The time to remember that ‘to the world he was a soldier, to us he was the world’

‘Tis the season to remember… and yet, this year, for the first time, I forgot. Remembrance Sunday was almost over before I suddenly remembered to remember. 

Locked down at home, I was definitely silent. But maybe the official 2-minute silence at 11am passed me by because in my talks and blogs I am frequently remembering. In fact, ‘looking back’ has become part of my identity, my expertise even. So much so that I have been selected, as one of nine speakers, to do a Tedx Talk on the subject: Facing the past in order to create a fairer future.’ It’s an exciting opportunity though unfortunately lockdown has forced the proposed date of 29th November to be postponed until the spring. It will happen though… like so many other things in this disorientating Covid world in which we are currently immersed. 

In the meantime, if you haven’t attended my talk on How Germany Remembers and would like to, there’s a chance to hear it online on Friday 13th November at 11.30am. It is being hosted by the National Army Museum in London where I spoke last year. You can read more about it here and you can register for free here.

But back to remembering… or forgetting in my case. Maybe there are some of us who feel a little tired of remembering. Or maybe it’s the national narrative we tell ourselves each year, that is tiring. This is one of the points made in Radio 4’s ‘Our Sacred Story’ in which Alex Ryrie, Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University, suggests that the Second World War is both our modern sacred narrative as well as the shaper of our collective sense of what constitutes good and evil. 

This summer we celebrated the 75thanniversaries of VE and VJ Day. In fact, we’ve done loads of national remembering over the past years. So aside from Remembrance fatigue, I’m wondering if Covid’s restrictive squeeze on lungs, lives and events alike, is also impacting what and how we remember. Lockdown has been turning mindsets inwards, shifting focus and values onto all that is immediately around us – family, gardens, quiet streets or empty skies. Maybe this new way of being is merging effortlessly with the existing sub-stream of thought that strives for essence rather than glitzy, sparkling veneer. 

Looking at the BBC coverage of Remembrance Sunday, it is clear that even our mainstream institutions of commemoration are being forcibly stripped of excess. I salute the efforts of all involved in trying to evoke the all-too familiar rituals, yet nothing could distract from the extraordinary visuals of sparsity. Watching the morning ceremonies at the Cenotaph, one could be forgiven for not knowing where one was. The eerily still Whitehall dotted with a few socially-distanced, poppy- and wreath-bearing dignitaries resembled a set construction of a movie whose budget couldn’t stretch to more actors. And in Westminster Abbey, the Queen, bless her, hatted and masked up in black, couldn’t help but look a little like Darth Vader as she gently touched the white myrtle wreath that was then laid by a masked serviceman upon the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. 

I couldn’t sit through the empty-seated Royal Albert Hall festivities that in the past have both grated and made me cry against my will. Instead, I sought the essence of remembrance in other areas. I soon found it in the podcast, We have ways of making you think. In their Episode 203 on Remembrance, historian James Holland and comedian Al Murray were in conversation with Glyn Prysor, former historian of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Between them they brought to life the history of the ubiquitous white headstones that fill acres and acres of land both here and on the continent. 

Set up in 1917 while World War One was still raging, the process of burying in the region of a million war dead, half of whose remains were missing, demanded a very new way of thinking. In a departure from the Victorian hierarchy of worthiness that extended into death and resulted in the common man just being ‘bunged’ into a mass grave, the Commission made a move towards inclusion. It wanted to evoke the sense that everyone had contributed to the war and everyone was equal in death. The outcome was a uniform design for all headstones that would make no distinction between wealthy and poor. This was of course deeply controversial. Individuality would only be marked through the listing of name, rank, unit, regimental badge and date of death. An appropriate religious symbol could also be added, or not. And a space at the bottom was dedicated to personal messages from family members, some of whom would never be able to travel to the continent to visit the graves of their loved ones. 

Covid has been highlighting the need for a similar leveling process across our hierarchies of wealth, fairness and opportunity. As in war, it is the personal losses and tragedies that will far surpass and long outlive the victories or shenanigans of the politics. In that vein, I found the essence of remembrance in an inscription spotted on a war grave in Bayeux:

Into the mosaic of victory, our most precious piece was laid.

A talk, an exhibition and a TV series…

October is a busy month. Lots to see and do or get done. Can I just add three things to your list? The first two are London-based and optional; the third should really be compulsory for everybody.

So firstly, for anyone in London on Friday 11th October at 4pm, I am very excited to be speaking at the National Army Museum’s inaugural Chelsea History Festival. My talk How Germany Remembers is just one in a whole line-up of talks by impressive historians, writers and speakers – including Max Hastings.

Secondly, and also this month until 3rd November, The Koestler Arts annual exhibition – Another Me – will be showing at the Southbank. I personally haven’t been yet but I know it will once again provide visitors with a glimpse of the huge talent and potential locked up in our prisons. It is a showcase for what the arts can do for people’s well-being, self-esteem and rehabilitation.

I was in fact invited to expand on these benefits for the autumn edition of The Arts Society magazine. Please feel free to read my article ‘Art behind Bars’ to learn more.

But thirdly, and in stark contrast to the positivity of the arts, is the shocking Channel 4 series Crime and Punishment. I know, I know, I have been here many times before. You are probably sick of me going on about the plight of prisoners and state of our prison system. But you won’t be half as sick as all the people involved, who know how acute the crisis is.

Please watch it. Even just Episode 2. And then compare what you see with the Ministry of Justice’s evidence-based summary of what works…

Even I was aghast at what I saw in the first three episodes, and I have been in many of our jails. Everything has got so much worse since the 43% cuts to the budget from 2011 onwards: the levels of frustration from being locked 23 hours a day in conditions that even animal rights campaigners would protest against; the levels of desperation that lead people to shred their bodies or hang themselves to get a radio or better clothes to wear for a visit from their wife and kid; the levels of terror in young officers who patrol the wings after just 10 weeks training and 2 weeks shadowing; and the levels of weary resignation of those who enrolled to help and make a difference but are repeatedly forced to cower behind plastic shields and just ‘contain’.

Photograph 3
Guernsey Prison, Margaret Macdonald Platinum Award for Photography 2019, Koestler Arts

I believe everybody you see in this series is doing their best. But increasingly without hope of change. What you witness is the underbelly of our society. A society that punishes disadvantage, that punishes mental health, that punishes lack of education. In almost every shot, hopelessness seeps under the cell doors to mix with the blood of self-harm.

We all probably feel there are far better causes to engage with – cancer patients, the rain forests, refugees and hedgehogs; that offenders have only themselves to blame and that prison has nothing really to do with us. But if you are reading this, it probably does. Because so many of us have had advantage, education, guidance and love. And it is precisely us who can help bring about change. How? you might ask. Well a good start would be to recognise that Boris Johnson’s policies to extend sentences and build more and bigger prisons are wholly illogical and will only make the situation worse. You could then take a moment to retreat into your imagination, put on the battered, ill-fitting shoes of some of these offenders and try to walk a few steps. See how far you are able to get. The barriers to a crime-free productive life on release are enormous and once more of us realise just how bad things are, we can all join in with the other voices that are demanding: enough is enough.