Posts Tagged ‘anti-war protest’

True Remembering

May 26, 2015
Lucky Weather (paperwork by Liz Mathews, text by Frances Bingham)

Lucky Weather (paperwork by Liz Mathews, text by Frances Bingham)

This year of grace 2015 is almost confusingly crowded with war anniversaries: Waterloo, Gallipoli, Dunkirk, VE Day, and more.  One famous victory with its commemorative station, a notorious and costly disaster, a ‘glorious retreat’ which became a matter of national pride, peace at last.  One hundred years between the great battles of 1815 and 1915 compares with the relatively brief timespan separating ’15 from ’40 – a mere twenty-five years.

The problem with these anniversaries is that they can be the opportunity for essential human rememberings, dredgings of collective memory which come up with treasure, deep contemplations of history – or crass appeals to nationalism, in the worst sense, and the glorification of war.

In 2014, at the centenary of the outbreak of WW1, No Glory – the group of artists, actors and writers including Carol Ann Duffy – expressed their concern that memorial events would be exploited to promote militarism and celebrate the powers of destruction, rather than to honour the dead and acknowledge the personal sacrifices of all involved in such conflicts (which, in terms of WW2, we’re still living with, in a long aftermath).  They hoped to encourage cultural events which would ‘mark the courage’ of those involved but also remember ‘the almost unimaginable devastation’ and ‘ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.’

It’s important for us to find ways in which to make an act of remembrance which fully acknowledges courage and honour, suffering and endurance, the many different modes of resistance to the forces of darkness – and yet doesn’t degenerate into a festival of militarism, or an unquestioning acceptance of war as a ‘necessary evil’.

The way in which the First World War is perceived has been drastically influenced by its portrayal in art – in the work of war poets, especially those like Wilfrid Owen who wanted to ‘make it stop’, the wartime art of Paul Nash or Stanley Spencer, haunting memoirs like Vera Brittain’s filmed and re-filmed Testament of Youth, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End or Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (both also filmed), the elegaic music of Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries (and later, Britten’s War Requiem), and of course Joan Littlewood’s subversive classic Oh What a Lovely War – to name merely a few of the best known.  All these are powerful memorials, in diverse ways, but it would be difficult to interpret any of them as pro-war.

Such works of art make it possible for us to commemorate, protest, explore, lament, re-examine, imagine, narrate, compare, question, and above all perceive such events in all their diverse complexity, light and shade, humour and drama, tragedy and unexpectedness.  The development of narrative history projects also creates a complementary mosaic of remembered fragments which change and enrich our understanding of the past, and many artists work with these sources to make new kinds of art.

The anniversaries of WWII are even more complex; the armies march nearer to us in time, there are still many survivors, eye-witnesses, close relations involved.  The motives for war were so different that even pacifists of the previous war accepted the need to arm.  But that makes the need still greater for memorials which ‘ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.’

I believe that one such is The Dunkirk Project, set up by Liz Mathews five years ago on the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk, which developed from research for her monumental artist’s book, Thames to Dunkirk.  The project combines art and poetry about that extraordinary moment with individual stories of the event from many different contributors.  For 2015 the project is being relaunched, with live coverage of the evacuation as it takes place day-by-day, from 26th May to 6th June, and new additional material.

There’s now a page of Dunkirk Phossils by Charlie Bonallack (grandson of BG Bonallack whose poem Retreat from Dunkirk was lettered by Liz Mathews on Thames to Dunkirk, with Virginia Woolf’s words), updated and revised contributions, new stories, more poems, more images – to make an even more vivid panorama of the Dunkirk story.

As the poet Jeremy Hooker wrote in response to it: ‘This is a wonderful project.  True remembering is essential to our humanity.’

How did they bury them all?

August 4, 2014

Wild Poppies - photo by Liz Mathews

Wild poppies – photo by Liz Mathews

The centenary of the Great War’s outbreak is being marked in many ways; two projects have particularly moved me.

The first is Neil Astley’s new Bloodaxe anthology of war poems: The Hundred Years’ War, which includes this poem by Valentine Ackland, which I suggested for the collection.

How did they bury them all, who died in the war?

From near and far the tidy packed masses were neatly

Disposed, laid straight, boxed and buried; in a soil

Crowded already and crammed with the old wars’

Great litter of lives spilt. And they buried them all

As the gardener after the autumn fall

Digs in the apples to rot. So the summer’s spoil

Wastes down to mud and the sweetness goes rotten.

They buried them all, and the trees have already forgotten.

(Valentine Ackland, published in Journey from Winter: Selected Poems of Valentine Ackland, edited by Frances Bingham, Carcanet, 2008.)

I’m very pleased Neil chose to include the poem, which is such a powerful statement about the waste and mortal cost of all wars. I read the poem at the pre-launch of the book at Lauderdale House in Highgate, and felt its power to move the audience as I did so.

The reading brought out the breadth of the Bloodaxe anthology, and its global scope; among the highlights Stephen Watts read Isaac Rosenberg’s Louse Hunting brilliantly; Andrew Motion read some of his recent ‘found poems’ taken from soldiers’ own accounts of war; David Constantine read a very moving poem about his grandmother Soldiering On; and Imtiaz Dharker read her superb poem A Century Later, about the Taliban attempt on schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai’s life, which concludes:

A murmur, a swarm. Behind her, one by one,

the schoolgirls are standing up

to take their places in the front line.

I also enjoyed hearing Dawood Azami read some of his poems in the original Pashto, as well as in translation, and it was a pleasure to hear Neil Astley read B.G.Bonallack’s The Retreat from Dunkirk, also in this wide-ranging anthology, which is one of the texts lettered on Liz Mathews’ monumental artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk.

This is an enormous collection; it contains six hundred pages of poetry, some familiar and necessary (Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, from the First World War, Antonio Machado’s The crime was in Granada, about the killing of Lorca during the Spanish Civil War, Martin Niemöller’s chilling First they came for the Jews… from the Second World War), also much that’s less well known. There’s a striking amount of work in translation, so that war is seen from many perspectives – not just by Germans in the opposite trenches, but also contemporary Taliban fighters. There are many different voices – witnesses, combatants, conscientious objectors, civilians caught up in war, refugees and prisoners, nurses and children.

Women are well-represented, considering the inevitable surplus of soldier-poems in the era the book covers; Anna Akhmatova writing during the seige of Leningrad, Denise Levertov hearing the guns of Dunkirk, Muriel Rukeyser in Spain, Nelly Sachs remembering the Holocaust – they’re all here. I found particularly moving the Polish poet Anna Swir’s poem He Was Lucky (which Neil Astley also read):

The old man

leaves his house, carries books.

A German soldier snatches his books

flings them in the mud.


The old man picks them up,

the soldier hits him in the face.

The old man falls,

the soldier kicks him and walks away.


The old man

lies in mud and blood.

Under him he feels

the books.

So, this is an important anthology, and a tragically contemporary one. Although there’s a reason other than shock value for every poem to be there, many of them are horrific and disturbing. To me, those that are most successful are those – like Valentine Ackland’s – that lament or protest or bear witness or speak defiance imaginatively, rather then by direct reportage. But this book rightly represents every kind of poetry-writing on war.

Neil Astley’s introduction notes ‘individual voices bearing witness to our shared humanity’, but also a disastrous inability to learn the lessons of history. “As Germany’s Günter Kunert writes in his poem On Certain Survivors, in which a man is dragged out from the debris of his shelled house: ‘He shook himself/ And said/ Never again.// At least, not right away.’”



Tom postcard

World War I postcard, with a photograph of my great-uncle T.H. Duffin among the portraits of Heroes of York.

I’ve also been involved in the Imperial War Museum’s centenary project Lives of the First World War, which is to be a permanent digital memorial, recording the experiences of millions of people during the war.  Like the museum itself, the object is not to glorify war, but to acknowledge the contribution of the many people who were involved in the conflict.

I’ve been adding details to the life-story of one Thomas Howard Duffin, my grandmother’s older brother, who died in the Dardanelles campaign. Since he was killed when he was only 18, when my grandmother was still a little girl, half a century before I was born, I’ve never really thought of him as a great-uncle, only as her favourite brother Tom.

Duffin, Thomas Howard - Version 2

Tom Duffin’s photograph from The King’s Book, York Minster          (Reproduced by kind permission of the Chapter of York)

Because he was a casualty of war, it’s easier to find out what happened to Tom than to trace the war experiences of his older brother Reggie, who survived. Poor Tom joined up as soon as volunteers were asked for, in August 1914, when he must have been under age, and trained with a battalion (9th, West Yorkshire Regiment) of Kitchener’s New Army. He and his comrades inhabit their historical moment, eagerly enrolling to defend (as the official message of sympathy had it) ‘the noblest of causes’, with all the naive arrogance and enthusiasm of youth, only to find themselves fighting an unknown enemy on foreign ground, for a theoretical tactical advantage which even at the time was considered by many to be a mirage.

This was Gallipoli, the Turkish peninsula not so far from Troy, which the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force attempted to capture. There, they faced extreme problems of missing equipment, bad supplies, no water, inefficient reconnaisance, chaotic planning and a bizarre over-optimism. Muddling through was one of the Empire’s specialities, however, and these new soldiers fought ‘with great pluck and grit’. Tom’s battalion received a special mention in the commander’s despatch on the landing at Suvla Bay, which remarks that they ‘deserve great credit for the way [the assault] was delivered in the inky darkness of the night’. (Sir Ian Hamilton’s Third Gallipoli Despatch)

After going through three months of intense trench warfare in extreme weather conditions, under almost constant bombardment, Tom fell ill of dysentery – which killed more troops than the actual fighting. Ambulance trains took some of the sick and wounded to hospital in Cairo, and it seems Tom was one of these lucky ones. (Many others died on the hospital ships, and were buried at sea, or died on the battlefield without ever reaching hospital.)

Sister Margaret B. Weatherup, of the Giza Red Cross Hospital in Cairo, wrote home: ‘I don’t know how many cases are in now – wards, balconies and corridors are full. The Dardanelles fighting has been very much worse than in France, at least the men say so. When one batch of stretcher cases came in we were not expecting them. A great many of the elite of Cairo, who were dining at their clubs when the news spread that an ambulance train with very serious cases had arrived, just came out to the hospital as they were, and carried the stretchers in. It looked strange to see four men in evening dress carrying the stretchers. Lord Edward Cecil was one of the helpers. It is not long since he lost his only son.’ (British Journal of Nursing, September 18, 1915.)

A VAD ambulance driver, Alice Christabel Remington, in an IWM interview, recalled: ‘The men that had dysentery, poor things, that was really terrible because they couldn’t be looked after and they were in a shocking state. I used to feel so sorry – they were so ashamed of themselves, they couldn’t help it, but sometimes the smell was simply frightful… The ones that had trench fever and the ones that had dysentery were the most depressed.’ (quoted in The Imperial War Museum Book of the First World War, Malcolm Brown.)

Tom died on 29th November, 1915, and is buried in the Cairo war memorial cemetery. Numbered among the disastrous casualties of the Dardanelles campaign – abandoned a few weeks after Tom died, when the army evacuated the peninsula – these horrible trench-illness deaths seem singularly futile. Like ‘friendly fire’ losses (then called ‘misdirected fire’) it’s hard to envisage such accidental deaths as ‘sacrifices for… Freedom and Justice’, or to make them seem heroic. It seems so wasteful and pointless for Tom to have not had a life, when his death didn’t serve any possible purpose.

Although I’d always vaguely known that he died at Gallipoli, now that I know what happened to Tom in a little more detail I feel – belatedly – as well as a distant sadness, the anger.

A local habitation and a name…

February 3, 2011

Local winter – photograph by Liz Mathews

London may be, as Chesterton said, a collection of submerged villages, but to the inhabitants they are not even fully submerged.  People’s attachment to ‘their’ street may be just as tenacious and appreciative as the attachment of a smallholder to his particular fields… The instinctive allegiance… to a natural habitat, (large trees, hills, streams etc) urban man transfers to man-made landmarks, but the essential nature of that allegiance remains the same.

These words about the local loyalties many people feel for their home ground are from The Fields Beneath, Gillian Tindall’s marvellous ‘history of one London village’.  As the title suggests, she takes a representative urban area and – with a brilliant combination of meticulous research and strong historical imagination – traces its development from grassland to paved street.  This is particularly fascinating to me as the place she maps in such detail (Kentish Town in north London) is local, but the book has a far wider application.

Since it was first published in 1977, many of the ideas Tindall advanced on the importance of their environment for all people (‘places, objects, views – other supports for the human psyche’) have become more accepted.  A revised edition in 2005 expressed relief that much of the demolition threatened at that time didn’t take place, that our ancestors would still feel at home here after all – which must be partly thanks to this book, with its insistence on William Morris’s dictum ‘We are only trustees for those who come after us’.

As befits so eminent an historian, Gillian Tindall differentiates clearly between the verifiable facts, and the myths – of which there are many.  There are unsolved mysteries (where exactly was the Gospel Oak?) and revenant rumours (every damp cellar was once hailed as the lost Fleet River rising), which are explored and explained.  Now, the many inhabitants who have read this much-loved book know exactly where the river runs beneath their feet, feel a pastoral nostalgia  for groves or dairy farms recalled only in street names.  Curves of streets suggest a brook’s meander, abrupt angles mark ancient field-boundaries, old trees in gardens are survivors from orchards, there are even hedgerows remaining from our rural past.

This book has done more than any other to give this community a strong sense of locality and history rooted in the landscape, that common ground which remains so noticeable in these hilly streets.  It has even explained the richness of the soil, which grows such lush shrubs in these city gardens; ‘tough, sticky London clay studded like a currant cake with the fragments of other lives’.  Pevsner’s London 4: North covers the architectural riches, others list the ley lines, Roman roads, Boadicea’s barrow (on Parliament Hill, of course, not platform 10 of King’s Cross Station) and more, but none have quite this taste of the territory.

Famous residents pass through; Mary Shelley watches Byron’s funeral procession make its way through the rain towards Highgate Hill (she thought the place ‘an odious swamp’); Nelson plants apple trees in his uncle’s town garden; Thomas Hardy is distressed by participating in the clearance of a churchyard for the new railway.  But the less well-known, the ordinary residents, are the focus; piano-builders, railway-workers, music-teachers and engravers, many servants. In the fascinating minutiae of their lives are reflected the place’s fluctuating fortunes, from a rural retreat of clean air to a smog-polluted slum, only reprieved late in the 20thC.

For this sort of detailed, local social history the census records are a major source, providing an unrivalled picture of the area’s composition at fixed moments in time.  No-one who has any interest in the past, or values the ability of those who come after us to understand our own time, can ever have felt any doubt about the historical importance of the census.  But things in 2011 aren’t quite as they were; as many people from the Green Party to The Guardian have been saying.  This year the information will be gathered by an American company, Lockheed Martin, the arms and aircraft manufacturer specialising in ‘information gathering’ in the sense of interrogation at Guantanamo.

One of the implications of this is that as an American company, any data they hold can be legally demanded by an agency of the American government, so that the essential concept of the confidentiality of the census is seriously undermined.  Another is that an enormous sum of tax-payers’ money has been paid out to a non-British firm, which seems an odd decision especially now. And, why to a firm deeply incriminated in arms dealing, which many financial organisations – not only ‘ethical’ funds like the Co-op Bank – are expected by their customers to avoid?

This all seems a long way from reading an exemplary local history which typifies the history of many other districts, or the celebrating the research opportunities of the 1911 census. But one of the worst things about this different 2011 census is that it will make all such future exercises in truth-telling and finding far more difficult, since there are obviously going to be many more people than usual who are reluctant to provide answers.  Aside from those communities who have traditionally been hard to persuade to co-operate (because of their suspicions of the use to which their confidential information might be put, and who will have access to it) now there will be many others who feel the same doubts. And the results may not be at all the same in a hundred years.


November 17, 2010

Barrier – photograph by Liz Mathews

Why all this criticism of other people?  Why not some system that includes the good?  What a discovery that would be – a system that did not shut out.

Virginia Woolf, Diary Oct 2nd 1932

Written nearly eighty years ago, in the autumn of 1932, this question of Virginia Woolf’s is still only too valid.  She used the word ‘criticism’ not in the (good) sense of analysis or constructive debate, but of an attack intended to relegate the work under discussion to an inferior position within – or perhaps even outside – a hierarchical structure.  Such criticism is, as she shrewdly remarked, ‘so barren, so easy’.

(When I read this, I was reminded of hearing an American poet in a radio talk, vehemently insisting that ‘95% of poetry isn’t worth reading’ – as though, if true, that would make his own work somehow better – and of Adrienne Rich, including only unknown poets in an anthology she edited, to present the work of writers who’d been left outside.)

Systems grade, measure, reduce to conformity, remove the need for independent thought.  They are anti-enthusiasm, but risk-free.  As such, their existence is perhaps inevitable, but there are degrees of use or misuse of these established judgements and hierarchies.  Later in the same passage Woolf deprecates attempts to fit writers into pre-existing systems, which she describes as ‘blasphemy’, when they should be reverenced for their very qualities of differentness.

This dislike of categorising writers, fitting them in or shutting them out, doesn’t imply an uncritical acceptance of every kind or quality of writing.  Woolf makes strong demands of art; ‘I want to be made free of another world. This Proust does.’  She dislikes the didactic strain, the attempt to impose a philosophy and insist on proving it.  ‘Art is being rid of all preaching: things in themselves: the sentence in itself beautiful: multitudinous seas: daffodils that come before the swallow dares…’

It’s still, in the contemporary world, difficult to imagine ‘a system that includes the good’, but maybe it has become more possible for us to read without the automatic measure-and-grade response, and to avoid cramming recalcitrant books into pre-existing hierarchical systems.  But what the intervening time has also shown, is that it’s less problematic to circumvent conventional literary ‘systems’ altogether, than to invent new ones which are not equally excluding.

Perhaps the best way forward in this quixotic endeavour is – like visualising world peace – to imagine a system that includes the good, and until then at least try not to ‘shut out.’

A soldier without a name

June 24, 2010

Mightier than the sword – photograph by Liz Mathews ( detail from her artist’s book ‘Boon, blessing’, text FB)

In the ‘Identity’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection recently, one of the identities on display was Claude Cahun, the surrealist photographer whose self-portraits express gender ambiguity, masks and disguises, performative selves and personal mythologies, like a demented lesbian Cecil Beaton crossed with Cocteau. Cahun and her partner Marcel Moore were good examples of self-invention, (if not mythomania), and also – in an exhibition probing the sources of creativity – of artists who made their lives into their art. Cahun’s life and work has been rediscovered, and her association with the surrealist groups in Paris during the 1920’s and 30’s acknowledged in various exhibitions, but this one also showed some of the work she and Moore made during the Occupation of the Channel Islands, as warriors of art.

The work of the surrealists was condemned as decadent by the Nazis, so the women’s previous work wouldn’t have endeared them to the occupying forces, any more than their sexuality and Jewish backgrounds. But rather than keep a low profile, they embarked on a personal resistance campaign against the Nazis. Although possession of a camera was punishable by death, they took clandestine photographs of the occupation in action, and also spread anti-war propaganda among the German soldiers. (Their acts of resistance are detailed in Barbara Hammer’s film about Cahun, Lover Other, which shows some of the forbidden photographs of Nazi soldiery on parade on the beach outside Cahun’s house, or on the streets of the once-British island.)

When they were eventually caught, both women were condemned to death and six years in prison, for the propaganda and the photography. On hearing the sentence Cahun asked which would come first, the execution or the jail term? The severity of the sentence, and the deadly seriousness of the prosecution, gives an idea of propaganda on a large scale; sabotage of morale by means of printed leaflets, subversive photographs, a big security breach.

Instead, the exhibition cabinets displayed little scraps of paper, offcuts almost, shakily inscribed with faint pencil-words; lines from Goethe or Schiller about peace and universal love. There were one or two more conventional ‘our leaders have betrayed us’ type messages from ‘a soldier without a name’, a few child-like cartoons of war or quotes from the BBC, but most of the documents were just little snippets of German poetry. These flimsy, improvised statements of resistance seemed intensely moving, within the context, rather like being condemned to death for doodling a peace symbol on the back of an old envelope. What courage, yet at the same time what a tiny gesture!

Cahun and Moore didn’t die for their acts; they spent the remainder of the war in prison under sentence of death, but the liberation came in time to save them from execution. After the war, they continued to work with photographs, making some strange images to mark their private victory, such as Cahun celebrating over Nazi war graves. These later images, as well as the subversive surrealist fantasias, are a reminder of why totalitarian regimes always fear art, just as they fear laughter.

The death sentence was a kind of recognition of the unquantifiable results that a scrap of poetry might have on a free mind, of the way in which even the idea of a dissident soldier without a name might work on the imagination of the others. It seems that the act of defiance hadn’t been so small after all, that far from being an over-reaction death was the only possible way to silence these artists who were naive enough to believe that the pen was mightier than the sword, and might change everything.