Remembrance

Islington’s Remembrance service is always special but this year’s was particularly well done. We were blessed with fine weather – after an alarmingly rainy start to the day – and the new war memorial on Islington Green was a perfect setting for around 1,000 people to join in the service.

The Green was redesigned last year. It had been a messy layout of different levels of muddy grass, badly-maintained paths and entrances in awkward places. Now it has been redone and miraculously seems bigger, with a wider central path, larger, smoother lawns, new benches and the old heavy shrubbery and odd walls removed.

The centrepiece is the war memorial. For years it was a small obelisk put up as a ‘temporary’ memorial in the years after World War 1. It was well-loved but shabby – at bit like Islington Green itself. Now we have a new memorial designed by John Maine RA; it is a spectacular giant wreath, with the plaques from the previous memorial set into its base. I love it. It is a fine piece of public art for all of Islington, all year round; and at Remembrance it is a dignified centrepiece for a ceremony which is not just about the victims of wars past, but also of the wars being fought today.

Last year the bands and parade, the councillors and public, were getting used to the new layout and it was a bit awkward. But this year it worked perfectly. Richard & I stood with former Mayor Mary Powell and her son John. Mary was Islington’s first Liberal Democrat Mayor and never misses Remembrance. Mary now uses a mobility scooter; before the redesign of the Green she would have risked getting stuck in the mud or been banished to the edge of the service. With the new memorial, we were able to get close behind the flags and really be part of it.
My only doubt is about the planting behind the memorial. The planting needs to be light but dignified – and to look good in November. At the moment it is some rather reedy grasses that look a bit thin. But talking to others at the service, there was general enthusiasm for the new memorial – including from some who were sceptical before.

The new memorial isn’t the first change to Remembrance in recent years. Margot Dunn, when Liberal Democrat Mayor, negotiated Islington’s first multi-faith Remembrance. Now the range of prayers offered, as my colleague Meral Ece notes, more truly reflects our community. Like the new memorial, what was once controversial is now part of our tradition.

Mary told us how during WWII she was living in a flat (since demolished) next to what is now the Slug & Lettuce, overlooking the Green – and spending time in an air raid shelter underneath it. Islington and Finsbury were literally shaped by the war – Highbury Corner, the layout of the Angel, half our parks, were the result of bombing. All Londoners have their own stories to tell. Both my grandfathers survived the trenches of WWI only to live through the blitz in WWII. Mum’s home suffered bomb damage; luckily she was also in the shelter at the time. Dad’s dad turned up to work in City Road as usual to find that the shop had been destroyed overnight (Wesley’s Chapel next door survived). My grandmothers lost a generation of friends in WWI, and went on to raise their families in a world of rationing and evacuation, gas masks and air raids. War was a universal experience, and coming together to remember was a shared experience too.

For a few years, it seemed as if Remembrance was dying out with the generations who had lived through WWI. I used to be a Remembrance sceptic. I thought it was all about glorifying war instead of condemning it, but I was wrong. We are right to condemn the evil of war – particularly unnecessary wars like Iraq; but also right to remember the victims and casualties of war.

Another friend at the service was David Tibbs and we went for tea together afterwards. David’s a lovely man, two thirds zany, one third immense common sense, no pomposity or spin. He was telling us about the Mundane Appreciation Society whose mission apparently is to promote the awareness of everyday life. Which is appropriate; appreciating our everyday life, and not taking it for granted, is also part of our thanks to those who defend our freedoms in war and in peace.

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