This week marked the end of our care for Helen’s aunt. We did the final inspection of the memorial stone in the graveyard where she is buried alongside Helen’s grandmother. A quick wander among the nearby graves where many family friends are buried revealed another new headstone inscribed with the words, ‘The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it’.
This week we have been inspired by various people spending their life on ideals bigger and more enduring than themselves. On Monday, we watched the British Book Awards in which we have a special interest because our daughter is a leading organiser! The evening was full of authors and illustrators, publishers and booksellers expressing their sense of privilege and delight in the business of making and sharing ideas. Maybe the most enduring idea was acknowledged in the presentation of the second-ever Book Award for Freedom to publish. The ongoing determination of ‘authors, publishers and booksellers to take a stand against intolerance, despite the ongoing threats they face’ is a quiet but often forgotten reality in our world. In his videoed acceptance speech, award recipient Salman Rushdie underlined the need for continuing vigilance to the ideal of free speech. ‘We live in a moment, he said, ‘at which freedom to publish has not in my lifetime been under such threat in the countries of the West....We need to be very aware of it and to fight against it very hard.’ Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, said, ‘More than most, Rushdie has lived his defiance and continues to pay a huge price for it.’
Another man living his defiance of social injustice is the British film-maker Ken Loach, two-time winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. At 86, Loach has long been a passionate campaigner for social justice, and many of his films focus on the lives of people at the bottom of the social pyramid especially in the north-east of England. Set for UK release in September and previewed in the press this week, his latest and last film, The Old Oak, is a farewell work set in a former mining town decaying after the pit closures of the 1980s.
In the film, the struggle between the established community and a group of Syrian refugees which the authorities have chosen to resettle there is fought out in the Old Oak, the local pub. It is a battle for the heart and soul of the community, a battle for enduring values which is fought out in so many places in our world – a battle on which so many ordinary people spend their lives.
Many people closer to home commit themselves to enduring values and causes bigger than themselves. Some work for environmental causes in the hope that this will keep the planet from fatal depredation. Others do a stint with a food bank or a charity shop. Others have provided support for refugees as they try to navigate the social welfare system. The church offers a warm space and a cup of tea in the winter months. Spending time with children and grandchildren, sharing their lives and trying quietly to share with them any wisdom that we may have accumulated, surrounding them with as much love as possible – all these are ways to give our lives to something bigger than ourselves. There are so many other ways.
The screenwriter of The Old Oak, Paul Laverty, says that the vital question for our country posed by the film is: ‘Can we come together to build the impossible?’ And can it be done without resort to violence?
Building the impossible sounds like a grand undertaking. Really it is not. Loach makes it clear: there’s a choice to be made. The cathedral – also, we understand, at the heart of The Old Oak story - was built a stone at a time over decades, even centuries. The invitation to all of us is: come and lay a brick.
Photo: The Bookseller