On my way to work this morning I found myself quite unexpectedly moved by Radiohead’s tribute to Harry Patch. Suddenly the enormity of his passing hit me. Not only the last man to witness the trenches (words that come so easily and seem so meaningless) but the last British man born in the 1800s. There remain only seven British women alive who were born in the 19th century. It doesn’t seem that events come with more magnitude than the passing of an entire generation into the history books.
Two things struck me when reading about Harry’s life. The first was that he outlived the three significant partners he had in his lifetime, and also outlived his own children. I cannot even begin to comprehend what that must be like. To have everyone you have known and loved in your life leave you. I think of the people close to me and imagine a time when they will be nothing but memories; imagine a time when I will be nothing but memories. What will remain? What lasts of us? Questions that seem to underpin the very nature of our beings and which, in our attempts to answer them, lead us towards better lives.
Secondly I was struck by how his ordinary life was made extraordinary by world events. Yet not extraordinary for entire generations who lived through world wars; wars which seem to belong to an alien, distant past despite the most recent being only being 60 years ago. How rapidly the world has moved on, how much it has changed and how different our lives must be compared to then. Yet surely the very essence of being human remains the same? Surely these people felt just as we would feel if we were sent off to war? I hesitate to say it because it is so trite, but truly we are a blessed generation with so much to be thankful for. Reading Harry’s obituary the war looms large – there is no event that will take our lives and make them extraordinary. Only we can do that, in ways however small, and like no generation before we have the freedom and the capacity to make positive choices.