Posted by Tania Kindersley.
There is something tremendously levelling about watching the Remembrance Day ceremony with two small girls. As I get older, I grow more prone to moments of sentiment and even secret glimpses of patriotic pride. This may sound odd to those of you in America, where patriotism is a muscular thing. Here it is massively complicated; clouded by memories of Empire, tempered by the general British tendency to resist any kind of showing off, and hedged with old ideas of class and politics.
As I turned on the BBC to watch the massed military bands gather at the Cenotaph, and the old soldiers come out to remember their fallen comrades, and the royal family stand straight in their ornate uniforms, with their great wreaths of poppies, I grew grave and contemplative. It turns out you cannot be too serious when being observed by two small people. The eight-year-old eyed me with some astonishment as I stood up when Big Ben tolled eleven. The two minute silence itself was shattered by the two-year-old saying: Read Zog, Read Zog. (Not King Zog of Albania, it transpires, but some special children’s monster.)
Then of course I got very excited with the parade itself. There is almost nothing that moves me more than seeing the ancient warriors, all decked out in their Sunday best, resplendent with medals, spruce in immaculate bowlers, marching in step down Whitehall.
There was the Special Boat Service, in their green berets; all manner of Guards, from Welsh to Grenadier; the veterans of the wars in Korea, Malaya, Borneo, and the Falklands. There were the Canadians, and the regiment from Hong Kong, and the Oman Scouts, proudly wearing red and white keffiyehs. There were the FANYs and the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and the War Widows, led by an amazingly elegant old lady in a floor length fur and a black patent handbag. There were the submariners; ‘of course,’ said David Dimbleby, who on days like today knows everything, ‘it was considered ungentlemanly in the First World War to use submarines to sink ships.’ At the head of one group was an upright fellow with snow white hair who had been on the Arctic Convoy at the age of sixteen.
The sonorous place names rolled out: Monte Cassino, Arnhem, Ypres. The list of marchers started to sound like poetry: The Bevan Boys, The Fellowship of the Trenches, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Evacuees’ Association, The Order of the Buffaloes, The Salvation Army, The Children of the Far East Prisoners of War, The Order of the Round Tables.
The Chelsea Pensioners get me going every time. ‘Look, look,’ I said to the children. ‘See their splendid red coats.’
‘RED COATS,’ roared the two year old. ‘Where? WHERE?’
I did that terrible annoying thing that grown-ups do, the trap I swore I would never fall into. ‘Now those are the Gurkhas,’ I said, to the eight-year-old, in my special educating-the-young voice. ‘Do you know where Gurkhas come from?’
‘Nepal,’ I said. ‘Do you know where Nepal is?’
The smallest person suddenly piped up.
‘Those men have no LEGS,’ she shouted, as a group of amputees wheeled past, stoical and smart in their chairs, very old veterans of ninety, and recent casualties of the latest wars. ‘Where are their LEGS?’ demanded the baby.
‘In the dust of Helmand and the fields of France,’ I said.
She contemplated for moment and then turned to me, very serious: ‘I have gloves with flowers on,’ she said. ‘And a HAT,’ she called over her shoulder, running out of the room.
A group of American marines marched past, followed by the military veterinarians, the RSPCA, and the National Horse Service. David Dimbleby, who always knows just what to say, intoned: ‘They fought from the jungles of Burma to the deserts of North Africa.’
I felt myself get a little teary. The two-year-old reappeared, wearing her gloves and a pink hat. ‘See,’ she said, beaming at me, holding up her hands for inspection. She pointed to her head. ‘And the HAT.’
‘It’s pink,’ I said. ‘It is very marvellous indeed.’
A young major just back from Afghanistan was reading out a letter from his great uncle, written after the first day of the Somme: ‘Am the only officer left. Have not had any sleep for over fifty hours. Am not worth much.’
The marchers keep marching. The band breaks out into There Will Always be an England, followed by Colonel Bogey’s March. The eight-year-old takes my photograph. ‘I’m not sure I am ready for my close-up, ‘I say, aware that my nose is a not very fetching shade of red.
On the television, David Dimbleby says: ‘Unconscionable horrors.’
The two-year-old has disappeared again. She returns quickly, this time wearing a spanking white sun hat.
‘This is my OTHER HAT,’ she says.
The camera shifts away from the parade to a war memorial in Herefordshire. There are engraved there the names of the men who fell in the First and Second World Wars, and the newest name, that of Rifleman Will Aldridge. He is remembered in the village of Bredenbury, where he was born. His mother drives past the stone cross that bears his name every day, taking her two younger children to school.
‘My hat,’ says the baby.
The BBC returns to Whitehall. And suddenly the band stops playing and the camera lingers on the last of the marchers and David Dimbleby falls silent and that is the end, for one more year, the last name hanging in the air that of Rifleman Will Aldridge, killed in Afghanistan, at the age of 18.
I turn off the television. ‘Right,’ I say. ‘Now I am going to cook your lunch.’
The small people look up expectantly.
‘It’s chicken,’ I say.
‘LUNCH,’ shouts the two-year-old, with the gleaming, beatific smile that makes her look as if she has just stepped out of a story book.
The eight-year-old looks politely relieved that I have returned to my normal, more practical self, although still slightly wary that I may yet ask her more questions about Nepal.
‘And polenta chips,’ I say, aware that I have frightened the horses quite enough for one day.
The eight-year-old grins, forgiving me.
‘I like those,’ she says.