A Question of Memory


A historical controversy touched my school last term, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It generated several column inches in the local paper. It also resulted in letters, including one from someone who claimed to hesitate – but not for very long, I imagine – to describe himself as ‘disgusted’.


The reason was our failure to observe a two-minute silence on 11 November. Although this was reported as though it were a deliberate slur on Tommy Atkins, this was untrue. The reason was simple: mine is a very large school on two sites. Eleven o’clock is right in the middle of break, with hundreds of people arriving at or setting off from both of them. It simply wasn’t practical to control this movement: perhaps we should have re-organised the day. At any rate, a parent complained and within hours we were local news.

I felt all this was a bit unfair. After all, since 1939 the official commemoration of the war dead has been the second Sunday in November: it’s only very recently that some people have taken to marking 11 November itself, as was done between the wars. But there didn’t seem much point in argument, which would only have made matters worse. It has made me wonder, though, what I really think about the commemoration of the fallen.

I shouldn’t like you to misunderstand me. My father was in the Navy during the war and nearly drowned in 1940 when his ship hit a mine in the North Sea. (http://members.lycos.co.uk/hmsprincessvictoria/) His elder brother was killed in a training accident. Another uncle never returned from a bombing raid over Germany in 1943. I know what this country owes to the men and women who risked, and all too frequently lost, their lives; just as they do today. I often think about them. It’s just that I don’t know that I want to be told by other people when to do so. And so I’m less sure than I was of what a school’s role ought to be.

Others have wondered too, and less tentatively. The young Evelyn Waugh – hardly a radical – wrote in his diary for 11 November 1919 of ‘the King’s amazing proposition of two minutes silence to commemorate last year. It was really a disgusting idea of artificial nonsense and sentimentality. If people lost sons and fathers they should think of them whenever the grass is green or Shaftesbury Avenue brightly lighted, not for two minutes on the anniversary of a disgraceful day of national hysteria’.


Like a good historian, I looked for other examples of how people have believed their war dead should be remembered. I found this in Plato’s Menexenus, where he has Socrates speaking for the dead: ‘If [our parents] will direct their minds to the care and nurture of our wives and children, they will soonest forget their misfortunes, and live in a better and nobler way, and be dearer to us.’ The dead were to be respected, but practical help extended to their dependants might be the best way to show it. Britain’s record in this regard has not always been beyond reproach: perhaps this is where we might better direct our thoughts. I’d be interested to know what other people think.