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Best way to commemorate the First World War is to pull up the roots and examine them

Jan Woolf, cultural co-ordinator of No Glory, hatches a plan for a 2018 centenary conference at Flanders Field Museum.

The Menin Gate

The Menin Gate memorial, Ypres, Belgium.


Just back from Ypres, a one woman British Expeditionary Force - product of the post WW2 welfare state, a socialist, mother of a son, whose name, a hundred years ago could have been inscribed on the Menin Gate.

The Gate is the memorial to the thousands of British and Empire soldiers who had no remains to bury. Mothers without a body or a grave had nervous breakdowns at the time, and I could only go there as an activist – not a tourist.

I’d gone to broker a concert and international conference at the Flanders Field Museum for No Glory in War – an adjunct of Stop the War.

WW1 is not a war to be stopped of course, but the way we remember it affects our analysis of war today – the fault lines and dynamics of international tensions are similar – and we learn from them.

No Glory is the Left’s own commemoration and counterweight to the establishments’ centenary of the end of WW1.

People remember the dead in their own way, as is their right. But we want to reclaim the space – the killing fields, as memorial to what was in fact an international atrocity, and do it before the official ceremonies on 11/11/18 that will seek to justify that war in terms of victory and ‘necessary sacrifice’.

For the best kind of commemoration, our kind, finds the roots of war, pulls them up and examines them. We’re hatching plans for three years hence. So watch this space.

Nothing guaranteed, yet important things should happen in the museum and the town square – with the Menin Gate a ghostly backdrop. We will link then with now – with the thread of near history.

Brian Eno will work with us, and others from France and Germany. Turkey, Algeria, Africa, India. Something of strong emotion, musical brilliance – something to bring alive those thousands of carved names.

The Menin Gate for me, was heart breaking, both in what it signified and what it missed. The Last Post ceremony left me cold. Ritual should be spare – minimal – and ambulance drivers blowing bugles will do it for many. This is not for me to judge.

But the Last Post ritual seems to have become larded with other subsidiary performances – the evening I was there, girl dancers from the Orkneys, some banner bearing British legion men, a young male soloist – all giving it a Songs of Praise feel. What was previously an authentic ritual in which emotion can be projected has become larded with centenary kitsch, losing its real meaning.

The town of Ypres, now Leper has a time slip atmosphere. Its medieval buildings were bombed to bits during WW1, but the populace decided to re-build it as it used to be, so it feels ersatz, like a theme park. The Over the Top café offering a ‘nice strong cuppa’ for British tourists.

Growing up when I did, I imbibed the wrongness of WW1. h What a Lovely War was around and the BBC’s World at War projected into every sitting room. How it should never have happened.

I thought the Flanders Field WW1 Exhibition far more viscerally hard hitting than anything in the IWM, stating, quite plainly the cause as imperialism and the grab for markets of the Belle Époque: the era of imperialism, feeding capitalist fervour – and its sons to the fire of the four year conflagration.

The people who run the museum are not just heritage guardians, but political thinkers, who, like us in No Glory draw the parallels with today’s neo liberalism, a Belle Époque for the bankers and corporations. Our conference themes will cover – war and propaganda, Sykes/Picot and today’s Middle East. Versailles. Women and war. The refugee crisis.

My two trains through the Northern French and Belgian urb’scapes, of a crumbling industrial base topped with the newly erecting corporate horrors, its over bright advertising like bling on a corpse. Not a dystopia quite – yet.

Coming back I hit the school run and wondered what sort of future these kids, looking down into their phones, would have. Depends on their social class, I thought. Back to Lille-Euro – a horror of a shopping mall – a logo hell, indistinguishable from anywhere else – Lakeside, Brent Cross, No character, no beauty, no romance of being somewhere else.

Lille’s old city centre squatting in an aspic of heritage nonsense. Descending onto the platform for Eurostar felt like going down into a prison – barbed wire, dark dystopian walls. Except I was free and fed and comfortable. And going home to plan a conference.

My train was held up at Calais while police removed people from the line. Poor desperate people. I wondered about stopping trains as an act of protest. But after an hour we were away again – too dark to look out of the window to look into the face of any of these desperate people.

But my plans for the centenary conference suddenly felt very contemporary. 100 years is a short time – and yes, a workshop will be the refugee crises, then and now. How wars create them.

I was also going home to build for the re-launch of the Left Book Club, something else; forward looking, progressive, pulled from recent history and thinking how pleased I was to be working with such a talented, broad, and committed group of people putting it together.

The launch of the new Left Book Club was independent of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to be Labour leader, but the zeitgeist threw it up at the same time as thousands of people were giving him their support. Something in the air. Jeremy Corbyn, as chair of the Stop the War coalition gave some terrific speeches at No Glory events.

Principally in Parliament Square on the evening of August 4th last year, evoking Kier Hardy’s opposition to the war on Aug 2nd 100 years ago, as we held our own commemorative event simultaneously as the establishment’s ‘Lights Out’ ceremony in Westminster Abbey over the road.

Jeremy’s speech, Samuel West reading Wilfred Owen, Alison Kennedy reading the testimony of a grieving mother, Gunes Ceres, a young Turkish musician playing a lament for the dead of the Middle East on her Oud, all moving, and strong.

As Sebastian Faulks, author of Birdsong, walked past towards the Abbey ceremony, I pressed a copy of Neil Faulkner’s No Glory – the Real History of the First World War into his hand, saying. ‘You should have been with us’. I think the look on his face said - I know.

When asked for a visitor comment in the Flanders Field Museum I remembered that great novelist E.M Forster’s famous words ‘Only Connect’. And so we do.

Jan Woolf – Playwright, Cultural co-ordinator of No Glory in War, and chair of the Left Book Club