Reading: a shortcut to compassion

Testament.jpeg

You could argue that the most important value in life is compassion. You could also argue that the most painless way of growing compassion is by reading other people’s stories.

An ancient copy of Testament of Youth, the 1933 best-seller by Vera Brittain, has sat on my bookshelf for decades, surviving any number of culls of varying degrees of brutality, maybe because I knew at some level that this was a classic that I really should read one day. But it wasn’t until my interest had been sparked by seeing the latest movie version of this tale that I got around to picking it up.

This memoir of the years between 1914 and 1925, the decade containing World War I, cannot be rushed. It was written in an era when, harsh and full as life was, a writer seemed to have all the time in the world to explain things in great detail. It’s not for one minute boring, it just takes a while to read it.

Brittain tells the story of her harrowing war experience. A bright young woman who fought fiercely for the right to attend Oxford, her sheltered upper-middle-class English world was thrown into chaos by the war. All the people she was close to were killed and she worked for years as a highly capable VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse in various wartime hospitals, including right behind the front lines in France.

Brittain went on to become a well-known novelist, poet, and public speaker; feminism and pacifism were the causes dear to her heart. She belonged to that generation that believed, for a little while, that they could shape the world so that it learnt the lessons of the ‘War to end all Wars’ which turned out, of course, to be nothing of the sort. At the end of the book, she laments the fact that more horrific conflict is on the horizon, that her children will be exposed to carnage of the sort she hoped to never witness again.

Brittain grew up at the end of the Victorian period, in a world of extraordinary privilege. Reading accounts of such lives, I always marvel at the leisure and boredom of the existence of comfortably off women whose job was simply to organise servants and go visiting. I look at my life and that of my peers, both women and men – we hold down jobs, bring up children, run households and fulfil community commitments without any assistance from servants whatsoever. Not that I would swap – Brittain’s struggle was largely one to escape precisely such a set up.

Nothing enables me to live in worlds other than my own more than good writing. Brittain’s devastation as one after another of her beloved peers are killed is heart-rending. She talks about her ‘doomed generation’, and they were. I cannot begin to imagine the weight of grief upon grief that most people suffered in those years, although several contemporary situations compare – families of asylum seekers the world over, certain Indigenous communities, nations like Syria and the Sudan in an ongoing state of conflict. I belong to a generation who has never had to live through war. My parents’ generation, on the other hand, lived not only a through war but through six long years of the terror of fearing that barbarism might well take over the world. We live in complicated times, with pressures our forebears cannot imagine, and the threat of global-warming is the greatest our planet and our race has ever known, but I cannot begin to imagine the sheer courage that women and men living through a war needed simply to get up each morning and face what had to be faced.

Testament of Youth is refreshing because it is a women’s war book, so, to this reader is infinitely more interesting than the many war tales penned by men. The experiences of women at home, making do despite war time shortages and waiting for the dreaded telegram that would tell them of the death of their husband/lover/father/brother/son are way beyond anything I have had to endure. The lives of nurses on the front lines were inhumanely exhausting and distressing as they dealt with daily carnage without benefit of much in the way of medical supplies or even clean water.

Another striking thing in this long tale is the very different style of relationships young people engaged in and the way letters formed the basis of how they became close. Brittain falls deeply in love with a young man and they become engaged, but they have only had a dozen or so times actually together, most of these accompanied by a chaperone. But the letters they wrote, sometimes several a week! A large part of her book consists of quotes from letters to and from her parents, her adored brother and her fiancé. They are long, poetic, honest, deep, philosophical, yearning. There was time to write this way, back then, war notwithstanding. Her brother Edward regularly scribbled pencilled notes from the trenches that made their way safely to his family; at one point he complains that it takes a day and a half for his letters to travel from the front line in France to his family in London. Australia Post eat your heart out!

They poured out their very souls in these letters, in a way that I suspect contemporary lovers rarely do with their instant messaging and their moving in together five minutes after they ‘hook up’. The sheer longing for each other in these epistles is a world away from the instant gratification we have come to expect in everything, including sex. I’m not wishing myself back there exactly – I do wonder how marriages panned out when these heightened times were over and a couple had to settle down to jobs and housework and the daily irritations that are a part of a long love. But the contrast with current practices is staggering.

Testament of Youth is a long, slow read, so exquisitely written that I wanted to savour every page. I loved Brittain’s acerbic humour and her fierce, unapologetic feminism (impressively, even after marriage, she kept the name of her family or origin) which is captured in such passages as this one, which litter the volume:

…all girls’ clothing of the period appeared to be designed by their elders on the assumption that decency consisted in leaving exposed to the sun and air no part of the human body that could possibly be covered in flannel. In these later days, when I lie lazily sunning myself in a mere gesture of a bathing suit on the gay plage of some small Riviera town – or even, during a clement summer, on the ultra-respectable shores of southern England – and watch the lean brown bodies of girl-children, almost naked and completely unashamed, leaping in and out of the water, I am seized with an angry resentment against the conventions of twenty years ago, which wrapped up my comely adolescent body in woollen combinations, bulky cashmere stockings, ‘liberty’ bodice, dark stockinette knickers, flannel petticoat and often, in addition, a long-sleeved, high-necked, knitted woollen ‘spencer’.

They don’t write like that anymore.

Reading Testament of Youth powerfully strengthened my conviction that entering another’s world, by engaging deeply with stories not our own, brings a compassion, sympathy, learning, and wonder more effectively than just about anything else. If Hitler had read The Diary of Anne Frank. If Trump could read – really read – the stories of people desperately fleeing across the Mexican border. If Peter Dutton could immerse himself in a book written by an asylum seeker. If Scott Morrison could get into a story of someone who has never had quite enough money to buy their kids shoes or go on a decent holiday. If Harvey Weinstein could read a book about a woman who has been sexually exploited. If we could, all of us, read and weep, read and resolve to never let carnage and abuse happen again, read and feel compassion for our planet and its people. Read.

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Clare Boyd-Macrae is a Melbourne writer and editor. She lives and works on Wurundjeri land.

Prayers of a Secular World: A Review

Prayers_FC_HR1Prayers of a Secular World. Edited by Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy; introduction by David Tacey. Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2015. 160pp, ISBN: 978-0-9875401-9-5

Way back in 2015, so three Prime Ministers ago, Inkerman and Blunt published a new anthology of work, a beautiful little book by an impressive range of some 80 mostly-Antipodean poets, some very well known, others hardly at all. The collection, Prayers of a Secular World, was edited by Melbourne poets Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy, and is introduced, fittingly so, with a brief essay by David Tacey on the religious nature of secularism. The latter helps to orient the reader to some of the terrain they are about to enter.

In their call for submissions, the editors said that they were ‘looking for poems of wonder and celebration, poems that mark the cycle of the day – dawn, midday, evening, night – the seasons, the progression of planets, the evolution of weather; poems of becoming – first steps, first words, transitions, epiphanies and inspirations; poems of belief and of doubt, pleas for protection, poems of remembrance and blessing, of forgiveness and redemption, poems of gratitude’. Short of the sternest editorial policing, such an invitation almost guarantees, more than most edited collections I think, the kind of hotchpotch smorgasbord of aptitude evident in the volume’s final form. Still.

The book’s title – which echoes Donna Ward’s claim, in Australian Love Poems, that ‘poems are prayers of the secular world’ – appears, at first glance, to promote the somewhat late-Victorian idea that poets are the new priests. But the pages therein are marked by a welcome avoidance of such presumption, their words occupied with patterns of time and of place, of dying and of encountering the world anew, and with the sounds of landscapes mostly suburban, where the majority of its readers, no doubt, dwell and pass through. In a review published in The Australian, Geoff Page noted of the title: ‘They are certainly not be [sic] “prayers” in the intercessory sense but they are contemplative and very likely to widen and diversify the metaphysical sensibilities of all but the most hardened of fundamentalists – who, no doubt, already have their own (more limited) rewards in view’. This is a point worth repeating, especially perhaps for those uncomfortable, in Tacey’s words, with the notion that ‘the transcendent doesn’t happen elsewhere, apart from the world, but is a dimension of the world’. Still, the publisher’s description of the book as ‘a meditation on living in a post-religious world’ strikes me as very odd – odd not only as a sketch of the book’s content, but also odd in terms of its assessment of things. Observers of the cultural landscape of our day might well inquire what world exactly is being spoken of here.

There is, for many, the perennial temptation to will oneself into a kind of authenticity. Such efforts are an expression of a romanticism that either refuses or forgets to weave into the solidest realities a knowledge of its loss. The result is, as the poet Christian Wiman has observed, a ‘soft nostalgia’. There are here, happily, a good number of notable exceptions to what might otherwise be merely another unwelcome example of such, of groping disorientated by a handful of tamed Emersonian ghosts trying to iron out the highs and lows of life apparently naïve to the view that our being of dust does not equate to an uncritical defence of some pathetic form of natural theology. In this volume, poems by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Andrew Lansdown, Fiona Wright, Robyn Rowland, Debi Hamilton, Ron Pretty, Anne Elvey, Michelle Cahill, and David Brooks, for example, serve this end particularly well. So do, I think, these two contributions:

‘Da Barri Barri Bullet Train’, by The Diwurruwurru Poetry Club with Mista Phillip

we bin get up with mista an habim gooda one feed
we bin jumpin da mudika
an millad bin go lunga bush
mimi an kukudi bin come too
an dey bin singim kujika
dey bin learnim us mob
for sing im kujika
we likim learn for sing us mob kujika
wen us mob bin lyin down in da darkes
darkest night I bin look da barri barri
e bin movin really really like da bullet train
I bin hold ma mimi really tight
da fire us mob bin make next ta millad mob
poking tongue like a big one king brown
an millad mob listen noise one side na water
must e bin da buffalo drinkin water
den us bin listen da croc bin snap da buffalo
da gnabia out there too
an he bin make us mob so frightn
but ma mimi bin sing out
hey you mob stop all da noise
ma mimi bin start to sing
da song na us mob country
sing in da old language
dem old people did sing
an make millad mob so shiny an strong
an I bin lyin da listen na mimi
I bin feel really really safe
den I musta bin go sleep

And

‘Eucalyptus Regnans’, by Meredi Ortega

for Brandi

that was some fiery trajectory you took, moving to Kinglake
to be among giants and clouds
I recall you dying once before
…….. .. run down at the crossing, going home for lunch

but you’re on Yea oval, among the nightied and discalceate
and you’re okay
road posts gone
all delineators and signs, the way forward and way back
…….. ..only black stags, ash deafening

one charred fence post
and your old weatherboard like a kind of gloating, it falls to you
…….. ..to be the lucky one
better to believe in regnans than luck, they have what it takes
martyrdom, lofty sentiments
…….. ..all crown and nimbus and resurrection

up on the mountain, no one knows if lyrebirds
are mimicking silence
…….. ..volunteers go into the wasteland, leave songs out
musk and fern and siltstone tunes

it rains and then some
…….. ..and the green is giddying
stags wash white, their millioned saplings serry
…….. ..knit roots, squeeze out the other then each other
ashes move up the escarpment and up
to the yellow-raddled cockatoo, yellow-eyed currawong, to the sun
and you are in the very dawn of things

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Jason Goroncy is a theologian, artist, and try-hard poet who lives and plays on Wurundjeri land.