Remembering war through words: essay by playwright and novelist, Neil Bartlett


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Remembrance Sunday is always a peculiar day, and often an uncomfortable one. Do you join in with the familiar rituals – the once-a-year poppies, the  ranks of uniforms live from the Albert Hall, the Sunday morning sermons about the “sacrifice” of the “fallen” – or do you give way to your suspicion that the reiteration of all these shibboleths has finally rubbed them clean of any genuine feeling and just avoid the whole thing?  As the recent media tussle over the “Seas of Red” installation at the Tower of London proves – not to mention the thousands of people who are crowding out London’s tube system to try and see it – people have powerfully mixed feelings about what the day now means.

Rather than avoid these turbulent waters, this Sunday’s programme at Southbank Centre plunges in headlong. Using just about every space at its disposal, Southbank Centre offers a whole menu of invitations to get involved in acts of remembrance. In the centre of it all is a performance of Britten’s War Requiem – but around that dark and disquieting centrepiece are arrayed newly commissioned works of poetry and music, a contemporary art exhibition in the poetry library, an exploration of female World War I poets and ex-laureate Sir Andrew Motion giving his personal take on the bitter legacy of Wilfred Owen.

My own contribution takes place on Sunday evening. Pete Ayrton (of Serpent’s Tail, the maverick independent publishing house  who first brought us Lionel Shriver’s We Need to talk About Kevin  and controversial  Nobel prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek) has recently published No Man’s Land, an anthology of First World War prose that for once lives up to the middle term of that billing. Not content with rediscovering some amazing work by English-speaking witnesses to 1914-18 (D. H. Lawrence, Vera Brittain, the now-forgotten but stunning Mary Borden and James Hanley) he’s also recovered writings by authors from over 20 of the countries who sent troops to the conflict. It’s a salutary reminder of what that simple little word “World” really means. How often do you hear – on a British Remembrance Sunday – what war felt like to a family man in an Istanbul suburb, to a grieving father in Galicia, or to a Hindustani conscript stranded in Marseille?

Pete’s challenge to me was to create a one-off evening using this extraordinary material.  I gathered a team of four talented readers, Jude Akuwudike, Julie Legrand, Finbar Lynch, and Laura Rees, got out my editing pencil and set to work to carve out a dramatic 75-minute-long collage of voices from the book. It was a challenge, but an exciting one. The voices in Pete’s anthology are ones you won’t have heard before. They are foreign, shocking, often dissident, sometimes brutal and sometimes even blackly funny instead of piously reverential. They are exactly the kind of voices that I think we need to hear if we’re to give the day back its meaning.

'Neil Bartlett's No Man’s Land' is at Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room on Sunday 9 November, 7.45pm,