For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Strange Meeting, Wilfred Owen
For the past week we have been asked to remember:
Remember, Remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder Treason and Plot;
and to remember the fallen of the great war.
So what is memory, what is memorable, and what is remembrance?
As a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist I take exception to the brutality underlying the demand to remember Guy Fawkes; the burning in effigy of anyone is deeply suspect and whilst the anti-catholic fervor of these celebrations is largely forgotten these days there are pockets where it is enacted with determination (Lewes springs to mind.)
For most people Guy Fawkes’ Night is an excuse for pyrotechnics, and for the first time in a very long time, it seems to have been limited to the actual night and the day before.
Now, I like fireworks, despite having one drop on me when I was stewarding a display once, fortunately a good thick coat was ruined but that was all; but what is it we are asked to remember?
That some people felt strongly enough about a protestant led government they were prepared to attempt to violently disrupt it? The barbaric (to us) brutality with which the would be perpetrators were executed? Yet another magnificent failure? The family loyalty that prompted one of the conspirators to warn his cousin and thus betray the whole team to torture and death? It’s a pretty bleak story, 400 years old, and but for the publicity machine of the time would have been long forgotten. But there are still places where Catholic and Protestant hate each other enough to want to blow each other up, places where brutal regimes inflict horrific death on those that don’t agree with them, yet we forget, ignore, dismiss all of this as though it were commonplace; and celebrate a four century old nine-day-wonder every year, around bonfires, with shrieking and banging and cascading explosions lighting up the sky, baked potatoes and toffee apples.
The war to end war:
What a contrast, one week to the next.
I wonder what it was like for traumatised soldiers to experience Guy Fawkes night? Did they cower and hide and wail like our cats do as the barrage of rockets explode all round them?
Remembrance Sunday, and 11th of the 11th have been hard to ignore this week, the media have been in full swing, and I’ve listened to some interesting radio programmes about the history of Remembrance, from the first unveiling of the cenotaph (empty tomb) in 1919, the burial of the unknown warrior at Westminster Abbey in 1920, the resurgence of a 2 minute silence on the 11th as well as on the nearest Sunday since the 1990’s… and a neatly put explanation of how the death of a soldier in war is now exceptional, unusual, noteworthy; compared to the decimation of an entire generation 90 plus years ago.
I also listened to a programme about the Forester’s House at Ors, where Wilfred Owen sheltered as his wrote his last letter home, a vivid account of cooking potatoes for around 30 soldiers crammed into a basement. The house is now an art installation with Owen’s poems and that last letter projected, broadcast in English (Kenneth Brannagh bringing a magnificent warmth to the readings) and French, and embedded throughout.
I was force-fed Owen’s poetry as part of my education, and it put me off a bit, I found his restraint unappealing, I was with Siegfried Sassoon, raging in protest: it’s time to go back and review that.
On Holiday in Belgium a few years back I turned down the opportunity to visit the war graves, feeling that I knew enough, didn’t need my nose rubbing in it, would find it distressing; I think this Owen memorial would be worth a visit, and if I was there, I might also go to the Menin gate. I’m not sure, I come back to that Stalin quote, about when it is a single individual, known to you, it means more than all the thousands; too many to comprehend, to encompass. But one of the special things about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is the effort that went (and still goes) into finding the story of the individual behind every one of the graves, and the names where there is no grave. Their website is a marvel of vignettes. No one in my immediate family died in either world war (a statistic that surprises me) but tracing family history back, I found a few distant relatives, and I was truly impressed with just how much information had been garnered for some records.
Flicking through TV channels we stumbled across the Royal British Legion’s ninetieth anniversary service at the Royal Albert Hall. I watched to the end, hypnotised by how regimented it was, men in busbies and cheesecutter caps, swaying involuntarily having been stood stock still for at least an hour, with thousands of poppy petals drifting like bloody snow to lie at their feet, on their shoulders, on their headgear. I found myself wondering how many poppy petals, and thinking not enough; the petals to represent the dead of two world wars would fill that space, and reminded of the Beatles song A Day in the Life (Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall); and thinking about who we should remember: combatants yes, on both sides, and ambulance crews, and nurses, and fire crews, and civilians and those shot for ‘cowardice’… and thinking, but what is this for?
Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Those who lose track of what and why we are remembering, ditto.
It is my intention this evening (energy permitting) to go to the ‘sing around’ at a local pub, and at some point to sing. A and I have been talking about what we might sing. It being Remembrance Sunday has influenced our repertoire, so we will be singing some of the following, depending on how many slots we get and whether someone else has the same idea: Only Remembered (John Tams, used in War Horse), No Man’s Land (Eric Bogle), I want to go home (Oh what a lovely War), and Down by the Riverside.(traditional spiritual) anda version of Three Ravens an ancient song picked up by Thomas Ravenscroft in the 1611.
The reasoning being that they are all wonderful tunes, poignant words, and are in keeping with the original intentions of Remembrance day, apart from the Ravens, which is my own personal take on what war is all about.
I willingly remember the dead of world wars and believe to forget would be dreadful, but I have no intention of celebrating war or military might.
Every time I listen to, or sing, No Man’s Land I remember as a child when visiting relatives, dropping in on an old lady who lived nearby, and the faded photograph of a young man in uniform, which she reached down from the mantelpiece and put into my hand.
My man, she said, and cried.
I expect she told me his name, I expect she told me how he died, if she knew. I don’t remember; but I remember that photograph. He would have been dead sixty years when we met.
Evey time we walk round the local cemetery we read aloud the names of the dead, in among them the individual war graves scattered among the ivy and wild flowers, and the inscriptions, in particular one that stands out from the prescribed text:
I who loved you most, miss you most.
Copyright Cherry Potts 2011