-loving middle one, besotted with aeroplanes, who soon becomes a hero, an ace pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Christopher is both beautiful and academically brilliant, but after his very first five minute fumble in the dark, he is forced into a teenage marriage to preserve the honour of the local doctor’s daughter, Marion, who seduced him.

But fate has very different plans in store for them when first their father commits suicide in Madeira, and then Britain goes to war. All three suffer unspeakable horrors. Their minds as well as their bodies are ravaged.

Nineteen year old Chris enlists to escape the nightmare of his marriage. But his brilliant mind and deficient eyesight are wholly unsuited to life as a soldier where ‘danger had become almost a friend; bullets whistled past their nonchalance as an accepted part of each day.’  The sight of his friend minus half a head, and the homosexual overtures of a close colleague, coupled with the terror of the Gallipoli landing, drive him to the very edge of insanity.

As he walks towards a ‘certain-death’ assignment he is ‘filled with anguish of knowing a man’s mind and senses counted for nothing. It was his body that was valued – by girls who longed for physical conquest, by men whose desires were perverted, by war leaders who wanted a figurehead for doomed men. For nineteen years he had revelled in the philosophies of wisdom, the refinements of culture, the language of beauty, and the infinite complexity of profundity. Yet, in the end, it seemed all he was was a bag of hay.’

Chris’ psychiatric illness forces his elder brother Roland to enlist in spite of his conscience. His experience is of medicine in the trenches, boys rotting and losing their minds before his very eyes. There’s the occasional heroic deed: performing a tracheostomy using a bayonet and a gas whistle. But mostly it’s pure drudgery: foot-rot, dysentery, infected rat-bites, shell-shock, trench fever, even measles, and all this trapped in claustrophobic earth dugouts just a few feet wide, that fill up with waist high slimy water when ‘the non-stop drenching cold rain of approaching winter’ sets in. He is utterly exhausted, filthy, infested with body lice, demoralised himself, but the work is relentless, every day a living nightmare.

The noise was a non-stop pressure on ear-drums and senses – the whine and crump of heavy shells, the whistle of mortar-mines, the steady crack of rifle-fire, the clangour of the gas-gong, the tortured screams of men. Thick smoke everywhere, flying earth and other indescribable fragments, the silent choking killer that penetrated men’s lungs and left them to die slowly and agonisingly, The excited commands in high boyish voices as subalterns prepared to repulse a bayonet attack; the gruffer roar of experienced N.C.O’s (sic) as they repeated the commands. The oaths, the profanities, the careless bravado, the stifled fear, the cries for help, the sobbing over a slaughtered friend: all these were part of the real battle, Roland discovered.

The middle son is daredevil Rex who quickly notches up an outstanding tally of deaths (human and aeroplane). He’s a legend and a hero to most of his colleagues and compatriots. He’s feted by the public at home. He gets the girl everyone desires. But underneath the bravado he is a tortured soul. When he’s challenged and condemned by a group of crusading women, he realises they ‘had no notion of the sadness and anxiety he had suffered over his poor young brother, or the anguish of seeing friends sizzling into piles of blackened flesh. … Did they have nightmares and wake up in a sweat? Did they have to live a pretence and hide the terrible truth?

This book takes us closer to that truth. We feel the enormity of what happened in those grim years, 1914-1918, when my uncle lost his life. The extreme youth of those poorly trained combatants. The rudimentary machines and technology. The effect of repeated loss. The fate of conscientious objectors.

I was forcibly reminded of my visits to the war graves in France. Standing silent before those tombstones. The ones that simply state: ‘A soldier – known unto God’. Shocked and saddened. Moved to tears.

During his time at the front Roland Sheridan writes a series of letters graphically describing his experiences. They – and this whole book – are ‘really a cry to the next generation never to let this happen again.’ It’s a gripping and emotional read and I highly recommend it.

 

 

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New Year, new impetus

Well, it’s here! 2011. And a very happy New Year to you all.

The bells rang, the pipes skirled, 80,000 people partied in the streets of Edinburgh to the thunder and shimmer of thousands of pounds worth of fireworks … and yes, it is worth saying, because the official celebrations have been cancelled before, and the jolly old weather certainly threatened to be agin us this time.

Six years ago we took a party of guests to our usual vantage point shortly before midnight and … waited … and waited … and well, nothing happened. Apparently there were ‘safety concerns’. In our embarrassment and frustration we instantly thought Thou-shalt-not-play-conkers-without-safety-helmet-plus-padded-gloves-plus-visors writ large. But nobody wants a fatality for the sake of a mere pyrotechnical spectacular, and we learned later it was something to do with a dodgy roof and the strength of the wind. At least that was the official version.

But it’s not just dynamite that has ignited the change to a new year. The bells have been ringing for other major shifts close to my heart. Indeed the news during this past seven days has been jammed full of my kind of subjects. In no particular order (as they say on ‘talent’ shows) …

Organ donation included on driving licence applications
From July drivers applying for a licence will be asked to indicate which of the following applies to them:
Yes, I would like to register on the NHS Organ Donor Register
• I do not want to answer this question now
• I am already registered on the NHS Organ Donor Register.

It’s an official step towards increasing the pool of donors. Around 90% of people favour donation but only 27% are registered donors. And given that about 1,000 Britons die each year for want of an organ, and thousands more wait an indecently long time for one, we need to do something. Maybe there should have been one more question:
Would you be prepared to receive a donated organ for yourself or someone you love?
The novel I’m writing just now is about organ donation so I can get quite fired up on the subject.

Sir Elton John has become a dad
Put aside for a moment any qualms about the 63-year old temper-tantrum-on-short-legs with a £290,000 flower habit as a role model, and disregard the rumours about payment to ensure the birth happened on 25th December as the ultimate Christmas present, and think instead of the whole picture of a financial arrangement between an unknown surrogate mother in California and an aging, overweight, homosexual with dubious priorities. And spare a thought for the resultant offspring: Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John.
Admittedly the pop star did try recently to adopt an HIV-positive toddler from a Ukrainian orphanage, but he was denied on the grounds of his age, and the fact that his civil partnership with David Furnish was not recognised. So what isn’t good enough for an abandoned Ukrainian is suddenly acceptable for Zachary? Hello? How many tribunals in this country would grant permission for such an arrangement without the pressure of fame and fortune, I wonder? OK, it did become legal in April here in the UK for two men to have a child by a surrogate and to have both their names on the birth certificate. But we aren’t talking about your average ordinary man here. Children are not commodities. Nor are they fashion accessories.
Surrogacy was the subject of my 2005 novel, Double Trouble.

A nine-year old becomes a bone marrow donor
Robert Sherwood is only nine. His brother Edward is just five. But Edward has aplastic anaemia; his bone marrow fails to produce sufficient new blood cells. Robert’s donation has the potential to save his brother’s life. But … should he have been subjected to this procedure before the age of informed consent? Does the end justify the means? Should he be permitted to say no?
It’s the bread and butter of my working life!

A grandfather has become the first to donate an organ to a grandchild
John Targett, aged 59, couldn’t bear to see his little one-year-old grandson growing sicker and sicker as a result of biliary atresia. So he offered part of his own liver and had the operation just before Christmas. What a gift: the gift of life.

Another British person has ended his life in Switzerland
Andrew Colgan was only 42 (not much older than my son) but he’d suffered from Multiple Sclerosis for ten years and his condition had markedly worsened recently. He died in that now infamous Dignitas room in Zurich. My own feeling is of immense sadness that this young man had been desperate enough to go abroad for a solution to his terrible dilemma.
I really agonised over these questions for Right to Die; I’m still struggling with them three years after publication.

Volunteers keep libraries open
A new report has revealed that libraries in England are increasingly being staffed by volunteers, to prevent closure under cost-cutting exercises. And this at a time when it ought surely be a priority to make books available to those struggling to find employment or to make ends meet. Books can change lives. Penny-pinching in this area is surely stealing vital resources from the future.
Hundreds of people only read my books as library copies. I want them to continue to have this opportunity. It represents something much more exciting than sales figures.

Bishops defend the rights of Christians
Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has urged the prime minister to review the laws which discriminate against Christians in our supposedly-Christian country. And the Bishop of Winchester has reinforced this message. We’ve all heard about the airline worker denied the right to wear a crucifix; the couple denied the opportunity to foster children because of their religious scruples; and the bed-and-breakfast proprietors who won’t take same-sex couples in double rooms in their guesthouse. The law does seem to have sided against ordinary Christians following their consciences.
Religion is closely interwoven with law and ethics and this subject too is a matter of ongoing interest to me.

There was something too about managing Alzheimer’s more cost effectively but I can’t seem to find that. No, it’s NOT a joke about dementia: I genuinely can’t. I looked and in the search found this site which might be comforting for those people struggling alongside this disease. But in the absence of a link to the news item I was looking for, I didn’t want to ignore another topic that I’ve delved into in depth for one of my novels, Remember Remember, because of course, it leapt out of the page at me.

So you see, just in a few days I’ve had my belief that people do care about ethical dilemmas reinforced over and over again. A great spur to another year of writing.

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