Picture credit: Daily Herald Archive/National Science & Media Museum/SSPL via Getty Images

What we have forgotten

Modernity as a collective act of amnesia

Artillery Row

What have we forgotten? It’s a good question to ask ourselves this Remembrance Sunday. Forgetting is not just a question of missing friends’ birthdays or failing to send Christmas cards to second cousins. There’s a deeper, almost metaphysical form of forgetting, when we forget the inward meaning of an outward sign. 

The tragedies of everyday life are made up of such forgettings. One day a woman looks up and forgets to see the man she loves in the face of her husband. A man breaks a window and rifles through a cash register. He has forgotten what it was to be a child who felt a fearful awe at the fault of breaking the law, innocence is the easiest thing to forget. A student sits alone in his room, staring at a screen, he has forgotten the joy of leaving the house in the morning, the smell of the air, the wave of sound and light that carries you from your doorstep into the world. 

Tradition, made much of on the Right, decried on the Left, is in its true sense nothing more or less than remembering. We cannot and should not seek to arrest movement and change, which is the nature of life, and those who forget the past are as guilty of this as those who cling to it. Tradition looks Janus-faced to past and future in the same gesture. 

Each new account of what came before changes and adds to it

Creativity is nothing other than gazing upon the works of the past, our natural and human histories, and responding with word, gesture and sign. Each new account of what came before changes and adds to it, things are new and fresh because each addition is a differentiation that changes the structure and meaning of all that came before it. Like adding new words or punctuation to a sentence, the meaning and significance can reverse itself and reverse again, without losing a word. 

The modern idea of the self-created and self-generated self, Locke’s Tabula Rasa or blank slate, is really a form of forgetting, a toxic Lethe that we baptise ourselves in, hoping to rid ourselves of our given biology and inherited culture. But the biology and culture remains, and all that is removed is our memory of them, leaving the modern subject, a lost soul who perpetually redefines themself in the quest for a meaning that they believe resides within, but is actually outside and beyond themselves. 

Beyond thinking of it in abstractions, our basic ability to ​​live together successfully, and have a common store of shared language and common culture to draw on is degraded. In villages and towns across the country communities are gathering to observe Remembrance Sunday as they have for 100 years. After World War One so many young men had died that the proportion of women to men was 109 to 100 in 1921, a proportion that was even higher amongst young men and women. 

Although 100 years separates us from them, that century is not as long everywhere. In British regions and communities where many have lived for generations, history is as short as collective memory. In Nottinghamshire where I grew up and my parents still live, old factories, mines and wars seem much closer in time than they do in restless uprooted London. 

Many prominent in leftwing media and politics, especially but not only Corbynites, are often suspicious of the ubiquity and alleged militarism of Remembrance Day. They complain about the “poppy police”, the obsequiousness of the BBC and generally regard it, like the monarchy, as a conservative institution. 

The prevalence of this sort of perspective is disturbing not because of the relative merits of Remembrance itself — indeed the pacifist reaction to it and the White Poppy movement had considerable support in the 1930s including amongst ex-servicemen. It’s the failure to understand the communities for whom Remembrance is a natural and important ritual. 

You rarely see a white poppy today because much of the anti-war feeling has been absorbed into Remembrance itself, with anti-war poems on the school curriculum, and an atmosphere of tragedy rather than celebration. The average Brit today supports the troops but doesn’t want to send them off to fight. 

The divisions over the war, and questions of militarism and nationalism, are no longer live issues dividing British communities, and for most Remembrance has become a way of connecting to a sense of shared history and belonging. So why is it dividing some of us? What are the lines today?

The clue is the difference between my old home and my new one — call it Lambley versus London. Few have heard of the village of just over 1000 souls, with a magnificent parish church, and ancient woodland you can walk in. I came to know it from when my mother was working as a priest there. 

The people who lived and worshipped there were incredibly warm and hospitable to me, an awkward teenager, and were deeply invested in the life of their community. Even those who didn’t attend church helped out with parish fetes. And sure enough alongside the importance of things like the agricultural show (elsewhere in the county my mother always gets huge crowds when she goes to bless the tractors), Remembrance Sunday is a big deal.

The Lambley Parish Council fundraised to place a war memorial in Passchendaele made of Derbyshire stone for the sake of the nine men of Lambley who died in the conflict. I doubt they had in mind British foreign policy or the merits of war when they did so.  One of the reasons I suspect so many prominent on the Left feel suspicious of Remembrance Sunday and you hear so much about the BBC and “poppy fascism” is that many of them only experience Remembrance Day through the medium of the BBC and national ceremonies involving major politicians.

London is not without its traditional communities, nor does its diversity inevitably disconnect it from wartime history (as Rakib Ehsan has written over a million South Asian men served in the War). However, the way people live in London, with the constant churn of both internal and external migration, the vast population of young renters, the relentless focus on global capitalism rather than on a national economy and culture, has created an increasingly rootless and characterless city. What goes for London also of course goes for the way many professionals increasingly live, disconnected from place and tradition. 

The objection many have with the “official” form of Remembrance may represent a severe disconnect with the organic and local version, but it may have half a point to it too. Though officials and politicians go through the same motions as people in parish churches across the country, the meaning is draining away. 

I recall in my local Church of England school how little of a sense of moral depth and shared culture was passed on. The attitude of those who ran it and taught at the school was that education was a series of practical skills, and that the most important value to internalise was “respect” — a sort of banal passively benevolent attitude of “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother men”. It’s this, not the most extreme excesses of “wokeness”, which represent the decline of British education and culture.

We’re content to turn them into a cypher

Although we pay lip service to generations now dead and vanished — the Edwardian and Victorian men who gave their lives on the bloody fields of France and Belgium — do we really remember them? We’re content to turn them into a cypher for a reverential entombing of our past, or a maudlin reflection on the tragedy of war, but are we learning from them? 

The Britain they gave their lives for was an exceptional nation — a parliamentary democracy in a world where political freedom was the exception, a rich country where most were poor, the first industrial power, a beacon of thought and culture, a dynamic and vital nation at the heart of world history. As well as these national glories, men fought and women sacrificed for the sake of the patchwork of lives, families and communities that comprised this national project. They fought or bravely refused to kill for the sake of deep religious and ethical principles. 

We cannot honour the sacrifices made by our forebears if we do not remember what they died for. We do not have to believe exactly as they believed, or live precisely as they lived. But if we forget their lives, we are doomed to forget ourselves. As we all come together on Remembrance Sunday we should ask ourselves what we’re remembering and why. And what we’ve forgotten to remember. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover