Now We Are 28: On Remembrance

Remembrance Day seems to be increasingly controversial – there’s been lots of debate this year over the wearing of poppies and the upcoming centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The wearing of poppies becomes more and more of a fraught issue every year – does their ubiquity take away their meaningfulness, should the BBC insist on people wearing them, is it hypocritical for politicians who have sent troops to war to wear them?

I have stood in the battlefields of Northern France, now so still and peaceful, bearing few signs of the slaughter that took place there nearly a century ago. As a fourteen-year old to stand in the Commonwealth War Graves was one of the most profound and sobering experiences of my life – particularly when I saw the grave of a boy my own age. That experience is why Remembrance Sunday is important to me – the first hand understanding I gained of all those who died so that I could be free is one of the most significant things I have ever learnt. It is why I buy a poppy and watch the Remembrance Ceremony at the Cenotaph whenever possible – not because I feel I have to but because, to me, it is important.

The First World War was a mess, a pointless war caused by rampant imperialism, but that does not mean we should ignore or make less of the sacrifices a generation of men and women made as part of that conflict. The Second World War was perhaps a more just war but I have always questioned whether, without the First World War, Hitler would have had either the motivation or the opportunity to rise to power in 1930s Germany. Rampant nationalism and the need to protect one’s perceived interests at home or abroad have caused wars beyond counting throughout human history – the so-called “war to end all wars” was nothing of the sort. War is futile, it solves nothing and almost always promotes further conflict and instability.

Condemn war all you want but don’t condemn those who remember, however they choose to do so. Wearing a poppy isn’t just a visible symbol of commemoration but an opportunity to support a very worthwhile charity, The Royal British Legion. Equally, however, the wearing of a poppy should never be something that we compel – gestures of this kind ought to come from the heart not as part of a PR campaign. Wearing a poppy, observing a Remembrance Sunday silence or laying a wreath at a war memorial aren’t acts that rejoice in war or of national pride – they are a reflection of shared grief, dulled but not lessened by the passage of time.

As the First World War and Second World Wars become history rather than memory it is more important than ever not only to remember but to understand these conflicts in the hope that one day we might move beyond military force and the death of countless human beings as a way of resolving our differences. The saying “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is as true today is it ever was.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.”

                                            John McCrae

30 Day Music Challenge: Day Fourteen

Day Fourteen: A Song No-One Would Expect You To Love

This question is tricky – anyone who’s ever met me will know my music taste is quite eclectic. I’ll listen to anything once, I’ll go to any kind of gig and I do make a geniune effort to widen my listening habits. So I’m not sure anyone would be particularly surprised whatever I said I was listening to – the last three bands I’ve seen live have been Thin Lizzy, Beardyman and Breed 77, the last three albums I’ve listened to have been by Slipknot, Alice in Videoland and The Smiths. I’ll admit I don’t listen to much classical music but I do quite like Ravel, Holst and Rachmaninov. Dance music irritates me but I will shake my thang to it if the occasion calls for such activity, Drum’n’bass is good for running to and I have a secret love for the occasional bit of country music. I can’t think of a genre of music that I can’t tolerate at least one song/artist from. So what to choose?
I’m not particularly religious – I was brought up as a member of the Church in Wales although we were never the sort of family that went to church every Sunday. Faith was important to my Nana in a way that it doesn’t often seem to be to people of my generation or even my parent’s generation – the church is much less a central part of people’s communities these days. My own beliefs (or lack of) aside that seems strange given how vital religion has been in shaping our country – even today, when we live in a comparatively secular society, religious beliefs and prejudices have a big impact on people’s lives. A lot of rhythym of our lives is set by the Christian calendar – Lent, Easter, Christmas – even though the religious aspect is often lost. I do however make an effort to go to church at Christmas despite my general religious ambivalence and it’s now a family tradition that me, my mum and my sister go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Every year my dad says he’ll join us but never does, we’re usually late and there is always a drunk person in the church either singing at the wrong time or crying hysterically… Despite all of this there is always something a little bit magical about church on Christmas Eve – plus it’s the only time of year I can go to church and know all the words to the hymns.
Today’s song is one of my favourite carols – although technically it’s an advent song  drawing as it does on verses from the book of Isaiah. I’ve chosen the version sung by Aled Jones as it’s quite traditional although I also quite like the Belle and Sebastian version… 
“O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel”

30 Day Music Challenge: Day Six

Day Six: A Song That Reminds You of Somewhere

I’m cheating slightly because this song reminds me of a school trip *to* somewhere rather than the actual place itself. However this is my music challenge and I can cheat if I want to so there!

When I was in Year 10 – so approximately 14 – I, along with a bus load of my classmates, went on a GCSE History trip to Belgium. This was a memorable trip for many reasons: it was my first trip overseas without my parents and one of the most effective ways of demonstrating the futility of war to a bunch of adolescents that I can think of. The First World War cemeteries of Belgium and Northern France are one of the saddest sights I have ever seen and even the coolest kids on the trip cried at headstones dedicated to boys barely older than us who had lied about their ages just to go to war. I’ve never forgotten the sight of those graveyards and as an outstandingly privileged generation we should never forget the sacrifices that our grandparents and great-grandparents generation made so that we could be free.

However, despite the fact that it was a very emotional trip, we were all still a bunch of silly teenagers who spent their evenings sneaking into one another’s rooms and trying to work out how to sneak out of the hotel. We also listened to Belgian MTV a lot which was a mixed blessing because it only played about four songs including Oops I Did It Again by Britney and Freestyler by Bomfunk MCs amongst other hideousness – but luckily it also played All the Small Things by Blink-182. I’m a huge fan of pop-punk, I might even go so far as to say it’s my favourite genre of music but when I was 14 I neither knew nor cared – I just loved this song and it still reminds me of that trip to Belgium every time I hear it!

“Late night, come home
Work sucks, I know
She left me roses by the stairs
Surprises let me know she cares

Say it ain’t so, I will not go

Turn the lights off, carry me home 
Na na na na na na…

A Little Bit of Pomp & Ceremony

I should probably start this post off by clarifying that I am, generally, a fan of the British Monarchy. I’m not sure I’d institute a hereditary monarchy if I was starting a new country from scratch and there are a lot of members of the Royal Family whom I think are a waste of space but as an institution the monarchy is a *good thing* – at least in my eyes.

Thus the State Opening of Parliament will always be one of those occasions that fills me with joy – I love a Crown, a ridiculously long train and an archaic ceremony with a strange fervour. I suspect this comes from the fact that as a historian by inclination very old things will always appeal… However today wasn’t really about the past – it was about the future, about the still shiny and new Coalition government telling us in a bit more detail what they plan to do over the months and years to come. It marks the start of a certain amount of returning to reality in UK politics…

So what do I think of the Coalition now the dust has had two weeks to settle? To be honest it all still seems  bit unreal – according to folklore hung parliaments are supposed to bring inertia and bickering not a general love-in and rapid action. I admit to having had my own assumptions well and truly challenged – although at least I didn’t make a party political broadcast about the dangers of the Hung Parliament party (a piece of wit David C must be regretting even more than *that joke* about Nick Clegg)… How I thought other countries coped I have no idea!

Broadly, I still like the Coalition a lot – the Programme for Goverment issued last week set out a policy framework that seemed to capture the best bits of both parties and it is clear that a lot of work has gone (and continues to go) into making this partnership work. The almost lightening speed with which the £6 billion of spending cuts for this financial year have been identified is the exact opposite of inertia. It feels like the entire country has been put on a new server and suddenly you realise how much the old server was slowing you down.

The phrase “in the national interest” has been supremely overused over the past few weeks but it genuinely feels like that is how the Conservative and Lib Dem front bench teams are trying to govern – and that’s what we need. The Eurozone is in meltdown, war appears to be looming between North and South Korea – this is really no time for prevaricating or party political points scoring. The next few years, maybe even the whole of the next five years, are going to be tough – but I have this quiet sense that we might just come out the other side ok.

Election Reflection – Part One

I’ve been following both the General Election campaign and the negotiations for a coalition government pretty breathlessly – which has earned me the title of political correspondent at work as well as some less desirable nicknames!

It’s not my first general election as a voter – I voted in vain against the Blair government in 2005 – but it is the first election I could participate in where there was a real and growing sense that change could happen. However, I dreaded until about an hour ago that real change wouldn’t actually happen – a change I didn’t even think possible until last Friday. To a certain extent we won’t know that anything has changed for months, even years but to me the events of the 7th – 11th May 2010 already seem momentous.

I should probably clarify my own politics a bit more here – I don’t claim to have foreseen a Conservative-Liberal coalition or that I would have voted for one had it been on offer last Thursday. I think the coalition has the potential to do tremendous good for the country but that’s a position I’ve arrived at very recently indeed!

I come from a traditionally Labour-voting community in North Wales – my grandfather once claimed that Wrexham would elect a cow if you stuck a red rosette on it – but not from a particularly Labour household. I remember my parents admiring Margaret Thatcher and whilst Tony Blair taking office in 1997 is a moment embedded in my memory I don’t recall it bringing any scenes of wild joy at home (I was only 11). Personally, I’ve always been interested in politics but quite often from a historical perspective – I studied history at uni – and have struggled sometimes to find a political “tribe”. After all Welsh girls don’t vote Tory do they?!

Except this Welsh girl did and does, at least for the time being… I’ve watched David Cameron change the Conservative Party over the past 4 years and I hoped, prayed and voted for a Conservative Government with a mandate that would allow him to change this country. It was always an outside hope – opinion polls consistently pointed to the result we eventually got, a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party – but I truly believed it was the only way the UK could move forward. Maybe that’s the trouble with being a historian, you get a bit too wedded to the status quo because it is “historical” and not always because it’s the best way of doing things!

Also, given Labour and Liberal noises throughout the election campaign, I can probably be forgiven for attaching virtually no value to Nick Clegg saying that he’d support whichever party gained a majority of votes and seats. The “Anti-Tory” voices were everywhere – much as I love Twitter there’s been some very nasty abuse doing the rounds for anyone who even thought of voting Conservative – and a so-called “progressive coalition of the left” seemed by far the most likely outcome of any split vote. Plus “my” party have their own faults – Cameron’s done well but there are still some hard-line right wingers hanging about (Lord Tebbit I’m looking at you) – so Lib Dem support for the Conservatives seemed about as likely as hell freezing over. I kind of felt that was a shame – I’ve always had a soft spot for the Liberals – but at the end of the day I felt I had to pick a party and I chose the Conservatives.

I did that for a number of well-thought out policy reasons not just because I like David Cameron and think his wife’s pretty… Firstly and fundamentally, I’m not a socialist in even the most moderate sense – socially liberal yes, but I’m a strong believer in capitalism, enterprise and a small state. Secondly, I’m mildly eurosceptic – I believe we get a lot of benefits from membership of the EU but the single currency and other aspects of European federalism just don’t stack up in my head. Finally, I believe in a welfare state that supports its citizens when times are hard but encourages them to be pro-active as often as possible. So I read policies, watched debates and reaffirmed my pro-Conservative leanings. Then I put my X in the box last Thursday and sat back to watch the results – half in hope and half in fear.