Puzzle Hall Poets last Monday night. At ten o clock, tea lights were lit on each table of a crowded house, the main lights of the pub switched off, and all the open mic poems were read into the flickering candle glow. It was lovely and it was moving and it set me to thinking about how and why we remember and memorialise. It seems slightly odd to me to feel uncomfortable at the media coverage of the centenary of the beginning of WW1, but I do. Maybe it’s the distance most of the commentators have from it all, the easy platitudes and what feels like an affectation of gravitas and solemnity. Maybe it’s my age, but I don’t think so.
I was two when WW2 ended. I don’t remember that, and I don’t have any real memory of the great winter of 1947, and none at all of any sort of hardship or deprivation. I grew up with comics that routinely presented the Hun and the Boche and the Nips as enemies, and we played at war, much as we played at cowboys and indians, and the English and the cowboys always won. Looking back, it was no more or less real than the Famous Five or fairy tales. When I was at secondary school, I read, voraciously, The Dam Busters, The Colditz Story, The wooden horse, Reach for the sky….all of them, and more than once. You might have expected that to colour my world view; it actually didn’t seem to have anything to do with the real world at all. The only thing that surprised me when I went hitch-hiking through Germany in 1960 was not that Germans seemed exactly like everyone else, but how clean it all was.
There were books and comics and films, and then there was real life. I had two uncles who went through the war on active service…one was at the liberation of Belsen .. and I worked in warehouses with men who had been at Anzio and in India; I worked with one chap who had been on the front lines in WW1. And none of them ever talked about it. We went to Remembrance services in market places and chapels, we had a minute’s silence each year in school assembly. We had ‘at the going down of the sun’. But the people I lived with seemed relieved that it was gone, and that it didn’t have to be talked about. Perhaps that’s what makes me uncomfortable with the post-Diana legacy of easy public displays of emotion…I don’t think it’s grief. I’m even more uncomfortable when a Minister of State for Education makes a bid to appropriate the memory of WW1 to a cause I don’t subscribe to.
But I do have personal connections that I need to make sense of. My grandfather, Alfred Terry, for one. This is one of two photographs I have of him.
My mother was four when he died of Hodgkinson’s disease in Chapel Allerton hospital in Leeds. He was a sergeant in the Kings Own Yorkshire Life Infantry…the TA version. He wasn’t a regular. He was expecting to go to France with his regiment, but became ill and was sent home, and then hospitalised. But I grew up believing he’d died in the trenches. And then that he’d died in an army hospital in Aldershot. He had been a journeyman housepainter. My mother told me nothing about him at all. Perhaps she knew nothing about him, remembered nothing. What she did tell me were stories of her mother, and my aunts and uncle, growing up in poverty in a fatherless house, with no state support or pensions, no health service. My parents lived through two world wars, and it’s the aftermath for women and children they talked about. Not often, but enough. I wanted to say what that meant to me in this poem.
There he is.Grinning and unsoldierly,
the despair of the RSM. The joker in the trench.
Except, I’ve no way of knowing that he ever was.
Maybe, Ypres and Mons and Passchendale
meant no more to him than Chapel hymn tune names –
O dass ich tausand zungen haite. Armageddon.
But all the same, a bit of a lad. No more than a lad,
father of four, and husband of – I think –
a small girl, left all alone to scrat and fend.
My grandma, Ethel, who went deaf, who sat
with her head in the swelling horn
of the wind-up gramophone.
Listened to the scratchy tinnitus
of brittle shellac records until
they hissed like the sea on a shingly shore.
Who drowned herself, a poor Ophelia,
in the beck that ran hot from dyehouses,
that ran blue, and plum and crimson red,
Who died – I think – wreathed in bindweed,
those wide white silky flowers,
and the pink of balsam, sour as a sink.
It was a good thing to light candles,last Monday, to remember, as we always do, The Fallen. It’s a good thing to remember that most of the fallen were not soldiers, and maybe most of them were women and their children. And here we are, watching Syria being blown to bits, and half the world going collectively insane. Leaving nothing to be said, and the duty to say something. Anything.