(A footnote to the extended Festival of Remembrance that’s been taking place over the last week or so.)
I’ve recently been reading (or partly re-reading) “Vanished World“, the first part of the autobiography of the Northamptonshire author H.E. Bates (b. 1905). I came across this:
“even a child couldn’t escape the eventual insufferable gloom of the holocaust that every morning was reflected in the long columns of the dead, wounded and missing that darkened every newspaper and still more intimately in the little mourning shrines set up in every street with their own lists of agonies and pitiful jam jars of flowers”
and a little later:
“the effect of those long, black, mortifying lists of killed, wounded and missing that filled column after column of every morning newspaper had made a searing impression on me that has never left me; nor can I ever forget the little improvised street shrines decorated, as one still often sees in little Italian cemeteries, with faded photographs of the dead and a few jam jars of fading flowers.”
He provides a sketch of one of these “street shrines”:
We still see these “street shrines” today, of course, (with their “pitiful jam jars of flowers”) when someone – particularly a young person – has died unexpectedly or violently; I think I remember (at about the time of the death of Diana Spencer) a rash of newspaper articles condemning them as somehow cheaply sentimental and un-English. I’ve never shared that sentiment, but would have guessed that they were a recent phenomenon, so I was surprised to find them cropping up in that least Latin of locations, Rushden, during the First World War. I can’t remember, either, them being mentioned in other accounts of the War or pictured in drama, but it’s unlikely they were unique to Northamptonshire.
“Remembrance” is a high-flown word (the “anamnesis” of the Eucharist, Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust) and is appropriate to the commemoration of events that no-one living can now remember, but to understand, on a human level, what it was like to lose a child, a school friend, I think we need to imagine, not remember and look to those little “street shrines”. “Remembrance” may look like a sea of ceramic poppies, but raw grief looked and looks like a pitiful jam jar of flowers, a bunch of garage shop roses.