Posts Tagged ‘St Magnus’

Poppies finished

Poppies are on my mind. And with good reason. On Friday 22 April the Weeping Window was officially opened at St Magnus Cathedral – a cascade of ceramic poppies pouring from a high window down onto the steps and the Kirk Green below. As with any piece of good art, it provokes, inspires, and elicits reflection and debate. It is to most people’s eyes a beautiful thing, and it is worth taking a moment to think about why the poppy has taken on so much significance.

Since childhood we in Britain have all been used to wearing a poppy in early November, and it is part of our cultural makeup that the poppy is a symbol of remembrance. The practice began soon after the end of WWI, and became officially adopted by the establishment as a way for the UK to remember its war dead. Several factors led to that decision, but much of the credit must go to a Canadian doctor called John McRae, whose ancestors were from the Isle of Skye, and were renowned as Gaelic poets. McRae was an army doctor serving with the Canadian forces on the Western Front; during one posting he found himself at an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) on the Ypres Salient – a stretch of trenches so bitterly fought over that it became known as the ‘graveyard of the British army’. His hospital was a series of concrete bunkers hunkered beneath the front line – so close, they said, that they could simply roll the bodies down the slope and into the dark, damp shelters. The floors were covered in mesh to stop the doctors slipping on the blood; conditions were basic, and so was the treatment offered. If a casualty could be saved, he would be sent to a bigger hospital behind the lines, and thence either back to his unit, or back to Blighty. The ones who died were buried in the field next to the ADS, and the resulting graveyard became known as Essex Farm Cemetery, after a regiment that had once been stationed nearby.

The story goes that the Canadian forces had caught the full force of a gas attack, and suffered horribly. McRae dealt with the immediate aftermath, working ceaselessly for three days and nights without sleep. Many men died, amongst them McRae’s good friend Alexis Helmer. Finally McRae had time for a short break so he took himself outside for a cigarette and found that a misty dawn was breaking over the Belgian landscape. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, convinced that he must be hallucinating through lack of sleep; the fields all around him were awash with red blood. When his vision cleared he looked again, and discovered that the scarlet he saw came not from blood, but from poppies.

Poppies grow in disturbed ground, and there was certainly plenty of that on the Western Front what with shelling, rain, and hurried burials. The warm morning sunshine at McRae’s hospital had made the poppies bloom. The weary doctor pulled out a stub of pencil, a scrap of paper, and started to write a poem that began with the words ‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row….’. McRae sent the poem home to his mother, who in turn sent it to a magazine; it quickly became a favourite with the soldiers themselves.

In our modern times, the second verse of the poem can make difficult reading, speaking as it does with the voices of the dead soldiers. They exhort the reader to carry on the fight, to ‘take up our quarrel with the foe’, else their own deaths would be in vain. For those who believe the whole war was a senseless waste of life, this is difficult to hear.

Before my Orkney life I worked for a tour company south who took groups of schoolchildren to the First World War battlefields. For several years I tramped through cemeteries and trenches, visited museums and memorials, followed by 13 and 14-year old pupils – who responded magnificently. Those trips were emotional, heart-breaking, exhausting, and ultimately life-affirming. I would stand on top of a row of fossilised sandbags at Essex Farm and tell the story of McRae and the poppy poem, declaiming the line ‘and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly – scarce heard amid the guns below’; and blow me if there wasn’t always a skylark belting its little heart out high above us, and often clumps of scarlet poppies growing amidst the graves. Small wonder then, that the poppy has a special meaning for me.

And so, to Kirkwall. How did the poppies come to be here? In 2014 the now-famous art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (itself named after a line taken from a poem) appeared at the Tower of London. It comprised 888,246 hand-made ceramic poppies, one for every British and colonial soldier who died during the First World War. It was made by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, and designed by Tom Piper. Most of the poppies were then sold to members of the public, and I am lucky enough to own one of them. The two large sculptural elements, Weeping Window and Wave, were kept back – over 10,000 poppies in all. The two large pieces (each containing 4,000-5,000 poppies) were bought by two individuals/organisations, who then donated the artworks to the Imperial War Museum. Weeping Window and Wave are going on a four year tour around the UK. The Orkney Islands Council Arts Officer put in an application for the cathedral to be one of the locations, based on the fact that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, and the UK official Act of Remembrance will take place in the cathedral on 31 May.

Once the bid had succeeded the process began of constructing the installation. Scaffolders, painters, stonemasons, a team from 14-18 NOW, most of the council’s museum staff….over the space of two weeks many people contributed, and the installation slowly came together under the watchful eye of the Kirkwall residents. For the unveiling, the original artist and designer came to Orkney and proclaimed themselves delighted with the overall effect. The red sandstone of the cathedral gives the impression that the poppies are growing out of the walls – a very pleasing effect. Thousands of photos were taken in bright sunshine and then that night, by floodlights with the full moon behind.

The public’s response has been overwhelmingly positive, and there has been a lot of debate about what the installation signifies, and what might be appropriate behaviour surrounding it. Suddenly, there is poppy etiquette to consider. Is it appropriate, say, to take a poppy selfie? What about weddings in the cathedral – would it be fitting for the bride and groom to have a photo taken grinning in front of what is essentially a war memorial?

A friend brought up the subject of blackenings (the pre-wedding ritual that involves drink, treacle, and being cling-filmed to the nearby Mercat Cross). What message would that send out, she worried, about our young people’s attitude towards our war dead? Did it show a lack of respect? My mind went back to the battlefields and the school kids; in their downtime (having had full days of battlefield experiences) they ran, they sang, they burnt off energy and embraced the high spirits of youth – and I loved them for it. They reminded me that the young soldiers would not have wanted to be memorialised in respectful, mournful silence; they wanted to live, get drunk, dance, run, mess about with girls (or boys). To my mind, the young folk tearing about being young and happy is the best tribute possible to the men and women who died in the two world wars.

The wearing of the poppy for Armistice Day or Remembrance Sunday has become a matter of hot debate in recent years, and opinions can be strong on both sides; for every person who believes it is an outdated imperialist practice, there is another who is in danger of fetishising the poppy with sentimentality and Facebook posts featuring sunsets and ‘lest we forget’ captions.

All this I see when I see Weeping Window – battlefields, poetry, remembrance, philosophy. I also see children looking curious and artists responding and people talking. But most of all I detect an overwhelming sense of pride that ‘we’ were chosen for this. I think – I hope – that we do it justice.

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.

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