Saturated in life and death
We then talked about their visit to Highbury Hall. Richard wanted to locate Highbury very precisely as a place of great History, he mentioned that Joseph Chamberlain helped plan the Boer War on the very galleried balcony that they had run along. They remembered the different rooms, the scale of the house, the framed head of the white Lion in the side room, the ornate engravings, the four poster beds and the books in the library. One student suggested that Highbury was “saturated in life and death”. Another student observed that we are still affected by the First World War “every day”.
Richard reminded the young people of their work with Nicola the archivist and Doug the Historian, that they discovered there was indeed a nurse called Kitty who worked at Highbury when it was a VAD hospital in 1916. They remembered the sepia photographs they had seen and the patients pictured in the gardens, they understood that many men were affected by shell shock, but that that phenomena had only begun to be recognised as a condition and not a cowardice. Many men executed for desertion were in fact psychologically wounded; but this was no less than a physical injury, and often more devastating.
Richard said that whilst the characters were made up, their stories were real, and the letters we had helped them create were real in the thoughts and feelings that they conveyed. The young people remembered that one of the letters asked the reader to 'ask the youth what living means'. They understood this as they understood the sacrifices of Kitty and Jimmy in a world which really had lost all reason. As the session came to the end, inevitably it is contemporary world events that terrify and mystify the young people, Richard spoke about the Middle East and Palestine, the complex geo-politics that were created by the victors as the spoils of war. One student suggested in exasperation that “we are going backwards!”. No one chose to disagree.