As is sometimes the case, this is not entirely the piece I intended to write – I was distracted by fireworks!
Remembrance is a theme prompting many commentators at this time of year and I am always interested to read the thoughtful contributions that come my way via social media. One recurring theme is the debate around the symbol of the Royal British Legion’s annual Poppy Appeal. I’d like to think that most detractors of the poppy symbol don’t actually have an issue with the fund raising and the uses to which it is put (albeit administration costs versus frontline investment is a whole different debate to be had about many charities).
One thing that intrigues me about detractors (for varied reasons) of the poppy symbol is that I wonder how many of them are also critical of our annual love affair with fireworks and the long ago events that sparked the 5th November tradition? I’m pretty sure that most people who, like me, own pets such as dogs and cats, plus services veterans suffering from PTSD, would be more than happy to see the tradition quickly die off, or at least return to one annual day. Indeed I see proof of that every year on my social media feeds. Equally there are many others (we hear the evidence for weeks on end every Autumn) who will say – yah, boo! Spoilsports!
The custom of “Penny for the Guy” has faded away and I wonder how many people who continue to ‘ooh and ahh’ at fireworks are even aware of the long ago historic events which underpin the lighting of sparklers, Catherine wheels (the latter also having connotations other than Guy Fawkes) and rockets? If, as a society, we insist on clinging, largely unthinkingly, to the tradition of loudly marking Guy Fawkes’ night(s), why is there so much angst over the humble poppy?
Yes, the poppy has become commercialised, but its commercialisation is non-threatening; it may offend some sensibilities in certain instances, but it doesn’t terrify animals or people in normal usage, nor can it be used as an offensive weapon. (Having said that, don’t get me started on soldier silhouettes!)
Food for thought, but now my ramblings turn to a tradition which I cling to at this time of year and rudely interrupted by C19; Armistice commemorations. Last Wednesday, the day before lockdown, I luckily had an appointment at the hairdresser. It was specifically timed for just prior to my usual trip to Ypres which, unluckily, had to be cancelled. The demographic of the Great War community, with whom I have contact, largely ‘remembers’ every day, but for many of us the 11th November has a special focus about which only a few curmudgeons might take issue. For many of the nineteen years I have been visiting Ypres at Armistice, I have been the partner of someone who has an intimate involvement in the Armistice Day Poppy Parade in Ypres, prior to the Last Post Association’s 11 a.m. commemoration under the Menin Gate.
Andy Tonge follows on from Tony Noyes and Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Graham Parker in overseeing the Poppy Parade, in collaboration with Ypres town authorities, Last Post Association and a team of volunteers, prior to the morning commemoration. It was former battlefield guide Graham’s idea (fondly referred to as “Daddy Parker” by some of his clients) and he was the first co-ordinator and bowler-hatted leader of the parade. (Graham is on the right as you look, clutching his bowler hat and umbrella, I guess some time late 1990s.)
Andy’s co-ordination takes the form of fielding emails for up to a year in advance; a couple of face to face planning meetings in Ypres during the year and on 9th November; a briefing for marshals the night before the parade; an early start in the Vandenpeereboomplein in front of St Martin’s Cathedral on the morning and overseeing the forming up and marching of the standard bearers, bands and uniform groups, including youths. Then their orderly dispersal after the service and, at some point later, a de-brief meeting. A team of marshals briefed by Andy direct the general public, together with his number two Fiona Payne.
Genevra Charsley and Natasja Feliers have distributed and collected the crepe poppy petals that later float from the roundels in the roof of the Menin Gate, to the strains of O Valiant Hearts, for longer than I have been in attendance.
Meanwhile, where am I in all this? Generally speaking I’m part of the general public, having tried my hand at marshalling and failed miserably. No one takes any notice of a short-legged (polite version) old gal like me! I have even been viewed with suspicion and asked to move on under the Menin Gate by a man wearing the same marshal’s identity badge as me. If I can get a ticket for the service at St George’s Chapel I will, just to sing (badly) O Valiant Hearts and hear the Last Post sounded inside, as well as later under the Menin Gate. And an Armistice without hearing at least one rendition of Highland Cathedral some time somewhere in the town would be a disappointment.
Some might regard all this on my part as trite, but memory is sensory, often prompted by music, vistas, aromas and tastes. The sights and sounds, the flavours and atmospherics, the memories and chums of Armistice in Ypres reinforce ‘remembrance’ for me and will be sorely missed this year. Does one need a haircut, a poppy (or poppies in some cases), smart clothes (my choice), ceremony, music and socialising with like-minded pals to remember the sacrifice of the Great War generation – of course not! But I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that a little bit of frivolity and pageantry undermines it.
The plus side to the cancellation of my usual plans is that I will be with my dog on his birthday on 9th November for the first time ever. Not that Luca knows that I have not been around for his previous sixteen birthdays!
As you are here – by the by ….
I am publishing this blog today, 7th November, in case you don’t know about the initiative of Natasja and Genevra this year to place poppy crosses in the Ypres Salient, on request, for which this is the deadline day to advise them. Details on the social media/website of the Ariane Hotel and Flanders Battlefield Tours.