Monday, 14 November 2011

Significant Dates - Celia Rees

I mean calendar, not the other kind.


A date of particular significance. I thought I ought to mark it in some way. Write it down somewhere. So at 11 o'clock, I opened a brand new notebook, filled my fountain pen (I rarely write in long hand, let alone fountain pen), wrote the date, and officially started a new project.

I don't usually attend the Armistice Day Service in the town where I live, Leamington Spa, and did not consciously intend to do so when I set out for a walk this Sunday morning, but I found myself on the edge of the knot of people gathered around the War Memorial. My Uncle Bob's name is on it. That's him. The boy in uniform, standing next to his father in the photograph that was taken before he went off to France and didn't come back. As I stood in the crowd I thought about my family, my grandfather and grandmother, standing here when the memorial was erected, their remembrance new and raw. The family stories: that my uncle had been killed on the last day of the First World War (he hadn't, of course, he'd been killed some months before); that when my grandmother heard the news her hair went white over night. Then I thought about another war, my father here with Bob's brothers, all in their uniforms, standing to attention, honouring the memory of another generation of young men who did not return.

They are all gone now. The town has changed, the bronze figure verdigrised and weathered, but the crowd still gathers, sheltered by the tall lime trees, much as they would have been fifty, sixty, eighty years ago.

People disperse. The assembled groups from the different services line up and march off, standards held high. I go on my way.

Not much to do with writing, you might say, but then, isn't everything?


Stroppy Author said...

So true, Celia - everything is to do with writing. And reading, in what readers bring to books.

In many ways, those two wars, the deadly flu and financial crisis that followed the first, and the Cold War that followed the second, shaped us as readers and as writers. How we memorialise, remember or ignore them matters, too. We can't write a word about war or loss or courage or fear without that distant experience resonating somewhere.

Today's Europe is marinated in the blood of the First World War. It's even literally true, with the epigenetic effects still playing themselves out in children born in this century.

And I love that date, 11/11/11. Shame we won't live to see the next one.

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for your post. Those old photographs are so moving.

Lucy Coats said...

Yes, thank you from me too, Celia. I was talking to my daughter about Armistice Day last week. They had a debate at her school about whether the poppy symbol was still relevant today (being a relic of the Great War). The overwhelming opinion was that making the link between today's deaths in Afghanistan and the memorial to those from the school who had fought all those years ago was very important to them, and made them realise how vital it is to remember, and to fight another fight (the one for peace). Interestingly, it was the War Poets and Michael Morpurgo who had brought that terrible time to life for her, and informed her opinions, thus proving your point about writing being part of everything.

celia rees said...

I'm so glad that this post struck a chord. Every family in the country must have suffered losses in the terrible wars of the last century and although fewer, some families are still experiencing bitter sorrow. it is right to remember, as Anne says, in whatever way has meaning for us.

Emma Barnes said...

Lovely post, Celia. It's so important that children continue to learn about both the World Wars, which have shaped the world they live in, and for many of them those events will first come alive through children's books: Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mr Tom, Judith Kerr's When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and sequels, Michael Morpurgo, and Anne Frank's Diary - tragically not fiction but literally a child's story...

Katherine Langrish said...

That's a very poignant photograph and brings to mind once again the extreme youth of the boys who went away and never came back.

Your poor young uncle looks as though he ought to be playing football rather than fighting. And his expression seems somehow vulnerable and nervous.

I was recently re-reading Noel Streatfeild's lightly fictionalised autobiography, A Vicarage Child', and at the end her beloved cousin Edmund, an artistic, humane, sensitive boy, comes home from the trenches and bursts into tears walking with her in the garden: 'I can't go back,it's so horrible', and tells her everything about it. But of course he has to go back, and the next thing that comes is the inevitable telegraph telling of his death in action.

Celia Rees said...

There is a wonderful exhibition at the Imperial War Museum about Warfare in Children's Fiction. Carrie's War, The Machine Gunners, Silver Sword, all featured, along with Michael M and Bernard Ashley. Well worth a visit.

Nicola Morgan said...

I was going to point out that 11.11.11 was also significant for me because I was 50 that day, but that might trivialise your very important and moving post.

Every Remembrance Day, I remember my grandfather and the horrible, unglorious war stories he told and the bravery I never properly understood when I was hearing his stories. It's right to remember.

adele said...

A marvellous post and a most moving photograph. Thanks Celia.

Penny Dolan said...

Such a poignancy about these photos and the majestic beauty of many of the memorials - so at odds with the dirty, muddy deaths of the WWI soldiers.

As a child I loved (and still do) those sad angels but never realised the memorials and names stood for the many lads whose bodies were never returned home.

Inkpen said...

The IWM exhibition has just closed in London, unfortunately. I believe it's transferring to Manchester though, but I don't know where.
We saw it in its final week and my children now want to read The Silver Sword, a book still vivid to me after many years. I'm hoping my daughter will let me read it to her so I can share!