Remembering

My mother was not quite seventeen when I was born. She and my father, just three years her senior, had married early as he had joined the army. They were still living close to home when I first came into the world, but it was not long before they moved to married quarters at the other end of the country. My father, though, was not around for long as his unit was sent on active duty overseas, so my mother, still just a teenager herself and with a small child to raise, became effectively a single parent with no family close enough to offer the support and advice she needed.

In spite of being very young at the time, I have very clear memories of where we lived, the things we would do together and the places we went. We lived in a small, top-floor flat in an old building on Tunbridge Road; just four rooms and long flights of stairs down into the garden. My mother painted all the characters from Disney’s Snow White and pinned them to my bedroom walls. The bathtub was in an alcove in the kitchen and covered with a wooden lid. Almost every day, we would feed the swans on the Medway. My mother made friends with the old man who hired out rowing boats and, on quiet days, he would let us take a boat out onto the river. It must have been a lonely existence for a young mother who had barely left her own childhood behind.

It did not occur to me until my eldest son was born how difficult she must have found those years. By that time, I was older than my mother had been by almost a decade and, although I was living in France and even further from my family than she had been, I did have a husband who was there and I did not live in constant dread of an officer turning up on the doorstep with the news that he had been killed in action.  For my mother, it must have been a lonely and frightening time.

The deaths in that particular arena were counted in hundreds, but both my parents had lived through the last years of WWII where the casualties were counted in millions. Their parents, my grandparents, had lived through the horrors of Great War too, seeing their own fathers march away in uniform and, when the call had come, had served their country, each in their own way. Both my grandfathers had been soldiers and fought overseas, one against the forces of Nazi Germany, the other against the Japanese as part of the ‘Forgotten Army’ in Burma. One grandmother donned a uniform and served on the home front, another took in refugee children.

The bombs fell even upon the northern city where my mother was raised, including one through the roof of their home. Rationing continued for many years after the war had ended and even I can remember the swathes of devastation left behind by bombing and the air-raid shelters crumbling into decay.

The after-effects of those two horrific wars shaped everyone who lived through them. So much residual fear must have played on my mother’s emotions as she lived through my father’s tour of duty. How much more had their mothers and grandmothers felt when their husbands and sons had answered the call to a war that claimed so very many lives?

Generation after generation, century after century, men have suffered and slain one another at the behest of power-hungry leaders or to defend their homes against them. Century after century, women have waited in fear to see whether their menfolk would return, or return whole in body, for few remained unaffected in heart and mind by the horrors they both saw and perpetrated on the battlefield.

Generation after generation, the after-effects of conflict have been passed down to their children, insidiously and unconsciously shaping lives, undermining trust in stability and the permanency of all we might hold dear. It may even be that the very insecurity created by war is one of its causes, a self-perpetuating monster that feeds on all we love.

The official definition of war is a conflict that takes more than a thousand lives. That seems wrong to me, because for every soldier who falls in battle, there will be a family whose lives will never be the same again. Civilian casualties tend to outnumber military losses too.

If, instead, we take war to mean any conflict in which the many die for a power struggle between the few, I wonder if there has ever been a time in human history when this planet has not suffered the effects and after-effects of war?

But for those who serve, it is seldom the politics of power that matters. They serve to protect their homes, their families and their way of life. And, although all have tales to tell, their words focus on the better moments as eyes cloud with unspoken fears and unspeakable horrors.  It is in the quiet arena of the home front, as well as on the battlefield that many of the better traits of humanity come to the fore… courage, endurance… compassion, hope and selfless heroism.  And these are the men and women who are remembered as poppies are placed at every cenotaph and memorial and worn over so many hearts.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,

We will remember them.

Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

The Makers of Fine Sticks

Walking Stick for blog small

If you belonged to a species that regularly threw itself off a cliff, you’d expect that species – or that tribe – to die out pretty quickly…

Let’s imagine that there was an annual contest of head-beating with sticks, and the losers – those left alive – were honour bound to march or stagger to the cliff-top and mumble a ceremonial farewell before casting themselves off the edge.

From the outside, the problem is pretty plain to see, and it has a repeating pattern: The issue occurs annually; the initial problem is honouring the ‘game’ that allows sticks to be used as weapons. Then there are the people who promote the annual gladiatorial spectacle, but, personally, avoid the cliff tops at all costs. They make a better living providing the best sticks; and avoid the annual self-cull by living in fine houses in the hills. The producers of fine sticks have a statistical problem – they don’t want too many people to die or the market for fine sticks will diminish and they’ll end up fighting among themselves, which could be very short-lived…and they like life in the hills.

One day a man in a white robe comes along and teaches that this cyclic suffering is not inevitable. He teaches that there is enough in this wonderful world to go around. He says that all it takes is for everyone to agree on that and people will be able to live creative, caring and industrious lives. All we have to do is look after each other and recognise that differences dissolve when we talk… And try to see things from each other’s point of view.

It boils down to this: that all we have to do is to say, “This is my problem.”

Some of the people listening get it. The problem is learning, which the man in the white robe knows. He makes up clever stories that can be interpreted on different levels. At the basic level, the stories are of faith in something deeper. At the deeper levels, the stories reveal the inner workings of the human soul. He knows that the makers of fine sticks control learning so that only a few get the finest teachings of how to perpetuate success – in making fine sticks.

The people who make fine sticks don’t like the man in the white robe or his kind. It would end their customer base overnight. So they take their best-educated minds and teach them to sew the seeds of distrust of such people-centric thinking, saying that it will kill off the tribe’s need for success, which is so much a part of their cultural inheritance. The makers of fine sticks are specialists in reaching into the hearts and minds of the least-educated parts of the tribe and whipping up energy and hatred. Some of their brightest children create other stories to counter the ones given by the man in the white robe.

The man in the white robe is put to death in a very public and painful way. But his teachings were popular, so the makers of fine sticks extract what he said into a new system of thought – one that they can control using the power of collective ignorance, fear, and not thinking-for-yourself. They teach the most violent of the least educated to rise up against people in any kind of white robe because they are a threat to their fine way of life.

Then they get back to making the next generation of fine sticks so that most of the money of the tribe comes back to them.

One night soon the moon will be at its most full. The good earth will be ripe with its bounty. The annual ritual of head-beating will begin. This year, the makers of fine sticks have introduced a new feature: they are letting children have small sticks so that they can join in this contest. Children can so easily be taught hatred; and fighting comes naturally to the poor ones who have to fight because all the money has gone to the makers of fine sticks.

As the heads are crushed the moon will sigh that the gift of intelligence serves this, and the earth will weep and collect their blood. The survivors on the losing tribe will stagger to the cliff top to swear allegiance to this noble rite, then throw themselves off… and all will be well for the makers of fine sticks who are far away in the hills.

©️Stephen Tanham


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.

… a thousand words?

Johannes Gumpp, painting his self-portrait

I was reading an article that tells how much a picture can attract our attention. The inclusion of a single image can increase the likelihood of someone stopping to read an article, sharing it or, indeed, making it go viral. It isn’t difficult to understand why… an image needs no words to convey a message. It has no language barrier…. And, in this day when we all read onscreen, skimming most of the content, according to all the research, rather than carefully reading each word, images appeal to our need for speed. Interesting enough on its own, but as usual, it got me thinking. In itself the words called up images in my own mind that sparked of a whole other train of thought.

In one of those random moments, I realised that if I were but an image of myself, I would hate to live in a photo frame, no more than a two-dimensional representation, bounded by straight edges and right angles of rigidity. I’d rather be a movie. Even that lacks the extraordinary depth of life. Yet it is through images that we learn about our world… visual representations registered by our own eyes, non-visual ‘images’ formed by our other senses, or even those scenes painted by imagination on the screen of the mind..

I take a lot of pictures… I am not alone in that. The digital age has made photography accessible to all. We take them for many reasons… perhaps to capture a magical memory, document a trip, or to share the wonder we feel in this beautiful world. Sometimes we film videos… sweeping panoramas, or the antics of a small dog, maybe… yet neither photograph nor film can ever truly catch the essence of a moment. They lack the depth, the dimensions brought to an instant by emotion. They do not catch the scent of a rose or the subliminal buzzing of life in a meadow. They cannot capture the taste of salt spray on your lips or the wind in your hair… or the warmth of a baby’s fingers clutching yours.

Professionals, and those gifted amateurs who have a real feel for photography, can capture something that conveys the idea of those feelings, often so sublimely that they evoke a deep response. A smile for the cute kitten whose fur looks so soft… a yearning for a much-loved place… the tenderness known only by the heart. They evoke, beautifully, poignantly, but they can only be an impression of experience.

Some of those images though can change the world. Few who recall the BBC images from Biafra in the 60s will ever forget them. They brought home to us, quite literally as we sat down to dinner with the TV in the corner, the plight of children starved to little more than skin and bone. It changed the way we thought. It changed the way we chose to believe in the world.

Adverts… Shots of movie stars that change fashions. The Earthrise picture taken from the moon… Mother Theresa, Churchill, Picasso… iconic figures and defining moments, both good and tragic, that delight, shock or move the world to action. Images of beauty and destruction have altered our view and our stance on ecology, far faster than a mere governmental report or two could do.

Images can unite us. Princess Diana, Kennedy, 9/11… when the world stood still and watched… People and governments have been galvanised to respond to tragedy worldwide. Images change things.

In the same way, our governments have always used imagery to change public opinion, a legal technique of mass manipulation…propaganda or censorship, often imposed ‘for our own protection’. I think of the images of the bombing of Hiroshima. My mother had an old film projector and footage of the Enola Gay and the mushroom cloud. I remember watching it when I was young and being told of the destruction. Yet, for a quarter of a century the full picture was hidden and we were only permitted to see the material devastation, not the human horror of atomic warfare. Why? Because it was too horrific… and besides, they were still making atomic weapons… Such footage could change our minds. Yet the Allied governments felt able to show newsreel footage of the atrocities perpetrated by our enemies in that same war. The history we were shown was the truth, perhaps… but not the whole truth. But images ensured we felt the way we ‘should’.

At the other end of the scale there are the less warlike pursuits. Meditation techniques, like those we use in the Silent Eye, that draw images in the mind, bringing an understanding that is experiential, even though it is lived only in the mind. The symbolism of our varied faiths sustains us on a personal level.. from the dove to the star; the statue of Buddha, the pentagram or an icon of the Madonna… Not in themselves objects of worship, but images of something too great to constrain in physical form, but which we can understand when imagination speaks to the heart. Such things use imagery to bring peace to the individual…and yet can be misappropriated to inflame a nation to war.

Artists of all kinds… writers, photographers and filmmakers, poets, sculptors and musicians…all create images, just as you and I do, all day and every day, within our minds. Such images are born of observation and imagination. That word itself says it all. We have the power to shape reality for those who find our work or are touched by our vision of the world. There is a responsibility that goes with that. Whatever world we shape speaks to the imagination of others. We may seek only to record. Or to entertain and amuse. Perhaps we teach, question or educe. It doesn’t matter. Whatever we create carries something from the deepest levels of our own being out into the world. We cannot take responsibility for what the minds of others do with our work… once it has been set free, our creation responds only to those who look, read or listen. The responsibility we have lies in our own intent and from which part of ourselves we create… and why.

Remember…

Paper poppies bloom, as fragile as the lives they represent. Every year it is the same, I try to find some way of saying what is in my heart and the words will not come.  I was not there, I have no right to speak of war and its atrocities. I have not seen it with my own eyes. I have never aimed a gun at another human being and been faced with the choice whether to kill or be killed. I have not tried to sleep in cold mud made from the earth of a foreign land mingled with the blood of my comrades. I have not lost my child to war.

I have no right to speak, but nor have I the right to remain silent when the price of my freedom to speak was so high. I have a duty to my own conscience and to all whose lives were given in service to their country or lost to the horror of some political expediency written in blood.

There are many tales of heroism and valour in the field, tales that highlight the beauty and nobility the human spirit can attain. But war is never beautiful, nor is it the glorious myth we have historically created when we need recruits.  War is born from the desire for power. Whether a formal declaration of war is made by the aggressor or the defenders, whether the war is fought for necessary or political resources, to uphold an ideal, for the betterment or protection of a way of life or for its imposition, the cause of every war is an idea…and ideas are born first in a single mind. For this single idea, or because we feel we must defend ourselves against it, we are prepared to sacrifice an entire generation, yet we will read about  tribes who sacrificed a single human life for the good of the community and call them barbaric.

Today, with our so-called smart weapons, we can obliterate a whole city remotely, not just one person, not even one generation, with the touch of a button.  Gruesome death is a constant on our TV and cinema screens, we even play games with it. The gift of life is cheapened and our reverence for human life seems a thing of the past. Yet that life is our own… and ironically, our fear of death seems to be greater now than ever before.

This year sees the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele. There is no accepted figure for the number of lives lost in that one, appalling battle, though it is certain that over half a million men were killed, maimed or wounded. That we do not even know how many is perhaps commentary enough.

Harry Patch, who was the last surviving, fighting soldier from WWI, fought in that battle. He died in 2009 at the age of 111, and was given a military funeral at which he requested not even ceremonial guns be present. He had spent eighty years trying to forget the horrors of war, but when he reached a hundred years old and was brought to the eyes of the media, he was once again asked to remember…and for the last years of his life, he spoke of little else.

Harry believed that war was wrong and that a war that would eventually be settled around a table should be fought there and not cost millions of lives in something he saw as “nothing better than legalised mass murder”.

Harry was wounded at Passchendaele by a shell that killed three of his friends. A short while before his death he was asked what it felt like to be the last man alive to have fought in the trenches.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “I sit there and think. And some nights I dream – of that first battle. I can’t forget it.

“I fell in a trench. There was a fella there. He must have been about our age. He was ripped shoulder to waist with shrapnel. I held his hand for the last 60 seconds of his life. He only said one word: ‘Mother’. I didn’t see her, but she was there. No doubt about it. He passed from this life into the next, and it felt as if I was in God’s presence.

“I’ve never got over it. You never forget it. Never.”

He spoke of how, from arriving on the battlefield to leaving it, wounded, months later, he never had a bath or a change of clothes. He spoke the fear and of the choice between shooting to kill or to wound and the pact he had made with some of his comrades never to kill… a pact that could have had them shot by their own commanding officers.

He spoke of a horror many of us will never know or understand. He hoped we never would.

Across the world we turn to remember with respect those who served their countries or their ideals in the Great War ‘to end all wars’ a hundred years ago and in all the arenas of war ever since. Regardless of the reasons for going to war, the valour, the sacrifice and the suffering of those who serve cannot be denied. Every year, there are those who call for an end to our remembrance, saying that it is now old history and as relevant to our lives as the wars of Rome or ancient Greece. I will wear my poppy with millions of others in the hope that in remembering, we can learn from our bloody history… for we continue to write it.

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. Over 16 million died and over 20 million were wounded.

The total number of casualties in WW2 is thought to be between 60,000,000 to 85,000,000. Such was the scale of that conflict there is a gap where we simply do not know… a gap of some 25 million. As if the entire population of New York simply disappeared.

And that doesn’t include the casualties who suffered horrendously but survived their wounds.

It doesn’t include those who suffered the emotional damage, the mental scarring, the recurrent nightmares, the fear. It doesn’t include the orphans.

It doesn’t include the long term suffering of poverty, dispossession, or the racial and religious hatred that engenders or is engendered by war.

It doesn’t tell of the personal loss that touches all victims on all sides of a conflict… for they are all human beings, like you and me. It does not count the heartbreak of those who waited in vain for their children, siblings, parents and lovers to come home.

It doesn’t show the damage to the land, the mines that take lives long after the conflict has moved on, or the animals and birds decimated by bombing or being drafted into service.

The figures are cold and clinical. They do not dream. They do not wake up screaming.

The counts vary, depending upon who is doing the telling and why, but one thing they seem to agree on is that in total over 240 million men, women and children were killed in war in the 20th century.

And still it continues. Every day.

Since the beginning of recorded history major wars have killed an estimated four billion people… That figure is too vast for the mind to encompass. It is the equivalent of over half the human race alive today. Erase half of your family, half of the people you know or have ever known, half your friends… half your children. Then look at the cenotaphs or the names in the books of Remembrance. War does that to people.

We like to think of ourselves as an advanced civilised society… there has to be a better way and I hope and pray that, one day, we may find it.

Remembrance Day

poppies-3

I was dismayed to see how few places were selling poppies this year. It used to be that there was nowhere you could not buy one. This year, I had to look. And yet, in almost every town and village today, there will be poppies. Not just in this country, but in many others around the world. Paper symbols that defy the divisions created by borders and unite us in a common act of remembrance and gratitude for those who risked and gave their lives that the next generations might be born into a free world.

We do not remember some mythical conflict that glorifies the horrors of war. We remember those who fought, men and women, even animals. We remember that of those who went to war, many did not return. Some were volunteers, others conscripted…. to many were little more than children, just teenagers.  All faced death, mutilation, and horror. All faced the same guns.

poppies-2

Violence, even on the level of nations, can never be right. It is not a good answer, though sometimes it has been seen as the only answer or defence against a greater evil. Today, that argument has no place. We are not remembering the policies or the politics of war… we remember those who gave all they were for their country, their homes and their people.

We remember too those whose battle was not fought with guns. The women who waited for their husbands, fathers and sons. The women who wept and cradled a photograph as they had cradled their babe. The children whose fathers and brothers never came home. Those whose homes and families were obliterated by bombs. Those who took in refugees from the cities and from overseas. Those who filled the gaps left in daily life by those who would not return.

poppies-1

In every town and village there is a roll of honour listing the names of the lost. Sometimes on a cenotaph, sometimes a book or a plaque in the parish church. Few, even the smallest hamlets, were left untouched. In the village where I live, the Roll of Honour lists 80 names, some as young as eighteen, many from families who still live here, whose names and youngsters I know. Today, the population is around six hundred households. At the time of the war, it was a much smaller place. Generations of men, fathers, brothers and sons, we killed, leaving a deep scar on the life of this one small village. Across the world, it is a story that was repeated. Few were left untouched and many of us knew those who had fought…and whose silences told more than their stories ever could.

We do not even know the full total of those whose lives have been lost to conflict since the onset of the First World War. The total is thought to be around 200 million lives, including those deaths listed as collateral damage, which are considered to be ‘an unavoidable, legitimate byproduct of waging war’. Men, women, children… just ‘collateral damage’…

Today we remember the dead, the wounded, the maimed… all who served, at home or overseas no matter what their country of origin, no matter what their faith or belief. We may think back and recall the stories we have heard of personal valour and heroism, of compassion and camaraderie, of kindness and resilience. It is there that the only glory of war can be found…in the heart of individuals, in humanity…and it is there that peace has its roots. Mankind is capable of greatness, but not through destruction.

For a little while today, we will stand in peace and unity to remember the dead. We remember them in the name of the peace they sought to win.

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

Laurence Binyon

poppies-4

 

The man without a face

D&T 127I must have been ten or so. We were on a school trip to York. As we walked beneath the arches of Micklegate Bar, a man walked towards us. The group fell silent, then the whispering started, and many pretended not to look or gawped instead. I knew about the ribbons he wore on his chest… they meant he had medals. I don’t know whether he was a veteran of the first or second World Wars… There was no way to tell how old he was. He had no face.
If I had the skill to capture memory with a pencil, I could draw him perfectly still. I have never forgotten him. Taut skin stretched and puckered, dead white with even whiter scars crisscrossing where his nose and one eye should have been. He had no hair… no ears… only holes in the side of his head. His mouth, little more than a pale line.
He looked neither right nor left, the crowds of tourists parted like some biblical sea in front of him as everyone seemed to want to keep their distance. He must have been accustomed to that effect… he had to have lived over twenty years that way. For some reason, the way he walked, perhaps… the smartness of his dress… I thought he was an airman.
Beneath the narrow archway he passed within inches of me, close enough that every detail of his face was imprinted on my memory. I remember clearly the personal dilemma… should I look away in case my gaze was an intrusion or look at him because he was a human being, and a serviceman, and I came from a family that had also served. Few families had not through the course of those two wars, but my father served still when I was young. He could have been anything… anyone… and so, somehow, he was everyone.
There are few now living who remember the start of the first Great War in 1914… the war to end all wars, or so it was hoped. The last serving veteran in Britain was Florence Green of the Women’s Royal Air Force, who died in 2012 at the age of 110. Claude Choules served in the British Royal Navy (and later the Royal Australian Navy) died 2011, also aged 110. He was the final surviving combat veteran of the conflict. Harry Patch, who died aged 111, was the final survivor of the trenches. Harry had fought at Passchendaele where it is estimated that well over half a million young men were killed or injured. No-one even knows how many.
If they are now gone, why should we remember?
There are children who grew in a fatherless world. Sons who had to become men too fast, taking the places of the lost. There were lives forever blighted by nightmares and memories, of what they saw, what they suffered… who they killed… Men and women who would speak instead of camaraderie and laughter and turn away to use a handkerchief or clear their throats.
And it wasn’t the war to end all wars after. It was ‘just’ another war in our appalling human history of bloodshed and violent conflict. We followed it with Dunkirk, D-Day, the Holocaust, Stalingrad… and still we fight, still the killing continues in every corner of the political globe.
To the soldier, sailor or aircrew who serve, the political debates and arguments matter little…. They are there because their country is at war, right or wrong. A dead German boy would have been mourned just as much by his mother as an Allied soldier. A Yemeni child just as much as an Afghan.
Last year alone it is estimated that over a hundred thousand human beings have lost their lives in armed conflict. It is hard to make sense of such a number. It is too big to grasp. Too impersonal. It needs a face.
Or not.
When I think of Remembrance Day, many faces flit through my memory, of grandparents and other family members… of friends who have served… of an old sea dog named Mick… and of a man without a face, whose face I will never forget, and who will, for me, forever be the face of war.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Robert Laurence Binyon [1869-1943]First posted November 2015