Never forgetting…

…to remember to remember. Yes, a mouthful, but considering why it is that we should do so does tend to put things into perspective. All the nameless and now largely forgotten women who brought about the female vote; innocent victims of circumstance, such as the passengers on the Lusitania, the centenary of whose sinking has just been commemorated; the millions forced into brutal labour because of their views or the blood in their veins…it doesn’t take much pondering to add to this list.

This past weekend I was on a tour with the Wadhurst Brass Band – more on the music later. Amongst other things we squeezed in a visit to Vimy Ridge and to the bombed remains of the Bunker in the forest at Eperlecques. This is a V2 rocket site of Star Wars proportions from the Second World War: massive concrete walls, very damp and dark and haunted by the presence of the forced labourers who were driven to construct it, a presence which I found disturbing (I had felt the same when visiting the underground hospital complex constructed on Guernsey during the Nazi occupation). It is extremely well presented as a historical site, including an audio introduction presented whilst visitors are stood in a cattle truck – shades of Auschwitz and extremely unsettling: at least I had the promise of getting out into the sunshine… How incongruous to be surrounded by the beauty of Nature, through the reborn forest, on a pleasant early summer’s day with trees full of singing birds and yet to be so close to so much human misery! That’s why we should never forget…

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Part of the Bunker at Eperlecques, Northern France. It was intended as a V2 rocket launch site in World War 2. Allied bombing prevented that. Pictures can’t give an accurate impression of just how massive it is.

The Canadians turned out in some force when we also played under the Menin Gate in Ypres on Friday 8th May. Princes Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry had just been awarded the Freedom of the City of Ypres and were remembering their dead of the First War, together with the Edmonton Police Pipe Band (an interesting musical mix to the proceedings!). When you visit Vimy Ridge perhaps you also understand why Canadians cross a mighty ocean to be nearer the reason for their remembrance: today, sheep graze peacefully amongst the shell craters from a battle, the objective of which must have seemed impossible. After all, who would run up a very steep hill straight into blazing machine guns? And yet the bravery of soldiers thousands of mile from home did just that. Voilà pourquoi le Canada se souvient.

The Canadian memorial on the top of Vimy Ridge. Impressive in it's almost austere simplicity.

The Canadian memorial on the top of Vimy Ridge. Impressive in it’s almost austere simplicity.

The village of Wadhurst (about a 12 minute drive from Rotherfield, provided you don’t get stuck behind a farm vehicle on the road!) is twinned with the town of Aubers in Northern France. Those of you who have read my previous blogs will know about the march I was commissioned to compose to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9th May, 1915. Firstly, I have to say that the people of Aubers and the Twinning Association made us all feel very welcome indeed. We performed a concert in Aubers Church on the evening of the anniversary, which was well attended. You can watch a live recording of the march AUBERS RIDGE here:

Je présentai ma marche au public en français et aussi en anglais. My mother, who was a fluent French speaker, would have been quite proud, I think!

So, it would seem from my experience that remembering has no time limit: we remember events without having any idea of who the people were who were involved in them; we trek to all sorts of places – from Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift in Zululand to Waterloo to the Bunker in Eperlecques forest – and we ponder and, hopefully, think of history and those who were part of it and, in so doing, we also become a miniscule part of that same history. And that brings me to the simplicity of a single Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone in Wadhurst churchyard. The only one of the 25 Men of Wadhurst to return home (as a fatality) is buried there. Through the simple act of placing a poppy, a person who is long-gone and is a total stranger to me is remembered.

 

Remembering Sergeant Freeland, 5th Battalion, "Cinque Port", Royal Sussex Regiment.

Remembering Company Sergeant Major Freeland, 5th Battalion, “Cinque Port”, Royal Sussex Regiment.

After all, if we do not know from whence we have travelled, how can we possibly know who we are and where we might be going?

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Why do we remember…

…and what is it that makes other remember us? Do others remember us, or do they remember the events with which we might have been associated?

I remember being very moved by visiting the sea of over 800,000 ceramic red poppies installed in the moat of the Tower of London in the months before Armistice Day (November 11th) last year, the centenary of The Great War. Every year we of the East Grinstead Concert Band (EGCB) perform a concert (or two) in aid of Service charities – complete with the standard of the local British Legion Club, the two minutes silence and the playing of “Sunset”, Green’s famous setting of the bugle call signifying the lowering of the colours at the end of the day, movingly played by our excellent trumpet section).

Lowering the standard during the playing of "SUNSET" during last year's Poppy Appeal Concert in East Grinstead.

Lowering the standard during the playing of “SUNSET” during last year’s Poppy Appeal Concert in East Grinstead.

Are there any individuals known to us from past conflicts to remember individually (time marches relentlessly on!), or are we remembering the event? During a recent trip to Eire (and being impressed, as usual, by the friendliness of the Irish people), we took in what I dubbed the “Lusitania Route”, from the Old Head of Kinsale (from where people watched the liner sinking only some 8 miles off the shore, after she was torpedoed by U-20) to the monument and mass graves in Cobh (old Queenstown), which was always the last port of call in the Old World for the Cunard and the White Star Liners, before the New World loomed across the expanse of the North Atlantic.

The original memorial to LUSITANIA on the harbour front in Cobh.

The original memorial to LUSITANIA on the harbour front in Cobh.

The renowned maritime artist Ken Marschall’s detailed paintings can be viewed here:  www.maritimequest.com

RMS Lusitania under full steam in her pre-war livery.

RMS Lusitania under full steam in her pre-war livery.

I arranged the Mariners’ Hymn (quite chromatic, so some good sight reading practice) and EGCB will play this the night before the centenary of the sinking on May 7th, 1915. We marked the 103rd anniversary of the loss of Titanic in the same way. Collectively, millions of faceless people unknown to almost all of us, yet we pause to remember them.

And then something comes out of the blue to focus remembrance on someone I certainly did know. I recently received a communication from the head of the Music Conservatorium of Mauritius, enquiring as to whether or not it would be possible for them to exhibit my grandfather’s baton in a proposed museum of Mauritian Musical Culture in Port Louis. Well, to say that I was speechless and filled almost to bursting point with pride is putting things very mildly. I hold my grandfather in high regard for his musical prowess (mentioned in previous blogs) and would like to think that my musical genes – if such things exist – have been inherited from him. I have a framed photo of him standing in front of his Mauritius Police Force Band on my desk. The baton was given to him by the residents of Port Louis, in appreciation of musical services rendered. I read the inscription and there was his name and the date – 1923; also getting on for a century. He never used the baton, as it is rather heavy.

Part of the dedication inscribed on a gold band on the baton.

Part of the dedication inscribed on a gold band on the baton.

This month saw the annual London Book Fair (LBF), held this year in the expanse of London’s Olympia exhibition centre. We survived the train trip to London (in my opinion always an over-priced nightmare of an experience!) and saw my books displayed on the Book Guild stand.  Good to see Graham flying the flag for us independent authors again.

 

With Graham Robinson on the Book guild stand. All four of the books published so far nicely displayed in the background!

With Graham Robson on the Book Guild stand. All four of the books published so far nicely displayed in the background!

I met Ian McFadyen at last year’s LBF and was pleased to see that his fifth novel is due for release later this year – KILLING TIME. Great cover and another success from Keiran of the Book Guild art department. Everything is still rocking – as they say – in the book world.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be going on a trip to Aubers and Ieper (Ypres) with the Wadhurst Brass Band to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Aubers Ridge in the First World War. Wadhurst is twinned with the town of Aubers and several men from the area were casualties of the Royal Sussex Regiment. I was commissioned by the band to compose a march suitable for the occasion, which will have its world première (!!) at a concert in Wadhurst shortly. Again, the tour will be a voyage of Remembrance for people unknown to most, if not all of us. During the recent Irish trip, we visited the town of Templemore in County Tipperary. Nice little place and the local hostelry does a mean cabbage in Irish butter for lunch! Anyway, having parked, we wandered around the main square and came across a memorial to the men of the Royal Munster Regiment who fought in the First War. There was a picture of the Reverend Francis Gleeson, (a chaplain in the British army (this was before Irish independence)), blessing the troops before – can you credit this? – the Battle of Aubers Ridge!

 Fortunino Matania's painting of Father Francis Gleeson (1884–1959), Blessing the Royal Munster Fusiliers at Rue du Bois, before the Battle of Aubers Ridge.

Fortunino Matania’s painting of Father Francis Gleeson (1884–1959), Blessing the Royal Munster Fusiliers at Rue du Bois, before the Battle of Aubers Ridge.

Small world or what?

As I said, my march, AUBERS RIDGE  is a commission from the Wadhurst Brass Band to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Aubers Ridge on May 9th, 1915. The Royal Sussex Regiment suffered heavy losses during the battle and the march is dedicated to the memory of those who did not return, especially the men of Wadhurst.

Musically, the march is built around the musical interval found at the beginning of the Last Post and is mostly in the minor key. There are musical references to French (La Marseillaise) and British (God Save the King) forces, as well as a quotation from Ward-Higgs’ Sussex By the Sea, which became the [unofficial, as far as I am aware] regimental march. The march ends quietly with the strains of Reveille. Lest we forget.

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Time flies…

…when you’re having fun – or so the saying goes.

I was more than just a little surprised this week to find that my first novel (the third is due for release in the next few days) was released upon an unexpecting and largely indifferent literary world a little more than a year ago. Truth be told, it feels one hell of a lot longer. Over this short period, FATAL TEARS and ERRANT ANGELS (shortly to be joined by FEELINGS OF GUILT and by THE GERHSOM SCROLL in February, 2015) have continued to make their way through the minefield of publishing. Hardly surprising that I should use such a metaphor, as there are so many new titles around these days – not to mention the plethora of older, established works cunningly disguised behind newly-designed covers – that a new author has a daunting task to climb the mountain towards the point of recognition in some form or other.

Thanks to Kieran of The Book Guild art and design department - another great cover that captures the essence of the novel !

Thanks to Kieran of The Book Guild art and design department – another great cover that captures the essence of the novel !

When I first read of the idea of filling the moat of the Tower of London with a sea of ceramic poppies, I have to confess to thinking it all sounded more than just a little tacky and symptomatic of what, to me, seems the directionless morass of 21st century British Society. Having recently enjoyed a very successful band tour to Belgium (more on that in a moment), and mindful of the significance of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I, like nearly one million other people, made the journey to go and have a look. It seemed to me that most of these other million people decided to go and see the poppies all on the same day that I had chosen: the tube to Tower Hill Station just about coped; how anyone wasn’t run over at the pedestrian crossing outside the Tower itself and how so many people squeezed into the area adjacent to the moat without some fatal crushing incident resulting, I do not know!

The field of ceramic poppies that fills the moat of the Tower of London. An appropriate memorial to the dead of World War 1.

The field of ceramic poppies that fills the moat of the Tower of London. An appropriate memorial to the dead of World War 1.

Even before I managed to get a reasonable view of the poppies, I had drastically changed my mind about the whole thing. It seemed to radiate a sea of red and black calm amidst the heaving mass of humanity that had assembled to view it, largely in a respectful silence. That was surprising, considering the numbers of visitors. The moat was filled with 888,246 poppies, each one representing one British military fatality from the war. There was a moving sombreness to it all.

The ceramic poppies "pour" out of the Tower and fill the entire moat.

The ceramic poppies “pour” out of the Tower and fill the entire moat.

All will be dismantled after Remembrance Day (11th November) and each poppy will then be sent to whoever has purchased it, at a cost of £25 each (I’ll leave you to do the maths!). The good news is that they have all been sold and the funds raised will be shared amongst Service charities.

The whole experience raised two thoughts: firstly, one hundred years on and we are still inhabiting a world torn apart in one form or another – possibly not quite to the same extent as in 1914, although these days dissent can often be far more subtle and often does necessarily involve the use of guns; secondly, each one of those poppies is an anonymous reminder of service and duty. Who knows who poppy 102,345 represents, any more than we do number 94,368? Surely the most important thing is that we do remember and – despite the enormous scale and extent of the poppy field – that we do so in a typically British understated way: no glitz, no razzmatazz, no fanfare. Just Remembrance.

And that bring me back to where I started – almost. Whilst climbing my author’s mountain I have had to persevere to pass through and to eventually emerge from the clouds of anonymity that surround just about all of us. I used to think that this was a daunting task in extremis, but then I stood and gazed at the 888,246. How many of them, when they marched off enthusiastically to what was believed to be a short-term chance at glory – at least at the beginning of the war – ever thought that, instead of a triumphant return, they would become an unnamed ceramic creation in the centre of London and, by so becoming, would for ever be remembered in the soul of a nation still scarred by the cataclysmic events, of which they were a miniscule part, all those years ago?

East Grinstead Concert Band performing in the Market Square of Brugges, Belgium.

East Grinstead Concert Band performing in the Market Square of Bruges (Brugge), Belgium.

East Grinstead Concert Band getting read to play under the Menin Gate in Ypres (Ieper), Belgium.

East Grinstead Concert Band getting read to play under the Menin Gate in Ypres (Ieper), Belgium. Every evening at 8pm sharp, local firemen sound the Last Post, a short ceremony follows and then reveille is sounded. On October 11th we played music for the wreath lying, which was the 29,727th time the ceremony was performed since its inception in 1928.

Remembrance took on a whole new dimension when we played under the Menin Gate in Ypres during our recent Belgian tour. Words cannot really express the feelings generated by directing 37 talented musicians in Elgar’s Nimrod, Purcell’s When I Am Laid in Earth and David of the White Rock. The music echoed amidst the 55,000 names of the missing that are engraved on the panels of the gate: men from all over the then British Empire, who simply disappeared in the mud and chaos of the battles that flattened the ancient city (now restored to its former glory).

So what is a year, when time for the poppies in the moat and for the names on the imposing edifice of the Gate simply stopped a century ago?

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Celebration…

…can take many forms. Birthdays, weddings and graduations are the obvious choices, but there are also other occasions to celebrate. On the one hand, for example, the life of a departed and much-missed loved one, passing your driver’s licence test or getting into that new item of clothing without cutting off the oxygen supply; on the other hand, achieving that which you thought unattainable and beyond your levels of endurance.

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Private Sydney Godley VC, born in East Grinstead.

It was with regard to this latter option that the East Grinstead Concert Band (EGCB) assembled in East Grinstead’s High Street yesterday to celebrate the bravery, devotion to duty and plain tenacity of Private Sydney Godley of the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. On August 23rd 1914, during the Battle of Mons, the 4th Battalion were ordered to defend the Nimy Bridge over the Mons-Condé Canal. Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Godley manned a machine gun after the previous crews were either killed or wounded. Dease was killed and Godley continued to man the gun for two hours, holding off the advance of the German army and allowing the rest of his section to retreat. Godley was severely wounded before being taken prisoner. The two men were awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military award for bravery under fire. They were the first to receive this honour in a war that what was to drag on for over 4 years of senseless slaughter on all sides. The event was also a salutary reminder that words such as “duty”, “commitment” and – sad to say – “loyalty” often come off very badly in our modern society.

The flagstone set into the foot of East Grinstead's war memorial honouring Godley's bravery and his commitment to his duty and to his comrades.

The flagstone set into the foot of East Grinstead’s war memorial honouring Godley’s bravery and his commitment to his duty and to his comrades.

The concert was also an occasion to mark an important event from our own times. The EGCB is a very talented and dedicated group of amateur musicians (several with a musical or military background), many of whom play more than one instrument. Some of us are also competent arrangers of music (within the copyright laws) and conductors. Yesterday’s concert marked the conducting debut of our Assistant Musical Director, Phil Stewart-Johns. To conduct one or two items on the programme can be harrowing enough; to direct the entire programme – particularly in gusty, cold and overcast weather conditions – can be positively terrifying! Phil and the Band came through with flying colours, so that was another reason for celebration. I also had the opportunity to play clarinet, which was a pleasant change from waving the baton out front !

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With Phil during the interval in our concert. Smiles all round !

Last Wednesday was also the day on which I had a meeting with my publisher, The Book Guild, in order to finalize the programme of publicity for the second novel in the “AN ECCENTRIC IN LUCCA” series, “Feelings of Guilt”. Publication date is set for mid-November and you can read a sample on my website, www.stuartfifield.com. We also finalized the contract for the second in the “JOURNEYS OF RUPERT WINFIELD” series, “The Gershom Scroll”, which is due for release in March of 2015. There will be a sample available on my website from mid-September. We are also planning an event via www.goodreads.com , which will give you the chance to win a copy of Rupert Winfield’s first Journey, “FATAL TEARS”. I’ll post more information on that as and when it becomes available.

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For me, these are all quite big events to celebrate, but perhaps we should also not lose sight of the simpler things in life, such as celebrating the ripening of home-grown tomatoes (no mean feat in our often miserable, sun- and heat-less climate), a glowing sunset or the affection we share with our pets. Life doesn’t always have to be complicated; simplicity also has an intrinsic value.

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Quo vadis ?

… as any well educated Roman was wont to ask the nearest oracle. With the Band’s 40th anniversary approaching in 2014, I have been thinking about that self same question, particularly as I’ve been looking into the Band’s long history of incarnations and name changes.

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The earliest photo. East Grinstead Band on a hay wagon, c.1870.

Presumably these happy band of players, to misquote Shakespeare, would get to their immediate destination whilst still on the cart. Ahead of them lay the Zulu War and several other colonial skirmishes in places that most of them had probably never even heard of. Where, I wonder, did they fancy they were going, riding the crest of the wave of an Empire on which the sun never set?

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East Grinstead Town Band marching past the Workhouse towards the railway station, c1905.

After the turn of the century, the passing of the Old Queen and in the most powerful nation on earth, in 1905 a prosperous town like East Grinstead still had its own Workhouse. The thoughts of the bandsmen must have been very different from those still within the Workhouse; they, at least, thought they knew where they were going, even if it was soon to be just to the station to catch the 1914-1918 express.

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East Grinstead Town Band, smartly turned out in c1933.

In the footsteps of the previous generation: the uniforms are still reminders of Imperial greatness, possibly, although cracks had already appeared in that immortal facade. Most of them would probably soon meet the impending onslaught from across the Channel. Somewhere in the middle of the tide of greater things, they must all have wondered where they were going, even if they had a good idea of where they would like that destination to have been.

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East Grinstead Concert Band leading the Queen’s Jubilee Parade through the town, 2012.

Today, in our high-tech world of push-button instant gratification, changing climate, increasing ineptitude and seeming loss of concern for most things that were, in the 140-odd years covered by these photos, held to be essential constituents of society and of being a good citizen within that society, do we know where we are going ?

At least the Band knows where it’s going next October. We have been invited to play at the Menin Gate in Ypres on October 11, just a few days before HM The Queen attends a ceremony there to mark the First World War. We are planning a couple of other concerts in Belgium and will do all we can to promote East Grinstead in the process. The Menin Gate is inscribed with 60,000 names of those from the First World War who have no known grave. It straddles the road to Passchendale, where some of the worst fighting took place. Every night at 8 o’clock the traffic is halted and the local firemen blow Last Post and Reveille. We will be part of that ceremony.

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The Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.

How sobering to stand under the Gate (the road goes straight through it) and ponder if any of 60,000 – from all parts of the Empire as was – had any idea where they were going.

The cover of the first in the saga of the Chamber Opera Group of Lucca, Tuscany.

The cover of the first in the saga of the Chamber Opera Group of Lucca, Tuscany.

On the writing front, book No.7, the third in the Rupert Winfield series, is very near completion. FATAL TEARS (Rupert Winfield No.1) has now gone electronic in all formats and has been listed with Barnes & Noble, the huge US distributor. The First in the AN ECCENTRIC IN LUCCA series is presently at the printers and will be out ahead of schedule towards the end of October. It’s all go this end…..

Let me leave you with a short video clip. We did know where we were going, because we had a very definite route to follow, mostly up the exhaust pipe of the leading police car !