Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Choosing how, what and whether to remember

Airports are odd places, dislocated surreal worlds with their own stateless transient populations. I've been spending a fair bit of time in them recently. We sit in suspended animation, waiting for permission to move, to eat, sometimes, it almost seems, to breathe....

On Sunday, I spent the best part of five hours at Heathrow, time filled by transiting from one terminal to another, followed by a second breakfast with plenty of coffee. I wasn't in good form. After a six hour flight from Lilongwe followed by a six hour wait in Addis, I had caught the Ethiopian Airlines flight at two in the morning. The airline had fed us at half past three in the morning. They woke us again at five in the morning (UK time) to give us breakfast and we landed at Heathrow at ten to seven. I was absolutely exhausted and just wanted to curl up somewhere until I caught the Edinburgh flight.

However, Heathrow is not a bad place to wait, at least on a Sunday, unlike Addis where, despite its being a relatively new airport, I had ended up sitting on the floor. Despite the discomfort and the crowds, or, indeed, because of the crowds, Addis is still a fascinating place in which to wait. This genuinely international airport acts as a hub between east and west, north and south. You can watch 'big men' from west Africa with their splendidly embroidered pyjama-like outfits. Almost without exception, the women wear brightly-coloured flowing garments, with shawls or scarfs, but all very different. This time there was a small group wearing old-fashioned 'Victorian' dresses with leg-o'-mutton sleeves and bonnets, clearly the colonial legacy of some nineteenth century missionary's wife, probably because the garb of the local villagers was too scanty or absent altogether.

Coffee at Addis airport can be quite an unusual experience. You squat on tiny three-legged stools while your hostess lights a tiny charcoal stove set on the floor of the airport building, brewing coffee in a tiny pot and then serving it in tiny coffee cups. I always feel rather like Alice in Wonderland. Sadly, the coffeemaker was not around on Saturday evening so I drank tea - a mug of frothy warm milk with a separately served teabag.

This is all a bit of a diversion from Heathrow airport last Sunday morning where half-asleep travellers plodded along the walkways, perused the shelves of WH Smiths or left the Harrods concession laden with decorative tea caddies and tins of Scottish shortbread.

Suddenly the somnolent atmosphere was interrupted by the tannoy.  A disembodied voice announced that it was Remembrance Sunday and that a two-minutes' silence would be observed. Fair enough, I thought. I do not myself wear a poppy or observe the two minutes' silence unless I am in company where not to do so would cause offence. I would play it by ear. This being Heathrow, a busy international airport, it was unlikely that much would be demanded of its tired and anxious passengers. With that thought, I set off off for the gate announced for the Edinburgh flight, intending to sit quietly during the official period of silence.

But before we get to the Edinburgh gate, I think a bit of an explanation is needed. I was brought up in a non-conformist 1950s household, non-conformist in religious, political and social terms. My brothers and I were the third generation in a family which had been conscious objectors through two world wars. All its members, male and female, had stood before tribunals and argued their case, which had a basis in Christianity and an extensive knowledge of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. My mother's side were mostly Plymouth Brethren, already social outsiders. My maternal grandfather and his brothers had been handed white feathers during the First World War. One of my great uncles became a stretcher-bearer and as soon as he was out in the trenches had had a gun thrust in his hand.

During the Second World War, treatment was similar though not, I believe, so harsh. Teachers were a reserved profession, so after qualifying and appearing before the tribunal, my parents separately took up school posts in east London and acted as fire watchers by night. My uncle and aunt worked on the land. My family were less alone in their pacifist beliefs than their parents had been during the First World War. Many of our most famous writers, musicians and artists shared them, though not necessarily for religious reasons.

However, it was after the war, during my childhood, that my family's stance had most effect on me. I had been brought up to reject the Royal Family, partly from republicanism but also because of what my parents thought were their militaristic attitudes and behaviour. My parents never sang the national anthem or wore poppies, though they were quite understanding about what we as school children should do during that very conformist era. My mother had suffered badly from her own parents' pacifism and, to be fair to her, did her best to make sure that we did not feel similarly exposed. So, we were allowed to buy and wear poppies and sing the national anthem if we felt like it. And so I did, when with children of my own age. I am a natural conformist, precisely because of the peculiarities of my background, and have always wanted to merge invisibly with the behaviour of the majority. In those days, I was also terrified of the taunting of school bullies of which I had already had too much experience.

Nowadays, we tend to forget what life was like in the 1950s, although our current Prime Minister seems intent on reminding us. Naturally, my friends' fathers had all fought in the war, though few talked about their experiences. Some of these men were very badly damaged, psychologically if not physically. One of my brother's teachers at the local boys' grammar school persistently punished his pupils using methods he had learnt in his Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. No one stopped him. Most men, however, seemed glad to forget. Not so at my Anglican primary school, where our female teachers seemed to be obsessed with keeping wartime memories alive, including nursing their hatred of Germans. My family, in contrast, had several German friends, some going back to when they supported refugees to Britain during the nineteen thirties. Other German friends they had met when visiting prisoner-of-war camps in the immediate aftermath. All conscripts, just as most of our own troops were.

My teachers appeared completely insensitive, or indeed antagonistic to, the fact that some children might have had a different family experience from the norm. One teacher, in particular, went round the class asking each child in turn what his or her father 'did during the war'. Having sat trembling as the others gave their answers, I announced that my father had been 'a marine', not that I knew what a marine was. Unlike other members of my family, I have never been one for martyrdom.

The Lancashire mill town in which I was brought up had had an 'easy' war, the enemy planes flying right over the deep valley (which my teachers told me the Germans thought was a lake) on their way to bomb Manchester and Liverpool. Nevertheless, we were surrounded by the relics of war, like the bomb shelters which we never entered as they frightened us.

At Remembrance Day services (called Armistice Day then), congregations sang hymns of which my parents thoroughly disapproved. 'I vow to thee my country', for example, with its assertion in the second line that the 'country' was more important than the people which lived in it ('all earthly things above'). A particularly ghastly hymn, which my parents - rightly - considered blasphemous was 'O valiant hearts, who to your glory came', which was sung year after year at my girls' high school. My parents asserted that it glorified death in war and made it into religious sacrifice. And so it did.

Why did my parents go to these Remembrance Day services at all given how much they disapproved of them? I was told it was because they always went to church on Sundays and did not see why they should be prevented from doing so on that particular day.  There was a slight element of stubbornness in the Morris family, as you may detect!

In recent years, of course, the ostentatious commemorations of my youth have fallen away. The exception is, of course, the 'poppy fascism' of our broadcasting services. Remembrance Day has, on the whole, become an occasion when one might choose to remember, not one when remembering is forced down one's throat. And by choosing, I mean choosing to remember the pointless waste of young people's lives in the cause of nationalist movements or as a result of glorifications of cynical political decision making. Indeed, more enlightened clergymen have begun explicitly remembering and praying for the dead of all nations, not just our own. As my parents told us, the Second World War happened very largely because of the vindictiveness of the British and French at the end of the First World War. Our blockades and demands for 'reparations' caused suffering and hunger across Germany and Austria and contributed to the rise of fascism. Our moral stance is based on selective memory.

Now in my maturity and with so much less to lose, I have returned to some of the nonconformity of my background. I am much more prepared to stand up for what I believe, particularly against group-think and public shaming, though still reluctantly.

Well, that digression took us from the seating area to the Gate. Sorry it took so long.

As I arrived at the Gate, the siren went for the beginning of the two minutes' silence, just in time for me to take my seat. Except that I didn't. No one did. The entire population of the airport remained standing. No one moved, even those who had flights to catch.

Well, you may say, how respectful. Except that Heathrow is an international airport. Our British expectations of universal conformity with our national attachment to patriotic pride ignored the fact that some passengers came from countries whose people we had killed.

Some passengers were Germans or Italians. A lot of them were Japanese.

Some passengers came from countries like South Africa where our army built and ran the very first concentration camps in the world, starving to death thousands of Boer women and children. Not only did we contribute to the rise of apartheid, we also influenced Germany's treatment of its own dissidents and vulnerable citizens. Interesting that we don't 'remember' the Boer war in the same way that we remember the First World War only a few years later. Our army set up similar concentration camps in Kenya during the nineteen fifties, to combat its people's struggles for self-determination. There our soldiers tortured and brutalised them. No doubt, we expected Kenyan passengers also to stand in honour of our war dead.

In Heathrow, there would have been passengers from the Middle East where British politicians, supported by the army, had established the artificial country of Iraq, made up of warring tribes who loathed each other, a similar approach to the one which led to our establishing the invented country of Uganda. Our soldiers policed the conflict in Palestine in support of Britain's Balfour Declaration which is behind much of the suffering and injustice of today.

Many passengers would have come from countries in Africa and India whose inhabitants we actually expected to fight for us, their colonial masters, during the First and Second World Wars. We told them that they were fighting - and dying - for 'democracy', but denied them their own freedom and chance to choose their own governments. Four million Bengalis died because Winston Churchill diverted Indian crops to feed British soldiers. The British army demanded that soldiers from Nyasaland (Malawi) should fight their neighbours and fellow tribesmen in Tanganyika (Tanzania), and travel to Somalia and Ethiopia to fight and die there, all three countries with which Malawians themselves had no quarrel. There were plenty of African and Indian passengers in Heathrow on Sunday. They were all expected to stand as well.

One could go on and on. Now I have no problem with people remembering the commitment to fighting for a better world and against fascism which many of our troops demonstrated during the Second World War. More recently, in places like Kosovo and Sierra Leone, we have made genuine, though not always effectual, attempts to keep the peace. After all, people have to make their own choices for their own reasons and I'm not always sure that the choices my family made were the right ones. The situation once 1939 arrived made the decision a difficult one for peace lovers.

What I do have a problem with is the pressure for conformity, for making other people subscribe, at least in public, to views which we ourselves hold but which they may not. I also object to our selective view of history, to our obsession with reliving our 'moral victory' during the Second World War and, one has to say, sometimes with keeping alive old resentments and forgetting the great injustices for which our own country has been responsible.

So, what did I do in Heathrow on Sunday? I'm a coward, I've already explained that. Against all my natural instincts, I remained standing, afraid to cause offence. And by so doing added just that little bit more pressure on those strangers to our country who themselves probably did not want to stand either and perhaps, like me, did not see why they should have to.

In our increasingly conformist society, the room for nonconformity is certainly diminishing. And so is the room for choice.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Poppies, my family and me

Recalling past wars: reflection or recrimination?


  1. "Our moral stance is based on selective memory." So true, in practically every nation. I notice how people often refuse to admit to any wrong doing on their part. When cornered and can't deny their wrong doing, they'll often explain it away with some excuse such as they couldn't avoid it, anyone would have done the same, they're the real victim here... Humans, as a society are they not capable of better? The USA expanded its boundaries by killing and conquering the native inhabitants. So, I ask my fellow countrymen, how is the USA really built upon freedom and democracy? How is militarily conquering a people for nationalist expansion an expression of or fundamental component of freedom and democracy? The struggle continues with the No DAPL protests being conducted by the water protectors of the Standing Rock Reservation. I was shocked to hear last week how the oil company building the pipeline and the gov't both declare the water protectors to be squatters federal land. I'd really like to know how people who are on their ancestral land are squatters. Selective memory indeed.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful response, Tim. Yes, I have been following the water rights protests. On a personal level, I think it is a natural human reaction to rewrite events. Sometimes it is the only way we can live with ourselves. Countries, however, have no excuse.