Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Human Dignity

Winter is drawing in: hard frost and freezing fog over the weekend, cold rain today. Sunday was Remembrance Sunday, always deeply moving; in my view, one of Britain's greatest gifts to the world, if only it would pay attention. Normally I watch the Cenotaph on Sunday morning, but since I've moved I'm near the war memorial in St Giles and so went to participate in person for the first time.

Mist hung over everything, muffling further the already half-muffled bells that were ringing out over the city, this world calling to the next, the echo floating back from the other side. The Remembrance ritual ran the entire gamut of human emotion from hilarity to tragedy, all mixed up together and overflowing.

The cadets in their fatigues didn't know their left foot from their right; they looked as if they'd been culled from every special needs class in the city, and good for whoever it is who thought of this way to make these kids feel competent and included and that they mattered. It was heartening to see them do their version of marching at the same time that it was funny and poignant.

But then some older men and women in dress uniform came by and they weren't much better at telling left from right, in spite of being shouted at in the traditional way: 'Left! Right! Left Right Left!' Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was two bands—Salvation Army and a military band—playing in contrary rhythms. Then came the veterans, no problem marching for these old hands, who strode along as if they'd never left the Services. They were wearing mostly civvies with bits of uniform—a beret here, a cap there—and their service medals. They bore in their upright confidence such a freight of emotion as the rest of us could only guess at.

The entire procession was led by the Bishop of Oxford and representatives of various faiths. There were large contingents from the City and the University as well, complete with enormous maces, red robes with their tatty bits of fur, wonderful academic hats and gowns and one indomitable tiny don in full regalia being wheeled: she must have been well over a hundred years old. All gathered around the memorial, while the rest of us stood about behind some flimsy barriers that were little more than a polite reminder to make room. Someone had thoughtfully provided service sheets. It was all very home grown instead of oppressively formal, very dignified but very human in the best sense.

Singing under these circumstances is always a trial because one can't allow oneself to think about the words without breaking down, and those who can sing have an obligation to encourage those who are shy. I did my part but there were one or two lines that disappeared into hoarseness and then silence.

Then the tragedy: a very tall, older, well-built man had a stroke or a heart attack, I'm not sure which. Two people quietly helped him to the wall a little way down from where I was standing where he slumped to the pavement while someone ran for the ambulance corps. British kindness and restraint kicked in; no one made a fuss to attract attention either to him or to themselves, but everyone was concerned as much that he was not embarrassed by what had happened to him (which had the potential of disrupting this solemn occasion) as that he was seen to; and everyone made sure he had enough space. He never lost consciousness and was quietly taken away in the interval between the service and the march-past.

St Giles parish waited to have their service until after the ceremony, but Mary Mags was already full of incense, with the choir singing the Sanctus when I slipped in, seeking a respite from the crowds and the military, and needing the ritual to help me settle. I'd already been to the Eucharist in one of the colleges and so stayed at the back . . . .and slipped out again as at the end of the service when flocks of clergy with noses in the air gathered near the door. I love smells and bells, but not what often goes with it.

Home to a hot cuppa and a quiet read in my aerie while the rain began to pound against the skylight in earnest, and I gave thanks once more for the deep values that have enabled this country to endure.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully expressed. I hope the older man is well.

2:44 pm, November 17, 2010  
Blogger Bo said...


3:21 pm, November 19, 2010  

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