Monthly Archives: November 2013

Changing remembrance


One November night many years ago, I watched a conversation on the BBC Newsnight programme about the imminent Remembrance Sunday. “When do you think we will stop being so affected by World War One ?” asked the presenter. His academic interviewee replied, “When we stop studying  World War One poetry in school.”

Reading Jon Silkin’s anthology The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry has certainly been instructive for me, especially in introducing  poems like Edmund Blunden’s  “1916 seen from 1921”  and  “Report on Experience” ,  Ivor Gurney’s  “The Bohemians”  and  “Butchers and Tombs”   ,  Edgell Rickword’s   “The Soldier Addresses His Body”  and “Winter Warfare”  , and Wilfred Owen’s “Disabled”.



The French and Belgian countrysides of the former World War One battlefields are full of cemeteries both huge and grand and (as here) small and intimate.


All the poets in Silkin’s collection are long dead, but the conflict’s influence extends into the literature of the present day. Natalie Haynes, one of the Man Booker Prize judges this year, commented about the large number of novels submitted which were set during or around either of the two World Wars. Perhaps people should be banned from studying these periods at school for the next generation, she observed wryly.

Evidence abounds of the allure of World War One in particular. The narrative of Downton Abbey opened in 1912, and continued through the war and into the 1920s. R.C. Sherriff’s trenches drama from the period,  Journey’s End, was recently revived in London and on national tour. Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel War Horse has become a globally successful theatre show and a Hollywood blockbuster film, and his similarly set Private Peaceful is only slightly less famous.



Belgian and British soldiers side by side in this cemetery in Hoogstade.


During the last decade media fascination focussed especially on the few centenarians still living who had fought in World War One, such as Henry Allingham, Harry Patch and Claude Choules. These men have all now died, but the forthcoming war centenary plans suggest that interest is not abating even though no one still lives who had personal experience of it.

When I was young, I fancied that the militarism and belligerence which seemed prevalent would naturally disappear as the post-1945 period extended. The war experiences of that generation of politicians appeared to influence heavily their policy choices. In turn, those born after World War Two who missed National Service led the protests against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons, and argued for the advantages in the new post-imperial order.

I was mistaken. Although the British families today who have direct experience of war are happily in the minority, compared to being in the overwhelming majority in the 1920s and the 1950s, interest in past and present conflict continues to be strong. Perhaps it is because direct experience is rarer that stories of individual heroism and suffering are publicised so much more; doubtless responsible too are the ever-improving visual techniques with which the media is able to depict them.  This understandable sympathy for individual experience has grown alongside a tolerance of the political policies responsible which is more puzzling, especially since the responsible leaders have had no combat experience themselves.

One striking example of this sympathy has been the marked growth in popularity of the Poppy Appeal and the Two Minute Silence. Somewhere during the 1990s began the practice of two days of remembrance rather than one, the actual day of November 11 as well as the nearest Sunday.  The tabloid press played a big part in this change although there may also have been successful lobbying by the Royal British Legion. Poppy wearing had already become ubiquitous on TV but now the red flower’s picture appeared on every newspaper front page. The Poppy Appeal was now launched by young pop music performers rather than elderly men wearing uniforms and medals. Possibly it was felt that the military charities should share in the youthful fund-raising habit which had already been established by Children in Need and Comic Relief.

Like many people, I find the historical period before, during and after World War One a fascinating one from all social, political and cultural perspectives, especially since a visit to some of the battlefield sites in France and Belgium. So, perhaps we should stay optimistic that any war centenary events during the next few years will provide opportunities for education and enrichment rather than for embarrassment and annoyance.



Talbot House, the club for British soldiers of all ranks, which was set up in Poperinge in 1915.



Some visitors to Talbot House at the piano, watched over by some of the previous residents.


Back to poetry to conclude : I think Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s “Last Post” is an imaginative twist on regret for the horrendous destruction of World War One.


Reference : Silkin, Jon (ed)  (1996)  The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (2nd ed revised)    London : Penguin


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More Manchester – the Royal Exchange Theatre


The National Theatre,  subject of much media coverage currently because of its 50th anniversary,  opened its building on the South Bank in London in 1976. That same year saw the opening of another theatre which is also still thriving: the Royal Exchange in Manchester.



The Manchester Royal Exchange was the subject of a great deal of building and rebuilding in its time, and this frontage actually dates from the time of World War One.


The auditorium is a multi-angled theatre in the round built inside the classical proportions of the former cotton exchange.  When I saw an Arena TV programme about the theatre at the time of its opening 30-plus years ago, it seemed like a really startling avant-garde design, and, on my visiting it recently for the first time, it fully lived up to my expectations.




The steel and glass auditorium inside the former trading hall, with some of the latter’s information boards still intact on the wall, complement each other sympathetically.





The Royal Exchange closed in 1968, but these trading boards were retained as the building changed its use.





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The reds of Manchester


Can it really be the case that most of the foreign visitors to Manchester are drawn to the home city of the globally famous Manchester United football club, rather than to its many other historical and cultural connections such as Peterloo, Marx and Engels, the Industrial Revolution, Pankhurst, Lowry, the Hallé Orchestra, the Smiths and the Stone Roses?

If so, then it is surely appropriate that the city’s brilliant Victorian and Edwardian architecture includes, in addition to classical and gothic stone exteriors, many buildings in red brick, whether huge hotels, warehouses and university buildings or more modest terraces.


The Midland Hotel, built opposite the former Manchester Central railway station.



Two views (here and below) of the Sackville Street building of the University of Manchester.



Lancaster House, a former commercial warehouse.



Formerly part of Manchester Grammar School, this building is now part of Chetham’s School of Music.



Although most widely known as a fire station, this building opposite Piccadilly railway station also housed a coroner’s court, a police station and an ambulance station.



St Mary’s Catholic Church, known as “The Hidden Gem” after a description by a bishop in the 19th century. This building dates from the 1840s, but the parish originates from 1794.



Part of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, with the former fish market on the right and adjoining shops.



Hanging Ditch Buildings opposite Manchester Cathedral.



From this direction, the red bricks of the former warehouse Chepstow House are somewhat overwhelmed by the green tiled facade of the Peveril of the Peak pub.



Finally, an unidentified warehouse on Princess Street across from Manchester Town Hall.


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