Remembrance has come and gone, the poppies are being dismantled at the Tower of London, and the annual period of national reflection, which seems to be getting longer with each passing year, has given way to 2-for-1 Christmas offers on Oxford Street. Four million people went to see artist Paul Cummins’s extraordinary installation in the Tower’s moat. If the purpose of art is to illuminate, this succeeded surely beyond his wildest imaginings. It had a touch of greatness about it.
With a predictability you could set your watch by, the Guardian dripped disdainfully down on it and the four million. There was something almost retro about this crass, self-loathing interjection, as indeed there was about the protest held at the same time in another part of the city, by a group of 4,000 “activists” on Bonfire Night. Thrashing incoherently about, chanting from behind their juvenile Guy Fawkes masks demands for, like, revolution, they boasted a star turn in the presence of the kindergarten Che Guevara Russell Brand. Looking at both these public displays, it didn’t take much to recognise which one was really the inward-looking exercise in nostalgia.
This year I took part in a remembrance ceremony, laying a wreath at Eltham’s war memorial in south-east London. Hundreds turned out to watch the parade, the crowd including just as many young families as older folk with their own experiences and memories. Judging from the news, the case was the same all over the country. Far from gradually dying out with the wartime generations as might have been expected, the national significance of this annual commemoration resonates across age barriers. It seems to be about more than remembering the dead now; it is about acting together, as one nation, at a time when so many other national rituals are questioned or in decline. If, as Edmund Burke said, a society is made up of the dead, the living and the yet-to-be born, then occasions like this illustrate that, perhaps more than ever, many of us are determined to show that yes, this society called Britain does indeed exist.
The fate of one particular soldier would however have been in the minds of many that morning. Drummer Lee Rigby was cut down by Islamist radicals only a few hundred yards from where I live in Woolwich, next door to Eltham. There was something ironic in the fact that as we gathered to mourn the fallen of past wars, a soldier hacked to death only last year on a street a mile or two away might receive no public memorial to his sacrifice.
Ironic, and disgraceful. There have been a number of campaigns for such a memorial, not least a petition supported by the London radio station LBC. There is widespread public backing for it. And there are plenty of precedents in the capital. St James’s Square has a stone memorial to Yvonne Fletcher, the policewoman shot from inside the Libyan Embassy in 1984. And in Eltham itself there is a plaque set into the pavement where Stephen Lawrence was attacked and killed in 1993. This is all absolutely as it should be.
So why should Lee Rigby be any different? Wasn’t his death — carried out by barbaric extremists who singled him out purely for what he objectively was, a soldier — the very definition of a hate crime? The case is unanswerable, but somehow the local Labour council has managed to wriggle and writhe its way out of it. Citing mealy-mouthed concerns that a memorial might attract extremists such as the English Defence League, it initially refused. Then under pressure, it announced that a memorial would be built after all. But in an odd manoeuvre it has recently announced that the new memorial will be dedicated more widely to the fallen but without Lee Rigby’s name on it; instead this would be added to a scroll kept within the town hall.
This amounts therefore to little more than a gesture, a half-hearted, half-baked one, arrived at by a process dictated seemingly by fear, and one which flies in the face of the enormous popularity of our military. A poll by Demos a few years back showed that the armed forces were one of the top three reasons people cited for their pride in being British. That, I believe, comes not just from our recent experience of foreign-fought wars but from something closer to home: the realisation that, compared to the self-absorbed and entitled who populate our everyday public life, the young men and women of the forces are, as they were a hundred years ago, the very best of us.
And it remains their job to protect the worse of us, too. A recent poll which, given its findings, received remarkably little coverage, found that around one in seven young people had “warm feelings” towards the decapitators of IS. It also found that around a tenth of all my fellow Londoners felt the same. You almost hope that many of these are the indulged numbskulls of the Brand variety. Otherwise, taken at face value, such figures represent a truly terrifying picture.