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The arts diary at Buxton Festival: Shirley Williams on Vera Brittain

By Gloucestershire Echo  |  Posted: July 21, 2014

By Colin Davison. Twitter @IamColinDavison

Vera Brittain with her daughter Shirley

Vera Brittain with her daughter Shirley

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Rating: ****

When Hamburg recently restored one of its canals, it renamed it after Vera Brittain, a remarkable decision given that most of the city was destroyed by British and American air raids.

But Brittain had written in 1944 to condemn the raids, an act that caused her to be shunned by publishers, politicians and prelates at the time.

Talking about the life of her remarkable mother, Shirley Williams described Hamburg as a city “that has never lost touch with its ideals.”

The same could of course be said of mother and daughter.

Brittain grew up in Buxton - a town she hated for its snobbery and to which she almost never returned.

Many will know her profoundly moving and inspiring story, of a young woman overcoming prejudice to win a scholarship to Oxford, then leaving the university to dedicate herself to service as a nurse in the First World War.

It was on 23 December 1915, two days before he was due home on leave, possibly to get married, that Vera’s fiance was killed. His death was followed by that of two close friends and eventually of her beloved brother.

Williams told of a particular moment that left “lines of crosses imprinted on her mind.”

Brittain had read of a woman offering to marry any wounded soldier in order to care for him, and decided to do the same for one of those friends.

But before she could do so, the young man died. “It was as if her greatest sacrifice had been rejected,” Williams said.

As a bonus in this fascinating conversation with Dame Janet Smith, Williams revealed some telling details about her distinguished but lesser-known father, the academic George Catlin, a champion of Free India, and friend of Gandhi, who after Sunday sermons would chat for hours with his daughter about their political and ethical consequences.

Like the rest of the family, he was clearly not to be discouraged by setbacks. Torpedoed during the Second World War, he telegrammed Vera to collect him from Haverfordwest where he had been landed by an Irish coaler.

Vera found him in salt-encrusted pyjamas, a dressing gown and oversized fisherman’s sweater. He had helped his colleagues to survive by bailing out their lifeboat with his trilby hat.

Colin Davison.

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