As previously announced, I spent the morning at Douglas Cenotaph. Not my usual routine, to be honest, but I’d promised to do something, so I did it.
I’d agreed to fill in for someone who usually lays a wreath on behalf of atheists (who for obvious reasons don’t do Remembrance Sunday) but this year, in turn, had agreed to help out a friend – in his case one with no relatives and facing a serious operation. So, as instructed, I reported to the Gaiety Theatre reception (just across the road from the Cenotaph) at 10.15, along with the usual gang of wreath-layers.
Two years ago, Nigel Farage was amongst them, and probably felt right at home because it did feel a bit like interloping on a UKIP meeting. These ex-military bods are hardly my idea of a fun crowd, though I have to say the ordinary World War Two vets were nice enough.
Officer class – that’s a different kettle of fish. I’ve never met a British army officer who was even halfway related to a decent human being, and doubt I ever will. But then bear in mind I lived in Belfast at the heart of the troubles, so I know which innocent civilians they “disappeared” and which Loyalist paramilitaries they paid to commit whose murders.
As for the ones who still flout their rank decades after service – pathetic sad acts all. Seeing them in their camel coats and trilbies, like so many Flash Harry impersonators at a bizarre St. Trinian’s convention, it was hard to look at them for more than five seconds without sniggering.
Anyway, the routine was that some nice ladies offered you a cup of tea and a biscuit – or as many of the old boys preferred, a tot of Jameson’s or Teacher’s (you’ll see the significance of that later). Then around 10.45 the uniformed folk formed up, got shouted at by a sergeant major, raised their flags and marched across the road to the Cenotaph, while everyone else sort of ambled across and reassembled, old soldiers and special guests in front of the Cenotaph, wreath layers to one side, everyone else behind the wreath layers.
Then, at five to the hour, the Archdeacon warbled a few words, the Last Post was played and the maroon went bang. Two minutes later a bit more bugling, some more priestly warbles, then, one by one, the official wreath layers were announced, laid wreaths, bowed, and walked back. This was followed by a couple of minutes when any casual attendee could lay a tribute, then a vet read that “going down of the sun” thing, a final prayer, and a rush back across the road to more tea and biccies, this time in St Thomas’s church.
And at this point it got odder. The key point is that I was representing atheists, who chose Armistice Day over Remembrance Sunday because the religious element is not predominant. My companions – regular attendees – remarked that this year there seemed to be far more praying than usual. We wondered idly if the church had spotted the resurgence of Armistice Day as a stand alone ceremony, rather than a warm-up for Remembrance Sunday (something the ex-service groups have been pushing), was muscling in and we might have to keep an eye on it.
We then forgot all about it until the Archdeacon, who had been merrily socialising around various big-wigs, passed us on his way out, clapped me on the back and remarked loudly ‘I suppose that was all gobbledy-gook to you chaps, eh? Never mind, never mind’, before tripping off up the church aisle and out of the door, while we exchanged startled “what was that all about” glances with those around us.
Odd, very odd. I can only surmise he was filled by the spirit – lots of it, and it was a good 40% proof.
Which leaves two more interesting questions.
Is the established church now jumping on the resurgence of a national remembrance which it does not dominate? Or was its distinguished representative just so full of Dutch (or in this case Scotch) courage he thought it was Sunday, followed the wrong script, and none of the organisers felt brave enough to point it out?