By chance I was in Aylesbury today, for the first time in 50 years since that day long ago when I went with a college friend to see his father, who gave us lunch in his garden. Aylesbury was built on an 4th century BC Iron Age hill fort and was an important market town from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. The Grammar School was founded in 1598. The town was of Puritan sentiments, and backed the Parliamentarians in the Civil War.
I searched for the town centre, of which some traces remained in the quiet streets by the church of St Mary, with fine houses, alms houses provided by a benefactor in the 18th century, pubs and the idiosyncratic architecture of independent minds. In the church the school kids gave a spirited rendition of “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and past Prebendal House (where the radical MP John Wilkes lived) I met a woman who appeared to be a local. I mention that fact because in the market square the crowd were roughly 20% not English (by 2011 10% of the population were Islamic), with many women with head scarves and some with fully veiled faces, many Middle Easteners and Africans, a few of the latter in wheelchairs being pushed by carers. The lady and I discussed the demolition of so many historical buildings (done in the 1960 to make way for new shops), the beauty of the remaining streets, and she gave me advice on the least-bad coffee shop.
Near the market square the poppy wearing legions waited and, remembering the date, I joined the crowd. Town Mayor with chains of office, British legions with regimental caps, flag bearers, respectful crowd. In the background by the market stalls stood a respectful, fully be-gowned and be-wigged judge who, being spotted, was invited to join the other dignitaries. Then the traditional ceremony, the flags lowered, “at the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”, two minutes silence, the local clock striking 11 (eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month) and then a mistimed single gun salute which startled all of us. “Got the timing wrong” muttered a knowledgeable lady afterwards, but she agreed with my suggestion that their intentions were better than their watches.
So, nothing. Just a little English country town. I admired the crowd remembering their history. I thought of a cousin who died in the Pathfinder squadron. I regretted much of the recent architecture. I also felt it was the Last Post for a passing age, and perhaps a dying people. I wondered whether the newcomers would understand the past, and respect it. It was not primarily their war, and none were at the ceremony. The cross on the war memorial, which had always seemed normal, now seemed questionable. There were no trumpeters, just a recording played on a sound system. A century has almost passed since the Great War, and there may be a case for letting these memories fade, but these are one of the habits of our tribe, and it seems churlish to ever forget that for this, our living tomorrow, they gave their today.