When I attended the recent Remembrance Day service in Walthamstow, I was reminded a post I wrote 4 years ago, about how Remembrance Day and Poppy wearing (or not) is fraught for me.
I think “4 year ago me” and myself remain in agreement [summary – it’s tricky, people get quite cross about it, and war remains stupid].
I spoke to my girls on the way to the service – I’ll be honest, I was only really attending as each of them had been asked to attend as part of their membership of Rainbows/Brownies/ Guides. My almost-6 year old didn’t really have a clue what the day was about, my 7 year old knew it was something about war and dead, my 10 year old and I had a nice discussion about the fact that it’s complicated. The march from a local park to the Town hall made me a little uncomfortable, but not as much as I was expecting. One friend noted my ‘brave non-conformism’ in that I was not wearing a poppy myself (although each of my girls were proudly donning one on their nice clean uniforms). I didn’t want to say that it was simply that I had only managed to find stick-on poppies this year, and that mine had fallen off. To be fair, I don’t wear Red poppies if I can help it – for some of the reasons noted here – and was too nervous (and dis-organised, again) to wear a white poppy at such an event (despite what some think, I am not into confrontation for the sake of it, and have been made to feel very uncomfortable about wearing the white poppy in certain circles, as has a certain Mr Corbyn it seems).
The service was long – especially for the many children present. Too much talking, a couple of hymns. The priest did a good job (in my opinion) of navigating the route between ‘we remember’ and ‘peace is better than war’. There was representation from 3 faiths and from the Humanist Association. I particularly appreciated the way the priest softly stated a couple of times something along the lines of “respect and honour the memory of all who have fallen as a result of conflict” which may have been a gentle rebuttal to any tempted to focus unhealthily on a “Glorious Dead” angle of things.
I still struggle with it all.
Walking home, the girls and I chatted again about the service. “Did you understand what was going on?” I asked. The replies were muted and mixed – a little focussed on how long it was. My 7 year old summed it up like this: “I think that war is a bad thing, people seemed sad that other people had died, and I think that’s a shame“. I think she’s said it better than I could.
Here’s a poem called 1914-2014 I wrote when we started thinking about the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1:
In Flanders field…
The poppies weep in frozen disbelief:
Heavy tears hanging their petals to the ground,
Like old beggars under sacks, perhaps?
For the dead they remember increase in number by the hour:
No longer filmed in sepia tones,
Captured images from torn and faded photographs,
But resplendent in violent hues of shrapnel red.
We few, we happy
Who can mute the echoing cries of anguish with the casual flick of a switch,
Dull our minds to the disposable departed –
Their images replaced by dancing kittens.
The casualties of war, those for whom the Bell Tolls,
Are not – we insist – kindred souls: we see no empathy with
Those who, but for a twist of geographic and ethnic fate
Would have been our neighbours, our family, our colleagues and friends.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That my life is worth no more, no less,
Than that of the torn corpses on news channels and magazine copy.
As Edwin intoned: what is it good for?
I leave with words constructed far better than I could manage… There is much prolonged scholarly debate about the central thrust of Owen’s poem [it may not be as anti-war as people often think it is, but is fairly clear on the dangers and costs of whipping up militarism in younger people… it is also, apparently, one of David Cameron’s favourites, according to the Daily Fail(!)]
I’ve always liked it – a combination of an enthusiastic (and slightly batty) English teacher, and a fondness for The Damned
“Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.
—Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
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*.
[credited to the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”]