WHAT did you do, what were you thinking, during those two minutes of silence last Sunday? Did you worry that you could not muster up an appropriate sense of compassion? Or did you, perhaps, stare resentfully at the ground, with simmering resentment for the oppressive nature of public commemoration?
Silence, as the Revd Lucy Winkett put it in Free Thinking (Radio 3, Thursday of last week), is ungovernable; and the silence demanded of us on Armistice Day is an exercise in “constructive ambiguity”. We may be remembering past conflicts with pride, horror, or disapproval; we may be imagining the heroism or the banality, the glories or the drudgery of war. Most of us comply with the social control imposed through weeks of poppy-wearing and relentless media coverage; but, if you asked a group of people what they thought the silence meant, you might well get very different answers.
Steve Brown brought a historical perspective: in the early post-Great War years, Armistice Day was primarily a day of celebration, featuring parties and banquets; but fear of social unrest in the mid-1920s led to a sobering up of the occasion. In 1945, the Armistice was coupled with the Remembrance Sunday for the Second World War, and, since then, the ceremony has played the same part for all subequent wars.
Now that the 100th anniversary is behind us, we are, at least according to the speakers in this lecture, facing a critical shift in the function of Remembrance Sunday/Armistice Day, and it remains to be seen whether any of these ambiguities are resolved.
Certainly, life will be a little different for Dan Snow, who has been presenting Voices of the First World War (Radio 4, weekdays) for the past four years. There is a sense of bewilderment among his subjects, who find themselves at the end of a war not knowing what to do, and how the world outside the trench, the hospital ward, or the garrison might work. Some order fresh attacks before the 11 November deadline, to offload their ammunition. Indeed, thousands die in the period between the decision to end hostilities and the symbolic moment of their cessation. The stories of comrades “copping it” in these final moments are among the most poignant of the entire series.
The story of another kind of deadly brinkmanship was told in A Tale of Belief and the Courts (Radio 4, Monday of last week). The dispute earlier this year between Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and the parents of Alfie Evans over the infant’s treatment has brought under scrutiny the work of the Christian Legal Centre (CLC) (News, 27 April 2017).
Joshua Rozenberg’s investigation failed to engage with anybody directly involved in the CLC, and the best we got from this documentary was some insight into the core strategy of the organisation: namely, that you go to court to be heard, not necessarily to win. And, in the age of clickbait journalism, it has proved an effective one.