Thursday, September 08, 2011

A Layby for the Dead

It was doomed before it began, and the greatest tragedy is that the people whom it has most affected knew even as it was proposed how horrible it would be, but were powerless to stop the crass machinations of the government.

The repatriations through Wooton Bassett were deeply moving and appropriate for many reasons, but one in particular is worth looking at. The hearses passed through the centre of town, through the ordinary lives of of ordinary people: their businesses, shops, pubs, homes. The response was spontaneous for any number of reasons, the primary one being that when death passes through your life you pay attention.

On repatriation days, people put down their daily tasks as people do when strangers appear bearing the burden of grief. They opened their dwellings and their lives and offered what they could: food, drink, comfort, respect, their tears. Then, when the procession had passed, they themselves could take some comfort in turning back to what they had set aside to resume living—grieving, changed, but within the fabric of their ordinary round and familiar places: death and life were all of a piece.

This display of compassion and solidarity got up the government's nose, of course, so the government had to spoil it. They built a sterile 'memorial garden' in the middle of nowhere. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is a lay-by for the dead. The repatriation procession no longer passes through people's ordinary lives. There is no possibility of taking the warm scones from the aga, through the front door, to be given into the hands of strangers.

No, it's all artificial now: you have to do the baking and cool the scones and box them up and put them in the car and drive miles into the middle of nowhere for an artificial gathering at an artificial site where everything is contrived and controlled and boring as hell; where everyone is dislocated, out of their patch, awkward and uncomfortable, knowing nobody: nobody's home, nobody's shop, nobody's pub, nobody's nothing. Children can't participate on their way home from school; old people must stay away if they can't drive. This shift away from Lyneham and Wooton Bassett is a callous and deliberate calculation on the part of the government to dehumanize not only those who have died but also those who mourn, to render them helpless, to make it as difficult as possible for people to honour the dead, in hopes the movement will just die out and disappear. It is the government's effort to sanitize death, to hide it, particularly to hide the human cost of a ghastly war, and to remove the last vestige of a sense of village and community from the process.

No one is fooled; how stupid does the government think people are?

The rest of us who are in solidarity with the Wooton Basset movement can only grieve for what cold comfort this new venue must be to the families of the dead, grieve for those other mourners who once took the soldiers and their families to their hearts as the procession passed through homes and shops and settled lives, mourners who are now stuck with planning, organising and commuting to the 'memorial garden', a banal, inauthentic, inappropriate, sterile layby for the dead.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I spent the first nine years of my married life living in Wootton Bassett before moving to a larger market town twenty miles away where I have lived for the last twenty eight years.
The closure of RAF Lyneham was agreed in 2003, long before the repatriation events started. I suppose that it can be argued that it will be more to the politicians liking that RAF Brize Norton is so much closer to Oxford where the post mortems are held, which results in a much shorter journey and less opportunity for the public to make their feelings known.
I did not see the coverage of the first Brize Norton repatriation so I can't comment on the memorial garden.
If I had still been a resident of Wootton Bassett during the past few years I know that I would have willingly stood in the High Street in all winds and weathers to offer what support I could to the grieving relatives. However, to have travelled twenty miles to join in would have been false and artificial as I could no longer call myself part of the community.
I agree with you that there is a huge difference between the genuine gesture offered freely by the good people of Wootton Bassett
and the attempts to re-create something similar now. That is not in any way to denigrate the sincerity of the ordinary people who now feel that they have to pick up the baton.
It will be interesting to see how it develops. However, it is my fervent wish that it was not needed at all.

11:37 am, September 10, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you for stating the situation so poignantly.

12:54 pm, September 10, 2011  

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