a project commissioned by the National Trust
2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The British combatants who served in this conflict have all now passed on. Acts of remembrance continue, beyond the guiding influence of their immediate witnesses. How shall we fittingly mark this significant anniversary, given that we still live in an era dominated by warfare?
I have been invited by curator Tom Freshwater to work with the National Trust on a project commemorating the anniversary. Inspired by a phrase in Hamish Henderson’s ‘First Elegy’ – there were our own, there were the others – the work will consist of a programme of reflective memorial events at National Trust properties, over the course of this Summer. The events will resonate with the rich stories these places contain, and the communal memories of those who live nearby.
The project is a collaboration with poets Ken Cockburn, Heather Yeung, Luke Allan, and Susan Tichy. The events will include an installation featuring a selection of poems, reflecting on all aspects of conflict, drawn from a broad range of British & international poets. Two poems will be read at each venue, as part of a silent walk, and at selected venues the seeding of poppies will also take place. The poems offer the widest possible sense of ‘our own’ and ‘the others’, ranging across human experience of war over the last 100 years.
There has never been a more pressing need to reflect on the issues raised by the centenary. Our understanding of war is itself under siege. Even the terminology of warfare – ‘enemy’, ‘ally’, ‘combatant’, ‘victim’, 'collateral' – is in question. This crisis in perception is heightened by the paradoxical distance and proximity with which we receive accounts of conflict, beamed to us via new media, and in the reportage of war correspondents embedded alongside serving personnel.
How, in this moment, can we establish an authentic relationship with the wars of the past and the present? How can our culture reconsider the act of memorial itself? Taking the centenary as a departure point, the poem is nominated as an act of witness, fitting to all forms of remembrance.
The details of the project are now available here. A blog, with a journal essay by Ken Cockburn and photographs by Luke Allan and Hannah Devereux will follow later in the summer.
Hamish Henderson, Jan 1942
from End of a Campaign
There are many dead in the brutish desert,
who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilous. The sand is blowing about still.
Many who for various reasons, or because
of mere unanswerable compulsion, came here
and fought among the clutching gravestones,
shivered and sweated,
cried out, suffered thirst, were stoically silent, cursed
the spittering machine-guns, were homesick for Europe
and fast embedded in quicksand of Africa
agonized and died.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of dust.
There were our own, there were the others.
Their deaths were like their lives, human and animal.
There were no gods and precious few heroes.
What they regretted when they died had nothing to do with
race and leader, realm indivisible,
laboured Augustan speeches or vague imperial heritage.
(They saw through that guff before the axe fell.)
Their longing turned to
the lost world glimpsed in the memory of letters:
an evening at the pictures in the friendly dark,
two knowing conspirators smiling and whispering secrets;
a family gathering in the homely kitchen
with Mum so proud of her boys in uniform:
their thoughts trembled
between moments of estrangement, and ecstatic moments
of reconciliation: and their desire
crucified itself against the unutterable shadow of someone
whose photo was in their wallets.
Their death made his incision.
There were our own, there were the others.
Therefore, minding the great word of Glencoe’s
son, that we should not disfigure ourselves
with villany of hatred; and seeing that all
have gone down like curs into anonymous silence,
I will bear witness for I knew the others.
Seeing that littoral and interior are alike indifferent
and the birds are drawn again to our welcoming north
why should I not sing them, the dead, the innocent?
Hamish Henderson (1919-2002) was born in Blairgowrie, Scotland. He served in North Africa and Italy. The extract is from his ‘First Elegy’ (Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, 1948).
Henderson's Collected Poems & Songs is available from Curly Snake Publishing (2000).
To read the project blog, follow this link: