One wedding which made me wonder how I'd behave in a war

Being a lefty, arty intellectual, part English, Polish, American, French and Jewish, I would have been wanted dead by Hitler six or seven times over. I bear this in mind as I arrive at one of many recent weddings.

As I might have mentioned before, among the nice things that have been happening lately is the fact that I have, thanks to relatives who are the right age, and friends of the Beloved, been getting invited to lots of weddings.

At my age, there is nothing bad about a wedding. Before I got married, going to the weddings of my contemporaries had something of the vibe of bomb disposal about it, or potential contagion: I wondered if my then girlfriend would let all the celebrations cause her to lose her mind and insist on a wedding of her own. To me.

Which wedding would be the one that would set off the unstoppable cascade of emotions? This far down the line, I can’t remember which one it was, so I just hold them all equally to blame.

These days, all a wedding means to me is, happily, an excuse to dress up (threepiece suit for autumn/winter, lightly crumpled linen for spring/summer, thus making effective use of the only two suits I possess) and get stuffed and hammered at someone else’s expense.

But the latest one fills me with a certain trepidation, for it is a military wedding, and one of the Beloved’s friends is marrying a flight lieutenant.

At this point I can imagine what you’re thinking. “Ah, that conchie Lezard is going to express his misgivings about the armed forces, and his guilt at having anything to do with the oppressive military-industrial complex and the forces of Babylon, etc.” At which point I will have to gently disabuse you and say that I am afraid the problem lies entirely in the opposite direction.

I remember vividly the fat-bottomed historian Andrew Roberts* once calling me a conchie live on air, saying that I would not have fought in the Second World War. The comeback that instantly sprang to mind was too incendiary to say (“My dear chap, I’m sure that you would not have hesitated to volunteer; only I’m not sure for which side”), so all I could do was seethe.

I most certainly would not have sat that war out. Being a lefty, arty intellectual, part English, Polish, American, French and Jewish, I would have been wanted dead by Hitler six or seven times over, and I am very glad indeed that when I learned German it was because I wanted to, and not because it was compulsory. Not, of course, that I would have been able to learn it compulsorily, because, as my private-school peers were keen to remind me, I was “good enough for the ovens”.

So when I get up close to the military, I am very mindful of the fact that their predecessors put their lives on the line for the likes of me, and I’m very happy that members of my family did what they could, too. (My gambling-mad great-uncle Lizzie parachuted behind enemy lines to see what he could learn from his old croupier pals, became known as “the man who broke his back at Monte Carlo” and was tended to full recovery by the French Resistance. Another great-uncle actually was a conscientious objector, but did his bit by volunteering to be a pathfinder: that is, flying, unarmed, ahead of a bomber formation in order to guide it to target. That takes some balls. Amazingly, he survived.) Things are made worse by the fact that this is going to be a proper RAF wedding: ceremony at St Clement Danes, reception at the Honourable Artillery Company, the works. Even the groom’s father is an army chaplain. So I’m very worried that I am going to get drunk and start gushing, or worse. “Try and stay sober, Lezard,” I say to myself, as I try to remember how you tie a tie.

Oh well. Even before alcohol touches my lips, I am unmanned. RAF St Clement Danes (as it is officially called) bursts with history; officers form an arch of swords for bride and groom to walk through; the bells play “Oranges and Lemons”; and every single person on the top deck of every single bus that passes swivels their head to gawp at the scene.

A lump forms in my throat and I seem to have something in my eye. The Beloved sees me, excited as a seven-year-old, and says: “You’re a crap pacifist.”

*Legal note: I gather that, since this exchange, Andrew Roberts has undertaken some kind of slimming regime and his rear end is no longer so adipose. But believe me, at the time these remarks were made, it was the size of Wales

Military weddings come in many forms. Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.