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An empty tomb

empty-tombs-1916

You don’t remember the dead of the First World War.

Nobody does, now, or almost nobody. At most, you might remember the ones who survived. There’s a photo, hidden away somewhere, of great-grandad in his old army uniform, and if you look at it you might notice with a kind of sickly horror that he looks a bit like you did at that age, that you’re now already so much older than this old, old man. Maybe there’s a box with some old medals, or even a decommissioned revolver. Pieces of someone who died much later, surrounded by TV and pop music, dreaming the blanketing dreams of the nuclear bomb. Someone who lived to see a different country, one that throbbed in full colour. The hole left in the world by those bullets and shells and clouds of poison gas one hundred years ago was not left in your world, or mine either. The people who had their heart ripped out by a stranger on the Somme are almost impossibly rare; we drag them out into our televised ceremonies now, so everyone can see what a fully incomplete human being looks like, so they can do our remembering for us. Trembling, a few last strands of thin hair limp against a crusting pate: I still miss my Arthur every day, every day it’s like he’s just been taken from me. That’s what it means to really remember: to be a seeping wound in a world that’s been bandaged up and gauzed into blankness. For the rest of us, there’s GCSE history, supermarket Christmas adverts, an immersive experience at the Imperial War Museum. For you, the dead of the Western Front or Gallipoli may as well be the dead of Sevastopol, or Agincourt, or Hastings, or all the nameless battles fought by our hooting ancestors, brachiating grimly through the canopies. We have nothing in common with the millions who went whistling into a barbed-wire void. If we did, we’d be a little more like the ones who came back out again, the ones the war turned into madmen or revolutionaries.

We don’t have memory. We have remembrance. Organised hypomnesis; a set of stony symbols. We remember that we ought not to have forgotten. The past is on the tip of your tongue, but it can’t be spoken; any word that could have contained it is an empty tomb. Non est hic. What remains are signifiers, gnawing at each other’s heads. A poppy is a symbol; it symbolises the Cenotaph. The two minutes silence has meaning, it means a wreath. The flag is a code for the national anthem. None of these things mean the mud and terror of the war, or the millions dead, because none of that is an object in our experience. There’s no shared referent other than the ritual of reference itself: the objects of remembrance stand, mutely, for themselves. Forgetfulness, made concrete, and misnamed.

This isn’t bad or wrong: it’s just space and time. We are where we are. Today marks the end of four years of official commemoration, an attempt to hang the shadow of the Great War over our own century, to turn time into a palimpsest. These have been four very strange years. On June 23rd, 2016, we voted to leave the European Union; one hundred years ago that day, a million Germans surged over the frontlines at Verdun and overran the fort at Thiaumont, only to be pushed back over days and weeks to where they had been. Endless, uncountable thousands dead. On June 8th, 2017, the Tories threw away their parliamentary majority in an act of blinkered authoritarian arrogance, a century after the British army accidentally shelled its own lines, killing three hundred colonial troops. In June this year, one hundred years after two dozen German divisions plunged deep into France in a last desperate effort to end the war, Germaine Greer asked why Beyoncé has to ‘have her tits hanging out.’ There’s no symmetry. Trump is not the October revolution. Weinstein is not the Armenian genocide. It doesn’t map. It’s no more present than the wars going on now, the thousands dying in Syria and Yemen and across the world. What can we do for the people of the Middle East, starved or disintegrated by British bombs or British military expertise? Build another monument for them, put it up on the fourth plinth, and forget them into symbols.

There are still ways to make the past breathe again. Mostly, by digitally altering and colourising old Pathé newsreel, and putting it in 3D. The effect is impressive: it looks so much more real. The war is no longer fought by spindly, jerky automatons, low-resolution flesh-robots. Computers have generated the missing material in the gaps within movement, to bring the footage up to 24 fps, which is the flicker rate of consensus reality. Now these soldiers look like actual human beings, which is to say that they look like all the other cinema-screen simulacra. Now the propaganda of the early twentieth century can be raised back up in the fullness of its authenticity, because now it looks more like how we lie in the twenty-first.

Again, this isn’t bad or wrong. There was a time in which we could remember, in which the war was something other than the mud-caked origin myth of modernity, but now is no longer that time. There are other ways of remembering. We can remember in the present: I remember when I came out of the land of Egypt and the house of slavery, and – historically speaking, at least – that didn’t even happen; I can remember it in solidarity with those on the boats setting out across the Mediterranean, or those sleeping on the ground as their caravan twists slowly up over the Mexican plateau. We can remember the war the same way. We’ll never know the trenches, but when those that lived returned home, the fight didn’t end; so many of them, across Europe and across the world, took up the struggle against the ruling classes who had sent them there to die, and we can fight for life and dignity too. For obvious reasons, this is not the kind of remembrance we usually get.

What we get instead is a strange kind of rage. This year, and every year, the poppy wars. (Not unlike those other flower wars, fought between the Aztecs and their ritual enemies: both sides agree on a time and place, and neither seems to expect to actually win.) Who owns the past, now that it’s wordless and as transferable as any other debt? Is this year’s the most politicised Remembrance Sunday yet? Might Eid be getting more Islamic? Can we stop the commercialisation of Black Friday?

The anger of the poppy-scorners is fairly legible. Never Again, we were promised, but it keeps on happening; maybe we can sit in silent quietist remembrance once the war is actually over. The anger of the other side is thornier. A violent hatred for those who won’t wear the poppy, sing the national anthem, support the Legion, the ones who insult the memory of the dead by insisting that the war that killed them was Actually Bad. In other words, those that try to remember something specific, instead of remembering the process of being unable to remember. It can only be parsed as an externalised guilt. No, it’s not wrong or bad to not remember the dead of the First World War, it’s only distance and time – but the rituals of the state command memory, and there’s nothing in the memory to grasp. You have failed, because you’re living now instead of dying then; you’ve failed because you couldn’t stop one hundred years washing over the world that was. Seething indignation against the people who refuse to remember, because you, too, have forgotten.

This post is, once again, dedicated to those ten thousand soldiers who were killed in the six hours between the signing of the Armistice and its taking effect, one hundred years ago, who gave their lives so that schoolchildren could learn that the war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

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The poppy conspiracy

An enigmatic figure, common to all great mythologies: the blue demon, the sower and reaper of blood.

Conspiracy theory: British imperial history, in its entirety, is the result of a dark and ancient plot on the part of the poppies; a Papaveraceaen pact ranged against humanity. For centuries they schemed in their hedgerows and pastures, dreaming up strange and cruel ideas in those ugly flaring heads of theirs, communicating their vegetable conspiracies through codes carried on unwitting bees (while the rest of us just innocently assumed them to be having sex), until the time came to strike. Wherever empire goes, poppies seem to follow: maybe we’ve got it the wrong way round. Our ruling classes have had their alliance with these plants for a long time now; in a state of opiate suggestion, it’s very possible that the flowers could do whatever they wanted with them. The poppies wanted China: we took them there, and forced millions into somniferous slavery. The poppies wanted to grow undisturbed, and our artillery obediently churned up the fields of Europe for them. Even this century they’ve reclaimed Afghanistan with British helicopter support. Now the poppies, and their puppeted politicians, are so sure of their angiospermic power over us that they can demand we peons each wear their plastic sigil every November, to remind us who we belong to. Now angry mobs will descend on anyone who insults our overlords by burning them in effigy, or else these iconoclasts will be legally imprisoned for crimes against the dignity of plants that (let’s not forget) grow in shit. Poppies have been a symbol of death since the Greeks; the fury of the pro-poppy partisans is the fury of death against life; it’s almost certain that the poppies are trying to lure us into a nuclear war, so that when the dust clears from the sky and all the humans are dead, the scorched scrublands of the future will flower with nothing but giant irradiated poppies, twisting happily in the wind as it howls an unheard threnody through the shells of ruined cities.

Even if all this isn’t true – and I don’t see why it couldn’t be – it doesn’t matter. Conspiracy theory is always true in a sense, in form if not content. We’re not being controlled by creatures from outer space (whatever kind of lizard the Queen is, it’s one autocthonous to this lump of rock), the Jews aren’t putting fluorine in your water and gay propaganda on your TV, and however you arrange the little clues you’ll never be able to make a complete and rational account of things – but at the same time our society functions by conspiracy: no actions are innocent, every meeting of a two implies an excluded third. We’re constantly told that this is a time of synoptic openness; nothing is further from the truth. It no longer makes sense to say, for instance, that you’re going shopping: you’re being made complicit in a conspiracy between yourself and the supermarkets against some poor indentured Guinean cocoa farmer. Reading a book is a conspiracy between you and the author, going outside is a conspiracy between the earth and the Sun. We’re all complicit, we’re all somewhere in the cold staring pyramid, and poppies are growing in straggly clumps all along its base.

So what: it’s just a symbol, it’s just a nice way of remembering the dead. The problem is that every act of ritualised remembrance necessitates a simultaneous forgetting. What’s remembered is the ritual itself, the po-faced charade of monarchs and prime ministers placing those sinister circles of poppies by the Cenotaph, a two minutes’ silence indistinguishable from a two minutes’ acquiescence. The process of memory and its transformations must be wiped out in the moment of remembering. Nobody now seems to remember that the whole red-poppy charade was brought to Britain by none other than one Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the man responsible for the brutal waste of millions of lives at Passchendaele and the Somme. He struts around postwar London with a fake poppy in his lapel, and by its apotropaic magic the teeming ghosts of his victims no longer impede his sight but can only claw ineffectually at his shoulders. If the poppy were just a symbol inscribed with unfortunate militaristic overtones it could be opposed without much effort, but in fact it’s much more subtle and dangerous than that. We’re locked in a struggle against dreams and magic. Wearing a poppy doesn’t honour the victims of war, it banishes them. As long as we can fixate on the narcotic solemnity of those two clean red circles, we don’t need to think about the mud and gas and rats, or the victims of shellshock tried and shot by their own officers, or the millions of innocents slaughtered before and after the war in Ireland and India and Malaya and Kenya and Iraq, or those ethnic and religious minorities who are even today compelled to demonstrate their patriotism by wearing poppy-patterned hijabs. It’s a drug, something out of a Philip K Dick novel; it produces a new reality and traps us inside of it. If we’re to start really remembering the tragedy of war, the only way is to burn all the poppies, wipe out their evil magic with fire, and look our ghosts squarely in the eye.

Faced by an onslaught of politicised remembrance, the instinct from the Left seems to be to depoliticise, to present the war as a purely human tragedy, one in which any imposition of political meaning is something like blasphemy. To actually celebrate a victory is crass beyond imagining. This is bullshit. The First World War was a class war, an organised assault against the European working classes on the part of the European ruling classes – and we won. It wasn’t a war for freedom or democracy: even by the standards of miserable contemporary liberalism Britain in 1914 was not a democracy (neither was France, or Canada, or Australia, or the United States), for the simple reason that women and the working classes were denied the vote. Our victory didn’t coincide with the Armistice; it was uneven and generally rolled back, and it came at a terrible cost, but it was real. Everywhere returning troops struggled to overthrow the forces that had sent them off to die. Votes for women and the empowerment of labour unions in the United Kingdom, a surge of civil rights militancy in the United States, workers’ uprisings in Germany, and the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia. Still it’s not finished. Remembrance Sunday demands that we sit by passively and let the vague tones of history wash over us; our real history compels us – in honour of the dead, and in respect of their legacy – to fight.

This post is dedicated to the memory of those ten thousand soldiers who were killed in the six hours between the signing of the Armistice and its taking effect ninety-six years ago, who gave their lives so that schoolchildren could easily learn that the war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

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