Posts Tagged ‘armistice’

Abbey Village

The gate to the war memorial at Abbey Village is locked. I usually visit in the week leading up to the armistice, to leave one of those little wooden crosses for my great uncle. He died in Mesopotamia in 1918, and is named on the column. He was one of the many sons of the village who did not come home.

So, what to do? Well, after a moment of indecision, I toss the little cross, as gently as I can, but still rather indecorously, through the bars, where it falls skew-whiff among the evergreens in the planter at the foot of the column. I offer a wordless apology. A token charged such as this should be placed mindfully, not tossed as a last resort, but I didn’t know what else to do. I had not wanted to walk away with it still in my pocket, for then the charge would have fizzled away to meaninglessness. I shall have to rethink arrangements for next time. I’ve been coming here for years and never encountered a locked gate before. I wonder if the village fears vandalism?

Remembrance and the red-poppy has become a political wedge issue in recent years. For myself I feel it’s simply important to keep alive the memory of one’s family’s losses in war, and that we carry that consciousness forward into the lives we lead ourselves, for if enough of us can re-imagine the grief, following those fateful telegrams home, the generation we raise might be better able to temper their reactions whenever sabres start to rattle, as they inevitably do from time to time. And they in turn might pass the same thing on.

Autumn in Roddlesworth

Abbey is a place mostly pictured for me in the monochrome and the sepia of family photographs, from the nineteen thirties to the early sixties. Time has changed it, of course. Motor cars now line the main thoroughfare, and satellite dishes bristle from the rooftops. Five minutes, though, and it is a world forgotten, while another modernity lures us in. This is a modernity of the Victorian period – the reservoir system, and the woodland plantation that surrounds it, a circuit of which will take us a couple of hours, and covers a good five miles. It was a Sunday stroll for my parents, decked out in their best threads. Now we wear storm-proofs and hiking boots, like it’s the world’s end, and the rain will melt us.

The light in November starts poor, and fades early. This afternoon we begin with the flake-white overcast that forms a backdrop to so many of L.S. Lowry’s paintings, and it takes on an increasingly blue-grey tint as sunset approaches. But the intense beauty of autumn has arrived, and the woodland around the Abbey reservoirs is a delight to walk. It is also a place of deep, mysterious shadow, but wonderfully coloured along the pathways, from the rose-gold of the fallen leaves, to the yellows of the beeches, and the pale greens still hanging on. And as the trunks and boughs emerge from their thinning foliage, they assume expressive postures, with the feel of an impressionist tableau.

Autumn in Roddlesworth

I had felt something unfriendly, even unwelcoming in that incident at the war memorial, that the modern village no longer wishes to recognise its past, of which I and my family are a part, but then I discover only smiles and hearty greetings from the few walkers I encounter on the trail. In fact, I encounter most of them twice, as we pass in opposite directions, doing the same circuit, but the other way round. There are owls calling, deep in the privacy of the woods, and I discover a working charcoal kiln, with evidence of fresh coppicing, and woodland management. The charcoal is used mostly for barbecues, but also art supplies, and the bits left over, the charcoal fines, are bagged and sold as “biochar”, a horticultural soil improver.

Charcoal burning, Roddlesworth

On the one hand, it is encouraging to see these traditional practices still being carried out, while on the other it’s disconcerting to see how much woodland is required to be fenced off from casual exploration. Not all the best photographs can be taken from the marked trails. We need some flexibility to stalk the light and the shadow, and these fences, liked locked gates, get in the way of imagination and our freedom to express ourselves.

From Abbey we descend as far as the bridge over Rocky Brook, then begin the climb towards Ryal Fold. The rambler’s café is a tempting destination, but it shuts at three today, and we’ll never make it, so we take the more direct return along the woodland ways. There are hints of a pale sun trying to break through, now, a last gasp for the day, but it never quite makes it. No matter. The woodland has an exquisite air about it this afternoon, and the autumn colours are ravishing. We return to Abbey at lighting up time. The car park of the Hare and Hounds looks busy, so we’ll pass on coffee, and begin the drive home. The woods were a sight for sore eyes today, and a balm for the soul.

Autumn in Roddlesworth

On the subject of remembrance, there is a story about a young man lost in the war, and his father holding on to the hope that there’d been a mistake, and his son would return. To this end he would go down to the local railway station every day to meet the tea-time train, thinking his son might be on it, but of course he never was. The father maintained this ritual for decades, into old age and the Beeching cuts, which saw the line closed, and the rails taken up,…

I regret I do not know the author’s name, but it was a story that touched me deeply. It could have been my great-grandfather, refusing to believe in that telegram message, that there had been a mistake, and of course his son would return, hale and hearty as he had set out. But it’s a long time since the trains ran through Abbey, and, for sure, my great uncle isn’t coming back.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells

In wild trainloads?

A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,

May creep back, silent, to still village wells

Up half-known roads.

Wilfred Owen

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It’s November, a bitterly cold Friday afternoon at the little war memorial at Grinstead, and like every year I’m looking for my great uncle’s name: Charles W. Munroe. But the names have faded, softened so much now you only need a bit of rain and they dissolve into the blurry background, a list of just twenty lads, fading back into the dirt of a hundred years as the weather turns foul on all of us.

I don’t know how many of them are remembered – their names I mean – and by people who carry them still in their hearts. Sure, like all villages with a modicum of religious faith remaining, there’ll be a ceremony on Sunday: Remembrance Day. There’ll be cubs and scouts and maybe some old soldiers from the British Legion in their white gloves, blazers and berets. But the names themselves are fading into something more symbolic and less personal: at the going down of the sun, and in the morning,… and all that.

But it’s still personal for me. Uncle Charlie was still spoken of by my mother’s family, though not really known by any of them, other than as an empty place at the table. He was my grandmother’s brother, dead at 25, lost in the war, the great war, that is, the war to end all wars. I remember my mother’s tone in particular, whenever she spoke of him, how that word “lost” carried with it a sense of mystery at a life arrested, a curiosity at the “lost” years, at the potential for a life, for who knows what he might have made of it, what he might have become.

Anyway, I take the plain wooden cross from my pocket, on which I’ve penned his name, and I press it into the soil of the little planter at the memorial’s base – heathers and winter pansies – very neat, colourful, well kept, always respectful. I do this every year and for reasons too complex to get into here. I’m usually alone but this afternoon, in spite of the pouring rain and the cold, there’s this scruffy guy sitting to one side quaffing a can of beer, and his presence is making me want to hurry, to turn my collar to the rain and get back to the car.

“Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” he says.

Really? I doubt that. I don’t want to speak to him. I feel intimidated  actually, this big bloke, unshaven, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, or just drunk. I don’t know Grinstead any more, but I’ve no doubt there’ll be drugs and other bad things here, like everywhere else now, bad characters proliferating since my mother’s day, since this street rang to the sound of her heels on a Saturday night, off down to the station, and the train to Middleton for the dancing. It was always my mother’s village, a place she pined for all her married life and never returned to, changed beyond her knowing, and now there’s this drunk guy sitting at the war memorial in the pouring rain with a carrier bag full of beer.

Me? I just want to do this thing alone like I always do, this private act of remembrance, and something more, something for my mother and her sisters, all gone now; something about the past, her past and by association my own past and, to an extent, the possibly misguided sense of my own squandered potential.  Then I want to get back to my own life as it is now, which I fear is looking rather,… spent, actually, that as I approach my sixtieth year, Great Uncle Charlie might have made better use of the time I was given, and have so blithely wasted. So maybe it’s a little twist of bitterness, a little bit of guilt that makes me momentarily defiant, and I turn to him, this beery slob and I say: “So what’s that then? What do you think I’m thinking?”

“Ignorant bastard,” he says. “That’s what you’re thinking. Remembrance Sunday coming up and you there with your respectful little poppy pinned to your jacket and your cross there and wanting a quiet moment with your fallen, and me sitting here, this hairy cretin with no poppy, quaffin’ a tin of beer.”

“I wasn’t thinking that.”

“Well, ‘appen you should be. So, which one’s yours then?”

I point him out.

“France?” he asks.

“No,… Mesopotamia, 1918, a week before the Armistice. All the others died in France.”

“How do you know about the others?”

“I’ve looked them up over the years. Why? Is one of them yours?”

He shakes his head, drains the tin, crushes it flat in his bear-like paw. “Nah, none of mine’s up there, at least so far as I know.” He’s quiet for a moment, and I’m thinking he’s finished, that I might escape now, thank goodness, but then he says: “Aiden. Falklands. Belfast. That’s where mine fell. Nearly got me too. Belfast, that is. Roadside bomb. Mate lost his legs. I got blown clean across the street, otherwise not a scratch on me. Never can tell, can you? Ears rang for fuckin’ months after that though.”

“You were a soldier?”

He nods. “Invalided out.”

“You were wounded? But I thought you said,…”

“Nah. Survived all that. It weren’t the Provos that got me. In the end I were shot in the arse by one of me own. Accident, like. Live firin’ exercise. Not much glory in that, is there?”

“Not much glory in death either. Just,… well,… death.”

“True,” he says, then pulls another tin from his carrier bag. “It was a good life. The army. Enjoyed it. Not everyone does. Doesn’t suit everyone. You know? But it suited me. Had some good mates. The best. All dead now. You ever served?”

“Me?… no. The army would have made mince-meat out of me, most like.”

“Then you wouldn’t know, maybe, and no disrespect. Hard to describe,… but you’d die for your mates and, make no mistake, peaceable though you think you are, you’d kill for ’em too. Nowadays I work in a fuckin’ shop for this evil, penny-pinching bastard who, incidentally, all your lads up there died for, that he might live, so to speak.” He sighs. “Anyway,… I like to share a drink with ’em now and then, even if I don’t know ’em. Or how, or why they died.”

Okay, I’m ashamed to admit he was right, earlier; that’s exactly what I was thinking: Ignorant bastard. But you never can tell, can you? He offers me a tin and I feel privileged to sit down with him for a while, in the rain and the cold, and to share a sip of beer.

After all, no great story ever began with someone eating salad!




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