I have recently written a novel about life in England during the Second World War. I felt some concern before I tackled this theme — the War ended a long time ago and books written about the comparatively recent past sometimes have a somewhat contrived feel to them. I do not know why this should be so; perhaps one explanation is that the author knows, but does not quite know, what it felt like to be alive during that time. But whatever the reason may be, I was wary.
Yet, there were reasons why I really wanted to write La's Orchestra Saves the World. One was to do with two groups of people — the British and the Poles — and the other was to do with a particular place — Suffolk, one of eastern England's most beautiful counties, a place of wide skies, of hedgerow-delineated fields, or meandering lanes. In relation to people, I wanted to talk about what it was like for very ordinary people caught up in a great historical conflict. Not everyone in such circumstances plays a front-line part; most people simply carry on with their day-to-day lives, but may do so in conditions of privation and, if one lies beneath the bombers' paths, in some degree of fear. I wanted to write about an ordinary woman who ended up doing her war work on the land — helping a farmer with his chickens. But she also set up a small amateur orchestra for British and American airmen at the neighbouring base, and this orchestra helped people in dark times.
The other group of people I wanted to say something about were the Poles. I had become increasingly interested in what the Second World War was like for those Poles who managed to get out of their country and fight from outside it. Many of these ended up in Britain, having reached these shores by a very circuitous route. The Polish Air Force, for example, went to Romania and then on to France before they eventually reached Britain. From bases in southern England, they joined in the aerial battle, and played an important part in all stages of the conflict, including the Battle of Britain.
What strikes me about the Polish contribution to the Second World War is how unappreciated it was. Poland has suffered so much, at various hands, and the German invasion was only one of their burdens. We should not forget how valiant they were and how badly we treated them when we gave them into the hands of Stalin, that blood-stained dictator who is currently being rehabilitated in Russia. At the end of the War in Europe, when the victory parade was staged in London, Polish servicemen were prohibited from marching with the allies because Stalin did not want it. These brave men stood on the pavements and wept as the parade went by. Only recently has the British government done anything to make up for this shocking treatment of a betrayed people by inviting Polish servicemen to lay a wreath at the London cenotaph.
How governments and nations should respond to the injustices of the past is an interesting issue. I have never been able to understand why there is such reluctance to apologize for old wrongs. President Clinton did it when he apologized to the victims of the Tuskegee study, and so did Mr Blair, who offered a belated apology to Ireland for British treatment of Ireland during the nineteenth century potato famine. The Australians have also apologized to the aboriginal people for the wrongs done to them in the colonial and indeed post-colonial period. Such apologies are derided by some, but in my view they make things better not only for the descendants of the victims but also for the descendants of the perpetrators. Apologies move things on. They heal.
Although most of my novel is concerned with the period of the War itself, the story continues until 1962, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. During that remarkable and dangerous time, the world was probably in even greater peril than it was between 1939 and 1945. Once more, the theme of ordinary people being caught up in great tides of history suggests itself. La, the heroine of the book, again uses music to bring people together for mutual comfort and consolation. Again, the outcome is a happy one; in both cases, though, it could easily have been so very different.
In times of crisis, big or small, we rely on people of courage to get us through our difficulties. If we are facing a crisis today — and one could perhaps take one's pick of crises, both environmental and financial — then we probably again need courageous leadership. Leaders will have to be prepared to tell people unpalatable truths; they will need to be prepared to tell us that we cannot live at the level to which we have become accustomed, that we cannot use fossil fuels with the profligacy of the past, that we cannot eat such rich foods imported at great cost to the environment, that we cannot fly about the world with such abandon. This message will have to be delivered in the face of a culture that has become habituated to greed and self-indulgence. And one wonders whether people will be prepared to vote for politicians who proclaim that uncomfortable message of restraint.
Of course, I am as weak as anybody else and I am sure that if I were to be seriously tested, such courage as I possess might well desert me. But I do admire courage in others, and I must say I am comforted by the knowledge that one of the features of courage that is most heartening is this: courage is infectious. Very infectious.