Mightier than the sword
From Aldous Huxley to Greta Thunberg, this University of London exhibition shows the power of the written word – and the price some pay defending it
08 August, 2019 — By Jane Clinton
THE letter was written on March 24, 1977. Its author was the Argentine writer and journalist Rodolfo Walsh and it was an open letter to the Argentine Military Junta in which he condemned its brutality – one of the victims included his own daughter.
He wrote: “Fifteen thousand missing, ten thousand prisoners, four thousand dead, tens of thousands in exile: these are the raw numbers of this terror.”
He wrote it knowing it would make him a target.
A day after writing and posting it to local newspapers and foreign press correspondents he was killed by armed men.
Walsh’s writing has gone on to inspire investigative journalism. His “Open Letter to the Argentine Military Junta”, is one of 100 items in the new Senate House Library exhibition, Writing in Times of Conflict.
Books, pamphlets, letters, poetry and posters from the past 100 years are represented.
Divided into several sections, the exhibition looks at writing for peace; writing in wartime; writing from exile; and writing in protest.
In the writing for peace section we encounter John Maynard Keynes and his 1920 book The Economic Consequences of the Peace. He had attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 as a delegate of the British Treasury and in this book he argues for a more generous peace than that offered by the Treaty of Versailles.
This work was a bestseller throughout Europe and established Keynes as a leading economist.
We also see the pamphlet by Aldous Huxley, What Are You Going To Do About It? The Case for Constructive Peace. Published in 1936, it argues the case for pacifism. It was widely criticised and next to it in the display cabinet is a riposte to Huxley, written by the poet Cecil Day-Lewis. His pamphlet, entitled We’re
Not Going To Do Nothing, branded Huxley’s pamphlet too academic and abstract.
In the writing in wartime section there is a chilling display: the Nazi Black Book for Great Britain. Originally published in 1940, it was written in preparation for Hitler’s planned Operation Sea Lion to invade England in May 1940. It would be given to each soldier.
In this, facsimile version, there are 2,820 names on “The Special Wanted List” including politicians, writers, artists and scientists. Among them were Vera Brittain (who is represented in this exhibition); Virginia Woolf (whose letter also features); Noel Coward and Sylvia Pankhurst.
Alongside the exhibition’s male voices are a great number of women – many of whom were pivotal in the peace movement.
Storm Jameson’s 1941 novel The End of This War features. She had lost her brother and many friends in the First World War. Active in helping refugees from Europe, from 1939 she was president of the British branch of the international PEN Association, which promotes literature and campaigns for freedom of expression. Through PEN she also helped refugee writers.
There are contributions from authors regarding protests including Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk’s Greenham Women Everywhere: Dreams Ideas and Actions from the Women’s Peace Movement (1983). The peace camp, set up to stop the deployment of nuclear cruise missiles at the air base at Greenham Common, inspired other peace camps around the world and sparked a wave of radical writing.
There is an embarrassment of riches in this exhibition, which also includes George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Anne Frank’s diary, as well as works reflecting wars and conflict around the world, including the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Bringing us up to the present day there is a poster of the striking logo of the climate change activists, Extinction Rebellion.
Also on the theme of environmental activism we see the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s book taking pride of place. It neatly reminds us how just one person can effect change. Its title? No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference.
• Writing in Times of Conflict is at Senate House Library (4th floor), University of London, Malet Street, WC1E 7HU. Admission free. The exhibition runs until 14 December 2019. For more information and details of accompanying films screenings and events go to www.senatehouselibrary.ac.uk