I gave a short talk in the Southbank Centre on Remembrance Sunday. Sir Andrew Motion began the day with a reading of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est, and the centrepiece was a performance of Britten’s War Requiem, chiefly featuring players representative of the age for military service. There’s a link at the end for the video that preceded that performance, a virtuoso bit of arts education. Between these two main events, numerous talks and workshops took place all over the Southbank Centre. Below you’ll find the notes for my talk, which some people have expressed an interest in reading.
The exhibition continues until 4th January 2015, and is open Tuesday – Sunday, 11am – 8pm
The Poetry Library, Level 5, Royal Festival Hall
(take the singing lift.)
An Unknown Soldier: Remembrance, Technology, Modernism
In the Old Testament, when God asks Cain about his brother’s whereabouts, and Cain says that he is not his brother’s keeper, God’s reply is very interesting. He says:
What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.
Cain then receives a mark, a memorial on his body of what he did. We’ve often seen new dimensions to this ancient story over the last few years as we’ve worked at the Henningham Family Press on this series of poems and prints entitled An Unknown Soldier.
The Henningham Family Press is the collaborative art and writing of my wife Ping, and myself. We write, print and bind our own books, and make them live through performances and readings.
We believe it is a vital function of art to commemorate wars. Yet in these works of Remembrance it is difficult not to sanitise and Romanticise the immediate past. It has become even more difficult because of the dehumanising effects of Industrial war in Europe with the Great War of 1914. This Industrial effect was at every level; factory produced munitions that were to be swallowed up by No-Man’s Land, industrial transport networks such as trains and iron ships to bring the soldiers to the Front, and industrial printing technology that would enable the propaganda to recruit a vast body of volunteers and the bureaucratic stationary needed to move them all. In the age of Henry V some men were not there on Crispins Day, and that was because of a lack of effective advertising.
When we realised we were making a piece of commemorative art, about the bodies of the fallen, we felt that the image of an intact fallen soldier, like Michelangelo’s statue of a Dying Slave, is too graceful. He appears to be swooning. But the real soldiers marched into No Man’s Land and disappeared. Their remains were bombarded year after year. These able bodied men became like a chorus of Abels crying out from the ground. This is why The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey is such an apt memorial; it testifies to the fact that the destruction wrought by the First World War is beyond our comprehension or healing power.
The Tomb contains the remains of a soldier who died early on in the war, but whose body had no identifying marks. After an elaborate process of selection and impromptu rituals, he arrived in London on November 11th, 1920 and brought the city to a standstill. It was a former Army padre, the Rev David Railton, who’d had the original idea, and Westminster and the King wavered over it for almost four years. But their enthusiasm and the public approval of the gesture increased to suddenly become the focal point of national grief. At midnight, carrying a lantern, Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt selected the body at random from four bodies that lay under Union Flags in a hut in Ypres. This chosen soldier was met by a flotilla of six ships with Naval honours reserved for the King, as if he were now King over England’s underside, and his funeral was attended by a battalion of widows and grieving mothers. The biggest crowd ever seen in London silently paid their respects and a quarter of London’s population came to stand by the Tomb and wonder if he were their family. But today the remains of the fallen cry out from the ground in a new way.
When I heard a report on the radio about an Anglo-Australian experiment identifying soldier’s remains using DNA, extracted from their teeth to match with known relatives, or even the saliva on envelopes from their letters home, it immediately occurred to me that we would probably never use these techniques to identify the Unknown Warrior. Yet by refraining from identifying him we would still be changing his significance underground. Because of our deliberate decision to not identify him, in itself a proper mark of respect, he might now also alert us to a reluctance to uncover the past and learn from it. Yet this is entirely in keeping with his calling. This new brush with DNA technology intensifies his warning to us, that we must avoid a dangerous faith in technology to resolve conflict on its own. He continues to raise the question, ‘why are we still so dependant on industrial warfare, despite our wealth and experience?’ It is very significant that an advance in technology has threatened this soldier again; he is sensitive to hubris.
“Lest we forget” is everywhere engraved in stone, and this has taught us to be reluctant to go to war. But it is tempting to obscure the engraving with a neon sign that can alternate between “lest we forget” and “forget”. The Cabinet, under the immense pressures of government, will feel this temptation. The public feel the same temptation to assume our advanced weaponry can provide a quick fix. It is Realpolitik like this that encouraged me to write the first part of An Unknown Soldier, ‘Preparatory Oratory’. It is a satire on political abuses of Remembrance rites, and also the inherent risk that Remembrance can produce mass amnesia rather than solidarity, if we feel satisfied by the event but do not continue on towards efforts for peace today, or as I put it in the poem:
From the picking up of The Sun to the putting of it down again, we will remember them.
But I feel this year has been good for us. Numerous astute Centenary events, such as this one here at the Southbank Centre, have marshalled our respect for this important occasion. They have reminded us of the history, re-evaluated the history, and preserved it. Thousands of engraved memorials have received both physical and intergenerational maintenance in 2014.
[What I would have added at this point, had I known about it at the time, is the threat the Coalition Government pose to our WW1 heritage. Massive cuts to budgets for the Imperial War Museum will force the closure of the library, dispersal of the archives, and cessation of many education initiatives that continue the cautionary spirit of Remembrance Day year round. Not to mention that, from what I’ve overheard when I am there, the IWM is a regular port of call for people active in the armed services trying to explain the pressures they face to their children. It will only cost £4m to keep this cautionary heritage alive. We spent £248 million bombing Libya, according to Chalmers, and according to Jane’s that would buy us 4 or 5 Storm Shadow cruise missiles, which are currently being used in the Middle East. Again. It would also keep a Tornado in the air for just 110 hours – a mere 13 days of museum opening. Meanwhile David Cameron wants the museum to permanently host some ceramic poppies from the Tower of London because he thinks it is “the right place for it to be.” Are we really going to let our government mark the WW1 Centenary by treating our own archives with the same contempt they showed the National Museum of Iraq? A priceless collection dispersed simply to balance a temporary glitch in our national fortunes?
It is a vital function of art to commemorate wars because words are the alternative to violence. Art nurtures ‘democratic communication’, a use of language that equips itself as it goes along to strengthen our local and international community. George Orwell reminds us that words can be also used as Political Language, which distorts the present and rewrites the past, but art that discloses our intentions, rather than veiling them, civilises us. Art frames and preserves our peace and passes it onto future generations.
This is the context we were working in for our poem ‘An Unknown Soldier’. Lots of prints have come out of this project now, and these are all on display here in the gallery of the Saison Poetry Library. These prints take quotes from the central poem and rework them. The Imperial paper sizes allow us to hint at call-up posters, postcards, martial instruction manuals. The kind of industrial print that facilitated a new kind of war. They all feature patterns we drew that hint at security envelopes – carrying both letters, and DNA code, home.
‘An Unknown Soldier’, though, is composed of three documents housed in a screenprinted wooden box. It begins with a poem of instruction, ‘Preparatory Oratory’. This pamphlet is equally influenced by the Book of Common Prayer and the Vorticist manifesto BLAST. The artist Wyndham Lewis edited this manifesto in 1914, attacking both the stuffy Edwardian values of England and the dehumanising machine worship of Futurist abstract art on the Continent. The words in the Vorticist manifesto congregate and tumble as if they are being expelled from a whirlpool. This vortex is the individual human spirit of invention and reinvention.
The second part of our poem is a screenprinted text of thirteen panels. We imagined the remains of the fallen Soldier being called up from the earth for a second time, like the no-men of no-man’s land speaking all at once, recruited by you as you read the body of text. Confused by your proposal, as the recruiting sergeant, he takes you on a tour of no-man’s land, which is both his kingdom and his body, saying:
Un est something uf n master-path smith;
one foot n hammer, nuh other n anvil.
His dialect is a kind of hopeless Esperanto, a corrupted jumble of English, French, German, Flemish, and Latin. The conjunctions have decayed the most to leave the more solid vocabulary like disjointed bones. His personal pronoun is the nugatory ‘Un’, and the normal determiner a is replaced with the non-specific algebraic term n. In this way we have made the individual words in a sentence have a destabilising effect on each other and they tend towards uncertainty, like Dada. The more uplifting vowel sounds have been eliminated, creating a sombre percussive sound for the tongue and restricting the jaw movements of the reader. We also invented new letter forms, similar to the Vorticist art and Dazzle Camouflage of Edward Wadsworth from that period. He was employed as a camoufleur to create bright, disorienting patterns that were reproduced on warships and confounded First World War optics. In our font, slabs like limestone headstones are penetrated by various prisms to create voids and negative spaces that resemble both glyphs and trenches. These fragments of visual poetry cut into the page and simultaneously emphasise and mute the text, a kind of dumb shouting that hints at the important message repeated by the inarticulate warrior. These occur at all the key locations in his body.
In fact the position of the stanzas on the wall reflects the human frame like a mirror. For example, the phrase ‘Red Giant’ describes a dying star hovering over no-man’s land, and also shows where his heart used to be. ‘The Capital’ is at his belly, then he takes you on to ‘The Nobiskrug’ in his stomach, which is the little known legendary tavern on the road to hell. This is where he and his friends spend the ferryman’s wages on one last drink. The Nobiskrug, or ‘hourglass’, is a memento mori. It reminds us that life, just like a refreshing pint of beer, will come to an end and our glass will be collected, no matter how well we nurse it. Then you progress on to the ‘Semen’s Mission’, an absurd mixture between clinic and nightclub, where the soldier discusses the lost generation. Finally the ‘Labour Exchange’, at the knee, is where Miners arrived and exchanged their pits for trenches. This place continues to act as a portal between life and death, all the time receiving new recruits for the life underground who bring news of future wars.
Many horrors were never put into words, and there is a void at the heart of the stories recounted in An Unknown Soldier like no-man’s land itself. Part three of the poem, ‘Funeral, March’, is a triptych of verses that reflect on the legacy for my family, bound as a small Order of Service. It concludes with this affirmation of my enduring hope in technology; the tale of Grandad Jack, a veteran and an Engineer who made a copying machine. Machinery that proliferates life-giving words instead of killing boys and men. It goes:
At Roneo Works
who I never met,
in his capacity as a toolmaker
constructed one of the first copying machines.
Many of the engineers gathered
to look at the marvellous blueprints
plotting constellations of cogs and gears
placed with uncommon precision
by the commissioning mathematician.
His clarity of vision
for this mimeographic microcosmos
suggested he could handle
the responsibility of the skies
as Jack was also called,
performed an equal marvel
in that the machine worked first time
with no recourse to engineer’s blue
and no need of fine tuning.