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 . . .
Today, after a few days away from pondering, wandering free beside the byways of Stepney Green, bathed in warm sunshine, the chilly north east to which we have returned urged us not to get ahead of ourselves, to wrap up again, re-light the fire and turn our minds to the footfalls of history. We have heard many familiar voices, emerging from abandoned courts behind historic churches, from under cobbles where cabbage leaves were once strewn – things that have hardly altered at all, and others gone without a trace, except the imprint which time always makes and which cannot be eradicated.
Under the circumstances, it’s a really good day to turn again to Uncle Jonny, our dear Jack, and the love he bore us. Let him speak for us today about a glorious past. Regular readers will know what a legacy he left us – we who knew and loved him. Here he is, mud-besplatted, in his prime, many many years ago – about the same age as Newman is now. Jack’s thoughts came to him on an ordinary day, made extraordinary for him by the brilliance of the light and warmth which flooded into his heart when he entered Nunhead Cemetery for his daily perambulation. As we grow older it often becomes more difficult to express our deepest feelings, so here is a snapshot from Jonny’s favourite album, a testament to love, joy and the Dickensian belief that something good will always turn up.
Jack’s Poem About Spring
sun on the cemetery sun on my golden face my smile a ray broadening like footprints across my Mummy’s heart mirroring her everywhere bright like a living daffodil joyful bouncing stride it’s back another season’s yolk for me to suck the juice from the dew gone come morning.
. . . the next Big Day is almost upon us, as today’s picture suggests! We love spiders and have a couple of really large black ones in the front room: one lives behind the bookcase and comes out to check the fire occasionally; the other’s home is the waste paper basket, where it lives in peace. Every now and again we see these members of the household, poottling about when their fancies take them – despite our fondness for them, it’s always a bit alarming, though, when they spring into our world. This purple species, seen here embracing dear and very patient Barnaby, is of course just a silly one – part of the Hallowe’en-iana, now down from the loft, with which we’re decorating the place. We hope the real spiders feel at home and enjoy the fun as much as we will. Newman’s role is at the front door to greet the Trick or Treaters when they call by; they know we are expecting them because the terracota pumpkin outside will be alight with candles and across the windows pumpkins and cobwebs aplenty will be flickering in anticipation. Newman’s good at excitement and seeming rather frightening, because he is big and bouncy and driven mad by the smell of the sweets (or indeed anything remotely edible), though everyone who calls here knows he’s as harmless and sweet as Bobo near whom I sleep and around whom Newman wraps. From what I hear, most cultures and their religions find expression for the ideas behind this festival in their folklore and practices; for a little spaniel like me the numinous is very real and, as one who is afraid of very little but looks for the meaning in everything, I embrace tomorrow’s fun, so long as it is gentle and silly: let the more plangent possibilities speak for themselves, I say! Uncle Jonny shows us that the veil between this world and the next is thin anyway, and even more than usual at this time of year, standing as we do upon the threshold of life and death, summer and autumn, wondering what to do for the best. Newman and Jonny told me about the time in Nunhead Cemetery when they were looking at the primroses flowering in December and approaching footsteps on the gravel were distinctly heard by them all when nobody was there. Nobody else at all: just the distinct sound of someone being there. Newman himself often saw beings unseen to others and wouldn’t walk up paths, stopping resolutely and digging in his paws. Nunhead is a beautiful Victorian place and the boys went there everyday without fail; there was nothing horrid about it, nothing at all, but it still held secrets among its quarter of a million buried souls, including a mysterious old man in an outdated pin-striped suit with distinctive buttonholes, who was one minute scrutinising an abandoned grave and the next gone without trace. Outside on Jonny’s grave the flowers are dying at last – something which makes perfect sense. From beneath what remains of them, however, reaches up a real presence whose power is funny, wise and strong, though dead two years. Glee made a living thing!