Posts Tagged ‘history’

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.’

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.

Island Stories

May 26, 2010


Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews

A sense of the past is a combination of empathy and knowledge, imagination and history. It’s often built up of a familiarity with the literature and art of a particular era, combined with the later re-interpretations and critiques of that period, which stimulate our own creative engagement with it. For lucky readers, this process begins in childhood, with books which may be simple histories, but are still an imaginative exploration of the past, that strange other country.

Our Island Story, that classic imperialist text, was recently reissued with all its propagandist sentimentality robustly intact. It remains a compendium of all the legends – Alfred burning the cakes, Gloriana riding to defy the Armada – which are part of English national identity. Other, later, children’s books attempted a more subtle process of presenting the past – often in great, authentic detail – not always in the authorised version.

Some of the classics of the mid-20thC, by Rosemary Sutcliffe, Violet Needham, Bryher, Naomi Mitchison (Travel Light), to mention only a few, questioned the accuracy of the accepted histories children were taught, raised questions about gender roles, the status of women, the ethics of war, slavery, capital punishment, even the tensions between tradition and development. Also, they made important connections between how things were at the time of which they were writing, and the time in which they wrote.

In this revealing of the past within the present, contemporary art has a crucial role, whether it’s in the form of a children’s historical novel, or a satirical poem. Of course, every kind of art gives a far better understanding of its own period (to a later audience) than any amount of factual information could. A film that is a work of art, such as Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, is the perfect example of such revelatory time-travel. But, if the art of the past reveals its own moment to us, our contemporary art has to re-interpret those eras in order to present our own fully – and so the process goes on.

After those wonderful books had cast illumination on some parts of the past for me, I moved on to Mary Renault, Robert Graves (I, Claudius was confiscated at school as unsuitable for a nine year old), Paul Gallico’s weepy The Snow Goose. Since my mother was a historian and also an excellent storyteller, I also heard stories of the past, in the form of poetry and contemporary quotation, as well as anecdote. This was a lucky extension of the great tradition of spoken story which transmitted events within living memory, as well as those of the more distant past, in a line of direct descent. (Both John Aubrey and John Clare mention seeking out the older women to tell them historical details which are not otherwise on record.) Such personal storytelling still forms an extension of public history, and often presents an alternative version, as many spoken history projects demonstrate surprisingly.

It’s one of the (many) functions of art to both commemorate and question the events of the past which have taken on a mythic significance, become part of that patchwork background which is – for better or worse – our sense of historical identity. Legends, folktales, fables, or even popular history clichés, are fascinating to the artist/writer as the focus of so much collective imagination, such national passion. What we read as children first, or heard recounted, is inevitably part of what Kathleen Raine called the ‘imaginative transformation of a historic into an archetypal event’; a fertile site for excavation.

I’m taking part in a contemporary art event, The Dunkirk Project, one element of which is the River of Stories, an online interactive installation which invites participants to contribute their own story to the collective memory or re-imagining of the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, one of our great national myths. All the accounts, anecdotes, poems, comments, or stories, will combine not into a literal history, but a strong current of imagination, memory and re-enactment – into a work of art, indeed.