"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

27 October, 2008

Poppies, Heroes & the Kindness of Strangers

This image: copyright PA

It’s that time of year again: when no ambitious – sorry, self-respecting – news reader or other talking head would dare to be seen without a poppy proudly displayed on their lapel. Fitting then, that quite a few newspapers today ran with the equally obligatory pictures of the ecstatic return from Helmand Province of 2 Para to their anxious loved ones, back in Colchester.

In almost any other context, these happy family snaps, radiating relief, joy and love, might verge on the banal. Yet in the current climate of doom, gloom, the R-word, encroaching winter and myriad other reasons not to be cheerful, it is not difficult to sympathise with picture editors everywhere, scratching their heads about appropriate images with which to run.

Fifteen soldiers who were members of 2 Para or attached to the unit did not make it back home. The average age of the fallen was 24 years old. They included Private Daniel Gamble, a rifleman and Pashto speaker, who died, aged 22, in a suicide bombing attack on June 8th, the 100th British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. Pictures like the one below, showing the repatriation of 19-year old Private Charles Murray, killed in the same attack, just don’t seem to make the front page quite that often. A memorial service to remember 2 Para’s fallen heroes will be held on Thursday, October 30th at St Peter’s church in Colchester.

Comrades carry Pte Murray’s coffin. This image: copyright Daily Mail

On Sunday, Defence Secretary John Hutton told BBC1's Politics Show that Afghanistan was the front line in the fight against international terror, adding it was "impossible to tell" how long troops would be deployed there, but conceded that it could well be "decades".

Click on the following link to go to a comprehensive Roll of Honour of British Troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 compiled by the team at www.britains-smallwars.com.

The troops – fallen, wounded and still serving – took centre stage on Sunday 26th October, when I joined 20,000 other runners to raise funds for charity at the Great South Run in Portsmouth. Help for Heroes (set up only last year by Bryn and Emma Parry to help servicemen wounded in Afghanistan & Iraq) had managed to assemble a veritable army of charity runners, including a bunch of young men in full yomping gear and three teams of eight who pushed a Land Rover around the entire 10-mile course in the teeming rain and wind. Just a quick glimpse of them was all the incentive I personally needed not to give up...

To be honest, I was extremely nervous, not just about running but about touting for sponsorship in the current climate. Despite being woefully ill-prepared, I actually managed to finish in around 1.44, and, thanks to the generosity of friends (both IRL and many of my just as good mates from Twitter) and the magical powers of Justgiving.com, I've raised a significant amount for the Cancer Campaign at the Royal Marsden where Nick, my brother-in-law, was treated earlier this year; his lymphoma is now, thankfully and thanks to the Marsden, in remission.

Anyone doing anything at all for charity would be mad not to set up a fund-raising page at Justgiving. When I ran the London Marathon in 2001, I spent weeks trying to get people to make good their pledges. This time, within hours of sending my link by e-mail, I had already far exceeded my original £500 target. At time of writing, I’m already up to £1500 and the donations are still coming in!

Next time, I’d like to raise funds for Help for Heroes too but I reckon the X-factor gang's take on Mariah Carey will probably bring in a fair few quid. I’d give the link here - if I didn’t feel that the enterprise smacks a little too much of Simon Cowell’s particular, high-waisted, brand of cynicism. Nevertheless, I hope they raise millions for an excellent cause & additionally, some awareness of what British troops are facing in these remote and alien theatres of war. For now, I’ll stick to proudly wearing my own poppy.