Friday, 19 July 2019

Lest we forget

One hundred years ago today, July 19th 1919, 15000 British and Empire troops paraded past a temporary, wood and plaster monument in Whitehall as part of a parade marking the official end of World War One.

But Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect, had been given only weeks to complete the project, the first sketches of which he'd drawn on the back of a napkin. And just days after the parade the entire structure was due to be dismantled.

Then something remarkable happened. Wreaths and floral tributes at the foot of The Cenotaph grew and grew. It became clear that Lutyens' catafalque had touched a nerve among a nation in mourning. So, although there had been no intention to make The Cenotaph a permanent monument, pressure began to build. There were questions in Parliament, leaders in The Times and letters to the 'papers. Clearly something had to be done.

Even before the war ended work was being done on how it would be remembered. Sir Edwin Lutyens had been to France with the newly-founded Imperial War Graves Commission as early  as 1917. There, on the old battlefields, he found 'wild flowers that are as friendly to an unexploded shell as they are to the leg of a garden seat in Surrey.' He wrote to his wife of 'the ribbon of isolated graves like a milky way across miles of country where men are tucked in where they fell. Ribbons of little crosses each touching each other across a cemetery, set in a wilderness of annuals and where one sort of flower is grown the effect if charming, easy and oh so pathetic. One things for a moment that no other monument is needed.' But it was. And Lutyens knew it. Once the war was over, the nation knew that Lutyens was the man to provide it.

The first cenotaph designed by him was not, in fact, the hastily erected monument in Whitehall. On 22 January 1919 Lutyens had been invited to Southampton to view potential sites for the city's war memorial. Though the design of this civic monument were to change, the end result is strikingly similar to the Whitehall cenotaph, so much so it might almost be regarded as a prototype. 

Having already got the basic design principle sorted, it was no surprise that Lutyens chose a similar structure for the hastily built temporary cenotaph in Whitehall. Although plans for a Peace or 'Victory' parade had been in hand for some time, they were on hold both until the formal peace treaty (The Treaty of Versailles) was signed and until the French (who were to be guests at the British ceremony) had decided what they were going to do to mark the final, formal end of war.

What was a surprise was how much the monument seemed to mean to so many people. It soon became obvious that the temporary monument intended only as a symbolic structure for the parade down Whitehall was too important to lose. Questions were asked in Parliament; on 26 July an editorial in The Times called for a permanent replacement; many letters of support appeared in the press. On 30 July the Cabinet met and agreed that a permanent monument should be erected. The only remaining question was... where?  

There was understandable disquiet about placing the Cenotaph in the middle of a busy London thoroughfare. The same Times leader demanding a permanent structure suggested Horse Guards Parade as a more fitting location. The London Traffic Advisory Committee suggested Parliament Square. But Lutyens was adamant. The site in Whitehall had been 'qualified by the salutes of Foch and the allied armies and by our men and their great leaders. No other site would give this pertinence.'

Whitehall it was. 

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

In the swim...

I enjoyed my first sea swim of the season over half-term. (That makes it sound as though it's something I do regularly which - although true once - is not quite accurate now.) But we were in Weymouth on Bank Holiday Monday and the sea looked loverly...

During  my first year at university my parents moved to a small seaside town on the Yorkshire coast. That summer I spent most of my time in the garden reading my course books and sunbathing. Then, at about three o’clock, I’d wander down to the sea for a swim. It became a thing. Without really intending to I went swimming every day that summer, whatever the weather—including one memorable afternoon during a thunderstorm. It was like a longer version of the summer holidays we used to spend in Scarborough, swimming either in the sea or in the old sea-water South Bay Lido, now sadly no more.

Then October came and term began and I was once more reduced to the calm, chlorinated sterility of the indoor pool near the university. I started out with the intention of going daily, but it soon became every other day and then trickled to weekly before fizzling out completely. The swimming wasn’t the problem. It was the pool. There was nothing to match the salt-spray and the waves and the open air. True, the sea was cold, even in the middle of summer. But the cold seemed good. Invigorating. Inspiring. I’d return to my books with an increased resolve and get far more done in a couple of late-afternoon hours than I’d probably achieved all day until then. I really should have gone swimming every morning.

My love of outdoor swimming never left me but burned lower as the years went on. Taking the children swimming usually involves the local indoor pool (it's warmer) though there's a really excellent Lido not too far from here, at Woodhall Spa. And it's featured in this excellent (just-published, lavishly illustrated) 'practical guide to the outdoor pools of UK':

Two books have really inspired my newly-restored determination to swim outdoors. And this - The Lido Guide - is one of them. It's full of all the kinds of practical information you need to plan your swim (postcodes, parking, payment information and so on) but also written in a way (and accompanied by photographs) that makes you want to just strip off and dive in. It's wonderful. Inspiring. And  highly recommended.

And the second book? That's a secret as it isn't written yet. It's one I'm working on, one about the chronic pain I suffer from and one in which I investigate the alternatives to analgesics. And yes, you've guessed it, one of them is cold water swimming.

Watch this space!

Saturday, 25 May 2019


Yes, they’re back. Which means (as Ted Hughes one wrote) the globe’s still working.

You’ll have to take it from me that this is a genuine picture of one, spied today. I’ve seen swallows, too: they’re suddenly all there, filling the summer skies when just a day or two ago, here in Lincolnshire, there were none to be seen.

As you get older I think you get more excited by the nature’s annual rounds... at least, I do. As A.E.Housman wrote: “take from seventy springs a score/It only leave me fifty more.” In my case, take from seventy springs two score and ten and that really doesn’t leave very long.

So, forgive me for being just a little bit excited...

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Slow moment...

It was on this day in 1950 that the world premiere of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs was given at the Royal Albert Hall. They really were his last: the composer died in 1949 a year before the first performance.

Kisrten Flagstad was the soloist on that occasion, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler.

This performance os September - the final song to be written although not the final one to be sung in  a complete performance - is by Lucia Poppyseeds,, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas...

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