Remembrance Sunday: The important thing is just to be there

I will always think of my late great uncle Tom at this time of year

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It was, I think, my great uncle Tom's hands I first noticed and still remember now above all else.

Two bunches of bananas resting on the arms of his chair. No jewellery save for a single band of gold around his wedding finger. Sometimes holding cards, sometimes holding a roll-up, sometimes holding the hand of the girl he married not long after demobbing in '46.

They were man's hands; hands, which, metaphorically at least, had ripped the chains from the gates of Belsen.

My great uncle Tom was among the first Allied soldiers into the German concentration camps as the Second World War came to a close. He was younger then than I am now.

They say he told the girl once, briefly, vaguely, then never mentioned it again. He went insane long before I was old enough to play cards with him or smoke with him or introduce him to the girl who maybe one day I'll ask to marry me.

I think of my great uncle Tom - my late great uncle Tom - this time of year. I remember him.

He didn't fall fighting but he sacrificed half his youth and eventually all his mind in the name of freedom, so it seems sort of appropriate.

Fact is, though, I'd never been to a Remembrance Service until a couple of years ago. It wasn't that I didn't appreciate or understand or care. It's just that these things combine the sort of stuff I'm naturally suspicious of: religion, politicians, ceremony and Sunday mornings.

I promise not to forget, I told my grandad once, just don't make me go and remember.

Something changed, though. Covering a service as a cub reporter I realised the religion and the ceremony and all that other stuff is just decoration. The important thing was just to be there; not just to think thoughts of thank you from a hungover bed but to make an effort to somehow say something in person; to show you appreciate the sacrifices other men have made.

And so Sunday mornings, early-mid November, there I'll be standing outside a town hall or a church.

It's always cold, always brass bloody monkeys. I stand hunched up in my big woollen coat, thinking of bed and bacon and being warm, while these old boys, in their 80s and 90s, stand, spines like rods of iron, shirt sleeves blowing in the wind, medals gleaming.

I always look at their hands. They're always like bunches of bananas too. Maybe it's a generational thing.

Once, an old girl recognised me as I stood shivering.

"I read you every week," she said, thumping me hard on the back. "You write a lot of nonsense."

But it was her and my great uncle Tom's generation who sacrificed so much for my right to write it. So what could I say? I said thank you and I meant it.

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