Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Two minutes of silence

On Friday, at 11am, the tutor in my Arabic class stopped us all for 2 minutes of silence. It is years and years since I was last in a place where this tradition was observed – so many years that I can’t actually remember. School perhaps?
It’s a practice which has become associated with the pomp and ceremony of the royal family laying wreaths at the Cenotaph, with generals and jingoism and the call to support ‘our boys’ in whatever they do, right or wrong, at the behest of our political masters. But being bounced into observing those two minutes gave me a rare chance to think about what they might mean, and indeed what they are perhaps supposed to mean. Because this is about Remembrance – remembering the dead. Starting with the millions who died bloody and miserable deaths in WWI. And as the saying goes (often attributed to Lenin but I think actually coming from Clydeside trade unionist and socialist John Maclean), “a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both ends”. It isn’t usually royals and generals who get killed in wars.
A little while ago I was reminded that, whilst the last few old men who remembered the trenches have now passed on, the resonances of this revolting period of history haven’t entirely stopped reverberating. Because I have a paypal account I found myself ordering a photo for my mother from The War Graves Photographic Project. It was of the grave of Percy Parkin Pease, a member of her family, who was supposed to come home on leave from the trenches. Instead, as his family waited for him, he became one of the tens of thousands who perished in the cold mud of the Somme.
Percy was, in the eyes of those royals and generals, a nobody, but four or five generations on my sister and I grew up knowing his name and a little piece of his story. So I chose to think about him, and by extension some of those other nobodies, in those two minutes. I think it’s something I’ll try and do on future 11/11s as well.
John Maclean, by the way, was jailed by an Edinburgh court for his opposition to WWI, and he died young, his health ruined by the hunger strikes he undertook in prison. Below is the late lamented Alistair Hulett singing Hamish Henderson’s ‘John Maclean March’, which commemorates his return to Glasgow after his jail term.

One comment on “Two minutes of silence

  1. dwighttowers
    November 13, 2011


    And this, from Joe Moran’s blog

    is fascinating…

    The ebbing and flowing of observation of the silence has always mirrored political anxieties. In 1919, with much of Europe in revolutionary turmoil, it seemed like a good idea to have a secular ritual that could unite the people without demanding too much of them. “Capital and Labour were as one for two minutes,” the Times wrote approvingly of what was then called the Great Silence, “and the eloquence of the agitator was stayed by an impelling force.” The government moved the silence to Remembrance Sunday after World War II because it felt that commemorating the exact time of the 1918 Armistice was disrespectful to the dead of the more recent war. The revival of the silence on Armistice Day dates from 1996, following a two-year-long, rather bullying crusade by the tabloids to get the BBC and high street stores to observe it. The crusade began as a backlash against John Major’s ill-advised plans to “celebrate” the anniversary of the D-Day landings with spam-fritter frying competitions.

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