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Armistice Centenary of the Great War

by on 12 November 2018

‘At the Going Down of the Sun’WW1 IWM logo

A Commemoration of the Armistice Centenary of the Great War 1914–1918

Arts Richmond at the Coach House, Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham, 11th November

Review by Matthew Grierson

What impresses about today’s commemoration is the variety of the programme, diligently put together by Anne Warrington and John Crook. With the verse of the First World War so much part of the national imagination, the readings could easily have comprised widely anthologised poems, those that have become standards. But the organisers have chosen an array of interesting texts to offer fresh views and voices, alongside those we might expect.

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The afternoon is structured into a number of themed strands, taking us from the romance and jingoism with which the outbreak of war was greeted, through the horrors and bleak humour of the trenches, to the memorialising and reflections that followed the Armistice. Each section is given an introduction by one of the readers, and while these can be insightful, bearing a pleasant resemblance to sermons, some can be a little overwritten, telling us much of what we will soon glean from hearing the poems themselves. Nevertheless, the readings are performed clearly and engagingly by a mixture of local writers and actors, including screen stars Madeline Smith and Robert Gillespie, and their tones range from the sombre and reverential to the grimly cheeky, according to the varying moods of the pieces.

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The quality of readings means that poems as familiar as Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth and Sassoon’s The General retain their bite and bitterness after all this time; so much so, in fact that it is difficult to listen to Brooke in their company. But the selection ranges much more widely than that. Highlights include Wilf Hastwell’s A Phantasy, which lists a paratactic assortment of objects and body parts, as though the war had broken down any framework of sense or meaning, and John Crook’s rapid, machinegun-like delivery expresses the sensory bombardment of this experience. Similarly unexpected is the ribald frankness of humourist A.P.Herbert’s The General Inspecting the Trenches, in which the title character finds himself literally in the shit, and Gillespie’s reading revels plummily in the repeated ‘sh’ sound strung through the poem.

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Another distinguishing feature of the afternoon is the conscious effort to accommodate different perspectives on the conflict. In two of a number of poems by women about their experiences, Madeline Smith gamely takes on the voices of munitions workers, who touch on the danger, delight and empowerment of their jobs. This is picked up later in the afternoon by To My Unknown Solider, penned and read by Greg Freeman, based on the affecting conceit of such a woman slipping a letter for a frontline soldier into a crate of ammunition. Freeman then inverts Rupert Brooke in a subsequent poem, A Foreign Wood, about a graveyard in Woking where Muslim volunteer soldiers were buried, and which has since been converted into a peace garden.

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Women’s wider role in the war is also picked up in a pair of pieces written during the war by Jessie Pope, which are both jauntier and more patriotic in tone. These lead into a run of recruiting songs that help recreate the experience of the home front. Linda Sirker and Lottie Walker do their best with Your King and Country Need You and I’ll Make a Man of You, but there is limited room in the Coach House for song and dance. Given the occasion the audience also seem rather subdued and, without lyrics to all of the numbers, only join in tentatively with those choruses they know.

As is pointed out several times by different readers, attitudes to the war changed very quickly as its scale and horror became apparent, so the sentiment of the music hall, for instance, can seem alien to us now. Some thought has therefore been put into the event to make connections across the hundred years. This can be touching, as when Crook reads from the reflections of Vernon Lee – really, Violet Paget Lee – on hearing Bach at Christmas Eve in 1914. She realises that German audiences would be listening to the same music and finds herself musing, as the late Jo Cox did, that there is more that unites than divides us. In other moments, the effort to find contemporary resonance feels more forced, as when Bob Sheed recounts a tale of his grandfather’s that means he himself is now able to acquire an Irish passport. It is, I have to say, a bold strategy to put these poems by local writers against those that have stood the test of time, particularly when the more recent pieces strain to work in forms that the war itself forced poets to rethink, as we hear in Hastwell. But the new writing lends at least a personal touch to the event, in contrast to the more celebrated public verses.

Already quite moodily lit by oranges and reds behind the readers, the room is properly darkened by the time of the going down of the sun. Heather Mountford’s Painting for the Botanist brings a little colour into the Coach House, then, as its talk of finding the proper hues for the poppy gradually develops into a piece of quiet memorial. And, aptly, the evening concludes with Robert Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen, with its blend of wistful patriotism and grief for the dead making a bouquet from the different moods of the preceding readings.

We have remembered them.

Matthew Grierson
November 2018

Photography by Pam Frazer

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  1. GREG FREEMAN – Woking Writers Circle

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