Huge thanks to everyone who has supported me so far. After only a week we have already reached more than two thirds of the funding target. I plan to write an update once a week or so, and each time I will include a little snippet from the book. Please do share this project with anyone you know who might be interested. The more the merrier!
This is from the opening chapter, where I am puzzling over Dad's silence about his WW2 experiences in China:
Aside from a fondness for Chinese food, Christmas letters from his old Chinese interpreter, Cheung Yan-Lun – plus the occasional unexpected appearance of Mr Cheung’s sons for visits - there were no clues as to Dad’s wartime history in China. I’ve asked my mother about whether he ever talked to her about his escape and she says not. This silence is eloquent. If I had done what I eventually realised that he had done, it would have coloured my conversation for the rest of my life. Such reticence is far from unique, and may have created other cultures in response, to fill the gaps, as it were. It seems to have led, for example, to the current vogue for researching family history. Many people are only able to find out what their ancestors did in the world wars through official documents such as military records, or letters and diaries that have been rediscovered. Rarely has the former combatant said more than a few words himself.
But the gravid silence is highly ambiguous. Does it imply respect for those who didn’t come home? Respect for those killed by the survivor? A modest desire not to seem self-congratulatory about surviving? A reluctance to relive the experience? A wish to let the past remain in its place and to live in the present? A feeling of being unwilling or unable to describe the experience to anyone who didn’t share it? Conflicted feelings about an experience that was both the most exciting and most horrific of your life? Keeping a lid on wartime experiences to combat the onset of psychological symptoms that might attract stigma (World War One veterans had been shot for shell shock)? Knowing that your entire generation shared the experience, so that there is the constant but unspoken understanding and support of all of your contemporaries? Sparing one’s relatives from horror? Maintaining the habit of secrecy that had been necessary in war? Equating bravery with brevity?
The annual commemoration of the Great War (later known as the First World War) with two minutes silence is a ritualised version of the night vigil, when the dead were watched over by their surviving comrades. The purpose was to protect them against mutilation, looting or being dragged away by scavengers; to guard their honour rather than as an act of remembrance. Perhaps war survivors, particularly from the first and second world wars, spent the rest of their lives guarding the honour of their dead and of their own scorched youth. Much has been written about post-combat stress but there is little on the subject of this silence, the men who didn’t show frank signs of psychological disorder, in spite of what they had been through. It seems that the silence is so common as to be taken for granted. Yet, in the present day, it also seems strange to us, in our assumption that talking is necessary to process difficult life events and complex emotions. For these men, perhaps silence was the simplest source of peace, the ultimate shock absorber and safety net.
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