Next spring, Sainsbury’s will doubtless be celebrating Easter with a feelgood mini-movie about the crucifixion, so that they can sell more chocolate eggs. A good-looking young Roman soldier could cheer up the Virgin Mary by handing her a Kinder Surprise…
It’s been a funny old fortnight for Remembrance-watchers.
I didn’t get to see the poppies at the Tower, but five million did, and I’ve met people who were considerably moved by them. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian dismissed the spectacle as fake and trite, but perhaps he’s missing the point. He writes:
The first world war was not noble. War is not noble. A meaningful mass memorial to this horror would not be dignified or pretty. It would be gory, vile and terrible to see. The moat of the Tower should be filled with barbed wire and bones. That would mean something.
Yes, it would. It would mean one thing. It would be an artistic statement about war (and perhaps rather an obvious one) but it would not be much good as a memorial. The best memorials do not batter you over the head with meaning. They let you bring your own meanings to them, which is why the highly abstract Cenotaph, or the plain obelisk on the average English village green, are effective as focuses for the feelings of whole communities, bringing together people of a wide range of political views.
The Cenotaph does not say that the War was evil, or that it was good. It parades no point of view. Soldiers can lay a wreath there and think with pride of their comrades’ achievements; pacifists can see it as a dreadful reminder of what must never happen again. However complex and ambiguous your feelings about the War, the plain, unadorned Cenotaph can be a focus for them. I think that the flood of poppies would work in much the same way.
Mind you, others agree with Jones. Recently Professor Lisa Jardine criticised the new display at the Imperial War Museum for being too clear and informative, and not being preachy enough. And Siegfried Sassoon expressed Jones-like sentiments about the New Menin Gate, the dignified memorial that recorded the names of the graveless dead on the Salient:
Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
as these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
Sassoon felt that the grave and noble monument somehow prettified the crime of war. Perhaps he was one of those (like Churchill) who felt that the city of Ypres should be left in ruins as a terrible warning to the future.
By and large succeeding generations have not agreed with him. That seemingly endless list of names on the memorial tells its story in a way that stirs the imagination of the most casual visitor. Understatement works better than horror-movie images would.
But images of remembrance can indeed be too pretty, and the talking point of the past week has been that Sainsbury’s advertisement, which cleverly tells the story of the Christmas Truce in a style reminiscent of Spielberg’s War Horse film. Drama, Christmas carols, sentiment, football chocolate. What’s not to like?
Advertisements traditionally have very little connection with reality, and Sainsbury’s have sensibly been undeterred by the fact that British-German football matches on No-Man’s Land never actually happened. After all, you wouldn’t have got couch-potatoes in a Christmas spending mood by showing soldiers peeling their dead off the barbed wire and burying them.
The whole film takes place in a fantasy Morpurgo-Land of high thinking and political correctness. It made me puke slightly, but I bet it gets customers in through the doors.
The ad takes about four minutes, but the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon are presenting a family show for Christmas which, judging by its trailer, stretches the same material out to a couple of hours. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24WXo8DVplI
Once again football features heavily. You can see and hear the author and director talking sanctimoniously about it here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmZSNrJY_Fc
Meanwhile, in other news, there is a threat to close the Library at the Imperial War Museum. Fantasy about the War conquers the land, and a source of accurate information is threatened…
If this is not just a scare story to force more cash out of the granting bodies,there has been a serious lack of joined-up thinking by someone here. After a very expensive rehang of the galleries, which closed the museum for a long time, there is apparently not enough money to keep running the Library, with its unique collection. someone should be very ashamed. Without a library to inform the curatorial work, the Museum is unlikely to thrive.
To sign a petition protesting the closure, click here.
Maybe Sainsbury’s would like to make a donation.