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Remembrance Sunday

November 6, 2008

Remembrance 11th November 2007, originally uploaded by johnthurm.

Remembrance Sunday used to be something I observed on TV.

There was something appealing about the solemn coverage. The sight of sharply cut Portland stone towering above a silent and reverential London appealed to my patriotism. Craggy-faced ex-servicemen stood proudly shoulder to shoulder alongside an ever diminishing number of compatriots, all of them now battling painful memories and the promise of oncoming loneliness.
 
Those of us at home looked on in sadness and gasped as we observed grey-looking politicians accompanied by members of the royal family slowly step forward and lay down their wreathes. Everything looked so appropriate. Everything was so painstakingly choreographed. All of it accompanied by a brass band with an unfeasibly realistic ambient wildtrack.

It was TV. It was meant to be like that. I just didn’t realise it when I was eight years old.

When my voice broke, I was elegible and required (by virtue of there not being sufficient tenor voices in the school chapel choir) to participate in a more local Remembrance Day service. We remebered ex-pupils who served in both wars. This was our connection. We remembered our school history and those ex-pupils’ bright educated lives cut short by the war.
 
A mansion house with its own church set in 400 acres of land itself larger than the village it was in, the school was the perfect backdrop. Senior school boys dressed in Harris Tweed jackets and long overcoats, poppies immaculately pinned to their lapels, accompanied upper school girls in skirts and tights, hair tied back gripping their music. A biting wind stirred brittle autumn leaves. It was an elegant sight.

We’d sing in the church on the school grounds and then proceed to the village memorial to observe solemn faced representatives of the local community lay their wreathes. Were they actually remembering or re-enacting something they’d seen on the TV?

I had no connection with the First World War. If there are any dim and distant relatives who signed up never to return to Britain, none of my family know of them. Their stories haven’t emerged from spoken family histories.

So, what was I feeling when I participated in those acts of remembrance ? If there was no personal connection, how could this ritual benefit anyone? What was it achieving? Was I just making up the numbers? Was I a rubber-necker? Or was I participating in a solemn event in what felt like the perfect setting?

The sharp cut stone. The images in my head of former battlefields. These seemed like potent images at the time. I relied on them when I stood, head bowed during the silence.
 
We all stood motionless, welcoming the nothingness, thinking about something certain the person standing next to us was focussing on a fallen soldier.

As I moved further through school and on to university, so the appeal of this simple theatre gradually slipped away. The sense of occasion was lost somehow. There was no collective experience to be had with contemporaries. School commerations were history. Television coverage sidelined to recovering from a hangover. This was the reality of the Remembrance Day service to a student overcoming the effects of yet another hangover.
 
John Lichfield (Independent Magazine, 1 November) suggests a renewed interest in genealogy and the personal connections family historians have made with the Great War partially explains a renaissance in commemorating the fallen in the First World War.

Nice try, but I’m still finding it difficult to engage with Remembrance Sunday.

Over the years I have become increasingly disconnected from it. The traditional two minutes silence competes with a growing and insistent desire to mark what is all too often regarded as present-day society’s own life-changing events.

Football stadium and ferry disasters, coach and train crashes, the death of Diana, the London bombs. These were all shocking and heart-breaking events. They all touched all of us when we heard about and continue to haunt the victim’s families still now.

But unlike the First World War (and even 90 years on the potency of that event feels like it could be finally waning), those modern day life-changing events feel like they have a shelf-life. 

The desire to remember the event has passed because we want to forget it or because it doesn’t touch us the way it did at first. We’ve marked it’s passing. We’ve grieved enough.

To me Remembrance Sunday has become nothing more than a box of paper poppies sat on a reception desk or ticket barrier. Dare to shake the collection pot and I bet you’ll shiver when you hear just how few coins rattle in the plastic container.

The imagery of my Remembrance Sunday is gone and with it the genuine motivation to mark the silence. Such shameful inaction is doing present-day servicemen and women (not to mention those who lost their lives over the past 90 years) a huge disservice.
 
Do something bold this Remembrance Sunday. Stand and remember those who lost their lives. Don’t let their families feel the loss of their loved ones has been lost on the rest of us..

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