In a momentous week for world politics, let's turn to Dostoevsky
Above all, don't lie to yourself ...
Coming back to the village of Ors, in Northern France, for Wilfred’s Owen’s 98th anniversary was the last step in a sort of pilgrimage begun earlier this year and recorded in earlier blogs. I say a sort of pilgrimage because I want to avoid the ready associations that go with this 2014-18 centenary of the First World War, this 2016 anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, and indeed with the date of Owen’s death. In 2018 it will be the centenary of that death, and no doubt it will be remembered in this country formally, as it should be. But since 2003, the inhabitants of Ors have been commemorating his death every year in their own way. From the moment I first visited La Maison Forestière, and discovered the story behind its commission, I have been deeply impressed by the way this small French commune and its surrounding area have sought the right way to honour the fact that Wilfred Owen died in their environs. The prime mover in this has been one Jacky Duminy – originally deputy mayor in 1991 when he first realised that a significant English poet was buried in the Ors village cemetery. By 2006 he was mayor, and able to pursue his conviction that this accident of meaning should be marked in some way.
It’s difficult to convey what a small place Ors is (population currently 660), and administrative and political frameworks in France are very different from those here. Ors is a commune, and M. Duminy is its mayor – but with a very small province and correspondingly limited funding. Nonetheless, his ideas and his imagination were generous. He was clear at the outset that neither museum nor memorial would be fitting: there were far too many memorials already in this part of France, and there was nothing to go in a museum. Thus, with a leap of creativity, he and those he consulted decided to commission a work of art. This says much about French values – and also about English ones. The art installation was duly commissioned, from a significant artist (Simon Patterson, one of the original Young British Artists, and Turner Prize nominee). Only then did they set about getting the money (the final cost was £1.5 million), which was eventually forthcoming from French state agencies, the prime of which existed to encourage work which had its origins in and was supported by specific communities. No money whatsoever was forthcoming from England. The British Council, approached by the artist with a modest request, turned it down.
My earlier blog recounts the triumphant installation which was the final outcome from such humble beginnings. But last week, on November 4th, I saw where all this came from. My co-writer Andrew Palmer and I turned up at the village square, and were amazed to find maybe 150 people – inhabitants, representatives of surrounding villages bearing their flags, veterans wearing either their own or their fathers’ medals, and at the front of the procession a small brass band. There was even someone in a uniform that looked like a cross between the Free French and the Foreign Legion – smoking a Gauloise. We processed to the village cemetery in a combination of solemnity and loud French chatter. It was, of course, raining. As we arrived at the cemetery, we saw that a generator had been laid on to provide lighting to guide us, and electricity for the portable amplification. The representatives with flags formed a half circle round the Cross of Remembrance, M. Duminy recorded the village’s years of commemoration of their ‘guest’ Wilfred Owen (originally begun in 1991 with a reading of an Owen poem each Armistice Day), and Peter Owen, Wilfred’s nephew, President of the Wilfred Owen Association, said a few words. A minute’s silence, the placing of flowers on Owen’s grave by village children, the little brass band playing – with some difficulty, but so sweetly – ‘God Save Our Queen’ (the only time I have been truly moved by our National Anthem), and the release of feeling in a joint singing of La Marseillaise. Then all repaired to the Salle des Fêtes for bread, cheese and pâté and lashings of red wine and beer.
It was an idiosyncratic, deeply felt, touchingly organised and wholly appropriate way to remember a great poet. It was human and personal, civic in the best sense, and entirely cross-national. It represented the original ideal of the European enterprise. When we arrived at our return ferry at Calais, we were met by what appeared to be French soldiers in camouflage gear, armed with machine-guns, who searched our boot, and we then had to cross the barrier manned by the UK Border Force, whose name was up in neon – there in our name. It was frightening and dispiriting – and we were British citizens. The humanity of the Ors celebration of Wilfred Owen’s spirit seemed a long way away.
By Sally Minogue