“I lost a brother in the war and my fiancé….When I held the hand of that German it was their hands too that I was holding, their pain was the same pain, their blood the same blood, our grief the grief of hundreds and thousands of German women and men…Can I find the courage to accept that there might be another way, perhaps their deaths have meaning only if we stand together now and say no…no to killing, no to war, no to the endless cycle of revenge…” (“Testament of Youth” screenplay from the film released 2014.)
As soon as I settled into watching “Testament of Youth” last night, I was keenly aware of how many times I had avoided it; not because I’m some sort of emotional lightweight, avoiding films with too much dark core or because I can’t “do” war as a topic…no, none of these. Actually, because I had already gone there countless times and had told myself I never had to go back there again; had done with raking over the past and had convinced myself that, to move forwards, we needed to put that particular bone down and stop gnawing on it. Then this new film version of one of the most-seminal books of my life came out and I found myself torn; had been torn ever since.
Because here (“Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain) was one of the books I first read when I was, I don’t know, about fourteen I suppose and it was one that left an indelible mark on me afterwards. It became one of many on a similar topic; in fact, I gorged on them, these novels and autobiographies set in the two world wars, tales of love and loss around the trenches, the holocaust, the death camps of the far east, the falling bombs of London, the resistance movement, the eastern front. When the majority of my age-peers were reading far lighter stuff (or not at all), I gobbled up what must have been hundreds of books on these topics, for years; only halting when my degree in Literature forced my reading attention onto other things.
Why was that (I have often wondered)? It was as though something inherited or brought along with me from another lifetime compelled me to do it; to bring this version of myself (in this lifetime) up to speed with the experiences of a generation “lost” to the kind of wholesale madness we never want to put ourselves through again, like I was cramming for some sort of experience exam as a foundation for what I had in mind for this lifetime. As though I had set myself the task of getting to know the human impact of war…intimately…without having to be there as such. Like I’ve said before (Using the Nine Waves to Heal Your Life), I was resoundingly a child of the Eighth Wave with an in-built “non-compute” when it came to people killing or torturing each other…I just couldn’t understand these behaviours, for any excuse. So it was like I had to try and make my young self see these behaviours at their most extreme and out-of-control; to go deeply, empathically, into the horror-show of humanity in order to be quite clear what we…as a generation…need to be evolving away from now, seeing for myself in detail what we are putting behind us at this point in our evolution and why we must. A century on from the heinous mess that was the first world war, subject of last night’s film, I see how we are still in its hang-over; how its themes and impulses still ring out through the crazy politics of our world, as though we haven’t really moved all that far from it or learned anything at all; but we must and, to do that, we still need to know that it happened (is still) and graphically witness the unholy mess that it was (is) so we can put an end to its cycles of destruction. Perhaps its too early…yet…to act like we are beyond all that but then we need to sense that there is a way out; an alternative and Brittain’s book is all about that very thing, conveyed from the ground level of one who saw war and loss up-close and personal.
Not for the first time, I found myself wondering last night whether my total immersion in books on these themes as an impressionable young girl-into-woman had set in motion some sort of post-traumatic experience that became the illness of the next two decades. After all, it planted deep in me the sense that our world was hopeless, we are hopeless, we concoct bloody and hopeless situations and can’t seem to help ourselves from repeating them. In a generation removed from “all that”, in an era when wars had become smaller again so we could avert our eyes to look at our fashion sense or the TV, my generation growing up in the 70s and 80s weren’t meant to be thinking about war and atrocity like it was “real”; but then my father, who was two decades older than my friends’ parents, had taken part in the second world war as a conscript from ’39, seeing at close-hand the effects of a stray bomb opposite our house and the unimaginable state of things in end-of-war Germany, something he never stopped harping back upon. He would manage to bring it up into the most unlikely conversations (“in the war…” was a regular phrase) and would sit watching war films like other people watch sports matches – regularly, sagely and matter of factly as a regular pastime, speaking out loud his own commentary; all this is what I grew up with. My grandfather, as a career RSM, had been deeply “in it” too; my mother just a young girl like me when he was left stranded on Dunkirk beach waiting to be rescued to fight another day. For most of my peers, this was the domain of rambing grandparents but I still knew the daily austerity of parents who obsessively grew and preserved all their own vegetables, baked all their own bread and hoarded useful things because they so vividly recalled the rations of their earlier adult lives.
So why had I (finally) come back to watching this film of a book I had told myself I had put to bed, that was amongst those that had set in motion the trend of reading and immersion that dictated so many of the preoccupations of my earlier life? Hadn’t I looked at this film when it first came out and thought “no, I don’t need or want to go back into those trenches any more”? Hadn’t I declared to myself there was no need to relive graphic scenes of filthy hospital beds and DIY amputations, of personal loss so gut wrenching it hurts the chest, or unimaginable naivety followed by crashing horror as young men in pristine uniforms optimistically march off in the face of wholesale destruction like a sausage machine of death? To watch a world echoing its stoney silence as young women are left to pick up the pieces of a world almost bereft of the young men they once knew? It was all there in that film last night and with all the graphic attention to detail that we have come to expect of films made in the last two decades.
But then, also, in there was something else and it was like watching the sowing of a seed; was like seeing for myself what I already knew and that is how the seedling of the Eighth Wave of human evolution first got sown in the freshly turned earth of the trenches of the early twentieth century. How it was exactly that horror-show (marking the darkest and most inevitable hour of the Seventh Wave…the outcome of an age so heavily based on “reason” minus heart) that stirred everything up enough for the surviving generation to start to sow the beginnings of something else, evolutionarily speaking. It was the building post-war chorus of voices like that of Vera Brittain, which we hear ring out so clearly against a sea of dissenters in the quote above (those who would have the whole sorry mess feed back into itself and repeat on an ever continuing loop of bitterness, ensuring that when one war supposedly finishes, it is already building the storm clouds of the next war on the horizon…) that would begin to pull in the next wave of our evolution and tap it into the fresh soil, like holding it down with a series of optimistic tent pegs. It was those who, having been knee-deep in the mess of the previous era, called for something quite different to replace it that would make sure that the evolutionary process would start to take shape, that its path was laid and that the next generation would be offered an alternate perspective, like a chasm of light coming through a small fissure in the glass ceiling of an outdated paradigm.
Because it is those who tap those first holes in the glass of one paradigm who enable the next generations to see beyond its almost invisible limitations (so all-consuming can a paradigm be…) so that new light is allowed to enter and a broader perspective obtained. This is the kind of new perspective that Einstein referred to as necessarily “outside” of the current paradigm in order for us to evolve beyond its limitations and repeat behaviours. Light pouring through glass can seem just as real as light outside in the daylight…until the glass itself is shown-up to be what it is; another ceiling, the edge of a box, a particular perspective controlled by someone but not ourselves, a barrier to experiencing something much more whole and direct. Inside a particular paradigm, we experience a version of reality and it only shows us what “it” wants us to see. When we are inside of one paradigm, we can feel as comfortable as a tropical plant in its hothouse, all our needs met by it (if we are so lucky…). All without realising what we are missing, which is the open sky of something that would make it thus for all of us, not just those who are fortunate enough to be living in the most comfortable corners of a botanical experiment operated by those who turn dials to create the artificial heating and water supply that make-up our existence. In a lesser paradigm (an earlier wave of evolution, if you like) there are always those who lose out from its perspective, those who are discriminated against, who become the cannon fodder, the pawns in the game, those who are denied access, whose heads are stepped on by others getting to where they want to be. Someone has always been left out…and we are approaching the time when that is no longer tenable; it is a version of reality that is no longer supported by the universal impulse of this planet. Our time of oneness in the sense that we finally acknowledge and live by the tenet that we are all as-one, thus what we do to “other” we only do to ourselves, is upon us and the last century served as a “darkest before the dawn” moment to herald that new era.
That generation of survivors from the first world war, many of them women, were the ones to start drilling holes in the glass ceiling of a world gone array under the influence of the Seventh Wave and their work is still underway through the momentum of the Eighth Wave (of which they were the vehicles), though this has now given way to the Ninth Wave since 2011…the age of unity consciousness…yet this is still work in progress; we are caught-up in transitional times, which look messy and contradictory at ground level. We can feel like we are freefalling as the edges of what we thought we knew dissolve away. I see how I was gearing myself up for the transitional task in hand, even as a young woman drawn to read particular books. My whole lifetime to date has been about the Eighth Wave coming in…which has had everything to do with emphasising the more feminine, right-hemispherical, heart-oriented perspective that needed so desperately to come into this world. It has been all about communicating….an inherently Eighth Wave impulse, of which Vera Brittain was a prime instrument…and all as a very-necessary trend on the way to the Ninth Wave, which (just one hundred years on from the heinous war that she wrote about) is here for us now. Yet there’s still so very much work to do; our actions, our choices, our intentions, our focus, our words all make this happen.
Now is when we get to put all this together; now is when we see how the two parts of ourselves snap together in the middle like the complementary parts of a whole that people like Brittain (driven by intellect, yes, but also follower of the heart, most certainly) were the earliest embodiment of. She may have fought tooth and nail to gain a place at Oxford (not so easy as a woman from a well-to-do “northern” family in those days when sons mattered more than daughters…) and yet she barely hesitated to surrender that place to do what she could to mop up the mess of the war on the frontline as a nurse; and then to use her intellect to speak out about her vision of a new world for the rest of her life once the war was over. These were the first delicate shoots of optimism growing out an earth ploughed over by mortar and the scattered bodies of so many young men.
So, of course, I knew why I had been drawn to watch this film with its beautifully measured ending (which has Brittain stepping out into the now empty and silent lake, scene of happier times with all the young men now gone) and to revisit one of the most influential reads of my youth thirty five years later. I see now how the message her book conveyed has been an intrinsic part of me, of the journey I have been on and that which our whole evolutionary generation is on together…also a reminder of the creative void of “the unknown” that we are collectively stepping into now, with the opportunity to do things rather differently than previous generations have, thus breaking out of the cycle of self-destruction. Perhaps it also serves as a reminder that making holes in a glass ceiling to let a new paradigm in isn’t always very easy or well-received but is usually very necessary. Being the ones who speak out from the heart, even as “just” writers (as did Brittain – hailed one of the most potent yet controversial writers of her generation), is never easy but, like her, those of us who do it should never underestimate the importance and the privilege of being able to write what we do since this is still not a universal freedom. On the route to embodying the Ninth Wave via the kind of unity consciousness that Brittain so obviously gives nod to in the passage above (“When I held the hand of that German [you could insert any “other”] it was their [loved ones] hands too that I was holding”), the feminine impulse to communicate from the heart is a very-necessary attribute and not one we should undervalue, suppress or get lazy about. When we speak thus, we become part of an almighty collaboration, a unity project that reaches out beyond an individual lifetime or subjective set of experiences; our threads get picked up and run with by others (just as those who produced this film have played their part in conveying the essence of Brittain’s book a century later; doing a delicately handled yet powerful job of conveying the heart of its matter in a way that is respectful of its times yet profoundly relevant to where we are now). It’s why I write what I do irrespective of whether I have an audience of avid followers or just a random handful of people who happen to briefly settle on my words on their way to other places; it matters not since it is in the expressing of new truths that we pull ourselves into a new paradigm, inch by inch, person by person, consciousness by consciousness.
Brittain wrote from experience and always from the heart; two things that she made the very purpose of her existence and damn the popularity points. If I needed to renew my incentive to continue writing from my own heart it was there last night in seeing how far (and not so very far…) we have come in the last century; and being reminded what one generation went through so that they could still be alive, when so many had fallen, using that voice…now many voices, connected (via the internet) like never before. You could say, the scattered testament of just a handful of brave souls, the most outspoken youth of that earlier generation, has now matured into a new testament, “the testament of One”, as countless voices across the globe speak up with the shared voice of common truth, finding so much similarity in both their individual and collective experiences regardless of geography or cultural differences, not to mention their shared vision of an alternate future that leaves no place for war and exploitation. Like “Testament of Youth”, we can’t know what impact our words might have decades, even centuries, from now or what unforeseen effect we could be having on the lives of people we have never met…and this is the power of speaking our truth for truth’s sake (especially in the days of internet) in the knowledge that, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings that can set a tornado in motion, we all affect far more than we could ever know about in this world.
Vera Brittain (1893 – 1970) published ‘Testament of Youth’, her personal account of the war years and their aftermath based on her diaries, in 1933 after many years paining over the need to present what she had to say in the right tone to keep her audience. These were still painfully sensitive years…another war was already on the horizon, the whole sorry cycle ripe to repeat itself once more. She completed her degree in English Literature at Somerville College Oxford after the war and became an outspoken voice of that generation. In the 1930s, she became involved in the peace movement and became an active pacifist, writing Letters to Peace Lovers from 1939 (a small journal with 2000 subscribers) and contributing to the pacifist magazine Peace News. During the war, she also worked as a fire warden and by travelling around the country raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union’s food relief campaign. She was vilified for speaking out against saturation bombing of German cities through her 1944 booklet Massacre by Bombing. After the war, she became a member of the Peace News magazine’s editorial board and wrote articles against apartheid and colonialism and in favour of nuclear disarmament during the 1950s and 60s. Though she married and had children (politician Shirley Williams is her daughter), she never got over the death of her fiancé, poet Roland Leighton (died 1915) and her brother Edward (died 1918) as well as several close friends, all tragic causualties of war. (Primary source of career information: Wikipedia)
“Between 1914 and 1919 young men and women, disastrously pure in heart and unsuspicious of elderly self-interest and cynical exploitation, were continually re-dedicating themselves – as I did that morning in Boulogne – to an end that they believed, and went on trying to believe, lofty and ideal.”
― Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth
“…It is impossible,” I concluded, “to find any satisfaction in the thought of 25,000 slaughtered Germans, left to mutilation and decay; the destruction of men as though beasts, whether they be English, French, German or anything else, seems a crime to the whole march of civilization.”
— Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth
“When the sound of victorious guns burst over London at 11 a.m. on November 11th, 1918, the men and women who looked incredulously into each other’s faces did not cry jubilantly: ” We’ve won the war! ” They only said: ” The War is over.”
— Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth
“The pacifist’s task today is to find a method of helping and healing which provides a revolutionary constructive substitute for war.”
— Vera Brittain, 1964
To better understand the Nine Waves of Creation (these are the quantum-evolutionary waves that underlie our shared human history and significantly contribute to an understanding of those collective trends, and where they are leading, at the broader scale), I strongly recommend the book of that title by Prof. Carl Johan Calleman. For more on this topic, you can dip into several blogs I have written including Using the Nine Waves to Heal Your Life.