As most of you will know, yesterday marked the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of World War One. As part of the centenary ‘celebrations’ (if they can be called that), I was involved in helping promote the Letter to an Unknown Soldier project. This was a UK-wide (and, in the end, world-wide) endeavor which asked participants to imagine the letter being held/read by the Unknown Soldier statue situated in Paddington Station. Over the last couple of months, over 20,000 entries were submitted as part of the project, which aimed to create ‘a new kind of war memorial – one made entirely out of words’. Many famous writers and celebrities added their voices, of course, but I was particularly pleased to see entries from poets I knew, and other people of the local area. These included S J Alexanderson, Will Ford, Cathy Dreyer, Michelle Wright, Lee Prosser, Julie Pritchard, my brother Michael Oliver-Semenov, my sister Lindsey Oliver, and Louvain Rees. Louvain’s letter was chosen by BBC Radio 5 Live for possible inclusion, too. You can also read my contribution, here.
Today, just one day later, another anniversary takes place, and writing itself is the reason, rather than the response, to this one. 70 years ago today, at just 15 years old, during the Second World War, Anne Frank was arrested after an anonymous tip-off was given to security police. She and her family had been hiding in a secret annex behind her father’s house for 2 years. Her last diary entry was written on 1st August, just a few days before the arrest. Only Anne’s father, Otto, survived. Anne herself died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, just a few weeks before the camp was liberated.
I thought you might like to read this article that was in the Telegraph newspaper today, which has some further details on this, as well as the final diary entry itself (at the end of the article). This is the point in my blog at which I usually write ‘enjoy’ – but with a young girl cruelly cut down before reaching adulthood, shadowing the many young soldiers killed in WW1 and WW2 as well, the only thing that can be savoured, really, are the bitterly sweet, self-aware words of a reflective young writer who never got the chance to “become what I’d like to be and what I could be” just because there ARE “other people in the world”, and too many of them choosing violence and hate over their opposite.
And yet, even amidst the fear and terror, here was a young girl who still believed that “everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”
I truly feel that we, the living, can best honour the dead, the dying, the murdered, the forgotten, by proving this – by living each day as fully as we can, and by becoming the best human beings we can possibly be. As well as writing, marching, protesting when the innocent are attacked, instead of simply standing by, this is the best answer to the world’s violence that I can imagine.
With many thanks to Cheryl Beer for this lovely song.
This post is inspired by a couple of recent occurrences. Firstly, by the novel Six Pounds Eight Ounces, written by Rhian Elizabeth. In the first chapter, her character Hannah King details her first youthful forays into writing, and the teacher, then, who doesn’t believe the work is really by the girl. Which sounds familiar to many (now-writers) I am sure… Secondly, myself and poet Johnny Giles recently ran our first creative writing group for the really quite brilliant Recovery Cymru at their centre in Cardiff. The topic we wrote about, given by Johnny, was ‘the moment I knew’. While some of those attending chose to write about recovery, others, such as myself, did not. Here is the piece that I actually wrote….
I was thirteen years old, and it was prize-giving day. The stained glass windows of my prestigious all girls’ high school made the hall seem greater than it was, at the time. Since then, I have been back, and things inevitably seem less grand, so much smaller, than I had thought. But, at the time, the hall was like a church to me. Paintings of scenes from Shakespeare lined the walls, and the teachers, like a murder of crows in their long black gowns, were perched in rows on the stage ahead of us.
I felt hot and sweaty, my grey uniform itching me. My thighs were stuck together as I sat cross-legged on the floor. But I was excited. I had come top of the year in English Language i.e. creative writing, and top of my class in English Literature. I had achieved an almost impossible 90%. I knew that, this year, I was going to be awarded the prize for English. I was ready to leap up and clamber onto the stage where the crows would welcome me in and my fellow school mates would applaud all my hard work and, it seemed, tiny titch of talent.
We came to the English Prize. Miss Turner explained that the award – a bit of metal glued onto a piece of wood – was for the girl in our year who had made the most progress in English. I knew that this was me. The year previous to this, I had been floundering around, thinking I might be an artist when I grew up, but now I knew I was going to be a writer. And, I was good at it, my exam results and consistent As in my homework proved that. I got ready to jump up, thighs un-sticking with a squelch, toes flexing themselves in readiness.
And then it came:
“Gemma Davies is this year’s winner.”
My heart actually broke inside my chest. I could feel it weeping, a wound; or an internal eye shedding tears. Gemma Davies had NOT got the highest marks this year! I had. But, Gemma Davies had won nearly every other prize… I could hardly believe it. But, in that brief moment I realised that Gemma, lovely Gemma, lovely middle-class Gemma, was the face that fitted this kind of occasion, even though, technically, she wasn’t the one supposed to be up there. I saw her saunter onto the stage to collect her prize. Her long blonde hair flowed gracefully out behind her like a queen’s cloak.
My short, dark, badly-cut bob was never going to win over that. I was chubby, and sweaty, and nervous, and shy. My Cardiff accent still spoked my sentences; my shoes were not as shiny as the other girls’. I knew I couldn’t compete. My heart was melting into pieces inside me. But then an anger burned up from my stomach, and turned those tears into bullets. I wanted to murder that murder of crows. I wanted to drag Gemma Davies by her My Little Pony pony tail and throw her off the stage. I hated that girl, and I hated the teachers, and I hated the world, and it just wasn’t fair.
And that was the moment, age 13, that I knew, that I was never going to fit in with these people. And that was the moment when, in one swift second, I not only saw red but became red, and that chubby teenage me turned into an indignant, sullen, anger-fuelled Socialist.