I won’t forget the day I volunteered to plant poppies at the Tower of London, it was the 14th of September, my brother’s birthday. I thought it would be something special for us to do together, something memorable and unusual. We had an amazing day for so many reasons, from walking the empty London streets early in the morning, to seeing the poppies for the first time, to leaving the Tower with sore thumbs and knees, to getting squiffy on a bottle of bubbly at lunch. A wonderful day, just the two of us, something we so rarely do when our lives are filled with kids (me), work (him) and life in general (both of us).
I had purposely stayed away from the Tower not wanting to spoil the impact of seeing a sea of red surrounding the pale cold stone. It was strange that my first view was up close, we came via Tower Bridge and our first encounter was on foot in the moat, up close and personal. It was only after that we climbed up to view our handy work, to try to spot our personally placed poppies, to see our own unique imprint and involvement in an art work adopted by a nation.
While we had worked on our knees next to strangers I had not thought of each poppy as a life lost, there was no connection for me, I could not see the poppies stretching out all around me as death and sacrifice. I was swept up in the task at hand, washers and stoppers, metal rods, tricky and fiddly to put together, a monotonous task. What I was aware of was the groups and couples around me, the chatter and small talk, there was this strange sense of shared effort and camaraderie. I did feel I was part of something, but it was a something hard to put into words.
So often when I read an article or watch a programme on the First World War, the author or presenter always seems to have a connection, they have researched their family history, they can tell you of a Great Grandparent who fought and died. It is as if they need this connection to understand what happened what it all meant. It is a time out of mind, it is a fragile shifting ephemeral thing. I have no direct links or connections that I know of, I haven’t looked. My Grandparents all died when I was very young, I don’t remember any of them. There are no Second World War memories for me to reach, my Mum was born in 1945. I have an aunt who was evacuated in the Second World War and no doubt has some memories of that time, but the cruelty of Alzheimer’s has washed her memories away, the horrible disease is rubbing her away too. Every moment I have spent with her over the last couple of years has really brought home to me how fragile our histories are, our lives and our loves. I have left it too late to ask, one by one we are becoming strangers to her. I wonder if the memories are still there locked away, or if they are gone, lost forever.
The memory I do have, that is strong and bright and full of love, is the memory of spending a morning with my brother, on his birthday, planting poppies, laughing and talking of this and that, having lunch, wandering round London without a care in the world. It was only when we said goodbye that day, I threw my arms round him and kissed his cheek and it is then that a sadness crept up me. It was then that I thought of war, all those brothers and husbands and sons who went to their death. I love my brothers so much, I could not imagine seeing them go to war, to experience any horror, or pain. To lose them.
I have been thinking about that day a lot, I haven’t written anything until now. It feels the right time to put down a few words. I recently read Jonathan Jones’ article in the Guardian about the Tower poppies, an interesting piece, he felt the sea of red did nothing to show the true horror of war, for him it is an empty spectacle. Do we need to be reminded graphically of the horrors of the First World War? I am not sure we do. When I turn on the tv every day there is conflict around the world, there is horror and death. We have become hardened to horror, it doesn’t move us. I can’t imagine the horror of the First World War, I don’t know if I want to. I would rather honour the sacrifice. A sacrifice that means I don’t have to live with that horror.
You can argue over decisions, the reasons for going to war, the rights and wrongs, but you don’t need to argue over those who went to war to protect their loved ones and never came home. Perhaps what we do need to be reminded of is a spirit of togetherness, of comradeship and unity. That is what I felt planting the poppies, that is what people feel when they go and see them. That is why around 4 million have visited and that is why there is an outcry to keep them in place. We want this feeling of belonging, of sharing an experience, the First World War is a distant hard to reach horror but we can have this memory, right now in 2014, a collective thought and moment of togetherness.
Jonathan Jones wrote that it tells us nothing about the history for the First World War and he might be right, but it is the starting point for so many conversations across the generations. How many have picked up a book, looked at an article, watched a programme and checked some facts online because talking about those poppies has prompted a realisation that we don’t know enough, there is no one left to ask, we have to seek the answers out for ourselves.
We will all remember the sacrifices made in the First World War in our own way, planting a poppy, a trip to the Tower to view the sea of red, a silent moment of contemplation. If this is how our generation can access a time that is gone from our living memory that is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so. I will remember a day with my brother, a bond of love which I can’t imagine ever being taken away. In the coming months I know I will be finding out a lot more about the First World War and it all began with sore thumbs and sore knees, with a single poppy and the dark silent earth.