Faith­fully re­mem­ber the fallen by try­ing to build bridges be­tween past and fu­ture

The Press and Journal (Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire) - - AGENDA - Cather­ine Deveney

Mem­o­ries. They swirl for me at this time of year, like fallen leaves. Driv­ing through Perthshire last week, the au­tumn reds and burnt or­anges ran like fire through the land­scape un­der the cold, clear light of brit­tle sun­shine. You could feel win­ter’s ap­proach, see it in the skele­tal struc­ture of trees that had par­tially shed their loads, the leaves scratch­ing the ground er­rat­i­cally in the wind. Beau­ti­ful but sad too, an end and a be­gin­ning. Look­ing back and look­ing for­ward.

The mem­ory when it comes is sparked by the cold, and for a minute is so vis­ceral that I can smell it, taste it. I am there again, the win­ter streets of Glas­gow with dark­ness fall­ing, my child­ish hand clasp­ing my fa­ther’s ea­gerly. There is no safety like it, the im­pen­e­tra­ble se­cu­rity that he rep­re­sents.

No one can harm me be­cause he holds my hand. I can feel the leather of his glove, the old, bat­tered, brown leather glove, fas­tened with a dark red stud that glows dimly like an eye. Above us, star­lings be­gin to gather on the wires.

The spe­cial mem­ory sparks a chain: I am five, 10, 15. My fa­ther is there; my mother; my se­cu­rity. And in that chain there is a sud­den sense of con­nect­ed­ness, a clar­ity that sees ev­ery mo­ment of my life is joined to the one be­fore and the one af­ter.

Re­cently, I have been given ad­vice about liv­ing in the mo­ment, seiz­ing the now. Good ad­vice. But the epiphany in my sud­den chain of mem­o­ries is that we are what we are to­day only be­cause of the past that forms us. To­day is not an is­land at all, but a step­ping stone be­tween yes­ter­day and to­mor­row.

It is true not just of our per­sonal lives, but of our so­cial his­tory. There are red pop­pies on the counter when I stop to buy a news­pa­per, pa­per ver­sions of the only life that grew when the guns stopped and si­lence de­scended on the dark fields of war.

The sym­bol that we have since cho­sen to mark the past but al­low hope in a fu­ture, to re­spect those who died so that we, as we are so fond of say­ing earnestly, might live in peace and democ­racy.

The deaths of those fallen sol­diers are con­nected to our lives – or should be – ex­cept that even in our earnest­ness, we seem in­tent on cut­ting the cords, on cre­at­ing a “now” that com­pletely ig­nores the ex­pe­ri­ences of our past.

Mem­o­ries make us and check us. In the pa­per I buy, there is a haunt­ing story about a Syr­ian child, a child whose blood­cur­dling screams in hos­pi­tal re­duced adults around him to tears.

Mo­hammed was burned in a Turk­ish air strike and his frag­ile body is now wracked by the agony of 70% burns. The red poppy is un­con­nected to him – his blood flows de­spite the lessons and the sym­bols. It makes me re­flect on the in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar white poppy as an al­ter­na­tive sym­bol.

Later, I read on­line that the white poppy is con­sid­ered by some to be “of­fen­sive”. I stare hard at that word, try­ing to make sense of it.

How can some­thing that sym­bol­ises peace, that is worn to re­spect the sac­ri­fice of the dead but also chal­lenge the no­tion of war as an an­swer to any­thing, be con­sid­ered of­fen­sive?

So many ironies lie in our at­ti­tudes to war, to re­mem­brance, to pop­pies. The cer­e­monies, the wreath lay­ing, the “re­spect” of our Novem­ber com­mem­o­ra­tions, seem to have sep­a­rated from our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness of what his­tory has taught us.

So many al­le­giances and col­lab­o­ra­tions grew out of the post-war ea­ger­ness to change and learn. The United Na­tions. The Eu­ro­pean Union. They grew out of a Europe that had been rav­aged by war twice in lit­tle over

20 years. There was a des­per­a­tion for peace, a fo­cused de­sire for na­tions to work to­gether to cre­ate a unity and com­mon pur­pose that would pre­vent ma­jor con­flict in the fu­ture.

But we see th­ese bod­ies now out­with the con­text in which they were formed.

Grad­u­ally, the clar­ity of that post-war sense of pur­pose has be­come clouded, eroded by the usual po­lit­i­cal cock­tail of am­bi­tion, greed and self-in­ter­est.

We don’t need them. We can go it alone. Mean­while, the recorded rise in hate crimes, of ev­ery kind of “ism” – racism, sex­ism, ho­mo­pho­bia, even dis­abil­ity hate crime – sug­gests we con­stantly fight so many mini-wars in our so­ci­ety that big­ger ones must surely fol­low.

As a child, in­ter­minable tele­vised re­mem­brance ser­vices made my heart sink. Why were th­ese old-timers still rel­e­vant? That war stuff was long over.

Now I truly un­der­stand the im­por­tance of col­lec­tive mem­ory, the bridge that it can cre­ate be­tween the past and the fu­ture – if only we would let it.

This month, lines from Lau­rence Binyon’s poem, “For the Fallen”, will be much quoted at re­mem­brance ser­vices.

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

A pow­er­ful prom­ise, but not one that we seem to keep.

Lest we for­get? I fear we have al­ready.

Now I truly un­der­stand the im­por­tance of col­lec­tive mem­ory

Red pop­pies were the only life that grew when the guns stopped and si­lence de­scended on the dark fields of war

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