Fox and badger: encounters with remarkable animals

FeaturedFox and badger: encounters with remarkable animals

In the summer of 1983 we were holed up in a cottage in the rolling Shropshire hills just outside Clun. Walking along a woodland track one evening, we encountered a badger, a meeting so rare and magical that the memory of it – the subject of an earlier post on this blog – has remained to this day. Last weekend, back in the same neck of the woods, we had another remarkable encounter – this time with a fox.

Meeting a fox is not that unusual, whether in town or country. But the circumstances of this encounter were strange. We were driving  out of Clun along the A488 when we noticed the fox ambling along the grassy margin at the side of the busy road. We slowed, then stopped, and the fox, possibly a young female, paused too, inquisitive about us and showing no fear of the car. She looked in superb condition, a very fine animal with black-tipped ears and elegant charcoal shading to her white-tipped brush.

For several minutes we watched entranced while she, too, stared back at us.

a fox in her fox-fur
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves

It was only when our dog stood up in the back seat and peered at her through the window that the vixen turned tail and disappeared through the hedge.

It isn’t unusual to see a fox during daylight hours. They often hunt for food in the daytime, especially when they’re feeding a litter of hungry cubs – another factor making it likely that our fox was a female.

There was a further twist to this story. Two hours later we returned along the A488 and, at the same spot, saw the fox again – this time on the opposite side of the road. Strange coincidence!

Seeing a wild animal so closely and long enough to study her every detail made for a priceless moment; but, on a busy A road, also provoked fears for her safety – as envisioned in Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘The Fox’:

Standing its ground on the hill, as if it could hide
in its own stars, low down in the west of the sky.
I could hit it from here with a stone, put the torch
in the far back of its eyes. It’s that close.

The next night, the dustbin sacked, the bin-bag
quartered for dog meat, biscuit and bone.

The night after that, six magpies lifting
from fox fur, smeared up ahead on the road.

Alice Oswald expresses the same sense of the animal’s vulnerablity in her poem, ‘Fox’, giving voice to her midnight food-seeking vixen: ‘my life/is laid beneath my children/like gold leaf.’

I heard a cough
as if a thief was there
outside my sleep
a sharp intake of air

a fox in her fox-fur
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves
barked at my house

just so abrupt and odd
the way she went
hungrily asking
in the heart’s thick accent

in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name

as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf


See also

‘Still’: Simon Armitage’s poetic response to photographs of the Somme battlefield

‘Still’: Simon Armitage’s poetic response to photographs of the Somme battlefield

Hide in this battered crumbling line
Hide in these rude promiscuous graves,
Till one shall make our story shine
In the fierce light it craves.
John Ebenezer Stewart, 1917

Still started out as a commission to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme by 14-18 NOW. The organisation tasked with developing a five-years programme of new artworks to mark the centenary of the First World War approached Simon Armitage who eventually came up with the idea of a sequence of poems written in response to aerial or panoramic photographs of the Somme battlefield taken during the First World War. Still was presented as an exhibition combining poems and photographs at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival in May 2016. Now it’s been published as a book. Continue reading “‘Still’: Simon Armitage’s poetic response to photographs of the Somme battlefield”

Jim Al-Khalili ponders the beginning and the end of the universe

Jim Al-Khalili ponders the beginning and the end of the universe

Phew! Topics can’t get any bigger than this. On BBC Four this past fortnight, in The Beginning and the End of the Universe, the ever-lucid Jim Al-Khalili tackled two cosmic questions: how did the universe begin, and how will it end? I’ve written here before about my admiration for Al-Khalili’s ability to explain clearly and with elegance very difficult, abstract concepts (at least for a non-scientist) without ever dumbing-down. In these two documentaries he told the very human – and gripping – story of the scientists, both men and women, who in the last hundred years have succeeded in boggling our minds with concepts like the Big Bang, dark matter, and dark energy, as well as scientific tools such as redshift, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, and gravitational lensing. Continue reading “Jim Al-Khalili ponders the beginning and the end of the universe”

Simon Armitage’s elegy for the Great War

Simon Armitage’s elegy for the Great War

In these centennial days, evocations of the First World War in newspaper articles or TV and radio programmes can seem to follow familiar and well-worn paths.  But in this week’s Culture Show special on BBC 2, Simon Armitage came up with a commemoration that felt entirely original: his own poetic commentary on the war, using as his inspiration the stories of people whose lives were either ended or profoundly changed by it.  In The Great War: An Elegy, Armitage told seven unusual stories, closing each one with a new poem inspired by it.

Introducing the film, Armitage said:

A century ago this year, the First World War began. The Great War – but great only in its scale of catastrophe. Well over 700,000 British soldiers died in the bloodbath that followed. I don’t have a head for numbers – that statistic is incomprehensible. It’s about human beings – people who lived and breathed just as we do and at the very least our memory of them should be kept alive. Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney, Robert Graves – I never fail to be affected and moved by their poems, especially those that reflect directly on the horror and brutality and drag the reader with them through the barbed wire and mud. But a hundred years have passed now and as a poet I feel bound by duty or tradition to take the opportunity to reflect again on the catastrophic loss of life and to think about how we commemorate the dead for the next 100 years.

Edie Appleton
The nurse, Edith Appleton

The first story told was that of Edith Appleton, a nurse stationed near Étretat on the Normandy coast. Appleton kept a diary, addressing the entries to her mother, in which she was unsparing in the details of the terrible wounds inflicted on the soldiers she nursed. Interspersed with her brutally honest accounts of men whose minds and bodies have been broken by battle are tiny sketches of Étretat where she used to swim on days off. Armitage Edith’s her story because of that paradox; he said:

What really interested me was not just the journal entries, but the drawings that were in and amongst them – all these really charming . It seemed to me that she was trying to find repose and even bliss only a few miles away from where she was witnessing and dealing with all this terror. That just seemed to me to be an untold story.

Edie Appleton diary
Detail from Edith’s diary

Edith’s diary was published by Dick Robinson, her great nephew, and it was Dick who read the poem, ‘Sea Sketch’, that Armitage had written, inspired by the diary:

Dear Mother, I have come to the sea
to wash my eyes
in its purples, blues, indigos, greens,
to enter its world and emerge cleansed,
to break the surface
then watch the surface heal and mend.
Behind me the land lies mauled and wrenched,
but I have not flinched
from uncommon holes in the flesh of men
or heads oozing with shattered minds,
and have not shied
from livers and lungs exposed to the light,
and have balanced and carried faltering hearts
in my cupped hands
through the egg and spoon race of death and life.
Some men I kissed: boy soldiers
raving and blind,
begging for love from a mother’s lips,
and when death stands with its black shawl
at the foot of the bed
a white cotton handkerchief eases the soul…
So allow me the beach, the sea,
its handwritten waves,
the act of making a simple sketch
of a simple ketch, or stick figures plunging
into the depths,
or a cormorant baring its breast to the sun,
or at dusk, Venus robed in her wedding dress,
her silver train
like a path on the water heading west.

Sketch of Étretat from Edith's diary
Sketch of Étretat from Edith’s diary

Before he enlisted, Arthur George Heath was a Fellow of  New College, Oxford, who lectured in modern philosophy, and was keenly interested in socialism and questions of social reform. He served as a tutor for the Workers Education Association.  He had spent time in Germany, and loved the music of German composers, and that country’s mediaeval towns.  He was shot in the neck and killed on his 28th birthday.

After the war, Arthur’s family published his letters.  Simon Armitage read from one written by Heath to his mother which had made a deep impression on him.  In it, Heath explains why he was not afraid of death:

My dear Mother,

It is Sunday, and though we shall be working all the same in a few hours, I feel that I should like to take the opportunity of telling you some things I’ve wanted to say now for a long time. You remember that I told you when I was going that nothing worried me so much as the thought of the trouble I was causing you by going away, or might cause you if I was killed. Now that death is near I feel the same. I don’t think for myself that I’ve more than the natural instinct of self-preservation, and I certainly do not find the thought of death a great terror that weighs on me. I feel rather that, if I were killed, it would be you and those that love me that would have the real burden to bear, and I am writing this letter to explain why, after all, I do not think it should be regarded as merely a burden. It would, at least, ease my feelings to try and make the explanation.

We make the division between life and death as if it were one of dates – being born at one date
and dying some years after. But just as we sleep half our lives, so when we’re awake, too, we know that often we’re only half alive.

Life, in fact, is a quality rather than a quantity, and there are certain moments of real life whose value seems so great that to measure them by the clock, and find them to have lasted so many hours or minutes, must appear trivial and meaningless. Their power, indeed, is such that we cannot properly tell how long they last, for they can colour all the rest of our lives, and remain a source of strength and joy that you know not to be exhausted, even though you cannot trace exactly how it works.

The first time I ever heard Brahms’ Requiem remains with me as an instance of what I mean. Afterwards you do not look back on such events as mere past things whose position in time can be localised ; you still feel as living the power that first awoke in them. Now if such moments could be preserved, and the rest strained off, none of us could wish for anything better. . . . And just as these moments of joy or elevation may fill our own lives, so, too, they may be prolonged in the experience of our friends, and, exercising their power in those lives, may know a continual resurrection. You won’t mind a personal illustration. I know that one of the ways I live in the truest sense is in the enjoyment of music. Now just as the first hearing of the Requiem was for me more than an event which passed away, so I would like to hope that my love of music might be for those who love and survive me more than a memory of something past, a power rather that can enhance for them the beauty of music itself.  […]

Please forgive me if I have worried you by all this talk. If we loved one another less I could not have written this, and, just because we love one another, I cannot bear to think that, if I died, I should only give you trouble and sorrow. . .

All my love to you,


Arthur George Heath
Arthur George Heath

Inspired by Arthur Heath’s story, Simon Armitage wrote ‘Remains’:

The faint of heart
won’t want to trawl
through a mud-bath strewn
with body parts:
an architect’s hand,
a surgeon’s rib,
an explorer’s foot, still laced in its boot,
the flaxen shock of an actor’s hair,
an artist’s eye,
a composer’s ear,
a philosopher’s skull,
a glass-blower’s lungs,
an inventor’s spine,
a poet’s tongue.

A century on
the soil still bleeds,
the earth yields up
its yearly crop
of finger-nails
and lower jaws
and wisdom teeth,
and funny bones,
and Tommy still roams
the fields and lanes
all leaden-limbed,
all hollow-voiced,
all vacant-looking,
all bullet-brained,
all never was,
all might have been.

Amy Beechdale
Amy Beechdale

Perhaps the most heart-breaking story told by Armitage was that of Amy Beechey, a Lincolnshire mother who lost five of her eight sons to the war. At the Imperial War Museum, he read through her sons’ letters and the official notifications that she received of her five sons’ deaths.  For Armitage, it was ‘a sad and upsetting archive’, but said Armitage, ‘the most powerful thing of all is Amy herself, the mother on the receiving end of all these letters, the silent scream, the voice we never hear’.  He continued: ‘Her grief, and how these losses left her, can only be imagined.  In fact they probably can’t be imagined at all’.  Amy lived on Avondale Road, and for Amy he wrote ‘In Avondale’:

That isn’t the way the coal man knocks
Dark earth and blackened hands
Who rattles the letter box?

That isn’t the way the milkman knocks
Pale earth strewn in foreign lands
Who rattles the letter box?

That isn’t the way the fish-seller knocks
Gaping mouths and staring eyes
Who rattles the letter box?

That isn’t the way the egg-man knocks
Cracked shells and broken lives
Who rattles the letter box?

So mother buttons her first son’s coat
In Avondale, in Avondale
And his name comes home in an envelope.

And a mother buttons her second son’s coat
And wraps a muffler around his throat
In Avondale, in Avondale
And his name comes home in an envelope.

And runs a comb through her third son’s fringe
And wipes a crumb from her fourth son’s lips
And presses a note in her fifth son’s fist
In Avondale, in Avondale
And buttons their coats
And their names come home in envelopes.

Some days the wind troubles the hinges and locks
And a sunflower sways and the tree-house rocks
But it’s deadly quiet in Avondale
When somebody knocks.

Who rattles
Who rattles the letter box?

Simon Armitage on the doorstep in Avondale Road

Armitage visited Helperthorpe in the Yorkshire Wolds – one of only 52 ‘Thankful Villages’ in England and Wales, villages that didn’t lose a single soul to the fighting during the war. The term ‘thankful village’ was coined in 1936 by the writer Arthur Mee (an evocative name: who in my generation did not at some time read his Children’s Encyclopedia, or Children’s Newspaper?) to describe the handful of communities that didn’t suffer any military fatalities during the war. Instead of memorials in memory of the dead many have plaques giving thanks for the village sons’ salvation.  However, the 52 ‘Thankful Villages’ in England and Wales are an anomaly, dwarfed in number by the 16,000 villages which weren’t so fortunate.

Thankful village: the Helperthorpe Roll of Honour
Thankful village: the Helperthorpe Roll of Honour


In Helperthorpe, all 18 men who left for the front returned. The maths of their good fortune is quite exceptional. Around a million British and Commonwealth lives were lost during the First World War. No Scottish community appears to have been left unscathed, and no thankful villages have been identified in Ireland, either, which was still part of the UK during this period.

First World war wagoner
First World war waggoner

Armitage spoke to Ted Atkinson, the grandson of wagonner Arthur Brown, who returned home  to Helperthorpe after his war-time service, bringing horse-drawn provisions to the trenches on the frontline. It was the only time that Arthur ever went abroad.  Arthur was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his bravery when, taking provisions up to the frontline on his wagon with two horses, he came under German shellfire.  One shell landed near him and killed one of his horses. The other had survived, but was in distress.  As the barrage continued, for nearly 45 minutes, Arthur stayed with his horse in full sight of the enemy while shells fall around them, refusing to take shelter in the trench.  He thought the war was ‘futile’, his grandson told Simon, before reading ‘The Thankful’, the poem written for his grandfather by Armitage.

Clyne War Memorial
Clyne War Memorial

Two of Armitage’s poems were responses to objects. One was ‘Memorial’, written after visiting the highly unusual War Memorial at Clyne in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a clock tower paid for by local people to commemorate local men who had given their lives.  Armitage saw the building as combining the enduring symbolism of time (measured out in 15-minute chimes) with an everyday function.

The poppy
The poppy which Joseph Shaddick sent home

The second object was a pressed poppy which soldier Joseph Shaddick sent from the trenches to his family home in Devon.  It now lies, pale and brittle, in the archive of the Imperial War Museum, and was the inspiration for ‘Considering the Poppy’:

Consider the poppy,
think it a life,
the plasma and milk
of its petals and stalk.

Or think it a face,
the agonised blush,
blood vessels flushed
with revulsion, pain.

Think it an eye:
the blood-shot iris
and ink-black pit
staring blank and blind,

or think it a mouth,
muted, stunned,
or think it a flag,
planted there

flying nobody’s colours
in no-man’s land.
Or think it a soul,
fallen, lost,

or think it a hole
the gaping nought
of an entry wound
or exit wound.

Or think it a ghost,
or think it a heart.
But, above all, think it
a thought:

A seed of thought
that might sleep
in the mind
for a hundred years

and sprout
and bud and blossom
and fruit.

A bubble of memory
that blooms
in the rain.
A Rorschach smudge,

A crimson stain
that reminds
and reminds
when it flares and flames

So consider the poppy
pinned on a blouse or pinned on a coat,
or growing wild
among cane or corn.

And recall.
And recall.

Bringing something new to the significance of remembrance at the time of the centennial, Simon Armitage’s haunting film was enhanced by his thoughtful narration and moving poems.  It’s available on iPlayer for another month, but can also be viewed on YouTube:

See also

The Last Days of Troy: Homer by Armitage

<em>The Last Days of Troy</em>: Homer by Armitage

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus –
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds
– The Iliad,
Book One, opening lines

I’ve never been able to keep straight in my head the stories and characters of the Greek myths – who did what to whom, who was related to whom, and who was mortal, who of the gods.  So I was mightily appreciative of Simon Armitage’s Last Days of Troy which we saw performed at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester this week: the clarity of the language and narrative drive of his adaptation of the Iliad meant that I never once lost the plot.

Somehow, Armitage has managed to compress into a three and a quarter hour performance the essence of fifteen thousand lines of the Iliad, as well as throwing in episodes from The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. He has done this by paring the epic poem to the bone and focussing on the wrath of the maverick Greek warrior, Achilles. The production grips throughout – a combination of Armitage’s poetic prose, imaginative staging, and powerful performances by several members of the cast.

Zeus (Richard Bremmer) and his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) in The Last Days of Troy
Zeus (Richard Bremmer) and his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) in The Last Days of Troy

Homer’s Iliad written around 700 BC, begins at the end of the ten-year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greeks determined to revenge the abduction by the Trojan prince Paris of Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. But Armitage places another act of vengeance at centre stage in this adaptation – Achilles’s wrath when his ­commander-in-chief Agamemnon seizes Briseis, Achilles’s captive woman, as his own compensation. Achilles, his pride and honour outraged, withdraws from the fighting and persuades his mother, the goddess Thetis, to ask Zeus to turn the tide of war against the Greeks, with appalling consequences. Simone Weil once remarked that ‘the true hero, the true ­subject at the centre of The Iliad is force, that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing’. Later on in this production, a powerful and terrifying scene in which Achilles howls and tears at a body he has butchered revealed the truth of Weil’s words in the most vivid terms. Stubbornly resisting appeals to return to battle, Achilles has ­eventually agreed to send his beloved comrade, Patroclus, into the fray.When Patroclus is killed by Hector, Achilles embarks on a lengthy and pitiless slaughtering spree, finally killing Hector and dragging his mutilated triumphantly around the walls of Troy.

The play opens in present-day Hisarlik in north-west Turkey, the archaeological site where the remains of Troy have been excavated. The god Zeus is now reduced to being a pedlar to the tourists – selling little statues of the gods and replicating himself as a living statue performer. He relives his memories of the siege and the machinations of the gods that extended a wasteful and horrifying war.

Why do nations go to war? At whose orders? These are issues still as urgent today as they were some three millennia ago when Homer gathered echoes and whispers from events that took place in the Bronze Age, four- or five-hundred years before he was born.  You could interpret the clumsy interventions by bumbling gods as a comment on modern-day politicians who lead their nations to war, while other aspects of the narrative such as the factional struggles, the grandiose but hollow rhetoric of war, the delusion and growing despair might seem familiar. But Armitage and director Nick Bagnall resist the temptation to draw heavy-handed parallels with present-day conflicts.

Although Simon Armitage has made these connections in interview, his play seems to be primarily concerned – just as in Homer’s original telling, or in Alice Oswald’s stunning Memorial – with presenting us with a clear-eyed view of the carnage of war.  A couple of years ago, in the London Review of Books, Edward Luttwak wrote of how, in Homer’s poem:

Spears cut through temples, foreheads, navels, chests both below and above the nipple. Even despised bows kill, and heavy stones appear as weapons. Joyful victors strip their victims of their armour and gain extra delight from imagining their weeping mothers and wives. Yet the Iliad is a million miles away from the pornography of violence offered by many lesser war books, battle paintings, martial sculptures and most obviously films, in which the enemy bad guys are triumphantly trampled or gleefully mown down, because the humanity of the victims, their terror and their atrocious pain, are fully expressed. The powerful affirmation of the warrior’s creed – we are all mortal anyway so let us fight valiantly – coexists with the unfailingly negative depiction of war as horrible carnage.

Sneaking a look at Adam Nicolson’s  new book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, which Rita has just begun reading, I see that he asserts that:

The siege of Troy, often seen as a kind of war, as if these were two states battling with each other’, is in fact more like a gang from the ghetto confronting the urban rich … the hero-complex of the Greek warriors is simply gang mentality writ large.

‘Iliadic behaviour’, he writes, ‘echoes through modern urban America.  gang members ‘talk about themselves, their lives, their ambitions, their idea of fate, the role of violence and revenge, in ways that are strangely like the Greeks in the Iliad.’  As I read that sentence, I thought of The Wire, The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad.

So, revenge is one strand here in Simon Armitage’s stage dramatization; another is his implication that Helen’s abduction was really just an excuse. The final scene seems to suggest that the real motivation of the Greeks was plunder and annihilation of a rival state, rather than justice for Helen’s seizure. In this production, we are drawn inexorably into a forcefield of consequential violence. Armitage has explained how he excised minor characters, parallel narratives and self-contained episodes, and rolled some principal characters into one in order to maintain the narrative thrust. Odysseus, for example, is an amalgamation of several high-ranking nobles in the Greek encampment, though Armitage has expressed the hope that he has preserved the personal traits associated with him.

Ashley Martin-Davis’s stage design includes some striking visual effects: the Trojan warriors emerge from a smoke-filled tunnel as if from the mists of time, while the arrival of the wooden horse, which lies beyond the scope of the Iliad, is done with great effect. There are powerful performances from Jake Fairbrother as Achilles and Simon Harrison as Hector. Richard Bremmer is a rather comedic Zeus, Colin Tierney makes an impression as wily Odysseus,  while David Birrell gives a good performance as Agamemnon.

Lily Cole as Helen of Troy Photo-Jonathan-Keenan
Lily Cole as Helen of Troy (photo by Jonathan-Keenan for the Royal Exchange)

Talking about it afterwards (appropriately enough, over meze at Dimitri’s at the bottom of Deansgate), we did feel that were weaknesses in respect of the presentation of the women and the gods – failings that were apparent in both the writing and the performances.  None of the women in the play really shone  – Lily Cole, in particular, gave a performance that was as inexpressive and wooden as the ships her face reputedly launched. She has one haunting moment, however, when she sings a lament to seduce the Greeks inside the wooden horse with dreams of home. (In the programme, the words are in English, but I could not identify in which language Cole was singing).

As far as the gods were concerned – they were presented as figures of fun, bickering among themselves, rather than cosmic forces feared by men.  I know there is an element of this in Homer, but the humour did deflate the tragic intensity. The immortals may have squabbled, and their bickering may have worsened the conflict, but in Homer’s time they were perceived as divine beings; here they appeared to be no more than a bunch of petulant, squabbling relatives.

fresco depicting lyre player with a bird, palace of Nestor, Pylos
A fresco depicting a poet with a lyre and a bird, Myccenaean palace of Nestor, Pylos

 Apart from those reservations, though, this was a gripping production.  As always, the question is why, in Edward Luttwak’s words, ‘people keep buying and presumably reading an interminably long, frequently repetitive and intermittently gruesome Iron Age rendition of Bronze Age combat’.  In his new book, Adam Nicolson reckons it’s all to do with ‘Homer’s embrace of wrongness, his depiction of a world that stands at a certain angle to virtue.’

He does not give us a set of exemplars.  These poems are not sermons. We do not want Achilles or even Odysseus to be our model as men.  Nor Penelope or Helen as women.  Nor do we want to worship at the shrine of Bronze Age thuggery.  What we want is Homeric wisdom, his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of love and hatred of death.

In the Royal Exchange programme, Simon Armitage puts it this way:

Ancient fables endure for all kinds of reasons, but their continued relevance to the way we live now plays a major part in their survival. At the time when this play will be premièred many countries will be marking and commemorating the centenary of the First World War, with images of atrocities and questions of military morality high in people’s minds, just as they were for Homer. Moreover, the channel or strait that runs from the Bosphorus to the Dardanelles or Hellespont continues to symbolise a political, economic, cultural, philosophical and religious fault line between east and west. In that context, the story of Troy is a blueprint for a conflict that rages to this day.

See also

Contemporary Art and War at IWM North

Contemporary Art and War at IWM North

Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me 4

Ori Gersht, ‘Will You Dance For Me’

It wasn’t intentional, but at 11am, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month I was at Imperial War Museum North, taking a look at their brilliant and provocative new show Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War which contains exhibits that range from the wittily satirical to those that are disturbing or deeply moving.

The exhibition – which consists entirely of works from IWM’s collection of twentieth and twenty-first century British art –  explores various artistic responses to war since the first Gulf War in 1990, and sets out to find answers to an interesting question:  what do artists contribute to our perceptions of war and conflict in a time when our general understanding of conflict is increasingly shaped by the media and the internet?

Many of the works displayed here are by artists who were commissioned by the IWM to respond to recent conflicts.  The first British official War Artists’ Scheme was set up by the government in 1916, during the First World War (Paul Nash and Christopher RW Nevinson were among those commissioned then). A larger scheme was established under the War Artists Advisory Committee during the Second World War, resulting in over 3,000 commissioned works being given to the Imperial War Museum (by artists such as Laura Knight, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer and Graham Sutherland). Building on this tradition, IWM has been commissioning contemporary artists  since the early 1970s, at first to create documentary work, but more recently shifting towards encouraging more personal artistic responses to conflict.

The IWM suggests that, ‘working outside the pressures of journalism, artists can propose ideas, urging the viewer to think deeply about what war is, about its immediate impact, its long term repercussions and how we remember it’.  Viewing the response of the artists displayed here, there’s a clear critique of the way in which war and conflict is presented in the media.  While at the time of the Vietnam war it seemed that TV news crews and photo journalists had opened up a new space for critical argument and debate about the war’s objectives and the means by which it was being pursued, now the media are more tightly controlled in conflict situations, and there is a growing emphasis on the media spectacle and instant coverage of events as they unfold.  This leaves little room for more critical or thoughtful perspectives.

This exhibition looks at how artists have questioned and confronted the way in which the media tends to cover conflict in the last 25 years or so.  Some mock the style and methods of the media, while others produce art that rejects the mainstream media’s need for spectacle.

Camp Boundary by Paul Seawright

Paul Seawright, ‘Camp Boundary’, 2002

In 2002 the IWM commissioned Paul Seawright to respond to the war in Afghanistan. Seawright was particularly interested in how an artist might engage with the conflict in a way that was different to the dramatic spectacles of photojournalism, and the photographs he made of minefields are radically opposed to that tradition.  They show a seemingly empty landscape, which in reality is both lethal and inaccessible. Seawright says that he had ‘always been fascinated by the invisible, the unseen, the subject matter that doesn’t easily present itself to the camera’. The Museum suggests that Seawright’s work ‘highlights the changing nature of contemporary warfare with its increasing emphasis on remote technology and hidden enemies’.

John Timberlake, Another Country XV

John Timberlake, Another Country XV, 2001

In his series Another Country, John Timberlake  combines well-known Romantic landscapes by Turner or Constable with nuclear mushroom clouds, taken from sources in IWM’s archives. He’s interested in exploring the idea of the ‘sublime’, used by the Romantics to describe scenes both terrifying and awe-inspiring, in a modern context. These qualities of scale, drama, shock and spectacle are features, he implies, that are increasingly a feature of the contemporary media’s portrayal of conflict. The Museum caption suggests that ‘the cloud is both toxic and fascinating, almost beautiful. The multiple layers in the work remove us from the event, leaving us as passive spectators, simultaneously seduced and disturbed’.  I thought of how we all watched those planes smashing into the towers on a September morning, the sky a beautiful blue.

Trio, Olympic Games Sarajevo, 1994

Trio, ‘Olympic Games Sarajevo 1994’

Trio is a graphic design group made up of husband and wife Bojan and Dada Hadžihalilović with Lela Mulabegović Hatt.  Trapped in the four year siege of Sarajevo and disheartened by the lack of worldwide interest in the conflict, the group produced darkly humorous postcards (later remade into posters) satirising icons of pop culture such as the Coca Cola logo or (as here) the famous image of US soldiers raising the US flag at Iwo Jima to raise awareness.  Their image references the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, which drew huge numbers of visitors to the city. A decade later the city’s residents felt abandoned by the world.

Tartakover, United Colours of Netanyahu

David Tartakover, ‘United Colours of Netanyahu’, 1998

Another example of this satirical approach is provided by David Tartakover’s poster, United Colours of Netanyahu. Tartakover is an Israeli artist and political activist who uses the medium of the poster, often satirising or re-appropriating visual symbols to present a politically provocative perspective on Israel. Here he uses an image of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, posing for a press call with his family, in a re-make of a United Colours of Benetton poster. It is a clear criticism of Netanyahu, and his resistance to the peace process with the Palestinians. The poster suggests an Israel, security-conscious and militarised, maintaining the illusion of a united, happy family.

Taysir Batniji

Taysir Batniji, ‘GH0809: Houses #3, #9, #20’, 2009

Taysir Batniji offers another example of this satirical approach.  He is a Palestinian artist, born in Gaza, but currently living in Paris. His work reflects on the situation in Palestine, but avoids the dramatic, drawing our attention instead to irrational aspects of the situation. GH0809 is a tongue-in-cheek comment on the situation in Gaza, portraying houses bombed by the Israelis in 2008-9 in the form of estate agent information sheets that present the home-seeker with desirable residences, offering the usual mundane details such as square footage and the number of rooms. But the sheets also also quietly state the number of former residents for each house. We do not know what has happened to these people, but the ruined homes shown hardly need a commentary.

John Keane, Death Squad, 1991

John Keane, ‘Death Squad’, 1991

In 1990 John Keane was commissioned as the IWM’s official recorder in the Gulf , just before the first Gulf War began in January 1991.  What could an artist add to our understanding of a conflict given extensive coverage in the media? Free from the responsibility of producing an official record of the war, Keane responded to events in a more personal and subjective way.Keane writes on his website:

I am interested in the process of painting, and I am interested in why human beings want to kill one another for political ends. These two apparently diverse preoccupations I attempt to reconcile by smearing pigment around on canvas in an effort to achieve a result whose success can be measured by how well it disguises the sheer absurdity of the attempt.

The first thing that crossed my mind looking at the ambiguously titled Death Squad, depicting a group of soldiers carrying a body bag, their sunglasses and masks concealing any emotion or expression, was the story of the Royal Marine found guilty by a military court only a few days previously of murdering an injured Afghan insurgent.  But you can read this image in an entirely different way: a group of foot soldiers doing an unpleasant job, clearing the dead from the field of battle.  It’s pertinent that Keane offers this quote on his website from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Then I reach what is perhaps the iconic image of war, and the revulsion felt by millions at the decision of the British government, led by Tony Blair, to go to war in Iraq in 2003, in the face of widespread public protest: Photo-Op by kennardphillipp.

kennardphillips, Photo-Op, 2007

kennardphillips, ‘Photo-Op’, 2007

Peter Kennard and Cat Picton-Phillipps have worked together since 2002, initially to make art in response to the invasion of Iraq. Their work has been shown online, in galleries and on protest marches. They describe their work as a direct means of communication: ‘the visual arm of protest’. Photo-Op, a collage depicting Tony Blair taking a ‘selfie’ in front of a huge explosion was produced in response to the personal anger the two artists felt, and to create something that reflected and validated the enormous public opposition to the war, which they felt had not been reflected in the media.

For me, though, the most moving and powerful works in this exhibition are those in which the artist seeks to explore the legacy of violence and the meaning of memory and loss. Much of this work looks at the links between violent events and the landscape in which they have occurred – and the memory that still resides there. Something of that sort would not lead you to immediately think of the homely landscapes of Britain.

Chris Harrison, 'Sites of Memory Sheerness'

Chris Harrison, ‘Sites of Memory: Sheerness’

But that is exactly what Chris Harrison’s project, Sites of Memory sets out to explore. It’s a series of photographs of First World War memorials that Harrison took as he travelled across Britain. They have a non-committal  and unsentimental appearance, frequently (as is the case with the Tesco store in ‘Sheerness’ on display here) highlighting the incongruity of the juxtaposition between past and present.  The monuments are surrounded by more recent buildings, overgrown greenery and street furniture – all emphasising the passage of time. Often the banality of the surroundings sits uncomfortably with the gravity of the events memorialised, suggesting the fading of collective memory and dwindling recognition of these once-resonant structures.

There were two works on display in the Museum which I had seen once before – on television, in a documentary about the art of war presented by Jon Snow.  One was Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country, a work that commemorates the British service personnel who died during the Iraq War.

Steve McQueen, Queen and Country

Steve McQueen Queen and Country (detail)

Steve McQueen, Queen and Country, 2006

Queen and Country was created by Steve McQueen in response to a visit he made to Iraq in 2003 following his appointment by the Imperial War Museum’s Art Commissions Committee as an official UK war artist. During the six days McQueen spent in Iraq, he was moved and inspired by the camaraderie of the servicemen and women that he met. He proposed that portraits of those who have lost their lives during the conflict be issued as stamps by Royal Mail.

An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in defence of our national ideals.  The stamps would focus on individual experience without euphemism. It would form an intimate reflection of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the everyday – every household and every office.

While discussions were under way with Royal Mail, McQueen made the Queen and Country installation – a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets bearing multiple portrait heads, each one dedicated to an individual, with details of name, regiment, age and date of death printed in the margin.  The images were chosen by the families of the deceased.  You engage directly with this work, sliding out panels that bear the sheets from the wooden cabinet, and contemplating the endlessly repeating images of the dead.  There is something here that questions ideas of sacrifice, community and nationhood.

Deller 1

Jeremy Deller, ‘Baghdad, 5 March 2007’

The other exhibit – not in the exhibition, but in the main gallery space – was a piece by Turner prize-winner Jeremy Deller entitled Baghdad, 5 March 2007. It consists of the wreckage of a car salvaged after suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with explosives, devastating Mutanabbi Street, a historic street of book stores and coffee shops in a mixed Shia-Sunni area of Baghdad.

World Trade Centre steelwork

World Trade Centre steelwork

Perhaps deliberately, the Museum’s organizers have place nearby a piece of twisted steelwork that once formed part of a window section in the World Trade Centre, destroyed in the attack of 11 September 2001 and extracted from the ruins at Ground Zero.  To one side a poem by Simon Armitage is displayed that follows the structure of a poem by Thomas Hardy with the same name:

The Convergence of the Twain


Here is an architecture of air.
Where dust has cleared,
nothing stands but free sky, unlimited and sheer.


Smoke’s dark bruise
has paled, soothed
by wind, dabbed at and eased by rain, exposing the wound.


Over the spoil of junk,
rescuers prod and pick,
shout into tangled holes. What answers back is aftershock.


All land lines are down.
Reports of mobile phones
are false. One half-excoriated Apple Mac still quotes the Dow Jones.


Shop windows are papered
with faces of the disappeared.
As if they might walk from the ruins – chosen, spared.


With hindsight now we track
the vapour-trail of each flight-path
arcing through blue morning, like a curved thought.


And in retrospect plot
the weird prospect
of a passenger plane beading an office-block.


But long before that dawn,
with those towers drawing
in worth and name to their full height, an opposite was forming,


a force
still years and miles off,
yet moving headlong forwards, locked on a collision course.


Then time and space
contracted, so whatever distance
held those worlds apart thinned to an instant.


During which, cameras framed
moments of grace
before the furious contact wherein earth and heaven fused.

Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me 1

Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me 2

Ori Gersht, ‘Will You Dance For Me’

For me, there was no doubt which was the most moving and most powerful work in this exhibition. Ori Gersht’s film Will You Dance For Me is projected on two screens.  On the left we see Yehudit Arnon, now aged 85, rocking in and out of the light. Arnon was a prisoner in Auschwitz who, when ordered to dance at an SS officer’s Christmas party, refused and was was forced to stand outside, barefoot in the snow for hours. She swore to herself that if she survived she would devote her life to dance. As she rocks, a windswept snowscape – a field of stubble reminiscent of simple wooden crosses in a graveyard, a distant line of trees – appears on the right hand screen, alluding to the place of her memories.

Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me 3

Yehudit Arnon did survive. She went on to become an internationally renowned dancer and choreographer, and in 1962 founded the Kibbutzim Dance Company. Aged 85 when Gersht filmed her, she had limited mobility, but in the rocking chair she was able to dance one more time.  She died last August, aged 87.

My own personal liberation – it was as like death.  We were made to stand in the courtyard. Suddenly we saw there were machine-guns there. And the Germans… It was clear to us that this was the end. We did not know the date. We did not know that in reality this was the last day. Instead we stood there and waited for the end. It was so extreme, the change, from the moment when I thought to myself “this is the end” – and then suddenly freedom… I could not even grasp it.

When the Germans … asked that I amuse them over Christmas – that was the first time in my life when I could say “No”. And at that moment I didn’t care if they would have shot me, because the conditions were so difficult, that it would not have mattered.

I was not shot. I was punished, and made to stand in the snow, I do not know for how long.  And then I decided, that if I survived, I would spend my whole life working with dance.

Will You Dance With Me: 90 second clip from the 13 minute video

Stepping outside after viewing Gersht’s film of Yehudit Arnon, I recollected that the IWM North building was designed by Daniel Libeskind, a Jewish architect whose parents were Holocaust survivors.  He designed it to resemble a globe shattered by the violence of war, from which a few fragments have been put back together rather chaotically. Once shattered by war, though things might be pieced together, nothing is ever quite whole again.

Gallery: Daniel Libeskind’s IWM

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Ted Hughes: alive in the river of light

So we found the end of our journey,
So we stood alive in the river of light,
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.

That is the inscription on the memorial stone to Ted Hughes, unveiled in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey last night. It’s an extract from ‘That Morning’, a poem from his 1983 collection, River.

We came where the salmon were so many
So steady, so spaced, so far-aimed
On their inner map, England could add

Only the sooty twilight of South Yorkshire
Hung with the drumming drift of Lancasters
Till the world had seemed capsizing slowly.

Solemn to stand there in the pollen light
Waist-deep in wild salmon swaying massed
As from the hand of God. There the body

Separated, golden and imperishable,
From its doubting thought – a spirit-beacon
Lit by the power of the salmon

That came on, came on, and kept on coming
As if we flew slowly, their formations
Lifting us toward some dazzle of blessing

One wrong thought might darken. As if the fallen
World and salmon were over. As if these
Were the imperishable fish

That had let the world pass away –

There, in a mauve light of drifted lupins,
They hung in the cupped hands of mountains

Made of tingling atoms. It had happened.
Then for a sign that we were where we were
Two gold bears came down and swam like men

Beside us. And dived like children.
And stood in deep water as on a throne
Eating pierced salmon off their talons.

So we found the end of our journey.

So we stood, alive in the river of light,
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.

Laying the memorial stone

Following a lengthy campaign, the memorial to Hughes, former poet laureate who died in 1998, was given its place in the Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. Members of his family including his widow, Carol, and Frieda, his daughter with Sylvia Plath, joined friends and fellow poets including Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion, Simon Armitage and Blake Morrison.

All the members of a family scarred by tragedy were recalled in the ceremony. Heaney – who said at Hughes’s funeral, “No death outside my immediate family has left me feeling more bereft; no death in my lifetime has hurt poets more” – gave the oration and read several Hughes poems, including ‘Some Pike for Nicholas’, recalling some of his happiest hours with his son, Nicholas, who killed himself in 2009 after battling depression for years. Juliet Stevenson read Hughes’s tender verse about his daughter ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’.

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket –
And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm
wreaths of breath –
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.
‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin

Yesterday on Radio 4, Simon Armitage pointed out that, though Ted Hughes is indelibly associated with the Calder valley, he only lived in that part of the world until he was about seven:  ‘I think it became a kind of template, not just for his early work but for all mature work as well – a kind of lens through which he could see all of the world.

Speaking about ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’, Simon Armitage described it as ‘a really tender poem, I think we might be invited to imagine that ‘moon’ is the first word his daughter speaks.  She comes out into the doorway and sees the moon and responds to it.  It’s such a wonderful poem: it’s like a kind of equation in language where he’s managed to balance this little girl against a whole planet’. Armitage said that poetry was in Hughes’ breath and in his blood, and speaking of the words from ‘That Morning’ carved on the memorial stone he said:

Those three lines say as much about his work as anything: the immediacy of it, but also the absolute depth.  It’s mesmerising and crystal-clear at the same time.

Armitage also spoke about Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ which he read at the ceremony last night:

It’s a poem about the act of writing – the visitation of the fox is compared with the visit of the poem, this kind of mysterious thing that comes to him, and it’s one of those that’s suddenly there in front of your eyes, printed, as he says, before you know it.  It’s sort of  a magic trick really – and the fox then disappears back into the wood.

Fence by Fay Godwin

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

Heptonstall, 1978, by Fay Godwin

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