Monday, November 12, 2007

Mothers and Sons

I have just finished reading "Mothers and Sons" by Colm Toibin. In this collection of short stories, we see different aspects of the relationship between sons and their mothers and mothers and their sons. It is not always a comfortable read, Toibin writes without sentiment, a detached observer of sometimes shocking events. His prose is exact and exquisite. This is the first of Toibin's works that I have read, I was attracted by the poignant picture on the cover, hinting at the sadness and distance in some of the stories.

I finished reading the book on Saturday, the eve of Remembrance Day and I thought of all those mothers and sons torn apart by war. I once read an account by an army chaplain in the First World War; the memory which haunted him for the rest of his life was of the young boys lying wounded and dying in the mud, on the wire or in field hospitals, calling for their mothers.

We have a War Grave in our village (pictured), at the parish church of Heanton Puncharden. The Second World War graves are mostly of young airmen from the Royal Canadian Air Force, who were stationed at RAF Chivenor, part of Coastal Command. I sometimes go to walk among the graves of the 19, 20 and 21 year-olds who are buried so far from home. I think of their families and hope they have some comfort in knowing the graves are visited and honoured by the local people.
"Women will always fear war more than men because they are mothers." Natalya Baranskya
I understand that men might have an instinct to protect their families and property and that that might extend to their country. I can understand the instinct to defend the weak and to restore justice, even though I believe they might find better ways than warring. But I can't understand how women, especially mothers, can promote war and even enlist as fighters. I'll have the feminist brigade on my case again when I say that I believe a woman's natural instinct is to give life not to take it. I found the Falklands War horrific, not just because of the terrible loss of life and dreadful injuries sustained for a flimsy cause but because it was Margaret Thatcher who sent those men to kill and be killed: other mothers' sons, not her own.
"... all women who have hearts, ... will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.' " Julia Ward Howe
While reading 'Mothers and Sons' at this time of year led me to think of young men lost in war, there are no war-related stories in the book. Various situations and relationships are observed, rather than explored: a feckless mother, a mother's funeral, the search for a lost mother, a son who is a priest, a son bound by duty. Toibin provokes thought but offers no judgement. It is a challenging collection.
"If she has loved him, a man will carry anything for his mother - a waterpot or a world." Calvin Miller


  1. Ah, my love, wishing doesn't make it so. If only it could ....

  2. If we don't keep on wishing ....?

  3. Very nice sentiments SH. The author is right. There is nothing I wouldn't do if it meant the safety of my kids or especially my grandchildren. I don't have the words to describe how I feel about them.

  4. Susan's husband: Kipling keeps on rearing his ugly head around here! I wonder if it was he or his wife who decided to send their 17 year-old son off to die on his first day of action in the trenches?

    Margaret Thatcher is the only woman I can think of who started a war.

  5. I was so bleary-eyed last night, I failed to connect that the author was Kipling whose work I admire. I’ve been opining ad nauseum about not judging those who came before us by our newly minted standards. Patriotism and love of country were and are real emotions, so perhaps Master Kipling joined on his own volition and his decision must be respected much as we may despise it.

    m. A lot of wars were started by strong women who hid behind their weak men and not only in the bad old days, to wit, the modern version, Hillary sending her piece beef, Billary, out to tell the bullies not to pick her. Disgusting!

    Much preferable is Lady T, who, to her credit, was out in front. The Falklands War? Don’t know or care about the details. The PM thought is was necessary, it was her decision and that was that.

  6. We're going to have to agree to disagree again, e. If only everyone else could do that we would have world peace!

    Re Kipling's son, Jack, his story was dramatised on television to commemorate Remembrance Day. He did want to enlist for service but was rejected because of very poor eyesight. His father, being such a celebrity, pulled strings to get him into the army. He was killed on his first day in action. I believe Kipling's gung-ho attitude changed after that.

  7. We can agree to disagree and have polite discourse when it's not personal. If someone was threatening my little ones, all bets would be off. Would you sacrifice your kids if palaver didn't prove efficacious?

    You don't have to answer that, but that’s what it comes to and that's where men are useful to do the heavy lifting.

  8. Perhaps Mrs T. was simply following in the footsteps of another famous Briton.

    P.S. You're making a post hoc ergo propter hoc error in thinking that either Kipling "sent their son off to die". That kind of thing is more common elsewhere.

  9. Ye Gods, SH, can that be true.

    I read somewhere a riff on Golda Mier's famous saying that there will be no peace in the ME until Arabs love their children more than they hate Jews. I don’t remember who said it or where I read it, but went something like Jews will forgive Arabs for killing Jewish children, but they will never forgive Arabs for making them kill Arab children.

  10. e, I don't think defending your children against any kind of threat is the same as waging war for potential oil rights.

    Susan's husband, I think Boadicea was defending her people against the invaders, Mrs T was more like the Amazons.
    I'm not convinced about the post hoc case - to me, cheating the system to get your son into a fighting position for which he is demonstrably physically unsuited looks pretty close to sending him off to be killed.

  11. Remembrance Day and war were originally incidental to my post on mothers and sons, although they have been the sole topic of comments. So here is a Remembrance Day poem by a son, recommended by a proud mother!

  12. m. I don't think so either. However, between killing for oil and protecting your babies from an invader is a huge field littered with land mines. If only everything were that well defined there would be far less to disturb our serenity.

    Very nice sentiments Brit.

  13. Wasn't Mrs T. defending her people from the Argentinian invaders? Was not the war started by the invasion of British territory?

  14. SH: That's an example of American irony, yes?

  15. What a thought-provoking post, M. The Toibin is in my Amazon shopping basket ready for my next order. I have two daughters and a son. My son is ten and already a very keen, serious and knowledgeable military historian. ALL he wants to do (apart from play rugby for England) is to be an officer in the Royal Marines. I find it hard to know what to say, so I'm saying nothing and hoping he will grow out of it. But what if he doesn't? . . .

  16. I'm sure you will love Toibin's writing, Juliet. I found it an uncomfortable read but that gentle, detached Irish voice was compelling.

    I can understand your feelings about your son's ambition - every mother's nightmare. Take some comfort from my experience: my son desperately wanted to be a refuse collector so that he could drive one of those exciting trucks! He ended up studying philosophy.

  17. No. I wasn't aware that it was disputed that the Falklands War started when Argentina landed military forces on the Falkland Islands, which were considered by the UK to be British territory. Is it your view that the war was started by British forces invading the islands? Or are you thinking of a different event?

  18. SH: The Falklands dispute - the war that wasn't a war. Population <3000. Sinking of the General Belgrano.Casualties: 907 killed, 2000 wounded. 16 ships and 134 aircraft destroyed. Not Britain's finest hour in history. We gained a hero in Simon Weston but no-one but Mrs T and The Sun newspaper thought it was a glorious or justified escapade.

  19. monix:

    In Roberson Davies' great novel, Fifth Business, the protagonist tells of growing up in a small Ontario town before the First World War. His mother was very Edwardian--demanding, strong and 100% selfless duty to her family, if a little emotionally cool. His father was intelligent, loyal and very respectable, but he was more gentle and tended to defer to keep the peace, which his son came to resent or at least lose respect for him over. When the war broke out, the son wanted to enlist even though still under age, and his horrified mother tried to forbid or prevent it--threatening to intervene with the army. For once, his father put his foot down--the boy would be allowed to enlist because the time had come for him to make his own choices ( 17 yr. old!!) and he would not stand by and allow him to be humiliated. The novel is in no way a glofification of war, and certainly not that war, but the son makes it clear that, although his parents' relationship was never quite the same after (graceful surrender was not his mother's strong suit), that was his moment of greatest gratitude and respect for his father.

  20. I don't know the book, Peter, it obviosly makes it's point very strongly. I'm sure many people will see war as an opportunity for boys to show they are men. I've known enough survivors of both world wars, Korea, Cyprus, the Falklands and the Gulf to know that they come back damaged in many ways - as much by what they have seen and had to do as by the danger they have experienced.
    I'll accept mine is a minority view but I'm not going to change - as Duck says, I'm just an old peacenik!

  21. monix:

    Whether by nature or by necessity, I think you will find young men are impelled to war in one form or another, and I'm not sure you would have much time for them if they weren't. Not every man, not every generation and not necessarily blindly, but it is there and will stay there unless you plan to stupefy them all with sex and drugs (they like those as well). And if the only thing left for them to fight about is pacifism, they will fight about that too.

    Today when we read that line from Genesis: "In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children", we tend to think it is just referring to the pain of childbirth. I think that is just the start of it.

  22. I fully agree about the Genesis, Peter and sadly, you are probably right about the aggressive nature of many young men. I'm a realist, despite my basically peaceable, hopeful nature.

  23. Why be sad about it, at least any sadder about it than about anything else respecting the human condition? If you understand and accept it, even give thanks for it (to a degree), you will understand how civilization is all about controlling and sublimating that impulse. It's the angry modern types who dream of rooting it out altogether who threaten us all. Be careful what you wish for.

  24. I can't help feeling sad at this time of the year when we have the services of remembrance and all those images of pointless slaughter in the First War.

    I can't follow your point about 'angry modern types'. Who are they and what are they trying to root out - aggression, violence, war? Or do you mean freedom of choice? Despite our history, I thought the ultimate wish of all civilised nations was swords into ploughshares.

  25. Monix:

    All peaceniks need to read this

    There's no such thing as a good theory that doesn't work in practice.

    no-one but Mrs T and The Sun newspaper thought it was a glorious or justified escapade.

    I thought it completely justified, for the reasons SH outlined.

    The cost of inaction would have been greater than the cost of action.

    've known enough survivors of both world wars, Korea, Cyprus, the Falklands and the Gulf to know that they come back damaged in many ways

    Being a survivor, and knowing many others, I don't agree that generally applies.

    It took awhile for me to look at fireworks with equanimity, but that is trivial.

    Besides, the cost of inaction is often worse than the cost of action.

    Peaceniks are free riders.

  26. I'm sorry you feel that way, Skipper. I haven't been aware of any free ride through life, my contribution to society has been through peaceful means.

  27. MoniX:

    It isn't a matter of feeling, it is a matter of fact.

    Quakers are famously pacifist, and completely unmolested.

    Why do you suppose that is?

    It is because they free ride -- that is, they accept the benefits of law enforcement capable of imposing deadly force -- without actually being part of law enforcement themselves.

    Pacifism is a wonderful sounding position, but it is suicidal unless there are those around you who are willing to become violent on your behalf.

    Pacifism wouldn't have done the Falkland Islanders any good whatsoever.

  28. I forgot to add:

    I can certainly understand being extremely adverse to starting a fight.

    But once it has been started, the only tenable option, especially in the long term, is to join it.

  29. Skipper, I don't know anything about American laws but would be surprised to learn that Quakers do not pay taxes or contribute to the economy of the country. Does your democracy not allow a different opinion? All who disagree with you are free-riders? That is not my idea of democracy and certainly not one worth dying to defend. Do you not think it is just possible that the Quakers go unmolested because people respect their views even if they don't share them?

    Believe me, to stand against the tide of public opinion on a matter of principle is not an easy option.

    Facts or feelings? I have never had the audacity to impose my views on another - I leave that to all you certainty-wallahs who know for sure that your opinions are incontrovertible facts.

  30. monix:

    I don't know anything about American laws but would be surprised to learn that Quakers do not pay taxes or contribute to the economy of the country.

    All true.

    However, that is not what I said.

    Which is: they obtain the benefits of violence without being willing to take part in the violence themselves.

    Look at it another way. What would the Quakers do should the police be around to protect their pacifism?

    Did you read the link I included?

    I'm curious if you can find an error in den Beste's argument.

    I'll bet you can't.

  31. Skipper, my point about the Quakers is that their taxes pay for the military and the police so they are not getting a free ride.

    Yes, I've read your link and if these issues could be reduced to such simple black and white terms, it would be a good one. Very few people take a total pro- or anti-war stance, as you demonstrate in the rider to one of your comments.

    I think the old system of settling disputes by champions was a good one - you know, David and Goliath? The peaceniks and the warmongers could each choose their best article writer and let them slog it out.

    I'm sorry for my facetiousness but I didn't start this post to become embroiled in an argument, either to persuade or be persuaded. I like to hear other people's views and to learn from them if I can, but I expect everyone to be treated with the same respect.

  32. I thought the ultimate wish of all civilised nations was swords into ploughshares.

    Certainly ours, although with widely differing views on how much we can or should try to hasten the arrival of that blessed day. Not so sure about others, though.

    But I think the problem goes beyond just keeping an eye open for unpacifist neighbours. As you say, not all pacifism is dreamily blind to self-defence or opposed to it. What troubles me (apart from the self-contempt that seems to attend much modern pacifism)is that, if you hold peace to be the ultimate, all-governing priority, you will inevitably come to put other values like freedom, justice and even tolerance secondary as you scramble desperately to avoid conflict. And you may compromise them for a "higher" good. Therein lies the rub.

    A microcosm of this dilemma is going on in our court system today, especially family courts. In a variety of ways, the modern judiciary does all it can to urge people to make compromises to settle their cases without further litigation "for the kids" and so they can save legal fees and "get on with their lives". Often this is very needed and excellent advice, but I have noticed that as the courts become almost religious in their commitment to settlement (actually keeping score for the Government of how many they settle), they are starting to do some quite dishonest and patronizing arm-twisitng, turn the judical process into an Oprah-like psychobabble fest and effectively give the advantage to the bully who lied, cheated, harassed and made his spouse crawl at great expense to get what was hers. Suddenly, everyone has an equally valid "perspective", good faith is assumed all around and the egregious and very expensive or damaging wrongs of the past are to be forgotten, wrongs that could well be righted in a trial. More and more lawyers are cluing in to how their clients can get away with egregious behaviour and with dragging things out unconscionably and then having it all swept under the rug as a judge pours everyone a nice cuppa and splits the differences all around. It may bring peace, but it ain't justice and it can leave the wrong kind of bitterness as an aftertaste.

    Your strongest point is your acute awareness of how a fight for freedom and justice can quickly devolve into a fevered jingoism. although I couldn't agree that describes the Falklands. Your weakest may be that you prize mankind too highly.

  33. I don't know how I manage to get myself into these corners, Peter! I started with an observation on the pity of war and ended up as a free-riding pacifist, endangering the pursuit of justice. I don't recognise myself there at all.

    I know there have been situations where conflict appears to have been inevitable because all other measures have been tried and failed. I also know that there have been conflicts which have been started or prolonged for political, commercial or territorial advantage. I put the Falklands conflict firmly in that category. One does not mobilise a nation, cross the world and sacrifice lives for a handful of people unless something greater is at stake. That is the one conflict I have been affected by directly; we lived in Portsmouth at the time and had many close friends among high-ranking officers in the Royal Navy, also my husband's ship was commandeered as a troop carrier. Whatever reports may say to the contrary, no-one we knew thought that was a just 'war' and the sinking of the Belgrano was one of the most shameful moments in British history. Successive governments have issued repeated apologies to the Argentinians.

    I prize mankind too highly? I try to live by a certain set of values, I frequently fail but that doesn't mean the values are wrong.

  34. Honest injun, monix, I thought we were both just musing and reflecting here. Sorry. Did I lose my chocolate cake?

    BTW, I meant prize in the sense of expect too much, not prize in the sense of value.

  35. I'm always just thinking aloud, Peter. American gingerbread on the menu tomorrow!


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