Remembrance: Could we ‘hack’ a common purpose from our shared and bloody history?

‘Traditions’ which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.

Eric Hobsbawm

In his introduction to a 1983 collection of essays Eric Hobsbawm notes not only that traditions are by definition ‘unchanging and invariant’, but that they are themselves created or invented as a response to rapid technological and social change in wider society.

A solid fixed point in a modern urbanised society that has less time for the transmission of immutable custom.

In a feature for the FT in 2007 Niall Ferguson sounded a useful note of scepticism about the whole idea of commemoration, noting that:

In the case of Remembrance, the mythical invention was that the industrialised slaughter of four and a quarter years had been a worthwhile sacrifice for the sake of “civilisation”. The possibility was firmly suppressed – though raised at the time by a rebellious minority – that the war could have been avoided and had done nothing to resolve the fundamental imbalance of power on the European continent. It was precisely this insistence that the war had been a necessary tragedy, not a futile blunder, that gave Remembrance its potency. Without the tragic undertone, the rituals and symbols might have lacked force.In Northern Ireland, Remembrance has become another date in the yearly round of sectarian needling. The war which inspired it has long since vanished from living memory. The tragedy it marked was once real and deeply painful.

The installation of 888,426 individual ceramic poppies in the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, has drawn huge crowds on foot of merely on buried feelings for the historic dead.

As a residual symbol of invulnerable national sovereignty the siting of the exhibition in the Norman built Tower of London may represent some form of national reconciliation between the UK’s civilian population and an army which has been at war almost continually for much of the last twenty years.

In that respect it may provide a modicum of catharsis.That springs from the effect of the art involved, rather than the formality of the more usual Remembrance ceremonies. Blood swept lands with its grand scale and pulsing sense of endless spilling red is in contrast to the formalities at Cenotaphs all over the UK is a meditation of the enormity of the human sacrifices of war.

In that respect it is reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, the design for which was created by a then 21 year old student Maya Lin was hugely controversial, not least because it intentionally ripped through the earth of Constitution Gardens like a scar in the coutured federal landscape.

However it quickly became a site of deeply personal pilgrimage, drawing an estimated three million visitors every year. In doing so it has brought together both the men and women who went to war and those who protested against it.

Which brings me home again. Despite all good efforts it is unlikely that Remembrance will provide Northern Ireland with the catharsis it may need to properly begin reclaiming the habitual customs of peaceful living.

That is not to say that it cannot or should not have its own respected place in Northern Ireland’s civic order. Yet in the constant battle of two inflexible and conflicting narratives, we ignore the fact that the tragic sacrifice that carries most weight are the lost lives of the Troubles era.

As Michael Longley has noted:

On the one hand, I’m interested in how we avoid tearing one another to pieces. Peace is not that, peace is the absence of that, peace is the absence of war: the opposite of war is custom, customs, and civilization. Civilization is custom and manners and ceremony, the things that Yeats says in “A Prayer for My Daughter.” We have a vocabulary of how to deal with one another and how to behave, a vocabulary of behavior, as well as things to say to one another . . . and out of that come laws and agreed ways of doing things . . .

We start one down there. Having had a century of disquiet not least around the founding of the Northern Ireland state which will mark the topping out of this decade of commemorations, we are still far short of a culture which is shared across to the broad citizenry.

Where do we start, when so many have tried and thus far seemingly failed? Seb Paquet offers this four stage process to his principal preoccupation: ie, ‘culture hacking’:

The first is observation. This is about letting the culture get to you. It’s not something you do by thinking, it is something you do by letting your mind take it in just by listening.

The second step is to find a crack. This is something that makes you uncomfortable in the culture. You can’t name it but you feel that there’s something wrong in the system and you try to nail it. That’s a crack, and that’s where the light is going to get in.

Then this is the scary part, you make art. That means making something completely new, something nobody has done before. Sometimes you going to feel like you’re going to meet resistance but it often turns out that you meet much less resistance than you expected.

Now the fun part is about finding the other people who have found the crack. You want to avoid the soul-less drones and the really clueless replicators. You want to focus on people with a sense of humor and unpredictable people.

You get them together and you organize something in formal wear or a party or something and then together we can create language so visual language sonic language, music body language whatever or plain old words.

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  • Peter Mackenzie

    Could it be that so many Irishmen fought in WW1 was that they maybe didn’t share the view that Britain was an evil conqueror and had enough common interest to stand against the evil of National Socialism. Today as we still struggle against British and Irish nationalism can we identify which part of British Culture we are rejecting, their sport,their soaps,their shopping chains, their welfare state, their education system. maybe our real difficulty is not with nationhood but with a London centric centralism and the dragooning of our emotional responses to the tragedy of war. Wearing Poppies to celebrate the Army is now becoming mandatory but no attempt to support the campaign against the arms trade which is still slaughtering millions needlessly.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    Nazism was WWII…

  • Tacapall

    Could it be that all those uneducated ignorant unemployed Irishmen simply joined the British army for money like the majority who joined whatever their nationality. If you look deep enough you’ll find that the same people who finance and control the arms trade are the same bankers whose headquarters are located in inner city London. Im sure you remember these fine words from someone who finally understood what it was all about –

    ” War is organised murder and nothing else….politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.

    All those young lives lost in a war which ended across a table. Where’s the sense in that?” Harry Patch.

  • Phil MacGiollaBhain

    National Socialism in WW1?
    Oh dear Peter…

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh dear Mick, the Hobsbawm quote: “Traditions’ which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.” has always rankled me rather.

    “Sometimes”????? Where on earth do traditions come from but from someone somewhere “inventing” them!! Anything else removes human agency and reifies “tradition” as something self generating, ignoring the process of personal creativity which always lies at the root of any “tradition”and continues to be active constantly in the survival of any tradition.

    Some of those “victims” I taught at QUB had got the idea from Eric’s quote that there was some kind of hierarchy between “real” traditions and “invented” traditions, but the real measure of evaluation for any tradition is never its age or “authenticity” but the use that it is put to!

    As you have said above, the conflictual perception of mutually exclusive traditions is our bane! This is quite a recent thing in its present form, some of it developed during the last 40 years and none of it much older than 1914! I recently was in a discussion with Nevin about whether Francis Joseph Bigger, despite his nationalist beliefs, could be considered as a force for reconciliation between these polarities. I’d contend that FJB, developing within a different perception of how the two traditions functioned was profoundly pluralist, a polyculturalist (“empathic recognition and blending”) in approach as against than the kind of divisive mulitcultural (“separate development”) approach which has been enshrined in the GFA.

    I think this runs with your last big quote, but as an “artist” I would…….

  • MainlandUlsterman

    11th November is an opportunity for mourning together our shared war dead, particularly from WW1, where losses were so heavy to both Protestant and Catholic families all over the island. There are some nice gestures and a change of mood in the Republic now on this. This is something we should all look to nurture.