John Griff column: When reflecting on the past might help secure the future
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Armistice Day commemorates the end of World War 1 with the signing of the armistice between warring nations at 11AM on the 11th of November 1918 in a private railway carriage in sidings at Francport, just outside Compiegne in France. Described as the war to end all wars, the last day of the war still saw losses of 2,738 men. The armistice marked only official ending of hostilities and would be extended three times before the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June the following year. Even then it would be January of 1920 before it took effect, signalling the official start of peacetime.
Remembrance Sunday in contrast provides an opportunity to commemorate the contributions of the military and civilian servicemen and women of Britain and the Commonwealth who served not only in both World Wars but other theatres of war and armed conflict since. This year’s Act of Remembrance will the first under the reign of King Charles 3rd and will follow the same format as those which took place under his mother’s own reign. The format remains significant, brief and non-religious. It’s tone is both accessible and muted, concentrating on simple forms of words which will be uttered all over Great Britain and beyond on either side of two minutes of national silence.
I’ve always thought The Exhortation from the Act to be a hugely dignified lesson in respect, contained in just four lines:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
After the silence many Acts of Remembrance will also include The Kohima Epitaph, which is even more succinct and timeless:
When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today.
The brevity of the words but the wealth of their wisdom and their meaning is remarkable – they teach us a great deal about conflict and tolerance in a world beset right now with pain and conflict in so many places.
I mention this at the start of this week’s column because a couple of weeks ago Lois and I experienced not one, but two separate artistic installations on the same morning at Stowe School. Each proved to be thought provoking, but the combination of the two created a powerful sense of the frailty of life not only on our planet, but of the planet itself. It might have been a simple coincidence of them being in the same place at the same time, but the irony of that coincidence wasn’t lost on me for a second.
The first installation was that of the touring Gaia Earth Art work by Luke Jerram. It actually appeared at Delapre Abbey earlier in the year but we missed it and didn’t want to miss it again. Effectively a giant gas filled sphere lit from within, Gaia uses high definition NASA photography to illustrate in detail what the surface of our world looks like from space. Rotating slowly whilst suspended from a framework of aluminium trusses and accompanied by a surround-sound composition, we stood in quiet contemplation of what many others around the real world have seen artistically, but only astronauts (and even then very few of that particular group) have seen for real. Stowe’s Marble Hall provided a space just about big enough to display this particular version of Jerram’s work (there are a number of Gaia’s touring the world at any one time) and I watched as small children ran around underneath it completely oblivious to the climate change and sustainability messages that older generations were clearly considering as they too looked on. Personally, I was struck by the realisation that all of humanity – good, bad and indifferent - was factually represented by this one fragile sphere.
The thought stuck with me long after we had left the Marble Hall and headed into Stowe’s gardens to take in for the other art installation. Standing With Giants is a community project working with the Royal British Legion and in this instance used 200 life-sized silhouettes of armed forces men and women carefully arranged on one of the huge lawned spaces of the gardens – it’ll be there this weekend before closing to visitors on the 14th of the month. Representing the trades of the various services from, in this case the World Wars, there are other Standing With Giants projects in existence commemorating and celebrating ordinary people doing extraordinary things for others – the NHS is one such theme called to mind.
On this particular day we both wandered through the lines of the silhouettes lost in our own thoughts before finally reaching one of the gravel paths that serve the gardens. It was here that we finally appreciated the installation in full. Accompanied by the texts of some of the last letters sent home to families from the front lines and a number of bright red silhouetted poppies we both felt an overwhelming sense of both the poignancy of the installation outside in the morning mist as well as the futility of war, set against the beauty of the Gaia earth that we had just left floating inside Stowe House. After pausing in silence for a few minutes we walked quietly away and as we did I glanced at my watch – it had just gone 11AM.
This weekend there will be many reflecting on lost family members and events both here at home as well as further afield. I sincerely hope that the weekend and Remembrance Sunday in particular passes peacefully and respectfully. None of us would be here without those who went before us and every human being that has ever walked this earth – or been lost on its surface - is represented on Luke Jerram’s Gaia. If Standing With Giants gives us cause to pause and consider the past – and especially the recent past – then perhaps Gaia can help us consider all our futures.
Lest We Forget