Wednesday, 11 August 2010


I was on Newsnight the other evening. It being August, there weren't many historians about - most of them are on holiday in St. Tropez, I expect, decompressing from the library. The idea of historians on holiday does prompt the most marvellous (if unfairly stereotypical) mental images: white and bespectacled men wandering through the 555 Club, tweed jackets over their speedos.

The subject was protected and memorial sites, prompted by Unesco's choice of Bikini Atoll as one of its World Heritage Sites. Pondering this before and after the programme (not much chance during, due to brief period of airtime and momentary paralysis in the face of Kirsty Wark's jabbing hand motions) made me think of how memorials begin: a shot-out building or abandoned prison left as it is, and gradually fossilised or made into a museum selling tshirts; the site of a car crash is commemorated first with dead flowers wrapped in cellophane and fading ribbon, then with a stone; a charity raises money for scholarships, a ward, other victims, a plaque.

There was some talk before the programme about 9/11 and Lockerbie, where a memorial is specifically for the victims' survivors - a way of helping them deal with ther loss; and of course the converse, where what happened on a site was so powerful that it becomes universally resonant - what Unesco is seeking to recognise by putting sites like Auschwitz and Bikini Atoll on its list. But in a sense every death, especially but not necessarily every tragic death, requires a memorial for the survivors.

Two years ago I'd never heard of Motor Neuron Disease, but my grandmother died from it earlier this year: now, if I had a charity to support, a marathon to run, it would be for MND. It's a universal instinct. We simply don't care enough about abstacts like speed limits, a disease, a malign twist of the legal system, an accident that affects people we don't know, until they touch us directly.

But there are ways of commemorating loss that have nothing to do with tragedy and everything to do with the person being remembered and the person remembering them - little rituals that become a kind of homage, a tribute or offering. My sister's bought a mug like the ones Gran had, and drinks a cup of tea in bed in the morning from it, just as Gran always did, and as we did with Gran when we were with her. I'm planning to give up chocolate for Lent in her memory, eating her favourite violet creams on her birthday which falls in the middle of Lent, as she always did. We're all planting flowers that remind us of her. The best reminder of her though is being with each other.

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