Remembrance Day - The Silent Grief Which Fuels the Two Minute Silence

10/11/2011 23:10 GMT | Updated 10/01/2012 10:12 GMT

The British way of remembrance is different to that of anywhere else. It is at once more high state ceremonial and yet more peculiar and intimate.

There is nothing in the world to compare with the Festival of Remembrance, an event both regal and rococo which is extremely admirable and yet very odd.

Held in the Royal Albert Hall with nearly the entire Royal Family in attendance, it is part church service, part military tattoo, and part entertainment.

It manages to rub shoulders with six military bands, Sir Cliff Richard, a widows' walk, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Katherine Jenkins, a drumhead service, the First Sea Lord, Joe McElderry, Chelsea Pensioners, a bishop, and a million poppy petals.

It reads like a scene out of magical realism, but it somehow works - it is one of the longest-running live televised events in the world and it draws an audience of six to seven million.

At the other extreme of bare human simplicity is the two minute silence, the most profound and personal act of remembrance. The silence is observed more widely now than at any time since the two great wars, for reasons that have much to do with a decade's conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Once again young men and women are laying down their lives in a foreign war and remembrance is no longer a distant obligation but a present agony.

Many of those affected by the conflict in Afghanistan are known to me because The Royal British Legion cares for them. The young woman, so pretty and funny and bright, who struggles to care for an infant son. She tells me that her husband's final paycheque from the Ministry of Defence was docked a half-day's pay because he was killed at 10 o'clock in the morning.

The young man, so strong and handsome above the waist with everything below torn away, who curses wheelchair ramps because incline planes are murder on prosthetic legs.

The children who call a churchyard cemetery 'daddy's garden.'

Not once have I heard these people complain. Often they are cheerful, quick to forgive and quick - almost desperately quick - to laugh. What enables them to be like this, in a way that anyone would find deeply humbling, is their fierce pride at the sacrifice they have made to their country.

It is this pride which fuels the ceremonial side of remembrance. But it is their silent grief that fuels the two minute silence.

At 11 o'clock today, I will be standing with thousands of others in Trafalgar Square for an event called Silence in the Square. Many more will join us on streaming webcast.

It begins at 9.45am and for one hour and 15 minutes it is nearly as odd as the Festival of Remembrance. There will be a reading from Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens, Strictly Come Dancing's Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace will do a fox trot, the soldiers will sing the Bee Gees' I've Gotta Get A Message To You and Dame Vera Lynn passes the torch to Alesha Dixon for a sizzling rendition of We'll Meet Again.

Like the festival, it will work. Not because of what we invest in it, but because of what people invest in the silence.

In a world of sham promises and invented outrage, the silence offers something simple, ingenuous, and cleansing. The exhortation is read: "They grow not old..." The last post is sounded. The silence descends and all the clocks stop.

In the centre of London, all traffic comes to a halt, all voices are stilled, all commerce is paused. You can hear a leaf fall from a plane tree to the pavement.

For reasons I do not understand, in that hollow moment of time I can no longer see the faces. The names, yes, but not their faces. I recite the roll of all those I have known and lost, starting with my mother and father, acknowledging my grief and also my gratitude. Missing friends, the wider family, including those lost in wars, and from there to all those lost in conflict. Always I am surprised that my sorrow for them and my gratitude for their sacrifice are so profound and real.

The bugler plays reveille. The clocks start again. The world turns. Children scatter poppy petals on the still waters of the fountains.

The high dams restored, the grief is contained for another year.