This probably marks me down as a little bit miserable, but so far this year I have read three books and the one I am about to finish is not exactly a comedy. The excellent Germania (Simon Winder) was followed by a collection of poems by WH Auden. Then I got into a book my mum and dad gave me in November: On the Other Side: Letters to my Children from Germany 1940-46 (Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg).
These are letters written from Hamburg to Wolff-Mönckeberg's adult children living abroad with their own families. Unable to tell the truth about what was going on in Germany – they wouldn't have got through the censors – she wrote letters which she left for her children to read after the war. They weren't discovered until 1974 during a house clearance. Which means they were never read by the children to whom they were addressed.
The letters are harrowing. They relate the experience of a wife and mother who tries to live and love and survive through the destruction of her city by Allied bombing, helpless in the face of the violence, powerless to change the madness into which Germany had been plunged by megalomaniacs in Berlin. Her son dies in South America, her home is burned by repeated incendiary attacks, friends and neighbours endure and die. This is no history book, but the very human recollection of a very human woman who puts flesh and blood and tears onto the experiences of loss, grief, fear and courage that are the real stuff of civilians caught up in a war being fought by others.
I was conscious throughout the book of the sermons of Helmut Thielicke, the German Protestant theologian and pastor who had to pastor and preach his way through the same horrors in this same Hamburg during these same years. They merit re-reading, but only if the reader can imaginatively place himself or herself in the context of the time. Preaching about Christmas on the edge of a crater that used to be your church – containing the remains of some of those who used to be your congregation – removes any hint of mere religious piety. This is where such piety or religious illusion dies in the rubble and dust of destruction and violence.
My reason for citing this now is simply that (a) this is the sort of stuff that relativises some of the stuff that characterises current 'crises', and (b) gives an insight into those who appear as faces or figures on our front pages in reports about conflict in the Central African Republic, South Sudan or Syria.
When all is stripped away, what is left? When all 'normality' explodes and disappears, tearing our life apart, what of value is left to motivate us? What ultimately matters?
I constantly need a point of reference such as this in order to keep me focusing on reality. I guess I am not the only one.
(The next book on my list is a funny one…)