We are in northern France, visiting relatives that were only re-discovered three years ago, after an eighty years gap… My paternal grandmother was the youngest sister of an elder brother (also Stephen) who survived the horrors of WW1, married a French girl and eventually settled near Calais.
When France was overrun, the Nazis wouldn’t allow Stephen to take his family back to England and, eventually, contact was lost… He escaped arrest because his adopted craft of running a local bakery – which his wife’s family had taught him, was a ‘protected’ occupation and so, apart from being watched, periodically, he was left alone.
His frequent assistance to the Resistance went undetected, or his fate would have been very different…
Today there are two branches of our once-lost family: one in Calais (the Duffys – after my great uncle) and the other in Lille (the Bertaloots) near the Belgian border. For the first few days of our trip, we are staying with the family in Lille. Nearby is the small city of Arras, an ancient Roman town whose last-century history is dominated by the First World War. The damage to the town, and the magnificent reconstruction undertaken by the local people faced with the devastation of their home is the basis and the inspiration for this post.
We; the Tanhams, the Duffys (Stephen’s surname) of Calais and the Berteloots of Lille have become good friends – indicated by the fact that these lovely people have taken two days off work to show us around a couple of the places we asked to see.
Returning to WW1, the ‘Battle of Arras’ was fought in May 1917, as a joint operation between general Haig – at odds with his Prime Minster, Lloyd George – and the senior French commander, General Neville. The French forces dominated this part of the war’s front and it was Haig’s job to support them.
The French plans proved over-ambitious and Haig’s forces suffered heavy casualties for little gain, though four divisions of the Canadian army combined to take the important Vimy ridge. The nearby town of Arras was largely destroyed during the shelling.
Following the Armistice in November 1919, hostilities ceased and the battered French citizens set about the huge task of rebuilding their city…
I found the photos of the post-war ruins poignant and relevant to current British politics.
Recently, the same people who drove the ‘Brexit’ process turned their backs at the opening session while a dignified European Parliament looked on in disbelief. The same people, still funded by the EU, now want to have London’s Big Ben strike out the chimes of Britain’s official ‘leaving date’ at the end of January in a show of jingoistic pride… one could hardly write a novel to match the recent events, but we would be unwise to consider this fantasy… nightmare, maybe.
For me and people like me, they have created a similar devastation in the minds and hearts of the half of Britain’s population who wished to remain part of the united Europe that emerged from the ashes of blitzed London and shelled Arras.
Fascism is innate in human nature. The school bully is a fascist, recruiting the weak and unthinking to a cause of personal glory which elevates his or her ego above any common cause of progress. By doing this, he finally exists… However, the emotionally settled child, perhaps growing up in a good family, knows that their existence must be balanced with the needs of a wider circle of caring humans.
What is little considered is that the dictator-fascist is only a school bully… and that sustained courage will unseat them.
Arras emerged from its ashes when its people rejected the devastation bequeathed to them by the madness of privileged ego. Everyone came together to rebuild the town; and the collective consciousness of that town recreated the ‘extravagant gothic’ style of each house and shop, street by street.
A little-known fact is that, from the 17th century, it was obligatory for anyone building a new house in Arras to submit a copy of the plans to the town hall. It was the possession of these plans that enabled Arras to emerge, accurately, from the devastation of the war that exploded like a volcano around it, to reconstruct what it had been… Its past, with all its art and tolerance was documented.
The process of war via fascism – all war and all fascism – is, for me, perfectly symbolised by the nearby Vimy Ridge monument. This startling sculpture by Canadian artist Walter S. Allward rises high above the ridge-line at Vimy – a place where eleven thousand Canadian soldiers were killed in order for the ridge to be taken back from the Germans.
I intend to write a post dedicated to this moving monument and reveal some of its intricately-wrought emotional detail. For now, here is a glimpse of two of the figures that are revealed when you pass through the anguish of the parents and into the actuality of the war as it happened before their loss…
To conclude, let’s go back to the title of the blog: The Sun, the Lion and the Ashes.
We can all find ourselves the wrong side of how we think things should be. The views above are my own and do not necessarily represent anyone else in the Silent Eye School. What is important is how we react to the ‘ashes’ of our perceived world. If, like the people of Arras, we have ‘documented’ what be believe to be vital in our world, we will be able to begin again in the new circumstances secure in the knowledge that we brought the best of it with us.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye school of consciousness, a distance-learning organisation that operates on a not-for-profit basis to help people deepen their life experiences without fluff and with personal supervision. You can find out more about the Silent Eye by clicking here.