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.