Shropshire Voices by Bill West

“Juan Lopez and John Ward" by Jorge Luis Borges is a fine poem that sums up that period for me. It reminds me of Strange Meeting (about WW1 ) by Wilfred Owen, who lived in my home town, Shrewsbury in Shropshire and went to the same school my sons attended:

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,--
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,"I said, “here is no cause to mourn."
“None," said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . ."

Owen's work expresses his anger at the cruelty and waste that war inflicts and it is these words,

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend"

that appear on his peace memorial in the grounds of Shrewsbury Abbey.

I share Owen's anger, as did Shropshire rose grower Hilda Murrell who was an inspired peace protester. It was she who inspired Labour politician Tam Dalyell who in turn was such a thorn in the side of Margaret Thatcher regarding the sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano by the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror on 2 May 1982, with the loss of 321 Argentine lives. Murrell's nephew Robert Green is reported as having intimate knowledge of the details around the Belgrano’s sinking.

At a time of new austerity, when the sabres start to rattle once more and embattled leaders seek their “Thatcher moment" we should celebrate the words of Borges and Owen and seek their truth.

West 2012

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