What’s in a Name?

Cover of The New York Times, 24th May, 2020

I was in Cambridge on 11th September, 2001, but I went home to New York City for the Christmas holiday that year. My memory of that holiday is dominated two experiences: first seeing the city skyline without the domination of the Twin Towers as the cab drove me from JFK to Manhattan, and sitting for days at a time on the sofa in my father’s tiny apartment on 79th and Broadway reading the obituaries of those who died in the New York Times. Every day the paper included several pages of these, brief biographies, some accompanied by photographs, of the cross-section of New Yorkers and Americans who had lost their lives so inexplicably and suddenly. I found my old babysitter and a girl I had studied history of art there; I was introduced to firemen and cleaners, bankers and parents, real people with real lives cut brutally short.

On Sunday, the New York Times again placed a list of the dead at the heart of its publication, this time a list of those who lost their lives to Covid-19 as the number of pandemic fatalities in the US neared 100,000, over 30 times the number who died on 9/11. This time there was no space for pictures, even the short life stories of the 9/11 obituaries. Instead the front page lists names, ages, place of residence and, for most, a brief phrase describing something which made that person unique. These descriptions range from the banal through the humorous to the startling. They capture working lives, domesticities, private passions. They help to illustrate the claim of the sub-heading that these ‘were not simply names on a list. They were us.’

In all, the front page, and the continuation on page 12, lists 1,000 names, 1% of the marked death toll. It is, for me, as for so many others, profoundly moving in its personalisation of the loss that this pandemic is causing, not just in the US but across the world. But does it, as my cousin, who specialises in the visualisation of enormous numbers, asked, really convey the scale of this loss? Remembering these people as individuals is important, he implied, but in doing we lose a sense of the enormity of what 100,000 deaths really looks like.

The tension that my cousin is flagging here is one that has shaped commemorative practice for over a century, at least in the Anglophone world. While epidemic and pandemic illness have shaped society through extensive and profound loss of life for centuries, the First World War (and the ‘flu pandemic which followed it) brought this tension into focus as concentrated mass death occurred for the first time in a world of the nation state and global communication. Each death in and of itself was a personal tragedy and a loss to a community, but it was also, in the case of the deaths in war service, a death in the service of the state and thus required a more public marking. In Britain, this came in the form of casualty lists, published initially daily in the press, and later, as the numbers grew, weekly. Visually, these lists bear a startling resemblance to the New York Times cover, although they include none of the personalising details, only name, rank and unit of service.

It was after the war, however, that the process of naming the dead as a way of remembering them as individuals rather than as part of a mass truly came into its own in Britain. The decision not to repatriate the dead meant that traditional forms of naming on gravestones were precluded for all who died overseas. The loss of bodies meant that, for many, even a corner of a foreign field was an impossibility. Instead the names themselves became the markers and the memorials, both at home and overseas. It is impossible to travel around Britain without encountering a memorial listing the names of the dead – churches and churchyards, in schools and universities, on railway station concourses and street corners. The pattern is repeated in memorials overseas, most notably Lutyen’s monumental arches at Thiepval, with their overwhelming list of the 73,000 names of the missing of the Somme.

Panel of names, Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval

And yet Thiepval remains one of the most profoundly moving memorials to British war losses, inspiration for at least two generations of historians and cultural critics. The invocation of names, with their assertion of an individuality, and individual loss, mirrored in the gravestones of the Commonwealth War Cemeteries across the world, aids our perception of the scale of loss, rather than distracting from it. Smaller local war memorials can have a similar effect, particularly once one is aware of their prevalence. The relentlessness of encounter wherever one travels in Britain serves to bring home the sheer number of dead as profoundly as any weekly gazette of casualties or daily listing of obituaries. The dead are many, but they are not numbers. They are names – of soldiers, students, workers, congregation members, parents, children, siblings. This, then, is the power that the mass listing of names has in commemorative practice, to bridge the gap between the unknown individual and the incomprehensible scale of loss. Names make not just the dead but the meaning of their deaths as one of many known to us. They never were just names on a list, then or now. They were, they are us.

Blackshaw Head War Memorial

Thiepval seems, one way, to illustrate the problem of naming as a way of commemorating the enormity of mass death through naming. The scale of the memorial is such that it is impossible to see some of the names in its highest reaches from the ground. The names of the dead on my local village war memorial may mean little to me as an incomer of three years’ standing, but I can still read each and acknowledge them as individuals in a way that the sheer scale of Thiepval precludes. Unlike Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, which most notably took on the tradition of naming as commemorative practice in the US, those visiting Thiepval cannot touch the names, as those visiting Washington often do. Sensory connection, whether of eye or fingertip, seem to be denied. The visitor to Thiepval risks being overwhelmed by the size, the number, the enormity of so many names who cannot be comprehended as individuals.

Why I haven’t been posting on my blog

I had all the best intentions. I was going to post regular on my –

[‘Mummy, is my porridge ready?’ ‘No, can you get ready to do Joe Wicks, it will be ready when you are done.’ ‘Don’t want to do Joe Wicks.’ ‘You need some sort of exercise. If you don’t do Joe Wicks, I’ll have to take you for a long walk later.’ ‘Fine, I’ll do Joe Wicks but it’s so unfair. This is the worst day of my life!’ *loud stomping*]

blog. I was going to write about the links between Covid-19 and the history of wartime medicine. I was going to write about the militarisation of medical language. I –

[‘Mummy! He’s pushing me!’ ‘I’m not! She’s getting in my way!’ ‘For goodness sake! You stand there; you stand there. Face the television and watch what you are supposed to be doing!’]

was going to keep a daily diary, an outlet for my anxieties, a record of the social history of –

[‘Right, you go have a bath and you go practice your piano.’ ‘But he always has a bath first and do I have to do my piano?’ ‘I want to do my piano.’ ‘Fine. You do you piano and you have a bath.’ *5 minutes later* ‘That’s enough water! Please can you do that again – and don’t rush this time.’ *dramatic sighs all round*]

corona virus, a boon to future generations of historians.

But of course it hasn’t happened. Partly because –

[‘Are you out of the bath? Dressed? Right, come do your piano please while your brother has a bath.’ ‘No!’ ‘You need to do your piano practice.’ ‘Want to do it later.’ ‘No, you are going to do it now.’ *stomping, followed by discordant banging on the keyboard over the sound of running water*]

not a lot of what I have to say feels very original. The comparisons with the 1918 flu –

[‘Time to get out of the bath, please.’ ‘What work do I have to do?’ ‘Do I have to do writing?’ ‘I don’t understand this maths.’ Can I work in my bedroom?’ ‘Not if you are going to listen to Harry Potter while you work.’ ‘But I work better listening to things.’ ‘Mummy, is strange a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or preposition?’ ‘Go get you dictionary and look it up.’ ‘No! Why do I have to! This is too hard! I hate you!’ ‘Are there 180 degrees in a right angle?’ ‘I can’t answer you both if you talk to me at the same time!’]

have been relentless, and the subject isn’t really my area of specialism. Discussing the resilience of medical caregivers –

[‘Can I make coffee?’ ‘Go on then.’ ‘Mummy, what does this mean?’ ‘What does what mean?’ ‘This.’ ‘Which one are you talking about? Show me.’ ‘This one!’ ‘Which of these sentences is an example of a modal verb? Hang on, let me check what a modal verb is.’ ‘Here’s your coffee, Mummy.’ ‘Thank you, sweetie.’ *spends the next five minutes wiping up spilled coffee grounds, dripped coffee and biscuit crumbs* ‘What’s for lunch?’ ‘Soup.’ ‘Don’t want soup, we always have soup, why can’t we have pasta!’ ‘Because I can’t get pasta from the shops.’ ‘It’s not fair! I never, ever get what I want and you always get what you want!’ ‘Please just get on with your work.’]

feels unnecessary with all the articulate voices of medical caregivers bearing moving witness to that resilience. Yes, there will come a time to –

[‘I’ve finished my worksheets.’ ‘Have you done BBC Bitesize?’ ‘But the internet isn’t working.’ *checks internet connection* ‘Yes, it is, you just have to wait for the page to load.’ ‘Stupid computer! I hate you! – Oh, now it’s working.’]

unpick the meaning of heroism as it has been applied to key workers, but I’m not sure that it has come yet. And as for my own stresses and strains –

[‘I’m hungry!’ ‘Fine, I’ll get lunch. Can someone lay the table, please?’ *I lay the table* ‘If you’ve finished, can you put your dishes in the dish washer, please?’ ‘Do I have to? She’s not doing it!’ ‘She will do it when she finishes her fruit.’ *dramatic sighs* *I clear my dishes, wash up the cooking utensils, wipe down the table*]

I’m certainly not the only parent struggling to balance working from home, home school and keep my family fed and exercised. I am not the only –

[‘What do I do now?’ ‘Have you done Duolingo? Typesy?’ ‘Yes, yes.’ ‘Please can you tidy your room? Yes, you can listen to Harry Potter.’ ‘Where’s Dad?’ ‘He’s in the office, recording a lecture. Please don’t go in there – did you hear what I said? What are those things attached to the side of your head?!’ ‘Ears?’ ‘Well – use them!’]

struggling with anxiety about how to support my children’s mental and emotional health when they can’t see their friends, when I don’t know if they will be able to go back to school this year, when plans to visit family, both in the UK and in the US are indefinitely on hold.

And then there is the fact –

[‘I’ll take them for a bike ride.’ ‘Great. Have fun.’ ‘Mum, Dad’s taking us for a bike ride.’ ‘Yes, he told me, have fun.’ ‘Mummy, we’re going on a bike ride.’ ‘Yes, I know.’ ‘Where’s my helmet?’ ‘Where are my shoes?’ ‘I need socks, don’t I?’ ‘Do you really want to cycle in that skirt?’ ‘Have you seen the bike shed key?’ ]

that I am still at work. I am fortunate in not having had to scramble to put teaching on-line the way many of my colleagues have, but I have been supporting post-graduate students –

[‘Has the mail come?’ ‘I haven’t seen the mail man since you last checked the mail ten minutes ago.’ ‘I’m going to check anyway to see if my Beano has come.’]

who are anxious about funding, who can’t access vital archives, who are on the verge of submitting their dissertations and facing the prospect of remote vivas. I am still revising –

[‘What do I do now? I’m bored.’ ‘Why don’t you read a book? No, not one of your Beanos.’ ‘I don’t know what to read!’ ‘Fine, let’s go to your room to see if we can find something in the dozens of books on the bookshelf.’]

a REF impact case study, still working with a colleague to get the manuscript of a long-standing edited collection submitted to the publisher, still supervising –

[‘Mummy – he pushed me off the swing!’ ‘Mummy – she won’t let me have a turn on the swing!’ *sounds of conflict from the garden*]

my funded research project (although making very slow progress with any of the actual research myself). So I’m not getting very much writing –

[‘Can I watch television?’ ‘In five minutes.’ ‘But, Mum – !’ ‘Five minutes!’ ‘Mum, can I watch television?’ ‘Okay, okay, fine, watch television.’]

done, not even the book proposals I’m supposed to be writing, let alone anything else. Which is why I haven’t posted much on this blog.

[‘Mum, what’s for dinner? I’m hungry!’]