I found myself in new social territory yesterday. I attended the usual Remembrance Day service in North Berwick with my Rear Admiral councillor colleague. We hustled along to the war memorial to take the salute and found the dais that had been properly placed earlier in the day had disappeared. Someone either was a little late with Trick or Treat or was five months early with April Fools.
That it reappeared by next morning didn’t help us much because, standing at the kerb did not distinguish the saluting party from the crowd, despite the Rear Adm’s sword and resplendent uniform: the ex-CSM parade marshal missed the ‘eyes left’ and the parade went by in some confusion. The wreath-laying ceremony rather redeemed it—more wreaths from more organisations than I have ever seen being laid in splendid weather in front of a big turnout of locals. But that wasn’t my new social territory.
Most pleasing to me was a big turnout of active military. As part of my cooncil travels I had attended an “Operation Firm Base” meeting at Redford Barracks where Edinburgh territorial 105 Regiment, Royal Artillery is based. As part of their effort to be more part of the community, I had invited them to join North Berwick’s Remembrance Day, which they duly did.
As well as a section of gunners and NCOs in uniform, there was a fair bit of brass, including two Lt Colonels, a Major and two Captains. Given that veteran numbers in the parade have been wearing thinner each year (and no reflection at all on the firemen, lifeboatmen, etc who regularly march) this real military presence was a splendid boost on what is, after all, a day about their forebears.
The officers turned up at the Legion for the traditional hot bowl of soup and a little socialising. I think our Legion has never seen so many pips and crowns at one time. And so, while the usual groups hogged the booths, I was left standing with the officers, strategically positioned within a few feet of the bar. And, making conversation as you do, I was gradually struck by a strange feeling.
Of the five officers, two actually live in North Berwick. I had never seen them before. Although they were from several branches (signals and engineers, as well as artillery), there was a lingua franca that they shared to deal with this novel—and not entirely comfortable—social situation. But when the talk turned to local issues and politics, even those who lived in the town appeared poorly informed about civil matters, even how mundane stuff like bin emptying and grass cutting got done.
I mean no disrespect to any of them: they made an effort to attend our ceremony and even went the extra mile to come socialise at the Legion. But I could not quite place the feeling that overcame me until I remembered: it was the same feeling I had when the mayor of Kertiminde or English language students from Spree-Neisse visited—that of entertaining perfectly nice people visiting from a foreign country.
It wasn’t just in conversation about the council; it was about Scotland, its culture, its local quirks and, most of all, its rapidly developing sense of self that seemed to leave them rather baffled. These perfectly civil, well educated, articulate men could have been in Raffles bar in Singapore just before things got rum with Johnny Jap or on the up-country mess verandah far from Nairobi in between swatting at Mau Mau incursions. One of them spoke of being glad his ‘tour’ here in Scotland was soon done and, nice though it was here, he could go ‘home’.
Maybe it was just an over-active imagination but, civil, polite and friendly as they all were, I could not shake a feeling of standing there as a colonial native, tentatively mixing with smartly turned out officers from the garrison of occupation.