When I was an avid reader of Biggles, in the late Sixties, I used to try to calculate Biggles's age, because I wanted to know if it was possible that he was still alive. I worked out that he had learnt to fly in the early years of the Great War, and so he must have been about 17 in 1915. This meant that he was probably born in the same year as my Swedish grandfather, who led a much less interesting life.
So Biggles was in his mid-forties when he was the squadron-leader of 666 Spitfire Squadron in the Second World War. Wasn't that a bit old? After all, Guy Gibson, the leader of the Dambusters raid, was a wing-commander when he was 25. But I had begun to realise that, in more ways than one, James Bigglesworth was not as other men and did not age at the same rate.
When I was a child, I met plenty of people who had fought in the First World War. You can see it in terms of writers. Siegfried Sassoon died in 1967 aged 81. Edmund Blunden died in 1974 aged 78. Graves died in 1985 aged 90. (The writers were, on the whole, long-lived, although Wilfred Owen was killed just a week before the Armistice.)
Today, the youngest recruit who joined up in the final year of the war would be 99 years old. I had always assumed that the end of the century would be a good moment for allowing the remembrance ceremony to be brought to a dignified conclusion, acknowledging that the First World War has now receded into history.
But as this year's ceremony demonstrated, the opposite is happening. Remembrance Day is running more strongly than ever, like The Mousetrap or Cats. The dignitaries at the Cenotaph, as likely as not, now outnumber the total of surviving British and empire combatants. There they stand, all the leaders of the political parties, each with an identical-sized wreath. Presumably there is a negotiated agreement to prevent David Trimble turning up on the day with a wreath twice as big as anybody else's. You could imagine a wreath competition from year to year, like the toughness competition between Jack Straw and Michael Howard. This year, representatives of the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Greek Orthodox and Buddhist religions were present as a belated acknowledgement of all the non-Judaeo-Christians who also walked into the guns. Poignantly, if problematically, relatives of soldiers who were shot for cowardice were also present - a compassionate gesture, no doubt. And cheaper than a pardon and a back-dated restoration of the pensions they lost.
But that isn't all. A report in the Guardian, which sounded as if it had been written personally by Tony Blair, described it as "a new ceremony for a new millennium". Buzzwords such as "inclusive" and "relevant" were used. The vacuum left by the actual combatants in the Great War has been filled by all sorts of groups. There were people from other wars (the youngest were from the Korean war), but there were also veterans of other neglected groups, all deserving in different ways - from the merchant navy to the women's land army.
Well, perhaps not all deserving. The march past included a contingent of ex-evacuees. Obviously, they didn't have uniforms to wear. Instead, they wore their old identifying labels around their necks. Much of the talk had been about what we owe all these different groups. Do we owe something to the evacuees? Admittedly, we now know that some of them had experiences ranging from the unpleasant to the abusive. Others provided virtual slave labour on farms that had lost their labourers to the armed forces. Should we regard the evacuees as war veterans, or perhaps traumatised war victims, who need compensating with therapy and money? If evacuees are included, where do you stop? What about those of us who have spent too much of our lives watching terrible war films? We could march past clutching boxes of popcorn and cans of beer.
What politician would ever dare bring the ceremony to an end? In 1981, Michael Foot was crucified because the tabloid newspapers pretended to believe he had worn a coat that didn't look solemn enough. (No worry about that with Blair: you could even imagine Wilfred Owen telling him to lighten up a little.) Instead, like all the other British traditions that nobody dares put an end to, it just ends up as a second-rate spectacle. Apparently, this year's changes were introduced partly because children no longer understand what Remembrance Day is for. Has anybody suggested they would be better off reading a book?