Onward into the annual Remembrance row…

IT is my unfortunate habit most mornings to sit on this here ledge and run a sleep-blurred eye over the newspaper headlines.

Maybe one day I should wash those headlines right out of my head, but it is a structured start to the day. And, frankly, on occasions an annoying one. Some days the muttering grows so loud, there is a danger of falling off.

Today we see the return of a favourite story: the Remembrance row. These come along every year. As the clocks go back, by ancient tradition the news editors scour the country for evidence of alleged disrespect to our fallen heroes. Never mind that a far greater disrespect was sending them off to die in the first place.

First up for a pelting this year is the Reverend Steve Bailey, vicar of St Peter’s Church in Oadby, a small town that lies five miles south east of Leicester. These stories often feature small towns that lie five miles from somewhere or other. It’s as if newspapers trace the nation’s heartbeat to the small corners of Britain.

Leicester is a model of multiculturalism and that is why this vicar acted as he did. Rev Bailey has decided, you see, that the hymn Onwards Christian Soldiers should not be sung at the Remembrance service.

He feels it is inappropriate as people of other faiths might attend the service and the laying of wreaths at the local war memorial. A fair point, you might think. Unless you were a news editor seeking evidence of disrespect to those we sent to slaughter.

In a statement issued through the Diocese of Leicester, Rev Bailey points out that removing the hymn was agreed with the Royal British Legion. But members of the Legion club, a separate body, have set about grumbling, and their discontent has reached the newspapers.

In the Daily Telegraph, an unnamed member of the church says something perfectly sensible. “The hymn is completely inappropriate. It is about spiritual warfare and not earthly warfare and we wanted something that would reflect Oadby’s multicultural population and people of all faiths.”

Other hymns have been chosen instead, including All People That On Earth Do Dwell – a nicer hymn and finer sentiment.

Hymns are woven into the threadbare fabric of the national overcoat, and even a non-believer who rarely attends a service knows a hymn or two. Those tunes are part of who we are, whether we appreciate it or not.

You must admit that Onward Christian Soldiers is a dreary affair – and a dreary affair burdened with militaristic intent.

The hymn begins cheerily: “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war/With the cross of Jesus going on before. Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; Forward into battle see His banners go!”

I don’t intend to type any more. You can see where the vicar is coming from.

The hymn was written by the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould, a man interesting enough to have spawned his own appreciation society. Visit this and you will discover that he married a mill girl half his age, and dedicated his life to antiquarian pursuits alongside his role as a squire and parson of a small Devonshire village. Surprisingly, he was also regarded as one of the leading novelists of the time, an early archaeologist and a collector of folk songs.

All genuinely interesting, but he is mostly remembered for writing in 1865 a plodding hymn that it is best forgotten now. The music, incidentally, was by Arthur Sullivan, a prolific composer mostly remembered for the operas he wrote with WS Gilbert.

Two years ago, the concocted row concerned Jeremy Corbyn allegedly giving a nod rather than a full bow after laying a wreath. The Telegraph even called on an etiquette expert to calculate that the Labour leader had titled his head by only ten degrees – said to have been an insufficient display of respect.

More Remembrance nonsense will doubtless be along soon, while all those dead soldiers are still dead, taken in the middle of life so that certain newspapers can now get themselves in a righteous tizzy.

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