Friday, November 19, 2010

Red Flowers from a distant memory

November is always the month that this nation indulges in a spot of collective angst naval-gazing; trembling hands hovering nervously over a collection tin, wondering if the poppy was still patriotically significant in this day and age.  Marks of respect and solidarity nowadays come in the forms of garish rubber wristbands; and those unlucky enough to get contact dermatitis from wearing the bloody things would probably set up a Facebook page or something.  The less IT literate amongst us may even hang a bedsheet from the nearest bridge with a crudely daubed slogan, leaving it to dissolve in the elements, with the painted letters running like the mascara of a drunken spinster.

The poppy has evoked a series of debates about the relevancy of it.  After all, its primary purpose is to commemorate a war that happened over 90 years ago (with subsequent wars and conflicts bolted onto it for good measure like an old car supplemented with extra parts scavenged over the years to keep the rust bucket roadworthy).  Media commentators and public figures questioned the validity of wearing a small paper flower -and the BBC edict to do so- likening the societal backlash to not wearing one as ‘poppy fascism’  …a stupid phrase given the circumstances.  Perhaps the next annual Holocaust convention will be likened to a ‘roomful of gasbags’.
Royal_British_Legion's_Paper_Poppy_-_white_background
The problem arises from the expectation that you should wear a poppy, especially if you have a respectable job; i.e. teacher, nurse, civil servant, newsreader, lawyer (I made the last one up).  To not do so would hardly result in a lecture about being bayoneted in the face while suffering the twin evils of mustard gas and trench foot, but probably result in a raised eyebrow and some huffing in those morning office meetings.  This year I bought three poppies, simply because it was obvious that they were going to become detached by coats, seatbelts, etc.  However, my third purchase was on the 11th November, and having a meeting that morning  do you think I could find a bugger anywhere?  The blind panic that engulfed me was totally unnecessary.  If we don’t want to wear a bloody poppy then we shouldn’t feel guilty about it.  Equally if we want to imitate some fatuous WAG on an ITV reality show, fork out 85 quid and become adorned with the latest jewel-encrusted designer effort, then that should be OK too.  Shouldn’t it?

I’ve always been anti-war.  The blood-soaked follies of Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that in certain given circumstances, war is a tool too-oft used to promote the vested commercial and imperial interests of national bullies.  War is akin to a load of drunken lads gatecrashing a houseparty, raiding the fridge, pissing in the aquarium, shagging the host and beating up her boyfriend, before setting fire to the pet dog who trails a frenzy of burning shit across the lounge.  They then up and depart, leaving a smouldering aftermath of chaos and emotional debris that takes aeons to repair. 

However unavoidable war is, one cannot doubt the fortitude of those who have to face death.  We’ve all had what we consider to be awful traumatic events in our lives that we’d all prefer to avoid and forget: car accidents, fights, relationship breakdowns, financial worries, Lenny Henry …but how can this even scratch the surface of a daily fight for survival in conditions that would pollute the Gates of Hell, surrounded by the bloated decaying cadavers of friends we once sat next to in class learning our ABCs, chasing around the yard, catching butterflies, climbing trees, swapping cards, nicking sweets from the corner shop?  How could we even begin to fathom the sense of helplessness that young men feel when they are sent out each day with the thought that they may never return alive to feel the glow of woman next to them or enjoy the warmth of the summer sun on a quiet sunday afternoon in the garden?
First World War
My great grandfather stands as the reason why I wear a poppy every year.  Private Sydney Hooper (‘Pop’) was a gentle unassuming man who liked to sing little limericks to a four year old boy with shiny eyes who sat on his knee and demanded to see the bullet wound in his right hand and examine the gallantry medal nestling in a small velvet-lined wooden case.  These twin trophies were the consequence of his capture of a pillbox armed to the teeth with German machine guns.

He never spoke much about the Great War or the effect it had on him.  A small child could never comprehend PTSD or ‘shell-shock’.  I remember those days at the height of the Summer of Love.  He would take me up to Bethany Square, where there were lines of benches occupied by his comrades; many of whom had eye patches, empty sleeves where arms once were, refashioned bases of walking sticks to replace legs lost on the fields of Flanders, and faces spattered with a myriad of black and red holes.  To a man they were rendered deaf from the constant artillery bombardment, and the local air filled with the high pitched whistling of mistuned hearing aids.  Yet they still retained a sense of quiet dignity and perspective.  Bitterness never entered the lexicon of their discourse.  Every one of them oozed with the essences of enduring politeness, optimism and kindness.  In the face of a sixties counter-culture that railed against the establishment and its tools of war, these old men never argued with the idealistic hippy youths that confronted them, preferring to agree with them that war was and is wrong;  and despite the huge generational differences, won them around.  The bizarre sight of iridescent long-haired youngsters joyously chewing the fat with old mutilated men who’d spat in the face of Satan will stay in my mind for always.

In the intervening months and years Bethany Square featured less and less of Pop’s friends; dissolving like the embers of a rain-soaked fire.  In 1969, pneumonia took him to them. Even then he departed in quiet dignity. Bertrand Russell once wrote: war does not determine who is right - only who is left.  I miss him, and can only wonder what he would think about my hatred of the sneering violent decadent something-for-nothing superficial rotten country we are living in today.  He would probably take me to one side and lighten the mood with another limerick.  Lest we forget.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Skidmarks on the Highway

There comes a sinister virus blown in with seedlings from the right that has bestowed absolute power on a select few clawing their way through narrow apertures of naked ambition, pounding to pulp a wake of withered effigies that once burned with lights of integrity, and plunging the bollock knife deep into honest flesh - twisting it to maximize trauma.

Thoughts tailspin to halcyon days where opinions mattered, personalities feted, individuality for the purpose of goodwill cherished and decency was a magnificent feast for all. These aphorisms became separated from their families, herded into remote warehouses, strung up and butchered; and the mutilated corpses driven off late at night in a bus showing the destination: ‘My Way’. In generations to come social historians will discover mass graves, being able only to identify the wretched bodies of hope and sincerity through rotting dental records. Carbon dating will construct a picture of when there was such a thing as society. And they will laugh.

Cynicism leaks like a pungent effluent from the pores of our streets. Take a look out of your window. You will experience lateral blurs from warped elliptical bodies stuffed in polyester crossing your sightlines. Puffing and swearing rotund shapes waddle towards benefit queues and credit agencies; years of self-neglect and abuse-by-proxy etched in scowls barely masked by ascending plumes of exhaled smoke. Faces reddened with injurious anticipation of another day spent getting something for nothing, with exertion and sacrifice long discarded in a graveyard of verbs; their yellowing decay strangled by the grubbing weeds of corruption and fraud.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Blood and Bonfires

A collective nimbus of anaesthesia has engulfed the public sector in the toxic slipstream of the Government’s mobile abbatoir.  Workers either use the onrushing death train to embrace the inevitable denouement to their careers and display the ‘fuck off’ tattoo they have been saving for that rainy day encounter with their boss before retreating into a hermetic Sudoku cryogenesis; or wander agape like the nomadic urban hippies who herbo-chemically tenderised their synapses to mulch, and now shuffle in the twilight hours motorised by Lithium …their grubby emaciated frames silhouetted in the halogen from a Currys doorway.

The concept is skewed like a kitten writhing on razor wire.  A nation in binding, ready for rehab and therapy after a basket case diagnosis by baronets lubricated at Bullingdon, toasting crumpets on the thorax of the ignorant; peering from the turrets to spit semi-congealed ptarmigan onto the salivating masses below.  Never was so much given by so many to so few.

Maybe the Tories are right. The Big Society will return.  People will once more find that sense of togetherness that had fallen down the back of the settee.  Maybe we will achieve the self-discipline from a diet of austerity.  This will stand us in good stead at the snaking dole queues and landfill tors. The rebirth of a proud nation …identified by future anthropologists from what was found caked behind our fingernails.

But while French cities burn and Greek army recruits are pounded under the feet of angry pensioners, we give a collective shrug and tut a bolus of commitment as if we’d just seen a single mother light a cigar in Quiksave, and not a rabid assault on our pensions, the dilution of our societal gel and a future as uncertain as Pete Docherty trapped in an Afghan poppy field.

But we can gather up a few crumbs of contentment from below a gaping mouth of broken teeth and split lips.  The coalition is likely to unravel as systematically in its death throes as Gregory Isaac’s dreadlocks.  Hideous turncoats like Cable when wiping his bottom will be haunted by the Ghost of LibDem Past sneering back up at him from the u-bend.  Clegg will turn up only to find that –like the unpopular kid in school- he was given the wrong directions to the party, and will sit there in an empty room holding a paper cup containing all his dreams.  The day of reckoning will come …and then given the chance, we’ll all tut just that little bit louder.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Above and Beyond

The picture below was an attempt at one of those Ansel Adams efforts that us budding –but less talented and more time drained- amateur snappers try to emulate in our own worlds.  Miles above the Afan Valleys in bleak wind-hewn plateaux unchanged since the days that God started shaving.
bwllchmono
Sitting hypnotically in our warm car seats lapping at the runny taste-free ice cream from a rusting pink van.  We can forget about the vastness out there: mountains as far as the eye dares to squint; precipitous crags stabbing down violently upon the civilisation at their feet; glacial bleakness carved in the stealth of time winds.  The far distant peaks beckon our curiosities, gazing at us from a remote place that they know we’ll never dare cover on foot.  It might as well be the moon, such is its barren vista.  It is alluring, beautiful, silent and frightening in equal measure.
All this appears to be lost on the TWOC-fed junkie car thieves from Treorchy and Cymmer, who in their priceless idiocy steal a vehicle, strip it, set it aflame & roll it down the steep banks where it will reside as a smouldering mangled pile in an automobile graveyard.  They then have to walk home.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Crimson Tide

I was sitting on Exmouth Beach, largely surrounded by corpulent women in polyester shorts framing their sun-ravage cellulitis, and men in sleeveless tops emblazoned with a ‘wacky’ seaside thematic.  I was watching the cheap pleasure cruisers cutting swathes of estuary when I noticed a solitary red safety flag flapping despondently in the Devonshire zephyr.  Nobody seemed to notice it as they plunged into dangerous undertow from precipitous sandbanks.
Flag
I thought I’d give it a sense of purpose again.  Framing it against the clouds it almost looks like a standard for a communist ancien regime or a last tribute to a fallen revolutionary (life)guard.  All those years acting as a protective sentinel for dimwitted surf paddlers, and now for a momentary shutter second it became an emblem for a new world order.  Bless its scarlet heart beating under layers of wind-torn cotton.  It should be proud.