Living near the Tower, I had the privilege of seeing the first, shocking splashes of colour in the poppies installation – the bloody wave over the walls, the crimson stream flowing from a window, the narrow ribbon of red in the moat. But nothing prepared early spectators for what followed. In box after box, they arrived, ceramic flowers and stalks, assembled at random heights by volunteers, many too young to have known a relative involved in the First World War.
Every evening, when the Last Post was sounded and the names of the dead were read at dusk, the installation looked complete. And then came another vivid tide, and another, and another, relentless.
It was the same with the visitors – at the outset mostly tourists, and residents taking a short cut. The recent immense numbers were clearly not expected, in an accidental echo of wartime underestimates, bodging and blundering.
How do you remember 888,246 lives? We cannot take in the numbers, though we have seen enough news bulletins to know about mass deaths. To single out one soldier's story helps us focus, but overlooks the rest. Live footage, fictional re-creations, cannot help us with the scale of loss. But it is easy to visualise each poppy at the Tower as a death, for we have grown up associating the flower with remembrance. We do not need to see a single face or coffin to feel a lump in the throat: we know how to love and grieve.
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red celebrates human craft, imagination, and the will of good people to work together and of others to applaud that act. But this moving artwork has something else in store: hours after its completion, it will be taken apart, each "life" will be put into a little box, disappearing from view, and this, too, will be harrowing to watch.
Those who have bought the poppies are their guardians only. I have two: one will stand in my garden in the East End, memorial to a son who might have been mine. The other is for my grandson. Lest he forget.Reuse content