I was thinking (given the theme of Residue) about the residues of war, and listed the following sorts of things one might expect to find in the wake of conflict: objects dredged from the battlefield, pieces of shrapnel, bullet casings, shell casings, shoes, photographs, letters, memoirs, bones, clothes, luggage, memories (sights, sounds, smells)… and as I wrote, I thought how important the idea of ‘home’ was, and what a dreadful contrast it must have been to the realities of the often appalling predicaments of those caught up in conflict, whether soldiers or civilians.
Reading various books about World War One, it’s been interesting (and indeed heart-breaking) to read extracts from soldiers’ letters and postcards sent from the trenches, and to read about the packages they received in turn from home. How difficult (as well as comforting) it must have been for them to receive these little pieces of home as they suffered in such unimaginable conditions, and how terrible for parents and relatives to receive the postcards and letters from a loved one after news of their death.
Given that I am exploring the theme of contrast (particularly with regards to the silence of a place following a traumatic event) I thought this was an interesting ‘contrast’ to explore, particularly as Gloucester Green is a place where people are in transit, perhaps travelling away from home.
To change the subject slightly for a moment, one way of identifying with people and events so long ago – for example the Great War – is by identifying with a place (with which we are particularly familiar) as it was at the time, i.e. 1914. I have for a long time been interested in the idea of memory spaces (spaces within the memory of someone either dead or living) and how by accessing these spaces we might gain access to their contemporary thoughts. Under ‘Objects‘ on this site I have written:
“These objects, each through their own unique provenance, allow us, if we use our imaginations, to glimpse people from the pages of history; they, along with tens of thousands of others, once held a place in the minds and memories of men and women long since dead. Now we hold these objects within our minds and memories and as such share a place, a single, common space with those who have long since vanished from the world. To read about the past and those people who made it is one thing, to share this common space with them through the power of objects is quite another.
Objects can be those found in a museum, or buildings contemporary with the time you wish to explore within your imagination; in the case of the Great and the Second World War, it is most of the city (Oxford) as it stands today. As I have already written (on Objects), Aristotle says in relation to systems of memory:
“We should also seek to recover an order of events or impressions which will lead us to the object of our search, for the movements of recollection follow the same order as the original events; and the things that are easiest to remember are those which have an order, like mathematical propositions. But we need a starting-point from which to initiate the effort of recollection.”
This starting point could be anything contemporary with the time we wish to explore. In respect of the Great War, there is a photograph showing men marching to war over Magdalen Bridge and past the Jubilee Fountain which stands near what is now The Plain roundabout. These men are as anonymous to us now, ‘living’ in this photograph, as they are dead, yet the landmarks past which they march are still in existence. That same fountain occupied a place in each of their minds, and so by choosing this as our starting point we might find our way into their thoughts by placing ourselves in their position.
“For remembering really depends upon the potential existence of the stimulating cause… But he must seize hold of the starting point. For this reason some use places for the purpose of recollecting.”
The fountain, in this example, is therefore our ‘stimulating cause’, our ‘starting point’, a place for the ‘purpose of recollecting’. We share in effect a common space with those men who are marching in the photograph and as such we have a starting point from which to ‘initiate the effort of recollection’.
Whilst looking for old prewar photographs of Oxford, I happened upon some old postcards and thought at once how these objects were the perfect metaphor or symbol for our being away from home; a small sliver of our journey away. What we choose to write on the back is largely inconsequential, what is important, is that we have written, that we are remembering those back home.
As I wrote above:
“…how important the idea of ‘home’ was, and what a dreadful contrast it must have been to the realities of their often appalling predicaments.”
Home is an ever-present contrast to that place in which we find ourselves, whenever we travel or make a journey, no matter how long or short, and postcards (now perhaps superseded by texts and emails) are a means by which we remember where it is we come from, by which we close that gap.