INHERITED REMEMBRANCE – POP TILL YOU DROP
POP TILL YOU DROP
In a box somewhere I have an old press picture of our great-grandfather’s funeral. His box then was a flag-draped coffin on a gun-carriage, parked outside an imposing church or cathedral porch, with bits of a horse and military honour-guard cut off by the frame. That was the end of General Park. He made his name on the Boer War, which is remembered on a separate plinth here in Swansea, not far from the cenotaph overlooking Swansea beach. The servicemen who died in South African are listed, officers then men, in two separate columns, one for those killed in action, the other, slightly longer, for those who died of disease. Clearly, the health risk was not confined to the new-fangled British concentration camps.
More recently, last year, I went to the funeral of a Swansea poet and anti-war campaigner, at a crematorium just down the motorway from the Port Talbot steelworks, British Steel as was, now quaintly signed Tata. The campaigner-poet called himself Red Rej. I didnt always like his poems, but couldn’t fault his swansong. Written a few days before his death from cancer, and read from the pulpit by his oldest friend, this last poem was called ‘The Dead Poet Sketch.’
My father and grandfather had relatively peaceful times in WW1 and 2 respectively. My grandfather was a linguist, posted to the allied HQ in Paris. A French war artist did a cartoon of him – big head, tiny body – in his Captain’s uniform. When this junior staff officer felt bad about his cosy number, he asked to be sent to the front but his commanding officer replied: your conscience is your business, your usefulness is ours. My father had been a pacifist in 1939, but changed his mind when war became a fact of life and friends were called up. He enjoyed basic training, for the first time in his life just one of the mob. I have a picture of him, hands on my shoulders, my head about level with the top of his bell-bottoms. Later he told me a funny story about a training session on some other bit of grassland overlooking the sea. The NCO singled out a likely lad to take his place in directing some march and counter march. The responsibility must have been too much, or this young man, like my father, had a stammer. With the squad quick marching towards the cliff edge, the recruit stood tongue-tied until the gob-smacked NCO roared from behind him ‘Say something, for Chrissake, if it’s only goodbye.’ I found that funny, perhaps it reminded me of an even older one about the earwig who jumped out of the window, shouting ‘Ere we go!’.
On the TV news last night we had a blurry digital fragment of a real killing in Afghanistan, ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ and the discrete pop of the shot. ‘To the last syllable…’ slowly, our records catch up with events they record, and on those who enacted and recorded them. A new sort of self-awareness.
Now the Afghan close-up is overwhelmed by what’s being described as the biggest storm ever recorded. Until recently this would have been taken for an act of God, even less plausible now that the acceleration of such events so closely matches the increase in our carbon emissions.
And now, as in the Boer War, this collateral death and destruction in the Philippines – violence done to and by the natural world – is not unrelated to the violence we inflict directly on each other. Not just in wars but in the perverse logic of an economy which pits classes, companies and countries against each other for profit and survival..
.Some of this bigger picture became clear to me as I wrote the letter to the Observer below (Sunday ritual and way of letting off steam). The rest fell into place as I lay awake in the safety of my bed, This grey morning seems as good a time as any to put it about. Deadline 11 a.m 11.11.2013. .
To the Editor Sunday, 10 November 2013
No, Lord Guthrie, murder is not murder, or rather it’s not as simple as that: we arm and train soldiers to kill, while civilians are forbidden to carry guns, or take prisoners. If there were no difference between killing in war and peace, we would not have military courts and Marine A would be named for us all to condemn or console.
Although I refused military service nearly 60 years ago, I feel almost as sorry for the killer in uniform as I do for his even more anonymous victim. And still angry at those who send other people’s sons, and now daughters, to kill and die, then moralise from a distance..
Anyone with knowledge or experience of combat on the ground must know there is no easy cut-off between killing the enemy and protecting a prisoner. It’s not like a professional foul where anyone can take a man down and help him up. The physical and emotional charge is not so easily reversed and even a wounded enemy on the ground can get you by surprise.
An Afghan family now grieve for what will seem eternity, and Marine A may sometimes wish his own mortal coil as speedily unwound. Those of us who don poppies red or white from time to time do well to remember the judgement of Harry Patch: ‘ the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves.’
And Generals…? But then, in a democracy why not the lot of us, mass murderers by default?
That’s as far as I could get before that arbitrary 11.11 deadline I set myself. Now I’ve had a day to remember some bits I left out.
First, the darkened bronze figures atop the plinth in Swansea with the names of the Boer War dead. A haggard infantryman stands, bayonette fixed, in a BP boyscout hat. His legs are bound with webbing, like bandages, and a wounded comrade lies between them, propped up on one elbow The man with the gun looks out defiantly across the old Swansea rugby ground, and up at the front lines of the Townhill estate above, as if ready to defend his mate against descending tenant hordes.
And I left my mother out, although she’s there in the little snapshot of my dad in his bell-bottoms. She stands a few feet to one side, looking our way, hair in a scarf and Martin, still a baby, in her arms. Unlike my father, my mother remained a pacifist throughout the war and until her death a few years ago. She faced some flak, and felt cut off from from her younger brother and closest child-hood companion. Tony was an army engineer and the last we saw of him was when he turned up at the door in a jeep a few days before leaving for France. He was killed in the Ardennes while working on some booby-trapped German equipment. A few weeks before he died, he wrote to Mary – our mother, his sister – to tell her not to worry, he was sure that George, her husband, his bro in law, would soon be safely home with her.
My mother got the news of her brother’s death on the phone which hung on the wall in the basement.. Martin and I must have been upstairs. Her wail was unlike any sound I’d heard from her, sinking to a groan as if she’d had her breath stamped out. We found her crumpled in the angle between the wall and floor. We must have helped her up because Martin says he remembers feeling the weight was more than he could bear as we climbed the stairs back to the groundfloor…
I haven’t been anywhere near Afghanistan, but spent a few months in other mountainous Muslim countries. I imagine two women, one younger than the other, hurrying up some steps that lead to a village from its well. The steps are carved and built into rock and the women’s clothes are tucked up below their knees. Their shoes are more like slippers and look too flimsy for the rock, and they’ve left their buckets by the well below. At the top of the steps stands a boy who might be the younger woman’s son. He’s out of breath,one arm outstretched towards them with a mobile phone. Cell-phone in American, and Pashtun too perhaps. Of course I wont know what they’re talking about.
The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me…
Oh Death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?
Oh Grave, thy victory?
As sung by servicemen in WW1 and in Oh what a lovely war c1969