Posted by: cousindampier | 16 November 2018

A Story About Nothing

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It is the silence which is the hardest to describe. It is as if New York City shut off its lights and being able to look up and see the Milky Way – technically possible but massively unrealistic. London is a city defined by its movement and its noise; massive, muscular flows of people moving at urgent speeds while providing a consistent background noise – footsteps and chatter, engines and horns. Then for two minutes, once per year, the city goes silent.

I returned to London for this. The 11th of November – Veterans Day in America and Armistice Day in the United Kingdom. The American version began with the same name and it was the return of veterans from the Second World War which urged the change from Armistice to Veterans. From the American perspective, it made sense. The Second World War was the ‘Good War’ as Studs Terkel called it. It was a conflict easily defined by good versus evil, and the conflict which gave America its unipolar moment where no country, nor any alliance of countries, had the capability to challenge the United States.

Yet it is Armistice Day which captures the imagination because, in America, there is nothing quite like it. The 9/11 anniversary comes closest, but it does not carry the national weight that Armistice Day carries in the UK. It is a holiday celebrating all veterans but the core of the day is the First World War.

The United Kingdom remembers the First World War differently than America. We slot it in as one of those victorious conflicts, that long streak where America emerged on the winning side. In the UK, it is a victory tainted with significant loss. Almost a million Britons died during the conflict – over 2% of the population – with more than a million more wounded. In his work on the First World War, John Keegan writes:

“The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots.”

Britain won, but every year it does not celebrate the victory of the First World War. It remembers it instead.

***

The silence is the most haunting part. The first time I experienced England on November 11, I was in Heathrow Airport. I’d forgotten what day it was, and was nursing a coffee and paying no attention until the lack of noise made my look up. Everybody was standing, and the only noise was the pre-recorded messages over the intercom system. Nobody was ordering, and there were no drinks being made. It was eerie, and at the time I did not understand what it meant.

While the silence may be momentary, the poopy is more prevalent. In late October, they begin to appear on jackets and shirts; by the 11th, they appear on cars. Busses. On the sides of buildings and you begin to stand out if you lack one. It is a symbol of patriotism, but not the kind the American flag pin represents. It is altogether different, and the United States lacks a true comparison. Derived from the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ and originally about American war dead, it now represents the grave sites in France where British servicemen were buried during the conflict. It’s core meaning, if it has one, is about tragedy and sacrifice and not outright patriotism.

Sometimes.

In a recent article on Deadspin, Odrán Waldron illustrated the hatred footballer James McClean received from fans for his refusal to wear the poppy. McClean’s experience reveals the patriotic and nationalistic element of the symbol. He refused to wear the poppy because it grew from a memory of the First World War to an object remembering other conflicts in which English soldiers have fought and died; and since McClean is from County Derry in Northern Ireland, the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy is a symbol of imperialism gone wrong. Playing football in England, this subjects him to boos, chants, and anti-Irish racism yelled at him – and this is by fans of the team he plays on.

What the poppy stands for is more controversial than ever before. It grew out of a sense of mourning, but as McClean illustrates, not all history deserves mourning. White poppies – representing all victims in all wars – have appeared since the 1930’s and grow in popularity. A sort of populist-nationalism has gripped the meaning of the traditional red poppy since 2013-14, as Britain First, a Fascist organization, began to promote themselves with the poppy. Brexit, and the nationalism inherent in it, added to the populism behind the symbol.

Yet even if the meaning is stretched and under more discussion than before, the poppy remains without an equal in the States. It is not the Pledge of Allegiance, said every day, nor is it a flag pin. It is a step below that regular, constant patriotism that pervades everyday American life. Yet, it carries significant and deep meaning for the six weeks it appears. For the days leading up to Armistice Day, it is as powerful a symbol of patriotism as nearly any American icon, but it remains based on one of the most senseless, terrible conflicts of recent time.

***

The distance between Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament is only half a mile, yet Trafalgar Square was as close as I could get. Whitehall, the street connecting the two, was shut down and full of people. The circle around Trafalgar was technically open but so many people crossed here and there, busses had a slow time getting through. I arrived 15 minutes before the 11th hour, and I was late.

With a few minutes to go, the busses stopped first. The one in front of me, between Trafalgar and Whitehall, cleared out and as soon as it was to the side of things, it stopped. A truck – lorry as Billy would yell at me to say – drove up to the circle and seemed to want to continue before the driver looked around. He stopped and turned the engine off and got out to stand with us.

Cabs, cars, everything stopped, and not just in this area. When the cannon boomed at 11, there was no sound of traffic. There were no cars moving up and down the Strand and honking when they were stuck. The universal shutting down of vehicles was strange enough, but it was the lack of chattering and footsteps, the constant background noise of London, which set the moment apart. It was a moment of nothing and it meant everything.

It lasted two minutes and drew on forever until the cannon sounded again. Murmurs and footsteps started at once, and then one engine started. Then another. The crowd at Trafalgar Square started to disperse, and with it Whitehall, and within thirty minutes it would be as if nothing ever happened. But for two minutes on a Sunday, half a mile of street was packed with people who waited to do nothing but be silent, a hundred years to the minute after the guns fell silent on the most devastating war their country ever faced.

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