Celebration Day: Beyond the shortlist

Good writing makes you stop in your tracks. You remember it long after you have closed the page. It sucks you in, makes you feel things you were not expecting. It can make you laugh or cry — or both at the same time.  

Not every entry to the Celebration Day writing competition was eligible to win. The requirements are quite exacting: the entry must tell the story of someone courageous, and that person must have passed away. 

Of the hundreds of submissions, only 18 could be shortlisted and only six could win (You can read their entries in full in our special report). But it would feel remiss not to mention some of those that did not make the shortlist — because even though they were not on our final list, they still made us think and feel and laugh. They were examples of good writing

Some were stories of great bravery. Jessica Condon told the story of her 97-year-old neighbour Harry, who fought in Holland and Germany during World War Two. The war may be over, but Harry’s battles are not. “A task that most of us would take for granted may be the most physically and mentally demanding task for someone of his age,” Jessica writes. On his way to the shops, every careless speeding vehicle reminds him of the “bullets flying past his head”. The silence of electric cars “reminds him of the deadly, feared nebelwerfer bombs because as soon as you could hear them, you would have known it was too late to save yourself”. 

It was not only Jessica who wrote about World War Two. Mila*(name changed) wrote about her great-grandmother Jean, who was born in the same year as Queen Elizabeth II and lied about her age to become a wireless operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Matthew Porter told the story of his great-great-grandfather Provost Richard Howard, who wrote the words “Father, forgive them” in the ashes of Coventry Cathedral after it was bombed by the Luftwaffe. Only the night before, he had watched the planes approaching “resembling a cloud of maddened wasps”. 

The number of entries was a reminder of the number of ordinary people who in extraordinary times did extraordinary things. Josie’s* great-grandfather Alfred was part of the army regiment that liberated Belsen concentration camp — he never spoke about what he had seen. Victoria’s* great-grandmother Helen kept a secret garden to feed the soldiers who were hiding from the Italian occupiers of her Greek village. Robert’s* great-grandfather Wiktor escaped a prisoner of war camp and fled from the Nazis by hitching rides on lorries across Europe. And Georgia Raphael’s grandmother Frances was an evacuee who cried as the steam train took her 250 miles away from her parents at just 14. “For every person there is a story that you don’t know until you ask,” Georgia writes.

Thomas* wrote about a different kind of war — his grandmother’s 18-week battle with necrotising fasciitis. It was “obviously not a good thing”, Thomas writes, when on an ordinary day out to the hairdresser’s his nan’s limbs turned purple and she “became dizzy, sick and delusional”. Even though she lost ten toes and nine fingers, Thomas’s nan won her war. She even made it back to the hairdresser’s — all thanks to “strength and stubbornness and the army behind (her)”.  

Sometimes courage comes in moments of great strife. In 1947, Hana’s great-grandfather Mohammad stood calm as news spread of the partition of India and Pakistan and families faced an awful reality. While the people around him frantically packed their bags, Mohammad made a speech. “He told them all that no matter what the rest of the world thought, that they must not lose hope,” Hana recounts. “That even if they were forced apart to the other side of the world, they would still have love for one another and will always be unified no matter what.” It is a sentiment echoed by the grandmother of Kirti Dharmender Matai, who fled from Pakistan with only the things she could carry — “and, of course, our culture and love that we carried in our hearts”.   

Other times, courage is about having the bravery to break conventions. Mehrangaiz Nessar’s grandmother was “fierce when she fought for what was right, and too stubborn to let anyone take away her voice”. She got married at a young age, but was determined that her children would make their own choices. So when a distant relative suggested an engagement for her daughter only moments after she was born, she fought back. “This new-born baby girl grew older to become a doctor and then my mother,” Mehrangaiz explains. 

Courage is not a thing of the distant past. When Joe* was born in 2010, it was still illegal for his two mothers to get married. “Most of my generation,” Joe writes, “will have no idea of just how unequal the law in the past was. They also won’t know how brave people like my mothers were in doing something that wasn’t normal or usual and standing up for what they believed in when the law of the country was against them.” 

You do not have to learn about courage from someone who is older than you. Taylah Egan’s sister Hollie, who has Down syndrome, is 10 — younger than Taylah. “Hollie’s taught me so much throughout my whole life and every day she makes me so proud with her accomplishments others may see as simple tasks,” Taylah explains. Melanie* wrote about the NHS doctors and nurses who have saved her life during her 12 months in hospital — a time in which she has had to give up her job as a teacher. “They rigged a raft, remapped my route — prepared a place of safety for me as I struggled in the savage, swirling storm.” 

Occasionally it is people who we have known for only a short time who leave the biggest mark on us. Martha* wrote about her babysitter Beth, who had a passion for music and taught her how to play the piano before she died aged 17. Now, it is Beth’s father who shows courage as he raises money for Papyrus, a charity dedicated to preventing suicide. “Sometimes people leave but nobody ever closes the door,” Martha writes. “They are still with us in our hearts and we walk together.” 

We do not always have the opportunity to ask those who inspire us what they thought or felt. So some turned to their imaginations to retell their stories. John* became Napoleon: “I lead my armies to victory after victory crushing my enemies.” Emily* became Boudicca: “Enraged, no matter how many times they whipped me or how many times they tried to bring me down, I kept on fighting.” Isabella imagined the early years of Mei Li, a woman who defies norms in China by dressing as she desires despite her perceived ugliness. “Mei Li had learned that beauty should not be defined superficially and that a woman is the prettiest when she loves her own appearance.”

Fame, too, is not a prerequisite for being inspirational. “My nanny was probably the only optimist in a family of pessimists and realists,” writes Isabelle Butler. When she was diagnosed with untreatable cancer, she smiled to wash away her family’s sadness. “She will always inspire me more than a fantastic scientist or a life saving doctor because she saved my life in a way she will never know.” 

It would be near impossible to mention every single submission. But they revealed the lives and hopes of The Day’s readers in a way that we never normally are privileged enough to see. There were stories of heartache and misfortune: illnesses, amputations, untimely deaths, family separations and even a catamaran crash. There were stories of great change: lives disrupted by war and epic moves across the world. And most common of all, there were stories of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who would do anything it takes — uproot their lives, work two jobs, fight in wars — to give their children a better life.

Celebration Day is a day of remembrance to encourage people to pause and reflect on the lives of people who are no longer with us. This year, the second annual Celebration Day is being held on Sunday 28 May.