Veterans Day Celebrations, Luton, 5 July 2008 [Rant on]

Before I start, I'll just say that I acknowledge that a lot of work goes on behind the scenes to enable events such as this to go on and have no doubt that everybody involved put in plenty of time and effort.


I attended the Veterans Day Celebrations in Luton. It was only a week late - everybody else celebrated Veterans Day on Veteran's Day (28 June). I don't know why this was. Problems with getting a venue, perhaps?

For the first hour and a half, I hung around wondering what was going on. Info on the internet was sparse, indicating only that it was on from noon until 17:30. The local rag was about as helpful. It was only when a chap came round collecting for H4H that I found out that the programmes for the event were in the RAFA tent. Even here, the programmes weren't on display. God knows how many people wandered up to the event and then left, thinking that there was nothing happening.

The static displays comprised ten tents and an Army recruitment trailer. The trailer was parked a little way from the event, away from the main thoroughfare and hidden under a tree, so I'd guess that they saw few visitors. Most of the tents contained little more than a couple of chairs, maybe a table and two or three ex-servicemen. No displays, as such. Nothing to browse.

The WRAC Association tent was a bit different. They had a couple of tables heaped with junk that they were trying to sell. Not military junk, but books, records, cast-off jumpers, odds and ends of crockery. The sort of stuff that you'd be ashamed to send to an Infant School Jumble Sale.

The local TA Arty Battery provided one gun and a box-body CP as a static display. I'm not a Gunner but I still noted that one of the handles was missing. FFS, couldn't they come up with a complete gun with the scratches painted over? Better yet, a complete system to show that the gun gets pulled by something, is fed ammunition by something else and is directed by a FOO. Most people that looked around the display probably left with the idea that the CP tows the gun into position, then they fire over open sights using the three shells that just happen to be lying on the ground.

Come on guys, would it have been so hard to have had a crew man the gun, turn wheels, level bubbles and shout "FIRE!" every 20 minutes or so?

The tents were stood on paving, so obviously it wasn't practical to knock pegs in, but you would have expected some sort of ballast to have been hung off the frame just in case the wind picked up. And, indeed, the wind did pick up. Not particularly forceful, just a little gusty at times. Enough that the RBL tent was lifted from the ground and turned over. The occupants ran away. I was nearby so I rotated it back into position with the help of a couple of passing visitors before the RA contingent turned up and made it look like a tent again. Thereafter, the occupants of the tents were noted to be holding onto their tent frames to prevent a recurrence.

The events comprised a couple of bands and a choir. While they were quite good, it was only the pipe band that actually made use of the arena.

St John's Ambulance provided a display of putting somebody in the recovery position, performing CPR and use of an AED but somebody should have told them that this was not the sort of thing to put in the middle of an arena, too far for anybody to actually see what was going on. The spectators view was of nothing more than half a dozen people huddling in a group with a little old lady finally being carried off in a rickety stretcher. It cried out for an Army display of somebody being lashed to a stretcher and manhandled over obstacles, demonstrating that the casualty remains securely fastened to the stretcher when rotated fully in all planes.

The ATC drill team was lauded as being the best in the area. (Funnily, I spent a very short time in the ATC when I was a kid. My squadron was also lauded as being the best at drill, too. That's why I left. They did nothing but drill). Anyway, they made the mistake of putting the two biggest cadets at the front then executed many sharp wheeled about turns. The "inside man" didn't take short paces, instead the "outside man" had to stride round the outside of the turn. Which was a problem for the shorter kids near the back. They couldn't stride that far with the result that they were continually out of step. As soon as they got back in step, the next wheel commenced, so it was back to square one. You couldn't help but feel sorry for the poor little buggers.

The programme was divided into 25 minute segments - regardless of the length of the individual display. So people turn up, can't find a programme, nothing happens for 10 minutes, so they leave, thinking that the event comprises nothing more than substantially empty tents.

But the best part was that the closing ceremony started 10 minutes early! Seeing that there was half an hour before the final parade, and having seen the pipe band and heard the choir previously, I coerced Mrs P into having a swift half. We came out with what should have been 5 minutes to spare but just caught the end of the service. You'd think that a Gunner Padre would start the Fire Plan on time!

You could tell that the bloke doing the running commentary during the event wasn't particularly used to public speaking, but what the hell, somebody had to do it. His big faux pas was in his closing words, though. As the standards and veterans were shuffling off, having marched past the dais with the dignitaries including Luton's Mayor, the commentator pontificated about the venue of next year's celebrations. "We hope that you will all come next year. We don't know yet whether it will be in Luton or Dunstable. I certainly hope it will be in Dunstable." The crowd hushed and looked at each other. Did he really say that in front of the Mayor? I have a feeling that the next one certainly won't be in Luton, anyway.

If this seems a bit of a rant, you're right, it is. I waited six hours to compose it. God only knows what I would have written had I started on this as soon as I came home.

Some constructive criticism for next year.

Plan the programme around the timings of the events taking place.
Have a reception tent at the entrance to the event and hand out programmes to visitors.
Keep to the programme timings. If things run late, that's life, but DO NOT bring timings forward. (Especially not the closing ceremony!)
Have an impromptu act that can fill in if a display event can't fill its time slot. Juggler, clown, whatever. Even a lone piper from the pipe band.
Make sure that the place is safe. This includes ballasting tents if you can't peg them down. Marshalls would have been a good idea too, even if only as a point of contact.
If you have an arena, you need visual events. Use the likes of the non-visual participants such as the choir and static band to cover setting up and dismantling equipment in the arena.
Don't put close-in displays such as the St John's Ambulance in the arena. To be of interest, spectators have to be able to see what they're doing. They can do this best in a larger static display.
The event covered the lunch period. Provide refreshments for the visitors, even if its only hot and cold drinks. (Bit of a bummer having the display in an alcohol-free zone, especially with PCSOs rigorously enforcing it!) It's a fund-raiser - you can flog a cup of tea for 50p and it costs less than 5p to make. Franchise an ice-cream van if necessary.
Provide sufficient tents for all the displays - two or three unrelated Associations in a 12x12 or 9x9 isn't going to work. Display the Standards.
Get the Associations to actually provide a display. Two blokes sitting on chairs isn't a display. Get tough. No display, no tent. If they're there to chat about their experiences, something as simple as a map and some photos would be a starting point for a conversation.
Make sure that the displays are appropriate. A jumble sale of household bric-a-brac isn't.
Arrange the displays in a logical order. Navy, Army, RAF are different services. Keep their tents separate by interspersing RBL, SSAFA etc.
Get the recruiting trailers involved. Don't hide them away as if ashamed of them.

Veterans day can be celebrated in two ways. It can be a public event where the veterans can relate their experiences, but you need to bear in mind that visitors need to be entertained. Or it can be a social event where the veterans get together in the Legion.

Sorry to say, Luton 2008 smacked of an ego-fest. Blazers, berets and medals in the public view, but very little for the public. I'm sure that it wasn't meant to be that way, but there was no space available for the public except around the arena - and not much happening in the arena.

And that's probably screwed my chances of joining the Legion this year.
I'd say you were just the sort of person the RBL needs.

Pass on your comments to them as they are constructive.
I've seen loads of these kind of events over the years and I'd say that NOW is the time for them to be planning for next year.
By the sounds of things they'll need to start today in order to get all their ducks in a row and your suggestions list is just the place to begin.

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