As part of our on-going student internship with Northumbria University, participants Gavin, Katie and Hannah were tasked with exploring the grounds of The Bowes Museum – and to give voice to the war memorials that lie within the gardens.
// KATIE ARNOLD
The cold November wind whipped against my pale stone. I didn’t feel the cold, I just knew from those who came to visit me that it was. They said so. It was all they ever seemed to say to each other, ‘It’s a cold one today, isn’t John?’ Their coats and scarfs wrapped tightly around their bodies and yet they still seemed to hug themselves as a shield against the weather. Occasionally I would see people in the summer months, scantily dressed these days, unlike when I was first born.
When I first came into this world people came to visit me every day, and more than just one or two stragglers. Some would cry sad tears, some almost proud tears and some would just read the names carved into my body solemnly. I watched as the days passed, seasons changed and the years brought in new generations who did not know how to react around me. I’m not sure when it happened. Or even when I noticed it. At some point though, I realised that those who did visit, far and in between, had no reaction at all. They were more fascinated by the building I was erected in front of. Of how many names were still prominently carved into my body. Of going to get a coffee and cake in the café. Few wept when they came to visit anymore.
Every November though, I was the centre of attention once again. A glorious poppy wreath set at my base. Some said kind words, some whispered prays and almost everyone watched me solemnly, with respect. This year was no different. I was more distinguished now though. I knew what had happened. Over one hundred years and I finally understood. The names carved into my body were the names of men, some young and some old, who had died. Humankind had killed one another in a war. All that was left of some of these men were the names I held up. Some families never had a body to bury. I was a sort of grave for them to grieve at.
I was always made to look nice for those families in the month of November when they all gathered. That was when the war had ended. It amazed me that even still after all these years they still had a celebration. It must have been a horrible war. How many of me were there. The names I held could not be the only dead men. Not according to those who came to visit me. Some talked about a place called France, of Belgium and England. I wasn’t sure where I was, but I knew that I could not be alone.
// HANNAH SCARR
I remember you, sitting in a bog.
I remember you, crying into the night.
I remember you, ready to fight.
I remember you, awake at first light.
I remember you, holding back your tears.
I remember you, choking on dust.
I remember you, your fears of the dark.
I remember you, speaking to God with distrust.
I remember you, holding your wedding ring.
I remember you, as shell shocked voices started to sing.
I remember you, shakenly holding your gun.
I remember you, them shouting for you to run.
I remember you, sitting in the trench.
I remember you, sitting with your friend.
I remember you, promises you made.
I remember you, as watch his body in the ground to be laid.
I remember you, holding your wife.
I remember you, thanking God for your life.
I remember you, proud until the end.
I remember you, God blessings we send.
We remember you, as heroes in the field.
We remember you, as men who fought for your country come rain or shine.
We remember you, as the men who left behind a legacy like no other.
We remember you, as men who fought and died side by side together.
We Thank You, for fighting for the next generation.
We Thank You, for saving the freedom of our nation.
We Thank You, for being willing to give so much.
We Thank You, for giving us the life we now live.
// GAVIN RENNISON
The snowdrops are here and the daffodils are trying to flower, but the trees are still bare. I have seen this a hundred times, and I will see it many, many more times. Today a man approaches me, with a quizzical expression on his face, his hands in his pockets to guard against the spring chill. Like everyone who comes to see me, he is trying to think about me, but he is preoccupied with something else. In this case he is thinking about a story he wrote about a girl he loved and perhaps will always love, and he is frustrated because he believes the words he has written do not do the thing justice. He worries he will struggle to find the words about me, too, when the time comes. What am I to him, after all? Something important certainly: a reminder of something very far off through the veins of history. He is tired and thinking about coffee when he begins to read the names etched onto me. He doesn’t recognise any of the individuals. How could he? They were all killed nearly a century before he breathed his first breath. But some of the surnames strike him. They are names he knows rarely occur outside of this part of the world: the part of the world where he grew up, that will always be home. There’s the surname of the boy from primary school who was sick in the big hall during PE. There’s the surname of the girl in the year below who was related to the teacher, and wore it like armour. His best friend who stopped being his best friend when a girl got involved, and a fight broke out on the playground. The boy who he didn’t get along with, but who added him on Facebook anyway. The bully who always said he wanted to fight him, but never did. The blonde from the next street. Were these their relatives? He wonders, and he imagines roots running down from my foundation, dispersing all over this countryside, and something perilously close to resembling a connection to me.