At the going down of the sun…


As we leave November behind for another year I find myself reflecting on contemporary remembrance and its relationship both with art and our identity.

In my childhood, ‘poppy day’ was a fleeting affair. You asked for some extra pocket money to buy a poppy (plastic and paper with ‘Haig Fund’ stamped in the middle), in the week before remembrance Sunday, and you might have participated in a remembrance parade on the day itself. There might have been a lesson at school about ‘what the poppy was for’. That was pretty much it. At a time when many veterans of both world wars were living, and long before the casual vigilance and random terror of the post 9/11 world.

Now annually, in early November poppies are everywhere, beyond lapels, on cars, vans, bags, scarves. This year for the first time I saw a ‘poppy-decorated’ house, in a not dissimilar way as one might decorate it for Christmas. These participative acts of poppy-wearing, have also in recent years been accompanied by the articulation of remembrance as art, in part brought to centre stage by the Centenary of World War One and the work of its artistic arm 14-18 Now.

‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ – between 17th July and 14th November 2014 saw the moat of the Tower of London gradually (and this was significant) occupied by a spreading carpet of 888,246 ceramic poppies (each of which represented a British military fatality). Over the months, as the installation grew, so did public interaction with, and support for it. I visited on three occasions – the first two of which were in the early weeks, and the last was in its last days. The difference was overwhelming. My early visits were timed to coincide with the inclusion of my Great Uncle in the Roll of Honour read from the moat at dusk each evening, preceded by the sounding of the Last Post. In these early weeks there were perhaps 100 people present each evening. From the many conversations I had there, it was apparent that most of those attending had a direct connection with one of the fatalities. Many had brought mementos and family stories, and a willingness to share on a deeply personal level. It was for them, as for me, a way of reaching down the generations to our (overwhelmingly) young ancestors who gave their lives in the face of horror beyond understanding, to tell them that it wasn’t in vain. We acknowledge your sacrifice. We remember.


Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red © A-Sense-Of-Place

By its later weeks ‘Blood Swept Lands…’ had quite literally assumed a life of its own. The moat was full, as were all the vantage points, access to which from any direction was at shuffle-pace only. It was daily news, the subject of discussion in parliament, and firmly on the ‘tourist trail’. What began as an act of remembrance, had become an attraction to be witnessed, uploaded and shared.

In 2016 Canary Wharf became the first place in the UK to host a Remembrance Art Trail. Fitting given the Wharf’s location as a permanent home to one of the UK’s largest collections of public art. The Trail ran for two weeks with seven installations curated by Mark Humphrey in collaboration with the Royal British Legion and service personnel. The installations were radically different representations of remembrance. In particular the largest – ‘Boots on the Ground’ aimed to capture the spirit of the armed forces. Away from a main tourist site, the trail engaged a new audience and moved remembrance art and its curation as a destination, to a new level.


Boots on the Ground © A-Sense-Of-Place

Also in 2016 the centenary of the Battle of the Somme was commemorated by ‘We are Here Because We Are Here’. From 7am onwards on 1st July, 1,400 young men wearing WW1 battle dress appeared in (often contemporary) locations across the UK. They did not speak but occasionally sang a song from the trenches – ‘we are here because we are here’. If engaged by members of the public they handed out a printed card with the details of the fallen soldier they were representing. Reportedly, in Manchester, within half an hour of the process commencing, a ‘soldier’ had amazingly handed a card to a descendent of the individual named on that card. The power of this seemingly random connection across a century, is spine chilling.

‘We are Here…’ was particularly unusual, both as art and remembrance, in several respects. Firstly, it was not revealed until the evening of the day itself that the entire project had been the work of the artist Jeremy Deller and Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris. Similarly, its substantial three-year preparation was entirely secret. There was no element of advance marketing or publicity, as Norris has stated – there was ‘no sell’. This is almost unprecedented in art terms within which the building of an audience prior to the event or launch is key. There is also the sheer level of public awareness and engagement achieved within a single day. Statistics from 14-18 Now indicate that by the evening of July 1st 63% of the British public (approximately 30 million people) had some awareness of the work. Not withstanding the fact that the organisers had harnessed the help of key influencers, and that the work was a gift to social media, this is impressive. Finally there is the interaction with, and reaction of, the public. The volunteers participating in ‘We Are Here…’had been trained to expect and respond to potential aggression. What they were unprepared for was a level of public emotion that meant that many on encountering the ‘soldiers’ broke down and sobbed. Both shortly after the work took place, and more recently, Deller has publicly linked this out-pouring of emotion to political uncertainty at the time post the EU referendum. For me this is to significantly underestimate the power of our national connection with remembrance in general, and the iconography of World War One in particular.


© and acknowledgement 14-18 Now

My connection with remembrance has always been strong. Many if not most of my peers had parents who were born during, or immediately after, the Second World War. Mine were older. My father served in the navy during the war (though not technically old enough to do so) and my mother has vivid memories of the London Blitz. At least one Uncle also served, and my maternal Grandfather too young to fight in the first world war, found himself (to his great distress) too ill in the second, to be accepted front line duty, and served in the London Home Guard. In addition to the Great Uncle mentioned above, another (a lifelong pacifist), was a second world war conscientious objector, and served in other ways. I imagine we are not that unusual in this collective heritage.

These experiences, my father’s in particular, were frequently talked about, sometimes with an immediacy that belied their distance. It was commonplace to hear reference to an older relative having ‘been in the forces’. In spite of having been born decades later, I grew up in the long shadow of the world wars alive in my family, and the more immediate influence of the Cold War, with its terrifying and ever present nuclear threat. As a child, and particularly as a teenager, (that time of all in life when we are desperate to ‘fit in’), I resented this ‘difference’ from many of my peers deeply. It is only in recent years, with the benefit of hindsight (how wonderful that is), that I realise how lucky I was, to grow in the shadow of the generations that gave all.

The activities we associate with ‘remembrance’ are now mostly ‘commemoration’. We can no longer turn to direct memories of those who gave their tomorrows. With the passing of Harry Patch in 2009, the last surviving combat soldier in the trenches, of any country, died. And there are now very few living who were alive during World War One. In the decades to come we will inevitably lose that same connection with the witnesses of World War Two. Yet the further we are from the experience of ‘world wars’, the more central ‘remembrance’, has apparently become to national life and identity.

The decades of ‘peace’ have in part been anything but. Post 9/11, war is everywhere. It runs into the Manchester Arena with a bomb, through the streets of Borough Market with a knife, and in the hearts of those who believe hate is the answer. As a nation we may now be more consciously familiar with random loss, and mourning. It is also not surprising that we now ‘remember’ with contemporary relevance. ‘Blood Swept Lands…’ and ‘We are here…’, were literally made for the social media age. We articulate through the visual. If we haven’t seen it and shared it – and therefore participated in it (even if only by re-tweeting) – did it really happen?

In 2016 there were suggestions that the art of 14-18 Now, and in particular ‘We are Here..’ had the potential to grow popular support for increased public funding for the arts, at a time when this is clearly threatened. In 2017 there has been an emerging debate that perhaps there is now too much ‘remembrance’ and that the ‘message of the poppy’ has been lost. Are we now living in an age of art in the service of remembrance? Or remembrance in the service of art?. Or both? And does it matter?

I’m not sure it does. Every generation will remember and memorialise in its own image, for that is the path to relevance and engagement. However, connection to a world characterised by individual effort and sacrifice for the common good, still has much to teach us, not least about our humanity. That art can articulate and inform this connection, is only testament, both to its power to connect and transform, and its importance in our personal and national lives.

All text © A-Sense-of-Place
All images, unless otherwise stated, © A-Sense-of-Place.


Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

14-18 Now

Canary Wharf Remembrance Art Trail

There is Art. There is Hope. – There is Art. There is Hope.


There is Art. There is Hope.

There is still art there is still hope

If asked to describe myself it is inconceivable that my relationship with the arts would not figure somewhere in that description. Without this my world would be one dimensional and monochrome. And I would be someone else. (1)
As with other aspects of identity, early experiences have cast a long shadow. I was taken on my first trip to London’s West End theatre at the age of eight. The production was ‘Billy’ at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, starring Michael Crawford. Based on the novel Billy Liar, this wasn’t a particularly typical outing for a child. I don’t remember anything about the production. What I remembered, was the sense of occasion. We dressed up. I was walking up wide red carpeted stairs to our seats. Being small I was closer to the carpet than others, and noticed this. Instructions were given (as they routinely were to children back then) to be obeyed once the curtain went up. I thought this was a novel idea – the curtain didn’t go ‘up’ at home!. I must sit very still. Be very quiet. And watch. To this day, this is what I do at the theatre. The sense that this is an occasion, to be fully engaged with, has never left me.
For some people its sport, which generally (with the notable exception of the London Olympics and the odd Wimbledon) passes me by. I have friends for whom their support for Manchester United or West ham is as much a part of their identity, as visual art or theatre is a part of mine. I have often envied the tribal benefits of sport, and I suspect there is a collective sense of belonging and camaraderie in being a Manchester United or West Ham supporter, that is distinctly absent from being a fan of Chekhov or the Tate Modern (no disrespect to Anton or the Tate).


Almost 10 years ago I saw an outstanding production of The Three Sisters at the Manchester Royal Exchange, a central theme of which is the yearning for a life elsewhere, to the detriment of the present. In the case of The Sisters, an overwhelming yearning for a return to ‘life in Moscow’, seemingly unaware until relatively late in the proceedings that they are sacrificing present happiness for a ‘return’ to an imagined future. The sisters are exiled, not only from Moscow, but in their yearning for a future always beyond reach, from the potential of their present. At the time, I was living in one city, in a state of almost perpetual ‘waiting’, to return to another. I had made the decision to return and was working towards that reality, but daily life was coloured by the sense that ‘Manchester was not forever’ and somewhere else was ‘real’. I had a life everywhere, and nowhere, in a present I could never fully inhabit. When towards the end of the play, it becomes clear that the sisters will never return to Moscow, and the only reality (and therefore happiness) is the present – the resonance with my own life hit me with a shock that was both physical and lasting.

3sisters2lgeIRFAN        Scan_0002

© Production photo and Programme – Manchester Royal Exchange

I am a Chekhov fan and I have seen other productions of The Three Sisters, yet I don’t remember them. The 2008 production stays with me because it was at the Royal Exchange. My favourite building in Manchester, a central part of my life in that city, and a place of pilgrimage when I return. And because the theme of the play reflected my personal experience at the time. In the remaining two years in Manchester, I lived differently and deliberately in a way that did engage with the present -and life was better for it.
Was I changed by that theatre performance? Imperceptibly so to the external eye. But yes, I was changed. The Arts are at their most powerful when we see both the wonder and bleakness of life, our choices, and ourselves, reflected. They speak to us of our own experience, and because of that we feel less alone. For those of us for whom the arts are an integral part of life, there is mystery and alchemy at the heart of this.


Vanities - N-1256-00-000025-wpu
© An allegory of the Vanities of Human Life – Harmen Steenwyck, National Gallery


I have been visiting the National Gallery in London for over 35 years. Both for exhibitions and also spontaneously for some space and to breathe and reflect. Like the natural world visual art can be a great facilitator of reflection. Sometimes these reflective visits are to see pictures I’ve been seeking answers in the heart of, for decades. And like artistic critical friends they literally hang (in) there through each phase of life. Others are a reminder of specific times and individuals.
One of these is Steenwyck’s ‘An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life’, a central message of which is the transitory nature of life. A postcard of this was on my wall as a student, back when I thought it at least mildly inconceivable that I would be around long enough to encounter a conventional middle age. Passing by the image now, decades later and heading into a different stage of life, I find it more than a little ironic. It still speaks to me, just differently. In contrast Gallen-Kellela’s ‘Lake Keitele’ will always remind me of a visit to the gallery with my half-sister during which we both admired the painting. We don’t see each other often, and as a reminder of a rare meeting, Lake Keitele is now, for me at least, a thread in the fabric of our story.



© Lake Keitele – Akseli Gallen-Kallela – National Gallery


Making no value judgement about either, I have often said that personally I like my art ‘traditional’ and that I am not ‘into’ modern art (whatever it is). Yet there are three contemporary conceptual artists whose work engages me – Jeremy Deller, Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry. Both Emin and Perry are best known for their self-confessional work and the curation of their own lives as art, while much of Deller’s is invariably participatory. I was present for Deller’s inspiring ‘Procession’ in Manchester in 2009 –and his return this year for the opening of the Manchester International Festival with ‘What is the City but the People’ was literally a mancunian self-portrait. The work of all three is fundamentally about identity and connection. Sometimes the connection is more alive than others. Deller’s 2016 work (in collaboration with Rufus Norris) ‘We are here because we are here’ commemorating the centenary of the Somme, took both participation and identity to new levels. An army of authentically dressed trained volunteers appeared in locations throughout the UK. They did not speak. They occasionally sang – and distributed cards with the name of the soldier lost in that battle, that they were representing. My Great Uncle died in World War One, and one of these ‘performances’ took place in my home town. Identity and Connection.




Music is another influence. I am a lifelong jazz fan, though nothing too ‘experimental’ (that’s jazz for you – tribes within a tribe). Jazz has been part of my life and identity both as a result of inheritance – when I was young it was what was on the record deck (remember those?) – and because like other activities it has been a backdrop to many of life’s key events. It has also delivered the miracle of hope in some dark days. There have been times of sheer elation, but also at least two days in my life when a close bereavement has occurred and I have been in a jazz club that evening, or the day after. For some it would be church but for me at such times there’s a compelling need to live, and live defiantly in the face of what has been taken. Jazz has delivered that, and much else.
When we hear a lyric that echoes our experience we know we are not alone. Others have loved, hoped, lost, and grieved, as we have. Though our hearts are often understandably arrogant enough to believe (as they should), that no-one has really known love as we have. Sometimes it will be a phrase, or the delivery of a song will that be exceptional, or poignant enough to reach us. Or the biography of the singer may bring additional meaning. In June this year I was lucky enough to be at the Royal Albert Hall for one of Tony Bennett’s concerts. At 90 Tony Bennett is undeniably a survivor and can still deliver a lyric like no-one else. In a venue that holds 5,000+ there was palpable love in the room for the last of the true greats of the jazz and swing era. But at a pivotal point in my life, after several years of doubting the future – singing only to me (of course) he made me believe ‘the best is yet to come’.


P1210642      © a-sense-of-place


The Arts are part of our identity because we are changed. Sometimes this is because of a shared experience, but often it is a personal collaboration with the art itself. Even in a packed theatre amidst collective applause, our reaction is authentically our own, influenced by our personal heritage, and filtered through our reality.
There is Still Art. There is Still Hope.

1. ‘The Arts’ encompasses a huge range of activities and the boundaries of that range are not without debate and controversy. For the purposes of this post I am taking examples (specific and personal) from theatre, visual art, music and conceptual art.
2. Images from the National Gallery are courtesy of the Creative Commons

3. Copyright for ‘There is Still Art. There is Still Hope’ – Bob and Roberta Smith

4.  All text © A-Sense-of-Place