D.J. Taylor: Still we remember

Our connection to the nation's fallen soldiers is so deep that debate over poppy etiquette barely matters
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The Independent Online

Almost the last photograph I have of my father, who died four years ago this week, was taken on Remembrance Day 2005. He is standing outside the back door of my parents' old house in the western suburbs of Norwich, wearing the overcoat that in his boisterous 70s had looked two sizes too small, but now, in his 80s, looks two sizes too large. He is wearing a scarlet poppy and the five medals he brought back from the Second World War, when, as Leading Aircraftsman Taylor, JRG, he spent five years successively guarding the Irish border, decoding Morse for the allied advance as it swept east after D-Day, and then hanging about in Palestine as the British Mandate limped towards dissolution. Usually when photographed dad looked cheery, urbane or satirical by turns. Here he seems dangerously subdued.

On the opening page of John Fowles' novel The Magus (1966), its saturnine hero, Nicholas D'Urfe (b 1927) notes that his parents were born "in the grotesquely elongated shadow ... of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria". Well, I was born in the equally elongated shadow of the Second World War. It was not merely that my father, unlike the fathers of all my school friends, had actually fought in it: simply living in the house in that west Norwich suburb periodically reanimated its ghosts. When the back garden drains gave way in the late 1960s, the trouble was put down to the long-term consequences of bomb damage, and my grandmother could often be got to tell the story of how, looking out of the upstairs window one morning in 1942, she had seen a Dornier bomber come over so low that it was possible to make out the pilot's face.

Having one parent who had "done his bit" (a phrase still current in the 1960s, and used with no irony whatsoever) and another who had endured the privations of the home front (evacuation, house bombed, etc) brought a distinctive flavour to my childhood. On the one hand, my father liked to tell "war stories" to his appreciative tea-table audience. These were comic in essence (narrowly evading court martial for trying to sell his blankets in a Cairo street market, bellowing "It's one of ours, lads," as a plane rushed over the blasted German heath on which he was playing football, only to end up, 10 seconds later, in a ditch amid a hail of tracer fire), but nearly always carried some unignorable sting in the tail: the solitary bullet that winged through the side of the radio truck, through the apparatus and the operator who sat behind it; the corpse found in the high street of a "liberated" French village that, when picked up by a couple of commandos, came apart in the middle.

On the other, it inspired a kind of generalised, low-level frugality, born of the memory of ration-cards, make do and mend and there never being quite enough to eat: all that classic middle-class English Puritanism to which the war gave such heartening sanction. My mother was quite open about this, admitting even in the more prosperous 1970s that she couldn't resist the challenge of making a modest-sized joint do for three meals or contriving noxious retreads of old leftovers. It was all to do with having "lived through the war" (another phrase you heard a lot in the 1960s) and as much a symbol of its legacy as the looted Nazi flags, brought back from the town halls of Occupied Europe, which lay in a tin trunk in the attic, or the old RAF greatcoat in which dad used negligently to dig the garden.

All this gave the Remembrance Days of the 1960s and 1970s a terrific resonance. Very often the service at our local church wouldn't suffice; we would be taken into Norwich to watch the veterans parade before the City Hall, and Mr Gillingwater, who lived at the house at the bottom of the garden, would be greeted with more than usual civility. ("He was air crew," my father would reverently explain: dad had done his wireless operating from the comparative safety of the ground.) But what, I always used to wonder, glancing into the room where he sat watching the Cenotaph ceremony on TV, was he remembering? The answer was a number of things: dead comrades, certainly, those dozens of fellow-clerks at the Norwich Union Insurance Society who hadn't come back, but also lost youth, the five years that could have been occupied in playing football and taking girls to the pictures, instead spent in flyblown Irish towns or on the bomb-cratered road to Berlin.

And to dead comrades and lost youth could be added the lure of other narratives that led even further back into past time. If I was born in the shadow of the Second World War, albeit at 15 years remove, then my father, indisputably, was born in the shadow of the First. His own father had not only fought in Flanders (twice wounded, Mons Star, invalided out, I think, after Passchendaele), but had even, as a boy of 18, volunteered for the Boer War in South Africa. There was nothing exclusive about this, for the pattern wove itself through both sides of the family: to Great-Uncle Walter and Great-Uncle Reg, both of whom, directly and indirectly, were Great War casualties. Scratch any British household hard enough and you can generally find half a dozen instances of the 20th century's two great conflagrations making themselves felt, often in unexpected ways – the families split in two by appearances at the Conscientious Objector tribunals, or draft-evaders who managed to get themselves registered as "reserved occupation".

However strong the evidence of the photograph album, it is easy to forget quite how large a part war – and the memory of war – plays in the lives of anyone born in the quarter-century after 1945. Not only were the films, toys and comics of the era consistently lashed to it – even now, 35 years after I made my last Airfix kit, I can still identify all the principal military aircraft of the period – but the resentments and the assumptions it nurtured fostered a kind of mental outlook that six-and-a-half decades of European peace have barely dented. My father, to particularise, really did believe, or affect to believe, that the French were collaborators, that three Englishmen with a Bren gun could hold off the entire Italian army, that America could do no wrong. "Terrorist! Terrorist!" he would yell in the early 1980s, whenever the face of the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, appeared on the television screen, which seemed inexplicable until you realised that back in 1946, in Palestine, Begin had been a leading light in the Stern Gang, the direct-action Zionists who lobbed Molotov cocktails into cafés frequented by British servicemen.

Whatever liberal sentiments might have been bred up in my teenage breast were instantly stifled by this call to solidarity. Which is to say that I sympathised profoundly with my father through all these tribulations – sympathised, too, with his fear – ever-more-loudly expressed during the later 1970s – that "all this", meaning the Cenotaph service, the two-minute silence and the fields of poppies, would eventually fade away, that there would come a time when the glorious dead would be forgotten, merely because so few veterans survived. That this manifestly hasn't happened is, naturally, the result of other conflicts – the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan – rising up to demand their own acts of remembrance. At the same time, you imagine, there is another reason for the avidity with which the majority of the country settles down to mark "Poppy Day".

This is its transformation, at a very early stage in its development, into a sort of moral fixed point – an eternal verity of sacrifice and seemliness to set against the extravagance and the evasions of a more decadent world running on beside it. There is, for example, a highly significant chapter in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies (1930) in which frivolous Adam Fenwick-Symes sets off to the country with the aim of coaxing a cheque out of his prospective father-in-law. "It was Armistice Day and they were selling artificial poppies in the street. As he neared the station it struck 11 and for two minutes all over the country everyone was quiet and serious." After a day spent negotiating a modern version of Alice in Wonderland, Adam returns to London just as the commuters are boarding their evening trains. 'They were still wearing their poppies.' The contrast between flippant, rootless Adam, anxious to wheedle money out of his bride-to-be's father so that he can afford to conduct a relationship that neither party takes with the least seriousness, is all too marked.

Eighty years later, it might be argued, Remembrance Day still fulfils this role. Almost uniquely, in a society that grows ever more heterogeneous and whose main cultural influences seem almost expressly designed to force people apart rather than bring them together, the act of remembering gestures at the existence of a community far larger than the small-scale units of class or profession – those of us whose lives, or the lives of the people around them, have been affected in some way by war. Inevitably, some of these acts are susceptible to stage-management, but many of them are quite spontaneous. I was at a Championship football match on Saturday where, at half-time, as part of the British Legion's annual appeal, an RAF training squadron band was brought onto the pitch. Without pausing for reflection, 20,000 people got to their feet and began to applaud.

A pacifist of the kind who regards physical courage as barbarous would no doubt find this horribly nationalistic, if not downright sinister. For the people doing the applauding, you suspect, it was merely an acknowledgment of a unifying thread, next to which those newspaper articles in which liberal-minded journalists agonise over the ethics of poppy-wearing (is it a "badge"? Is one being "compelled"? and so on) seem faintly redundant. To go back to the veteran on his doorstep, not long ago I came across a copy of John Keegan's The Second World War given to my father as a birthday present. On the flyleaf he had written his name, the date – as it happened, the 50th anniversary of the day the war broke out – and the words "who lived through it". We are all still living through "it", or some of "its" ramifications, and whether we like it or not the emotional consequences will always be a vital part of the view we take of the world, the way we feel about history and, ultimately, the people we have come to be.

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