The symbol of the poppy has been the subject of much heated conversation over the weekend. The first question on Radio 4’s Any Questions was, “Has the time come for a more inclusive symbol to mark Remembrance Day?” The programme was coming from a village in Devon, in the middle of a storm and a power cut, hence was conducted by candle light, and only went on air thanks to a local farmer’s tractor and generator. This scenario evoked a Dunkirk spirit and a Blitzy atmosphere the more so as apparently the generator failed three minutes after the end of the programme. They got through by the skin of their teeth.
One of the panellists, Aaron Bastani, had apparently put out a piece on U-tube characterising the poppy as “racist”, a symbol of “white triumphalism”. Another panellist accused him of having said, “F*** Invictus”. I did notice that Jonathon Dimbleby effectively abandoned the neutrality of the chair and joined the panel in confronting Mr Bastani, which I venture to say he ought not to do. The other panel members are perfectly capable of articulating the opposing point of view. The audience member who posed the question pointed out that the debate had gone off in a different direction and never really addressed the issue. That is so often what happens when things get heated.
On Saturday evening I attended the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and a concert given by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in conjunction with Poppyscotland, commemorating the centenary of the 1918 armistice and the end of the First World War. Driving home, I caught The Moral Maze, again on Radio 4. Once again, the poppy came under scrutiny in a debate concerning whether we should continue to commemorate the Great War, or whether we should let it go. The first witness was the historian James Heartfield, author of The Blood Stained Poppy, who thought that Remembrance Day was a military victory parade attended by a degree of hokum. Melanie Phillips, who writes for The Times, expressed outrage at his point of view, and indeed sounded pretty angry. James Heartfield remained remarkably calm, and thanked Ms Phillips for expressing herself so eloquently.
Clearly, our collective memory of the First World War continues to rouse strong passions. Any Questions and The Moral Maze reminded me of the response of the establishment to another BBC creation, The Monocled Mutineer. This was a dramatization by Alan Bleasdale of the 1978 book of the same name by William Allison and John Fairley, broadcast in four episodes in 1986. The first instalment went out on August 31st and was watched by an audience of over ten million. It centred round an historic event, the Étaples Mutiny. Apparently all official records of the Étaples Board of Enquiry pertaining to this event have been destroyed, which makes it difficult to know whether or not the historic events of the television drama were inaccurate or, as we would say now, “fake news”. But I recall a lot of people at the time got very hot under the collar. The apologists on behalf of The Monocled Mutineer made the case that certain liberties taken with historical fact were justified as poetic licence, and the depiction of the cruelty and folly of the war was broadly accurate. What I will never forget about The Monocled Mutineer was the re-enactment of the execution of a soldier, shot at dawn, for cowardice. It was utterly horrific.
One hundred years past, we still haven’t recovered from the First World War. On Sunday evening, the BBC broadcast on Radio 3 a live performance from Cardiff of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, while on Radio 4 they conducted a retrospective of the series Tommies, which has already run for more than four years. Meanwhile in Westminster Abbey, a service of remembrance took place, attended by members of the Royal Family, who were also present at a similar event on Saturday evening at the Royal Albert Hall, and again, of course, at the cenotaph on Sunday morning. Across the channel, M. Macron and Frau Merkel had met, symbolically, in the replica of the railway carriage at Compiѐgne, and subsequently, with Mr Trump, Mr Putin, et al, in Paris. For myself, I was present for the two minutes silence at Dunblane Cathedral. Meanwhile, all over the beaches of the British Isles, images of figures from the war were etched into the sand, transiently, to be obliterated by the incoming tide. And still, this morning, the papers are full of the War. We debate whether we should remember, or forget, but I doubt if we really have a choice. Perhaps we suffer from a collective Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Of all the images broadcast by the BBC over the weekend, the most striking one to me was that of Wilfred Owen, etched into the sand at Folkestone. It seems to me that the people getting upset with one another on BBC debating programmes would do well to take a two minute silence, and go back to the poets. Over the past hundred years, the war poets have become rather sanitised, elegiac figures. It is easy to forget just how subversive their work was. If you doubt it, read Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est.
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.
One thing the panellists on The Moral Maze seemed in broad agreement about was that there would never be another First World War. I thought this was an extraordinarily complacent point of view. A century ago, didn’t they think the same of the war to end all wars, when they signed the armistice at Compiѐgne? Perhaps even then, Corporal Hitler was making plans to reconvene at the same location. It took him only 22 years to get there.
Another famous peroration worth reading alongside Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est is Churchill’s most famous speech of all, culminating in the rallying call, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds…” This is another poem – if you will – that has become sanitised, its true meaning lost. We think of it as a stirring and inspirational offer of Hope, but in fact it is an instruction to an entire population to indulge in Total War to the last man, and woman. When – rather than if – the enemy landed, it would be met sequentially at every location – beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets, hills… “We shall never surrender.” Randolph’s wife Pamela asked Churchill how he could expect her to do this when she was unarmed. “You can always use a carving knife.” Churchill said, “I do not intend to be taken alive.” And, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood…” The imagery is exactly that of Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est.
Owen wrote a preface to a putative anthology of his poetry, that he never saw. It says everything that needs to be said, and renders all these BBC panel shows rather redundant.
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.