We all pretty much know what the ending of the iconic Frankie Goes to Hollywood lyric is (Absolutely Nothing) and if you’re anything like me you will have really gone to town on the ‘Huh’ as you re-read it! However, despite this 1984 classic repeating in all of our heads for the next few hours thanks to this post, we (or more accurately, our politicians) still don’t seem to have learnt our lesson.
Each day the news brings us updates of political wranglings and diplomatic ‘incidents’ as those in charge weave in and out of political correctness in danger of bringing World War III to our door. The question must be, why? Twenty-eighteen marks the centenary of the Great War. At the time it was called ‘The War to End All Wars’ with over 16 million deaths, many, if not all of you, will have relatives who either fought or died during the conflict.
In 2014 I was asked to write a play commemorating the start of the war for the Sprungsters. I have to be honest, to start with it felt like one of the toughest things I have had to do; The Sprungsters are a youth group who have a love for physical theatre and range in age from 14-21 years old. Their performances normally look at issues that concern them as young people growing up in the 21st Century; social media, school and parental pressures, mental health and well-being and the over-arching principle of all of our work with young people, the importance that our young people ‘play/ portray’ other young people. So, the thought of writing a show with the young people playing soldiers clashed.
It wasn’t until I started researching my own family’s involvement in war, that I started to realise its true gravity. My Grandfather was a WW2 veteran, the type who would refuse to talk about the war and the things he had seen or done. Despite countless school projects where I would have to interview him and write up what he had said, I know very little. My classmates would come in with reams of paper full of stories and memories… my single sided sheet contained one paragraph. Back then I could never understand why, but when I now look at photos of him before and after the war; the aging beyond his years shown across his brow, his eyes no longer sparkling, his smile a long distant memory. I realise why he didn’t want to speak about the horrors of war. He was 24 when he went to fight, still older than any of our young performers.
It didn’t take much research to discover a young person’s story of WW1. At just 12 years old, Sidney Lewis lied about his age, signed up, underwent 6 months of training in France and fought in the battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles. The bravery of that young man and others who lied about their age cannot be underestimated. In reading their stories I soon realised that PALs didn’t have to be written about a war fought by adults, it could pay respect to those young soldiers, those children and young people seduced by the glamour of travelling to Europe and fighting. But more importantly it needed to show why we should work with our children, young people and possibly society in general, why we must NEVER be lured into war like this again; That its glory is fake and that no one benefits from it or ever truly emerges victorious.
PALs focusses on the story of 5 friends who worked in the local Singer factory, in Coventry, and the deterioration of that friendship with the start of war. PALs presents characters who revel in the thought of fighting, others who awaited conscription (mandatory sign up) and, for me, the most significant, Albert Black, the conscientious objector. One of the forgotten and somewhat misrepresented 16,000 men who refused to fight on religious, ethical and humanitarian grounds. These men were maligned by society and ostracised for having the courage to say ‘No, I will not fight’. Targeted by both men and women, the conscientious objectors had their character questioned and morals ridiculed. Looking back on the propaganda 100 years on, it’s quite shocking to see the homophobic slant that many of the slogans took.
“Really Mr German if you don’t desist, I’ll forget my conscious and slap you on the wrist!”
Having spent the whole of my working life trying to promote positive attitudes towards how young people view and respond to different sexualities, I felt obliged to drag this hidden part of history under the microscope. In PALs, Albert Black is imprisoned and shunned by his friends for his view that “War doesn’t distinguish who is right, only who is left.” Yet Albert Black’s loyalty to his friends doesn’t diminish, even in the face of war and when he hears that their battalion is in trouble he runs to their aid. Albert shows what it really is to not only be ‘a friend’ but also what it is to be human; he demonstrates love, compassion, humility and determination, all attributes that I hope our young performers will see and replicate in their own lives. Lives that have benefited from the sacrifices made by each and everyone of those soldiers.
“Albert Black, a courageously brave man who risked his life to try and bring his friends home. Albert Black, a conscientious objector.”
PALs is being performed by the Sprungsters with the Stratford Festival Orchestra on Thursday 19th April 2018 at Coventry Cathedral, 6pm & 8pm. Tickets available now