Friday, November 7, 2014

Remembering what?

Why am I wearing a red poppy this year? 

Well partly because I just cannot find a white one - to symbolise my hate of all war - to wear as well. 

And I'll be honest, that is a little because, as someone who still feels vulnerable and stays hyper vigilant when out and about, I hesitate about running into some thug or a UKIP supporter and being accused or abused whilst wearing one. Though if I could actually find a white poppy I would probably get over that I dare say. 

But the whole debate about the meaning of remembrance, the Guardian art critic criticising what he sees as the nationalistic sentimentalisation of death in the moat of the Tower of London, and the hate poured on him for doing so by the right, has made me think about how I feel about all this once more.

Despite having a father who fought his way up through the Western Dessert and into Italy (in the war that 1914-18 failed to prevent), despite having an Uncle (my Mum's eldest brother) who died in an appalling tank battle in North Africa in 1941 (his commanding officer wrote to my Grandparents and said "I was at Dunkirk. This was worse."), I have always hated feeling compelled to wear a poppy.

At my school in the 1970s not wearing one would get you a detention. Later I came to distrust the authoritarian agenda (it's still growing) that enforces public shows of nationalism at the risk of being branded a deviant or dangerous. The poppy - like the Union flag - is a symbol vulnerable to being hijacked by groups that are in truth actually quite in favour of wars or of attacking (even killing) foreigners. It's sadly ripe to being hijacked as some sort symbol of collective supremacy and power. The 900,000 from the British Empire who died in World War One are in this unpleasant narrative somehow principally the victors in some epic struggle (about which they in truth knew mostly nothing), rallying to the national cause and whose meaning in death is chiefly to valourise the State, the Monarch, the Established Order 'for which they fought'. They did, after all, die for it, says this reading. And we did, after all, win...say the people who in the next breath oppose the memorialising of the German dead. I'm not sure Britain First, UKIP and the Tory right would take so much interest in all this if we'd lost the First World War.  

Yet of course there's the other powerful lens on all this - one I grew up with and have been hugely affected by. This is best captured by Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est' which in its final lines demolishes the morality of this nonsense forever and with an unchallengeable and permanent authority (he was killed weeks before the armistice). Or in his 'Strange Meeting' in which a dead soldier means the German who killed him, also dead, in Hell. Or in the shattering paintings of CRW Nevinson or Otto Dix. Or in all the loss and pain in the writing of Vera Brittain or in Erich Maria Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. All of these accounts were based on real experience. The work of Dix and Remarque was burned by the Nazis of course - and it crosses my mind that some of the more extreme opponents of the Guardian art critic might feel happier in the company of those who did that. 

But none of this means, for me, that the red poppy is off limits. Just like I resent a society trying to force me to wear it for reasons I distrust, I want to guard my right to do so for reasons that I feel have real honesty. Attempts to co-opt it into a patriotic parody do not change the fact that at its simplest, the poppy remains the flower that sprang up on the churned earth of the trenches after the guns stopped. Poppies thrive on disturbed ground and early observers were powerfully struck by how land that had hosted so much death and horror could so soon bring forth so much beauty, and with it a strange and powerful sense of hope. 

So for me the symbol of the poppy is about the spirit and intention those who died. It isn't the moment or agony of their deaths that I principally try and remember - the appalling realities of which we cannot comprehend. It is their lives. It is their spirit and their hopes and their dreams and their loves. It has nothing to do with the ludicrous patriotism that some revisionist politicians are trying to rekindle. It is for me about the humanity of all those who were there - and I mean everybody, whatever side of that tedious set of tribal dividing lines called nations they were on. 

I have read Owen and Sassoon and Graves and I have been to the vast cemeteries on the Somme and to the huge memorial at Thiepval. Walked through preserved, grassed over trenches, seen the moss covered sprigs of barbed wire. I understand that the memory of the appalling injustice that was done to these men - on all sides - should - must - be reflected by something that tells us of the horror they were put through (and which others go through now). Something must continue to confront us with that. 

But for me the red poppy isn't that, and never was. It's bigger than that. For me it's come to be again what I felt it was always meant to be - a flower that grows where almost nothing else will. The flower that gave life to the battlefields and said that every one of these men should not just be remembered because they died but because they lived.