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. Anything 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.