Saturday, November 8, 2014

Kilburn Literary Festival

Last week I was in London, where I appeared at the very first Kilburn Literary Festival on Saturday 1st November. My 'gig' took place in the Sheriff Centre, which itself bears a little description. From the outside, St James church in West Hampstead looks very conventional and Victorian, all red brick and oak, but, inside, you will find a cafe, a flower shop, a post office and... a children's playground.

This last item proved a bit distracting during the reading, but with a good crowd of attentive listeners and the excellent assistance of Shevaun Wilder, I was soon back in Gallipoli, then in Dublin for the Easter Rising, and finally with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the trenches around Ypres.

It had been a while since I'd last read from The Soldier's Song and I was pleasantly surprised at how immediate and realistic the readings sounded, even to my own ears. An extra poignancy was added to these excerpts by Shevaun's reading of two poems; Lament for Thomas McDonagh by Francis Ledwidge and To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God by Tom Kettle - written just days before the Irish Nationalist MP was killed in action during the battle of the Somme.

All in all, it was a great event - and the more significant for me in that it took place so close to remembrance day during the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.

So, with thanks to Shevaun for her help, to Kayla Forde and Geraldine Cooke, festival organisers, and to Venora Bennett, Mike Hobbs and all the other readers, I'll leave you with Francis Ledwidge's Lament for Thomas McDonagh – his great friend, who was one of the leaders executed after the Easter Rising in 1916:

He shall not hear the bittern cry
in the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain
Nor shall he know when the loud March blows
Thro' slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.
But when the dark cow leaves the moor
And pastures poor with greedy weeds
Perhaps he'll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Long Road To War

It feels like we’ve been commemorating the outbreak of the Great War for a long time. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was marked over a month ago but the outbreak of the war that this triggered is not yet upon us. As one commentator said recently, the war had a rolling start. It was a World war – or, at least to begin with, a European one – and was the culmination of a chain of events, each of whose significance will depend on where you live.

In these islands, we may not have marked Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia (July 28) nor Germany’s declaration of war on Russia (August 1), nor even the German declaration of war on France, (August 3) – although these are all important events that helped drag the continent closer and closer to all out war.

For us, the most important link in the chain is not the last (the final declaration of war won’t be for another three weeks, or three years if you include America’s entry) but it is, perhaps, the one that tipped the balance past the point of no return.

On August 4, Germany issued an ultimatum to neutral Belgium, demanding to be allowed to pass through their territory in order to outflank the French armies forming to meet them. Britain, which guaranteed Belgian neutrality under a treaty that went back to 1839, in turn issued an ultimatum to Germany, threatening war if they refused to back down from Belgium. Germany refused and so Britain’s declaration of war came into effect at midnight, central European time, on Tuesday August 4, 1914.

The last of the great European powers had joined the fray. There would be no going back.