Robert Fisk’s World: Some lessons in sacrifice from Liverpool in two world wars

Were we made of ‘sterner stuff’, as my Dad would have said, in those days

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:03

I used to read and re-read The Spire by William Golding – he of Lord of the Flies fame – awed by the corruption of the medieval church and stunned by the venality but determination of the bishop who insisted on building the highest spire in the land ever higher as a nail from the True Cross was wending its way in a baggage train from Rome.

Even when the architect warned the bishop that he was committing hubris by building God's mansion to such a height that its Gothic stones and arches were "singing" with the enormous and unprecedented weight, up went the cathedral spire, ever higher.

I was reminded of The Spire when I sat in Liverpool Cathedral last week, the first Anglican cathedral ever designed by a Catholic. Giles Gilbert Scott was the grandson of the man who built St Pancras, and Scott himself was the architect of Bankside power station – so no one had any excuse to be ignorant of what they were getting: technology and Gothic folly, Britain's largest cathedral with the highest and widest Gothic arches in the world, as Liverpool's Anglican Bishop James Jones reminded me. You could fit Nelson's column inside – provided you took off the admiral's hat.

Even if I would sometimes wish that bishops (Jones excepted, of course) would spend less time boasting of the size of their institutions and more time reflecting on the changing nature of their faith, you've got to be impressed. The whole edifice took 74 years to build, and they were still craning stones up to the heights as German bombs were bringing some of it crashing to the ground in the Second World War. Scott didn't live to see it but he was able to use modern building techniques to achieve what the technology of the 14th and 15th century couldn't do. Hence the width of the arches and the strength of their walls, adorned with Lutyens-like figures – who in some cases bore the faces of the 20th-century Liverpool stonemasons who actually built them.

A non-churchgoing Fisk, it has to be admitted, was being given an honorary doctor of letters from Liverpool Hope University – these honours are often given to long-serving foreign correspondents, more out of astonishment at their survival, I suspect, than their work – and was faced with a 10-minute mini-speech in the cathedral for the new graduates and their parents who included some of the finest burghers of a city whose wealth was originally supported by the slave trade. Dr Bob was introduced as "inevitably controversial" – "controversial", I long ago realised, was one of those code words applied to Middle East correspondents if they have been abused by Israel's so-called supporters abroad – so controversial I intended to be.

I said that we should not be in Afghanistan, that we Westerners now have 22 times as many military personnel in the Muslim world than the Crusaders had in the 12th century (the great age of real Gothic cathedrals, of course) and that the Muslim lands did not belong to us. Send them our doctors and our teachers and our agronomists – but not our soldiers. They should be brought home. This was the week in which we had all seen the heartbreaking grief which greeted the return of another eight Brits from Afghanistan.

And to my astonishment, the burghers and their families, students and their mums and dads – hitherto silent in expectation of a soft homily – began to clap, a great wash of sound that spread through the chapels and aisles of Scott's cathedral. This was due to no Fisk eloquence (nor did everyone applaud). But something had been touched off. That very morning, The Guardian had assured us that an opinion poll showed the great British public remained "firm" in its support for our campaign in Afghanistan. Well, I thought, as the clapping echoed through the nave, I wonder...

But unkinder ideas also crossed my mind. At the side of Liverpool Cathedral is a beautiful chapel dedicated to the dead of two world wars. British battle honours hang high above – I noticed "Chindits" sewn in gold on green (we shall let Wingate's bloody Middle East adventures pass without comment here) – and there is an alabaster panel showing Christ kneeling by the Sea of Galilee. But what struck me was the memorial to Liverpool's fatalities in the Hitler war, including the engineer to the Dean and Chapter, his wife and daughter.

In just one month – May of 1941 – Liverpudlians lost 1,453 men, women and children to Luftwaffe raids. In my cruel calculations, this means that our 185 dead in Afghanistan in eight years – from all over Britain – represent a mere seventh of what Liverpool alone suffered in one month of the Second World War. But the chapel archives also show that in the First World War, Liverpool lost 40,000 lives in the trenches and at sea – Liverpool alone, mark you – and the obscene exchange rate of losses thus demonstrates that for each of our total British losses in Afghanistan in eight years, 217 Liverpudlians (again, we're talking just Liverpool here) died in a war that lasted only half the length of the Afghan campaign.

Were we made of "sterner stuff" – as my Dad would have said – in those days? Churchill himself feared this in the 1940s, after Dunkirk and Greece and Crete and the fall of Tobruk. Have we all today come to expect war without death? Or is it that we accepted massive sacrifice when the enemy was, so to speak, "at the gates" – when the Germans wanted to destroy Europe in 1914 and 1939 – but cannot comprehend why our soldiers are dying, on however small a scale, in Afghanistan in 2009? It's the "why", not the "how many". Brits accept casualties, but not when the cause of those casualties is so vain – in both senses of the word when applied to the Blair/Brown governments.

That's what my Liverpool visit taught me. In a spiritual emporium, Brits showed that, even if their Government tried to convince them that Afghanistan was worth the bones of British grenadiers, they did not believe it. The Taliban are not on the Western Front or flying over Liverpool. In fact, the Taliban themselves have never bombed us – except in the land to which we have sent our soldiers. The clapping in Liverpool Cathedral last Wednesday had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with a hopeless, lost military campaign in which we should never have become involved, whose casualties – yes, let's remember the thousands of Afghans here – are a mockery of the dead of two world wars.

And as the Catholic archbishop of Liverpool, Patrick Kelly, observed to me last week, most of the students receiving degrees in the cathedral were three years older than many of the soldiers who were dying in Afghanistan. That said it all.

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