Eating Soft Centres at the Menin Gate…



Went to Belgium Friday and Saturday for a tour of the World War 1 sites. It was fascinating… but troubling. Led by a retired solider with 30 years experience – much of it in pretty ‘hot’ active service – we toured battlefields and cemeteries around Belgium and France.

We ended up at the Menin Gate in Ypres. It’s a magnificent structure, very grand and tragic, the peels of names covering it, all with no known grave. Tens of thousands of them. We were there for the ‘last post’ ceremony, and there must have been about 1000 other tourists packed in too, with about 5 wreaths ready to be laid by various cadet forces and schools.

But… we were all there with our bags of Belgian chocolate, having stuffed our faces with chicken and chips. It was a spectacle, and I think most of the crowd experienced it as ironic. They were there pretending to be respectful, because they knew that that was the part that was called for. And got their phones out to film it, and laughed a bit, and talked. Not that I was angry with them – because I wasn’t so different. It just seemed sad that this was what it had become: an attraction, almost.

Žižek quotes Marx in one of his books, who said: all history is destined to repeat itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. It seemed that the tragedy – and, my God, what a tragedy – is being replaced by something a little farcical. But what could possibly be done about it? I wrote half a poem:

Here we are standing, arms full of chocolate
good ones – Belgian – at the Menin Gate
where untold victims left grieving sweethearts
dismembered in fields, a terrible fate,
which we now remember, filmed on mobiles
to be shown, once, to friends and thrown away
us munching soft centres as they play the last post
to stifled giggles; this is remembrance, betrayed…

The story of that war is full of tragedy, a precis of the 20th century: greed, failure to negotiate, wasted working class lives and a stuck-up class system that failed to see merit in those who weren’t ‘educated.’

One would hope that that sort of war could no longer be fought… but history, as Marx says, does repeat itself, tragically, farcically.