Last weekend I went to the Remembrance Sunday memorial events in the centre of York, marking the 100th anniversary of the Armistice at the end of World War I. As it was such a key anniversary, there were hundreds, probably thousands of people attending an event that is usually more subdued. I’ve blogged previously about some of my personal emotions about Remembrance Sunday, but I want to hear just briefly reflect on the physical experience of attending a large community ritual event – a little light autoethnography if you will.
My first observation was the capacity for sound to cause affect (in the psychological sense of the word i.e. provoking or causing an emotional response). Obviously, at an event such as this there was music- a military band marching at the head of the parade leading to the memorial gardens and the playing of the Last Post. However, it was the two-minute silence that really struck me as an incredibly potent element of the ceremony. I found the silence of a large crowd in the middle of a large city quite remarkable – indeed, a little unnatural. In particular, it was noticeable how the need for silence changes the physical dynamic of the crowd. The end of conversation means that the people stop interacting with each other – although one or two couples stood close to each other and some parents held children, on the whole there was a noticeable ‘atomisation’ of the crowd. The combination of lack of noise and lack of other forms of interaction resulted in a really peculiar tension between being in a group and being an individual. The marking of this odd liminal period was also signalled by noise, in this case the firing of a pair of field guns. Having done a little research the 2 minute silence had its origin in Cape Town South Africa in 1918 following a practice that had been used intermittently in churches in town since 1916. Even from the beginning it was marked by noise – the firing of the noon day gun and ending with the playing of the bugle.
The other observation was the underlying low level disorganisation. People were uncertain where to go, a lot of people couldn’t see well, the march got split into two sections by accident, people were jostling to get a good position and there were clearly moments of uncertainty even amongst the civic party. The periphery of the crowd was also threaded through with individuals who weren’t taking part, trying to work their way through the crowded pavement, cars stopped by the police and children crying. It was a healthy reminder that although when we think of ceremony and ritual in the abstract we tend to envisage a clearly shared script, informed participants and a impeccable organisation. In fact, even with a militarily organised, important high-profile event such as this, there were still ragged edges, awkward moments and confusion.