During the BBC Radio 4 Today programme of 6th June 2014, coverage of the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings appeared alongside the breaking story of dead babies shoved into the septic tank of a post-war home for fallen women (unmarried mothers) in rural Ireland.
In the wartime broadcasts of BBC radio reporter Richard Dimbleby, even the waste products of their successful advance were duly honoured. Of the equipment left behind by the first Allied troops to land in Normandy, in his sing-song voice Dimbleby said: ‘Today the gliders and some of the discarded parachutes lie like crumpled flowers inthe wet wooded countryside north east of Caen.’
Catch the cadences in that!
Dimbleby’s prose is as sonorous as Dylan Thomas issuing his order to the wartime generation – ‘do not go gentle into that good night’. Thomas was writing not about thewar but for his dying father. Yet both the poet and the war reporter accorded the same high honour to human life and death.
Theirs is not an empty formality, but the proper use of form – to formulate what we are. As writers ordering experience as best they can, they order their readers and listeners to do the best we can.
Citing ‘parachutes..like crumpled flowers’, Dimbleby was already memorialising, only hours after ‘our airborne troops have successfully completed this, the first of their operations in the new battle of Europe’. Whether or not they lived to tell the tale, he was writing an elegy for this, their bravest action.
Seven decades later, the memories of the old boys who came flooding back to Normandy one last time, must now be imbued not only with the shades of fallen comrades but also with the ghosts of all they have and haven’t done with their lives inthe 70 years since that first landing.
Was D-Day what made them find their feet as grown men, or is it that the ground beneath them never seemed so solid again? Scanned by television cameras, their faces said both these things at the same time.
Meanwhile the politicians and other worthies who hitched themselves to D-Day veterans, are surely not fit to tie their shoelaces. In the presence of the few who continue to represent it, the absence of public virtue was unmistakable – like the sickly odour of a septic tank.