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Why I won\’t be going to any Remembrance Day services


I managed to avoid going out until after 11 o\’clock on the 11th November – just as well, really, because my silly black labrador Holly is terrified of thunder. So when the boom sounded from the police station to signal the two minutes\’ silence, she leapt around madly, ran up the Forbidden Stairs (No Dogs Upstairs is the Law), had a confrontation with a mildly concerned cat and jumped into my son\’s bed.
I remember the two minutes\’ silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of November from my childhood and was glad when they brought the custom back officially. It reminds us of the moment when the guns fell silent at last at the end of the First World War.
So outside in the two minutes, cars were coming to a halt, shops were stopping in mid-Mammon, people were standing silently in the streets, some of them, especially ex-servicemen, at attention.
Pretty much everyone buys and wears small red paper poppies on their coats in November – the money funds the British Legion which supports ex-servicemen of any age. The poppies themselves refer to the way the wild flowers would germinate and grow where nothing else did in the blasted fields of the Flanders trenches.
Two minutes of silence is penetrating, quite eery. Even a small country town like Truro is a noisy place in the modern world. Suddenly it all stops. The two minutes seem longer than that. And then there\’s another boom from the police station and with a couple of coughs and brief smiles, everything starts again.
But I was much happier indoors calming a loony dog and an affronted cat because I really can\’t bear it. I can\’t do stiff upperlippery. The minute the boom sounds out and people stop moving, my tear ducts explode. In fact they\’re doing it again now as I write this. And despite this uncontrollable weeping happening every single November, I never ever remember to carry a hanky.
I won\’t be going to the Remembrance Day services this Sunday for the same reason. The first time, I was ambushed: my daughter\’s Brownie troop were carrying their standard on Church parade along with the Scouts and the Cadet forces. It was in the tiny village where we were living then, in its churchyard with its very large rhododendron trees, the gift of determined 19th century Cornish plant hunters in the Himalayas.
So I went to the church service which was very full and very dignified. I made it through the service, through the silent shuffle outside, through the reading of \”They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old…\” And then… And then they started to read aloud from the list of men of the village who died in World War I and World War II and a couple in the Falklands. All the names carved into the war memorial, something you can find in every British village or town, sometimes on lonely roads or on hills as well. The list was long, seemed endless, full of repeated Cornish names as entire families from the tiny fishing port had been stripped of their men by the guns, fathers, sons and grandsons. Every name was read out quietly and clearly.
I had no hanky, had nowhere to put the tears, was turning into a hideous humilating snot fountain. I had to rush away into the church hall to try and mop the mucus with loopaper, blow my nose, get a grip and come out and pretend I had an awful cold. The villagers kindly pretended to believe me.
For what it\’s worth I had exactly the same reaction to the names on the Vietnam memorial in Washington as well as to the hundreds of names carved at the entrances of most of the Oxford colleges where I trotted in and out three decades ago, variously hungover.
It\’s got worse, not better, as I\’ve got older and seen my little boys turn into strapping young men and me into the shorty of the family. And I\’m not a pacifist. Sometimes, alas, war is the least worst option – not nearly as often as we have wars, by the way, but sometimes. World War II was one of those times. World War I was not. We all know that most of the young sons whose names are carved on the memorials were wasted for a delusion, for nothing.
So the accent is always, always just on remembering. It\’s not flag-waving, despite the banners, never bombastic, patriotism is hardly mentioned. In November, the British put on paper poppies and stop and remember in quiet ceremonies, normally in the rain. I wish I could stand still and silent with them, but I can\’t. I\’m just not brave enough.

1 Comment

  1. John Barratt says:

    As I ring the bell for the Two Minutes Silence at the old church in this small Welsh village, I think back over the centuries of all the young men who have gone out from this village to fight in numberless conflicts… Welsh against English (probably Celts against Romans)… reluctant royalists in battles in strange foreign England against a Parliament whose meaning and language they scarcely understood. Savage wars in tragic Ireland. And the great conflicts of the 20th century.

    Somehow, the events of that burning summer of 1914 still strike harder at the emotions than the wars which came after it..Here there were few World War II casaulties, and none since in combat…. But those young men of 1914 seem in a way unique.

    In this rural ara, they were not generally among the first onrush of volunteers like their contemporaries in the cities. There was a harvest to be brought in first. So their names tend to appear as the fallen of slightly later battles. They went off to war, often serving with the sons of local gentry as their officers. How far did they go willingly, with that doomerd idealism, or how far were they following that same pattern of obligation which extended back to the times of the Celtic warbands? probably we will never know.

    But to a military historian, it is a link ion the unbroken chain of history. Which was, is and will be.

    Thank you for a beautiful piece of writing, Patricia

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