Saturday, November 04, 2006
Giving Remembrance its proper place
At noon today St John's hosted the annual ceremony to bless the Garden of Remembrance in the churchyard. There were a hundred and fifty people in church for the brief service, with the rich sound of the prizewinning St Athan RAF Voluntary Band, playing for the second year running. The Mayor and the Lord Lieutenant were there, also the Presiding Officer of the Senedd, our Welsh Parliamentary Assembly. Some military representatives were present, but few local politicians. For the most part, participants were Royal British Legion, Veterans' organisations and their supporters - still plenty of them, in these times when British lives are again at risk and being squandered unpredicatably in far off conflicts.
The main Remembrance ceremony is on Sunday in eight days time at the national Cenotaph in Cathays Park behind the old City Hall. Everyone who's anyone in pubic life turns out for that. It's at a time when usually I am chasing from one church service and act of remembrance to another, so I'm not oging to be there. The national Cenotaph a dignified public memorial, resembling a Graeco-Roman temple, set in an exquisitely maintained small park. It's more usually a venue for students snogging or having impromptu liquid picnics. Once a year, serving soldiers and veterans take over for a day. There's another larger field of crosses here (sadly it's defended by a security company this year because of casual vandalism last year), close to the marble memorial.
Military and ex-military assemble there from early morning until eleven, for the traditional annual service and silence, followed by a proper parade with a salute taken, with bands and the goat mascot of the Royal Welsh Regiment, as it it now called. The goat is older than the regimental merger - does he have the kind of identity crisis the men have?
Our affair at St John's is a more homely and local (to Cardiff) event, well run by the Cardiff and Vale Branch of the RBL. It complements rather than competes with the national event, and maybe it owes some of its good support to the fact that in the evening following it, the RBL Festival of Remembrance takes place in St David's Hall, just down the street from the church.
Syd Nash, local RBL Branch secretary organises the St John's memorial garden. He also acts on Remembrance Sunday as Parade Marshal for the Veterans. He'll be there at the end of the line in a brown bowler hat, next week. This hat was bequeathed to him by the widow of the previous Parade Marshal, Major Bernard Schwarz, who led the veterans' parade, thus hatted, without fail for sixty years. He was one of Cardiff's great characters - the only Jewish officer to serve in Palestine with the Arab League in World War Two, a stylish businessman, president of the Synagogue, raconteur. I was so proud when the RBL asked St John's to host a memorial service for him. He belonged to us all. And, frankly I'd want to say the same of Syd too, who beavers away in the background without fuss, in a good humoured way, passionate about giving proper respect to all the fallen, whether they were killed yesterday, or nearly a century ago.
We started our celebration today in church with the dedication of a new, first-ever Standard for the War Widows Association. They celebrated the 60th anniversary of their foundation with us back at the end of the summer. Their Standard was brought forward to be prayed over, borne by a young woman who was a Sea Cadet. The mainly elderly membership of the Association were delighted at this. In the few years I've been a Legion Chaplain, I've learned St Benedict's advice about prayer is much taken to heart in military circles: "First let your prayer be brief and pure." Thoughtful conciseness is appreciated - something I have also learned from attending Mess dinners as a Chaplain. If I work hard to prepare something short, I get good feedback. It's as hard as doing 'Thought for the Day'. Silence in relation to the words is also as important to them as the words. It stands to reason actually. So often, Chaplains pray with warriors in the open air, or else in the proximity of noisy engines of war, so that it's difficult for anyone to hear a prolonged discourse. How many situations are there in which clergy learn to speak sparingly?
Unlike last year, when it was cold and rainy, today was unseasonably warm, blue skied. The streets were full with extra visitors for the Wales v Australia Rugby match. When we stepped out, as we could this year, to bless the garden in situ, passers by surrounded the churchyard railings to watch and listen - not only to the RAF Band, but also to Cardiff's Scottish pipers, who have now attended three years running for the open air part of the ceremony. Imagine the delight of the crowd when the two bands played 'Amazing Grace' together! Followed, after the ceremony's conclusion by 'Scotland the Brave', for which they received an ovation.
I had to explain to an Australian passer-by that it was a War Veterans' occasion, still relevant to all of us, and she seemed to understand what it meant. The planting of the individual memorial crosses in plots representing particular military campaigns is very moving, and so much easier to carry out when the ground is not soaked and slippery with rain. It speaks for itself.
This year, in the days beforehand, a major tidy-up of the churchyard was necessary to have any useful space for the bands, and the field of crosses. The pruning of shrubs and trees yielded an embarrassing huge heap of garden waste. Thanks to the immaculate diplomacy of Phil Thomas, St John's organist, and one of the cherishers of the church building, the City's waste management team did a special mission and removed not only the rubbish essential to clear the space we needed, but an assortment of accumulated bags and heaps of rubbish in other quarters of our domain, including the larger part of a whole tree! The sight of a smallish 'bin lorry' ('prehistoric garbage trucks' according to Mark Knopfler's 80's lyrics), chewing up the trees was an amazing sight that left me kicking myself that I'd left my camera at home. The city's waste management team did us proud that day - as they do around the city, just about every other day of the year as well.
It was a memorable day, a privilege to be part of something so valued in the city, part of its enterprise in building a community of citizens. And not only that, Wales held its head high and drew 29 all with the Wallabies.