Low life

Was there pleasure at Passchendaele?

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

At ten to eleven we filed outside the church and assembled in the graveyard around a small cenotaph commemorating the dead of two wars with a dozen unmistakably local names. As we shuffled out, we hoped that the rain would hold off — no offence of course to any of the names on the cenotaph who copped it at Passchendaele. We were about 30 souls, combined age about 2,500. At 60, I was the second youngest by a decade or so, and I was attached by the hand to grandson Oscar, aged seven.

The rain couldn’t decide whether or not to hold off. Oscar and I sheltered from the horizontal spits in the lee of a gravestone five feet tall. Resting under our feet were William Weeks, who died in 1850 aged 57; Sarah Weeks, ‘wife of the above’, who died in 1867 aged 72; their daughter Lydia, who died in 1865 aged 30; and William Isaac, grandson, who was taken aged eight months, also in 1865. The information was detailed in remarkably well-preserved lapidary. I was grateful to the family for the protection of their gravestone, particularly to Bill, and I was sorry that he missed the miracle of paraffin, invented and patented the year he died, by a whisker.

The vicar came out, magnificent in his flowing robes and full to bursting with the Holy Spirit. The rest of the congregation tottered out behind him and carefully watched their step on the uneven ground. Shepherded by the vicar, we formed a sombre, runny-nosed semi-circle around the small cenotaph. The recorded chimes of Big Ben boomed out from an unidentified portable speaker and we fell silent.

I read about the first world war all the time, and the more I read, the more it strikes me as an unfathomable international suicide. Where on earth does one begin to think about Armageddon? I can’t bear to think about the lads as so many terrified lambs driven to the slaughter, so I started off wondering what proportion of those who went to France enjoyed themselves, on the whole, until they became exhausted or were blown to bits. But I don’t find it easy to control and channel my thoughts, not even when I’m wearing a tie and standing six feet from a vicar.

From my mental picture of laughing, lucky lads in khaki, my thoughts strayed wildly, first to a yellowing, typed notice of dismissal from a psychiatric hospital that I’d found tucked in a disintegrating paperback Knut Hamsun novel earlier that morning. The notice referred to ‘gross misconduct on the part of certain individuals resulting in damage to property and persons’. Also condemned were ‘unauthorised “parties”’. Why our parties had to be impugned with quotation marks, it didn’t say. The last straw, apparently, was that complaints had even been received about ‘human excreta having been thrown from windows at members of the public’. Also sacked, it said, were Mr D. Flynn, Mr D. Halloran, Mr I. Wicks and Miss S. Pocock.

I looked down at the fag burn in my overcoat and called to mind these hitherto long-forgotten colleagues. Mr Flynn had recently left the priesthood, I remembered, and by his own admission was in a bit of a turmoil. Miss S. Pocock loved a party.

As I thought about my sacking notice, the focus of my gaze travelled down to the toes of my shoes and the clipped blades of cemetery grass standing between them. Then I looked across at Oscar’s new trainers, bought on eBay a few days before — ‘authentic’ New Balance trainers, size 1, ‘brand new with tags’, 20 quid including post and packing (rrp £44). And as I considered them, the sun came out and a shaft of sunlight shone horizontally between the gravestones and illuminated them. And I suddenly recognised that they were knock-offs. Fake.

There was no doubt about it. I’d tied his laces that morning but hadn’t paid the quality of the shoe much attention. But now they were in sunlight I could see how shoddy they were and how ludicrously inauthentic the authenticating letter ‘N’ was. And how badly stitched on it had been by some indentured child labourer. Yes, I’d been done. Again. So far this week I’d bought a ‘vintage leather’ wallet that turned out to be plastic; a summer jacket described as adult medium size that was too small even for Oscar; and a pair of slip-on ‘casual’ shoes with surprise steel toe caps.

Then from the unidentified source came the plangent sound of a bugler playing the ‘Last Post’. Two long minutes had passed and I’d barely given a thought to our fallen lads. Far from being ashamed of myself, however, I was so angry at being conned I determined to hit back with a few salvos of bad feedback the moment the service was ended.

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