In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg reminds us that the human brain likes routines. Habits allow us to work automatically, without thinking. This in turn allows our brains to concentrate on new things, the stuff that needs our concentration, the tasks that we connot just do on auto-pilot.
Duhigg estimates that 40 per cent of our daily actions are simply habits – the first unthinking drink of the day (tea or coffee?), how we clean our teeth, riding a bike. We stop noticing how and why we do such things.
But humans also create rituals. These are different from habits. This time, they aren’t designed to help us to ignore the events of life; they are there to make us notice them. And none more so than the annual national act of Remembrance.
It’s difficult, almost a century on, to realise that the idea of commemorating the dead from what was once called the Great War was ever considered controversial. It was an Australian soldier and journalist, Edward Honey, who first proposed a collective pause when everyday life should be put briefly on hold.
“Five little minutes only,” he suggested, “Five silent minutes of national remembrance. A very sacred intercession.”
His proposal would let people remember the past but also think of the future. In those five minutes we would have a chance to find ‘new strength, hope and faith in the future’. It would be an act of what he described as ‘bitter-sweet remembrance’.
The idea wasn’t entirely new. The High Commissioner for South Africa described to Prime Minister Lloyd George how every single day at noon during the First World War the people of South Africa had observed a silence. It showed that a national commemoration was possible.
Lloyd George was intrigued, but a ritual on this scale needed royal ascent. He put the idea to the monarch. King George V was an obsessively punctual man. To him routines done properly mattered a great deal. He could not stand the thought that something designed as a collective act of deep respect might be ruined by the carelessness of one person whose time-keeping or habits were slack.
A five-minute silence was, he thought, too long. But the principle was a sound one and on Friday 7 November 1919 a statement from Buckingham Palace announced that a two-minute silence would be held on the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month. It would commemorate the ‘Great Deliverance’ and serve as a ‘complete suspension of all our normal activities’.
This annual event is now so embedded in the rhythms of our year that it seems unthinkable that anyone would object; or that it was originally perceived simply as a one-off act for 1919 only, one year on from the War’s end.
Some people sneered. The writer Evelyn Waugh, then a pupil at Lancing College in West Sussex, wrote that it was ‘a disgusting idea of artificial nonsense and sentimentality’. He didn’t see then what we see now: that those two minutes when we bring the giddying world to a brief standstill are more than a mark of respect for the dead of World War One. They bring to our minds all who gave their lives in any conflict. They create a space to thank them. They nudge us to be grateful – as the names of thousands of dead surface in our national consciousness – for our own lives, for our todays.
This year, as I stood in the cathedral surrounded by 500 young people, then walked back through the magnificent Remembrance display in the cathedral cloisters, then read about the seriousness of commemoration events across our town, county and country, and then saw footage of crowds in their millions gravitating to the poppy display at Tower the Tower of London, I reflected on how a ritual born in controversy has become part of our national mindset. Long may it continue.
Because those two minutes say something simple and compelling: ‘yes, we will remember them’.