He found them in between C.H. Nickson and D. North on the middle plaque among how many other names? Hundreds of names:
He felt guilty at his cynicism, his sneering response to the annual ‘Lest We Forget’ festival.
‘Fat fuckin’ chance!’
How could ‘we’ forget, even if ‘we’ wanted to? Every year it was the same, the processions, the laying of wreaths, the two minute silences, the poppies and the flag waving and bigotry, wrapped up as remembrance. And why all the ‘we’ business anyway? Who asked him if he wanted to be part of the club, the eternally grateful brigade?
Above the names, the inscription only intensified his hatred for the lies, the myriad myths and self-justifications for warfare, for this war especially but also every war motivated not by abstract notions of justice, honour, democracy, civilisation, the usual clichéd pretexts for conflict, or even nationalism, idealism, colonialism, all the other ‘isms’ used to camouflage the real reasons for war; greed and ego, the twin engines of bloodshed through the ages.
‘More Than Conquerors Through Him That Loved Us’
His mum’s two uncles, both killed in the ‘Great’ war. Seeing their names there, coldly carved by some hand after the event, a hand that no doubt never experienced the horrors of Ypres, The Somme or Mons, a hand that maybe felt guilt or shame at surviving what so many of his young townsmen failed to survive. He stood there for a few minutes and summoned an attempt at sympathy, to connect through his DNA, however remote with those events, with those dead bodies and to feel…..something! Such a small town, so many names. Names still familiar, even now almost a century later.
Forefathers of school mates, girlfriends, work colleagues, neighbours. It took him back to those medals passed on to his mum, placed in a cardboard box, wrapped in tissue, kept on the top shelf of their bedroom wardrobe for safe-keeping. The dainty Mons Star with its colourful ribbon that he’d sketch time and time again, the two huge and heavy brass discs with the relief carving of heroic Tommies; one for each brother.
The stories told to him so many times but now forgotten, ignored through a mixture of apathy and antipathy.
‘Fuck em! Fuck the lot of em, sacrificial offerings to capitalist self-interest’ that’s how he thought, how he still thinks if he’s being honest. Him, who has never risked anything in his life, not really, not like these young men, these boys, killed whether or not they believed in whatever cause they fought for. Dead.
‘Obeying their country’s call serving humanity these gave their lives for the cause of truth of justice and freedom in the great war.’
Truth? Justice? Freedom? Lies! Myths! Excuses! He phoned his mam. He didn’t phone her often, not in work hours at any rate, not when he wasn’t asking her for a favour; to mind the kids usually. He said he’d been walking the dog up by the park and had walked over to the cenotaph and looked for her uncles’ names. He’d found them, their initials at least but what were their first names again?
James and John she told him. James was the oldest she seemed to think, although she wasn’t entirely sure, after all she’d been born a good twenty years after they’d died. He indulged her, knowing she was into local history, in family trees and all that futile shite. It had never interested him, these personal stories and folk tales, real, exaggerated or imagined being subsumed by the broad sweep of history, the overarching principle of class struggle, of economic oppression and industrial exploitation rendering such mundane stories trivial.
‘These at the call of king and country left all that was dear to them endured hardness faced danger and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self sacrifice giving up their own lives so that others might live in freedom; let those who come after see to it that their names are not forgotten.’
Lest we forget? Fat fucking chance! Liars! Bastards! Cunts! Death dreamers. Death glorifiers. Death deliverers. Carve this! ‘They died that others might live in luxury!’
She filled him in with a few details; James and John were his nan’s brothers. She had another brother too. He was named Anthony but called Andy to differentiate him from his dad, also called Anthony. Andy was too young for the call up and had to leave town in a hurry after beating up a man with knuckledusters. He had also given his dad a good hiding once but as the old man was regarded as a brute, this was regarded as a noble act. He was never seen again.
His mum’s nan had died when her mum was four years old, leaving her granddad to bring up his three sons and a daughter. He put his mother-in-law in the hands of the local workhouse at Dutton. Presumably she was too feeble or senile to help him with the children’s upbringing, why else would he do such a thing? Yet she must’ve only been around sixty herself which, even in those hard and unsentimental times, seemed a bit young to be carted off to certain death in those unforgiving hellholes of Victorian and Edwardian moral perversion. They had brutal lives, prone to Anthony’s temper and drink induced violence. Probably only too fucking glad to sign up and join the rest of the young lads on their way to Belgium to fight The Hun. The usual escape routes from poverty and violence and lack of opportunity.
‘They sought the glory of their country and the glory of their Lord.’
His dad’s ex-workmate was a local historian and had tracked down every grave for every name on the cenotaph. The only ones he couldn’t trace were the Nolan brothers and one other man. Eventually he’d located their graves and so shone a light on their deaths. It transpired that James had been a prisoner of war and died of pneumonia in a German prison camp. His nan’s version had been that he’d died a week before the Armistice but Percy’s investigations pointed to a death a month before the end of that dreadful conflict.
Either way, conditions must’ve been pretty bleak. There was a story that he’d been the camp interpreter, although this seemed difficult to believe as he’d only been educated at the local catholic school, St Edwards and they certainly didn’t have German on the curriculum. Whether or not it was true didn’t really matter. He was dead. He died young. He died needlessly. John died of his wounds in France or Belgium, his mum wasn’t sure.
‘As dying and behold we live.’
Except they didn’t live, either in heaven or Runcorn and he sat typing this, reflecting upon his angry and dispassionate response to the emotional bullying of every Remembrance Sunday, the establishment all stood there in their sacrificial black, they who never sacrificed their own to their twisted contortions of the truth; the aristocracy, the politicians, the leaders of business, backed up by their phalanx of bureaucrats, judges and law makers, their security services, their police, their military, their spies, their journalists, their programme makers, their propagandists, all spewing the same lies, the same myths. Cunts! Liars! Cunts! Liars!
He wanted to be able to summon up tears for James and John, for all the other names on that shameful crucifix but he couldn’t. He still didn’t feel any real connection, any empathy or real emotional attachment to these unknown relatives, dead long before his time, dead long before his parent’s time, dead long before their time.
Lest We Forget?’
‘Fat fuckin’ chance!’