The Answer

As so often happens, Elizabeth provides me with one. I have been feeling overwhelmed by all that is taking place in the world, and although my personal circumstances couldn’t be better, I know that for millions of others over the last few years, lives have got immeasurably worse. From the food banks we shamefully need in one of the richest countries in the world, to war, famine, disease in others. To the desecration of the planet we call home; everywhere I look I wonder what Elizabeth would have made of it, and am thankful that she didn’t live on into these “interesting times”.

The Ikon on the Wall, a series of short stories printed in 1943 contains four stories set during the second world war; The first which gives its name to the collection is set in a Russian village occupied by the Germans. Shades of Ukraine and the way Russia has justified it’s invasion as being against the Nazi element who live there.

The Strength in the Stone plays out in Greece; a country which is now ravaged by economic failure, poverty and debt, in the way that it once was by war.

The third, The Hospitality of Mr Pettigrew, echoes my present feelings. ” He was a man of peace, a fanatical hater of war, an artist to whom creation was as the breath of life, and it seemed to him that he carried the devastation of these times forever with him like a bleeding wound in his spirit that could never be staunched”

The fourth, The Answer, takes place in the London Blitz, and is a love story set against fear, destruction and the displacement they bring. This the third story, is the one which spoke to me; drawing me in with the first stanza; “As children turn the pages of a book of fairy tales so did Joy Maloney stop every morning on her way to work to look at the pictures that the man with the lame leg had drawn on the pavement.”

In one sentence Elizabeth skilfully gives us a setting and important information about the main characters. Joy is an innocent, not only able to detach herself from her immediate surrounding, but able to appreciate art, where ever she finds it. It is apparent that she has lived in the city for a long time, because, “every morning” she goes to work. The man is disadvantaged; not only physically, but economically. Why else would he be a pavement artist, an artist whose work is by its nature impermanent, fleeting. Yet he must be talented because otherwise Joy would not have been captivated. There is a connection between them.

There follows a story arch familiar to Elizabeth Goudge readers; coincidences, the value of friendship and the fulfilment of work, a stage of displacement and fear; then the conquering of adversity by love.

There is no simple answer to the world’s myriad problems of course, and this is the justification we all give for doing nothing. Like Rosa, we are too old, too tires to do anything; it’s for the next generation to sort out. Like Joy in her flat when the bombing takes place, we are paralysed with fear. But Elizabeth does gives us one. The answer of course, is that amidst the chaos and terror, we should build havens of peace and love, which will spill out into the wider world, and join up in time, with all the other havens. How simple that sounds and how difficult to put into practise. Looking out of my own sunlit window onto a quiet huddle of homes, I feel blessed that my lines have been written in such places. Let us hope that as Joy believes “one day there would come a great exhausted silence, and then very faint and far away the clip-clop of a horse’s hoofs, a soft rustling like wind in the trees, a thread of music….. Peace men would say wonderingly. Peace”

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