Nothing on the booking form or accompanying correspondence gave any clue as to who my audience would be on Thursday morning last week. I just turned up at Kenwood House on the edge of Hampstead Heath ready to give my German memorial talk to the monthly Arts Society. As we stood in the frosty sunshine waiting for the house to open, the Chair mentioned almost in passing, “This is North London, so most of our members are Jewish.”
It’s the eleventh of the eleventh, one hundred years on from the day when three signatures scribbled urgently on a piece of paper in a train carriage in France, finally brought the horrors of the First World War to an end.
It’s Remembrance time. Red paper and enamel poppies are blooming on lapels all over the nation as people remember those who fought in conflict, and the huge sacrifices they made. Last night, the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall opened with a stunning rendition of “I vow to thee my country”. First, just three slow and quiet brass instruments; then violins joined in; then drums, voices, and finally the whole orchestra played, while flag- and oversized headwear-bearing members of the forces, marched into the hall in step with the music. We were only four minutes into the hundred-minute programme and the lump in my throat was already swollen and wobbling out of control. Gosh we do this so well.
The end of October / beginning of November is traditionally the time of year when people from all different cultures think of, and remember, the dead. For Pagans it is Samhain; for Christians, All Souls; for Mexicans, the Day of the Dead. It was / is believed that the veils between the living and the dead become thinnest now, allowing people to gain access to their dead loved ones. In modern, western, secular societies, it generally morphs into a black and orange bonanza of carved pumpkins and ghouls, a commercial excuse for a bright explosion of fireworks and increasingly terrifying costumes.
Death, in our culture, is widely seen as a negative; the Grim Reaper to be feared or fought. Or it is an ending to be deferred, as long as possible, at whatever cost. It is the opposite of birth, and not to be celebrated as a portal between what we call ‘life’ and a different form of life beyond. For so many people, it is just one final curtain fall, an over and out… THE END.
Of course none of us know though! The most inevitable aspect of life is also the least knowable… such a wonderful design. However, I believe we are missing out on a hugely important level to life by relegating death to the role of a big full stop.
It is Remembrance season and once again I find myself feeling slightly uncomfortable, a bit pedantic, no doubt irritating and at worst offensively unpatriotic. And yet Remembrance is one of my favourite themes and both my grandfathers fought in the World Wars. So why can’t I jump whole-heartedly into the seas of poppies and poppy wearers, dignitaries and wreaths, that stream through our streets to lap up against memorials and into churches each November? Of course I want to ‘remember’ and acknowledge all the soldiers who died or were wounded serving their country, but discordant questions waft like dried leaves or ghosts through the architecture of British Remembrance rituals. So once again I ask myself and all of us collectively: what exactly are we remembering, and to what end? Remembrance is by nature vital, solemn, beautiful, meaningful… in many ways we do it so well. But beneath the tradition, ceremony and ritual conveyed through a distinctly military visual language, the message has also, in today’s world, become slightly flawed, inadequate and at times hypocritical.
I am on a very long walk – 600km so far – and as my legs go through the motions of left right, left right, left right I find myself thinking about my German grandfather going through the same physical motions as he marched into Russia with his Wehrmacht troops in 1941. I am walking West across the north of Spain on a pilgrimage to the spiritual destination of Santiago de Compostela. He was marching East across Russia to capture the strategically important destination of Moscow.