Let’s not forget – The island
By Michael Patrick O’Leary
When I was a stroppy teenager, the epitome to me of disgust at the whole Remembrance Day charade was a man called Ralph Reader, who was on an annual basis the emcee of variety shows extolling the greatness of Great Britain. Brittany (especially England) . Much was given to sentimental and jingoistic songs such as “There Will Always Be an England” sung by old troopers like Vera Lynn who had helped win World War II.
Reader got into show business producing shows for the Boy Scout movement and even had some success on Broadway. After the outbreak of the Second World War, Reader was commissioned into the RAF as an intelligence officer and awarded an MBE in 1943. He was awarded a CBE in 1957 for general service to the nation. Later it was mainly associated with the Scout Gang Shows. In the 1970s, he was appointed to the position of chief scout commissioner.
Poppies and a threadbare empire
Reader was no doubt an admirable man and I was terribly unfair to hate him. Call it a clash of generations. We baby boomers had a streak of arrogance because we had a decent education and the ability to see the mockery of post-imperial Britain. The 1956 Suez Crisis is often seen as an important symbol of Britain’s post-imperial decline, and 1956 was also the year John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger was first produced. times and spawned a movement of “angry young men” disaffected with the state. of the nation.
In the 1950s I was a big fan of variety shows and saw a lot of former comedians perform live. In his play The Entertainer, written at the request of Laurence Olivier and first produced in 1957, Osborne personified the decadence of the British Empire as Archie Rice and an aging comedian whose career had faded. Tony Richardson, who directed the first season of The Entertainer, described Archie as “the embodiment of a national mood…Archie was the future, the decline, the sourness, the ashes of former glory, where Britain was headed”.
Britain’s decline probably resulted in large measure from the bankrupt effort required to defeat Nazi Germany. Despite this, the Labor government in Attlee succeeded in establishing a welfare state that saved many people from extreme poverty, provided free health care for all and enabled working class people like me to get a university education and access to high culture. Successive British governments, including nominally Labor, have worked hard to dismantle the noble edifice of Attlee.
Reading shows were already an anachronism in the late 1950s and early 1960s and unfortunately tainted the true meaning of Remembrance Day. They reeked of fly-blown nationalism and imperialism and seemed to me to glorify militarism and warmongering. One year I was forced to watch the Reader show at a classmate’s house by his patriotic parents. They were typical of respectable, conservative working-class people. It was a small house but they owned it. At that time, they were surrounded by families from the West Indies. Last time I was in this neighborhood there were plenty of mosques and burkhas. Even in the 1950s, Empire had landed on the white worker’s doorstep. Nostalgia for the Old Empire became inextricably linked with racism and resentment, which to me seemed to simmer beneath Remembrance Day.
The Empire has landed
It is ironic that (as I write) the UK has an Asian Prime Minister who is wealthier than the monarch and is calling on citizens to tighten their belts to support the austerity measures deemed necessary by government to deal with the recession caused in part by the disastrous budget of a Ghanaian Chancellor of the Exchequer. Rishi Sunak’s mother was born in Tanganyika, his father in Kenya. Both parents are of Punjabi origin. Sunak has been staunchly pro-Brexit since he was a teenager and has often made pro-British jingoistic remarks while retaining his US green card and a luxurious home in Santa Monica.
Sunak joined in the controversy by bringing back to government a home secretary who was sacked or resigned because she was more anti-immigration than then-prime minister Liz Truss. Suella Braverman’s parents were from Mauritius and Kenya and, she says, came to the UK ‘with admiration and gratitude for what Britain has done for Mauritius, Kenya and India’ . She describes herself as “the child of the British Empire”.
She was chair of the European Research Group, a group of pro-Leave Conservative MPs. The parents of Braverman’s predecessor as Home Secretary, Priti Patel, were Gujaratis from Uganda. Patel was a longtime eurosceptic and strongly opposed to the free movement of people. It was Patel who came up with the idea of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda (which was not part of the British Empire but is now part of the Commonwealth).
The suffering of ordinary people
I see Remembrance Day differently now. As I matured, I developed a better understanding of what my parents’ generation endured to make my life comfortable and secure. My mother worked in an aircraft factory and helped build the Gloster Meteor, the RAF’s first operational jet fighter. Her younger sister told me that she was running home from school during a German bombardment. In 2006, I was at Heathrow Airport on Remembrance Sunday, returning to Sri Lanka. While waiting for my plane, I heard a call for a minute’s silence in honor of the dead. Tears rolled down my cheeks as everyone respectfully observed the silence.
Cynic politicians continue to exploit the poppy and patriotism. David Cameron arrived in Beijing in November 2010 wearing a Remembrance Day poppy in his lapel. The Chinese asked him to remove it, and the English right-wing press congratulated him on his refusal. The poppy had a different symbolism for the Chinese. It represented a particularly brutal phase of British imperialism, the Opium Wars of the 19th century, in which British soldiers killed tens of thousands of Chinese, looted, desecrated holy sites, shot prisoners and raped women. All for the benefit of Scottish drug traffickers. Even in 2022, all politicians feel obligated to wear the poppy, although this year it seems to have taken the form of a little red button.
My father’s Irish patriotism didn’t stop him from volunteering for the Pioneer Corps. Michael Young, in The Rise of the Meritocracy, (1958) took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps. He claimed that the morale of these “tailors and draughtsmen…those stupid men” was dramatically increased “when the stupid were kept together…and they were no longer discouraged from having superior people to compete with”. In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was satirical and his book was a prescient critique of how the cult of IQ measurement would create a dangerously complacent ruling class and a deeply demoralized underclass. This is true today when the British working class has lost its identity and austerity and insecurity are forced upon it by wealthy people who have never done a decent job.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, 13 pioneer companies landed with the first Allied wave and another 10 companies with the second, making a total of around 6,700 men ashore by the end of the day. The first group of pioneers landed 20 minutes after Operation Overlord began. Some were called upon to organize funerals, for which they received special clothing, equipment and means of transport. The men bivouacked in the fields, in unusually bad weather, working very long hours with little rest. Due to the extensive minefields, conditions were dangerous and there were casualties. Over 2,000 British personnel, serving in the Corps, and nearly 6,000 of other nationalities lost their lives.
It was then that my father’s sense of smell left him. In addition to triggering memories, smell has served us well as a warning of danger, eg the smell of gas, smoke suggesting that we need to take action to prevent fire damage. The last thing my father remembered smelling was rotting corpses on the beaches of Normandy. My father had no apparent war wounds but his anosmia was a real handicap. Did Caen teach my father the fragility of flesh, the fine mesh that binds muscle to bone, the passivity of breath? Despite his wit and humor, he lived, I realize now, with relentless tinnitus of anxiety until his death. He died of cancer at the age of 56. He had no debt, but only six hundred pounds in the bank. There was insurance to pay for the funeral.
He was not complicit in the evil forces of ideologies and systems of terror that crushed ordinary people and swept them away. The great tides of history, isms and empires shake the little people, hurting them, maiming them, killing them, uprooting them and inflicting damage that lasts for years or generations. Today, in Ukraine, the innocent suffer from the illusions of the powerful.
forget to remember
We must contemplate the dangers of forgetting and also the dangers of remembering. Ernest Renan wrote that the nation asks to forget many things. He cited the massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of what France had to forget to be a nation. Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story Funes, the Memorious, describes a young man who, following an accident on horseback, has lost his ability to forget. Funes has a formidable memory, but he is so lost in the details of everything he knows that he is unable to convert information into knowledge and therefore unable to grow in wisdom. Stephen Dedalus, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, said the story was a nightmare he was trying to wake up from.
There comes a time when truth and reconciliation must take the place of the endless repetition of the grievances of centuries back. There are still riots all over the world as one tribe or another remember their grievances.