This is our truth, tell us yours
Apparently we are to be spared the sight of a clapped out American actor driving a phenomenally ugly car around central London after the latest Top Gear stunt fell foul of the outrage police. (Here’s a picture of Matt with someone too embarassed to be identified in public with him.) Amusingly, it looks as if, once again Top Gear has fallen foulof its own publicity machine, with a carefully planned media campaign around a stunt backfiring like a badly tuned old banger.
Matt LeBlanc’s latest mistake, (he was in Friends, apparently, along with some people you’ve probably forgotten now there isn’t a Blockbusters near you with a bin full of straight to DVD shockers) was to perform driving stunts within sight of the Cenotaph, the central icon of a military deathcult that insists that every dead soldier is a hero and every death to be honoured, in perpetuity, at the whim of whichever clapped out former soldier is capable of writing an outraged email to the Daily Telegraph.
I love public memorials. I love the way they sneak up on you, reminding you both of the dead, and the way they died. On the other hand, I hate what they mean to those whose world is full of fetishes and shibboleths to which the correct obeisance must be made. For work reasons I often end up in a local port, a town where the bawdiness and niseof a busy commercial port and collieries sending coal to sea has been replaced by the slow death of heroin for too many who grew up after the jobs left town, and the choking, frustrated congestion of badly paid people in badly maintained cars driving out of town each morning to jobs on Tyneside. Not for them the Top Gear dream of an empty road and the space to make the car pirouette (or the money to replace the back tyres once you’ve done it).
The war memorial in that town was relocated from the town centre, as the town centre went through its phases of slow death and regeneration, to the edge of a park. The list of names on the memorial sticks to the traditional format; only the British, no conscientious objectors or pacifists, and no-one from outside the approved wars. As a result the Borough Councillor who died in Spain, fighting for democracy, political, bolshie and communist, is commemorated by having his name on a sheltered housing scheme half a mile from the official war memorial, without any explanation on the building as to how it got its name. As I drive past it to the new office blocks on the Quayside wherethe coal used to be loaded I give that monument a sideways glace, and wonder at theparadox of a town that could tolerate a communist councillor but couldn’t tolerate his name on a war memorial, even though the people of the town elected him.
The idea that a cenotaph is a neutral monument, equally treasured, equally remembered by all concerned, is in and of itself intensely political. Like all tombmarkers, it is a statement of relative importance; the unknown soldiers commemorated at the behest of government were conscripts to the service of a government that, after world war one, struggled to explain how it could celebrate a victory that had cost so many lives, so many limbs, to return the world to a slightly worse version of the state it had been in before the fighting started. So a temporary marker on the route of a parade that was simultaneously billed as a peace parade and a victory parade became a permanent national monument, replicated wherever a local politician could gain an advantage by demanding that their local dead be commemorated.
In a drawer at home we kept my granshers medals; he came back; they both came back, one from the underground war as a sapper, the other from carrying stretchers. Gransher the sapper had no truck with war memorials, no use for medals that never saw the light of day, that served only to prove what he had been doing in the years between 1915 and 1919 when the army offered better wages than the pit to men who knew how to mine, to undermine, and to fight with shovels and picks in the dark against their German counterparts. He spent the rest of his life fighting for a decent health service, for decent wages, for a community that was fit, not for heroes, but for everyone, heroes and cowards alike, because he believed in principals of universality and, dare I say it, socialism. My cousin, who drove an AFV in Iraq in Gulf War One, replied to my comment about there being no atheists in a foxhole, when we were discussing gransher, said, ‘Bet he noticed there weren’t many capitalists either.’
There are no monuments or memorials to the men who came back having left soemthing of themselves abroad; no half built monument with missing pieces to reflect the limbs left behind or the emotional scars. That would not serve the purposes of the politicians and the peddlers of civic pride.
The row about Matt Le Blanc and what Top Gear did and didn’t do within sight of the Cenotaph is a non-row. Our streets and towns are dotted with formal and informal memorials. One of the parks in the town where I grew up was a memorial to the men who came home damaged; it was built by the council as a place of peace where mencould exercise, or sit in a sheltered group of seats and watch the world go by. Did I defame them by enjoying myself there? Was it a rejection of all they stood for to drink cider on the swings or wait frustratedly in the toilets for the right person to come and set me free for a brief time from the ordinariness of my life?
Policing public spaces has become the new sport of the censorious. They wish to impose their world view, their values, their pre-eminence on the rest of us. How dare we be rowdy in a park, or drive badly in sight of a memorial, or write a book that questions whether a hero was in fact the worst type of leader.
I don’t like Top Gear. It’s utter rubbish selling a version of freedom and a way of being that’s not for me. That doesn’t make the bullies and the angry brigade crying offence over five minutes of filming right. The best monument to the dead is to see them in their complexity; the heroes, the cowards, the thieves, the wife beaters, the psychopaths secretly enjoying the chance to do the things they’d only dreamed about, the upper class twits born to lead the lower classes to disaster, and the simple men doing what they were told. Remember their complexity, and if you’re tempted to ever speak for them, refuse. Your one voice cannot speak for all of them.