Saturday, 13 December 2014

Anniversaryitis

In between blogging, I came across another blog - ironically belonging to Charles Mundye, one of the speakers we've booked for next year's AGM - that more or less summarised what I had been thinking. Charles picks up on a phrase used by Patrick McGuinness, "this past business" .  He was referring to the "anniversary culture" with which we seem to be currently beset, and you can read his views on the Dylan Thomas centenary here: https://theconversation.com/remembering-dylan-thomas-our-frenzied-anniversary-culture-26081

Anniversaries are going to be the in thing for the next few years.  Perhaps people will be so glad to see the back of the First World War centenary that they will really get stuck in; alternatively, they may not want anything to do with such commemorations.  What does it actually mean, when you come to think of it?  The First World War is still what it is or was, regardless of how many years have passed since it began.

I think the reason we celebrate – or at least commemorate - centenaries is simply that a nice round number like 100 focuses our minds on the amount of time that has passed since a certain event and helps us to see it in historical perspective.  Members of my local history society have pointed out that next year, 2015, will bring opportunities to mark several significant historical events – the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, for example, and the 200thanniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.  In some cases, these events had little long-term impact.  The Battle of Agincourt, for instance, which took place 600 years ago next October, was a major event in the context of the Hundred Years’ War, but it only served to stave off the inevitable outcome for a few years.  We are interested in it mainly because an army of English and Welsh men defeated the French when the odds were against them; we don’t celebrate the battle of Formigny, an equally decisive victory for the French in the same war.

Centenaries and multi-centenaries are cropping up so often these days that it is easy to miss them.  Did anyone do anything to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of French one-hit-wonder novelist Alain-Fournier in September, for example?  If so, I missed out, which is a pity, as I am a great admirer of Le Grand Meaulnes (I can’t describe it to you, you’d have to read it for yourself).  What about the 200th anniversary of the death of another, rather different, Frenchman, the Marquis de Sade?  I don’t recall hearing anything about it.  Is that also because foreigners' anniversaries are considered to be less deserving of recognition than those with direct relevance for British history?  I think it probably is.

Many of next year’s celebrations and commemorations will be of literary interest – Alun Lewis will be among those not present to see his 100th birthday celebrated, and Anthony Trollope would be 200 years old if he had not died in 1882.  The Trollope Society will of course be hosting the annual conference of the Alliance of Literary Societies in York next year.   The following year, it will be the turn of the Brontë Society to host the conference, in recognition of the bicentenary of the birth of the family's most illustrious member, Charlotte.

Other forthcoming literary centenaries, not surprisingly, have to do with the First World War.  We could note the 100th anniversary of the deaths of the poet Julian Grenfell and his brother Gerald.  Rupert Brooke, Charles Sorley also died in 1915.  At least the lesser poet Roland Leighton, best known as the fiancé of Vera Brittain, will have the centenary of his death noticed, thanks to the new film adaptation of Testament of Youth which is to go on general release in January.

We don’t have to limit ourselves to commemorating death, though.  We could perhaps give a nod to the founding of the Welsh Guards; and our annual conference in September will be primarily concerned with Siegfried Sassoon’s career in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, which he joined in 1915. It was also in May 1915 that Canadian medic John McCrae wrote his timeless poem, “In Flanders Fields”, and I think we can be certain that the museum in Ypres that bears the poem’s name will be doing something to celebrate that event - even though it's run by Belgians.

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