Who is so safe as we?

In the light of the fact that many people now believe that the terror of world war is confined to history and could never happen again, there is an unacknowledged fragility to the peaceful bucolic picture Brooke paints.

In the last of her blogs describing how Dreams of Peace & Freedom developed, Sue Casson looks at the inspiration behind her setting of Rupert Brooke’s Sonnet II – Safety which was specially written for Human Rights Day 2013, and asks – ‘are we as safe as we think?’

When the Kilmuir Papers website was launched in the Conference Centre at St Matthew’s Church Westminster in 2013, the afternoon was given over to a series of talks and showings of the films that made up Under an English Heaven. With the beautiful Oxford movement church just next door it was decided that a fitting end to the afternoon, like a secular evensong, would be a short performance of the pieces that formed a soundtrack to the films, interspersed with readings from David Maxwell Fyfe. As the songs had originally been inspired by the sound of the Southwark Girls Choir, I was thrilled that its Director, Stephen Disley, ‘lent’ me a group of his singers, led by Lily, for this performance.

The Freedom Choir at St Matthews Church, Westminster

The event was held on International Human Rights Day, so I added a setting especially written to celebrate. It was to follow Maxwell Fyfe’s words describing how the concept of human rights had evolved and taken shape during the Nuremberg Trials.

I looked to Rupert Brooke, with whom I already knew he had an affinity, for inspiration, and his War Sonnet II – Safety seemed a good place to start, as Fyfe describes The European Convention on Human Rights, as

‘a simple, and safe, insurance policy’

For me these words of Brooke’s –

‘We have found safety with all things undying,
The winds, and morning, tears of men and mirth,
The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying…’

Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnet II, Peace

evoked a musical setting akin to a hymn of thanks. They summoned a carefree natural world, where peace reigned, birds sang.

In Maxwell Fyfe’s story, after six years of wartime fear and uncertainty, they served as a paean of praise and relief that those years were over, and perhaps begged the question – how can such ‘blest’ peace be preserved?

I set the first four lines of his sonnet aside, (including the opening My Dear! which I wasn’t sure what to do with) and plunged straight in. ‘We have found safety’ – we’ve enjoyed it ever since the Second World War ended, and we don’t even stop to appreciate our luck. In Brooke’s sonnet his soldiers are dead – released from worldly cares. We’re living the dream. Brooke continues –

We have built a house that is not for Time’s throwing.’

Sadly, in my reading this was much less certain. This ‘house of safety’, embodied by the ECHR, may very well be built on sand. Intended by Maxwell Fyfe and his team after the war to prevent, in so far as they could, such suffering every happening again, since the Conservatives had returned to
power in 2010, the Human Rights Act, incorporating the ECHR into British law, had been under threat of repeal. Ironic really, given that Maxwell Fyfe was a Conservative politician, and the ECHR was drafted and signed under a
Conservative government.

‘War knows no power.’

Rupert Brooke writes in the second half of the sonnet – a line that I had borrowed for There are Waters. In the light of the fact that many people now believe that the terror of world war is confined to history and could never happen again, there is an unacknowledged fragility to the peaceful bucolic picture Brooke paints.

‘Who is so safe as we?’

he asks, voicing the complacency of the dead. But what of the living? There is an unresolved tension at the heart of this celebration of a life that, as a generation so far from war, we have come to take for granted. As the verse closes, I literally introduce a questioning note, an unresolved cadence. To finish, it is resolved to perfection. Everything’s fine now. But I hope it leaves an underlying unease. Are we as safe as we think?

You can hear ‘Part IX – Safety’ from the new recording of Dreams of Peace & Freedom here – http://thehumansinthetelling.org/part-ix/4594760796

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