Friday 12 October 2018

So Many Memorials

Not all that long ago, Remembrance of our war dead was an annual ritual that looked to be gradually dying out as the years passed. How times have changed: now Remembrance is bigger than ever, with ceremonies thriving and proliferating, and so many memorials being unveiled that we are in danger of becoming, in Geoffrey Hill's words, 'a nation with so many memorials, but no memory'. With the teaching of our national history now seriously distorted by post-imperial guilt and political correctness, and actual knowledge of our past getting sketchier with each generation, how much of this modern Remembrance is more than fuzzy feel-good sentimentality, fed by an increasingly imperfect understanding of what actually happened and why? I must admit there's something about the whole business that makes me feel a little queasy.
  War memorials used to be places to which ex-(and serving) servicemen would gravitate annually – or not (many, perhaps most, abstained) – for acts of communal remembrance. Such superbly restrained monuments as the Cenotaph still are. However, the new memorials and places of remembrance are designed more as tourist destinations, visitor attractions, offering something for everyone. Which brings me to the National Memorial Arboretum, near Lichfield – a tourist attraction if ever there was one, winner of Gold Large Visitor Attraction of the Year and Coach Friendly Attraction of the Year.  I visited for the first time yesterday, and enjoyed it very much, with some (you'll not be surprised to hear) reservations.

  It's a wonderful site – 150 acres of former gravel beds, now planted with something over 30,000 trees – and the overall design is well thought out. To combine an arboretum with a memorial site seems to me a rather brilliant idea. In time, I guess, the memorials will be found standing in woodland groves, seeming almost part of the landscape, and to walk around the site will be a rather different experience from what it is now, when the trees are young and low. The visitor centre is an attractive, low-lying building with a cloister and garden, and the hub of the site, the Armed Forces Memorial, built on a mound and crowned with an obelisk, is an excellent design. The outer curved walls, which have the same diameter as the dome of St Paul's, enclose inner walls and a large, eloquent space. The walls are covered with the carved names of all who have died in service since 1945, and at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the sun sends a beam of light through a slit between the outer and inner walls and projects it onto a wreath at the centre. Taken as a whole, this is, I think, a fine memorial.
  The other memorials, however – and there are a quite astonishing number, so many that the place sometimes feels like a remembrance theme park – vary in quality considerably, and I can't honestly say that I found any one of them (perhaps because of the quantity) especially moving. Generally speaking, the more abstract monuments are the most effective – and that points to a big problem with the Memorial as a whole: the figure sculpture is simply not good enough. Even the figure groups inside the Armed Services Memorial – which are probably the best on offer – are rather unconvincing individually, though they are very effectively grouped [that's one above]. I get the impression (which may well be wholly unfair) that figure sculptors today do not put in enough time studying anatomy. Few of the figures I saw yesterday were as convincing, in that respect, as the most routine academic sculpture of the 19th century. Too many were awkward, lifeless, ill proportioned and crudely characterised – and they also looked, like so much public sculpture these days, as if they had been moulded in resin (though clearly this was not the case).
 But enough of my gripes. Overall, I think the National Memorial Arboretum is a fine enterprise, parts of which – especially the Armed Services Memorial – work very well. And, as the trees mature, it will become an increasingly attractive place to visit, stroll around – and, perhaps, remember.

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