Tuesday, August 4, 2020

“Fresh paint” and Testament of Youth

Is this ever going to end? This pandemic life? The news goes from bad, to bad, to a bit better, to bad again.


Honestly, it feels as if we’re living through a war.


I’m reminded of a scene in the movie adaptation of a favourite book of mine, set just after the Second World War – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.


“Fresh paint!” exclaims Juliet, looking out the window of a London bus in 1946. “One might almost believe the war is really over.”


Yeah, well, I’m dreaming of fresh paint.


This wartime-like existence is taking a toll, and one of the casualties is my ability to engage with new books. It’s all about re-reading old favourites right now. Comfort reading, you might call it.


A recent selection from my bookshelf was Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s memoir of her experiences before, during and after the First World War.


I first read this book in my twenties – my youth, you might say – and I imagined Vera Brittain’s life experiences super-imposed on mine: the rigid social expectations that young women faced, the strong resistance to her pursuing an academic career, the looming conflict and destruction of all her hopes and dreams as The Great War consumed her life and the people she loved. Her years supporting the war effort at home and in France as a nurse.


And there I was, an educated young woman with freedom, always supported and encouraged by my family to pursue my dreams, part of a social group with no danger that any of us would be expected to donate our lives to the trenches.


I haven’t read this book for decades, but I brought it with me to the shore this summer and it was exactly what I needed in this time (for me) of high anxiety, isolation and a constant underlying fear about the future.


I want to be hopeful. I want to believe that together we, guided by our leaders and scientists, will win this battle against COVID-19.


Re-reading Testament of Youth helped. For young Vera Brittan, there is so much loss, so much tragedy, so much despair. She loses practically everything and everyone she loves – and yet, she still comes through it, looking ahead.


In the Preface, Brittain’s daughter, Shirley Williams - herself a change-making Liberal Democrat MP in the UK - says that her mother was so shaped by her war experiences that “it was hard for her to laugh unconstrainedly; at the back of her mind, the row upon row of wooden crosses were planted too deeply.”


And yet Vera Brittan went on to campaign vigorously for pacifism, the League of Nations, nuclear disarmament, cooperation among enemies.


“I still remember her in her seventies,” writes Williams, “determinedly sitting in a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament demonstration and being gently removed by the police.”


We’re living through historically tough times right now. I wonder what the lasting effects will be on us, our kids, our idea of “normal.” But re-reading this brilliant memoir from someone who endured and survived her own historic tough time has helped.


And yes, we may have to wait a while, but I believe there will once again be fresh paint.


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