Today, Sunday November 9th, is Remembrance Sunday – the nearest Sunday to November 11th which is Remembrance or Armistice Day itself. In Great Britain in the weeks leading up to the 11th, the majority of the population will wear a red paper poppy. This is a symbol taken from Flanders Fields – the area during the First World War (WW1) where many bloody battles were fought and where poppies grew. The fields were left unmaintained for years after the war before they became a memorial to those who had lost their lives there. The poppy symbol was derived from a poem “In Flanders Fields” written by a Canadian officer – Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, which begins:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row”
This year is particularly poignant as it marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WW1. To mark that anniversary the ceramic artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper have created a major art installation called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” at the Tower of London. 888,246 ceramic poppies have progressively filled the Tower’s famous moat since the summer; the final poppy will be “planted” on November 11th. The poppies will then gradually be removed and sent to individuals who have sponsored each one. Each poppy represents a British military fatality during WW1. The names of many of them have been read out each day.
The poppies have encircled the iconic landmark, creating not only a spectacular display visible from all around the Tower but also a location for personal reflection. The scale of the installation was designed to reflect the magnitude of such an important centenary creating a powerful visual commemoration (source: Historic Royal Palaces).
The British public as well as thousands of tourists have gathered to see this remarkable piece of artwork.
But there have been two public discussions that have, in very different ways, distracted from the intent of this artistic act of remembrance. Last week Jonathan Jones, an arts journalist writing for The Guardian newspaper, disrespectfully (in my view) described the poppies as “fake, trite and inward-looking”, he went on to suggest that the “toothless memorial” is overly nationalistic. I’ll deal with some of those objections shortly. Subsequently Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, in a thinly veiled attempt to hijack an act of remembrance to promote tourism, has appealed for the display to be extended beyond the 11th November to allow more people to see it. Other politicians and the tabloid media have also joined this bandwagon. I’ll add more perspective to that too.
What is wrong with both of these very public comments? The article by Jonathan Jones both misjudged the public mood, as well as belittled it, and in an attempt at artistic snobbery his opinions fell spectacularly flat. Jones seems unable to grasp the idea that a memorial can be gracious and dignified whilst still recounting the horrors of WW1, and of all wars since then. Had he taken the time to visit the exhibition inside The Tower, he would have seen the images of war that have fuelled the creation of this piece of living art, he would have heard the voices of those making the poppies who don’t accept an imperfect “second” because each poppy must be perfect as it honours a single person who lost their life. That is hardly trite. Yes, it is nationalistic, and Jones suggested that is a bad thing. What he does not acknowledge is that thousands of overseas visitors will have seen the memorial, will have known what it represents, and have respectfully honoured what it stands for. The remembrance poppy is a national symbol to remind us to remember all of those who have died in the British forces in all wars, it is our national way of remembering those who fought and died for our freedoms – to that degree it is proudly nationalistic, and always will be.
Boris Johnson on the other hand could perhaps be seen as having his heart in the right place. He has publicly supported the installation, but has now called on the organisers to extend its life beyond 11th November. This too, in my view, is disrespectful, it puts the promotion of London ahead of the remembrance that is symbolised by the poppies, and seeks to exploit it for further commercial gain. Not to be outdone other political leaders have also added their voices along with a campaign by the right wing newspaper, The Daily Mail, to extend the lifetime of the installation, and even to make it permanent. Even today the Daily Mail has headlines such as “Army top brass salute Mail campaign to keep the Tower poppies blooming”, and in describing this as a “victory” for their campaign they do a major disservice to the memory of those men and women who fought for real victory. These superficial attempts to make popular political capital in the months before a general election are not befitting of the memory of those who died to preserve our freedoms. I find myself hearing the voice of Winston Churchill at these moments, and I have no doubt that he would deride any attempt to politicise such an emotive memorial. The artists, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper clearly agree and have already voiced their opposition to the request, Piper eloquently explains why:
“People have asked why the poppies couldn’t remain there for the whole five years the war lasted, but I think they would lose their impact. For me, it is like a tide that is reaching a full flow. And then it gradually recedes. It should be transient, as were the lives of the people we are celebrating.”
Journalists, art critics, politicians and the media should put aside their daily agenda’s of political and artistic prejudice, and focus on the real meaning of the poppy and of the “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” memorial : To remember the fallen. To honour those who gave their lives for our freedoms and liberty.
We, the people, will always remember them.
The pictures I include in this blog of the memorial at The Tower of London were taken by my friend Marshall Manson, the copyright remains his, please ask permission via me if you wish to use them. Thank you Marshall.