On Thursday morning, June 16, a disturbing photograph appeared in our newspapers. It showed a group of Remain supporters shouting "You’re no fishermen’s friend" (and probably other things, too) at Nigel Farage and his flotilla of fishing boats as they were sailing up the Thames to Parliament to make the case to Leave the EU.
Nothing wrong with that, you might say. But the picture showed not just animation amongst the Remain supporters, but anger, even hatred, too. The sight of Bob Geldof flicking a V sign showed just how unpleasant this Referendum campaign has become - and how damaging as well. The photograph left me feeling queasy and worried about our country.
The murder of Jo Cox is such a shocking thing to have happened that the suspension of campaigning in the Referendum was surely the only possible response. We know little of what might have lain behind this apparently senseless murder and politics may have had nothing to do with the mental instability of the perpetrator, but even lone lunatics don’t live in a bubble.
Alex Massie writing in The Spectator Blog the following day pointed out that rhetoric has consequences and that the language around debate affects the culture of it: "We can’t control the weather but in politics we can control the climate in which the weather happens….today it feels like we’ve done something terrible to that climate." Between seeing the photograph that so disturbed me and learning about Jo Cox’s death, I met a German visitor to Marlborough who was staying in a local bed & breakfast. He had told his hosts that he was particularly interested in the poems of Charles Sorley (1895-1915) a number of which he had translated into German. Knowing my interest in WW1 poetry, I was invited to meet him. Gerhard reminded me of the fact that after leaving Marlborough College in 1913, Sorley spent six months in Germany from January to July 1914, returning to England at the outbreak of war.
Sorley loved Germany and was dismayed that the two countries were at war, even though he himself volunteered to fight. Gerhard prizes his poems and it was moving beyond words to hear him read Sorley’s poem To Germany:
"You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.
When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other’s truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm
The darkness and the thunder and the rain."
Somehow these words felt prophetic, for we seem to have been fighting each other in the past weeks.
The Referendum campaign has been disquieting. On almost all the issues discussed, truth is not available to us, so conjecture and alarm have ruled the day. The blind seem to be fighting the blind. We have had a lot of storm, darkness, thunder and rain. It’s time to grasp each other’s firm hands and grow 'more loving-kind and warm’.