Sunday, November 7, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 4

In November 1605 a man named Guy Fawkes and his followers planned to blow up and assassinate King James I and members of Parliament using explosives they had stored under the House of Lords. As Catholics, they wanted to restore England to the Church of Rome and overthrow the Protestant Church of England reinstated since Elizabeth I’s rise to the throne in 1558. Their so-called Gunpowder Plot was discovered, and Fawkes was arrested on November 5 protecting the ammunition. Although he was only 1 of 13 men involved in the plot, he became the face of the assassination attempt. Ever since then, the British celebrate Guy Fawkes Day and Bonfire Night on November 5, with fireworks, candy treats, and the burning of an effigy of Fawkes on a bonfire, like the one you see here (image: Daily Mail). Curiously, at various points in British history, the effigy wasn’t always Fawkes. For a long time it was the Pope because he had been a sympathizer to the Gunpowder Plot. My friend CC filled me in on much of the celebratory information regarding these festivals, and I saw at least one large bonfire from the train back to Leeds this past Friday night. The burning of an effigy of a man on a bonfire does disturb me though. It suggests a violent means to an end and reminds of us less civilized practices from the past. Indeed, Fawkes was hanged for his crime in January 1606, and although he jumped off the platform so that he broke his own neck in the noose, his body still was drawn and quartered, a common practice at the time. Teresa Kundsen here points out that it may not be coincidental that James I ordered celebratory bonfires. They may have related to the already prevalent practice among harvesters of burning effigies of the spirit of vegetation for the Celtic festival of Samhain, the holiday we now associate with Halloween and All Saints Day. Nevertheless, in our day and age, do we still need to burn a straw man to remember the event? Wouldn’t the bonfire alone be enough?

I ask in part because my own personal pacifism and innate sensitivity to death has risen to the surface the past few days. A family friend, someone close to the Padre, died this past week, and his death has been bothering Padre, and me. After all, the death of an individual one knows makes mortality ever more present by the hour. Perhaps then this was a bad emotional state to be in when visiting the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds today. I am glad I went though, for many reasons, even though the dark tone of this post may convince you otherwise. The museum itself is a new building, a rather gulag-looking construct in tones of grey concrete that, surprisingly, is not unattractive. The glass tower with an inside spiral staircase and ornate displays of historic weaponry help make the building appealing. It also sits on the River Aire in the historic waterfront district that has been rejuvenated with post-modern residential buildings and restaurants. The installations in the museum itself are impressive, to the point where I was less interested in the objects than in the displays. The Asian section, for instance, was dazzling in its focus on the decorative elements and beauty of much of their arms and armor. In the tournament area, there was a live demonstration of 15th-century two-handed sword fighting by two very charming and attractive young British men. The sporting section educated viewers about everything from dueling to one of my favorites, fencing. These parts of the museum fascinated me and I found them quite enjoyable. Other parts were more disturbing.

The section on crime weaponry was disturbing. In one section that focused on gun control, which you can see here, I was shocked to discover that 1 out of every 5 firearms is owned by someone in the US, the highest ratio in the world. Each of the guns in the display case had a price tag in US dollars as well, demonstrating how much easier it is to purchase firearms in the US, whereas in the UK they are illegal. The hunting and war displays in the museum also filled me with dread. I found it challenging to walk through galleries where the triumph of man over beast was celebrated, with classical music piped through the spaces as if to conjure the image of the hunter as a civilized sportsman. The mannequins of hunters shooting stuffed boars and rhinos were just silly too. The section on war certainly was interesting for those interested in the development of weaponry, uniforms, or military strategies. But the sections on the the Crimean War, the Zulu Wars, etc., were more of interest to me because they tried not to sanitize or show bias when examining the historical past. For instance, my interest was piqued when I entered the section for the India Revolts of the 1850s and saw wall texts from different scholars that demonstrate different ways the events could be interpreted. But as I read more about the outright villainous slaughtering that took place both on the part of the Indians and the British, using weapons like those displayed in the glass cases, and I learned that more than 800,000 people were executed in the most heinous ways out of anger and revenge, it started to become too much for me. Tears welled in my eyes and I had to control myself not to cry in front of the other people in the room. To imagine people could be that closed-minded, that filled with hatred, that deterministic in a system of blind beliefs, that they would be willing to desecrate the lives of other human beings, innocent civilians and soldiers, wipe them away so that they are lost to us as nothing more than grains of sand blowing on a beach, that level of inhumane sentiment is incomprehensible and unjustified, no matter what the reasons for why warfare must exist at all.

As if this cathartic experience wasn’t enough, tonight on Channel 4 was the last episode of a multi-part special called The Genius of British Art. Of course I would be drawn to watch this, but as much of an Anglophile that I am, even I can readily admit that the word “genius” in this context is purposely self-inflating. Why not “importance” or “relevance” or even “beauty”? Simply put, “genius” appeals to the intellect and thus tells the viewer this series is about the mental process of making art. More importantly, it implies that the “genius” behind British art is nationalism. Only a series such as this could be shown and successfully received in the UK, for only a handful of people in the US, for instance, actually study British art and know maybe half of the artists discussed in this series.
But what made this last episode so particularly relevant today was that it focused on how British artists in the past century responded to war. Former war correspondent Jon Snow explored the work of post-World War I artists like Richard Nevinson (e.g. left: A Star Shell, 1916, image: Tate) who revealed the harshness of war through scenes of death and destruction that challenged assumptions about patriotism and the war effort. In contrast Stanley Spencer could only reconcile the horror of his own experiences by memorializing fallen soldiers as a resurrection scene with the men carrying crosses floating upward to heaven in the Sandham Memorial Chapel. The episode ended with Steve McQueen, a conceptual artist who went to Iraq in the early 2000s to make art in response to the war effort. His highly controversial work, Queen and Country, commemorates soldier after soldier who died in battle, placing their faces on sheet of stamps. Dead men and women from 18 years and up stare back at the viewer from these stamps. McQueen tells us their names, but he wants to remind us visually who they were as well, so we remember all of them, the fallen dead. These stamps, however, have no value, and despite McQueen’s hope that they will become postage stamps, this has not happened. And so they remain unknown soldiers, victims of a war that, in truth, neither you nor I can explain anymore, to a future generation, to ourselves even, right now.

But commemorating these veterans isn’t completely a lost cause, I imagine. In the US we have holidays like Veteran’s Day coming up on November 11, which is called Remembrance Day in the UK. Here, for the first few weeks of the month, people wear red poppy flowers on their lapels and dresses, in memory of fallen soldiers throughout the centuries. The use of the poppy may seem unusual, as it is the flower that produces opium, a drug that makes you forget. But of course that is exactly the point. The poppy reminds us not to forget. We may not know all of their names or why they died, but we know they died for a cause that seemed right at the time, whether it was defending the honor of nations, or for freedom and liberty, or for their own home. Regardless of why they died, they must be remembered, and each new generation should know that someone, somewhere, had lived before them and made a difference. This doesn’t just go for veterans, but for everyone, because we all make a difference whether we realize it or not. Lest we forget. And in a strange, personal twist of fate, it is only right that I also mention here that a new baby was born into my family this weekend as well, a blessing for which we are all very happy. And so, it is true, for every death there is new life, and for every end there is a beginning. It’s more than just a cycle; it’s the very essence of being human.

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

This is the poem that marked the wearing of the Poppy for Armistice day.

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.