This Tea Towel Blog is not going the way that I had planned it; it has developed a life of its own and taken a turn that I was not expecting. I suppose I could have entitled this Blog Field Poppy, Flanders Poppy, Red Poppy, Common Poppy, Corn Poppy, Corn Rose Poppy, Weeping Window or even ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. The last is the title of the massive installation, at the Tower of London, to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War; it is the first line of a poem by an unknown soldier, discovered in Chesterfield Museum, along with his will. ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ consisted of 888,264 ceremaic poppies, pouring from a bastion window, the Weeping Window, into a seeming pool of blood, one poppy representing each of the British and Commonwealth soldiers that died during the First World War. The first poppy was laid on 17 July and the last on 10 November 2014. More than five million people visited the Tower of London during that time. There was a public clamour for the the installation to remain for a much longer period or even be a permanent exhibition. This was resisted by both the artist, Paul Cummins, and the Tower of London on the grounds that it represented that passing of time. Most of the poppies were sold, with money raised going to 6 veteran charities but the Weeping Window installation has been, and still is, on tour throughout the United Kingdom, during 2016, 2017 and 2018 after which it will have a permanent exhibition at the Imperial War Museums.
I first saw two of the Poppies from the Tower of London, mounted in frames, on the wall of the Duchess Jean Tea Room at the Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen. They had been bought by families of two soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War and donated to the museum. They are stunning, and alone are a very moving tribute. The ceramic work is detailed, each slightly different, as a result of being hand crafted, the red so deep, like the blood it is portraying yet beautiful. You don’t see that detail in a massive installation like at the Tower of London.
Moving on……. earlier this year, I saw that the Weeping Window was on display at the Derby Silk Mill. Not having seen the installation at the Tower of London, I really wanted to visit Derby. I knew that it would be much reduced in size but I hadn’t realised how powerful, even a fraction of the original installation, would be. Poppies pouring down the side of the Silk Mill, in a graceful flow, was a moving sight. You just wanted to keep moving around, seeing it from different angles, taking photographs with different shades of light, light moving through the mesh. There was a hush around the falling poppies, a respect, a remembrance, even though it wasn’t the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. There was an exhibition inside the Silk Mill about local men who had lost their lives, memorabilia that was personal, local. It was stunning; in many ways I am pleased that I saw the Weeping Window at the Derby Silk Mill rather that at the Tower of London, it was local, personal, part of the history of the Midlands. And when it went to Liverpool, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Woodham Museum, St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Lincoln, Caernarfon Castle, Black Watch Museum in Perth, I expect everyone there thought the same. There was a wall on which you could pin cards describing your thoughts and feelings, sentiments that were immensely personal, stories passed down the generations. It is that element of participation, community and sharing that made it so special. And, of course, there was a tea towel; a tea towel about the poppy, not about particular places because the poppy is one of the elements that draws collective support in the face of loss and suffering, which is a fitting reminder of that special day. But in 2018, the tour continues, to Middleport Pottery in Stoke, Carlisle Castle, Hereford Cathedral, Fort Nelson in Portsmouth, plus the Imperial War Museums, in both London and Manchester. What I didn’t expect was the other thoughts that came slowly trickling through……
I didn’t think I knew anyone who was killed in First World War but, of course, there was my grandfather. I didn’t know my grandfather; my father didn’t know his father. My father didn’t even know of his existence until he (my father) was 33. My grandfather was not killed on the fields of Flanders but died on an isolation ship in Sydney Harbour, having contracted Spanish Flu while fighting in Europe. He was one of millions, somewhere around 50 million, many more than died in battle, who died of Spanish Flu between 1918 and 1920. My father was born out of wedlock, a family secret, brought up by an aunt until my grandmother found a husband who would take her son as well. The shame and humiliation must have been terrible in those days but I will never understand why they didn’t tell my father. If he had been adopted that might have been excusable but not to adopt and not to tell him, it was the pretence that I find inexcusable. He walked around with the surname of the man he thought was his father, from the age of two and a half, but his birth certificate said ‘Jack Crawford Abbott’; although he used his mother’s married name, his name was never changed by Deed Poll until he was 33 and found out his origins. He wanted to belong, belong somewhere, to a family where he had always felt an outsider but didn’t understand why. There must be many stories from the First World War where it wasn’t just death that caused the pain but the tangled webs we weave. There are days that I wonder what life might have been like for my father if my grandfather had lived, if my father had been raised as part of a loving family on a sheep farm (his father was a sheep farmer) and where would I have been? Interesting thoughts.
Remembrance Day, and selling poppies from a cardboard tray on the street, was a feature of my childhood. One of the pitfalls of being the daughter of a local Councillor is that you get dragged along to a variety of activities that you would never choose to do yourself. Little girl stood by her mummy, selling poppies, was always a draw; our stint always seemed to be on a really cold day, and several years it was also raining. I would always accompany her to the Remembrance Day parade and service. Another cold event, in the open air. I clearly remember the navy coat with a Peter Pan collar, ankle socks, black patent shoes, white hat and white gloves. It certainly didn’t keep the cold out.
And so those trains of thought continue through the picture of my grandmother (on my mother’s side) and Great Aunt Mona, standing for a formal posed photograph, sepia, as Women’s Land Army girls in the First World War or my mother’s ARP Warden’s badge that I keep in my jewellery box or the pictures of my father standing by a tank in Belgium during the Second World War or her Ration Book………
And this brings me to 11th Day of the 11th Month in 2017. It must be 50 years since I last went to a Remembrance Day service yet this year I was invited to one. A strange one. In January, Liz’s mother died in the care home she was living in. In the home, each year, they hold a Remembrance Service for the people who died in the home that year, as part of their Remembrance Day services. Liz was invited and wanted to go but as her sister was unable to attend she invited me to go with her. It was a two part service, remembering the residents of the home first followed by the full Remembrance Service. It was very moving, more moving that the big services, because it was intimate and personal. There was a part where when someone’s name was read out, a relative or friend would go up to the front, pick a rose and place it in the vase. There probably ‘wasn’t a dry eye in the house’, memories of recent deaths but also memories from a long time ago. The purpose was being able to recognise the individual but also to recognise that ‘the whole is more than the sum of the parts’, as Aristotle would say; strength and comfort come from a community with a shared memory. It was beautiful. Liz chose a red rose because she knew, that if her dad had been able to take part, that is what he would have chosen for her.
There is a sharing at times like this. How many funerals have I been to where ‘The Lords’ my Shepherd’, music by Crimond, has been sung. For each of those services, a memory or two come floating back. We sang ‘Make me a channel of your peace’, my favourite hymn, sung at John’s funeral, and sung at Dorothy’s because she had a piece of paper in her handbag with the words of the hymn on it which Liz and Lyn found. They thought that this must be a hymn that gave her comfort. We all look for comfort, in something, at times of sadness and distress, a symbol, whether it is Moina Michael’s idea of the poppy for Rememberance or John McRae’s poem ‘In Flanders Field’, these things have importance to individuals. I will remember that through a poignant tea towel, the humble tea towel, the tea towel of every day use, always with me.