As I paid tribute to Great Uncle Jack, I thought of something else. That it was memory without pain, at least for most of us

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BOWLER hats are a rare sight in London these days, or anywhere else in Britain outside the processions of the Orange Order, but on Thursday morning I saw many of them in the crowd on the lawn next to Westminster Abbey. Bowler hats and furled umbrellas, trim overcoats with velvet collars, pin-stripe suits, regimental ties, gleaming black shoes, shooting sticks: the uniform of the old Guards officer.

For a moment, I thought how pleasant it would be to be one. No worries about what to wear, no confusion about one's accent or position in the social order. A complete confidence and certainty, which is just what you need in a war.

They were in their fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, but they looked fit and stood pretty straight. I noticed that one or two had the habit, when they were chatting in a group, of crooking the elbow of one arm behind their back and turning the palm of the hand outward and loose. Perhaps this comes from another habit, of tucking a riding crop or swagger stick under the armpit.

They had the voices of gentlemen - a way of speaking that, because it's no longer in control of us, was a pleasure to hear. Grammatical, un- estuarine, polite.

"What is the name of that splendid girl?"

"How many are we to lunch?"

There were many other kinds of people on and around the Abbey's lawn, perhaps a couple of thousand all told, but mostly of a similar age. Some wore berets, some wore bush-hats and forage caps, some wore anoraks.

Medals jingled on their breasts. The soft thump of mallets drove small crosses into the grass. This was the Field of Remembrance, which for a week every year around Armistice Day becomes a miniature version of a military cemetery, row upon row of crosses carefully arranged inside 234 plots, which are marked with the names of regiments and services.

The Field of Remembrance has been going since 1928, but until last week I had never heard of it, despite its central location in London and its annual visit by the Queen Mother. The organisers say they are quite happy about its shyness as a public event; it is there so that comrades, friends and relations can pay tribute to the individual dead. And so, it remains a strange and moving thing. You aren't there to spectate, but to participate (which was also, though for a tiny cause in comparison, the appeal of mourning Diana, Princess of Wales).

The process is this. A stall in the shadow of the Abbey displays crosses made in the Royal British Legion's poppy factory in Richmond upon Thames. The crosses are about 6in high and of plywood, with a poppy at the centre. You make a donation and take one, inscribe the name of the dead on a piece of white card or on the wood itself, borrow a mallet and drive it gently into the appropriate plot.

I thought of Great Uncle Jack, one of several great uncles who died in the First World War. The previous day I'd consulted a new inter-active display at the Imperial War Museum, in which you access the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by finger-tapping a name on a screen. The records contain 1.1 million names - the British and Empire total killed from 1914 to 1918. But there he was within seconds. Company Sergeant Major J Birmingham of the 12th Battalion Royal Scots, who died on 20 September 1917, aged 35, and is buried at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Passchendaele in Belgium. So now at the Abbey I located the Royal Scots plot, number 53, and tapped in my little cross. There was only one other as its neighbour, a poor showing compared with the Queen's Royal Hussars (completely filled with regimented rows) but better than the 6th City of London Rifles (completely empty).

The Queen Mother arrived with her grandson, the Duke of York, in his naval uniform, at about 11.30. Two Cavalry trumpeters blew the Last Post and then the Reveille from their perch on the roof of St Margaret's Church. There was supposed to be a minute's silence in between, but it was hard to notice. The traffic continued to grind around Parliament Square; amateur and professional photographers continued to take pictures. Then the Queen Mother and her grandson went separately down two avenues to talk to the men lined beside their plots.

The Queen Mother's avenue was the popular one. She was in black and high heels and walked with a stick. She was small. That's what many people remarked on: the smallness of her. But as old as the century! I say, completely without irony, that she is a marvel.

The old soldier in front of me said boldly: "Good morning, ma'am, you're looking well today."

"Oh, thenk you," said the Queen Mother.

"We'll be seeing you again next year," said the old soldier.

"Oh, I do hope so," said the Queen Mother. She said it humorously. There was a mischief and gaiety about her. Pearls shone around her neck and also on the clasp that held two extravagant poppies. More than 80 years ago, a brother was killed on the Western Front. She walked, talked and smiled for more than an hour. Bowler hats came off as she passed. She seemed to enjoy it. She was among her people, after all; elderly warriors who had fought in her husband's name, as well as her daughter's and father- in-law's. A spatter of clapping followed her progress to her car.

My father would not have planted a cross to his Uncle Jack, though as a boy he loved him. Uncle Jack, the man who got out of trains before they stopped and ran down the railway embankment to my father's house, the carefree uncle, still remembered for his generous ways 10 years later when my father met miners who'd worked beside him.

My father wouldn't have planted a cross with a poppy for two reasons. One, he loathed poppies. The money raised went to a fund named for General Haig, whose callous strategy, in my father's view, led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, including Uncle Jack's. Two, he hated crosses, with their Christian suggestion of sacrifice and redemption and the attempt to give meaning to meaningless slaughter.

To many people of his generation, the First World War was a disenchantment (with God, monarchs, patriotism) that it is impossible to exaggerate. And now, on the 80th anniversary of its end, poppies everywhere; which politician or TV presenter would dare to be seen without one?

The Royal British Legion poppy factory makes 30 million every year, and last year raised nearly pounds 17m for the care of military casualties and their dependants; as many poppies are sold now as in the 1920s. Of course, this season of rememembering covers another great war and small wars since (at least one member of the British armed forces has died on duty every year save one - 1968 - in all the years of "peace" since 1945), but its origins lie in the first and greatest tragedy.

According to the Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, we have a renewed fascination for it. Classroom projects and amateur genealogy explain some of this interest, but the people I talked to last week at these institutions thought something larger was occurring, a re-engagement of public memory. Nobody could quite explain it. Angela Godwin, the curator of the war museum's exhibition, thought we wanted to "hang on" to the century as it reached its close, that it was part of a millennial feeling, and that may be right.

But as I tapped in the cross and paid tribute to Great Uncle Jack I also thought of something else. That it was memory largely without pain, at least for most of us. My father had sat on his knee and I hadn't. I wasn't there when the telegram came.

Painless memories are more easily visited, no matter how sad they make us feel. They are not memories, but the memory of memories.We turn round at the end of the century and look back at the mountain range heaped behind us, which we can never recross.