Happy Birthday to my late Grandpa – Stanley Bishop. Son of Syd Bishop, a butcher from Ruislip, Greater London, Stanley Bishop (aka “Pa”) was born during the First World War, on a Thursday, exactly 103 years ago today. He went on to serve in the Second World War, by which time he had met and fallen in love with my Grandma, Edna.
One anecdote my brother and I grew up on, around the significance of the 27th day of the month, was that our own father, Peter, was born to Stan and Edna on 27th November 1949, followed by my arrival on 27th April 1975, and then my brother, Matt, was due to be born on 27th January 1978. Matt was late though (a February 1st vintage, in the end) although by all accounts he arrived quickly and full of gusto.
Dates often produce serendipity. Writing this from our home in Saigon (a city liberated by the Viet Cong a mere 72 hours after I arrived in the world, on 30th April 1975, a date which continues to commemorate the end of the various wars of that era) I was, this morning, musing on the fact that it was during this particular last week of May, a quarter of a century ago, in 1993, that I put down my pen in what was my last “A” level exam, and stepped out of the school’s Great Hall and into a new chapter of my life.
That I was born 3 days before the end of the American-Vietnam War, and that 25 years ago this week I finished high school, are not, I grant you, the most precise and brilliantly serendipitous coincidences. In any case, that last exam paper was on Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”. A play I enjoyed watching again earlier this year, whilst Issy and I were back in Melbourne.
“As You Like It” is a witty and insightful tale, its cross-dressing protagonists fumbling about in the Forest of Arden, getting into various romantic scrapes. The twist of having the traditional all male actors taking on the female roles of Rosalind and Celia – who then spend the majority of the storyline pretending to be men – is one of those great examples that defines Shakespeare’s lasting appeal: that of an ‘alternative framing’ which has continued to be utilized in various art and literature ever since.
Another timeless page from the play is Jacques’ famous speech about the ‘Seven Ages of Man.’ Jacques’ descriptions of each Age (the full prose is pasted below) and his overall conclusion about the circle of life – from “mewling and puking” to “a second childishness and mere oblivion” – are packed full with observations and philosophies. Indeed, the numeric “7” itself is a number much quoted across cultures. Days of the week. Deadly Sins. Years of bad luck (for mirror damage). “Lucky number” seven.
Even my seventh paragraph, containing seven words.
Anyway, as I enjoyed this Jacques passage again, it was the soldier “seeking the bubble reputation” on which I alighted.
In the context of war, bubble reputation could be a reference to the fleeting nature of the honour or the fame that a solider experiences in battle. Essentially, a temporary thing, bursting like a bubble.
Another explanation I’ve seen is that Shakespeare meant for the word bubble to infer “a person deceived by an empty project”. In other words, a soldier signing up to a war that had been ill conceived.
You’d need a lifetime to collect everything that has been written about ill conceived wars or about the sheer hopelessness of war: from the various canons of WW1 poetry, penned whilst my Grandpa was a child; to those crafted about WW2, a conflict in which both my grandparents served, and from which my father was then an infamous “baby-boomer”; to the angry outpouring of the millions of people who took to the streets (during the time of my parent’s own courtship and wedding) to protest against western interventions in Vietnam; right up to the viral nature of how online communications, in the 2018 arena, connect a far greater number of us than ever before, in a collective disdain for war and for conflict.
Others might counter this by persuading that meaningful change, without some form conflict, is simply not possible.
The debate here will no doubt run on, and on.
What is not up for debate, is the reality of the scale of the current ongoing conflicts around the world: from countries where enlisting in the armed forces is compulsory for its citizens (a “necessary way of life”); to those where young children are stolen from their homes to serve in anti-government splinter cells, or are fleeing for their lives, away from conflict, and without their parents; to those countries whose reputations for initiating conflicts, over centuries past, has granted them a place in the world pecking order to make decisions about when and where to repeat the process again; or, still, to countries whose political agendas continue to cause slow, protracted crises, so much so that living in a ‘state of conflict’ has simply become the definition of ‘normal living’.
Whatsoever the context, I find this definition of Jacques’ “bubble reputation” (ie that of an “empty project” causing “deception”) striking.
Just how many of the world’s current conflicts could be said to epitomize this notion?
In spite of all the institutional structures and global governance systems, established after WW2 to prevent such a thing happening again, the United Nations (one of the main institutions created as part of this process) recently claimed that the world is in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945.
In the four countries of South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia, the UN estimates that as many as 20 million people are facing starvation and famine.
For the (approximately) 6 million Syrian refugees – a fifth country to add to these statistics – who no longer live in their home country, it is estimated it will be 25 years until they might safely return.
So, on this 7.5 billion person world stage of ours, what part, what action, are we each prepared to follow through on, in the face of humanitarian crisis and the nature of its conflicted genesis?
The truth is that there are many ways to act and to bring about action (some mentioned on here recently) and to play a “part.” From writing to marching to joining movements to the honest discourse exchanged with those young people yet to embark on their second ‘Age.’
And, I believe it is the union of these acts, their voice, their grit, and their steely coalescence, which can provide – as a military operation itself would – all that is necessary.