By Catherine Perkins, First Year Classics (with Archaeology and Theology)
We all have stories. Walk across Elvet Bridge and, unless it’s a Saturday morning, it’s likely you will pass someone else, carefully negotiating the frozen patches of mushed leaves that turn a 1960s architectural innovation into Durham’s very own skating rink. Perhaps it’s another student, a local resident, a lecturer, a tourist, a parent, or recruiters campaigning with free waffles. You pass them, and you see them merely in that instant. You walk on; you forget. It’s easy to see just a different person on a journey to an unknown destination. But we, and they, are so much more than that. We all have stories that make up our identity, comprised of our background, ethnicity, faith, political standpoint, our relatives, our friends, our experiences, our dreams.
And part of our story is our past. On national and individual scales, we are inherently shaped by those who have gone before, and who make our lives possible, moment by moment. One hundred years ago this week, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month, began the armistice designed as one that would end the war to end all wars. On Sunday, we will stand and remember those who fought in that war, and those who fight and have fought in all wars to this day. For war did not end: we cannot walk by and forget. Those people had stories. We have stories. This is our common story.
For me, Remembrance Day is one of the most poignant days of every year. It is a day that can bring individual pain, as we remember those whose names are written on our own hearts, lost whilst giving all they had for our safety and protection. There is a heart-wrenching truth in why one of the most common epitaphs in the Commonwealth War Grave Commission Cemeteries draws on Christ-like ultimate sacrifice, taking the words from John 15: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (KJV).
Yet, it is also a day that is, by nature, unifying, drawing us together through our collective identity. We remember nation against nation, and within that, our common humanity, frailty and error. We share our pain, our grief, our suffering. We hope for peace. We ask for grace.
One of the most powerful symbols of such collectivity, in the years leading up to my arrival at Durham, was my school Chapel service for Remembrance, always held in the evening of Remembrance Sunday. All seven hundred pupils would line the Quadrangle, dark faceless shadows lined shoulder to shoulder, around the Memorial Cross at its centre. On that night, it was not only a physical centre and focal point, but the centre of thought, lit in the darkness, re-illuminating the names, the lives, of members of our common community, of our story, that were lost. We faced them for light, ourselves in darkness; our common story is our common strength.
Yet, despite such collectivity, the act of remembrance – and particularly the ways in which we remember – frequently becomes the subject of debate. It is interesting that this year our neighbours, St Chad’s College, have chosen to only make available white poppies in college, symbols of pacifism, a commitment to world peace, and a challenge to the glamorisation of war, mirroring the decision my friends took to lay a white wreath at the Menin Gate during our choir tour to the battlefields of the Ypres Salient in April last year. Historically, there has been resistance to such expression, and it is still noticeable today. Indeed, Conservative MP Jonny Mercer labelled white poppies as “attention-seeking rubbish” only a few weeks ago. It is still the red, blood-stained, poppy that is the symbol in the streets.
But we must realise that there are many ways we can express remembrance. Some will brave an early morning on Sunday 11th November, to stand at the foot of the Cathedral tower and listen to the lone piper pipe, Durham’s participation in a cross-country Cathedral act of remembrance, in which each of the Cathedrals in the UK will pipe the Last Post and Réveille at the same time, marking a collective remembrance of one hundred years since the end of the First World War. Some will choose to attend the festival of remembrance concert and poppy drop on Saturday 10th, some watching the similar national act of remembrance broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall. Some will join in remembrance services across the country, with participation from service organisations of all ages, sizes and origins. Some will wear white poppies, some red. Some will simply sit for two minutes of quiet.
We remember in different ways; remembrance can be individual pain. But those who remember differently are still our neighbours, and we remember, no matter how, together. Remembrance is collective. We all have stories that should not be forgotten, individual stars in the galaxy of our shared past. And so our common story is one of collectivity, unity and strength, even in the darkest of times. We look to remembrance to light our story to come by illumination of the names that will live for evermore.
We will remember them.