We planned this year’s Remembrance for a while to make sure that the 100th anniversary of the armistice wasn’t missed. We worked with filmmakers internally and externally and people shared family stories. We made poppies and even had a special lunch menu – heavy on the pie and root vegetables, with a rather toothsome fruit cake. And we goggled at each other in properly inquisitive manner. One colleague who joined us from the army had beret and medals and a girl rushed up to me. ‘I’ve just seen Sir, he’s wearing all his badges.’ A chum put her right. ‘Not badges, medals. He didn’t get them for being brave at the dentist’.
Yet the lasting memory for me took place out of sight of the crowds, out of earshot of the bugle. We gathered guests from mosque, church, gurdwara and synagogue in my room to welcome them before 11, sharing perspectives on Remembrance and seeing Muslim and Jew embrace, heartfelt, like brothers.
So much time in school is spent trying to teach young people that love, friendship, kindness, cooperation, tolerance and peace is better than hate, suspicion, cruelty, threats, violence and war. The adult world sets a terrible example to adolescents who are quite capable of making entirely idiotic choices in social affairs. The great liberation educator Paulo Freire described this very aptly as them being ‘caught up in the drama of their own existence’. Teenagers prefer to fan flames of outrage, rather than damp them. They enjoy gossip and rumour and they’re very poor at seeing the longer game. They’re prone to hyperbole, and they lack the experience to know that some things just don’t matter.
Some of these irritating characteristics are also strengths. Deep interest in other people, a strong sense of justice, faithfulness to friends and living in the moment are characteristics worth having. In their turn they’re better than indifference, isolation and living in the past. At its best, Remembrance focuses on the good, on the resilience of the human spirit.
But the personal wars our young people inhabit are terrifying when they go wrong. When intense self-regard or sensitivity to pressure turns inward to self-harm, when justice seems to demand violence, when sociability becomes persecution. Adults should live to protect young people, from those who’d do them harm and from themselves while the turbulence of adolescence rages.
This is why I’m so annoyed almost everything in social policy at the moment – if that term isn’t itself an echo from better days. When Universal Credit doesn’t work, its children who go hungry. When schools can’t afford support staff its children whose needs are unheard. When there aren’t any teachers its children whose hopes and dreams are scuppered. When there aren’t enough police its children, manipulated by adults fuelled by delusions of status, who kill one another.
The great Macneice poem I’ve quoted before (Prayer before Birth) has a verse that reads:
I am not yet born, forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.
Our children need us, society, the state, to look after them because they are children and can’t look after themselves. They need us to protect them and help them to grow. Just because we’re not sending them in their hundreds of thousands to die on the green fields of France doesn’t mean that we’re not sacrificing them. We need a safer, kinder world for them, now.