Faith & Reason: What to remember . . . and what to forget

Remembrance Sunday is not merely a memorial day for the dead. It is a time to consider what we should keep in our collective consciousness
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The Independent Culture
THE RUMOUR that Kirsty Young has been offered pounds 1.25m over two years to read the news for Channel 5 has got a few of us reminiscing. "It made me remember, rather too vividly, the salary I was paid for reading the news," said Jan Leeming. "I was paid the princely sum of pounds 23,500 a year. That was in 1987."

It made me remember the days when women were not allowed to read the news at all. I was 12 years old when Angela Rippon became the first female newscaster in 1975 and I clearly remember the arguments against having a woman in front of the Autocue - that's if "argument" is an apt word to describe such blatant claptrap as "they won't have the gravitas", "they will get too emotional" and "their looks will distract the male viewers."

When the broadcaster Joan Bakewell told me how hard she and her colleagues had fought against those prejudices in the early Seventies I wanted to thank her because I could remember and therefore imagine what a war it must have been. Not so, I guess, Kirsty Young, who would have been aged six at the time, and ITN's Katie Derham, who would have been five. By the time they were ready to launch their careers the battle for the anchorwomen had not only been won but forgotten, which is an observation that brings out the crusty old hag in me: "I hope you're grateful, my dears," I want to say as I wag my forefinger at them. "I don't begrudge you your freedoms, just so long as you're grateful."

Remembrance Sunday is for me about being on the other end of that wagging finger. I don't go to church, stand around the Cenotaph and sing "I Vow To Thee My Country" because I am grateful. I go because I feel I should be, which is much harder to get out of bed for. Like many of my generation, I wasn't taught either of the world wars at school and, though my grandfather died in the Second World War, it wasn't talked about at home. It's only the war poets with lines like Wilfred Owen's "The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall" that help me enter into what otherwise is outside my experience.

I don't dispute the importance of remembering the two world wars but I note that every year the pews on Remembrance Sunday contain fewer medalled war veteran and fewer women who can remember the sweetheart who never returned. Unless we can find ways of bringing the rituals alive to the great-grandchildren of those who died, there will be little enthusiasm for remembering something they cannot, in another sense, remember. It would be interesting to know if we shall still be saying "We will remember them" in 50 years' time.

The issue of what we decide to remember, as opposed to what we actually do remember, is a complex one. Without a sense of history, we have no context within which to understand our own experiences or those of other people and therefore no sense of society. The question is how we decide when to remember and when to free up our head-space for living in the present.

I have multiple sclerosis and at one time found it difficult to walk. Now I walk easily but it's important to me not to forget the days when I couldn't, so I practise remembering that as part of my daily prayer. There are other things about which the need to remember is not so clear, as anyone who has cleared out a loft will appreciate - do I need to remember my mother's handwriting, my son's first school uniform, my first LP when I haven't got a record player any more?

If it is difficult to make these decisions at a personal level, it is even harder at a corporate level, not least because we don't necessarily agree on what our salient experiences have been.

In Barbados at the moment there is a debate about standpipes - the village taps where, just a generation ago, people would congregate with their buckets to collect their water for the day. Today almost every home has running water, so some people think the standpipes should be demolished. Yet others think they should stay, so the children don't forget that their parents had to fetch water before going to school.

Another difficulty in deciding what to remember is that our sense of what is important from the past shifts as our experience of the present changes. A Music for the Millennium Poll, for example, has found that Robbie Williams is considered a more influential musician than Mozart. Well that's what we think this year, anyway.

Christianity does not always help us decide what to remember but it does enable us to see the purpose of remembering. On the night before he died, Christ took the bread and the cup and asked his friends to eat and drink in remembrance of him. This was not so that he should become Man of the Bi-Millennium (though of course he is) but that we might grow in love, which is the only reason to remember anything.

And, when the next generation of women take for granted choices that were denied women of my age, I need to recall it was not for their gratitude we were fighting, but for their freedom.