"So if the sherry glass is full
But the day is way too young
You'd better sip today, sip today, sip today
Before it's gone."
So, Sir Bob Geldof, presumably running short of things to do, decided that London at the end of the year was a slightly too drab place for his taste and he got the idea of colourfully gift-wrapping a number of London's greatest buildings. And how could that be wrong? They came online on successive weekends leading up to Christmas: The Tate Britain, the Queen's House in Greenwich, the National Theatre. The themes were picked by celebrities, or by popular vote. I went out on one of the first weekends, it was deathly cold, I was alone, I was waiting for the sun to go down. So that I could see. I went to Hyde Park Corner, where broods Wellington Arch.
- Wellington Arch, in the last of God's light
While I waited and shivered, I couldn't help but notice that I was surrounded by a series of war memorials. Behind me was the Australian war memorial. It's probably passed a lot of people's notice, but Australians have fought and died in pretty much all the major wars of the last century. Tucked away down there at the "arse end" of the globe, they probably could have stayed out of all kinds of trouble. But instead they did their bit. Always have done. One of the inscriptions I read here intoned that this memorial:
"honors the commitment of Australians who served alongside Britain and her Allies in defence of freedom in the first and second world wars: Whatever burden you are to carry, we will also shoulder that burden."
Feeling someone looking over my shoulder, I spun awkwardly and found this altogether imposing guy behind me. Yes, those are artillery shells on his legs (four of them). I realised he's part of a memorial to the artillerymen who died in the two world wars. I'm dumbfounded when the first plaque informs me that 49,076 artillerymen alone died in the Great War. And another 29,924 in WWII. (Weren't those guys behind the lines?)
You may have noticed, as I did, that the base of the memorial was strewn with wreaths of poppies.
So, for several weeks late in the year, everytime I tried to enter or exit a Tube station, someone tried to sell me a poppy for my lapel. It seemed everyone else in London had already bought theirs, sporting them on coats and blouses and hats. I kept dodging poppy sellers on platforms thinking they were for some awareness month or other. Prostrate cancer, perhaps. (Though I shouldn't joke about even that.) There were even posters put up here and there by the "Poppy Appeal". But neither they, nor anything else, explained to me what the poppies were for. As a silly immigrant, I needed explaining. It took another American (Josh, down from Edinburgh) to set me straight.
It turns out the poppies are a symbol of national respect in the run-up to . . . Remembrance Day. On (or around) that day, the whole nation takes a moment of silence to remember and give thanks to the millions who went off and fought and died so that they could all now live in spectacular freedom, security, and prosperity. Here's a whole nation giving thanks to the soldiers who gifted them with that nation, every year, for like two weeks of the year. And I felt so awed, and ashamed of my previous lack of understanding, and just thought it was so completely lovely. And such a statement on the British national character. (I don't intend to demean our U.S. Memorial Day, but it does really just involve a lot more taking a day off from work and grilling than it does solemn remembrance and gratitude.)
It was further explained to me (by Jacqui, this time, I think), that the symbol of the poppy comes from WWI. When the guns fell silent, and they went out between the lines to gather the dead, they found that the fields were spectacularly abloom with poppies so well fertilised was the ground. And, suddenly, after 15 years, I understood the Sting lyric:
"Poppies for young menAnyway, after my survey of the momuments I turned again to find that Wellington Arch had been well brightened up (in a series of images that rotated every ten minutes or so):
Death's bitter trade"
- National Gallery
- "To Michael, From the Queen"
- falling snow
- Rule, Britannia
- Rule, Britannia . . . in the snow
- Perhaps the Palace would be better rendered by an eight-year-old
- A more creative eight-year-old!
I decided, by the way, to spend the holidays here, mainly because I didn't like to think of turning around and re-crossing the Atlantic so soon. It would have felt like day-camp, rather than real, overnight camp. It would be my first Christmas away from my family in about ten years and, I think, my first really alone. I figured, hey, one year, how big a deal can it be? I sent gifts, and I called everyone on Christmas day, and I received gifts (in that order! ;^), and my few-in-number-but-huge-in-heart friends here were great. But it was a little lonely, and a little hard. It's a little bigger deal than I thought. And it led to my first period of being really down since I've been here. Of course, you can't be exuberant all the time so much less so if you're me, I'm afraid. But, as always, and as someone or other is fond of saying, life could certainly be a hell of a lot worse. But it still seems quite sad. Enduringly so.