St Bride's: Sermons

Trafalgar Sunday

Trafalgar Sunday
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In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There were three things that I discovered about my father during his later years that came as a complete surprise to me.  One was that, as a young man, he had played the double bass; the second was that he possessed an exam qualification in Swahili - which, for a man who had spent most of his working life in an office in Croydon was not altogether to be expected - and the third was that, well into his retirement, he was awarded a medal by President Gorbachev.  

More surprising still is the fact that all three of these rather odd features of his life were closely linked.  Because they all came about as a result of his time spent as an officer in the navy - more specifically the RNVR - during the Second World War.  He learned the double bass and studied Swahili, during his time as a prisoner of war in Marlag, Germany, after his motor torpedo boat was blown out of the water in 1943.  And his Russian medal was because prior to that he had served as part of the Arctic convoy, protecting shipping from Nazi attack in the most unimaginably dire of circumstances and all while he was still only a teenager.  He was one of the lucky ones of course, in escaping with his life, when so many of his comrades did not - and yet he never really spoke much about any of those experiences.

Because how on earth can anyone begin to communicate the reality, the horror, and the terrible cost of war at sea to those who have never experienced it at first hand - the cost both for those who have lived through it, and for those family members and friends who are left facing bereavement or terrible loss as a result of it.  And this is true whether we are talking about the battle of Trafalgar, or the battle of Jutland in 1916, or the enemy action that sank my dad's boat in 1943.  For those of us who have never had to live through a major war, we can certainly be startled and chastened by the statistics - including, incidentally, the horrifying statistics about the numbers of refugees who are drowning at sea in desperate attempts to escape war zones, which are a regular feature of news reports today.  And yet the true impact of war is always to be felt most acutely at the level of the individual human tragedy - in the stories that are so easily forgotten, or overlooked, or never even told, simply because there are so many of them.

Which is why I would like to read you a poem this morning that manages to capture precisely that.  It is a poem written by a woman called Molly Holden, and it reflects a true incident that took place in the year 1941.  The story behind the poem is this:

A young man, a fisherman's son from the Isle of Barra in the Hebrides, had enlisted and was serving at sea on a convoy ship, which was torpedoed not far from the Hebridean coast.  The young man drowned.  And by a terrible and tragic quirk of fate, his body was washed up on the shore of the Hebridean island that was his home.  He was found there by some of the old islanders - family friends - who recognised him immediately.  And, as we shall hear, his mother, in her grief, reflects that for her it would actually have been easier to bear had he lost his life far away, and for her to have heard the news by telegram, than for him to have died so tragically close to home.  Because the fact that the tides returned him to his native shore raised for her the devastating possibility that - there was just a chance - the remotest of chances - that he might have survived.

The poem, which I shall read for you now, is called simply 'Seaman 1941':

This was not to be expected.
Waves, wind and tide brought him again
to Barra.  Clinging to driftwood many hours
the night before, he had not recognized
the current far-off shore his own nor
known he drifted home.  He gave up, anyway,
some time before the smell of the land reached out
or dawn outlined the morning gulls.

They found him
on the white sand southward of the ness,
not long enough in the sea to be disfigured,
cheek sideways as in sleep,
old men who had fished with his father,
and grandfather and knew him at once,
before they even turned him on his back, by the set
of the dead shoulders, and were shocked.

This was not to be expected.

His mother with hot eyes, preparing the parlour
for his corpse, would have preferred, she thought,
to have been told by telegram rather
than so to know that convoy, ship and son
had only been a hundred miles north-west
of home when the torpedoes struck.  
She could have gone on thinking that
he'd had no chance; but to die offshore,
in Hebridean tides, as if he'd stayed
a fisherman for life and never gone to war
was not to be expected.

Occasions like our service this morning remind us of so much that so many of us so easily take for granted.  They remind us to remember those in peril on the sea, and the part that so many seafarers have played in protecting our freedom, and even our basic commodities and food supplies during times of war.  And they remind us of the terrible cost paid by so many of them, countless times, and over countless centuries.

Today we give thanks for them; we honour their memory; and we commit ourselves to work for a better world; that in Christ, and through his Holy Spirit, the spirit of peace and reconciliation, God's kingdom may come the nearer.  

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