We spent a few days of half term in Whitby with my in-laws; staying in a former guesthouse with an improbable number of stairs, eating indecent quantities of fish and chips, and enjoying the unseasonably warm late October weather pottering around on the beach in a manner more befitting the summer holidays.
Being a Geordie, Whitby was never “the seaside” to me, but my husband spent a week there each summer as a child in a B&B run by former farmers from his village; his parents, in turn, having gone there themselves when they were young. So there were, for some of us at least, ghosts of our own pasts among the spirits attending the elaborately dressed Victorian ladies and be-cutlassed pirates cramming the narrow cobbled streets for Hallowe’en’s Goth weekend.
One conversation with my father-in-law about a Fifties day trip led, somehow, onto a story of his own grandmother’s family: a small girl, caught by the hair in mill machinery, and pulled free by two relatives. All three were believed fatally injured until a doctor, viewing them in the morgue, realised that the child was still alive, lying there between the corpses of her mother and older sister.
Perhaps, somewhere, the press coverage of it which my father-in-law remembered hearing spoken of features in a museum exhibit of a Yorkshire town’s industrial heritage; perhaps the story is a footnote in the annals of health and safety progress over the past century or more, but though the consequences of this horror devastated two generations after it, now, those initially involved long dead, it has faded almost out of memory.
The story itself shocked me. How could it not? But so too, initially, did the fact that I hadn’t known of it before. Since then I have been thinking about what we choose to pass on and what we allow to be forgotten; what we choose to remember, and how, and why.
It is the time of year for remembrance. Poppies have been on the lapels of TV presenters for the past week, and are appearing on those around me in the run up to Sunday and 11 November. Friends who have spent half term in London have shared pictures on Twitter and Facebook of the tide of ceramic poppies encircling the Tower of London, while I’ve been using inspiration from others’ crafting how-to’s in order to plan children’s activities for groups I’m involved in.
Haunted as a teenager and young woman by the writing of Vera Brittain and others, and with the knowledge of grandparents who fought and survived in the Second World War, I have always – and, until recently, unquestioningly – worn a poppy. I’ve taken part in Remembrance Day parades at small municipal monuments; bowed my head and wept during the two minutes of silence and the heartbreaking poignancy of the Last Post. So why does the intensifying media focus, the apparent conscription of all into poppy-wearing compliance, feel nigglingly uncomfortable? Is it some perversity of my own that makes me now, treacherously, wonder who is honoured by the little scrap of red paper on my coat or the beautifully curated public displays and commemorations? There have been conflicts since and there are conflicts still which may fail to capture our imagination with the exquisitely brutal juxtaposition of civilisation and barbarity of trench warfare, but which claim lives just as real, just as innocent, just as precious as those slaughtered at the Somme.
What is remembrance for? It can comfort those who were bereaved by their loss. It can honour a sacrifice made willingly to further a greater cause, and the tragedy of those who had no choice. It can, in certain circumstances, allow us to learn from past mistakes; pledge not to repeat those same mistakes in the future at the cost of yet more lives. But if none of those are achieved, then the act of remembrance feels perilously like distraction; indulgence almost. Are we appropriating a grief that is not truly ours? Are we coming close to glorifying something which, if worthy of glorification, should at least first be fully understood? Is being moved in and of itself worthwhile if it doesn’t move us to anything?
From a day of remembrance, we seem to be edging into a season of it. Whether this is temporary, due to the fact that we have reached the centenary of the start of WW1, remains to be seen. There seem to be other factors, though. I am conscious of a creeping nostalgia, in a world of nebulous and neighbouring threat, for the certainty of defined and apparently ordered enmity. We are no longer actually remembering the First World War, for none of us do; we are recreating, instead, a facsimile of it through our 21st century sensibilities and preoccupations. We can use technology and a new approach to history not only to identify with those involved but to discern an inevitability, form and purpose in a long-past war which those happening right now would show are simply never there.
I can’t mourn the deaths of those long-dead soldiers in my family, any more than my husband could for those women needlessly lost working in a dangerous factory. I can’t mourn someone I never knew. Nonetheless, I will continue to wear a poppy for my own, contradictory, reasons of respect, sorrow and gratitude. I’ll donate, while angry that charity is needed to support those whose service is taken without adequate return. I’ll explain to my children why we stand, silent, in church as the names of those from our parish who have been killed in the two world wars and since are read out by someone who knew many of them. But I hope that we don’t fall into the trap of romanticising the many hundred-years anniversaries between now and November 2018. I hope that we don’t, by concentrating too closely on the horror of the past, allow ourselves the resigned luxury of impotence. We do no justice to those who died by ascribing their death to something uniquely and unavoidably awful, turning our face and our tears resolutely away from the muddle, chaos and death around us now