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How a small town remembers

2010 November 13
by Paul Vallely

“OI! how long is this effin’ road gonna be closed for?” The voice cut like a circular saw through the quiet of the autumnal morning air. A phrase from Edmund Burke popped extravagantly into my mind — something about turbulent men, puffed up with personal pride and arrogance, with a selfish and profligate “disregard of a dignity which they partake with others”.

 It was Remembrance Sunday, and the roads had been closed around the town hall in my home town of Sale for the service at the local cenotaph — a high plinth on which stands the statue of a crusader, helmeted head bowed, his hands resting on his sword, and by his side a long shield bearing the cross of St George. A crowd of perhaps 600 had gathered, sizeable for this little town that is now no more than a suburb of Greater Manchester — a motley assembly, with kids in buggies and dogs on leads.

We bowed our heads as the Revd Thomas Shepherd, Vicar of St Paul’s near by, led the prayers — understated, measured, and yet with a quiet dignity that took no affront at the cars that roared irritably along the diversion route. We even bore with patience the bawling of the irritable driver who had climbed from his car and punctuated the two minutes’ silence with his uncouth protest about the temporary road closure. It was as if this was how we expected memorial to be received by the world in which we live.

 We stood in quiet reflection, as the traffic lights flickered an alien sequence that was eerily of no consequence in the altered priority of this moment — altered with a profundity that reached deep into the soul.

The teenagers of the Air Training Corps and their shambling peers in the local Scout troop stood, stock still, their flags lowered to touch the tarmac, till the Last Post sounded, clear in the morning air with just the odd fractured note. It was not perfect. But it was our own effort, like so much of the life of a small town.

Then came the wreaths, as some worthy intoned the names of the associations that laid them: the Sale Cruising Club, Sale Townswomen’s Guild, the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, the Excelsior Club, Sale and Aston History Society, Age Concern, Sale Festival Committee, Brooklands Holiday Club, Sale Ladies’ Circle, St John’s Ambulance, Sale Moor Community Association. And there was Edmund Burke, the philosopher of conservatism, again. It is the “little platoon we belong to in society” that is the germ of public affections — “the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind”.

 As the crowds melted away, they left behind more personal tributes, little crosses on to whose soft wood had been written shaky-handed ballpoint messages: “South Lancs regiment, 1st Battalion, D-Day to Bremen”; “J Ellis, Holland 1944”; “Grampy Sam”.

 As the crowd moved, its members became individuals. Yes, there were old soldiers in their berets and plumes. But there was a chap in his 30s, with five shining medals pinned to his nondescript fleece. There was another wearing a high-collared black suit more accustomed to nightclub outings, but now bearing a bar of eight awards for service and for gallantry.

The people did not regard one another. They looked to the chronology of the crosses at their feet. “Benny Dixon, RAF, aged 20, killed 1942”; “Pte Peter McDonald, November 1975, aged 19, forever young”; “Gunner Mel Byrne, 1997, forever friends”; “All soldiers in Iraq”.

The road opened. The busy drivers rushed by, the loud-mouthed complainant among them. But the people of Sale did not see. They bent down and pressed their poppies into a flowerbed of council primulas. Their tomorrow; our today.

from The Church Times

17 November, 2006

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