Ask Morgana 006 – continued

great-war-2aIt should also be mentioned that a century ago the tranquility embodied by my chosen photographs was shattered by the start of the first of the 20c’s great armed conflicts. Not that the tranquility beforehand could have been taken for granted. It could be said that it was a cultivated image, a manufactured impression, the propaganda of peacetime, the hope expressed in the poet’s question “… and is there honey still for tea?” No, it was not an era full of parasols and endless picnics. There had been upheavals, revolutions, wars, pogroms, mass migration. In the arts, the urgency of modernism was beginning to make itself felt. But if any event typified the shattering of an impression of stability, it was the Great War. Perhaps the most famous image from that war is the one on the left, which was used several decades ago for the opening and closing credits of a TV documentary: a young man, handsome despite his weary, cynical expression, his eyes fixed challengingly upon the photographer, sits in a dark trench. The trench is empty apart from vague shapes in the shadows, which may or may not be corpses. His outfit, from his puttees to his helmet, seems mud-patched. His posture seems relaxed, but look more closely and you will see a tension, as though at any moment he could spring up. He seems to be saying to the photographer, “If your bleedin’ lens is the worst thing I face today, I’ll be lucky!” I don’t know who he is. I don’t know if he made it through the war. But I hope he did. For me his is an ‘Everyman’, he stands for all of those involved in the Great War – they were not simply victims of the selfish spat between Imperial powers and between greedy arms tycoons, but of the breakdown of complex systems at that time in history. They were an extraordinarily brave generation, even those who broke under the strain and were murdered by firing squad for ‘cowardice’, and – yes – even those who adamantly refused to fight or preached against it were extraordinarily brave in a different way. I honour a generation of the extraordinarily ordinary. I say nothing about the powers and tycoons.

As it happens, the image above is actually a dishonest one. The true image is below. The trench is not dark, not Wilfred Owen’s ‘profound dull tunnel’, and the young man is not on his own, but with a grinning group of his mates. I have known this for many years, and it is something that makes me pause before any image from any era, makes me look for the coded message, makes me ask whether it should be taken at face value. I do not always have an answer, and often I grant the creator of the image honesty of intent (or I would drive myself mad!), nevertheless I believe it is healthy that I do question what I see.


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