For the past four years the organisation 14-18 NOW has been commissioning arts projects around the UK to mark the centenary of World War One. Certainly not all have been afforded equal attention – the national media have given most publicity to the ceramic poppies installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Tom Piper and Paul Cummins and the film They Shall Not Grow Old by Peter Jackson – but many of us tend to see any increased public and private funding of the arts as, in general, a good thing.
It was therefore quite stimulating to hear one serious dissenting voice, that of journalist and author Simon Jenkins. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron allocated £50 million to the work of 14-18 NOW to commemorate World War One, he observed acerbically, while at the same time as he was encouraging the country to join a present-day war in Syria. “125 artists rallied to the cause,” he said – his use of the vocabulary of military recruitment almost certainly not accidental. Jenkins’ main argument on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze was that large government-sanctioned arts and cultural events to mark historical anniversaries were becoming too common and were “synthetic” and even “slightly obscene”. Historians rather than artistes were more skilled in the delicate tasks of remembering and forgetting which constituted the true process of recording history. Of course, Jenkins’ position is a generalisation: not all writers of history books are equally rigorous and incisive and analytical, while many creative artistes certainly display those qualities. Governments are usually most comfortable with artistes who seem to fit a familiar stereotype.
Danny Boyle is certainly a well-known and successful film director, and already establishment-approved for his 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony show. He was the leader of the most recent 14-18 NOW project, Pages of the Sea, in which faces of war veterans were drawn on the sand of many UK beaches.
One of the beaches selected was at Ayr on the west coast of Scotland. Here are some photographs of the Ayr event, co-directed by the National Theatre of Scotland. The principal “official” sand drawing was of one Walter Tull, but members of the public were encouraged to draw and identify their own family members.
The incoming tide eventually erased the pictures as people gathered to read in unison a new Carol Ann Duffy poem “The Wound in Time”.
As the Poet Laureate during the past nine years, Carol Ann Duffy is also an establishment figure but one who has displayed a wide range of literary and other skills. “The Wound in Time” is her second World War One commemoration poem, after “Last Post” in 2009.
Both borrow gently from Wilfred Owen in creating powerful new ideas. “Last Post”, which has the more straightforward structure and so reads more crisply and clearly, yearns for the power to erase the gas attack which Owen described so vividly in “Dulce et Decorum Est”, and to return its soldiers to the pre-war life of health, home, work and happiness. In the denser “The Wound in Time”, the repetition of the sounds of the present participle “-ing” and the sibilant “s” simulate waves on the beach: not only do they fail to clean the horrible bloody events from history, they serve as a reminder that human beings’ violent warlike behaviour continues incessantly.