Remembrance Day Parade, at the Cenotaph review
You have to be a bit brave to attend the Remembrance Day Parade because a week before the date comes round the papers will start churning out scary stories about terrorists wanting to blow up the Queen. This year it's all about ISIS (they are the bad boys at the moment). Before them it was Al Qaeda, and before them it was the IRA. Before them it was probably someone else. Nothing bad ever happens of course, because with a whole army of coppers and soldiers in attendance it's probably the safest place in England. That doesn't stop you worrying about it though. But if the Queen can brave it, then so can I. These soldiers didn't worry when they went off to war for five years, did they? So it's a bit pathetic of me worrying about standing still in Whitehall for a few hours.
This parade has some of the tightest security that I have ever encountered in London. What they do is barricade both ends of Whitehall with metal fences and a phalanx of police officers, and you have to queue up and be searched by beeping x-ray machines. They even make you empty out the contents of your pockets into a see-through plastic bag (like they do when you board a plane), so it can take quite a while. They don't let the public into the street until 8 AM and the queues start forming long before that. I was there before Big Ben even woke up and I didn't get into Whitehall until 8:15 AM. That's where I am right now... standing in sight of the Cenotaph waiting for the ceremony to start. It's Sunday morning. It's a bit chilly. And I'm leaning on a barrier fifty feet from a wall of coppers.
I have never seen so many coppers in my life. I think they've must have the entire Metropolitan police force out this morning. There are hundreds of them everywhere, maybe as many as a thousand -- and that's just in Whitehall alone! Half of them are brandishing automatic weapons and the rest have been issued with an extra pairs of eyes to watch the crowd.
For the first hour up to 9 AM you are basically just standing there watching the pigeons and the coppers, and the street cleaners sweeping up all the leaves. There is a helicopter doing constant circles in the sky and police marksmen on the roof with guns and binoculars.
Nothing much happens until 10.15 AM, but take my advice: if you want the very best spots then you need to get there when it opens (8 AM). The best viewing locations will be snapped up by 8:30, and the whole place will be jam-packed by 9:30.
I am standing on the corner by the Red Lion pub and we are squeezed in shoulder to shoulder all the way down the pavement. The crowd is mostly adult with sober suits and shirts, with a prominent poppy on the lapel (don't forget to buy a poppy for chrissakes, because you will definitely feel under-dressed). Now that I've been here a while I think I've probably picked a crap place to stand, because all of the big wigs stand on the north side of the Cenotaph (on the Downing Street side), and I am on the south side of it (the King Charles Street side). But it's swings and roundabouts... because if you stand on the north side then you will have three rows of soldiers stationed right in front of the barricade between you and the Queen, and those guys are ten feet tall before they even put their hats on. If you stand on the south side then you will have no soldiers at all, so you'll get a great view of the veterans' parade as it passes down Whitehall to Parliament Square. In hindsight I think I would rather stand as close to the Cenotaph as possible.
While I'm standing here waiting for something to happen I'm going to take a minute to explain the entire parade route from start to finish. Unlike all of the other big parades in London this one is basically just the soldiers on their own, and you don't really see the Queen at all. She doesn't parade down from Buckingham Palace in her coach, or anything like that. All she does is pop out of a building in Whitehall for the wreath laying ceremony, and then disappears back inside again. Before that happens the military bands will come down Birdcage Walk from Wellington Barracks and form up on the south side of the Cenotaph. The veterans form up on the north side, and also in the Horse Guards parade ground, because there are far too many of them to all fit down Whitehall at once. Once the wreath laying ceremony is over and the Queen has disappeared back inside, the veterans will parade past the Cenotaph and head round Great George Street to the back of the Treasury, and then loop back up to Horse Guards again. So it's basically just a very small circle — and you need to be down Whitehall to see anything worthwhile.
I'm still waiting for the parade to start -- there's not long to go now. I've been listening to the crowd's conversation while I'm waiting and I think I'm surrounded by two hundred army wives and patriots. They certainly don't mind a bit of war. If I blurted out that I was a pacifist in the middle of this lot then I would be named and shamed and kicked out into the street. I seem to be the only person here who doesn't have a Silver Star or campaign ribbon on my coat. (I should have brought my cub scout badges along because I had a whole armful of them.) My view on war is this: I'm perfectly happy for people to fight each other, as long as I'm not the one doing the actual fighting. Because without war we would have no war movies. We would have no Great Escape, no Dirty Dozen, no Rambo, and no Commando comics. We would have no Churchill and no Nelson and no Marlborough either — so what the hell. Let's go for it. A little bit of war never hurt anyone.
At 9 AM the TV camera tower starts broadcasting some classical arias and religious hymns across our heads, which helps to pass the time. Soon after that the Boy Scouts come along and hand out white papers to the crowd containing prayers and hymns and the Order of Service.
The anticipation begins to build at 10.15 AM because that's when the military bands start marching round from Parliament Square. It's all foot soldiers and musicians in this parade, so they are armed with trumpets and tubas instead of guns. I have a perfect view of the back of the band, but unfortunately they have totally blocked my view around the sides of the Cenotaph — which means that I won't be able to see the wreath laying ceremony.
At 10.45 AM the politicians and military bigwigs start their slow walk up from Horse Guards and take their places level with Downing Street. The Queen just pops out of a building nearby and doesn't really walk anywhere (the one with the red carpet and blue felt hanging off the balcony), so unless you have picked a spot level with the Cenotaph then you are highly unlikely to see her. [Note: they erect some big TV screens further up Whitehall for the people with a lousy view.]
Everyone was expecting the two minutes silence to begin at 11 AM but they surprised us with an extra one at 10.59. The silence just seemed to descend on us out of the blue, and we had sixty seconds of silence before the first cannon fired. Everyone suddenly becomes motionless and you daren't even look at your watch. It is such an eerie feeling... like time itself has stopped. Everyone's eyes become locked in their sockets. Bones are frozen into position. You even slow down your breaths. And it was at that exact moment that I remembered I hadn't put my phone on mute, and with everyone locked in a stone pose I couldn't pull it out to switch it off (I was at the front of the barricade!). I don't mind telling you that the next two minutes were some of the most terrifying moments of my life. I was convinced that my phone was going to blast out its bell and the TV cameras would swing around and focus on this shame-faced idiot in the crowd. I would definitely have made the evening news. I would have been mortified, but luckily nothing happened. The only sound we heard was a flag flapping against its metal pole. Whilst everyone else was praying for their war dead I was praying that my phone would keep asleep.
When the second cannon fires everyone can start breathing again. Then a soldier blows the Last Post and the wreath laying ceremony begins.
I couldn't see any of this bit, but after that came the prayers and readings from the priest, and some sorrowful hymns sung by the crowd. Then everyone perks up for the National Anthem, because you always sing it sweet when the Queen is there to hear it. If you don't choke up and shed a tear at this bit, standing shoulder to shoulder with the cops and soldiers and veterans, shivering in the chilly wind in Whitehall, then you need to get your head and heart examined because there's something wrong with them.
At 11.30 AM a few of the military bands will start to march off, followed by the veterans. This is when the actual parade begins. The Queen and politicians don't bother with this bit -- they all disappear into the warm buildings down Whitehall. But the veterans who have formed up in the northern half of Whitehall will start their slow shuffle past the Cenotaph, and then go round the back of the Treasury towards Horse Guards again. This line will constantly be replenished from the thousands more waiting in Horse Guards parade ground.
If you take my advice then you will bring an extra pair of hands with you for this bit, because you are morally obliged to clap every single soldier as they file past. It goes on for a whole hour... and I am not exaggerating. You will have to clap for an entire sixty minutes as battalions of wheelchairs pass you by. Instead of tanks and horses these guys have mobility scooters and zimmer frames. Instead of guns and swords they have umbrellas and walking sticks. They will be sporting chests full of medals and tears in their eyes and look as proud as punch. For two hours they become the pride of the nation, then it's straight back to the old people's home.
The Ghurkas and the Chelsea Pensioners are the undoubted superstars of the parade. Everybody knows what their uniforms look like so we all break out into a round of cheers and whooping until they disappear out of sight. I enjoyed watching all of the old sergeants as well, still barking out orders at the age of eighty to their platoon of old age pensioners, admonishing them to keep better step with their plastic hips and arthritic joints. (Once a soldier always a soldier!) Those guys would probably march off to war right now if the Queen came out and asked them.
The whole thing comes to an end around 12.30 PM when the last military band walks off to huge cheers.
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