A couple of weeks ago I met my Mum at Tower Hill tube station. She was in her raincoat and trying to make her phone work when I found her. We walked the few yards to get our first glimpse of the poppies at the Tower. This wonderful installation, by Paul Cummins and my good friend Tom Piper, is an extraordinary spectacle.
Even so early on in the work to plant 888,246 ceramic poppies, the scale moved me. Each poppy was a life lost and by November the moat at the Tower of London will be full. It is very beautiful and I will keep going back to see it unfold.
For my Mum it was particularly moving. Almost one hundred years ago to the day her father joined up. Unlike his brother George, he survived, but he never recovered his health following the gas attacks in the trenches.
Then last week I met up with a friend for dinner. We had a lovely meal, I had yellow fish curry, at Granger & Co in Clerkenwell Green. We were talking about the centenary of WW1, and she told me that she had been involved in some of the events in the Jewish community. The Lights Out remembrance ceremony at Bevis Marks synagogue sounded particularly special.
Naturally our conversation went on to discuss the impact of the awful events in Gaza and Israel. Sadly too many people struggle to see the difference between the actions of the Israeli government and Jewish people generally. There is an awful rise in anti-semitic attacks in this country as a result.
That in turn reminded me of a conversation I had two weekends ago at a party on a boat in the Lagoon at Venice. I was a guest of the Kinnernet Italy conference organised by Yossi Vardi. Yossi and I were having a quiet chat in between the food, wine and dancing. He was encouraging me to come to Israel to visits some of the schools he supports for Israeli Arabs.
It is too long since I last visited Israel and Palestine, and saw for myself the dangers of taking sides in the conflicts there. Watching BBC2’s wonderful The Honourable Woman this weekend also reminds me of the layers of complexity in the region, and the pitfalls for those who try to stay neutral.
This weekend I have also been dragged back into ancestry.co.uk. There I find more on the war records of my relatives. I have found out a little of what I think is my wife’s grandfather who also fought and survived in the trenches. I think I have found his pension record showing an honourable discharge on health grounds from the Royal Sussex Regiment after three years service.
But there is another member of Anna’s family I found out about through Ancestry. Marks Cohen was her great grandfather. He was born in Russia, the son of a rabbi. He escaped forced conscription into the Russian army aged 14 and arrived in London speaking only Hebrew and Russian. Fourteen years later he too signed up and was one of those many Jews who fought in the British army during the Great War.
All of these stories are reasons why I was so pleased when my friend Hannah asked me to help with the education programme for the Blood Swept Lands installation at the Tower. By researching our own family stories of the war we can reconnect and remember their sacrifice, but we can also remember what binds us together. The terrible conflict in the Middle East is so divisive, and yet commemoration of the Great War can also remind of us that however different each of us is, there are bigger things that bind us.