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The uses of memory: looking beyond chocolate bars

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The uses of memory: looking beyond chocolate bars

Post by Jill Segger on Mon Dec 01, 2014 5:53 pm

The Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red installation is gone from the Tower of London. The disputes over white poppies and the British Legion's misuse of Eric Bogle's 'Green Fields of France' have died away. But in this centenary year of the start of the first World War, there is much remembering – both honest and contrived – still to be done.

Never overestimate the crassness quotient of advertising. With an eye to both the Christmas market and the sentiment aroused by the official rites of remembrance-tide, Sainsbury's Christmas commercial plumbed new depths of both sentimentality and cynicism.

The historic 1914 Christmas truce and game of football in No-Man's Land was turned into a two-minute tear-jerker which culminates in a British Tommy slipping a chocolate bar into the pocket of a young German soldier before the monstrous anger of the guns began again. Sainsbury's were reported to be selling 5000 replicas of that chocolate bar per hour last week.

The advert has so far received more than 8 million hits on YouTube and has been variously described as “a masterpiece”, “grim”, “epic”, and “disrespectful”. That half the profits are destined for the Royal British Legion does no credit to that organisation nor does it redeem the use of the pity and horror of war to sell confectionery.

There is a strange 'emotion at a remove' aspect to much of this year's memorialising which reminds me a little of the curious phenomenon which overtook much of Britain in August 1997.

We were in London during that weekend in which the life of Diana, Princess of Wales was cut so short in a Paris underpass. At first, the people we met in the newsagent's or taking Sunday strolls in the park were expressing genuine sadness and shock at so untimely a death. It was only as the day wore on that the extravagant carpet of flowers began to appear. In the days which followed, the nation plunged into an orgy of grief which many of us found disturbing. I shall not forget a tear-stained woman telling the cameras that she had not grieved like this for her own mother. There was something about the flood of emotion which seemed to have to to have little time for reticence and none at all for questioning.

Although on a lesser scale, the Tower of London display appears to touch a similar nerve. From Nigel Farage's tearful display (derided by all who observed it) to the interviews with people grieving the great-grandfathers they had never known, something rings, if not a little false, rather close to the temporary and superficial. The carnage, the brutality, the shot-at-dawn terrified and traumatised teenagers, the ruined and haunted generation – all these demand something quieter, less showy and, perhaps, more analytical if we are to honour those on all sides whose lives were taken from them under circumstances of immense folly and futility.

"This is the use of memory: for liberation" wrote TS Eliot. If the fashion in remembrance stops at stimulating the kind of emotion that is here today and gone tomorrow – even if sustained by feel-good purchasing – we shall be less inclined to go on the difficult journey of metanoia and re-making which war and the ending of war requires of us and in which lies the ultimate liberation of humanity.

This blog first appeared on Ekklesia and is reproduced with acknowledgement. www.ekklesia.co.uk

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen
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