Sunday, 11 November 2007
A day to Remember
It is Remembrance Sunday. If I had a television in London I would watch today's parade past the Cenotaph and I would cry. When I did have a television the Remembrance Sunday parade never failed to reduce me to tears. I would start off determined not to blub and would hold out until the Chelsea Pensioners in their pillar box red uniforms or the dwindling band of 'Tommies' from World War One struggled down Whitehall. Watching them, their ramrod straight backs unbowed by age for just a few proud seconds, just long enough for them to muster a snicker-snack salute despite being in wheelchairs or struggling with walking sticks, my eyes would begin pricking. By the time the World War Two veterans were in full arm-swing to the tum-ti-tum of the military band, I would be snuffling my way through a box of tissues.
I was present at both the 50th anniversary and 60th anniversary commemorations of D-Day in France and spoke to many old soldiers. They were heroes to a man. I remember one of them, a Canadian veteran who was one of only three of his military unit to survive the landings. He staggered off the beach to discover the vast majority of his friends and comrades had fallen. Like him, most of them were volunteers. He told me that before he had signed up, and even after, he did not know exactly where France was. "Why did you join up to fight a war in a country you had barely heard of?" I asked him. "Because we were called to defend Britain, our Motherland," he explained. "Queen and country needed us and we were proud to go." He could not talk for long because he was not so good on his feet but, with the help of his daughter, he had made the pilgrimage back to Juno Beach for the first time after 60 years. He said he wanted to pay what would surely be his last respects to those who had not had the chance to grow old and have daughters - or sons - who would hold their elbows and fuss about whether they were up to standing to attention when some young whipper-snapper president or royal deigned to address them. When I finished interviewing him he said to me, as many other veterans had done: "Thank you, dear." I wanted to hug him. "No, thank you," I said. "Thank you."
I also remember many years ago taking a slow boat from Cape Town to the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena, most famous as the place where Napoleon died after being captured and exiled by the British. Many of the islanders on what was one of the British empire's furthest outposts, had fought for Britain during the World Wars and the Falklands War and were fiercely patriotic. Some still had pictures of Queen Victoria hanging in their living rooms. At the time I visited they were fighting British government moves to stop them coming to work and study in the UK. On the same slow boat was a young, ambitious British government official tasked with carrying out what was basically a cost-cutting study to justify slashing financial aid to St Helena. One evening during a discussion over dinner he thumped the table and said: "I'm so sick of these people talking about what they did in the war. Who cares what happened 50 years ago? It's history." So much for remembrance.
They commemorate Armistice Day in France, too but it is not the same. It could not be. Besides, they do not have poppies. This year as I was in London I bought two; one for my daughter, one for me. They were much flimsier than I remember and moments after I popped La Fille's into the buttonhole of her coat - I was not about to risk a pin - she had yanked it out and set about dismantling it. "Flower, flower", she giggled as it finally disintegrated onto the pavement, black button centre one way, plastic green stalk the other and red paper at my feet. It was dark and chilly, and the lady from the Royal British Legion must have been frozen after standing on the street for hours but she managed a warm smile: "Yes dear it is a lovely flower isn't it? Would you like another one?", she said bending down to La Fille's level. I looked at the crumpled scrap of red card on the ground, picked it up, flattened it out and put it in my purse as a reminder.