At some point in the future, historians are going to look back at the various ways in which the centenary of World War I is being commemorated in the UK at the moment, and I suspect many of them are going to scratch their heads. For one thing, there’s the fact that so much of it began long before the actual anniversaries, as previously noted in this blog; but on top of that, there’s the sheer scale and diversity of the commemorative events. I haven’t seen the poppies at the Tower of London yet, although I hope to remedy that before long, but I strongly suspect that some community, somewhere, will be hosting my proverbial hog roast and bouncy castle some time in the next four years – and in between, there are already events of all shapes and sizes.
I’ve attended two during the last couple of weeks, and they both proved to be excellent, albeit in very different ways. In Bedford, we went to an event organised jointly by the Friends of the Philharmonia Orchestra (Bedford is one of its provincial bases) and of the Higgins, the local museum and art gallery, which recently underwent a huge refurbishment. The latter has an excellent new exhibition about the Highland Division’s time in Bedford in 1914-15, illustrated by some fine photographs and the words of some of the troops who passed through. It must have been an extraordinary time in the town’s history – there were even Highland Games in a local park! – and it’s well served by thoughtfully curated displays. (Incidentally, the Higgins is well worth a visit in its own right, as it holds an art collection of national importance – including some naval Turners!) The second part of the evening consisted of a concert in the Bunyan Meeting, the chapel serving the congregation to which John Bunyan himself ministered during the seventeenth century. Three outstanding soloists from the Philharmonia Orchestra played an interesting selection of music, although it has to be said that the programme’s connection to World War One was pretty much non-existent with the exception of the encore, The Lark Ascending.
Then, on Saturday night, I was part of the audience in a packed Llanelli parish church for a much grander event, ‘The Town Remembers’. In some respects, this proved to be very much like the entire history of the town: very long, often unbearably poignant, sometimes unintentionally funny, occasionally downright odd, and sometimes simply extraordinary. If you don’t believe me about the latter, consider the fact that we had a choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Nothing extraordinary about that, you might be thinking; except that the great majority of the choir were seven years old, and Handel’s mighty masterwork is difficult enough for adult choruses. (It also proved a difficult experience for the very proud but troublingly young parents of one of the choir members, who were sitting in the row in front of me. They shuffled uncomfortably and exchanged blank glances as the older audience members rose to their feet during the rendition, followed uncertainly by those who were evidently rather less familiar with obscure Hanoverian concert etiquette: ‘Why are we standing?’ muttered trendily-dressed young father. ‘Dunno’, whispered even more trendily-dressed young mother.) In fact, the combined forces of the Hywel Girls Choir and Boy Singers, the former in particular being a very long established local institution, proved to be the undoubted stars of the evening. Their appearance in 1914 costumes – suffragettes, nurses, chimney sweeps, and so forth – belting out everything from ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ to a deeply moving ‘Abide With Me’, was one of the highlights of the evening.
Another of those highlights occurred at the very beginning of the evening, when the procession of serving personnel, veterans and standards culminated in the entry of two Chelsea pensioners, aged 91 and 92, one a veteran of D-Day, the other of North Africa. (Do the Chelsea Pensioners operate on a shift system, with bragging rights in the Royal Hospital bar for whichever nonagenarians get the best gigs? ‘So where are you off to, then, Albert and George?’ ‘Huh, some place in Wales. What about you, Edgar and Cecil?’ ‘We’re the support act for U2 at Wembley Stadium.’ ‘Damn, jagerbombs on us, then.’) Inevitably, the programme included several of the hoary old favourites of the war, such as ‘It’s A Long Way to Tipperary’, ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’, and ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’, the latter being probably the greatest hit of Ivor Novello, arguably the least likely Royal Naval Air Service pilot of the war – and who earns a mention as such in Britannia’s Dragon. The odd, but rather moving, thing about this was that each of these numbers got pretty much the entire audience humming or singing along, and even swaying from side to side in the pews. Both this, and the familiarity of many of the spoken words – In Flanders Fields, and so on – proves that even for much younger generations, the cultural references of the First World War are still all pervasive. Will that still be the case when, perhaps, one of those seven year olds in the choir grows up to become one of the historians analysing the commemorations staged between 2014 and 2018? I wonder.
Last week’s reblog of one of my very early posts got a pretty positive response, so I’m going to do the same with some others every other week for a little while, starting next Monday, albeit adding updates and new commentary where necessary. And yes, I do have a pretty obvious ulterior motive in doing so, i.e. it gives me more time to concentrate on finishing ‘Quinton 6’!