Lest we forget

Remembrance Sunday has come round again. I’ve already managed to spectacularly decapitate my first poppy while putting on my coat, so I’m saving my new one for church this morning.

One of my Spanish coursemates asked about my poppy (this was before it fell apart, as I knew it would), and refused to believe our fellow coursemate’s straight-faced explanation that it was all about showing solidarity for the opium trade. Joking aside, in some ways you need people to question it so it prompts you to remember the why of it all. Otherwise it just becomes something that you do. Suddenly, at the start of November, everyone on TV – news reporters, weather forecasters, politicians – are all wearing them, and you feel a bit shamed if you don’t have one.

When I was a child, there would be old people selling poppies in every tube station, in every shop, on random corners. People with real memories and real stories to tell. Not like it is now where trays of poppies are positioned impersonally by the checkout on the shop counter. I bought my poppy nonetheless and as I pinned it on I did remember. I remembered Granny talking about the war, I remembered the words of ‘In Flanders Fields’ which I still know by heart, I remembered John Buckle – that kind, humble and generous old man who sold poppies each year, come rain or shine, and whose bugle sounded the haunting notes of the Last Post each year in church. Whose memory lives on through the lives he invested in over the course of his 90 years.

I smile too at the memory of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a newly-arrived teenage asylum seeker (himself a reminder to me that war is not just a matter of ‘back then’ and ‘over there’). He’d found himself in a shopping centre at the eleventh minute, of the eleventh hour, of the eleventh month. A mumbled tannoy announcement that he hadn’t understood prompted everyone around him to stop dead in their tracks. He froze involuntarily and looked around in panic. He wondered if something bad was about to happen and if he should throw himself to the ground. A couple of minutes of fear and confusion, and then suddenly everyone moved on as if nothing had happened. He told me about it later when I bumped into him on the bus, a bit embarrassed that he’d been so confused by such an entrenched component of British culture.

Remembering is always so bittersweet but it seems good to create rhythms and symbols whose continuity links together so many strands across time and space. To find ways of remembering, lest we forget.

Ok, and it’s also a great excuse to read good poetry and feel just a wee bit sentimental and, dare I say it, English. As you ponder that corner of a foreign field that is forever England…

[…]  There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

Ah, war poetry. There’s something so poignant about it.  Not necessarily the Englishness of it, but that sense of all the life, love and experiences that shape, teach and form each unique individual. And the awfulness of how that long and deep investment can be cut short in just a moment. (A bit of an indulgent aside, but I think here of the mother’s lament in Lorca’s play ‘Bodas de Sangre’ –  Por eso es tan terrible ver la sangre de una derramada por el suelo. Una fuente que corre un minute y a nostotros nos ha costado años – andsuggest that it’s worth learning Spanish just to be able to understand it.)

And I’ll end with a final poem by Kipling which some friends read to me last week. It isn’t your classic war poem but it gives an interesting take on our perceptions of the value of life and the things we invest in.

 ‘Arithmetic on the Frontier.’ Enjoy:

A great and glorious thing it is
  To learn, for seven years or so,
The Lord knows what of that and this,
  Ere reckoned fit to face the foe --
The flying bullet down the Pass,
That whistles clear: "All flesh is grass."

Three hundred pounds per annum spent
  On making brain and body meeter
For all the murderous intent
  Comprised in "villanous saltpetre!"
And after -- ask the Yusufzaies
What comes of all our 'ologies.

A scrimmage in a Border Station --
  A canter down some dark defile --
Two thousand pounds of education
  Drops to a ten-rupee jezail --
The Crammer's boast, the Squadron's pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!

No proposition Euclid wrote,
  No formulae the text-books know,
Will turn the bullet from your coat,
  Or ward the tulwar's downward blow
Strike hard who cares -- shoot straight who can --
The odds are on the cheaper man.

One sword-knot stolen from the camp
  Will pay for all the school expenses
Of any Kurrum Valley scamp
  Who knows no word of moods and tenses,
But, being blessed with perfect sight,
Picks off our messmates left and right.

With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,
  The troopships bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and steam,
  To slay Afridis where they run.
The "captives of our bow and spear"
Are cheap, alas! as we are dear.
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