Monday, 14 November 2011

Feeling 10 Feet Tall

Today was the march for Remembrance Sunday. The day when people wore poppies and the roads around Leamington Spa town centre were shut down for a couple of hours while Bobbies in hi-viz jackets lined the streets to keep a patriotic public in check as cubs, scouts, sea cadets, army cadets, the British Legion, the Salvation Army, the fire brigade and various ex and serving soldiers marched from Murphy’s Bar on Regent Street to the cenotaph near the town hall.

I had been told by my mate Kev Murphy (owner of the march’s starting point) that civilians could walk either alongside or with the uniformed and regimented marchers to pay their respects to the fallen soldiers who “gave up their todays so we could have a tomorrow”. Kick off was 10.40am with everyone meeting for either a beer or free tea and coffee beforehand in the pub.

Not wishing to piss anyone off or unwittingly cause offence I turned up at the boozer at 10am to find various old guys wearing medals and sipping a pint while exchanging stories. A scout master outside told me I categorically could NOT walk with the troops but a few minutes later I was chatting to a retired Staff Sergeant from the Royal Marines who assured me that ANYONE can march if they wish to and as an ex cop I was definitely welcome. He directed me to two old guys from the British Legion sitting at the bar to check things out. One of them replied “of course, you can join us” and as I loitered outside while a foghorn-voiced Sergeant Major got the army cadets in line and the fire brigade marched up in their white dress helmets, he tapped me on the shoulder and said “you coming with us?” before taking me to a spot right at the front of the ranks, just behind the flag bearers and a rather scared looking drummer boy who appeared to be about 15.

“Here?” I enquired nervously and he nodded and replied:

“Sure, we’re at the front”.

After a few minutes of fidgeting we were barked at by the Sergeant Major who bellowed “BY THE LEFT….!!!” and off we went, with me silently thanking my personal gods that I’d remembered how to march (right arm with left leg)  from the one week’s training I’d had for my passing out parade in the fuzz.

I twice clipped the heels of the drummer boy and was conscious of the fact that I was, while relatively smart, wearing an orange scarf and jeans plus prescription sunglasses but before I could ponder too much we were suddenly on the main street with hundreds of people staring at us, snapping photos and one or two clapping or shedding tears as we marched down to the cenotaph. I managed to keep time most of the way, with the odd downward glance to the well polished heels of the drummer boy.

The Sergeant Major shouted "EYES RIGHT!!!" and we turned to see the Lord Mayor and Mayoress in their robes and chains outside the town hall, where the statue of Queen Victoria (moved one inch forward on its plinth in 1942 due to German bombing in the Blitz) gazes regally over everyone.

Then we “TEN SHUNNED!!!” and came to a shuddering halt at the war memorial. A priest read a very moving piece on self sacrifice via the account of Saint Maximillian. A priest beatified by the last Pope for offering his life in exchange for another man’s in a World War 2 concentration camp. I stood there, moving to “shun”, “ease” and “prayer” with relative grace and was still intensely moved and not fully comprehending what I had been given simply by being in the right place at the right time.

We finished the service and marched back, taking a circuitous route via Euston Place (row of posh estate agents behind the war memorial) and then back up to Murphys Bar.

When we were dismissed I shook Rob and Stan’s hands and thanked them profusely for letting me march not only with them, but at the vanguard of the parade. Rob just shrugged, smiled and said “you’re welcome”.

Through all my acrimony and bitterness that being a cop had caused me. Through all my disillusionment and rage over the state of both law enforcement and British society. From all of THAT I happened to be in the right place at the right time to be given an honour and a privilege that many other people would have dearly wanted but was given to me NOT because I served in the police for just over 3 years BUT simply because I expressed a desire to give my support to a breed of people who show self sacrifice and nobility and would have laid down their lives for others.

This is a day I will not forget for a long time. To be handed such a privilege without any sense of ceremony beyond that already in place for the occasion itself is something that I now, as I sit at home, find hard to believe happened.

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