Last night at 11pm marked 100 years since Britain’s entry into the First World War on 4 August 1914. In the UK, we were encouraged to turn off our lights and see in the anniversary moment by the light of a single candle, inspired by the words spoken on 3 August 2014 by the then foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey: ” The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
Sitting in the flickering candlelight, watching the service that was broadcast from Westminster Cathedral in the hour before 11pm, I was particularly struck by one of the poems read during that service (by the excellent Penelope Keith). It was “Many Sisters to Many Brothers”, by British novelist and writer, Rose Macaulay, who wrote it in the autumn of 1914. (The full poem, and some interesting background discussion about it can be found at George Simmers’s research blog, Great War Fiction.)
In the poem, a woman reflects on her shared childhood with her brother, the games they played and how while they were growing up she was his physical and mental equal (and sometimes superior). The tone is playful and childlike, with a familiar sense of sibling one-upmanship as she remembers their childhood exploits. It then moves on to compare their current situation as adults in 1914, with the brother away at war. This was the last verse that really caught my attention:
In a trench you are sitting, while I am knitting
A hopeless sock that never gets done.
Well, here’s luck, my dear; ― and you’ve got it, no fear;
But for me . . . a war is poor fun.
I found the tone of this poem interesting, and it was a war poem which was new to me. It highlights in a very simple, ordinary way, the inequalities between men and women at that time. Earlier that day I had heard the BBC war correspondent Kate Adie talk about how the First World War had, through necessity brought on by a shortage of men at home, broken down pre-conceptions of what work women could do. She said that before the war, women were not allowed to work delivering mail because it was thought that they might forget the addresses, but during the war, women took on traditional male roles such as postal work.
Of course, I was also struck by the mention of knitting, and the reluctant sock knitter in the poem. Her resentment at being left behind to knit and the strong sense that she knits only out of duty feel completely at odds with my own knitting for pleasure.
I happened also to be knitting a sock last night, but I did so because I want to, rather than because I feel it is the only way I can be useful. My sock is a colourful source of pleasure, rather than a tether to a restricted life I resent.
(My part-finished plain sock in Skein Queen‘s Entwist yarn in a beautiful unnamed colourway, with my WW1 lights out candle in the background.)
My freedom to spend my leisure time and disposable income doing something I love is something that I often take for granted, and the poem made me realise this. I felt incredibly fortunate to be sitting on my sofa knitting out of free choice and knowing that my loved ones are safe. One century on from the outbreak of the First World War, the world has changed a lot, but even now, I wish that everyone could know such uncomplicated good fortune (although I appreciate that not everyone’s version of that good fortune would involve knitting a sock!)