Poppies (part 2)

War and pain, grief and remembrance had always been with us but the field and opium poppies had not yet been turned into the potent symbol of the Remembrance poppy. But it would, in the obscene horror of the first World War. The trenches which we are so familiar with from documentaries and films were not the only scenario; flying above the Somme a young fighter pilot wrote “among the devastated cottages…….the desecrated cemetaries……the poppies were growing” and even the men in the trenches were attracted to that fragile fleeting beauty. Sapper Jack Martin put his little posy of small marguerites and flaming poppies on a makeshift table, a momentary distraction from the filth, flies and lice.(1) Probably flowers still have a deep meaning inscribed in them: the budding,the opening sepals giving a glimpe of the colour beneath, the bursting into bloom, the uncrumpling of the petals to live a day or two of total glory but then, to droop, fade, drop petals and die.

What was behind this popular symbolism of poppies being the resurrected dead arising?There is a terrible botanical truth behind the symbol: before the war the soil of Belgian Flanders was deficient in lime but the shattered villages, shattered bones fertilised the landscape and gave rise to the abundant flowering of the poppy. So at the beginning of the war we have rather romantic, jingoistic poems citing the poppies, but it didn’t take much time in the trenches to change all that ! Just 3 years later Isaac Rosenberg writes one of the greatest of the war poems:

The darkness crumbles away –

It is the same old druid Time as ever.

Only a live thing leaps my hand-

A queer sardonic rat-

As I pull the parapet’s poppy

To stick behind my ear…

What do you see in our eyes

At the shrieking iron and flame

Hurled through still heavens?

Poppies whose roots are in a man’s veins

Drop,and are ever dropping;

But mine in my ear is safe,

Just a little white with the dust”………………………………..the poppy has taken on vampirish qualities. Meanwhile….. back to opium

As late as 1916 Harrods were selling morphine gift boxes. Not only the wounded benefited from its calming properties though, for in 1917 cigarettes were dropped to Turkish troops fighting in Gaza and the next day the troops were virtually unable to fight!

Note1: Sapper Jack Martin’s diary is one of several recently published first World War accounts that had lain undiscovered for decades.


Poppies (Part 1)

The corn poppy re-christened Flanders poppy and immortalised by John McCrae, has a weight of symbolism which seems too heavy for such a fragile dainty flower to bear. Anyone who has tried to make a poppy lady will attest to its delicacy. But as with its cousin, the opium poppy, they are both flowers of war the tradition of the soothing soporific quality of the opium poppy seems to have melded with the idea of a remembrance poppy. It has been with us from neolithic times and is a very successful weed, happiest to grow on churned-up land. It has been excavated at lake Bracciano as well as in many older sites, living with us and being cultivated for its soporific and painkilling properties. EIGHTY million poppies are sold worldwide every year to remember and honour the dead. Such a weight on such fragility! Assyria, ancient Egypt, Minoa, the opium poppy was important to the Greeks and later to the Romans and is to be found flowering on the banks of Lethe.

Poppies, transfigured, took a great leap forward in the 19th century leaving behind their archeological and mythical connotations. Now it was war! The freshly churned-up ground at the battle of Waterloo was thick with poppies and the tradition arose that these were stained scarlet with the blood of the slain. Empires went to war over the opium poppy and the enormous profits to be made from them. Janus Bi-front or poppy Bi.front, for on the one hand poppy profits helped finance the industrialisation of war whilst on the other, it alleviated suffering. In the 1820’s the miraculous properties of morphine (from Morpheus the god of sleep) as a pain killer was spread over all Europe. Britain created, was in fact a drug cartel and by causing the Opium wars against China made vast sums of money. The wealth accrued by the Empire would be spent to finance the 1914/1918 war. The British “Romantic poets” included many opium eaters and the whole Romantic movement tended to glorify the literary properties of a drop or two of laudanum.

the Poppy Field near Argenteuil,1873 by Claude Monet

The American Civil war tested in its extreme conditions (it was one of the most brutal, tragic wars ever, with a huge percentage of men lost) the efficacy of the opiates :”maimed and shattered survivors from a hundred battlefields, diseased and disabled soldiers……anguished and hopeless wives and mothers, made so by the slaughter of those who were dearest to them have found……temporary relief from their suffering in opium”. (“The Opium habit”, Horace Day, 1868) but with painters and poets came a kind of conflation of the two types of poppy “All silk and flame”(Ruskin) but Keats waxed lyrical “drowsed with the fume of poppies”. Here the two are finally one.


Remembrance Day

Remembrance seems to be a particularly English sentiment. We are good at it, great at War Poetry, War memorials and remembering. In beautiful Ely cathedral there’s a long list of names, handwritten in lovely script and they turn a page over every day, the roll of honour. The omnipotent poppy, because of a very poor poem is a strong unifying symbol which means a lot to me because when I was just a girl I would go selling poppies for the British Legion, an organisation which collects money for ex-servicemen and their families. I didn’t get the collection in the village, I was allotted the fens, miles and miles of fertile flat land criss-crossed by ditches and dykes courtesy of the Dutch, who drained flat ,waterlogged East Anglia and where there were only a few farms, long potato mounds and landworkers mostly on tractors. The gentleman who organised the whole thing accompanied me in his car, I just had to tramp across the ploughed fields in my wellies. but he was a real old-fashioned gentleman and I’ll always remember meeting him in the street where he raised his hat to me ! That was an incredible moment because I wasn’t much more than a kid.

So poppies are everywhere in November. If you ever see a picture of any members of the Royal family they are always wearing them, both at the miliary concert in the Royal Albert Hall and the Commemoration at the Cenotaph. This year the concert was given to an empty hall and I can assure you that when the lone trumpeter plays ” the last post” and the red poppy petals come wafting down from the ceiling symbolising the wasted lives of the soldiers in the trenches and other battlefields, it is difficult to hold back a tear, because we are remembering a filthy, blood- and- guts war, where soldiers were dying ,terrified in bloody, shitty , rat-infested trenches. Young men, some just boys because they had lied about their age. So honestly, whatever people say about putting the past behind us, I still think we should honour our fallen.

This year as lockdown impedes gatherings, undaunted, they have decided to ask people to stand on their doorsteps wearing their poppies and displaying poppies in their windows while they observe 2 minutes’ silence. What’s a hundred years in man’s memory?


Back to the cinema…

I already told you how much I love the cinema. It’s a bit like a book I suppose, living other lives. I’ve always found it so impressive though frightening, how filmmakers can manoeuvre us. Probably because it works on emotion. Tolstoy told me that. Do you remember the passage? He related that as a boy he had joined in tormenting an unloved companion “I am quite unable to explain to myself my cruel behaviour. How was it I did not go up to him, did not protect or console him? Where was my tender heart which often caused me to sob wildly at the sight of a young jackdaw pushed out of its nest, or a puppy being thrown over a fence , or a chicken the cook was going to make a soup of?

Can it be that all these good instincts were stifled in me by my affection for Seriozha (the bully) and my desire to appear in his eyes as fine a fellow as he was himself?” And here we have the explanation of why we cannot trust our emotions. This passage has always been a kind of mantra for me because emotions are scary aren’t they? And in the cinema they’re not only scary but false too. The first time I realised this was when I went to see E. T. All of a sudden along a long row, the whisper ” pass the tissues please”! Embarrassing. But how do they do it?

This love for the cinema comes from a long way back so I guess that makes it pretty unsurprising then that some of the films I enjoyed the most at “Cinema sotto le stelle” were not really new, although they were among the classics not only of the Italian cinema but of world cinema..

I was lucky enough to see the rennovated version of Elio Petri’s “Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto”. I’m not the only one who sees the film as a masterwork as Petri won the 1971 Oscar for it for best foreign language film, Gran Prix Cannes and numerous others, even though I believe he had certain difficulties getting it shown at first as it was seen as a politically provocative film,

coming as it did in the years of lead and in the aftermath of the Pinelli crime. Noticed by many is the similarity between Gian Maria Volontè and police chief Calabrese.

But I don’t want to go down that road, as quite frankly, I don’t know enough about it and I find the universality of the film unlinked to a specific time or place the more fascinating an approach. The schizophrenia of power is underlined by Enno Morriconi’s soundtrack which was actually the reason they showed the film at “Cinema sotto le stelle”, as a tribute to the recently dead maestro. It is a wonderful study in power: the arrogance of” il dottore” (the Italian love of titles so often sent up by comedians, no one can forget Fantozzi’s “gran mascalzon.lup.man.pezz.di merd.dottor Brambani”) intimidating his victims during police interviews in contraposition to his grovelling obsequiousness when he is in an inferior position in the pecking order. He commits the crime and scatters the crime scene with clues and in an elaborate game, accuses himself making sure however, that no one believes him.

And what to say about Volontè? In an outstanding scene with the press he speaks of “immutable law carved in time”, and infers that repression equals civility or as he says “repression is our vaccine”,and he is totally convincing as this grotesque “child” of power

It is impossible to pick up all the subtleties of the film first time round. I’m thinking of biting the bullet and buying it from Amazon so that I can study it in detail. It was really difficult to stay cool- headed and critical throughout a film of this stature.


In Praise of Laziness

I appear to have been adopted by a kitten who certainly knows which side his bread’s buttered on. He chose the only person staying at home all August, at a loose end, getting fed up with Netflix, kept out of the garden by the extremely debilitating heat and the sheer amount of things to do. How did he know? But at least he’s quiet. that’s the great thing about cats, they tiptoe. After looking after him for a couple of days I’m more in doubt than ever about getting an animal. They need looking after and I thought I’d finished with that part of my life! My mother, who was a dog lover (a whole succession of golden Retrievers who got the best of everything in our household) told me when the last one died , “Anne, never get anything with a mouth” and how right she was! Mind you she should have added “and never get anything that needs watering”.

Of course I have irrigation in the garden, but long ago I mislaid the plans. It’s far too complicated. Pop-up sprays for the lawn areas, dripfeed for the veggie beds and leaky tubes for everything else. At the moment I’m trying to simplify the upkeep in order to be able to enjoy it, not just work in it. I’ve discovered to MY surprise (but nobody else’s) that my painful back is caused by weeding. Not the gentle ladylike stuff you read about in novels, done by ladies in lovely hats and nice gardening gloves, but the straining fall-over-if-you -let -go, tall grasses type! Rant over! However, it is so lovely to sit outside , especially in the evenings when all you have to do is breathe in the perfume of Wintersweet, or jasmine, or roses or Brugmansia depending on the season. I have been trying to make mine a perfumed garden. I really have to fall in love with a flower to give it ground space if it has no scent. This is causing a running battle between me and my helper Davide. He hates my Edgeworthia, but it perfumes the whole garden in early spring when nothing else is doing anything.