Pumpkins and poppies

On Saturday morning I was sitting in a coffee shop with the music from John Carpenter’s Hallowe’en playing on the sound system. Here in Folkestone we have an annual Zombie Walk, where people dress as zombies and parade through town (raising money for charity) and so there were a few around in preliminary versions of their fancy dress while the café staff too had been decked out in bloodstained shirts and some basic makeup (nothing that was going to scare the children of of course).

The fancy dress was just part of the background but I found the music strangely disturbing. Part of the genius of Carpenter’s original film is the way it injects threat back into what in the US has been a thorough normalisation of the grotesque, of our worst fears of death and monsters. Because music can be so powerfully evocative, can (if you know the film, and I’ve seen it many times) transport you to specific scenes, for a few moments it seemed possible that the cappuccino in front of me might become a prop in an extraordinary turning of events. Then again you can think of the joke in Shaun of the Dead, that for a while nobody really notices the zombies in Crouch End because they look, well, normal enough.

When I was child Hallowe’en was barely acknowledged. We’d do some apple bobbing perhaps, but that was about it. Everything’s changed in the last ten or fifteen years, to the point where I think it’s fair to say Hallowe’en now completely overshadows “bonfire night”.

That’s not necessarily something to regret. Raised as a Catholic (and instinctively republican) I’ve never been particularly keen on celebrating the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, and the consequent butchering of Guy Fawkes. I’m not suggesting that a Catholic ascendancy would have been any better, but it’s always seemed to me a depressing reflection of our respective prevailing cultures that in France (and even the US) people publicly celebrated the historic overthrow of an oppressive regime, while here in the UK we celebrated its survival.

I digress. The likely reasons for the new ascendancy of Hallowe’en are not all pleasing. It must be partly and simply the influence of US TV and cinema, but it’s probably mostly the fact that Hallowe’en offers more of a merchandising opportunity to retailers. Bonfire night opened the door only to fireworks, and even there the migration of firework displays from back gardens to larger more public events has probably reduced potential sales. From pumpkins to skeleton masks Hallowe’en promises more profit.

Its origins of course go much deeper than the imaginations of retailers, and from a tenable perspective what it highlights most is how far we’ve banished death from our normal experiences. Before the second half of the last century death was a regular physical presence. When people died (and they generally died younger) they often did so in a more visible way, rather than locked securely away in a hospital or care home. Disease and death were on the streets, in your bedrooms. I don’t suppose that made death any less frightening but it demanded more acknowledgement.

Creative work, including the street traditions of Hallowe’en and related celebrations like the Day of the Dead, has proved a natural way of handling that acknowledgement, and to some extent the fear. At the end of Plotted, Robert Lowell echoed Wittgenstein writing “Death’s not an event in life ― it’s not lived through.” It’s a tricky moment, the end of a poem which has been thinking about how art and the imagination influence our experience, how they affect our sense of meaning. Death ends those efforts, but the poem’s ending is not our ending, and it needs to be said that in a sense Wittgenstein did not mean, we do live through death, if only other people’s.

Religion plays its part here, and it seems it has more power to comfort us in the face of others’ loss than it does for the prospect of our own death. It seems decent to think of those we’ve loved “in a better place”, but religion gets more contrary when it comes to the confidence we could have in our own future bliss.

It’s interesting too that in our generally non-religious society the zombie should have come to the fore as our most disturbing monster, (while vampires have been romanticised and sexualised into safety).

Zombies were little more than a footnote in the horror canon till George Romero came up with Night of the Living Dead (though Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies, released in 1966 arguably anticipated it). Zombies morphed from the victims of dark magic into something more fundamental and chilling, a gruesome parody of our natural desire to survive death; better surely to be properly dead than be like that, which becomes a strange comfort.

The new zombie myths are not just about death. In Romero’s hands particularly they’ve become metaphors for mindless consumerism, and (in Land of the Dead) for a kind of righteous rebellious decency. In a surprising, ironic way they line up with the Jack O’Lanterns, witches’ hats and glowing skulls to normalise and neutralise our terrors.

This seems to be how institutionalised metaphors and symbols are supposed to work on us, and I think it explains why I’ve never felt comfortable with other big public symbol of this October/November period, the poppy.

Let me stress that I think it proper and important to honour and remember the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in war. My problem is with those who dishonour that memory while standing solemnly before the Cenotaph. My problem is with the hypocrite politicians and other Establishment representatives who will intone their pious platitudes about death, sacrifice and honour while cheerfully continuing to embrace murder as a legitimate means to advance notions of national interest.

The use of symbols and informal ritual matters here because, like the the trappings of Hallowe’en, it distances and sanitises. It also absolves. In the same light I struggle with the way that recently all members of the armed forces are routinely called “heroes”. This diminishes real heroism, but it also (and ironically in the name of charity) pushes the military into a special space, a space beyond our normal experience, a space which might involve sudden and brutal death. It renders this aspect of life or policy extraordinary and so marginalises moral issues which ought to concern us more.

Last year Folkestone’s Conservative mayor tried to stir public outrage against the Zombie Walk, and happily failed. Apparently not a thoughtful person she argued that dressing as the undead was somehow twisted and disturbing, when it’s part of a tradition which is the exact opposite, a benign impulse to live with the reality of death in our lives. I’m sure she’s got a poppy in her lapel right now. I wish wearing a poppy was as simple and decent as the fun and games of Hallowe’en, but as long as the likes of Blair and Cameron sport them, I will not.

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2 Comments

  1. Have you considered wearing a white poppy, Paul?
    This time of year brings to mind Sassoon’s poem, ‘At the Cenotaph’:

    I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
    Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
    Unostentatious and respectful, there
    He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
    ‘Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
    Means; their discredited ideas revive;
    Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
    Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
    Men’s biologic urge to readjust
    The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
    Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
    And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.’
    The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
    Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.

  2. Hi – I have thought about the white poppy, and may yet come round to it, but my understanding of it right now is that really it’s a symbol of pacifism, and that’s not exactly what I’m trying to say here. It is much more Sassoon’s point about our vile leaders. I also learnt today that The Royal British Legion happily accepts sponsorship from Lockheed Martin and BAe Systems. It’s true of course that the Legion has never suggested it’s a pacifist organisation, but taking money from arms manufacturers makes a mockery of remembrance (what’s the point of remembering if you learn nothing in the process?). It seems a grotesque inflation of the ethics of the Bullingdon Club, smashing things up and then offering to pay for the damage.

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