Why I’m a Remembrance dissenter

Lone soldier with rifle marching in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington DC

The following is an extract from The Secret Life of God

On the Sunday closest to the eleventh of November, I set off to see how the Newington Unitarians mark Remembrance Day. This year, the day has acquired an added poignancy, with record poppy sales attributed to a rise in support for the soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. A generation that has never known war finally has a conflict of its own, with real dead people to commemorate.

Fate, or rather my own incompetence, is against me. I miss the train by seconds, my hand smacking against the closing door. I know there is another Unitarian church just a bus ride away, although I don’t have the address. And so it is that, at a few minutes to eleven, I find myself careering around the concrete jungle that is Croydon, asking directions of the policemen posted at street cordons in readiness for the military parades. One officer helpfully walkie-talkies another to ask the location of the Unitarian Church, but he doesn’t know either. Cantering off in a likely direction, I enter the United Reformed Church just as the two minute silence is ending. The minister, seeing a woman in spiritual need, comes and put his hand on my arm, looking empathically into my eyes. But I am just physically lost, and in a hurry to get to a rival church.

Croydon Unitarian Church is a few hundred yards further on, a modern building crouching by the flyover. The service is well under way as I take a pew behind a sea of white heads. The interior has a utilitarian plainness and an abstract mural hangs in place of the east window; I feel momentary disappointment at the lack of the visibly numinous. But the proceedings have pace and interest: an American minister with a walrus moustache reads a poem by Mark Twain with aplomb, and introduces a silence with eloquence.

Yet as he moves to the pulpit to give the address, the Revd Art Lester seems gripped by hesitancy. It is a day on which it is easy to give offence, he begins slowly, a difficult day for ministers obliged to preach. Perhaps it has something to do with Britain in November, the loss of the last of the warmth which gives the time of year a bleakness like no other: he pauses, and mops his brow before finally getting to the point.

Remembrance Day is very different in the Spanish village where he and his wife once lived, he tells us. Every year, the whole village troops up to the hilltop cemetery for a service followed by a picnic among the dead. Graves become tabletops and commemoration gives way to fiesta because, for the locals, the dead are all around. ‘Here’s my father,’ a village woman had once said, and the minister had turned, hand outstretched, to find, instead of the bent old man he expected, a tombstone.

Unlike the Spaniards with their enviable connection with their dead, the Croydon minister continues, Britain’s remembrance of its war dead is dominated by a feeling of them ‘not being all right’. The country strikes him as being stuck in the first stages of grief – anger – and the triumphalist trappings of its annual commemoration suggest there are unresolved feelings. Their belligerence left out something that was important yet difficult to think: the fact that the conflicts had created deaths which were ‘early and probably senseless’. Maybe, he suggests, it would be better to ‘remember differently’ rather than continue to mark the day with brass bands and bugles. He pauses. He had often met with anger when expressing this unorthodox view, and had hesitated to give this sermon today, even though he knew he was among friends. Then he leaves the lectern and goes and sits down at the back of the dais with the air of a man who has got something difficult over with.

I gauge the silence that follows for signs of tension or discomfort, but find only calm. As the next hymn fills the air, I find to my surprise that I am suppressing a strong urge to cry. I master myself in time to notice the elderly lady in front dabbing her eyes with a white cotton hanky. ‘Is it the emotion?’ asks her neighbour sympathetically. The white head, doubtless full of its own war memories, nods wordlessly.

As the congregation gathers itself to leave, an elderly gentleman sporting an outsized poppy gets to his feet. The sermon leaves us with an important question to take away, he declares: how do you remember the dead without celebrating the war? He had been to a number of services in various churches that week but – he inscribes the air with a rhetorical flourish – he was certain you wouldn’t find anything like this anywhere else.

I should mention The War.

Or rather, the first and second world wars and how the deaths and enforced separations they brought worked subterranean influences which rippled down through the generations of my family, leaving their traces in absences and silences. It was a common enough story, shared by many British families.What made mine different was having a parent on each side of World War Two: a mother whose childhood was shaped by Blitztime London and evacuation to the country, and a Viennese father who had been conscripted at seventeen to fight for the Nazis and subsequently taken prisoner-of-war by the Americans.

Both histories came together in an odd postwar confluence in San Francisco in 1960. My mother was fleeing the gloom of 1950s’ Britain, with its greyness and rationing: with her best friend, she packed her trunk and sailed across the Atlantic. Other young Europeans were also escaping to the New World. At a party in San Francisco she met my father, who was building a new life in a society which, he said, had treated him better as an enemy than the one for whom he had fought.

Elements of life on the Home Front often entered my youth in fragments, like findings from an archaeological dig: vivid, yet lacking in context. There was the story of how a freshly docked sailor endowed my mother, then about eight, with the ultimate wartime rarity of an orange; references to the moving around and making-do of the time were always getting into admonitions about how you should be grateful for what you had, and look after your things. But while the facts of my father’s very different war were never hidden, he rarely talked about his experiences. Ebullient in company, at home he was a man of long silences from which it was difficult to recall him.

One day, in possibly my tenth year, as yet another battle played out on the TV screen, it dawned on me that being a soldier involved physical violence. ‘Dad,’ I asked, wide-eyed from my place on the sofa, ‘Did you ever kill a man?’ ‘Oh no,’ said my father, almost contemptuously, and relapsed back into silence. His wartime legacy manifested itself in other ways. There was his habit of bolting his food and then absent-mindedly helping himself to more when the rest of us had barely started eating, which he put down to his time in prison camp where, if you didn’t eat fast, you didn’t eat much. At village parties in the 1970s, the fact that some of the men had fought on the same battlefront entered the small talk. ‘Oh, were you at Monte Casino, too?’ a neighbour would ask cheerfully as he sipped his sherry. Decades later, when the village amateur dramatic society put on a production of ’Allo ’Allo! to mark D-day, my father, who could not act but was valued for his innate ability to play the funny foreigner, was General Von Schmelling. The play ended in satirical chaos, with a row of goose-stepping, uniformed Nazis – a part for every older man in the company – lining up on stage while the audience howled with laughter. The horrors of war had been tamed, rendered hilarious and made available in a village hall near you.

But within the family, the solution of not talking about the war prevailed. One day, a man from the Imperial War Museum in London came to record my father’s experiences for the oral history archive. Afterwards, hoping to get some real sense of his past, I listened to the tape alone. I was disappointed. The recording had the same tone of faux jocularity that coloured the rare occasions he did talk about his past, the anecdotes of his life as soldier and prisoner-of-war recounted as if they were part of some great escapade. This was my father the raconteur, the persona he used to entertain visitors and villagers. As a personal response to a youth blighted by war, it didn’t ring true, and I sensed that some sort of emotional burial had taken place.

It wasn’t the only war burial in the family’s emotional history. As long as I could remember, I had been familiar with the central story of my grandmother’s life: her love for Jack. She had waited patiently for him to finish a long-running dalliance with an older woman before he finally proposed. But four years after they married, Jack was dead, leaving her a widow at twenty-nine. It was the age before the welfare state, so she returned to junior school teaching, farming out her baby daughter as best she could. She taught until retirement. She thought then of the prophecy, made years before by a fairground fortune teller, that she would spend all her life surrounded by young children. My grandmother was puzzled. She was getting married, and married women didn’t work; that phase of her life was over. But the fortune teller couldn’t or wouldn’t explain, merely repeating: ‘All your life, I see you surrounded by small children.’

I was twenty-one before I learnt the truth about my grandfather’s death. One afternoon during the university holidays, my grandmother told me how, in her late twenties, she had needed medical treatment for gynaecological problems. But the NHS did not yet exist, doctors were costly and Jack didn’t have the money to pay the bill. He was discovered having ‘borrowed’ from the petty cash at work and given the sack. Facing financial ruin and social shame, he sent his employers an ultimatum via a messenger boy: ‘Reinstate me, or I will jump from Waterloo Bridge at two o’clock.’ It’s not known how the employers would have responded, but by the time the boy arrived at the office just after two, Jack had jumped. His parents refused to talk to his widow about the death, but my grandmother’s sanity was saved by some good friends who invited her to stay and encouraged her to talk. She talked for a week. My grandfather’s suicide was later put down to shell shock stemming from his time in the trenches of the First World War.

I can’t honestly claim that some shadow-knowledge of these events played a part, but as soon as I was old enough to think about it, I was uncomfortable with Remembrance Sunday. Every November brought a drawn-out moment at the memorial cross, torn between reverential silence and embarrassed fidgeting until the Last Post cut through the damp air, signalling the resumption of normality. Later, as a young adult living in London, there were parades in the streets. In my early twenties, I once tried wearing a white poppy, but it wasn’t my thing: it was too partisan, oppositionist and, anyway, I wasn’t a pacifist. So I gave up any kind of observance and the biggest challenge on Remembrance Sunday became working out why the Archers were on early and then reaching for the off-switch. Not this, this faux 1950s’ solemnity from Whitehall.

Now, decades later in Croydon, I leave a Remembrance Sunday service having heard something that makes emotional sense for the first time. Maybe I have finally found a name for that sense of emptiness that always beset me when standing in silent communion around a village cross. Maybe I was a Remembrance dissenter.

Outside the Unitarian Church, the parades are in full swing. I stand and watch them go by under a pale November sun. First come the brass band, weaving carefully between the cordons, then the various regiments and, finally, the youth corps of teenagers, their arms moving stiffly as they march.

© Alex Klaushofer, 2015