In 2014 we have been continually reminded that this is the centenary of the start of The Great War. During my school days, which do indeed seem like an entire lifetime ago now, I was remarkably interested in this conflict – for reasons unknown at the time. I think I was probably around twelve or so when I first became aware of the fact that the entire world had been at war with each other on two mighty occasions during the twentieth century. I can recall, as clear as day, my thoughts about this – ‘When WILL Man ever learn to live harmoniously, side by side?’ I think you can probably tell that I was a child of the Sixties, born into a generation that truly believed that Peace on Earth not only was possible but is what we will bring about – Man’s crowning glory of an achievement.
Whilst I cannot profess to being a devoted student of war, my interest in The Great War was piqued by the tales my mother was continually regaling me with, which focussed mainly upon World War 2 – she lived through it as a young adult whose equally young husband had fought in Burma, was captured and held as a Japanese prisoner of war for around three years, only to return to a strange and unreal *normality* and somehow they had both survived. I now know that she possessed an active imagination which resulted in many of her tales being augmented truths rather than reliable historical fact, but none-the-less, she inspired me to consider the consequences of war from a practical perspective – how ordinary people reacted to the fluidity of rapid change and carried on, regardless.
I recall being fascinated by the concept that people truly believed, in 1918, that the terrific horrors they had lived through surely were the worst possible things that man could inflict upon each other; that this Great War had assuredly, unquestionably and inexorably been The War To End All Wars. I learned that the benefit of hindsight when considering the mistakes of the past is an oft-misused idea and that to truly understand something you have to consider a person’s actions at the time, without the luxury of retrospection. It’s an important lesson in life, a transferable nugget of knowledge that guides the wise. If only I were wise enough to recall this at important times.
My mother often talked of her father, my granddad, Tom Sharp. She spoke of his gruffness, his taciturn, dour manner with all folk, except perhaps for a gentle twinkling when he spoke to her and her young son. She had clearly been frustrated with his reticence when dealing with others, perhaps wishing he could be more pleasant and cheerful as she felt she had to be. What little she knew of his story I cannot say, but perhaps as a young adult her own life had been so scarred by the events of World War II that she felt, as many young people often do, that it couldn’t possibly have been any worse for him so he should shake it off, forget about it and move on with his life.
She talked of him because through that return to wartime, when sense and reason had departed, she lived with him in a small terraced house in Crowther Street, Stockport. All during the Manchester Blitz, when the Doodlebugs reigned terror upon ordinary people, they clung to each other and survived. Manchester is only a hop-and-a-skip north of Stockport and as home to much of the manufacturing of the arms and weaponry of war, including the famed Avro Lancaster bombers, the city was a prime target. I’m not sure if it’s one of her fantasies or not, but she used to tell me of her work in the factory at Chadderton, where she worked on the Lancasters; it’s entirely possible as it’s only about eight miles, which was a distance she could have travelled by bus to work each day.
Stories of my mother’s wartime experiences I’ll keep for another time – it is Granddad Tom that I’m thinking of today. Only last week when we visited Salford (again, that’s a whole other story!) we found ourselves in the Lowry Museum for a little while. I love to visit galleries and see paintings, sculptures, Art, up close and in reality. Not printed in a book or photographed and available online. But actually, here: right here, in front of my own eyes, where I can observed the brush techniques the artist chose to employ and consider what they might have been envisaging, imagining, conceptualising. I’d managed to sneak a gallery visit into an altogether different trip and was pleased we had made it. Looking at the ‘Match-stalk men and match-stalk cats and dogs’, as Lowry’s paintings have come to be fondly known, took me back to my youth, when Stockport had looked much like many of the scenes depicted with such child-like simplicity. I swear I knew some of the people represented – and I definitely knew the animals!
Imagine my surprise and delight then when I came upon Lowry’s portrayal of Crowther Street, the very same street where my mother, granddad and brother had lived during that terrible period! They had lived there after the war too, for my brother has occasionally told me about his early memories of the place – sliding down the ‘Brew’ (which I think is an old Lancastrian word for steep hill) on a wooden board, nearly killing himself in the process! Granddad Tom used to stand on the doorstep outside their home at Number Five, watching the world go by, tapping our the contents of his pipe on the side of his tin leg. I was touched by the shared memory of a place and a relative that I never knew.
The tin leg intrigued me though. My brother describes his memories in an entry on his Facebook page: ‘My own grandfather (maternal) lost a leg at Paschendaele . It simply disappeared as a shell landed on his artillery wagon, killing his six horses. He was a horse farrier sergeant major and immediately detailed two gunners to go and look for his leg! He was given a tin leg and I remember that it banged like an oven door every time he knocked his pipe out on it!
In another post from my brother, I’ve discovered that our grandfather served in the Royal Horse Artillery for twenty-seven years prior to being invalided out of the Army after his brush with death at Paschendaele. Now this is a man I find I want to get to know. He is one of many hundreds of thousands of men who sacrificed much in service of their country during that egregious conflict. Thankfully, he was spared his life otherwise I would not be here today.
So when I see the commemorative events that mark the centenary of the First World War, I think of the senseless waste of human life yes, but I also think of my grandfather – how that one event must have soured his enthusiasm for life, yet in spite of it all he survived. He returned home from the madness and resumed his life with his family, fathering at least two more children in the following three years after the Great War. He further survived the death of his beloved wife, from complications in labour with their last child – the little boy survived; my eighteen-month-old mother’s only younger sibling. It’s no wonder really, that he was so out-of-sorts with life after that. Perhaps mum could have cut him a little slack for the hardships he had known in his long and difficult life.
I am overwhelmed with sadness when I see poppies each November – it has always affected me on a deep level. When I heard, earlier this year that an artist had created the magnificent ceramic poppies installation at the Tower of London, I was determined to ensure that I took some time to go and see it in real life. In person. Like viewing the Lowry paintings, the actual reality of the piece means so much more than just looking at them online.
I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to see them this week. It really was a moving experience – consider the symbolism, the presence of each poppy, crafted with care and compassion and planted with equal benevolence by volunteers and patrons – each poppy representing a fallen hero from the many battles during the Great War. The venue of the Tower of London is an excellent idea, largely because of the additional symbolism of this as a place of power in times past. The hustle and bustle of the modern city is never really transcended – but then I imagine that would have been equally difficult in the squalid, unforgiving trenches on the Western Front and elsewhere.
I took many photos, of course, you would not expect anything less, I’m sure. I found myself looking for contrasts to create some contiguous images that might provoke mixed feelings. As I walked around the perimeter walls of the Tower, I noticed a heavenly perfume and was drawn to these beautiful roses, flowering in the mid-September sunshine and suddenly had exactly the juxtaposition that I was seeking. Roses, representing the beauty of individual souls alive in a sea of cold, ceramic poppies, seems so appropriate to me.
Funnily enough, the family of a fallen hero had a similar idea, I discovered, as they left a small bunch of roses tied to the railing, giving a brief account of their loved ones’ sacrifice. I found it very touching.
I also decided to make a photo-montage of the scene that I encountered. My wide-angled lens is good, but I wanted to create something that gave at least some indication of the grand scale of this installation. I took seventy-two shots from the same spot. Then I’ve pieced them together into this montage. The original file is massive of course – around 1.3GB (gigabytes – that’s a whole bunch of pixels!), so I’ve resized it to make it reasonably accessible on this blog. Also, since I did this on Wednesday, I’ve discovered a much more effective tool to stitch the individual images together – but I’m not re-doing this one yet! I hope you enjoy looking at it too.
I’ll leave you with your own thoughts about this piece of artwork – and will be remembering my Granddad too.
Thanks for reading this evening – your presence here keeps me going!