It’s coming up to Remembrance Day, a day that always moves me. I won’t delve into the reasons here. They’re nothing unusual or special. I’m typical of my generation, brought up at a time when my parents, and those of all my friends, had experienced the Second World War.
I support the British Legion and the Poppy Appeal. I have always made a point of donating, and I do wear my poppy with pride. This year, however, the Legion has saddened me with a crass error of judgement.
The official Poppy Appeal Single is by Joss Stone. It is a rendition of Eric Bogle’s painfully poignant “Green Fields of France”. I remember the first time I heard the original. I was driving and reached my destination before the song finished. I didn’t get out, but listened, transfixed by the beautiful music and the heartbreaking lyrics, delivered with quiet anger by Bogle. At the end I was nearly in tears. I love the song, but I still find it difficult to listen to.
Joss Stone’s version is also far from easy listening, but in a very different way. Where Bogle’s treatment of his song was simple, restrained and devastatingly effective, Stone’s is histrionic and over-produced; rather than conveying an overwhelming sense of tragedy it is simply an overwrought travesty. The mess is compounded by a clumsy, entirely inappropriate rock guitar solo by Jeff Beck.
This would be bad enough, but the truly dreadful aspect of the single is the decision to use only the first one and a half verses out of Bogle’s four (as marked in the illustration of the lyrics). That frees up space for Beck’s self-indulgence, but it guts the song of its message.
Bogle moves from musing on the fate of the individual, teenage soldier to the millions more who died in the same war, and the millions more who died in the following wars.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.
Cutting the last half of the song is a dreadful artistic and political mistake. I hesitate to use the word “political”, but Bogle’s song is unquestionably political, in a quiet sense. Removing its message does not just turn a powerful piece of art into a disposable trinket; it implicitly offers a counter message, that Bogle was wrong, that the deaths were not in vain.
That is a valid argument, though it is not one with which I have much truck. I am prepared to concede that the First World War had to be won once it started, but I also believe that the politicians were negligent in their indifference to the likelihood of war and its consequences. The British politicians were far from being the most culpable and they did want to avoid war. It’s just that they didn’t want that badly enough to ensure that Willie McBride and his contemporaries wouldn’t have to die.
Quiet anger is entirely appropriate, along with respect and gratitude to those who served and fell. Bogle’s song is in accord with that sentiment. If Joss Stone and the British Legion did not believe that the last two verses of The Green Fields of France matched their vision of Remembrance Day then they should have chosen another song, rather than bowdlerising the original.
Stripping Bogle’s song of its final two verses is like performing Romeo and Juliet without the last act, on the grounds that its a downer of a conclusion to a great love story.
Perhaps Bogle’s Green Fields of France isn’t art on the same level as Shakespeare, but it is an important work of genuine quality, with the ability to stir deep emotion. It deserves better than Joss Stone’s dreadful treatment. The British Legion should know better.