Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
-Siegfried Sassoon, Aftermath (1919)
November has arrived, with the ceremonials of Remembrance Day (November 11th, Armistice Day) in full swing. It’s a much larger event in the United Kingdom than in the the United States, where Veteran’s Day doesn’t have the quite the same run-up to the event. It’s a time of fundraising for The British Legion, Help for Heroes, and other relief organisations, and the red poppy has appeared on the lapels of overcoats and jackets on Fleet Street. The centennial of the Great War next year has put even greater emphasis on this year’s commemoration, so across London, talks, exhibits, and events are being held around this time highlighting the World Wars.
It’s a rainy and overcast kalends of November, and one’s mind is easily thrown back, wandering the embankments of the Thames and up past St Paul’s, dotted with statues of Field Marshals and monuments to soldiers’ lost in Flanders or Sicily, to get carried away with the profound wave of memory that seems to pervade the early days of November. Among the regal statutes of the military traditions of the Grenadiers or the Horse Guards there is tinged a sense of proud commemoration to the tight institutions of the British Army, and the Dome of St Paul’s raises in my mind the image of it’s proud defiance of the smoke and confusion of the Blitz. But it is different when one wanders without Aldgate towards Whitechapel. Walking alongside the long robes of the Muslim scholars and the sounds of vibrant Banglatown across the High Street is still, hard to see in such a transforming community and, yet, inescapable for me, a sense of war from the perspective of the working East-End Londoners, for whom participation in the wars of the 20th century was without the polish of the Household Cavalry. The monuments are more stilled, the lists mostly names of the dead. On a grey day, it can overwhelm my senses and makes me feel very strange.
I used to feel like that in St Andrews too, when I would stand with the elderly pensioners and the air squad cadets in the rain for Remembrance Sunday. All in Sunday best, the mindful would hark to the words of the Clergy given the benediction, sing “God Save the Queen”, and listen to the bands of RAF Leuchars sound off the mournful drone of “Flowers of the Forest“. It has always seemed to me that Scottish military commemoration is inherently tragic and made with lament. An exporter of manpower for external wars for most of its history, the Wars of the British Empire and the 20th Century bled Scotland hard. There were no Blessed Villages north of the Tweed, and almost every community bears a memorial to the dead.
Pride and celebration of the military, though certainly there, is very subdued as compared to a Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day parade in America. And despite my own familial connections to exclusively to the American Military, I have always found myself extremely moved by British Remembrance Day celebrations in a way I have never felt them at American ones. It’s hard to know from whence these feelings spring. It may be something of a over-active induced nostalgia kick, more invented in my mind then realized otherwise. Yet, it doesn’t feel that way when I find myself moved to tears by British remembrance, in music, word, and ceremony.
As the day draws near in the next two weeks, I’m sure there will be more to reflect on and more to say about it, but it struck me especially today as I looked out over East London in the rain, seeing the weighty fog rising off the Thames and covering the rising cranes and the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf, eliminating traces of the peacetime modernity. The mind wanders, and the collective memory of a generation now truly lost seems to find purchase in old songs.
“And the roses may die with the summertime, and our roads may be far apart,
But there’s one rose that dies not in Picardy; That’s the rose that I wear in my heart”
There will be a lot of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon on the air over the next few days. A personal favorite: Kenneth Branagh reads Wilfred Owen’s Disabled.