those who witness such destruction

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may never witness the like again

 Having poetry read aloud gives it another layer, one which rests on the speakers voice. The way in which they utter the words, the moments at which they pause, the tone they settle and the feeling with which they imbue the words. It all adds something that is not always there when reading alone to oneself.

Hearing Jim Carter read some of my most favourite poetry on the Show of Hands album, opened them up further to me. Sitting and letting the words wash over me or walking across the fields and moors in the rain with the lines of The Silent One, overlaid on a quietly whistling track of Tipperary, the song fading at the same time as the poem – it gave the poem something new, and gave me something new too; a feeling of atmosphere, stronger than just the words of Gurney himself.

The album itself consists of two discs – the first one of spoken word poems. It begins with Wilfred Owen’s Anthem and ends with The Fallen by Laurence Binyon; therefore it is not chronological in nature. Many of the poems are ones which would be familiar to a great deal of people but there are also ones that I had never read or seen before such as Yvan Goll’s Requiem for the Dead of Europe. The lack of chronology means that there is no overarching narrative particularly, and I do wonder what the impetus was for ordering the tracks. The second disc is a collection of songs by the band themselves, though some have been written by others. A few of the songs, such as The Gamekeeper have appeared on previous albums, but are now given a new arrangement.

The middle of the first disc finds the band putting Bombed Last Night [x] alongside The General by Sassoon. It feels unspeakably right – darkest humour against the righteous anger and indignation of the poet. It is almost chilling in a way as the voices of the men who are singing slowly fade out and away, after the poem itself has already finished, leaving one with a distinctly uncomfortable, almost eerie feeling. There are other, more familiar songs which have been attached to poems, such as I Vow to Thee my Country, alongside Jessie Pope’s The Call. The poem ends in a gently questioning manner, yet the song rises above it – soaring and then fading gradually – like optimism itself slowly losing conviction. One wonders what it would have felt like to be surrounded by such propaganda, nudging and cajoling and pushing that it was the right thing to do, to sign up.

There are other poems that are left well alone, with just voice and no music – Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, the textured voice of Carter bringing new panic and strain to those immortal words “Gas, GAS!” and then a gently exasperated tone to The Soldier Addresses His Body, one which fits so well – a chummy conversation occurring that I would never have given to Rickword’s piece. Similarly, Brooke’s The Soldier is reminiscent I think, of a son speaking to his mother, seeking to reassure her – a more human and gentle look at a poem that I simply saw previously as a particularly blind kind of patriotism harking from Edwardian England.

The songs on the second part of this recording are not ones that I have ever heard, but I believe some may be more familiar to those who have listened to Show of Hands before. The Padre, from the view of an army chaplain is the voice of a man who watches the soldiers who first come to him, unknowing of what they will face, and he remains with them until the very end when he is the one to give them a last ‘grain of comfort.’ He sees them as all the same, as his ‘flock’, whether they believe in God or not – a true leveller and an interesting look into what might have been on a chaplain’s mind. The beginning of the song suggests that he was once a parish chaplain – thrust now into this land where he watches those around him train, fight and die, whilst he remains.

The Lads in their Hundreds by A.E. Houseman has also been turned into a song, sung by Imelda Staunton, different in tone to the spoken poem of earlier in the track listing. There is a jolly nature to it, that if one did not pay attention to the words, might delude one into considering it to be a bright piece. There are other songs here which are popular songs from the period such as the ever present Long Way to Tipperary. The song is first heard alongside Sassoon’s Concert Party: Busseboom, but is presented here without words, and is instead an interesting combination of beatbox and harmonica. Whilst reading reviews before I purchased the album, I was slightly repelled by this – confused as to how on earth it would work, wary that it would seem gauche. In listening to it however, it does work, in an odd sort of way. The beginning, with a lone harmonica, brings to mind someone quietly eking out the song on a battered mouth organ in a dugout, an image with startling power. It gives way however, to the sounds of beatboxing. It is not the sound which I associate with it, instead it is almost akin to the fading fall of bombs, the explosions the final sound of the track.

There are few major rearrangements and reinterpretations of tracks such as this, the majority of songs from the period sounding more or less akin to what I imagine they would have sounded like. Despite this, I do like this album – though I have a soft spot for older music, the tunes from the 1940s and 50s, and the second part of this album is somewhat similar. I would recommend it more for the poetry readings than the songs themselves on merit alone. It is an interesting artistic response to the centenary and one which I continually find myself coming back to.

Centenary: Words and Music of the Great War can be purchased on iTunes and Amazon.

 

(on a mostly unrelated note, I have now had this blog for two years! A huge thank you to everyone who has stayed with it – and me – from the beginning, and to those who have come across it more recently, RT’d links on twitter or shared them on Facebook. It is so very much appreciated!)

valour is stability

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I can hear the nation / I can hear the nation cry

Memorials and places of remembrance often take many forms, depending on what, or who, they are aiming to remember. There are the familiar cenotaphs of various towns across Britain, the tomb of the Unknown Warrior which lies in Westminster Abbey and the other memorials to similarly unknown soldiers which are scattered all over the world.

There are certain memorials to the civilian dead which are also to be seen across the country; I came across one in Whitby. It was not one which I had seen before, despite having walked the same route into the town for as long as I can recall. It was put in place in 2014, a few years ago now.

The backdrop to the memorial is the sea, which perhaps accounts for, what I found, to be the slightly jarring nature of the piece. The memorial itself is fashioned after a bombarded house, the walls low and half blasted away. The shell of the rooms are painted a bright, sunshine yellow and in the centre of what represents a living room (a fireplace, a small clock on the mantle) is an unexploded shell. A small cat sits on the edge of the window.

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It is jarring in that one does not expect it – it does  not fit seamlessly into the landscape like so many memorials do. The yellow is almost acidic, especially against the grey sky and grey sea as I found it last weekend. The jarring nature is twofold with the large shell in the centre of the room, perhaps a signifier for the ultimately jarring nature of warfare, and especially this point in the war when it was suddenly very, very near and not at all miles away as the wars before had been.

Not fitting is by no means a bad thing. It means that I stopped to look at it and I wondered what precisely it was for. Despite the fact that there is a small sign reading “1914-2014” on the side of the wall, it is not immediately obvious on first glance. The presence of a domestic space, buffeted by the wind and torn open by metal, left bare to the wind, rain and spray.

A board beside the memorial reveals what the intent of this little piece of bombed out homestead. This piece commemorates the two deaths in Whitby which were a result of the bombardment on the east coast on 16th December 1914. The raid also affected Scarborough and Hartlepool.

In this memorial, we are told of the courage of the people in the town who picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and continued on – a familiar-ish narrative, but one that is still worth hearing, noting and giving thought to.