Having spare time on my hands, I went into the Cathedral at Christ Church on Friday morning. Crossing Tom Quad (having been challenged on the gate - "who are you going to see?" "God") - it would have been impossible to miss the small field of poppies that had grown on the lawn nearest the Cathedral doorway. On closer inspection, they proved to be identical (in style, apparently all are hand-made and unique) to the one I bought from the Tower of London memorial last year, that marked the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. A question to ask, but the nearest custodian suddenly felt the need to pursue a naughty tourist for straying off the track, so I went into the House of God and kept my question.
A few years ago - its website no longer says when - the College and Cathedral dedicated a new chapel to the memory of George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (1883-1958). He was a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and had condemned the saturation bombings of German cities by the RAF as war crimes. Some say it cost him the chance of being Archbishop of Canterbury. The Queen honoured it with a huge slab of a tree from Windsor Great Park, which was carved out into a crude altar. There's a stone on the floor recording his name and offices. But on Friday there was no board explaining who he was, or why there was a chapel remembering him; it had gone. In fact, you could easily pass it by just thinking it was a rather modern sort of attempt at an altar, and move on. That was another thing to ask.
In the cathedral they knew the answer about Bishop Bell. He has lately been publicly accused, nearly sixty years after his death, of child-abuse. The present Bishop of Chichester has issued an apology (whatever that might mean). So, our Christ Church saint has become a sinner, and although he keeps his chapel, for the time being, we are not having our attention drawn to it. The man at the door said "he did great things; that he did bad things too didn't cancel them out". Perhaps I had met someone who understood that there is light and shade in all of us, and the darkness does not overcome the light? Maybe that is too sentimental. Or too theological.
About the poppies, the kind people in the cathedral couldn't help, but a new custodian in Tom Quad could. He said they were indeed from the Tower of London, and were there to remember the 239 war dead recalled on our memorials in the entrance to the cathedral. I rather liked that. I bought mine in part because of my Grandad's eldest brother, Uncle Harry, who died in Australia, on active service, but of the Spanish 'flu' in 1919. It seemed fitting and right.
But Uncle Harry had no intention of coming back to this country, the one he'd supposedly fought for. He'd made arrangements for his wife and daughter to come and join him for a new and better life in Australia. In the 1990s, the daughter he'd never known, my formidable Cousin Doris, took him up on that, and emigrated. He didn't join up to serve King and Country. He did it because his mother had just died, his family was falling apart, and there was an evil stepmother moving in. Joining the Navy was infinitely preferable to life in South London back then. It might still be.
How much truth can we tell? How much are we allowed to remember?
Though I knew neither, I remember them, for the good things they did, with gladness.