Ian McMillan: Time to look back with tears for the fallen

It’s the first note of The Last Post that always gets me. The way the sound cuts through the still November air, reverberating against time and history and memory, creates an almost unbearable feeling of loss and regret for people I never knew. I feel myself starting to fill up, find myself having to clench my jaw and think of daft things to stop me sobbing. The daft things can’t hold me, though; they aren’t enough. I think again of those people who strode into mud with innocent grins on their faces, and didn’t come home.

All over Yorkshire, often in the tiniest villages where the pub has shut and the school is now a holiday cottage called The Old Schoolhouse, there are war memorials. And the thing I like about these war memorials is that they are, like Yorkshire itself, not fancy. They are, in the end, often just lists of names. Sometimes the same names as several members of a family marched down the main street to the station with a band playing. Or they are white gravestones in country churchyards and city cemeteries with a single name that you pass as you take flowers to a family plot. They’re names carved in stone that weather as the years pass.

My grandad on my dad’s side fought in the First World War and I only have one memory of him. I was a very young boy and he was a very old man with a flat cap and a huge moustache and we were visiting him in Scotland; I stared at him, perhaps because I knew that he’d fought in the War to End All Wars and we’d done about that in history with Mrs Yelland at Low Valley Juniors and so this flat-capped chap with the twinkling eyes was history personified. It was like being in a room with Florence Nightingale or Lord Nelson. Here was a man who was, whether he wanted to be or not, part of the distant past. He was bound to say something profound, something that would expand a little Yorkshire boy’s understanding of the universe.

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His voice was thin and breathy; I expected something deeper, to be honest. ‘Don’t sit on that hot water bottle’ he said, indicating the blue one on the settee, ‘you’ll burst it.’ He rolled the r in ‘burst’ as was the way in the Scottish Borders. I examined the sentence for philosophical profundity and, to be honest, I came away empty-handed and disappointed.

When my grandad got to the end of the war, they gave him a souvenir that my parents kept in their china cabinet alongside the things that my dad brought back from the navy, and only when I got older did I realise how ridiculous it was. A mustard pot. A mustard pot with a regimental crest on.

After the armistice my grandad went back to his job as a joiner and in the late 1920s and early 1930’s he converted all the cinemas in his part of Lanarkshire to take the new talking films. I imagine him shaking his head as he watched a noisy war epic, saying to himself “It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like that at all” then going home to look at his mustard pot and recall his fallen mates.

Time to remember. Time for The Last Post to sound one more time.