Friday 7 March 2008
Joan Bakewell: Let's see these soldiers' faces on our stamps
Sometimes an accidental convergence of events delivers an unexpected opportunity and it seems like just the right moment to make a move. Such a moment is now. It concerns art, the military and the Royal Mail. Who would have picked such an incongruous bunch out of the hat? But so it has happened.
In 2003 the Imperial War Museum commissioned Steve McQueen as an official war artist. Steve, who won the Turner Prize in 1999 with his film tribute to Buster Keaton, went to Iraq and was embedded with the troops for 10 days. "They were great guys," he tells me, "and I wanted to open people's eyes to what was happening. Mostly we get all we know about Iraq from radio and television. I wanted to make the situation visible in a different way... a way that would enter the psyche in unguarded moments."
He thought of stamps. He would create a sculpture – in fact a cabinet of display panels – each one holding a sheet of stamps bearing the face of a soldier killed in the Iraq war. He came home to work on the idea. The Ministry of Defence wasn't too keen. There is always tension when unconventional artists are sent to war zones. The MoD asked why he didn't do landscapes. More problematically, they wouldn't provide contacts for the next of kin of the war dead.
It was Alex Poots, then shaping up the first Manchester Festival, who put Steve in touch with some 150 families. When approached, the bereaved were far from shocked and outraged. Many were happy to provide family snaps that went into McQueen's work. The finished piece first went on display in Manchester Central Library. "Some 300 people turned up, bereaved families and their kids, meeting for the first time. They got to know each other. There were tears. It was wonderful." The display, called "Queen and Country", has been on display at the Imperial War Museum in London, since last November.
And the stamps? There is a move to take things further. Steve McQueen is urging the Royal Mail to issue them as actual postage stamps. But the Royal Mail is hesitating. The Arts Fund – the country's major arts charity – is now throwing its considerable influence behind McQueen's suggestion and asking the public to do the same, by signing a petition on their website. Their survey shows more than two thirds of the public do not think enough is done to recognise the sacrifice made by British troops killed in Iraq. Now's the chance.
This is a tricky matter. Would such a move be seen as aggressively militaristic, supporting the war and British presence in Iraq, an issue that divides the country? The role of the war artist is always ambiguous. When John Keane covered the first Iraq war he famously painted a shopping trolley and a Mickey Mouse in a scene of desert desolation. He insists it was what he found there, but it was widely seen as an indictment of American policy. McQueen insists his stamps are neither pro-war nor anti-war. "To be on stamps you have to be either royal or dead. These boys are dead in the service of queen and country".
Two things make the timing appropriate. First, we are within three weeks of the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. A total of 175 British servicemen and women have been killed there, and there can be nothing but utter sorrow that this has happened. But politics and war sit uneasily adjacent in our minds. I recall taking my place in the February 2003 march against the war behind a flotilla of yellow banners proclaiming the Liberal Democrats' official stand against the impending invasion. Yet onceBritish troops crossed the border into Iraq, Charles Kennedy immediately tempered his criticism because, with our soldiers now in the field, the country must be united in their support. To be critical of the war was to be unpatriotic.
Secondly we have just been subjected to a deluge of coverage of Prince Harry's 10 weeks out in Iraq from which he returned safe and well. The military has seized the moment for a tremendous public relations push, making reassuring pictures and interviews available in abundance and seeing all stories of possible misdemeanours among serving men forgotten in the royal surge. Harry himself had the honesty to say he was not the hero of the story, but the wounded men who flew with him in the aircraft home. But Harry's should not be the only face.
Yes, let us have the postage stamps. Let the work of a Turner Prize winner who has seen the war appear on our letters and cards. Let them seep into our consciousness and our consciences. "We will remember them..." it says on many a military memorial. But so often we don't.
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