Sunday, 9 November 2014

Remembrance Weekend

People often ask me, "don't you miss it?" And whether it be in reference to a previous country of residence, a job, or university, my answer is always inevitably, "no." There is no point, in this short life, to miss and pine. What has passed has passed, and there is only ever the future. However, (you knew that was coming, I expect...), there are brief moments during the year that I do miss being a part of larger body of commemoration; a sense of oneness and selfsame purpose with the nation around me.

November 11th, the end of World War I. Armistice. In the States it is called Veteran's Day; in England it is Remembrance Day. Each year this time is observed and remembered, not only marking the end of conflict in 1918, but all those that followed. It has always been for me a moment of great solemnity, of thankfulness, and of most fervent prayer that we should never find ourselves in the midst of such horrors again. We often think of those who fought during the first two World Wars when thinking about Remembrance Day, but of course, there has been numerous conflict since. In my own life time there have been two major conflicts in the Middle East.

This year marks the centenary of the First World War; the 70th anniversary of the landings at D-Day; and last month we saw the last British troops leave Helmund Province after a thirteen year campaign.  It has, in short, been quite the year for commemorations.

In reality it does not really matter where in the world I am, since I can remember the fallen anywhere. But I will admit it is at times like this that I miss being a part of it all. Sat watching the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall on BBC1 tonight, I was as ever moved and humbled. I'm rather hopeless when it comes to things like commemorations, because I usually begin to blub before the first ten minutes is through. It is meant to be emotional though, and as we saw, there were many people in the Albert Hall moved to tears as well. A wonderful, human expression that we all share.

I've been doing research for the last few months for a bit of writing that deals with both World Wars. Reading personal stories as well as the bare facts of military manoeuvres. I've also been reading fictional books that deal with WWII, and all across the BBC there have been nods to Remembrance. This immersion brings it home all the more. At the Festival a young German lad recited part of a poem, and although I've said this before in previous posts dealing with commemorations, it still gives me immense hope to see the reconciliation that comes about during these times of remembrance.

It also gives me hope to see how involved the younger generations have been; remembering is part of this reconciliation, no doubt. Some might say, all this remembering and parading...wouldn't it just be better to leave it in the past? I don't think it would: the example above of the young German lad being part of the Festival is case in point. We all suffered and lost and grieved. There is an old quote about being equal in death, but are we not equal in suffering too? A mother's son is a mother's son, English or German. Perhaps my generation, that much more far removed from both World Wars, can afford to be objective about it. For us, Germany means Oktoberfest; for them, Britain means Primark. I'm joking of course, but my point is this: our generation have explored the World Wars in staggering detail during the course of our schooling. From a young age we know and are told, and this, in one way or another, leaves its impression.

I remember the pancake breakfasts held in the Parish hall every Veteran's Day when I was young. Our school would go to help out; we would serve food and drinks, sing songs we had learned, and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Most of all what I remember besides the smell of bacon and coffee and mouldering hymnals stacked out of the way, is the old men in uniform, medals gleaming on their chests, who sat and told stories and shook our little hands with their old, gnarled ones. These were men from WWII and Vietnam mostly; many of the veteran's from WWII will have passed on by now.

Equally, I will never forget the Remembrance Sunday service in King's College Chapel, Cambridge. It was the wettest day outside and the place was packed to rafters. If you have ever been inside the chapel, you know it is a overwhelming place. When it is packed for services such as this, or Easter or Christmas, a mass of humanity all feeling especially reverent, the place lit up with candles, reverberating with the life pulse of the great organ piping out 'Abide With Me', and the voices of the innocent raised in boyish purity... well, my words cannot do it justice. It is magical and moving.    

I will miss it; but then again, my thoughts are there, and that's all that matters. I hope those who are close to London have gone to see the poppies at the Tower of London. Incredible. But, I should point out I'm now in a country that celebrates Liberation Day with as much solemnity and reverence as my two "home nations" do Remembrance Day, so nothing has been lost, but merely gained. 

In a way, it's perhaps best I'm not in church this Remembrance Sunday belting out 'Eternal Father' or 'Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer' ... I never make it through without welling up. The same goes for the Last Post: I cannot hear it without subsiding behind a hanky...

It only leaves me to say: We we will remember them.