Remembering my father
My father died on 6th June 2008, an apt day really, as his own experience of war, and perhaps my existence, were at least in part shaped by the D-day landings. He was too young by a matter of months for D-day, but on learning of the attrition rate for the infantry of the 6th Airborne Division, he was advised by an older brother to join the Glider Regiment. He spent much of the end of the war not in France where the conflict was ending, but training for new conflicts, notably the one brewing in Palestine - which is where he ended up, as a young Staff Sergeant commanding men twice his age, and seeing sights that lived with him forever.
That he missed D-day, and survived Palestine, despite seeing colleagues killed at close quarters, secured our own fate, I suppose.
Listening to the veterans of D-day, I was struck, as I have been before by the gentle stoicism. Most would not talk about what they saw, and who can blame them? The words from the end of King Lear, which I may have quoted before, come to mind:
'We that are young
Shall never see so much nor live so long.'
The final words intrigue me. 'Live so long?' Well, that may be true of our own lives compared to those of the veterans, most in their 90s. Mortality rates in the UK are rising for the first time in decades, due to factors unrelated to war. And in the current climate of fear and concern about the environment, it may become true for other reasons.
I have some sympathy with those who advocated an end to the ceremonies. Something sticks in the craw, despite the dignity of the veterans, in the quiet music, the gun salutes, and the lines of dignitaries. If we remember anything, should it not be the ghastly ugliness of war, the horrors we see enacted on our television news every night in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Ukraine and so on?
I don't usually include my own writing in the blog, but as this is in essence a blog about writing then it seems appropriate to do so.
Here, then, is my poem on these same themes. Written as I crossed to France recently, it recalls an earlier visit with my son to the Normandy beaches a few years back.
Memorials, June 6th 2019
On this sunset crossing, the Channel is calm.
Flecks of white blister the blue sea.
But we feel safe here, in the lounge seats,
Cradling the so-called duty-free.
The cliffs are much the same as ever,
Sisters to our own at home.
The scene not so very different, really,
From seventy five years ago.
So it’s hard to imagine death by drowning,
How a step down became a grave,
The prow of a different bucking boat,
Pitching them onto the killing wave.
And when your son stands dutifully
For your shots by memorials,
It’s difficult to un-imagine him,
That he might be just a burning hole.
How did they feel, those boys like him,
Their stomachs lurching as they landed?
How remembered now? On village cross,
Or in nameless grassy plots?
The old men talk of chaos, not much of bravery,
Of living through a bloody dream of Hell.
Soon they’ll talk no more, and you’ll move on,
To other wars and ringing out of bells.
All trauma lived at a remove,
Becomes a kind of glamour or a bore,
We lack the energy to act or intervene,
As if forgetting were a universal law.
And so, a horse trots gently in the surf,
Tracing steps through the sands of souls.
A concrete bunker watches silently,
Children scream and run around its doors.
Leaving, we chance upon the bronze at Formigny*,
Grass grows lush here in the Norman rain;
Half-forgotten site of an ancient war,
The florid statue slowly fades in misted pane.
© Mike Gould, 2019
*site of battle during The Hundred Years' War, when the English were driven out of France.