Poppies

Regardless of where they stand on the question of unity vs separation I defy anyone to say their position is the result solely of either sentiment on the one hand or cold hard calculation on the other. We all come to our viewpoint on some mix of the two.

Those who believe in separation (sorry, let me concede them ‘independence’) are very good at the sentiment that drives them. I don’t agree with much of it or where it leads but I recognise it. By the same token, those of us who believe we are better united with our fellow citizens in Britain are very good at the cool hard calculations about matters financial and economic.

If Scotland’s position in the world were to be decided on the strength of publically-expressed sentiment alone, the separatists would have it. If cold, hard and irrefutable calculation were the sole criterion there’s no doubt in my mind that the union would carry the day without dissent.

What those of us who want to be British as well as Scottish are less good at is articulating publically our sentiments, our positive feelings and emotions about why we want to stay united with England and Wales as well as Northern Ireland. I have written before about aspects of this subject and give links to examples at the end of this post.

This thought occurred to me recently in arguably trivial circumstances, as I watched a TV game show, albeit a refined one – BBC2’s Great Pottery Throw Down, a sort-of Great British Bake Off with clay. The format includes a slot where a professional potter sets the contestants a particular task.

This last week’s guest was Paul Cummins, one of the two artists (the other was Tom Piper) who created the exhibition of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London to commemorate the centenary of Britain’s involvement in the First World War, and who had the contestants each make a dozen clay roses.

I wasn’t able to visit the 888,246 (precisely) red ceramic flowers that flowed down from the Tower of London and gradually filled the moat reaching completion on 11 November 2014, Armistice Day. If the installation somehow passed you by, you can read about it on the Tower of London’s web site.

Should you be thinking (some sad people did) that this was some war-like celebration of imperialism, you couldn’t be further from the truth. The title of the installation should give a clue:

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

and the poppies represented the 888,246 British soldiers, sailors and airmen who gave their lives in that terrible conflict.

Although I wasn’t able to get to the installation in London I was moved by the media coverage it received at the time. Its power was demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands of people who queued to visit it. Some of the poppies were subsequently displayed at venues around each part of Britain. I caught them last summer when they were at the Black Watch Museum in Perth. This is the photo I took of them:

poppies-perth-2016

The artists intended their piece should form a space for ‘personal reflection’ and I’m not ashamed to say I found even this reduced display of several thousand poppies immensely moving, as the flow of other visitors clearly did on that bright summer afternoon. There was a subdued and respectful demeanour in the grounds of the museum and the volunteer attendants (ex-Black Watch servicemen, friends of the museum) seemed more there to give help and comfort than to control and direct.

Both my grandfathers served in the army in what their generation thought was the ‘Great’ war to end all wars, one in a front-line infantry battalion, the other behind the trenches in France. Both survived, although their health was diminished by the experience: one died in his fifties, the other his sixties. In my wider family, my great-uncle, Frank Martin, was killed on the Western Front less than a month before the war ended. He was nineteen.

My family’s experience was mirrored, often magnified, by virtually every family in Britain. It was a desperate but shared experience from Cornwall to Shetland, Anglesey to Norfolk. Its memory is only a generation away: one of my grandfathers died when I was nearly four. I have a memory (perhaps implanted by parental re-telling of the story) of going for a walk with grandad in a country lane, him triumphantly hooking a mushroom through a fence with his walking stick.

All this, I grant you, is sentiment, not some cold hard calculation. But if nationalists are driven to feel sentimental about events that happened hundreds of years ago (not all do), I and millions of others like me must be allowed our feelings about events shared by our grandparents and great-grandparents. And if they were to reproach me with ‘But everything’s changed since then’ (it hasn’t), how much more have things changed since distant events in 1314 and 1707 beyond all memory. How many ancestors’ names do you know from the time of union, let alone a battle fought 700 years ago led by nobles on both sides who were as much Anglo-Norman as anything else?

Not all our shared experience and sentiment needs to be as profound as the sadness of war. The London Olympics turned out to be an unexpected affirmation of Britishness for many. Even the mundane act of visiting other parts of Britain (highlighted in one of the other posts listed below) reminds me that as peoples we have more in common than divides us.

I said above that many nationalists are better at expressing sentiments about what drives their beliefs than the rest, the majority, of us who want to remain British as well as Scottish. Maybe that’s because we have, by and large, what we want by way of constitutional arrangements. Maybe it’s because some of them are a bit louder anyhow and we’re a bit quieter. It may even be that some of us are intimidated to make a public display in an environment that we see as hostile.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t have those feelings. The challenge for those of us who believe in the union is to use those feelings to make as strong a case for staying together on the grounds of sentiment as we can and already do on the basis of cold, hard economic calculation.

Once they had completed their public display, the poppies were sold for charity. I wish I’d bought one. Moved by the display at the Tower of London, my sister-in-law and her husband did. They’re proud and patriotic Scots who happen to live in England and shake their heads at what is happening to their country.

Some other posts on this blog that try to deal positively with matters of sentiment as well as facts:

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2 Responses to Poppies

  1. John Mackie says:

    Thank you for this. You capture exactly my own quiet contentment in being both Scots and British.

    I too did the poppies when they were in Perth. It was particularly emotional for me as I was an Army brat and my Dad had an office in what is now the Black Watch museum when he was stationed in Perth. I walked round the poppy exhibition and then went in for a tour of the museum.

    Half way round, I walked into the turret room that been his office and went straight back sixty years. I could see my six year old self sitting under his desk, using Army issue toilet paper as tracing paper.

    I was immediately in floods of tears and had to go to sit outside to compose myself. One of those volunteer attendants came over to ask if I was OK. I blurted out the whole story and he was very sympathetic, even after he learned that my Dad had been a Sapper and not in the Black Watch.

    It got worse As you will probably remember, they are holding a daily ceremony in the Castle grounds throughout the Centenary of the First World War. At 11 am, they place small wooden crosses to remember the members of the Black Watch who died on that day and read out their names. The ceremony is performed by pupils of local schools. The kids came out that day and I saw that they were from Balhousie Primary

    When my Dad was retired from the Army (they civilianised his job) he went back to the teaching profession which he had left when he volunteered during World War II. In passing, Fife Council refused to pay him any pension for his pre-war years of service because he had volunteered and not been conscripted.

    Dad’s first civvy job after the Army was teaching in Balhousie Primary which was then called Northern District school. I was, of course, tearfully off down memory lane again.

    Throughout his life, my Dad was a proud Briton of Scots origin and I am happy to be of that provenance myself. I voted ‘No’ with heart and head. I voted ‘Remain’ with my head but have to admit that my heart was not really in it.

    If the Separatists ever ask me to choose again, I will be voting to remain part of the UK, whatever happens with Brexit.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Roger White says:

      John – thank you for that honest and touching response to my post. A number of people on Twitter have said similar things, that the poppies affected them in the same way. Your comments were a helpful corrective to the crassness that often (not always) assails us from our fellow citizens who want a Scotland separate from Britain.

      Liked by 1 person

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