In both the religious and the secular world, November is the month of remembering the dead: the ordinary dead, the glorious dead, the forgotten dead. Remembrance Sunday fell this month and people are still wearing their poppies (a smattering of white now joining the red). They are probably worn for different reasons: to respectfully call to mind those who died in the wars of the last century; to remember that peace is precarious; to never forget that stability is to be protected and nurtured. November 11this a date around which is built the case to maintain a collective memory so that we do not repeat the mistakes of history. The problem is, though, one can rarely gain consensus about the present moment, never mind agree upon one solid, collective memory for the past. There are many legitimate points of view, but, as the saying goes, ‘history is written by the victors’.
When something is beyond our ability to recollect for ourselves, we rely on story, photograph, film, books, song, folk memory – all of which can warp and weave and twist and lose colour. Important facts can dissolve, the insignificant can be accentuated and accumulate embellishment. It was the Roman lyrical poet, Horace, born around 65 BC, who wrote (without irony) in his poem, Odes, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’ Two thousand years later, war poet and soldier, Wilfred Owen reclaimed the Horace’s words (usually translated as: ‘It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country), re-presenting them within his own poetry as misleading jingoism and urging us, “not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’”
Last night I went out to play music. To mark the week that was in it B. played two pipe tunes on the whistle; a pair of slow, haunting, simple, evocative airs. Lord Lovat’s Lament might have been one of them, I’m not sure. Later he sang Eric Bogle’s, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda. Born in Peebles after the Second World War, Bogle emigrated to Australia as a young man, and it was there, in 1971, that he wrote this song about a young Australian soldier returning home from World War One and Gallipoli: broken, no legs, emotionally shattered. It’s a long song. Here are the middle verses.
And the band played Waltzing Matilda, as the ship pulled away from the quay, And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears, we sailed off for Gallipoli. And how well I remember that terrible day, how our blood stained the sand and the water, And of how in that hell that they called Sulva Bay, we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk he was waiting, he’d primed himself well, he shower’d us with bullets. And he rained us with shell, and in five minutes flat, he’d blown us all to hell, nearly blew us right back to Australia. But the band played Waltzing Matilda, when we stopped to bury our slain, We buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs, then we started all over again.
And those that were left, well we tried to survive, in that mad world of blood, death and fire, And for ten weary weeks, I kept myself alive, though around me the corpses piled higher. Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head, and when I woke up in my hospital bed, And saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead. Never knew there was worse things than dyin’.
For I’ll go no more waltzing Matilda, all around the green bush far and free. To hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs-no more waltzing Matilda for me. So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia. The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane, those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay, I looked at the place where me legs used to be. And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me, to grieve, to mourn, and to pity. But the band played Waltzing Matilda, as they carried us down the gangway. But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared, then they turned all their faces away.
And so now every April, I sit on me porch, and I watch the parades pass before me. And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march, reviving old dreams of past glories. And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore. They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war. And the young people ask, what are they marching for? And I ask myself the same question.
I listened quietly with the others as B. sang, feeling stirred by the lyrics, then manipulated by how mawkish they seemed, and then another wave of sadness would break over me at the futility of it all. I can never sleep when I come in from playing music, so I sat up late for a while. Alan Bennett’s, ‘Writing Home’ was on my kitchen table; a collection of essays, diary entries and reminiscences, many from quite early on in his career. I chewed mindlessly on a chunk of Provolone (cheese doesn’t give me bad dreams) as I flicked through it – it’s that sort of book. I found a diary entry he had written fifty years ago, on 10thNovember 1968: “Today is Armistice Day and the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the First World War. I listen to the ceremony on the radio, and as I type this I hear the guns rumbling across the park for the start of the Two Minutes’ Silence. I find the ceremony ridiculous and hypocritical, and yet it brings a deep lump to my throat. Why?”
Bennett doesn’t tell us why. But he gave me a poke, as if he were asking me – ‘Do you ever feel the same?’ ‘Yes, I do, Alan. Funnily enough, I do.’