At the moment I’m reading Michael Mayne’s Lent book Pray, Love, Remember (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998). Mayne was Dean of Westminster Abbey from 1986 to 1996, and the book draws on his memories of life at the Abbey. This passage last night made me pause.

No doubt an annual service that looks to the past, like that to commemorate those who died in the Battle of Britain, while important for my and my parents’ generation, will only survive as long as there are some alive who fought in it or who remember it; we no longer observe the Battles of Agincourt or Waterloo.

To which my reaction is, really? I can’t imagine the First or Second World Wars ever not being commemorated. Even a hundred years from now, surely the services will still be held, the hymns sung, the wreaths laid. Why is it that we don’t commemorate Waterloo other than on the big anniversaries? Is it perhaps because 200 years ago we hadn’t perfected the art of commemorating things?

In three weeks all football matches in the English professional leagues will kick off seven minutes late, in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. We still commemorate Hillsborough nationally, but we’ve forgotten Burnden Park in 1946. What about Valley Parade in 1985? It was hardly less horrific than Hillsborough. The stadium caught fire and 56 people died. But each year when the anniversary comes round, is it marked outside Bradford? Perhaps Hillsborough is the one that gets commemorated because it’s the most recent major stadium disaster, and hopefully the last. Something to do with Liverpool? I think, unworthily. The foreword to Michael Mayne’s book is by Alan Bennett. From Bennett’s diary, 16 April 1989.

I find myself thinking, It would be Liverpool, that sentimental, self-dramatizing place, and am brought up short by seeing footage of a child brought out dead, women waiting blank-faced at Lime Street and a father meeting his two sons off the train, his relief turned to anger at the sight of their smiling faces, cuffing and hustling them away from the cameras.

You can’t commemorate everything. You’d forget to live in the moments in between. But it can help us to come to terms with some of the bad things that happen. That and other things. More Alan Bennett, this time Irwin in The History Boys.

We still don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died. A photograph on every mantelpiece. And all this mourning has veiled the truth. It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember. Because you should realise that so far as the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff is concerned, there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.


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