A minute’s silence outside the Bethnal Green library took the length of an entire sermon. To be fair to that elongated minute it took several minutes beforehand for the parade of clergy, Territorial Army, Royal Marines and Navy, Her Majesty’s Air Force, the Metropolitan Police, St John’s Ambulance, several cadets, beavers, cubs and scouts, plus one peroxide blonde widow dressed in all black, several tearful families and the rest of the congregation to walk respectability down Cambridge Heath Road. Respectability does not rush and nor do most people on a Sunday when confronted with a memorial parade. My sympathies were with the regular congregation who with a sermonless service had to seek solace in the silence. The annual invaders had taken over the running of the church like their compatriots throughout the country, an institutionalised occupation not to be confused with the current protests that surround St Pauls. The price of the Anglican Church’s wealth is that once a year Jesus, The Holy Spirit and God himself are held hostage by the dead who had defended their names (despite most likely not believing in them). A week not for moral, theological, or metaphysical questions but instead an exercise in obedience masquerading as an act of remembrance.
A remembrance of people we had largely never met. The worship was such pure ritual and routine it could easily be mistaken for a military operation. A vast array of distinguished uniforms filled the nave which made the priest’s attire seem normal but the collection of camouflage was not an adequate distraction to my own questions. Ironically the one minute silence seemed to speak to me more than the familiar fifteen minute sermon. Within the spiritual void or the moral vacuum that was the silence I came up with my own pacifist plea for the pulpit. Following in the footsteps of my God serving Granddad who always resented remembrance Sunday here is my sermon on the silence I respectfully observed but cannot agree with.
A minute for who? And why not an hour? Who decided a minute for mourning was an adequate time to shed your tears? If we are remembering people we have never met why should I only remember those who have fought for the British forces? Is remembering something that you have never experienced a charitable lie?
But my questions feel like half formed sentences leading to their own answers.
The minute is for the men and women of the British Armed Forces who died serving their country as well as the families and friends who have lost those close to them. It has to be a minute as an hour might allow the death toll to rise as more veterans, soldiers, cadets, scout, cubs and beavers could die. A minute is deliberately too short to shed any tears, so the minute becomes an annual symbolic medal that reaffirms British reserve when faced with such ritualistic tragedy. It’s expected that we only remember our own but I cannot forget the pictures of the non-partisan burnt, dissembled, and dead bodies of Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. My problem is that as a charitable lie our Remembrance Sunday is limited by locality and not generous enough to pay tribute to the dead enemies who are born from outside our shores.
Clearly I am a lost liberal caught in a cloud of jingoistic nationalism that has grown to a more epidemic fever in recent years. Conduits to this rise of military nostalgia is the Sun newspaper’s Help for Heroes campaign, the influx of reality TV and documentaries on our Armed Forces and the PR mourn machine that was Wootton Basset. A new season is upon us and this year the poppy has grown beyond its natural environment into the world of marketing. Forget the token paper flower or even the metal badge, we are pollinating the internet with our poppy idents, branching out into poppy car bumpers and branding any public services with poppy insignias. Grief is ubiquitous in our consumption and it threatens our sense of reality by becoming a token of the everyday. The silence and the signs assume our support for human sacrifice but such tragedy does not need to be tolerated. The entire media campaign finds the pacifist within me can only feel numb with anger. Anger reserved for the accusers who claim that I am being deliberately difficult, disrespectful and different in my choice not to wear a poppy on my jacket. Who see my belief as apocryphal, arrogant, and antagonistic and are not willing to believe that it’s a thoughtful, considered and genuine response. Peace is only a pose in these people’s eyes and hypocrisy is natural. Who would want to see the popular poppy as a direct support to the unpopular wars in which our troops die? The Royal British Legion does great charitable work in helping the lives of troops and their families but it is still guilt money to the larger evil of war itself. If I am going to wear a symbol to commemorate those who have died in unnecessary violent conflicts then my symbol should unite all divisions because only in death are we all equal.
I am all for freedom and ridding the world of tyranny but before we choose to save others we must emancipate ourselves from nationalism and we can start with the poppy. The Poppy has become a prisoner of war it does not belong to us or those who died on the battle fields of Bazra, Belfast or even Flanders. Long before mechanized warfare between nation states the poppy was a symbol of sleep, death and remembrance bound to no particular country, continent or history. Now the poppy seems to have been appropriated by the British and to a lesser extent its old colonies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Alternatively we have the Peace Poppy, the white paper poppy that I spent two hours searching central London for to no avail. The peace poppy is the pacifist’s attempt to fit into Remembrance Sunday it’s the sort of politically correct trite that appears clumsy but is well meaning and far more Christian in spirit. Why are Peace Poppies unpopular? Because peace is unpopular, unpopular because it does not make money and sadly wars do. Wars make a lot of money and and they also make lot of pretty paper red poppies. For some, war is to be supported but for others it is merely to be observed and there is no better way to observe the cost of war but in a silence that is shared with those not willing to be quiet.
Searching in the silence for some meaning I looked outside my obedient group, past the berets, caps and helmets I spotted a young quiet Muslim girl dressed in black from head to toe with only her enquiring face exposed. She was respectful and interested as her eyes inspected the parade on display. Observing a military Christian rite you would expect her to feel isolated but in the silence her presence became an acceptance or blank canvas for me to draw on. It would be wrong to presume all the thoughts that remain unsaid and to place my anger within her mouth. Anger at wars I had not fought in, anger at people I had not met and anger at myself for not succumbing to a sense of national pride: an anger that was only relieved by the remembrance of the dead being disturbed by the sound of the living. A silence unravelled by the sound of Sunday shopping, broken by the sound of congested traffic and then decimated by the earth shattering sound of sirens. Even in that minute of silence an ambulance sped down Cambridge Heath Road, followed by two police cars and one motorbike and it finally dawned on me that tragedy takes no time so we best make the most of the minutes that we have.