Michael Foot’s ‘Donkey Jacket’

So much paper and ink and online space was wasted on the 11th of November in a paltry, petty attempt to discredit Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who ‘dared’ to appear at the Cenotaph wearing, what looked to me, like a perfectly sensible hooded overcoat. By wearing such a coat, his dextral detractors claimed, he was affronting all of the war dead and their descendants. They seem to forget that the 11th was the day when people put their weapons down and the guns fell silent.

This reminded me of two incidents. First of all, when in 2011 David Gilmour’s son Charlie, high on acid, grabbed onto a gonfalon hanging from the Cenotaph and used it, Tarzan-style, to swing on. For this silly little stunt, he was rewarded with 16 months in prison. There are drunk drivers out there who kill people and get penalised less. The punishment reminded me of a lesser known poem by Hugh MacDiarmid (‘The Just Judge’) where he claims that when a judge committed suicide, he was dishing out the only ‘just’ sentence of his life.

The second incident I was reminded of was more a case of history repeating itself, when in 1981, then Labour leader Michael Foot appeared at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday wearing what looked, to his critics, like a ‘donkey jacket’. There was then an uproar in the right-wing press about how Foot was trampling all over the memory of the glorious dead, because donkey jackets were synonymous with the suffering miners. This soi disant ‘donkey jacket’ was in fact an expensive Jaeger overcoat, bought that year by his wife from Harrods. Not exactly the stuff of socialism, but this for me represents all that is wrong with symbolic national gestures and rituals like Remembrance Sunday. All focus is on the outward appearance and behaviour of people – there’s this nouveau riche expectation that you outwardly have to look good and conventional and that means your remembrance is somehow more worthy than anyone else’s, even when that person you don’t like might happen to be wearing an overcoat much finer than yours.

Like Walter Benjamin once said, and he would know, right-wing regimes play-up the ‘aesthetic’ over the ‘political’, they aestheticise the political when they should be politicising the aesthetic. And it’s not just the obsession with image that disturbs me about this, it’s also the sanitised language and rhetoric that prevails. People in wars ‘gave their lives’ like they had a choice in the matter, when in fact they had their lives violently taken from them. I am diametrically opposed to nearly everything Peter Hitchens says, but he was right to point out that we talk about the dead, particularly from WW1, as being ‘soldiers’ – they were mostly nothing of the sort – they were husbands, lovers, artists, builders, musicians, miners – the list goes on forever. To return to Hugh MacDiarmid, the war dead are ‘safely dead’ so we can perpetuate whatever myths we like about them.

MacDiarmid also took a swing at the Cenotaph, the monolith at the heart of this, in saying that we should spend our minute’s silence thinking not about the dead who we cannot save, but the lives of those still alive in abject, grinding poverty. What do we spend our minute’s silence doing? Counting the seconds? Thinking about lunch? No one will admit it, but I bet you that’s what we do. The whole process of remembering the war dead has become utterly gestural, token and prescriptivist. It must be a sacking offense at the BBC to appear on screen without a poppy pinned to your chest. I am not opposed to the culture of grieving that surrounds November 11th each year, but I think that most people have forgotten why they do it – like Alan Bennett said ‘the surest way of forgetting something is by commemorating it’. Poppies are indicative of earth that has been turned and disturbed, over 100 years on they are still blooming on the battlefields, that’s how bad it was and the Belgian poet Hugo Claus reminds that there are villages around the battlefields that produce butter that ‘tastes of poppies’. Yet our poppies are completely lifeless and static, they’re a symbol of a culture that has settled into this death cult once a year, letting our minds go fallow, adopting the official language of the media, and letting them speak for us.

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