Saturday, 28 November 2015

A cold Saturday afternoon in a British city

    A Saturday afternoon in late November, in a British city. A square off the main shopping drag. It's blowing a freezing cold wind, and a slight drizzle. A hundred people are standing in the rain, some are holding placards. They're chanting anti-war slogans to the indifference of the passing shoppers. The usual crowd of random political fringe members are trying to push their pamphlets, newspapers, and petitions. It's all pretty harmless, for a movement that likes to think of itself as shaking democracy to the core they don't merit the attention of a single member of the constabulary. A very British protest.
    That was my lunchtime, for what good it'll do. The Great and the Good want to bomb some foreigners again, because last time they did it it didn't quite work. This time they'll do it differently you see, but they'd better hurry up or they will miss the chance to get in with their bigger mates on all the fun. We and a host of others in cities across the country were standing in the rain in the forlorn hope that it would influence the choice of our MPs on Monday - whether to walk into the "No" lobby or the "War criminal" lobby. Not a chance with my MP, she's a member of her party's faithful and she'll do as she's told.
     I would have never thought thirty years ago that I'd attend an anti-war demonstration. But back then the only war my country had involved itself in my lifetime was the Falklands, and that was a lot more cut and dried than the succession of messes we've seen in the last 15 years. The justification is probably less shaky than it was for Tony Blair, but the aftermath this time is likely to be no less messy. My fifteen year old self should have had a chat with some of those WW2 veteran teachers I mentioned in my last post, had I thought of it.
    I have a host of friends who are working with different organisations trying to provide aid to "The Jungle", a patch of heavily polluted and foetid waste ground near Calais, France, that has become home to six thousand people over the last few months. They want to stow away illegally on trucks and trains to the UK, the UK doesn't want them and the French REALLY don't want them. Some people call them migrants, some call them refugees. Nobody wants them to be there, least of all them.
    The awkward trouble is though that they are there. Walking through raw sewage, sleeping through the Northern European winter in festival tents and dodging CRS tear-gas canisters lobbed into the camp from the nearby overpass. You won't see the truth on the news, coverage so far has been either all about jolly refugee life charging mobile phones from generators and buying curry from improvised shops or else living in the lap of luxury pampered by Government handouts and gullible charities. The truth is one of a nascent shanty town straight from the worst slums of a developing country, in a corner of a prosperous Northern European country in the grip of winter. There will be disease epidemics redolent of the Middle Ages, there will be Mafia bad guys running the camp as a no-go area, and eventually there will be a media blackout as the French send in the troops to wipe away what will have become a national embarrassment.
    The people in the foetid hell of the Jungle come from many countries. Most of them come from the countries we have spent so much time bombing over the last fifteen years or so. We didn't fix their countries, we made them worse.
     And now our idiot leaders and their idiot Opposition want to do it all again. Really?

    It sounds awfully hollow to say "Not in my name!" But somebody has to.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Remembrance day

    This week we observe Remembrance day, in which we remember those who have fallen in our nation's wars. The day itself is the 11th because that was the day the First World War ended, but the nation chooses to have its main event on the Sunday preceding.
    When I was much younger, Remembrance day was an intense and quiet affair. Everybody over about fifty years old had fought in either or both wars if they were a man, or had likely served themselves or lost a loved one if they were a woman. People who had lived through the War, even those who were children, were marked by it, and it showed.
    I consider myself lucky to have had the last of that generation as my schoolteachers. Aside from a few enthralling anecdotes they had a perspective on education their successors lacked; there was a sense that their mission was to leave the world a better place than they found it.
    The last First World War veteran died a year or two ago and those of the Second World War are starting to become thin on the ground. And as their ranks have been depleted the nature of Remembrance day has changed, not necessarily for the better. What used to be a bitter national reminder of senseless slaughter that we should never forget lest it happen again has slowly become a celebration of British patriotism, that kind of patriotism that dare I say it borders on nationalism. The act of remembering the senseless slaughter has become subsumed in an orgy of banner-lowering and Being Seen To Be There. Politicians scramble to be the first to sport a poppy, and to snipe at those they consider might have less of a True Remembrance than they do. Pacifists are scorned, as being Not Quite British Enough.

    Somehow I feel we lost something along the way. Maybe we left it on the main street of Wootton Bassett.

    Perhaps it's a reaction to the awkward fact that the last war we got involved in was just a bit dodgy. Battling the Nazis had a moral justification, but with dodgy dossiers and George W Bush we comprehensively let down the soldiers we sent to die in the heat of Iraq. Bitter remembrance of senseless slaughter gets a bit close to home for those in power when they are the ones who obediently trooped into the War Criminal Lobby behind their then party leader.
    Or maybe it's the post-war generation's tendency to sanitise the past at work. For them The War was One Great Big Adventure serialised in countless comics, Tommy Atkins always won the day, and never had his guts shot out by a German Schmeisser. Perhaps their parents didn't talk about it enough in the 1950s, it could be again I was lucky to encounter that generation when they'd had time to come to terms with it.
    One of the most committed, eloquent, and convincing pacifists I have ever met spent his war in the nose of a Lancaster bomber. He was a bomb-aimer, he pressed the button on those thousand-bomber raids over Berlin, Hamberg, Essen, and Dresden. He saw his friends die in shockingly large numbers, he saw the effect of area bombing on British cities and he saw after the war what it had done to German cities. He wore his poppy with pride, not to glorify conflict but to remind the world of its horrors.

    I don't know about you, but every year since he passed away I've followed his example.