RHYMES&REASONS

Observations, Thoughts and Reflections on 21st Century Life

Tag: Survival

Lusitania 101 – a Life before the Tragedy

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On the 7th May 1915 the British liner RMS Lusitania, the fastest and most luxurious ship in the world at the time, was struck by a German torpedo off the coast of Ireland.  Of it’s 1962 passengers and crew only 764 survived – my great uncle and aunt were among them.  Their one year old son John was not.

An account of their trauma is taken from statements made by both  Mary and Elmore upon their eventual arrival in England.

“(Cyril) Elmore and Mary Anita Pells, travelling with their infant son John from Canada to England where Mr. Pells was to join his regiment, despaired of ever leaving the ship safely. At the time the torpedo struck  they were dining in the second class salon and returned to their E Deck cabin to retrieve John, and Elmore made a second trip below for lifebelts.  Not expecting to survive, they took seats together somewhere on one of the upper decks presumably on the port side, to wait for the end. When it came, they were pulled down deep with the ship, and in the torrent John was wrenched out of his father’s arms and lost. Elmore and Mary surfaced and were able to pull themselves atop an overturned lifeboat.”

Following a short period of recovery in London, Elmore joined his regiment as originally planned but after receiving a brief note telling of his safe arrival in France, Mary never heard from him again and he is documented as having been killed in action during the Battle of Aisne-Chemin des Dames on May 27th 1918.

The human element of this disaster, which has largely been lost among the controversial nature of the incident together with the passing of time, is now coming to light, re-surfacing along with the personal stories.  I have researched Elmore and Mary’s accounts with the benefit of the internet and personal family history.  However, I am also in possession of a wonderful photographic record of their lives in Canada prior to their fateful journey. The images long since faded, document a young couple in love.  Elmore met Canadian born Mary in the UK and following their engagement they emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia and and were married at North Lonsdale in April 1914.   Their son John was born in February 1915.   The images tell a story of a vibrant life together, socialising, fancy dress and tennis parties and picnics on the beach with friends.  Just one image remains of their infant son John.

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It is their own record of their life together, each photograph carefully entered into the small album by their own hands, unaware of the tragedy which was shortly to unfold and change their lives forever.  Faces reach out from the faded images, ethereal and yet full of life, crossing the threshold of a time long since gone and reaching into the 21st century in an effort to be remembered.  A reminder that they lived life to the full during their short time together:  there was life before the Lustania and for Mary a life after but very much changed.

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Through the remainder of the war Mary served as a nurse, and she was awarded a sum of $1089.15 for the loss of her personal property and Elmore’s medical expenses after her return to British Columbia.  For a time she lived in California, where she continued to study nursing, before returning for a third time to Canada, where the trail is lost in time.  However, somewhere along the way she maintained a connection to the Pells family – in 1936 she received a legacy from Elmore’s mother upon her death.

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Elmore – ‘lost in action’- has no known grave but is remembered at The Soissons Memorial located in the Aisne département of France. The memorial lists 3,887 names of British soldiers who were killed in the area from May to August 1918 during the Spring Offensive.

And somewhere, somehow, this little album has found it’s way from Canada back to England, passed down my family and  following the recent death of my own father John, who was named after his young cousin, is now one of my most treasured possessions.

 

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The Selfish Gene – has it become our Achilles Heel?

Human nature is hung in the balance, our behaviour driven by selfishness and our desire to co-operate to ensure the survival of the group” 

These are the words of E O Wilson during an interview on BBC Radio 4 The Life Scientific.  Professor at Harvard and joint author of a paper setting out the case for group selection he now challenges the ‘selfish gene’ theory he once endorsed.  Among his contemporaries he is something of a lone voice.  Since Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution we have believed in survival of the fittest and increasingly this now means of the wealthiest.  But do we hide behind this as an excuse for our self interest?

The interview reminded me of a recent conversation with a friend regarding the widening pay gap and we imagined a society where each job was valued -and remunerated – at the same level.  We concluded that this state of equilibrium would quickly dissipate as the desire to better ourselves and provide for our children’s future would override everything else.  We are conditioned to believe that it was this ‘get ahead of the game’ attitude which enabled our ancestors to survive.

However, there is another way to look at this.  The history of life shows that evolutionary transitions are from the singular to the plural.  For example – separate molecules into a gene, individual genes into a chromosome, individual cells into a muti-cellular organism and from multi-cellular organisms into a social group.  Our survival as a species has been built on collective strength, on co-operation not separation.  This puts natural selection at the level of the group rather than the level of the individual.  Social groups become communities; communities become nations which make up our world and it is this global group with which we must now engage.

Our challenge today is selfishness v generosity and we are struggling to get the balance right because as Wilson so eloquently puts it “humanity still has paleolithic emotions”.  There was an ancestral need to drive nature as hard as they could to survive but by continuing this pattern, far from serving our needs and ensuring our survival we are in imminent danger of achieving the opposite as pressure increases on our natural resources.  There is a powerful case to show that we have struck too hard a blow and we are threatening the world in which we live and on which we depend.

Polar Bears Endangered by Climate Change Drawing by Rebecca Pells

Polar Bears Endangered by Climate Change
Drawing by RebeccaPells

There is a growing tension between the individual and the needs of the wider community and despite our fondness for the selfish gene, evolution shows that in order to thrive the individual also needs the group.  This tension is unstable, we see it manifest in the growing dissatisfaction between the wealthy few and the rest of society; between self serving governments who renege on election promises and their electorate; between environmentalists and those who either deny or believe it’s not their problem. It is not a question of tipping the scales firmly one way or the other but of a middle way with movement back and forth – too much in favour of the individual and society would fragment; too far towards group social selection and we would become like ants or honey bees.

This mid-way is the creative core of humanity; it is the threshold where we meet our challenges, where we can have the honest discussion and where ultimately we will find our way forward.  It is where we can overcome age old instincts which no longer serve and have become a modern achilles heel, where we can choose altruism over selfishness and where we will rediscover in ourselves a more ancient and fundamental essence – that generosity of spirit over personal gain will ensure our children’s future.

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