I attended Witney’s remembrance service today. It’s not entirely in character for me: I tend to shy away from large organized events unless they’re festivals full of my demographic (or what was my demographic, five years ago, I suppose). But since my Grandad became unable to attend on his own behalfâ€”ironically, because the bits of his spine that were once shattered by a German bullet can no longer tolerate the cold or him standing stillâ€”I’ve felt more and more like I ought to go for him, if not for myself.
Compared to the regimented (as it were) services of Blackburn and then Oxford, Witney’s was a bit shambolic. There was a lot more chatting from the crowd, with a gradually rising hubbub during the laying of wreaths that reminded me of the noises that would appear in enforced silences at school. At any point I expected the officer in charge of the army cadets to below everyone into submission. Generally things felt a little more detached, with the events probably hard for everyone who wasn’t as tall as me to see, and the lack of a feeling of involvement was probably what made people start to talk. Blackburn’s service is held in the little valley at the end of Corporation Park, and those not in the armed forces or ranks of council bigwigs can move up the hill a little to get a better view.
Acutely aware of my size, therefore, I stood up against the estate agent’s wall to keep out of the way. This unfortunately put me near two of the most badly behaved children at the whole event. The first was a small girl of perhaps four or five, who kept insisting in a matter-of-fact, piping tone that of course she ought to be carried. If anyone felt the pinch of detachedness, then she probably did, but it was through luck rather than parental judgment that the two-minute silence finally emerged intact. The other child was quieter but more physically rowdy, and spent the second hymn dodging either side of his mother’s back so he could slap each of the hands of his sibling in turn, held at gut level by the parent with arms splayed out like a novelty hot-water bottle.
The last post and reveille were dire: I’ve never heard a bugler play three notes simultaneously before, and I don’t think that it was intentional. And of course, this being Witney, nobody could conscience stretching the temporary pedestrianization past the Butter Cross so that traffic might be forced to wait: they’d paused for the parade to file in, but that was the absolute limit. And so buses would lumber and brum past the tail of the service, squeak over the traffic island and carry on their way. Stop all the clocks, but for God’s sake keep the motors moving.
Through all this I tried, and mostly failed, to remember. Whatever that action ought to consist of, when performed by someone who was never actually there. I tried to imagine the Accrington Pals, men who nowadays would be called boys. I pictured some of the army cadets, shovelling mud and remains of their mates, cigarette perched in the middle of a glazed, resolute expression. I tried, inwardly, to say sorry, and thank you, and ask the ghosts rhetorically why the hell we were going through all this again. But although I balanced all, I could not bring anything to mind.
I connected only once with some part of the ceremony (it might have just been a pang of sentimentality, I don’t know) when the representative of the army put a wreath on the cenotaph. He then stepped away, turned back to the cenotaph, and saluted. At that point something about his manner looked like he wasn’t just going through the motions. Maybe he could see the ghosts that were still just puppets in my mind’s eye, but instead of a stone obelisk he seemed to be saluting fellow soldiers. I swallowed hard as the fellows I was busy imagining, unbidden by me, waved back.