Wednesday, 31 October 2018
In a few days we will mark 100 years since the end of World War 1 and not surprisingly there will be commemorative events up and down the country. For many people, wearing a red poppy will be part of that commemoration.
There was a time when I used to wear my poppy with pride, and take part in the annual silence. My father and uncles were World War 2 veterans, my grand-father was a veteran of World War 1, 2 of my great uncles died in that war, so the event had real meaning for me. Even when I decided I was a pacifist, I still continued with the tradition, as I felt connected to my past through the stories my parents told. For my father, it was leaving home at 18 to join the navy, serving on the Arctic convoys, surviving enemy attacks and witnessing the sinking of the German ship the Scharnhost with the lost of nearly 2,000 men. It was going deaf from being a gunner, having a laugh with his mates, it was taking part in the D Day operation and getting stuck in the Channel of the Normandy Coast, a sitting duck for German guns.
For my mother it was living through bombing raids, gathering shrapnel, limited rations, and near the end of the war, the terror of the doodlebugs, whose engines cut out, a few seconds before the missile dropped, so you could never be sure if you were in its path. For my grandmother Moffatt, it was living with the fear of all her sons at war. For my grandmother Thomas, it was nursing her dying husband, who developed rheumatoid arthritis when he was imprisoned in World War 1, and raising her children under the constant terror of bombings. My grandmother had the added sorrow of losing two brothers in World War 1; even now it is hard to imagine the immensity of such loss. So each year, it made sense to wear my poppy and reflect on those experiences.
I don’t recall exactly when I stopped wearing a poppy. I suspect it was some time after the 1991 Gulf War, which reignited my pacifism and opened my eyes to the UK’s complicity in aggressive militarism. I became uncomfortable with the idea that the red poppy was sold in memory of ‘our dead’ and the more I learnt about war, the less ‘glorious’ those dead felt. It was around then that I discovered the Peace Pledge Union produced an alternative. So for a while I wore a white poppy to remember all the dead and promote peace. But soon that too jarred as it seemed in conflict with my parents' stories. When I joined them in 1994 for the 40th Anniversary of the D Day Celebrations, I was struck by how grateful people in the crowds were for the liberation of France, a powerful reminder that issues of war and peace are complex. The last time I was with my Father we attended a church service to celebrate forty years since VE Day. He died a few weeks later, and it felt right to hold his funeral at the British Legion. He never wanted to go to war, but felt it was the only way to stop Hitler, I might have disagreed with his choice but I always respected it. War happened to my parents, and affected their lives in ways I cannot imagine. I couldn’t wear a red poppy but wearing a white one felt wrong too. I decided not to wear a poppy at all, and I now choose to remember those that have died throughout the year, rather than one particular day in November.
Given that 'Echo Hall' is a novel about the wars of the last hundred years, it is unsurprising that Remembrance entered the narrative. Early on I wanted to make the village war memorial a key location, with the increased number of names over time providing a reminder of the cost of war.I also chose to have different characters reflect on the meaning of Remembrance to them, which was partially my response to debates on what poppy you should or shouldn't wear. And at a very late stage,I realised it made sense to frame the whole book with a prologue and epilogue set in 2014, with Ruth's daughter, Phoebe, revisiting 'Echo Hall' as she explores the conflicts of the past.
Although World War 1 was supposed to be the war to end all wars, each year of the last century have sadly seen the UK involved in conflicts across the globe. This year, when we mark the 100th anniversary of its ending, is a good time be asking the question that 'Echo Hall' poses - are such conflicts inevitable or can we find another way?
E books of 'Echo Hall' will be available at a reduced rate throughout November so do spread the word! And if you are looking for other Remembrance related novels, please check out:
The Glorious Dead - by Tim Atkinson which will be launched by Unbound on 1st November. The novel tells the untold story of the soldiers who stayed behind at the end of World War 1 to dig the war graves. I've just got my copy of this one and can't wait to read it.
Across the Divide by Anne Booth is a middle grade novel published by Catnip. Olivia is the daughter of a peace activist and granddaughter of a military chaplain. With friends and family in conflict over the new army cadet unit at school, and her mum in prison after a peace protest, Olivia must spend half term in Lindisfarne with her dad. There she meets a strange boy called William whose own struggles with conscience help her understand her recent experiences. This is a moving and funny book that asks us to consider the damage we do when we allow our disagreements to colour our views of each other, and the importance of remembering Jo Cox’s words that we have ‘more in common than divides us’.