Memorials are important. The physical commemoration of an achievement, a tragedy or someone’s life’s work triggers in observers not just memories but frequently a deeper engagement, a positive process of remembering and understanding.
I’m not talking here about our major national Remembrance every 11th November, nor yet 27th January, nowadays marked internationally as Holocaust Memorial Day. No. I’m thinking of such mementos as blue plaques on house walls or even tiles placed in floors – typically, the floors of places of worship.
The latter are much in evidence in churches of national importance. Entering Westminster Abbey by its West Door the other day, I paused by the black marble slab that declares in large capitals “REMEMBER WINSTON CHURCHILL”. I hope the Great Man would have appreciated not only its prominence, but also its plainness without flowery wording. Finding myself in Bladon, just north of Oxford, last weekend, I dropped into the churchyard, where Churchill’s actual grave is similarly understated (especially when partly obscured by snow as pictured above).
Let me drag this back to memorials of slightly less exalted folk. I recently visited my old Oxford College, for the first time in decades. In the chapel I spotted not one but two engraved slabs in the floor, modestly commemorating people I knew in the 1970s, then Dean and Principal. The latter, the Reverend Canon JND Kelly, Doctor of Divinity, was an eminent theologian: also legendary for liking a drink, he was alleged to have searched for years for a doctor who’d allow him a glass of claret with his breakfast.
A young undergraduate asked me: “Was Kelly there in your day?”
“Of course,” I replied. “He was Principal.”
“No,” she corrected me: “I mean the building.”
Yes, there’s a Kelly Building (actually completed in my time there). For me, it’s odd that Kelly is known to current students as a building, not a former Head of House. Still, it must be grand to have a building named after you: it hasn’t happened to me but, when I was a headmaster, I did attach the names of a few outstanding benefactors or servants of the school to new facilities.
I can’t stop bigger names crowding back into this piece. In Tynemouth stands a memorial that could scarcely be less understated, that of Cuthbert, Lord Collingwood, Nelson’s deputy but, in the view of loyal Geordies, architect of the triumph of Trafalgar. After all, Tynesiders assert, Nelson was shot early doors: “it was our boy who carried it through”. In my time running Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School (Collingwood’s alma mater) we celebrated his bicentenary (2010): a grand Civic Dinner with the First Sea Lord was followed by a parade, Cathedral service and, at that colossal memorial, an eighteen-gun salute from a frigate sailing down the Tyne. On every Trafalgar Day since, a tot of rum is drunk there to the Admiral’s memory.
In the same spirit I recently happened on a quieter commemoration underway in St Paul’s Cathedral. Old chaps in regimental ties, a few uniformed soldiers and two buglers were gathered around a marble memorial on the Cathedral’s south wall, dedicated to Sir John Moore of Corunna. Moore had a glittering military career, founded the first Rifle Brigade (its modern successor, The Rifles, still honours him) and famously died in the course of his notable rearguard victory over Napoleon’s Marshal Soult at Coruña in Spain in 1809.
My generation grew up knowing Charles Wolfe’s famous poem, The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna, with its echoes of sacrifice and a hint of Boys’ Own Annual heroism:
Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O’er the grave where our hero we buried.
The fact that some 30 people still turn out annually to honour one man’s memory made me think about memorials, mementos and memories. Remembrance with a capital R is an institutional, societal act. But all our individual, smaller acts of remembering, individual or collective, are to my mind equally important.
Memorials? I’m all for them.