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My Own Remembrance Day

November 11, 2012

It’s Remembrance Sunday, and I have a problem with Abide with Me. It’s the neither the words nor the music, which are at once mournful and uplifting, but the fact that I cannot get through the last verse without a lump in my throat.

Knowing, as some will, that I am of a sentimental disposition, this will not come as a surprise; I acknowledge it freely. I can be reduced to a blubbering wreck by the first five minutes of A Matter of Life and Death – though let’s be clear that we are talking about the matchless Powell and Pressburger movie, not the Iron Maiden album, which will not reduce me to anything.

What gets me started so early in the film is the sequence in which David Niven as a young airman quotes verses by Sir Walter Raleigh and Andrew Marvell shortly before jumping from a burning plane. ( I just checked, looking for the best link to the sequence, and I was right: it’s got me again.) Great poetry has that capacity to move, and when it is combined with other great art, especially music it is almost too marvelous to express.

Take Britten’s War Requiem, for example. Into a regular requiem structure are woven a number of Wilfred Owen’s WWI poems to make a 20th Century oratorio of great power. Mrs simonsometimessays doesn’t care for Britten too much. She regards him as bleak, to say the least, and I can’t quarrel with that. If you add a generous measure of the most telling imagery in English verse, depicting the awfulness of war from the inside, then ‘bleak’ is not enough – no single word can be.

The War Requiem is really a continuous musical tapestry, and so it’s difficult to pick an individual excerpt which does not suffer from being out of its context, but I have to try, and the setting of Owen’s Voices is a good illustration of the marriage of music and poetry.

Gentler, but in my view lovelier, are the six short songs written by George Butterworth on a selection from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Housman was not one of the war poets from the stable of Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. A few of the poems from the book are indeed about the young men of the county – The Lads in their Hundreds – who go to war and don’t come back, but it’s to other wars, in another era before the end of the 19th Century; and his focus is on their non-return rather than on the horrors of fighting. Poignant above all is the dialogue between the ghost of a dead young man and his surviving friend – Is my team ploughing?  – that makes up the first couple of minutes in the linked excerpt (and coincidentally, Britten is on the piano).

In quite a different place on the musical spectrum is B-Movie’s Remembrance Day, an early 80s song that is worth a listen. It’s rather surprising, being quick and almost dancy – hanging off a minor arpeggio motif on the keyboard. ‘Songs will never bring them back’ go the lyrics; but of course that is just what the songs do.

Songwriters have been inspired by soldiers’ graves, identified and anonymous, and the inscriptions on them. And I take great heart from that. Whether the results are dreadful – Known Only Unto God by the Stranglers (on the avoidable album Coup de Grace that I have mentioned before), or wonderful –  Eric Bogle’s lyrical Green Fields of France – in this version by the Dropkick Murphys, it is still vital that what has happened before prompts a response in the present.

Both my grandfathers fought in the  First World War. I believe that, like many, both misrepresented their age in order to enlist. Both were injured, both survived, and one of the obvious consequences is that they had children, two of whom met, married and had families of their own, one of whom is me.

On Remembrance Sunday, it is right to commemorate the millions who offered their lives for their country or their cause and whose offer Providence saw fit to accept. I’m also bearing in mind the millions of others who were willing to make the same sacrifice, but whom chance decided would come home and help make the victories worth the winning. Thanks to all those who fought, we are here with the liberties and opportunities that freedom gives us; thanks to those that survived we are able to remember the ones who did not, and appreciate in some small measure the extent of their sacrifice.


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  1. Anne-Marie Hetherington permalink

    Good one this time, Si. I like the links and got a bit of a tear from the last paragraph. Well done!

  2. Thank you. There are no WWI veterans left now – the last known one died this year – which makes it feel somehow the more vital to civilised life to remember them all.

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