Friday, 17 November 2017

Armistice Day


I’m listening to music on headphones, like everyone does, when an announcement on the Gigantastore’s PA catches my ear.  Usually, I pay no attention to these things: a heartfelt thank you for shopping at [SUPERMARKET], or a helpful rhetorical question inviting us to consider buying some crisps, or something (they always begin with “why not…?” don’t they?  I almost always answer, sometimes out loud: “Because fuck off, that’s why not.”). 
But this one sounds different, somehow.  I pause my music player and remove an earphone.
The sound of the PA has the sombre quality of an important announcement (this is conveyed by the lack of a doorbell “Bing! Bong!” noise, which they use for their more routine announcements.  But also by the tone of the crackle.  I don’t know how to describe, that would need an acoustician, or at least some kind of music producer).  The voice, however, perhaps cracking under the pressure of delivering the Important Message, does not match the gravitas; the message is supposed to speak for itself:
“Ladies and gentlemen, please join us for two minutes’ silence to mark the eleventh hour of Armistice Day.”
Oh, shit.  It’s Armistice Day at eleven o’clock, and here I am looking at razor blades in a big supermarket. 
Plenty of the shop’s patrons remain unmoved by the announcement, with children galloping about the aisles and parents deciding which brand of toilet paper plays best with their image and/or self image.  There is an occasional admonishment of “ssshhh!” but it does not have the desired effect; some have simply not heeded the message, perhaps jaded, or desensitised by the usual low-production-cost advertising and call to the checkouts of all available staff.
Obviously, I have no trouble at all believing the sincerity of [SUPERMARKET]’s commitment to looking after current and former armed forces personnel, and honouring the memory of those who have died, but it does get me thinking.  Again.  As usual.
What I’m supposed to think about is the war dead, their sacrifice, our gratitude for that. 
What I usually think about is how I might have coped in their place, what choices I would have made: would I have fought?  Conscientiously objected?  Would I have supported the contemporary view of The Great War as a shockingly brutal cull of Europe’s working-class males?  Or the surviving narrative of WWII as a fight for survival against fascism?  Or would I see it as partly that, and partly another round of extreme violence and realpolitik in which competing power centres carved up the earth for their own ends, to the cost of millions of lives that could never have access to that kind of power, or its rewards?
In short, would I have felt as conflicted then as I do about it now?

I usually think about the “politicisation” of “Poppy Day”, including the sheer awfulness of calling it Poppy Day.  I often wonder how anyone thinks there could ever be any chance that any of this could ever be apolitical.  As if war is just nature, and as if thinking that it is is not a political position to take. 
When people want us to not politicise something, to “play politics” with an important issue, what they usually mean is “shut up and agree with me”  And they mean that because they think that what they think about it is so obvious it can’t/shouldn’t even be discussed.  Not consciously, deliberately – but at the level of belief, of assumption.  As if those beliefs/assumptions are also beyond/above the dirty business of Politics.
My mind, on this occasion, refers fleetingly to a recent conversation with my Dad about all this, when he asked my feelings on it, and I answered, with uncharacteristic brevity: “Ambivalent.”  (In retrospect, I should have used “conflicted”; perhaps I felt at the time it would have been a cruelly ironic pun.  But it is a better choice of word anyway.)
My Dad respects the Poppy Appeal, despite some reservations, at least partly out of respect for his own Dad, who fought in the second world war.  I have no need and no right and no appetite to challenge him on this.
What I am actually thinking about, however, is razors.  There are a lot of razors from which to choose.  Too many, if anything.  I was dithering over the choice, trying to remember which ones I usually get, and now I am wondering why there are so many from which to choose.  Because of the economics of mass production, is the conclusion toward which I am presumably meandering.
I am also thinking, simultaneously, of course, as ever, as is my wont, about the nature of time; surely it’s been two minutes by now…?
Is this what our grandparents’ generation fought and died for?  My/our right to have a far-too-big  choice of razors in a far-too-big shop?  To be bored by remembering them?  To not remember them?  To feel pressured into remembering them in a way approved of by the class of people who sent them to war?
Well, yes, to an extent, sort of, maybe – for the right of the next generation/s to not have to fight and kill for the basic freedoms like constant disagreement, complexity, ambivalence, consumer-choice-as-freedom and boredom.  And a massive choice of razors in a massive shop.
Of course, I have no idea what motivates one person, now, in the specific time and place in which I exist.  Anything I tell myself about the motivations of large groups of others, in another time and place, or this time and place, for that matter, is a story I tell myself to make some sense of it. Usually based on nothing more than other people’s stories about that, and my own assumptions.  So I/we don’t know why anyone fought or didn’t fight, except those that told us (and even then…..) 
In My Story™, the second world war was fought so that we would all agree on everything, and forget about our own thoughts on things, and put up with the priorities of Power, and just wear whatever we’re supposed to wear in this Order of things, and, once it’s reached critical mass, accept the unquestioned and obvious Best Thing For Everyone, which would lead, inevitably to more violence and abuse. 
It’s just that the side who were fighting for that lost. 
And the “politicisation” of Armistice Day is to add on all the other fighting the British Army has done since 1945, as if it is all the same, as if fighting fascists occupying much of Europe and bombing y/our country, is the same as crushing the rebellions of those fighting for self-determination in their own country; Afghanistan, India, Ireland, Kenya, Ghana or anywhere else – as if fighting off a foreign power bent on dominating the world is morally equivalent to being such a power, and using violence in the same way.  That’s what I mean by politicisation: an attempt to conflate the one “good” war with all the others that we don’t learn about in school, because we know they are unequivocally Not Good.  And to tell us all that questioning this in any way is, at best, disrespectful to the dead.
In My Story™, I am looking for a way to respect the one (with caveats) without indicating any kind of support for the other, and recognising that this is problematic.  Perhaps a white poppy would do that, I don’t know.  I’ve always felt that my thoughts on these things (or anything else, for that matter) cannot really be summed up with a small symbol, and certainly not one so loaded (that’s another horrible pun, isn’t it?).  I have a sort of envy for those who do enjoy that level of certainty, or clarity. 
You’re right, I do think too much.  Yes, I’ve heard that before.
In the end, I keep my mouth shut for two minutes and then buy the same razor blades I always get and then go home.

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