Day 9: Alcester to Pillerton Hersey

Last night we had dinner with the talented and rightly famous cricket star Andy Flower. In 2003, Andy and Henry Olonga decided to wear black armbands in an international match in Harare to mark the horrors taking place in their beloved country. Because of the violence of the row they generated both men decided that their families would be under threat and they left for the UK. England’s International cricket status has been immeasurably enhanced by Andy’s coaching and be has agreed to attend a ZANE event this Autumn.

Today we marched through Stratford on Avon, past the swans, the theatre and dozens of Anne Hathaway tea shops and notched another 12 miles on our walk scorecard. If ZANE donors have never seen a Shakespeare play in the new Stratford theatre make it a “bucket list” essential. The RSC Actors could make the Albanian telephone directory entertaining.

Boys Don’t Cry

When I was young, most of my contemporaries seemed fearful of intimacy. Of course they looked normal and sounded normal, but they were afraid of meaningful communication. What had happened to them? Frozen relations at home, bullying at prep schools, being beaten at public school (it still happens in Zimbabwe and in South Africa), parents who told them “boys don’t cry”….

As a result, a good number grew up deeply anxious and a few even stammered, just like Bertie in the film The King’s Speech. I thought that there would have been a generational shift by now but one of my grandsons tells me that things are more or less the same. Anyone who expresses emotion at an expensive school today is deemed “moist” or a “big girl’s blouse”. And it seems the locker-room is still open season for dirty jokes, with “little” women treated as playthings and not to be taken seriously: how sad is this?

Chit Chat

If we fail to express emotions for long enough then they start to atrophy. One of my friends told me that he feared communion because it was too personal. He was telling me, I suppose, that he found it hard to be human. He’s a brilliant public speaker and can win over any audience, but he’s fearful of one-to-one conversations. That may sound like a paradox but it’s easily explained: speeches can be controlled, for these formal encounters are on the speaker’s terms: you can say exactly what you want to, and then it’s over. When my friend has finished a speech, he darts from the room to ensure that he doesn’t have to participate in any unscripted personal encounter, the agenda of which he can’t control.

Personal encounters can be frightening. That’s why people want to depersonalise God’s love and play it down, otherwise it can be threatening. The small talk and social contrivances of polite society are designed to protect people from the confrontations inherent in a meaningful personal exchange. I won’t play this game because I find it irritating: small talk can be so exquisitely constructed that in a room full of people the talk may never extend beyond surface chit-chat. One of my friends controls conversation by telling prepared “stories” as his defence mechanism.

I think that quite a number of church services are designed to parallel social etiquette. They help us avoid any meaningful encounter with God – we escape from having a real dialogue with God into a parallel universe where “religion”, “respectability, morality” and “the Church” are just empty concepts.

Why do so many fear personal encounters and loving relationships? I think it because at one time or another – and we may have forgotten it – our intrinsic tenderness has been violated. Therefore all future potential encounters spell violation. What has happened in practice? A poet has read his most sacred secrets to an audience, who jeer and scorn. A lover offers his heart to another only to be cruelly rejected, or a first affair is ended by a brutal email. A baby stretches out his arms to his universe (his mother) only to be repelled because she is busy. Once bitten twice shy: if an attempt towards intimacy is rejected then the pain is great, the cost is too high, and we may permanently withdraw.

However, the cost of withdrawal is also high. C.S. Lewis describes what can happen:

“Love anything and you heart will surely be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with little hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless and airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.”

Under Fire

Have you ever wondered how you would behave under enemy fire?  It’s not a common occurrence today; some readers may have been fired on in Northern Ireland, and some sons of donors may have seen battle in the Falklands debacle or perhaps served in Afghanistan or Iraq. However, as I say, the experience of warfare is a relatively rare one compared to that of earlier generations who served in two world wars.

The veterans left today are now pinched by old age and slowly vanishing from view over the landscape of memory but many of them have told me that the business of killing is a skilled trade and it reaches its apotheosis in all-out war. The paradox is that although there is fear, terrifying fear – and no one who has ever been involved in a conflict can possibly deny that – there is also elation, a discovery that there has never been an experience more supremely thrilling than the achievement of some appalling destruction. It’s shaming to admit that many attest this to be true. My generation was saved from finding this out for themselves by Harold Wilson’s decision to resist the invitation from Lyndon Johnson to join the American war in Vietnam. (Prime ministers should be judged by what folly they prevent just as much as by what they do, and Wilson rarely gets credit for making that difficult judgement call that saved my generation from much carnage.)

I served in two colonial armies: one in Kenya before independence, and then I served in the Sultan of Muscat’s Northern Frontier Regiment where I was shot at by rebels on my twenty-first birthday (and I have to say I was unaware of what had happened until shortly afterwards). But I have never crouched terrified in a trench, or been fired upon, say, by a machine gun. I wonder how I would react? Would I conquer my fear or would I melt into snivelling immobility like the “coward” in the excellent film Saving Private Ryan? Or might I morph into a warrior like “Dam Buster” Guy Gibson VC, or Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War?

Were they supermen? Did they have no fear? Of course not. They battled with fear as we all would. In Gibson’s book, Enemy Coast Ahead, he wrote of what happens to a bomber and its crew after it is hit by enemy fire, falling steeply out of the sky for a terrible minute of two: “…then it is all over and you hit the ground. Petrol flames come soaring up into the sky, almost reaching to meet you as they rocket your soul to Heaven.” So Gibson knew all about fear, he just knew. He was killed in 1944 flying a Mosquito without sufficient practice near the Dutch town of Steenbergen.

Audie Murphy is quoted as saying, “I have a deadly hatred of fear. It has me by the throat, and I have it by the throat. We have been struggling for many years and I still don’t know which will win the battle but that very hatred of fear has driven me to do a lot of things which I have never bothered to explain and which nobody understands. Fear is the blot on my thinking process, crippling an individual’s ability to act. I simply perform first and think later.”

In my experience this has the ring of raw truth. Men who act bravely in war do so because they dread succumbing to fear more than they dread getting killed. Most heroes fight as many battles with themselves and their fear as they do with the enemy.


1 comment

    • Christopher Skeate on September 17, 2016 at 4:22 pm
    • Reply

    Actually that is a bit unfair on Guy Gibson. Relatively recently released documents show he was shot down by a Lancaster whose gunner mistook him for a JU88. The Mosquito caught fire and crashed.The gunner responsible left a tape before he died in which he admitted he made a mistake. For obvious reasons this friendly fire incident was hushed up.

    Nevertheless it is true that, while an expert pilot, he was not flying regularly on operations at the time.

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