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Tradition and Memory

On Sunday I went to attend the remembrance day service in Ely Cathedral. It was a wonderful reminder of my own school days and the continuation of traditions. The wonderful cathedral rises like an ocean liner above the bleak and rather wintry fens. It may be me, but I have never felt warm in the Fenlands.

The Cathedral was completely full, so I stood at the back with a few other late-comers. The banners of the British Legion, Sea Cadets, Scouts, Guides, Cubs and Brownies were marched in, with a military band playing cheerful airs- although the pealing of the church bells-as is proper- were muffled. The national anthem was played- though noticeably few seemed to know the second verse- and I have always liked the "May she protect our laws" bit. Although there were not enough orders of service to go around, I found myself remembering the hymns unbidden. I suppose they were so familiar- particularly the Crimmond setting of Psalm 23.

The two minutes silence- well, given the number of babies the two minutes mostly silence- was proceeded and ended by military trumpeters. Then a beautiful anthem and the sermon. All wonderfully unchanged and strangely comforting.

Yet as the Scouts, Brownies and so forth followed the march out from the Cathedral of three hundred soldiers from the local garrison, I was strangely troubled. I suppose Baden Powell would have entirely approved of the idea that Scouts were training boys in certain military skills, but it gave me pause. Given the way of the modern world we have lived mostly in peace. Despite the idea of a "war against terrorism" the reality is that even with MI5's questionable belief in over 30 conspiracies, very few of us are likely to face anything at all in our daily life comparable in any way to the two world wars. Though our soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the scale of these wars is rather less than a typical colonial war of the nineteenth century- the century that we conventionally think of as the Pax Britannica.

As I watched the parade with banners fluttering, I wondered if I was watching something real- rooted in the traditions of centuries, or whether we cling to the forms, but forget the real sacrifices that warfare insists upon. Is our fear of terrorism making us throw away the freedoms that make our society what it is? Are we decadent, or do we truly match up to the generations that understood the burdens and price of being a free country?

I have no answer, but pray that we are not to be tested.


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