November is a time for remembering. Both officially, and un-.
The first one that crops up is good old Guy Fawkes.
Remember remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder and treason
Should ever be forgot.
Whether or not we should be celebrating the brutal torture and execution of a man in the early 17th century (who wasn’t even the ringleader of the plot,) is a separate point. Until about 150 years ago, it was, in fact, the law to mark this day to give thanks for the deliverance of the King from wicked papist plots. I suppose, when the law was annulled, we just weren’t willing to give up an excuse to get together and enjoy ourselves. Which is nothing to be ashamed of. At least this one’s our own!
(What happened to “penny for the guy”? I suppose that has become “trick or treating”.)
No fireworks in this corner of Europe tonight, But last year I went to two. Over here they have their national fireworks event in the summer, as does France and various other countries. It feels strange: for me, fireworks are something for a cold late-autumn day, thick jumpers, scarves and hats are essential.
The next one is Remembrance Day. I’ve had a poppy (which I fore-sightedly saved from last year) pinned to my coat for the last week-and-a-half. I’ve had some slightly bewildered looks, which isn’t surprising, Switzerland is not well known for sending its young men out to die to protect other countries, (how many countries it sells arms to is beside the point.) I haven’t seen a single other person sporting a poppy, which does surprise me a bit, as the population of St Gallen is more than a quarter made up of Ausländer (or foreigners,) and I hear more English than I would expect in a country that leans a little towards the parochial.
Since I’ve been here, I have seen one stone memorial for those who died in the 1914-1918 period (I guess they lost some men defending their borders,) but there is a small hollow in each little village where in any other country in Europe would stand a stone cross, engraved down its sides with lists of names.
It’s a strange thing, we English aren’t always that good at sentiment, but when we wear that poppy, and we see others around us wearing them, there’s a feeling of togetherness, that we’re all standing with our hands on the others’ shoulders, respecting a communal past, and a shared tragedy. On the one hand it’s a peculiarly English thing, but on the other it’s something we mourn in common with the other nations that were involved in the war, not just those on the side that won, but on the side that lost as well. I think now that we are nearly 100 years removed from those events, we can look a little more impartially, and see that the loss was as great a tragedy on “the other side” as our own.
Wilfred Owen put it rather better than I can:
From Parable of the Old Man and the Young
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
(Whole poem here)
Now, to try and end on a more up-beat note, here is my new autumn scarf which I finally finished weaving in the ends of last night.