I was in the midst of the battle of Passchendaele it was 1917, and I was lost amid shells, bombs, grenades, bullets, mud, blood, bodies and extreme human destruction. In my dream I walked from the battlefield back to modern day Canary Wharf, clean, clinical and constructive – and yet I didn’t feel any calmer for being there.
As a student Jungian psychology at that time a dream such as this could not be ignored.
Carl Jung worked with the symbolism found in the dreams of his patients. He would have asked me “what does Passchendaele mean to you” and my answer initially might have been “not a lot, I guess I just heard about it as a 1WW battle like the Somme when I was learning history at school.”
Why Passchendaele though? Why not the Somme which is infinitely better known? The human psyche is a phenomenon of unknown depths but the linguistic link between Passchen and Passion would not have been lost on Jung.
What does Canary Wharf mean to you? That’s easy. I’ve never worked in the Isle of Dogs just like I’d never been to Passchendaele and so its symbolic resonance as a centre of commerciality was not clouded by actual experiences. Canary Wharf, most likely through television, news clips and films, to me conjures up images of rising and falling stock markets, traders and bankers sweating over the movement of stocks on screens and a quick visit to Wikipedia only reinforces the symbolism stating that Canary Wharf contains 1,500,000 square metres of office and retail space. Around 105,000 people work in Canary Wharf itself and it is the home to the world or European headquarters of numerous major banks, professional services firms and media organisations.
As I walked the 3 miles back and forth to work each day that week (public transport in rush hour uncomfortable and unreliable) I considered all angles as to what my unconscious mind might be trying to bring into consciousness by serving me such a dream. Up before the sun, 9+ hours in a 2x2m office within a slightly larger building footprint, back home after dark and to bed and I was not by any means alone. Don’t get me wrong I loved my work and my colleagues were fabulous but something was certainly unbalanced – I didn’t feel free.
So why did half a million soldiers die in just over three months at the battle of Passchendaele? Why were they prepared to lay down their lives en masse in such a torturous environment? They believed with such passion that they were fighting for freedom and most poignantly, they were fighting for our freedom. We face atrocities in the news every day, from terrorism, to natural disasters, to disease and political differences but today, a century on from the Battle of Passchendaele, it is worth as individuals us contemplating how we can address our own freedom even if it is to do nothing more than acknowledge the choice we have in it. It may not feel like choice, it certainly didn’t to me, my work ethic, my professional and well-regarded career, my salary and the results of my work all felt central to my needs and existence. This dream was for me the start of a long period of transition. Something very brave deep within my unconscious just dared to pose the question.
The immediate upshot of the dream was that I needed to take on the challenge. If there was thinking to be done, considerations and contemplations on the cards then I was going to need some alone. Walking was my best chance of this and I had already been provided with the route but this was a self-centred mission and there was room for improvement on this. Drawing on my inherent commerciality I altered my route to appeal to wider comprehension than that my dream may have met.
Over the August bank holiday that year I walked from the Cenotaph, the UK’s official war memorial in London to the Menin Gate in Belgium, dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient of World War I and whose graves are unknown. A five-day story the detail of which I save for another time.
Most significant to me was the beauty of the Kent countryside with its apple orchards and strawberry farms, the final climb up to Dover Castle to see the English Channel stretched out in front of me; the emotion I felt when I realised that those living on the Kent coast would have heard the explosions of the battles in northern France and how desperate for the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters who could in theory have walked to retrieve their loved ones and yet had to hear their destruction.
On the other side, the flat landscape of northern France, the attractive simplicity of rustic villages, houses adorned with flowers and the warmth of sunshine matching that of the people. I averaged 28 miles a day and while my feet hurt from time to time there was always something interesting or beautiful to keep my focus. On my final day I began to come across the cemeteries exquisitely looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, thousands of rows upon rows of white headstones each stout and solid in memoriam of a young life.
Since 1928 (except during the German occupation in World War II when the daily ceremony continued in England) every evening at 8 o’clock a memorial ceremony has taken place under the Menin Gate in Ypres. Buglers from the local fire brigade sound the last post and wreathes are laid.
At 8pm on 30 August 2012 the final steps of my walk to remember the importance of my freedom led me to the centre of this memorial to the missing to lay a wreath – my token of thanks to a generation who laid down its life so that I could be free and to my unconscious for reminding me of the part I now needed to play in the deal.
Thanks to generous supporters, who asked no questions as to my route from Whitehall to Ypres I raised nearly £10,000 for Combat Stress the veterans mental health charity supporting further generations who have sacrificed their freedom for others.