It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Am I the only person whose regular Sunday morning listening habits are modified on Remembrance Day by keeping the radio on and merging the audio-only build-up to the two-minute silence with sound and vision from the TV screen? It’s oddly effective when the delay between the respective live feeds of radio and television combine to create a rather haunting echo, particularly when Big Ben chimes or the Last Post is played – as though the whole ceremony is being respectfully remixed into a ghostly, Spector-esque Wall of Sound before our ears. Anyway, it always seems to enhance the atmosphere for me. Like most, I’ve been exposed to images from this annual tradition all my life and if anything makes one acutely aware of mortality, it’s events at the Cenotaph every November. For example, this year, for the first time I can ever remember, Her Majesty was not in attendance.
Brenda hasn’t been her usual remarkably robust 95-year-old self for the past month or so, but it’s perhaps an indication of how she’s had to ease up on her work-rate that she should have to forego a ceremony she’s been such a key fixture of for longer than most of us have been alive. Mind you, no Duke of Edinburgh this year, and it’s still quite strange to see it without his presence too. Yet, it really doesn’t seem that long since all those wheelchair-bound veterans of the First World War were part of the Remembrance furniture, and now they’re all gone as well. I remember their numbers dwindling year-after-year; every time the Sunday in question came around, there’d be fewer of them than there had been twelve months before. In the end, it got to the point when there were just two or three clinging on as the last surviving link to a conflict the society we were born into was raised in the long shadow of. And then they were no more. The ceremony had to carry on without them – and it has, as WWI ceased to be within living memory and receded over the horizon into its final resting place of the history book.
One used to be able to guess the conflict each ex-serviceman or woman present had participated in by how lined their faces were, though again, using Remembrance Day as a yardstick for measuring the passage of time is a poignant pointer to the gradual moving of the goalposts. Today the grey and white hairs sit atop the heads of those who fought in the Falklands or the Gulf War – even those who fought in more recent conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq; and the remaining old soldiers in the wheelchairs are the ones whose World War was the Second. They have replaced the likes of Harry Patch as the veterans’ veteran; but their numbers are also diminishing every time this day is with us once more. For me personally, that living connection to the War was finally severed when my grandfather passed away almost a decade ago, but until the last survivor who lifted a rifle in anger against the Nazis or Japanese lays it down for good, there is still a link there that we need to cherish while we can.
When I was a child, the ceremonial occasion on the Sunday nearest to 11 November felt like a parade of old men whose relevance to the here and now seemed slight. Yes, my granddad had been there – in Egypt and South Africa and a PoW in East Germany (that much I do know) – but he never talked about it. We were encouraged to remember something we were too young to remember; the ceremony could just as easily have been marking Waterloo, Trafalgar or Agincourt. However, the number of conflicts the British armed forces have been engaged in over the last few decades have given it a newfound relevance for those far younger than me – the widows and orphans of all the overseas wars we have been committed to without prior consultation. I would imagine there are innumerable lives redirected by the ramifications of these conflicts – lives amongst the generations that came after mine as opposed to my own generation, and for them today probably means more than it does to me.
The cultural, emotional and spiritual significance of this event every November – not just the televised ceremony in the capital, but every small service in every metropolis and hamlet the length and breadth of these islands – is one of the reasons why people are so appalled when a protest group hijack it to make a petty point, or why last year’s heavy-handed lockdown policing of the nationwide gatherings around the nearest war memorial was greeted with such outrage. If anything highlighted just how much the police and their taskmasters had overstepped the mark in interpreting pandemic restrictions, it was the images of masked Bobbies surrounding memorials and issuing fines to people who simply wanted to pay their respects and were actually adhering to social distancing rules in the process. Mercifully, the restrictions have been relaxed this year, though watching the broadcast from the Cenotaph and not seeing the Queen on the balcony is a reminder that it’s not simply ‘business as usual’ after last year’s blip. At her advanced age, one wonders if she’ll be back next year or if that’s it now and we’ll have to get used to Prince Charles as effective Regent from hereon.
Considering how Remembrance Day is a fairly rare opportunity to see the most powerful people in the country in the same place at the same time, it’s unavoidable that the ageing process is brought home; even Her Majesty’s individual children (bar one notable absentee who would be sweating it out elsewhere were he capable of sweating) look so bloody old now; for many, it’s the only opportunity to study them close-up one after the other, and the realisation they’re getting on is glaring. Aside from the more moving moments, it’s hard to avoid these little observations, for there are so many tropes to the ceremony that remain fascinating to observe with each passing year, highlights one can’t help but look forward to. What I always find interesting is when one sees the ex-Prime Ministers stood side-by-side and noticing how much more ancient they look than when they were resident at No.10.
The swift turnover of PMs in recent years means there are currently five former leaders standing behind Boris in the line-up, and though the unique sight of them gathered together inevitably makes me think of those Doctor Who stories when the incumbent Doc has to call on his former selves for backup, it’s the nearest thing we have over here to when all the old Presidents attend the inauguration of the latest tenant of the White House; the fun part of that tends to be spotting the increasingly-cadaverous Jimmy Carter and wondering if he’s determined to live forever. Having said that, there’s still a slightly glitzy quality to that occasion utterly absent from the natural sobriety of Remembrance Day.
There’s a genuine democratic aspect to Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph; from the sovereign on down, everyone who played their part on a foreign field or the home front is represented with the laying of a wreath. The lengthy parade of Commonwealth representatives I always find a quite moving reminder of how many nations were absorbed into Britannia’s bosom and fought on her behalf; the dignity of the ceremony and honouring the sacrifice they made is an effective and powerful contradiction of the current revisionist narrative of the Empire and our colonial history as is possible to imagine. Even the presence of a British Asian woman as Home Secretary seems to make that same subtle point. Indeed, it’s when one witnesses just how many former colonies are represented at the ceremony that one remembers – or should – that their ancestors were fighting for an ideal rather than one little offshore island, an ideal that stretched across the Anglosphere and into Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, the Caribbean, the Middle East and the Far East. The forces of totalitarianism in their numerous ideological guises were up against a formidable foe and rightly received their comeuppance. Whether the British Isles or the British Empire, the whole was always greater than the sum of its parts, and what we shared in terms of values trumped whatever divided us. That’s always worth remembering.
© The Editor