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A broader kind of Remembrance

by
28 August 2020

The experience of Covid-19 should change the annual observance, argues Ted Harrison

ted harrison

THIS year is turning into a watershed year. So many incremental changes, which were previously little more than pointers to the future, have been abruptly fast-tracked by the virus. The optimists now hope that we will be back to normal by Christmas, but that normal will be very different from what we knew before Covid-19. From churchgoing to office work, a significant evolutionary leap is taking place.

Whatever shape that new normal will have taken by December, it is highly probable that, in November, we will still be taking precautions against the virus, such as wearing masks and keeping a social distance. We will be aware of the need to guard against a new wave of the pandemic

It is not too soon to be thinking about how Remembrance Sunday, the national highlight of that season, will be marked. It is highly unlikely that it can be the same as it has been for years, with only the smallest of minor adjustments. It is unlikely that full military bands will be able to play. The politicians will not be able line up shoulder to shoulder. The public may not be able to attend.

In the 1960s, it was assumed that Remembrance would die a natural death. In recent times, interest has revived, but its meaning has changed significantly in the process. After the slaughter of a generation in the trenches of Flanders, it represented grief linked with a determination that wars should never happen again. In contrast, it is often viewed today as an emblem of patriotism, national virility, and, possibly, even gungo-ho support for the armed forces.

My observation over the years is that, despite the BBC’s expectation that all contributors and employees wear a poppy on screen, the wearing of the poppy divides rather than unites the nation. In 2017, a Consumer Intelligence survey suggested that one third of young people would never wear a poppy, many saying that the symbol glorified war, while 30 per cent of adults polled said that wearing a poppy should be compulsory.

 

THE centenary of the First World War having passed, and the 75th anniversaries of VE Day and VJ Day closing a chapter, this watershed year could be a time to reassess Remembrance and what it really means.

We should certainly continue to be grateful to all those who sacrificed their lives in war for the sake of others. Yet, the focus should no longer be primarily on the military dead. Remembrance-tide could now be dedicated to all who have given their lives in the service of others.

It is time to play down the military side of the Cenotaph ceremony and increase our focus on those who, in the course of their ordinary jobs, take risks with their own safety on our behalf, sometimes, sadly, with fatal consequences. It could be a time to recall members of the police force and fire service who have died on duty. Most recently and appropriately, it is right to bring to mind the health workers who, in the course of the coronavirus outbreak, themselves became ill and died.

Changes to be considered might be for the music at the Cenotaph to be provided by civilian musicians. Some members of the royal family could wear the uniforms of civilian organisations with which they are associated. Many of the uniformed soldiers, sailors, and airmen could be replaced by firefighters, ambulance crews, and nurses. I would suggest, too, that the number of politicians present be reduced, to perhaps just the Speaker of the House of Commons, to represent them all.

 

THE most conspicuous and, perhaps, far-reaching change that I would suggest is to the emblem of the poppy itself. It evolved from the flowers that grew in profusion on the churned up battlegrounds of the First World War after the fighting had ceased. The blood-red flower came to represent those who had died in such huge numbers.

Today, it has become a brand. It has even been used by marketing companies to promote sales of retail products. The wearing of a poppy has also become competitive: every year, MPs vie to be the first to be seen wearing one. Giant poppies are tied to the grills of cars to display patriotism and loyalty to “Our Heroes”. Poppy bling is sold and worn.

To get away from all of this, I would suggest a redesign (pictured). The poppy that recalls the war dead should be kept, but placed, perhaps, on a background of a different colour, to represent the civilians who have also given their lives for others. Money raised from their sale could be divided between veterans’ and medical charities.

This change would allow those with direct memories of conflict and loss a sense of continuity to focus on their own grief, but give to many others a reason again to wear a poppy with thanksgiving and pride.

 

Ted Harrison is a writer and artist, and author of Remembrance Today: Poppies, grief and heroism (Reaktion Books, 2012). His art installation Innocence Betrayed was the focus for Remembrance-tide under the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011.

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