by John Maguire (Afri Board Member)
The idea of the “Day-book for Chelsea” is to provide a focus for the large numbers around the globe who are so grateful to Chelsea for her courage and public service in breaking the deadly silence that surrounds the modern war-machine. We are also horrified that this huge service has been criminalised, and that Chelsea has been ill-treated and deprived of the very peace and freedom she strove to achieve for others.
The Day-book could initially be a website, where individuals or groups could send along any item that might brighten a particular day for Chelsea, and these would be transmitted to her. [Or people could send their letters directly to Chelsea and send copies – text, photograph or scan – to a website]. It could eventually be presented as a regular – say, monthly – hard copy as well.
When I thought of the idea, it reminded me of the “Books of Days” and “Books of Hours” which were such prized objects in medieval times. These were originally religious calendars, with increasingly lavish illumination and decorations as they evolved.
They became rare and precious objects, collected and closely guarded by the kings, princes and dukes, the popes and cardinals for whom they were prepared. The most famous is the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry (1340-1416).
One feature of this magnificence was brought home to me at Afri’s recent tribute to the late Gerry Conlon, in solidarity with Chelsea Manning. We saw a video of the tremendous talk Gerry Conlon had given at an earlier Chelsea Manning solidarity event in November 2013. In this moving, passionate address, Gerry Conlon spoke with a personal vividness that lit up the universal issues of oppression and injustice. One of his main points was how power isolates: it isolates not only its victims – prisoners and others – but also the elite who wield it, in a privileged space immune from question and challenge.
And now the vengeance of our warrior establishments is wreaked on Chelsea, by isolating her from family and friends and from all the riches of our still, despite everything, wonderful world. So, just as the days and hours the medieval elite were brightened spiritually and aesthetically by their treasured manuscripts, we could prepare a modern day-book to lighten the darkness in which their successors want to confine Chelsea.
What could go into this treasury? Anything that will brighten a moment, a day, an hour for Chelsea, so that each morning she can wonder “What will they send me today?”: a drawing, a story, a photograph, a thought, a painting, an account of “This day X years ago”; only the limits of ingenuity and generosity apply…
As an example, I’ll append a short poem I wrote nearly thirty years ago, and dedicated to Chelsea at our meeting on 11 September.
In spring 1986 I was listening to a short story on the radio (BBC Radio4). As I recall, the title was ‘The Soldiers’, and, again as I recall, it went as follows. It was set around Christmas 1916, and concerned a grandmother who had just learnt that her son (or son-in-law) had been killed in the so-called “Great War”. She had not yet broken the news to the young widow, when she saw her grandson playing at the hearth with his set of toy soldiers. I found myself weeping at the end of this story, and wrote the sonnet as an attempt to come to terms with this…
What are they to me now, those men, all dead
In droves before my father was a man?
Whose are the tears that I so lately shed,
Mourning their doom across a bible-span?
Yet I can sense – a truth beyond all moral –
What led them on to play that sport of kings,
Yielding their lives to someone else’s quarrel,
No longer quietly desperate underlings.
This is the stuff of which our days are woven,
Cut on the bias, hemmed-up with pretence,
Lie upon lie till all the lies lie proven,
Power dressed as love, and murder as defence.
We crave a world where grief might speak to grief,
And life could flow untrammelled from belief.