Invictus

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I am sure that everyone who witnessed this year’s Invictus Games, which took place in Toronto in September, will have marvelled at the courage, skill and steely determination of the competitors in all their different fields. Since the Games were launched in 2014, Prince Harry’s brilliant concept of creating a multi-sport event for injured Armed Services personnel to demonstrate, in the Prince’s own words, “the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and demonstrate life beyond disability”, has really captured the public’s imagination.

I expect that many of those who took part in the Games will be joining fellow veterans on Sunday for the annual Remembrance Day parade at the Cenotaph in Whitehall and at similar gatherings in towns and cities across the United Kingdom. It is always a powerful and poignant occasion, made more so by the reflective two minutes’ silence, and one that remains as important as the very first Armistice Day commemorations that took place on 11th November 1919 following the end of the First World War.

While watching coverage of the Games on television, I heard one observer ask “Why Invictus? What does that mean?” The word translates from Latin as “unconquered” or “undefeated” so is a very apt name for a competition between such tenacious, never-say-die individuals. It reminded me of a poem entitled “Invictus” that I learnt at school:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

The writer of the verse, William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), was an interesting, larger-than-life character. Born in Gloucester, the son of a bookseller, he suffered his own disability when, following a bout of tuberculosis of the bone during childhood, his left leg had to be amputated below the knee. After early struggles to establish himself as a journalist and critic, he became editor of the National Observer and a friend of several leading literary figures of the day. It was Henley’s “maimed strength and masterfulness” that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to create Long John Silver, while his little daughter Margaret, calling J. M. Barrie her “fwendy-wendy”, led to the use of “Wendy” as a name in Peter Pan.

It was another writer who had strong associations with Gloucestershire, Wilfrid Gibson (1878-1962), a founder of the so-called Dymock Poets, who wrote a piece of verse that I always try to re-read on or around Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday. As a touching reflection on the thoughts of those who are fortunate enough to survive armed conflict, it has never been bettered:

We who are left, how shall we look again
Happily on the sun or feel the rain
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly and spent
Their lives for us loved, too, the sun and rain?

A bird among the rain-wet lilac sings—
But we, how shall we turn to little things
And listen to the birds and winds and streams
Made holy by their dreams,
Nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things?

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