Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remember, remember, the eleventh of November

After turning 50 it is perhaps natural to reflect that 100 years is not so long ago after all. 
And how soon memories become history; whether this is a process of softening or solidification is open to discussion. 
The last time I was in Oxford Street with my father - ‘You don’t see any English faces here any more’ - he suddenly recalled passing along the same thoroughfare as a child with his own father and being disquieted by all the maimed WWI veterans that used to congregate there. 
I also remember dim foggy November evenings in the early 70s when our home was passed annually by an kilted army pipe band, trailed by a throng of old men, mostly able-bodied, they too survivors of that conflict, which seemed more distant to me then than it does now. 
Now I suppose they and their stories have marched off into a past that those with no direct experience 'remember' each year, apparently increasingly unsure of what is being remembered other than sacrifice. (Would this seem any more or less meaningful if Europe had not gone and done the whole thing again thirty years later?) 
People say we can’t now think of WWI without thinking of Blackadder Goes Forth, but even that was a long time ago now. Last year's re-tread of Journey's End was a bit of a refresher, I suppose. 
Prof. Niall Ferguson's article in the Sunday Times today reminded me that the moment the guns went silent - those same big guns that were responsible for 75% of all casualties - was one of 'pandemonium' rather than peace. 4 of the 6 great empires that had started the conflict disintegrated and a plague-like pandemic carried off the lives of more than four times the number that the war itself had. (We barely 'remember' the Spanish Flu.) 
It was also the moment that belligerent nationalism started to look like a catch-all remedy. Reading about Macron and Merkel side by side in the train carriage yesterday almost brought me to tears, but once again the Donald elephant had to come along and trample all over the story.

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