Remembering in silence

A desperate e-mail sent to members of the island’s national choir last night nicely illustrates the huge gap between a popular public myth and reality.

Next Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, when – if you were to believe the hype – the nation turns out en masse to mourn fallen soldiers from the two world wars. Except that it doesn’t, and hasn’t in several decades.

I have to admit, the pictures in the papers will look impressive. But remove compulsory attendees from the emergency services, boy scouts etc., plus the paid attendees (politicians, senior civil servants, clergy…) and you’re left with a handful of nonagenarians and their carers. Even some previously compulsory attendees are now refusing to turn up. For example, head teachers used to send pupils to represent each secondary school, but these days most kids feel no link, and parents who share that view are refusing to make them go.

But then, Remembrance Sunday was never the proper time to remember the war dead anyway. That is properly Armistice Day, at 11 AM on 11th November, a tradition instituted by government in response to an angry 1919 grassroots campaign which, because of events in Russia, it was feared would turn into civil insurrection if not addressed. This campaign also suggested war memorials by popular subscription, which again national government subverted by building the Cenotaph and local governments repeated around the UK. Another key point is that the Cenotaph was a deliberately non-religious monument (to reflect that non-Christian soldiers from around the empire also fell by the million) and Armistice Day was also not overtly Christian for the same reason.

This put out the established churches, who expected to “naturally” lead the nation’s mourning, until years of secret lobbying by bishops eventually produced the Remembrance Sunday format. Then, gradually, civic authorities were encouraged to place less emphasis on Armistice Day (which, inconveniently, was also usually a working day) and to focus on Remembrance Sunday (which wasn’t – especially before the Sunday Trading laws changed).

All of which makes that desperate e-mail even sadder.

The thing is, the outdoor national Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Douglas is preceded by a church service in St. Thomas’s, and both are recorded live by the nation’s radio station; and this is where a problem arises. Listening to the recordings in recent years, it has become patently obvious to the broadcasters that those in church either don’t know the hymns or are just not singing. So, a hymn that everyone of my age learnt at school is announced, the town band strikes up….and nobody joins in. Dead air – a broadcasting nightmare

What to do?

Well, the plan is to recruit volunteers for a scratch choir, which will be placed conveniently next to the band and close to the microphones. If enough turn up, the false impression conveyed – at least to listeners who obviously can’t see what’s going on – will be of a nation lustily joining in traditional hymns to remember noble folk who died saving all that’s decent. But even this desperate plea might fail.

Because one condition of church attendance – even for potential choristers – is to contribute to a British Legion collection. Paid attendees are not expected to cough up, get their poppies provided, and after the church and Cenotaph services will sidle off to a government reception with free food and alcohol. The vets, their carers and any voluntary attendees? Nothing.

If I was the kind of person who would waste an hour of my life listening to yet another demonstration of national hypocrisy – or local radio at all – I would almost be tempted to tune in to find out what happens. But I’m not, so I’ll be laughing in my sleep instead.

And before anyone accuses me of mocking the war dead …..

On the 11th of the 11th at 11 AM, I will be laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. Which means a day off work, unpaid, and no free drink.


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