At the beginning of it all it was so exciting and intriguing just to gaze and to wonder.
My morning read of The Guardian newspaper website reported numerous sightings of army personnel appearing en masse in various public places across the UK. Sometimes in groups of one or two soldiers, sometimes many more, each occupying public space in their vintage green military uniform.
They did not speak as they gathered, not to each other, nor to curious passers by, but merely arrived silently in places of hectic rush as people headed into work. Apparently there were a thousand of them all told. If approached by intrigued commuters they would hand over a small card bearing a detailed inscription of a fallen soldier who was killed in battle during World War 1.
Today marks the one-hundred year anniversary of the beginning of the battle of the Somme in France, during which eventually more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. But this was not a typically fitting bereavement or commemoration of events, it felt more like an art installation of the unusual or perverse suddenly appearing without fanfare into modern everyday life, and for that reason I found it so much more compelling because of it.
For most of the day in my workplace the intrigue still lingered around me as I went about my typical routine, and I was keen to tell as many people as I thought would be interested of what an unusual and powerful statement I had seen. As a tribute to remembrance this felt more like a Banksy sighting than an event at a cenotaph.
And so I had songs of war on my mind for most of the day. This is just how my mind works most of the time. I can distract myself so easily with this stuff and I just love it when I do. But in truth I don’t have many records that could be considered songs of war, in fact very few at all, and even less that might reflect or represent the first World War.
But there is this one great song I have by a four-piece band called GoodBooks, and that’s no typo there, folks. They really did write their name like that on their records. They represent that frequent recurrence in my record collection of bands that barely extend themselves beyond a couple of singles or maybe an album or two if they’re even that lucky.
GoodBooks came from Kent in the South-East of England, arriving with their first single in 2005 and leaving with their last in 2007. In between they put out a total of six singles and one LP. (They also issued a CD-only remix album of the one LP which for me doesn’t count at all because those things are usually a rubbish idea.)
With two years of total activity and one of those on a major label, they released their sole LP, Control, in 2007, and five songs had come from it as various singles throughout their short time. If my memory serves me right, because the internet yields virtually nothing about their releases, the song I was singing all day long was the fourth single from that LP, and its name is Passchendaele.
Also named for a first World War battle as well as the name of a rural village in Belgium, it’s a simple but emotive tale of lost love and heartbreak fought on the battlefields of Northern Europe by young men who may well have had no choice but to be there. Towards the end of the song a lone trumpet pierces the rising music and never fails to send me off to somewhere else as it plays.
He carried English bayonets in an English way. he smoked German cigarettes on Christmas Day. He never made is past twenty-five, he died at Passchendaele. Fighting for the cause in a war to end all wars…
GoodBooks singer and Harry Potter doppelganger Max Cook refers in part to a scene immortalized in the 2005 French movie Joyeux Noel, about a Christmas truce between the warring nations, when soldiers from France, Germany, and Scotland declared a truce on Christmas Day, playing football together and exchanging cigarettes and stories.
Later in the day as I returned home from work I learned that the event of soldiers appearing throughout the UK was in fact a work by a Turner Prize-winning artist by the name of Jeremy Deller.
With a Twitter hashtag of #We Are Here it employed volunteers from all walks of life; from farmers to flight attendants, shopkeepers to schoolboys, all sworn to secrecy, and rendering the occasion that much more fantastic because of it.
Deller said he didn’t want to take the people to a memorial, but instead took the memorial to the people, who would not know that it was happening as it arrived. Such a simple idea rendered so effectively by secrecy. His idea was to avoid sentimentality. He named the event We’re Here Because We’re Here, a title which marked the one and only time that the soldiers’ voices would be heard today, singing those words along to the familiar tune of Auld Lang Syne, as sung by the wearied soldiers back in the dark trenches of the Somme.