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Archive for the tag “courage”

The Jubilee and Dunkirk spirit

Sixty years ago Princess Elizabeth’s honeymoon in Kenya was cut short when her father died and she returned to the the UK as Queen Elizabeth II (but was only actually crowned a year later in June 1953).

Whatever your views on monarchy you have to admit that she has done well to stick it out through thick and thin for sixty years!

But sticking out out is what the British royal family does. During my research for my first wartime novel, Lavender Road, I discovered that people who lived through the war had been impressed that King George VI and the royal family (including the two young princesses) stayed on in London right through the Blitz. As we all now know from the film The King’s Speech, the Queen’s father King George VI had terrible problems with public speaking. Nevertheless, despite his stammer, people admired his courage in trying to give them moral support during those dangerous times. In Oct 1940, right in the middle of the Blitz, even the fourteen year old Princess Elizabeth made a radio broadcast (her first of many) to reassure the evacuee children of Britain.

Some of the other European royals weren’t quite so gritty. Historians believe that when Mussolini fell in 1943, the vacillation of the Italian King, Victor Emmanuel, not only prolonged the war but also caused immeasurable suffering to his own people. His chronic indecision about what to do allowed the Nazis to occupy Italy, which meant the Allied forces had to fight the whole way up the peninsula. And in May 1940 the King of Belgium let the side down in a big way by surrendering his country far too soon, thus causing the Allied troops to be encircled at Dunkirk.

In fact, as well as the Jubilee, this weekend is also an anniversary (the 72nd) of Dunkirk. As 750,000 Nazi forces poured into Belgium, Allied forces frantically retreated to the coast where they became stranded due to the lack of vessels to evacuate them from the beaches. While their rearguard forces fought a valiant defensive action to hold the Germans at bay, a call eventually went out for private boats to come and help. And suddenly what had seemed like a crushing defeat turned into one of the most amazing and spectacular rescue efforts ever as hundreds of tiny inadequate vessels ploughed across the English channel, braving bombs and heavy machine gun fire from the Nazi air force, to rescue their compatriots. And what’s more, some (like my character Alan Nelson in Lavender Road) went back more than once, risking their own lives in their determination not to leave anyone to the mercy of the Nazis.

And so was born the concept of the Dunkirk spirit. Whether it was partly due to the continuing presence of the King in London we will never know, but I am quite sure that the Queen believes it was, and it is her innate Dunkirk spirit that has helped her weather the storms of the last sixty years!

The Olympic Flame

On Sunday the Olympic flame will come through our little town.  Now, I am not particularly a sport lover, I usually watch Wimbledon and the Cup Final, but I must admit that the attraction of field, track and beach volleyball rather passes me by. So why am I bothering to rearrange my weekend so that I can go and see the Olympic torch going past?

Well, for one thing, it is quite something that someone bothered to send it this way – Newport, Pembs, is by any standard at the very edge of the UK, one more step and you’d be in the Irish Sea! But the allure of the torch is more than just the novelty factor, more than some weird sense of national pride (or dismay that we are hosting this ridiculously expensive event at a time of horrendous recession.) I think it is more something to do with the spirit of the Olympic athletes themselves, that grit and determination, that sense of people striving to the very limit of their endurance, the effort, the dedication, the incredible personal and physical sacrifices they make to get to the peak of their ability.

So why do they do it? It can’t just be about winning a gold medal. For most of them the chances of winning a medal is actually pretty slight. But like Mount Everest or the world’s oceans, the Olympics exist and are therefore a challenge. And the one thing the human race can’t resist is a challenge.  (Even the term ‘human race’ gives the game away.)

Whether it be to swim the length of the River Thames, to trek to the North Pole, to bungee jump off a bridge, to turn some wilderness into a garden, to learn a language, to start a business, to care for an elderly parent or to write a novel, there is nothing we humans like more than pitting ourselves against adversity. (You don’t often find dogs voluntarily putting bones to one side in order to lose 10 pounds!)

Some challenges are clearly more extreme than others, but they all require determination and courage, they often involve some kind of sacrifice, at the very least a few sleepless nights. And is the putative reward actually worth the effort? Is it worth giving up years of your life to come tenth in the pole vault or to write a book that languishes at the bottom of the Kindle lists?

Well, as my readers know, I am a bit of a sucker for courage – in one way or another it forms the basic theme of all my novels – so I would say ‘yes’, even just taking the initial decision to ‘have a go’ is a significant achievement in itself.  

So I will be out there on Sunday, cheering as the torch goes by, and reminding myself that I have often intended to have a go at synchronised swimming …

Courage as a ‘controlling idea’

Last week we were away staying in a friend’s cottage in mid Wales. On one of our walks we had to cross a fast flowing river by way of some strategically placed stepping stones. Marc and I and one of the dogs went over without thinking about it, but our other dog , Phoebe (normally very placid), balked on the river bank,  clearly frightened by the thought of slipping on the wet stones and falling into the river. We were reluctant to carry her (also frightened by the thought of slipping and falling into the river!) so we tried some bracing encouragement while she trembled on the bank with her little claws spread in resistance.  Eventually we decided to walk on a bit to see if she would come. Sure enough, surreptitiously glancing over our shoulders, we saw her summon the courage to make the first crucial jump. After that she was fine, she hopped across the rest of the stones easily and rejoined us, clearly somewhat embarrassed by our fulsome congratulations.

Here’s a question. Which dog displayed the most courage?

I have always been interested in the concept of courage and its various manifestations. There has been a lot in the news this week about the people of Malta being awarded the George Cross in April 1942 for their ‘heroism and devotion’ in resisting four months of intense Nazi air-raids. The stories of incredible courage and personal sacrifice reminded me of the research I did (and am indeed still doing) for my series of novels set in wartime London.

Quite early on I realised that courage was going to form the basic theme (or ‘controlling idea’ as they call it in the film world) of my novels. Having a ‘controlling idea’ really helps in the writing process, keeping an author on track, giving the novels a point of focus. And the concept of courage was a great theme to explore.

I was fascinated by the accounts I came across of people going out on a limb, putting themselves at risk, physically or emotionally, for a variety of reasons, patriotism, duty, love, or to save or protect someone else, as when a terrified young woman crawled through the collapsed cellar of a bombed house to rescue a child trapped under unstable rubble next door.  Certainly of all the examples of bravery and heroism I came across, the ones I found most moving are the ones where ordinary people (or dogs) first had to overcome a very real fear in order to take the necessary action.

Courage takes all forms and guises and can be found in so many situations. It takes one form of courage to charge a machine gun post or parachute into Nazi occupied France, quite another to go to the doctor when you find a lump. Even writing a poem or a novel takes courage – it’s just one more way of laying yourself on the line.

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