The quality of memory.

“The quality of mercy is not strained…” so runs a line from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, if my memories of distant English Lit lessons from school remain true. That’s as may be, but what about the quality of memory? Not in the sense of good memories or bad ones, but more in terms of communal memory. What do we as a culture remember, and how accurately? How well?

(Public Domain)

Currently the news cycle here in the United Kingdom has transitioned from the visit of an American President, to thinking about the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day, the Allied Forces Operation Overlord to begin the liberation of mainland Europe from the Nazi regime. The juxtaposition of this beside the end of a state visit from a leader whose attitudes and sympathies evoke disturbing echoes of fascism is somewhat ironic to say the least. What, or maybe how, are we remembering?

As an ordained priest in the Church of England I’ve conducted a fair number of funerals over the last 19 years. Even being out of active parochial ministry and spending several years in My Little Part of Kent with few funerals I reckon the total must easily be in triple figures. One thing that has always struck me was how infrequently those whose memories we shared and celebrated had seen active service in World War 2. Two men in my curacy years (2000-3), and one here in Northampton, all of whom I was privileged to know personally, rather than vicariously through the stories of relatives. John had flown with Bomber Command, chain-smoked his way through life between missions with hugely adverse effects for a half-century after. Bob, likewise, shot down over enemy territory and kept as a PoW until the war’s end and barely telling a soul of his experiences. Graham, an air-gunner/wireless operator in Havoc light bombers, and again, speaking very little for decades after. (There may have been others, their stories lost to my memory). Three, out of hundreds. More common were the tales of those who through National Service, after the war, did their time in the armed forces, often the RAF and often Egypt, if I remember correctly. Still a minority.

Viewed logically this shouldn’t actually be a surprise. D-Day was 75 years ago. My father was born in the impending shadow of war, 1938; my mother in 1944. Neither of their fathers saw active service, although one of my great uncles, if family stories are true, went down with HMS Hood. Very few of the veterans are left. All we have are the stories of the ones who felt able to share them, and family knowledge carried down of parents and uncles and so on. We may seek to carry and share their memories, but they are not our memories. They are not personal, at best one step removed. In which case, how much can we actually remember D-Day, or the extermination camps of the Holocaust? They are knowledge, but rarely carry the emotional shock power of the genuine memory of traumatic events.

It’s this distancing of memory that leaves me quietly worried and pessimistic about the trajectory of our times towards narrow nationalism and sentimentalist appropriation of popular myth. Small wonder if we as a nation, a culture, drift towards the shadow of fascism. How can we recognise it, except by the stories of the past? They may have been able to see it with hindsight, but rarely did at the time. We like to think we’ve learnt, that we’re better. I’m far from sure, especially with the power of technology to unlock propaganda, misinformation and fake news to obfuscate and promote “alternative facts.”

However, I see a glimmer of hope in the fact that we have avoided such a large scale conflict for some seven decades. Then again, my grandparents had a much closer connection to the slaughter the trenches in 1914-18, and the effects on society thereafter, and still managed to plunge headfirst into war barely 21 years later. If that’s not scary and shocking, I don’t know what is.

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