Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Barry from Watford and Barack from Washington DC

"What can you do with a beetroot, a jar of sandwich spread and a packet of Angel Delight that went out of date in 1978?" So said Barry from Watford, a character on the BBC Radio Two show Steve Wright in the Afternoon, urging listeners last week to discourage the giving of grocery parcels from Harvest celebrations. He went on to tell us of making a mint salad dressing from a previous Harvest hamper. Only after eating it did he discover that the tube of white liquid was actually peppermint foot ointment - he suffered no harmful effects but the next morning his verucas had gone! Barry observed that the groceries given are too often things from the back of the cupboard that no one would dream of eating. The truth of Barry's coments struck a chord as this listener and the studio crew collapsed in laughter.

A fortnight previously my emotions had been of an entirely different order as I watched on TV the events marking the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The solemnity and sorrow of the day was palpable aross the airwaves. President Obama read at the ceremony at Ground Zero and latter spoke at a gathering at the Kennedy Center. On both occasions he used words from the Authorized Version of the Bible - in the morning he read Psalm 46 'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,' and in the evening he frame his speech around a verse from Psalm 30 'Weeping may endureth for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.' He words struck a chord and came across as well considered and fitting.

Both the joke making and the solemn remembering depended on collective memory for their power. Without the recollected shared associations that go with the creation of harvest displays and their dispersement, the jokes wouldn't have been funny. Without the echo of a shared understanding of the steadfastness of God expressed in biblical phrases repeated over generations, the pslam references would have been little more that a poetic turn of phrase. In tragedy and comedy it is what is remembered together - although often not expressed explictly - that gives us the scaffolding for a genuine community of sharing.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Tools for remembering 9/11

Stream, window in Nazareth
We all remember where we were when we first learned of the attacks on the twin towers in 2001. That simple point has been made countless times in recent days. Similarly, the 'right-ness' of marking the tenth anniversary at the actual sites where tragic loss of lives took place has simply been assumed by all. We might rationally argue that ceremonies of remembrance can be held at any location. The essentially subjective nature of remembering means its social enactment can theoretical take place anywhere. Yet when we saw President Obama joining ceremonies at the attack locations in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington there was clearly a self-evident appropriateness in the action. 
The same principle applies to the anniversary itself. Many survivors and others closely involved in the horrors of 9/11, when interviewed, said that in a sense a tenth anniversary is a wholly arbitrary occasion. Every moment of recollection has an awesome weight to it, however measured in time. But despite that reality, the marking of the tenth anniversary has a fittingness about it that no one can deny.
The 'right-ness' of last weekend's events demonstrates how collective memory operates. Locating the remembrance of tragic events in place and time is a necessary part of actually 'keeping the memory.' Physical memorials are part of that locating. Without these locators memories begin to fade or change character, even when what is remembered is momentous. Several of those interviewed last Sunday expressed precisely that worry. Their personal involvement guarantees their own memories, but they were concerned the wider social memory was perhaps changing or fading. 'We will not forget' requires more that subjective assent. To remember is to join a stream of social remembering.