Cellophane and tealights: mourning terror victims in Britain


— Why do memorials for terror attacks in Britain lack the dignity found elsewhere? —


With the increasing number of terrorist attacks in Europe in recent years I’ve often been struck by the odd way in which the British, compared to other nationalities, use flowers to pay tribute to the victims of such atrocities.

It may not sound important. Some would say it doesn’t matter at all. It does. The flowers, candles, cards, sometimes toys, left at the site of such awful incidents, not only help the living cope with their shock and loss, but are to honour the memory of those who have departed. The placing of these items has become integral to each incident and its aftermath. Therefore isn’t it better that, without being too fussy, such memorials are dignified and beautiful? Isn’t this what victims of these horrors deserve and their families too?

From the many photos I’ve seen of the temporary memorial sites in the UK, they seem to me to be quite ugly and depressing. Look further, beyond the Channel, or the North Sea, and what is to be found? Quite beautiful arrangements of hundreds or thousand of flickering lanterns in different colours, interspersed with small and simple posies, or single roses, or at most a few, laid down with grace and good taste. And, of course, cards, signs and messages of love and respect. They are genuinely moving sights. And as evening comes the whole emits a glow which seems to blend with the sorrow all about, which burns in the eyes and in the hearts of those who have come to grieve.

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Photos of Dusseldorf, Berlin memorials

Memorials at Düsseldorf Airport and Berlin Christmas market Photos: Eurobill & Hans135797531 (Wikimedia Commons)


In the UK things are usually very different. There are endless bunches of cellophane-wrapped flowers all looking bland and similar. They are either ranged across the pavement like something washed up by the tide, or are banked up unartfully as if they’ve been bull-dozed ready for the tip. Increasingly we have candles. But in this we are still very much beginners. Not for us the protective and pretty glass lanterns like beacons of hope in the dark. We have opted for tea lights (available in multi-packs for a bargain price), which are both uninspiring and a poor choice for a land swept almost incessantly by wind.

Sometimes the oddest things are left. After Princess Diana died, comedian Stewart Lee – one of very few in Britain who deserve to be called one – saw among all the cellophane a child’s toy which caught his eye. Not a cute teddy bear or other innocent animal to warm one’s heart and express sympathy for Diana’s sons. Instead, secreted among the flowers was a good-sized, inflatable ET, a piece of merchandise from Spielberg’s film. It was better suited to a skip or a jumble sale, so alien it seemed.

Simultaneously in Scotland, as if it were quite normal, shoppers in one town placed their cellophane-clad flowers against a safety rail around the escalators, upstairs at an indoor shopping mall. Here they rapidly accumulated like a heap of rubbish that’s come to rest after a month-long storm.

These are isolated incidents. In general the problem is the cellophane combined with what appears at first glance to be a lack of imagination, or just plain bad taste.

We don’t have to look far for the fundamental reason why the British fail to measure up in this regard. It’s not as though, after every tragedy, mourners in Spain, France, Sweden, Norway or Germany, or really anywhere else in Europe, need to suddenly come up with artful and dignified ways to pay their respects. It is ingrained in them. Because it all comes down to culture and tradition, which, away from these shores and even more so as one travels east and south, often appears more firmly rooted in religion or at least in the strong afterglow of its influence. In many aspects of life it shows its face: in very strong family ties and obligations, in religious festivals and holidays, in food, and in a broad range of customs, beliefs and attitudes. They are all intimately connected, bound into a cohesive whole, and they help give a vital sense of identity and continuity especially in a world now subject to very rapid change. And from this deep reservoir comes the simple elegance and good judgment we see at the memorials in Barcelona and in Brussels, in Paris and Berlin. We see it in Nice, Oslo and Stockholm too. But regretfully not in Manchester or in London.

We prefer the profane. We prefer cellophane.

I am happy and proud to be British, for there are many great things in our history and our culture, if not the ever-growing disapproval one finds when expressing a love for this our home. Yet we lack the underlying stratum, the sense of a tangible identity and deep-rooted tradition, from which others draw, for example when it’s time to mourn. It’s not been lost, for it wasn’t ever really there. We can invent the most amazing things and have in our history brought both good and bad to far off lands. But when we turn our gaze upon ourselves, I think we often become a little lost.

London Bridge and Diana memorials

Memorials at London Bridge and for Princess Diana Photos: Jwslubbock & Maxwell Hamilton (Wikimedia Commons)


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