Usually I like to spend Remembrance Sunday with my beautiful mum because she lost her dad in WW2. But this year I’ll be listening to the live performance of “24 hours of peace” and here’s why-
24 HOURS OF PEACE is a live artwork and performance for theatre and radio created by Neil Bartlett from testimonies by 100 peace workers and produced by Thomas Carter productions. I came on board the project in the summer as script assistant to help Neil with creating the ambitious (572 page) 24 hour “marathon text” that will begin to be read at 11.02am on Remembrance Sunday (after the 2 mins silence) and end on Monday 11th November at 11am. I didn’t know much about peace work before so it was a real privilege to work on the transcripts of 100 peace workers; a diverse group of fascinating people, extraordinary and inspiring in different ways but unified in their search for peace. The text asks questions about peace and remembrance – what is peace? How do we remember wars? How should we remember? And how does our act of remembrance lend itself to a peaceful world?
My own act of remembrance normally centres around my grandfather, Alfred Heads, who drowned when his ship was sunk by a U boat in 1942. Of course I never knew him but I try to remember him on Remembrance Sunday and think about his valuable contribution to peace. In previous years I’ve visited the memorial at Tower Hill where his name is etched into a bronze panel with all the names of the thousands of men who were drowned in the first and second world wars and have no known grave. But I have never felt that confident about how I should remember him or how he might want to be remembered. In “24 hours of peace”, one of Neil’s interviewees is an 87 year old woman called Audrey Layton who remembers her own father when he returned from war with a bullet hole in his right hand –
“It must have been because the bullet went right through and he got a hole that was full of black hairs, because he was dark, and his hand was like that and he had to learn to write with his left hand. He’d got lovely handwriting but it sloped backwards, and I think he was quite bitter about the war and what it did to him.” (Audrey quoted from “24 hours of peace”)
Audrey’s poetic words remind me of a photograph of my own grandfather with his black hair and dark features; they also remind me of the letters he wrote in forward sloped writing to my mum (his little girl) from his ship just before he died….
“my Darling Daughter Heather, I heard your tiny voice on the phone dear and I hope you heard mine & are looking after mummy…”.
…“my Darling Daughter, I hope this finds you well and that you still love your Daddy as much as he loves you…”(letters to my mum, Heather Daniels from Alfred Heads, 1942)
Every year I think about my mum’s loss when her dad didn’t come home and I want to remember him with dignity and respect on behalf of my mum but I’ve never really known the right way to do that. Working with the transcripts for 24 hours of peace has crystallised for me the idea that we must remember the past but it’s vital to put the past in the context of the present and the future. This year’s Remembrance Sunday is our 100th one, but are we remembering any differently from 100 years ago? Shouldn’t we be? Why is our act of remembrance so entwined with the actions of the armed forces?
I wonder what my grandfather would think about remembrance. I know he’d want a peaceful world first and foremost for his daughter, grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren to live in. I think of him as a loving man with sloped writing and dark hair who romantically whisked my grandma up to the top of Table Mountain in a cable car on their first date; I think of him as ‘living’. I want his life to have a peaceful legacy. And what does peace really look like? Personally I’ve always thought peace was a Zen like calm feeling but now I’m not so sure. Many of the interviewees in “24 hours of peace” describe peace in an active loud way, it’s what they’re passionately working towards and it won’t happen without action. There is conflict everywhere we turn and peace comes after the effort of negotiation and “hard work”. “24 hours of peace” is testimony from an “army” of peace workers who are actively making peace happen in the present.
In “24 hours of peace”, the interviewee Zoe Williams considers the legacy of her great grandfather Laurence Binyon who wrote the famous poem “For the Fallen” – “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” These poignant lines are read at remembrance services all around the country, we use them to remember and reflect back on the tragic casualties of the past world wars. But Binyon actually wrote the poem early on in the 1st world war in 1914, shortly after the terrible loss of life at the Battle of Mons, so he wasn’t only looking back he was thinking forwards to the horrors of what was to come as Zoe explains-
“So the poem isn’t him saying, “oh we’ve had this war, and here are some words where we can all look back and reflect on it a bit,”…it’s him saying, “We’ve thought about these people right from the beginning…we were thinking about them as they fell.” (Zoe Williams, extract from “24 Hours of Peace”)
Binyon wrote the lines on a cliff, looking out towards the sea as more men were sent to fight off in the war across the sea. 100 years later interviewee Peter St Ange has set up a hate crime hub in a seaside cafe in Kent overlooking the same sea. The hub is necessary to him because sadly, (according to recent statistics), hate crime in this country is rising and “geographically speaking this is the home of UKIP, where the people come over in boats.” He wants to create “a place of, I would say, a place of refuge, a place of comfort; a place of peace.” (Peter St Ange, 24 Hours of Peace). 100 years later, why are we not welcoming the refugees of war? Meanwhile in another part of the country a peace worker talks to a group of school children about a young boy called Axel Landmann who was on the Kindertransport in 1939, she shows the class Axel’s suitcase, talks about his journey to England and this prompts another young boy to stand up –
“he had these blue and yellow glasses on, and he stood up in the class and he said in this really calm and considered way that he doesn’t think people should go to war because people lose their homes and they have to move away…and then he just sat back down. And the teacher said…this boys’s recently come from Baghdad, and he never speaks.”(Shannen Johnson, extract from 24 Hours of Peace)
Which makes me think…when we think about peace, shouldn’t we also remember the people who are dealing with conflict now, including the refugees in this country and their children?
So this year, that’s what I’ll be respectfully doing, looking back and looking forward, asking what peace means to us today. What can we do now for a peaceful future? Every year I struggle with how to remember. But this year 100 peace workers have given me an opportunity to think about peace for a lot longer, for a whole 24 hours. This year an incredible cast of actors will give voice to the words of peace workers and give us so much more to think about. It’s on at Manchester Royal Exchange and on Resonance FM⬇️⬇️⬇️