Saturday, 4 June 2016

Hard reading

I’ve recently read two books which have been hard to take. One is End to End – with Love x by Lorraine George, an account of her son’s terminal illness of myeloid leukaemia alongside the cycle-ride she did from John O’Groats to Land’s End with a group of her friends. The other is Leningrad: Tragedy of a city under siege 1941-1944 by Anna Reid.  They are both searing accounts of human suffering, and, for me, both raise hard moral questions.

I’ve met both Lorraine and someone whose four great-grandfathers lost their lives fighting for Leningrad in 1942.  So the questions are not merely academic as far as I am concerned.

End to End is described like this on the website of the charity set up to honour Rob George, the young man who died of leukaemia.
This book tells the story of four years in the life of an ordinary mum (Lorraine George).  It’s a book from the heart, that attempts to record and share what it is like to find your life out of control.
Share the uncomfortable juxtaposition of deep sadness alongside enormous fun and pride. On the one hand End to End – with love. x is a journey through the eyes of a mum, as her youngest son faces a life threatening illness. Alongside this runs an account of her journey, literally from the end to end of Britain, on a bike! After all, a promise is a promise!
This is a true-life account of the surprising strength, determination and power that can be found deep within us.
Life will never be the same again for this mum and her family. Perhaps it will inspire you too?
All proceeds from the sale of this book will go to the Rob George Foundation.”

It is, in my view, a remarkable book, in which you can hear the voice of the mother watching her son suffer and die, alongside her vivid account of the cycle ride which seems to affirm life in spite of the apparent triumph of death. It’s a highly personal microcosm of pain.

Leningrad, on the other hand, is a macrocosm of personal pain. In 1941 Hitler extended his plan to establish a pan-Teutonic empire, from eliminating the Jews, to driving the Slav peoples east in Operation Barbarossa. The beautiful city of Leningrad (now renamed St Petersburg) stood in his way and despite Stalin’s paranoid purges of the Soviet military (or perhaps because of them) at the cost of up to two million lives the city survived and the German army got no further. I had no conception of the sufferings and the depths which the population experienced through the siege.

It is a truly magnificent book, very well written, with the diaries and letters counterpointing official accounts and external sources. It shows human strength and weakness. I think it also shows the inhumanity of power, expressed in war and terror. We too easily forget that others sacrificed even more than us in the face of fascist evil. We forget the price that our allies, whom we now brand as enemies, paid as the price of peace. I wrote to my friend who gave me the book, “How stupid hostility is between nations, isn’t it? I find I’m tired of politicians indulging in the rhetoric of suspicion and fear to justify spending on the arms trade. I do realise that Hitler was an exceptional evil, and that there have been and are others like him who need resisting. It’s a complex world. We need a transformation of human nature, transformed by love. That seems the only answer - but maybe it’s Pierre Bezuhov’s unattainable dream. Perhaps it has to be small acts of kindness multiplied exponentially.”

And I suppose both books raise the same question, which Lorraine poignantly put near the end of hers. “And then of course I don’t understand, or feel the presence of a God anymore. I miss that almost as much as I miss Rob. At best, if God exists, I don’t much feel like worshipping him – where exactly was He when he was needed to step up?”

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