I have waxed lyrical on here many, many times about the power of music. About how it has stirred me, soothed me, made me nostalgic…and on Friday night I had another of those moments.
Last week was a big week for the history of the RAF. The unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial in London brought together the RAF from today with the RAF of yesterday. Airmen and Airwomen coming together across time, sharing with their families, and with the families of those who fought but did not enjoy the peace. It was a moving, emotional day for those veterans.
But for me, it didn’t really stir me as much as I thought. I was concentrating on trying to get the story of the day, and whilst I met and talked to people all day, I didn’t really feel the emotion of it. I was a step away from it. I understood the sacrifices, I knew the suffering, I was aware of the hardships…it was a step away from me. I had no direct link with the Bomber Boys you see. I could feel the power of what was happening amongst those people directly affected by it…I still felt a little…adjacent, but not involved in it.
That was until the following night. When I went to the RAF Museum at Hendon, where a local Brass and Wind Band were to play an evening concert in the shadow of the Lancaster – an original Bomber Command aircraft that flew 137 missions with 83, 463 and 467 Sqns.
Now, brass and wind bands aren’t really my thing. But I thought that it’d be a nice evening out, and the chance to have a wander around the Museum with very few people there would be lovely.
And it was. I’d enjoyed good company, enjoyed a nice Spitfire Ale beer sat BESIDE a Spitfire, had a nice chat and taken some cool photos. All was good, but still no real emotional connection.
And then the band played a song called ‘Evening Hymn and Sunset’.
And the gentle strains of the wood wind instruments moved quietly through the museum. It built slowly, getting louder, not with an urgency, but with a gentle insistence. It rose, it built and just as you expected a shout from it there was a change of key and the same air was repeated and the loops of wind and brass instruments rolled around again. It truly was like evening and sunset.
It was the musical equivalent of the sun setting and the sky fading. I looked up and was under the wing of a Lancaster. The power and the glory of this aircraft. I closed my eyes and imagined the aircraft flying into the evening, the sun setting and the camera in my minds eye saw the Lanc heading off into the distance, powering off and away and below me. Then with a tip of the wing, a slow bank away to the right, the four Merlins running at an easy pace, no where near the full power it had available…cruising away…and then…and then the music changed. A gentle drum roll and two cornets took over the theme. It changed from a gentle hymn into the striding tune that was instantly recognisable as the Last Post. Achingly beautiful. Poignant. Evocative.
The band took the music to it’s crescendo. I opened my eyes and looked up again at the wing of the aircraft above me, the two visible engines, the open bomb bay. But then my focus was shifted to the cockpit, the forward turret, the mid-upper, the rear guns. Where the people were.
This is where men flew. That Lancaster in my minds eye, flying through into the night, was flown by men. It was here that the emotion in me was pricked. The connections were made. 125,000 men flying. 55,573 who didn’t return. This music, this machine, both together came to represent more than the sum of their parts.
And as the Last Post theme faded away and the music came to a stop I finally felt connected to the whole thing. The power, the glory, the sadness. The sheer and utter pointless waste of it all.
Because war is pointless. You can argue that it was good against evil and that it was where fine and noble and brave things happened; where freedom was fought for, where good battled evil. But it was also where young men with such potential were cut down. They gave their lives for us, and for our freedom and for our future, for good to win over evil ideas, but war, in itself is totally absolutely and bloody pointless.
It shows us as a species of contrasts. The most evil and stupid of things, but the most beautiful and bravest of things. In war we reach the lowest lows of morality, and yet the highest highs of ideals. People give their everything for others…they give their lives. But if we as a species could be just that little bit cleverer when all that waste wouldn’t even be necessary. We are too stupid to see that war is so stupid. That is why we continue to peruse it. And we always will, because we as a species are too stupid to see any other way.
It’s a romantic image that I painted of the Lancaster rolling off into the setting sun, the engine noise roaring, the colours of the sky, the strains of a band playing beautiful music…but the romance should be tempered with the fact that this is all about war. About death. About killing. About the crazy dichotomy that is the human race. It can produce something so absolutely bloody beautiful as a Lancaster, but do it for the reason of something so absolutely bloody hideous as the purpose of war.
And that piece of music connected me to that. It reminded me of that. We should honour and remember those who took part in that battle, whatever nationality they were. Whether they were in the air or on the ground. Whether they were loading the bombs, dropping them having the explosives dropped on them. War is stupid. Death is stupid. No matter what the reason for war, it is ultimately stupid and pointless; just or not, it brings out the worst and the best in us. And the memorials to those who fought and died in wars are not just about those people who did the fighting and dying, they are about us as a species.
They are about how clever we are in building and designing something that stirs the emotions and evokes thoughts and feelings in us, but also about how stupid we are to keep going to war. The grandness and pomp and sombreness of a memorial is not just a monument to those people named therein, they are monuments to our stupidity for the actions that led us, as a species, to get involved in a war in the first place.
If we were wise we’d remember both of these things when we look at a monument or a statue or an aircraft or any other memorabilia in a museum and remember…we are bloody stupid to go to war in the first place. War brings out the very worst in some people, but even if it brings the very best in others…war is bloody, bloody stupid. If the dead of Bomber Command, and the dead of their actions, can teach us but one thing, they would shout to us today, louder than the loudest music that we should put as much effort into finding a different and better way than war of solving our problems.
As beautiful and clever as the human race is, we are too stupid to be able to do things differently. We will keep on fighting and killing. We will keep on hoping and praying. We will keep on creating horror and beauty. Whether it is in the skies over Germany, or in the fields of Afghanistan, or wherever the next war and conflict will be…in the Middle East, in Africa…wherever…sadly for all the memorials we build, we will keep on fighting and killing.
War and death. Honour and sacrifice. Two sides of the same coin.
And the beauty of friends fighting for friends, heroic deeds, of the aesthetic image of a lone aircraft flying away into the setting sun is a testament to that. That aircraft, flying into the darkness can represent us as a species; beautiful, stupid. And it represents everyone who has fought in a war before them, with them, after them. Their loss is a testament. A message of hope that for as long as there is stupidity and hate and evil, there are good and great and beautiful men and women who will give their all for the rest of us.
And we owe it to them to keep on trying to find a better way so they don’t have to.