Thursday 12 November 2009

almost silence

Armistice Day. At eleven o'clock, I pulled down the sash window in the kitchen and leaned out. Big Ben chimed the hour from the radio beside me, and a jay on a chimneypot on the house opposite rasped a response to the chimes. Then after the fifth chime it cocked its tail and dropped into space, unfolding its wings as it went.

Robins singing. The hum of traffic. A door slamming shut.

Then the radio came to life again.

At Newbridge Grammar School, several of the older teachers had fought in the war, though they didn't talk about it. On Armistice Day, Latin Jones, the deputy head, would give a little speech in assembly, about his time in the jungle and his dead comrades, always ending with Binyon's verse from For The Fallen:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Although we knew that war was definitely a Bad Thing, we were (or at least I was) ardent for some desperate glory. Fortunately, probably, that desperate glory eluded me. And now people young enough to be my children are fighting and dying.

Katie's school re-scheduled the minute's silence, as the official one coincided with their break time. So they had it at twelve o'clock, instead, and switched off their monitors for a minute.


  1. The school 're-scheduled' it? I read that with some shock. How can anyone 're-schedule' a national event? It's like saying that 'We'll postpone British Summer Time for a day' (BST being another Great War innovation, I understand) or 'We'll screen the Queen's Christmas Speech next Thursday because it clashes with a re-run of The Muppet Show'. Or, 'We'll ignore the air-raid warning because it'll interfere with the children's Let's-Pretent-How-It-Was-During-The-War fun lesson.

    I'm probably verging on the offensive here, but I feel strangely aghast about this. It's like a well-known London gender hospital 're-scheduling' people's appointments on some whim. A bit 1984-ish. Oh dear, I'll shut up. Sorry.


  2. A Science teacher at the Comprehensive I attended was a tail gunner in WW2; my brother was "fortunate" enough to get him; I'm not sure how much science he learned, but he learned a heck of a lot about being the tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber!

    (I was fortunate enough to get the one science teacher who was the stuff of teenage fantasies. My god (so to speak), she was hot!)

    One of the surprises in my life was discovering that my Granddad didn't serve in the supply corp. Which might explain why he never spoke about what he did in the war.

    That war shaped so much of what it means it to be British; it redefined a national identity in a way that the Great War didn't. I think a nation was forged in steel at that moment. So much of my childhood was shaped by that war - everything from my Grandparent's service to the tales of the jailing of that old bastard the fascist at the end of the street. He used to lean out of his window and shout to the children about the "niggers and kikes". Memorial day was something we always attended; I could never figure out why: no one in the family died in the war. As I got older I realized it was for those who gave their lives so we may bitch and moan about the national government. I once came real close to beating a friend of mine; he wanted to take a piss against the town memorial.

    That old fascist would have a fit if he knew I'd married a Jewish lass. Hell, he had a fit when a black family moved into he town! (I distinctly remember being beaten for being friends with their kid; jeez, that was one of the more painful beatings I've endured). His anti-semitism was heartfelt and oh so obvious. I sincerely hope he died a miserable old man.

    With today's relativistic cultural interpretation of history, Britain has changed. Whatever relative nonsense they call it, it seems the Britain I grew up in has gone. Winston Churchill has become a demon, not a savior, Montgomery a villain, instead of a flawed General. Wellington and Nelson, I guess are past the purview of the righteously indignant.

    ... And so it came to pass that the Great Britain of my youth become so much bent aluminum.

    Carolyn Ann

    Perhaps this is not the venue for such words; if tHt is the case, I apologize.

  3. This is the same school, Lucy, that agreed to the children's demands for a graffiti wall, and then paid an artist to do the graffiti for them....

  4. That's all right, Carolyn Ann, I think we're pretty much in accord.

  5. ...I would very much have liked to have heard the teachers' war stories, of course; but it was hardly the sort of thing you could ask. The quietest and most distant of the teachers was apparently in the SAS...

  6. The carpentry teacher used to stand up and tell us the names of his boys that had died in the war. He remembered the last work they did and was always crying by the end of his speach.

    It was a holiday here yesterday, but not a lot of people join the procession - even with a free drink afterwards!

  7. I actually feel quite disturbed by my words. I wrestled with them, but felt I had write what I felt.

    Some might say I don't have the right to say what I did, but I have remained a British "subject" (you're never a citizen, in the UK) despite everything. I will become a US citizen, but only when I am ready to say that America is my home. I passed that point a few years ago, but still, I delay.

    I love America, I love what it stands for. I love its Constitution, and its flaws. Others ridicule this nation for its excesses; its Constitution and its military reach. Others, inside America, ridicule their fellow citizens for being religious, or for being atheist. Nationalistic, jingoistic. And American.

    When I moved the US, my Dad, a Scotsman, told me "don't criticize America until you've been there for 20 years". He told me that on the walkway to the airplane that would take me there. I left England reluctantly, but with the eagerness of youth. 20 years later, through thick and thin, I have developed a love of this nation that astounds me. America has not always been fair to me; it certainly has not provided anything like a decent safety blanket as the British social system would have. But I love this nation with a passion.

    And yet I cannot leave the England, Scotland, Britain, I knew, behind.

    It troubles me that I can even contemplate a Great Isle as bent, weakened aluminum. (I have embraced American English with enthusiasm!) When the fog descends over the Channel, Europe is, indeed, cut off.

    Carolyn Ann

    PS I have one or two stories about SAS soldiers I used to work with. And I've met, in my travels around the US, more than one or two SEALS. A decent lot, indeed! For myself, the Royal Navy said "Thanks for turning up, but..."

  8. I'm sorry. This is a difficult subject for me.

    Once upon a time, I was in my office overlooking the bull at Bowling Green, at the bottom of Broadway and Manhattan Island. An English chap had invented some computer network monitoring device, and a salesman I knew thought I might be interested. For two reasons: the guy was English (Birmingham, if memory serves), and the product was useful.

    The product might have been useful, but he was not. Despite this being his first trip the US, he felt, within "British company" it was perfectly okay to "slag" the US. It was not.

    He offended me in a manner I've never felt since a couple of Investment Banking big-wigs made racist remarks in an elevator I was in. (They didn't know I was British, until I stepped out of the elevator and bid them "Good day!" (racism is not, it appears, confined to skin color). ) I just about threw the fool out of my office!

    He's in America for less than 24 hours and feels free to criticize it?!? I was outraged. I still am! It's about 13 or 14 years later!

    But when someone criticizes Britain without knowing the place - I am equally offended.

    I wish to be a citizen of what of I think is one of the greatest nations in the history of mankind; I want to be an active part of the greatest political experiment ever produced. I cannot conceive of ever accepting the British limitations on freedom; I am spoiled by the American ideas of it. But I don't think it fair to America, to each and every American, or to its Constitution, if I harbor even a mote of
    loyalty to the nation of my birth. And I do.

    Carolyn Ann

  9. I was a tad aghast at the 'rescheduling' too...isn't the whole point of the thing that it cuts into our day to day lives, forces itself upon our humdrum schedules - insisting we stop? Thus embodying our respect and reverance for the importance of the sacrifice it represents.

    I guess the school would defend itself by saying 'It was either that or we didn't mark it all'.

  10. I wonder if there is a more ambivalent feeling about the wars in France, Anji? -they didn't have a particularly happy or 'glorious' time in either of them. I was also struck by seeing memorials that commemorated soldiers, Resistance fighters, forced labourers and civilian casualties, which gave an impression of a far more diverse form of struggle than the British one.

    I'm not ignoring you, Carolyn Ann, just acknowledging!

    Again, Josephine, you're quite right. Why can we see these things as so evidently wrong, and yet the school admin fail to recognise it?