Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves;
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
W.H. Auden (Funeral Blues)
I SUPPOSE IT MIGHT BE SAID that I come from a military family. My Grandfather Eldridge and his sons were in the Royal Navy, as were great and great-great uncles and distant cousins now long dead of natural causes. My cousin's son is an officer on a Royal Navy ship on active duty at the present time. My Grandfather Lancaster's older brother was killed in the Pas de Calais in September 1918, just weeks before the Great War ended so inconclusively. My Grandmother Lancaster's brother, Frederick Proctor, was drafted into the Royal Navy during that First World War even though his only experience of the sea had been the view from the promenade at Blackpool. Frederick went AWOL, but then changed his mind and returned to his unit. I don't know what became of him.
My Great-Grandfather Eldridge's brother, John, in the Royal Army, was shipped out to Bermuda in about 1880, where he married a very young local girl called Ada Thomas. They returned to Britain and I am actually in touch with one of their descendants. My Great-Grandfather Thomas Christopher Eldridge, John's brother, spent ten years in the Royal Navy and I have seen his military records and noted that he'd spent a little time in the brig in some exotic port. I wonder if it was the local rum that did him in.
Of course, I can go a great deal further back and tell you about my 20th Great-Grandfather Ralph, Earl of Stafford, who was appointed Seneschal of Aquitaine and a founding member of the Knights of the Garter by King Edward III for his prowess and success in the battlefields of France and Scotland.
My 19th Great-Grandfather in another line was Guy de Beauchamp, 10th Earl of Warwick, who distinguished himself fighting for King Edward I. He fell out with King Edward II over the King's favourite, Piers Gaveston, and together with the Earl of Lancaster abducted Gaveston and had him executed.
There's a goodly amount of blood on the swords, axes and hands of some of my ancestors. Quite a few of them died in battle and, for all I know, I've walked through their dust in historical sites.
Back in the Middle Ages there were wars of succession and conquest, and the Crusades. I have titled forebears who fought and died in the Holy Land. It was one way to guarantee a ticket to Heaven and Eternal Life.
"He died for us, and now we're off to die for Him." They might have believed that, but I don't believe in Him or all that dying in order to live. It was nonsense in the First Millennium and it's rubbish in the Third.
I've seen two funeral corteges on the television in the past fortnight. The first, which I caught only in the news summaries after it happened, was that of pop star (he thought he was a King, silly boy) Michael Jackson in Los Angeles. Jackson's gold-plated bronze casket made the trip to his memorial service under police escort down those awful highways which seemed to have been emptied of regular traffic for the big occasion. Now, I didn't much care for Michael Jackson's music, but I quite liked his 1980s videos for the dancing. Oddly, perhaps, I like his duet "Scream" with his sister, Janet, which seemed honest somehow. Someone has noted that the whiter Michael Jackson became, the worse his dancing got. At the memorial service the pop star was eulogised in such glowing terms that I felt he must have been other than human if it was all true. No ordinary man … Michael Jackson's brain didn't attend the service, he went as the Scarecrow from The Wiz, and I wonder if it is right to make such a fuss over a body that wasn't all there. It was creepy, kids!
The memorial service for Michael Jackson has been described as a "Nuremberg Rally made out of sugar." A noted blogger pointed out that, in honour of the King of Pop, the Reverend Al Sharpton rewrote history and said that Jackson's "We Are the World" had come before "Live Aid", and it had not. Many will point out that Sharpton wouldn't know the truth if it bit him on the butt. I find it not surprising that a man of God would alter the truth to suit an occasion. Another commentator thought it all an epitaph for the Pepsi Generation. Didn't Michael Jackson give little boys wine in Coca Cola tins and call it Jesus Juice? The King of Soda Pop, that's how I choose to remember him: fizzy for a while, then quite flat.
Yesterday I watched the eight hearses carrying the bodies of eight British soldiers, all under the age of 30, passing through the little village of Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire. These lads, three of whom were only 18 years of age, were killed in action in Afghanistan a few days ago. The last 80 soldiers returning to England's green and pleasant land in coffins draped with the Union Flag have been driven slowly through Wootton Bassett, from a nearby airfield on the way to autopsies at a hospital in Oxfordshire. Up until yesterday there might have been one, two or a very few hearses and the procession made a stop at the War Memorial in the village's main street for a minute's silence. The local shopkeepers and businessmen and pedestrians have been coming out for the passing by in greater and greater numbers.
Yesterday, with so many of our lads flag-draped in their boxes (might they be made of English oak?) making the trip, thousands of viewers turned out, coming not only from the vicinity, but from many parts of Britain. The press was there. The live cameras were running. I watched it happening from the comfort and discomfort of my front room on the telly. The crowds were said to be eight-deep, but I counted and it was more than that. I saw a lot of young people weeping and hugging each other, it was the old-timers in the crowd who remained stoic in the face of all that sadness. Old-timers under their sunglasses.
I may belong to a military family, but the closest I have come to the art of war was a spell in the Cadet Corps when I was at grammar school. I hated the experience. I did take part in a re-enactment of the Battle of Crécy in a school history class, which was interesting because my direct ancestor, the Earl of Stafford, was a commander in the English army at Crécy.
The war in Afghanistan is, I'm afraid, a black hole. It can only suck men and machines in and spit them out, ruined, and destroyed. The War on Terror is a religious war; it is the same war that gave us the Crusades and the reaction to them. Jerusalem may be the navel of the world, but it is the centre of all evil as well as the focus of religious experience. I'm afraid the Christian Right and the Jewish State are just forms of Talibanism. Our Taliban is better than yours.
Alexander the Great went to the part of the world we call Afghanistan and named a city there after him, something he liked to do. Then he left. Good on him. Kandahar remains on the Afghani map. It must really bug the local folk. The wounds are deep and old.
We in England and America don't really want fuzzy-wuzzy Islamist things in our towns and villages, not if we're being honest. Why in the world do our leaders and churchmen think we need to convert the world to Western Democracy? To the Pepsi Generation? To MacDonald's? To Starbucks? To Michael Jackson's music?
I felt a great sadness watching the line of hearses make its way through Wootton Bassett yesterday on my television. The crowds were so extensive this time, and the number of long, black vehicles so large that they did not pause at the War Memorial for a minute's silence for the first time. The memorial, like so many, many others in Britain (and around the world) is engraved "Lest We Forget".
I think they should have made that stop, taken the minute, taken the chance that more hearts would break. Some things one really should not forget.