Paul Vallely: Living in the nation's memory

It was a wet Wednesday evening in Macclesfield, a little town tucked into the foothills of the Peak District
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This, I thought, is where most of the remembering happens. Two old soldiers in their seventies from the British Legion had come to the old Territorial Army barracks, where, in the dark and the drizzle, some 30 young schoolboy and -girl cadets, aged 13 to 16, were stood on parade.

This, I thought, is where most of the remembering happens. Two old soldiers in their seventies from the British Legion had come to the old Territorial Army barracks, where, in the dark and the drizzle, some 30 young schoolboy and -girl cadets, aged 13 to 16, were stood on parade.

Tomorrow, on Remembrance Sunday, the grand commemoration of the nation's war dead takes place once again at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. But it is in little towns such as Macclesfield that the majority of the nation does its remembering.

Only a few years ago it seemed that the annual memorial to those killed fighting for their country was gradually waning. No doubt it would eventually die with the old soldiers for whom remembrance was not a historical duty, but a living memory of the comrades-at-arms whom they saw perish on the field of battle. First, most of the surviving Old Contemptibles of the Great War had gone peacefully to their graves. Now, the veterans of the Second World War were following them. Soon, memory would become a second-hand affair and, inexorably, would fade away.

But then, five years ago, came the 50th anniversary of VE Day, when the nation surprised itself by stopping and observing a two-minute silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month - the time when the armistice was signed in 1918, to mark the end of the conflict that had been called, without irony, the war to end wars. On that day in 1995 the silence was marked everywhere - from offices to factories, from smart restaurants to ordinary pubs, from railway concourses to the streets of provincial cities. Even a crowd of football supporters fell silent.

Since then, there has been a revitalisation of remembrance. Which is why in Macclesfield this week two old soldiers, Cpl Len Johnson and Sgt Fred Baker, were visiting the cadets who had agreed to sell poppies at the local football ground, where Macclesfield Town are playing Brighton Hove Albion in a Division Three needle-match. It is why an old Royal Engineers wagon will be done up in bunting to parade the streets today. And why the Macclesfield Male Voice Choir, supported by the Cheshire Constabulary Band, will be giving a concert at St Paul's Church tonight - which the organisers are expecting to be a sell-out "despite stiff competition", said Len, "from the Marple Brass Band at the Methodist Church and Laurel and Hardy silent films in the Heritage Centre".

It is why almost every pupil from the town's King's School seemed this week to be wearing a poppy in their lapel. It is why the local British Legion branch expect to raise even more for disabled servicemen this year than the record £17,834 they collected last year. And it is why more people than in previous years are expected to line the route for the remembrance parade to the town's cenotaph and to the war graves in the local cemetery.

There are at least three stages in the history of rituals of remembrance, says the historian Jay Winter of Pembroke College Cambridge, in an interesting essay in this month's BBC History magazine. The first is the construction of a commemorative form, with a set of meanings that contemporaries readily understand. The second is the grounding of this ritual action in the calendar, so it becomes "routinised". And the third is that, over the years, as the ritual loses its original charge, it either becomes transformed into something different or else fades away.

It is not quite clear where we are in this process, since remembrance has a multi-vocal character. For Fred and Len and their peers at the British Legion, most of whom were called up towards the end of the Second World War, it is an activity of sweet sadness, in which the past and the present intermingle. Over brews of strong sweet tea they recall the names of dead comrades, and tell tall barrack-room tales of the despatch rider who was a bookies' runner, or the private who was pushed too far and shot the adjutant. For them memory is an affirmation of their identity.

After the meeting with the cadets, they went on to their welfare committee to consider requests for assistance from old soldiers and their dependents. Before them were two cases. One concerned a soldier's widow who needed an alarm installed that would ring in her relatives' home. The other was that of a soldier invalided out of the Army after being shot in the spine and paralysed; in the intervening years he had led a life of fierce independence, despite his wheel-chair, but old age meant he now needed a hoist to get him into bed at night. Thus do the tentacles of the past reach into the here and now.

Yet soon this generation will be gone. After them will the process of remembrance disappear or be transmuted into something else? At first, when I spoke in their Macclesfield barrack to the young cadets, it seemed that it might be doomed to wither away. Their understanding of the memorial seemed acquired by dutiful rote and was unassimilated into anything meaningful. "We honour those who died," said one 16-year-old girl. "We remember those who sacrificed their lives so that we could live in freedom," said another cadet. "We remember not just the two world wars but the 70 other conflicts in which British soldiers have served since 1945," said a younger boy.

"The transmission of childhood memories over two or three generations gives family stories a power which is translated at times into the activity of remembrance," Jay Winter had written.

I was not quite sure what he meant. But then one 14-year-old spoke up. "I remember my grandad," he said. "I was up in the loft and I found his medals. So I asked my grandma. He was in Burma. His brother, who was with him, was badly wounded and in so much pain that my grandfather had to shoot him rather than leave him to the Japanese.

"He had to kill his own brother. My grandma told me. That's why I will be going to church on Sunday." He spoke without adornment of the bald facts, but not without emotion. The two old soldiers in the room stood and listened in stunned silence.

Suddenly the other cadets looked at their friend with wide eyes. Perhaps we do not yet know what our annual act of remembrance is to become, in Macclesfield or, indeed, anywhere else.

I had an interesting lesson in the psychology of giving this week. At the end of my visit to the British Legion in Macclesfield, one of the veterans suggested that the only way to understand public attitudes to Remembrance Day was to spend an hour selling poppies in the street. Thus it was that I found myself in the entrance to Sainsbury's with a tray of poppies round my neck.

"You don't sell poppies; people buy them," said Company Quartermaster Sergeant Frank Fraser, 75, who was until this year the Poppy Appeal organiser in the town. "And don't shake the tin," said his successor, Sergeant Fred Baker. "It's bad form." But selling poppies is not a passive activity. It calls for the combined skills of a therapist, teacher, diplomat, fund-raiser and street hustler. You need a kind word for the old lady who tells you about how her husband died in the war, a gentle admonition for the pacifist who thinks the Poppy Appeal is about warmongering rather than welfare, a twitching eyebrow for the tweedy gent who puts in 2p for his poppy and a cheery embarrassing smile for the woman who speeds her trolley up a gear as she moves past, having developed a sudden interest in the Reward Card machine opposite your pitch.

Above all, it teaches you something about the generosity of the British public. In my hour I collected £30.33, which the lads back at the Legion pronounced a not bad total at all.

We had occasion to buy a wedding cake recently. My brother recommended a place called Martyn Jackson Celebration Cakes in Gatley not far from Manchester airport. He had got his son's christening cake there. I recalled it had been a mound of moist fruitcake deliciousness and toothsome marzipan. So was their wedding cake when it arrived.

It was only when I returned the cake-stand this week that I discovered his was not the only commendation. Hanging in the shop were royal thank-you letters for the wedding cakes the firm had made for Charles and Di, and Andrew and Fergie. These ill-starred marriages were not encouraging omens for any new bride and groom, I suggested to the woman behind the counter. But far from insisting that there was nothing jinxed about their cakes, she took me to another photograph in their display of wedding pix. "That's nothing," she said, pointing. "This chap left his wife a fortnight after the wedding; he ran off with a Filipino."

Delicious cakes, but clearly not for those of a superstitious disposition.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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