My dad and Remembrance

I’ve written previously of my dad’s attitude to Remembrance.

Briefly: my dad served in a Lancaster bomber over Germany in 1944 and 1945. He was the bomb-aimer and so quite literally dropped bombs on Allied targets, including the civilian population of Dresden.

He was killed in 1979, and he may well have opened up more had he lived longer, but during his lifetime he never spoke of the war, never went to a Remembrance Service, and never war a poppy. It was only after my mother died in 2014 that we discovered, in an old shoe box, two things about my dad.

First, he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for some unknown act of heroism, presumably in the skies. We don’t know if he told my mother of this, but we found a letter from the headmaster of his old school (he left school at 13 for the steelworks and was 22 at war’s end), apologising for being so slow to write to congratulate my dad, and saying what pride he had brought to the school. For that letter to be kept in the shoe-box alongside the medal suggests it meant a lot to my dad.

Second, in the same collection of old bits and pieces, there were youth hostel membership cards with hostel stamps on them. An examination of these shows that my dad travelled, probably on his bike, to Norway and Denmark, and to Switzerland in 1947 and 1948.

This seems an extraordinary journey for a low-paid steelworker to have made, and while as his children we can only guess — again, he never mentioned anything and as far as we know never travelled abroad again — we do wonder whether he was paying some kind of quiet personal homage to those he had been a part of killing (we think he might have had trouble entering Germany at the time, and it is unlikely youth hostels would have been open, but the places he went to were near the German border).

Taken together, we get a picture of a man greatly affected by his wartime experience, to the extent that he undertook a form of Remembrance, but for whom that Remembrance was a deeply private thing. Maybe he was one of the people described by Chris:

One or two generations ago, Remembrance Day was about strong people struggling with horrors and grief we cannot imagine.

So it’s with this family experience in mind that I read the annual debate— louder this year because of the 100 year marking — between those who believe ‘poppy fascism’ [1] is with us and that modern Remembrance has become little more than a tool of nationalism, and those who believe wholeheartedly that the very concept of ‘poppy fascism’ is the creation of people who just hate our country and are disrespectful of the sacrifices made for the freedoms we still enjoy.

For myself, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Pictures of people with Nazi tattoos also wearing a poppy is reflective of attempts to co-opt the Remembrance movement to a hateful ideologies, and there is little I loathe more than UKIP-types misusing to their own ends the actions of people like my dad, and his fallen colleagues.

But their real world impact is very limited. For the vast majority of people who have bought poppies in Aldi with their loose change, and who may or may not be following that up with a visit to church this Sunday, Remembrance is just something they do, as part of an unspoken but no less real commitment to the people who live around them. Few of these wish to impose their views about poppies on others, and most, if asked about Remembrance, will be in the ‘each to their own’ camp.

So, if there has been a substantive change in what Remembrance is, I think it’s been a much subtler one than any co-option to nationalist/militarist/racist purpose.

I suspect the growth in Remembrance participation (especially poppy sales), even set against the ever decreasing numbers of families directly touched by death in war, has more to do with the broader ‘atomising’ social changes of (late) capitalism, in which there is less opportunity for association outside the family, and in which ‘ersatz’, standardized and authorized forms of emotional solidarity therefore become more necessary for people’s sense of ontological security, to use Giddens’ phrase.

Perhaps if there is a lesson to be learned from the change in the way we undertake Remembrance, then, it is that it may in fact be replacing, even squeezing out other, more socially productive and forward-looking forms of associational behaviour — the right for which, of course, people laid down their lives.

Overall, the process of remembrance seems a very odd thing to fall out about. My dad walked on the hills on Remembrance Sunday. That didn’t mean he was disrespectful. It just meant he was being respectful in his own way.

For myself, I’ll be donning a suit and a poppy and heading off to Remembrance Sunday because not to do would actually be, of itself, making it all about me; that would be the opposite of what I think my dad would have wanted [2].


[1] It’s only when I started to write this that I realised I didn’t know whether those who support poppy wearing or those who oppose it are supposed to be the poppy fascists. It may actually be both.

[2] I realise that this piece is, in its own way, my personal — perhaps final — act of Remembrance to my dad and his generation.