Red white and blue

IssueDecember 2010 - January 2011
Comment by Jeff Cloves

Sheila – a doughty campaigner against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – is currently in hospital in London. She had a bad fall in a departure lounge and misaligned her spine. She is paralysed for the time being; her holiday ended before it began. Her friends in Stroud visit when possible and others write. A letter sent on her behalf in the first week of November, asked us to send her a white poppy.

If Sheila is able to watch TV from her hospital bed she will have observed the blanket wearing of red poppies on screen.

Except for Jon Snow that is. He apparently referred to the pressure on him to wear one as “poppy fascism”. A poor choice of words but I applaud his stand. Like Christmas, poppy display seems to start earlier every year.

I have written before how Paul McCartney wearing a CND badge on Top of the Pops in the ’60s was notable. I have no desire whatever to appear on TV but I’d have jumped at the chance in November just so I could wear a white poppy.

Because we’ve been at (undeclared) war in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, concentration on the meaning and significance of 11 November has grown, it seems to me, as the numbers of deaths and mutilations has grown. An email from my uncle – a Second World War pilot – was not sent because he was “closing down now for two minutes silence”. He sent it later with the lament that his friends who survived were now all dying and he felt so alone.

I listened to Andrew Motion read his poem about Harry Patch on Radio 4 and the TV stations have been screening a series of terrifying programmes about both world wars.

On Armistice Day I watched a documentary about the Second World War poet and artist Keith Douglas killed in 1944 aged 24. He was a captain in a tank regiment and is generally regarded as best of the Second World War poets and perhaps the only great one.

The footage of the D-Day landings, in which he took part, made me feel sick to watch and once again I bless my good fortune in being just a child then and ignorant and blithe. Poor Douglas was convinced he wouldn’t survive the war and had a premonition on the actual day of his death. I don’t know his work but it’s clear he was no pacifist and believed that only those who fought in wars were entitled to write about them.

What about sympathetic imagination and empathy I wondered. Surely women poets have written about being blitzed? The great American poet Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) and his beloved wife Miriam – to whom he dedicated all his work – were committed and campaigning pacifists. When he died, Adrian Mitchell wrote this beautiful little poem for him:

A Blessing For Kenneth Patchen’s Grave

may hummingbirds
forever hover over
white and purple
domes of clover

Dennis Gould published Love and War Poems by Kenneth Patchen (Whisper and Shout, 1968) which contributed greatly to a wider appreciation of Patchen’s work in Britain.

The book also contains his drawings and beautiful illuminated poems. I was going to end with a Patchen poem but found this statement he made in 1945.

It seems appropriate at this mournful time:
There shouldn’t be any point in trying to add to what my poems say but perhaps a few flat statements might not be wasted (people sometimes protest that “modern poetry” is too obscure) so, in plain English:
I am opposed to all war.
I don’t believe human beings should kill each other.
I am opposed to all violence – for whatever reason.
I believe that wars will end when men refuse to murder one another – for whatever reason.
I believe those things as a man and as a revolutionist; for I believe wars will only end when the present murderous forms of society are allowed to die – and all men are at last permitted to live together as brothers.

Last month, 65 years later, an ex-president of the USA defended the use of torture.

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