One of Uncle Jonny’s annual routines was standing silently and attentively within the Gothic shell of Nunhead cemetery’s funerary chapel – an ivy-entwined stable ruin creeping with majesty – each Remembrance Sunday, one of a handful of witnesses to the little service of hymns and prayers (a mere ten or fifteen minutes of anyone’s time) offered up within an acreage which held a quarter of a million souls, including Commonwealth soldiers from the Great War. Nunhead Cemetery was the boys’ favourite pondering place, whose colours and charms were palpable in all weathers, where the paths were well trodden, the spirits usually peaceful and the names of the dead as familiar as friends. On what turned out to be his last Remembrance Sunday in London, Uncle Jonny and the tiny congregation waited in vain for the vicar to turn up; the occasion had slipped his mind, it seemed. There was to be no singing of ‘For all the saints’ that darkening afternoon, despite there being one in everybody’s midst. In a little over a year Uncle Jonny himself had left us and now his resting place beneath the hedge merges increasingly with the sward surrounding it, though a stone spaniel sits beside him, a symbol of loyalty expressive of feelings too complex to convey.
Next Sunday, as happens every year, all over the country folk will gather by their local war memorials to remember the lives of those lost in successive wars. After the anniversary of Armistice Day itself, dismantling will begin of the installation at the Tower of London of the 888,246 ceramic poppies which cascade down the wall into the moat, one for every British fatality in the First World War. One of these poppies will then, eventually, be coming here: a single flower to remind us all of two great uncles who died too young, as so many do, every day. Perhaps because it has caught the public’s imagination and drawn huge crowds, this flowing sea of red has been castigated by one journalist as an unworthy jingoistic artwork, ‘fake, trite and inward-looking’, a ‘deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless war memorial . . . all dignity and grace’. To mean something, the moat should have been filled with barbed wire and bones, it was stated. Surely not.
War stalks the world right now with ever greater determination. Its realities spring up every day at the tap of a screen; horrific brutality has never been so visible, so commonplace. But the sight of brutality leads nowhere and achieves nothing good. We know what they are doing and if we have any sense, we turn away. We honour the dead’s nobility, their humanity. We are not memorialising our brutality. As someone famous once said, there are no surprises in logic. But a poet’s words can pierce us, so let the image speak. We manage what we can: we count our own dead and leave other nations to count theirs, mindful of the numbers as they mount and our shared sadness, our common failings. A single poppy symbolises what needs to be said . . .