the poppy

pavement poppyIn Britain, once the field poppies have faded with the summer, the paper poppies start blooming from lapels.  Predictable controversies fill any empty-looking column inches as newspapers argue back-and-forth about whether and when our public figures should pin their remembrance to their chest.  A young girl looks down from a hundred billboards, asking us to wear a poppy for her father; the emotional impact all the stronger for what has been suggested and not said.

The further we move from living memory of their Flanders inspiration, the more powerful the symbol of these flowers seems to have become; these days, we are urged to wear them in honour of soldiers still serving and soldiers still dying, because “the war to end all wars” did nothing of the kind.

When I worked in Westminster, around this time of year I remember seeing a huge advert in the underground station: BAE systems announcing they were “proud to support our troops.”  I am sure they are, as individuals, but I am just as sure that the company profits outrageously from the conflicts in which these troops lose life and limb.  Yet this kind of jingoism and hypocrisy is more palatable than my pacifist ambivalence, in the first weeks of November.

In my lifetime, there hasn’t been a single war fought by this country which I agreed with or believed was necessary.  I understand the sacrifices made by our armed forces in these conflicts and I would never, ever suggest that they should not receive our support if hurt or injured – but I would feel deeply conflicted and hypocritical if I included these conflicts in my understanding of Remembrance.  I donate to the British Legion with mixed feelings; soldiers and ex-soldiers should not have to rely on our charity.  The government should provide.  But the government is systematically dismantling the welfare system on which these injured personnel – and many others – rely.  I wonder if that thought crossed the minds of our ministers as they laid their wreaths this morning.

Over the past few years, I have watched the word “hero” manoeuvred into synonymy with “soldier”.  Many soldiers were and are doubtlessly heroic; but so, in their time, were conscientious objectors, aid workers, journalists, nurses…  Recognising the heroism of others, those who work to build peace, does not detract from the heroism of soldiers.  But restricting the word “hero” to mean “someone who has served with the military and been wounded in action” does, I think, belittle the more important meaning of the word.  Heroism is conduct, regardless of profession.

Very soon there will be no-one left alive who remembers the world wars.  The majority of families will have lost their living link to a time when our country was under real threat.  It is an ideal almost unimaginable in our past.  Peace should be the focus of Remembrance; peace hard-won by generations past, who fought in the hope that their children would never have to live through such a war again.  Yet as the last few soldiers of the First World War leave us, the first stirrings of “the old lie” begin to rise again, unchallenged, in the discourse about war: Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.  It’s the line we all learned by heart at school; I suppose I should take some cold comfort in the fact that these peaceful times allow us to forget its provenance and real significance.

For as long as my grandparents’ generation are alive, I will wear a red poppy for the past, to show that I honour their experiences.  But I will always wear white for the future.

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R/evolution

a blog post that has more to do with politics than druidry – but everything is connected.

Every version of Utopia I’ve ever read has filled me with despair – and I write this as a political idealist with a lifelong love of William Morris.  Even in druid circles, I sometimes come across wistful visions of a better time, when kings were just and their advisers wise.  Some people locate this lost Utopia in history – in the Wales of Hywel Dda, or in Dark Age England; others seem content to leave it as a dream.  The idea of “philosopher kings” is nothing new; Plato posited the possibility in his Republic.  It went hand-in-hand with strict segregation of the classes and state-controlled procreation.

I am something of an anarchist at heart, a Green-tinged political lefty with my roots in the socialism of the South Wales collieries and my independent heart set on self-determination.  I recognise the deep corruption riddling our current system – but I also think this system is the best we’ve ever had.  Stay with me, folks…

Some years ago, I found myself working in the Houses of Parliament, in the least political of roles: I was a Visitor Assistant, and my job was to tell people the story of our Parliament, let them know their political rights, and help them to access the system by watching debates and lobbying MPs and Peers.  It always amazes me that so few people are aware of their political rights; even fewer exercise them.  On hearing of my job, my friends’ reactions – “oh no, you’re not working for them, are you?” – surprised me.  These were intelligent, engaged, educated people who had failed to grasp the single most important thing about our system: the distinction between Government (“them”) and Parliament (the people tasked with keeping them in check).  As the months passed, my experience at work had a completely unanticipated effect on my own ideas about politics: I gained a newfound respect for most (though by no means all) MPs, and an equal but opposite cynicism with regard to the media.  I came to see first-hand how little of what actually happened got reported in the news; I had a clear view of how the media phrased stories to engender rage, or helplessness, or whatever the desired effect was, according to their own agenda.  Some (perhaps even most, though by no means all) MPs, meanwhile, worked tirelessly both in and out of Westminster; the very best of them were approachable, humble and deeply immersed in their local community.  Political allegiance came to matter less to me than the quality of the elected representative.

Our system is far from perfect.  This Government has undone a huge amount of the good work carried out by past administrations, helped in no small part by the media.  People still rally to oppose the worst of it – but increasingly I see anger being vented and fairly effectively dissipated online, for the most part (in my social circle, at least) by people who have never been to lobby their MP, never sat in on a debate in Westminster, never read the transcripts of the debates which affect them most, never attended their MPs’ constituency surgeries.  Only when all of these measures have been tried and proven to be useless will I concede that our system is broken.  It is not broken; we are just not using it effectively.

The system does not work for us.  Of course it doesn’t: the system has no agency.  We are the ones who have to make it work.  Sure, there is far too much privilege in politics; ‘twas ever thus.  But, comrades, ye are many, they are few.  Our system is in fact designed to protect us from the influence of privilege, if only we remember how to use it.  Rather than trying to forge new tools, with no idea of what their shape should be, let us pick up the tools we had forgotten; let us sharpen them, and bring them to bear once more on this mother of Parliaments, whose very purpose is to hold the Government to account in the interests of the people.

Questing

Little disclaimer: I had fully intended to write a post about eclecticism – a sort of sister-piece to my post about Welshness, in grateful recognition of all that I have learned from other cultures and traditions.  But inspiration takes me where it will, so, with that in mind, here is a post that is not quite about Neolithic rock art…

Ever since I heard of their existence, about a year ago, I have wanted to visit the Snowden Carr carvings.  The “Tree Of Life” stone in particular draws my imagination irresistibly into the Neolithic landscape of North Yorkshire.  When I heard a friend was driving from Liverpool to York yesterday, I took the chance to beg a lift to Otley, thinking I would walk to Askwith, to seek out the stones and whatever else might be revealed to me, up on that lonely moor, at the Calends of Winter with the dark of the year closing in.

Thus began my quest.

The walking was haphazard, with none of the steady, focused progress of a pilgrimage: I was constantly searching, seeking, pushing the pace of my legs up hill and down dale, keeping one eye on the sun and another on the hillside.

Waylaid by a woodland while looking for a shortcut, I lost an hour in the gold-green light among the bracken.  Magic happened, as I circled back around, parting the branches of a weeping birch to step onto the path: I felt the mundane world slip from my shoulders as a cast-off garment, all thoughts of bills and bus timetables and what to cook for dinner fell away.  I stepped into full awareness of the sacred landscape, through the veil.

waylaid in the woods

Two miles onwards, the sun set behind the brow of Ilkley moor.  I kept on walking, past the old stone houses of Askwith and up to the open crest of the Askwith moor.  Dusk settled into the valley below.  The night was clear; the road ahead lit only by the gloaming.

This was the place.

The rocks showed as shadows on the contours of the field; the crags protruding, proud above the valley against the twilit sky.  Beneath the moor was pastureland, watered by splashing streams with wild bilberries growing in the hedgerows.  I had expected the rocks to be up on the wildest part of the hill crest – but here they were, overlooking the shelter of a gentle valley.

But it was already dark, too dark to see, and I walked right past the object of my quest.

If I had set out prepared, with clearer intention, I might have reached the valley sooner; I might not have found myself walking alone on a strange country road through the Yorkshire moors in darkness.  I must have made a good few Hallowe’ens – a sudden, pale face in the headlights on the empty road…  But mine was the adventure: the two mile walk to find a nearby pub (one of the longest of my life) was strangely cheering.  The city lights of Leeds and Bradford glared orange on the gathering clouds, but all other horizons were beautifully dark, a rare delight for a feral, urban-dwelling countrywoman.  I have always loved the night.  Stretching my senses to perceive the contours of the hills around me, listening for the distant rumble of approaching cars, I felt a deeper, more immediate connection with the landscape: strong and powerfully grounded.  I may not have found the object of my quest, but on this first night of winter, in the darkness, I found myself again.