Tag Archives: Britain

A Time for Remembering

As well as being my favourite time of year, November can also be a time when people spend some time remembering their lost loved ones. In Ireland, in the tradition in which I was brought up, November is the month of the dead; names of lost loved ones are placed on church altars, and they are commemorated and fondly recalled at every Mass. I always felt it was a lovely tradition, and it feels fitting that we should do this as the year slows down, and as we begin to prepare ourselves for the ending and rebirth that is part of every winter. I was brought up to believe that remembering our dead in prayer benefits them, and I still believe this; I definitely feel that taking time to remember the dead benefits the living in many ways, too. It’s not good to cut off grief and refuse to feel it, despite the fact that it seems much easier to deny it than to face it – it’s better, I think, to take the time to go through your sorrow, and honour the memory of those you’ve lost. Setting aside a particular time which is devoted to honouring those who’ve gone before us seems like a wise and kind thing to do, in my mind.

On Sunday, I watched some televised footage of various Armistice Day celebrations. This is always something that moves me very deeply, particularly as I watch the servicemen and women marching past the Cenotaph in Whitehall, in London. Their quiet dignity and pride – pride in their country and their fallen comrades, as well as the values for which they stand – makes me feel their losses and understand, in part, why they choose to fight. Personally, I abhor the very thought of war, and I wish there was no need for armies, navies and air forces, but I admire the self-sacrifice and courage required to do what you feel you must in order to bring about the betterment of the world, or your country. It takes bravery far beyond anything I possess to put your life on the line, day after day, in the service of others, and anyone who does make that choice has my respect.

In this country, we have a tortured history with relation to the World Wars and those who served and died in them. Ireland was part of the United Kingdom at the outbreak of WWI, and so many Irish people signed up to serve as part of the British war effort. Due to Ireland’s neutrality during the Second World War, Irish people who chose to fight with the Allies at that time had to join the British Army, which was seen as a form of treason. Horrendously, their courage was seen as a choice to turn their back on their own country, and not as a choice to do their best to make the world better for everyone. The families they left behind were often ostracised, and their grief was belittled and ignored. It’s only now that we’re beginning to commemorate those who fell, and pay the proper respect to their memory – it’s like a huge wound has begun to heal, and it’s a wonderful thing. Over the last few years, gravestones have been erected to mark the final resting places of over 200 servicemen and women in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin; all these noble people fell in the name of justice and right during the World Wars, and their graves had, until recently, been ignored by all but their families and descendants – and even, sometimes, not even them. It often happened that people served under false names, in order to avoid bringing shame to their loved ones, which makes their resting places harder to trace now; as well as that, some families refused to admit to having veterans from the World Wars among their number for a variety of reasons, including political.

The wearing of the poppy during late October and November, with which most people in the United Kingdom (at least) would be familiar as a mark of respect to the war dead, is still controversial in Ireland. Some people refuse to wear it due to the long struggle this country went through to gain its independence from colonial rule, and the poppy was considered, for a very long time, to be a mark of adherence to a regime of cruel tyranny due to its connection with the British Army.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row…

Ireland has a painful history in relation to the British Army, and it is true to say that, in the past, the British Army did not always act honourably in Ireland. The truth of the history of my country fills me with horror and sorrow, at times, but I do feel that we – as free, democratic European citizens – owe everything we prize to those who fought, and it’s up to us to bring about the peace that they died for. I do find it terribly sad that someone would refuse to wear a poppy for reasons which aren’t directly connected with remembering the war, and to my mind the actions of the British Army in Ireland, while sometimes reprehensible, are not connected with the war dead. The poppy commemorates those who gave their lives so that we could be free, a sacrifice I cannot imagine having to make, and because of that I find no difficulty in wearing one.

I would be happy to see Ireland owning her war dead, and remembering them with pride, instead of overlooking their existence because to remember them is too painful. I think this has already started to happen, and it makes me glad to think that, one day, we might be able to heal the wounds opened by the wars so long ago. Facing up to our troubled past, and laying the pain to rest by honouring those dead who were laid to rest without fanfare or ceremony all those years ago, is a worthwhile challenge for us to take on. We owe it to those who fell in battle. If they were brave enough to die for us, shouldn’t we be brave enough to live for them?

 

On Storytelling…

I’m thinking about storytelling this morning, and why we do it; I’m wondering about it because yesterday I came across another book, soon to be published, with a very similar premise to an idea I’ve been working on for a long time.  It’s not my WiP (which is a stroke of luck, sort of!) but something else I’ve written a lot of words on – something like 70,000 – and which I don’t really want to jettison out of hand.  I’m hoping there’s a nugget of story in there, something unique to me, which I can take and build on; something I can make which is different to what exists already.

I blogged recently about a similar theme – i.e. an idea which you’ve cherished and which you then see appearing in the world with a different author’s name on the cover – so I’m trying to take the positive out of it.  The positive is: I must be having good ideas.

But it’s funny, this impulse we have to tell stories, to make things up and to create plots and characters who do things, sometimes things we could or would never do ourselves.  What do we want to achieve as a result?  My ‘previous life’ as an academic who undertook research into texts and stories which were very old – as old as the language itself – means I’ve had an interest in this stuff for a long time.  Nowadays, perhaps, one of the impulses to tell stories is to achieve some sort of fame or immortality – to be remembered as a writer or a storyteller.  That’s a recent thing, in my opinion; so many of the most wonderful stories from the past are completely anonymous, including the vast majority of the medieval romances which I love so much.  I’ve often lamented the fact that we have no idea who wrote most of them, and I wish sometimes that they’d been a little more like modern writers and had thought to ‘sign’ their work.  The few ‘stars’ from the medieval period – Chaucer, Gower, Langland, Hoccleve, Malory, Marie de France (my personal heroine), among a small amount of others known only through the texts they wrote (like ‘the Gawain-poet’) – are vastly outnumbered by the writers of texts which display such skill and talent, and which are entirely free of any trace of their author.  That’s not to mention, of course, the texts which have been entirely lost; there’s no way of knowing how many are no longer in existence, what they were about, and who wrote them.  I lament, at times, for the lost hours of labour and love, sweat and toil, that went into the creation of works like these, of which no trace now remains.

The philosopher Richard Kearney once said something like: ‘We tell each other stories to tell each other who we are’.  If memory serves, he was talking about tales told around campfires by prehistoric men and women, who created the world around them every night after dark through stories and legends, but I think his insight can apply to everyone, and to every time.  In earlier ages, when the court poet (or ‘file’ in Irish) was one of the most important figures in the retinue because he knew the tribe’s history and was responsible for singing it into being, the idea of telling stories to bind a people together or, literally, tell them who they were, was vitally important.  It’s still important now.  It’s little wonder that the mythology of a country is closely guarded by its people, and why we are (or should be) very proud of our ‘national epic’; the English have the majestic Beowulf, the Finns their Kalevala, Icelanders their amazing Sagas and, in Ireland, we have our tales of the Sidhe, the Tuatha de Danann, the Firbolg, the Fomorians, Cuchulainn and Fionn MacCumhaill, among many others.  These sort of tales tell us what was important to our ancestors, what they feared and valued, the principles upon which they founded their societies.  For this reason, as well as the fact that they’re breathtaking works of art, they should be treasured by all of us.

Stories we tell can often say more about us than anything else – the kinds of characters we create betray our own fears and desires, our own loves and dreams; the kinds of situations they get into, and the means by which they make their daring escapes, tell the reader about the adventures dear to the author’s heart.  They might be seen as escapism and fantasy by a modern reader, but to earlier ‘readers’ (I should say ‘audiences’, as most early texts were, of course, recited aloud instead of read in private), they had the added thrill of being real.  When we read Beowulf now, we can caress the words describing the monster Grendel with our eyes and our minds, marvelling at the skill of the poet.  If we were listening to it around a fire in an eighth-century meadhall, we’d probably be more inclined to pull our cloak tighter around ourselves and hope desperately that tonight would not be the night that the monster would come calling.  We’d feel a greater and more passionate loyalty towards our fellow men, and a deep desire to protect our boundaries, our land, and pay homage to our king or liege-lord.  Perhaps that’s the real value of storytelling – it brings people together.  For the brief duration of the tale, every mind listening is focused on the same goal; every eye reading is in the same place, willing the characters on.  Characters, whether the irreproachable heroes of early sagas or the more fleshed-out, flawed human figures of later stories, carry the hopes and deepest desires of every human mind who has come into contact with them – including the mind that made them, and the minds who consume them.

But that’s just my two cents.  What other reasons are there for telling one another tales?  I can’t help but be influenced by my interest in the early periods of the world; has anyone any other thoughts?  Whatever stories you’re telling today, may they be good ones… Happy Tuesday to you all.