History, like politics, is personal. It is people who make history, just as they make politics even when they don’t realize it.
I grew up aware from an early age that my grandfather had died in the Great War. To begin with that information lacked any real meaning as I never met him, nor had my father, there were no pictures or other mementoes in the house and no-one ever talked about him. It was decades later that he turned into an individual and someone I could genuinely ‘re-member’.
The organisation 14-18 NOW has been responsible for commissioning a number of striking interventions to commemorate the Great War. So far I have enjoyed Fierce Light, by a group of poets and Still by Simon Armitage. But the most moving of all has been ‘We’re here because we’re here’, to commemorate the centenary of the first day of the Somme campaign on 1 July 1916.
Hundreds of actors dressed in First World War uniforms dispersed around the UK mingling with shoppers, commuters and sightseers as they went about their daily business. They made no attempt to do anything except sit or stand around, just being there. Forbidden to engage in conversation, when approached they handed out cards bearing the name and details of a soldier killed on 1 July 1916. What a brilliant way to personalise the incomprehensible numbers who died that day – 19240 British alone.
There was something about the title (a satirical song from the First World War trenches that in an odd way both politicised and de-politicised the event, depending on how you read it) as well as the content, the ghostly and haunting reminders that made me think ‘Jeremy Deller’ even before I knew it was one of his ideas. Pure genius to haunt the stations, streets, villages and parks across the nation, just as my grandfather and his comrades came to haunt me and so many of those of us who are chilled by this very personal past. And at a time when xenophobia and false patriotism once again stalk our streets, we need these ghostly reminders.