Todays writing 101 task is to talk about an object that we treasure. This was an interesting challenge for me as I am not a hoarder. Well I am not a hoarder of anything except my music collection.
I don’t have possession of a single item from my childhood, I left home not long after my 16th Birthday. My parents put me on a boat from Belfast to Liverpool with a single bag. From Liverpool I travelled to Plymouth to join the Royal Navy. My parents divorced shortly afterwards and after several house moves both settled with new partners. I spent 9 years in the Navy, married and had several house moves myself eventually settling in Dorset. As a result everything from my childhood was lost through the years. My younger brother even sold my collection of rare and fairly valuable LP’s.
In 1991 I became a Freemason. Shortly afterwards my mothers partner, who was also a Freemason, gave me a small lapel pin. A little blue forget-me-not. Freemasons began using the flower in Germany in 1926 as a message not to forget the poor and desperate. Many other German charities were also using it at this time. In later years Masons in Nazi Germany adopted the flower as a means of recognition in place of the square and compass design. This spread across Nazi occupied Europe to avoid any danger of being singled out and persecuted. The symbol of the forget-me-not in modern Masonry has become more prevalent and today it is an interchangeable symbol with the square and compass. Some also use the forget-me-not to remember those masons who were victimized by the Nazi’s. In English Freemasonry it is more commonly now worn to remember those that have died as a symbol that you may be gone but not forgotten.
In Newfoundland the forget-me-not was a symbol of remembrance of that nation’s war dead. This practice is still in limited use today, though Newfoundlanders have adopted the the Flanders Poppy as well.
Sadly Trevor, my mother’s partner, died from a particularly virulent cancer shortly afterwards and so my little forget-me-not became a memento of someone I was very fond of. It is however so much more than that. Given its symbolic origins my forget-me-not is a symbol of freedom, of resisting oppression, of distrusting authority and of my abhorance of prejudice, discrimination and inequality. Now thats a lot of symbology from a little flower. Let me try to explain a little more.
I have written a lot recently about my views on the illegality and futility of the so called ‘war against terror’ in the Middle East and I promised in an earlier post about the situation in Gaza that I would try to give some insight into how and why I believe that some of the people in Gaza become radicalised and carry out terrorist atrocities against the Israelis. I grew up in Northern Ireland, a small province that was torn apart by “the Troubles’, a period of sectarian conflict that cost over 4000 lives. The Troubles began in 1969 when I was just 9 years old. The reasons are complex and beyond the scope of this post but if you would like to know the background there is a comprehensive summary here. Shortly after the troubles began my family moved from Belfast to a small coastal village in County Down. It was the sort of place where kids were safe to run free on the beaches and in the fields. The community was almost entirely Unionist and of the Protestant religion. There were only a couple of Roman Catholic families in the village. You knew immediately who the Roman Catholic families were because the children went to separate schools. This is a situation that still exists in Northern Ireland today. Isn’t it incredible that in Britain in 2014 a social apartheid still exists, even today over half of the children in the province attend schools where over 95% of the pupils are of a single religion. In the 1970’s it was much worse.
My first real personal exposure to the troubles came in 1974 during the Ulster Workers Council Strike. In May of that year the strike brought the Province to a standstill, schools, offices and factories were closed by the strike. Even the power companies closed down meaning no electricity. Loyalist paramilitary groups setup road blocks and barricades to ensure that the strike was not broken. My friends and I manned some of the roadblocks around our village. At just 13 years of age we were delighted that the schools were closed and we thought manning the roadblocks was great fun. In all honesty at that time I didn’t really understand what was going on, but there was an association with Loyalist paramilitaries. Several of my friends and I were also in loyalist flute bands in what we saw as a celebration of loyalist and protestant culture. Of course what we did not understand was that many of the adults involved were members of paramilitary organisations and that we had already been identified as possible recruits. Dod we see those friendly laughing, joking men as terrorists? Of course not, they were simply guys who were in the band, who lived down the street or who drank in the pub with my dad. The terrorist you see isn’t necessarily a monster, they simply feel that their situation is hopeless, that no-one is listening to them and that they have to take radical action to be heard.
A sense of injustice can so easily lead to young people being radicalised and becoming involved in terrorist organisations. Indeed many people I knew as I was growing up and even members of my family ended up in jail and some died as a result. The economic system in Northern Ireland was dire indeed and for many the only way out was to do as I did and leave the country. Of my peer group and classmates at school some joined the armed services or the police, others emigrated, some turned to religion and others joined paramilitary organisations and got involved in terrorist related crime. The Northern Ireland I grew up in had the army on the street, Police stations were behind high fences, parking in town centres was almost impossible as parking was not allowed because of the fear of car bombs. You had to pass through security checkpoints and submit to searches before you could even enter Belfast town centre.
The situation was not helped when the Westminster Government introduced internment without trial for those suspected of being involved in terrorism. One of my Uncles spent over a year in prison. He was never charged with any crime, he was imprisoned because he knew people who were suspected of being involved in terrorism. He tells tales of beatings and torture by the Police and security forces. Internment proved to be the biggest boon to recruiting that the paramilitary organisations ever had. It is so easy to draw comparisons with the situation in the Middle East. Whilst I do not condone terrorism in any shape or form my forget-me-not reminds me how easy it is for the marginalised to be drawn into armed struggle.
As I mentioned above I left home at age 16 and joined the Royal Navy. After completing my basic training and my trade training I was waiting for a posting to a ship. Whilst I was waiting my class were asked to volunteer to attend the military research facility at Porton Down to assist with research into finding a cure for the common cold. We were offered additional pay of £10 a day and an additional two weeks leave if we volunteered for the six week trial. This was a huge amount of money at the time, my first monthly wage after I joined the Navy was £28 after food and accommodation charges were deducted. Thankfully I had learned early in life that if something appears too good to be true then it usually is. It has since emerged that those who thought they were helping with research into a cure for the common cold were in fact being unwittingly subjected to the testing of chemical weapons. My forget-me-not reminds me that you cannot trust those in authority.
I mentioned above that my mothers partner, Trevor, had died from a virulent strain of cancer. Trevor had served as a Royal Marine and had been present when the UK carried out the testing of nuclear bombs at Christmas Island in 1962. Those present were not given any form of protection, they were simply told to turn their backs on the explosion and to shield their eyes with their hands. Many of the veterans present during those tests later died from cancers. The UK Government and Ministry of defence fought tooth and nail to avoid paying compensation to those affected or their families. You can read more information about this situation here. My forget-me-not reminds me that Government cannot be trusted to look after those who serve their country, and of course it reminds me of the man who gave it to me.
Many of you will remember that in 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The British Government sent a task force to the South Atlantic to recover the Islands and in the ensuing conflict 907 people lost their lives this included 86 Royal Navy personnel and 27 Royal Marines. Several of the Navy personnel who died were former shipmates and friends of mine. My forget-me-not reminds me of those who lost their lives during that conflict.
In recent years I have seen at first hand how the UK government marginalises and criminalises those who choose to live differently to the rest of society. The root of my awareness lies in the criminalisation of those who chose to live on the road during the 1980’s and 1990’s. The introduction of the Poll tax by Margaret Thatchers Government was seen to be so unfair by some people in our society that many people moved to of their homes and into vans, buses and trucks to avoid paying it. As a result government passed laws making it an offence to park on land and even made it an offence to damage grass on the land they parked up on. The media in the UK portrayed these travellers as drug crazed thugs and sparked a moral outrage across the country. I came to realise that the people they were talking about included my little sister.
In recent years the government and the media in the UK has been on a crusade to portray those on welfare benefits as feckless scroungers. They give the impression that huge amounts of cash is being ‘stolen’ by those who are not entitled to support. The fact that the vast majority of welfare spending goes to old age pensioners or to the working poor seems to be immaterial. This is merely an excuse to demonise the most needy in our society whilst taxes are cut for the richest.
The media and government continuously demonise those who seek political asylum in our country, claiming that the vast majority of immigrants into the UK are economic migrants who come here to sponge off the welfare state and the National Health Service. The fact that the vast majority of immigrants are from EU countries and are entitled to settle and work anywhere within the European Union is conveniently ignored. The remainder are often those who are displaced by conflict in those countries in which the western governments are waging war. Once again the most vulnerable in society are a convenient scapegoat to cover up economic mismanagement by successive governments. My forget-me-not reminds me that government often makes bad laws and demonises the poor and vulnerable, society is unfair and over the last 35 years the rich have got richer whilst the poor get poorer. It reminds me that inequality, prejudice and discrimination are rife in our society and that government sometimes make laws that reinforce that inequality.
My forget-me-not may only be 10mm across but it provides something of an anchor and I think you will agree it has quite a story to tell. It is a treasure beyond value.