Today I visited the Beckenham war memorial remembrance Sunday gathering. The was a reading of several moving tributes to local service men, local families, scout groups, sea cadets and other military personal stood in silence to remember those that gave their lives for peace.
At the end everyone sang the William Blake poem;
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land
This song, the trumpets and singing brought a sense of hope and deep emotions to an otherwise sombre event. The poem by William Blake turned into a hymn, tells of the idea of ‘Jerusalem’ a metaphor for heaven, being here in England. The words make us identify with those who fought bravely, and did not give up, in order to protect our country.
I saw several people shed a tear whilst listening to the speakers and the singing.
During half term I took my mum and son to see the Tower installation ‘Blood swept lands and seas of red’ it was inspirational to see so many people all gathering to pay their respects. I was amused at how the art world had practically completely blanked this immensely successful installation (apart from one AN review when it was first opened, which acknowledged its presence but very carefully avoided endorsing it). Then Jonathon Jones wrote a short review completely trashing the work, suggesting that it condones war, and saying it was a ‘ukip-style memorial’. Is being popular with the public, and art world approval mutually exclusive, I wonder? The guardian article got 2544 comments, which mostly told Mr. Jones to shut up. I personally think his opinions on the artworks merit are irrelevant, and he is missing the point.
What matters is the fact that the work has inspired so many people to pay their respects. It has created an iconic image, a place of pilgrimage, a moment in history which people from all walks of life can connect with. Very few pieces of contemporary art can genuinely claim to have this sort of impact on so many people.
As I contemplate what gesture of tribute I can make, i realise what huge responsibility this is; to mark the death of a soldier. How can anyone do something that has equivalent value? How can I avoid cliche and shallow sentiment?
I certainly think it helps to try and connect with the personal story of war. The individual lives and the little evidence we have of them.
I tried to explain to my 7 year old son why we need to go and stand in silence by the memorial, with lots of other children all looking a bit bored or unsure. I found it helped to show him the picture of his great grandad, Arthur Mollett, who was a soldier in WW2.
He died when my dad was 10, so i never met him, and only hear stories of what a fantastic dad and husband he was. I was quite moved recently when i discovered his war diary amongst my Nan’s old photographs and things, whilst looking for something under the stairs.
It was a tiny booklet, smaller than my hand, hidden inside an address book cover. His hand writing is so neat and small. It contains lots of random detail, for example what he spent his pay on, his shift hours or where he was stationed that day.
One of the most moving entries was; *Peter born 8.40pm*. He must have been somewhere in Belgium when my father was born. I imagine how tough it was for him not to be with his pregnant wife and for her to be alone in a hospital somewhere.
I show the diary to my son to help him understands why it is important to remember.