Reviews - World War One anniversary
As commemorations of the centenary of the beginning of World War One get under way, NEW DIRECTIONS reviewers highlight some of the best music, theatre, art, and books which are helping to mark the anniversary.
WAR AND PEACE
Music for Remembrance Jesus College, Cambridge Signum Classics
The reviews editor of this magazine normally only sends me CDs to review from Oxford colleges; knowing my love for that city and the fact that I claim to have never visited the ‘other place’. I am however delighted that he chose to send this CD to me for review. It is a first-rate recording of music that will no doubt be at the fore of many of our lives in and out of church in the coming months and years as we remember the great sacrifice of the First World War. There is some fine and unusual music in this recording which brings together the College’s two choirs – one of men and boys and the other of men and women. The singing is of the highest standard as one might expect and the sound is in no way top heavy and blends very well.
Arealhighlightforme is the recording of Mark Blatchly’s September 1914: For the Fallen. It was composed for the 1980 Royal British
Legion Festival and was not a piece I had heard before. It is scored for trebles and has a haunting effect that speaks of the innocence of a nation on the edge of war that would change not only this nation but the whole world. Matthew Martin’s Justorum animae is another piece with which I was not familiar but one I was glad to hear and hope to hear again in
the coming year. Amongst the other gems on this recording are two pieces of Parry including There Is an Old Belief from glorious Songs of Farewell. This is English music at its best and does capture that beautiful time in our history, a time of faith and loyalty and the zeal for justice.
This is a recording of church music, and rightly so. I do think, however, that it could be given as a gift to someone with little interest of knowledge of church music. The inclusion of the Guest For the Fallen; Ireland, Greater Love and the Kontakion of the Dead give it a broad appeal. There is however much here for the choral music addict, with new recordings and a fresh approach to some of the pieces recorded. I for one cannot listen to the Vaughan Williams Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge without feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Music is a good way for us to remember and Jesus College Choir has offered us a fine example of how this can be done. It is to be hoped that our nation’s own commemorations will be as well thought out and focused on prayer and thanksgiving for lives given in the service of our country.
Heaven in a Hell of War Pallant House Gallery, Chichester
15 February–15 June
I HAVE seen this series of harrowingly beautiful paintings three times now. I first went to see them in their traditional home, the Sandham Memorial Chapel, and then at Somerset House and now at the Pallant House Gallery. The tour coincides primarily with the fact that the Chapel is being restored but more importantly it will allow more people to see this wonderful cycle of paintings in the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War.
The paintings have an epic feel to them. Painted as a commission for a chapel built by John Louis and Mary Behrend as a memorial to Mary’s brother Harry Sandham (who died on the forgotten front of Salonika), they offer an often dreamlike view of the life of the soldier through the eyes of Spencer who was a hospital orderly. The paintings took five years to complete and focus not so much on conflict but on everyday life. It is the focus on the ordinary – tea in a hospital ward, making a bed, frying rashers of bacon – amidst the horrors of war that makes the paintings all the more moving. They are full of little details that only occur to the viewer after a little while and indeed different angles and aspects of each canvas appeal to different people.
The paintings can be separated into three distinct sections: the first, the Beaufort Military Hospital shows the camaraderie and care between the soldiers. The hospital was however not always for Spencer a place of peace and rest; he described the railings as resembling the gates of Hell. The second series focuses on his time in Salonika. These paintings focus not on battle but on the moments of calm between fighting, checking kit and
making tea. The images are gruelling and it clear that what is going on is far from peaceful or kind and yet there is a serenity in the images. The final painting of the series serves as an altar piece and is entitled The Resurrection. It is painted directly onto the wall and so is not present in the touring exhibition. This is a vast scene that pays tribute to those who lost their lives in the Macedonian battlefields. There is so much going on the painting deserves a great deal of time and study. The men who have died represent for Spencer the hope of the resurrection and hope for the future.
In many ways Spencer’s paintings might be thought of as not being religious at all. They are however very incarnational and offer to the viewer a deeper understanding of the struggle of war and how God is met in simple things and how he is there between people through acts of kindness and love. If in this centenary year you only go to see one exhibition about the First World War I heartily encourage you to go and see this one. You will be touched and moved by what you see and it will ensure that you never forget not only the horror but also the tenderness and love that are to be found on the battlefield.
OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR
Theatre Royal, Stratford East Until 15 March
THERE ARE moments when as a fan of musical theatre I can become quite obsessed with one show or another. I buy the recording, the script, the score and any film version of it. Last year it was Privates on Parade revived at the Noel Coward Theatre. It was a wonderful production that offered an alternative look at army entertainers in the Far East, full of wonderful songs and jokes. I for one am grateful that Stage Door Records have released the original cast recording.
Earlier this year I was very taken with the musical version of From Here to Eternity; based in another sphere of war – Hawaii on the eve of Pearl Harbour – it is a glamorous musical with some good strong songs. The prize must however go to the choreography and in particular the dancers who play the GIs with passion and vigour. I am keeping an eye out to see whether a cast recording will be forthcoming – it will certainly be one for my CD shelf as I remember ‘The Boys of ’41’.
My attention has now turned to Terry Johnson’s revival of another classic musical, Oh What a Lovely War. In this the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War there can have been no better time to revive the musical. I have to say whilst in general I am one who would said ‘I’m with Gove’ I could not help but be moved by this look at the First World War from the eyes of ordinary people. Unlike Sheriff’s Journey’s End this is a piece of theatre that looks at the ordinary Tommy and life on the home front. The donkeys who lead the lions certainly don’t come over well and neither does Mr Gove who appears as an illustration of what a donkey looks like.
This is a fun little show which through the medium of chippy musical hall songs tries to make serious political points. It has lost none of its horror and freshness in the years since it was first produced. If anything gnaws at the viewer it is that there is little depth in what is going on on stage. Littlewood in writing it was more focused on making political points than creating real depth of character. And sometimes the upper classes are simply too much of a parody. That being said there are plenty of laughs and chuckles and certainly lots of tears. The scene in which there is a ceasefire on Christmas day is a moving piece of theatre.
In this new production the audience is bombarded by facts and figures on large screens conveying the horror of war, something we must never forget. The actors have a good grasp of the stage and of the piece. Caroline Quentin is wonderful as the home front matron and does bring real warmth to the stage. The comedy prize must go to Ian Bartholomew as the shrill and mad Haig.
This is a production worth seeing if you have a chance. I for one hope they will produce a cast recording of this too. I am not sure I would take a GCSE history group to see it as they might get a rather odd view of history and in this I am still with Gove, but I would take anyone interested in music, British life, politics and good old-fashioned propaganda.
The Classic War Play Explored
Robert Gore-Langton Oberon Books, 200pp, pbk
978 1849433952, £10.99
EVERY MORNING at school we would climb the steps up to Chapel, each step a memorial to one boy from the school who died in WWI and the Chapel itself adorned with the names of the fallen, built by a grieving headmaster as a memorial to those boys who had fallen. The school was rightly proud of having produced two lesser known war poets and so we did remembrance in a big way. Each boy whether he liked it or not would also study R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End; indeed I think it appeared at least twice as a House Play in the drama competition during my time. I can still quote lines from it and try to see it whenever it is being performed; it is somehow part of my psyche. It is however not a universally popular play and its popularity with producers seems to ebb and flow. It is fair to say as we pass through the centenary years of World War I it will be revived a few times (something I for one can rejoice in).
Gore-Langton’s study of the play is a wonderful guide to the playwright, productions and critics. Beginning with the first proper study of Sherriff’s life and in particular his service in the trenches, Gore-Langton shows how much of the play is written from personal experience and as a way of coping with the horrors of war. He also tackles head on the question of whether Journey’s End was a piece of patriotic writing or a piece of anti-war rhetoric. He comes down somewhere in the middle. It is an accurate account of the way in which men in the trenches responded to conflict – each in their own way trying to cope with the horror: whether through drinking, talking, obsessing about food or writing menus. Each response is a different one and a different way of masking fear and horror. Gore-Langton also examines the influences that Journey’s End had on other writers, including the sequel written by Noel Coward (and indeed his spoof version of the play that has Stanhope drinking champagne from a candelabra); it is amazing to think that a play so hated by many critics should have such a wide sphere of influence.
In the final part of the book Gore‑Langton examines recent revivals of the play, including the exceptionally moving 2004 production; it is to be hoped that these will serve as an inspiration for a revival this coming year. This book is likely to become a staple for all those who study Journey’s End at whatever level.
It should also become a staple for all serious theatre-goers as it proves that literature about the theatre is as rich as it is varied. The theatre has a great impact on the way in which a nation views itself and how she responds in times of crisis and celebration. This book is a study of that effect and should not be overlooked.
EMPIRES OF THE DEAD
How One Man’s Vision
Led to the Creation
of WWI’s War Graves
William Collins, 304pp, hbk
978 0007456659, £16.99
UNTIL THE age of 11, I lived with my parents in the Far East, a remarkable place for a young boy with a love of history to grow up. During that time I only met Margaret Thatcher once but I remember the day vividly. A woman in blue came across to talk to my parents and me as we visited the Commonwealth Graves in Pusan. Being directed away from the graves she pointed to a far corner and marched off in the direction to see more of them, much to the distress of her minders. They were all ‘our boys’ as far as she was concerned. Later my parents, thinking it would be a good thing for me to do, encouraged me to become a Weeblo Scout (part of the American boy scouts) and so each Veterans’ Day we would march out to lay wreaths at the war graves near Yokohama; the other British boy and I doing so in the British part of the cemetery.
The sight of those graves had a deep impression upon me, so much so that I could not resist buying David Crane’s book about the war graves of World War I. I have never visited the war graves in France but it is something it seems to me we must all do, to face the horror of war captured in the beauty of row after row of stark graves. Crane’s book is a wonderfully detailed account of how the War Graves Commission came into being, from the horror of what went on before the orderly burial of the dead to the minutiae of the discussions about the design of the headstone and where the cemeteries should be. It is debatable whether now there would be such in-depth discussions about whether it was possible to have plants from different parts of the Empire (in those days) in cemeteries containing the dead from those dominions. One would like to think so but I am not so sure.
Fabian Ware was a visionary in his work on the graves and the creation of the cemeteries. Faced with the horror and destruction of war he wanted to make sure that those who had died were properly remembered and not, as in previous conflicts, simply all thrown together in what was little more than a pit. Ware was a visionary of Empire; he believed that the ‘mother country’ should work to remember all of the children of empire who had fought to defend freedom. He worked tirelessly to ensure that there were suitable graves for Hindu, Muslim and Jewish soldiers for example.
As we approach the anniversary of the start of World War I this will be one of many books written about all aspects of the conflict. To me it will be among the most important, not only as it helps my own childhood thoughts about war graves but because it deals with that continuing thorny issue about remembrance and what it means to remember our war dead. Our forefathers were, through these monuments of memory, dedicated to working for peace. The vast monuments and cemeteries mean that we can never forget the horror of war and the need for peace. For this we can be truly grateful; as we can also for the vision of Fabian Ware and those who worked so hard to ensure the war dead would be decently remembered.
THE DIARY OF OLGA ROMANOV
Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution Helen Azar Westholme Publishing, 256pp, hbk
978 1594161773, £19.99
THIS IS a wonderful book and super resource as a primary source in studying the First World War through the eyes of a young woman who would lose her life alongside her family at the hands of wicked men. It is also the diary of one who has been exalted to the altars of the Church; for the Russian Royal Martyrs are venerated among the blessed of the Russian Orthodox Church, and I have no doubt there are icons of them in many Anglican homes. This then is the diary of a saint and of a very ordinary woman doing her work during the war.
What is wonderful to see is just how religion was at the heart of the Imperial Court; on nearly every page there is a reference to going to a liturgy or to prayer. Olga expresses concern not only for her family – her father the Tsar as he travels and her brother Alexei as he becomes ill – but also for those in her care in the hospital and for the ordinary soldier and man and woman. In her diaries we read of Olga’s loves and her passions, her love of walking with her mother, her fascination with people. It is a truly personal reflection of what is going on around her. We read also of her concerns as Russia collapses around her family and she faces almost certain arrest and imprisonment. In the later entries the concern is palpable: what will happen?
Helen Azar has translated the diaries with a lightness of touch and has couched them in other material including letters and accounts of the Imperial Court from other people. The final section of the book is made up from the diaries of Nicholas II in captivity and these make for harrowing and moving reading. As we approach the centenary of the martyrdom of the Royal Martyrs this book is a must for all those who are interested in the Romanovs and their lives. It offers a glimpse inside the court and the life of a very ordinary woman in many ways who because of her royal calling sought to serve those in need and would lose her life because her family represented faith and order.
This volume is well illustrated with black and white photos (if I have one criticism it is that the photographs are on the same type of paper as the text and thus are not very good reproductions). Many of the photographs are personal ones I had not seen before. Having read the diaries once, I have put this volume on the pile marked ‘read again’ and will be taking it with me when in July 2018 I travel to Russia to the site of the martyrdom to pray at the shrine of the martyrs. May they pray for us all and for Russia and her Church.
KING OF THE NORTH
The Life and Times of
Oswald of Northumbria
Head of Zeus, 460pp, hbk
978 1781854181, £25
THE FIRST event of English history is not 55 BC nor is it 1066, and nor does it occur along the Kent coast. The first date in English history is 634 and the place is Heavenfield, near Hexham. In the confused world of competing warlords, the newly established English seemed for a while to prosper, until the pagan British regained their power.
Thus it was that a young man of about thirty, who had been brought up and educated by the monks of Iona (to whom he had been sent away for his safety after his father’s defeat) found himself as nominal king, at the head of a small army in the northern part of what remained of the tiny English kingdom. Cadwallan, king of Gwynedd, and his pagan allies, in the summer of 634, had come north to defeat him, and remove for ever any English presence in this part of the British Isles. What happened next was one of the great turning points in history.
With their backs to Hadrian’s Wall, Oswald gathered his men and prepared for battle. In the words of Bede, ‘The devout king with fervent faith took the cross and placed it in position and summoning his small army he cried, ‘Let us all kneel together, and ask the true and living God Almighty of his great mercy to protect us from the arrogant savagery of our enemies, since he knows that we fight in a just cause to save our nation.’
Somehow, against the odds and all expectations, they won an astonishing victory. From that moment, Oswald’s restoration of the Northumbrian English kingdom was swift and decisive. Within half a dozen years, he was the most powerful king in these islands. Aware that no success would be permanent until the pagans had been defeated, he fought the king of Mercia in 642, and lost. His brother, Oswy, succeeded a decade later, which is why his legacy has lasted.
Oswald’s significance depends hugely on the saintly bishop, Aidan, to whom he gave Lindisfarne, who brought the Christian political creed from the Irish, via Iona. It was the vision of those two men that gave us the foundation of English civilization, the rule of law under God, with Christ as king, the overlord of both king and bishop.
There had been Christian kings before Oswald, but their attachment to the faith was generally personal and had little effect upon their political life; they acted like the pagan warlords of their generation, only with a different personal faith; very twenty-first-century but of little historical influence. Oswald’s shortreign gave us Christian kingship as the foundation of English political life. The obligation to defend the cross, to fight for God’s justice and extend his rule of law, can be and has been often abused, but it remains the unacknowledged foundation of our unwritten constitution, built upon by such greater monarchs as Alfred the Great.
1,380 years of history will inevitably be rich, complex and hard to interpret, but its founding moment still deserves our serious consideration. It was in battle that we were born as a nation, when Angles became English, and men died defending a ‘just cause’. One hundred years ago that heritage is part of the background for those young men who volunteered in the early months of the Great War.
The sources for seventh-century Britain (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History excepted) are sparse and often difficult to interpret. Histories of St Oswald, therefore, tend to be either too short and simple to be called history or too academic and qualified to offer a story. This book avoids both pitfalls, and is a truly excellent history and narrative. I seriously recommend it.
Adams pursues his speculations as far as they will take him, but not so far that we no longer trust him, and in so doing has managed to paint a vivid and believable history of the first English king. He has real sympathy for the books and places he treats of: for example, his is the best description of the earlier royal town of Yeavering I have encountered.
Those who do not know Oswald are in for a good read; those who do (and I would count myself among them) will enjoy the clarity and imagination. I really hope this book is a huge success. The subject is important and the treatment is excellent.
Do not be put off by the cover. Whose idea was that? It is dreadful: it has been made to look like a self-published novel. I hope a second edition will give it the weight and authority it deserves.