Tonight I watched my daughter Mollie perform in a “Remembrance Play” for her drama group. She was amazing (she always is) and I fought to hold back tears throughout the performance. My question is, exactly why was I crying?
Was I crying because this was my usually shy self deprecating daughter, transformed on stage into something unrecognisable? I am frequently amazed how the little girl who lacks confidence in her daily life; seems to blossom when placed in front of an audience. she displays such powerful emotion and self confidence in front of a room filled with strangers, yet is filled with self doubt in my living room with only her immediate family to impress. Perhaps she is a Superhero leading a dramatic double life. Maybe the act of stepping onto the stage transforms her in the same way as Super Girl is transformed by a wardrobe change. To be fair I cry whenever my kids turn their hands to the performing arts, I am a huge softie.
Or…..was It the theme of the play that placed a huge lump in my throat and tears in my eye? It was brilliantly scripted by Alt Valley Drama and choreographed by Lucy their Drama teacher. The audience were transported back several decades to witness the horrors of evacuation, the blitz, loss and the sacrifice on an unimaginable scale in the name of a “better life”. Of course all of this was superbly acted by kids who could be forgiven for viewing all of this as ancient history. The very fact that their performances were full of emotion and respect proved they understood the importance of what they were doing.
Again more questions for me. Remembrance what do we really mean? How best can their memories be honoured? I am incredibly lucky both my Grandfathers survived WWII. One, George Maguire served in Egypt, the other William Goulding in France. I remember both as…well my Granddads. George used to put a rolled up cigarette in the back of my tricycle to simulate smoke from an exhaust and used to play for hours in the garden with me and my young sister Yvonne. William (Billy) was a “lollypop man” when I was a kid I remember his smile and I remember crying for days when he died of a stroke when I was a teenager.
They survived the war to provide me with those memories, but millions didn’t. In WWI 10 million died or were lost in action. In WWII the figure rises to 50 million. That’s millions of memories never created, millions of kids who never got to know Dad’s or Granddad’s, and wives devastated by the most terrible of loss. That this tragedy is felt all across Europe and beyond tells its own story.
In my home town to this day we rightly feel the loss of 96 people as intensely now as we did 23 years ago. magnify that a thousand fold and you may get close to feeling the pain felt after the two World Wars that scarred the 20th Century. We have found meaning in the loss of the 96 by fighting to ensure that fate never befalls another football fan. So how best should we honour the terrible loss experienced by 60 million families in the 20th Century?
The poppy is a potent symbol of remembrance today, and for reasons I am yet to fathom seems to provoke controversy among some, particularly in cyberspace. Perhaps some feel it represents only allied losses in the wars? Or do they believe it glorifies war? It was originally seen to represent death and rebirth. In WWI the horrific battles and burials continually disturbed the fields in France leading to the “rebirth” of dormant poppy seeds. Their sight inspired one soldier, John McCrae to pen “In Flanders Fields”
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
There are those who say this is a pro-war poem. McCrae does exhort others to “Take up our quarrel with the foe,” but for me there is no jingoism or patriotism, just the sadness of the fallen soldier. The foe is in fairness unspecified, and we are left to reflect on the melancholy of loss, juxtaposed by the beauty of the poppies, that continue to grow amidst the carnage.
McCrae was a physician who witnessed the death and burial of a friend, and no doubt wept at this senseless loss of human life. Human life. It’s worth thinking about that, human life. Not English, American, Russian, Polish, Canadian, French……German, but Human life. 60 million human lives to be precise (in both world wars) a terrible waste. how many Einstein’s died, How many poets, doctors, nurses, song writers, authors, great engineers and so on. We will never know.
This is what the poppy means to me. It is a reminder of why we must, as a great Scouser once said “Give Peace a Chance”. We must through this new generation fight to ensure that no more young men and women are sacrificed on foreign fields. War knows no nationality, no ideology or religious affiliation. It is relentless it destroys hope, eats potential and crushes aspiration. We should resist it at all costs, and if we must succumb to its charms, we must never ever throw the first punch. I am proud to wear a poppy as a potent anti war symbol just as I believe John McCrae saw it.
As that famous Scouser also put it, “War is over….if you want it”. Surely that would be the best way to Remember the loss of tens of millions of men women and children.