Wednesday, 20 May 2015
The open road that may close wounds
One of the main characters in Tying Down The Lion is Roy Bishop, the driver of a battered Morris Traveller entrusted to transport his family from England to Berlin. While he invests his faith in his beloved car, his wife and children must put theirs in him - their 'King of the Road'.
But for Roy, this is more than a trip, more than simple driving for pleasure. The car must survive because the open road ahead represents his longing to escape the devastating psychological effects of World War II. The war may have ended over twenty years earlier, but he still suffers from what was eventually to become known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and had previously been recorded as 'shell shock' in WWI and 'battle fatigue' in WWII.
These days there is greater and growing sensitivity towards unseen wounds, an ability to acknowledge that stressful events can cut deep inside and more encouragement to seek professional help. However, that does not mean it is easy to find solace. Before asking for support, the sufferer has to acknowledge the impact of their ordeal and express their torment when such recognition can itself force open the emotional scars and cause deeper pain.
For a man like Roy, who returned from a war which hailed its men as heroes, rather than casualties, it is especially difficult to expose the concealed damage. Although by the time of WWII, military psychiatrists had arrived at the conclusion that any soldier could reach their breaking-point, many men saw their failure to cope as a weakness.
Roy is a husband and father in the sixties, an ex-soldier who served his country during the worst conflict in history. He believes that he is not expected - indeed, not permitted - to show emotion. He has a different role to play now. He must look after his family without caving in, despite the horror of the past shadowing him with dogged persistence. When sometimes it becomes unavoidable that his wife and children witness the signs of his agony, the harrowing scenes are not discussed afterwards. No help is sought.
This was a time when the revelation of feelings was often considered unmanly. A masculine image was important. My own father, who suffered horrific dreams after the war, refused to push a pram or carry a bunch of flowers. Although he felt proud of his children and lovingly tended the beautiful blooms in his garden, he could not bear to have his pride or his tender side revealed in public. In many families, everyone - both male and female - was discouraged from outbursts of inner feelings, even within the privacy of the home. It was termed 'getting in a state' or 'being emotional' and considered a demeaning and embarrassing lapse of strength.
Therefore, even during the relative peace of England during the years of the Cold War, Roy must battle on, the conflicts inside him lingering long after physical battle has reached a conclusion. Ever hopeful, he devises his own 'cure' - the road ahead. This way, there is no looking into the horror of the past, no peeling back the 'soft' side of himself, no revelation of the terrible hurt that has to stay with him forever. His family must not lose their unshakeable belief that he will reach his destination. Only his mother is less sure that he will bring them to Berlin in one piece - not only because of her uncertainty about his driving prowess and the delicate condition of his car, but also perhaps because she senses his fragility inside.
If Roy could choose a mantra from more enlightened times, this quote from author M.B. Dallocchio might be appropriate for him: "The open road. Seemingly my only friend for years upon end since leaving war. The road embraced me, let me breathe, and more importantly, did not judge me."