Sunday 11 November 2018

Remembrance Day in Broken Barnet, 2018

Remembrance Day, North Finchley, 2018

It seems to be increasingly the thing to do, these days, to reject the idea of remembrance, to raise criticisms of the wearing of a red poppy, and to present any ritualised commemoration as somehow mawkish, jingoistic - or a gloating triumphalism.

Maybe this is simply because we now have a generation of younger people whose families have never experienced the horror of war, or who have forgotten their own history, and the losses they experienced seventy years ago, or a hundred years ago.

Easy to repeat the aphorism that those who forget the lessons of history will be condemned to repeat it. Easy to point at what is happening now, in the US, in Europe, and the UK: the rise of populism, and the normalisation of extreme right wing politics: the rise of anti-semitism, anti-gypsyism, islamophobia. Hard to understand it, perhaps, unless you see it against a personal background of experience, or inherited memory.

Easy to misinterpret or misrepresent the interest by so many in the wars of the past: in the trenches of the First World War, or the unfolding of World War Two.

In most families, any traumatic experience, of loss, or poverty, or violence, is hard enough to deal with. 

For those families who have gone through the experience of war, or persecution, and flight: the loss of loved ones, the loss of home, the threat of injury or death - it is something that is often impossible to process at the time. 

Often those who survive such experiences never speak of it, to their own children. I know this to be true in my own family, where unspoken trauma was passed on through the generations that followed : from those that survived the horrors of eviction and famine in Ireland, my mother and aunts who lost a brother and sister, in one terrible week, in their impoverished childhood: other, darker, half acknowledged secrets that died with them - and of course my grandfather and great uncles, some of whom did not came back from the Great War, or did return, but physically or psychologically damaged:

It is painfully true, this suppression of trauma, of those I have met who survived the Holocaust, and could not bear to tell their own children the story of what happened to them, in Germany, or in the Warsaw Ghetto, or escaping from a one way journey to a concentration camp.

Those untold stories remain in the margins of silence, to a greater or lesser extent, because for survivors the memory is or was too great to acknowledge: but the pain these experiences cause often become all the greater for remaining unspoken, and visited onto all the generations that follow, in one way or another.

Better then to address it, and confront it - and remember. 

I have my grandfather's portrait in his Royal Field Artillery uniform, handsome and swaggering, as usual, keen to get to France and act the hero. He came back to Durham from the Great War a broken, brutalised man, with his life in ruins: a new wife soon expecting their first child - and no job. No jobs for heroes, only a life ahead of poverty and humiliation, for him, an educated man left with no option but to take a job down the pit like everyone else.

I have my great uncle's dog tags: returned to his mother after his death: but with the wrong details - John Cross, CoE, instead of RC, for Roman Catholic. He had been called up, even though he was, as we would say now, someone with severe learning disabilities - when his brother accompanied him to the army recruiting station and tried to explain this, they listened, and then conscripted the brother as well. 

Their Irish Catholic mother Mary Ann refused to believe the dog tags had come from her son's body: especially when someone from the same town claimed to have seen him walking along the top of a trench, two weeks after he was supposed to have been killed, in the last few weeks before the war ended, in the last great push. She never accepted his death, and waited for him to come home. He never did, of course, and is buried in a small cemetery near Cambrai, with 63 other casualties from the 19th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers. Mary Ann's sister had already lost two teenage sons within days of each other, in 1915. No graves for them, just a name on a wall, and on a local memorial. 

We had a mass said, for John Cross, on the anniversary of his death: it is what my grandmother, and my mother, would have done, as a matter of course, in their lifetimes. I noticed from the mass lists that he was the second soldier to be remembered in this way, in that week: the other also from an Irish family, in the Connaught Rangers. 

I also have the engraved 'trench art' shell case another great uncle bought home, Percy Garnish, listing the battles he had survived: Hooge, Ypres. He survived, but not for long: gassed in the trenches, he never recovered his health and died in the old Colindale hospital, where he had been sent from Brixton for better air. Making the long trek from South London to Colindale to visit Percy was how the family made the decision to move here permanently - to Edgware and Mill Hill. 

And Percy is buried in Hendon Cemetery, along with both my grandparents. Ah yes: Hendon Cemetery,  handed over to Capita, who were desperate to get their hands on the opportunity for profit from death and bereavement, planning all sorts of ways of maximising income: live streamed funerals, DVDS, even a cafe. Oh and re-using our family graves to squeeze more profit out of plots. 

Colindale hospital is no more: another luxury housing development.

Here in Broken Barnet we do things differently, of course - remembrance not excepted.

Like every other token of culture, history or heritage, this must fit in with the ruling principles of market forces: profit before all. 

History begins only in Year Zero: when our borough became annexed by Capita; everything that came before can be of no interest, unless it can generate income, or pay its way: and if it stands in the way of development? Knock it down, or sell it off. 

Most residents will have no idea that there have been plans for Finchley to mark the hundred year anniversary of the end of the First World War with the unveiling of a large memorial, with no less than 1300 names of local people who went to war, but did not return: a wonderful idea, promoted by local historian Mick Crick.

Amongst those names should be the name of Private John Henry Parr, the first casualty of the War, who died on the 21st August 2014, it is believed after having been sent on his bike with another soldier on a reconnaissance mission, and coming face to face with a German patrol. He was only seventeen years old, having lied about his age in order to join the army two years earlier. 

Probably this was an economic necessity for his family: in the 1911 census he is listed as living in Lodge Lane, North Finchley, where there is a commemorative plaque, but he was born and spent his early years in Lichfield Grove, a turning off the road I live in. The 1901 census shows a large family struggling to live in rooms in a shared small house: and we know that poor John's mother, by 1911, had only seven children surviving out of twelve. Joining the army must have seemed like a good move. John Parr is now buried in the same cemetery in France as the last soldier to die before the Armistice took effect.

Another casualty of war who lived close by, here in Finchley, was a twenty year old boy called Frank Smith. Already a veteran of combat before his eighteenth birthday, wounded while serving in the Dardenelles, sent home to recover for twelve months, he was then called up again, and sent this time to France, where death soon claimed him, in April 1917. 

Frank went to the school next door to my house - and he lived in the Lodge, in Victoria Park: his father was the park keeper. 

Yes, that Lodge, and that park: a story I've written about a lot, over the last couple of years. 

Local campaigner Mary O'Connor at the entrance to the Lodge, Victoria Park

I always think of poor Frank, and his family, when I pass by the gate to the Lodge, most days, and I thought of him recently when reading about the planned memorial to Finchley's fallen: would his name be on it? 

And then: a curious development - an application to put the Memorial not where originally intended, but in the park, where Frank used to live. 

Originally, you see, the Memorial was meant to stand in a location in Finchley that seemed the most appropriate of all: Finchley Memorial Hospital, in Bow Lane.

This is another local building that I've written about - the white elephant that squats on the site of an older hospital, demolished in order to replace it with a state of the art facility, funded by PFI money, from a Labour government initiative - and then left empty and deliberately underused by a Tory government and unaccountable local CCG. 

The first hospital was built in 1908 on land purchased by a local benefactor: Ebenezer Homan, who lived with his family in Friern Watch, a large house in North Finchley.

At the end of the Great War, the building was renamed as Finchley Memorial Hospital, in honour of the generation of the many local men who had gone to war, and not returned. As I discovered when writing an earlier post some years ago:

When Finchley Memorial Hospital was renamed, in 1922, the ceremony was marked by the attendance of General Sir Ian Hamilton, who was, until recalled from duty, the former Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force during the Gallipoli campaign, and seems to have made a consequent career of unveiling memorials to those who lost their lives as a result of the insanity and incompetence of his fellow officers and architects of war.

The original Finchley Memorial Hospital

Hamilton being one of those ultimately responsible for the botched landing at Suvla Bay may have been seen by Mr and Mrs Smith as an inappropriate choice to oversee the renaming of the local hospital.

When the hundred year anniversary approached, plans were made by Barnet War Memorials Association, led by Mick Crick, to commemorate the fallen of both world wars on a new memorial, which would be placed on the hospital site. Planning permission for this project was granted last year.

Except those in charge of the hospital had other ideas, despite the initial agreement to allow this. Due to constant delays by hospital trust managers and 'private partners' in providing the requisite permission, it became clear that the memorial would not be in place for the anniversary. It seems that the significance of the timing was of no interest to the hospital bosses: and plans were made instead to see if it could at least, at some point, be placed in Victoria Park. Wherever it goes, it will be too late for this special centenary Remembrance Day. What an insult to those whose names should have been in place, for this particular day.

At the point where the memorial should be there is nothing more than a single, forlorn and weather beaten wreath, marking the spot where it may now never stand.

Such obstruction is insensitive, but what is the reason? Well: I think we can guess.

Last year we discovered, accidentally, from an FOI released to a resident, secret plans to develop part of the land on the hospital site, plans being encouraged by council officers and NHS property managers, as well as other interested parties. 

Where the wreath has been placed is on the boundary of the most likely area for development. Could it be, do you think, that the reluctance to approve the installation of the memorial was anything to do with these plans?

The five 2-ton marble stones that make up the memorial were cut and polished.  The 1300 plus names have been researched and checked, and were ready to be engraved onto the stones.  All that remained was for someone from the NHS to give the official go-ahead and the memorial could have been installed within weeks. Now it is too late.

Whatever the real reason for the delay, the result has been to destroy the only chance to honour the lost soldiers at the most appropriate time,  the 100th year anniversary remembrance day. 

A pretty shabby outcome, and yet utterly predictable, in this borough, where developers have the last say on everything.

The Lodge, where Private Frank Smith closed the gate, leaving behind his mother, father and sister, on the way to his death in the trenches - sold by the council, in conflict with their role as trustees of the park, and despite the covenant carefully designed to protect the park from such development - is now up for auction, this coming week, despite the covenant that should prevent any sale or development. 

That covenant was put in place by the local benefactors who created the park - led by 'Inky' Stephens, of Avenue House, which was used in the war as a hospital for injured servicemen. One wonders what he would have made of the commercialisation of the park, the destruction of the local hospital - and the failure to erect the memorial.

Instead of a service of Remembrance commemorating the hundred year anniversary of the Armistice, a local Finchley ceremony took place as usual at the smaller memorial outside the British Legion building in North Finchley, which has no names on it, but is accompanied by two smaller ones with lists of men from a local bus garage, and the tramway service.

Can you guess what I am going to tell you now? That this building, and the memorial site, were nearly lost this year, due to the Capita consulted, Capita approved redevelopment of North Finchley. 

Only public protest has saved the day: and the very fact that they thought nothing of including this property in their scheme tells you everything you need to know about the continuing invasion and exploitation of our community, and our heritage, by developers encouraged by the Tory administration and their Capita contractors.

It is all part of the sickness that has taken over this borough; hanging over us in a miasma of greed and philistinism. 

Some would say history is irrelevant, and the remembrance of wars long past is pointless: that it belongs to another age. But the older you get, the less you see time as something fixed, and irretrievable - or disposable. 

You can close down the museum, prevent the building of a memorial, throw away all the history books in the libraries - shut the libraries - but the story of the past still lives on in the memory of any community, or surviving witness.

My eldest aunt was conceived in the last months of the Great War, when my grandfather had leave from the trenches: she was born in 1919. 

She is still alive, in 2018, and in her hundredth year; her lifetime spanning everything that has happened in the century after the Armistice. 

Still alive, but returned now to the time of her childhood, where she relives some of the dark history buried for so long as if it happened only months ago, not decades. 

Such is the power of memory, and loss. 

Remembrance Sunday, 2018

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