I joined our village’s Remembrance Sunday parade and service this morning. Though I have an instinctive uneasiness about people in uniform marching through my community – a hangover from growing up in Northern Ireland – this is one of the few such occasions of which I am proud for my family to be a part.
There is nothing grand about our local remembrance other than the sentiment. The parade consists of the Scouts (boys over ten, and girls now too), Cubs (boys under ten), Beavers (younger boys again, in Smurf blue), Brownies (girls in brown), Rainbows (younger girls), local pupils in school uniform – and following parents and other locals. The village was already almost full when the parade arrived, which was very heartening, except…
Except that the seemingly impressive turnout at the interdenominational Christian service was a very small fraction of the local population.
I doubt it was just the rain deterring people. Perhaps some people feel that collective remembrance of war dead is only for those who attend a church regularly, or have children in one of the above mentioned “uniformed organisations” – in other words, a passing phase. Perhaps it’s just bad memories.
The local war memorial is nothing showy. It’s a plaque inside the village hall, with nineteen names – thirteen from “the war to end war”, six from the next big one. Here’s the Roll of Honour:
1914-1918 – George Payne, Harold Worley, Edward Payne, Percy Goodall, William Worley, Edmund Worley, Charles Holmes, Arnold Goodall (see pic), Joe Wass, Frederick Batting, George Hoad, Richard Timson & Ernest Payne.
1939-1945 – Colin G. Boddy, Donald J.A. Hyde, Gerald B. Sprake, Arnold J. Harding, Ronald W. W. Mance & Reginald A. Taylor.
You’ll notice that the Payne (3), Worley (3) and Goodall (2) families were hard hit. And also that men had middle initials second time round.
There are moves afoot to build an outdoor war memorial. I’m not sure about it. I like the simple intimacy of what we’ve got. And I fear that the splendour of the memorial could be inversely proportionate to its impact. And who’ll want to linger in the rain listening to the often very good speeches that happen now.
These occasions of remembrance tread a fine line between glorification of war and exhortations to work for peace. Something along the lines of: Jesus says don’t resort to violence, but God strengthen our troops clobbering the enemy out in Afghanistan. (Discouraging news lately on how likely success is there for US-led forces.) The idea that we might mourn or commemorate “the fallen” in general is not one that has much purchase here – it’s our own lost we care about, not anybody else’s, be they from current wars or past.
Which pokes at my own ambivalence about these beflagged ceremonies. You’d never get me waving the Union flag, iconic design or no. As Seamus Heaney responded when included in an anthology of British poetry:
Be advised my passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
to toast the Queen.
I wouldn’t carry that flag as a child and I wouldn’t now. My children though are a different matter. They’re half English for one thing. But more importantly they’re their own people, not inculcated my visceral loyalties or resentments. And when in Rome… Especially if you’re half-Roman.
There are debates in the UK media about whether people are made to feel pressured into wearing a Remembrance Poppy – “poppy fascism” is the overblown term. Whether the symbol has any meaning if wearing it is obligatory.
One particular UK TV news presenter, Channel 4’s Jon Snow, famously (or notoriously – I’d opt for respectfully) refuses to wear a poppy on screen. His rationale (according to his blog) is that one should appear neutral , and not wear any meaningful symbol – which means no pink ribbons for breast cancer either, or any other cause. (He wears a poppy off duty.) He gets a lot of stick for this.
The fallout was more vicious when the same issue was forced into the newspaper headlines in Northern Ireland some years ago. The Remembrance Poppy, the sale of which raises funds for the Royal British Legion, was seen as a divisive political symbol. The words Royal and British are the clues. And also that it raised cash to care for British veterans, and remembered the British and allied fallen. Unsurprisingly, in a place where much of the population felt victimised, occupied or at least annoyed by that same British army, the poppy was not universally popular. (There’s no exact Irish equivalent, but an alternative worn by some would be the Easter lily, marking the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule. And I don’t recall seeing news presenters ever wearing those on screen.)
So given the local sensibilities, a compromise existed. BBC TV presenters could wear a poppy if they wished, but unlike in the BBC in the rest of the UK, it was not mandatory. Which meant news presenting was open to, and seen to be open to, the pro-UK, the pro-United Ireland, Catholics, Protestants, neither and the neutral. So pluralism and tolerance reigned. Which worked fine. Until…
Until an imported boss decided to make his mark by insisting that everyone on TV wore a Royal British Legion poppy. That was the ultimatum. So those journalists who felt that it was unacceptable on principle to declare on screen allegiance to the pro-British side of the fence, or indeed to any political stance, were excluded.
They were also exposed in the press to accusations of disloyalty in a way that hadn’t happened before, and could have had serious consequences. Hung out to dry. Put at risk. To what end? (It all seems like a long time ago now.)
So the divisiveness, compulsion and occasional jingoism associated with remembrance and the poppy make me uneasy. Which is why my younger self would have been shocked that my current self has been out selling poppies this year. I’m surprised myself.
I think it’s partly that I’ve mellowed over the years. Partly that decency and the brotherhood of man (and woman) trumps nationalism (for me). And partly that one should, as far as is compatible with one’s principles, support the community one finds oneself in.
It’s my neighbours’ forbears who are commemorated on the village hall plaque. Some of my neighbours have family involved in current conflicts. And some of those guys may come home with bits missing – physically or mentally.
It’s shameful for any community to ignore those they’ve sent out to fight – regardless of whether the war was just, or lost or won. This country’s professed appreciation for the sacrifices made by service personnel is put into perspective when you consider that veterans make up 6-10% of the homeless – much lower than before – and 10% of prisoners, higher than before. (The US figures are 23% of homeless but half as likely as non-vets to be in prison.) They should not be consigned to oblivion, nor abandoned to the street and their own bad memories.