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It was around Remembrance Sunday that I upset my first girlfriend’s father, well I should say upset him more than usual. He seemed, for some unknown reason, to take great exception whenever I appeared on his doorstep to ask if his daughter was at home. Anyway, this was in the late sixties and early seventies at the time it appeared that the poppy was in decline. We, the young, were anti the Vietnam War, anti conflict in general, apt to put flowers in soldier’s rifle barrels and even questioned the patriotism of the Last Night Of The Proms. As a young teenager, it seemed a good opportunity to impress the man with these new ideas and to try out a newly learned word “anachronism.“ Well, I had forgotten that he had served in the army in a few overseas posts and had not taken full account his antipathy to any boy who took an interest in either of his two daughters and I should say to this boy in particular. The lecture I was given was very long and for months afterwards I was not welcome even on his doormat and she and I had to meet elsewhere.
Forty years on things are very different. This past week we saw footballers campaigning to wear poppies at Wembley, the Prime Minister and the Duke of Cambridge speaking in support and the British Legion announcing that more poppies had been sold than ever before. One commentator described the poppy as having been rejuvenated. What has happened to bring this change about?
Looking back, it seems to me that the Falklands War was a turning point. In 1982 a “totally unexpected war with Argentina interrupted what was one of the longest periods of uninterrupted peace that Britain had known since the later Middle Ages.” At the time, it was reported that more than 83% of people supported the action including noted near pacifist Michael Foot, then leader of the Labour Party. We were once again aware of the importance and value of our army, navy and air force and since then, in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been renewed calls on their expertise, bravery and sacrifice.
But there is more. In a few hours’ time, I will join the Air Training Corps, Squadron 1066, as their chaplain, as we march (well they march, I simply try to keep up) through Hitchin town centre. They have an excellent band, so they shall lead the way into St Mary’s for the Annual Service of Remembrance. This squadron is full. If you want to be an Air Cadet, they start at 13 and continue until 18, there is a waiting list. Also, more than half the cadets are girls and with the woolly stockings and stiff blue long skirts, they have not joined for the fashion. Young people are looking for values, for a meaning to their lives and here they find it in their service. One of my duties as chaplain is to swear in new cadets. Here is the prayer I use that they repeat after me:
I hereby solemnly promise on my honour
I further promise to be a good citizen
So you see, they promise to serve, to be loyal, to be faithful to be a good citizen and to do their duty.
This resurgence in interest, affection and gratitude for our service men and women has not passed St Margaret’s by.
A few days ago, a young marine sat where Gill is sitting. He had been suddenly flown back from the front line in Hellmand because his father had unexpectedly died. He was there in his pristine uniform (with, by the way, his younger brother who is a cadet) mourning and paying his respects. Some of you will remember that on Easter Saturday a bride left the porch of this church under an archway of bayonets. She had just married a bomb disposal expert and the members of his unit paid tribute to them.
In a little while we will lay our wreath, I will read the names of those from Streatley who gave their lives for freedom in the two World Wars (including, may I say, the freedom to wear a poppy on the pitch at Wembley) and we will keep a minute’s silence. As we do this, without forgetting them in any way, let us remember those who have been killed and injured since and also those around us who daily run this risks in the service of God, Queen, country and flag.