Once upon a [war] time

The Imperial War Museum seemed an unlikely place to exhibit the work of a Quaker pacifist. Rowena Loverance went along to find out more.

Ian Serraillier | Photo: Courtesy the Imperial War Museum

At Yearly Meeting Gathering, Friends revisited the Peace Testimony, 350 years on, and asked themselves, ‘Do you stand up for Peace, use your voice, try to discern what action you can take?’ One Friend who used his very distinctive voice to stand up for peace is being celebrated, this year and next, in the unlikely surroundings of the Imperial War Museum.

Ian Serraillier wrote over thirty children’s books in the course of a long life: novels, poetry and retellings of myths. The Silver Sword, a story of four Polish children struggling to find their parents in war-torn Europe, was soon recognised as a classic. Published in 1956, it has remained in print and twice been adapted for television.

Together with four other well-loved children’s war stories, it is now the subject of an imaginative exhibition about the effects of war, and the creative process of writing.

Many exhibitions claim to be family-friendly, but this one genuinely is – one can crawl on hands and knees into a secret hideaway like the children in Robert Westall’s Machine Gunners or recall a wartime breakfast in Hepzibah Green’s kitchen from Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War. Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Bernard Ashley’s Little Soldier extend the historical references back to the first world war and forward to the post-colonial violence and urban gang warfare of our own day. The Balicki family’s journey from Poland to Switzerland is drawn out across three walls, with interactive questions. ‘I’ve got them all right’, announced one child proudly. ‘Well, yes, you’ve read the book,’ retorted her mother.

A shaft of sunshine from the window caught it and made the silver blade sparkle’
(The Silver Sword)

Twenty years ago, in an article for the Friend (May 1991), Jane Serraillier, one of Ian’s daughters, recounted how the magazine had played a vital part in her father’s research for The Silver Sword. In 1946 its pages carried vivid reports from Maude Brayshaw, Bernard Lawson, Roger Wilson and other Friends Relief Service workers about their experiences in Germany and Poland; these found their way into Serrallier’s plotbook, and, once the book was under way, he pressed these Friends for yet more authentic details for his story.

The exhibition fills in more details about the creative process. The silver sword itself, in reality a tiny paper knife, was a gift sent from Spain by Serraillier’s brother at just the moment that he was searching for a motif to link the various episodes in his story. In his notes, but not in the book itself, Serraillier makes an explicitly Quaker reference to the sword: ‘The head of the Friends Relief Service (FRS): “That little sword of theirs – did they show it to you? Seems to give them strength to fight with. A sort of symbol. Like our silences at the beginning of the day – gives them the power to meet what comes”.’

‘Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope. The moving waters renew the earth. It is spring.’
(Michael Tippett, A Child of Our Time, from the frontispiece of The Silver Sword)

Serraillier was a conscientious objector during the war and had not himself witnessed the travails of postwar Europe. But as an audioclip in the exhibition makes clear, he was nevertheless drawing heavily on his own experiences. Before the war, he had been on workcamps in Austria and had canoed on the Danube. The children escape by canoe in a key scene in the book, and the exhibition includes a delightful drawing of a canoe on the back of an envelope.

Serraillier resisted giving the book a moralising tone, and this must be a major key to its longevity. But the humanity that the children encounter on their journey, often in the most unexpected quarters, was clearly central to his purpose. ‘Of all my books, I would say that it’s much the closest to the way I myself think and feel.’

Front cover of The Silver Sword | Courtesy the Imperial War Museum

Rowena is arts editor for the Friend.

Once Upon A Wartime is at the Imperial War Museum, London, until 30 October and at the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, from 11 February to 2 September 2012. For more information see: http://wartime.iwm.org.uk/

To order copies of this and the other four books featured in the exhibition see pages 18-19.

Experiencing a conscientious objection tribunal in 1940

‘Horlicks and buns for lunch at Woolworths,’ Ian Serraillier noted in his diary on 5 November 1940, before taking the train from Dudley to Birmingham for his conscientious objection tribunal. He had been associated with Friends for three years and a member of the Peace Pledge Union for six. His letters of support assured the tribunal of the sincerity of his beliefs, his experience of working with unemployed people – and that as well as teaching English, he was also a valued school boxing coach! One letter was from Jack Hoyland, long-standing Quaker missionary in India and now Woodbrooke tutor. ‘“Hoyland” rouses murmur of approval from all tribunal,’ he commented. The hearing took two minutes: he was registered on condition that he continued to teach and help on workcamps, and that he undertook Air Raid Precautions work. ‘Feel mean for getting off so lightly’.

You need to login to read subscriber-only content and/or comment on articles.