I haven’t been to a Remembrance Day service for donkey’s years.
It is something I am uncomfortable admitting to because I can’t quite pinpoint why that should be. I used to go every year with my granddad and was very proud to do so. We would take a place among the crowds as close to the Town Hall as possible as this was where the companies from the various armed forces would be on parade and would begin the march through the main street.
Naturally I only had a child’s understanding of what the parade meant. I knew what soldiers were and what soldiers did. I knew that my granddad had been in the navy during WWII and that he was quietly proud of it. I was proud of him. And yet I never questioned his decision not to take his place with the veterans who would also march in the parade.
Year after year these old boys would march past us, their medals making rainbow lines on their jackets, and a few of my granddad’s pals would hail him as they marched by. “Hey, Stan, why aren’t you taking your place here?”, “You gonna join us next year, Stan?”
He would just smile, acknowledge them with a quick word or shout that he was fine where he was. I recall him moaning one year that he wouldn’t join the parade because he felt the government had let the old veterans down with their policies – I don’t think it matters which year it was or which government. I think that sense of being let down, of promises not being kept was constant. Looking back now though I think his real reason for not joining the parade was a sense of modesty. Although he was proud of his service he felt he’d done nothing special. And his pride was tinged with sadness always for those young boys, his mates, who never came home again.
He had his campaign medals and spoke of them often but they were rarely seen. I think I only saw them twice in the whole of my childhood. They were kept still in the envelope that they’d been posted to him in. And that envelope was kept in a Huntley & Palmer's biscuit tin. The tin and its contents are now in my possession and are in the same state that they’ve been in for the last 60 years. The medals in the envelope, alongside his demob papers and his ship service record, all safe inside the biscuit tin.
Though my understanding of Remembrance Day was basic I do recall feeling very emotional as a child – especially when the Last Post was sounded and the silence began. I can remember one year feeling quite on the edge of tears but holding it back lest I shame my grandfather by blubbing like a baby. Looking back now, I doubt such an act would have shamed him. I’m not sure why it made me so emotional. Something about the meaning of the event touched me, I guess, in a way that didn’t need a man’s understanding of war to confirm that, actually, my reaction was the right one.
And then one year we didn’t go. I think he’d reached the age where standing up in the cold for any length of time was just beyond him. He could watch the service on the TV in the comfort of his rocking chair and attend the same service as the Queen. No contest. I wish I’d voiced my disappointment but for some reason didn’t. I didn’t want to put him under pressure, I suppose, and I felt he had more of a rightful say about Remembrance Day than I did.
Even now it amazes me why I just didn’t show a bit of spark and go myself. But there you go that’s me all over. And now, each year, it catches me out. It seems to have dropped off my radar. I solemnly and without fail obey the 2 minutes silence on the 11th but the parade passes me by. Always afterwards, too late, I think to myself: I should take the boys along... I really must make a point of doing it next year.
But the real reason I don’t go, I suspect, is because part of me will be looking out for my granddad. Not in the parade itself - for he was never there - but in the crowds of on-lookers and knowing, with a deep, deep regret, that he is not there, not now, nor will ever be. And his old war mates cannot call to him any longer nor he answer.
I hope it is not just me who remembers him.