This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 in the presence of actors Emma Thompson, Celia Imrie, Paul McGann, Sean Pertwee and musician Billy Ocean.
I've just been on holiday for a week of culture-free sitting in the sun and reading. It was brilliant. I packed a pile of novels, but in the end spent several days reading a history book called 'Sleepwalkers' – about the origins of the First World War.
Now, I can't read this sort of stuff without being haunted in my imagination by the words of the World War One poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon as they shaped horror with sounds of beauty. Someone once sang, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” but in the trenches it seems that when the going got tough, the tough wrote poetry.
It sounds a bit weird, doesn't it? We think of the violence of war – especially that war – and feel ourselves bombarded with the power of destructiveness. Yet, amid all that sound and fury, some of these guys refused – in words that echo and linger in the memory – to let the inhumanity of conflict stop the heart of what it means to be human.
I'm not being naive about this stuff. But I am being dead serious about the poetry. The great Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn once suggested that “maybe the poet… shows you new ways to see”. It is the poets who open our imagination and fire the spirit. Put the poet's words to music and the darkness of your heart gets broken open by the surprise of light.
I'll be reading the poets again as we approach the centenary of the slide into war in 1914. And I fear I will want to defy the destruction and misery as the poets themselves did by daring to believe that love is more powerful than death and toughness is to be seen in a refusal to collude with the idea that might is inevitably right.
Two thousand years ago a Middle Eastern writer quoted a poem: “So, these three remain: faith, hope and love. But, the greatest of these is love.” There you have it. What is really tough? It's love actually.