Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Poppy Day

I have a running buddy these days, a woman from Spain named Raquel. She’s faster than I am, but doesn’t like the pace of the ‘slow’ group. She’s taking a 6-month business management course at the university with the main purpose of improving her English. The first few times I run with anyone I’ve learned to get them to talk; if they can’t talk we’re going too fast (which at my pace would mean crawling on hands and knees). This practice opened the door to our English-as-a-Second-Language-while-You-Run sessions. She has lots of questions about things and I think her English is coming along in leaps and bounds. It’s good fun; more to the point, knowing she’s there or even just might be, gets me out more regularly than in a long time and my running – not to mention navigation -- is improving at least as well as her English.

One of the questions Raquel had was why everyone on the TV news was wearing a red flower on their lapel. She thought it had something to do with political parties, but then thought it odd that everyone would belong to the same party. I thought that was a hoot. I explained about Remembrance Day, how much the world wars impacted on Britain and how it was a major part of the culture here to remember the soldiers. I’m not sure there is a village in the UK that doesn’t have its war memorial on a green or in a square somewhere.

The red paper poppies are sold everywhere over here in early November to raise money for veterans’ organizations. I remember attending my first film in Newcastle about this time. The movie was held up by the usual trailers of other movies, then by a black and white trailer from the 40’s followed by all the lights coming on for the collection box for Poppy Day. Being used to dollar movies in the US, I was still smarting from full fare I’d just paid for admission, but I forked over another pound so we could get on with the show.

The old joke over here is that the US showed up late to each of the previous World Wars, but is determined to start the next one. Joking aside,
I read somewhere that the horrific loss of life during WWI was in part attributable to the default of giving officer positions to the men from the upper and middle classes, irrespective of their aptitude. That the resulting slaughter of the working class was a factor in Britain’s development of socialism.

It is hard to imagine the hardships brought to Britain by each of the World Wars. Though that memory doesn’t belong to the present generation and the lifestyle here is more and more American, when I first came across 14 years ago, I remember overhearing older people talk about their childhood during the 2nd war. Many of the reminiscences were of the kindnesses of the American soldiers. Then again, the feeling of their British counterparts was that the Yanks were “over paid, over sexed, and over here.”

Not only did Britain experience the bombing of major cities and sea ports, but thousands of children were sent to the countryside or even abroad to keep them safe during the war. This often resulted in a schism in the family that couldn’t be repaired, the children having seen a different way of life and finding it difficult to return. Even after the war, up into the 1950's there were shortages. In today's recession, ideas about 'make do and mend' that were then published by government departments are being recirculated on TV programmes and in the news media, though not quite as dire as "eat your bread and butter butter side down".

My Dad always talked about his WWII experience like it was the best holiday he’d ever had; he carried fond memories of Italy all the rest of his days. Which is not to dismiss the hardships of the Army Air Force in which he served. He and Mom married the week before he was shipped and her daily letters to him, which I have, give a glimpse of the shortages everyone was experiencing and the interesting ways they coped. I’m sure that for everyone involved, War is Hell, but I have to say the Brits are exceptionally good at honouring those who fight for them. Now, if we could just figure out how to keep from going there to start with.

So, while the parades, the speeches and the TV programmes were all shown last weekend, on ‘Remembrance Sunday’, today at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month, everyone -- I’ve even seen cars pull over on the roads – stops for two minutes, to Remember.

2 comments: said...

Thank you Shelley. Before I moved to France I regret to say I didn't know the significance of the poppies. Now every time I see them growing wild in the fields near us it gives me pause.

Rick Stone said...

As you're aware, over here it is called Veterans Day. Originally was Armistan Day to mark the end of WW I. Later was changed to Veterans Day to honor all veterans from all wars. Unfortunately, most people here just consider it a day off work and nothing more. BUT, several of the restaurants were serving free meals to veterans today. We went to Applebee's for dinner where my steak was free.