Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Poppies at the Tower written in 2014

888,246 Red Poppies and a few Blue Violets

On Thursday 30th October, squeezed between a hospital appointment and a meeting, I stole half an hour to look at the moat of ceramic poppies which surround the Tower of London, marking the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak on the First World War. We parked in St Katherine's Dock and approached via Tower Bridge. At one point we were less than 6 feet above the sea of red flowers. Much better than joining the vast queues on the Northern and Western sides, to look over high walls by the entrance to the Tower.

The poppies stretched into the distance and under a wooden bridge, seeming to go on for ever. Some darker, some lighter, some on taller wires, some on shorter wires, all red and all the same size, everyone is equal in death. They will number 888,246 by Remembrance Day 2014, the 11th day of the 11th month, marking 96 years after the end of the war which was supposed to end all wars. They represent all those British and Commonwealth troops, auxiliary and medical staff, killed in the trenches or on the battlefields, in the war which wasn't over by Christmas as volunteers had been led to expect. War raged for a further three years, ending with treaties which precipitated a second round of unfettered destruction a mere 21 years later.

Every poppy in the moat represents someone's son or daughter, brother or sister,  husband or wife, father, mother, lover or friend. I'd heard reports, good and bad, so was glad to see it for myself. Yes it's tourism, yes it's to some extent sanitised, but the real impact is the sheer number of poppies. It's like in school or college, when you are told something numerical, which you learn but don't understand until somebody turns it into a graph or other form of visual representation, at which point it suddenly begins to mean so much more. Until Thursday I didn't have a clue what 800,000 looked like, now I've got more of an idea. The sheer number of poppies is what will hopefully bring focus to the massed tourist throngs currently visiting the installation.

To add to our 800,000 war dead we remember those of the Allied troops and support workers who fought with us. Also the countless innocent civilian children, siblings, cousins, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and great grandparents killed in Britain, the Commonwealth, our wartime allies and those countries with which we were at war. We must also remember that, as Albert discovered in Michael Morpugo's acclaimed children's novel 'War Horse', and as Vera Brittain found as a volunteer Nurse in France and recorded in her memoir 'Testament of Youth', the enemy troops who fought, were maimed and died were also made up of sons, husbands, fathers, lovers and friends, conscripted or persuaded to join up by rhetoric which offered them a better future for their families if their leaders could only gain a stronger power base or defend themselves from attack by the forces of Britain, France and their allies. A generation lost in many more countries than ours.

Vera Brittain's 'Testament of Youth' has been made into a cinema film to be released in January 2015. It was premièred on October 14th, as the Mayor of London's Gala during the BFI 2014 London Film Festival. My son and I were given tickets to attend. We got to walk on the red carpet, once the celebrities were safely inside and the only remaining cameras were phones, taking selfies or pictures of family and friends, whilst the security staff asked everyone to 'move along please'. The cast includes well known stage and screen actors such as Emily Watson and Dominic West as the adult family and friends of the young protagonists. However as its name suggests, the film action is primarily that of Vera, her brother Edward, her fiancé Roland Leighton and their best friends Victor and Geoffrey, until all four young men were cruelly killed in the war. Roland is played by Kit Harrington who was Albert in the original NT production of 'War Horse', but is now better known from his starring role in 'Game of Thrones', (which I've never seen as I don't have subscription TV). The biggest audience cheers were for Colin Morgan as Victor, known because he played the title role in the long running TV series 'Merlin'. It was fitting that the carpet was red, echoing the poppies and the blood spilled in the war, As the fox in Antoine de Saint Exupéry's 'Petit Prince' explains, when speaking of the colour of the Prince's hair and the cornfields, once something acquires significant meaning it will stay that way forever. For me a celebrity red carpet will never again be as it was, but has through the carpet of poppies and the blood of the harrowing story told in the film, become a sign of the pacifism to which Vera was led by her experience of the war.

My feelings about the film were that in order to shorten a long, densely written, memoir to the length expected by present day cinema audiences, some of the plot devices were somewhat conflated and contrived. The 1979 BBC TV serialised adaptation (still available on DVD), seems more true to history and its writer. What I liked best about the cinema film was the portrayal of the abandoned exuberance of privileged youth in the pre-war period; and of how this produced an idealism led them to volunteer for war, hoping to be heroes, intending to be home for Christmas.

We were invited to the film première because my son David J Loxley-Blount has been commissioned, by the literary trustees of Roland Leighton, to set to music the love poetry, written by Roland from the trenches in France, to his beloved Vera. Hopefully the work will be premièred in late 2015, to commemorate Roland's untimely death, just a few days before he was due home for Christmas 1915. Like Edward, Victor and other young volunteer officers, he'd opted to postpone his undergraduate studies (he had won a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford based on outstanding results at Uppingham School) and do what he perceived to be his duty, leading a troop of less well educated young men, also still teenagers or barely out of their teens. He obviously remembered that soldiers move best when their bellies are full, as he sent home for generous supplies of Birds Custard powder and Cadbury's Milk Chocolate. The parcel wouldn't have arrived until after he was killed checking the barbed wire fence in order to protect his men.  

Perhaps the most poignant of Roland's poems, written in April 2015 and read in the film, was his Villanelle:  'Violets from Plug Street Wood', as Ploegsteert was affectionately called by troops who renamed Ypres as Wipers and Etaples as Eat Apples. Roland sent violets to Vera, to convey his distress at finding the body of a British soldier with a sea of blue violets growing around his head. He contrasts the blue of the flowers with the red of the man's spilled blood.  He mourns the life and hope and love of Vera, which violets have previously represented for him and is now replaced by the mangled horror of the body he found amongst them 'oversea'. This vision must have been especially poignant to Roland, as he hung onto the poem (and presumably the pressed flowers) for four months, before sending them to Vera, knowing that she 'will understand'.

Vera's understanding of the horror and waste of war led her into pacifism, her experience of fighting for an education for herself led her into feminism. The need to record it all led to Vera's  friendship with Winifred Holtby and her determination to succeed as a writer. Her influence has impacted on many who's parents heard her speak or who have read her books or seen the BBC adaptation of Testament of Youth. Her daughter Shirley Williams political idealism, especially in the field of education, owes much to her mother's experiences. I hope that many of the crowds who recently flocked to see the ceramic red poppies at the Tower will flock to see the film, when it is released in January, and will, like Vera, understand the significance of the little bunch of blue violets, each representing a single life of the many many more than 888,246 who were killed.

Jan Loxley Blount  02/11/2014


Violets from Plug Street Wood,
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head;
It is strange they should be blue.)

Violets from Plug Street Wood-
Think what they have meant to me-
Life and Hope and Love and You
(And you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay
Hiding horror from the day;
Sweetest it was better so.)

Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory,
Knowing You will understand.

Roland Aubrey Leighton 1915

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