How did my father feel when he wore his Royal British Legion beret and his medals and marched in the Remembrance Day parades? I wish I had asked him but it never occurred to me. As I child I recall being very excited at seeing him coming down the hill towards the Memorial, I certainly thought men in uniform were dashing.
When I remember these occasions it’s the clothes that jump out of the scenes: my father polishing shoes and medals; the stiff clothes brush making sure that no fluff remained on his navy blazer; the dark heavy coat that was only worn if it was an exceptional cold snap; the Legion beret. When I was a bit older I was allowed to take part in the parade with my Girls’ Brigade Troupe; our navy blue uniforms getting an extra outing that week, my black bar shoes polished alongside Daddy’s,my skirt pressed with extra starch so the pleats stayed crisp. We wore the full kit to march ahead of the ex-servicemen and we had a navy hat with insignia and a navy blazer. Oh how important that made me feel.
Dad would leave home earlier than Mum and I, off to meet his mates at the Legion, I’m sure he would use the cold weather as an excuse for a whisky before lunch even though his hip-flask was full in his coat pocket. He had a habit of patting all his pockets and his face relaxed when he felt the reassuring shape of that flask. I think it would have been quite easy to trace his self-medicating with alcohol back to his days in the Navy. He told me a story about having his lung drained and only having rum to deal with the pain. I have been reading some of his short stories again recently and the connection of traumatic events he experienced as a seventeen year old in the Artic with his drinking – to numb the fear and as a reward for keeping quite; his muddled emotions of pride and doubt – were as part of him as the Legion beret he loved to wear.
But of course as a little girl it was the ritual of ceremonial dress that was all I was interested in. I was fascinated by the different man he became when he put on his Memorial Day outfit; a man who had been in the war, a man who had shown me the bunk on HMS Belfast where he spent the whole of his trip home after almost dying of pneumonia; a man who stood up taller in his grey flannel slacks and blazer than he did in his work suit. A man whose medals meant the part he had played was worth something to someone.
I wore my Girls’ Brigade uniform with mixed feelings so understood that any uniform made you feel differently to normal clothes. If I close my eyes I can feel the itchiness of the skirt -there were smelly coconut mats in the Church Hall that left fibres in your skirt and tights – and something about the musty smell from damp hymn books seemed to stick to our sweaters. I loved that sweater all the same. I loved completing a task successfully and having a new section to add to the star on my sweater.
I have a confession to make forty odd years later; I really didn’t like going to Girls’ Brigade but I loved the outfit, so put up with the old miserable leaders and their odd mannerisms; I excepted the silly rules and the stench of righteousness; I made allowances for the teasing and the favouritism because I wanted to wear that uniform and get to be in a parade with my Daddy.
I can’t find any photos from those occasions. The few I can lay my hands on of my Dad in his Legion get up are from when he was already blind and my Mum wasn’t going to make the effort to polish his shoes. (I don’t blame her for this; she didn’t have many ways left to get her revenge.) I don’t know the last time he walked down the hill to the Memorial on Remembrance Sunday with his mates but I had long since left that town and if I did catch a parade it was on the other side of London.
I wish I had asked my father whether he had liked wearing his naval uniform: how did it feel? How did he feel? I should have asked him whether the only reason he signed up to the Royal Navy was because it had a more dashing uniform.
I wish I had asked him if wearing his medals was difficult; if the memories were all the more intense when he marched down that hill in his Beret. Whether the whisky anesthetised him enough? Enough to make it bearable. Or if the outfit compensated for all the losses.
I took part in other parades with my father; Ban the Bomb, anti-war marches, Labour against Thatcher. We didn’t have coordinating uniforms for those occasions, just a linked determination that injustice should be called out.
When I wear a Poppy in November I am not just marking my respect for the fallen I am allowing myself to dwell on the memories of life with a man who was shaped by war. I don’t wear a poppy to celebrate war, I wear one to remind myself that all wars are wrong and there is never any justification for them.
I am still intrigued by a man in a uniform and want to ask him how it feels.