MANY HAPPY RETURNS

I’ve seen so many over the years, so forgive me if I cite the wrong one as an example; but I think it was a programme broadcast in 1990, marking the 21st anniversary of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’, in which Eric Idle was asked what his plans for the future were; he replied that he was looking forward to marking all the Python anniversaries in the years to come. Tongue may well have been in cheek, but he had a point; there seems to have been a retrospective Python TV documentary every ten years ever since, though it was telling that this time round – when we reached the half-century – BBC2 chose to mark the occasion with a glut of repeats produced for previous Python anniversaries. Very confusing as a viewer in 2019, but I guess there’s only so much more that can be added to what’s been said before; and the individual Pythons have probably reached that age where they say the same thing more than once in the space of fifteen minutes, anyway.

When it comes to marking anniversaries of cultural events, I know I’m as guilty as yer average issue of ‘Mojo’; but I’m hardly unique these days. There was a R4 doc on the subject just last Saturday, and the growing appeal of anniversaries could be that they act as a refreshing and welcome breather from such a notoriously unstable present day. There’s certainly a steady supply of them as well; as soon as one’s been commemorated, another one quickly comes along. Indeed, the nostalgia bus service that is the anniversary industry appears to be travelling on an increasingly congested route. Today’s calendar is cluttered with anniversaries marking national and international events or the birth/death of significant cultural figures; and there seems to be an upsurge in official anniversaries of the safely-unalterable past whenever the contemporary feels so unnervingly unpredictable.

Anniversaries have a nice dependability to them that means each individual occasion can be celebrated once a decade without fail, even though there is a downside. Time has a canny habit of moving the goalposts of perception (no, ‘The Goalposts of Perception’ wasn’t the little-known sequel to Huxley’s lysergic manual); and every time a particular anniversary comes around, the goalposts have shifted again. We might look forward to marking an event we’ve marked before, but when what we got used to as ‘forty years since’ is eventually rebranded as ‘fifty years since’, it merely serves to remind us we’re all ten years older than we were the last time we marked it.

Just as each day takes us one step nearer to meeting our maker, it also takes us one step further from all that we choose to remember; the past is no more a fixed point than the present; it moves backwards at the same steady speed as we move forwards, and we cannot halt that progress. Maybe marking an anniversary is a subconscious attempt to briefly reverse the journey in both directions and bring a cherished moment close again. And if the event being marked was a cherished moment rather than some awful tragedy ala 9/11 or 7/7, the sentiment is perfectly understandable.

It’s possible to claim an anniversary doesn’t really gain gravitas and properly qualify for the honour until we reach a nice round number like 10; but I’d argue the first anniversary is as significant as the tens, twenties, twenty-fives et al, for the first lays the foundations for all the anniversaries to follow. And if the event being marked is a death, one whole year is the point whereby the late, lamented person suddenly ceases to inhabit a present tense within reach and is absorbed into the lineage of history – or that’s how it often feels. Once we bypass that twelve month signpost, we may as well henceforth be talking about the Georgians or the Victorians; that’s the kind of company the person in question now keeps. They have permanently slipped from our contemporary grasp. Also, when years supersede months as the method of measurement dividing now from then, the gap between the subsequent anniversaries seems to diminish with each one; we mark five years, and then it’s ten before we know it, then twenty…and on and on it goes, carrying us further from the event with ever-accelerating speed. A trick time plays on us, of course; but a potent one.

The disappearance of the frail WWI soldiers in their wheelchairs, who had become such a familiar poignant sight on one day of the year, is a reminder that some anniversaries can only retain their real relevance whilst the events they commemorate remain within living memory. When this ceases to be the case, the nature of their marking changes and arguably loses the personal touch that kept them prescient and genuinely moving. The Duke of Wellington used to mark the Battle of Waterloo by sharing a celebratory dinner with fellow veterans for a good 30 years after departing the battlefield, but the last time the end of the Napoleonic Wars was marked – the 2015 bicentenary – it was a very different kind of occasion. After all, Wellington died in 1852, and the last survivor of Waterloo passed away in 1898.

Yes, the public anniversary can be simultaneously personal if some of those present were also there when the event being marked actually occurred; but when there are none left, it transforms into something more choreographed, something in which an emotional response feels closer to an enforced duty, as though adhering to rules laid out by some sort of ‘grief committee’. It’s hard for those of us raised in a pre-Diana era to cry on cue, however, and whilst the public anniversary can be very seductive if one’s buttons are easily pressed by grand ceremony, in most cases it pales next to the exclusively personal anniversary – and the exclusively personal anniversary is often the only one we really make an effort to observe.

For many, the exclusively personal are the anniversaries we do remember and try to mark in a memorable manner. We respectfully tip our hat to the official public anniversary in which we have no intimate investment; but when it comes to our own lives, we all have our own little occasions to mark in our own special way that means nothing to anyone other than the parties involved. It would indeed be a bit weird, say, if the wedding anniversary of a non-famous couple was commemorated with a parade down Whitehall, a flypast from the Red Arrows, and live TV coverage with accompanying reverential commentary by Huw Edwards. I’ve a feeling I’d still tune-in, though.

Like their public counterparts, these ‘private anniversaries’ can also be imbued with as much sadness as joy; they can cause us to pause and recall those who are no longer with us. Melancholic commemorations aren’t the sole property of Remembrance Sunday, and while laying a bunch of flowers at the grave of a loved one may lack the communal element generated when wreaths are laid at the Cenotaph on a chilly November morning, sometimes the intensely private matters more. Sometimes, whether celebrating a joyous event or taking a moment to remember the dearly departed, the intensely private is what can make marking anniversaries a worthwhile aspect of what it means to be human.

© The Editor