The pattern varied: sometimes we’d go to an early morning Mass, so the Two Minutes Silence came during busy midmorning activities – but just to be sure we didn’t miss it, the television would be switched on a few minutes before the appropriate time, and we’d join in with the Queen everyone in Whitehall, silently, at home. In later years I accompanied my father to Guildford Cathedral where, wearing his medals, he joined the other men from his regiment. Later again, as a local Borough Councillor I walked in civic robes in procession behind the Mayor to a local church where the traditional service was held.
And now, just as always, I’ll be at a war memorial for Remembrance Sunday, wearing a poppy and observing the Two Minutes’ silence. This year, for the first time, there is no one in my immediate family circle who has actual memories of world war. When my mother died last year aged 96, she was the last tangible link with all of that: her father was wounded in WWI, her oldest brother was killed in WWII, her husband fought in WWII and lost his best friend.
In the 1960s, at a time of great social change, I remember grown-ups saying “What’s happening to Britain? What did we all fight a war for?” when things shocked or distressed them: rising divorce rates, the widespread appearance of pornography, legalised abortion, an emerging drugs problem. It became something of a cliché – but like all clichés it gave voice to something that came from a deep shared everyday sense of normality.
And now? Somehow in 2017 that discussion seems unreal: things have become so weird. I know from my parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, that they most certainly didn’t believe that Britain was fighting a war in order to ban people from using the words “mother and father” and “marriage” on official documents, or to ensure that 5-year-olds would be encouraged to celebrate lesbianism. They would never have felt for one moment that Britain fought a war so that children could be mutilated and given hormonal drugs so as to pretend to be members of the opposite sex, or that people denouncing such practices should be banned from public office.
Like so many Londoners of her generation, my mother had Blitz stories. She was at Mass at the big Redemptorist church in Clapham during one raid – the priest turned from the altar and urged everyone to hurry into an air-raid shelter, assuring them that they had fulfilled their Sunday obligation and must now seek safety. The story and its intriguing details – “The church lost its spire in that raid – it was lopped off by a cable from a barrage-balloon” – were part of tell-us-about-when-you-were-young rainy afternoons when I was small.
In her old age, my mother – often confused and forgetful about so many things – was still absolutely clear about her Christian faith and her family, enjoying daily Mass, talking about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And also about her patriotism. In 2010, in the weeks and days before Pope Benedict XVI came to Britain, there was massive campaigning against him. I remember walking down the road with Mother, praying the Rosary quietly together — something unusual for us, because that had never been part of our family style. She was adamant: “We’ve got to pray for our country. It’s all going dreadfully wrong. There’s not much we can do – but we’ve got to pray about it. This isn’t something that’s just about the Pope. It’s England.”
The muttering of an old lady, who a few years later would show signs of Alzheimer’s? Possibly. But it was also the deep conviction of someone brought up with a patriotism that owed nothing to nationalistic ranting or football-hooligan anger, but was rooted in a genuine concern for the heritage she had been given and felt should be passed on.
The Catholic understanding of patriotism is rooted in the Commandment to “Honour your father and your mother”: it’s connected with gratitude and mutual service. And just as the whole notion of parenthood is confused today – IVF, “same sex” unions with children bought from a surrogate mother, “blended families” etc. – so too is that love of country and sense of cherished patrimony that was once regarded as normal.
Interestingly, the November Act of Remembrance has acquired a new importance in recent years. In the first half of the 20th century, the Two Minutes Silence was observed at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 across the country: shops, offices, schools, railway stations all fell silent as a whistle or bell announced the time. Then, in the 1960s – the era in which I grew up - this shifted so that it was observed on the nearest Sunday instead. The 1990s saw a shift back to honouring the actual date and time of the 11th – and now this has become widespread, so that on entering a bank or supermarket on that day, you are quietly informed “We’ll be observing the Two Minutes silence” as the time draws near. Remembrance Sunday still has its services, and the Queen’s attendance at the London cenotaph is always, irrespective of other world events, the main news item on that day.
Of course I am aware that the red poppies represent all those who have died and suffered – are dying and suffering – in war. Our prayers are for peace. Funds raised from poppy sales go to help Britain’s disabled soldiers. But at a deeper level there is this question of Britain: what we are and what our heritage is. Perhaps the desire to do this very specific thing on Nov. 11 is giving voice to that. In any case, I will be praying for my poor old country on Remembrance Sunday.