There will never be another Armistice Centenary. On Sunday 11 November 2018 at 11am – exactly 100 years after the guns fell silent and the slaughter stopped – local people and visitors gathered for a brief commemoration at our Sunday market.
For more than 12 months I’ve been leading a Heritage Lottery-funded project to identify all of Herne Hill’s First World War fatalities. It has been hard work and pretty depressing. How could it fail to be?
I’d taken it upon myself to organise a two-minute silence – as far as anyone knew, it had never been done here before – and I had been worrying about it for days. Despite Pat Roberts and I pestering local shopkeepers to take and display our flyers, would anyone come? Would it pour with rain? Would the market traders and station staff stop serving customers and respect the silence? Would our teenage musician even show up? And what about the crucial timing? If we were holding a two-minute silence at precisely 11am, and if it were to be preceded by The Last Post, how long was it going to take Walter the Trumpeter to play it… and so, counting back, when should I start to address the growing crowd? Our Town Crier, James Castle, rang his bell. I began to say a few words at 10:56 into my borrowed megaphone… with one eye on the clock display on my iPhone. I am no orator, nor have any desire to be one, so I would not be tempted to overrun…
It must have been beginner’s luck because it went according to plan. In fact it was much better than that. It was genuinely emotional – perhaps because Walter (who played so well) is no older than so many of Herne Hill’s hundreds of First World War casualties.
“That was lovely…”
This community event was politically and religiously secular and relatively spontaneous. No speeches from mayors or MPs or generals or priests, “exhortations” or all-too-familiar – and almost compulsory, it seems – lines of poetry. It was a simple coming-together to show respect for the sacrifice of others, and it was essentially a democratic and unstaged occasion. I overheard a well-known local figure say to his wife, “that was lovely”. I could feel the emotion in the crowd. It was an authentic and moving experience. Some people, myself included, were close to tears.
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I was honoured to receive an invitation to the Armistice Centenary service in Westminster Abbey that same evening. We Brits really know how to put on a show: The Queen, The Prince of Wales, the PM, the Archbishop of Canterbury, with the glamorous young Royals also in attendance.
Maybe I was just a little tired and overwrought but, if truth be told, I was not greatly uplifted. The music and the staging were superb, but I’m not too sure about the readings: Beatrice Webb, and Winston Churchill of all people? It was, of course, designed by a distinguished committee and immaculately executed. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that earlier on the same day I’d had a deeper personal connection with the Centenary event.