I don’t do much political ranting on here these days. What’s the point? There are hundreds, if not thousands, of voices like mine shouting their protests vainly into the tornado as our political leaders stumble towards a catastrophic no-deal Brexit. Who cares what I think?
Do I even have the right to express an opinion on Remembrance Day? I gave the 8YO a quid to get a poppy from school this week, but the poppy sellers didn’t come round that day and she lost the coin anyway. And to be honest, my interest in pinning a bit of red paper to my coat fizzled out at that point. So if you think that non-poppy-wearers are a disgrace to the memory of the fallen, you may as well stop reading now, because the following is the musings of a non-poppy-wearing unpatriotic citizen of nowhere.
But earlier this evening I saw something which brought me up short. Emmanuel Macron tweeted this picture of himself and Angela Merkel at Compiegne, with one word: Unis.
What gets me about this picture is the thought that a century ago – in fact, as recently as 1945 the German and French governments were sworn enemies. One a country kicking out the invading force, the other a beaten occupying army in retreat. And now look. Arm in arm, their two leaders commemorating those who lost their lives, with a commitment to never letting it happen again. Unis.
To me, that’s what Remembrance should be about. I’d be a whole lot more enthusiastic about wearing a poppy if it seemed to embody a wholehearted affirmation that the wars that tore our continent apart in the twentieth century must never be allowed to happen again.
But the tragic thing is, I don’t see that in Britain. I see Macron and Merkel, united in honouring the human losses both their countries suffered. And I see Theresa May, attending the same ceremony but standing apart, laying wreaths with quotes from Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ and Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ – poems which speak of ‘A richer dust… whom England bore’ ‘hearts at peace under an English heaven’, ‘England mourns for her dead across the sea’… What do those poems tell us about the national approach to remembrance? They seem to imply that our brave lads were somehow better because they were English, even to the point of rotting down into a better quality dust than that nasty French soil, that it’s only the English victims who are worth mourning. and that the afterlife, if it’s worth having, will probably involve tea on the lawn at an English manor house.
You may say these are just poems and they don’t matter. But we live in a soundbite age. Poems, like political slogans, provide the easily remembered catchphrases that reassure us that more detailed analysis is not needed. “At the setting of the sun, we will remember them” – nice and easy to trip off the tongue, isn’t it? A bit like ‘Brexit means Brexit”. And this is what bothers me about the way we commemorate Remembrance Day. It’s not about coming together with our neighbours to reflect on the human cost on both sides, and committing to peace. It’s the sentiment behind this lot,
stuffed into a cheap black suit and wearing a poker face during the two minutes silence before carrying on telling jokes about the French running away from the Germans in 1939. We other and belittle and mock our nearest neighbours, and approach Brexit negotiations as if they’re fundamentally untrustworthy opponents rather than people just like us. Which seems to me a sure fire way of guaranteeing more conflict with other nations in future. Hardly a fitting tribute to the fallen.
If you’re interested, fellow blogger Lit.Gaz has done a really interesting series of posts on the impact of the First World War on other European countries – you can read the first one here.