Touching the face of God – Belper’s Memorial Garden

Today, 11 November, is Armistice Day, when Britain remembers its fallen servicemen and women. Armistice Day was first observed in 1919 to commemorate the armistice agreement that came into effect on Monday, November 11 1918 – at precisely 11am – to formally end the First World War. To mark this anniversary a two-minute silence is observed each year at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

In addition, services and ceremonies to remember those who lost their lives fighting for their country in all conflicts – not just the First World War – are held annually on Remembrance Sunday, which always falls on the second Sunday in November. In 2020 Remembrance Sunday was therefore on November 8, but events were scaled back drastically due to the Covid-19 crisis.

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The First World War resulted in around 886,000 deaths of British military personnel. Unsurprisingly, society felt an urgent need to commemorate those who had lost their lives, and up and down the country war memorials were created as the focus for community remembrance. Memorials took many forms, including in some places a dedicated garden.

Although I’ve lived in Belper since 1983 I’m sorry to say that until a few weeks ago I had never visited its Memorial Garden. The Garden dates from 1921 and lies on land donated by George Herbert Strutt, a descendant of one the town’s most famous sons, cotton mill magnate Jedediah Strutt

The names of the dead servicemen are inscribed on a simple white granite obelisk, around 4.5 metres high, standing close to the northern boundary of the Garden. There are 225 names in total, including one W [Walter] Pepper.

When viewing war memorials it can be difficult to get beyond the list of names, and to understand something of the lives they represent. But in Walter’s case there are tantalising insights on the web.

The Belper in Wartime website tells us that Walter Pepper was born and lived much of his life within just a few hundred metres of the parcel of land which was to become the Memorial Garden. He worked as a fitter before the war, and later joined the 1st/5th Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment).

Walter was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, on Saturday 1st July 1916. He was 38 years old. The night before he “went over the top” to his death, Walter wrote this moving letter to his wife:

“Dearest,

I could not rest without saying goodbye, happen for the last time…but I want you to cheer up and be brave for the children’s sake. We must put our trust in God and hope for the best – to come safely through. We go over in the morning and I am in the first line. They are giving them a terrific bombardment… It is simply hell upon earth here.

My last thoughts will be with you at home as we are stepping over the trenches. May God watch over me and guard me and bring me safely through.”

Source: Belper in Wartime website

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Although the obelisk is the primary focus for ceremonies of remembrance, the whole Garden is dedicated to the fallen. Belper town has something of a reputation for its floral displays, and the Memorial Garden was a riot of colour when we visited in September.

The Garden’s generous scattering of benches gives visitors the chance to sit and rest awhile. Here, in this tranquil oasis, it’s easy to escape the hurly-burly of our busy little town, to contemplate and to reflect on the sacrifices others have made so that we may enjoy our comfortable lives today.

One of the Garden’s simple but striking features is the silhouette of an infantry soldier amongst the flowerbeds. Propped against his legs is a plaque bearing the legend “lest we forget.” It’s a poignant reminder of why this is place is here.

And towering over the south-western corner of the Garden is another reminder. Sacrifice depicts the face of Lance Corporal Jim Green, another Belper man who joined the Sherwood Foresters regiment and then perished on the first morning of the battle of the Somme.

Before joining the Army Jim Green worked as a coal hewer at nearby Denby Colliery, and was a popular soccer player. He lived in the Cow Hill area of Belper, within sight of the sculptural installation which now immortalises him. Green’s image is copied from an archive photograph, in which he poses proudly in his uniform tunic and cap.

Sacrifice was designed by local artist Andy Mayers, and is cunningly fashioned from 29 rods of corten steel. As you walk around it the view of the subject’s face is forever changing. From some angles you can almost forget you are looking at a face at all, but from other positions it’s unmistakeably a soldier in uniform. To me the symbolism of this installation is plain: the fallen are forever with us, even though we do not always see them clearly.

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Belper’s Memorial Garden has one more surprise in store, a poem inscribed on a plaque discretely tucked away on one of the boundary walls. One of 20 poems that make up Beth’s Poetry Trail, High Flight was written by John Gillespie Magee, an Anglo-American aviator and poet who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He died in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire in 1941.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Magee has no obvious connection with Belper, and yet his words clearly belong here. He, like the other men whose names are recorded in the Belper Memorial Garden, gave his life in the service of his country, and in so doing touched the face of God.

A funeral in the time of Covid

Milly’s been sick for almost two years, going downhill steadily as Motor Neurone Disease tightens its grip. It’s a cruel condition, remorseless, destroying her body but leaving her mind intact. Helpless, she watches herself slowly waste away. When she finally passes we are sad to say goodbye, but relieved that her suffering is finally over.

The church in the village where Milly lived is closed, being too small for services to be conducted safely while the virus is still active. Instead, the funeral is moved to one that is a little larger, a few miles from her home. It’s a decent sized country church and probably seats around 200 people in normal times, but because of the virus, attendance today is by invitation only and limited to just 30 mourners. Others wishing to pay their respects must stand outside, and listen to the service relayed on loudspeakers.

We put on our facemasks before entering. Only the pews in the nave are available; others in the aisles on the left and the right are out-of-bounds. To facilitate social distancing each pew is limited to just two mourners, the first pair sitting to the left, those in the row behind them to the right, and so on. It looks and feels surreal, this funeral is in the time of Covid.

The priest takes his place, wearing a clear plastic visor. He welcomes us, and apologises that this will not be the sort of funeral to which we are accustomed. It doesn’t matter, we think, we’re simply pleased that we are able to gather here to pay our respects. The social distancing, the facemasks, the other restrictions, none are of any lasting consequence when seen in the context of the life that Milly has lived and lost.

The coffin bearers enter. Incomprehensibly, while everyone else in the church is masked-up, they aren’t. Why? It’s inconsistent and makes no sense, but that could be said of so much of the official response to Covid-19. Our government is clearly making it up as they go along, and while I don’t seek to minimise the challenges they have faced I do worry that they simply aren’t up to the job. I’m tempted to say that they’re a joke, but plainly this is no laughing matter.

The service begins: the prayers, the Bible readings, the eulogy. All standard stuff, swiftly and efficiently executed. But no hymns. The priest advises us that singing is not currently permitted at religious services, as it increases the risk of spreading the virus.

Instead he flips a switch, and a recording of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind fills the air. It’s a familiar hymn that most of us learned in primary school and, although we’re not allowed to sing out loud, as I glance around me I sense several mourners mouthing the words within the privacy of their facemasks.

The end, when it comes, is unexpected. Today would have been Milly’s 89th birthday, and as the coffin bearers carry her from the church the priest flips his switch again and Happy Birthday to You echoes around us. It’s a bit quirky, and therefore in keeping with the rest of the morning’s proceedings. We are reminded that, although we are here to mourn, today is also a celebration of a life well lived. Covid-19 cannot and will not be allowed to distract us from this simple truth.

Rest In Peace, Milly.

When Covid-19 gets personal

Every evening we watch the 10pm news on the BBC, pinned to our armchairs by the latest tidal wave of torment. The rising death toll, the shattered lives, the financial crisis, the lost jobs, the missed targets, the missing PPE. It keeps on coming, misery piled upon misery. But it’s so horrible that it somehow seems unreal, resembling a dark soap opera with a scarcely believable plot and actors who appear to be making it up as they go along.

Of course we’re not totally immune to the impact of the pandemic. Mrs P – who is particularly vulnerable due to her asthma – hasn’t left our property for six weeks, while I venture out only on Wednesdays to shop for us and her parents. The queues at the supermarket are getting me down, the shortage of flour has been frustrating, and wearing a mask makes my glasses steam up and leaves me stumbling around blindly. I’m always pleased to get back to the safety and calm of Platypus Towers.

However, these are minor irritations. Life goes on, and so do we. We are healthy, comfortable and keeping busy with all-manner of in-house projects and activities. Covid-19 is undoubtedly a curse, but it felt like we were just playing bit parts, walk-on roles in a disaster movie that’s being acted out all around us.

But then Covid-19 got personal.

Pat, my second cousin, who – with her son, Mark – is my only living blood-relative, phoned from London on Sunday morning with shock news. She and her husband, and Mark and his wife, have all been sick with Covid-19. Worst still, her father Tommy – my “uncle” Tom – also caught the virus, but it got the better of him.

Dad passed away yesterday morning, Pat explains sadly.

Tommy had seemed indestructible. We all knew that he couldn’t go on forever, but it wasn’t meant to end like this. It feels like he, and we, have been cheated by that wretched virus.

He would have been 100 years old next month, and to celebrate the milestone Mark was in the process of arranging a family party. Covid-19 has turned that dream, and a million others across the world, to ashes.

Although we weren’t exceptionally close, I have many fond memories of Tommy. His was the first car I ever rode in – my parents didn’t drive – and when I was small it was a special treat to escape London for a while on a Sunday afternoon drive into the countryside with Tommy and his wife Ivy.

Years later, when I was at university, he used his position with the Post Office to get me on the list for a job at the local sorting office in the run up to Christmas, giving me a welcome opportunity to earn some much needed beer money! These, and countless other kindnesses, whirl around in my mind as I write this. He was a good man.

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Excellent although they are, the BBC news broadcasts can never get across the full horror of this virus. It seems to me that only when Covid-19 gets personal does it fully make the transition from disaster movie to a real-life, real-time tragedy.

Mrs P and I last saw Tommy in August, at Mark’s wedding. He was in good health, albeit a touch grumpy. But at his age a certain irascibility is inevitable and forgiveable, and also rather endearing. Sure as hell Pat, Mark and the rest of us would give anything to witness his grumpiness again.

Rest in Peace, Tommy.

The best man I ever knew

Flock of Birds Flying over Bare Tree Overlooking Sunset

PHOTO CREDIT: Flock of Birds Flying over Bare Tree Overlooking Sunset. From Pixabay via Pexels

The news came in a short, handwritten letter from his mother: Pete and his family had been involved in a terrible accident.  Their car had caught fire following a crash in London; his wife and baby son had died at the scene.  He could have got clear with only minor injuries, but went back into the inferno in a desperate but ultimately futile attempt to save Livy and Simon. 

In a critical condition, Pete was admitted to a hospital burns unit where he clung to life for a few weeks.  But in the end the fight was just too much for him, or maybe he knew somehow that Livy and Simon were gone, and that life without them would be pointless? 

When I learned that he was dead I felt that part of me had also died.  Pete was more alive than any person I’d ever met, and it seemed impossible that he’d passed over.

We’d met in our first week at secondary school, and we were like chalk and cheese.  Our backgrounds were so different, his parents comfortably middle class, mine ordinary working class.  He was a confident, outgoing Christian, I an awkward, reserved atheist.  His politics were naturally Tory, mine instinctively socialist.  His brain was wired for maths and science, while I favoured the arts and humanities.  He burned the candle at both ends, I saved my candles in case the lights went out one day.

It seemed inconceivable that two boys who were so different could become friends, and yet within days we were inseparable.  Was it because of our differences that we became so close?  Did each of us offer the other a new perspective on life, a chance to broaden our horizons and to gently challenge our own values and beliefs, but without undermining our own self-esteem and sense of self-worth?

Thomas J Watson Jr, an American businessman, is famously quoted as saying this about friendship:

‘Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.’

I can relate to this.  I know I am a more complete person for having known Pete, despite disagreeing with him on lots of things.  I like to think that he, were he still alive, would say the same about me. 

But I didn’t become his friend to ‘lever myself up,’ which suggests a degree of calculation that is totally alien to me.  I became his friend because despite – or perhaps because of – our many differences, he intrigued me, and the more I got to know him the more I realised that what separated us was less important than what we shared: kindness, generosity, good humour, thoughtfulness, loyalty and mutual support. 

The accident happened thirty years ago this summer, when Pete was just 33 years old.  His full name was Charles Peter Johnston Morris, and he was the best man I ever knew.