Sunday, 9 November 2014

Hesitating before Heaven's Gate: Mrs Angry's Remembrance Day

Earlier this week, Mrs Angry and her friend, like so many other Londoners, thought they might stroll on down to the Tower of London, peep over the wall and take a look at the poppies in the moat, placed there to commemorate the 888,246 lives lost in the First World War. 

The number of people disembarking from the tube station and trying to make their way to the Tower was simply overwhelming: tetchy police officers struggled to manage the traffic and pedestrian crossing as the crowd pushed its way over the road, and that was before the queue had even been reached.

Looking down over the wall, and seeing the tide of crimson flowers spill out of the Tower, and into the valley of the moat, it was impossible not to be moved by the significance, as well as impressed by the success of the idea on its most material level as an installation, a piece of conceptual art, but one, unlike the pieces you might find across the river in the hall of Tate Modern, that speaks to the citizen with little interest in art, conceptual or figurative. 

After seeing the poppies, we had lunch in the brasserie across the road. The manager told us, while we were waiting for a table, about her childhood in rural France, and memories of picking poppies, and rushing home through the fields to give them to maman, only to find, to her dismay, the petals had already dropped. 

Such is the ephemeral nature, and fleeting beauty of the poppy, flower of the blood soaked battlefields, lying dormant in a scarred landscape, brought back to life by generations of ploughing the mud where deadmen's bones still lie, and unexploded ammunition hides, waiting a hundred years and more to find its target.

As curiously moving as the ceramic poppies planted in the moat,  was the sight of the long, long queue of people looping around the Tower, waiting patiently for the opportunity of walking past the moat and seeing the poppies just a little bit closer. Why were they there, and why is it that still the losses of a war that began one hundred years ago now, still fascinates and disturbs us so much?

Well, of course it is true that so many families lost relatives, and like mine, have stories and old photos of grandfathers and great uncles who did not return from the trenches. 

One of those 888,246 commemorated in the field of poppies around the Tower was my great uncle, John Cross, who lies buried in a tiny graveyard in a village near Cambrai. 

Another great uncle, Percy Garnish,  died after the war from the effects of being gassed, having served as a sapper at Hooge, Ypres, and many other battles. A decorated shell case he brought back used to have pride of place in our house, when I was a child, the places he had served at engraved on the brass casing: I have it now, and sometimes wonder, looking at it, whose lives were ended by the 18 pounder missile it once contained.

Percy's brother brother Ernest, in the 'Buffs', lost his mind, from shellshock, and died two years later in a military asylum, his family left in penury, and his younger children consigned to an orphanage. 

Two of my grandmother's cousins, brothers Bernard and Tom Penman, brothers in arms: miners who enlisted in the Durham Light Infantry, died within a month of arriving in France, only two days apart, in May 1915, in the dugouts at Sanctuary Wood, also at Hooge. Tom was twenty years old: younger than my own son, but Bernard was only seventeen: a child. Their mother never recovered from the loss of her two sons, as you might expect.

And my grandfather Tommy Nicholson: he spent three years in the trenches, or rather dragging gun carriages around the battlefields, as a bombardier in the RFA, and came back a broken man, a heavy drinker, traumatised and brutalised by his experiences, no longer the naive young volunteer who sent this postcard to his sweetheart, my grandmother, from his training camp in Aldershot.

These are not unusual stories, and yet it has taken a century, and three or more generations, to mourn those who lost their lives, in the war to end all war, the war that ended nothing, and began a whole new era of more efficient ways of killing people, and endless profit for arms manufacturers, and misery for mothers, wives and children.

There are several war memorials in Barnet, and a number of services were held this morning to mark Remembrance Day. 

Here in Finchley we have a ceremony at the Finchley United Services Club, in Tally Ho, opposite the Arts Depot. 

A small memorial, with not many names on it, sits outside, in honour of 'Men of Finchley', who lost their lives in the two world wars. 

It would seem no women are commemorated here, which is odd, as there must have been servicewomen from Finchley in the armed forces at least in the Second World War, and it would be surprising if none of them died; but then as the minister who took led the prayers remarked, other women, the mothers, wives and children of the fallen, were as much victims of war as the men who did not return home, or those who did, injured, or suffering from the psychological impact of their time in battle.

The minister observed that  the soldiers we remember today were fighting evil, and injustice. Mrs Angry reflected that in war, evil and injustice are foreign enemies, outsiders: but it is true to say that at all other times, those enemies are closer at home, and now evil and injustice are being used as weapons against our own people, by our own government, in a war against the poor, and disadvantaged: a civil war.

We must, said the minister, make sure we fight for the things our fallen heroes gave their lives for. How true that is: and the obligation that legacy leaves us with cannot be ignored, can it?

This ceremony, apparently overseen by local Salvation army members, was well attended, the busy roads as usual blocked off by police, allowing a marching band and parade of young local army, air and sea cadets, as well as scouts, to arrive at the Club, drums beating, feet stomping. 

A number of veterans were there, wearing their berets and medals, to honour their fallen comrades - and a touching number of ordinary residents came too, simply because they wanted to be present. 

High above, in the flats above the Artsdepot, others came onto their balconies to watch, and shopkeepers left their businesses to do the same. 

Wreaths were laid, perhaps the most touching from a man wearing an array of medals, holding the hand of a small boy, in a new, black suit too big for him, maybe in honour of a lost, and much loved grandfather.

Local Labour councillors Kath McGuirk, Alan Schneiderman, Alon Or Bach, Arjun Mittra, Anne Hutton, and Geof Cooke were present, along with Sarah Sackman, who is standing against local Tory MP Mike Freer in next year's election.

Rather surprisingly, it must be said, Freer himself was not there, and indeed the only Conservative representative at this service was the rather disgruntled looking councillor Eva Greenspan, representing the Mayor. Disappointing, as the local Conservative HQ, at Margaret Thatcher House, is only just across the road, and Church End has three Tory councillors, Greenspan being only one of them.

The Mayor was not present, of course, because he was elsewhere, at a ceremony in Hendon. We know this because there was a story on the local Times' website about his participation, which appears now to have disappeared, or been modified, and which informed us that amongst the commemoration organised by our council, Barnet's Mayor was keen to honour the fallen 'with a fleet of council refuse trucks, displaying the words “Pause To Remember". Here is the picture, in case you can't find it now: 

Nothing, really, could speak more eloquently of the grossly insensitive nature of the Tory administration, here in Broken Barnet, could it, than that they think it appropriate to use refuse trucks to ask us to 'pause to remember' the fallen heroes of two world wars?

Sometimes, just sometimes, readers, it is impossible for this blog to match the unconscious satirical output of the subjects we so keenly observe, here in this borough.

Let's end with a more dignified tribute, shall we? 

Mrs Angry's grandfather spent the beginning of his war at Laventie - a village situated right on the frontline, with its own Rue du Paradis, and a Rue d'Enfer, a place populated by poets and artists, it seems. Robert Graves spent time there, as well as poet and composer Ivor Gurney. Art is, or so we thought, until the poppies were planted in the moat of the Tower of London,  the indulgence of the intellectual middle classes. War is for the working classes, to do or die: poetry comes with the conscripted sensibility of the intellectual, of course.

Mrs Angry went to Laventie a few years ago, to make some kind of personal connection that might help her to understand the enigma that was her troubled grandfather. It was a memorable visit. 

Was the 'broken church', now rebuilt, the one described by Ivor Gurney, which her grandfather recalled seeing destroyed, the graves split open, showing him the thing that appalled him more than anything else he saw on the battlefield - the corpse of a young mother, in her shroud, with her newborn baby: an image horribly replicated, Mrs Angry noted, in Gaza not so long ago? Maybe it was - or maybe it will serve the same purpose, anyway.

But Laventie, most of all, I think is to soldiers
The Town itself with plane trees, and small-spa air;
And vin, rouge-blanc, chocolats, citron, grenadine:
One might buy in small delectable cafes there.
The broken church, and vegetable fields bare;
Neat French market town look so clean,
And the clarity, amiability of North French air.
Like water flowing beneath the dark plough and high Heaven,
Music's delight to please the poet pack-marching there

The town itself is the subject of an iconic image of that war, by Eric Kennington, now in the Imperial War Museum - and also the inspiration for the poem by Gurney, whose own time in the trenches made him a great artist, but at a terrible cost: the loss of his sanity, and an early death, in an asylum, like my great uncle. Let the poet speak for him, and all the others who left no trace, no written record, no picture, no composition, no memory of their own war.


One would remember still
Meadows and low hill
Laventie was, as to the line and elm row
Growing through green strength wounded, as home elms grow.
Shimmer of summer there and blue autumn mists
Seen from trench-ditch winding in mazy twists.
The Australian gunners in close flowery hiding
Cunning found out at last, and smashed in the unspeakable lists.
And the guns in the smashed wood thumping and grinding.

The letters written there, and received there,
Books, cakes, cigarettes in a parish of famine,
And leaks in rainy times with general all-damning.
The crater, and carrying of gas cylinders on two sticks
(Pain past comparison and far past right agony gone,)
Strained hopelessly of heart and frame at first fix.

Cafe au lait in dugouts on Tommies cookers,
Cursed minnie werfs, thirst in 18 hour summer.
The Australian miners clayed, and the being afraid
Before strafes, sultry August dusk time than Death dumber —
And the cooler hush after the strafe, and the long night wait —
The relief of first dawn, the crawling out to look at it,
Wonder divine of Dawn, man hesitating before Heaven's gate.

Remembrance Day 2014


Anonymous said...

Mrs A always so poignant ! It does make you think what these brave young men & women fought for , Freedom , justice , truth , Equality , standing firm against injustice , protecting those who are not able to do it themselves ! Was it all in vain ? We're we only preserving things for those who are privileged ? Shedding so much Blood to maintain there Demi god heaven As said creating a Land fit for Heroes OR maybe MUGS to be used & abused as a commodity for Crapita profit !! Given an opportunity would they have done it , if they had known how they were going to be treated !!! Or would they have done it under condition ?

Mrs Angry said...

Thanks, Anon, you've just reminded me of something the minister said yesterday: will add it now: on the theme of the duty to keep fighting for the things fallen heroes gave their lives for ...

Anonymous said...

Yes mrs A . It is very emotional . The strong takinging Advantage of the weak ! The Bully picking on those unable to defend themselves ! What we all need is some of that Tom Brown courage to stand up to this flashman type Torie behaviour . To co operate with Evil is to condone it . We all can do our bit to resist unacceptable Behaviour from our councillors & politicians simply by not co operating . & yes it does link in with our military Because Old soldiers have Been Abused for years by these Same People !