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Monday, 11 November 2013

The Old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.

I took a wrong turning at the weekend coming back to Bath from Bristol and somehow ended up going through Keynsham (where Cadburys used to make a bit of chocolate  before they were taken over by Kraft). There were lots of soldiers in their desert fatigues selling poppies. Then in the evening, we watched a bit of Strictly Come Dancing and there they were again in the front row. 

Soldiers, soldiers everywhere.

After our daughter went to bed, we watched the final episode of The Wire, the one where the useless, corrupt and incompetent take over the reins of power at the expense of just about everybody except those who are incompetent, corrupt and useless. 

Last night I saw the typhoon in the Philippines reported on the news, a disaster striking the most fatalist and hope-free country I have ever visited, a country where the incompetent, corrupt and useless have ruled  for hundreds of years (with a little help from the Spanish, Japanese and Americans along the way) -"There is no hope in the Philippines" the locals used to tell us when we visited.

But last night, there on the TV were the Filipino soldiers who were helping with the aid effort, looking terrifically smart and busy. It reminded me of the Indonesian tsunami where some in the military were more concerned with their own appearance than with helping survivors. That might not be the case with the Philippines, but it sure looked that way.

And the reporters on the news spinning tales of heroism and effort and survival reminded me of Scott, the Baltimore Sun reporter on the Wire who rises to the top despite his dishonesty and cowardice. Again, it probably isn't the case, but it sure felt that way. Give it a few days and we'll have the miracle survivors, the prayers to god and the hallelujahs. 

I've been looking at old family albums this week - from my English side and my German side. My English grandfather fought in the First World War. I still have his medal. So instead of wearing a poppy, to his memory, to how lucky he was to survive, and to the memory of the friends he lost and the suffering he saw and endured, here's Wilfred Owen's Dulce Decorum Est (and the 10,000 Maniacs song version at the bottom of the page)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!---An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime... Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--- My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

And here's Robert Fisk writing about his father and why he doesn't wear a poppy.

...as the years passed, old Bill Fisk became very ruminative about the Great War. He learned that Haig had lied, that he himself had fought for a world that betrayed him, that 20,000 British dead on the first day of the Somme – which he mercifully avoided because his first regiment, the Cheshires, sent him to Dublin and Cork to deal with another 1916 "problem" – was a trashing of human life. 

In hospital and recovering from cancer, I asked him once why the Great War was fought. "All I can tell you, fellah," he said, "was that it was a great waste." And he swept his hand from left to right. Then he stopped wearing his poppy. I asked him why, and he said that he didn't want to see "so many damn fools" wearing it – he was a provocative man and, sadly, I fell out with him in his old age. What he meant was that all kinds of people who had no idea of the suffering of the Great War – or the Second, for that matter – were now ostentatiously wearing a poppy for social or work-related reasons, to look patriotic and British when it suited them, to keep in with their friends and betters and employers.


Felix said...

Your first line "I took a wrong turning" seems to be an apt way of describing events which can lead to wars, how wars are perpetuated etc etc. A wrong turning gone very very wrong. I feel awkward at this time of year as I don't wear a poppy, although I'd wear a white one if I could find one. There are so many manufactured taboos in our society which take courage to break.

Yes, Owen had it right I think - the old lie. Thanks for posting this, food for thought.

colin pantall said...

Thank you so much, Lucy. It's all those little things that make a difference and counteract those manufactured taboos - and this is one that has been quite consciously manufactured over the last 30 years.

John MacPherson said...

At the bottom of the hill from my house, where it joins the main road, there was a death. A young man, loved by his family , a teacher, loved by his pupils.

A car driver hit him as he rode his motorcycle.

His family erected a discrete little cross in the grass, and every so often refresh the small bunch of flowers that are tied to the low fence. I see it daily. As a motorcyclist it is a continual reminder of my vulnerability, and as a car driver it is a constant reminder to me of the vulnerability of others.

Often on a grey winter day as I wait at the junction the small flash of colour is a welcome antidote to the pervading misery of lashing rain. I dont know him, but i always wonder about him, and the devotion of his family to his memory.

Yesterday I learned that there has been discussion in the community, and at Local Council level, to order the removal of these items and forbid their replacement.

We seem 'comfortable' with wearing a poppy in memory of many anonymous people, yet seem to struggle when it is about one individual person - and that person is not us.

colin pantall said...

Thanks John - that is so true. Why is there such resistance to this small and moving memorial?

John MacPherson said...

Why? I suspect because it reminds us too closely of our own mortality. That it need not be the extraordinary events of war that takes our life, but the mundane and (often) careless actions of an ordinary person that may cause our demise.