The organisation of a public commemoration of George Calderon’s sacrifice on 4 June 1915, and the experience of the form it eventually took, have raised a huge number of questions in my and other Calderonians’ minds. Very long emails were exchanged in April and May, I and others made many trips to London to sort it out, and I would like to share with you over the next ten days some of the facts and some of our meditations.
It was decided long ago, of course, that there should be a public commemoration. There are no relations of the Calderon family alive in Britain today. Kittie’s family, the renowned Hamiltons, are very scattered across Britain and Ireland. At the beginning of this year the feeling arose (the ‘spontaneous’ nature of that is interesting in itself) that the commemoration should be held in a consecrated space. George and Kittie were based in London for nearly fifty years of their lives, and George was definitely a well-known figure in literary London, so London was chosen as the venue.
If one thinks about it, it is not at all a foregone conclusion that the commemoration should be held in a consecrated space. George was Christian in his acts, as Kittie always said (‘a better Christian than me’), but there is no doubt he was agnostic where the divinity of Christ was concerned, in some other aspects he veered to atheist, and he had a phobia of ‘parsons’. Kittie, however, was a deep believer and attended Anglican services. Moreover, the vast majority of our annual commemorations of the fallen in both world wars, and in this centenary year of the First World War, take place in churches or if outside are still conducted by priests. So that is probably why we opted straight away for an Anglican church and priest. But we should have thought about it!
Within London, a church off Piccadilly had first claim, as the church in which Kittie and George had been married with Corbets, Calderons, Hamiltons and alumni of Trinity College, Oxford, present. The memorial service for Dick Sutton in December 1918 had also been held there, and Kittie attended it. Another church, off the Strand, had a claim, as it has a strong association with the London theatre world and Kittie clearly had links with it in the 1920s. We do not know which, if any, church she attended in Hampstead, so that was out. It would, of course, have been splendid to hold the service in the chapel of Trinity College, Oxford, and the College was already wholly committed to commemorating George among its fallen.
I knew the space at the church of first choice, so in the fourth week of March I sent the clergy a carefully crafted email through their website, outlining what we had in mind and the contribution to church funds that we could make. No response came in a week, so I sent a letter on 30 March. Obviously, this left over two months to the centenary date. I never received a reply. On 11 April, with less than eight weeks to organise the event, I emailed the church again to say that I would have to go elsewhere, confirmed it in writing on 13th, and went to the second choice. It replied to my email immediately and was most accommodating. However, I did not know this space, so I went to London to view it. It would have been perfect, but the amplified ‘performance art’ going on outside was so loud and so dire that a two-minute silence in the ‘service’ would have been impossible. Moreover, at that point I was told that the excellent, kindly priest, who insisted on charging us nothing, was going to be away for three weeks. So nothing could even be discussed before the end of April. The chapel of Trinity College, Oxford, it transpired, was due to close before 4 June for two years’ restoration.
My own feeling about the form the service should take was that it should be short, introduced and concluded by the priest, who could put George’s life achievement and sacrifice in a double context, secular and religious, as she/he would no doubt want to, that there should be relevant readings by ‘Calderonians’, a two-minute silence at the time of George’s death, and the sociable part of the occasion would be a lunch afterwards (I had already chosen a venue for that in the Strand and visited it).
But even before a weekend’s agonised SWOT analysis had led us on 19 April to cancel the booking for the second venue, the event itself was mushrooming. Clearly, members of the numerous families associated with George in his life should be invited, perhaps the French descendants of his brother Frank, and alumni of Trinity College, Oxford. Suggestions were made about a much wider range of ‘performance’ that might be included in the commemorative event. I suddenly realised it was beginning to look more like a memorial service, that it could involve well over a hundred people, even the parading of regimental flags, and there would be no chance of feeding everyone afterwards…
Organising it in six weeks was obviously going to be a challenge. I took a deeper breath and decided to get on with it. At that moment, however, it became clear we had no venue. There was no longer a consecrated space in London or anywhere else that was appropriate. About a month had been ‘wasted’.
Except that it hadn’t. It had made us realise we hadn’t really thought about the nature or scale of the commemoration in the first place. We had, really, just gone with the tide. Some of us began to realise that and feel that it was actually a blessing in disguise that none of the consecrated spaces, and hence a presiding religious figure, was available. We had, er, been saved from ourselves. At least, that is how I saw it myself on 20 April. A sense grew on me that the church service ‘wasn’t meant to be’ when two indispensable Calderonians had to excuse themselves from attending it for absolutely uncancellable reasons.
We had no Plan B, but now we had to devise one.
Next entry: Commemoration (to be continued 2)