New Year is not generally a festival to set my pulse racing. I’ve never been one for big new year’s eve parties. I’m not a grumpy misanthrope (at least I don’t think I am), but I don’t always feel particularly jolly at new year. That’s not to say it makes me sad or miserable, but rather that it’s simply a reflective time, with a mixture of emotions, and something which I prefer to share with a few close friends rather than a large group of strangers in a throbbing night club. Or maybe I’m just trying to dignify getting old with a philosophical explanation…
Anyway, 2013-14 was pretty much my perfect new year’s eve. We went for a splendid supper at the home of our friends Jimmy and Graham. Graham is a superb chef, and we feasted on borscht and a sublime beef wellington. Jimmy is passionately interested in the First World War, like me (or rather more than me!); and their beautiful home is decorated from tip to toe in Edwardian furniture, fittings and pictures. So we saw in 2014 under the watchful eye of George V, Wilfred Owen and TE Lawrence.
All of which seemed strangely appropriate, as we enter the anniversary year of the outbreak of WW1, and I embark on a centenary photography project which is without a doubt the most ambitious I have yet undertaken. It has been, and continues to be, a steep learning curve for me, as I try to understand a period of history about which I knew little when I started this work; and as I try to do justice to the complexity of the subject matter, and the memory of those who fought in the conflict.
Amongst the many insights which I have started to glean, and one that particularly struck me at this turn of the year, was the utterly changed world which 1914-18 created. No one at this point a hundred years ago could have conceived of the scale of change which would begin 8 months later in the searingly hot summer of 1914. On the global scale, long-lived empires fell away and national boundaries were redrawn. There were huge social changes (in relation to gender and class amongst others). And at the individual level the millions of lives lost in turn affected tens of millions more who had to live without their loved ones, alongside those soldiers who survived and bore the physical and emotional scars of the conflict for years or decades afterwards.
In the 1930s, a reflective Winston Churchill wrote: “Scarcely anything material or established which I was brought up to believe was permanent or vital has lasted. Everything I was sure or taught to be sure was impossible, has happened.”
We can none of us take for granted the nature of the world that we live in – and it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on that from time-to-time, as well as on how fortunate we are if in our lifetimes we are spared the sort of cataclysmic changes which began just over 100 years ago.