In my new life, I have time. Having never really had time before, it’s a strange commodity, and I today chose to spend a bit of it among rabbits.
They were fictional ones, to be fair, but their spirit vaguely lives on in the steep North Hampshire downland made famous by Richard Adams’ book Watership Down. It was the first book that I ever read that transported me to another place, and I spent large chunks of my childhood writing the opening chapters of embarrassingly bad copies; copies that, I seem to remember, involved badgers, hawks and even pigeons, and copies that mercifully never progressed beyond the first chapter.
Half way up the steep north-facing escarpment in entirely the wrong shoes, I suddenly arrived at the conclusion that I no longer gave a fraction of a damn about Fiver, Bigwig, Hazel or any other rabbit, fictional or otherwise, and that what I was really thinking about was Dick and Frank. It was a nuisance, as I had gone out of my way to be here.
Dick and Frank may or may not have come across each other- the balance of probability is that they did- but I certainly didn’t know either of them.
Dick died on 19th December 1914 at Ploegsteert Wood, and would have been my great uncle had he lived another 45 years. Frank died on 26th August 1918 at Favreuil, shot through the neck by a German machine gun nest high up in the village church tower during a night fighting patrol. His widow married Dick’s younger brother in 1925, and they became my paternal grandparents.
In 2011, using the old regimental records, I walked the route of that fighting patrol with my young family, and we were clearly able to identify the tree where he fell, and then the route on which his body was taken back to Achiet-le-Grand by cart the following day. I have the letters of his commanding officer and colleagues to Betty, and they still bring tears to my eyes. Partly because of how she must have read them, but also because of the emotions of the battle-hardened, war-weary, louse-ridden, filthy, frightened, lonely men who wrote them. In many ways, he was theirs, a much as he was hers.
When I buy and wear my poppy, I try to do it to honour all the fallen from then to the present day, but I really do it for Dick and Frank. Through diaries, letters and family anecdotes, I feel I know them a tiny bit, and the fact that they are just two, and that I have their photographs, makes things easier. I do not have sufficient imagination to think of 800 thousand of them.
Years later, I was a soldier too. My soldiering world was a kinder, more ordered and far safer one, but people went on dying. Some were Green Jackets with me, and I wear my poppy for them, too. And I believe, really believe, that at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.
This year, as every year, the act of remembrance has its opponents. Stoke City footballer James McClean won’t wear a poppy because he comes from Derry (if you’re him) or Londonderry (if you’re me). His reasoning in the media seems to me to be another case of looking at history through the wrong end of the telescope, and possibly missing the point, but it is dignified, and I respect him for it.
The Cambridge University Student Union has also kicked the poppy into touch. Activist, Stella Swain explains that they want to ‘reshape remembrance away from the glorification and valorisation of war’, and they want no part of it. I believe that she is wrong on just about every level on this. It may be genuine, or it may be privileged attention seeking, but it doesn’t matter. She said it, the media reported it, and we all had the opportunity to form our own views.
And suddenly, up there on the escarpment of North Hampshire, under the wheeling red kites and buzzards in an England that you could still pass as pastoral, I get it.
The important thing isn’t what I think, or what Ms Swain thinks. It isn’t what you think, or what James McClean thinks. It isn’t what Mrs May, Mr Corbyn or Mr Cable thinks.
No, the important thing is that Dick and Frank died so that all of us could continue to shout our thoughts from the rooftops without the fear that we would be taken away and silenced, within reason no matter what we say. I think they would both be proud to listen to Stella Swain, and not outraged.
In our pessimistic world, we forget how bloody lucky we are to have that freedom, and all our freedoms, as in tact now as they have ever been. But once a year, we remember who paid for that right. And it is in the act of remembering that we do our tiny, collective bit towards avoiding doing it all over again.