11 November, 2005

Flanders fields

As usual, nobody respected the two-minute silence at work this morning. For all the time I've been there they've never once made an effort to commemorate such an event, nor the other two-minute silences that seem to be turning up with increasingly regularity in the national calendar. Nobody was wearing a poppy either. Nobody ever does.

I'm pretty sure this isn't out of ignorance, more of not wanting to imbue the place with any acknowledgement of reality. I'm all for this sentiment, if that's what it is, because I hate to see real life intruding into my current workplace, be it through celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries, weddings or even the purchase of a new car or item of clothing. It's not somewhere I want to be anyway, so why dignify it with more than the barest of recognition?

Remembrance day has swum in and out of my consciousness down the years, starting I suppose in the early 1990s when I read in my local paper that the traditional display of wreaths and poppies placed around the base of the war monument in my hometown had been "brutally vandalised". In truth all that had happened was that the display had been kicked around a bit, but the newspaper had a field day, as did the batteries of "I am quite frankly disgusted" letterwriters. I was more intrigued by the news which emerged several months later that the people who'd committed the deed were all people from my school, including several close friends. They did it as "an act of anti-war protest", with which I had a great deal of sympathy, though remember this was the time of the first Gulf War, when our school radio was closed down for fear of broadcasting "destabilising" content, i.e. Paul McCartney's 'Pipes Of Peace'.

The war monument in question had been the subject of an original school play in which I'd taken part a few years earlier, and which had, rather ambitiously, gone "on the road" to the West German town with which my own town was twinned. What our continental cousins made of squeaky-voiced, woefully-delivered recitations of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon must remain a historical curiosity. What they made of appallingly unsubtle and poorly-realized tableaux depicting their country's butchery of Europe was made clear enough in their instant and joyful booing.

I know far more now than I did then about the history of warfare, in part thanks to the discovery, which my own parents kept from me for some reason, that one of my grandfathers was a prisoner-of-war from 1942-45. He was captured after the fall of Singapore and shunted around the Japanese Empire with its myriad of miserable detention centres and torture camps, somehow surviving and somehow keeping a diary of his ordeal (an act punishable by immediate execution). It's only recently that I've conspired to make an effort to read the diary myself - the closest I'll ever get to the man, as he died before I was old enough to remember him.

His experiences have undoubtedly helped to round out an understanding of the Second World War I've already spent a great deal of my life reading and writing about at school, university and for my own edification. Yet it's still too remote, and I stupidly wavered the chance to get a bit closer to it all via a 6th form journey round the battlefields of Northern France because - sigh - I was having trouble dealing with the advances of a girl I quite liked but who was tangled up with (of all people) the bass player from The Architects Of Smile and who were both booked on the trip. I sort of compensated for it by sporting a white poppy for much of November 2003, a fashion item that was doing the rounds of the common room and which, bizarrely, were being supplied by Mr Gardner, the religious studies teacher. I've got it to this day, still partly stained by some gravy from the 6th form canteen. I wore it again a few times, once when I was out shopping in Tesco to looks of horror from several pincer-faced pensioners.

It's still my ambition to visit Flanders fields some day. It's also my ambition to get a job some place somewhere that I don't have to treat as a brutal and uncompromising adjunct to the rest of my life. Days like today place my own predicament in the context it deserves.


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