Like many people, I don’t usually really think much about Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day. I observed the ritual and the silence but without actually thinking about war, commitment and sacrifice. Today’s two minute silence was different.
Recently I uncovered a document of my maternal grandfather’s service in the British Army during the Second World War, particularly that covering an inquiry into his health and subsequent medical discharge. The document gives a profound insight into the officer class, and their opinion on the men for whom they had responsibility.
Shortly after the outbreak of war, my granddad was conscripted as a sapper, a class of soldier whose jobs could range from digging ditches or breaking enemy things for tactical reasons. He was in his early thirties. He spent some time breaking things before he received a chest wound in action. After treatment for his wounds, rather than being discharged he was sent to work as a manual labourer at a depot at Scapa Flow. Here the conditions for ordinary servicemen were tough. My granddad, who had grown up barefoot on the banks of the Tyne in the worst area of Tyne Dock was used to tough, but while living in an unheated tin shed at Scapa Flow he contracted tuberculosis. He faced more treatment, losing some lung function in the process.
After a break to visit his family in South Shields, he was again returned to Scapa Flow. Despite the time away, he found that living conditions had not improved, and whilst working on moving provisions discovered that officers enjoyed a very different and better life. Feeling his health again deteriorate in the cold and wet living conditions, my granddad then committed a terrible crime.
A board of officers reviewed his complaint and an inquiry was held. Statements from officers and doctors were collected and entered onto the document. One doctor defined my grandad in his statement as a ‘borderline malingerer’. One of his officers, who my granddad barely knew, classified him as a ‘barrack room lawyer’.
The board found that as no other men had complained there was no case to answer, but rather than censure my granddad recommended that he be discharged on medical grounds. After several weeks of light duty with a different squad he was sent home to his family for good.
My grandad never spoke about this. He never considered himself or his war service as anything special. When he was asked if he wanted to become a Chelsea Pensioner he turned it down. The uniform life was not for him. What he was left with was the feeling that justice demanded that ordinary people deserve better lives, in a society where everyone helps each other, not reliant on doffing a cap to a patronising elite for charity. He was no socialist, but like many others he voted for his aspirations for a better Britain, and helped usher in one of the greatest governments this country has ever seen. A post-war government that went to war on poverty, sickness and ignorance.
On Sunday I saw David Cameron at the Cenotaph do his solemn look for the cameras. Cameron and his peers are from the same strata of society as those officers who looked down on my grandad and considered this rough-talking tough northern man as little more than an awkward oik. I thought about that solemn look in the two minute silence today. On the face of a man who is doing everything he can to undo what my grandad and his generation helped build.
No mock solemnity, no matter how well acted, can hide that David Cameron and the Tories are betraying the memories of those, like my granda, who came back from war, and with their families, rebuilt Britain.
Whenever I visit the British Museum, two things always happen: I find something that grabs my attention that didn’t before, and leave, disappointed that there wasn’t enough time. On Saturday, among the throng of Bank Holiday weekend visitors rushing through the galleries, tick-boxing exhibits and robotically snapping artefacts with their mobile phones, I was grabbed by the Assyrian stone bas-reliefs showing the military campaigns of King Ashurnasirpal and The Royal Hunt. The detail is astounding, and the story-telling compelling. Today, in an age of instant on-access HD surround-sound multimedia entertainment, tales recorded on stone nearly 3,000 years ago took me to a very human world. The bowed heads of families taken as war booty about to be sold into slavery, the last dying gasp of the hunted lion, driven to bleeding exhaustion.
Some stories are told in the monuments themselves, like the detail on Statue of Ramesses II, detail created by an artisan who knew that people looking up would never see it, at least until the statue was later toppled. The graffiti on a pediment from the corner of the Parthenon. And that’s part of the magic of the British Museum; this beautiful monument to knowledge is probably the world’s greatest pop-up storybook, biographies of long past peoples carefully assembled by untold thousands of professional and amateur academics.
Sadly though, some people ignore this work, and place the exhibits in their own context, in their own version of events. Sometimes I listen in on tour groups, surfing the expertise of the tour guides for free from the periphery of their tour group. My friend and I came across a museum tour group standing around a colossal Assyrian statue. The tour guide described the statue, when and where it was built, who was responsible for it. Then one of the tour group asked, “was this before or after the Flood?”. The guide responded, “this was a post-flood civilisation, but this civilisation was abandoned by Jehovah”. I looked at my friend, he smiled and shook his head. Even here, in these grand halls of the accumulated knowledge of the history of humanity, ignorance walked. I hope that at least just one of the group has been inspired by the British Museum, as I have been, and look beyond the ignorant scrawlings in a holy book for real truth, the real story of our world and our peoples.
One thing that the British Museum records is that of all the civilisations that walked this planet, nearly all of them had a god or gods to pray to, to sacrifice to. All of those gods are now just historical anthropological curiosities in books and on objects dug out of the soil. If just one of the people on the tour put their own god in the same historical context, then their visit to the British Museum will have been worthwhile, and not just another tick-box entry of places to see.