photo by Mark Rapley
The Imperial War Museum is what it used to be called, but ‘Imperial’ and ‘War’ are powerful but almost embarrassing words for modern British sensibility, so it is now called ‘IWM’.
Which is ridiculous, insulting and patronising, but it’s too late to do anything about it, so I’ll let it go, except to wonder if visitors to this otherwise wonderful museum were ever to ask the staff what the ‘I’ stands for, are the staff permitted to tell them?
The unfortunate fact of British history is that Britain was a great imperial power which used its power to wage war. As Charles Tilley said, ‘War made the state and the state made war’, and Britain was such a state, and in these terms, a successful one.
Nothing to do with me, or you, I wasn’t there and neither were you, so why should we feel embarrassed by those who were. As The Beatles sang, ‘We all doing what we can’, and who can say that they would have done any different or any better?
This assumption that the sins of the fathers should be visited upon the children seems to apply everywhere as we watch the absurd spectacle of Americans denying that they slaughtered their indigenous peoples, the Japanese denying The Rape of Nanking or The Turks denying the Armenian genocide. We all know these things happened, but because we feel responsible we dare not admit them, and this is obviously dangerous, but I digress.
Elena and I went to IWM to see the exhibition of WW2 photographs taken by Cecil Beaton, who achieved fame before the war, and after it, as a society photographer and theatrical costume and set designer.
He belonged to a different Britain that was nothing to do with me - he was born in 1904 and died in 1980, and so was, for most of his active life, a kind of courtier in a society in which Royalty and aristocratic values and culture dominated Britain.
He managed to leave Cambridge University without a degree and began his career as a photographer making excessively flattering portraits of Dukes and Duchesses and Kings and Queens and hangers on. These are included in the exhibition, just to set the scene, and they are mostly very dull to contemporary eyes which have no fascination with these hopeless characters elevated by the lottery of birth alone to pedestals below which others fawn.
But then something great happens to Beaton - the war. It makes him feel helpless and useless, but he does what he can, to get back to The Beatles, and he can take a portrait which flatters, but now he has decided to flatter people who probably deserve some flattery - the civilians, soldiers, sailors and airmen of the British war effort.
Now Beaton’s eye is properly and perfectly deployed behind the lens.
A photograph of a young girl injured by a bomb during the blitz found its way onto the front cover of Life magazine - deservedly so, for even at this distance, it nearly brought me to tears.
Beaton worked hard throughout the war, risking his neck and suffering some close shaves along the way. His work reveals a profound respect for the so-called ordinary people of Britain during their finest hours. He reveals the fear, courage, vulnerability, sense of humour and dogged determination that were necessary to get through the nightmare of WW2 - whose idea was that, by the way?
It wasn’t just old Adolf’s, a lot of other people thought wars were a good idea at that time, and they still do.
There always seems to be someone who thinks its a good idea to make a war, doesn’t there?
Well let me say here and now, and I hope you will join me here, - No, No, No, not a good idea, never start a war, whoever you are and however good you think you are versus your imagined enemy. They are easy to start, hard to finish, and you never know which way they will go.
Don’t take my word for it, read Robert Mcnamara’s memoirs if you don’t believe me, (he was Kennedy’s Secretary of State during the Viet-Nam war and the Cuba Crisis ) or see the movie made about him called ‘The Fog of War’.
I wish Tony Blair had seen it.
Non-violence is the new sex, in fact, and you don’t get much sex when violence is about, which can’t be good, because everybody is too busy dodging bullets and bombs to feel like loving up.
I leave you with the news that the IWM will be closed for 6 months from January 1st, so you better get down there quickly to catch Beaton, but I also leave you with these lines from Edwin Morgan’s poem, which are just so true :
‘The Pope sent a letter to the Great Khan, saying
‘We do not understand you. Why do you not obey?
We are under the direct command of Heaven.’
The Great Khan replied to the Pope, saying
‘We do mot understand you. Why do you not obey?
We are under the direct command of Heaven.’
From his cycle of poems called Planet Wave)