Last Sunday, lugging a heavy suitcase, I took an expensive taxi to Waterloo Station from the hospital where Bernard was in Chelsea. The streets thronged with people jostling for places to watch the Remembrance Day procession, which made my expensive taxi ride even more expensive. But I was impressed that so many people, most wearing red poppies, turned out for the ceremonies. And that all the tv presenters and news readers wore their red poppies, even on Strictly Come Dancing, all week. .
It has been an especially poignant Remembrance Day. For the first time, none of the World War I veterans are alive. Dear old Harry Patch, bright thoughtful, and glowing with humanity, died this year at 110. He had said, “War is the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings.” The numbers may have been smaller in subsequent “conflicts”, but the principle is the same for all of them.
Another event made this day special this year. We were invited to a service at our grandsons school.
St. Edmonds school is in the Surrey countryside where my step-grandson Matthew attends along with his little brother Louis. Their mother invited us to the Remembrance Day service held in the chapel of this red brick Victorian structure, built in 1900. It is a “new”school as schools go in Britain, but old enough to have lost “:old boys”, as former students are called here, to both World Wars and recently, Iraq. We were one of 15 adults to attend, as Matthew was selected to read a war poem he had written entitled, Too Late. Unfortunately, I forgot to wear the red poppy we bought a few days earlier.
The walls of the huge reception room were covered with notices of school events, sports results, competitions, and art work, like schools everywhere, and the children – mostly boys, though now there are a few girls as well – were lined up to enter the chapel. Their teachers herded them in, class by class, and then we slid to our benches in the back. At a signal from the headmaster, the children sat down as one, and the boys’ choir began to sing Kyrie eleison from Messe Basse by Faure.
I’m not sure why I find the collective voices of pre-adolescent boys so moving. Maybe it is simply their youth, the innocence represented by the as yet unchanged soprano voices, and the awareness that those young soldiers who died were like these. The soloist, probably 13, didn’t miss a note of this very difficult piece, and the choir followed suit.
I felt as though I were participating in centuries old ceremonies.
We all sang hymns, except me, as I didn’t know them, but the words were appropriate to the occasion, like, I Vow to Thee, My Country, and The Servant King’, and the music beautiful. The Reverend Witheridge, headmaster of a much older nearby school, Charterhouse, gave a simple sermon pointing out to us that the young men lost in the wars had sat on these same benches, played the same games, learned the same subjects, as the children occupying the benches now.
I looked at the children, praying they would grow up in a world at peace; thought of my own boys, and how grateful I am that they didn’t have to fight, and of the parents who did lose sons and daughters to the horrors of the battlefield.
Then Matthew and two other boys read their poems, all sensitive and well-written, and we were proud of him, at 13, writing a poem an adult might have been happy to write.
The headmaster read out all the names of the öld boys killed in battle, a too-long list for a small school, including a 19 year old fallen in Iraq. Eyes were moist for the two minute silence, and then the melancholy sounds of a trumpet playing “The Last Post”” sounded through the chapel.
Finally, we all sang God Save the Queen, including me, because I could.
After more prayers, the choir sang The Lord Bless You and Keep You, and I was nearly undone completely.
I will not forget to wear the red poppy again.
- Tuk, A polar bear