How the young mark Remembrance and who our heroes are today - Jayne Dowle

On Remembrance Sunday morning I stood outside our parish church and thought about heroes. Where are our heroes today, I wondered, as I looked around at the faithful parishioners, the councillors laying wreaths, the old soldiers in their medals and two lads in Scouting uniforms?

A Remembrance service in Mirfield. Picture: Jim Fitton.

I’m always solemn at this occasion, understandably. This year, I was even more introspective than usual. We’ve been through such a lot. Some familiar faces were missing, sadly and permanently.

There was no Remembrance Day service in 2020, because the country was in lockdown. The year before, we took Jack, my teenage son, who was moved to tears.

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This year, it was just me and my husband, as Jack was playing football, where the two-minute silence was observed. I asked him how it went. Football, he said, has been so influenced in recent years by the communal practice of taking the knee. He was surprised that Remembrance was remembered, but glad that it was. And of course, the pandemic has changed our perspective on so many things, without us even realising it. Until the world (and our freedoms) closed down for months and until we lost at least 143,000 souls and counting to the virus in the UK, the biggest marker of history for so many of us was the Second World War.

Even if we had no personal memory, it was there in the experience of our parents and grandparents. My own parents were born in 1943. My dad’s earliest memory is of bonfires being lit to celebrate the end of hostilities in 1945.

I was born only 22 years later and clearly remember the bomb sites still in Sheffield city centre, huge holes in the ground where buildings had collapsed. One crater was caused by a double decker bus blown off the road, my dad told me. I recall being awed by that.

Faced by lockdowns and major restrictions to our personal freedoms, we were encouraged by the Prime Minister to dig deep and reconnect with our inner Blitz spirit. I always thought this was an insult, to be fair, to suggest that being asked to stay at home to save lives was somehow equitable with losing your home to a flying bomb, or being sent overseas far from your home to fight for your country. Surely no-one who has ever visited those rows and rows of simple white graves in the war cemeteries of Normandy would ever make such an insensitive presumption.

Now my children talk of life ‘before the pandemic’ and I know that these pivotal years – especially as their father died with Covid in March – are being seared into their consciousness as surely as the lived experience of service, loss and chaos was seared into our generation by the ones who brought us up.

Amongst the young, however, comes a new understanding of being alive.

I was fascinated to learn that it was quite the thing this year for lads in their teens, 20s and 30s here in Barnsley to attend the big Remembrance Day service in front of the town hall and then get together for an afternoon’s drinking session. Definitely no virtue signalling here, but signalling of a different kind. A defiant need to connect, to share, to celebrate even. Any excuse, you might say. I have to admit I was a bit shocked at first too. I’ve always known that former servicemen (and women) may have repaired to a hostelry for an hour or so after paying their respects and remembering fallen comrades, but this was something quite different.

A new generation forming a new ritual, based half on old and inherited patterns, but with a deeper purpose. To welcome being alive, no doubt, but also to try and find some kind of meaning as to what it means to be a man, to search for the hero inside themselves perhaps?

And just how does a man prove himself these days? How can he measure up to his grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s generation? It’s a difficult one to even talk about. These feelings of confusion and anxiety surely contribute to the concern that surrounds male mental health; one in eight men in England is thought to suffer from a serious mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, panic disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), according to the Mental Health Foundation.

We all know that heroes are never found in the bottom of pint pots. When I nipped into town on an errand in the afternoon I swerved to dodge a gang of suited and booted lads weaving across the road, definitely worse for wear, but poppies still proudly intact.

Then when I got home, I picked up on the story coming out of Liverpool, that there had been an explosion in a taxi. It seemed – the facts were still hazy at this point – that the taxi driver, 45-year-old father of two David Perry, had shown incredible courage and reportedly taken action to avert a bomber from potentially wreaking havoc on either a Liverpool Cathedral service or a hospital full of women and children.

Heroes are still with us, and on Remembrance Day an ordinary man proved he was one.