Just over four years ago, I wrote about
poppies and commemoration. Shortly after, I reflected again on the link between flowers and remembering. As glorious, riotous sight of these poppies caught my eye earlier, I thought back to those posts. How much has changed since then! The nearby roadside memorial has shrunk and faded, occasionally bolstered on what must be poignant anniversaries for the family. The nation’s collective memory has shifted from the little boats of Dunkerque to the trenches of World War One, although right now the seventieth anniversary of D-Day is pressing on many minds. The great uncle that I talked about four years ago was on those beaches too. I’ve thought of him a lot lately after a work trip took me to an area of the Netherlands he had spent time in during the war. So many layers of memories, overlapping, interlocking, interconnecting. Young men today; young men back then. Age, ageing, lost youth. Families, my own and others. Life. Death. Remembering.
Today adds another layer. 05/06/2014 – I am going to the funeral of a very dear older lady who I have known from being the smallest child. Her name was June. She loved flowers. It all comes together even as the world’s move apart.
As we arrive in November, my thoughts have turned to 11/11 and Rememberance Day. It sounds so old-fashioned, but I have been wrestling with my conscience over this. I identify strongly with the Quaker peace testimony, yet at the same time, I feel the need to ‘remember’ the fallen. Both my grandfathers were in the forces during WW2 (as was my great uncle, who I wrote about in relation to the red poppy in a much earlier post), my dad was in the army & my brother is a serving soldier right now. I don’t want to offend them – particularly my brother, who has lost friends and colleagues in Iraq and Afghanistan – and I don’t even wish to renounce the ethos of rememberance, but I want to contribute – even if only through a small gesture – to a future of peace. So what to do? While some may see this as a cop-out (or worse, a measure of appeasement that fails to satisfy either side of the debate), I have decided to wear both a red poppy (rememberance) and a white poppy (peace) this year. For me, the red one signifies the past, commemorating the lives of those who have fallen as a result of war, whether it be in 1914 or 2010. The white poppy looks to the future, symbolising a desire for peace and end to all future wars and conflict. Whether this is seen as idealistic, or a pointless stance on my part, I feel that it is important to me. It is, right now, the right thing to do.
Yesterday I started thinking about flowers & rememberance & the circuits in which our lives are all embroiled. Today this hit home even harder.
On Wednesday night, a young man was killed down the road from my house. I don’t know what happened; word of a ‘fatal accident’ just spread around the grapevine, as such things do. It was a friend of friend. You recognise the face, know loads of the same people, drink in the same pub – you’re not friends yourself, but you’re both part of the same circuit.
Such a sad situation. There are no words or gestures that can be of any use or much comfort, but the desire to ‘just do something’ is strong – an act of rememberance, however small or seemingly pointless. It’s horrid to admit, but I’ve always been a bit condescending of people putting flowers down at the scene of a tragedy. All those bouquets at the gates of Kensington Palace? All the bunches left by fences & lamp-posts & houses? What’s the point, I’ve sneered countless times over the years. For the first time today, I have realised the point – the point is the act itself. The gesture of getting flowers & going to the place – that is the point, pure and simple. It’s small & paltry & yes, largely pointless. But it’s an act of rememberance. It’s recognition & respect for the young man’s life, cut tragically short.
Flowers: the language of love, the language of rememberance, the language when there are no words.
The first poppy opened in the garden this morning. They’ve looked fit to burst for a week or so now; it’s just been a matter of watching & waiting for the first blast of glorious colour. I adore poppies: they always seem so tenacious, so ‘look at me’, with their huge floppy petals & bright red and black combo. Yet their aesthetic joyousness is always tinged with the meanings of rememberance; at the same time as they declare their own existence so proudly, they symbolise the deaths of so, so many others.
It struck me as poignant that this first poppy – the flower of rememberance – should open today, the 70th anniversary of the Dunkerque evacuations. Like the poppy, Dunkerque can be read in so many ways: a military disaster that saw the death & imprisonment of many young men; emblematic of national spirit & solidarity; triumph over adversity – like life itself.
The radio was reporting on the ‘little ship’ commemorations taking place today, asking listeners to recall their family stories related to Dunkerque. I thought of my great uncle Ron. He lied about his age so he could join the army in 1939, aged just 14. He became trapped at Dunkerque & spent 3 weeks being sheltered by strangers in a cellar, before being rescued at brought back to Britain. He also served in ops in Norway & on D-Day. I cannot begin to imagine how these experiences must have affected such a young man, & I struggle to reconcile these events with my memories of a jovial & flirtatious old man whom everyone (but especially the ladies!) adored. He died last year, aged 85, and was – aptly enough – buried on the 11/11, at 11am.
When I started writing, I didn’t know what order to put the above thoughts in, or really where to start: poppy, rememberance, Ron, Dunkerque. Really they could have gone in any order. These thoughts, memories & feelings aren’t a sequence but a circuit; there is no start or end, only a loop, a continuous circle linking them together. Like our lives: they are always part of circuit, linked and connected and emeshed with others. Our lives are never simply our own.