Reading Saturday’s Guardian, I became aware for the first time of a bit of a spat between a Guardian columnist and the Daily Mail. These spats are not particularly unusual; the Mail specialises in splenetic outbursts and is notoriously sensitive to any assaults on anything it identifies as national pride.
So although I have some sympathy with the columnist who found himself accused of sneering at the poppies in the moat, I don’t think he should have been surprised. I didn’t see his original piece, just the response to the Mail’s denunciation. Think popes of middle ages and threats of eternal damnation and you get the picture.
The columnist feels the poppies are essentially saccharine; a comfortable ‘toothless’ display that sweeps the murderous truths of war ‘under a red carpet of artificial flowers’.
Predictably the Mail thinks this disses the dead. The lines are drawn up in drearily familiar style.
Short of banging their heads together in the hope that some of the molecules will be knocked into life and get these two protagonists to see sense, it’s probably best to ignore them. I freely admit I haven’t read the whole of the Mail’s outburst. Reading anything bar the weather in the Mail is something I prefer not to do. As a publication (like Linda Smith, I cannot bring myself to call it a newspaper) it depresses me enormously. That said, the columnist Jonathan Jones doesn’t exactly make me want to watch out for more of his writing. Without the picture by his byline, I could have thought him an adolescent; grimly serious about his views, convinced that these are the correct ones, the rest of us idiots, and quick to condemn others. Rather like the Mail in fact.
I think he has just missed the point that this one of many commemorations to mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Each commemoration remembers the war in a different way. This one uses the poppy, our symbol of remembrance to bring home the size of the losses suffered by the British and Colonial forces; 888,246 people. A big number on paper, but the reality of that number is shockingly and movingly made real by the sea of poppies. I have met Germans who wish there were something similar in their country; voluble Italians rendered speechless by the sight (and that was over a month ago where there were fewer poppies); French visitors asking where they can buy their own paper or enamel poppies to wear. As we see more deaths around the world, as our troops continue to be deployed, the poppies touch a nerve. For the men these poppies represent we know there are many many more, both here and throughout the world. Wars mean death on grand scales.
I believe you reach more people, make more people aware of the savagery and ravages of war by this poppy display than by shoving pictures of worm infested skulls in their faces. People stand silent and solemn. Of course there is the selfie crowd, grinning inanely into their phone cameras to prove they were there. There, but quite missing the point.
Last week we had our poetry group and the theme was remembrance. It struck me reading the poems written by First World War poets how angry many of them were. Sassoon is my favourite war poet, and he sears the jingoistic supporters of the carnage he has witnessed at first hand. Yet I cannot imagine him spurning Paul Cummins’ installation. Rather I can imagine him sorrowful and mourning, angry for the loss of life, and fiercely proud of the soldiers who died so needlessly. To remember and to honour them is not to sanitise the war.
For those of you who have no idea what I am on about, the moat at the Tower of London has slowly been filling with handmade ceramic poppies. In the UK we wear poppies as our symbol of remembrance each year. It started as a symbol to remember those who died in the First World War which was supposed to end all wars. However we human beings do not learn lessons easily, and wars have continued to feature. So now poppies commemorate all those who have perished in conflicts this country has been involved in from 1914 to the present day.
My work takes me to the Tower on a fairly regular basis and each time I go I take photographs. Each time I see the installation I am struck by the huge loss of life it represents. Yet this is just a fraction of the number of lives lost in the First World War.
If that doesn’t make you think, nothing will.