A Whiter Shade of Pal

Observations on a commemoration

A couple of years ago a video installation at the Harris Museum in Preston projected extraordinary film footage onto the wall of the main staircase.  It showed crowds of smiling, waving and cheering people standing on the platform of Preston Railway station as packed carriages of eager, and blatantly exuberant, soldiers pulled out.  The joy and optimism struck sourly, informed by the benefit of historical hindsight. Their understanding of their destination cannot have been anywhere close to what the reality was to be.

Being First World War film there was no sound and no colour, but any sadness in the people depicted was more than flushed away by their pride.  Friends and family glowed and the soldiers grinned with elation and aspirational glory. Their bunched cheeks must have burned rosy.  One can only imagine the extent to which the colour drained from their faces when they subsequently met the ordeal awaiting them.

IMG_7836One of the most successful military recruitment tricks of all time was the formation of the so called ‘pals’ regiments where young men were enticed into service by the notion they could share their adventures with those they already knew.  Thus the initial reluctance of enduring training amongst unruly strangers was allayed.  Liverpool led the way and it was so successful that many other places followed suit.  Preston’s ‘pals’ enrolled into D company of the 7th Battalion of Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.  Two hundred and fifty souls enlisted from this town and subsequently set out from Preston Railway Station.  On July 23rd 1916 seventy percent of that number were killed or wounded in a single day.  Precisely 102 years later, a similar number of people gathered between platforms 3 & 4 to remember them.

img_7838.jpgPerhaps the most poignant representative was the Perspex outline of a ‘Tommy’ figure, one of several installed up and down the country to mark the centenary of the ‘war to end all wars’.  Real people in historical costume also engendered atmosphere, women as well as men.  Medals were chested, speeches made, standards respectfully lowered and raised again, hymns sung, tunes played.

IMG_7835Incongruously the band chose an arrangement of A Whiter Shade of Pale, as the introductory melody to the ceremony.  Although musically not unfitting in its mood, this 1960s composition, with its infamously convoluted lyrics seemed an odd choice.  However, it did lead one to contemplate faces, at first just ghostly, turning paler still when the truth came home.

There was an odd discomfort too, in the bustling normality of the station traffic continuing throughout and all about, as those of us in the know held our aim on the memorial plaque, the military figures, and the civic and religious celebrants.  That discomfort formed a pearl of profundity as the chairman of the Veteran’s Council read: when you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow we gave our today.

IMG_7833Right on cue, as the Lord Lieutenant concluded his speech, a whistle blew, and thoughts of men going ‘over the top’ were accompanied by the machine rattle of the Blackpool North departing to the sandbagged seaside.

IMG_7843As the congregation sang – and signed – Abide with Me, carriage brakes screamed and more arrivals filed past.  The Last Post was blown, flags were draped and we all held two minutes’ silence as mystified travellers came uncertainly from the underground tunnel into the midst of our remembrance, blissfully unaware that we were giving thanks on their behalf for passengers from that place who paid the ultimate fare.

IMG_7847Wreaths were rested, deaths saluted, and Elgar’s Enigma asked the unanswerable once again.  Pigeons flew over our heads free of homing messages and as hopefully as the stick-and-string flying machines of the western front. A porter wheeled a stack of cafe supplies unwittingly propelling thoughts of the infamous station buffet that served three million servicemen just thirty yards away and one hundred years ago.  They gave a mug of cheer to all and a last swig of home to far too many.

IMG_7854By 11.17am it was all over.  The delayed departure for Glasgow Central pulled out of platform four and by clever design, or more likely the watch-hand of fate, the Pendolino that had stood and witnessed the latter part of the commemoration, was named City of Preston.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s