Very well then, I contradict myself…

Last Friday, I went to the final showcase for the Legacies of War Leeds Stories of the Great War project.  I haven’t had a huge amount to do with this project, so it was both a surprise and a delight of an event, with results (many of them ongoing) of six exciting community projects on display.  Of the six, two stood out, the year 11 students from Roundhay School who produced two films, one silent, one a pastiche news bulletin, inspired by the history of Belgian refugees in Leeds, and Urban Sprawl theatre company, Leeds’ sole homeless theatre company, who came up with a touching, funny, vulgar music hall riff on the theme of enlistment.  All the projects were moving, informed and passionate, but these two groups stood out for their creativity and humour that, in the case of Urban Sprawl, was true enough to the spirit of the times they evoked that it had me referencing Frederick Manning’s Her Privates We.

Which brings me to another First World War event from last week, this one a launch rather than a culmination.  14-18 NOW, which launched officially on 27th March, is an Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund funded series of events, hosted by the Imperial War Museum and taking place around the country.  Projects range from a Royal de Luxe production telling the story of the Accrington Pals using giant puppets in the streets of Liverpool to 1914 told day-by-day through cartoons.

The reactions have been almost as varied as the proposed artistic outputs.  The first response on Twitter was, in general, a rather patronising, ‘These people need to learn some “real” history.’  The mainstream media tended to pick up on the project to paint warships using First World War-era ‘Dazzle’ camouflage techniques, sparking this bizarre but somehow predictable response from the Guardian.  By the weekend there were some more detailed, considered response emerging on blogs, most notably those of George Simmers and Jonathan Boff. More recently, Gary Sheffield has pitched in with this interesting discussion of why the idea of turning off lights to mark the start of the war is historically uninformed.

By rights, I should be in complete agreement with these posts, and to some extent I am, having done my fair share of fulminating about luvvies voicing ill-informed opinions about how the war should be commemorated.  I agree that Stephen Fry’s letter to an unknown soldier, as well as several of the projects on 14-18 NOW, are deeply clichéd.  And yet overall I find myself intrigued and excited by the majority of ideas on display, and particularly by the Letter to Unknown Soldier soldier project.

Part of this is due to a huge personal affection for the Charles Jagger memorial sculpture honouring the dead of the Great Western Railway on platform 1 of Paddington Station, the Unknown Soldier of the title.  Reading his letter from home, he forms the cover of my monograph on writing wartime masculinity, in stunning a photograph by my brother, photographer Sebastian Meyer. Men of War coverAnything that makes people more aware of this particular statue is liable to get my attention and my approbation.

But I also keep coming back to those amazingly creative responses to the history of the war on display last week.  The Letter to the Unknown Soldier invites similar creativity from participants.  I doubt it will come from well-known artistic or creative figures, given the evidence so far available.  But I love the idea of a busy commuter, looking for the first time at that beautiful, powerful face, being inspired to engage with the history of the First World War enough to write their own letter, an act of commemoration speaking not only to Jagger’s vision but also that of Eliot and Auden.  Or maybe it will be a local homeless person who, like the clients of Urban Sprawl, locates a sense of identity and community in this imagined figure of the past.  Yes, these will be the projection of 21st-century ideas, concerns, aspirations on to an image almost a century old.  But in looking to the wider public, there is the potential for an artistic engagement with history beyond the clichés that, so often, have dominated Britain’s commemorations. It is an artistic response, certainly, but given the richness and complexity of artistic responses across the past century, responses which have led to their own branch of academic study, this too will be ‘real’ history.

At the heart of my unease at the response to 14-18 NOW, however, is, I realise after a week of thinking about it, actually very similar to the annoyance I felt at the luvvies’ letter (see above).  I resent, deeply, being told how to commemorate the First World War, whether it is by artists or historians.  Both groups have important contributions to make to the way in which the war is remembered.  At their best, the disciplines can combine in extraordinary and unexpected ways that enlighten the past anew, as was perfectly demonstrated at the Tetley last Friday night. As a historian, not only do I think that there is potential for the continuation of artistic commemorations that have been part of British culture since the war years in the 14-18 NOW project, but I hope that, given the opportunity to contribute through active engagement rather than holding aloof or, in the worst cases, simply sneering, my discipline may enable these artistic events to have real resonance throughout the centenary.  On which note, I am off to write my own letter to the unknown soldier of platform 1.

5 thoughts on “Very well then, I contradict myself…

  1. You’re right, of course; rather than moaning about others, perhaps we should write our own. I tracked down in A.A. Gill’s “The Angry Island”, which I remembered saying something pertinent about Jagger, the quotation, “As you stare at the young man reading his letter you … realize that actually, of course, it’s from you. You’re composing it as you look at him…”. Perhaps that’s even where the idea came from.

    • That’s really interesting. There is, of course, projection on to so many of these memorials. Certainly the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior both invite similar forms of identification – the grave of/monument to my son/husband/father/grandfather/uncle. The more I think about it, the more I think this project speaks as much to the history of commemoration as to the history of the war, which is a good thing in my book.

  2. Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the relationship of academia to the emotions.

    Beyond the obligatory “my grandfather (or less commonly grandmother) did X in the war and it sparked my interest as a child” spiel which we find in introductions, most academics assume a mantle of high-priestly emotional indifference in the name of scholarly objectivity. But most scholars in whatever field must have some kind of emotional commitment to their subject or they’d not keep on doing it for so long. Why, then, the need to assert detachment at all times? Can we not be scholarly *and* acknowledge /incorporate emotional responses – in more than just a tokenistic way?

    Meanwhile in our pursuit of dispassionate judgement we often come across to the public as heartless at best and at worst profoundly alienating. The public reaction to much recent scholarship on tactics & leadership in the war is a case in point. Challenging cherished stereotypes is seen as callous and out of touch. Artistic reactions (including the infuriating luvvies-letter), by contrast, come across as more emotion-led, and therefore may resonate more with the wider public.

    At the heart of this is a tricky relationship between analysis and emotion, thinking and feeling. But I don’t think these should (have to) be in conflict. The problem is it’s hard to criticise the lack of analysis in the emotional responses (to crudely simplify) if we can’t admit the lack of emotion in many of the analytical responses.

  3. Pingback: ‘A call from the Dardanelles’ | Clinical Curiosities.

  4. Pingback: Letter to an Unknown Soldier | armsandthemedicalman

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