Lest we forget
When I close my laptop and leave the office every evening, more often than not my aim is to keep the number of minutes that stand between me at my desk and me at home to an absolute minimum. I don’t crane my neck to look up at the Shard, I don’t gaze across the river at the lights of the city, but I do silently grumble to myself each time a tourist impedes my walk across Tower Bridge. Recently, though, something has been stopping me in my power-walking tracks on a daily basis: the Tower of London Remembers.
The 16-acre installation currently surrounding the Tower, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, has been created to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the First World War and is the work of ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper. The installation is made up of 888,246 handcrafted poppies, each one representing a fallen British soldier from the First World War, and has been visited by around five million people – tourists and locals alike. Proceeds from the sale of the poppies will be shared among six different charities, all of which do brilliant work for members of the Armed Forces and their families.
Those are the numbers. The facts and figures. But anyone who has had the chance to visit the Tower in recent weeks, I’m sure, will agree that the masterpiece equates to far more than the sum of its parts.
Everyone remembers in different ways – there isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. But the visual impact of the poppy installation really struck a chord with me. When I was 13, I went on a school trip to the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Laxton, Nottinghamshire. In the memorial gardens there, I remember seeing a large pile of stones. The guide explained that it was a work-in-progress and every visitor was (and still is) invited to place a stone on the pile. Each stone represents a child lost in the Holocaust. The pile may never reach the total figure of 1.5 million stones, but even in its “unfinished” state, its power was such that it made a group of children stop and think and, more than a decade later, I still remember it and its significance vividly.
For me, that pile of stones and the moat of ceramic poppies work in the same way. I can read as many articles and books as I like on the atrocities of the World Wars (and conflicts fought before or since then), but no written figure has the same impact (for me, at least) as a visual representation of that number. It is the sheer physical magnitude of the installation that hits home with me; it makes the reality of what I’m remembering all the more real.
It started with a poppy…
Following the physical destruction of the WWI battlefields, it was the humble poppy alone that was able to grow up out of the war-torn ground. The installation recreates that tragically beautiful scene: thousands of elegant, but hardy, poppies rising as a visual reminder of the physical strength and devastation of war. It seems logical that this naturally occurring reminder of war should be adopted as our symbol of remembering.
Back in 1921, the Royal British Legion made £106,000 from its first Poppy Appeal. This year, that figured reached around £40 million. In that time, as the monetary value of the Appeal has steadily grown, so too has our collective awareness of the poppy and what it stands for. Now, in the weeks ahead of Remembrance Day, poppies can be spotted adorning coats, cars, even football kits, and the meaning of its existence is instantly understood in the UK. The poppy has become such a powerful visual symbol that it requires no words, no further explanation. We see it and we know why it’s there.
We will remember
For me, the beauty of the poppy is that it signifies different things to different people. When I look at my poppy, I (very proudly) remember my Grandpa. The couple I saw being interviewed at the Cenotaph on Sunday remembered their son, who fell in Afghanistan three years ago. You probably remember someone else. The poppy isn’t prescriptive in its instruction to remember. It just remembers.
- Armistice day