Diary

Andrew O’Hagan

At the moment the television channel that speaks most directly to young people is ITV2. As I sit at my desk writing this diary, the channel is showing an episode of the American problems-show Sally Jessy Raphael about reckless teenagers. Jenny is 14 and is telling the audience to shut the fuck up. ‘Do you think you are someone who does the right thing in this world?’ asks Sally Jessy, the flame-haired talk-show host who spent her teenage years in Scarsdale.

‘You know what: I don’t care,’ says the girl.

‘Why?’

‘Because I don’t.’

When the show finishes, a double episode of Judge Judy will begin. This is another American programme in which argumentative people seek to broadcast their disputes in front of a wise lady or a baying audience. I’m a Celebrity … Get Me out of Here! will be on later, followed by a documentary about Peter Andre, a previous contestant on I’m a Celebrity who recently split up with the nation’s most frightening glamour girl, Jordan. ITV2 has been running a lot of ads for an album called Coming Home by The Soldiers. The singers are Sergeant Major Gary Chilton, Lance Corporal Ryan Idzi and Sergeant Richie Maddocks, three servicemen who have fought in Afghanistan and in Iraq. One of them, Lance Corporal Idzi, was a contestant on The X Factor two years ago but he is enjoying much greater success with The Soldiers. The group was initially picked up by the Sun, which allowed readers to download some of their songs. The Soldiers then recorded an album which was released by Warner Brothers. It is number 4 in this week’s UK album chart.

‘Coming Home’, the title song, was on the radio as I turned off the M4 towards Wootton Bassett. It had been raining all morning. That was over now, but the wind was freezing and people were huddled together in bus shelters. There’s nothing quite like the threat of violence that can sometimes reside in other people’s sentiment. ‘All those heroes who defend our flag will live on for ever,’ The Soldiers sang.

Coming home with heads held high
Coming home from lands afar
Coming home to your arms.

Wootton Bassett is mentioned in the Domesday Book, where it is said to be worth nine pounds. It is a small market town with just over 12,000 residents, and nothing in its history has done as much to make the town’s name as its role in the repatriation of dead soldiers from the war in Afghanistan. The town is just a few miles north-east of RAF Lyneham, and some 30 months ago it was noticed that hearses carrying the bodies of dead soldiers would pass along the High Street. People in the town began to gather spontaneously on those days to bow their heads. Others also came from further afield, and now, most days, thousands line the street as the hearses pass. Wootton Bassett sees itself as a bastion of traditional observance, a place of conscience and outrage, and, for some of the more serious and applied mourners, the town is the navel of the motherland. While the rest of the nation goes about its daily business, Wootton Bassett exercises its manifold rituals of demonstrating respect. It is covered in bunting and flags. I don’t think it has happened in Britain before, but this one town has become a stage-set for common grief about the war, a place where every day is Remembrance Day.

The notion of the ‘chat room’ arrived with the Internet, but there have always been places where everyone appears to be talking about the same subject at the same time. I grew up in a town like that, but Wootton Bassett is out on its own. Today, there are two subjects: first, Gordon Brown’s letter to the mother of a dead soldier, Grenadier Guardsman Jamie Janes, in which the prime minister misspelled the serviceman’s name; and two, the news that £47 million has been made available for Ministry of Defence staff bonuses. Up and down the High Street you hear stray words, a sentence or two, which, strung together, might make a giant public broadcast on these two subjects. If the town crier was forced to shout out a précis of the town’s views, they might reduce very simply: ‘Oyez, oyez: Careless Brown Insults Our Bereaved’ and ‘Oyez, oyez: Great Britain Goes to the Dogs Again.’ Walking among the town’s inhabitants and visitors, I wondered for a second if Wootton Bassett wasn’t a monumental, war-obsessed Leviathan, going out from Wiltshire to stalk the whole country with its news of moral calamity.

The woman in the tearoom was run off her feet. She was all about the teacakes and the vegetable soup, while the people around her jaw-jawed about the war. Occasionally, like a bum note at an opera, someone would speak of something else, swine flu or a murder due to happen on Coronation Street, but this would usually lead to silence, followed by quick observations about the battle for remembrance. The man by the window was in his early eighties and was wearing an RAF tie outside his blue army jumper. His wife was fishing for the Hermesetas when he dropped a sugar lump into his tea. He looked up at the waitress and nodded at his busy, fussing wife. ‘The first 60 years are always the worst,’ he said. Another elderly woman, Winifred, said that on burial days the fire engine always stops outside her hairdresser’s. The same things happen like clockwork on days like these, when bodies are coming through. She had quite a lot to say about young people, mainly that they don’t really care about anything and don’t know how to remember properly.

The High Street was full of television vans. The one from the BBC had a long mast with a camera at the top, for a bird’s-eye view of proceedings. Two hours before the town filled up with people, the cameras were already in place. BBC Cornwall had prime position next to the town cross, where the veterans gathered. Many of the young people were dressed in black ties and shoes from Topshop. Their hair was spiked down like the kids’ hair on soap operas, and they had a very televisual way of becoming emotional. An ITN interviewer caught up with some boys who had known one of the dead soldiers. They were standing outside the local bookshop, where The Last Veteran: Harry Patch and the Legacy of War was featured prominently, next to Leona: Dreams, a book of photographs of the singer who won The X Factor a few years ago. ‘It’s hard to know what to say on national television,’ one of the boys said. ‘It’s just such a terrible loss.’

Around 1.30 p.m., hordes of motorcycles entered the town, driven by people dressed a bit like Hell’s Angels, except that their leathers were covered in badges saying: ‘Lest We Forget’. With these men and women, it was more about the bikes than about the war. Some of them were quite old, and all of them were extremely jingoistic. When we think of war veterans, we still tend to think of the Tommys of World War One or the escapees from Dunkirk. But there have been dozens of conflicts since then: Suez, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, two Gulf wars and, of course, Afghanistan. These veterans have medals as shiny as their motorbikes. In Wootton Bassett, they brought an air of edgy, contemporary contradiction to proceedings, like Christian warriors at Altamont. ‘We’re marking time,’ said one of the bikers, eating a tray of chips. ‘We’re just waiting for the officials to come and then it’ll get started.’

In the Cross Keys pub, which acts as an unofficial headquarters for the commemorative events, a double vodka and Red Bull costs £4.50. The family of one of the dead soldiers were playing pool in the back, their bunches of roses sitting on the windowsill. Dogs are allowed into the pub but the press need permission. That’s another aspect of the British way of marking these things: mourners play to the press, yet they also play off them. Today’s ceremony, the 99th, leaves one or two pub-dwellers cold. ‘Here we go again,’ said one of them, nursing a pint. By this time, the press were gathered all along the High Street and people were craning for a sight of something happening. Back inside the pub, the boys’ names were mentioned on the television in the corner. It was Sky News, showing live pictures from RAF Lyneham as the coffins came off the plane. Through the pub’s net curtains I could see a media fixer, clipboard in hand, trying to work out which family members would be willing to talk. When I walked outside again she looked me up and down and asked if I’d be willing to speak on camera. ‘Not today,’ I said, and she was already moving on, hunting for feeling. ‘Did you know him?’ she asked a young squaddie.

‘I knew him just to know who he was,’ he said.

The elderly gentlemen of the British Legion had huge flags. I thought they must be heavy. ‘You look very smart today, Matthew,’ a uniformed officer said to a young man in a suit. The young man was a friend of Sam Bassett’s, one of the two dead soldiers. The other was Rifleman Philip Allen, aged 20. Over the next half-hour the town got steadily quieter and I took up position beside an elderly woman in a wheelchair. She said she was cold, and, indeed, the wind was the sort that could pass through several layers of clothing. ‘But you have to come out and show respect,’ she said. ‘That’s what the town’s all about.’

By now, there were thousands of people on the High Street. The buses to Swindon ceased rolling up and soon there was a reward for the hours of anticipation: three sets of blue police lights making a clean sweep up the road. The hush had become overwhelming and it held the secret of some nearly violent emotion: it was as if people’s anger had been boiled down to its sap, a profound, stultified silence. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story ‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux’, a mob grows almost excitedly morose as it hears a drum and the signals that a tarred and feathered traitor is coming into the town. In Wootton Bassett, these dead boys were the very opposite of traitors, but as their hearses hove very slowly into view, there was a silent gasp of fulfilled dread. Up above Baileys newsagents, a man in a vest sat at the window with a mug of tea, staring blankly into the glass as if he was watching television.

A helicopter buzzed at the back of the town. The street was now so quiet you could hear the trees shushing in the wind. Officials walked back into the crowd and removed the families from the pub: they were presented to the people and the press, all of them standing by the roadside with their heads bowed. A laugh suddenly sounded from the back kitchen of a restaurant, and the crowd bristled, as if uncomfortably reminded, at this crucial moment, of a world beyond the town, with other engagements. The first two hearses, with coffins covered in Union Jacks, glided to a halt at the town cross; a third at the back had no coffin at all. Bells sounded from the church. The men from the British Legion lowered their flags, their old hands shaking, their faces firm with experienced solemnity. The families stepped forward and laid flowers on the hearse roofs. It started with Princess Diana, this bedecking of passing vehicles with flowers. In the years since then, the British have not learned to love handling flowers; they still come in cones of cellophane, and as the vehicles move on they take with them a powerful glint of artificiality.

Some of the families wept on each other’s shoulders with that distraught grief that is more often available to the young. But it seemed to spread in all directions as the cars moved on. The woman beside me, the one with the wheelchair, was standing up and wiping her eyes with a napkin from the café. ‘This is what’s terrible,’ one of the biker veterans said. ‘Bloody photographers, getting right up in front of the families when they’re grieving like that.’

‘Bloody awful,’ said an elderly man, standing with his shopping.

The town took only a minute to return to normal levels of noise and busyness. The buses returned and the charity shops opened their doors, while the veterans shook their heads and said they’d be back soon, before roaring off on their bikes. Further down the road, I saw a young man with red eyes holding up an enlarged family photo of Sam Bassett. The boy with the red eyes was being photographed; he posed against the old brickwork of the town, leaning against a wall as if it offered something solid and traditional, something solid and symbolic, against which to offer a meaningful portrait of his feelings. In no time at all, he was surrounded by the magical apparatus of national television.