White Feather Women

The “white feather” women of the First World War were not a spontaneous movement of women trying to “do their bit” to encourage men to enlist, but rather part of the Army’s own recruitment drive. Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather in August 1914, asking women to hand white feathers, a symbol of cowardice, to men who were not in uniform.

The short story on my blog is based upon a real set of circumstances (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/nov/11/first-world-war-white-feather-cowardice). It fascinates me as to the reasons why any woman would attempt to humiliate a man into joining the Army, particularly after 1915 when it became apparent that, contrary to initial popular belief, the War would not be over quickly. The numbers of dead and wounded in the horror of trench warfare were also starting to accrue. Women were not permitted to enlist themselves yet many would have been aware of what was happening in Europe as a result of the involvement of their own male relatives.

The Order was not popular in Britain. White feathers were given to enlisted soldiers who simply happened to be wearing civilian clothing on leave, or who had been discharged from military service due to illness or injury. Others were aware of the high casualty rates and resented the pressure being put on their relatives. Many of these men were not cowards but were exempted from service, or in reserved occupations.

One theory is that it was a rare occasion upon which ordinary women were given power and a voice in a public place (http://the-white-feather-movement-worldwarone.wikispaces.com). In Britain at the time women could not vote, nor could a married woman hold her own property. Many of the women were very young and perhaps a little bit of power, mixed with a lack of insight or education, led them to behave as they did.

Compton McKenzie, a writer and serving soldier, suggested these women were simply after getting rid of boyfriends of whom they had tired (http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWfeather.htm).

A friend of mine suggested they may have simply been a manifestation of the martial women, encouraging their men to fight, recorded as far back as classical antiquity.

The women were widely reviled during the War, by soldiers and by men and women who remained in Britain, and subsequently very few were prepared to speak about what they had done or their reasons for doing so. I approached this story from the view of power, both between the man and woman, and between them and the government of the time, who were literally the “men in charge”.


The White Feather

Her eyes gazed directly at his downturned face.   She felt herself smile as his cheeks reddened and his words began to form, halting and at first imperceptible.   “I did that”, she thought triumphantly to herself.   Made this man blush and stammer, showed him up for what he is in front of all these people.   Out here, on this corner.


But he’s not really a man is he?   If he were a man, he wouldn’t be here.   He would be away, with a regiment, fighting for me.   For all women.   Like the recruiting posters said, if he neglects his duty to his country, one day he will neglect YOU.   He’s not a real man.   Rather, a coward.   The white feather she had just thrust towards him had drifted to the ground.   Harmless, gentle.   Yet able to wound like an arrow straight to the heart.


Which is exactly what it is, she thought.   The weapon of her righteousness, her just cause.   Her confidence was rising with every passing moment, drawing its strength from the weakness of the man before her.   I can’t fight but this man can.   My voice is silent where it matters most.   I can’t make things happen, I can’t stop the enemies.   But he can.   So why isn’t he?


“Women of Britain say ‘go’”-that’s what the other poster said.   He must have ignored that as he’s ignoring me.   And I’m one of those women.   Well, nearly.   Old enough to be out of school but only just.   She drew her shoulders back further, tilted her chin.   She suddenly wanted to look older than her years, more sophisticated.   More of the world.   A woman.   Take on this coward of a man, that’s what a real woman should do.


“So why are you not in khaki?”.   She tried her best to sound strident.   A warrior.   One without the voice which counted but with righteousness on her side.


He could give her so many reasons.   How he’d got to Mons.   How adding a year to his age had got him to Ypres.   Places whose names he could not pronounce, his education had finished 3 years before he reached those sodden, filthy trenches and the likes of him didn’t need to be told about the world.   His sort didn’t need to know about the power struggles, the colonies, the war machine.   Just about numbers and letters and God.   Until the men who run the country decided it was his duty to serve it, in that dismal ground, far away.   In hell.   No sign of God there, though heaven knows, he’d implored Him enough.


He went in with the lads and retreated with them.   Lay on a blood-stained blanket as his fever rose and fell.   Go home lad, they said.   You’ve done your part now.   Your ma will be pleased to have you back.


The man who had seen so much and the woman who did not see, no matter how much she looked.   Both voiceless and powerless, she the woman and he the working man.   Doing as they had been bidden by the men who run the country.   Who led them from behind to the fiery pit.


The feather rested, as neither of them could.

The Lights Go Out In Europe…

It was the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into the First World War on Monday of this week, August 4th. I’ve been doing some research about my own ancestors who were caught up in that conflict, for a trip to northern France in November.

Two of my maternal great-great-uncles were killed in 1916. One was killed aged 37 years, in July of that year, and is buried in a military cemetery at Bouzincourt, near Arras. He was a volunteer, rather than a conscript, despite his age. The other died in August of 1916, at the age of just 16 years. The family story is that he ran away from a father and stepmother who treated the children of my great-great-grandfather’s first wife neglectfully after her death. For that reason his brother is recorded as his next of kin. Heartbreakingly, his body was never identified and so he has no known grave, he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, again in the Arras area.

It’s quite easy to hearken back to the “good old days”, the days when summers were long, everyone behaved respectfully, family breakdown was unknown and there was no crime. Unfortunately that’s also a fairy story. I’ve been reading Selina Todd’s “The People”, a history of the working class in Britain over the past 100 years or so. Poverty, lack of power and personal autonomy, very poor living conditions and even poorer life chances were the lot of the vast majority of the British population from the First World War until after the Second World War. My great-great-uncle Joseph was killed as a child, far from his home, probably in painful and terrifying circumstances and leaving no identifiable remains. There were many more like him between 1914 and 1916, from many nations.

One young man brings home both the enormity of the event and perspective on the society in which I am fortunate to live today.

Time goes by…

If you knew you only had a limited time left, how would you spend it?   I’ve had a bit of a contemplative week, following the death of a neighbor and the serious illness of another friend.   None of us know what’s round the next corner yet I’m conscious that I, for one, can drift through life in a rather blasé and unthinking assumption that “some day” or “one day” I’ll get round to something.


To quote the inspirational picture I’ve seen on the internet, there are 7 days in a week and “some day” and “one day” are not among them!


So what gets in the way?   Not television in my case, as I don’t have one (long story).   But even allowing for internet time, I can spend a lot of time “pottering”, which is pleasant in its own way but not exactly going to help me learn another language, write a book or find a place on a PhD programme.   I have found changing my surroundings can help, going to the university library to work or study, or down to a Costa Coffee, just for some thinking time without the distractions of the house.


Journaling has helped me process my thoughts and come up with ideas.   The act of writing down or telling someone else what’s on your mind really does seem to help in finding my own solutions, I guess that’s why the Samaritans have helped so many people find their answers to far more significant problems in their lives using that approach.


In other news, here is a picture of the snow leopard cubs at Lakeland Wildlife Oasis, out and enjoying the good weather last weekend!



I’m speaking at a school tomorrow, talking about my “day job” and how young people thinking about a career in the same area might progress towards it.   I’d prepared slides with the academic requirements and ideas of the sort of roles available.   I’d also prepared a slide with ideas for gaining experience, firstly to see if this really is a career they want to pursue, and secondly and to begin to acquire skills and knowledge of the area.


I did wonder how to put across to them though the intangibles that go into finding work you love.   It’s also day 7 of Celestine’s Positive Affirmation Challenge (http://personalexcellence.co) and the theme is opportunity-“I can find or make opportunities and make things happen”.


For example, in my line of work, you have to spend 2 years in a training role, under the direction of a qualified practitioner.   I was ready to begin training during the last large recession, around 1992, and these were not easy roles to find then, as now.   So I went to a local practitioner on “work experience”.   I sent in my CV, pestered them by telephone and agreed I would spend 2 weeks without pay in the summer, helping them out and learning things.   And I just never left.   I kept working and kept quiet and finally they agreed to pay me (possibly through guilt!) and 3 months after I started my work experience, I was given a formal traineeship, which let me begin my career.


I was lucky in that I was able to support myself and live with my parents through the 3 months that I wasn’t paid.   I viewed it as my opportunity to get my foot in the door, or as valuable experience for somewhere else.   But how does a young person without that support manage?   The world is different now.   Is t still possible to find or create opportunities?


I think it is.   Sometimes maybe by the more indirect route-rather than focus wholly on one way to a goal, be prepared to consider different paths.   At the moment I am trying to find a PhD placement but accept that a fully funded placement for 3 years is going to be hard to find.   So I am considering studying over 5 years and working part-time to fund my own living expenses.   Back at the start of my career, I accept I would have had the fixed mindset “I must find a grant and do it in 3 years” but now I’m old enough to accept that the ideal isn’t always possible.   It doesn’t mean that the whole thing isn’t possible though.


One of my mother’s favourite sayings is that we each make our own luck.   She doesn’t actually believe in luck, she believes in working hard, taking opportunities and making the most of them.


So tomorrow I hope to encourage the young people I meet to look for and take opportunities, however far off the beaten track they may seem.   Who knows where they may take us and the unexpected treasures we may find there.

Attitude of Gratitude

Day 5 of the Positive Affirmation Challenge from Personal Excellence (http://personalexcellence.co) is all about gratitude.


“I am grateful for everything in my life”.


Despite the complaining which I certainly indulge in, as do others I come across, I am conscious of just how much I have to be grateful for.


So it rains a lot in Britain.   It may throw the schedule at Wimbledon or cricket grounds.   But switch on the news to see rains which destroy homes and communities over the world.   Public transport could be better.   Try using it in many developing nations, as I have, and you begin to appreciate the comfortable conditions and relatively short journeys to get anywhere.


I’ve worked at a nursery school in Kenya where the toilet was literally a hole in the ground and visited a rural school in India where children were taught with very few resources.   Everyday I have clean water, books and access to the internet, yet I’ll still curse the connection speed.   I’ve been driven through the downtown Cairo traffic on a Saturday evening yet I complain to myself about having to wait a few minutes at traffic lights at the end of my road.


Living in the moment of complaint without taking a step back to consider the bigger picture is something I could certainly do to overcome.   I am conscious that when I complain I am reacting to the world not being quite as I would like it at that moment, when the reality is the world is mostly the way I like it, most of the time.   I have health, freedom of choice and the benefits of living in a small, caring community.


If I ditch the complaining, I can focus on what I can progress and what I can be thankful for.   I can focus on taking action against the things that are totally justified as matters of complaint-the real poverty, violence, discrimination and lack of opportunity still present throughout the world.   I can move from a negative and inward looking position, to one that is open and flexible enough to move forward.

The obstacle course…

On day 4 of Celestine’s Positive Affirmation challenge on the Personal Excellence blog, and the immediate obstacle I had to overcome was writing this post in the first place.   I had a busy day at work, I had my goddaughter’s school play to go and see, it was late before I got home…how can I possibly be inspired to write??


Simples.   Sit at the computer and start typing.   Let out the immediate worries and concerns onto the page and then more thoughts start to flow out.   I know this would happen if I just sat down but I didn’t.   Too much effort, far too big an obstacle…


“I have the power to overcome any obstacle that stands in my way”.


I’m happy to admit that my most challenging obstacles are made by me.   I decide I can’t and therefore I don’t.   Even when there is a certain amount of third party involvement, for example in trying to obtain a place to study for a PhD, if I decide I can’t and don’t make the effort, then back to the old self-fulfilling prophecies again.   If I don’t contact the academics to discuss their programmes, research funding, sit down and write a proposal then quite simply the obstacle is definitely going to remain right where it is.


I have to accept that even with the work, I may not obtain a place straightaway, due to the constraints of others, but consider the benefits of doing the work.   I have knowledge for the next application round.   I have contacts. I have ideas of how I could improve or focus my proposal.   I may have more insight into what it is I want to research and whether it’s really what I want to do.   The obstacle may move in the future or I may find my way around it, or through it.


One of the benefits I have found from following Celestine’s challenge, and blogging about it, is the opportunity it has provided for me to really examine my thoughts and behavior in response to each day’s affirmation.   Yes, rather than decide I was far to busy to think about these things and therefore contemplate what I might rather ignore, I sit myself down and type away.   Progress isn’t made without a plan and insight, and this has been a useful way of focusing on how I would like to develop in terms of my learning and skills, and what I need to do to move in that direction.


This is an interesting article on a similar theme by Laura Vanderkam, which appeared on her website yesterday.




Also, Tiny Buddha published this article by Deborah Shelby today.