Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Night Watch: "Conchy"

Several people have brought up Fraser in their comments. He would have been an interesting character to be inside of (as opposed to, for example, Julia, whom I found intriguing but a little too one-dimensional in her narcissistic chilliness, or Reggie), though I think Waters made a good choice to keep his true self at a distance from the reader.

Fraser can sometimes rouse himself to encourage his fellow prisoners to think critically, as when he chastises Duncan and the others for saying "it's someone else's war, not ours" -- "'...You're doing just what they want you to do.[...]You're giving up your right to think! I don't blame you, Pearce. It's hard, in here, when there's no encouragement to do anything else. When they don't let you listen, even, to the news!'" Then he picks up the newspaper that's had almost all the news articles clipped out and says, "'That's what they'll do to your mind,' he said, 'if you let them. Don't let them, Pearce!' He spoke very passionately, holding Duncan's gaze with his clear blue eyes[...]"

But he's also full of doubt, as in the final prison scene in 1944, when the bombs are falling close by and he says to Duncan: "'Don't you think I never wonder, about -- about fear? It's the very worst thing, the very worst thing of all. I could take any amount of tribunals. I could take women calling me gutless in the streets! But to think to oneself, quietly, that the tribunals and the women might be right; to have the suspicion gnawing and gnawing at one: do I truly believe this, or am I simply a -- a bloody coward?'" This scene ends with the two men lying together in Duncan's bed even after the All Clear has sounded, taking comfort in the ordinary human contact denied to everyone in the prison setting -- extraordinary circumstances heightening the impact of two people reaching out to each other in really such a simple way. "They settled back into an embrace -- as if it were nothing, as if it were easy; as if they weren't two boys, in a prison, in a city being blown and shot to bits; as if it were the most natural thing in the world."

What is Fraser really like? In the 1947 section, released from prison, he was annoying Vivien (and this reader) as she tried to accomplish her secret quest give back Kay's ring, and he stood up Duncan that same night. He's basically a normal young man (upper class, like Kay and Julia and unlike the other main characters), a reporter now, representing a more fortunate life despite his past life as an inmate. Perhaps with him the Pearce siblings will find some happiness at last.

Comment on this storyline below, or participate in the discussion on the initial Night Watch post.

And for some historical context on this storyline, here are a few resources (to access some, you will need a valid BPL card to get into our subscription databases):

  • "Prisoners of Conscience" by Juliet Gardiner (History Today, November 2004)


    "The London tribunal [before which people explained why they should be exempt from military service] which sat in Fulham was notorious, and so was the Newcastle-based Northumberland and Durham one. The chairman, Judge Richardson, was reported to have insulted Jehovah's Witnesses mocking 'you might pray and preach, but what good do you do?' and one day delivered the opinion that 'I am certain, as sure as I sit here, that if Christ appeared today he would approve of this war'."


    "There was no such thing as a typical Conscientious Objector. A Mass-Observation survey in July 1940 concluded that most 'have occupations where particular intelligence is required, or a higher standard of education ... and even highbrow tastes in cultural matters'." This included "a tendency to be vegetarian, love their mothers, love animals, [though] not all these things are unconventional." In fact, a wide range of professions were represented among COs of the era.

  • "Harry S. Truman and the Issue of Amnesty for Conscientious Objectors" by Andrew J. Dunar (Peace & Change, July 1991)

    A detailed article about President Truman's attitude towards conscientious objectors in the U.S. during World War II and its aftermath, when a high-profile amnesty campaign tried for years to free still-imprisoned COs.


    "By most measures, America's treatment of COs during World War II had been harsh. COs were four times as likely to be arrested as during World War I, despite the dismal civil liberties record of the Wilson administration. Violation of the Selective Service Act, a misdemeanor during World War I, had been upgraded to a felony. Prison terms had increased from a maximum of a year to an average of more than two and a half. Comparison with Canada and Great Britain showed other democracies more tolerant in granting CO status, more benevolent in administration of alternative service programs, and less likely to restrict civil rights of COs after the war. Even the most progressive improvement in the treatment of COs--the establishment of CPS camps in which civilians supervised COs in forestry camps and public hospitals--was but a qualified success and seemed to some 'an experiement in democratic suppression of a dissident religious minority in time of war.'" [emphasis mine]

  • "Conchie": The Wartime Experiences of a Conscientious Objector by Ernest C.T. Spring

  • "Forgotten Women of World War II: Wives of Conscientious Objectors in Civilian Public Service" by Heather T. Frazer and John O'Sullivan (Peace & Change, Fall 1978)

  • "Conscientious Objector in World War II" by Jack Powelson (The Quaker Economist, Feb. 15, 2004)

  • And if ever you're in Leeds, you could visit the Second World War Experience Centre, which "collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and encourages access to the surviving material evidence and associated information of the men and women who participated in the war in whatever capacity, whether military, civilian or conscientious objector."

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