9 November 2010

A Letter from the Western Front

Remembrance Day draws close and as such we recall the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – when the First World War – the war to end all wars – drew to a close. On this day the world remembers those who were killed during that month and, be sure, those of each and any war.

I wanted to share this animated film with you for several reasons. Firstly because when I first saw it, it hit a real nerve. It is a story of an individual - one among millions – and as such brought this particular war home to me in a very immediate and startling way. The animation, by Daniel Kanemoto is not new, but has been seen by so few but it does deserve a greater audience.

I am a lucky person.  I have never had first hand experience of war - in any capacity.

At the same time, would you mind if I shared something else? I was introduced in 1978 to the poem (way) below by my English teacher at the time: Doctor Sally Carr – an even then to my eyes ancient Jewish lady who had survived a war of her own before arriving in Britain and teaching an (at least sometime) ungrateful and unknowing generation through their high school literature education. Something of an oddity in a Catholic school (most certainly then).

Yet –  she was that someone who winked at me in a knowing way when I was a bewildered twelve year old on my first day. You could probably be arrested for that now.

Do you ever think that someone was sent to be in a certain place, at a certain time just for you?

She knew me. At once. I had been on the planet twelve years and she seemed to know every year I had been alive and all those that would follow. Within a week she had introduced me to Collette. Then, on from there. She thought a generous dose of French authors might cure me of Dickens, or at least my infatuation with him. It didn’t, - nothing ever could - although it tempered it. Then Gide, Cocteau, Zola... out of France in a jiffy and on to Germany – what eye opening moments I had with Brecht (she even put on a production of Mother Courage, to general disapproval but she got away with it).

If my eyes were open then – Wedekind and Grass made them pop out and circle around my face at a speed that probably the International Space Station would find difficult to match.  Germans. She would shrug. Such a beautiful nation, so accidentally, inexorably and inevitably positioned within the scheme of things.

They had killed her entire family.

Yet she still loved them for what they had already given the world - and what they would.  I asked her once why she didn't hate them. She gave me a withering look.  And why, exactly, should I?

She took me around Europe with books. Ideas, concepts, love, hate, war, peace – all bound up in her love of literature and her desire to share the written word.

It is odd, who you think about when you consider war. I remember my teacher, this tiny, wired, confusion of hair and energy – vital, inconsistent and wilfully veering off the curriculum for those who had the appetite.

Oh, Doctor Sally Carr. I still and always will remember you.

Here is the poem. From one of the greats of the First World War - and where we started in this roundabout post.

The poem. The one that she read out to the class with such power that after the class some of us had to leave and find a quiet place in which to cry. We only discovered this years later at a reunion.  At the time we told no one. But we knew.

By Wilfred Owen

The Show

My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,
As unremembering how I rose or why,
And saw a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth,
Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,
And fitted with great pocks and scabs of plaques.

Across its beard, that horror of harsh wire,
There moved thin caterpillars, slowly uncoiled.
It seemed they pushed themselves to be as plugs
Of ditches, where they writhed and shrivelled, killed.

By them had slimy paths been trailed and scraped
Round myriad warts that might be little hills.

From gloom's last dregs these long-strung creatures crept,
And vanished out of dawn down hidden holes.

(And smell came up from those foul openings
As out of mouths, or deep wounds deepening.)

On dithering feet upgathered, more and more,
Brown strings towards strings of gray, with bristling spines,
All migrants from green fields, intent on mire.

Those that were gray, of more abundant spawns,
Ramped on the rest and ate them and were eaten.

I saw their bitten backs curve, loop, and straighten,
I watched those agonies curl, lift, and flatten.

Whereat, in terror what that sight might mean,
I reeled and shivered earthward like a feather.

And Death fell with me, like a deepening moan.
And He, picking a manner of worm, which half had hid
Its bruises in the earth, but crawled no further,
Showed me its feet, the feet of many men,
And the fresh-severed head of it, my head.