A few weeks ago I was honoured to be a guest at the Remembrance Service at the National Memorial Arboretum. Over the last few years I have come to know the Memorial Arboretum well as a visitor attraction (see here and here). On this occasion I had the opportunity to see it afresh: as a place of ceremonial, at the heart of our nation’s remembrance.
This was a formal occasion. The Establishment was there: The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester representing the Royal Family, heads of the Armed Forces, several bishops, a government minister and numerous local dignitaries. The ceremony was accordingly formal, prescribed, embracing our traditions, using familiar words, music and symbols.
The tradition and familiarity linked us to other ceremonies large and small happening at the same time across the country – and to those that have happened on this day for decades. We were playing our part in preserving a heritage. We were keeping a national promise, that ‘we will remember them‘.
But that promise was made long ago, before many of us were born. Like the symbol of the poppy it was born in the ghastly trenches of the Great War of 1914-1918. Both have endured well.
The last British servicemen from the 1914-1918 war died last year. Veterans of the Second World War (1939-45) are becoming fewer. Will the poppy continue to have resonance for new generations. Does it speak for those who served in Iraq? Afghanistan? Northern Ireland?
The National Memorial Arboretum is a place that considers this question. It places our established symbols, carefully, in new contexts.
It is a place that recognises, and weighs with great care, the meeting points of institutionalised national remembrance with raw, personal bereavement and grief. The new Remembrance Centre, due to open on 11th November 2014, that I have played a part in planning, will make that more explicit.
The National Memorial Arboretum recognises that although the people we remember have a place in history, remembrance itself must be a living heritage, that is relevant to contemporary society. Given that British society now is profoundly different from 100 years ago, it considers how and where new symbols and ceremonies to mark remembrance might evolve.
Ours is no longer a solely Christian country. Like our Armed Forces, our communities represent all religions and none. We need new symbols and they are appearing. Not all poppies are on crosses, some are on crescents, others on Stars of David and some on simple stakes for those who are outside formal religious categories.
But maybe we need bolder steps too.
After the Service and snacks, we met a bunch of bikers representing the Ride to Wall charity. Theirs is an amazing story of commitment to keeping a legacy alive, of passing on a message. Five years ago, some ex-military motorcyclists were visiting the NMA, were impressed by it, but struck hard by the question ‘ how on earth can this mean anything to today’s kids?’. They felt remembrance had to be reinvented and decided to do it with bikes. Looking at them, I could see why no one argued, or told them that would be a daft idea.
So that year 200 motor bikes Rode to the Wall ( the wall of the Armed Forces Memorial that is – see above). The next year there were ten times as many. Last year 15,000 bikes rode to the wall, in seven organised cavalcades. They raise large sums of money for the NMA and they go into schools and talk to children about why remembrance matters. I believed them when they told me the kids get it.
People with passion and commitment will always find new methods, new media, new ceremonies to celebrate their heritage and pass the message on. And sometimes ‘just doing it’ is just what needs to be done.