Proof of identity

Identity and its documentation – the story of my search for Swedish citizenship and my passport’s peregrinations

In the weeks after the British referendum on 23rd June, verbal and physical attacks on European Union citizens living and working in Britain were coupled to the question of what would happen to British citizens living in the EU. There was a nasty feeling that my fate was suddenly being played around with by people over whom I have no control and for whom I have no respect.

It was time, finally, to get my finger out and apply for Swedish citizenship.

Submitting the application

Identity: Norrköping

One of the requirements for seeking Swedish citizenship is to submit the identity documents that you have from your home country in the original. To be sure they stay safe and reach their destination, this means using registered post. Not a problem, though the authority – Migrationsverket, the Swedish Migration Agency, based in Norrköping – took their time acknowledging receipt. Eventually, however, I got a letter from them to say they’d received my application and my British passport.

The Migration Agency also pointed me to their website. After I’d set up an account and identified myself electronically, I got access to “my Migration Agency web page”. There they promised I would be able to follow the course of my application. The first time I logged in it was a small thrill to see that my application was being processed.

Just a formality?

It wasn’t until after I had sent off my passport that I actually realised how long the processing time would be. In my naivety I had assumed that – for me – applying for Swedish citizenship would be pretty much a formality. After all, I’ve lived in Sweden for close on 30 years. I’ve had permanent residence for the last 20. Why would it take them much time to decide favourably?

The mills of bureaucracy grind exceeding fine, exceeding slow. Also, to be fair, the Migration Agency is under considerable pressure coping with staff shortages, the influx of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, and threats against their buildings and personnel. Not to mention Brexit, which has seen the numbers of British people applying for Swedish citizenship rise steeply.

No one jumps the queue

When I was on the Migration Agency’s website to download the application forms, I saw that the expected time for processing a citizenship application was four months. That seemed a lot and I rather thought that it would only take them about a month to deal with me. So, after a month I phoned them. They were very clear – no one jumps the queue and everyone is processed in due order.
So there we were – my passport in Norrköping for the next few months and me in Gothenburg or Brussels.

Identity: Gothenburg to Norrköping (from a train window)
Identity: Gothenburg to Norrköping (from a train window)

That didn’t seem to be a problem. I’ve noticed how easy it is to travel between Belgium and Sweden without showing your passport. This is because both countries are members of the Schengen area within the European Union. In fact I have more than once travelled back and forth between the two without showing any sort of identity document.

Not a valid travel document

At the end of July, Mrs SC and I travelled to Denmark. Crossing from Helsingborg in Sweden to Helsingør in Denmark was easy. The reverse journey was less so.

Because of the influx of refugees and migrants finding their way to Sweden (which – to be fair – had initially opened its borders to people fleeing the civil war in Syria), special immigration procedures had been imposed at Helsingborg.

The border police didn’t like my Swedish identity card. My card was issued by the tax authorities, not by the police. It doesn’t include my nationality, so it’s not a valid Schengen travel document.

My Schengen identity

The chap who stopped me was very reasonable, and after checking me in his database, he accepted that I was probably not an illegal migrant or a potential terrorist (the beard not withstanding). But he warned me that I would need to carry a valid Schengen identity card in the future.

Of course, as soon as we got home there was a mad scramble to find our Belgian identity cards (which we’d brought with us but tucked away somewhere safe) just to check. And a collective sigh of relief when we confirmed what we really knew all along: that our Belgian ID cards are indeed fully fledged national identity cards.

Murphy’s Law

Identity: Norrköping waterfall
Norrköping waterfall

About a month later I flew back from Gothenburg to Brussels. I won’t say that I was completely relaxed, but I wasn’t very nervous. After all, I had my Belgian identity card; I was flying within Schengen. Everything ought to go smoothly. Still, I was also conscious Murphy’s Law is always hanging like the sword of Damocles over one’s head.

And of course it dropped.

It may have been because somebody on board the aeroplane was taken ill and needed medical attention, but in Brussels the plane taxied to a different arrivals gate than usual. Leaving the plane and coming to passport control I flashed my Belgian identity card. The inspector looked at me like I was trying to pull a fast one.

Where is your passport?

An international arrival

I explained that I didn’t need it because I was flying within Schengen.

But this is the international arrivals gate, came the reply. You must have come from outside the EU.

No! Gothenburg– My plane flew– I came directly from– I’ve not been outside the EU!

The inspector listened stoically to my protests. He’d heard it all before.

Please! Just check!

With a look of great suspicion he made a couple of telephone calls. Finally he confirmed that indeed my plane had flown directly from Gothenburg even though it had disembarked all its passengers at the international exit.

Very reluctantly, he let me through with the caution that I should always carry my passport with me. This seems to undermine the point of Schengen, but deep down I’m actually in full agreement.

No passport, no Britain

Identity: Norrköping to Gothenburg from a train window
Norrköping to Gothenburg (from a train window)

Once I was in Belgium all went well and I didn’t need to use my identity card again until October.

Being without my British passport, though, upset one plan. I’d intended to visit my mother in September, but I had to cancel. You see, although I can (ought to be able to) travel between Sweden and Belgium with my Schengen identity card – or visit France or German, Portugal or Poland – I can’t visit the United Kingdom.

The UK is outside Schengen, so to travel to the UK from the continent I would have to have my British passport. Or a Swedish passport would do. Without either I had to postpone my trip.

Well, I thought, four months. I’ll get the passport back by the end of November.

Check your application…

That was when I went online to “my Migration Agency web page” and discovered that absolutely nothing new had happened. In fact, the page as far as I can see has exactly two settings. In one it says: “Your application has arrived and is being processed.” In the other (and I’ve not seen this one, so I’m guessing) it says either: “Your application has been accepted, Välkommen!” Or it says: “Your application has been rejected, !”

There is no indication of how long the processing is going to take. Nor is there any indication, if there are stages in the process, which stage your application is at. There is only: “Your application is being processed” (so sit on your hands and wait). I sat on my hands and waited, but I did look and check and it seemed as though they no longer needed my passport. It was possible to ask them to send it back.

But… where would they send it?

PostNord lies

The problem is the Migration Agency can only send the passport back to my address in Sweden. Since we’re temporarily in Brussels, we have a forwarding agreement with PostNord, the Swedish postal service. But would they be prepared to forward a registered letter?

So I phoned PostNord and asked them.

Yes, they assured me. No problem. Of course we will send registered mail on to you in Belgium.

Using a form on the Migration Agency’s website I wrote and asked for my passport back. And I heard nothing more.

Other things on my mind

Now, I spent much of October and November enjoying my hernia and carcinoma (see my earlier post) so I had a couple of other things on my mind. Eventually, though, I decided I had to find out what had happened to my passport. On “my Migration Agency web page” there was still no new information, so I phoned them.

Identity: Head in Norrköping
A head in Norrköping

Oh yes, they said, clearly consulting a database of information that they didn’t want to share with me. We have a record that we sent your passport off as soon as we received your request.

You did! But I haven’t received it! It’s lost! It’s stolen!

No, they said, it was returned to us. Undeliverable.

So much for PostNord’s promises.

We don’t do that

But why, I wailed, why not let me know? You have my e-mail address. Or if you didn’t want to write, you could have posted something on “my Migration Agency web page”.

Oh, we don’t do that, they said.

Once we’d established that my passport was safe at the Migration Agency, though, I felt relieved. That was when I asked if I could expect to hear from them about my application soon – it being nearly four months since I’d sent in my application.

Dear me no! Four months? Where did you get that idea? It could take up to a year to process your citizenship application. Although (looking through that secret database) there’s no obvious reason why you shouldn’t get it.

(I count to ten.)

Back to the question: how to get back my passport?

In person or by proxy

The Migration Agency could send me the passport as registered post but only to my Swedish address. But as we’ve established, PostNord won’t forward it to Belgium.

My only other options are either to collect it in person or identify a proxy in Sweden to receive it. But identifying a proxy sounded far too complicated. As I knew I’d be coming back to Sweden for Christmas early in December, Mrs SC and I decided to travel to Norrköping and fetch the passport ourselves.

I get my passport back!

This is what we did, and we did it yesterday, on Tuesday 20th December. To cut a long (12 hour long) story short, we got to the Migration Agency just after midday and after about three-quarters-of-an-hour in the queue I received the passport, signed for it and took it away. It was a great relief. We celebrated with a photograph outside.

The next problem down the line will be when (if) they give me my Swedish citizenship. They will send that document also to me as a registered letter to my address in Sweden… but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Meanwhile, “my Migration Agency web page” still says my application is being processed. Not quite so much of a thrill, looking at that now.

Identity: With my passport at Migrationsverket
With my passport at Migrationsverket

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Remembrance Day 2016, Brussels

Remembrance Day 2016 as commemorated in Brussels and a meditation (or a rant) on the meaning of the day, plus an apology for the recent break in service.

It’s five weeks since I last posted here, and this post is itself a good week late. I apologise for this, but I’ve been taking an unplanned break from blogging. I’m recovering from an operation (and visiting with Mr Despond and Anxty his dog). I’m hoping to return Stops and Stories to regular service now. We’ll see.

Remembrance Day: Rue Royal just before 11am on 11 Nov 2016This week, some photos from November 11th.  Remembrance Day is observed here in Belgium for good historical reasons, though perhaps with less hysteria than in the UK. Although the day is a national holiday, the crowds turning out to observe the ceremony were conspicuous by their absence.

Remembrance Day: Scouts and CadetsThe whole of the road from the Royal Palace to the Congress Column (where the ceremony took place) was blocked off and empty. Beyond, way off down the road, you could see the dome of the Royal Church of St Mary. It was as if the authorities expected huge crowds, but there was only a small gathering. If you discount the soldiers, the troops of scouts and cadets and what appeared to be an invited audience of schoolchildren, there were perhaps 200 or so of us.

Remembrance Day: Ceremony of silenceIt doesn’t matter. It was a raw, cold day and, honestly, I think it’s understandable that most people chose to stay away and get on with their lives. I wouldn’t want the commemoration of the end of the First World War to be forgotten. At the same time the ostentatious militarism and emotionalism that the British indulge in annually on November 11th I find more than a bit distasteful.

Remembrance Day: LancersThe war was a terrible event, it claimed millions of lives. If we can remember it in the spirit of “never again” then that seems good to me. But what goes on in Britain nowadays doesn’t fall into that category. The bullying that ensures every public figure wears an artificial poppy for weeks before and after the event. The pomp and ritual of the Remembrance itself, the massed bands and uniforms, speeches and cannonades. As the last of the veteran survivors pass away, the event is extended and extended. “Our glorious dead” from World War Two, from Korea, the Falklands, the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan…

Remembrance Day: The trumpeters and their horsesIt all gives the lie to that line about “the war to end all wars”. We – and by “we” I mean the Brits – we don’t seem any longer really to be commemorating the conned and the killed from the world’s deadliest cock-up. (And of course it’s since been surpassed by other, similar events.) Nor do we seem any longer to be empathising with the lost generation or sympathising with the survivors. Instead we seem to be celebrating the on-rolling juggernaut of war. Worshipping the god to whom we’ve sacrificed a quota of every generation – not only of our people but also of theirs. Them, the many enemies of our imperial splendour.

Remembrance Day: TrumpetersWell. Pardon my rant. This Remembrance Day in Brussels had its pomp and uniforms – and a King as a figurehead – but it didn’t seem nearly so triumphalist or popular as Anglophone Remembrance Days I’m used to.

The lancers and trumpeters included women soldiers talking to their bored horses. There was a posse of street cleaners with shovels and wheelbarrows cleaning up after the horses while the ceremony was underway. The King was followed about comically by a fussy group of TV journalists with cameras on their shoulders and boom microphones in socks.

There was a three minutes silence.

Then king got in his limo to cheers of “Vive le Roi!” (I’m not kidding.) And the rest of us broke up made our several ways home.

Castelo de Sao Jorge

The Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon – visited by tourists for at least 970 years, and by Mrs SC and me last week

Old Lisbon street in AlfamaIt’s a long, steep climb up from the river, through the narrow winding streets – some of them stairs – of the Alfama. Up, up to the highest battlements of the Castelo de Sao Jorge – Lisbon’s Castle of St George. You need to stop at times on the way. Stand in the shade of a wall. Sit for a glass of fresh pressed orange juice or a cup of coffee. Feel the heat and the history radiating from the walls and the streets’ mosaic paving.

You can see why these heights were attractive: easy to defend, hard to take. They command the mouth of the River Tagus – the Tejo – and the harbour below; the routes out to the Atlantic in one direction, inland to Iberia in the other.

Battlements of Castelo de Sao Jorge and view over LisbonThe castle was built by Portugal’s Moorish rulers in the 700s, though the archaeology confirms previous fortifications from Roman, Carthaginian and pre-historic times. From the 700s to the 1100s the castle grew, and the city it protected. By 1147 it was, if not impregnable, certainly a tough challenge. At that point the Reconquista – the Christian re-conquest of Islamic Iberia – had been underway for a good 300 years. The current local leader was Dom Alfonso, Count of Portugal. The Count’s army wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t up to the challenge of Lisbon’s fortifications.

Fortune brought him reinforcements.

Part of Castelo de Sao Jorge held together with staplesThe Second Crusade was underway. The Pope in Rome had given the Catalans, Castilians, and Portuguese dispensation to fight their own fight at home. He summoned everyone else to spill blood in the Holy Land. An armada of ships from around the English Channel and the North Sea collected and sailed from Dartmouth in England. Figures differ, but there may have been upward of 160 ships. They ran into bad weather and put into Oporto where Dom Alfonso seized the day.

He persuaded this motley gang of bruisers – sorry, army of noble knights – to stay and besiege Lisbon. In keeping with their Christian faith, they drove a hard bargain. Dom Alfonso had to agree to let them hold the city after they had captured it. Just for a period. Just until they had taken everything of value they found and all the ransom they could squeeze from their prisoners. Don Alfonso also promised them feudal estates in the territories they captured if they chose to stay. They wouldn’t have to pay taxes either.

Lisbon from Castelo de Sao JorgeThe siege began on 1st July 1147 and ended on 25th October. The castle was starved into submission, though later Portuguese mythology gave the credit to a Portuguese knight, Martim Moniz. The story is that Moniz saw the Moors had left a door open (because after a four-month siege the defenders would of course open a door). He forced himself into the doorway, sacrificing his own life to stop the Moors closing it. His heroism allowed time for his comrades in arms to reach him and break through door to capture the castle.

In fact the defenders negotiated a surrender which would allow them to leave the castle with their lives and goods intact. Once in possession the Crusaders reneged on this agreement.

Arches in the Cathedral CloisterAfterwards, while some Crusaders sailed on to Palestine and the otherwise unmitigated disaster of the Second Crusade, others stayed. One English knight – Gilbert of Hastings – became the Bishop of Lisbon. No doubt his holy work during the siege had qualified him for the job.

Gilbert’s Cathedral – Sé de Lisboa – was constructed on part of the ruins of the city after the siege. An archaeological excavation under the Cathedral’s cloister reveals Moorish, Roman and earlier remains, and the site is open to the public. Mrs SC and I stopped there on our climb to the castle and looked into the depths of history. A blackbird was singing in the excavation and then it flew down and under the arch of a Roman sewer where, presumably, it had a nest.

Mrs SC reviews the archaeology in the Cathedral CloisterUp on the battlements, when we finally reach them, the limestone of the walls is weathering. I can see fossilised mussel shells and the imprint of clams created millennia ago. Along one of the castle’s lower, broader shoulders pines in the hot sun scent the air. Hollow and decayed trunks of olive trees, looking old enough to remember the siege, yet sprout twigs with small bunches of grey-green leaves. There’s life in the old wood yet.

View over Lisbon and the Tagus from Castel de Sao Jorge
View over Lisbon and the Tagus from Castel de Sao Jorge looking west

A few words of extra information. My rather sententious account of the Crusaders capturing Lisbon depends to some extent on Wikipedia, to some extent on accounts available at Castelo de Sao Jorge and to some extent on the eye-witness account by Osbernus De expugnatione Lyxbonensi (The Capture of Lisbon) at the Medieval Sourcebook. I should probably add that by 1147 Dom Alfonso was recognisd by his own people as King of Portugal, but not by any other state or ruler. It wasn’t till 1179 that he managed to finesse his achievements in the Reconquista into Papal recognition as the first King of Portugal.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The coin toss

This week The UK is going to be making a coin toss on its future. The whole business strikes me as pointless, painful and more than a little surreal.

This week’s entry was going to be about Belgian surrealism and the artist René Ceci n’est pas une pipe Magritte. But I find myself choosing to hold that over because something that seems equally surreal is going on in Britain. You may have heard about Brexit?

Imagine a bright summer sky over a dark and sinister night-time forest, a forest lit only by the light of an incongruous streetlamp. Winds whip the branches about and the first drops of rain are splashing heavily on the dusty road. A querulous party of mismatched travellers are pushing forward, arguing loudly. Greece has been stealing money from Germany, though Greece says it was only taking what it was owed. Romania and Bulgaria have been going around begging from the others. Italy, Sweden and Hungary are complaining about having to carry Syria, Iraq and Eritrea on their backs. France blames Belgium for not being sufficiently security conscious and Belgium is in two minds about that. Several of the travellers are beginning to wonder if maybe they took a wrong turning back at Lisbon.

Suddenly one of the party, Britain, stops walking and cries out, “There’s a fork in the road!”

A chorus of “What? Where? Can’t see it. That’s not a fork.” (In various languages.)

not a forkBritain is adamant. Britain can see a fork. And a choice. Either carry on with the party or set out alone down this unexplored path that appears to lead – dubiously but invitingly – away from the main road.

By now everyone is pretty used to Britain digging in heels and holding them back. The British never want to do things together, or if they do, they want to be in charge. On the other hand Britain is one of the senior members of the group and seen by some as an important ally – someone worth having on your side when challenging the rest. So though there’s a lot of groaning and muttering, still the whole party stops and waits while Britain makes a coin toss. Heads or tails?

If this were one of Magritte’s paintings, the trees of the forest would be giant bowling pins or candlesticks, Britain would be striking out with a cricket bat and there might be a leatherback turtle floating ominously in the sky.

EU turtleOn Thursday, 23rd June – in two days as I write this – a lot of people in Great Britain will go to the polls. They are going to vote in a referendum to decide whether or not Britain should remain a member of the European Union.

The referendum offers a choice between Leave and Remain.

Early on there was a debate about language, about the inherent bias in more simple terms such as Yes and No. Put simply, to say Yes is to be positive, to say No, negative. Britain – well, Scotland – recently went through the trauma of a referendum on Scottish independence. The question was “Should Scotland be an independent country?” and the Yes side was supposed to have had an advantage (even though they lost).

Consequently, this time around, both sides of the Brexit debate wanted to be Yes. (“Yes, I want to stay in the EU” or “Yes I want to leave the EU”.) The choice of Remain or Leave avoids this problem.

coin tossActually, Stay or Go would also have worked. To my pleasure, BBC Radio 4 has been prefacing one of their recurring segments on the referendum with a snatch of The Clash singing “Should I stay or should I go?” (Punk rock! On Radio 4!! Another surreal moment. Things have changed since my young day… etc, etc.)

There have been one or two brighter moments like that. However, news out of Britain for the last few weeks has been dominated by a slanging match. The argument going on between the two sides. And by its consequences. In my little parable Belgium is in two minds (one French, the other Dutch), but Britain… Britain is suffering from multiple personality disorder. And it’s not pretty.

Many Brits are neither bigoted nor fearful, and many have other things on their minds than the referendum. At the same time there are clearly very many who are frightened about the future and frustrated, even angry, about the life they live nowadays. This is not the fault of the EU, or not principally the fault of the EU. It is the fault directly and indirectly of successive governments at Westminster. But Brussels has been the scapegoat for British politicians for most of the last 40 years so it’s no wonder the Leave campaign reach so easily for it now. And no wonder the Remain campaign is so lukewarm in their enthusiasm for the EU.

There may be good arguments on both sides, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to the daily drip-feed of claim and counter claim, lies and innuendo in the British media. The one side plays on people’s fears with stories of the horrors of EU membership and incredible tales of the joys of a Britain free and independent. The other side counters with stories that say, in effect, You think things are bad now? Just wait till you see how bad things will get when Britain’s on the outside and all on its own.

Not quite cricketFor many British people all this fear mongering seems to have boiled the issue down to one question. Immigration. The foreigner in our midst. Coming here to sponge off our social welfare, live off our taxes, steal our jobs. It’s the same racist story we remember from years back, from the last millennium. Haven’t we learned anything? Apparently not.

There is no logic in these arguments, nothing is real – until someone, responding to the cant and idle hatred stoked by the campaigns, picks up a knife and a gun and kills for it.

And when it’s all over, whatever the outcome, Leave or Remain, heads or tails, none of the fears, none of the animosity, none of the lies from both sides, none of it is just going to fade away.

If Remain wins there will be no easy path forward in unity and harmony. I cannot believe that the rancour in Britain that the referendum campaign has stirred up – especially within the Conservative Party – will be easily forgotten.

There will be no clean break either for Leave. The divorce will take months. Someone is going to have to painstakingly unpick Britain’s forty years of integration into the EU. In that time the climate of fear, frustration and disunity cultivated over the past few weeks will fester as “nothing seems to happen”. I don’t know what that will lead to, but further violence doesn’t seem impossible.

How sad it all is.

Better to contemplate the art of René Magritte perhaps… which we shall be doing next week.

The coin toss (apologies to Rene Magritte)

The illustrations come from various sources, manipulated with Gimp software. Acknowledgements and apologies to René Magritte whose The Secret Player and The Dominion of Light I’ve pastiched.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Edith Cavell in Brussels

History is all around you in Brussels, still I was surprised one day to find myself walking along Rue Edith Cavell… and then I remembered.

Saint Joan and Edith Cavell

When I was at school, in the sixth form, I took part in a play. It was a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. The play is a dramatization of the trial of Joan of Arc. In Bernard Shaw’s play she is neither saint nor sinner, but “a great middle-class reformer.” (To quote TS Eliot, who disliked what Shaw had done with her).

The play was one of our prescribed texts for the final A-level examination in English. In the performance I played Peter Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais (the second best part after Joan herself). It was a great experience and I still remember a couple of incidents associated with the production, but the one thing that has stayed with me from the printed text wasn’t actually in the play, but in Shaw’s Preface.

Edith Cavell Memorial, LondonBernard Shaw was more than a playwright, he was a thinker and an activist. He used his plays as campaign tools. He wrote the play and Preface to Saint Joan while involved in campaigning, in support of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland, to get the wording changed on a monument.

The monument in question was the memorial to Edith Cavell.

The Cavell memorial

The memorial, planned during the First World War, was unveiled in 1920 in London. It’s still there. It is at the beginning of Charing Cross Road when you turn up from Trafalgar Square, between the National Gallery and the Church of St Martins in the Fields. Standing in front of a stone monolith, sculpted in a Modernist style, is the larger than life figure of a woman in the uniform of a nurse. This is Edith Cavell. She’s standing on a plinth on which is engraved:

October 12

– the place and date of her execution by a German firing squad.

The monolith behind her, above her head, is inscribed Humanity. Above that is the conventional contemporary statement: For King and Country. On the back is a symbolic representation of a lion (Britain) crushing a serpent (Germany).

What the National Council of Women and Shaw were protesting was the way in which Edith Cavell had been hijacked. Hijacked by the establishment (King and Country) and used as propaganda to support the war effort. Used also to portray Germans as, well, serpents.

Who was Edith Cavell?

Edith Cavell PortraitEdith Cavell was an Englishwoman in occupied Belgium. As a nurse – in fact the matron of a school training nurses – she followed her calling. She made sure her hospital cared for anyone who came through the doors. At the beginning of the war, that meant local civilians and Belgian and German wounded. Later she cared for wounded soldiers of the Allied armies who found themselves caught behind German lines. She was also involved in the early stages of a network of Belgian resistance that found the men behind the lines of the Western Front, helped them east to Brussels and then, once they were recovered, smuggled them on to the relative safety of the neutral Netherlands.

The network, and her involvement with it, appears to have been a consequence of a domino effect of chance events. Agreeing to take care of one soldier led on to a second. Two soldiers led to ten, to fifteen, to twenty. Once these men were sufficiently recovered she was keen to see them move on and release their places for the next batch coming in. Some sort of system had to be developed for getting them through German occupied Belgium and across the frontier. The network was never centrally organised or carefully designed, growing organically. But once it came to the notice of the occupying power, they set out to expose it, roll it up and arrest everyone involved. In the end around 70 people went on trial. Edith Cavell, as the only Englishwoman involved, was painted by the authorities as the head and inspiration of the group.

Patriotism is not enough

At her trial she never denied helping “enemy soldiers” to escape capture, though she did say it was entirely the soldiers’ choice, once they had escaped, whether they chose to return to the front and fight on. But this – and spying – was what she was found guilty of. Under German law she was sentenced to death for treason and shot. To the Anglican chaplain of Brussels who administered her last Communion, she justified herself saying: Patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.

These were the words Shaw and the National Council of Women wanted added to her monument. In 1924, the year after Saint Joan was first staged and the same year the play and its Preface were published, King and Country bowed to public pressure. The quote was added to the plinth beneath the date of her execution. (Although there was much loud protest in the media of the time. The National Council of Women and Bernard Shaw were branded as unpatriotic.)

History all around

Cavell tram stopHistory is all around you in Brussels. The city has a history that stretches back at least a couple of thousand years. But much of the ancient history is hidden behind more recent events. In particular, perhaps, the World Wars. There’s a whole district where streets are named for 1914-1918 battles – Paschendale and Ypres, Yser and Dixmude. And houses too. Just around the corner from where I live is Residence Joffre. This place isn’t named for the evil King of Game of Thrones, but for Joseph Joffre, first commander of the French army on the Western Front.

Still, I was surprised after we moved here to find myself one day getting off a tram at Cavell, walking along Rue Edith Cavell and looking up to see the edifice of the hospital – Clinique Edith Cavell… and then I remembered.

In Edith Cavell’s footsteps

Clinique Edith CavellWe are going through a great many centenaries at present, and of course Edith Cavell’s was in October last year. At Brussels’ English bookshop (Waterstones) it was easy to get a copy of Diana Souhami’s biography, the most recent scholarly account of Cavell’s life. (Souhami’s book informs much of this article.) Reading it I was fascinated to discover how much I must have been walking around Brussels in Edith Cavell’s footsteps.

The four town houses knocked together that formed the original training school for nurses on Rue de la Culture are gone. They’ve been replaced by four matching houses built, I guess, in the thirties. The road is now Rue Franz Merjay, but it’s still is less than ten minutes stroll from the hospital on Rue Bruxelles. The hospital that was almost ready for her nurses to move into in the autumn of 1915. Rue Bruxelles is now Rue Edith Cavell and the hospital that bears her name is the same hospital, presumably much expanded.

Tir National - National firing rangeUp the road, on one of my morning promenades, is the Saint-Gilles prison where Edith Cavell spent the last ten weeks of her life, the last two in solitary confinement. Across town, fifteen stops from Cavell on the number 7 tram is the Tir National – the National firing range. Here Edith Cavell was executed that chilly October dawn.

Tir National

As I was preparing to write this article, it seemed appropriate to take myself to the Tir National. It’s the one place that’s a part of Edith Cavell’s story in Brussels that I hadn’t previously visited. Once the centre of an extensive military area – and taken over twice by German occupiers as a convenient place to carry out executions – the Tir National is now a built up suburb of town houses, blocks of flats and hotels. The area is also home to the Belgian national public broadcasters, the French RTBF and the Flemish VRT. A part of the firing range survives, converted into a cemetery for the dead – Enclos des fusillés. (Next door is the Media centre’s crèche.)

Memorial plaque at Enclos des fusillésThe Enclos des fusillés houses 365 graves – including at least some of the graves of the 35 people executed here during the First World War. The rest are for those killed here in 1940-1944. There is also a memorial housing the remains of Belgian victims of the concentration camps. As so many graveyards are, it’s a peaceful place now. At one end, the plaque that lists all the 1914-1918 dead rests against an earthen bank constructed to absorb bullets. Perhaps it is the very one against which Edith Cavell was shot. I sat on a bench and meditated a little on the dead and the vanity of national ambition. But I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.

It’s hard to live up to, but worth trying.

My thanks are due to Wikimedia Commons and the original photographers and uploaders for the picture of the Cavell Memorial in London and the portrait of Edith Cavell. Also to Diana Souhami for her excellent biography Edith Cavell: Nurse, Martyr, Heroine.

This is the homepage of the modern National Council of Women of Great Britain.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.