I’m finally watching the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ and what an education it is! Not only in the structures behind our most British of establishments, the Monarchy, but also in the innate internationalism that lies within it. With shameful ignorance, I keep pressing ‘pause’ to ask: so whose surname is Windsor – it seems to have been pulled out of a hat? And who were the Mountbattens? Within the claustrophobically rigid regulations of the Royal Family, normality gets turned on its head, almost made up as you go along: traditional gender divisions, nationality, even the very concept of British-ness. Ironically the Queen inadvertently championed the then radical feminist issue of not only being allowed, but obliged, to keep her maiden name (Windsor) rather than adopting her husband’s family name (Mountbatten).
It’s Remembrance time. Red paper and enamel poppies are blooming on lapels all over the nation as people remember those who fought in conflict, and the huge sacrifices they made. Last night, the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall opened with a stunning rendition of “I vow to thee my country”. First, just three slow and quiet brass instruments; then violins joined in; then drums, voices, and finally the whole orchestra played, while flag- and oversized headwear-bearing members of the forces, marched into the hall in step with the music. We were only four minutes into the hundred-minute programme and the lump in my throat was already swollen and wobbling out of control. Gosh we do this so well.
It is Remembrance season and once again I find myself feeling slightly uncomfortable, a bit pedantic, no doubt irritating and at worst offensively unpatriotic. And yet Remembrance is one of my favourite themes and both my grandfathers fought in the World Wars. So why can’t I jump whole-heartedly into the seas of poppies and poppy wearers, dignitaries and wreaths, that stream through our streets to lap up against memorials and into churches each November? Of course I want to ‘remember’ and acknowledge all the soldiers who died or were wounded serving their country, but discordant questions waft like dried leaves or ghosts through the architecture of British Remembrance rituals. So once again I ask myself and all of us collectively: what exactly are we remembering, and to what end? Remembrance is by nature vital, solemn, beautiful, meaningful… in many ways we do it so well. But beneath the tradition, ceremony and ritual conveyed through a distinctly military visual language, the message has also, in today’s world, become slightly flawed, inadequate and at times hypocritical.
It’s 11am on 11.11.14 and that makes it time to write down my thoughts and reflections on what has been going on recently in terms of Remembrance.
Watching the Albert Hall Festival of Remembrance on Saturday night, I was struck once again by how well we British do pomp, symbolism and ceremony. It was truly powerful and with its combination of stirring music, potent narrative, and visual spectacle it has become an art form. Developed and refined over decades, it is designed to move you. And these days, I am quite sure, to make you cry.
Which is why I came away once again feeling slightly irritated by it. Irritated by the format that we are used to seeing in the films of Spielberg and other directors of sentimental, patriotic films, designed to manipulate your heart strings and tear ducts Nothing necessarily wrong with that, except that we seem to be living in a era where showing emotions, and watching other people showing their emotions in order to make us show our emotions, is not only de rigueur but essential to good viewing.
…for your refreshing article on 30.01.14 in the Guardian:
Germany, I apologise for this sickening avalanche of first world war worship. The festival of self-congratulation will be the British at their worst, and there are still years to endure. A tragedy for both our nations.
I too would like to apologise to the Germans for the largely immature, thoughtless, self-centred approach we seem to be taking towards this 4-year centenary. What on earth do we think we are doing? To what end are we striving with all this emphasis on ourselves as a nation of heroes, victims, winners? Our obsession with our victory a century ago is being seen with bemusement on the continent. Read some of Germany’s responses to Michael Gove’s renewed attempts to push the whole blame for the start of WWI on the Germans. Every parent knows that finger-pointing is childish. And yet the Minister of Education (of children no less) is still doing it 100 years after the event??! It’s not as if we are an otherwise innocent and peaceful nation that is regularly and reluctantly dragged into wars. Our leaders are gung-ho and ready to go. Look at Blair and Cameron chafing at the bit to get back into battle at the first opportunity.