But where the lamb

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Wilfred Owen was born on this day in 1893.

Wilfred Owen is one of those poets, it seems, that people wonder what he might have done – even his contemporaries. I own one biography of him and three collections of his poetry and the question does sometimes linger in my own mind. What path might he have taken and how might his talent have developed? We don’t know, and never will know, as 1918 saw the close of Owens life, and the war within a week of one another. This post however is in honour of Wilfred’s birthday. It is a small one on a poem I love and cherish dearly, one which I come back to on occasions and find myself just as moved as I was that first time I found the words.

I first came across Owen (and his works) as I did with Sassoon, reading Regeneration – a novel it seems I will never escape. Of course, Anthem for Doomed Youth was the first (I remained fascinated for weeks at the Latin end for the piece), but there is another of his works which stood out to me more than any other and which earned a place firmly in my heart.

It was The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. It’s one which I have mentioned in passing on this blog before, I believe, but I’ve never written much about it. It’s different, in my view to Anthem, so very different and all the richer for it. Perhaps that is why I love it. I find it even more wrenching than that description which lingers long in the mind , ‘and at every jolt..’

Instead, Parable gives me a sense of foreboding with its jerky rhythm that never quite settles and it brings tears to my eyes each time I read it. I find there is a slowness to the piece, as though one is watching Abram and Issaac play out their roles with no alternative, heading toward an inevitable terror. War’s apologist and war’s victim are Owen’s subjects in this piece and there is no other way to the end but the warmongering apparent in the final lines which come as a shock to the reader.

I end this short post with Owen’s own poem and the one which I have written about in this post. It says more for itself than I ever could hope to.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen

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Behind the Lines: War Poetry in Leeds

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And the burning lips that Adonis kissed/Had never the glory that haloes thine.

As I have posted previously, I’m currently engaged in a placement year with Leeds Museums. It’s been a wonderful year and one which I am beginning to dread the end of. I’ve met and worked with some fantastic people and been granted so many amazing opportunities that I would not otherwise have had.

One of these things is the opportunity to put together my own exhibition. The idea was first put to me when I began my placement in September – of course I thought it sounded fantastic, but didn’t give much more immediate thought to it. Imagine that – 21 year old me with her own exhibit, ha!

However, here we are in March and I am currently awaiting the first design drafts!

The exhibition is titled Behind The Lines and looks at the war poetry written and treasured by the men and women of Leeds from 1914-1919, how they used poetry to communicate their feelings about the war, from optimism and motivation through to the anger and grief that marked the later years, including the immediate post-war world of 1919. Behind the Lines explores the work of three poets; Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson who was a Captain in the Leeds Rifles, Dorothy Una Ratcliffe who was an accomplished poet in her own right before the war and finally, the work of an unknown soldier found in a box of possessions belonging to a soldier from Armley.

All the poetry comes from the museum collection, and from people who had a connection with Leeds. It’s been an immense privilege to be able to appreciate this work and bring it to a wider audience. Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson’s work in particular is wonderfully evocative in its descriptions and at times, incredibly moving. His collection of poetry, entitled Sunrise Dreams, covers the early idealism of 1914 through to the sharp realisations that 1916 brought. I have chosen two of his pieces, alongside Dorothy Una Ratcliffe’s poem. Her work is addressed to the women of Leeds in their grief at the loss of husbands, sons and brothers, providing a startling glance into one of the most all-encompassing feelings shared by humanity. The remaining poem which marks the start of the exhibition is a semi-surreal but entirely comic look at the rigours of training to become a soldier, written by an anonymous author.

While Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson became a published poet within his lifetime, there are other examples of work in the collection which were never published and remain as extracts from letters, meticulously typed out onto a typewriter, the words no less filled with meaning for their lack of a wider audience. One of the poems which I ultimately decided not to include for reasons of both space and chronology, has the opening line of ‘T’was the break of dawn in Flanders and the morning promised bright.’ The piece, written by an anonymous member of the RAMC in the West Riding Division is another, unique look at war through the prism of a non-combatant’s experience, but one who still saw with acute clarity the terrible continuation of war. The poem also celebrates the camaraderie and the courage of both soldiers and the RAMC.

It was difficult choosing just four poems for this exhibition and I do hope that the rest of the poems in the collection will eventually be showcased at some point, be this during the centenary or afterward.

Behind the Lines is a portable exhibition. Dates, times and locations of display TBA. 

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.

what remains today

Serre Rd.

The Somme was not what I expected it to be, but then even I did not know what I expected. It’s a strange thing, visiting a place one has only ever read about in the context of bloodshed, in the context of numbers (men lost, ground gained, grave references) and the idea of family. A strange land, one that is buried in words and ideas and statements but not actuality, not until that summer week.

It was hot, the week we drove through France. The weather granted everything a semi-lucid quality. The heat was uncomfortable, the sun at times glaring but then softened by the trees. The stone benches under the trees were warm against the backs of my legs. The grass itched against my calves when I sat before my great uncle’s gravestone. I didn’t say a great deal when I was there – not that it felt wrong, but it’s what felt right for me. Remembrance is different for everyone. For me; it was sitting on the grass with the paper-thin petals of a poppy in my hand (picked from the side of the road as we drove endlessly) and being there. My nana preferred to talk; to me, to my uncle, to her uncle. My uncle preferred to draw – I still have his work from that week; a collection of scratchy pen drawings that are now pinned up next to my mirror. They are stark and lovely and painful all at once.

I was somewhat unprepared for the fact that, driving through the Somme, one passes memorials and cemeteries every several hundred meters or so. We drove past the memorial to Indian soldiers at Neuve Chapelle when we first arrived in France. I stared and stared until it was out of sight. We never went back; though I will do one day. The further we drove into France, the more we saw. Areas of land, a little back from the road; crosses and headstones, gates slightly open. We grew quieter and quieter as we drove – there was nothing to say as the enormity of it all swallowed us up. Seeing numbers is one thing, seeing the land and what remains is another.

…dew drenched blossom, and the scent
Of summer gardens; these can bring you all
Those dreams that in the starlit silence fall:…
S.Sassoon – The Dream

“We cannot Lord thy purpose see, but all is well that is done by thee.”

The day before the 100 year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria – I returned from my week long France trip with my grandmother and uncle. Together we visited several cemeteries, both commonwealth and German, we saw the Menin Gate, the Thiepval Memorial, along with the Newfoundland Regiment memorial and the Australian one at Pozieres. Each of the places we visited, from Ypres in Belgium to Amiens and Armentieres will always hold a place in my heart.

Originally, my plan was to return from France and post a lengthy blog about my trip. It’s been over a year since I returned now and I still struggle to find the words to encapsulate that week. There have been countless books written about the first world war, there have been plays and novels inspired by it, works of art and sculpture and other creative endeavours – and yet I cannot find the words that fit my own experience. Or at least, I cannot find the words to talk about all of it at once.

Therefore, I have decided to write a series of posts about the different parts of France (and Belgium) that we saw. Snapshots, vignettes, in a sense I suppose, of a week that affected me so profoundly and so completely that I don’t believe I shall ever forget a moment of it. There are mementos that I have; several postcards, a small pin-badge, my uncle’s drawings and some pressed petals of a poppy between my notebook. I have diary entries of my own, photographs and lines of scrawled writing – epitahs that hit me particularly hard, names and dates and ages of boys (and men) that lingered long in my memory.

I have these concrete things, and yet none of them will ever quite compare to the feeling of being in France that week. Nothing will quite compare to watching the sun go down behind the Thiepval Memorial. Nothing will ever quite compare to sitting in one of the beautifully maintained graveyards in the hot, June sunshine, looking out at the rows of white headstones. Nothing will ever compare to driving down the roads in France and seeing memorial after memorial, some of them no more than a few meters away from each other. No written word or object will ever encapsulate that week in June for me.

One of the epitahs that stuck with me that summer, and has done ever since, is the one I have used to title this post. It comes from the grave of Walter Dyer. Drummer of the Norfolk Regiment.

The Sainsbury’s Christmas advertisement..

It’s gearing up to that time of year again – the Christmas advertisements are out in full force this year. Many companies seem to be taking their cue from the John Lewis advertisement. There’s always hype around it – what will it be this year? I believe it’s a penguin, last year it was a hibernating bear which featured in the segment (I will here admit that I am a rather soppy, emotional individual and therefore I cried at it). This year, there are more and more seasonal advertisements. It began with Coca Cola, extended to John Lewis, Boots and now it seems that Sainsbury’s supermarket want to cash in on this.

Fair enough, one might say. They are the same as any other company – out to make money and to persuade people to buy Christmas groceries from them as opposed to another outlet. Okay – that’s fine. Such is the nature of the society we live in today.

What I do not believe is fine however, is Sainsbury’s use of the Christmas Truce that occurred in 1914. Whether or not it actually did happen is a debate for qualified historians, but it has risen to mythological status within the minds of the public and will therefore not be dislodged by however many well meaning academics. It is perhaps slightly whimsical, warming even, to think of a moment of humanity in the midst of such a horrible event – a chink of light in what would become some of the darkest years known to those who lived through them. We want to cling to this image and fiercely too.

Now, I know I said I would try and avoid anything incendiary on this blog, but I feel extremely strongly about this and it therefore warrants a post.

I will first say that I understand the sentiment behind the piece and I also know that the Royal British Legion (see their tweets regarding the ad here) were a part of creating the advertisement. This is purely my own opinion with regards to what I believe. If you have an alternate view, please do send a comment and I am perfectly happy to discuss this. Debate makes for a happy historian.

Secondly – it is a very well filmed advertisement. The cinematography is beautiful and the acting on the part of those involved is superb. There is a great deal communicated in very few lines. The Germans are portrayed in a light that makes them human which is something that even now, some people seem to forget and simply look at them as the opposing “Other”, the inherently evil enemy who sought to destroy ‘our boys.’ I daresay that had this not been an advertisement, and instead a short film or a part from a larger drama, I would be singing its praises from the rooftops.

The problem I have with the advertisement is this – it makes me feel horribly, awfully uncomfortable. To me, it is painfully inappropriate. The First World War is here, being used to sell something. It is being used as a commercial tool and that is what I find inherently disrespectful about it. Men did not sit in trenches, in the freezing cold French winters, for their image to be used a hundred years down the line to sell chocolate. It cheapens the experience of those men and that is not what we need to do.

The First World War is being used for political fodder, the use of poppies to remember is something else that is up for debate now – whether or not the installation of poppies at the tower sanitises the amount of death and horror and allows us to look at it and then simply move on – and now this.

I fully understand what they were trying to do, but sadly in my eyes, Sainsburys have failed.