Sunday, 16 October 2011




My first public appearance as a musical performer – wait, correction…that ought to read: My only public appearance as a musical performer…

Best to try to be accurate in these matters.

So, my first public appearance as a musical performer must have occurred in either 1933 or 1934. Whenever it was, I cannot ever forget the exhilaration of that day. May 24. Empire Day, the annual, round-the-world celebration of the British Empire, ‘the Empire on which the Sun never Sets’ as they described it at the time.

We must have been primed for days in our classrooms for that great upsurge of patriotic pride. I still have some vague memories of the preparations and though I cannot recall precisely what these were I guess the names of Alfred the Great and Clive of India, Wolfe, Francis Drake and other national heroes rang round every classroom in the land. But none of this side of things made much impact on me. My mother was later to tell me that I came home several days beforehand bursting with excitement. It seems that I thought it had something to do with the Empire Theatre in the town where she and my father had taken me six or so months earlier to see the pantomime, Cinderella. Perhaps I was expecting star-spangled chorus girls and Cinderella and her Wicked Stepmother and Prince Charming and the Ugly Sisters to turn up on the day.

What I really do remember are the flags we made with paper and wax crayons and scissors and glue though if we, as infants, were let near the scissors and glue I am unsure. On the day …and let me alter that to ‘The Day’ for it was of signal importance in all our lives at that time ... we carried our flags outside and our teachers busied themselves getting us into orderly lines, ready for the prayers, and then the march around ‘the yard’ which is what we called our playground. At this point some of us were given our instruments for what parade acknowledging  Britain’s might could ever proceed without the accompaniment of the stirring music of a brass band?

Not that we had a brass band in our school though one year I am pretty certain that the Boys’ Brigade turned up with their bugles and kettle drums to make things go with a swing. But the year I have in mind I was presented with a triangle. It seemed such a poor little piece of metal compared to the drum that some others were given. Some children were given a kazoo which they blew into and emitted a kind of monotone farting sound. I should have liked that because my triangle – made of the cheapest metal I have no doubt – could not compete with drums and kazoos.

Our teachers then led us off on our march which entailed our following the boys and girls in front and raising our knees as high as possible and then stamping our feet on the ground as hard as we were able . It was so thrilling, so military. I would have said so British but at that time I was unfamiliar with such concepts. All I know is that somehow I was part of something superior and mighty.

In the book, And Such Great names as These, 10 year-old Joshua and his classmates have to prepare for a parade in the town, a parade of soldiers marching off to the Front. The children have to make paper flags and I had my own experience in mind when I wrote that part of the story.

It was to be a grand parade, Mr Pybus had told them.  There would be bands and columns of old soldiers from the Boer War; the scouts and guides would be there and the Boys Brigade; there was going to be a large contingent of soldiers from the barracks, but best of all, it was to be 'B' Battalion on their last outing before being shipped off to France.

‘Next month this time, these lads'll be in the thick of the fighting,' Mr Pybus had said.  'For us.  For us and our families.'

They had spent the Friday afternoon cutting out squares of paper and colouring them red, white and blue.  Once Mr Pybus was satisfied that the lines were straight and the colouring even, he handed them eighteen‑inch sticks.  And glue.

'Let them dry nice,' he warned them once the flags were glued.  They were placed on the window ledge until the end of the afternoon and then, after the prayer, Mr Pybus allowed them to take them home.  'Give them a good send‑off tomorrow.  Wave your flags and give them a cheer.  They're fighting for us, for the right.  They're brave lads, all of them, so give them some encouragement.'

'It's for tomorrow,' Joshua told Rob when he got home.

He was proud of the flag not just because it was as Mr Pybus had said, a symbol of truth, honour and justice, but because he had made it; the glue was even and had not squeezed out onto the colour as it had with some of the other pupils' efforts.  Alfie Mason's flag had come apart as soon as he got into the street outside the school building and others did not look as if they would stand up to any vigorous waving the next day.  But Joshua was sure that his would.

It was a time when the people of these islands had no doubt of their sacred mission to bring enlightenment and justice to those benighted areas of the world which had not yet experienced such benefits. What confidence people had in King and Country: what belief in our rightness and superiority. And this at a time when we were in the middle of a most terrible economic depression.

Only a few years later, in 1940, when I was about 12, we British found ourselves alone in the struggle against Nazi Germany. The French had capitulated and Hitler’s soldiers were strutting through Paris and through several other European capitals. The British army had narrowly escaped from the beaches of Dunkirk though at the time the nation was persuaded to believe their overall defeat as a victory. These were dangerous times.

‘D’you think we’ll win?’ I asked my parents.

‘Oh yes,’ my father said. ‘In the end.’

And my mother explained, ‘We always start off badly but we always win eventually.’ As if history had a recognisable pattern, one already decided.

But only the blindest belief in their nation could have made them think such thoughts.

We did win.

In the end.


And Such Great Names as These by Allen Makepeace
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