November 12, 2019
It is Remembrance Sunday, 1030am and we stop, my family and I; two kids, two dogs no excuses, prompted by a display of parochial magnificence, poppies, flags and a sign reads “hot squash” these two words mashed together enough to make us ignore the double yellow. We pull up at a bus stop (no busses were running) leave our mad and difficult dogs in the boot outside a Tesco Express, it’s ubiquitous livery now normal even in a setting as pastoral as this, a village green in Buckinghamshire.
There are cubs and scouts and brownies and types of child battalion that i’d never even heard of before (rainbows!?) assembling between cold wet green and bright bold sun. Dogs on leads, older folk in hats, some with medals, families a gloriously ordinary British scene. I look at the musty banners held aloft and the scouts, who wear hoodies now, a sign of the times beneath signs of bygone times and marvel quietly at our vivid customs on this rare and sacred day.
Amidst the kids are community leaders – (they were called “Akelas” in my woggle wearing days, itchy jumper, no badges every Wednesday evening on the edge of tears) – who marshal their charges in innocent parade around the modest green and to the demi cenotaph at its edge where the ex service people, older scouts and a pastor await. And we the English gently gather, about two hundred in number having watched the youth march into position, their banners aloft we await the service.
Programs are handed out smilingly. I stand beneath the branches of an oak tree that meets the sky’s blonde brilliance with its own golden reach.
As the service begins, the speakers that piped in the brass band to which the child army marched, are adjusted to facilitate the pastor’s mic and feedback with a bolt of shrill wrath, a jolting and profane slash of Woodstock Hendrix. It brings us into the present and makes me reflect that this little British town can no longer summons enough musicians for a brass band. I wonder when it changed from live to prerecorded, from authentic to synthetic.
A list of the fallen is read and the weight of my daughters in my arms takes on new resonance. It’s only when the hymns are sung that a quiet thought begins to breach. Our singing is so timid, apologetic, it’s not just that we don’t know the songs, we don’t know how to sing them, how to come together in a tribe, a community, a nation and sing in honour of our sacrificed ancestors. Our congregation is so unfamiliar with ceremony and community that the pageants lack the life force that they are intended to demonstrate. We appreciate your sacrifice, our lives are founded on your deaths and in our vivacity we honour you.
My wife makes a go of it, she went to a good school that took assembly pretty damn seriously and has had these obscure odes drummed in. I follow her lead as best I can but feel the dead deserve better and the living would like to give more but we don’t know how. We don’t know the words and we don’t know the form. We no longer live in the world this ceremony is emulating, the myths of nation and unity now so blunted, broken and fragmented. Now the unblinking patriotism required to march young people less innocently than they were today is revoked by all but the wrongest of The Right. Contemporary Nationalism a peculiar faith amidst our Brexit breakdown. New complexities bleed into the bold simplicity of the high flying flag that vies with the dendrite yellow oak for dominance of the horizon.
And who are we now and what are we singing for? Who are the enemy now? Europeans? Immigrants? Politicians? People on the other side of the Brexit divide? The pastor rolls on with a sweet homily of one of the fallen, a man who died in 1917, a simpler time of plain barbarism and clear geopolitical goals. A perhaps apocryphal tale of our hero swimming across a river, pre war, a feat we are jauntily assured none of the Germans present that day would attempt. Today I see one German present, at least a man with a German pin on next to his poppy, a game fusion that invites us to consider the blurred horror of war and its common victims.
All the while, even in the silence, Waitrose delivery lorries prowl, Tesco vans too and Sainsbury’s, their parade is constant, their vigil incessant. For once it was the local shop, then express supermarkets, till finally home delivery. We need not leave our houses and they may not pay their taxes and our values have been replaced by value brands and the songs we sang together are all forgotten but we know the jingle to “Every Little Helps”. We have been silently cudgelled into a new faith. It has crept beneath our foundations in the guise of convenience and it has devoured our myths which stand now only hollow and flammable, bearing cheap and deadly cladding.
If we leave Europe will this nation’s voice return? If we remain in the union will we discover what it means to connect to a greater community? I doubt it and I reckon you do too.
Oh to sing new anthems full throatedly and whole heartedly with the passion with which they sell, and as unthinkingly as we buy. To sing together under a new flag that stands for our collective strength, our shared vision. To honour the ghosts and awaken the ghostly, to live as we were born to live, to live as their deaths deserve, to live as the beautiful people, gathered in remembrance on a British green deserve to live.”