Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Language of Flowers

Today I want to talk about the forgotten language of flowers. 

My memory is terrible these days and that’s strangely appropriate. It wasn’t until I began writing this speech that I remembered that for thousands of years, the poppy wasn’t ‘the flower of remembrance’ but ‘the flower of forgetfulness’: our earliest ancestors ate its seeds to relieve pain, and the opiates derived from it are still a vital part of modern medicine. 

I had thought it became the ‘flower of remembrance’ because of the Great War, but it was actually a hundred years earlier that an unknown writer first drew attention to its symbolic power when he noticed the blood-red poppy blooming on the broken battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars.

When I was a small boy, I was walking with my father when he stopped to speak to an elderly gentleman. He invited me to shake his hand, and when we’d walked away, my father told me I had just shaken hands with a man who had shaken hands with a man who had fought at the last battle of the Napoleonic Wars: Waterloo. 

You probably remember that the British Army was led that day by The Duke of Wellington, and that he claimed the battle was won ‘on the playing fields of Eton’. He didn’t say that, and it’s not true, but then the truth, as Oscar Wilde observed, is never pure, and rarely simple. 

What we don’t remember is that like Oscar Wilde, The Duke of Wellington was an Irishman, and almost half his army were Irish, Welsh or Scots: the other half were mostly German, Dutch or Belgian. 

Only one in eight of his soldiers was English, but that has been largely forgotten: as we know, history is written by the victors, and the myth of ‘plucky little Albion’ is still far more politically powerful than the inconvenient, multi-national truth.

100 years after Waterloo, there were still many Irishmen in the British Army and one of them was my great uncle, Private Daniel Maguire, who served at the infamous battle of Passchendaele. Almost a million soldiers died and at the end of it, the British front line had moved only 5 miles further east. 

If anything can be said to sum up the heroism and the futility of that battle, then Danny’s story is it. He led a stretcher party into no man’s land to retrieve a wounded comrade, but the gunners far to the rear got their elevation wrong so he was blown up and killed by a British shell.

More than 200,000 other Irish men and women served in the British forces during World War One, but even now, it takes a brave man to wear a poppy on the streets of Dublin: the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar is one. This time last year he wore a 'Shamrock Poppy' in the Dáil as he said, " Let history be our guide but let us never be its prisoner." Like the truth, the poppy’s meaning is neither pure nor simple, much as we might wish it to be, which is why there are so many of them today. 

At the Cenotaph, Theresa May will wear a khadi poppy in memory of the one and a half million Indian soldiers who served on the Western Front. Some will wear a black poppy for the three million Africans, West Indians and Pacific Islanders; others will wear a 'Shamrock Poppy', others still may wear a purple one, for the animals that gave their lives. In the past, Jeremy Corbin has worn a white poppy, but ‘a spokesman says’ that on Sunday he will be wearing a red one: the culture war over the poppy’s meaning continues.  

The debate about the meaning of Remembrance Day has been going on for longer than Remembrance Day itself. The humanist philosopher Bertrand Russell was an outspoken opponent of the Great War, and his pacifism cost him six months in prison. On the very day that the armistice was signed, a mob of Cambridge students made for his rooms and trashed them. Russell had said the war was wrong. They said it had been right, and anyway, we won it. 

Russell never stopped believing that we humans need to practise being kind if we are ever to achieve happiness as a species. He never stopped campaigning either, and at the age of eighty-nine, he received another prison sentence forleading a CND protest in Trafalgar Square. 

As he wrote: “There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge and wisdom. Shall we instead choose death because we cannot forget our quarrels? Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”
What do you think? Should the poppy continue to be the flower of remembrance, or should we allow it, once again, to be the flower of forgetfulness? 

This is the transcript of the speech I gave on Friday 9th November to the Scottish Government ceremony for Remembrance Day. Thanks to the Peace Pledge Union for the photo 

Saturday, 10 November 2018

11/11 - a Humanist Poem of Remembrance

I wrote this poem for the 99th anniversary of Armistice Day when I became the first humanist ever to address an official government ceremony of remembrance. It's a response to Laurence Binyon's poem 'For the Fallen'.

To the nameless millions who lie in mass graves,
From the forest of Katyn to the killing fields of Cambodia,
From Treblinka to Shatila:
We will remember you.

To the prisoners of conscience caged for their beliefs,
The peace protestors shot by their own side
The secretly imprisoned and the illegally tortured:
We will remember you.

To the desperate refugees fleeing persecution,
Tutsi and Hutu,
Rohingya and Yazidi:
We will remember you.

To the ones who didn’t choose to die for their country
To Jane Doe and Seamus McEnroe,
From the Twin Towers to the Twin Rivers:
We will remember you.

To the innocent bystanders, the collateral damage,
From the ghetto to Aleppo,
From Sana’a to Raqqa:
We will remember you.

To the guests struck by drones on their way to the wedding,
The shoppers shot by snipers in the market square,
To the children killed by landmines as they played in the street:
We will remember you.

To the lions led by donkeys,
Tommy Atkins and GI Joe.
To the unknown sailors, air men and women, 
Brown, black and white:
We will remember you.

From the flowers of the forest
To the fallen men of Flanders field,
At the going down of the sun and in the morning:
We will remember you.

Joe's Toes

There are emails you don't want to get, and this one from Marie and Keith is one of them. 

On 8th February 2014 you married myself and my husband at Dundas Castle. It was a beautiful ceremony and we were thankful we chose you to conduct it.

This is a really difficult email to write and everything is very fresh and raw for us. I was hoping you could give me a little more information about funeral/blessing services you do? It would give us something to think about and to consider our options;

 On 15th of February this year, one of our sons, Joe, was stillborn. Tommy is Joe's twin brother and is currently in SCBU at the Borders General Hospital (both boys were born at 32 weeks). We have been advised that we have as much time as we need to start considering how we would like to say goodbye/celebrate Joe, especially as Tommy is in hospital at the moment (he is making progress every day after a very very scary start). 

April can be a dreich month in the Borders. The hills were invisible behind a wall of low cloud when I went to see the family, and it hadn't got any brighter by the time we said goodbye to Joe at the Borders Crematorium.  Conducting the funerals of children and babies is never easy, and I found Joe's ceremony more than usually challenging, but I got through it and I was glad to spend some time with the family back at the house afterwards. 

That was almost eight months ago, so I was very pleased to learn from 'a little bird' that Marie had started to write about her experiences and what she's learned from them: talking about parenting after loss, the effects of having a poorly baby in SCBU, twin to twin transfusion syndrome and all that comes along with that and promoting the fund they set up in Joe's name in collaboration with CHAS. 

Being a busy mum, Marie admits she hasn't really had the time to post to her blog recently, but she does have lots of mini-blog posts on her Instagram page and her Facebook page

 Joe's Toes is intended to help bereaved parents of stillborn or neonatal lost babies. They are already halfway to their target of £5,000 and I hope your response to this post will take them a little further.

I asked Marie and Keith to tell me how they feel now, looking back on Joe's funeral, and this is what they said.

We actually don't find it painful to think about at all. Yes, it was tough, but to an extent it gave us the chance to celebrate Joe in a way that had been difficult after his and Tommy's birth because of the rare situation we were in. It was 7 weeks after his birth that the ceremony took place, but for us it couldn't have happened any other way. We wanted to be in a place where we could focus on Joe the way he deserved and the ceremony certainly did that. We were always assured that there was no rush.

We were so grateful for the time you spent to come and meet us again, the time you took to learn about our family since you married us, to learn about Tommys start in life and the circumstances behind the loss of Joe. It was incredibly comforting that you took the time to write the ceremony for us, for Joe, using all you had learned. You had listened to everything, even points we said not even realising we had said them. You also guided us in making the ceremony what it was, giving us ideas in a time where thoughts were elsewhere and awry. It was comforting that there was no pressure at all for us to write something so difficult, yet we were always given the option to contribute as much as we wanted.

The fact that you had married us, gave us real comfort in knowing it was all in hand. And it was. The ceremony was beautiful and a completely perfect and fitting way to celebrate him. The beauty of the service, we found, is that we weren't saying goodbye per se, it was a celebration of everything we were, his family were and what he could have been and it was a ceremony bursting with love. The focus was on Joe and our family and on Joe and our family only. It encompassed everything we believe as a family; love conquers all! And finally in terms of the ceremony, with the want of not sounding sadistic, it was very comforting to see how Joe's death and hosting his service had on you too. In a situation where we nor anyone knew our baby, it is incredibly comforting to know he affected more than us as a family. That his legacy lives on. 

Because of everything the ceremony represented, it gave us some closure. Of course we will always grieve the loss of our much loved son, but knowing we gave him the ceremony he deserved and the ceremony that we wanted was, and still is incredibly comforting. We wouldn't have changed a thing.

With Much love,
Marie and Keith

This is Tommy. He's a big lad, like his daddy. Don't you just love his t-shirt?