a post about nothing in particular

catsFirst of all, today is the 100th Anniversay of the Battle of Jutland -a battle I knew very little about until recently. It is something which I hope to do a post on at a later date, so please excuse my posting ‘schedule’ in not being quite as timely as one might wish at the present moment.

May has been a very, very quiet month for blogging for me, and I’m not entirely sure why – other things (namely real life) rather got in the way of regular posting and then I seemed to be without very much to say. I do have a couple of posts coming up; one a review of a conference I attended at the Wellcome Trust in London and another.. well, that’s a surprise!

I’m also pleased to say that ~my exhibition (still feels a little odd saying that) is currently on display at a local primary school! There is a longer blog post about it here, if that takes your fancy, though I did blather on about it rather a lot.

Further to this, for my final year at University, I’ll be taking a module entitled Europe in an Age of Total Warfare, led by Dr. Holger Afflerbach – so  that’s something else I’ll doubtless be posting about when I have the time. It covers the First World War from outbreak to post-war feeling and then from there onto the outbreak of the Second World War until its close and the resulting representation in post-war culture. I’m also planning on completing my dissertation on something related to WW1 – an idea I’ve been vaguely floating around is one on the Unknown Soldier and the general post-war attitudes to death, grieving and remembrance and how they differ to ours today; or if they differ at all. It might not be feasible to do an entire 12,000 word dissertation on that, but there are plenty of other aspects of WW1 to go at.

I am also currently reading a book by Juliet Nicolson, The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Britain in the Shadow of the Great War. This book looks at post-war Britain and it’s collective progress through the stages of grief along with several other chapters up until the silence of 11th November 1920. It is incredibly interesting to read about the silence that permeated the country in the days and weeks after the armistice. There is also an incredibly detailed chapter on facial reconstruction.

Within one of the first chapters, there is the testimony of Maude Onions (someone who I first came across whilst studying a-level literature..). As a young woman during the war, she was a signaller with the WAAC. Maude was the lady who typed out the fateful message of ‘Hostilities will cease at 11am. November 11th. Troops will stand fast at the line reached at that hour which will be reported to Army HQ. Defensive precautions will be maintained. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy.’ This message was sent at 8am and Maude recalls that ‘3 hours later, [I] took an involuntary glance at the clock’ and she saw that the moment the world had been waiting for had finally happened, yet all there was around her was silence, a world too exhausted to rejoice. Maude looked upon it as though ‘France had just heaved a vast sigh of relief.’

The Great Silence really is a fascinating book and I am only halfway through it myself (though my opinion may change!) It can be purchased here.

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truth and memory: british art of the first world war

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Today, I visited the exhibition Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at York Art Gallery – this is a small review. Not all paintings and works are mentioned, as there were a lot and I could not fit them all in.

The first room of the downstairs gallery is laid out exactly as Gallery III was in 1919 at the Royal Academy of Art. The exhibition, The Nation’s War Paintings and Other Records, in 1919 contained 925 paintings, sculptures and other pieces of art in various styles, though in York there are significantly less pieces. Gallery III contained the grandest official commissions from the war and the overall idea behind the original exhibit was to have an artistic memorial to the war. It contained work by younger artists – they had been the generation to bear the burden of war; their work would be the most truthful and most affecting.
The York exhibition runs through three linked rooms, each split into sections with their own titles. When walking in, I was struck by the scale of the works which were on display – the small busts of various figures were dwarfed by the paintings on each wall – the canvases huge and striking, even in a large space.

There are paintings from medics, such as Stanley Spencer who worked in Salonika, and later on in the exhibition – there is also work from women. The first piece I saw was Henry Lamb’s Irish Troops in the Judaean Hills Surprised By A Turkish Bombardment. The huge canvas captures the disorganisation of troops when confronted with the attack – the strain in two soldier’s faces visible in the lower corner while the rest of them are left reeling, crouched in the stones. The tents, arranged in solemn rows seem innocuous amongst the chaos, unmoved.
There is also George Clausen’s Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal. His is a romantic evocation of the production of weapons – an avoidance of the dirty and dangerous reality of such work. His men are granted nobility in the ethereal light which is simultaneously the dawning of a new era. The workers are graceful in their movements almost, yet many are faceless – the machine is the centrepiece. Certainly not a truthful rendition of the actuality of working in a factory at the time.

A few busts by various artists are dotted about the room, seemingly at random. Georges Clemenceau is posted near the door – his features pensive and worried. Sergeant DF Hunter, VC is at the back of the room, his gaze frank and unapologetic. Hunter’s bust was intended as a memorial to all Scottish VC awardees. Hunter is portrayed without rank or insignia, rendering him an everyman. The only mention of a woman in this first room is a bust of Dr. Elsie Inglis by the sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. They seemed to be vaguely placed throughout the space, almost an afterthought.

The next section is more of a ‘themed’ part – entitled Perspectives of Battle. This is more landscape based and it is interesting to see how each different artists captured the land before them, how they communicated the destruction that had occurred. Orpen’s piece, Thiepval, is striking for its use of white – that on first glance is snow and the second one realises that there are two entangled skeletons of German soldiers. There are other examples of Orpen’s work throughout the gallery, some showcasing a nightmare world with an absence of pity, a lone crucifix standing as a reproof to God. He shows the harsh reality  of war and its effect on the landscape in his work, not shying away from portraying remains. There are not just paintings of the French front however. Sidney Carline’s The Trail of War, 1919 looks at the destruction of a Turkish aerodrome – the wrecked, skeletal remains of aircraft are left like slain animals, firmly bound to the land, an antithesis to flight.

I am not overly one for landscapes, so there were few which drew my attention in this section and made me pause. The first was Paul Nash’s Wire. The tangled mess is nightmarish, yet striking in its intensity, the barbed wire more like some sort of weed, snaking its way across the landscape, choking everything in its path. The second was Nevison’s Paths of Glory. In person, the wire glints in the light, almost like spun gold – the danger of it unclear. What is most interesting about this piece is that it was originally banned from display due to its depiction of two dead British soldiers. Nevison was originally lauded for his representation of “a more intense reality” and I must say I did find myself drawn to it, lingering somewhat. Another of Nevison’s works which was banned from display was his Group of Soldiers – this time due to his depiction, not of any horror or trauma, but instead because the men he depicted were not aesthetically pleasing. His subjects, the everymen, the ordinary soldiers, were deemed to be too “ugly” to be put on display. Instead, I thought his piece to be simple – yet affecting. The soldier’s features are rounded and drawn from life.

The penultimate section was one entitled Sacrifice, Redemption and many of the paintings within are ones of grief and loss. Orpen’s To The Unknown Soldier in France was one which drew my eye, and then my interest. The painting is the final of three which Orpen was commissioned to produce to record the Peace Conference of 1919. Totalling £3000 it was one of the most costly commissions of the war. His depiction of the Unknown Soldier is endlessly grandiose until one reaches the coffin in the lower half of the painting, central and illuminated by a shaft of light from a far window. It is lonely within the space it occupies, the colours of the flag are garish. What is most interesting however, is that in the original painting, Orpen added two emaciated, semi-nude soldiers who guarded the coffin and two cherubs above: “after all the negotiations..the Armistice and Peace, the only tangible result is the ragged, unemployed soldier and the Dead.” It caused controversy when it was first displayed and the IWM would only accept the painting when the four figures were painted out. I do wonder what the original would have been like – all the more affecting in its contrast, one expects.

Within this section are also three portraits by Orpen of members of the RFC. The portraits are informal, the figures command the gaze of the viewer – and yet they are melancholy once one realises that one of the three men died several days after his portrait was painted and a second was wounded.

The final section is entitled the Forgotten Front – a title which I feel could have been rethought.The contents of this part encompass industry and the wider homefront – certainly in my view not a forgotten front. It does feel somewhat like an afterthought, but this is the only section in the gallery which contains work by women war artists and works which feature women. I was beginning to despair somewhat as I took in the rest of the exhibition! There is also only one painting in this section which contains POC – Indian soldiers recovering at Brighton Pavillion.
Anna Airy’s Women Working in a Gas Retort House is a far more realistic depiction of industry than Clausen’s romantic view. There is iron here, black and imposing, the fire bright orange and red, threatening and powerful all at once. Commissioned to produced four paintings depicting munitions production, Airy captures the machines and their workforce unapologetically; the women are on the factory floor and she does not shy away from this, skilfully depicting the change in society that has occurred – women occupying a men’s space.

Richard Jack’s Return to the Front is another staggering canvas – occupying one wall alone. The mass of faces and bodies bring the scale of the human cost sharply back into focus – each face is different. One wonders at the relationships – mothers and sons perhaps, sweethearts are visible. There is one lone nun amongst the crowd and in a lower corner in the foreground, a young man sits in his uniform from a Scottish regiment. He is gazing at something not seen by the viewer, lost in his own thoughts, his expression hard to place. There is no dread there, not on any of their faces, but there is on his perhaps a hint of worry, an attempt at self conviction.

The last work I want to comment on is Outside Charing Cross Station, July 1916  by J Hodgson Lobley. It is another immense piece, depicting Londoners watching the arrival of the wounded from the Somme. It is not a tender piece, but instead tackles a great mass of people. They stand at the roadside, peering at the ambulances. They hang out of windows, they sit upon signs and gaze at the convoy as it passes. One man reaches up into the cab of an ambulance and a wounded soldier looks back. The crowd are faceless, and yet amongst it all – there is a woman with her head in her hands – the grief clear.

Overall, I liked the exhibition – its mix of styles and depictions, not shying away from what had once been banned from display. Much of it was new work which I had not seen before, giving a fresh perspective, a new set of eyes and a rendition of another new experience. I came away from it newly appreciative. However, it would have been nicer to see a more equal balance of work split between male and female painters (though I’m not sure this would have been possible). It would also have been interesting to see more work from artists on fronts other than the Western Front.

War Horse

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As the National Theatre’s production of War Horse has left its London home for the final time, I thought that now would be a pertinent moment to write something about it.

I was lucky enough to see the play live when I turned eighteen and it’s something that I’ll never forget. There are so many moments that have lingered in my mind and that I still find myself thinking about – especially the point in the play when the foal Joey becomes the adult Joey. It’s a mastery of puppetry, technology and drama – full to the brim with feeling; soaring joy, amazement, wonder. It’s certainly the first time I have ever audibly gasped aloud and clutched at the armrests of my seat in reaction to a piece of drama.

These are the things which have stayed with me in the three years since I saw the play. First, the artistry that comes from the puppets. They’re so lifelike, it’s easy to forget about the men behind them. There are small nuances that make it all the more real – a flicker of an ear, a slight movement of the head, a gentle whickering sound. Second, the laughter that comes and lightens some of the moments, even when a little unexpected. The play is not misery after misery, far from it; but the balance is there, between laughter and the quieter moments that rest a little heavier on the audience – something which is welcome, I think.

When I saw the play, I found myself overwhelmed by it, my heart in my mouth and tears falling freely as the narrative unfolded on the stage, but it was such a release of emotion that it was cathartic – something I needed to do.

A relative saw the film a few weeks ago and said, “It’s so much more important, isn’t it? Once you’ve been to France..” and perhaps it does add something else to the piece, another sort of knowledge, a different perspective and a different focus. The book too was something completely new as far as WWI narratives go – told through the eyes of an animal. A different voice, a new experience – but it remains still fresh now, despite the wealth of stories that have been brought to the forefront.

In my eyes however, the play stands tall of its own accord – a wonderfully moving piece of drama that still leaves you with hope at the fall of the curtain.

a dear sacred voice;

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I am incredibly pleased to announce that my exhibition, Behind the Lines, looking at the war poetry of Leeds and the way in which the people of the City creatively responded to the war, has all been printed and delivered. It’s been an amazing two months putting it together, from investigating the work in our collections to writing interpretation and receiving the final proofs.

At present, the exhibition can be seen from 1st July at Leeds Central Library and then at Leeds City Museum during October half term. Keep an eye out here and on twitter for information of when and where it will be on display outside of these two dates.

If you, or anyone you know would be interested in displaying the exhibition or want to find out more, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me via twitter or email!

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

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!)