Thursday. Camera Obscura. Memories of being too excited to sleep before Christmas day. I had this radio beside my bed. Same model my dad had. Lot’s of soft, grey, squishy buttons. A few well-tuned sliders. On Christmas eve, when 8 hours felt like forever, and clearly the fastest way to get there was to fall asleep, but the terrifying prospect of joy ahead wired my eyes wide open, I would pop in a cassette tape into that clock radio. On the tape, there were stories of some kind. Seems like they were Christmas stories. Rudolph. Frosty. Christmas villages here and there, touched by magic, by hope, by men that might melt, and reindeer that might fly.
On Colbert’s last show before his last show, Phil Klay talked about his national book award winning book. Redeployment. In his interview, he said that the war in Iraq, that all of our wars, are belong to us. He maybe didn’t say it that way. But that’s what he meant. Even if you don’t pay attention. Especially if you pay attention.
What I remember about waking up on Christmas morning is silence. That moment when you open your eyes and outside your window there’s a maple tree and grass covered in frost. Soon, you’ll be up. You’ll be checking on your parents to see how sound they’re sleeping. You’ll be checking on the manner and shape of boxes arranged on the christmas skirt. But, really, the first thing you’ll do. The very first thing you’ll do is stay in bed, after all of that excitement and wonder if you’ll ever sleep, and you’ll enjoy the moment you woke up.
On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, of the one-thousand nine hundred and eighteenth year, the first world war1 ended.
This would be why, in the U.S., Veterans day falls on the 11th of November. Armistice Day it used to be called, before it became Veteran’s Day, a day for veterans of all the wars, world and otherwise.
A great many of you probably know this. As do I. Sometimes. Other times I forget.
Something I did not know, and have never forgotten, is that in the UK there is a thing called Remembrance Sunday. This falls on the second Sunday of November, the Sunday nearest the 11th of November. On every such day, royalty, politicians, and soldiers gather at war memorials in cities, villages, and whatnots, to lay wreaths of poppies and blow the Last Post for the not-to-be forgotten dead. At 11 a.m., two minutes of silence are tolled by church bells, often muffled. And everyone is silent. At the memorials. Across the entire country. In homes. In shops. In restaurants.
This past Sunday, EG and I met friends for breakfast at Smith’s, a multi-floored restaurant/diner/night club/etc, which sits across the street from the old Smithfield Market where one could, at one time, bring one’s pig for to be slaughtered and sold and eventually eaten. During breakfast, I was quite taken with an old-style train schedule board. The kind with flipping numbers and letters. It was blank for most of breakfast. And then, it flipped. It read.
Our conversation changed.
“Is that today?”
I didn’t understand.
“Is it going to happen here,” I asked.
They said yes.
“Is it going to happen everywhere?”
They said yes.
They didn’t say yes. They said, “It’s going to be an experience.”
The TV flipped on to the ceremony taking place. The queen, old, burdened with layer upon layer of mourning black, standing, waiting, to do the thing with the wreath.
I said it felt like church.
“Exactly like church.”
Tradition. Ceremony. The stuff that, as a kid, could give me goosebumps and tears, and later, feelings of clausterphobia combined with goosebumps and tears, my ritual and pomp loving soul responding to the magnificent sorrow and awe, my angry, teenage soul, feeling angry at all these old people playing dress up like they believe in heaven and hell when, by their actions, it’s clear they keep using that word but maybe that word doesn’t mean what they think it means.
The bells rang. On TV. In the city around us. Servers gathered by the bar. Some people still ate. Chefs still cooked. No one said anything.
Teenage feelings overwhelmed me. Of being trapped in a culture and a ritual. I thought, if no one built monuments to war, would war stop? No. Probably not. But I was angry about it anyway. And sad. I wanted to shout into the silence, but I didn’t.
What if, instead of a war memorial with the names of soldiers who died, we had one with the names of all the civilians who died? Of all the refugees?
I thought angry thoughts. I thought. No.
No to politicians laying wreaths. No to kings and queens laying wreaths. No. No. No. No. No.
I thought it’s beautiful, but.
The silence ended. People spoke, but hushed. Servers moved. The queen and her husband placed their wreaths of poppies. Others came forward. And then, in the midst of the laying of wreaths, the restaurant’s speakers kicked on, perhaps to a song queued for this moment, something appropriate to the sombre mood of memory. Something to fit with tradition.
Into the hush, in the aftermath of bells, a synth beat bopped its way into the ridiculous and gorgeous opening electronic keyboard riff from a-ha’s Take On Me.
The entire song played over the rest of the ceremony.
I’ve never been so happy to hear 80s synthesizers.
Whoever queued that up in the restaurant should be applauded.
We don’t have things like this in the U.S.
Yes. We have holidays. We have the 4th of July. We have Christmas. We have Thanksgiving. We have, in fact, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But. Really. Is there any regularly scheduled ritual which so grips the nation of the United States that inside every restaurant, year upon year upon forever, at a particular time, all would go silent.
As someone said, this is why they love England. It wouldn’t happen in the U.S. You couldn’t be so serious and so absurd. Which is true. As a country, I’m not sure the U.S. knows how to take things seriously. Individually, perhaps. As a whole. Not so sure. We pledge allegiance. We sing the national anthem. But we have trouble in believing in anything for very long. There’s something to be said for believing absolutely, and also having a-ha queued.
Those are my rambles, today, readers.
Remembering things is confusing.
Question. Why is it only in the 20th century that we have had world wars? I mean, why do we call them world wars? Were there no wars before those wars in which a great many countries fought? Is it because newspapers and news were such that these were the first wars that everyone felt truly connected to?↩