Monday, October 20, 2008


Sam Smith

When 9/11 happened, one of the first people I thought of was Ann Jones. I was working out in my basement six blocks from the US Capitol, my wife was at her office five blocks from the White House and one of the captured planes was still on its way to Washington.

Ann was thousands of miles away, safely in London, but I still thought of her and asked myself: what would Ann do now?

Ann had been one of two English children who had come to live with our family in Washington during World War II. Ann returned to live with the family for five years after the war. She passed away in London today.

It hadn't been easy for a nine year old Ann to get to Georgetown in July of 1940. She wrote me 60 years later:
I set sail in the Duchess of Atholl in convoy. There was a slight skirmish with a submarine. I remember feeling the ship shudder as depth charges were dropped but we were unscathed and pressed on, though I remember seeing icebergs and wondering.

My mother told me we might well be sunk. If I was dragged underwater, not to struggle. I would come to the surface naturally, then not to strike out to England or America but float on my back, as I had learned at school, until I was picked up.

On August 30, 1940, the Volendam set off with a load of British children for America. It was sunk in the Irish sea. All were saved.

On September 17, the City of Benares sailed with many of the Volendam survivors. It sank in mid-Atlantic and most of the children perished.
No more British children were sent to America after that.

Ann was dry in wit, resolute in determination, stolid and unflappable in crisis. Decades later we were discussing a recently departed relative who had been on the periphery of the Bloomsbury Group. What had happened, I asked, to Lucy Norton's ashes? "Well, I suppose they were thrown out with the rubbish." Ann paused and then added, "I think Lucy would rather have liked that."

Ann managed to blend pleasure with realism, treating them not as opponents but as natural colleagues of life, and helped this young boy learn how to face the bad times.

The man she would marry was quite a bit older and had been a new doctor during the London blitz, during which over 20,000 people died in seven months and a million of the city's homes were destroyed or damaged. Each day the doctors were given colored tags to attach to the feet of air raid victims. Each tag represented one bed and each color one hospital in London. When the tags were gone so were the beds.

I told this story in a talk I gave some years ago and added the following, which unconsciously incorporated some of what I had learned from Ann:
To view our times as decadent and dangerous, to mistrust the government, to imagine that those in power are not concerned with our best interests is not paranoid but perceptive; to be depressed, angry or confused about such things is not delusional but a sign of consciousness. Yet our culture suggests otherwise.

But if all this is true, then why not despair? The simple answer is this: despair is the suicide of imagination. Whatever reality presses upon us, there still remains the possibility of imagining something better, and in this dream remains the frontier of our humanity and its possibilities. To despair is to voluntarily close a door that has not yet shut. The task is to bear knowledge without it destroying ourselves, to challenge the wrong without ending up on its casualty list. "You don't have to change the world," the writer Colman McCarthy has argued. "Just keep the world from changing you."

Oddly, those who instinctively understand this best are often those who seem to have the least reason to do so, who somehow discover not so much how to beat the odds, but how to wriggle around them.