There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.— Hamlet
The very first post I wrote for this blog, way back in 2014, was about the poppy installation, and the crowds it drew, at the Tower of London. 888, 246 ceramic poppies to commemorate the British and Commonwealth lives lost in the First World War, 100 years after this so-called war to end all wars began. 6 years on and what a different world this is, not least because the gathering together in crowds to remember is not just not possible, it is illegal.
Today is November 11, and at 11:00 we will all stop and observe a two- minute silence. At least I think we will. It is hard to know what society at large is doing in these days, with everyone told to stay at home and away from each other. 3 days ago was Remembrance Sunday, an occasion the British take very seriously and do very well. Churches overflow, soldiers young and old march and wreaths are laid, poems are read and a single trumpet plays the haunting Last Post. Solemn crowds gather to take part in it all. A few moments of unity in a fractured world. But not this year.
I live across from a cemetery in which there are several war graves. One in particular can be seen from my neighbours’ bedroom window. He has become ‘their’ soldier and on Remembrance Sunday they clean and place flowers on his grave. Not this year. They fled London at the first lockdown and have not returned. With no services or ceremonies to attend, I took a long walk through the cemetery on Sunday, curious if any of the graves had been tended. They had not.
In 2018, I visited an extraordinary art installation at Olympic Park, Shrouds of the Somme. Artist Rob Heard devoted 4 years, and bankrupted himself in the process, to sewing an individual shroud for each and every British and Commonwealth soldier killed and not recovered at the Somme. 72, 396 men lost, 19,240 on the first day alone (July 1, 1916). Each doll was only the size of a Barbie, but laid side by side, there seemed to be no end to them. Too many to fit in one photo. At the time, the sheer scale of it staggered me. It still staggers, yet in 2020, looking back at the photos, I feel something different, something I would never have thought only months ago: Look at them all, they aren’t alone.
Westminster Abbey was given special permission to hold a service today, with only 80 people, all masked, in attendance. I watched it on television and, while beautiful and moving, it felt all so very lonely. Remembering can be a deeply personal and often private act. Yet, this remembering, remembering for people most of us never knew, who died and continue to die, in the collective event that is war, seems to require, indeed deserves, a collective remembering. Even more so now when so many physical memorials have become problematic, the gathering of warm bodies seems more appropriate than cold stone.
These memorials we have insisted on erecting for centuries, do they really help us honour and remember? Sometimes, but mostly we just ignore them. They become part of the fabric of the landscape, no more distinguishable than the other stone and metal around them. I have been visiting English cathedrals recently, buildings that are filled with memorials and tombs and statues, mostly to people I have never heard of, whose deeds are either forgotten or, worse, are not worthy of being remembered. Occasionally, however, I find one that stops me in my tracks. In the east end of Canterbury Cathedral, a single candle and a fresh red rose sit on the floor as memorial to Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered in the Cathedral in 1170. The simplicity is profoundly moving in a way an elaborately carved tomb or shrine could not be. It boasts nothing but its light, a light that is shared with all who look on it.
Not long ago I was introduced, through the Poetry Exchange podcast I have mentioned before, the Carol Ann Duffy poem, Last Post, which imagines what would be ‘if poetry could truly tell it backwards’, and allow ‘several million lives still possible’, what would be if, through verse, blood runs back into wounds and ‘and all those thousands dead /
are shaking dried mud from their hair / and queuing up for home.’ If only. With this poem and the Beckett memorial at Canterbury in mind I crossed the road, this morning. I spent time with these young men killed in the First World War. I tidied up their graves, lay a red rose and instead of a candle, a spring of rosemary at each. I said their names out loud, Frank, age 24, Harry, age 25, Percy, age 28. For just a few moments, together.