Thank you to Peter Hitchens for raising the issue of the commemoration of our war dead (“Remember them more honestly”): he’s not the only one to wonder what exactly is going on in these ceremonies. Obviously, the real heart of them is the Great War, but there is now no one alive who endured that, and there remain only a handful who can remember the Second War. It’s odd how, after appearing to slip from our national calendar at one point, the whole thing is now back as a kind of punctuation mark of the year, like Halloween or Christmas. I’ve even seen jolly poppy wreaths hanging on the doors of houses. There is a pressure on those in public life to wear poppies, and it seems compulsory for every TV presenter, guest on a chat show, or even competitor in Strictly Come Dancing.
It may be a question of national identity, partly, and our current political condition may carry with it some sign that we do not really know who we are, but at least we do know who we were, or we think we do. So our culture at present does seem to enjoy the noble myth, and we have the strange sight of re-enactments at certain times throughout the country, in which people who ought to know better dress up in versions of military uniforms and strike poses to re-create some imagined version of the period. You have to wonder what is going on here, and in the way we seem, as a culture, unable to let go of that episode in our past: some would say that it even informs, or infects, the current state of how we see our European neighbours.
The children of the Second World War generation in Britain have no direct experience of conflict, but we can and did observe our parents and listen to them and to their friends. It was an awesome adult mystery. My father, who served in the RAF, would have nothing to do with the whole poppy business nor would he attend any service of remembrance, and he would never say why. However, woe betide us if we played noisily at 11am on 11 November, a day on which he would meet his old RAF chums for a lunchtime pint, his only concession to the day. Memory takes many forms.
Stokesley, North Yorkshire
Within Barnabas Calder’s piece in your inaugural issue entitled “The Beauty of Brutalism” (Features, November) there are contained so many outrageously condescending and perfectly ludicrous statements, it is hard to know quite where to begin. Apparently, if I hate the grey concrete of the University of Durham’s 1960s student building (as I do) Calder regrets that he “cannot help me”. Why would he assume that my eye, taste and senses should require any assistance from him? Because, of course, they differ from his own, and therefore I am sadly blind. He says that “it takes an expert eye to spot its underlying beauty”. That phrase — underlying beauty — is traditionally applied only to singularly ugly things.
Historically, architects such as Wren and Hawksmoor, whom Calder sees fit to invoke, were rather good at creating wholly functional buildings possessed of an external beauty which may be immediately appreciated by all, regardless of their expert qualifications. When Bath was built, people were enraptured and longed to live and work in those buildings — quite as they are and do to this day.
Calder further suggests of that perfectly hideous, ill-conceived and actually rather alarming Durham monstrosity that we “learn to love it”. Why on earth would one squander a nanosecond on attempting any such thing? The sooner the wrecking ball levels it, the better. I would hope that the resultant “beautiful concrete” hardcore be utilised in the foundations for something decent and worthy of the city, but given the attitude and posturing of contemporary architects, this of course is quite impossible. Any new incarnation will not be concrete, it will be glass and steel: the current ubiquitous materials for producing something vile and insulting to its setting. Non-experts will for decades be encouraged to perceive its underlying beauty: no doubt we shall be offered assistance.
I was struck by Joshua Rozenberg’s description of Lord Pannick as the “Supreme Maestro” of the courts (Law, November). Pannick argues compellingly and keeps the judges onside with his mastery of legal precedent. What a contrast that is to the public discourse, where what matters is the tribe you belong to rather than the strength of your argument. As long as you have an “us v. them” narrative, your pitch is good to go. What would happen if Lord Pannick switched careers and hit the current general election campaign trial? Would the voters trust this Supreme Maestro and be bothered to listen to him?
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