On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month… we will stand outside in a car park, the chill of the autumn air cutting through bones like spears. Gravel and dirt are blown into my eyes. Now blinded, I am able only to hear the angry buzzing of a wasp around my head, no doubt stuck in my windswept hair.
Everyone stands in restless silence, reflecting on the horrors of over a century ago. The out of tune, breathless blowing of a trumpet by a twelve year old, who barely passed Grade One in their chosen instrument, fills the air as the other students look on. We stare absently at the ground, forlorn expressions plastered on everyone’s faces. Whether that’s because they are indeed focusing on the fallen soldiers or they just remembered their essay on Othello was in for today, I am not sure.
Though this was commemorated all the way back in Reception, of course it was not as elaborate as it was in secondary school, or ‘Big School’, as crying mothers call it when waving their children off on their first day, where they will invariably gain experience in the art of drug dealing from day one, by cheating the other kids out of their pocket money with overpriced chocolate on the basketball courts. At a Catholic primary school you would stand in a circle with a candle in the centre. Again, as we’d be outside, said candle would keep being blown out by the incessant wind, which, if one wanted to anthropomorphise it, seemed to enjoy the idea of a twenty-odd group of eight year olds freezing to death, making the two minutes turn into fifteen.
But now, my jaw is clenched to the cold and anger, so much so that a sudden, sharp pain erupts from my tooth. For I am remembering the fallen soldiers, the boys who were lead to their deaths by their families and teachers, the mothers who lost their sons, the wives who lost their husbands, the children who were sure they would see their fathers again at Christmas…. But I will not wear a red poppy. I will not join in with the national anthem.
The odd poppy begins to surface towards the end of October; sported by an older gentleman passing me on the street, or even by a young family at Tesco. And as I step onto the train platform on my way home, I am met by a woman in her sixties trying to get me to buy the bright red, flimsy plastic flowers, who then gives me a look of disgust, as if I were something she had stepped in when I politely say, if not guardedly, “no thank you”. Before I go on, this tirade is not aimed at the woman selling poppies at the train station, or the man walking down the street. They wear their poppies with pride, and so they should. They may be wearing them in the hope that their fathers’ deaths will not have been in vain, that their memories shall be honoured, at least for a day. Or it might be for an uncle they never met, or a brother. Perhaps they didn’t lose anyone in war, but understand other families weren’t so lucky.
Is it just easier to set aside one day a year to give in to the idealistic fantasy of world harmony, while the remaining three-hundred-and-sixty-four days our governments can carry on with their shameless warmongering? Is the night of the tenth of November the only night Blair can sleep? Knowing that the next day, his war will be forgotten while we remember all the other wars?
“All a poet can do today is warn”, cautioned Wilfred Owen over one hundred years ago, who would die a week before the end of the war, joining all the other soldiers from his poems, becoming one of millions who would, in his own words, “die as cattle”. His mother will then receive this grievous information at the same time the Armistice bells ring out; at the same time everyone else will be celebrating. Some tragic irony there, one feels… Meeting the same end as those in his pitiful works. It was as if his death were just a device in another poem of futility, mirroring the pointlessness and absurdity, which were themes his works centred round. How can we afford to turn our backs to the haunting and evocative scrawlings of Sassoon, Owen and Miles Malleson? And, instead, look to the equivalent of Jessie Pope: The Media?
Whilst I am thankful we live in a country where our armed forces are made up of volunteer members, and these soldiers often do prove themselves heroic in given situations, that title is not complimentary with the uniform. I cannot help but feel uneasy when newspapers (where some are more guilty than others) exploit the dead and perpetuate the lie of glory and nobility.
So while these cruelties against mankind are still going on today and we ignore the passionate writings of Wilfred and Siegfried, no gesture is as empty as the symbolic pieces of plastic, which will then lie on the streets dismembered, the fading cardboard mashed into the road, whilst the black buttons and stalks remain on pavements for the next month, to such memorials as the Cenotaph.
But of course you cannot outlaw something entirely as meaningless, especially when so many lives have been changed forever by such senseless conflict, but the ‘fascism’ entwined with such shows of remembrance distracts from what the day is really about. Not wearing the flower does not automatically mean you don’t care. Just as wearing a poppy doesn’t mean you do care. So after what could be interpreted as a rather insensitive and ungrateful rant, I am not condemning the idea of acknowledging those who lost their lives. Far from it. Of course we must recognize the sacrifices of a generation of misled sons, who lost their lives in order to fix a few middle-aged men’s mistakes (a slightly crude historical summary for you there). But the expression of remorse through the medium of lavish, televised ceremonies is not the answer. It is the quintessentially British trait of apologizing when you don’t actually mean it on a grand scale. When you have nothing else to say for an uncertain outcome and, in the hope of being washed of all responsibility, saying “sorry”. The farce of our ‘sorry-shows’ have lost their value.
On the eleventh day you will remember, on the twelfth day you will forget….
Written by Rebecca Hayles.
Edited by Charlotte Crouch.