Friday 23 November 2007

The Importance of Remembrance

When tuning dutifully into the Lord Mayor’s Show this year for a moment, as my work in the Square Mile makes me feel I should at least momentarily glance at the parade, I was appalled to hear the BBC presenter ask viewers to text in comments for their friends who were participating in the show, so the texts could run feed-style across the bottom of the screen. Seriously, is there no end to this desperate need to encourage pointless interaction on every single live programme? No one in the show would see these messages, and no one else cares; it’s just blocking our view of part of the screen. Maybe next year, they’ll have a rigged vote to eliminate our least favourite floats with some cruel Alan Sugar denouncement or a pointlessly cursing Gordon Ramsay. Maybe we can ditch the Livery’s “election” of Lord Mayor altogether and in future make candidates perform a scantily clad dance on ice in the jungle after eating maggots whilst performing other degrading tasks, living without a change of clothes and on reduced rations, and whomever lasts nine weeks is pronounced Lord Mayor, promoting the “financial centre of the world” across the globe. Fortunately, I wasn’t troubled for too long about the text-feed because once it appeared, and once I learned there was to be no camel in this year’s show, I switched off and went out to enjoy the gorgeous sunshine in person, joyfully far from the crowds of the Show.

I can at least be thankful that no similar gimmicks were applied by the Beeb to this year’s Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall, which was allowed to proceed peacefully and with the expected respect for veterans and their loved ones (and without credit crunching at the end and a voiceover cheerfully advertising the programme to follow--hurrah!). I always watch the programme in floods of healthy tears; it’s important We Remember and appreciate the hell that these people are going through for us even now. I overcame my initial instinct to record this programme on DVD, as I worry that my archivist tendencies are repeating the video nightmare that has left me surrounded by the clutter of hundreds of nearly obsolete and largely unlabelled videotapes that I’ll never have time to watch. Then after a few heart-tugging stories and the appearance of the fantastic tenor Alfie Boe, I hit record but not soon enough to capture the whole of his breathtaking performance of the perfectly apt Bring Him Home from Les Miserables. What could be more perfect, with so many soldiers still suffering in wars abroad, all of whom we want to return home safely—regardless of whether you feel they should return immediately or eventually.

That extremely high point was, of course, dwarfed by the incredible tales told of so many soldiers, their relatives and others working ‘for the cause’, and particularly the appearance of amazing Chelsea Pensioners and other ancient veterans from wars nearly forgotten. A low point was the G4-ish boy band Blake singing the theme from An Officer and a Gentleman---Up Where We Belong. But some described it as moving, and I must confess to being biased against that terrible song.

I make it a point to watch just about every remembrance tribute shown at this time of year; it’s so important to remember and respect those who went to war and particularly those who suffered. The Government, all governments, seem to remember them too little, as evidenced by the many who have returned and even ended up homeless or suicidal, and the awful stories we’ve been hearing about insulting levels of compensation to families or the injured, families evicted owing to the death or injury of the previously serving soldier, and lack of support to those who suffered injuries in battle. I think every school child should watch these programmes, along with the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan so they can learn respect and awareness of the hell many older people have suffered. Mind you, at least there is more awareness of your day of tribute here in the UK, with everyone wearing a poppy as it approaches; I was never aware of the approach of Veteran’s Day when I was growing up in the States.

One series I was pleased to see repeated was Channel 4’s Not Forgotten presented by Ian Hislop, where a few descendents of soldiers named on old and often forgotten war memorials around the country were tracked down and some memorials restored or saved. It was a bit like Who Do You Think You Are? in reverse, participation in which apparently encouraged Hislop to do this programme, as he’s descended from a First World War veteran. Most people he stopped in the street in Not Forgotten barely noticed the decaying memorials they passed daily, and I’m ashamed to say that I have not yet carried out my promise after the show was first aired to visit the Liverpool Street station memorial (near my work) to the fearless ferry boat captain Charles Fryatt, who was executed by the Germans in the First World War to worldwide outrage after they took his brave challenge to their U-boats rather badly.

I also enjoyed Jeremy Paxman’s heartfelt tribute to First World War poet Wilfred Owen. However, the best programme shown over this period was Channel 4’s Forgotten Heroes: the Not Dead, which had me crying throughout. The trailers had gripped me when showing Fusilier Eddie Beddoes, a truly tough looking man who you’d probably fear in another situation, talking nearly tearfully about how his children had to deal with their father falling apart in the corner upon hearing a balloon burst at their birthday party. The courage of his wife to accept these new hardships was also impressive. The programme shared amazing, moving tales told by the three former soldiers, young an old, who experienced them, each finishing with the veteran reading tailor-made poetry by Simon Armitage vividly describing their memories of the particular horrors they experienced.

Fusilier Beddoes wore severe scars across his face (and mind) after being shot and seriously injured in Bosnia whilst peace-keeping, which he pointed out meant wearing a blue helmet as a sitting target who wasn’t allowed to defend himself by firing at the murder squads who regularly shot at the peacekeepers. Guardsman Rob Tromans described the terror that gripped him amidst the horrors of Iraq, which lasted 24/7 with no rest, and he now struggles in society, on drugs, in and out of prison, the sort of person you’d go out of your way to avoid—but he was once an eager youngster who signed up to help his country. Now we see what’s leftover when his country failed to help him.

Most utterly heartbreaking—though all the situations were harrowing—was seeing the tears of 78-year-old former Private Cliff Holland, who had been looking forward as a young bricklayer to the opportunity to see the world and fight for King and country when he was shipped off to fight Communists in the Malayan jungle in 1950. Most of his group on a particular mission died immediately when they walked into an ambush, with others surviving with shocking injuries, and they were just boys who barely knew how to deal with any of it. He shot someone quickly in revenge, which still haunts him, as does having to choose to drive over a man who looked him in the eye with apparent intentions of surrendering, but it was unsafe to do anything else when he needed to get the few survivors away from the carnage. About 60 years on, he sobbed on camera about this episode, which he relives every single night. He also described the hardships facing demobbed soldiers who were expected to snap back into normal life despite these horrors on their mind and the lack of jobs, particularly for those of limited skills. “You couldn't go into the Labour Exchange and say, 'If you know anyone wants killing, I'm your man'.”, he said.

Armitage’s poetry rolled off these injured tongues so naturally, it was as though it was their everyday speech. His collaboration with director Brian Hill to expose us to these raw and nearly unbearably sad situations deserves to be seen by a much wider audience, and I urge everyone to catch a repeat whenever it is shown. It will make you feel that something must be done, but presumably you will feel as helpless as I did, as sadly I can’t bring peace to the world. But much more should be done for the ‘not dead’ who need more attention and support, and there society could act to improve the awful reality somehow, and individuals could help charities such as the British Legion who try to pick up the pieces that the military discards.

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