It feels as though these last couple of weeks has come full circle for me. On Wednesday evening, I went to the Royal Albert Hall to see Prom 36: Vaughan Williams and Alwyn.
Absolutely brilliant. I booked a ticket only a week before and only because of the recent centenary events (yes, I’m afraid this is another piece on WWI from me – as if you couldn’t get enough stuff on the subject at the moment as it is. You should by now know I’m a little obsessed. Don’t ask me why – someone once said I have a fascination with morbid things.)
At the moment, I feel like every time I turn on the TV or go to read The Guardian, there’s a new article or programme about the centenary waiting for me, just me, to discover it; it’s like the twelve days of Christmas.
My centenary adventure begins: I went to the Imperial War Museum a couple of weeks ago. I tried to rouse the troops – “It’s had a £4 million refurb, don’t you know?… It really is the best museum… Of course – there’s LOADS of good-looking men there, mostly dead ones in old photos, but you get what you can where you can find it…”.
I also was honest. I said, “I’ll probably look at EVERYTHING.” Thought that would sort the women from the children, and they’d say, “So will we! We’ll power through with you – we’re that interested.”
But they said, “No.” Apart from two friends, and yes, I have more than two.
What can I say? The others missed out. They missed out.
The WWI gallery housed some of the most spine-tingling artistic pieces I’ve seen, and the World War 1 exhibition, which we queued for, has been modernised really well – with projections and interactive elements aplenty (screw you, Natural Boring History Museum), though I was sorry to see that the Blitz experience had disappeared. Oh well.
We powered through the various exhibits – the WWII tank known as Willie Pusher, the traumatising Holocaust exhibition, and even the toilets that glare with so much red lighting, I expected poles and dancers to rise out of the floor.
What dismays me a little now, which I discovered when reading an article yesterday, is that the Chinese voluntary services who fought amongst Britain’s allies, have been literally painted out of history. And though exhibitions and various TV programmes are making their efforts to remember the often forgotten African and Indian soldiers, there’s no acknowledgement of the Chinese – not even at the Imperial War Museum. Only now are they getting their first official memorial.
Another stop on the tour de centenary was the British Library. I mooched along there to pass the time on a Friday evening and, you know, suck up some more black and white shizzle. But I was so amazed at the WWI exhibition they had. Not only did they have original posters from the day, but also actual original handwritten poems and letters – from the likes of Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen. Just amazing! This was everything I’d studied at school. It said not to take pictures, so I did. Apologies for light reflections.
Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier – original manuscript
Letter to Rupert Brooke from a friend offering to darn his socks
Siegfried Sassoon’s accompanying letter to his anti-war declaration…
…Siegfried Sassoon’s anti-war declaration – for which he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital for hysteria
Letter from Isaac Rosenberg, referencing his poem In the Trenches
Poem Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Own – original manuscript with annotations by Siegfried Sassoon
Vaughan Williams – original manuscript
WWI letter of condolence
Could hardly sit still the rest of the evening.
Which brings me to my final stop on the magical WWI bus. I’d decided to watch WWI Remembered from Westminster Abbey on Monday the 4th. I thought even I might get bored, but I tell you what – I was enthralled. I guess I should have expected there’d be readings by actors and soldiers of letters, poems and books from 1914, considering the Great War fuelled so much great art and literature – much of which I studied during my A-Levels. A decent balance between men and women’s work as well, as sadly too often, women’s voices are not heard or cared for in this genre, or simply snarled at. And I loved one of the speeches, which I believe was by Hew Strachan, professor at Oxford University, in which he spoke of how we should be wary of hindsight, as it’s all too easy to patronise the past and the decisions made during the war.
But there’s one area of culture I’ve never studied, and that’s classical music – especially the pieces that were performed on this night – the likes of Elgar and Thomas Tallis. So when I heard those opening notes of the organ played by Daniel Cook, and by the violinist Jennifer Pike playing A Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams, I caught my breath.
So emotionally fitting with the ideology of 1914, having been written in that year before Vaughan Williams lied about his age and joined the army.
This piece, based on the poem of the same name by George Meredith, effectively shows how the composer lost his innocence simply because his pieces following that war to end all wars were much more disturbing, and were his dedications to his lost companions, such as the composer George Butterworth.
And it turns out I’m not the only who feels this way about The Lark Ascending, as it was voted the nation’s favourite piece of classical music in Classic FM‘s poll – which made me feel a little bit clueless as I never really knew this piece before now. Still, I listened to this song obsessively the other week and couldn’t seem to listen to anything other than classical music. So I decided to go and see something at the Proms, and thought I wonder... And my heart skipped a beat, because I found that The Lark Ascending was playing at the Proms!
On Wednesday night, I wrung my hands, sweating, throughout the entire 15 minutes and felt like a lark myself, like I do every time I hear it. And I could hear sniffing around me, and it was played so softly at times, that I could almost not hear it – and you can’t hear it on the Radio 3 recording for this reason, but when I was there, I could feel it – feel the waves on my goosebumps. Static and ecstatic. I’m due to hear it again in November when my friend, a professional violinist, will be playing it at a remembrance event.
I should probably invite along the two old ladies who sat next to me at the Proms; they slept through the whole, bloody thing.