November drizzles with cold. On such an Armistice Day, it is perfectly OK to cocoon yourself indoors, to stay away from the local war memorial. It is also perfectly OK to join a service of remembrance and pay your respects that way.
Personally, as shall be explained in a few paragraphs, I like to remember one of my grandfathers.
Too often the traditional minute’s silence to honour those who died in assorted wars is preceded by noisy squabbles. The usual suspect newspapers cook up silly poppy stories, conveying red-faced fury about white poppies, or idiot incandescence about an actor or BBC newsreader forgetting to wear a poppy.
There are almost as many examples as there were poppies in those fields.
This year’s efforts include the Daily Mail reporting that a 78-year-old poppy seller at Edinburgh station was “punched” by pro-Palestine protesters. A British Transport Police investigation later found no proof of such an attack having occurred. Perhaps the police should investigate other Daily Mail stories.
Most outrage was reserved for the pro-Palestine march that took place in London yesterday, on Armistice Day. Home Secretary Suella Braverman had wanted the march banned, something the Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley sensibly declined to do.
Having already described pro-Palestine marches as “hate marches”, Braverman then wrote an article for the Times saying the police were biased in favour of left-wing marchers. Her rancid rhetoric is thought to have helped stir up right-wing thugs who held a counter demonstration yesterday, clashing with police. Nine officers were injured and 136 people arrested.
Braverman may or may not survive in her role, but no-one should care about that today. Look the other way. That woman exists merely to cause self-serving rows. There is only one thing in her tawdry political life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about, to misquote Oscar Wilde.
All the finger-pointing and bellowing that too often accompanies remembrance has nothing to do with respecting those who died. Instead, it is the pursuit of what you might call weaponised nostalgia.
There are many ways to remember. Here are a few thoughts about Bill Cole, who has been mentioned here before. William Albert Cole died in 1974. I was 17 at the time, so have been remembering him for much longer than I knew him, which is odd.
Bill did not wish to fight or carry arms as that was against his Methodist religion. He was not a conscientious objector, but volunteered for the Royal Medical Corps.
He survived the Battle of the Somme, one of the heaviest battles of the First World War. The opening day of that battle on July 1, 1916, saw the British Army sustain 57,000 casualties, the bloodiest day in its history. Bill would have been in the thick of that carnage.
As John Keegan records in his book The First World War, many of the divisions were new to the war and were volunteers like my grandfather or were organised around ‘Pals’ or ‘Chums’ battalions. The Somme was the first time such untried soldiers saw war – and, tragically for many, the last.
The horrors Bill Cole witnessed are hard to imagine. Like many who survived, he did not talk about his war, or not until he was close to death.
His military reference refers to him as having been a stretcher bearer from June 1916 to May 1918, and that he later worked as a clerk, his “trade or calling before enlistment”. He was described as “a most reliable and absolutely trustworthy orderly of exemplary character”.
After he returned home, Bill lived a mostly quiet life of faith and family, dying when he was 82. His youngest son, my father Jeff, died recently aged 91, and that loss makes me think once again of his father. That is the way to remember, through the swaying old ropes that tether all families.
My dad was the youngest of three, the golden-haired boy of the family. A happy family photograph printed on the back of his funeral celebration showed the two parents and the three children, with my dad between his sisters.
All are now dead, which is hardly surprising, but still seems shocking when you look at those smiles.
It’s easy to be drawn by the noise, by the shouting and the poppy politicking. Often I have fallen into that trap, too. Better, sometimes, to walk on by and find a quiet place in which to remember.