I have never been interested in history. I always found it rather pointless and, as I grew older, I developed a thorough distrust of it. For the anthropologists out there I came down more on the Sahlins, rather than the Obeyesekere, side of that particular debate. History is so often inescapably bound up with human politics, power play, nationalism and other suspicious hegemonies that I resist believing that we can ever even know what happened only a few short decades ago, let alone in previous centuries.
This ambivalence about history has certainly coloured my attention to the Centenary of WWI, and I confess to never quite being moved by Remembrance Day. What could I have to remember? I was born fifty years after all of it ended (conflating, as they are in Remembrance Day, WWI and WWII). That is two generations. I grew up in an era that was no longer defined by those events; the 1990s were decidedly not a post-war period.
However we are all taught to be affected by the ‘World Wars’. Our [sometimes controversially nationalistic] instincts are induced with such strength that on one occasion, when a trumpeter hadn’t been found to play the last post at a Remembrance Day service, after playing it to an empty church on the organ’s trumpet stop I found myself standing, although completely unobserved, keeping the minute’s silence all by myself without really quite knowing why. It is automatic. Among the clearest of my early childhood memories one of the most distinct is of observing the minute’s silence in the middle of a reception class PE lesson and a spontaneous discussion about the war that followed. Memorial, with its component ‘civic’ or ‘civil’ rituals, remains a key part of how we learn to be Britons today, or ‘Europeans’ of a particular kind, if you prefer. Just ask an American friend about a war, or take one to a church or village memorial. When I have done this with mine they have not really known what to make of it, and generally confessed to never having thought about the death in the World Wars before. It is just not a part of their psyche, and by contrast somehow it has been moulded into our living national, historical and everyday identity, whether it means anything deeper for us or not.
Today I came back to the city I grew up in, Hull, for a short visit to run some errands. Whilst waiting for a bunch of my shoes to be heeled I went to wander around the Ferens Art Gallery, an exceptional institution with a fascinating and beautifully curated permanent collection. As I moved into the temporary exhibition room I found myself amidst Edwardian dresses in glass cases, facing a projected slideshow of photographs from Hull during World War I. The first few were like so many others I had seen of the World Wars: blank, generic male faces in Dad’s Army get-ups. Then after a few more slides my feelings changed. There were photographs of men and women alike, of Hull City Hall hung over with banners for recruitment and surrounded by swarms of people – Hullensians, like me. Real people. As I looked at the next slide of the East Riding Fourth Battalion a little voice in my head said, “they all died”. I thought I was going to vomit.
As the slideshow went on there were pictures of streets I know in Hull bombed down to the ground. Hull was the most bombed city per square metre in WWII – more than London, for its size – and was the target of focussed attacks throughout 1941. People forget that this so-called crappy little city (I’ll deal with that perception in another post) was an extremely important port and site of industry, as well as taking the brunt of ‘spare’ bombs dropped by German planes flying over Hull on their way back home after a round of blitzing. These are facts I have known for much of my life, but facts alone don’t really register. Until I saw photos of streets I knew well razed to the ground, rubble, in pieces, I hadn’t registered any of these ‘facts’.
The slide that got to me the most by far was a picture of Holy Trinity, Hull’s iconic parish church that stands in the Old Town Square. I sung a carol service with school there every Christmas of my life from being tiny, and remember standing aged 5 in the freezing cold stone arches in my itchy red felt beret. My friend’s father is the vicar there now. It has been thoroughly central to my life. When I saw a picture of it during the war with the buildings to the left of it flattened to a pile of pebbles, and saw clearly that a Zeppelin had missed it by metres, I really thought I was going to vomit.
The exhibition showed me that my life, my home, and all the places I knew, had been profoundly shaped, even made what they are today, through and by all that went on in those World Wars, in a much more meaningful way than learned patriotic habits have ever done so. Suddenly the roll of honour became a deeply precious artefact, and I scanned through and took in as many names as I could. I was tugged at by the endless links to my own life, as the longest rolls of honour were taking from the Wilson Shipping Company. Arthur Wilson’s family home, Tranby Croft, was made into a girls’ school in the 1950s – my own beloved Hull High School for Girls. The gap had closed to a single degree of separation, which is not much at all.
The other thing that was particular commendable about this exhibition is its easy devolution from androcentrism. The images were of women and men in the war equally, nor was any big deal made of the presentation of women in the war. It was handled as a simple fact, that men and women were alive and both underwent extraordinary ordeals toward the war effort. There was even an area focussing on children, displaying beautiful coloured certificates given to a little girl who had collected hundreds of eggs and a young boy who had comforted the wounded in a local hospital. It is the first time that I have ever seen a World War exhibition or presentation of any kind that managed such a balance, at least without making a scene of itself for doing so. Any potential for pernicious nationalisms was also checked by a corner calling to mind the many German-born settlers who lived in England prior to the First World War, and the racial prejudice they faced here, and in Hull, although they had long since come to call it their home. A truly excellent exhibition.
I didn’t think anything of this Centenary until today. Which is appropriate, since today is indeed the very day war was declared. Finally I realised that the World War is not just a nationalist fairy story or a collective nightmare we once had, but it really happened. One hundred years ago today a very real war was declared, and in that and the one that followed lives were wasted. So too were the places I walk in day by day. To be given a way to realise that was very special. I retain my reservations about history, but the Ferens showed me today that this memoriam need not be nationalistic or seen as a glorification of violence and death at all. It can rather be a story of human living now; it is a matter of heritage. “When War Hit Home”, the exhibition was called, and more than any Remembrance Day service ever has done, hit home it did.