Last Word (For A Year) On Poppies and Memory

By coincidence, I spent November 11th in London. I had the pleasure of addressing a group of Christian business people over dinner about a new initiative created by other Christian business people that would fix capitalism without having to change too much about capitalism.

I got the impression that my theological perspective was underwhelming.

The meal was lovely, in a private dining room of one of the finest restaurants in London. I had worn a suit and shoes all day. By dinner I longed for the comfort of an old pair of New Balances. Instead, I sat and watched my words and small-talked like the king of extroverts, a polished imitation of myself.

On the long commute back to the business hotel on the edge of town, across the river from the airport I was escaping from the next morning, I thought about the conversation I got to listen in on but I also thought about the display of 800,000+ handmade ceramic poppies representing all the British soldiers that died during the Great War (or less contentiously, the First War for Iraq). For a few weeks, ending that day, this exhibition served as a moat to the Tower of London. This is what they looked like on that grey, exhausting, London afternoon:

Tower of London poppies

War made us who we are
Three things struck me from my visit to the exhibition. The first is that there is truth to the claim that the fighting in World War I made modern Britain possible. Admitting that does not justify anything like the sort of pornographic delusion that passes for remembrance (see: Sainsburys) at the moment.

You can still pay heed to the truth of history (that World War I was actually a murderous slaughter that no one can explain, never mind justify) and grant that the trajectory of 20th Century Britain was forged on the fields of Flanders. Britain let go of its Empire but held itself together and it entered the 21st Century playing a disproportionately central role in the affairs of the world.

As you turned around in a circle from the poppies you saw the signs of London’s spectacular golden age. The profits made by the legal and financial firms in the city of London has sparked a generation of remarkable prosperity. As people tried to recall the past, they were surrounded by the super-abundance of the present. Within sight of where I took that photo, I had a good view of the new London City Hall, the Shard, the Gherkin, and the Walkie Talkie – all acclaimed masterpieces of contemporary architecture.

London contemporary architecture

Each and every one of those buildings and the thousands of others that have sprung up – glass and steel and towering, or trapezoidal and sleek – is paid for by the kind of economic reorganisation that happened because a million young men died in trenches in Belgium.

Tourists and Pilgrims
I also thought about my friend Eoin O’Mahony, who has done such excellent thinking on pilgrimage and secularisation. There were thousands of people at the Tower of London – many tourists who probably would have visited regardless but also hundreds of locals, wandering by after business lunches. From a simple reading of the poppy art display, this was a huge success as an act of remembrance. But the words we used to justify that verdict are the words that call it into question.

It was a successful act of remembrance because so many tourists came to visit it. But as the theologian William Cavanaugh reminds us, “tourism is the aesthetic of globalisation in both its economic and political forms.” To be a tourist is to be privileged and uprooted. Only the wealthy tours. The poor are not tourists, but migrants. The only tourism globalisation allows them is “welfare tourism” bullshit. The tourist is away from home and away from allegiances. Everyday they decide their itinerary and are bound only by what they want to do.

Tourists cannot remember.

This is why tourists spend so much time taking photos of themselves, because the event must be recalled since it can’t be remembered. I don’t know the context and history and human real-ness of the Buddhist temples I visited in Thailand. What I do not know, I cannot remember. I take photos to recall the thoughts I had while there, which were thoughts foreign to the places.

The tourist is not illegitimate in any way, but the tourist is not the rememberer.

In among the thousands of selfie-shooters (including me grabbing that panorama), were a much smaller of much older men, usually with walking sticks, sometimes in wheelchairs and often accompanied by women – wives, daughters, carers? They were all dressed in suits. They were all wearing poppies. Many of them had tears in their eyes. They were pilgrims. They are not veterans of the 1914-1918 war, since they have all died. But they were men who knew the horror of combat and they came to see this beautiful and elaborate testimony to the fact that whatever the ethics or the politics or the damned stupidity of it all, people – the taxpayers like my wife who funded the art and the tourists like me who photographed it – people acknowledge that soldiers have done a job that no one should reasonably be asked to do. The losses incurred, the pain and agony and trauma and death are not honoured by our efforts but the effort is made nonetheless.

I realised standing there that the difference between tourist and pilgrim is the difference between Remembrance as it is done in the UK and how it should be done. The problem with how the church jumps in to Poppy activity could be described as the problem of the church pretending to be a pilgrim, when it is a tourist.

Modern art for Dummies Nations
Finally, I thought about the power of the stories of war and nation to subvert everything. Modern art can do things that no other medium can do. By any understanding of it, this was installation art. It was the kind of art that the Daily Mail despises. Except this particular work can be read off straightforwardly to mean one thing about sacrifice and nation. It means that a lot of blood swept the fields of Europe and it had something to do with war. Hence there was a sea of red flowing out of the Tower of London.

It was entitled Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red, from a poem that was written anonymously and is curiously free from the specific voice that marks so much of the great poetry of that age. It speaks in soft, diffuse, sentimental terms about about how God’s tears fall in anguish and how the time approaches “To sleep and cry no more.”

Grand. But in World War I, people didn’t go to sleep when shells hit their trenches.

They died.

The stories of war and nation subvert even the most stubborn modes of expression we have at our disposal (maybe modern dance is even more resistant to simplification), turning everything into feeling. The contradictory, incoherent, hard and bloody truth of our lives gets boiled down to an essence that you can wear on your lapel. The exhibition is beautiful. It is elegant. The craftsmanship is astonishing and the visual is arresting. Still it is neutered.

If war and nation sterilizes modern art, it will have no difficulty co-opting your 75 minute long worship service, however carefully planned, whatever contemporary praise songs you decide to sing.

I took the train back to my hotel. It raced out of the city, leaving the spires of finance behind, past the Olympic village, out into the first round of suburbs where people struggle to make ends meet. There were no Porsches here. No lunch at Harrods. No private dining rooms in fancy restaurants. But I can know for sure that there were flats where I would find the empty beds of men and women gone for a long time. They are away at war. I bounced from airport to hotel to restaurant to hotel to airport. I was a tourist. They are not pilgrims but servants.

The Tower of London poppies should have been mowed down by tanks. They should have been shattered by drone strikes. Instead they were sold off to charity. The funds will go to care for veterans, since the UK government doesn’t cover the full cost of rehabilitation. People bought them thinking that was a good deed, thinking those poppies are beautiful, displaying them on the mantelpiece or in a cabinet in their living rooms. The soldiers beds might never be occupied again. The soldiers will ensure other beds of other people in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria are never occupied again. Those wars too will be remembered with public art.

Meanwhile, we’ll keep trying to fix capitalism from inside.

Your Correspondent, A veteran only of the Cola wars

3 Replies to “Last Word (For A Year) On Poppies and Memory”

  1. The Yugoslav monuments are actually an excellent parallel, I think. Their undoubted beauty and stunning craftsmanship doesn’t allow them to transcend their very instrumentalised birth.

    What is different about the Tower Poppies is that they are temporary. And there is something in that about the difference between ultramodern globalisation and 20th Century Iron Curtain socialism. There was an ambition behind the USSR, even if it was flawed to begin with and perverted beyond all recognition by the end. Our politics has no end goal, no purpose, nothing anyone believes in with any permanency (the “change” Obama asked Americans to believe in has not quite come about!).

    What is permanent is change. The temporary nature of the poppies means it won’t even leave ruins to be contemplated in the future. The lawn of the moat around the Tower will be back to normal when the next tourist season starts next year. There is some insight I am not smart enough to achieve about what we remember, what we aim for, and how very different the age we live in is from the ages before.

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