Thursday, 4 November 2010

Dulce et Decorum est

Ninety-two years ago today the poet Wilfred Owen was killed, just one week before the Armistice was signed and the carnage that was World War One ended. Dulce et Decorum est is the title of one of the most famous pieces of war poetry ever written, one composed while Owen was hospitalised at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh under the care of the psychiatrist W.H.Rivers. Another of Rivers' patients - Captain Siegfried 'Mad Jack' Sassoon - was admitted to the same hospital thanks to a letter he had written from the Front deploring the Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori (How sweet it is to die for one's country) sentiments of the public back at home in Blighty. The two met; the older - published - poet (Sassoon) gave the younger man some tips; both recovered and resumed active service on the Western Front, one - Owen - never to return. Pat Barker wrote what is possibly the best Booker prize-winning novel ever about it, The Regeneration Trilogy; if you haven't read it, I can recommend it.

But this post isn't about that. As part of a course I've been studying, I've been asked to read some extracts from a story and a screenplay called Nella Last's War by Victoria Wood. Set in World War Two, it confounds your expectations by casting the mother in the role of 'my son must fight for King and Country', while the father wants the boy to stay safe at home, and gets teary-eyed at the thought of his son going overseas. Which rather set me thinking about my own reaction should - God forbid - anything of a similar nature happen in our family. And I think I might be with the father on this one.

There. I've said it. But I'm also going to say that I'm no pacifist: some battles need fighting and I'm in awe and full of admiration for those who volunteer to do our fighting for us. And for their families. Going to war, putting your life on the line, can never be easy. But my heart goes out for all those who are left behind doing the vacuuming, folding clothes, glancing at photographs and waiting. Any parent who has struggled (and it is a struggle) through the early years of a child's life will know what I mean. That hard work, those nappies, the washing, the sleepless nights; it's all done for love. And growing up doesn't dilute it. How can you watch a child you've safely seen to adulthood going off to war? I can't imagine it. Well, I can; but it doesn't help.

So as Remembrance Day approaches spare a thought not only for the heroes, but for their families. And if Horace doesn't mind (and my old Latin teacher can stand it) let's change that quote from the ridiculous to the sublime: not Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori, but Dulce et Decorum est pro familia mori. 

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