The Tower, surrounded

96 years ago, at 11am, the guns fell silent on one of  the bloodiest wars in history. Countries across the world were left counting their dead and facing up to a reality that four years of conflict had achieved comparatively little. In Britain and the Commonwealth, that number was 888,246 – excluding the 306 British soldiers shot for cowardice and the thousands of weakened men killed subsequently by the Spanish Flu epidemic.

It’s a difficult number to visualise, especially as now, nearly a century on, no soldier who fought in that conflict remains alive. But that is why Tom Piper’s installation of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red has had the impact it has. As of today, 888,246 poppies stand in the moat of the Tower of London, and its impact has been incredible.


I’ve paid three separate visits to the Tower since the poppies first appeared, and I’ve been surprised at the way in which the different visits have affected me. The first was really just to see what was going on – it was mid September so the moat hadn’t begun to fill up yet. I was on my own and it was a flying visit while I happened to be in the vicinity. The second, nearly a month later, was in the company of American friends on a busy Sunday afternoon.

When Robin burst into tears at her first glimpse of the wave of poppies over the moat, my British nature cringed. She sobbed that it was a waste, a brutal destruction of young men. And do you know what? Even though it’s complete against my character to cry in public, I entirely agreed with her. What this phenomenal installation demonstrates more than anything is the sheer scale of the sacrifice made by a generation of young men. Like anyone who has studied the war in some depth, I know that there is little that can be credited to it – it wasn’t ideological, it was territorial power struggle between imperial powers in their twilight years; its peace process set the stage for an even bigger conflict barely two decades later; and it brought grief to millions upon millions of people across the globe.

On that afternoon, the sun shone brightly and everything looked beautiful. You might say it was perfect conditions for poppy observation. We spent some time jostling with the crowd, paying our respects and watching even more flowers being added.

Adding poppies

Poppies Oct 2014

Poppies Oct 2014

But this past weekend I returned and discovered I was wrong, they hadn’t been the perfect conditions. Perfection, for this installation, is a state that brings home to you some of the reality of the nightmare the fallen soldiers, and their comrades who survived, faced on a day to day basis. We visited late in the evening, after dark and after several torrential downpours. The massive crowds of preceding days had dissipated, but large puddles had taken up their places in front of the fences. Rain still fell, and damp (from an hour in the rain waiting/watching fireworks) continued to pervade our shoes and coats.

As I stood, taking in the sight of an almost complete installation, I realised that much of life in the trenches involved damp, rain, discomfort and noises not dissimilar to (but much more threatening than) the fireworks we could hear in the distance. But our dampness would only last as long as it took us to get home and into dry clothes. For the people represented by the poppies, the conditions of the trenches lasted for days and weeks – on repeat. It was a humbling realisation for a group of people who had been bemoaning their wet shoes only a couple of hours earlier.

It may have been dark, but it was still easy to see how the poppies had spread since my previous visits. On the river side of the Tower, I spotted the point at which I’d taken a photo of a small run of poppies back in late September. The difference was staggering.

Moat, September 2014

Moat Nov 2014

But the biggest difference to my previous visit in early October was the response of the public. I don’t mean the crowds of visitors, or the fact that virtually everyone within reach of London has posted photos of it on Facebook, I mean the memorials. On the fence surrounding the Tower, personal memorials have appeared – laminated sheets containing dates, a century old photo of a young man in uniform and a few pieces of information; or a small wooden cross. All of a sudden, the poppies had names.

I don’t know of anyone in my immediate family who fought in WW1 – I don’t have any names or dates that I could share at the Tower. The names I can ascribe to the poppies are those I know from history, literature and other people’s family stories. Like the elderly woman I met when I was 7 or 8, who had a photo of a man in uniform on the wall of her room in the old peoples’ home where my parents were chaplains. She explained that he had been her fiancé, but was killed in the war, and she had never married anyone else. [For the impact of the loss of a generation of men upon women, read Singled Out – I can’t recommend it highly enough.] As we stood by the fence, Anne (mother of dear friends Jenni & Gill) told me about her grandmother, who lost her fiancé in the war – but who did marry subsequently. Here were names. Name, after name. Nowhere near 888,246 of them, just a splash in the ocean of red.

In MemoriumThe poppies will start to disappear after today, although the wave and the cascade from the window will stay until the end of November. These sections will then tour the country, before eventually making their home at the Imperial War Museums in London and Manchester.

A work of art and endurance

This is pretty much my all-time favourite piece of art:

Pearblosson Hwy., 11th – 18th April 1986 (Credit)

First glimpsed at the Salts Mill’s permanent Hockney exhibition when I was 16, it immediately captured my imagination. Hockney’s better known for his colourful painting, but during the mid-1980’s he went through a photography phase that resulted in several collages like this one. The following summer I returned and was still captivated – the next year I was given a large framed version of it in honour of my 18th birthday and a year later I saw it in the flesh at the J. Paul Getty museum in LA. We’ve got quite a history…
For five years the picture hung on the wall above my bed in my bedroom in Gloucester. When my parents moved on to Belfast, I wasn’t living anywhere that could house it (actually, I wasn’t living anywhere at all…) and so it went with them to hang on the wall of the room in which I sleep when I’m visiting. Until the move to Bloomsbury, I’d never had a place where it would fit, but with the new flat came an ocean of wall space on which to hang art – something my mother sensed, resulting in an offer to bring it with them the next time they crossed the Irish Sea.
Thus, the picture found itself in Tewksbury a couple of weeks ago, in the home of my sister who was rather surprised to see it. Not wanting it to clutter up her hallway, she came up with a plan to get it to London when she visited for the Olympics – it fitted in her car and therefore she felt able to get it onto her train from Cheltenham. All I had to do was meet her at Paddington and transport it across town. She even came up with a suitable (if long) hashtag: #crosslondonarttransportationmission
It would be simple – the number 7 bus goes from Paddington to Bloomsbury and I’d carry the picture while we walked between stops. Well, it would’ve been simple had it not been for the following combination of factors: Friday afternoon; Oxford Street; and the Olympics. 
Our bus terminated on Edgware Road and we were left carrying a large, heavy, unwieldy picture for nearly an hour. I did most of it (until one of my hands went numb), keeping Mim on my right to act as guide and extra eyes for pedestrians. (I only hit a couple of them and mostly it was their fault. Kinda.) It was hot, we were tired, but we stayed in good humour – thankfully. 
After what seemed like forever, we finally reached the flat – ensuring we posed for photos before we finished. I couldn’t face carrying it up the 60 steps to the flat, so left it a while, recuperating with a Diet Coke. But as soon as it was removed from its many layers of bubble wrap, it went up on the wall and it has to be said, looks pretty good. (Well, it will once I figure out how to make it look straight in a flat with no straight floors or walls…)

Me, God and boobs…

In addition to our Vicar School weekends, once a year we head off on a weekend retreat. We have some choice in which group or location we end up in. Some did icons in East Sussex; others stayed silent with Benedictines in Leicestershire; I ended up doing finger painting for God in Yorkshire. I jest – it was a Creative Arts retreat.

I’m a big fan of creativity, especially when paint – specifically metallic paint – is added into the mix. It was also a great group of people combined with a beautiful location. Good times.

Inevitably I’ve returned home with a folder of works that would make my mother’s fridge proud, whose quality varies considerably. By far, my favourite is my first piece (the only one that came close to fulfilling the optional directions of the session), which I chose to tweet on Saturday during a rare moment of 3G reception.

While working on it, a couple of guys commented on that gold/bronze circle in the centre, likening it to a part of female anatomy. Immediately after tweeting it, I got this response from my sister:
“Are you aware that you ‘created’ a massive boob?”

Thanks. Way to go ruining a piece of spiritual reflection! Little did I know that down in East Sussex, a small group of trainee vicars saw the tweet and immediately made the boob connection – so amused were they that this morning at Vicar School I was greeted with “I liked your boob!”. Tres amusant. In my defence, this was never my intention.

In case you think all we did was create crass art, check out this masterpiece:

Needless to say, that’s not my work. Turns out one of number did a degree in contextual art in a past life – he kept that quiet…

History on a tea towel

A photo challenge for you – can you identify me (and my sister, for those that know her) on the tea towel below:

In case you’re wondering, that’s a tea towel with a self-portrait of every member of my primary school in the 1990-91 academic year. It’s one of those things primary schools produce at Christmas which are then bestowed upon beloved relatives as gifts – relatives who probably smile sweetly and then put it away in a drawer.

Unless, it seems, you are my grandparents. I received this photo this morning from my mother who (presumably) had just been washing up in my grandparents’ kitchen. I reckon it’s in pretty good condition for a twenty year old towel…

Oh, and in case you can’t find me, I’m on the fourth row from the bottom, second from right. (For Mim fans, she’s five rows down from the title, fifth in from right and has a very big head.) I’m rather impressed with the level of detail a 9 year old me includes – down to the crest on my sweatshirt and my bunches. The only downside (and I suspect this irked me at the time) is that we had to use black pen to draw our pictures, thus meaning that my hair was depicted a lot darker than it naturally is.

Belated birthday brilliance

My 30th birthday has really been the birthday that keeps on giving. In the last couple of weeks I’ve acquired two birthday gifts that are quintessentially me – I have excellent friends.

The first of these was actually a bonus birthday/moving house gift from the lovely Annabelle. Ordered months ago, it had arrived late so she’d given me a lovely baking themed present instead. But the tardy present was (is) genius…

What are things I like? Well, jewellery would definitely be up there, especially earrings. What else am I passionate about? Punctuation. Can you combine the two? Why yes, it seems you can:

If you’d like your own punctuation, you can buy them from Nerd Goddess on Etsy.

Those, my friends, are mix and match punctuation earrings – semi-colon, question mark, speech mark, exclamation mark and…the all important apostrophe. Now whenever I have the urge to correct someone’s apostrophe usage, all I have to do is place my earring in the correct location. Marvellous.

The second gift arrived on Sunday, when my favourite Gloucestrians paid me a flying visit en route to helping their eldest move house. For weeks we’d been trying to fix up a meeting as they were very keen to give me my present, which intriguingly couldn’t be posted. When I was handed the parcel it was soon clear why – it was large and picture frame shaped, so presumably cumbersome and delicate. Unwrapping it, I discovered this:

In case you can’t read it, it says:

Lizzie likes… [Yes, they count as family, thus I’m “Lizzie”.]
Singing with the choir. [That’s a given.]
Yummy cupcakes. [Ditto.]
Chalet School books. [But of course.]
Travelling. [Hell yes.]
Flip Flops. [True, but now they kill my ankles.]
Church on Sunday. [And any other day.]
Glee. [Well duh!]
Paris in July. [Paris whenever really.]
The Greenwoods. [Like is an understatement.]
Ben Fogle. [Ahhhhh….]
Wishing she could still be a Brownie, even though she’s 30. [Running in-joke.]
How impressive! Turns out they’d only had to consult family on two items – favourite food and favourite celebrity crush. (My sister apparently suggested Colin Firth initially, which is odd as I don’t think I’ve ever professed an ardent liking of him – not that I’d say no, obviously. Ben Fogle is genius and true, the only alternative would’ve been Alan Rickman.) They really are the best gift givers on special birthdays – on my 21st I received a film poster style painting of my life (‘The girl from Tonga’…) – and they put a lot of thought and effort into it. Bless them.
So, once I finally get some special picture hooks later this week I’ll be able to adorn my new room with my new art. This and my specially commissioned Dave Walker cartoon will obviously have pride of place.