A pacifist considers Remembrance Sunday

William Orpen, a German gunners' shelterMinistry in meeting: I much prefer my little bit of God to the bit of God they have at the war memorial a few hundred yards over there. Yet when they invoke God, God comes. S ministered that peace passes all understanding.

I heard things about Remembrance Sunday which revolt me. Until the 1980s, someone said, they did not allow people maimed in armed service to parade; those parading had to appear normal. I thought, it has to be pacifist, to an extent, thinking of about 850,000 British military deaths in world war one, 450,000 in world war two, and thousands in other conflicts. Even if you see it as “Heroic Sacrifice”, you are still confronted with all that death, and in Britain the popular phrase “lions led by donkeys” encapsulates the thought of thousands wasted by bad strategic decisions of men taking too little care of their own side. I must not get too- “gung-ho” is the word that came to mind, inappropriately- about this, not everyone would see the war in the way I do; but the parade is not just a sentimental UKIPpy Pride in Britain thing.

William Orpen, a grave in a trenchThough when the parade started, and we heard the military drums, I heard how militarist it can be.

Marion went, and reported there were thousands there, perhaps 5-10% of the town. There were various ministers, and a Hindu priest singing prayers.

Of course it is not one undivided They with one undivided view, but a range of people with different motivations for turning up in brilliant sunshine in chilly November at the war memorial. It is not Quakers, the chosen people of God,  following God’s will while the Benighted swarm outside: I can allow them to believe as they do about God, war, remembrance, reality, without it feeling like a threat to me, and that is part of feeling able to hold my own understanding about these things even if others disagree. This understanding of how it might be to be at peace in the chaotic flow of the world’s opinions is not where I am, and not a perfect view of where I might be. Peace passes understanding. But I move towards it, and that is good. God is big enough for all of us.



Idina WallaceThe Etude, opus 10 no. 3, made me sob wildly, prompting the woman on my left, though I did not know her, to put a consoling arm around my shoulder. It strives upwards, to a tonic chord topped with the third, then the striving recedes likes waves just as emotion does, ti, so, and then mi an octave lower. Possibly that MI, rather than doh or so, adds vulnerability.

We had not expected this, but it was ten years since the Foundling Hospital, just south of St Pancras station, became a museum and they celebrated with a brass band and chamber music, and they have regular concerts. Sometimes I resent the power of music to manipulate me like this, but had it not, it would have no interest either. James Brawn played a muscular programme including the Prokofiev toccata op.11, deafening at times.

I can play the Rachmaninov prelude Opus 3 no. 2, and have performed it: a woman told me that the Bells of Moscow motif Fa, Mi, LA made her think “Let, Me, Out!” but graciously she found my performance unobjectionable. Unfortunately, it takes me an hour or two, perhaps spread over a week, to bring up the mid section to speed, and if I just play it errors creep in: I find the effort to keep it performable disheartening, and give up. So I have hardly played my own piano this year, but fiddled about on H’s landlord’s, and the St Pancras piano. Something about loving to perform, perhaps, and needing an audience.

The sustain pedal of the piano at H’s was not working, and I got permission to take the front off and fiddle with it. There is a horizontal lever going from the pedal to the side of the piano, and the upright which should transfer its force to the mechanism had come away. I balanced the upright on the lever, and it worked for a time, but fell off; so I opened the piano again, and stuck the upright to the lever with masking tape. As I did this, I felt pure happiness.

I sat in the living room as H got ready. I noticed wrinkles in the rug, and twists in an elastic band round a box. That elastic band had just been put on any old how, rather than perpendicular to the edges and flat against the box. I picked up the box and straightened the elastic band, then smoothed the wrinkles in the rug. I felt pleasure again, along with irritation and embarrassment that I should want to do these things. What if anyone should find me out? Not “doing good“, exactly, but making the world more as I want it.

At the bus stop there was a woman with her arm round the shoulders of a man- it would normally be the other way round, and I felt irritation, envy, perhaps yearning.

St Pancras 14 6 14


Hogarth, the lenderOn Sunday, we strolled down a quiet, civilised street: Oxford Street. There were people outside John Lewis waiting to go in. Quiet is relative- London is so laid back compared to Moscow, said the young woman on the train, and has such good transport links. She is over visiting her boyfriend, they have been together two years but this is only her second time in Swanston, which is so pretty. Moscow is crazy. Her grandparents are Muscovite. “Dos Vidanye”, I said- not до свидания with the proper accent- and she glowed: how do I know that? Oh, I picked up a few words in lots of languages, I said airily, it really pleased a Russian colleague- but I thought it meant hello, and only now find out it is goodbye.

We went to the Foundling Hospital for the Rake’s Progress: the eight Hogarth prints, and responses since. David Hockney, now a grand old man, made a series of prints in the sixties as an angry young man. The Yorkshire lad arrives in California, his blank face refusing to show he is overawed, to striking sights like rows of men with trannies at their waists, listening on headphones. In one picture he is thrown into the maw of a giant fish. Downstairs is The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry: as with Hogarth, it is all in the faces. I love Hogarth’s lender drawing up his contract with the gull.

Then in the National Portrait Gallery we saw the tiny, crowded The Great War in Portraits. Here are George V, Wilhelm II (h/t II-II) and the Austrian bloke, and a small oil of Franz Ferdinand looking smug, entitled and disdainful. Did they even on the most formal William_Orpen_-_Sir_Arthur_Currieoccasions dress like that? Here’s a photo of Gavrilo Princip looking lost, the perpetual victim. I had not taken much interest in portraits, so William Orpen was new to me. Here are rows of generals: the faces captivate me, more sensitive than I would expect. Donkeys who told men to march towards machine guns-

He’s a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack
as they trudged up to Arras with rifle and pack
but he did for them both with his plan of attack.

I could not necessarily get to like and know these people, but there is a person to like and know. Then there are a couple of VCs: this man shot down an enemy plane, had to land near enemy lines, made repairs to his plane under shell fire then took off again.

Then we saw some contemporary portraits, mostly actors and entertainers though Blair was there. A man asked if Dame Kelly Holmes was a photograph. I had wondered that until I studied the mouth, which is about 7″ across: those vertical lines of reflected light confirmed they were brush strokes, though what I see in the painting is the cleverness of the technique, rather than the person. We don’t know what to make of Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge, either: a blank canvas for the subjects to project what we will.

Here is William Orpen himself:

Self-portrait, 1917

Hogarth’s verse captions move from what is continent and proper to what is disordered and vile, and from the general to the particular:

Gold thou bright son of Phoebus
Of universal intercourse
Of weeping Virtue soft redress
And blessing those who live to bless
Yet oft behold this sacred trust
The tool of avaricious lust
No longer bond of humankind
But bane of every virtuous mind
What Chaos such misuse attends
Friendship sloops to prey on friends
Health that gives relish to delight
Is wasted with the wasting night
Doubt and mistrust is thrown on Heaven
And all its power to Chance is given
Sad purchase of repentant tears
Of needless quarrels endless fears
Of hopes of moments pangs of years
Sad purchase of a tortur’d mind
To an imprisoned body join’d!