You must remember this: And we certainly shall. D-Day, VE day, VJ day and many more. Brian Cathcart on the passion for anniversaries

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JOHN MAJOR has learnt the hard way. Rather as actors should avoid small children and animals, politicians should steer clear of anniversaries. They are always trouble. Next year, for example, it will be 250 years since the start of the Jacobite Rising of 1745, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. This is a five-star anniversary - a big, famous event and a nice round number - but the Scottish Office will be well-advised to have nothing to do with it.

If so much as pounds 10 of public money is spent, people will queue up to denounce the waste. Taxpayers money? On that effete, lecherous, drunken, Catholic, foreign monarchist? Don't you realise he led the flower of Scotland to their deaths? Or alternatively, don't you realise most Scots opposed him? Either way it will be a scandal. If a minister should be so foolish as to offer an opinion on the Prince's place in history, or even on the validity of marking, celebrating or commemorating the events of the Rising, he will be cut to ribbons by historians and political rivals alike.

It is already too late with the Millennium. The Government, in the hapless form of the Department of National Heritage, has made the mistake of getting involved by setting up a Millennium quango. This has forced it to take sides in the debate over whether the celebrations should be on 1 January 2000 or 1 January 2001. Like anybody who thinks about it with any rigour, the department has chosen 2001, but this is a miscalculation. The public, lacking both rigour and patience, is determined to go wild on 1 January 2000, when the best joke in town will be the long faces at the Department of National Heritage.

The 50th anniversary of D-Day is different from the Jacobite Rising and the Millennium in important respects, but the same rule holds true. So great was the cacophony cast up last week by the Spam fritter crisis that it was easy to forget it was only the latest of several controversies linked to the occasion. There had been another scandal a month earlier when veterans were told their hotel bookings had been cancelled to make room for more VIPs and camera crews. 'We're devastated,' said a veteran. 'We spent three months living in French ditches after D-Day and now they're throwing us back in the ditch.'

Before that there was a loftier debate about whether, after 50 years, it might be time to invite the Germans. 'I just have to remember the faces of my companions who died and the answer is no,' said a former member of the French Resistance. Before that, in January, questions were asked about why the Government had not booked Dame Vera Lynn for the big day before Cunard got her.

Now, following the Dame's trenchant intervention ('If the boys don't want it to happen and are not going to go, then I may not go either'), John Major has egg on his face and Iain Sproat, the Heritage Minister, is engaged in hasty negotiations to salvage something from the mess. And with the anniversary still six weeks away, there is time for further unpleasantness.

This unhappy train of controversy and cock-up will all be painfully familiar to anyone who remembers the 40th anniversary of D-Day, another occasion marred by official thoughtlessness. Why, you might ask, does anyone bother? If an anniversary is only going to leave a bad taste in the mouth, would it not be better just to let it pass quietly? It is, after all, nothing more than a quirk of the calendar. The occasions we choose to make a fuss of - the fifth, 10th, 20th, 25th, 50th and so on - offer no particular vantage point from which to view the past; they are merely pleasingly round figures. So why do we mark them?

On 17 June 1865, the eve of the 50th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, the Illustrated London News addressed to its readers the following thought: 'It has never been the habit of the English nation to dwell much upon recollections of battles; and it is a good national characteristic that, while we leave no energy unexerted that is necessary to win a fight, we take no great pleasure in talking of it afterwards.'

Instead of praising the heroes of 1815, the magazine chose to celebrate the good relations that Britain now enjoyed with France, its former enemy. 'Where Englishmen and Christians shall be gathered together tomorrow,' it declared with satisfaction, 'they will not omit to note that the prayer, 'Give peace in our time', has been abundantly answered.'

How different this seems from today, when umpteen books have emerged to retell the D-Day story, and the German Chancellor is still persona non grata at the commemorations. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that Waterloo was forgotten in the years that followed it. Pubs, streets and stations by the dozen were named after the battle and its British hero, the Duke of Wellington. He was honoured with countless statues, busts, protraits and other monuments. His funeral in 1852 attracted one of the largest crowds ever seen on the streets of London.

The date of Waterloo, too, was remembered. Every year on 18 June, the Duke held a dinner at his residence, Apsley House, for his former senior officers, and the street outside was always thronged with admirers come to see the guests arrive. But anniversaries, in the sense of round numbers of years, seem to have aroused less excitement. Given the lower life expectation of the times it is perhaps understandable that the 50th anniversary of Waterloo passed without particular fuss; the vast majority of the combatants would have been dead. But even the 10th anniversary seems to have been only cursorily marked. The Times of 19 June 1825 records in just a paragraph that on the previous day, on the occasion of the anniversary, the Duke of York inspected a battalion of foot guards in Hyde Park and went away expressing his satisfaction.

The 19th century does offer at least one spectacular example of an anniversary that was marked in style: the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne. This was the apotheosis of Empire, celebrated with street parties in Aden and Jamaica, a grand ball in Rangoon, a Sunday school treat in Freetown and a performance of the Hallelujah Chorus in Hong Kong. In London 50,000 soldiers marched in procession through the streets in what the Daily Mail thought 'a pageant which for splendour of appearance . . . has never been paralleled in the history of the world'.

Little more than 20 years later, the collective memory was mobilised again, in circumstances which could hardly have been more different. The First World War had seen suffering on an unprecedented scale and there was an unprecedented response. Remembrance Day, as a national day of mourning, was first marked in 1920. Until after the Second World War, it was always held on 11 November, and throughout the country at the 11th hour traffic halted and people stood with bowed heads. Nowadays it is held on the second Sunday in November and the traffic does not stop, but for dignity, solemnity and intimate emotion it remains the perfect model of commemoration. Its successful formula - the prayers, hymns, silences, bugles and the words 'We will remember them' - is drawn on at most events where veterans or the relatives of war dead gather. This is the tone now accepted as fitting for the commemoration of battle, and the tone that the D-Day veterans felt was jeopardised by the Government's plans for street parties and bonfires.

For the veterans, the marking of the anniversary needs no justification. Most of them were young when they waded ashore and it was, for many, the pivotal experience of their lives. Many saw men killed and maimed, lost friends and came close to death themselves. It is not surprising that they should remember, and that they should wish to share the memories at the place where they happened.

The 50th anniversary brings them together in larger numbers than usual, often from farther afield, and probably for the last time. A man who was 20 on the beach at Arromanches in 1944 will now be 70; if he makes it to the 75th anniversary in 2019, he will not see many of his comrades there. He has good grounds to treat this year as special.

What went wrong was that two distinct kinds of anniversary, the collective remembrance of the dead by those who fought beside them and the frivolous revisiting of events that evoke feelings of nostalgia or curiosity, became muddled. With the more frivolous anniversary, a herd instinct operates; we celebrate or remember for no better reason than because we believe others will. Authors write books and television producers make programmes with these dates in mind because they believe that on those dates other people will be thinking about the subject. They may intend to write the book or make the programme anyway, but the date is thought to be a particularly marketable moment for the launch.

On or before the date, newspapers print articles, often inspired by previews of the books or films. These, since they contain new information or opinions, often provoke controversy, with angry rebuttals and denunciations. The strangely frequent Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe anniversaries are a case in point.

At the same time, the plans of people with a local or commercial attachment to the subject may be coming to fruition. For example Glenfinnan, where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard, will be en fete next year. Whatever the location, the birthplace, battlefield or other relevant historic site is refurbished and fitted with a new interpretative centre and shop, while activities of a more or less educational or festive nature are planned. These may be many and varied. The official brochure for the 1988 commemoration of the Glorious Revolution includes: 'June-September, Alison Payne recreates in aid of the Skin Treatment and Research Trust the journey on horseback through England, Scotland and Wales made by Celia Fiennes during the reign of William and Mary.'

New souvenirs, including commemorative plates and tea-towels, are made for sale in the shop and by mail order through the colour supplements, while the Royal Mint and the Royal Mail produce coins and stamps. They know there will be a demand because of all the other fuss that is being made.

At some stage some public or semi-public body, be it a tourist board or a local authority or, now, the Department of National Heritage, takes on the task of co-ordinating these activities. It lists all the activities in a brochure which is funded by sponsors and advertisements for the merchandise. Normally the process is self-fulfilling. By the time the date comes around, people have been made to think about the event and encouraged to participate by buying or visiting or reading or viewing. The exercise is totally contrived, but it is also harmless (if you are not a politician) and educational. Britain has a rich history, and the opportunity has been taken to shed light on an interesting episode.

The civilian side of D-Day seemed to be ripe for this treatment. The war on the Home Front evokes feelings of pride and warmth quite different from the sombre realities of the Normandy beaches, and the Department of National Heritage insists that its notorious plans were merely an attempt to mobilise expressions of those jollier feelings. They found out too late that this was incompatible with remembrance.

Bonnie Prince Charlie, by contrast, is made for the classic anniversary treatment. Watch out for books, television programmes, films, stamps, coins, tea-towels, coach tours, shortbread, and commemorative liqueur whiskies. And sparks are sure to fly, just as they did for the 1992 commemoration of Columbus's 'discovery' of America or the 1988 celebrations of the Glorious Revolution. Already there is lively correspondence in the Scottish press and a proposal to re-stage Culloden has been denounced as a desecration of a historic graveyard. One recent story in the Scotsman began: 'A Scots author is attacking plans to spend pounds 2.7m marking a key anniversary of the last Jacobite Rising. He wants to set up a rival show titled 'Traitors of 1745'.'

It will be the same with the Millennium. After everybody is exhausted with the 2000/2001 argument there will be haggling over money, hotel bookings, whether the past 1,000 years have been good or bad, whether drunken parties are a proper way to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ and indeed whether that was the date of Christ's birth in the first place. Now might be the moment to lay down some wine.

----------------------------------------------------------------- IT'S A DATE ----------------------------------------------------------------- D-DAY TO VJ DAY 1944 6 June D-Day 20 July Attempt on Hitler's life 25 Aug Paris liberated 20 Sept Battle of Arnhem 3 Oct Germans crush Warsaw ghetto rising 16 Dec Battle of the Bulge begins 1945 27 Jan Auschwitz liberated 14 Feb Dresden destroyed 10 March Tokyo firebombed 12 April Roosevelt dies 30 April Hitler commits suicide 8 May VE Day 26 June UN created 26 July Labour wins election 6 Aug Hiroshima 15 Aug VJ Day SOME OTHER 1995 ANNIVERSARIES 10 years End of miners' strike; Gorbachev takes over in Russia; Heysel stadium disaster; Rainbow Warrior bombing; Live Aid 20 years End of Vietnam war; death of General Franco; fall of Gough Whitlam in Australia 25 years Edward Heath elected; Presidents De Gaulle and Nasser die; end of Nigerian civil war 75 years Ireland partitioned 100 years Wilde and Dreyfus jailed; Jude the Obscure published; X-rays discovered; Jameson raid in South Africa; death of Engels 200 years Death of Boswell 250 years Bonnie Prince Charlie and 1745 rebellion -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)