Saturday, 1 November 2014

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

The centenary of the start of the First World War has prompted countless people to reflect on war, and the part it has played in our history, and the lives of people we know. I'm among them. I still have vivid memories of an uncle of mine, a popular and likeable man, and (like many members of my family) a passionate fan of our local football club, whose life was forever blighted when, having run off to join the army while under age, he was gassed while in the trenches.

When I was researching for my paper at the St Hilda's crime conference, which this year took war as its theme, I was struck by the way in which war had impacted on Golden Age fiction. So far as the First World War was concerned, few detective novelists were left unscathed by it. Anthony Berkeley was gassed, and like my uncle, suffered life-long consequences. Henry Wade was haunted by the war, and you can see that in many of his excellent and under-rated mysteries. Agatha Christie was affected in a different way; the war caused her to rush into her unfortunate first marriage to Archie Christie, while he was serving in France, and it also had disatrous effects on her brother Monty. Dorothy L. Sayers' husband Mac Fleming was also profoundly damaged by his war-time experiences. And you can see in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club in particular that Sayers was all too well aware of the horror of war.

Against that background, I thought I would join the millions who have made a pilgrimage to the Tower of London to see the extraordinary display of ceramic poppies known as Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. I went there yesterday - which happened to be the warmest Hallowe'en in Britain since records began. The good weather perhaps contributed to the huge crowds, and at one point the nearest Tube station had tobe closed for safety reasons. Later, I heard that people were being encouraged to come another day, such were the queues and crowds.

I went on my own, and spent a while there, struggling eventually through to the barrier to get a good view of a dramatic scene. What struck me in particular was not just the magnificence of the spectacle, but the engagement of the spectators. Young and old, and of many different races and nationalities. And, I would imagine, from a very wide spectrum of society - in terms of prosperity, religion, politics and so on. The sense of communal bonding, and the collective sense of awe, was extremely powerful and also poignant. I've never experienced anything quite like it.


Anonymous said...

What lovely 'photos, Martin! And I'm sure it was a powerful moment. You're absolutely right too about the impact of war on GA and classic crime fiction. Modern crime fiction as well, truth be told. Much 'food for thought,' for which thanks.

Martin Edwards said...

Good point about modern books, Margot, as ever.

seana graham said...

I hadn't heard about this. What an amazing idea to help people visualize the scope of destruction. And that's just one country.

It reminds me a bit of the AIDS quilt that traveled around this country in it's ability to bring a numerical point home and make it personal.

Martin Edwards said...

Exactly, Seana. A simple idea, but very powerful.

Uriah Robinson said...

It would be nice if the sense of communal bonding you mentioned could carry on in every sphere of our life in Britain.
And I do hope we keep these commemorations going for the full period of the war.
We shouldn't just remember the disasters of the Somme, Ypres, Verdun but also the hard earned final victories.
Nick Lloyd's -Hundred Days: The End of the Great War talks about " a whole generation who were wiped out in the final months of the war, but who remain lost to history."
He wrote the book because his great uncle Tom Cotterill of the 15th Royal Warwickshires was killed on the 27 September in the attack on Gouzeaucourt.
I saw from the map of the attack in the book that the next regiment to the south was my uncle's 1st Royal West Kents and know that he was killed on that very same day. One of many...
My grandparents and his younger siblings never recovered from the loss of the first born on the Western Front at the tender age of 19.

Martin Edwards said...

Excellent points, Uriah, especially about maintaining that sense of communal bonding. What unites us all is so much more important than what divides us.