I watch from my window this morning as the man who lives across the street sets out for the church. He is slightly bent over, but walks briskly, dressed in a neat, pressed black suit instead of the soiled gray anorak he usually wears. Bernard and I follow a few minutes later, poppies in lapels, for the chilly 5 minute walk to the war memorial. It stands in a little square just outside the churchyard, inscribed with the names of sons of the village who died in the first and second world wars. This November 11th, people are gathered for the annual service of remembrance.
Four ancient but upright men with colorful medals across somber jackets stand at attention before the memorial, two of them holding flags. The vicar, Nick, leads us all in a short prayer, then wreathes are laid at the foot of the monument by the British Legion, the girl guides, and the boy scouts. Flags-tips lower humbly onto the steps around the monument as the vicar begins to read out the names, so many from the same families, especially from the first world war; some of the names are the same as people we know in the village, still there, still honoring sons, fathers, brothers and sisters.
A white-haired woman in a wheel chair struggles to her feet as the service begins. She stands the whole time, head bowed, her grand daughter holding an umbrella to shelter her from the rain.
Our neighbor steps forward, straight as an arrow now, and says:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, not the years condemn, at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.
The last post is bugled, then silence, broken only by the whisper of rain falling around us.
At last Reveille sounds, clear and clean, bringing us back to this misty, cold morning, the blood-red wreathes against rain-drenched gray stones, the silent crowd of villagers.
A memorial service continues inside the church, where we pray for peace, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and between nations. We pray that there will be no more maimed young men, sorrowful mothers and fathers, children and siblings. We know there must be a better way for humans to live together on this planet than rivers of blood.
Later on in the evening, B nd I are watching the results show of a favorite program, Strictly Come Dancing. It’s an entertaining, if frivolous display of healthy bodies, smiles, energy. But still, they acknowledge the day and the sacrifice with a song by a trio of soldiers in uniform, the studio awash with lights of red poppies, while two professional dancers enact an appropriate and moving routine.
Each year, I am struck by the universality of respect shown to their soldiers by the English. For a week, I have seen poppies in the lapels of most people on the street, on television presenters and in shops. It isn’t an act, here, to prove how patriotic you are, but a heartfelt and reverent appreciation.
- The Bridge over Upper Street –
- The Anchoress of Shere, Christine Carpenter