Humankind has the luxury of language. But despite all the sophistication that words can offer, it is often images rather than language that touch our emotions. So, while the most eloquent description of a painting can leave a reader cold; standing staring at that selfsame picture can have the person in tears. And the effect can work for smells, sounds and symbols. It may also have a public dimension so, depending on one’s beliefs, the sight of a crucifix, a Star of David, or the hand of Fatima can have emotional undertones that can divide nations and in some circumstances even engender wars. In all this, ultimately the effect is personal so what touches me can leave others cold, or can even induce feelings of antipathy, and visa versa.
As we approach Armistice Day 2014 it is difficult to escape the symbolism represented by the iconic red poppy. This image was created by a soldier of the Great War – John McRae – who, in 1915 wrote and then recited a poem to mark the burial of one of his closest friends at the front. That poem started: ‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row’. Soon after the war the poppy was adopted as a symbol for fund-raising and each year in the UK millions of poppies are bought and worn. And this year, through these sales the British Legion expects to raise over £40m to help support wounded members of the British armed forces and their families.
There can be no doubting the popularity of the poppy and its effectiveness as a symbol for fund-raising. Nevertheless, over the years there have been many, including myself, who, whilst recognising the awfulness of war and the grotesque tragedy of any death, have been worried about how the use of the red poppy has evolved. At its worst the wearing of the red poppy has been a way by which senior politicians and other dignitaries curry favour with the public and in some circumstances almost sanitise war. For me the red poppy represents the senseless bloodshed and death arising from the First World War, and this seems far from the sentiment that surrounds their sale nowadays on the high street. It is for these reasons that I have never actually bought or worn one.
But things changed greatly when I went to the Tower of London last week to see the thousands of poppies planted in its moat. It could hardly have been more moving. As my wife and I crossed Tower Bridge, we could see in the distance the blood red moat surrounding the Tower and the tens of thousands of people queuing to see them. In minutes we too were alongside peering over the outer fence at this most brilliant imagery; an art installation by Paul Cummins, a young artist primarily interested in ceramics. The symbolism he has created is simply extraordinary. From the press reports it is clear that his imagery has ‘moved a nation’, but for each individual the sentiments will have differed depending on whether the observer was, for instance an injured soldier, the wife of one of those who died, or a sceptic like myself. So here is my own interpretation, and for those of you who find my view difficult, I apologise in advance.
The vast expanse of almost 900,000 blood-red poppies in the moat surrounding the Tower was startling enough but the installation is so much more than that. For me, possibly by dint of childhood stories – the Princes in the Tower, Anne Boleyn – the Tower represents an aspect of our history that encapsulates the cruelty of yesteryear as during 800 years those in power have used it as a place of torture, imprisonment and worse. Now, in a horrific image, a river of blood, starting as a plume of poppies, spews forth into the moat from one of the Tower’s lower windows In the moat itself the poppies are arranged so as to suggest blood flowing outwards with its leading edge taking on the shape of fingers that follow the contours of the moat floor. And, as with oozing blood, the shape of its leading edge changes continuously as new poppies are added. The image was truly extraordinary. It was difficult not to draw a parallel between the Tower moat and the tranches of the First World War. What images that brought back! Finally, the colours of the poppies, which were a bright red, had a shimmer, an effect produced because each poppy, with its ceramic petals, was individually made and painted. A notion of non-uniformity perhaps tops the genius of this installation as each poppy planted was there to represent one the 888,246 individual British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the great and grotesque First World War.
Symbolism is a very powerful force, and with the poppies at the Tower of London it was at its most influential. Certainly here was a sight much more stirring than could ever have been portrayed simply by words alone.
Photo: JeyHan [Wikimedia Commons]