Death worse than fete

IssueJuly - August 2005
Comment by Jeff Cloves

Do you remember Mr Major's now infamous vision of British (English, surely) life? Spinsters on bicycles pedalling to evensong, warm beer and cricket matches. Claptrap of course; but if he'd gone the whole sentimental hog he'd surely have included county shows, annual carnivals and village fetes. He might even have mentioned their recruiting displays by pyramids of army dispatch riders on motorbikes or even fly-pasts by the Red Arrows. All indicators of a "nation at ease with itself".

When I lived in St Albans, its annual carnival always featured such relics of Britain's imperial past and the local branch of the Peace Pledge Union felt obliged to counter this unquestioned propaganda. Well, unquestioned by the organisers that is. Despite opposition from the PPU and others, a military presence was accepted as, er, tradition and therefore harmless. To set out a pacifist stall was the only possible riposte.

There were four or five active members of the PPU in St Albans but I helped them staff their stall. I was by 20 years or more the youngest participant and much admired the indefatigability of these conscientious objectors to World War 2. However, I have to say they were treated courteously enough by military personnel who happened upon them and collectively they were, in general, regarded without rancour by passing trade.

Casting a shadow

All this has come to mind not just because of the current commemorations of the end of WW2 but also because of what happened recently at the Rodborough Fe^te here in Stroud. Rodborough is a parish on the edge of Stroud, and a committee drawn from parents with children at its two primary schools runs the fete.

Our boys (six and eight) attend one of the schools and this year, as usual, we went en famille, to enjoy its time-honoured sideshows, retro-rock band, folkdancing, craft-skills, and tug-ofwar contests. Altogether it's as pretty a picture of a nation at ease with itself as our erstwhile prime minister could have painted, and we and mum (91) always enjoy it. There was a shadow cast over it this year though.

At some time during the afternoon I became aware of three uniformed persons distributing leaflets to the assorted off-duty pedalling spinsters, parsons and cricketers there assembled. One man was in camouflaged battledress, another in peaked naval cap and another whom I first took to be a traffic warden was dressed like a WW2 "Wren" (Womens' Royal Navy Service as was).

I was busy helping and by the time I tried to collect one of the leaflets, the "soldier" was tug-of-warring and the other two had disappeared. So, at this stage, I didn't know whether they'd been invited to the fete or simply seized the opportunity for recruitment.

Obliged to counter

Whatever, I wrote to the organising committee and queried their presence. If they were in fact part of an armed forces recruitment drive, was their presence at a fete hosted by two primary schools desirable or appropriate and who, if anybody, invited them to take part? The committee replied that it had been given a list of local organisations by the parish council and instructed to invite them. So I sent a copy of my letter to the Chair of the parish council. I've not had an official reply yet but the Chair has e-mailed that the people I saw were "the local Sea Scouts apparently".

The trio looked rather old for Sea Scouts and since when was it considered appropriate for a Sea Scout to wear camouflaged battle dress to a school fete? It all seems very strange and at odds with the general direction the Scout Movement has taken in the last 20 years. I suspect they were from the local Sea Cadets which is a different matter altogether and one which certainly doesn't put me at ease. Like the St Albans COs, I feel obliged to counter.

Topics: Armed forces
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