One Woman, One Man in War

The woman referred to is Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt the First Lady of the United States during World War Two, and the man referred to is Simon Weston badly injured in the Falklands War. During an overnight visit to London, I became even more aware of the stories involving these two people caught up in two separate wars forty years apart.

Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt

In the small intimate setting of The Kings Head Pub Theatre, I attended the last performance of the one woman play Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London. Actress Alison Skilbeck had crafted this dramatic story having had access to Eleanor Roosevelt’s diaries. She performed all the characters within the play (including Churchill and The Queen Mother) with minimal props, but with an uncanny accuracy in accents.

The premise to the plot involves an elderly Eleanor living in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As she laments the possible end to peace, and even the world, the audience are taken back in time to the former First Lady’s visit to war-torn London in October of 1942. Through flashbacks we learn about her tour around Great Britain, meeting dignitaries, attending formal functions on behalf of President Franklin D Roosevelt, and visiting US troops and ordinary British people. We also learn in part something about the private person, and how a traumatic childhood and a husband prone to infidelity had shaped Eleanor as a woman. It was fascinating to watch the play and I came to have a deep respect for Mrs Roosevelt, and all that she had tried to achieve.

Until seeing this play my only real reference point for Mrs Roosevelt in recent times was from the film Hyde Park on Hudson. A peripheral character in this movie, I got the distinct feeling that Eleanor was a somewhat cold, unfeeling, distant and slightly eccentric character “full of causes”. The President’s infidelity wasn’t glossed over, but you couldn’t help feel that he had good reason to wander!! However, having seen this play I can well understand why Eleanor devoted herself to causes, and perhaps seemed a bit distant at times. She had offered to divorce Franklin on discovering his first affair, but had been told that wasn’t an option as it wouldn’t be good for his political career. So Eleanor was effectively trapped by the necessity of keeping up appearances, and as a way of coping threw herself into campaigns not particularly fashionable at the time.

Eleanor Roosevelt championed women’s rights and the rights of black people in the US long before it was a common cause. And on her visit to Great Britain she insisted on seeing for herself how the ordinary man/woman/child coped and dealt with the effects of war. The First Lady’s itinerary included visits to factories, land girls tilling the fields, bombed streets, air-raid shelters, docks, WRVS and many other places the length and breadth of the country. Far from the cold and unfeeling character I thought Mrs Roosevelt was, I came away with a sense of someone with a tremendous empathy for those less fortunate. I was particularly struck by a small part in the play, when the First Lady speaks of the horror of witnessing bombed out streets. Her thoughts went along the lines of “although these houses were probably no more than slum dwellings (a civic wrong in itself), they were home for these people. Now they have nothing at all”. Compare that to what the Queen Mother said when Buckingham Palace suffered minor damage from a bomb blast, “glad of it, now we can look the East End in the face”. I was far more moved and affected by the consciousness from Eleanor Roosevelt than the pretentious uttering from our Royal family.

Aware of being someone of privilege, Eleanor Roosevelt strived to put her status to some good use by shining a light onto issues and concerns affecting those less well off, and using that status to try and change things. Only a First Lady could attempt to bring the issue of “wrong socks” for US troops, or black servicemen pay and conditions, to the attention of the US Army General. Through her speeches, news articles and publications Mrs Roosevelt brought many issues into the public domain.

After the war ended Eleanor became the chairwoman for the Commission of Human Rights and its inception, and announced the template for the Commission in 1948. She also became the US ambassador at the United Nations. Now as the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to envelop the Western World, an obviously dying Mrs Roosevelt wondered aloud had she done any good during World War Two, and had she tried enough to make a difference. I think the answer is an unequivocal YES.

Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London. Image credit offwestend.com
Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London. Image credit offwestend.com

Simon Weston

The day after seeing Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London I went to the National Portrait Gallery, with the express intention of seeing the David Bailey Stardust photo exhibition AND taking a look at the new People’s Portrait of Simon Weston. Last year a competition was held to find a portrait sitter elected by the general public; (a first for the NPG); and Simon won the accolade. Probably he’d be the first to admit a wish that the circumstances which brought his likeness to canvas had not happened.

In 1982 during the Falklands Conflict Simon Weston suffered 46% burns to his body, when the ship Sir Galahad was bombed by the Argentineans. Miraculously Simon survived his ordeal but many of his comrades perished. Over the years Simon has been a tireless fund raiser for charity, and his badly scarred face has become a familiar sight on TV.

The artist chosen for the People’s Portrait was Nicola Jane Philipps, who I believe did a superb portrait of Prince William & Prince Harry a few years ago. I liked the royal picture very much so I was intrigued to see how Nicola would portray Simon. On setting eyes on the newly commissioned portrait I was not disappointed. I found the simple and yet powerfully styled setting with muted colours and soft lines very appealing.

In the portrait Simon is holding his medals, standing behind a chair that has a soldier’s beret sitting on it. Simon’s badly damaged hands are prominent holding the medals, a symbol of his (and other soldiers) courage and bravery. The beret on an otherwise empty seat is a tribute to those who have passed. The standing position of Simon could be interpreted as “standing for justice and fairness to all”, or as a position of strength I suppose. Dressed in a simple open necked shirt and jacket, rather than the pomp and circumstance of a full military uniform, Simon is shown as an ordinary humble man. The one thing in the portrait that I couldn’t take my eyes off were Simon’s eyes, which had a depth of colour and clarity to them that mesmerised me. The distinctive line and the striking blue colour of the eyes stood out from the fudged framework of earthy shades. The only other sign of bold colour in the portrait came from the patriotic medal ribbons (red, blue and white).

You could say that Simon Weston having endured horrific burns to almost half his body is aesthetically half the man he was, when he embarked on a ship bound for the Falkland Islands. But having survived that extraordinary experience, those eyes tell you that Simon Weston today is twice the man he was before.

People's Portrait Simon Weston. Image credit Nicola Jane Philipps
People’s Portrait Simon Weston. Image credit Nicola Jane Philipps
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Off The Beaten Track 2

Liverpool this week was filled with the excitement of horse-racing fans enjoying the Aintree Festival (3rd-5th April), culminating with the Grand National race. You can read my blogs on Aintree at http://www.letstalksport.org.uk/aintree-festival-diary in the horse racing section. The city however hosted another sporting event the week before, that was little reported other than on specialist websites.

BRITISH GYMNASTICS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS

These were held in the Liverpool Echo Arena and had the cream of British gymnasts taking part, including Louis Smith (Olympic Silver Pommel Horse) who has recently returned to competitive training. The senior overall championship titles were hard fought competitions, and the spread of medal winners makes interesting reading. The British gymnasts, who competed in Liverpool, will be dispersed into smaller nation status gymnasts during the Commonwealth Games. Of course they will be up against the might of Australia and Canada, so will the partition of Team GB in Glasgow 2014 be a hindrance or a help in winning medals? Only time will tell, but the overall championship senior winners were as follows:

ALL ROUND MEN’S CHAMPION: MAX WHITLOCK, Silver: Dan Purvis, Bronze: Dan Keatings.

ALL ROUND WOMEN’S CHAMPION: REBECCA TUNNEY, Silver: Becky Downie, Bronze: Claudia Fragapane

Champions Rebecca & Max. Image credit British Gymnastics website
Champions Rebecca & Max. Image credit British Gymnastics website

WORLD FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS

Around the same time as the gymnastics in Liverpool, the final competition in the figure-skating calendar took place in Saitama Japan. The final awards for brilliance on the ice were as follows:

MEN’S                                                                     WOMEN’S
Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) 282.59                     Mao Asada (JPN) 216.69
Tatsuki Machida (JPN) 282.26                Julia Lipnitskaia (RUS) 207.50
Javier Fernandez (SPA) 275.93               Carolina Kostner (ITA) 203.83

PAIR’S                                                                     ICE DANCE
Savchenko & Szolkowy (GER)                  Cappellini & Lanotte (ITA) 224.88                                                                    175.43
Stolbova & Klimov (RUS) 215.92           Weaver & Poje (CAN) 175.41
Duhamel & Radford (CAN)                        Pechalat & Bourzat (FRA) 210.84                                                                    175.37

FOOTBALL LEAGUE GIRLS CUP

This is the eighth season that this competition has run for girls under 13 playing six-aside football. Two teams representing AFC Bournemouth and Shrewsbury Town contested the final at Wembley on Mother’s Day (March 30th), prior to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final between Peterborough and Chesterfield (3-1).

Broadstone Middle School qualified to represent Bournemouth whilst Thomas Telford School won the right to represent Shrewsbury Town. Each school girl team competed in several rounds to reach the hallowed turf of Wembley. On the big day itself, the final was closely fought with neither team giving much away, during the 14 minutes of play. But a winning goal from Bournemouth captain Molly Pike in the second half, gave victory to Broadstone Middle School.

Bournemouth Captain Receives Cup. Image credit Bournemouth Echo
Bournemouth Captain Receives Cup. Image credit Bournemouth Echo

The Kid’s Cup an under-11 football competition will see teams compete in finals prior to the League Play-offs weekend.

STREET CHILD WORLD CUP

A short news item on Aljazeera brought to my attention the Street Child World Cup being held in Brazil. I was not aware of this organisation until now, but its aims are to give children who have lived on the streets a chance to know something better through sport. These kids have known terrible depravation, and yet the sheer joy for life that they exude is humbling. Their motto is “I Am Somebody” to remind those more fortunate that every child matters and should have the same chances of opportunity, regardless of wealth or status.

The Street Child World Cup Finals took place at the Fluminense Football Club on April 6th. The play-off for third place went to Team Pakistan (Boys) and Team El Salvador (Girls). I managed to watch some superb footage of both the finals posted on the Facebook site of the organisation (www.facebook.com/streetchildworldcup). It is on You Tube described as FINALS- Street Child World Cup, and well worth a look.

Boys Street Champions 2014: Burundi 1 TANZANIA 3 (h-t 0-2).

Girls Street Champions 2014: BRAZIL 1 Philippines 0 (h-t 1-0)

All these children have been amazing ambassadors for change and children’s rights, and they have done themselves and their countries proud. WELL DONE.

The Information Is Out There

The Street Kids World Cup made the news on Aljazeera which I happened to catch, and the World Figure Skating Championships were televised on British Eurosport. But the other events I happened to discover were taking place quite by accident. I wasn’t aware of any of these events getting much TV coverage or exposure at all. As I don’t have subscription TV I couldn’t watch the ice-skating, and I don’t have a permanent connection to the internet at home either. So my web browsing is mainly done on my mobile phone, although with intermittent signals for that too, my search for information can be thwarted at times. So I’m just pleased to have finally got the facts I wanted for this edition of Off The Beaten Track.

And Finally

Sometimes you come across the most unexpected things whilst going about your everyday tasks. Whilst in the local Potteries Shopping Arcade I spotted these beautifully sculpted elephants in the Elephants Parade tour, created to highlight the plight of Asian elephants in the wild. More information on this can be found at http://www.intuelephantparade.co.uk, in collaboration with The Asian Elephant Foundation.org.

Unforgettable Journey on Elephant Parade
Unforgettable Journey on Elephant Parade
Love Story, Flower Impression & Spirit on Elephant Parade
Love Story, Flower Impression & Spirit on Elephant Parade
The Butterfly Effect on Elephant Parade
The Butterfly Effect on Elephant Parade

PHILOMENA: A Mother’s Love Quest

Radio 2’s Good Morning Sunday program broadcast on Mother’s Day, contained an amazing interview by Clare Balding. She was speaking to Philomena Lee, an 80 year old Irish lady whose story of loss was turned into an award winning film, simply called “Philomena”. I watched that movie a few months ago in the cinema, and remember how incensed I was at this woman’s treatment at the hands of Irish nuns. Her “crime” was that of committing a “mortal sin” by having a child out of wedlock in 1950’s Ireland.

Philomena lost her son Anthony at the age of three, when she was forced by the nuns to put her son out for adoption. Philomena never forgot the little boy, and returned many times to the convent where she was confined with Anthony, seeking information about his whereabouts. Unbeknownst to Philomena, Anthony now named Michael Hess also returned to the place of his birth, seeking his mother. Neither of them gained the reconciliation they desperately wanted, because the nuns deliberately withheld information from them.

Irish Law to this day does not allow Irish adoptees to access their records, and so Michael (Anthony) was prevented from knowing anything about his early years. He was reliant on the nuns’ compassion over-ruling the law but that never happened, causing undoubted heartache for Michael (Anthony) and his birth mother. His dying wish was to be buried in his birth-place, just in case his natural mother was looking for him. Mercifully the nuns’ did grant Michael (Anthony) this courtesy but never told Philomena about it. It was by chance she discovered her long-lost son’s final resting place.

In the interview Philomena spoke movingly about her early life and the ordeal that scarred her forever. Her daughter Jane Libberton spoke of The Philomena Project, which has been set up to try and get Irish Law changed to allow adoptees access to their personal records. This project is Philomena’s love quest in memory of her son.

Michael (Anthony) was brought up in the USA, worked in Republican politics and was gay. In the film I got the distinct impression he was dying of an AIDS related condition. So I was surprised though relieved that his final wish was granted. I could easily imagine what the nun’s might have thought about Michael’s lifestyle choice!!

The film scene that got me so angry happened toward the end of the movie. An elderly nun when confronted with the “complicity of silence” allegation uttered the Catholic mantra I was expecting. The Sister’s face full of conviction condemned Philomena and her kind as “fallen women full of sin” who deserved to be eternally condemned, more or less. I was absolutely disgusted but not surprised. And I was reminded of the Sister’s complete belief that marriage and children are intertwined, the day before Philomena’s radio interview broadcast.

On Saturday March 29th 2014 Great Britain allowed gay marriage to become lawful. During news broadcasts reporting this event, I heard the idea that marriage is to allow people to have children without “any help from others”, and the notion that love didn’t come into it at all. Try telling that to anyone having gone through IVF, or those who can’t or decide not to have children. Are their marriages any less valid? The words love one another with a pure heart springs to mind. God created us from love, and however that love is expressed is a marriage between those who love and God.

The Philomena Project is testament to the memory of a child and a parent’s never ending love. Philomena has a purity of heart I’m sure will find God’s pleasure when she comes to be re-united with her Anthony.  AMEN.

Philomena meets Pope Francis to highlight The Philomena Project. Image credit Kate Bowe
Philomena meets Pope Francis to highlight The Philomena Project. Image credit Kate Bowe