Weekly Reflection 16th – 22nd November 2009

Posted on: Friday 13th November 2009

Remembrance (ii)

Normally the lives of Prime Ministers and middle aged mothers of six from Portslade rarely, if ever, intersect. Last week they did, poignantly, and the papers have been full of it ever since. Late one night, from an unsleeping No 10, one of the former wrote a letter to one of the latter, the mother of a twenty year old Grenadier guardsman killed in Afghanistan. It was intended as an expression of condolence, but it failed to provide much comfort for Mrs Jacqui Janes. Mr Bown’s unlovely handwriting – more like footwriting – failed to impress, and his misspelling of her son’s name added insult to injury. She contacted The Sun and within twenty-four hours a faux pas became a debacle. The Prime Minster got wind of the Sun’s story and phoned Mrs Janes to apologise. She taped the phone call. The Sun put it on its website, but if it was intended to make us feel less sympathetic towards Mr Brown for me, at least, it had the opposite effect. Mr Brown the public figure is not always easy to warm to, and his defensive responses to Mrs Janes’ forgivably angry accusations had a touch of the PMQs about them; but I was actually rather impressed that the Prime Minister takes time to write personal notes of condolence to the families of service men and women killed on active service. That this effort looked clumsy I’m sure is a reflection of the sincerity of the writer and the lateness of the hour rather than any complacency about the human cost of war. I certainly find it more impressive than another letter of condolence written by Mr Blair during the invasion of Iraq, which concluded with a peroration justifying his decision to take us to war. In such circumstances, I think I’d prefer breast-beating to tub-thumping.

But on reflection that letter too, better phrased but just as clumsy as Mr Brown’s, suggests that even in the thick of events and within the security-cordoned enclaves of government, those who command our forces falter when confronted with the reality of the loss of sons and fathers and brothers and partners and friends. Mr Blair, so smooth and judicious, and Mr Brown, so cautious and strained, admit as much in their different ways, and so maybe our sympathies might engage not only with the predicament of the casualties and their families, but by the predicament of their commanders also. There’s something about that pasty writing, that clotted prose, those clumsy corrections, that tells us something of the isolation, the anxiety, the sheer weight of responsibility that Mr Brown and others like him have to bear.

Fr Richard Coles, Curate