Probably not. But if so, have a go at watching this.
I find myself getting into opera. Benjamin Britten is to blame. I’ve only recently discovered how to enjoy his music and, in so doing, I’ve discovered that -as he primarily wrote operas- to do so usually involves setting whole evenings aside. First it was Billy Budd, now Owen Wingrave.
Based on a Henry James short story, Owen Wingrave tells the story of a man from a military family who comes out as a pacifist. The plot -as is usual with opera- looks a bit of an eye-roller at first glance. The girl dares the boy to sleep in the haunted room, etc. However, it started life as a short story by Henry James and the house itself, laden with the history and expectations of Owen’s family, is a powerfully brooding presence.
I have to say, I don’t have two hours free at a stretch either at the moment. I’m watching it in installments on Youtube. I’ve just got to the chillingly creepy (I thought) bit where the women of the family discuss Owen’s imminent arrival. He will be snubbed. They will go upstairs to avoid meeting him and leave him alone in the hall to ponder on the portraits of his military ancestors. (It would have made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up if I had any, which I don’t as, fed up of clichés, I assiduously shaved them off the other day). I can’t wait for the next bit…
Funnily enough, while I was writing this, I saw that Rae Joyce has just posted an interview with Tom Vowler on her blog, snow like thought. They discuss his novel, That Dark Remembered Day. It’s just come out in paperback. I won’t say a lot about it, as I’ve not read it myself yet, but it’s about a soldier who returns from the Falklands with PTSD. Reading the interview triggered emotional civilian memories for me of that time.
Luckily for me, the worst thing that happened to me in the Falklands War is that someone spat in my face because I was opposed to it. The depth of irrational feeling that going to war stirs in the civilian population is astonishing. These days, rather than boil, it sort of simmers on as Britain always seems to be involved -or be about to be involved- at a sharp end somewhere or other.
Of course it was nothing, but I have a vivid, “photographic” memory of that minor assault. It must be infinitely worse for those on both sides whose memories are of hot metal and cold steel. A colleague of mine at the time of the war had been in the navy in his youth. He told me how the Exocet missile attacks on the ships haunted his imagination. He said the public saw the news photographs while all he could see in his mind’s eye was burning aluminium and mangled, burning, screaming teenagers. Soldiers and sailors are so young.
I have wrestled with the idea of pacifism all my life. The Second World War and the Spanish Civil War, being struggles against fascism, have always been a stumbling block. They always remind me of that dinner-party cliché someone always levels at you when you say you’re a vegetarian: if you were on a desert island and there was nothing to eat but a sheep, would you kill it and eat it, or die? The answer, of course, is I’d kill the sheep. Similarly, as a Quaker friend put it to me, being a pacifist is not an absolute – you have to weigh up events on a case-by-case basis. This begs the question of how is one to weigh up those events? As I get older, the less convinced I am that the use of force ever achieves the ends it sets out to achieve.
I can imagine someone reading this and thinking “show some respect” (they might even, like Mrs *****, want to spit in my face). To them, I’d say, I’ve respect aplenty. My father was a Japanese POW and I’ve no illusions about what people are capable of doing to each other. And the thought of all those young men landing on the beaches in Normandy makes me quite emotional. When you’ve seen your own children reach that age it concentrates the mind wonderfully. I will say this, though. There is a tendency at the moment to try and rehabilitate the First World War. I was brought up to think it was an avoidable thing all countries involved should humbly learn from. I see no reason to change my mind, even though people in the media have started to refer to it as The “Great” War again. As Wilfred Owen said, “Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed – but do not kill“.
Back to Owen Wingrave. People get angry with pacifists. That’s not only one idea behind the story of the opera – it’s also one reason for its neglect. Both of Britain’s great, mid-20th century composers were of the same mind. Benjamin Britten spent the war in Canada. Michael Tippett, a consciencious objector, went to prison.
Owen Wingrave is being revived at the moment (there’s a good article in The Guardian about it) and will, in August, transfer from the Aldeburgh Festival to the Edinburgh Festival. Given the centenary commemorations of 2014, it couldn’t be more timely.
If you think you’ll never find the time to listen to it, you could listen to The Clash instead. It only took them five minutes…