Friday, October 19, 2012

First World War, the art  of Nick Hedges and Thomas's War Diary.

 Marc I went to The North Walls Art Gallery's  'Kaleidoscope' exhibition in South Parade, Oxford. We were expecting landscape paintings and they were there, large memorable canvases by Abby Gardner,  but I was taken aback, and very pleased to be, by the work of the artist Nicholas Hedges.

 Nick is concerned with our ability to  re-encounter and  to empathise with the past; he shows  artefacts  of  the 1914 - 18 war -  old postcards, maps of trench systems, the iconic splintered trees, but worked on  in a modern idiom.

- Faces from old photographs, scarred by Nick's stitching, sensitively done and very moving.
-Old maps reversed, with images of shell burst created with ashes, canvas stitched to show a vast complex of trenches
- Words cut for images - the  trees of war artists like Nash are there, but transformed:

' shattered trees are those of family trees, planted in the broken ground, grown out from a soldier now made nameless and anonymous to the world....It's often the case that we know nothing of those who died; all too often it's as if they were always victims, individuals who never experienced the 'everydayness' of life as we do today.'                                                                     NH

Reading Nick's blog, I found that visitors to the Gallery immediately thought of First World War poets and poetry when they met these works; then I read that Nick himself has recently become very interested in Thomas and had blogged about him two days before! He kindly sent me these images.
It is so good to find these circles of interest and support. The exhibition closes on the 3rd November - do go if you can.

What struck me most in relation to Edward Thomas  were the series of images of bursting shells.

 No sound - I was glad that the exhibitors hadn't  added a sound-track as they might have done, for  the images were powerful enough to evoke an aural as well as a visual sense of shelling.

  Shells: exploding, passing overhead, firing  shells, the noise of shells, their effect on the air, constantly feature in Thomas's ten-week war diary:

'Some 4.2's coming over at 10. Air flapping all night as with great sails in a strong gusty wind(with artillery).....Beautiful pale hazy moonlight and the sag and flap of air.'

He had acute vision and acute hearing and had lived most of his life in rural quiet. It's hard to imagine a greater contrast but he does not complain, he simply observes, though I remember he describes that flap of air as 'grisly', that effect of the vacuum which killed him by stopping his heart.
Oh - I just noticed this for the first time:

'As I was falling asleep great blasts shook the house and windows, whether from our own firing or enemy bursts near, I could not tell in my drowse, but I did not doubt my heart thumped so that if they had come closer together it might have stopped.' 

Now I find my thoughts going towards diagnosis - atrial fibulation? - and that sense of  'couldn't something be done, can't we intervene', which is I think one aspect of empathy with the past.
 'The past is not dead. It's not even past.'  I heard that recently but forget  who said it - was it Ford Madox Ford? No, William Faulkner.

 I read the war diary in my old RG Thomas Collected Poems, 1978, now hard to find. The small leather-bound notebook was found by Thomas's grandson, another Edward, son of Merfyn, in 1970, some time  after Merfyn's death.


It was very hard for Edward to transcribe, being written in small handwriting in a pocket-sized notebook, but you can try too, as it can be seen on the First World War digitalised Archive, University of Oxford. Professor George Thomas worked from a magnified version.

The note-book was exhibited at the Imperial War Museum, in 2004 I think, all creased by the shell-blast that killed Edward Thomas.

The 1914 centenary commemoration will bring about a resurgence of interest in the war, even greater than there is at present. It is good  that as well as the familiar documentaries and exhibitions, there will be responses from  contemporary artists like that of Nicholas Hedges in this exhibition, and from writers too.


A war poem, Edward Thomas style:

February Afternoon

Men heard this roar of parleying starlings, saw,
A thousand years ago even as now,
Black rooks with white gulls following the plough
So that the first are last until a caw
Commands that last are first again,---a law
Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how
A thousand years might dust lie on his brow
Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw.

Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years, while the broad ploughland oak
Roars mill-like and men strike and bear the stroke
Of war as ever, audacious or resigned,
And God still sits aloft in the array
That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone blind.

The blog: I want to mention the play about Edward Thomas at the Almeida Theatre, Islington. By Nick Dear, the director is Richard Eyre. Here is their write-up:
The Dark Earth and the Light Sky
by Nick Dear
Thu 8 Nov 2012 - Sat 12 Jan 2013
"Or must I be content with discontent
As larks and swallows are perhaps with wings?"
The Glory, Edward Thomas

Deep in the Hampshire countryside Edward Thomas scrapes a living; disaffected husband, exhausted father and tormented writer. Then in 1913 he meets American poet Robert Frost and everything changes. As their friendship blossoms Edward writes, emerging from his cocoon of self-doubt into one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century.
On the verge of success he makes the drastic decision to enlist, confounding his friends and family. The Dark Earth and the Light Sky delves into the life of this enigmatic and complex character in an era of change and destruction.
Nick Dear recently adapted the highly acclaimed Frankenstein at the National Theatre. His other plays include Power, Zenobia and The Art of Success. His screenplays include Byron, Eroica and Persuasion.
Award-winning director Richard Eyre’s most recent theatre credits include Private Lives in the West End and The Reporter at the National Theatre. For film and television he has directed amongst others, Notes on a Scandal, Iris and the forthcoming Henry IV Parts I and II for the BBC.

I am enjoying writing the blog and being in touch with people I haven't spoken to for a while if ever, but I want to move to twice-weekly now, as it is taking a great deal of time and the rest of life is a blur. I hope not to lose everyone as a result.

I have changed the picture of Eleanor Farjeon(15/10) to a more appropriate one taken when ET knew her. Isn't she great, trying to read and hold on to her hat on a windy Norfolk beach? I love her.

It would be great to get some comments - please don't be shy. Anything welcome.