Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Poppy

This year, somehow, the poppy got complicated. I heard a few pious people rather ostentatiously saying they were not going to wear one because a poppy glorified war, or some such thing. These people, I noticed, mostly lived in north London and would not know a firefight in the Helmand Valley from a hole in the ground, although that has nothing to do with anything except for the mazy workings of  my own mind. Luckily for them, millions of men and women fought and died so they did not have to live under fascism and so they can say what they damn well please. Luckily for me, so can I.
The poppy itself does not care. It exists in its own inanimate universe, accepting whatever meaning humans care to give it. It means something different to everyone who wears it. The old soldiers, who are not pious or ostentatious, who never speak about the war, who fought them in the fields and on the landing grounds, wear it, I suspect, for their comrades. I think they wear it for the ones who did not come home. They might wear it for their blood brother or their battle brother, for whoever fought with them on that day was their brother. Some of them wear it with pride and some of them wear it with a sorrow that goes beyond human words. Some of them wear it to staunch the slow act of forgetting; some of them wear it from simple respect. I will never know what they are thinking as they march up Whitehall, those old warriors holding themselves tall, perhaps for the last time. But I know that they are not thinking about the glory of war, because glory is not a word that veterans use.
I once heard a war widow say that when she sees people on the streets with a poppy in their lapel she feels that they are remembering her dead husband and the son he left behind. Of course she understands that most people have no idea about her beloved, but that is what she feels.
Some people wear the poppy with the very specific thought of the Flanders fields where the flower of a generation was cut down. Some people wear it for all the soldiers and sailors and fliers, in every conflict in every generation. Some people wear it because they don’t want to forget; some people wear it because they hope that never again will the best and the brightest be hurled, pointlessly and madly, into the canon fire.
I wear it for all those reasons. I think a lot about those boys of the First World War, and so many of them were no more than boys. I think about the girls too, the ones they left at home, the ones who nursed the wounded and ploughed the fields and kept the home fires burning, and who found, at the end of four bloody years, that everyone they ever danced with was dead. I think about the horses who strained and struggled through the mud, and who lay where they fell because nobody, in that filthy hades, had the time to bury them. They were athletic hunters and faithful farm horses and they must have been puzzled and frightened to find themselves in a place where there was no grass, no trees, no birdsong, but they went on doing their best until they could do no more.
And then I go forward in history, and think of the second great war with its millions of losses and its unmarked graves and its strafing and bombing, the mass killing that technology made possible. I go on through the later conflicts, in the Falklands, in the Middle East, in Afghan. I work, in a small way, with veterans, and they never pull rank because they have seen things that I cannot imagine and done things which I would never, in a hundred years, have the courage to do. They took me in and laughed at my jokes and my hats and my habit of hurling myself to the ground to get a good angle when I’m taking their photograph. Because of them, I know something about comradeship, and when I wear my poppy I think of them all.

I don’t wear my poppy with pride. I wear it with humility. I wear it for people who had, and have, a bravery of which I dare not dream. I wear it from respect. I wear it for memory. It’s a tiny act, once a year, but it means something to me. I am free to sit and write these thoughts in a liberal democracy with no secret police knocking at my door and that is, in part, due to the dauntless generations of fighting men and women who went before me. I wear the poppy to say thank you. 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Fuck the Sock Drawer

I ring the Oldest and Dearest Friend. ‘This menopause,’ I say, as the dogs gambol in the meadow and drink from the burn, ‘how big do you think it is?’
She pauses for a moment. I can hear her thinking. ‘Well,’ she says at last, ‘it did send our mothers mad.’
‘I suppose it did,’ I say, rather mournfully. ‘Magsie went mad for years. Although,’ I add, ‘she was very eccentric by that stage so sometimes it was hard to tell. There were,’ I say, ‘a lot of specialists.’
‘Specialists,’ says the Oldest and Dearest. ‘Do you think that is what we will have to have? But think,’ she says, ‘of the power of hormones. Think of testosterone.’
I do think of testosterone, quite a lot .Years ago, a very wonderful man called Anthony Clare wrote a book about men. He was troubled by what he called ‘masculinity in crisis’. I remember some terrifying statistics about prison populations and violent crime – all the huge percentages were young men, under, I think, the age of twenty-seven. Clare thought that this could not be put down to societal problems or even psychological causes. He thought it was the shattering effect of testosterone. Testosterone gets boys into fights and crashes cars and puts tempers on a hair trigger. Much later, after the financial crash of 2008, there was a study which showed that these same young men, with their driving hormones, were much more likely to make highly risky investments than women or older men.
But then, I think, testosterone was probably what helped the species survive. It drove off the marauding tribe over the hill and killed the woolly mammoths and hunted for food. Testosterone flooded the battlefields of both world wars. The young men who took to the air and poured off the landing crafts and manned the capital ships saved the democracies in 1945.
Hormones, I think, are absolutely terrifying.
The Oldest and Dearest Friend and I compare notes. We both get days when we can’t see the point of anything, when we struggle even to do the washing up, when we want to shut the door and make the world go away. I’ve just had two of those in a row. The Oldest and Dearest tells me of a beautiful woman we both know who appears on paper to have a dream life, with everything one human could wish for, and who sometimes feels so lost that she hardly knows what her name is. This middle of life, we think, may be more complicated than we thought.
The Oldest and Dearest is, like me, a little bit muddly. There are days, she says, when she looks in sorrow at her bedroom and cannot even face doing the sock drawer and wishes instead that she could have a nice lie-down. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘that would be very sensible. Churchill insisted on a rest every afternoon when he could not be disturbed. A nice kip after lunch.’
She suddenly laughs. ‘Yes, yes,’ she says, ‘winning the war is much more important than tidying the sock drawer. Fuck the sock drawer.’
For some reason, we find this blindingly funny. We become breathless and speechless with laughter. ‘Fuck the sock drawer,’ we stutter at each other.
And, just like that, everything is all right. The wisdom and sweetness and funniness of an old friend is stronger than any hormonal hijack. I don’t know what is going on in my body at the moment but I think it is big. The sympathetic heart of my friend is, however, bigger. The blah menopausal mood, thick as fog, heavy as cement, demoralising as failure, is utterly driven away.
I put away the telephone, still laughing, amazed that I feel so much better. I get on my red mare and pony my little bay mare out into the meadows and look at the autumn trees. Mares are often accused of hormonal lunacy but these two are as soft and steady and calm as Zen mistresses. I ride with one finger on the rein and gaze at the beauty, of them, of the trees, of this dear old Scotland.

You can’t do everything on your own, I tell myself, sternly. Sometimes you have to reach out for help. You have to admit to weakness or frailty or simply being human. And then someone you love says ‘fuck the sock drawer’ and everything is all right again. 


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