Tag Archives: village

Deadly verses

poppy Is this the most dangerous, even despicable, poem ever? You’ll have heard it most likely at   some Remembrance Day service or Armistice Day commemoration. It’s called In Flanders Fields. John McCrae wrote it in May 1915, on the occasion of the death in battle of a friend. The poet himself died in 1918. Here’s the poem.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I last heard it said aloud at our village service marking the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Some children performed it in the village hall. Overall the service was too religious for me, but I accept that as part of the cultural mores of England. I know it deters other people though, who just want to remember and respect the sacrifices made by their forbears without having to bow their heads in front of priests or ministers.

And I fully embrace the rightness of remembering. The importance of marking past sacrifice, the better to not in future waltz gleefully into new carnage. So the talk given during the service by a youth leader was perfectly pitched – vivid, poignant, educative and heartfelt. He reminded those gathered, especially the children, that those who died in Flanders Field were young people not much older than they are now, just like them, not some sepia-toned figures of myth or history book.  So far so good.

John McCrae c.1914

John McCrae c.1914. Canadian poet, physician & soldier. He wrote In Flanders Fields in memory of a fallen friend.

But then some of our children performed THAT POEM to their school friends and to the rest of us. So what’s the problem? The first two verses are fine. It’s the final exhortation to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” And then we’re warned: “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.”

So there you have it. Keep fighting or you’ll be letting down your dead comrades. Peace and resolution of conflict are relegated in importance below the need to avoid dishonouring the dead. And what better way, suggests the poem, to honour those glorious dead than to add to their number.

It’s the siren call of the dead-enders, the true believers, the last-ditchers. In their world the dead always trump the living. And the only way to free yourself of survivor’s guilt is to go over the top. So there’s no-one to lean on the brakes.

Sometimes, granted, you have to fight. But shouldn’t the main point of remembrance be to avoid making the same mistakes? To remember the awfulness of it all. To remember that the living are more important than the dead. We should respect the latter, but protect the former.

So I’m tired of hearing that poem. The story behind it is poignant. The impact has been huge. It inspired the tradition of selling and wearing poppies. But instead of “In Flanders Fields”, next year I’d prefer something by Wilfred Owen. Dulce et Decorum Est will do fine. It’s about a gas attack and its aftermath. Here’s an excerpt:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.


Filed under In the village, life, poetry

My sins have been forgiven, by a builder.

BuilderWhy is it that we feel so uncomfortable around mechanics and builders? The mechanic hitches up the car bonnets and tuts, or just looks inscrutable, and already you feel the need to make excuses. By the time he (it’s always be a he for me) deigns to hazard a guess at the source of the problem, you’re ready to believe anything and pay anything, to escape the humiliating reminder of your ignorance and inadequacy.

It’s the same with the builder. There’s a crack in the wall. Is it merely a crack? Or could it be due to subsidence which is endangering your home to the point of imminent collapse? Or something in between? Who knows? Not me. Again, it’s embarrassing.

But why? Cars are important. Homes, more so. But the health of our own bodies trumps both. So why don’t we feel even more embarrassment about our medical ignorance? There’s no shame in not knowing your own exact diagnosis. That’s what the doctor, the expert, is there for.

And it’s no good saying: Stop whingeing and get off your arse and learn about car engines or house maintenance.

That’s not the answer. Sadly.

I’ve poked about inside the innards of cars, changed bits, fixed others, cleaned doofers, restored whatsits, and come up with temporary repairs when disaster strikes out on the road.

I’ve also not been afraid to get stuck in when it comes to buildings – rendering, climbing, treating, painting, replacing, digging, hammering, etc. Sometimes with a sense of dread on icy bone cold days. But I’ve done it.

(To do otherwise would be even more shameful having been brought up by a fairly handy father deeply suspicious of all outside assistance.)

So why the enduring shame. It’s not embarrassment I feel when something malfunctions. More of a sense of moral culpability. That repeatedly troublesome awkward-to-get-at gutter is a sinful stain on my soul. Crazy? Maybe. Excessively Catholic? Despite my best efforts to transcend that possibility, I fear it may be so.

Which is why the feeling of relief and release were intense after a visit from a local builder this week. (Naturally he was not answering any summons of mine. Oh, the shame! My wife called him.)

It turns out there’s a flaw in the way the gutter was installed, leading it to repeatedly falter. And: My decaying rendering is not inherently flawed, but being destabilized by something else I hadn’t thought of. And: The suspected damp in one room is merely superficial – the wall is fine.

In terms of cost and disruption the reprieve on dampness is the important bit. But the verdict of innocence – my personal innocence – on the first degree faulty guttering gave me such an unexpected spiritual lift.

I feel bizarrely cleansed, free and lighter of step. My life is now better. I feel better.

It’s like Jesus miraculously curing the lame – except in reverse. Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven. Pick up your bed and walk.” And the cripple reportedly rises, legs working fine.

The village builder says: “Ah, that guttering has been installed in such a way that the wind always catches it and pulls it apart.” And my soul sings as if my sins have been forgiven. Even better, it turns out I hadn’t sinned in the first place.

How often do you get that from the builder?

There must be a mind/body/spirit self-help book in there somewhere…

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Filed under In the village, life