By Olivia Pierson
[First published on Incite Politics, Anzac Day, 25/4/ 2018]
Looking back from an epoch that is sure to be noted in history as an unprecedented time of luxurious peace and prosperity, it is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for a generation which entered its adulthood during the era of WWI.
Those of this generation who survived the ‘Great War to End all Wars’ would also experience the indiscriminate culling of populations by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which took more lives than had been lost in the war itself. The Lost generation would go on to see the stock-market crash of ’29 and live through the subsequent Great Depression, then witness the unspeakable horrors of WWII just as they crossed into their jaded middle-age.
As if all that didn’t make life imposing enough, imagine also the exasperation of this generation at the Social Justice Warriors of their time, who demanded they sally forth without the comfort of some seriously stiff boozy tipples. Thank the gods (Bacchus in this case) for the ready availability of naughty speakeasies, which I’m sure helped them through some extremely downcast moments.
As life progressed for this generation after the Great War had been fought and won, they didn’t have a clue what lay in their future; events unfurl from day to day without any bigger picture sharpening into focus. One can only ever do one’s best with the hand that one is dealt.
But the Lost Generation, despite the cards that they were dealt, had marinated in the staunch cultural values of the previous generation, some of whom had raised them or taught them in educational institutions. This slightly older generation are known in generational theory as the Missionary Generation, into which Winston Churchill had been born.
Regarding Great Britain, our once blessed Mother Country, I cannot think of a better example of the Missionary Generation’s defining ethos than the speech to young students of the Lost Generation, dramatically presented in the Master’s Dinner at Cambridge University in the film Chariots of Fire (a particular favourite of mine). When life must go on, as it must, consider the magnitude of words like these upon a young man’s ear and heart after a terrible war:
“I take the war list and I run down it, name after name, which I cannot read – and which we, who are older than you, cannot hear without emotion. Names which will be only names to you, the new college, but to us summon up face after face full of honesty and goodness, zeal and vigour and intellectual promise, the flower of a generation; the glory of England and they died for England and all that England stands for. And now by tragic necessity their dreams have become yours. Let me exhort you to examine yourself, let each of you discover where your chance of greatness truly lies. For their sakes, for the sake of your college and your country, seize this chance! Rejoice in it! And let no power or persuasion deter you in your task.”
The Lost Generation has gone down in history as nihilistic, careless, sceptical, cynical and hedonistic, represented in literature by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby:”
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
And then there is Hemingway’s book, “The Old Man and the Sea.” I could just weep at the palpable sense of utter defeatism even though it’s not meant to be about defeat, its whole theme speaks about a world hell-bent on destroying man even though man struggles with everything in himself to triumph. It seems to be no small coincidence that Hemingway eventually ended his own life by suicide.
But then I recall men like Harold Abrahams, one of the heroes in Chariots of Fire who studied at Cambridge and won his hard-fought-for gold medal at the Paris Olympics in 1924. His story in the film is one of a hyper-sensitive Polish Jew who extends himself spectacularly, though still feels the sting of anti-semitism as a thing “caught on the edge of a remark,” or “in a look.” As truth is often so much more notorious than fiction, Abrahams, an athletics journalist, went on to become the radio commentator bringing the 1936 Berlin Olympics to England over the airways. While Abrahams was doing this, the whole black-uniformed Third Reich was sitting and watching the black “Buckeye Bullet” Jesse Owens win all his track and field events. The irony on abundant levels here is almost heart-stopping.
By way of another very interesting fact, at the ’24 Paris Olympics, Harold Abrahams became firm friends with New Zealander, Arthur Porritt, who won the bronze medal for third place in the same 100 meter sprint which rewarded Abrahams with gold. Porritt became New Zealand’s 11th Governor General and he and Abrahams dined together at 7pm every 7th of July until Abrahams died in 1978. In Chariots of Fire, Porritt was renamed “Tom Watson” as a point of sensitivity observed in deference to his legendary, if not slightly ridiculous modesty. Porritt, whose own father had served in WWI, had a distinguished military career as a surgeon which saw him land on the beach at Normandy in WWII on D-Day.
Both Abrahams (born 1899) and Porritt (born 1900) were men of the Lost Generation who came of age during a war that would alter the whole course of human history and their beloved old Empire. Like England, they lived on to fight another day (in Porritt’s case, another war), despite witnessing the cream of their generation annihilated in the prime of their youth.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night.
[“For the Fallen” by Robert Laurence Binyon]
If you enjoyed this article, please buy my book "Western Values Defended: A Primer"
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