When do we forget?

Mrs Clown and I attended the Remembrance Day parade in Bristol yesterday. My nan and grandad took me to my first parade in Footscray in, maybe, 1972. I was in the first rank of the Bexleyheath parade as a Sea Cadet in 1980 and marched with the grown up soldiers and sailors on Plymouth Hoe in 1982.

Aftermath (1919)

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same,—and War’s a bloody game….
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz,—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench,—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack,—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads, those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you’ll never forget.

Siegfried Sassoon, 1886-1967

Despite what the Bristol Post says, there were very few young people at the parade yesterday, other than small children with their parents and the cadets marching in the parade. I wonder how long these parades will continue?

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When we recited the Lord’s Prayer, I was struck by the fact that everyone around me knew the words too. How long before that, too, is forgotten?

Anglicans add the line “for thine is the kingdom the power and the glory forever and ever” to the end of the Lord’s Prayer but a recent survey by British Social Attitudes says that “Only 3% of adults under 24 describe themselves as Anglican”. Maybe Christianity will last for ever, but maybe not that bit of the prayer.

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We sang Carols at the tree lighting ceremony in Clifton Village last Wednesday. They handed out hymn sheets but everyone already knew the words. I saw no young people though either despite the thousands of students who live in Clifton. How long before Carols are forgotten too?

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I believe it was the battles of the Somme and Verdun and Passchendaele that precipitated the long slide in religious belief in Europe. When the Church, all over Europe, gave so much support for the most atrocious war in all history, it’s hard to imagine that its moral authority could continue forever. Maybe it’s right that we should forget those terrible wars now. After all, we’ve had more than 70 years of peace now.

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The European Union has its roots in an effort to bind together the French and German economies after World War 2 so that these terrible tragedies might never happen again. Churchill, having seen a few wars first-hand himself, was a supporter. Too many people have forgotten this and now a handful of Tory opportunists have persuaded them that we don’t need this security any more. Across the Atlantic, the American president is doing his best to undermine the institutions that have kept us safe and prosperous for so long. Half the country thinks this will somehow Make America Great Again.

At the Remembrance ceremonies in France, Macron and Merkel held hands in a symbolic rejection of past enmities. The American president, famously, chose not attend the remembrance of America’s contribution to the end of World War I.

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As these awful conflicts fade out of memory, it becomes easier to think that they’ll never happen again, even as we dismantle the institutions that made them stop.

“So now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving their dreams and past glory,
I see the old men all tired, stiff and sore
Those forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question.
But the band plays Waltzing Matilda,
And the old men still answer the call,
But year after year, the numbers get fewer
Someday, no one will march there at all.”
—Eric Bogle

Photo Credits:

 

I Will Shoot Your Dog

madonna signI’ve been visiting the breathtakingly beautiful campsite at Mount Madonna at least twice a year for twenty years now. It really is a magnificent campsite.

When Silicon Valley is so hot as to be unbearable, the shade of the finest coastal redwoods will help you find your cool. There are no critters to raid your food larder and biting things are vanishingly rare. If you are fortunate, you’ll be blessed with a visit by a passing deer—we saw more than a few this weekend—and the rangers are unfailingly polite and welcoming.

Mount MadonnaAt least, they have been polite and welcoming for the previous twenty years but, this year, there’s a new sheriff in town.

For the last ten summers, I’ve headed out to Mount Madonna with 20 or so of my friends.  We bring stacks of geeky board games (Settlers of Catan is a perennial favourite but Puerto Rico has been the must-play game for many a year now) and a couple of kegs of homebrew beer and we dress like pirates for the weekend. We come from all over California—mostly Santa Cruz and San Jose but a few hardy souls come from Placerville, Auburn and beyond and several make the long trek from Los Angeles.

A good time for us wannabe pirates is a big pot-luck supper, a few beers and some songs around the campfire. For reasons lost in the mists of time, our go-to song is Total Eclipse of the Heart and we gave our finest rendition at about 10PM on Friday night. You’ve never heard Turn around, Bright Eyes sung with such feeling.

We were done with singing and and were just starting our first game of Liar’s Dice when we noticed the mysterious, armed strangers walking into our campsite. There were three of them. It was the sheriff and two rangers.

Mount MadonnaNow, if you’ve ever been camping and been a little bit rowdy, you know you can expect a visit from the rangers. The group campsite at Mount Madonna is a long way from the family campsites but voices carry and not everyone loves Bonnie Tyler. We expected the usual routine – “Please keep it down—other people are trying to sleep.” “Yessir! We’ll keep it down! Thank you!” “You folks have a great weekend!” but this time it was different.

The sheriff and his posse looked as though they’d been positioned by Quentin Tarantino. They stood in a triangle with legs wide akimbo about 30 yards away with their flashlights illuminating just their legs. The sheriff had his hand on his gun.

The two most respectable of our number went down to politely enquire what the problem was—expecting the usual friendly exhortation about keeping the noise down—but the sheriff went for maximum confrontation.

You are making too much noise and it looks like some of you have been drinking. You have dogs off the leash and I feel threatened. If any of your dogs approach us, I will shoot them. This is not your home and you need to keep quiet.

To be fair to the sheriff, we did have dogs and none of them were on the leash. One was a cockapoo tucked into my sweater for warmth. Another was a Jack Russell sleeping under the bench and the third was a fat, lazy black lab, curious who the strangers were, who has never intimidated anyone above the age of 18 months old.

Now, we campers are all middle class and middle aged and our version of The Talk that black parents give their sons goes like this:

The police are on your side. They keep you safe from some very bad people. They do a difficult and dangerous job and they deserve your respect. Always be polite and respectful and you have nothing to fear from them.

But this sheriff rewarded our respect with

I will shoot your dog.

Maybe we misjudged.

It seems trite and petty to complain that the rangers at Mount Madonna campground would threaten to shoot our dogs when so many bad things have happened this week but I really feel that the Santa Clara Parks Department need to review their procedures. The polite, respectful approach of years past was always so effective, I wonder what prompted them to go for the maximum escalation, maximum confrontation approach this time?

America is a gunI lay awake late into the night on Friday with a poem playing over and over in my head. I feel almost guilty appropriating these moving lines when there are so many tragic events unfolding elsewhere in the country. But, as a visitor from the land of the Cup of Tea where the policemen don’t even carry guns, I feel it captures the essence of our little story quite well.

America is a Gun
by Brian Bilston

England is a cup of tea.
France, a wheel of ripened brie.
Greece, a short, squat olive tree.
America is a gun.

Brazil is football on the sand.
Argentina, Maradona’s hand.
Germany, an oompah band.
America is a gun.

Holland is a wooden shoe.
Hungary, a goulash stew.
Australia, a kangaroo.
America is a gun.

Japan is a thermal spring.
Scotland is a highland fling.
Oh, better to be anything
than America as a gun.

cup of tea

It Changed My Life – Book Three

I bought The Golden Treasury of English Verse and a harmonica as my only mementos of civilization when I set off to go backpacking around the world. I’m not entirely sure why though because I couldn’t play the harmonica and I hated poetry.

By the time I got back, I was enchanted by both.

Being untutored in the arts, I was free to decide for myself what I liked and didn’t like even if what I liked wasn’t the right thing or it was unfashionable or whatever. That sentiment applied equally to my music playing and to poetry.

darwinOne night, in Darwin, during a bone-shaking thunderstorm, I heard someone playing blues harp in the other room. It was the most amazing sound I had ever heard come out of a harmonica and I went to investigate. There was an Australian dude a little older than me and we got talking.

He invited me to play a little too and he said words to the effect of “Wow! I have never heard anyone play the harmonica like that!”. I am still not sure if he meant Wow! That was great! or Wow! You suck!

Since I had no idea how I was meant to play it, I just played what sounded good to me. Same deal with poetry.

I jumped around all over the book and each poem launched me into a quest for more poetry like this. I had been force-fed Wilfred Owen at school but reading him of my own accord felt reckless, revolutionary. After six years in the navy, I had to read poetry to find out what war was about.

I have, again, no recollection of why I decided that I should learn The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by heart but I gave up after about 75 verses. I was heartbroken when my new team at work decided that Team Albatross was too gloomy for a team name. They must not have read Coleridge (or heard the song).

My tastes were eclectic (sorry, Dylan, that I made you learn For Whom the Bell Tolls for a recital) and after mini-expeditions with Kipling (Kim, The Man Who Would be King), DH Lawrence (The Rainbow, Lady Chatterley, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love) and a day trip or two with Tennyson and Betjeman, I settled on George Gordon Byron as my travelling companion and soulmate.

250px-George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2)I read everything that Byron had ever written and, for a short, mad while, I wanted to be him. I wanted to be the second mortal to swim the Hellespont; I wanted to so scandalize my wife on my wedding night that she would file for divorce the very next day (must’ve been a pretty successful night as it produced Lady Ada who also discovered the joys of programming); I wanted to seduce the wives, sisters, sons and mothers of prominent politicians, including the prime minister’s; I wanted to raise a private army and go liberate the Greeks from the Turks or to die trying – like Byron did.

Shelley and Keats travelled with us for a while, but neither thrilled me the way Byron thrilled me.

I haven’t read poetry for a long, long time – except to read old favourites to my daughter. My passion, like Byron’s life, was brief but intense.

The Tortured Slumber of Brave Ulysses

The Sirens:[Singing, soothing] Sleep, brave Ulysses! Sleep! Let us soothe your sinews with our sensuous songs of slumber!

Scylla: [LOUD!] *LOUD CLICK* I WHOOSH YOU INTO WAKEFULNESS! NO SLEEP FOR YOU! MY INFERNAL NOISE BRINGS FIRE FROM THE VERY DEPTHS OF HELL *LOUD CLICK* [subsides. Exit stage left. LOUDLY!]

The Sirens: [Sensuous, enchanting] Close your eyes, weary traveller! Dreams we have for you. Or, if not dreams then reverie for none shall dream while watching waiting.

Charybdis: [Creeping, oozing] My icy fingertips drag you back from slumber. Can such cold exist? Know it well, foolish mortal for I bring it unto thee!

Scylla :[SHOUTING] *LOUD CLICK* BEGONE CHARYBDIS! YOU WILL NOT WAKE HIM WITH YOUR COLD HARD SILENCE FOR I WILL WAKE HIM WITH MY FIRES! AND MY WHOOSHING! I WILL *LOUD CLICK!!* [falls silent]

The Sirens: [weird harmonies] Such dreams, such dreams you will not know if you sleep and dream of wakefulness or wish for sleep’s gentle release.  Remember, ye that teacher of old and of those days when the seven seas ye rode and ships tall sailed and soft! wailed the sunsets of your youth. I will sing of them to ye…

SCYLLA: [SHOUTING!] *LOUD CLICK! IT IS NOT YET MY TURN BUT STILL I CLICK AND WHOOSH MY HOTNESS. NO SLEEP FOR YOU *LOUD CLICK*

Charybdis: My turn it is and cold I bring, such cold ye have not known or yet imagined *LOUD CLICK* I HAVE THEE FOOLED FOR I AM NOT CHARYBDIS WITH HIS ICY DAGGERS! I AM SCYLLA WITH MY WHOOSING AND MY INFERNO AND MY INFERNAL WHOOSHING AND MY CLICKING *CLICK AND WHOOSH!*.

Narrator: What new demon is this! Avert your eyes, Brave Ulysses! For it is 12:30 AM You have slept for hours yet not slept at all and many hours yet remain in your journey through your twilight of neither sleep nor proper waking.

The Sirens: [singing soothing songs] I have a dream for thee! Remember the girl from the days of thy coming of age? She was no girl! She is your bank manager and your loan is denied! For why would you approach me for a loan unrobed!? I mock thee and cast thee out into the streets where you are lost and searching..search for what??… ye have forgotten..and search ye must..and search…for wakefulness or sleep…why search? Ye have have no need for sleep for *LOUD CLICK AND WHOOSH* [IN VOICE OF SCYLLA] SLEEP NOT! FOR I MUST WHOOSH AND CAST OUT YOUR DREAMS AND COOK THEM IN MY FIRES!

CHORUS: There is no sleep for you while these strange songs haunt your memories and your reverie. Write them down ye must or we will pluck at thine eyeballs with false promises of slumber. Go now and write! Confront your tormentors and banish them – and sleep – with words and blogs. No more dreams for you tonight or any night for sleep is banished!

John Barleycorn Must Die

I find it simply amazing that, one thousand years ago, people were drinking excellent beer and singing this fantastic song and that even now, one thousand years later, beer is still excellent and the song is still fantastic.

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There were three men came out of the west
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.

beer

They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in
Threw clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.

John Barleycorn is the personification of beer and/or barley and the three men from the west killed him and buried him in the ground.

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They let him lie for a very long time
Till the rains from Heaven did fall,
And little Sir John sprung up his head
And so amazed them all.

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They’ve let him stand till Midsummer’s day,
Till he looked both pale and wan.
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.

But John Barleycorn springs back to life and grows strong again… until the men cut him down and make sure that he is really dead this time.

They’ve hired men with the scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee,
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the waist,
Serving him most barbarously.

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They’ve hired men with the sharp pitchforks,
Who pricked him through the heart
And the loader, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s bound him to the cart.

scotch

They’ve wheeled him around and around a field,
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath
On poor John Barleycorn

They grind up him up to make beer giving John Barleycorn the chance to get his revenge on those three men from the west.

fullsail

They’ve hired men with the crab-tree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.

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And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
And his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last

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The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker, he can’t mend kettle nor pots
without a little barley corn

The earliest surviving written record is from the sixteenth century but there is evidence that the song and the story is much older – like this twelfth century pub in Hampshire.

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I spent a very pleasant day listening to every version I could find – from Martin Carthy to Paul Weller via Billy Bragg and Jethro Tull and The Fairport Convention and many, many more. The best version by far is by Traffic but they each have their own charms.

Turn up the volume and raise a glass to that ancient hero.

John Barleycorn Must Die. Album by Traffic

Long live John Barleycorn!

Happiness is…

Sometimes in the middle autumn days,
The windless days when the swallows have flown,
And the sere elms brood in the mist,
Each tree a being, rapt, alone,

I know, not as in barren thought,
But wordlessly, as the bones know,
What quenching of my brain, what numbness,
Wait in the dark grave where I go.

And I see the people thronging the street,
The death-marked people, they and I
Goalless, rootless, like leaves drifting,
Blind to the earth and to the sky;

Nothing believing, nothing loving,
Not in joy nor in pain, not heeding the stream
Of precious life that flows within us,
But fighting, toiling as in a dream.

So shall we in the rout of life
Some thought, some faith, some meaning save,
And speak it once before we go
In silence to the silent grave …

The Old Lie

Timoth Garton-Ash describes in The Guardian what he sees as the root cause in the difference between the US outlook on the War on terror and the European outlook.

He compares the pro-war conservatives in the US with the militaristic imperialists (“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori“) in pre-World War I Europe and suggests that the seminal event which ended such thinking in Europe was, in fact, The Great War.

Interesting analysis that I need time to digest but I can’t let the Dulce et Decorum reference to pass without quoting Wilfred Owen.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
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.

Historical note : Wilfred Owen completed this in 1918 but still found time to die before the end of the war a few months later.