CenotaphIt 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




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


poppiesAn older guy who was a regular visitor to the residence I shared twenty years ago once returned from the corner shop visibly incensed, having just being lectured by a student beside the samosas on the moral crime he was apparently committing by wearing a poppy. A man whose own father had fought them on the beaches was surprised to be challenged and patronised by a university-educated girl whose opinion that the remembrance poppy endorsed ongoing conflict was one she clearly couldn’t keep to herself. The right to choose whether or not to wear one evidently didn’t come into it; and this seems to be a permanent aspect of the contentious poppy topic on both sides.

With the poppy predictably promoted in characteristically aggressive fashion by the likes of the Mail and the Express as some skewered symbol of patriotism as potent as ‘God Save the Queen’ or Britannia, refusing to play ball obviously places such traitors alongside Lord Haw-Haw. Any public figure appearing on television bereft of a poppy pinned to their lapel is basically pissing on the corpses of our brave boys. They probably voted Remain, are soft on ISIS, and are no doubt gay too, the lefty pinko socialist scumbags. In this case, the poppy is reduced to little more than a badge of reactionary jingoism; and I don’t believe it was ever meant to be that.

The victorious nations who’d fought the First World War adopted the poppy as a mark of respect for their fallen countrymen in the early 20s, following the campaigning of American YWCA volunteer worker Moina Michael, who had been inspired by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. Production of the artificial remembrance poppy began with Frenchwoman Anna E Guerin, whose poppy-sellers in London caught the attention of Field Marshal Haig; his prominent role with the Royal British Legion ensured the poppy would henceforth be taken up by that organisation and equivalent ones throughout the Commonwealth and North America.

The white poppy is often portrayed as a newfangled pacifist alternative to the traditional red poppy, yet its origins almost stretch back as far as the senior one. Its birth reflected the strong anti-war sentiment of the 30s, when the prospect of being dragged into global conflict again was vehemently opposed by a generation still getting over WWI. The Co-operative Women’s Guild introduced the white poppy in 1933, viewed as a way of remembering the dead without creating the climate for more; even then, some regarded the red poppy as possessing an inherent glorification of military valour, employed as it was by politicians seen as dangerously warmongering, such as Churchill. Critics of the white poppy at the time of its introduction associated it with, at best, lily-livered appeasement and, at worst, the British Union of Fascists. Its divisive symbolism hasn’t really changed much in 80 years, with Mrs Thatcher famously dismissing the white poppy in the 1980s.

Recent military adventures with less black-and-white clarity than the Second World War have seen veterans of previous conflicts claim the poppy is all-too frequently used as a political tool of virtual emotional blackmail, pressurising people into wearing them even if they disagree with British interventions in the likes of Iraq and Afghanistan. This opinion was supported by the last survivor of the First World War, Harry Patch, whose quote ‘War is Organised Murder’, was emblazoned on the outfits worn by these veterans when they laid a wreath of white poppies at the Cenotaph in 2010.

In Northern Ireland, the poppy has an especially incendiary image; worn with pride by Unionists and regarded by Nationalists as glorifying an army they have always viewed as oppressors, the sectarian controversy has even stretched to the sports arena in Scotland, when Celtic (Glasgow’s traditional Catholic giant) took to the field for a match in 2010 with poppies on their shirts. It has even crossed the border with players plying their trade in England. West Bromwich Albion’s James McClean is a Catholic Ulsterman, and his refusal to wear a poppy on his shirt around the time of Remembrance Sunday emanates from his roots in Derry, scene of Bloody Sunday. The online abuse he, and Channel 4 News anchorman Jon Snow, have received for not wearing a poppy in the run-up to November 11 reflects the continuing arguments over choice when it comes to the poppy.

The so-called ‘poppy garden’ surrounding the Tower of London in 2014 was a powerful visual statement on war during the centenary of World War I, yet was utilised as convenient propaganda by David Cameron’s Government at a moment when the Coalition were quietly cutting funding for the Imperial War Museum. Again, any criticisms were cannily shouted down as politicians exploited the response of the public to the display, which seemed a little too close for comfort to the floral excess outside Kensington Gardens following Diana’s death to me. This year, the decision of FIFA to ban the England and Scotland teams wearing poppies on their shirts for the upcoming World Cup qualifier has provoked the kind of outrage from the usual suspects, but it really should be down to the individual if they choose to remember the fallen that way, not a corrupt governing body hardly in a position to lay down the law, nor, it has to be said, a tabloid newspaper.

I personally haven’t worn a poppy since I was a child, but does that make me an Enemy of the People (as the Daily Mail would say)? I don’t think so. Wearing a poppy is optional, not compulsory. If the public have to be told how they have to remember the dead, they’re deserving of the emotional manipulation they receive.

© The Editor