story-telling

Four ways to live well I learned from my great-great uncle George

My great-great uncle George considered himself quite an ordinary person; King George V disagreed. 

In December 1914, in Merris, France, he awarded George the Victoria Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry’. 

George was a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery. Three months earlier, he and his battery had been fighting to defend a crucial position just below the Chemin des Dames ridge on the Western Front. 

The shelling that day was so devastating that the Commander of the British Army authorised the digging of trenches, and trench warfare began. George, laying a gun in an open field with no defence, was repeatedly wounded and taken for medical treatment. 

But each time he returned to his gun. 

The second time this happened an orderly was charged with preventing him from returning, but in an almost comic-sounding move George distracted him and slipped back to the battle. Wounded a third time, he simply refused to leave his position.

George’s life was short and hard, but his courage has not been forgotten, and it challenges and unsettles me today. 

A few days ago I went with my parents and other members of the wider family to a ceremony to unveil a memorial to him in his home town of Alton, Hampshire. As he looks levelly out from the hundred year old photograph I sense both a steadfastness and a heaviness about him. Aged just 29, his eyes are old and I know, as I hold his gaze, that he has been witness to things I will never be able to imagine. 

The worlds we have been given to inhabit are so different. His was full of chaos and endless, ear-splitting, body-shaking shellfire, constant fear and separation from those he loved.

My world, with its freedoms and opportunities and promise, was hard won by his generation. I’m keen not to take it for granted, not to squander what was bought at such a high price. 

The shape of his life and the fibre of his character highlight for me four lessons that I want to explore and try to live out. I believe we urgently need to: 

1. Know what we stand for. They might not involve shells and rifles, but many battles need fighting today. There may be comfort and security for some, but so many people in the UK and further afield are imprisoned by exploitation, injustice, poverty or hopelessness. There’s no time to wait for someone else to step in. We need to draw on our own courage, energy and creativity, and make use of the channels at our disposal to demand and deliver change. My activist daughter has pinned a quote from a psalm to her door, ‘You’re here to defend the defenceless, to make sure that underdogs get a fair break. Your job is to stand up for the powerless, and prosecute all those who exploit them.’ She means business and I couldn’t love her more. 

2. Be willing to be uncomfortable. Comfort can be a wonderful thing; a friend and I have a running joke about how nicely decorated our personal comfort zones are. But its shadow side is disabling and counter-productive. When you live in comfort and refuse to venture out from it you end up living only for yourself, and you live small. Things that really matter often cost us something of ourselves. A tiny example is fitness. I have started running. I am not a runner. Running makes me cross. I could opt out (a frequent temptation), or I could push through the discomfort and build my strength, win a longer term benefit for my health and the charity for which I am aiming to raise funds. 

3. Block out distraction. Many of us can easily spend day after day with almost every need provided for and every second filled, and no need to think or act with originality or boldness. The messaging to which we are constantly exposed tells us that our main aims in life should be to have very white and even teeth, a powerful car, an impressive phone, a photogenic partner and a selection of mini-breaks. George would not even recognise much of this, but his life had meaning and resilience and character that was not bought or bid for or downloaded in an instant.

4. Refuse to be defined by others’ expectations. George’s father was illiterate. He signed his marriage certificate with a clumsy cross and brought up his large family in a labouring household, on someone else’s land, scratching a living in both fine weather and foul. But George didn’t define himself as someone whom life had treated harshly, someone who was owed something. His response was commitment, tenacity and generosity of spirit. 

So what came after the award and the rapturous response from his home town, when he returned on leave? He continued to serve with the Royal Field Artillery, seeing action from the first battle of Ypres to Mametz Wood on the Somme. 

He sailed to Egypt in 1917 as part of the Southern Palestine Offensive. A misunderstanding prevented his ship from entering the harbour at Alexandria. Sent back out into open sea, the ship came under torpedo attack. Hundreds were rescued from the waves - including George - and taken on board a second ship. 

But then the rescue ship itself was torpedoed, and George - married for just 78 days - lost his life. His bride never remarried; her husband lies now in Alexandria.

George’s life shows me that there are no guarantees, that each day is a gift and that I must recognise that there are more important things than my own needs, desires and comforts.

He showed what guts, grit and gallantry can do. Inspired by him, I’m renewing my commitment to take a stand and stick to it, and live for something bigger than myself.  

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Song for an old friend

Tomorrow I'm going to spend the day with Jo. Geography, jobs and family life mean we don't see each other so often. 

But when we do meet she often gives me a present that she has made herself. 

She is a lawyer and a historian with a sharp mind and impressive qualifications. She also loves to make things, and once told me about her new City law job and her experimentation with eighteenth century marmalade recipes in the same conversation. She is awesome.

Last time we met she pulled a present out of her bag for me, and I unwrapped a beautifully frilled scarf in autumn colours, layer after tumbling layer. It took me a few minutes to realise she hadn’t picked it out in a shop. It was complex and must have demanded considerable skill and time - and she had made it for me.

Over the years of our friendship she has also made a framed cross-stitch of my initials, a soft patchwork blanket for my daughter, and the most elegant green gloves (my favourite colour, she checked). 

As for me, my children have had to brave some humiliating moments in the nativity outfits I’ve ‘made’ for them. I’ve occasionally semi-successfully sewn up a hole in a jumper but I can't knit, crochet, sew or stitch.

So I thought about what I could give her. 

And I decided to write her a present, and you are reading it.

We met on the day we arrived at university for interview as seventeen year-olds, sick with nerves. Shown into a common room where we would spend the next two days waiting with hundreds of other candidates, we turned to each other and struck up conversation. 

Talking quickly and without really stopping, we managed to make each other laugh, even though I felt I was drowning in the depths of teenaged self-consciousness, surrounded by people who seemed effortlessly impressive, articulate and confident. 

Some returned from their interviews full of the effusive feedback they’d received. We went off, hearts beating, mouths dry, palms sweating and returned to each other, limpet-like, with an unspoken knowledge that we had, in each other, found someone to trust.

At the end of the two days we said goodbye, not really expecting to see each other again. I left for home feeling drained and hollow, not wanting to return, much less thinking I would.

The next time we saw each other was in a press of human flesh in the Horse and Jockey pub on the first day of freshers’ week. Disorientated and friend-free, I was pushing my way through the crowd of new arrivals. So fresh in my memory it seems it will never fade is the image of a hand reaching out to touch my arm as I passed. It was Jo, and I stopped and we didn’t leave each other’s side for the night. Or for many days to come. 

That first year is now a blur of fragmented images and sounds. Dancing in Jo’s room as we got ready for the nightly trip to the bar, ploughing through texts in the library, plates of pasta in the middle of the night, painfully early starts for rowing on the river, emotional upheaval as love lives flourished and waned, the drips of sweat that condensed and fell from the ceiling of the college dining hall during dance nights. Essay crises, love-life crises, confidence crises, hormone-driven angst, exhaustion, elation and belly laughs.

We shared a house in the second year, and boyfriends and new friends took us in directions away from each other but we always returned to each other’s company for laughter, for reassurance, for support. 

I had to leave college in my third year to live in France and work as a language assistante. The tearing I felt as I left was almost physical, and when I returned Jo was gone, living hundreds of miles away, studying law. I was still at college, one of a small number of fourth years left after the tide of our peers had moved on. 

She studied law in York and then practised it in London. I volunteered at a charity in Oxford and started working in fundraising. She bought a flat in the city; I became a mother in a little Cotswolds town. Our lives were different in pace, in shape, in style, but she came to cuddle my baby in the sunshine and I went to her wonderful wedding as she married her delicious husband, and they knocked us dead on the dance-floor.

So my present is a song of friendship that builds over years, of the unspoken trust and bone-deep understanding that comes from knowing and being known, from the shy 17 year-olds we once were to the women we now are. 

I am so proud of Jo. She bursts with life; she is generous and outrageous and thoughtful; she is feisty and funny and loyal.

Last year we met for lunch and drank and ate and walked and talked of jobs and family and travels and dreams. We talked about things that are very hard, and things that are very good. Children we’re proud of, husbands we love, roles we play, workloads we manage, homes which frustrate us. She sent me an email afterwards, which I have kept in my inbox, its subject line simply: ‘Wonderful day!’

So this is my song for an old friend. I sing it so that she knows she’s known. And enjoyed. 

And loved.

 

 

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