The sign on the door
I don’t usually look at war memorials. They are too often gathering places for people who think that war works. But something remarkable has been done using the war memorial at St Matthew’s church in the Oxford area of Grandpont. Local historian Liz Woolley and her team have researched its 66 World War One names, found out how each man died and where, how old he was and his address in Grandpont. There is an A4 biography of each attached, with a poppy, outside the house where he lived.
A hundred years after that war, as local people walk to the shop, the swimming pool, the church, the primary school, the park, the playgroup, the doctor… they walk past doors and lampposts marked with the sign of the red poppy. You can walk 300 paces without seeing a poppy, then there are two within doors of each other or three at the same address. So many, so close. Families who must have known each other. Suddenly these are not textbook statistics nor unfamiliar names for people like me to ignore, but young men gone and never coming back. I walk quietly round the streets, noting the ages of these dead men - 17, 23, 31, 19… I see the ages of their wives and young children. I look at the names of their brothers who also fought and in some cases also died. I read the joint notice, ‘Their Name Liveth’, remembering a group of three friends which was placed by their siblings in the Oxford Times every year for 50 years, yes 50, until the mid-1960s.
This memorial does for me what those made of stone or brass don’t. It shows me family after family bereaved by violent, distant death brought right back into this small community. And if this community, then presumably the next one, and the next one and the next one all the way to Cornwall, Norfolk, Powys, Northumberland, Fife.
These red poppies on so many doors make me think about the ‘red cross of a foot long in the middle of the door, evident to be seen, and with these usual printed words, that is to say, "Lord, have mercy upon us," to be set close over the same cross, there to continue until lawful opening of the same house’ that the Lord Mayor of London ordered be painted on ‘every house visited’ by the Great Plague in 1665.
Perhaps the Lord was in charge of the Plague, but it is us in charge of war.