Where does change come from? by Marcus Sedgwick
Put your hand up if you think women should not be allowed to vote, I said.
No one put their hand up. I tried again, with a different question.
Put your hand up if you think women should not be allowed to work as doctors.
Still, no one put their hand up. I offered one more invitation.
Okay. Put your hand up if you think black people should not have the same rights as white people.
I looked at the five hundred or so teenagers in front of me, sitting in a large school hall, a short way west of London. Again, none of them put their hand in the air. Not one of the students, who’d been assembled from a varied bunch of local schools; not one of the accompanying teaching staff. In fact, they looked at me a little strangely; I thought I could see it written on several faces: ‘who does he think we are? who’d put their hand up to say “yes” to those questions?’
As you’ll have guessed, I wasn’t actually expecting anyone to put their hand up to any of those provocative questions. I was simply trying to make a point; an obvious one maybe but one that’s all too often overlooked. I had been asked to talk to the students, who were all about 14 or 15, on a subject that has always been at the edges, something little discussed except during extreme times, a rather ‘unsexy’ topic in fact: conscientious objection.
The school in question was, nominally, a Quaker school, and a rather excellent librarian had invited me to speak about a book I wrote years ago (and now long out of print) about a group of British men during the First World War who had refused to fight. While many men objected on grounds of their conscience or religion to fight in the war, most accepted alternative roles, such as agricultural or medical work. A stubborn handful refused to do anything to further the war effort. One such group of 34 men, known as the Absolutists, were subsequently subjected to a round of brutal psychological and physical tortures. Finally they were sent to France, where, military law being in force, they had the death sentence passed against them. (Although it was immediately commuted to penal servitude, many ended up dying of starvation or disease in a labour camp.) That book was called, with irony, Cowards; the book I’m here to plug today, which I have written with my brother Julian, and which is illustrated by Alexis Deacon, is Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black. It has a number of themes: the Orpheus legend of Ancient Greece; the dangers of futuristic, dehumanized, mechanized warfare; and the strained love between two brothers, one of whom has refused to fight in the Second World War.
Both of these books were personal stories; both my father and my mother’s father were conscientious objectors in World War Two, a thing that, while hard, had become a right enshrined in law due to the actions of the stubborn 34 who’d seen it through to the bitter end a generation before.
That was the point of the questions, and others like them, above. For each of those issues: women’s suffrage, gender equality in general, black rights, Indian independence from British Rule, what is now the commonly accepted view started out as not just minority opinions, but as extreme ones, ones often derided as the ravings of crackpots and radicals. Crackpots, no. Radicals? Yes, possibly, for sometimes there are moments in history when it takes a lone figure, or a small band of people, to stand up and put their beliefs on the line, and in other’s faces. No one in that school hall, or, I trust, reading the Nerdy Book Club, would think that black people shouldn’t have the rights that whites do, but this overwhelming majority opinion is not only not very old, it was brought into being by the actions, initially, of a small group of people. Without those ‘stubborn’ extremists; the Rosa Parks and the MLKs, the Gandhis, the Emmeline Pankhursts and Elizabeth Garrett Andersons, where would we be? Sometimes, even a book can start the tide of change; think Harriet Beecher Stowe and slavery in the US, think Anna Sewell and animal rights in the UK.
We seem to be in such times again; and we are already seeing more moments of protest in the rich West than we have seen in years. The battlegrounds might be different; things like climate collapse and gun control, but we should not be surprised to see that it is often young people leading the way – for example, Greta Thunberg in the former case, the Parkland students in the latter. We should not be surprised because it is usually the young who have not yet lost their idealism; nor their mystification at the frequent stupidity of the adult world, a world that has got its priorities badly wrong. As writers, librarians, publishers and booksellers of books for young people, we can help maintain that idealism, we can remind them that all change comes from the unorthodox position, and that progress never comes from the status quo, but from the heartfelt opinions of people who believe in more. Do a majority still believe that it’s right to use deadly force in warfare? Yes, I’m sadly sure they do, but it would be well to remember that old pacifist slogan of the ‘conchies’ of World War One: ‘wars will end when men refuse to fight.’
Marcus Sedgwick is a writer and illustrator. He is the author of many books, including She Is Not Invisible, Revolver, and Midwinterblood, which won the Michael L. Printz Award. He is the coauthor, with his brother, Julian Sedgwick, of the graphic novel Dark Satanic Mills, illustrated by John Higgins and Marc Olivent. He lives in England.