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Remembrance or remembrance?

29 Nov

Memory is a strange and elusive thing. Two people who have shared exactly the same experiences in the past can have completely different memories of them.  Memory is not only selective but can also be subjective. It is difficult to pin down the exact, objective truth. The memory of an event can be viewed through from so many perspectives. Prejudices and subsequent experiences can colour an event so much.

That is why I suppose, Governments try to impose an “official” collective memory of an important National event. It’s much easier and more convenient if everyone is reading from the same hymn sheet. Sometimes, in totalitarian states, the past has been radically re-written with massive ommissions and massive distortions, to suit the needs of the present. The Nazi and Stalinist regimes were past masters at this.  In the UK we have not gone to such extremes, but censorship and propaganda have still been employed at critical times, in order to get the population to interpret an event in an approved way. The First World War or the Great War is a case in point. That devastating conflict finished just over 100 years ago and my country, the United Kingdom, has recently been consumed by its collective, officially- approved acts of Remembrance. Nobody who fought in that war is alive anymore, so individual acts of genuine remembering are no longer possible. We are left with: memorials, prose, poetry, sculpture and paintings. We are also left with the “official” rituals and public ceremonies. Now that we can no longer talk to a survivor, we have to make the best we can of all these second-hand forms of remembering.

Some sources are informative and some are very moving, but they are second hand nevertheless. In fact some of the works of art or literature about the war  are possibly based on third or even fourth hand sources.  Sebastian Faulkes was only able to write his famous First World War novel “Birdsong” after many hours in the library (or possibly, on the Internet.) There is a danger to this. It’s like a game of Chinese whispers. By the time the message has travelled right round the circle, it could be completely different from the one that started off. With regards to the 1914 to 18 war, we can no longer check facts with the participants, and even if we could, they would all have their different points of view. There are many factors masking the “truth.” All this has made it easier for the establishment to step in and impose its officially approved narrative. The generally accepted view of the First World War now is that it was a time of heroic, stoical SACRIFICE. That is the accepted British way — to suffer quietly and make the ultimate sacrifice of dying for one’s country. A conflicting narrative of : the waste, the pointlessness and the pity of war came with the rise in popularity of the First World War poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. But this idea did not take hold until the 1960’s. By then the official interpretation of the Great War’s meaning had taken a firm hold and much of it still holds strong today. It is still not acceptable to remember our war dead as soldiers who needlessly died for a pointless cause. Much more palatable then to swallow the more accepted line that they bravely sacrificed their lives to protect and preserve the freedoms of their countrymen, from the threat of German tyranny.

Alternative versions of the war’s meaning could emerge from  memoirs of course or from other primary sources such as soldiers’ letters,  diaries, photographs and films. But all of these sources can be challenged as not revealing the whole, objective reality. The Allied Commander-in-Chief, Earl Haig, almost certainly retrospectively doctored his diaries and memoirs to give his decisions the most positive spin, in the light of what subsequently happened. Soldiers writing home might well have concealed horrible truths because they did not want to upset their loved ones. The letters were probably censored anyway. After the first few months of the war, soldiers were discouraged from taking photographs of the war happening around them.  They were also discouraged from writing diaries. Press photographers were mostly kept away from the battle areas. Films served propaganda purposes. For instance, the famous footage of the British Tommies going over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in June, 1916, was actually film of an earlier training exercise. We never get to see thousands of men being mown down by machine gun fire ( thank goodness!) So many of our “memories” of this crucial event are officially sanctioned, controlled and sanitised and do not necessarily reveal the whole “truth.” In this way, officially approved Remembrance has largely replaced the more confusing, mixed messages provided by personal remembrances. It is more comfortable and convenient to have one agreed version of the war and agreed methods of commemorating it. Thus we now have our Day of Remembrance every November.

So what exactly were people doing on this last, high profile Remembrance Day in November, 2018? What were they doing at the Cenotaph and other war memorials throughout the land? It’s easier to state what they were not doing. What is certain is that the participants were not really remembering the details of what happened a century ago. The vast majority of Britain’s population were not alive when the war was raging or when the guns finally fell silent a hundred years ago. Many, including myself, cannot even remember the Second World War which followed 20 years after the “War to end all wars.”  Therefore, if it is impossible to genuinely remember the Great War, why are we being constantly urged not to forget?  On war memorials and social media posts up and down the country we have been bombarded with the phrase from Kipling’s early poem: “Lest we forget.” This almost sounds like a threat. In the dictionary “Lest” is defined as a conjunction meaning “in order that not” or “for fear that.” Thus it seems as if forgetting is a fearful prospect. We’d better not forget, or else. Or else what? What are we frightened of forgetting? What will happen if we do forget? These questions are difficult to answer because they are like thinking about the unthinkable. Of course we will not forget what those soldiers did for us. How could we? Yet the reality is that in everyday life, departed people are only remembered for about two or possibly three generations, and after that they pass into the dreaded oblivion. I can remember my grandparents but can recall nothing of my great grandparents. They are just images on a few faded photographs or words chiselled on to an old grave stone. So without the official props of Remembrance, those thousands of perished soldiers would have been forgotten already. They can only now be remembered in a vague, general sense, in ceremonies that serve to bind us together as a nation. How long can this go on for? We no longer “remember” the British dead in the Boer War, the Zulu war, the Crimean War or the Napoleonic wars. They have passed into the mists of time.

Even though they could not be genuinely remembering, people have certainly enjoyed the whole experience of Remembrance Sunday. A nurse taking my blood, commentated that this year’s ceremonies were ” lovely.” Two friends at a recent dinner party agreed that 2018’s Remembrance Day was particularly enjoyable in their respective towns. They loved the marching soldiers, the military bands, the displays of poppies, the laying of wreaths, the 2 minutes silence and the playing of the Last Post. A very good day out then. Throughout the last 4 years, people have flocked to  gaze at and photograph striking pieces of conceptual art such as images of British Tommies on a beach or huge shoals of bright red poppies flowing into the moat of the Tower of London. Massed poppies have featured in many striking pieces of art. “Nit and natter” groups have had a great time knitting  thousands of woollen red poppies to represent the British dead from that terrible, distant war. The poppy has come to symbolise the sacrifice of the soldiers who perished. The idea came from a poem, “In Flanders Fields” written in 1915 by a Canadian field surgeon, John McCrae, who was serving in that worn-torn area of Belgium. He noticed that poppies were the first flowers to grow in the churned up earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders. Once the war was over, the poppy was one of the only flowers to grow on the otherwise barren battle fields.  This is why the British Legion, which helps injured soldiers, adopted the red poppy as its emblem. The powerful symbolism of the poppy is enhanced by the fact that it is red, the colour of blood. Even today, most of the public wear red poppies out of respect for those who sacrificed their lives in that far off war. Later, white poppies were produced to symbolise Peace but many refuse to wear these because they believe it is dishonouring our war dead.

The only trouble with using a poppy to remember those who  died in the wars, ( the Second World War has now been added to the commemorations), is that it is very pretty. It’s very beauty prevents real remembering, in my opinion. I wonder how many would have flocked to the Tower of London art installation if it had featured a mock-up of rats, lice and putrifying corpses?  Or perhaps an artist could have made piles of skulls with clouds of blue-bottles buzzing around them?  I believe these would  have been a more realistic representation of conditions in the Western Front trenches. Siegfried Sassoon, a war veteran and poet made the same point in his 1919 poem “Aftermath.” Thinking of the noble appeal of war- memorials to “remember”, he wrote:

“Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a

hopeless rain?”

The point is simple — war is not pretty, like displays of poppies, and not dignified, like ritualised ceremonies. It is ghastly, ugly and cruel. I find it hard to understand why some people “enjoy” Remembrance Sunday and describe it as “lovely.” In my view, remembering such a tragedy should be an unpleasant, painful and uncomfortable experience.

Another obstacle to a realistic understanding of what the Great War was about is the overuse of certain words to describe it. Phrases such as the “horror of war” or ” ultimate sacrifice” have been used so often that they have lost their meaning. They have become cliches. They convey none of the horror or tragedy of war that they are meant to express. People are well meaning but phrases that trip off the tongue in an automatic response, fail to deliver any meaningful message. Let’s face it, if you weren’t there it is impossible to use realistic words to describe the conflict. But such empty cliches make it even more difficult to gain any real insight into soldiers’ experiences in the war. It is much easier to use off-the-peg formulae when writing or talking about the war, because they free us from thinking too deeply about such a disturbing subject. However, they are another barrier standing between us and the real thing.  Few people willingly seek out pain and distress. Most of us are not masochists.

Thus we are left with commemorations of wars that are ritualistic and prescribed from above.  People love rituals it seems. Look at all the stuff that is going on in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples around the world. Ritualistic worship is a world away from figuring out one’s personal spiritual path. It is easier to follow other people’s rules and seek safety in numbers. My parents were lifelong Methodists. If they followed the “method” ( prescribed by John Wesley) they believed it would gain them entrance to  heaven. I would argue that the act of Remembrance has mostly been reduced to the same thing. Rememberers now follow a ready-made “method.” The individual does not have to deeply engage with the subjects of war, death, horror, atrocity, sacrifice or tragedy. Neither does he or she have to ask the awkward question: “why?” He or she has simply got to follow the rules laid down by established  society. There is a lot of social pressure to conform to these rules. We are all expected to buy and wear poppies. For instance, all TV presenters are expected to religiously wear them every November. People choosing to wear white peace poppies can expect to be challenged, as diverting from the accepted norm is frowned upon. Like Christmas, Remembrance Day has been turned into a festival of conformity.

Yet another problem, in my view, is that Remembrance has got inter-twined with the idea of patriotism. You don’t love your country if you don’t wear the poppy. You are not respecting the soldiers who died if you choose to wear a white poppy. I love my country, warts and all, and would never emigrate. It is the country that I belong to, where my roots are. However, love for one’s country can sometimes turn into distrust and even dislike of foreigners. In other words, patriotism can spill-over into chauvinism, and even racism. This is why I have always been uneasy about it. Far-right, white supremecist groups such as The National Front and the English Defence League wrap themselves up in the flag of St George ( ironically the flag of Genoa in Italy) and preach hatred of immigrants, asylum seekers and foreigners in general. This is why I am always uncomfortable about overt patriotism and I believe that our Remembrance ceremonies have unfortunately become coloured by this. The days have become excuses for flag waving and military marching when it is exactly that sort of stuff that got us into the Great War in the first place. A major reason why the UK entered the war was to defend its Empire and its naval hegemony against German enchroachment. For many, it was a highly patriotic exercise. We would show Germany who was boss. The same chauvenistic attitudes were prevalent in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Serbia, Turkey and the rest — leading to a four year conflict and mass slaughter. It is ironic, in my opinion, that the patriotism which partly led to the disastrous war is now being employed to remember it. It makes me feel uneasy and makes me suspect that we have not learnt the lessons of history.

I think, if we really want to commemorate the dead of last century’s murderous wars, the best way is to campaign for peace. One should try to ensure that there is not a repeat of such disastrous wars and the terrible waste of life. I have been a peace campaigner for much of my life. I was particularly active in the 1980’s and 90’s when American Cruise Missiles were being stationed in our country, making the UK a prime target in any future nuclear war with the Soviet Union. I was frightened for myself and for my young children. I did everything I could, as an ordinary citizen, to raise awareness of the dangers of war for our country and  for the World. You would think that campaigning for peace in the world would be a popular, non-controversial cause. However, during my time as an active peace campaigner I was verbally abused and called a “coward”, a “communist” and even a “traitor.” It was that patriotism thing again. I loved my country but if I spoke out against its militeristic ventures ( Falklands War, Iraq wars, parts 1 and 2, Afghanistan war, bombing  of Syria etc) I was castigated as an unpatriotic traitor. This is still the case today. I am sure some people reading this blog will think of me in such terms.

So I believe that true remembrance and true commemoration of our war dead is to campaign for world peace, not turn out to see marching soldiers, listen to military bands,  look at pretty displays of poppies and wave the Union Jack. War memorials often speak of our “Glorious Dead.” This makes me suspect that instead of reminding us of the  tragedy of warfare, they are in danger of glorifying it. Our attractively packaged “cult of Remembrance” serves as a barrier, separating people from the horrors of the real thing. I’m all in favour of remembering and not forgetting the disastrous follies of the past. But surely, remembering such shocking and abominable events should be an uncomfortable endurance test rather than an enjoyable, officially sanctioned day out.

 

 

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Out Of The Ashes.

6 May

Dresden, a city I’ve just visited, is famous for two main things. The first is that it was widely regarded as one of the most exquisite Baroque cities in Europe. It was dubbed “The Florence of the North”, because of its captivating array of delicate spires, soaring towers and magnificent domes. The huge stone dome of its premier church, the Frauenkirche, inspired by the domes of Italian churches, made it into the most significant Protestant place of worship, north of the Alps. The Bruhlsche Terrasse, an impressive riverside promenade along one bank of the Elbe, was known as the “Balcony of Europe.” It would be great if this Saxon city was famous just for being beautiful. Unfortunately, its other claim to fame is that in February, 1945, its historic centre was completely destroyed by three, devastating Allied bombing raids, towards the end of the Second World War. Its heart was ripped out by the British and American bombs, reducing it to a smouldering heap of rubble. Say “Dresden” to a random collection of people in a word- association exercise, and nine out of ten would  respond with “bombs” not ” Baroque” or “buildings.” As in many cases in life, it’s the negative association that usually wins out. This city now unfortunately stands along Hiroshima as the scene of one of the most infamous atrocities of the entire war.

The greatest catastrophe in the history of Dresden occured on the night of February 13th, 1945. Up to that point it looked as if one of Germany’s most picturesque and culturally important cities would survive the conflict largely unscathed. However, that devastating night changed everything. The sirens began to wail at 9-39pm and the first bombs rained down at 10-13pm. More than 750 British Lancaster bombers dropped their deadly cargo in 2 waves of attack, 3 hours apart. The next day, American bombers came in at midday to finish the job. It was grimly appropriate that the raids came between Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, because at the end of it all, Dresden’s historic Alstadt ( old town) was literally reduced to ashes. Incendiary bombs had caused a massive firestorm. The ashes fell on surrounding villages up to 35 kms away. Over 35,000 people perished. Many of them were refugees who had fled the advancing Red Army and were taking shelter in the city. The Soviets who later entered the city, claimed that 50,000 people had died. The RAF and USAF double attack on Dresden was the climax of a deliberately destructive bombing policy in which civilian populations and historic buildings were regarded as fair game. It was total war. The sheer extent of the devastation and the fact that thousands of innocent victims of Nazism were slaughtered, put this raid in a different class to all previous attacks. An area 20 kilometres square was virtually obliterated.

Many regard the bombing of Dresden as a war crime. Dresden had no great military or industrial importance. Others point out that the German bombing raids on British cities such as London, Bristol and Coventry were similarly shocking. The Luftwaffe also attacked equally beautiful British cities such as Canterbury and Norwich, in the so called Beiderbecke raids, although even the Nazis agreed to leave Oxford and Cambridge alone. If Dresden, along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki were  war crimes , no one was subsequently put on trial. This is because these particular deadly and devastating attacks were carried out by the eventual winners of the war. Only the losers are ever tried, as at the Nuremberg war crime trials. So “Bomber” Arthur Harris, the leader of RAF Bomber Command, never got to stand in the dock alongside Hermet Goering, leader of the Luftwaffe, at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, even though both of them pursued similar policies and both were responsible for mass destruction and tens of thousands of  deaths. The idea behind both side’s bombing campaigns was to break the morale and fighting spirit of the enemy’s civilian population . According to a recent BBC ducumentary, the British did psychological studies of victims of bombing raids in Kingston upon Hull. The findings were that the bombing raids had actually strengthened not weakened  civilian resolve. However, these unwelcome results were kept secret because they would have taken away the main justification for Churchill and Harris’s bombing campaign against German cities and their non-military populations. Some argue that the bombing raids on German cities such as Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden were justified as acts of retaliation and revenge following the  Blitz on London and other British cities. However, as my grandmother used to argue: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” All we can say in the end, is that the net result was that both populations suffered massively. A minute ago, I was talking about “winners” and “losers”. But, in a war there are no real winners. Everyone suffers.

My friend, Ian, and I visited Dresden as part of our Germany project. We have agreed to visit different parts of Germany, every year, for the forseeable future. I suppose you could call it our personal reconciliation mission. We are doing our small part to bring the 2 countries a little closer together. Two years ago we visited Lubeck, a beautiful Hanseatic city in the north, near Hamburg. It too suffered a terrible bombing raid in 1942. Apparently this was a practice run to see how effective such an attack on a mostly civilian population could be. Ian and I have noticed that many British holiday-makers seem to ignore Germany when it comes to choosing their destinations. Spain is easily the British tourist’s favourite overseas destination, followed, in no particular order by France, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Portugal, Italy and the United States. Although Germany is a big, important country containing many interesting and attractive places of interest and it is one of our closest neighbours, it does not figure in these top destinations. Many are seduced by the combination of : sand, sea and sun offered by the Meditarranean countries. Germany has excellent beaches but they are all in the cooler north alongside the Baltic and North Seas. It gets plenty of sun, but its warmest climate is in the south, far away from the coast. So it cannot offer that magical combination all in one place.

I wonder too, if there is still a strong residue of anti-German prejudice left over from the World Wars of last century? The last one finished over 60 years ago and 3 new generations have been born since. However, a lot of national events and commemorations to do with the World Wars are still held in the United Kingdom. Someone commented that these days, the only time that the British are truly united is when they are reliving their victories in the two World Wars. It is important to remember those who sacrificed their lives for their country, but is it healthy to constantly stir up bad memories and ill feeling towards one of closest allies and nearest neighbours? When one of the home nations plays Germany at football, the tabloid press often refer to the German players in derogatory terms, such as the “krauts” or the “huns.” A constant stream of 2nd World War films and TV programmes similarly revive old animosities. Just last year, “Dunkirk” and “Churchill. Darkest Hour” were two of Britain’s biggest box office successes. The so-called History Channel is dominated by documentaries about the war, Hitler and the Nazis. A friend of mine was recently persuaded to go on a city break to Berlin. Afterwards he expressed surprise that the people he met were so friendly and helpful. I asked him why wouldn’t they be and he answered “Well, they’re Germans aren’t they?” Did he really expect to see goose-stepping Nazis on the streets of the German capital? I have always found the German people to be friendly and obliging and  many of them speak perfect English. It’s a mystery to me why more British tourists don’t visit.

It’s a great pity if Dresden and Germany are still being defined by the war. Both have rich and rewarding histories before that tragic conflict and both have undergone remarkable transformations since it finished. Dresden’s old centre is no longer a heap of rubble. It’s major baroque buildings have all been meticilously reconstructed such that, once again, one could be walking around in the 18th century. Out of the ashes, the spectacular palaces, churches and civic buildings of Augustus the Strong and his son have been miraculously reserrected. The “before and after” photos have to be seen to be believed. Today, the Alstadt looks much as it was in the days when Canaletto was painting it. At first the East German Communist regime deliberately left the most important buildings such as the Frauenkirche, in ruins to serve as war memorials. For many years the Frauenkirche was the focus of an annual pilgrimage on February 13th. The ruins also acted as a powerful propaganda tool against the western powers. However, since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of the two Germanys in the early 1990s, reconstruction has gone on at a pace.  Much work is still going on as we saw on our visit. It took great “skill” to take a selection of photos that all omitted the cranes, the dumper trucks and the scores of hard-hatted workmen. A large section of picturesque Theaterplatz for instance is still cordoned off as the reconstruction crews do their stuff, oblivious to the camera-toting tourists circling all around them.

The Frauenkirche, a “Baroque gem”, has now reappeared in the cityscape after an absence of half a century.  The original dome initially survived the raid, but then collapsed 2 days later. The reborn church was consecrated in the autumn of 2015 and represents the crowning achievement of the reconstruction efforts. People from all over the world, including the UK and the USA, made donations towards its rebuilding. These included contributions from Coventry, Dresden’s partner city. Alan Smith, the son of one of the bomber pilots, created the tower cross that sits on top of the dome. His work was funded by the British Dresden Trust. 80% of the new altar consists of 2000 original pieces rescued from the rubble. On the altar table stands a cross of nails which is a symbol of reconciliation. The church is beautiful and flooded with light. A central nave is surrounded by 5 symmetrical galleries. The magnificent dome and galleries are decorated with murals in light, pastel colours. The only problem today seems to be too many tourists, ruining any hope of a spiritual atmosphere.

Peace and reconciliation are prominant themes in Dresden. We saw another cross of nails donated by the churches of Coventry, in the impressive Hofkirche, Dresden’s Catholic Cathedral. The mistakes and tragedies of the past are properly recalled in memorials but the emphasis seems to be to move forward into a more peaceful and harmonious future. I saw very little stress on the terrible bombing raid, although this could well have been covered in the city museum which I didn’t have time to see. I felt no animosity when people found out I was British. To me, it all seemed very positive. Germany of course is a leading light in the European Union which it created with France after the war by enmeshing their two economies. The idea was to make large scale European war impossible in the future because the 2 countries and their neighbours would become inter-dependent. So far the plan has succeeded.

So, like a phoenix, Dresden had risen again out of the ashes. It stands alongside the similarly restored Polish cities of Warsaw and Gdansk, as one of the miracles of the post-1945 age. It is really 3 cities in one — there is the modern city, the Communist era GDR city and the 18th century baroque city of its golden age. Dresden began as an Slav fishing village in the shadow of its near neighbour, Meissen. Then, in 1485, the Saxon Royal family, the House of Wettin, turned it into its capital. Its glory period was in the early 18th century under Elector Augustus the Strong, who was also King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Although not a very astute political leader, Augustus loved art and culture. He encouraged top artists, architects, craftsmen, writers and musicians to make Dresden their base. The result was a flourishing cultural scene and the creation of some magnificent buildings such as Residenzschloss ( Royal Palace), several outstanding churches and the Zwinger, a Royal pleasure palace. The Zwinger is one of the most ravishing baroque buildings in the whole of Germany. We were god-smacked when we walked into it through one of its elaborate gateways. Luckily it was a lovely sunny day, so we saw it at its best. A huge, fountain studded courtyard is framed by fancy buildings and walkways festooned with baroque scultures. On the ground, well-manicured lawns are cut into symmetrical patterns, mirroring each other. Two ornate, exhuberant pavilions face each other at opposite ends of the courtyard . One, the Glockenspiel Pavilion, has a carillon of 40 bells, crafted out of Meissen porcelain. Along one upper gallery there is a giant carving of the Crown of Poland, supported by Polish eagles. The whole complex is stupendous. One of its palaces is used to house a rich, art gallery full of old masters, one of the dozen best in the world. The Opera House opposite ( the Semperor) is equally stunning. We attended an orchestral concert there given by the Saxon Staatskapelle, one of the world’s oldest and most famous orchestras established in 1548.

This is the Dresden that most people come to see. It’s the beautiful baroque city that has miraculously risen from the ashes of its wartime destruction. For a time it was a World Heritage Site but UNESCO have now had to take that coveted title away because of the construction of an unattractive road bridge across the Elbe which is completely out of keeping with its architectural surroundings. Ian and I enjoyed our time there and need to go back to visit the galleries and museums we didn’t have time to explore. It’s always good to end a visit wanting to return. Thankfully, we found out that Dresden is much, much more than the site of a war atrocity. It has risen from the ashes.

 

Durham Coast Walk, Day 2 — Seaburn to Seaham. ( July, 2017.)

21 Aug

The second day of our long-distance walk announced itself with a cacophony of shrieking gulls rather than the usual melodious chorus of songbirds. It was a reminder that we were on the coast. After our 9 mile tramp from South Shields to Seaburn we were now ready to press on south to Seaham. The only problem was that a massive obstacle now stood in our way — the River Wear and the City of Sunderland! It wasn’t all going to be quiet bays and empty beaches. We were going to be sucked into an urban jungle and hopefully spat out the other side.

We ate a hearty breakfast at the excellent Mayfield Guest House with the proprietor, Vincent, quizzing us about our walking plans. Then we dragged on our boots and heaved on our rucksacks and set off. We were heading due south but first had to head the wrong way in order to visit Seaburn Morrisons for our lunchtime provisions. Not for the first time, we found that our large rucksacks proved to be conversation catalysts. They caught the eye of the lady on the till who also quizzed us about our venture. We evidently were not her average customers. Turning south out of the supermarket we headed up Seaburn promenade towards a gleaming white lighthouse standing on a promontory at the end  of the beach. This was built in 1856 and used to guard the end of the old South Pier at the nearby mouth of the Wear. The lighthouse now overlooked Parson’s Rocks and at low tide we could have scrambled over them round to the next beach. Unfortunately the tide was high so we had to climb up to the road and take the more conventional route. We were compensated for this disappointment by reading an information board about the geology of the area and spotting some small, wading birds scurrying about over the wet rocks. I guessed Dunlins but Catherine and her smartphone over-ruled me in favour of Turnstones. I must admit I had never heard of them.

We now arrived at Roker beach, complete with amusements, cafes, bargain shops and attractive, raised-bed gardens. Slightly faded information boards showed us how  popular and crowded with holiday-makers it had been in the past, before the age of cheap foreign travel. Roker was also the beginning of the Sunderland Sculpture trail. This had been created between 1991 and 2001 by a sculptor Colin Wilbourne and a writer, Chaz Brenchley, in consultation with local people. It had several interesting and/or attractive sculptures to distract and entertain us. The most memorable for me were “Taking Flight”, 5 steel representations of a cormorant taking off — a common sight on that stretch of water, and a large, twisting steel tree, apparently bending in the wind. On the concrete base of the latter were pictures of a lighthouse, a sailing ship and a local monster called the “Lampton Worm.” We were also intrigued by a series of 3 stone doors flanked by colourful stained glass panels. These represented the past, the present and the future. The footpath only passed through the door of the present.

By now, the trail had reached the river mouth and continued inland along the north bank of the Wear. Across the water we viewed cranes and industrial buildings. It’s not the most picturesque of river mouths because Sunderland was built on the backs of its industries. We walked round a marina, listening to the clanking of the yachts in the breeze. Schoolchildren in orange life jackets were being given a canoeing lesson, watched with interest by 2 old nuns, leaning on a fence. The weather was fine and sunny but dark clouds were approaching as we walked alongside the river. We passed the National Glass Centre which we didn’t have time to visit except to cheekily use their toilets! Then we passed Sunderland University campus which Catherine was interested in as she works at its Leeds equivalent. It had a symbolic, sculptured pile of  huge, stone books in front of it. As the river curved round to the right, our immediate goal came into view — Wearmouth Bridge, the last bridging point of the river before it reached the North Sea. Behind its graceful single arch was the city’s rail bridge.

A sudden, sharp shower interrupted us as we approached the bridge. I’m sure it contained sleet even though it was still July. We scrambled into our waterproofs but as soon as we had got them on, the rain stopped. We found this was a good trick to stop the rain. On several occasions, showers ceased the moment we had donned our rainproof togs. It’s called sod’s law. We passed below the ancient St Peter’s Church and climbed up a steep road to the bridge. Wearmouth bridge is a graceful, single- arched, steel structure built in 1929. Two earlier bridges had spanned the river at this site. Before that a ferry service had been in operation. The bridge helped Sunderland to grow as it united the north and south banks of the Wear. It looks like a smaller version of Newcastle and Gateshead’s Tyne bridge, which in turn is a smaller version of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Walking across it, I was impressed by its spectacular array of criss-crossing girders. We were now assailed by the full-on noise of the city — cars, buses, lorries, trains and people. It wasn’t a peaceful river crossing. Down below we saw a shrine decorated with flowers, photos, hand-written messages and a red and white striped Sunderland football shirt. Suddenly we realized that this high, precipitous bridge was an ideal suicide spot. A notice from the Samaritans confirmed this suspicion.

We descended down a steep, slippery slope and  the brown ECP ( English Coastal Path)signs led us on a meander through the run- down city streets south of the Wear. We passed Sunderland’s oldest pub, the Butcher’s Arms, standing in a short terrace of  crumbling buildings that had somehow escaped demolition, through areas of post-war high rise flats, and round the grassy space of the Town Moor. Finally we were compelled to tramp along a noisy, busy road full of  heavy-duty traffic travelling to and from the docks. These docks were what was preventing us from heading straight back to the coast. As we trudged along the relentlessly noisy road, with no end in sight, we got very dispirited. It was one of the lowest points of the entire walk. At long last we turned left off the main road and headed down a quieter street that skirted the southern edge of the docks. Then finally we reached the sea again. We had made it to Hendon beach. We walked down a slope to a small promenade and settled on a low wall to have our sandwiches.

Hendon beach is not very pretty. At its northern end it is adorned with a collection of oil storage tanks and other port buildings. It is bordered by low grassy cliffs. The beach itself is a mixture of scruffy sand and stones. However it does have a series of well-weathered groynes which I always think add character to a coastline. They are low timber walls built to stop the sand drifting to one end of the beach as the tide invariably comes in at an angle. As we munched our little lunch I noticed something bobbing up and down in the nearby sea. It was a seal — our most exciting wildlife encounter of the day. It kept diving down for fish and then bobbing up again. We were so close that we could see its whiskers. It obviously wasn’t a common sight at Hendon as all the dog walkers commented on it to us. One chap took 10 minutes trying to get a photo. The other thing we discovered at Hendon beach was a new way to walk one’s dog. A man drove down to the prom, which was just wide enough to take a car. He then decanted 2 Dobermans who proceeded to chase after the car as their master drove it at speed to the far end of the prom and back. Then he let them back into the car again and drove off. Job done!

From Hendon we could see a pier and lighthouse way off to the south. This was Seaham, our destination. Saying good bye to the seal, we walked up on to the grassy clifftops and headed south. It was easy walking and such a relief to be appreciating coastal scenery again, now that the city was at our backs. We once again enjoyed views of deserted beaches, cliffs and pointy stacks. A couple of times we headed slightly inland to negotiate a dene, a wooded valley formed by glaciation at the end of the last ice age. Ryhope Dene was the prettiest. We waded through bracken and undergrowth and skirted woods before we were delivered back to the sea-coast again. The cliff tops were adorned with lovely meadows of wild flowers and tall grasses. One stretch of flowering thistles, rose-bay willow herb and vivid red poppies was particularly pretty. It was like a Monet painting. It was around this point that a mountain-bike rider caught up with us and stopped to talk. It was Vincent, the Guest House owner from Seaburn. We had inspired him to get on his bike and follow  our route. It was a now a lovely day for cycling and walking, with frequent sunny periods and that nasty shower just a distant memory.

Finally, after a walk of around 11 miles, we reached Seaham, announced by a car park, a busy beach and an ice cream parlour. ( Tony Minchellas delicious ice cream is the most popular in the Sunderland area.)  Now, at last, we officially left greater Sunderland and entered County Durham proper — “Land of the Prince Bishops.” Catherine took a picture of me by the road sign, instructing me to look like a Prince Bishop. I don’t think they carried heavy ruck-sacks in those days though. Soon, to our right, we could see an old church and the historic Seaham Hall. I’ve not checked but I guess it was built around the early 19th century. Apparently Lord Byron got married there to the daughter of a local landowner. The marriage didn’t last long but Seaham still exploits the connection by naming its shopping mall, Byron Place.

Seaham is an old coal town now trying to reinvent itself as a resort. It recognises its history through information boards and sculpture. We learnt about the coal trucks thundering down the hill to the docks. At the waiting staithes ( coal-loading piers), they would open-up at the bottom and decant their loads on to chutes that led to the holds of  waiting ships. A striking metal sculpture showed 3 miners ready to descend into the pit. It was titled: “The Brothers — Waitin’ t’ gan down.” The grandest building in the town is the former Londonderry Offices. From here,  the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry’s estates and coal mines were run. It’s a building that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Bloomsbury or on the Liverpool riverside next to the Liver Building. The Marquess himself lived in the aforementioned Seaham Hall, which is now a spa and a luxury hotel.

However, the most striking sight in Seaham was a giant, steel statue of a British soldier at the end of the ordeal of the First World War. It’s called “Tommy” and was created by Ray Lonsdale. It stands 9 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 1.2 tonnes. The soldier is slumped in a seat, looking exhausted and traumatised, reflecting on the horrors he has witnessed and endured. He’s propped-up by his rifle and still wears his tin helmet. The soldier stares out at the viewer with blank eyes and a glazed expression. Originally “Tommy” was only going to be in Seaham for 3 months, as part of the town’s commemoration of the Great War a century ago. However, the towns- people, helped by donations from an increased number of visitors , have purchased it, so that it can act as a permanent memorial. ( and visitor attraction!)

The town is a hotch- potch of old and new. Near the ancient church of St Mary’s ( one of the 10 oldest in the country) is a new health centre. Near the modern mall is the original main shopping drag, Church Street, which is pedestrianised but quiet. At night all the shops are hidden behind metal shutters which hint that there has been a vandalism problem. We found our guest house with the help of some ladies in a hairdressing salon. One custoner, her hair glistening with red dye, phoned her husband up on her mobile and he put us in the right direction. The Adolphus Guest House, although in an obscure place ( Adolphus Street West) was comfortable and fine. It was run by a couple with 6 dogs but they kept them very quiet. Most of the eating places in Seaham are daytime cafes, ice-cream parlours or fast food take-aways. We ate at the only restaurant we could find — an Italian based in a converted pub just off the main square — Marinos. The food was delicious and the service very good. Finally we walked back to our guest house past the floodlit church and hit the sack. The second day of our trek was over.

Visiting God’s First Stab at the E.U.

19 Apr

At first glance it looked like something from a medieval fantasy. In front of us stood two large, circular brick towers topped by cone- shaped, slate roofs. Long thin flags fluttered from the tips of the roofs. In between the sturdy towers was an arched brick passageway, decorated by 2 shining bands of terracotta tiles. The archway was mirrored by rows of small arched windows and was crowned with a fancy gable, complete with 3 ornamental towers. We expected a damsel in distress to appear from an upper window at any moment and Sir Lancelot to ride to the rescue on his white charger. Maybe I’m getting carried away but it was the sort of  building that evoked those sorts of romantic, mythical images. Only the cars and buses driving either side of the gateway spoilt this  pre-Raphaelite vision.

My friend, Ian, and I were visiting the picture-book city of Lubeck, in the north of Germany  near to the Baltic Sea. Many people have never heard of it, as it is not one of the more conventional tourist destinations. However, Lubeck’s  Altstadt ( old town) is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated as such as far back as 1987. It was the first place in northern Europe to be given this important accolade. We were standing in front of one of the main gateways to the medieval city – the Holstentor ( Holstein Gate). As we got close to it we noticed it wasn’t as perfectly symmetrical as we first thought. One of the towers had sagged and was leaning inwards. Apparently, the gateway was built on marshy ground and so did not have  a firm foundation. Most have heard about the Leaning Tower of Pisa but not many are aware of its Lubeck equivalent. There were once 4 such gateways, punctuating the city walls at each point of the compass. Now only 2 remain — the Holstentor on the west and the Burgtor in the north. They used to be protected by moats and outer fortifications. The tree-lined moat still remains, diverting water from the River Trave and turning the egg-shaped Altstadt into an island. The lovely old buildings of the Altstadt are often reflected in its waters. The Holstentor, much restored in the 19th and 21st centuries, has become one of the most famous symbols of Germany. Before the introduction of the Euro, it featured on the back of the 50 DM banknote and also appeared on various postage stamps. Bizarrely, the old gateway is also frequently depicted in marzipan as Lubeck is where this sweet delicacy was invented using fine almonds imported from Italy. The ” marz” part of the name refers to St Mark’s in Venice. Watching our figures ( at least some of the time), we didn’t indulge!

That trading link with Venice gives us a clue as to why Lubeck was so important in the Middle Ages and could build such grand buildings as the Holstentor and the 7 spired churches that spear the skyline. Lubeck was one of northern Europe’s leading trading cities from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Beyond the Holstein gate is a whole medley of beautiful medieval architecture, mainly in brick, as stone was not close at hand. Wealthy merchants built lovely homes decorated with an array of ornamental gables. They erected: massive, brick churches in the French Gothic style, ornate, frescoed hospitals and charitable institutions, and a picturesque Town Hall ( Rathaus) which is still in use. The Rathaus, built mainly in the 13th century, features inventive, alternate rows of red unglazed and black glazed bricks, shield- like, colourful coats of arms and 2 large holes to lessen wind resistance. Next to the Town Hall stands the enormous, twin towered Marienkirche, built by the merchants to show off their vast wealth and to hopefully book their place in heaven. It puts even the Cathedral ( or Dom) in the shade, the latter being perched on the outer edge of the city centre. This was a merchant city and even the church had to know its place.

In fact Lubeck was  the leading city of the Hanseatic League, a huge, successful trading alliance of  German-speaking cities. It reached its peak in the 15th century. Not all of these trading centres were in Germany, or the Holy Roman Empire as it used to be known. Those outside included: Amsterdam, Danzig ( now Gdansk), Bergen, Stockholm and Riga. The League came to control much of the trade in and around the Baltic and North Seas of northern Europe. It was just a loose federation and worked in a cooperative spirit, based on mutual trust. Trading ties were strengthened by marriage and family connections. At its height the Hanseatic league included about 200 member cities. These included: London, Boston and Kings Lynn in England. The Hansa organisation owned very little but controlled much. Its power was based on a complex web of trading routes spanning the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the great rivers of northern Europe. In effect , it linked the Volga to the Thames, controlling an area from Novgorod to London. The Hansa merchants connected eastern and western Europe. The League defended its trade routes by raising armed fleets. They waged war if necessary if their interests were being threatened but largely they were a peaceful, organisation, concentrating on making money. The Hansa had their own commercial laws and had a sort of parliament to discuss mutual interests every year in Lubeck.  In recognition of its wealth, power and success, Lubeck was declared a Free Imperial City . Buildings such as the Holstentor, the Marienkirche and the Rathaus were designed to reflect this wealth and high status. As with every era, medieval architecture was mostly about showing off!

The age of the Hansa only came to an end when the focus of World trade moved from the Baltic and North Seas to the Atlantic Ocean after the discovery of the New World ( America) and new sea routes to India and the Far East. Naval defeat by Sweden and a disastrous intervention in a Danish Civil War just about finished it off. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learnt there –war is almost always a bad thing. Cooperation is usually preferable to confrontation.

In a way, the Hanseatic League, at its height, can be seen as an early version of the European Union. It linked cities from right across the continent in a  mainly peaceful, cooperative, economic organisation. So Lubeck was the medieval equivalent of the EU’s Brussels or Strasbourg. Although it did get involved in a few military conflicts, it can be argued that the League did a lot to keep the peace in northern Europe for significant periods of time, as it was in everyone’s interests to get on and reap the material rewards of trade. It’s much later successor, the EU, has also kept the peace in Europe since its inception in the late 1940’s, with the notable exception of the Yugoslavian Civil War. Yugoslavia, being a member of the former Communist block was not a member of the EU.  France and Germany who had gone to war 4 times in 140 years, wanted to put an end to the constant tit-for-tat conflicts by deliberately inter-meshing their economies at the end of the Second World War. Thus it would be in neither country’s interest to attack the other. Four other countries — Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy — joined Germany and France, in the European Coal and Steel Community. This later morphed into The Common Market, the European Economic Community and finally the European Union.

Britain, at first, stuck its nose up about joining a pan-European trading organisation. This was despite Winston Churchill’s stated vision of a united Europe. Maybe, like today’s British Euro-sceptics, politicians in the 1940s and early 50’s didn’t want to exchange British independence for European cooperation despite the latter’s promise of  continental peace and prosperity . They looked to the Empire, the Commonwealth and the so-called “Special relationship” with the Americans as reasons for not getting too closely involved with Europe, even though the latter was their own continent. It was only when the British Empire started to disappear rapidly and the relationship with the USA was severely dented after the 1956 Suez crisis  that the British Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, did a dramatic U-turn and applied for British membership of the European club. Rebuffed, in the early 1960’s, by the French President Charles de Gaulle, who was still not convinced that the British displayed the right attitude to be good Europeans, it was another decade before Prime Minister Ted Heath finally led us into an expanded Common Market, a decision validated by the referendum of 1975 called by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. It’s ironic that Wilson called the Referendum mainly to conceal the splits in his own party over European membership. Doesn’t that sound familiar? The probable reason for the current 2016 referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership is probably so that PM David Cameron can by-pass the severe splits in his own Conservative party over Europe. So Britain’s whole membership of the EU is being put on the line because of Tory party squabbles!

Should we stay or should we go? The interminable debate rumbles on, with journalists rubbing their hands in glee at all the opportunities they have to exploit the politicians’ divisions. Having just returned from Lubeck, it seems strange that large numbers of Britons seem to think they would be better off by going it alone. The strongest economy in Europe, Germany, is not having this debate. The Germans are in for the duration. Despite its many problems the EU has delivered, as it had brought peace and prosperity to the German people as well as to much of Europe. Lubeck and the Hanseatic league was an early example of the advantages of cooperation over competition. Lubeck also contains a stark warning of the dangers of non-cooperation.

About a quarter of its lovely, historical centre was destroyed in a devastating bombing raid by the RAF on March 28th/29th, 1942. Yes, I know it was Hitler and the Germans who started it. And I also know that the attack on Lubeck was in part retaliation for the Nazi bombing of London, Coventry and other British cities. I am not qualified to make a proper judgement anyway, as I didn’t live through the horrors of the Second World War, being born a few years afterwards. However, I think it’s a great shame that both sides seemed to think it was fair game to attack and devastate beautiful, historic towns and cities with limited military or industrial significance. The German reaction to Lubeck was the equally appalling “Baedeker” raids on English historical and cultural centres such as : Canterbury, Bath, Exeter, Norwich and York. Later the British destroyed Hamburg and the beautiful city of Dresden  — and so the sad story goes on! I suppose the nearest modern equivalent is Islamic State vandalising the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria or the Taliban blowing up those sacred statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. The tragic Syrian civil war has also destroyed unique and precious historical cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. Back in 1942, Lubeck lost over a quarter of the historic buildings in its Alstadt. 234 bombers dropped 160 tons of high explosives and 25,000 incenduries. Bomber Arthur Harris’s idea was to blow open the brick and copper roofs of the medieval buildings and then the incendiaries were dropped into the ruins to create a fire-storm. He used it as a test case for the similar bombing of cities such as Hamburg and Berlin. In some ways it could be viewed as Britain’s Guernica! To judge from his memoirs, he was very pleased with the results. Joseph Stalin was also pleased, expressing his delight at this “merciless killing.”

The German people have now rebuilt Lubeck, restoring or replacing the buildings destroyed in the war. Unfortunately, this now means that some non-descript modern buildings have spoilt the medieval completeness of the main square outside the Town Hall. The magnificent, twin-towered Marienkirche has also been rebuilt — the third largest church in Germany. The church was severely damaged in 1942 and we saw a sad photo of it burning. Both organs and much fine wood-carvings were lost. The restoration is impressive but one part has been deliberately left untouched. The bells in the south tower have been left where they smashed, half-melted, to the ground. They are a memorial to the tragedy of war. I have also visited Coventry and seen the ruins of its old cathedral standing next to the impressive new one, also acting as a memorial.

Lubeck is a beautiful, historical city. It has somehow survived the ravages of time and of modern warfare. We enjoyed walking the streets lined with 15th and 16th century gabled buildings. We enjoyed walking along the waterways and exploring little cobbled alleyways leading to secluded courtyards. We viewed impressive art and artefacts in the museums and enjoyed coffee and strudel in several of the excellent bakery/ cafes.( We weren’t always watching our waistlines!) It is a very civilised place to visit and we enjoyed our stay. Lubeck also reminded us of two important lessons of history  — the rich rewards of free trade in a time of peace and prosperity, and at the same time, the grave consequences of confrontation and war. The Hanseatic league was a medieval forerunner of today’s European Union. Both of these trading organisations have produced peace and prosperity for many.

Now I’m back in the United Kingdom and the constant din of the EU Referendum campaign. The 24 Hour news channels love it! Should we remain or should we leave?  That’s a question for every thinking person’s conscience. But the lessons of history, as reflected from my trip to Lubeck, suggest strongly to me that  the UK should stay in a cooperative union with its European neighbours.

Short memories but Long Term Consequences.

8 Dec

Only a few weeks ago the United Kingdom conducted the very solemn ceremony known as Remembrance Day. Up and down the country wreaths were laid, poppies were worn and fine words spoken to remember and honour the country’s war dead. People recalled the terrible tragedy of war and grieved the  deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers who were lost in Britain’s conflicts from the First World War to Iraq and Afghanistan. The most high profile ceremony was, as usual, at The Cenotaph in Whitehall, London. Our most prominent politicians and representatives of the Royal family were present to take part in this ritual of national mourning  and of grave, sober remembrance. And quite right too — we must not forget those who gave their lives fighting for their country!

Thinking about all this, it seems very strange therefore, that less than 4 weeks later, this country, the United Kingdom, has once again voted to go to war! So more unfortunate victims will be created for us to remember in sad ceremonies of the future. The House of Commons, with a large majority, voted for British warplanes to start bombing the ISIS held parts of Syria, even though Syria is a separate and sovereign country. And it seems that despite the solemnity of Remembrance Sunday, many were very excited about this new rush to war. There was wall to wall media coverage, cheers in the Commons when the result was announced and vilification of those who voted for Peace. The Prime Minister, David Cameron described them as “terrorist sympathisers” and refused to apologise for these incendiary remarks even those he was asked to do so in parliament 12 times.

This is the 5th time in this short 15 year century, that the UK has gone to war. The reason this time is to attack the terrorist group, ISIS, who recently carried out the appalling massacre in the streets of Paris and who also claim responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt , killing all passengers and crew. In their territories in Iraq and Syria they have carried out atrocities such as: rape, murder, beheadings and crucifixions. Every decent human being is shocked and horrified by such outrages and I suppose it is natural to want to hit back at ISIS or Islamic State as soon as possible. However, is it sensible to make serious decisions such as going to war as part of an emotional, knee-jerk reaction? Surely it would have been best to count to ten and use that time to consider the possible consequences of our actions. We could have used that time to think of the alternative ways of bringing down ISIS other than bombing. We could also have used that time to remember the tragedy of war that we were all thinking about less than a month before. It’s a serious case of short -term memory loss and I don’t think the MPs who voted for war in Syria can use Alzeimers as an excuse.

So what might the consequences of this rash, rush to war be? First of all, although it is supposed to be defending us from terrorist attacks by hitting their bases in the Middle East, our bombing raids immediately put our air-crews in danger. I shudder to think what would happen if their war-planes crashed or were shot down over ISIS territory.  Secondly, the British bombing will almost certainly make the UK an even greater target for an ISIS inspired terrorist attack. Thirdly, many more people in Syria  will hate the British, once the bombing casualty figures start to rise. Thus the raids will be a superb recruiting tool for ISIS, as more fighters join their ranks to gain revenge on the bombers. Some belief that this is the very thing that ISIS wanted, so the British have played right into their hands. As Stephen Fry tweeted — In a war you do what the enemy least wants you to do, not the thing it most wants you to do. ( or words to that effect.)

The British government has tried to make this issue very black and white. We are bombing ISIS in Syria as well as in Iraq, in order to protect ourselves from a Paris-style terrorist attack. We also want to support our close ally: France. It sounds so simple. However, we are actually entering a very messy and murderous civil war with multiple warring parties. Russia and the USA are already involved in major bombing campaigns, along with the French, the Turks and now the British. The great danger is that the Russians are supporting President Assad but the Americans are supporting the anti-Assad fighting groups. The potential for a major incident between America and Russia is very high. They are supporting opposite sides in a civil war and both are flying their bombers in the same tiny airspace. Already, the Russians and the Turks have come to grief with the shooting down of a Russian fighter that is supposed to have flown into Turkish air-space. The British , along with the French have now entered into this volatile, dangerous situation. Two years ago the British wanted to bomb President Assad’s forces. Now they are bombing some of Assad’s enemies in the civil war. Has the British Government and parliament really made a sensible decision?

It can be argued that this war, like the Iraq invasion that preceded it, is illegal. It certainly does not have the full sanction of the United Nations. Resolution 2249 which the UN passed, does not invoke Chapter 7 of the UN charter. Only this chapter can authorise such military intervention. The military raids of the western allies ( as well as those of Russia) are not respecting the sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence and unity of the Syrian state, as demanded by the UN Charter. As in Libya, the western powers have taken sides in a complex civil war which could have disastrous consequences for the future.

A terrible consequence of bombing is civilian casualties. Ask anyone who lived through the Blitz in 1940. The Airwars project ( airwars.org) estimate that at least 10% of airstrike casualties are non-combatants. With thousands of raids being planned and ISIS using the poor civilian population as a human- shield, civilian deaths and injuries, including to women, children and elderly people are going to be considerable. Politicians and military people cynically and coldly call this “collateral damage.” To many people who campaign for peace, this is simply unacceptable. I remember at the start of the Iraq war, seeing a photo of a teenager who had had his arms and legs blown off during the American/British bombing onslaught on Bagdad. The British papers tried to dress it up as a feel-ggod story, as the poor lad had been kindly flown to England for medical treatment. Maybe it would have been much better if we had not bombed his city in the first place. I stared at the picture and then had to hide it away. It made me feel physically sick. I fear that many such scenes will be replicated during our Syrian bombing campaign.

The atrocities of ISIS and their followers are terrible but will revenge attacks make the situation better or worse? I would suggest the latter. My grandma and mum used to advise me “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” They are very wise words. It would be difficult to follow Jesus’s advice and turn the other cheek or forgive. However, surely the powerful countries of the West, plus Russia, can cripple ISIS economically by setting up a blockade?  They could also put diplomatic pressure on Islamic State’s supporters such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Pressure could be brought to bear on Turkey to stop it purchasing Isis oil and stop it giving Isis fighters easy movement across its borders. There are many alternatives to bombing, which is a dangerously simplistic solution.

Maybe, Prime Minister David Cameron is more interested in trying to maintain Britain’s status as a so-called Great Power. He wants to keep his place at the “top table” , I would suggest. He wants to save “face” when meeting up with Hollande, Obama or Putin. I would suggest that he is suffering from a severe attack of “Churchill syndrome.” Unfortunately, by joining in the bombing he has sacrificed a lot of the influence he or his Foreign Secretary might have had in Syrian civil war peace negotiations. The British cannot present themselves as honest brokers any more. They have revealed their hand to the opposition.

The Syrian Civil war is savage and dangerously complex. There are many sides involved in the fighting. Atrocities are being committed by all sides. In the end, only a diplomatic solution seems possible. By joining the war, the British, I would argue, are pouring oil on very troubled waters. They , along with the other powers have got involved without having any clear plan for the peace, if it ever comes. The interventions in Iraq and Libya have had disastrous consequences. Afghanistan is still a dangerous mess. I doubt that Syria will be any better.

It’s so sad that we seem to have forgotten the meaning of Remembrance Day so quickly. In joining the war instead of campaigning for a peaceful solution in Syria, the UK is failing to learn the lessons of even the recent past.

Reflections on the 70th Anniversary of D Day.

12 Jun

Last Friday, June 6th, 2014, it was impossible to switch on the telly in Britain without being assailed by news footage of the 70th Anniversary Commemorations of D Day. The events in Normandy, in 1944, received saturation coverage in the media. Anyone who is anyone seemed to have been there, from Obama to Putin, taking in Hollande, Merkel and Cameron and many others on the way. Even our 88 year old Queen made a special effort to be there, along with prominent members of her family, many of them regaled in fancy dress. I wonder where and how Prince Charles earned that splendid array of medals that adorned his pseudo military uniform? I know people who centred their holidays around D Day, going on cruises and tours that took in the invasion beaches, the military cemeteries, the monuments and everything else connected with that momentous event. Others have purchased “D Day 70” pins, pens and coffee cups or even Spitfire cufflinks. ( courtesy of the British legion and others.)However, as I witnessed all the: ceremonies, marches, wreath laying, commemorative services and grandiose speeches, I experienced very mixed feelings indeed.
First of all, I couldn’t help noticing the massive irony that this commemoration ( celebration?) of a major development in one war ( the Second World War), took place in the middle of a whole series of events marking the centennial anniversary of another, earlier conflict: the First World War. Wasn’t the latter supposed to be the war to end all wars? What happened? Some of the tours laid on for war tourists even mixed up the 2 wars in their itineraries. There must have been much potential for confusion. One day, the tourists would be at Ypres or on the Somme, remembering the tragic sacrifices of millions of soldiers in the 1914-1918 conflict. Then on the next day they would be Arramonches, thinking about the equally tragic sacrifices made by another unlucky generation of soldiers on D Day and in the rest of the 1939-1945 conflict. Linking the 2 wars together, it appears that millions gave up their lives in the first configuration not to achieve lasting peace but to gain a mere 20 years of peace in Europe. What a terrible waste! ( the result of a punitive and vindictive peace treaty at Versailles, that sowed the seeds of the next conflict.) Yet I didn’t notice any speeches highlighting the sheer folly of war. Rather they concentrated on its supposed glories. Soldiers on both sides were extremely brave and it is only right to remember them and salute their supreme sacrifice. It is right to call them heroes. Yet they could also be regarded as luckless pawns in a lethal power game played out by their leaders. How much did Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hirohito or Hitler really care about the soldiers, sailors and airmen ( and women) they had thrown into the fray? They cared very little I suspect. The same goes for the millions of civilians whose lives were destroyed or ruined by that terrible war.
Another thing that I am very uncomfortable about is that in Britain in particular, the Second World War, including D Day has become an important part of the entertainment industry. I have already mentioned the numerous war tours that people go on for their vacations. Then there are the countless films, television programmes, DVDs, shows, books and magazines that have been produced about World War 2. Even though it finished nearly 70 years ago, it sometimes seems as if it was happening only yesterday. Every time England play Germany in a football match for instance, the war is instantly resurrected in the tabloid media with the Germans being casually referred to as the enemy and named Fritz or the Hun. It’s good not to forget, but do we need to be constantly reminded of a horrific conflict that happened 3 generations ago against a foe that is now our ally and close trading partner? I think this constant harping back to the past is a hindrance to the UK moving forward and fully embracing its place in a modern, peaceful Europe.
Despite all this, I do think it’s extremely important to show our respect and gratitude to the tens of thousands who risked or gave up their lives on our behalf. I have taken school children on educational visits to wartime sites such as Arramonches, where the Mulberry Harbour was constructed, or Pointe du Hoc, a headland between Omaha and Juno beaches where the American soldiers landed. It was a chilling and sobering experience to see the German bunkers and pill-boxes on top of the cliffs and imagine the American servicemen being mown down by machine gun fire as they attempted to climb up. Similarly I have been greatly moved by visits to British, American and German military cemeteries in northern France. One child commented on the tender ages of many of the fallen and seeing the German graves made her realise that the so called “enemy” were human beings too. Thus I do agree with the sentiments behind the 70th anniversary commemorations if not with the over the top way they have been conducted.
One common justification for commemorating and celebrating our participation in World War 2 was that it was a “just war.” Surely this was a straightforward fight against an evil dictator, Hitler, and his vile, totalitarian Nazi regime, the Third Reich. The Nazis invaded other countries, killed millions, pillaged and destroyed property,took away fundamental freedoms, set up slave-labour and death camps and ruined innumerable lives. What could be wrong in commemorating our struggle and ultimate victory against such despicable monsters? What is wrong with being proud to be the “good guys” who fought and defeated the “bad guys”? Unfortunately I think this is all a rather dangerous simplification.
First of all there is the inconvenient fact that both the British and the French were partly fighting to defend their worldwide empires. For instance both these countries came into disastrous contact with the Japanese in the far east because they had already taken over Asian countries such as India, Burma, Malaya and Indo China, depriving these people of their independence and stripping them of their valuable resources. Was this a case of the good guys fighting for peoples’ freedom from tyranny? I don’t think so. The same applies to their colonies in Africa and the Middle East. Here they were fighting for their own vested interests rather than for the benefit of the local populations. The British and the French even indirectly fought each other when they were supposed to be allies in the cause of the good. For example, in the 1940s the British plotted against French interests in Syria and the French supported Jewish terrorists who were killing British soldiers in Palestine. All this was happening at the very time of the launching of Operation Overlord on D Day in 1944. So the overall cause of the Allies was hardly clear cut. Indeed it was a very shady affair indeed.
Then we come to the very problematic case of the Soviet Union, which started the Second World War as a friend of Hitler’s Germany and ended it on the side of the Western allies following the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941. If we were the good guys fighting to free Europe from Nazi tyranny, how did we end up getting into bed with Joseph Stalin, who ran an equally terrifying, totalitarian regime in the USSR and ended up violently conquering or controlling most of eastern Europe? How ironic and shameful that Britain entered the war to defend Poland’s independence, but finished it by allowing another dictator to take over and control that very same country. It seems that Churchill, in a summit in Moscow, suggested that Stalin could control Poland, the Baltic states and other east European countries in exchange for the British having control over Greece. (Churchill was still fixated with the need to protect the trade routes to India via the Suez canal, which is of course near to Greece.) Stalin couldn’t believe his luck and readily agreed. This arrangement was rubber stamped by Roosevelt and/or Truman at subsequent allied summits in Tehran and Yalta. Such was the fate of millions of people sealed by a trio of “great” statesman. Apparently, Churchill demonstrated what would happen to Poland using three match-sticks. The lands in the east would be swallowed up by the Soviet Union. He demonstrated this by taking 2 match-sticks away. The Poles would then be compensated by getting German lands to their west. Churchill showed this by putting the 2 match-sticks down on the table again but further to the left. The whole of Poland would thus move to the west. Stalin smiled and quickly agreed. So the worthy cause that Britain had entered the war against Germany for –ie to fight for Poland’s liberty, — was now abandoned This was all done without bothering to consult the Poles themselves, even though the Polish Government in exile was based in London. The Poles were betrayed by their so-called allies in the interests of power politics. In the end, even the part of Poland that remained free of direct Soviet conquest was still taken over by a hardline Communist regime that took its orders from Moscow. The same thing happened in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. For the people of these countries, plus the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania,the Second World War didn’t really end until the fall of the USSR in 1989.
D Day is rightly celebrated as a turning point in the Second World War. Now the Nazis stopped advancing and began their long retreat back to Berlin. So was it all good news in Europe from there on in? Unfortunately this interpretation just looks at events from the point of view of the Western allies. OK — France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark and Norway were thankfully freed from Nazi tyranny. That was obviously very good news for all concerned. However the picture of the last years of the European war does not look quite so rosy if one studies what happened in the east . The Baltic states and Poland suffered their third brutal invasion in just 5 or 6 years. First the Soviet Red Army had invaded, protected by the notorious Nazi-Soviet non- aggression pact. Thousands were killed or deported to the Gulags of Siberia. Horrific massacres took place such as the murder of 21,000 Polish army officers at Katyn. Then these poor countries were invaded and conquered a second time, by the Nazis, who treated them just as poorly. Finally they were re-invaded and taken over by the Red Army on its murderous march towards Berlin. Any non- communists were thought of as the enemy of the USSR and treated just like the Germans. For the long suffering people of eastern Europe, D Day was not a harbinger of hope but just a continuation of despair. Apparently, General Dwight D Eisenhower, the Western Allies’ supreme commander, ordered his forces to advance very slowly towards Berlin in order to save American lives. It seems that he cynically decided to let the Soviets and the Germans slug it out as he presumably regarded Russian and German lives as less important than American and British ones. This deliberately slow advance allowed the Red Army to wreak havoc in Eastern Europe. Mass murder, widespread looting, wanton destruction and mass rape was the result, particularly when the Russian soldiers got to Germany. No Germans, particularly the women, were safe. It is a horrific tale, completely uninfluenced by the events of D Day and the Allied invasion of the west. Once the Soviets entered a country, they or their local communist stooges didn’t let it have any democracy or freedom for 4 long decades until 1989.
So D Day was a great and important event. Many very brave allied soldiers lost their lives in order to clear western Europe of evil Nazi rule. It must have been terrifying landing on the beaches and being sprayed by German bullets. Many soldiers sacrificed their lives to bring freedom to millions of people. However, it is dangerous to over-simplify and over romanticise that day. For many people in eastern Europe the battle of Stalingrad was far more significant. Once the German advance into Russia had been stopped, the Red Army could be unleashed on its murderous and savage advance towards Berlin. D day was not important for the people of Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and many others. For them it did not signify the start of their road to freedom, but rather a continuation of totalitarian control and captivity. Their fate had already been sealed by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt in their cynical summits. Similarly in the colonies of the British and French Empires, Allied victory in the war against Germany and Japan merely swapped one controlling power for another. Freedom was not on the agenda.
It is a shame that the media and the world’s leaders have chosen to present us with a highly selective version of what actually happened in the Second World War and have exaggerated the importance and significance of D Day. As is often the case, the real picture is not black and white but a particularly murky shade of grey.

Forgetting.

29 Mar

I’ve always had this fear of dropping out of existence, of going into the void. It’s a fear I share with many other human beings but which we manage to keep secret most of the time. It’s called the fear of death. We don’t like to talk about it or even think of it, but it pops into one’s mind more and more as one gets older. What’s so bad about death? It’s an escape from all the problems and stresses of life. You could see it as everlasting freedom from worry and pain. But it also represents oblivion, a state where you are not conscious of your own existence. It’s when you cease to be. Once your body has perished your only chance of living on is in the minds of others who are still alive. Photos, belongings, writings, songs, and places that represent your shared experiences with them, can all trigger memories. Like a genie from a bottle, a departed person can be conjured back into existence , even if only for a few moments.
It’s strange therefore that some people are so careless with their memories of others. It is often a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” To forget is to put someone out of one’s mind, to cease to think of him or her. What concerns me is that this forgetting does not only take place after someone has died. We move house or move jobs and suddenly whole hosts of people who were our neighbours, colleagues or even “friends”, drop out of our lives because the regular point of contact is not there anymore. We may make an effort to keep in touch for a while but unless a person is an especially close friend, one we have bonded with, the connection will slowly wither away on the vine if not nourished by regular contact. How many times have you swapped addresses and email details with people who you have met and got on with on holiday, only to never see or have anything to do with them again. People get sucked back into their everyday lives, and if you are not part of that daily world, the danger is that you will be eventually forgotten.
I know I cannot be friends with everyone I meet and like. If my life is an island, there is only room for so many on the shore. Constantly trying to add people will end up with others being forced back into the sea. Time and energy constraints ensure that one will usually end up with a practical, manageable number of friends and acquaintances. (I’m talking about real friends in the flesh, not virtual “friends” on Facebook and other social media.) However, this does not stop me from feeling sad when a connection is dropped and abandoned. I know it sounds dramatic, but to me it is a kind of death. Being pushed out of another’s life is a big step towards being forgotten altogether. It’s sort of being consigned to oblivion. I have always been sensitive about rejection. I’ve been too sensitive, in fact, for my own good. Two or three times in my life I have been “dumped” by women I loved and who I thought loved me. It went from “I love you” and “I’ll always be there for you” to ” I don’t love you anymore” and “I never want to see you again!” It was hard to bear at the time. It was a kind of death. In that woman’s mind I would largely cease to exist. On one of those occasions, after being dropped by a lover, I wrote melodramatically in my diary, that “I felt like a discarded toy left in the corner of the playroom.” One can go from loving and caring about someone intensely, to not even knowing whether that same person is dead or alive. I have found this difficult to cope with but have had to accept this as a hard, realistic part of life. It’s what some people glibly describe as “moving on”, as if people are like places passed through on a long journey.
But death and time are the major reasons why most people are forgotten. They say that within two generations of passing away, in most cases, nobody will remember you. It’s as if your whole life has just been swallowed up into a vacuum and lost in time. At the moment (2014) the British nation is making a special effort to remember those who perished in the First World War. The last combatants from the UK have now all passed into history. I remember the very last British “Fighting Tommy”, Harry Patch, finally dying in 2009, aged 111. He was feted because of that war and because he was the final survivor. He had a high profile funeral covered by TV and press. However, what about the millions of other service men and women on all sides who died before him? They lie in well tended but largely forgotten graves or their bodies were never found because they were blown to bits. I recently wandered around a deserted graveyard in mid Northumberland ( Chevington cemetery near Acklington) which contains neat rows of gravestones of airmen who perished in accidents or in combat in the skies over North-East England during the Second World War. All of them were in their twenties. They came from: England, New Zealand, Poland and Australia. In another section were about 6 rows of German graves, again all desperately young men. It was a very poignant experience wandering amongst them, trying to imagine their lives and how they ended. I wonder how many of their present day relatives have their photos displayed on the mantelpiece or their belongings kept safe in a special place? They are now at least 4 generations back. Are they still actively remembered or have they disappeared into the mists of time? My friend Colin, who took me there, has a great interest in military history especially that of the RAF. He read to me from a book which described all the fatal air-crashes in Northumberland during the Battle of Britain. Spitfires accidently clipping each other while on a training flight and plunging into a field. Bombers returning from a mission in thick fog and crashing into a wood, or, in one case, demolishing a church. It was sad to be at the place where these tragedies occurred and to see the grave-stones of those concerned. But I couldn’t help wondering how many times, if any, these graves have been visited by those who knew or knew of them. Colin’s book was entitled “Almost Forgotten”. I think, except for a few history buffs and war researchers, we can safely omit the first word from that title.
Coincidentally, the Sunday Times of the previous weekend featured an article headlined : “Lying Cold and Alone.” The writer talked about a huge graveyard on the edge of Berlin- the Neur Garnisionsfriedhof cemetery ( Hope I got that spelling right.). It contained the graves of 7,200 young German soldiers who died in the First World War. The grave- stones were clean, and the grass around them was neatly mown. However the whole place was deserted and not a single flower was laid on any of the ranks of monuments. When the writer mentioned the name of the war cemetery to his Berliner friends, they had never even heard of it! It seems that the First World War is Germany’s forgotten war. Not much is being done to commemorate its centenary compared to the many events being planned in Britain and France. The main reason, apart from the sheer passage of time, is because the horrors subsequently perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis in the Second World War have all but obliterated memories of the earlier conflict. Whatever the reason, the result is the same — all these people are now all but forgotten.
Shocking though it may seem, some people deliberately sabotage the memorabilia of their departed relatives. I recently saw a documentary ( “Hidden Histories — photographs” on BBC 4) which featured a dustman in Sussex who had accumulated a large collection of: photos, letters, medals and other personal documents from soldiers in the 1914-18 war that had simply been thrown away into the trash by the younger generations of their families. He had started his collection in the days before black bin bags so that when he emptied a bin he could clearly see its contents. Shocked by what he saw, he took one box of personal effects back to the house, thinking that the people had thrown its contents out in error. But when they opened the door they were irritated and clearly indicated to him that they wanted rid of the stuff. Maybe I am being over sentimental but I am shocked that precious mementoes of someone’s life can be deliberately consigned to the dust-bin. There again, I have heard several stories of recently deceased people’s belongings being sorted into three piles — stuff to be kept, stuff for the charity shop and stuff for the skip! Although I know one cannot keep everything just for the sake of it and it is important not to live in too much clutter, I still shudder at the thought of my relatives possibly binning my belonging after I’m gone, as if they’re wiping me out of existence. I know I’m being impractical. We cannot expect our surviving relatives to live like Miss Havershams in Great Expectations.
When I was in Vietnam I visited historical houses that contained shrines to the departed. This is because of the religion of ancestor worship. The dead are respected, honoured and remembered on a regular basis. I think this is a lovely tradition. It’s much preferable to throwing their belongings ( and memories of them) into the bin. In a previous blog I have mentioned about writing to leave a sort of legacy. I don’t think that famous politicians like Churchill, Thatcher or Blair should have a monopoly over this sort of thing. The recently departed and much loved ( or hated) Tony Benn has his entertaining and insightful diaries to perpetuate his memory. I write a diary too as well as producing this blog. I have also written my memoirs for what they’re worth!. It’s all ultra-egotistical I know. However I feel compelled to do it because I dread the thought of being forgotten and passing into oblivion. It’s a futile fight against the inevitable. I know I’ll lose. In a TV drama I have just watched ( “In Treatment” ) a character, who had just attended a funeral, commented “In the end there is only silence.” That sounds terrifying but it could also be thought of wonderfully peaceful! The point is that neither emotion is relevant because consciousness for the departed person has stopped. It comforts and consoles me to think there could be an alternative to the frightening finality of the above statement. It would run something like: “In the end there is only memory.” It cheers me to think that I might live on in the minds of others, at least for a while. ( Maybe a couple of generations if I’m lucky.)