Remembrance Sunday 2014: A very British ritual that refuses to die

It is not about politics, moralising or glorifying war. Simply, we should be proud of Remembrance Sunday
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The Independent Online

It is always good to witness a spontaneous outburst of public feeling, here in an age where so much of what passes for popular sentiment nearly always reveals itself to be choreographed in advance. And so it was with more than usual interest that, arriving at Norwich City's Carrow Road ground last week, I registered the microphone announcement that we were about to watch a march-past around the perimeter of the pitch by "members of Her Majesty's armed forces" followed by a minute's silence in commemoration of the nation's war dead.

What happened next? To a man – and woman – 26,000 people clambered to their feet and began to applaud as a couple of dozen soldiers, sailors and airmen appeared somewhat sheepishly on the pitch and, horribly out of step and waving to the crowd as they went (a part of the proceedings that would have appalled my war-veteran father), began to parade around it. The minute's silence – not always decorously observed at football grounds, if it salutes someone from the opposition – was exactly that, and was followed by more applause, a crescendo as an army sergeant and his son ran out with the match ball.

A cynic would probably contend that this demonstration was less authentic than it looked, that it had an orchestration not always apparent to those caught up it, and that the pressure to stand up and clap when the people next to you are standing up and clapping amounts to coercion of a sort. On the other hand, from where I was sitting it didn't look like coercion. Neither did it look like a display of exultant nationalism. Rather, it seemed as if 26,000 people wanted to express their appreciation of the efforts that were being made on their behalf by the armed forces here in 2014 and were profoundly grateful that these efforts had been made in the past – many of them by men and women who had never come back.


That Remembrance Sunday, poppy-wearing and public silences have survived so well into the 21st century would perhaps have surprised some of the veterans of the First and Second World Wars. My father, for example (RAF 1941-46), used to come back from memorial services in the 1980s muttering darkly that, in the end, once their widows and friends had gone, people would cease to care about the young men of the Norwich Union Insurance Society, as it then was, who had died at Dunkirk or in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.

If this hasn't happened it is largely because of the other wars that have taken British lives in the intervening period, and also because of the growing realisation that the international conflicts of the 20th century were on such a gargantuan scale that, even now, their consequences are still apparent in nearly every family tree. To look around my own, for example, is to find a grandfather who by joining up for the first time aged 17 managed to take part in three wars (Boer, 1914-18, ARP warden in 1939-45), a great-uncle who died in Flanders and a second great-uncle subsequently felled by the delayed effect of wounds received there, not to mention vast inter-generational wrangles stirred by my father's Conscientious Objector cousin.

If, as is sometimes maintained, we as a nation are still not entirely comfortable with the way we commemorate our war dead, then this disquiet usually stems from the regularity with which these commemorations are hi-jacked by interest groups whose aim is not so much to remember the past than to use it as a stick with which to beat some of the perceived moral failings of the present. Naturally, most of these expropriations come from the right.

In a quarter of a century of writing newspaper articles I have never been quite so furious as on the occasion when a Remembrance Day piece, written for The Independent, was bought by the Daily Mail, and appeared on its website under the heading "I used to sneer at patriotism until my father taught me the true meaning of remembrance".

In fact, the piece had said nothing about sneering at patriotism; it simply suited the Mail Online's agenda to pretend that here was some snivelling lefty being given a come-uppance by his war-veteran dad. On the other hand, exactly the same kind of duplicity is practised by certain people on the other side of the political divide, for whom the thought of a scarlet poppy is tantamount to a demand for half-a-dozen extra warships and who can never catch sight of a military uniform without wanting quietly to sneer at it.

And so perhaps the solitary drawback of these commemorations is the way in which the media worries over them, expends gallons of ink in printing articles about "poppy fascism", commissions pious symposia on the need to detach religion from the mix (and replace it with what exactly? A syndicated homily from Richard Dawkins to be read out at every cenotaph?) and agonises over the art got up to enhance it, as in last week's furore over the Guardian art critic's claim that the Tower of London's poppy installation was "a Ukip-style memorial" and additionally "trite and inward-looking".

Perhaps Jonathan Jones is correct and the sea of ceramic poppies is less an exercise in popular art than a piece of covert nationalism which ignores the starker realities of war. All one can say in its defence is the public doesn't seem to think so, that hundreds of thousands of people have made an effort to travel long distances to see it and that commentators have noted the "reverential" air of the crowds. Which would you prefer – nigh-on a million poppies arranged in a public space or a statue to General Haig, which was the 1920s idea of a testament to the carnage of 1914-18?

Naturally, there are aspects of the early November rush to commemorate that are not to everyone's taste. But it could be argued that Remembrance Day is one of the things that the UK does best, that it is not, by and large, an excuse to glorify war or indulge in flag-waving, but a moment of reflection, a weighing up of past and present, a focus, in which the world is, for once, seen sub specie aeternitatis and in which individual stories and lives are taken out and remembered, rediscovered names added to monuments and the continuing human cost reckoned up.

At the same time it is a bracing antidote to much of the trivia that otherwise surrounds us. Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies (1930) – a novel about dissolute young people pleasing themselves – has a curious chapter in which a character named Adam Fenwick-Symes sets off from London to the country with the aim of extracting money from his fiancée's father. "It was Armistice Day and they were selling artificial poppies in the street. As he reached the station it struck eleven and for two minutes all over the country everyone was quiet and serious." After a day spent frivolously at large in the Home Counties, Adam returns to London at the point when legions of commuters are boarding their trains. "They were still wearing their poppies". So, eight and a half decades later, are we, and for reasons that, although they may not follow the prescriptions of the Daily Mail, seem ever more important as one Armistice Day yields up to the next.