I am writing today’s piece whilst sitting in Cardiff Millennium Centre on a bright, sunny morning. It’s now 11.10am. The Centre has just observed a two minute silence for Remembrance Sunday. It wasn’t perfectly quiet, but there was a noticeable pause in the hustle and bustle of people passing through on their morning constitutionals, calling in for a cappuccino and a warm before heading back out onto the waterfront; or (like me) killing time while waiting for their kids to complete auditions in one of the many practice rooms that make up the backstage part of the Centre.
Remembrance Sunday this year seems to have achieved a higher profile than ever, at least in the UK, coinciding with the centenary of the outbreak of The Great War, and coming at time when British troops complete the final stages of a withdrawal from Afghanistan. The public artwork that will eventually see 900,000 ceramic poppies (one for each British soldier killed during the 1914-18 conflict) ‘planted’ around the walls of the Tower of London, has captured the public imagination in a way that was never anticipated. It is estimated that 4 million people will have visited the site by the time the installation is dismantled in the next few weeks (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29965477).
But the increased profile for the national act of remembrance has brought with it a heightened level of debate about what remembrance should actually be about. A number of news stories over the weekend serve to illustrate the polarising nature of the arguments. Football clubs across the national leagues in England and Wales now mark the remembrance weekend through the observation of two minutes of silence before matches kick off, and (increasingly) the wearing of specially commissioned kits with poppies embroidered into the fabric of the shirts. This poses a dilemma for those players for whom the tradition of wearing the poppy may have negative associations. James McLean, an Irishman who plays for Wigan Athletic, refused to wear a shirt bearing the poppy in his side’s league match on Friday evening. His reasons were set out with powerful eloquence in a letter sent to the club’s Chairman :
Others have drawn attention to the apparent incongruity of the Royal British Legion’s acceptance of sponsorship from Lockheed Martin and BAE for a fund and awareness raising ball held at the end of October. There seems to be an inherent contradiction in allowing arms companies to receive positive association with an event that commemorates those who have been killed and wounded by the products that they sell and profit from :
The act of remembrance has led to some political controversy too. Britain First has been accused of cynically exploiting the poppy symbol to drive more people to its website and Facebook page (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/britain-first-accused-of-hijacking-the-poppy-ahead-of-remembrance-day-9841107.html); while Nigel Farage has criticised his exclusion from the list of official politicians invited to attend the ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London,the main focus for national events :
Amidst so much ‘noise’ and distraction, it would be easy to forget that at the core of the remembrance event is a very simple premise : it is that through remembrance we are called to remember the sacrifice of millions of lives, not glorifying in the causes for which they were sent to fight, but reflecting on the loss experienced by their loved ones. This is put most eloquently by Kevin McKenna in his piece for The Observer this morning :
The spirit of humble remembrance has been captured perfectly this past week in a five-part dramatisation focusing on the lives of two young men caught up in the Great War. The Passing-Bells (a reference to a Wilfred Owen poem) can be viewed on iPlayer from the link here :
It’s well worth a look, managing to capture the horror and hardships endured by soldiers on both sides of that bloody conflict, but without the need for graphic violence.
There is a further opportunity for humble, silent reflection at 11am on Tuesday, the 11th hour of the 11th day, marking the anniversary of Armistice Day at the end of the 1914-18 conflict.