Dark days, they were, at the outset of a world war.
What words can a King offer his country on Christmas Day, when evil is already threatening its very existence?
King George VI spoke slowly and with great conviction on Christmas Day 1939. And in a little Sussex village – Crowborough, to be precise – a family had gathered around the radio to listen to that speech.
In the darkest times we can do little but share our common humanity and reach out to touch – whom? What? That vast network of humans like us, in our predicament? Or that spirit which underpins who we are?
That day, the King chose words which stirred hearts. They helped my countrymen gird their loins and prepare for something which was indeed, for many, a fight to the death; but which ended in exhausted, impoverished triumph five long years later.
The words were written by a poet of rare talent. Everyone in that Crowborough drawing room listened, entranced.
And no one knew – indeed, would know until afterwards – that its author sat amongst them.
Her name was Minnie Louise Haskins.
Her nephew remembered it well, and recalled it in a letter to the Telegraph in 2002: “I was present at my aunt’s house in Crowborough on Christmas Day 1939, on short leave from my bomber squadron with my newly wedded wife and other members of the family, to listen to the King’s broadcast.
“Minnie was so modest and inscrutable that we had no idea that she had written the poem until a little later, when one of her sisters, puzzled by the poem’s familiarity, challenged Minnie, who admitted she was the author.”
A staunch Wesleyan, Minnie. Born the eldest of three children in 1875 she was recognised early as a gifted teacher. It seems she was ambitious only for one thing: to enrich the hearts of the living.
In 1903, she accepted a job working with the poor as part of a church concern. She took the challenges on her doorstep: women in the workplace and their welfare became her concern.
From 1906 to 1912 she worked in India, mastering the Tamil language and working tirelessly. While she came home to study midwifery I wonder if the heat and light of that great ancient country had entered her veins, for she returned soon afterwards, only to have illness make it necessary to send her home.
She managed a women’s hostel in Woolwich, and went on to work in Silvertown as a women’s welfare worker.
This woman’s biography tells the story of a fisher of men.
Good deeds were to be followed by academic excellence: studying social science at the London School of Economics, she rose to become one of the foremost authorities on industrial welfare.
Her life story is recommendation enough. But to this, she added poetry: a window on her soul.
These were the words that caught the hearts of a King and his country:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
The story of the words does not end here.
For ever since, Kings and Queens, those who carried almost unimaginable burdens for whole peoples, have loved them. They are inscribed in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on the gates to King George VI’s memorial chapel. They concluded the order of service for the Queen Mother’s funeral.
And Queen Elizabeth II said of the inscription: “These words meant much to [my father] and he hoped that they would be remembered by all who dedicated themselves to the service of God and the nation.”
And the story of those words does not end here, either.
Because this evening, my mother read them to me during a telephone conversation. She is facing uncertainty, much as George and his country were then. I have never heard the words before, and as I listened to my mother, standing at the gate of this most unexpected of years, I reflected that the poet who comforted us all this evening must have been special indeed.
Much like my mother, in fact: who is an extraordinarily gifted teacher, and has eschewed the glory of recognition in the eyes of her peers to become a true fisher of men.
Here we stand: at the Gate Of The Year, and find the one to hand us a light is not a man, but a woman.
Heartfelt thanks, Minnie.
You can read the full text of Minnie’s poem, ‘God Knows’, here.