Sunday, 8 May 2016

Making the Centenary relevant

It amazes me that more is not being made of the Centenary of the First World War in relation to the world we are living in today. On 23rd June the UK is voting on a referendum on whether to stay in the European Union. 8 days later will be the ceremonies to commemorate the Centenary of the disastrous first day of the Battle of the Somme. When they were growing up, none of the participants in that battle can have imagined the horrors they would have to face, and after the War ended many imagined that no-one would choose the possibility of facing them again. But as has been shown time and again, human memory is often short and one-eyed, and we are not immune to catastrophe. It seems impossible as I look out of my window at the blue sky of a sunny day that anything bad can ever happen but that is no reason for complacency.

2016 is different in so many ways to 1916, but there are a lot of similarities. There are people for whom life is all about the pursuit of material gain. There are people who believe they are better than other people for all sorts of abstract reasons (where they were born, where they went to school, what their religion is). There are big organisations who have lost sight of individual human needs. There are large amounts of the media more interested in spectacle than progress. There are people who think that the solution to problems is separation and/or violence. And there are people who don't think.

The human problems don't go away and particularly not when we focus on the differences between us rather than the fundamental truths we have in common. We all arrive in the miracle of birth, we all live in a world of much unexplained mystery, and we all die (for the truth of that, see the list of memorials I've just put up for each man in my group photograph - see That's what a lot of those who met up in the Christmas Truce saw when they met up in No Man's Land - not just someone classified as "the enemy" but people like them trying to survive in a world beyond their control.

So what to do in this world where so often it seems we are presented with Hobson's choice, a rock or a hard place, a frying pan or a fire, a Trump or a Clinton, an EU or a Brexit? As my fount of paternal wisdom says "We live in an imperfect world". In the end, you have to pick the option with the least lunatics - and there is a lot to be said for trying to bring about change from within an organisation. Believe me, I know from my own experience that it's awfully hard to get anywhere if you're on the outside. But oh, the waste. All this money and time and effort being spent on arguing. The phrase "fiddling whilst Rome burns" comes to mind. The biggest problem we face is how to share this world of limited resources when population continues to expand and use those resources.  The current economic model is based on continuous expansion and consumption. Given that the World is finite, at some point that is going to break down. So if the big organisations aren't committed to addressing this problem, what can we as individuals do?

Well, something one can learn from the First World War is that Route One frontal assault on entrenched positions tends to be costly for everyone involved. Fighting against big organisations and focusing on what is wrong is a recipe for despair. I know I spend a lot of time in angry frustration. And that doesn't get anyone anywhere. So, it is time to think laterally. Most people in the Western world have more choice now than ever before, and yet we often don't exercise that choice - and there is so much we can do that shows we care, whether it be on a small or a large scale.

In my project I was inspired by the life of Donald Stileman and the tale of "The Man Who Planted Trees" - it is in my book and you can read it in the book extract on my website. His epitaph was "Greatly Loved - Man of the Trees". The beauty of the Internet is that I have discovered the story of a man who also served and was wounded three times in the First World War and then went on to found an organisation that has since led to the planting of an estimated 26 billion trees worldwide. His name was Richard St. Barbe Baker and the organisation he founded in 1922 was called 'Men of the Trees'. That organisation has since become the International Tree Foundation and not only do they plant trees but they are dedicated to finding ways of those trees supporting the communities in which they are planted, providing a balance of environmental and economic benefit. My talents do not lie in horticulture (as anyone who has seen my garden will attest) but I can earn money from what I do and I have decided that this is the cause I will support. In addition to donating the fee the Daily Mail paid me for my part in their article, I will donate 10% of the profits from my books. And I say "books" because I have started work on my next book telling of the experience of doing this project - of how I went from an unemployed Chemistry & Computer Science graduate to having an Art & History exhibition in a major museum.

I've recently been feeling rather bogged down in the re-telling of the First World War. It feels good to have a purpose other than reminding people of the awfulness.