It’s become traditional, whenever I’m in London, for my old friend Brian and I to have a coffee (and occasionally even a cake) sitting at a table outside our favourite West End branch of Pret a Manger.  It’s at the point where Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane join together and run into the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square.

Within a couple of metres of ‘our’ tables stands this impressive monument.  It commemorates the execution of Nurse Edith Cavell in Brussels at the height of the Great War.  Brian and I have often sat in its shadow watching the London world go by.  After all this time, we tend to take the monument for granted, not giving it much thought.

But, if I was there today, I would be giving it a very great deal of thought.  It would again be the centre of my attention, as it most surely deserves.  I would be thinking very hard about the selfless and loving things she did, and the sacrifices she made, in the most dangerous and frightening circumstances.  I would be thinking of what motivated her and about her thoughts and emotions as she faced the firing squad.

And I’d be wondering what she would have thought of all the conflicts that have followed her actions and her death, some of the most brutal of which are, of course, still continuing 100 years after she laid down her life.

Because, as you can see from the inscription, today marks the centenary of her execution.

The anniversary will not be marked in any grand fashion, either here or in Belgium.  But we must not let it pass completely unnoticed.  For, as long as there are self-aggrandising politicians and generals willing to send young men and women to their deaths in war, and as long as young men and women agree to go, there will be a need for those like Edith Cavell who are prepared to put humanity above all other considerations.

That’s why it’s written, simply and starkly, at the top of her noble monument.

Please spare a thought for her today.
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I wrote about Edith Cavell over 3 years ago, in posting 364.  To save you the trouble of scrolling all the way back, this is the reverie I tried to put into words at the time...

‘They don’t build monuments to the right things.

Kings and Queens, great statesmen, military men on horseback.  They are all very well but they are pompous and proclaim uncritical praise where it may not necessarily be due.

Closer to the mark are the few paltry statues and plaques to Clever People Who Did Great Things.  Discoverers, seekers and finders, creators and questioners.

They make a strong case, yes.  But they are
still not the right people or things to build monuments in memory of.

I remember first thinking thoughts like this when I lived in London and saw the statue of Nurse Edith Cavell just off Trafalgar Square.  Nearby, Nelson is raised on his column in memory of a battle he took almost no part in winning.  He gazes down on London’s countless statues of royalty, aristocracy, clergy, military and government.

Edith, though, stands on a small plinth at a cramped crossroads.  In the First World War, she nursed and cared for soldiers from
both sides.  ‘Patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone’.  Someone whose statue in Germany is probably much more vainglorious than hers ordered her to be shot by firing squad for her trouble.

The origin of straightforward devotion and love like this is immaterial.  Nurse Cavell or Greyfriars Bobby; it doesn’t matter.  Their monuments and memorials and statues should be several times grander than they are because they provide a focus for us to remember good things - the humanity (or caninity) of devotion, loyalty and tenderness.

Why are there no monuments to flowers and trees?  I want to see a giant, bronze statue of tulips and bluebells and sycamore keys and apples.

Why can’t someone design a sculpture to the glory and wonder of chaffinches and robins and blackbirds - and to how very much we love them, and to how much joy and pleasure they bring us without asking for anything in return?

There should be a sculpture somewhere in honour of sunsets or thunderstorms or heavy rain or deep snow or butterflies or bats or walruses.

I want to build a tower. 

It will be very, very high so that it can be seen from many lands and by people speaking lots of different languages.  You will be able to climb to the top and watch the sun rise or forests turn from green to brown or feed the birds or feel the wind kiss your face.

People will want to come from miles around and from across the sea to visit my tower.  Their hearts will beat faster when they first glimpse it from a distance because they will know that it is a monument to
them.  It will have to be very grand indeed because it will have been built to honour humanity and all the things that give us grace and beauty and all the graceful and beautiful things we love and that have no monument or memorial.

My tower will be a recognition of selflessness and courage, devotion and care.  It will honour all the millions and millions of people who care for each other unrewarded and unnoticed.  People who seek no praise - not even the praise of self-satisfaction.

People who doggedly persist in facing difficulty, tragedy and adversity because of a love they cannot even clearly define deserve a tower like the one I have in mind.’

I felt a lot better after I wrote that than I had felt before.
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Sid said...

I felt a lot better for reading it, thanks Ian.

Ian Robinson said...

My pleasure, Sid