Bad memories

I joined our village’s Remembrance Sunday parade and service this morning. Though I have an instinctive uneasiness about people in uniform marching through my community – a hangover from growing up in Northern Ireland – this is one of the few such occasions of which I am proud for my family to be a part.

There is nothing grand about our local remembrance other than the sentiment. The parade consists of the Scouts (boys over ten, and girls now too), Cubs (boys under ten), Beavers (younger boys again, in Smurf blue), Brownies (girls in brown), Rainbows (younger girls), local pupils in school uniform – and following parents and other locals. The village was already almost full when the parade arrived, which was very heartening, except…

Except that the seemingly impressive turnout at the interdenominational Christian service was a very small  fraction of the local population.

I doubt it was just the rain deterring people. Perhaps some people feel that collective remembrance of war dead is only for those who attend a church regularly, or have children in one of the above mentioned “uniformed organisations” – in other words, a passing phase. Perhaps it’s just bad memories.

The local war memorial is nothing showy. It’s a plaque inside the village hall, with nineteen names – thirteen from “the war to end war”, six from the next big one. Here’s the Roll of Honour:

1914-1918 – George Payne, Harold Worley, Edward Payne, Percy Goodall, William Worley, Edmund Worley, Charles Holmes, Arnold Goodall (see pic), Joe Wass, Frederick Batting, George Hoad, Richard Timson & Ernest Payne.

1939-1945 – Colin G. Boddy, Donald J.A. Hyde, Gerald B. Sprake, Arnold J. Harding, Ronald W. W. Mance & Reginald A. Taylor.

You’ll notice that the Payne (3), Worley (3) and Goodall (2) families were hard hit. And also that men had middle initials second time round.

Gunner Arnold Victor Goodall, 105th Battery, 22nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, Regimental No. 128420. Died at Thiepval aged 20 on 25th September 1916. He's the great great great uncle of some local children. His picture was stuck up next to the memorial plaque.

There are moves afoot to build an outdoor war memorial. I’m not sure about it. I like the simple intimacy of what we’ve got. And I fear that the splendour of the memorial could be inversely proportionate to its impact. And who’ll want to linger in the rain listening to the often very good speeches that happen now.

These occasions of remembrance tread a fine line between glorification of war and exhortations to work for peace. Something along the lines of: Jesus says don’t resort to violence, but God strengthen our troops clobbering the enemy out in Afghanistan. (Discouraging news lately on how likely success is there for US-led forces.) The idea that we might mourn or commemorate “the fallen” in general is not one that has much purchase here – it’s our own lost we care about, not anybody else’s, be they from current wars or past.

Which pokes at my own ambivalence about these beflagged ceremonies. You’d never get me waving the Union flag, iconic design or no. As Seamus Heaney responded when included in an anthology of British poetry:

Be advised my passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
to toast the Queen.

I wouldn’t carry that flag as a child and I wouldn’t now. My children though are a different matter. They’re half English for one thing. But more importantly they’re their own people, not inculcated my visceral loyalties or resentments. And when in Rome… Especially if you’re half-Roman.

There are debates in the UK media about whether people are made to feel pressured into wearing a Remembrance Poppy – “poppy fascism” is the overblown term. Whether the symbol has any meaning if wearing it is obligatory.

One particular UK TV news presenter, Channel 4’s Jon Snow, famously (or notoriously – I’d opt for respectfully) refuses to wear a poppy on screen. His rationale (according to his blog) is that one should appear neutral , and not wear any meaningful symbol – which means no pink ribbons for breast cancer either, or any other cause. (He wears a poppy off duty.) He gets a lot of stick for this.

The fallout was more vicious when the same issue was forced into the newspaper headlines in Northern Ireland some years ago. The Remembrance Poppy, the sale of which raises funds for the Royal British Legion, was seen as a divisive political symbol. The words Royal and British are the clues. And also that it raised cash to care for British veterans, and remembered the British and allied fallen. Unsurprisingly, in a place where much of the population felt victimised, occupied or at least annoyed by that same British army, the poppy was not universally popular. (There’s no exact Irish equivalent, but an alternative worn by some would be the Easter lily, marking the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule. And I don’t recall seeing news presenters ever wearing those on screen.)

So given the local sensibilities, a compromise existed. BBC TV presenters could wear a poppy if they wished, but unlike in the BBC in the rest of the UK, it was not mandatory. Which meant news presenting was open to, and seen to be open to, the pro-UK, the pro-United Ireland, Catholics, Protestants, neither and the neutral. So pluralism and tolerance reigned. Which worked fine. Until…

Until an imported boss decided to make his mark by insisting that everyone on TV wore a Royal British Legion poppy. That was the ultimatum. So those journalists who felt that it was unacceptable on principle to declare on screen allegiance to the pro-British side of the fence, or indeed to any political stance, were excluded.

They were also exposed in the press to accusations of disloyalty in a way that hadn’t happened before, and could have had serious consequences. Hung out to dry. Put at risk. To what end? (It all seems like a long time ago now.)

So the divisiveness, compulsion and occasional jingoism associated with remembrance and the poppy make me uneasy. Which is why my younger self would have been shocked that my current self has been out selling poppies this year. I’m surprised myself.

I think it’s partly that I’ve mellowed over the years. Partly that decency and the brotherhood of man (and woman) trumps nationalism (for me). And partly that one should, as far as is compatible with one’s principles, support the community one finds oneself in.

It’s my neighbours’ forbears who are commemorated on the village hall plaque. Some of my neighbours have family involved in current conflicts. And some of those guys may come home with bits missing – physically or mentally.

It’s shameful for any community to ignore those they’ve sent out to fight – regardless of whether the war was just, or lost or won. This country’s professed appreciation for the sacrifices made by service personnel is put into perspective when you consider that veterans make up 6-10% of the homeless – much lower than before – and 10% of prisoners, higher than before. (The US figures are 23% of homeless but half as likely as non-vets to be in prison.) They should not be consigned to oblivion, nor abandoned to the street and their own bad memories.

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23 Comments

Filed under In the village, life, media, politics

23 responses to “Bad memories

  1. On the other hand, people out here let Armistice day go unnoticed and we celebrate one of the hugest losses in the First war on ANZAC day of all things. Crazy. No poppies down under. I think we should commemorate such things, perhaps not with parades or compulsory symbols but a ‘day’ of rememberance is a good thing. Then my closest friend is a veteran and he’s ‘over’ it. Says it’s just a job. Can’t win.

    • blackwatertown

      Don’t suppose it matters which day you mark, as long as there is one. Perhaps ANZAC day is even more appropriate because of the huge loss – it could focus the mind more on the “never again” aspect and less on the pomp and ceremony.

      Though having said that – someone will always be able to spin disaster into a call to future offensive action – I’m thinking of the “triumph of failure” aspect of Irish history, blood of the martyrs, debt to the dead, etc.

      By the way – I wish I had better photographs of the day, but it was dank and I had a mobile phone. The much better closer shots included other people’s kids I was reluctant to stick on the internet without permission. (Excuses excuses. Must try harder in future.)

  2. For me it’s still straightforward- whether governments get it right or wrong (!*) we still rely on the ‘military’ to risk life and limb in awful conditions; Remembrance Day simply salutes this and offers respect and support to the people who have to do it or support it, not the political leaders. Watching coverage of the Royal Albert Hall ceremony and then the Cenotaph event this morning, I was moved more than ever by how correctly we seem to achieve this. Good attention was given to the feelings and struggles of young widows and the support given to the injured and maimed; ‘modernness and relovence for today’ seemed to be in good balance- well done the Beeb on this one. More poppies were sold than ever! Let’s hope our leaders were inspired- it must be a bonus that they could see, first hand, such fine people dealing with their responsibility with such dignity, skill and passion. I am pleased to reflect on these thoughts occasionally, giving thanks to all those involved- I guess it’s the same for all the people who gather locally across the country. No it’s not trivial, long may it continue.

  3. photopol

    Very good post. Its length probably reflects your ambiguity towards the whole issue. I have shared your “opposition” to this sort of stuff (poppy, remembrance day, etc.) from a nationalist upbringing, but in the South.

    I then discovered that my Uncle died in a botched (but “successful”) operation on the Somme in 1916. Meanwhile in my career I was professionally very involved in the EU Peace Programme. All of this forced a fairly ruthless rethink and led me to think that the poppy could be reclaimed from those who “politicised” it and that it could be restored to its original purpose of commemorating the futility of war and sympathy for its victims (albeit in this case on the military side).

    My post is here:
    http://photopol.blogspot.com/2008/11/remembrance.html

    and a shorter Irish language version here:
    http://ancnagaire.blogspot.com/2008/11/chailleach-dhearg.html

  4. TaylorGooderham

    Remembrance Day is fairly large through primary school, but in high school it sort of mellows out. We still had the silence at the eleventh hour (most of us, minus the few idiots in my class who I would gladly smack some sense into) as well as the reading of In Flanders Field, but there seems to be a general lack of care. As a former Scout and person who is thankful for those who have died in war, I still pay my respects.

    But don’t get me started on the white poppy.

    • blackwatertown

      And then there’s the red poppy, with the black centre tippexed over, and a peace symbol drawn in with biro.

      • photopol

        Better to reclaim the red poppy than to manufacture something else.

        This is the powerful symbol of Flander’s fields and tremendously evocative to those who have lost relations there.

        Why should those bastards succeed in hijacking it.

        Why can I not commemorate my uncle without having to buy in to the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq. On reflection, invasion is too polite. They have devastated that “holy” land and left the inhabitants to cope not only with the mass murder of their relations but with the consequences for future generations of the invaders’ illegal use of radio-active weaponry. It beggars belief.

    • blackwatertown

      Speaking of In Flanders Field – the heated debate began here http://wp.me/pDjed-5c

      • photopol

        Hadn’t read that original post of yours. Powerful stuff.

        We did Wilfred Owen in school. Made a huge impression at a very impressionable age. Michael Judge was a wise and far seeing teacher of English.

  5. Primarily, I think of “Veterans Day” as it is now called here as Armistice Day. That was the day we thought we had ended all wars. That war was the closest to hell humankind has been. We could all do well to remember that war as symbolic of the hell of all wars. It must never be forgot. But it has been. People only know and remember the most recent war. None should be glorified but on this day, we do not glorify war, we glorify the men and women who sacrificed for us whether in a just or unjust war. They made the ultimate sacrifice because no one totally returns from war.

    I had not realized the poppy had become so politicized. It is rarely sold here anymore. But it should remain a symbol of the spirit of those lost as those whose remains are in Flanders’s fields where the poppies still blow.

    • blackwatertown

      I agree that it’s a very appropriate symbol, worthy of being adopted more widely. One of the things about poppies apparently is that they flourish in soil that has been disturbed – like a battlefield or mass grave.

  6. Thanks Paul,

    I feel similarly actually. As well as specifically remembering and honouring war dead and veterans, it seems to me that poppies are all about decency: decent folk, decent behaviour, respect. And as much as I like to think of myself as a decent person, ‘decency’ is still a fairly subjective and potentially nebulous quality, whose content has a tendency to change quite a lot between generations, and can also discriminate and hold back information from the less well off. For this reason I’m sometimes suspicious of the employment of poppies, especially gangs of men in white T-shirts with huge poppies printed on the front. If an innocent person got a punch in the face in the name of decency it wouldnt be a first by any means.

    Having said all of that, it doesn’t hurt to wear a poppy, and it’s definitely a good idea to talk about its range of meaning. In this way we can keep its most important referents in the front of the mind.

  7. If anything, this post highlights the extreme level of my cultural ignorance, and actually left me a little upset. Don’t mistake this for me having a go at you, Paul, I can certainly appreciate your sentiments, or rather the sentiments of your past self and how they were formed. It’s just that for me, the poppy has only ever been a symbol of respect for the fallen, not of nationalism, and certainly not a glorification of or justification for war. That’s why the thought of it being co-opted for any other purpose, or being portrayed or viewed in any sort of negative light, upsets me. I wear the poppy to honour my grandfather and the people he served with, and the sacrifices they made on my behalf. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Nothing like a highly emotional topic to get you back in the spirit of commenting, eh?

    • blackwatertown

      Thanks for your comment.

      It can be interesting/revelatory/painful to be pushed into seeing in a different light something you’ve always felt was clear and straightforward.
      I enjoy those moments of surprise – when one realises there’s a whole different worldview out there, which may be as valid as one’s own – or even more appropriate.

      No good example springs to mind. But I encounter that feeling most frequently with my children, as they kindly explain to me why they’re right and I’m wrong. Annoyingly they sometimes are right about me being wrong.

      • If your family is anything like mine, there’s a chance your children might be onto something, since I can think of another (though less depressing) example of my worldview being shattered, also involving my grandfather. It was during a science class at school when the teacher asked what we knew about earthworms, and I remembered something he’d told me about them. If you’ve just heard the QI buzzer going off in your head, you will be pleased to know that I did indeed stick my hand up and say that if you cut one in half, you get two earthworms. Still, it could’ve been worse – he also told me that they have a mouth at both ends.

  8. blackwatertown

    The last embarrassing thing I can remember involving kids in class was about me, but it wasn’t even one of my children. They were discussing animals that are more active at night, and one of my daughter’s classmates put up her hand and said: “Her daddy is a nocturnal animal.” So that has stuck. One of the joys of shift work.

  9. Well I do buy & wear The Poppy Myself.But,yes, Its an exclusive symbol.It’s a flower that doesnt remember the dead civilians:Enemies.etc.Even soldiers like the Brits who died in Spain fighting The Facists.
    Tis a pity we dont have some Inclusive/Universal Symbol.

  10. It’s hard to write, my eyes are misty, which doesn’t happen often.

    I understand your hangover, still I feel that any local remembrance IS grand.

    Also, I’m with ya on keeping it inside.

    G’day – Maxi

  11. This is Miami, Florida, USA.This area is now at least 50% foreign born 80% first generation. Overwhelmingly Hispanic with large Jamaican, Haitian and Bahamian. Old white European ethnics long gone now. Doesn’t leave many to commemorate Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day. These things are pretty much meaningless here except a half mast at municipal buildings and that brief police assembly with taps and 21 gun salute. Minority religions abound: 7th Day Adventist and Jehovah ‘s Witness and there is no Halloween or Christmas celebrated within those communities. As we are a melting pot or a salad or a tapestry of people and races, it is foolish to define who or what is an American. But I sure don’t feel like an American but more a stranger in my own country. You folks have so much more of an inbred particularized identity say like the Japanese or Greeks for example and your history, people, and cherished institutions and connections are not diluted. In the Middle East it still continues with 5,800 American deaths and over 35,000 returning as amputees. I don’t think it has much to do with terrorism. I have neighbors shooting off guns on any particular drunken Saturday night. Must be about the control of the opium.

  12. betty

    I discovered your blog in bing. Brilliant topic, thanks.
    (Like the layout too.)

  13. Finn

    Issue nicely summed up by you.
    Anyway, good post.

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