Tom Sutcliffe considers Remembrance


When I was admitted as a chorister at Chichester Cathedral on Lady Day 1954, I was given a copy of the 1928 Prayer Book signed by Dean Duncan-Jones. I also became eligible to attend the Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall in November, because the dean was a keen supporter of the British Legion and Chichester choristers had for some years played an important role in the religious conclusion to the evening act of Remembrance—originally held as tribute to the fallen in the Great War (which the war of 1914–18 was called, until it was succeeded by the resumption of fighting in Europe in 1939). Since Duncan-Jones died in office in January 1955 (something seldom experienced in these days of compulsory clerical retirement), that trip was my one and only.

Such memories don’t fade. ‘Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot, I know no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.’ Alas, Halloween and pervasive American influence have almost trumped Bonfire Night in younger people’s minds, but in 1954 Bonfire Night was the day before the British Legion Festival of Remembrance to be attended by the Queen for only the third time since her accession. And I remember it painfully well, because that night my right hand got severely burnt by a rocket I was holding in a paper bag with other fireworks, and which somehow started spewing flames on to my flesh as we gathered round the Prebendal School bonfire outside the city wall and beyond the deanery garden through which we always walked when we were going to our school sports field. I got taken back to the school. My hand was dressed, and I was given a bowl of tomato soup to comfort me, which was so hot I also burnt my mouth!

I was fine to go up with the choir to London the following day with my bandaged hand, and rehearse at the Hall and stay at the Cora Hotel near Euston and St Pancras, and take part in the ceremony wearing our sober grey cassocks and white flat collars. Not my first experience of a hotel and sharing a room either, since my big sister, my mother and I had spent three months in Denmark in 1946 when I was turning three and had gone there so we could see more of our father, who was minesweeping in the Baltic. There was no rationing in Denmark too, which was very welcome. My sister was nine and slept sometimes at the other end of the same bed, and there was some argy-bargy between our feet.

As a child almost all our friends were service people. How different things are now in Britain where the services cannot get enough volunteers to fill the much more limited requirements of today’s army, navy and air force. Yet the ritual of remembrance proceeds regardless, and is applied to far more questionable adventures by our armed forces in the service of crown and government. Of course I do not want us to forget the sacrifices or lack appreciation of what was involved and why, but finding Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, written for the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral, being staged by English National Opera at the Coliseum (as if it were an oratorio with a narrative and characters) brought home to me how hard it is not to be impressed and moved by the extraordinary quality of the poems by the young Wilfred Owen which Britten interpolated into the Latin text of the Requiem.

In my view it was a mistake to commission a new (and rather anonymous-seeming) building in Coventry rather than—as the Germans did with the far worse urban destruction in for instance Dresden—rebuild the large medieval parish church which had been serving as Coventry’s cathedral before the air-raid. Equally, I think there is something uncomfortable about Britten’s mixture of sentiments in the music he supplied for the words of the Dies Irae and Owen’s poems, considering his and Peter Pears’s status as conscientious objectors (a status shared by Michael Tippett). My volume of Owen’s poems, published in the 1960s, was edited by Cecil Day Lewis who quotes Owen describing himself as ‘a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience.’ For Owen, Lewis says, war with its agonies and senseless waste was ‘absolutely evil’—but only as a combatant could he conscientiously and effectively speak for the men who were suffering from it. Lewis continues that, if a poet ‘refuses to take any part in it, he is opting out of the human condition and thus, while obeying his moral conscience, may well be diminishing himself as a poet… Owen’s war poetry is remarkably objective… and his inward responses to that experience provided a motive power, not a subject, of the poetry.’

Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph wonders (I think rightly) whether trying to theatricalise Britten’s powerful marriage of text and music is not counter-productive and damaging because ‘the piece is already too freighted with the aural equivalent of breast-beating and too ready to resort to cheaply illustrative clichés, such as the seraphic innocence of boys’ voices or the exotic clangour of bells, the poignancy of a lone flute, the rat-a-tat of the battlefield drum or the bragging of the military trumpet.’ Indeed. The concepts toyed with by ENO director Daniel Kramer and his designer, the brilliant photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, are futile, feeble and kitsch. ENO’s job is opera. And War Requiem is an altered liturgy, not a drama.