Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Life and death

Yesterday, another cloudy morning saw me clearing the rest of the bamboo that had spread in to the garden. A nearby builder, working on a house down the lane, asked for some of it to use for his tomatoes and cheered me with Greek sayings like, 'there is only one life and it is short' and 'we grow like flowers and then we wither', that sort of thing.

I sat down in the shade and then heard the squealing of what sounded like a distressed animal. As the noise came closer I went to investigate. At the back of the patio wall was a tiny puppy, clearly part of an abandoned litter. For once I was pleased that I didn't live here full time, I would have adopted it instantly and it would have grown up to be a vast, ferocious hound. Its appeal lay in its vulnerability. Fortunately a neighbour knew of an animal sanctuary and phoned them. It now has the chance of a life that would have been denied it.

All of which brings me obliquely to the end of the long lives of two survivors, First World War veterans Henry Allingham and Harry Patch.

In keeping with the new tradition of celebrity deaths, the Prime Minister had to eulogise:
"I know that the whole nation will unite today to honour the memory, and to take pride in the generation that fought the Great War. The noblest of all the generations has left us, but they will never be forgotten."
Not forgotten, but how will they be remembered? Will they be the "lions led by donkeys", a working class betrayed to mechanised mass slaughter? Will they be seen as the victims of imperialism or heroes of the nation?

In part, the battle is one of poetry. There is Laurence Binyon, whose lines,
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.
adorn war memorials and are being trotted out regularly once more; stately, noble and kitsch.

Pitted against the non-combatant Binyon is the realism of Wilfred Owen, killed at the front shortly before the armistice, writing on "the pity of war".
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Harry Patch would have been with Owen, he saw the war as an obscenity, "legalised mass murder" to be remembered with horror and grief.

Owen was by far the greater poet, he overwhelms the stiff upper lip stoicism of Binyon's, "Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow", with bitter experience. Yet the legacy of his view of the War is mixed. It fed pacifism at all costs, including in the face of Fascism, and was part of the intellectual background to appeasement. Yet in the personalisation of the experience of war he, and many of his fellow war poets, made it clear that the life of each ordinary soldier mattered, they were not merely cannon fodder. From this sensibility comes the concept of war crimes and crimes against humanity, of Nurenburg and the Hague. And that is something most certainly not to be forgotten.

1 comment:

Graeme said...

Nothing to add, just wanted to comment on how this is an excellent post.