The Power of Personal Stories, for Remembrance, for Empathy and to Ignite a Passionate Spirit for Change
The love of story telling which I learned as a young child, through reading adventure stories, grew into a passion to write stories myself.
Writing and reading stories is all about our ability to enter other hearts and minds and worlds, and to exercise and develop our powers of empathy. I hope that is what my story of A Passionate Spirit will do. How vital it is that we tell stories – not only fiction, but the stories of our own experience. We’ve seen that clearly over the last few days of remembrance.
On the day before Remembrance Sunday I sang with the Spires Philharmonic Choir in a concert called Sing Us Your Dreams at Earlsdon Methodist Church, Coventry. The Earlsdon Research Group had gathered together many personal stories from people who remember their grandfathers, their fathers and their uncles who fought in World War I and returned. We’ll repeat the concert with more World War I-related memories, on Saturday 14th November at Lancaster Priory.
During the concert we sang some very moving pieces: newly-written poetry by Avril Newey set to lovely and poignant music by one of our own choir members, Michael Torbe, including The Unknown Warrior and Reveille Rise Now, and These Thankful Fields, plus some famous wartime songs. In between our musical pieces, a narrator recounted to a packed church some of the stories that had been gathered from local people in Coventry, as part of the Sing Us Your Dreams project. These were the stories of those who had returned – “the lucky ones”. Many were very powerful and moving. And those with stories to tell can still contribute at the Sing Us Your Dreams website.
We heard of returned soldiers haunted by images of having to shoot sick horses and throw them overboard off transport vessels; men so traumatised they never spoke of what they’d experienced – one whose granddaughter remembers being mystified and slightly frightened of him as he sat silent in the corner at Christmas parties.
We heard of a serviceman who was shot in the hand, refused to have his arm amputated, and came home with a black hand, which he showed to a woman who was about to give him a white feather on a bus. We learned of a mother whose 15 year old son joined up in the raw excitement of recruitment posters proclaiming Your Country Needs You. He was killed and every Remembrance Day for the rest of her long life (she lived to 95) she laid a wreath on his grave and wept for the loss of her young son. We heard of a boy who memorised the sight chart so he could convince recruiting sergeants he had good eye sight. We heard of a woman for whom, though her husband returned to her, it was never possible to recover their former life together, because, as she later reported, “in his heart he never really left the army.”
I thought of my own teenage son. If we had been there, in 1915, I as a mother may have seen him, perhaps, as young as 14, so excited by the propaganda that he was prepared to falsify his birth certificate to join up and go to the front line.
We heard of those who were “lucky” – yet the devastation of war not only kills people, it destroys countless other lives for decades through the damaged minds and bodies and spirits of those who return.
All personal stories which transported me back to the reality of life, at that time, then opened it up with vivid freshness.
I feel I can understand those who were silenced by their terrible experiences. And yet thank God for those who have been able to tell their stories, so they might be passed down, for our compassion and empathy, which may strengthen in us another passionate spirit… a powerful resolve to do what it takes to change the future.