Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Theatres of Memory: 1914 and 2014

Rereading Raphael Samuel’s ‘Theatres of Memory’ after a gap of some twenty years makes me regret, once more, the fact that I was never taught by him, nor collaborated on any projects with him. What an intellectual experience that would have been! But, all I can do is to embark on something true to his tutelary spirit and what better way for that can there be than to contribute critically to the 2014 World War One Centenary discussions?
The traditional and ‘heritage-official’ narratives need augmenting: German-British ‘Live and Let Live’ practices; the unofficial truces and the football matches; conscientious objectors; mutinies; the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign; the rent strikes; trade union strikes; the limited nature of democracy back then; Ireland; Empire; military executions; the need for state control; the presumed bellicosity of women - all these and more spring to mind as a way of extending discourse.
There is also the question of how future historians and sociologists might look at this Centenary and its representations: would not some be reflecting on how this past conflict might have been seen as a unifier, a sort of ‘Golden Age’, a message to a public fed up with contemporary involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? A nation united? There would be a whole mesh of conscious policy making by governments and unintended consequences at work here.
I am sure that Samuel would also have pointed out how the family history boom and the cultural remilitarization of our society in the new millennium have also led to a seeming equality of sacrifice: austerity might mean an Edwardian disparity in wealth, but that might be forgotten when both duke and dust-woman are shown by the TV cameras gazing at the uniform commonwealth gravestones.
Then again, there might be a future focus on how war might be presented as a modernizer, a clean force that swept away restrictive traditions. Oh well done trade unions for allowing dilution of labour and unskilled workers back then – what a lesson for today! Oh well done war for giving women the vote!  Oh well done women war workers for striking a blow for equality! So much more effective than the direct action of pre-war! (Carefully ignoring the fact that only women over 30 with property gained the vote; those canaries and phossy-jaws didn’t get the vote until 1928. Carefully forgetting that in that war fought for democracy, only 60% of men had the vote between 1914 and 1918 – but, then again, it was ‘For King and Country’ after all.)
Future historians might also take a cue from ‘Theatres of Memory’ and how the late 20th century saw an academic debate about the nature of ‘historical empathy’. These historians might well look at the debate that rages between the WW1 schools of historians: the patriots versus the war poets camp, as it were; they might look at the photographic and documentary sources and begin to think, ‘What do we really know about how the average Tommy felt during the conflict?’ They might well go down that old school route of ‘differentiated historical empathy’; there was not only a wide difference between soldiers but the feelings of the average soldier might well vary according to time and place on the front line.
Then again, looking at presentations of the Centenary, historians might focus upon the unintended deceit of calling it the Centenary of World War One. It should be, of course, strictly speaking, the Centenary of the Great War. And does that matter in any way apart from pedantry? Yes, I think it does: soldiers and munition workers thought they were fighting for a war to end all wars, not for a series of strategic mistakes that would lead to Fascism and the whole bloody thing all over again.
In conclusion, speaking as a 1951 war baby, whose father and grand-father both saw action of a combined nine years, what can I contribute personally to WW1 Theatres of Memory? Too much to write about, but how can I forget my gran poking at the sparks in the soot in the chimney, singing ‘Old soldiers never die, they only fade away’? How can I forget the music hall singsongs that we all had at Christmastide? And that is my final point: when recreating the WW1 past and its centenary, let’s not forget performance: ‘Oh! It’s a Lovely War!’ You don’t need an official formal occasion; get the songs (I shall be posting them up before long) and have a right old singsong – that will provide some good old ‘differentiated historical empathy’ and a right old barrowful of narratives.

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