The scene on Scraggy Hill, captured by the 10th Gurkhas during the Battle of Imphal (Wikimedia)
This weekend I attended a VJ Day memorial service in a small town called Bromsgrove in Worcestershire. My grandmother lived in Bromsgrove, and as she died earlier this year I was returning home in memory of her as much as in memory of my grandfather, who served in Burma during the Second World War. The service was held at the Bromsgrove Burma Campaign Memorial, a dignified red brick installation with an air of the early 80s about it. It was my job to lay the remembrance offering for the ‘Ladies’ of the Burma Star Association, an organisation that for both my grandparents offered a great deal of material, social and emotional support over the years.
But what struck me while watching the service and waiting to take my part in it, was the difficulty – but the necessity - of trying to hold so many distant phenomena together on the same plane. Or rather, that the service revealed so many uncomfortable proximities, that the effect was for me deeply unsettling. Watching the elderly men navigate the monument, watched in turn by women with walking sticks hooked over the backs of their chairs, I wondered what it meant to look back from my generation - the grandchildren’s generation?
In one sense, we make more of those experiences now than was made at the time immediately following World War II, part of what rendered veterans of the campaigns in South East Asia the ‘forgotten army’, but also part of what it meant to live on after the war. Time and again we have heard how veterans returning from the war preferred silence, returning to get on with their lives, where the war was just something that everyone had gone through and wanted to forget. The more common tale seems to be one that wasn’t even told until much later, until old age and some kind of invisible boundary between memory and history had been crossed, so that stories could be coaxed out to be celebrated, commemorated, made novels and documentaries of.
Earlier this year I interviewed a veteran of the D-Day landings who, despite the eagerness of those, such as myself, clamouring to hear and preserve his experiences, insisted that perhaps it was time to ‘close the book’. Remembrance was something he did for his own private reasons, to remember those with whom he served and some whose bodies he helped to bury in a meadow that is now a cemetery in Normandy. Remembrance was not for him about claiming his stake in the nation, still less something enacted to satisfy the fascination or register the debt of those who followed. Sometimes it seems to me that the heavy symbolism and ritual of remembrance is clung to more by those who were not there, than those who were.
The 70th anniversary of VJ Day brought a small number of veterans and their memories out into the limelight of local news and radio. I do not know the personal significance of VJ day for each veteran who attended on Saturday, but the significance of the service for me – one of the grandchildren – was far from unambiguous. Part of the purpose of remembrance rituals is to encourage us to think and feel of course (the last post, the minute’s silence). But then there are the contradictions and the odd jolts that make all our attempts to find ways of imagining, remembering, representing war fallible, where huge doubts and trivial concerns both cause cracks in the façade. Perhaps this is only an apt reflection of the reality of war, because even a monolith like WWII, ‘the last good war’, was still a lived thing; took place from day to day, was made up of everyday banalities as well as moments of profound consequence. And the resources we have for remembering war are likewise sometimes trivial and banal, and can’t always bear the weight of the symbolism they are made to carry.
Like the octogenarian standard bearers in white gloves and blazers, not quite in sync with one another, the gold tassels of flags whipping about their faces as they were raised and lowered precariously. We stood respectfully on the provincial lawn, while the Padre addressed us from behind a picnic table with an altar cloth, the PA system and garden gazebo threatened occasionally by a light breeze. It was difficult, amid these trappings of representation – the material things we need to visualise and perform feelings - to focus. It felt like trying to hold the ridiculous and the sublime together, until I realised that perhaps this was the point, and not even in the sense of reconciling their opposition. Rather, the point is that acknowledging the individual human experience of war as we were trying to do, hinges on the acknowledgment of both the trivial and the consequential, the everyday within the Historic, like the twinned impulse to laugh and cry at the same time. On a different scale, this might be likened to trying to hold in dual focus the celebration of ‘Victory in Japan Day’ with the commemoration, earlier this month, of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the visceral embodied experience of the atomic bomb, its warping of life and limb, casting long shadows of skin and bone.
I looked down at the floral tribute I was holding, waiting for my turn to be called up to the memorial. What was the cheerful arrangement of fresh yellow roses, which distinguished the Ladies’ offering from all the other wreaths of plastic poppies, intended to articulate? Not the blood red sacrifice of poppies but something different about grief, about grace and domesticity, or perhaps something about hope, peace even? I wondered at the gendered role I was performing as I approached the monument but soon found myself simply trying to control my emotions, trying not to let my face crumple, feeling self conscious and sad, but with an object that was ill-defined.
Finally, the service drew to a close and the bagpipes led a procession to the tune of ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. Gently, and then with some gusto, the Ladies of the Burma Star Association and some others began to sing along: ‘Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square…’. There was something of the village hall tea dance or care home sing-along in their aged voices, but also the sense of a gleeful pensioners’ revolt, an appropriation of ritual, an irrepressibly resilient tribute that carried on after the bagpipes had faded into the distance. How fragile yet unexpected in the end, the gestures available to express long-held memories and decades of experience. And for those of us born after, to simply watch and accept the surprises and contradictions of remembering what we haven’t experienced.
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