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.

Bad gore, good gore?

I don’t really do gratuitous gore. My days of staying up late with a horror-fiend friend watching ‘torture porn’ (i.e. the Hostel and Saw genres of film – not actual porn) are long gone. I do not, as a mature grown up person with a LoveFilm subscription, enjoy films containing gore for gore’s sake.

However, I’m of the opinion that some forms of gore are necessary in films and that in those cases, saying that you don’t want to watch them because of the gore is verging on the unacceptable.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had negative responses to tweets mentioning a couple of ‘gory’ films. The first was Looper [recent blockbuster starring Bruce Willis]. Friends stopped watching it because “we found it too gory”. That’s probably fair enough, given as a major plot element involves shooting your future self in the head. The second was The Killing Fields [Oscar winning true life story], which after I tweeted that I was watching it received the response: “I can’t stand gore”. That may be your standpoint on gore, but quite frankly, it’s utterly essential to the film and its message…

I found myself watching The Killing Fields after a long Saturday of theology reading. I’d had it for a while, but was inspired to finally watch it having read a Guardian article about the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Yes, I do realise that the film is set in Cambodia, but I think you can see the connection. I’d been trying to remember the name of a Rwandan film I’d watched a while ago and ended up in yet another Wikipedia vortex – this resulted in my wanting to do nothing more than watch another genocide film. I know it doesn’t sound relaxing and it wasn’t, but once a historian, always a historian.

There are several films relating to genocide which could be described as ‘gory’ and they are. But you know what? So is genocide. Most of these films are based on true events and tell stories that the rest of the world need to hear. None of them could possibly depict violence, death and destruction that’s even half as bad as what actually happened. Avoiding these films because of their gore is effectively denial. Denial that this has happened multiple times in the last century. That it keeps on happening in this self-destructive world. That it’s probably happening right this moment in Syria. That it may happen somewhere else in the very near future.

If the gore upsets you or makes you nauseous, close your eyes; walk out of the room briefly; hide behind a cushion; or fast forward – but whatever you do, don’t use the violence within these films as an excuse to not watch them. The people who died in the real versions deserve to be heard.

The_Killing_Fields_-_3Dith Pran & Sidney Schanberg as they appear in the film.

This may seem a bit wrong, but here are some of my ‘must watch’ films on this subject:

The Killing Fields – The massacre that took place under Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia in the 1970’s. Tells the story of two journalists (one American, one Cambodian) who work together to share the truth of what was happening prior to the Khmer Rouge’s invasion. The fields in the title were paddy fields covered with the bodies of thousands of Pol Pot’s victims.

Shooting Dogs; Hotel Rwanda; Sometimes in April – All cover the Rwandan genocide, from slightly different perspectives. All are well-worth watching.

Schindler’s List; The Piano; Sarah’s Key – Obviously, there are hundreds of films featuring the Holocaust, but these are three that spring to mind. Schindler’s List depicts the utterly mindless violence of the death camps. The Pianist evokes the terror of being a Jew in Warsaw, while Sarah’s Key does the same but for Paris. The latter (which is the most recent of the trio) is utterly heart-breaking.

As I wrote this, I tried to think of films that are set during the conflict in former Yugoslavia – all I could think of was Welcome to Sarajevo which I’ve never actually seen. It’s strange that given the atrocities there, few films have emerged. If I’ve overlooked any you know of, do let me know.


Since the weekend, I’ve been having the most amazing e-mail dialogue with a total stranger, thanks to the wonders of the internet.

No, I’ve not re-entered the world of online dating! It’s actually something far more sensible and enlightening.

Having posted my protest photos on flickr on Sunday, I received a comment on one of them from an Israeli girl in Haifa, who asked how I had become so interested in the Palestinian situation. It wasn’t a confrontational comment, simply a genuine enquiry, so I replied and every day this week has seen a continuation of the conversation. It’s not angry or attacking, just two people sharing their thoughts regarding a conflict that they don’t agree with, but for different reasons.

I’m not going to say much (because I have other plans for this dialogue in the future and I’ve not asked her permission to show the messages in full), but I just wanted to share with you a few of her comments that have really got me thinking.

Firstly, challenging my belief in pacifism:
“I wish I had the privilege to be a pacifist. I can’t. For every fact that you will raise, I have a thousand counter backs. That only shows you that both sides are right- Israeli and Palestinians. There is not only one truth as there is not only one solution.”

Secondly, an interesting philosophical dilemma:
“Now i wish to ask you a question. Is there a difference between a situation with the same result, but with different intentions? When a terror bomber explodes himself on a bus wishing to kill many people, including children, or when a soldiar wishing to kill someone with blood on his hand mistakenly kills a child, does it count that the first guy wished for it and the second one didn’t?”

I’ve replied to both these comments with my own views and feelings, but philosophically, it’s hard. Pacifism is an idealistic belief which hasn’t yet seen any success in political circles, as many years of studying history has taught me. Similarly, I believe that all killing is wrong, but that God will judge those who kill in the end. But accidents do happen, and I have sympathy for soldiers who kill civillians unintentionally. I have even more sympathy for soldiers forced to be in the military, like those in Israel on their compulsory military service.

The bottom line is that I’m really grateful that this person has got in touch with me and is leading me into a fascinating and challenging discussion about something that I am hugely passionate about. And I’m even more grateful that it’s happening in a peaceful and non-confrontational way.

Hollywood goes all Micah on us

I’m not a big fan of action movies, but last night I watched Iron Man and was very pleasantly surprised. Not only was it quite funny (not to mention the presence of Robert Downey Jr.), it actually had a message that’s pretty rare in Hollywood.

The main plot of the film revolved around the change of heart a director of a weapons company had when he saw the damage his creations did at first hand, and how his attempts to use his technology for good were ignored by his colleagues (the baddies). Ultimately, he created both a cyber-heart and the Iron Man, both of which were improvements on WMDs.

But how unusual is it for Hollywood to produce a movie that acts out Micah 4:3?

“And He will judge between many peoples And render decisions for mighty, distant nations. Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war.”
[Note: I did actually have to look up the quote, my OT Prophets knowledge is not that hot!]

It got me thinking about one of the aspects of Irresistable Revolution that touched a chord with me. Shane (the author) went to Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams and saw the hurt his country (and ours) is causing the people there. He writes about America’s attitude towards the war, especially from within the church, and the associated patriotism. How every soldier’s death is commemorated, but not the plight of the Iraqis.

He writes:
“Originally, I thought that I went to Iraq for the Iraqi people and the kids in my neighbourhood. But as I have traveled, I have come to see that I also went to Iraq for our friends and family members in the military. Over and over, soldiers have come to me with tears in their eyes, pouring out their inner conflict as they feel thier spiritual and national allegiances collide.”
[p.220. You can read more of Shane’s experiences in Iraq here.]

It sometimes feels that within a society that reveres the actions of its armed forces, there’s no space for pacifism or even Just War Theory. A soldier is killed in Afghanistan on Christmas Eve and it’s the first item on the news – but what about the 1000s of civillians killed in conflict around the world every day?

There are many, many films that seem to glamorise war, and only a few that seem to challenge it. (Particularly Shooting Dogs for its depiction of UN Peacekeepers in Rwanda and to a certain extent, Jarhead for showing the impact the Gulf War had on troops.) But Iron Man, for all its action movie credentials, really goes for the ethics of war and weapons, pretty impressive really.

So that’s my rather profound response to 2 hours of mindless movie watching last night! Needless to say, the guys I watched it with didn’t quite get to that level when we talked about it. In fact, both seemed just to want their own Iron Man suit and pretended to fly around the room! Then the Oxford Physics Graduate guy started to explain exactly why most of it couldn’t actually have happened…therefore be glad that you’re reading my response to the film and not his!