Monday, November 18, 2013

Paying Respects: Holidays that make a difference

How do you catch the imagination of a nation? Or of the world?

World Toilet day is already here in Singapore, and that's my excuse for starting my post a day early (as it's still Monday here in London.) I have been looking forward to the day for awhile, and doubtless there will be much to tell after tomorrow. But in the calm before the storm it seemed a good time to reflect on what the day is actually about.

Number one: It is a chance to raise awareness. Most people don't even know what the day itself is about, let alone that there is a global sanitation crisis. And that's the first hurdle.

I was thinking about how you create a holiday as I rode the bus down Whitehall this morning. Here in London we have just had Remembrance Sunday, and World War I memorials are still covered in freshly laid wreaths paying tribute to the soldiers who gave their lives. Poppies still haven't entirely disappeared from lapels. Tourist gather, whether to pay respects or to gawk.

The poppy has become such an evocative symbol. People may have a diverse range of opinions on the matter, but they know what it means, and poppies have become the center of many debates. The poppies sold by the Royal British Legion support the armed forces, and their fundraising target for 2013 was £37m.

The image has been used since the 1920's and originates from a poem by John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow      
Between the crosses, row on row,   
That mark our place; and in the sky   
The larks, still bravely singing, fly 
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,   
Loved and were loved, and now we lie         
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: 
To you from failing hands we throw   
The torch; be yours to hold it high.   
If ye break faith with us who die 
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. 
Before I get called out for disrespecting the dead by bringing them into the toilet debate, here's the eternal question: 1.5 million children die every year because of poor sanitation. That's one every 20 seconds. Where are their memorials? Is their sacrifice less worthy because it was not voluntary? Because they never reached an age where they would be able to make a voluntary sacrifice if called upon. 

They have no means of fighting the enemy. Their enemy is germs. Their weapons: a combination of education and functioning toilets. Weapons that cost less than artillery and cannons, and only save lives rather than destroy them. It should be a no brainer! 

But lapel pins for the cause are distinctly lacking, as is an international moment of silence broadcast on TV. The Queen probably won't be giving a speech. No wreaths will be laid. Even though this cause has an impact on far more people (indeed, on everyone in the world!) And has done since long before nations and boarders were even invented. 

Is it that the crisis is too massive? Too immediate? Too every-day? Too taboo? Not a specific enough event? Probably all of the above and more.

Perhaps it's just because I want to believe it, but I am back to my cry of Art is the way! 
We need a poet of McCrae's caliber to conjure us an image we can get behind (and, though it rather spoils the moment to say it, an image we can market!) A web of symbols and rituals that we can't ignore because we want to participate. 

And in 2015 to mark the success (partial if not complete) of the UN's millennium development goals, why not an arts festival on par with the WWI centenary celebrations due to take off next year? 

World Toilet Day is only 12 years old, so perhaps I am impatient. Maybe it too will come into its place in the limelite when it hits its Centenary. But seeing as these issues are here today, can't we nudge it along a bit?

As a start: if you do nothing else tomorrow, wish someone a Happy World Toilet Day! I can almost guarantee that that will make one more person who knows. We'll have our field of poppies yet, though we have to plant them ourselves. 

The Tipperary Pub on Fleet Street, London, where non-customers
may use the loo for the price of a donation to the Poppy Appeal.
Photo: Simona Della Valley

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