Passing of a Generation

I’ve already written about how much of powerful force history is, that it teaches us much about who we are and what we can be. I’ve also mentioned about how the Second World War presented a paradox for me as a child growing up in New Zealand. It felt very distant in space and time and therefore removed from my generation and day-to-day existence. However at the same time it felt very real and very close. Both my Nana and Grandad served in the conflict. My Grandad passed while I was a child but my Nana remained as a tangible link to that past. Only one generation stood between her and me and then I was there: no longer a spectator of history, instead I was touching the past. This changed in May as my Nana passed on and with her my tangible link to that generation, that period of history and that chapter in her and my life. The 70th anniversary of D Day brought home just what a loss it is to lose her, both personally as my Nana but also as one of that generation of veterans.

Growing up surrounded with history (literally we had books dating from the Sumerians to the Second World War in our house) there are names, places and events that were etched onto my consciousness from an early age. D Day was one of those: the beaches, the striped wings of the Allied planes and the beginnings of reclaiming Europe from Nazi Germany. It is an event in history that is so powerful that it only needs to be told truthfully and unadulterated to have an impact.

The Battle of Britain is another such event in history. There is a passage in Guy Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead, where he speaking of the Battle of Britain, which is so poignant that I had to stop once I had read it, just to let the full force of what he said register.

“It was a great story, of which we should all be proud. Many speeches have been made about the boys concerned, many classic utterances published, such as Winston Churchill’s ‘Never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few’. Songs were written and danced to in London night clubs to celebrate the victory, but let us pray, here and now, that those men will be remembered for ever; and especially in ten or twenty years’ time.”

Gibson wrote this whilst the War was happening, he died in 1944 and so did not live to see Allied victory. While there may have been a feeling that the tide in the war had turned and that victory would ensue, he never knew this as fact or experience it for himself. Those words are very much of their time, charged with the electricity of that moment and unaffected by the comfort of hindsight. He wasn’t to know that events of the War were going to be remembered not only 20 years later, but that 50, 70 years later they would still be commemorated.

The Kohima Epitaph is a testament not only the Battle of Kohima and lives lost but also to the power of words. The effect of the Epitaph is greater than its two lines, its 17 words. It is powerful because it is not the living that speak, but the dead:

When you go home, tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow, we gave our today

It is the dead asking nothing more than to be spoken of, remembered, by those who survived and made it back home. My Grandad, my Nana were two of those who made it back home. Gibson and thousands of others did not make it back. There is power in faithful remembrance. There is power in remembering history and freedom in learning from it.

Each Remembrance Sunday the Kohima Homage is spoken. As a veteran it was spoken at my Nana’s service. It has come to embody all conflicts beyond that of Kohima:

They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old,

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

we will remember them.

It serves as a response to the Epitaph. This time it is the living that are speaking. It is the generation who have grown old and the generations who have followed that remember those who did not return.

My Nana was a bit of a survivor. In many ways she was a paradigm of strength and charity. When she was a child during the Great Depression her father would invite home for lunch veterans of the Great War. Sometimes they would be missing limbs or have other battle scars, but at their house they would divvy up the food once again so that they too could have a hot meal.

At 14 years old she was made to leave school (which she had won a scholarship for and did very well at) and work in a factory. Though this was not what she would have chosen, she decided that if she were to work as a seamstress then she would be the best she could be. In the end, her best was exceptional. She was a beautiful example that people can not only survive the circumstances of their life but exceed them.

She lived in London during the Blitz. I’ve written of my fascination with the Battle of Britain. I now live in London and every once and a while on a clear day I will look up and try to imagine the sky filled with aircraft: the Hurricanes, Spitfires, Messerschmitts and Heinkels. In the end I can’t get even close. The fighters of the BBMF fill the sky for me and their numbers are infinitely tiny compared to the numbers of that battle. The din of a bomber’s engines is unmistakeably omnipresent in my ears but there is only one in the BBMF, and those nights saw many more with additional threat of bombs in their bellies. She was too young to enlist at the time, but she joined the WAAF the following year.

As a WAAF she assisted consultants for those men who were being treated with plastic surgery for burns suffered while crashing in a burning aircraft. She took notes on the progress of the patients while they were photographed. She served on Bomber stations. Attended the services for men who took off but didn’t return the same. By the time the war drew to a close in 1945 she had seen much more than her 22 years would otherwise suggest nowadays. Her generation grew up quick.

63 years later I watched her for the first time attending the Armistice Sunday service: standing proudly, smartly dressed in a blazer and slacks (she was always smartly dressed – this was one lesson that was passed down from her, to my mother and eventually to me) with her RAF badge pinned to her beret. She was proud of what her generation had achieved and why not? Look at what they stopped. Look at the price they paid. Look at the lessons they learned. Lessons we ought to pay heed to.

So with her passing, with the steady passing of her generation and with the years between now and then increasing, what else can I do but echo Gibson? Let us hope that there is always enough who choose to look back at history and heed the lessons that were learnt. In the final passing of yesterday’s light into the shadows of dusk, that in 20, 50, 70, 100 years’ time from now it is all remembered and remembered faithfully. Then maybe the night won’t be so long, nor the dawn so cold.

Some Mad Bugger’s Wall: Part Two

Roger Waters came back to London as part of his The Wall tour. I’ve already written about just how awesome this album is as a live concert. However, I never came good on my desire to write about why I felt it was awesome as a live concert. What about it just made me go ‘whoa’ and convinced me that seeing it a second time was not an option but a necessity. Last weekend presented me with the opportunity to make good on that unfulfilled desire. So here it is: some of what I feel makes The Wall (live) awesome. This is slightly different as to why I feel that The Wall (the album) is awesome. To write about the album would be a post (or more) in its own right. Instead here is my deconstruction of Mr Waters’ live show and how it does two things that, for me at least, makes it an experience. First, the combination audio and visual (a Pink Floyd specialty) and second, it confronts you with the need to think, act, make a decision and participate in the events that are happening. In other words it is deliberate music. It is not just music and lyrics for the sake of music and lyrics. It is something with a substance that, on a superficial level you might miss (which I’m sure plenty at Wembley did) but once you know there is more-than-meets-the-eye, it only makes the whole thing that much better.

At the heart of The Wall is the story of Pink: his life, the wall he builds, the psychosis he fall into (Dictator Pink) and his self-inflicted trial. Pink is the foundation stone on which The Wall is built. As the audience you see the story predominately from his perspective and you are invited to sympathise, empathise or judge him accordingly. As an album, The Wall and Pink’s story has no fixed start, no fixed ending, it runs in a loop: ‘Isn’t this where…we came in?’ joining the beginning of record (‘…we came in?’) to the end of record (‘Isn’t this where…’) and so beginning the whole story again. It is a circle of pain, anger, disillusionment, isolation with the hope of escape. To an extent this is true of the live show as well; however live shows seem to work better if they are linear so there is a sense of a beginning and an ending. While The Wall (live) echoes with the cyclical nature of the album, it feels much more linear – something with a start and an end. The wall is built and then taken down. This makes it much more accessible as a story to the audience.

 The Wall: The School Teacher

In The Wall (live), Roger Waters extends the concept of wall beyond just Pink. The wall becomes something that can exclude and include everyone – not just Roger as Pink/Dictator Pink, but also the audience. The impact of this cannot be underestimated as an audience member. As a listener of the album in the comfort of your home you are a passive observer of Pink’s story. There is no compulsion to actively respond to his story. As an audience member there is no passivity – you are experiencing the construction of the wall along with Pink as it is being built. You are part of his psychosis and, willing or not, you are forced to switch from passive to active when it comes to the final construction of the wall and the emergence of Dictator Pink. The only choice is how you react: do you help build it, choose a side or look to tear it down.

The Wall (live) turns the wall into a shared object. It is more than just Pink’s prison – it is made communal and forced upon the audience. It looks at the human response to build walls (or at least start a collection of bricks – albeit physical or metaphorical) and whether people chose to leave the bricks scattered around like a lego-on-the-floor-parent-trap or turn them into a wall. These walls are built to keep out all the bad we don’t want to acknowledge, deal with or accept responsibility for our part. While it feels like these walls can protect us as individuals, they ultimately divide and isolate us as people. If anything this is the lesson that Pink learns. Once the wall is created and he descends into Dictator Pink, he is confronted with the fact that the wall has only succeeded in isolating himself and the necessity to place himself on trial for his actions.

The presence of the physical impact of the wall on stage similarly cannot be underestimated: it overshadows the band, stage and audience. Combined with the impact it has on Pink’s life, the wall almost turns it into a character in its own right. The Wall (with a capital ‘W’) becomes a physical manifestation of Pink’s tortured state of mind which then entraps the audience along with him.

More than a physical boundary, the Wall acts as a mirror on which the audience must look upon. This is where the projected images and animations really come into their own. In essence, it is these that make The Wall (live) an experience. You are confronted with the Wall being completed (trapping you in) and also the images that are projected on it. The series of file cards and images of civilians and soldiers killed in conflict at the start of the show ask the audience: do you use these to isolate yourself from humanity (take no part in it and build your own wall) or include yourself with humanity? The images of children being reunited with their fathers returning from service, the images of children suffering because of conflict, the images of children somehow still being children despite being surrounded by conflict – all of these can be bricks in your wall as well as bricks in the children’s own walls.

The Wall: File Cards

In including images of the outer world into Pink’s Wall, Roger Waters has shown the very human response to either stand up, take notice and be a part of what is happening (and therefore potentially take a risk) and the very human response to not face what is happening and to bury one’s head in the sand. In other words, to build a wall and isolate themselves from it all: to plug oneself in and only worry about the mediocre and mundane because it is just easier. The image of sheep wearing headphones is much more than amusing, or even more than a dig at certain business, it is actually represents one of the less than humane side of humanity. The one that allows or ignores all that is terrible because one is happy, plugged and isolated in their own world. The only problem with that is that at some stage one will be forced to become unplugged.

All the while, Pink’s story is being told. The bricks are being added to the complete his (and now your) wall: his Father, the School Teacher, his Mother and his Wife. The Wall is completed and in the end it is too much for Pink. His reality shatters into a confused kaleidoscope of colour during Comfortably Numb before it reforms itself into the dictatorship stage for the emergence of Dictator Pink.

 The Wall: Dictator Pink

Inside Dictator Pink’s wall is the audience. This is where, as the audience, you no longer have the option of being passive. Like it or not you are a part of Dictator Pink’s distorted reality. However, by now it almost doesn’t matter because as the audience you been with Roger as Pink since the beginning of his descent to madness and now that you’ve arrived there it seems almost inevitable that you’d end up there. You’ve arrived with Pink to his logical conclusion and the reality he has built for himself along with the Wall. The only problem is that it is a conclusion of a mad man and, as with all mad men, the rationale behind is by its very nature irrational and so you have no hope of coming to a truly logical conclusion. However, are most audience members even aware (or care) that they are part of Dictator Pink’s regime? Probably not. However, stuck inside the wall with Dictator Pink, that is what they are: co-habitants of dictatorship – but does it even really matter if you’re freedom is curtailed under a mad man if you’re having a good time?

The Trial and final destruction of the wall is both Pink’s hope and fear. This is the most human of fears and hopes: removing something that separates you, ‘protects’ you from others, is to run the risk or being judged by others. This is what Pink ultimately submits himself to and the audience along with him. The images and animations that were used during the show flash back passed the audience while the verdict is being given, reminding the audience of just what Pink (and by extension themselves) have been judged on. In the end the verdict is that the wall is to be torn down. Even the Dictator’s flying pig meets its end. As the Wall comes down it frees the audience from the object that trapped them in with Pink/Dictator Pink. It is a poignant demonstration that all Walls can come down if that is the will of those who have created them or those who are trapped by them.

The Wall: the Wall comes down