Last week I was glad to hear some good news: two newly-commissioned hovercraft have just entered service. Yes, 50 years after I, an awestruck, penniless student without the price of a ticket, watched the inaugural passenger flight lift magically from the pebbles of Southsea beach and skim away over the sea to the Isle of Wight, hovercraft are (still) go! In a small way their enduring success serves to salve the injury caused to our British pride by the wince-inducing, post-referendum antics of the nation’s political establishment and, in the midst of the unseemly scramble for short-term political advantage masquerading as The National Interest, remind us that there is more to being British than the pain of embarrassment at the greed of our establishment, outrage over the inequalities of our society and guilt over our past colonial crimes: we can at least claim to have spawned the visionary Sir Christopher Cockerell, the man who, with a hair drier and a couple of empty tins, one placed inside the other, demonstrated the feasibility of hovering and went on, undaunted by sceptics (and unhindered by restrictive EU regulations) to invent a thrillingly new mode of transport.
Unfortunately the swelling of pride was short-lived. I became overwhelmed with the events commemorating the start of the Battle of the Somme, firstly at a laying of wreaths on the classic, Lutyens-designed war memorial outside the Town Hall. The site is currently surrounded by extensive roadworks and overlooked by a huge building-under-construction but all work stopped for the ceremony and the men in hi-viz vests on the scaffolding enjoyed a better view than we on the ground, our necks craned for a glimpse of the proceedings. VIPs in civvies and top-brass in uniforms took turns to step up and lay wreaths; a clergyman spoke of God and heavenly rewards; a soldier extolled the virtues of duty and sacrifice; the buglers sounded the Last Post and it was impossible not to be moved. But when the band struck up and marched off to join a parade through the streets, I peeled away to find a quieter contemplation.
There is a small exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Visions of the Front: 1916-18, comprising paintings, drawings and lithographs by official War Artists of the time. Many of the images on display I had seen before but, viewed in the context of the commemorations, they evoked the time, the place and the horror with a poignancy I had not previously experienced. They also left me, incidentally, pondering how they compare in efficacy with photographic equivalents. Are photos, created in an instant, a more objective representation of events than hand-made images which are worked up after the event with the artist’s conscious and considered intervention?
I had earlier encountered a piece commissioned by a living artist: Jeremy Deller’s We Are Here comprised thousands of actors dressed in WW1 uniforms and presenting themselves, silently, among the crowds outside shops and railway stations around the country. The project had been deliberately unpublicised for maximum effect – a clever and effective ploy. Outside Aldi I approached a lost and lonely-looking soldier, expecting to become engaged in talk. But he silently handed me a card and looked resolutely into the distance. The card simply said
Corporal John Davidson
Highland Light Infantry
Died at the Somme on 1st July 1916
Aged 38 years
It was as if Corporal Davidson and his comrades had emerged from their graves and memorials to take their places, temporarily, in the fabric of everyday life and, by doing so, had brought us face to face with the reality of their deaths. What could all those men have achieved if the war had not robbed them of their lives – and us of a generation of potential visionaries?