Saturday, 12 March 2016

Trees of Remembrance

I will confess that the idea of a "National Memorial Arboretum" seems rather a bizarre one.  Certainly there is a trend, and not really a new one, for people to plant trees in memory of loved ones. Siegfried Sassoon's mother, Theresa, notably planted one on the village green at Matfield to commemorate the end of the First World War, although the one that is to be found on the spot now is not the one she planted; that blew down in the great "hurricane" of 1987.  Nevertheless, the idea of a 150-acre site full of trees and other types of memorial is not one that would ever have occurred to me.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I visited the Arboretum last week, but I was pleasantly surprised. Admittedly the new visitor centre is mostly still under wraps, as is the main armed forces memorial, erected in 2007 and dedicated by Dr Rowan Williams, in his capacity as Archbishop of Canterbury.   It takes the form of a stone circle and carries the names of servicemen and women who have died in the years since World War II, many thousands of them, like a smaller version of the Thiepval memorial, or the Menin Gate of which Siegfried was so critical.  The main difference is that almost all of those named have known graves.  Their family has a private memorial; the nation has a public one.

Dr Williams is known as a man of peace, but clearly does not shrink from open admiration of the armed forces. "All the service and skill that keeps us secure may be invisible a lot of the time," he said at the opening ceremony, "but if we are not to be dishonest, shallow and unreal, we need to make the invisible visible once in a while."  There was a time - at the height of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland, perhaps - when such recognition was hard to come by in the UK.  The Falklands conflict resulted in a certain thawing of public relations, but the army remained something you really didn't want your son to join.

What finally changed the atmosphere in Britain, I believe, was the peacekeeping activities of UN troops in countries like Cambodia, Mozambique, Bosnia, Rwanda and El Salvador. In 1988 the UN peacekeeping forces received the Nobel Peace Prize, an accolade that seems well-deserved even if their subsequent efforts were not always successful.  Meanwhile, the global situation suggested that the assault on Iraq in the First Gulf War was justified by the undisciplined conduct of the country's leader, and a decade later, the events of 9/11 left every country in the West looking over its shoulder.

What was more, acting with allies in the cause of world peace was starting to seem more like something you would want your son, or even your daughter, to be involved in.  It wasn't about being "Top Nation" any more (to quote Sellar and Yeatman); it was about showing how civilised you were by comparison with other countries.  If that sounds as though I'm being critical of the soldiers who went to Afghanistan, I'm not, but, like Siegfried, I'm not so sure about the politicians.

Memorial to the Land Girls and Lumber Jills
If it's peace we prize, and peace is the reason we now respect members of the armed forces, surely we should be giving some consideration to others who give their lives to help others: the fire service, the police, the lifeboat crews?  Many of these are volunteers and are not even paid for their service.  And it is here that you will find them, those who "also served".  It's a curious mixture really, and I suppose that its very randomness is, and will continue to be, an attraction, which is why there were plenty of visitors around on a cold Monday in March, and that number will undoubtedly grow.  A lot of them will be older people who actually remember a world war, but there will be the school parties and the older students and people like ourselves, who simply look on, if not with outright admiration, then at least with respect.

The artistry and workmanship that has gone into these memorials is also something to be appreciated. They come in all shapes and sizes, from traditional monuments relocated from closed-down public buildings to modern, brightly-coloured structures.  I would not be myself if I didn't comment on the fact that a couple of the carefully engraved stones and plaques suffered from the extraneou's apostroph'e syndrome - what a pity, when so much money has been spent on them, that no one took the trouble to check that the commemorative message was written correctly - spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar, so to speak - but I daresay the majority of visitors have not even noticed.

All in all, a recommendation for a visit.  Allow yourself plenty of time to walk around, or, if your mobility is limited, take the tour by "road train" with a running commentary from a British Legion volunteer.  I think it is worth it.

Post a Comment