Thursday, 11 November 2010

Naturally the Foundation...

Paul Nash, Totes Meer

Remembrance Day today. Yesterday, not my normal day in at the university, I am in to attend a meeting, then to talk to some prospective postgrads. I have this strange fetish of wearing jackets (I like pockets) and, as it happens, there is a buttonhole on my lapel into which I insert a poppy I had bought I'd forgotten where.

I notice I am in a minority of something approaching one. It may be because I have a jacket and lapels and others don't. It is impossible not to think of Larkin's One dark November day when he is about to be snatched off to the sunshine of Bombay (Mumbai wouldn't have rhymed, but then these were pre-Mumbai days), to be greeted by Professor Lal / (He once met Morgan Forster), / My contact and my pal.

Those lines frame the relevant part, which is:

   Did I recall the date -
That day when Queen and Minister
   And Band of Guards and all
Still act their solemn-sinister
   Wreath-rubbish at Whitehall

I always think of Larkin's generation as thick in beer and fags and dismissing any opposition with, 'Bloody rubbish!' which, when said loud enough and often enough, can be rather effective. I mean only a fool would think the opposite, wouldn't he? Don't give me that nonsense. My childhood was a forgotten boredom, etc.

So there it is, the solemn-sinister rubbish. And I walk around with this patch of solemn-sinister rubbish, not even a bona fide Brit, but an incomer Hungarian, sporting an emblem of remembrance.

Because I do, sort of, remember them. They were just before my time, of course, but were very much in my parents', and though they did not set out specifically to save my parents or indeed any of their ilk (to think so would be sentimentality), they did their part in saving them, and, in so doing, saved me. And the poppy is a small thing really. I have a faint memory of slipping a £1 piece into the box, not thinking too hard about it, supposing it would go to someone associated with the soldiers of the last world war, or some in this, who could do with it. I can't help feeling pleased about being alive and being grateful.

I can see what Larkin meant, of course. He meant the imperial bit about being a skint Great Power that brings its troops home for lack of money making a big imperial fuss. He wrote the poem in 1961 after all. And he was just the generation to be fed up of war-hero dads with their tales of derring-do (not that his own father did anything of the sort.)

Yes, but every nation does the same. People say it is glorifying war. Well, courage in combat is not without glory. Never has been without glory if glory means what I think it means. Nevertheless, few people want to start wars just so they can die gloriously, like swimmers into cleanness leaping, to quote Rupert Brooke. It is not an invitation to an orgy of militarism that all decent folk should shudder at. I mean the decent folk who spend their hours playing ever more realistic shoot-em up military games on the computer.

Of course war is misery and murder, but so is peace sometimes. Which may be why wars sometimes break out.

I do not forget Wilfred Owen's

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

Not the high zest then. Not the ardency. But at least the memory.


J.Marles said...

I always thought that the speaker in "Naturally the Foundation Will Bear Your Expenses" was a persona, not Larkin. In fact the speaker represents pretty much everything Larkin despised. Larkin (born 1922) really was the war generation (although he didn't fight in it). The speaker of the poem is a jet-setting, left-wing 1960s academic who regards British tradition as a childish and politically dubious relic of the past. The references in the poem are all to left-liberal cosmopolitanism: E.M. Forster, Berkeley University, maybe Chatto and Windus, the Indian professor whose name (though Larkin may not have known this) means "red". So I think Larkin was very much in favour of Remembrance Day (see his World War One poem "MCMXIV") and is having a satirical dig at those who think celebrating it is beneath them.

A. N. Author said...

I noted that academics found it hard to put a poppy on their clothing (pin supplied) when I was RLFing up there, George. One even said to me - 'O, I meant to get get one of those.' 'You meant to did you?' I replied in that slightly aggressive northern way I have.

When I was a kid I used to think it gloryfied war; now I'm a bit bigger I think of called-up lads sent out to die.

Dafydd John said...

I have no wish to begin a discussion on the nature of war - only to say that it is still an ambition of mine to be able to declare, one day, that I am a pacifist.

But what is worrying at the moment is the nature of remembrance. Take the media, every single person appearing on the BBC at this time has to wear a poppy. There is nothing wrong with wearing a poppy, but surely for it to mean anything it has to be a voluntary decision for us all. I choose not to wear the poppy myself because I can't ignore the military jingoism in the commemorations, a jingoism with which I'm very uncomfortable. But I will make a financial contribution, because the state which claims to care so much for these ex-soldiers, clearly don't.

There is no place for an alternative view on the BBC, or ITV come to that.

Also, I heard some school children on the radio yesterday thanking some veterans for 'fighting' for them and their country. They all thanked them for 'fighting'. Is this what children are taught in our schools? It was jarring.

Everyone, it seems to me, has to take the same line and to veer from that is to lay yourself open to some pretty choice insults.

George S said...

J. Marles - My thought was that the poem was ironic about itself to some degree, especially in the line "my contact and my pal". But Profesor Lal did exist - I once met someone who had met him -and Larkin was sufficiently well known to be invited to such place. I though Larkin might share the speaker's point of view about Remembrance Day ("we brought our troops home for lack of money"), not as far as the soldiers were concerned, but in terms of the ceremony. I also remembered the early Kingsley Amis and how Amis was a mocker of establishment habits and practices. Larkin would have shared that with him possibly as late as 1961.

And then there is a genuine Larkin tone in the poem. The voice seems to be his. But in other respects I think you are right.

My argument is that despite the ceremonial aspect of Remembrance Day there is something owing.

Is there somewhere a photograph of Larkin in a duffel coat? And is he wearing a poppy?

George S said...

Dafydd - Interesting about the ambition. The enemy of promise is the pram in the hall, said Connolly. What is the enemy of ambition?

There is an honourable tradition of pacifism of course - my grandfather-in-law was one, so maybe one our children might develop the strain - but I don't think unilateral British (or Welsh) pacifism would have achieved much in WWII. The BBC is in a difficult position being a direct recipient of state money. Even so, I didn't see anyone on Have I Got News For You yesterday wearing a poppy. It's just the official BBC representatives like the newscasters, etc. who are, I supposed, obliged. I don't know about ITV, but there, I imagine, sheer populism might be a factor.

I certainly wouldn't insist people wear poppies (my earliest, dearest and best mentor in poetry, Martin Bell, who actually was a combatant in the war on the Italian front, wrote a poem about refusing a poppy.) I just note its passing. The 21st century is age of postmodern forgetting, so the ideological opposition seems secondary to me.

I was out in Norwich and, later, Wymondham. Very few people had poppies, just the old. Except for one girl on the bus who was wearing one in her deerstalker. But then she was wearing combat fatigues too.

Symbolism changes over generations. With the young I expect it is boredom and indifference rather than ideological opposition that makes he difference.It's just another thing that's not cool. I suspect that once the present monarch goes so might the poppies. But to me those soldiers sacrificed their lives for something, that something including me.

J.Marles said...

No, I'm afraid I'm not convinced, George. The speaker is not Larkin. Larkin hated "abroad" and I doubt you'd get him "dwindling off down Auster" on a Comet anywhere, let alone to the "sunshine of Bombay". I think the speaker is the English cousin of Jake Balokowsky, the careerist American Eng Lit academic in "Posterity". There's the same "internationalism" (Jake talks about wanting to take up a post in Tel Aviv), the same concern for personal financial gain (the title "Naturally the Foundation Will Bear Your Expenses"), and the same contempt for the old and traditional (in this case, Remembrance Day; in Jake's case, Larkin himself, "One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys").

I think the speaker is no more Larkin than the Duke in "My Last Duchess" is Robert Browning. Both Browning and the Duke were enthusiastic about Renaissance art, but that's about all the similarities between them. The speaker in "Naturally the Foundation" has a tone of contempt which is quite Larkinesque, but so does Jake Balokowsky dismissing Larkin himself ("Just let me put this bastard on the skids").

George S said...

Well, I can see that, J.M. Yes, there is a resemblance to Jake Balokowsky. . But as far as Remembrance Day goes. You don't buy that either? You think Larkin would have been wearing a poppy and keeping the silence?

J.Marles said...

Yes, I do see him wearing a poppy. As far as I remember, two of Larkin's favourite poets were Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. He would also have known some of his contemporaries at Oxford who were killed in the Second World War.

There was an anti-Establishment, anti-upper and upper-middle class streak in Larkin, but he's also deeply traditionalist in many ways, both conservative and Conservative. A lot of his rancour is reserved for what he thinks of as a left-liberal, bien-pensant, Modernist establishment, as in "Naturally the Foundation Will Bear Your Expenses". He likes his rituals and traditions ("Church Going" - even though he's an atheist; the ritual of the British summer holiday in "To the Sea", "Still going on, all of it, still going on!"; the ritual of county shows in "Show Saturday":

Let it stay hidden there like strength, below
Sale-bills and swindling; something people do,
Not noticing how time's rolling smithy-smoke
Shadows much greater gestures; something they share
That breaks ancestrally each year into
Regenerate union. Let it always be there.)

George S said...

OK, JM. You have convinced me. Thank you.

Angela France said...

I wear a poppy. I marched against going into Afghanistan and Iraq and am very close to being a pacifist but as long as we have armed forces who are bound to do the government's bidding, I believe the families of those killed, and the (oh, so young) people who are maimed, must be supported. Poppy appeals would be unnecessary if they were as well cared for as they should be - but they are not.

One of the things that bothers me about today's soundbite attention span society is the perceived need to repackage everything to be populist and sentimental: the RBL have always done a great job at looking after the survivors and families from all our conflicts - but now we have 'help for heroes' as an alternative. Why?

I work for a charity and my office is in a city resource centre tenanted by co-ops, not for profits, and other charities - a traditional stronghold of the left and progressives. Yesterday though, about half of those of us in the building gathered to stand for the two minutes silence so the lines of anti/pro poppy wearing are not as clear cut as it would sometimes seem.

I know my own feelings about poppy day are not clear cut either. My father was in the army (in Korea when I was born) and was later a very proud standard bearer for the RBL so it is always a personal act of remembrance for him too.

Nicola said...

I buy a poppy but don't wear it. I can't explain this exactly. My father was in the army - I grew up in army garrisons with the Regiment - our fathers, our mothers' husbands - often away, called away sometimes suddenly, disappearing during the night. My younger son goes to Sandhurst next year. I work through poetry in a prison where some of the men continue to live with the invisible scars of war both recent and longer ago. There will be increasing numbers returning to us over the next decade. They will be members of our communties. I believe we have a responsibility for their care.

Poet in Residence said...

I can never never never reconcile the blundering Haig who sent those poor cannon fodder boys over the top and to certain suicide with the Haig who doles out the red flowers. The sheer numbers -1,250,000 young men killed at the Somme (600,000 of ours and 650,000 of theirs) make this quite unacceptable). How my two grandfathers survived is something of a miracle. And I never saw either of them wearing the red flower.

George S said...

Well, you see this is exactly what makes me feel like a foreigner. I understand what everybody says and understand why they say it. I feel not in the least critical of any of your reasons. If it were a matter of forgetting it would be different but none of you are likely to forget.

I have given my personal reasons. Maybe only foreigners should volunteer to wear the poppy. It's your poppy and your soldiers and I guess you do what you think best with it and them.

England and the English generally look better from abroad - depends where, of course - but there are worse places, worse societies, stupider more venomous generals and politicians.

No reason not to make it better, of course.

Poet in Residence said...

One must ask the question:
Why is the poppy charity tin or box brought out at all? We can remember the fallen and we should and I always do. But I am of the opinion that the politicians, people like Blair, who send young men to these wars should make sure that they are treated fairly when they return. There should be jobs for all, and that includes the wounded, and also free medical aid or whatever else in the way of welfare, compensation, etc., etc. is required.
Those who sent the soldiers, airmen and sailors should have the courage to at least make sure that they are properly cared for afterwards. There should be no need for General "send the buggers over the top" Haig's charity.

Dafydd John said...

I tried, and failed, to post over the weekend. Here's one more attempt.


I checked: they were all wearing poppies on HIGNFY! Can't think why you would claim otherwise.


We are saying pretty much the same thing, I think. That's why I said that I have no problem with making a financial contribution. The hypocrisy of the state is sickening.

The earliest surviving Welsh poetry, that of Aneirin and Taliesin, deal with war, grief and loss. How little things have changed.

George S said...

Dafydd - HIGNFY=Have I Got News For You? I am not sure where I claim what you say I claim. I didn't actually see it, but it is a BBC programme reflecting on the news so I wouldn't be surprised if there was a suggestion that they might wear poppies. (Did all BBC quiz programmes do so? Mastermind? QI?)But then they might just have chosen to do so. Do you think they were obliged to do so?

I think this works both ways, and maybe that is where we started out. In some places it is an obligation or an implied obligation to wear them, in others there is an implied obligation not to. Social pressure works in various directions, given your circumstances.

Dafydd John said...

I don't want to misrepresent what you said George, but your exact words were:

"Even so, I didn't see anyone on Have I Got News For You yesterday wearing a poppy."

Anyhow, to answer your question, yes I think they probably were obliged to do so. How can 100% of BBC presenters and contributors be so unrepresentative of society, unless it is actually required of them to wear a poppy?

George S said...

Then I wonder whether we were watching the same edition, Dafydd.

Dafydd John said...

It's interesting that BBC4 gave us Wilfred Owen and Keith Douglas over the last few days. Obviously, poetry is still regarded as an important means of expressing our deepest and most profound feelings at the worst (as well as the best) of times.