David on Memorial Day

Up in Hampstead, Memorial Day comes 52 times a year for David.

TRANSCRIPT

London calling. David here.

Today’s Memorial Day in the United States so I thought I’d do a personal –  a David, a London-based, a from London Memorial Day piece for today’s podcast. 

As it happens, every Sunday is a memorial day for me. So the where’s and when’s and why’s and what’s and who’s of those weekly acts of remembrance are part of what I’m going to set out here. 

And let’s get it said that the British equivalent of the American Memorial Day is called Remembrance Sunday. It takes place on the Sunday closest to November 11th. Up and down the land there’s a service. And a two minutes silence at 11 o’clock. 

That Sunday because November 11th is of course Armistice Day. 

Armistice Day. That very name – if you open the furnace door of its meaning – should sear. It doesn’t anymore. You can’t see the word anymore for the terrifying, sharp-edged bayonet that it is. It’s been so encrusted with use that it’s been blunted, dulled. It’s lost its shiny, scary, razor-sharp edge.

And that’s by way of saying, an armistice is not necessarily the end of a war. Strictly speaking it’s an agreement by warring parties to stop fighting – almost like a truce – while attempts are made to negotiate a lasting peace. 

The word itself interests me. You can of course hear the word arms in armistice. And the second part of the word stice comes from the proto Indo-European root sta, which means to stand, make or be firm. You get the same root in the word solstice. The solstice is the point at which the sun seems to stand still. Well, the armistice was when the arms, the guns, stood still, fell quiet. 

But yes, you take the word for what it means, it’s deeply disquieting. And of course history would show that armistice was in fact the right word. Because in less than 21 years Britain, France, Germany and in time virtually the whole world would be at it again. Any way you look at it, it’s horrifying. And I’d say that timeline makes the nightmare somehow even worse. World War I – industrialised slaughter. The lost generation. Lost because of the meat grinder of that war. And then just over 20 years later – the allotted time span for a generation is 25 years – so it wasn’t even a full generation later, the next generation was on that treadmill heading into the bloody maw of modern warfare. I sometimes wonder about that five-year difference. Scientists say it takes 25 years for the human brain to fully mature. (Aside here, when they were little I used to tease my kids: what’s it like having a brain that’s only 80 percent developed? The answer to that was usually a punch to dad’s midriff.) But anyway the point is that 25-year-olds are pretty much fully mature. I think you could say they’re less tractable than 20-year-old boys. 

Anyway, two personal memorial day-like memories. I grew up in a small town in southwestern Wisconsin. 1960s. Yes, you got it. Vietnam War. There were a 129 kids in my high school graduating class. We graduated in 1964. 129 kids, 64 boys. Two of those boys – two boys of the 64 of the Class of 64 – were killed in Vietnam. And that war, what was all that about?

The other memorial day type memory took place about thirty years ago. Our three were under 5. We went to France. Went to those D-Day beaches. And to the cemeteries. The cemeteries. Endless – as far as the eye could see – white crosses. And, yes, a few stars of David. Endless fields of white crosses. And we were there with those little kids of ours. And our lives were so full, so full of joy, so full of life. And I remember so clearly my first thought when all of that came into view. That thought was, “my god, all the unborn children.”

Anything else to add before we turn to my weekly memorial days in Hampstead?

Yes, maybe this. I am an anti-militarist. That said, I hasten to add, when I was a journalist we had more than a few politicians and military men making their way through that newsroom. And one day it occurred to me, “I’ve never met a politician I’ve liked. And conversely, I’ve never met a soldier (or an airman or a naval guy) I haven’t liked.” I say that for what it’s worth. I’m not sure what the dynamic was there. I think it may have had something to do with my sense that the politicians were more often than not telling porkies, telling lies. And that the military guys were telling the truth. I remember mentioning that to a naval commander’s wife on a walk and she said, “yes of course, in the military you have to tell the truth, you can get people killed if you don’t.”

Ok. Let’s go to Hampstead. My Sunday morning walk. Like every place in the country Hampstead has war memorials. Three of them that we pass. We pause before two of them. One is outside the parish church, St. John’s. There are four tablets on wall just before you step into the churchyard. There are about 80 names on those tablets. Twenty names per tablet. Every single one of those tablets will have at least one pair – sometimes two or three pairs – of names. Brothers. Or perhaps cousins. Or fathers and sons. 

I saw – but didn’t see – that war memorial for 40 years. Just walked by it. Thousands of times. And then one day, six months ago or so, one of the names caught my eye. Ernest Lifetree. That’s such a beautiful name. I wanted to know more Ernest Lifetree. So I did some research. Turns out, he got started in my neck of the woods, West Hampstead. Fordwych Road was where his boyhood home was. His was a Jewish family. That wonderful surname – Lifetree – was an anglicised version of what had been a German name. They were a Middle Class. Father owned a small factory. They prospered. They ended up in West Hampstead’s grandest street, Crediton Hill. Two tablets away there’s Arthur Cullen. Arthur’s mother was Ada Cullen. She was a charlady. Lived in a handsome house I show people five minutes before we get to St. John’s. The Tall Towne House it’s called. It’s in Perrin’s Lane. How was it a charlady got to live in that fine house. I’m pretty sure Ada was given a couple of rooms in the basement in return for looking after the house. The 1911 Census Return tells us she was living there with her three teenage kids, a daughter and two sons. Arthur was one of her sons. His name is on that tablet, not a hundred yards from the house where his mother charring, trying to do her best by her three kids.

So you could say Arthur was a working-class kid. And then the last tablet along has the names Donald Tripp and Cyril Tripp. They were brothers. They were upper class. Donald Tripp had a twin brother. I tracked the twin brother’s life. He died in 1947. The executor of his will was one Donald Tripp. That’ll have been his son. So here’s the surviving twin trying to keep his dead twin alive, in a sense, by naming his son after him. So moving. 

Several things come together here. We’ve got a working-class kid, a middle-class kid and an upper class. So the full social range of Hampstead is there. A lot of those young Hampstead men – boys is probably a more accurate term – were in a unit that came to be known as the stock broker brigade. Because it was Hampstead. A lot of rich kids up there. Though Arthur Cullen certainly wasn’t a rich kid. And I almost can’t bear to mention what happened to the Stock Broker Brigade – within about 18 months of them marching off to the trenches, nearly half of them were dead or badly wounded. Half out of some 750 in total. The death total for Covid so far in Britain is about one in 400. Many of them very old, very unwell people – not that that in any way lessens the horror of these past 13 months. But 300 or so bright, fit young men from one small community. Well, I”m not going to belabour the obvious. Years ago I read something that made a lasting mark in my mind. The author said, “we die three times. We die when we die. We die when we’re buried. We die the last time our name is spoken.” I’ve resolved that I’m going to keep Ernest Lifetree and Arthur Cullen and Donald Tripp from dying that third time, as long as it’s possible for me to do so. So we stop there every Sunday morning on my Hampstead Walk. Spend a minute or so there. Look at those names. Hear those young men’s stories.

The other war memorial is a tiny tablet on the wall of a very small block of what would have been council flats. They’ll mostly be privately owned now. There are actually two small blocks of flats there. About 60 flats in total. They’re very hard to find. It’s a very attractive little Hampstead nook that’s impossible to find. It feels like you’re wending your way through private grounds. I suppose technically those grounds are somewhere between public and private. But anyway, this little tablet is impossibly moving. For two reasons. 1. It’s affixed there on one of the two buildings that those 50 boys lived in, grew up in. There are 50 names on the tablet. Ten of those names have crosses beside them. Those ten boys were killed. So the other two war memorials are each in a very different zone from this one. One’s on the wall that fronts the churchyard; the others right up at the top of the hill where the three main Hampstead roads meet. So they both are in a public place. But not the one on the wall of the small block of council flats. You’re looking at where those kids lived. Where their parents were when the telegraph came. Where the neighbours were. Some of whose sons came back alive. Though God knows how injured – mentally or otherwise – some of the survivors may have suffered. The school those kids went to, is right there, just over the way. The grounds we’re standing in are the grounds those little boys will have played in. The gate we open to leave that little estate is the gate those youngsters will have been in and out of countless times. And then one last time for some of them.

That’s one thing.

The other thing is the names. There are two Moodys on that little plaque, three Martins, three Kitchens, three Wards, two Williams, two Wilsons, five Rouses.  Two of those Rouse boys were killed. Two of the Ward boys were. And so on.

Yes, brothers. Or possibly – distant possibility – fathers and sons. Or cousins.

Two small buildings. 60 flats. 50 youngsters. Ten of them killed. 

There are entire libraries of books and documents about World War I. You want a distillation of the folly and futility of war – of the catastrophe that the Great War visited upon humankind – you need do no more than stand in front of that humble little tablet on that little block of council flats in that out of the way little back corner Hampstead. Stand there for a minute or so and think about the Rouse family. And the Ward family. And the Wilsons. And the rest of them.

Ok, that’s my Memorial Day say from here in London. 

One response to “David on Memorial Day”

  1. Charles Piper says:

    Very well said. I have bumped into a similar thought where your final death was when the last person that knows you dies. At that point I like to think of Plato, still when I visit the cemetery I am awe struck by how many have gone before, and how few I know. The struggles, laughter, heartlessness, and love, what stories there must have been that I will never know. Yes this holiday does give one pause.

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