Royal British Legion rum ‘celebration’ demeans Armistice Day – Jayne Dowle

I’VE bought my poppy for Armistice Day today, but I have to say I’ll be drawing the line at handing over £39.99 for a bottle of ‘Pull the Pin’, an official Royal British Legion rum.

This questionable addition to today’s proceedings is being promoted by some as “the perfect way to start your boozy Poppy Day celebrations with a bang”.

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Celebrations? What are we celebrating here? The death of 457 British soldiers in conflicts in Afghanistan? The 450,900 lost sons, brothers and fathers in the Second World War? The 59 who died in Bosnia? Those serving now, in dangerous corners of the world, who never take another day on earth for granted?

Images from previous Remembrance Sunday services in Barnsley.

I actually thought this was some kind of questionable social media joke, but checked on the RBL’s official website and there it is, promising “sweet tones of fig and cherry” and the “comforting warmth of cinnamon, cardamon, clove and allspice”.

I don’t know about you, but Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday are two of the precious few occasions left on the calendar where dignity and respect should be allowed to take precedence. I’m not sure how this squares with getting drunk on a bottle of rum shaped like a hand grenade.

I was reminded immediately of a woman around my age in the audience who asked a question of Dan Jarvis, the Barnsley Central MP who served as a Major in the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan. We were at a local event in Barnsley Library talking about his book Long Way Home, a first-hand account of his combat experiences.

Images from previous Remembrance Sunday services in Barnsley.

This lady spoke directly from the heart when she asked: “What advice can you give me Mr Jarvis? My grandson is in the Army and has been sent to Afghanistan. Are there ways to make the constant worry about his safety go away?”

Her question struck to my heart as a mother. This is surely what remembrance should be about? Pride, but also human compassion.

Perhaps I’m being over-sensitive. Or old-fashioned. Or possibly both. I’ve never been a solider, but I do understand that camaraderie is a pretty crucial element of services life.

However, the last time I attended a Remembrance Sunday service at our local church in 2019 (lockdown prohibited this last year), the abiding atmosphere was anything but jovial.

Images from previous Remembrance Sunday services in Barnsley.

One or two of the elderly chaps, medals proudly arrayed on their chests, may have sipped decorously from their hip flasks as they made their way towards the memorial in the churchyard, but this was hardly party-time.

Rather, we sang Bread of Heaven and bowed our heads in prayer. I stood quietly with my husband and son, always slightly uncomfortable at this occasion because very few members of my immediate family served in any major conflict, because they were most in reserved occupations underground.

Jack, aged 17 at the time, was moved to tears. It was his first Remembrance Day service, but it won’t be his last. It made a huge impression on him, not least because three of his school classmates had joined the Armed Forces.

We spoke afterwards about the sacrifices still made by so many young men (and women) and discussed Afghanistan and Iraq. My husband told him about the Bosnian wars, in which he lost a dear school friend who died of his injuries in the field of combat.

This year, after almost two years of living through a pandemic, the act of communal ‘remembrance’ comes with added piquancy. We have witnessed the kind of self-sacrifice we associate with serving Queen and country through the unstinting efforts of the late Captain Sir Tom Moore, the Keighley-born centenarian who raised millions for NHS charities.

His work made us all consider our own understanding of public service and what it meant to be “all in this together”. Whilst it became commonplace to say that the pandemic has been the biggest thing to happen to Britain since the end of the Second World War, two years of privation does not compare to six long years of suffering.

It’s invidious, really. I wonder, however, if Covid-19 has marked a shift in our attitudes towards commemoration. Until we experienced a pandemic which stopped the world, the biggest historic marker for many of us was the Second World War, even if we were far too young to remember it. Now I hear my children talking about ‘before the pandemic’ and ‘after the pandemic’ and consider that we have a new marker now.

Where then, does that leave our communal attitude towards what was for many, the only occasion out of 365 days of the year when we stood in silence and remembered our dead and fallen?

At 11am today we will start to see how attitudes have shifted in the way that people respond to the call. I just hope, for the sake of dignity and respect, it doesn’t involve getting drunk on Royal British Legion rum.

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