REMEMBRANCE Sunday. The old chaps - I include myself - come to
sing "I vow to thee, my country". The church aches with Georgian
sadness. Medals glitter. Memory holds the door. In the pulpit, I
repeat myself unashamedly; for we all like to sing and hear what we
have heard and sung before. The November day, too, is carefully
unoriginal. I doubt if anyone present can put a face to the names
on the war memorial.
Jesus was against looking back: "Remember Lot's wife!" And,
beautifully: "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while
you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you; he who walks in
darkness does not know where he goes."
The victims of the First World War certainly hadn't a clue where
they were going, Father included, a teenager at Gallipoli. From a
Suffolk farm - to this! He stares at me from the piano, a boy who
had never heard the news; for the East Anglian Daily Times
merely added to the mystery.
I say the names on the war memorial yet once more. Then mount
the pulpit to read the whole of "They shall grow not old as we that
are left grow old." Laurence Binyon wrote it almost before anyone
had been killed, in September 1914. He was a middle-aged librarian
who would have been amazed to know that a verse from his poem would
be quoted in every church in Britain once a year. Later, we all
fill the pub, glad to be alive. Conkers glisten in the churchyard
The Westminster Abbey librarian Laurence Tanner once showed me
the letters from George V about burying an unknown soldier just
inside the great west door. And what a business it was to find a
spot that had not been buried in before. The Great War will soon be
a century ago. Re-reading Ted Hughes's translation of
Beowulf, I thought that, although war should not become
poetry, it does. And none more so than the Great War, in which
millions lost their one and only life.
Mark's Gospel describes Christ's almost logical acceptance of
war: "When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed;
this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise
against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. . ."
But I am alarmed at what seems to be a human realistic
acceptance of, say, the trenches to come. On Remembrance Sunday
they are bathed in the lovely language. Their disgrace is silenced
by poetry and music.
This year, we have the added reminiscence of real Paul Nash
trees, the recent gale having lopped off branches along the lane.
Wind-torn trees look as wounded as shelled trees. Splintered boughs
are uncannily like fractured bones. Chainsaws whine in the
distance, one while we sing Isaac Watts's "O God, our help in ages
past", that perfect commentary on Time.
I put the garden straight, pick grapes, pick up pears, chide the
white cat for watching me through a window and never in all his
life doing a stroke, and breathe in the nice rottenness of
I suppose the young labourers on the First World War memorial
must have tramped to Bottengoms to tidy up after a storm. So many
hands then. So few shillings. And one of the same pear trees. And
endless sticks and logs for the fire. And the cool stream running
to the river on and on without a break. Constant movement, endless
stillness. And those brief lives on the war memorial. . .