Today (October 29) in London History – it’s the unseen that makes us see

The Westminster School Great War memorial was unveiled on October 29, 1921. It has an important story to tell. This Today in London History podcast tells it.


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Story time. History time.

It’s often the case in London that it’s the unseen that makes us see.

Here’s a very good example. Directly before the great west front of Westminster Abbey is the Crimea and Indian Mutiny memorial. It remembers former pupils of Westminster School – 19 of them in total – who died in the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny. 

I guide it. It’s agreeable to help people to see it properly, make sure they see St George up top, bringing his sword Ascalon down on the dragon of tyranny. And beneath him, just above the Corinthian capital, enthroned, four monarchs: Edward the Confessor facing Westminster Abbey. At his back, Henry III. Elizabeth I – she’s facing the archway that leads into Dean’s Yard and thus the school. And behind her, facing in the opposite direction, Queen Victoria.  One unsettling question that immediately is brought to mind is, who gets memorialised? Who doesn’t? Who gets the biggest, most expensive, most impressive tombstone in the churchyard and who gets a humble, forgotten slab off in the direction of the end of the churchyard where they pile the rubbish? Which lives are deemed to be more valuable, more important than other lives?

That question is the fairly obvious promontory it’s worth briefly pausing on and taking survey, so to speak.

But you really see when you see the unseen. 

The unseen is the Westminster School War Memorial to its fallen – that cant word, they didn’t “fall”, they were shot dead or blown up – former pupils who were killed in the Great War. World War I. It’s unseen – by most of us at any rate – because it’s in the school. Off-limits to us in other words. The memorial is in the big schoolroom known as “School”. Hundreds of years ago that room was the dormitory of the monks. The memorial takes the form of an oak screen across the south end of the big school room. On it are carved, on four long panels, the names of the Westminsters who were killed in the Great War.

The memorial was unveiled on this day, October 29th, 1921. It was unveiled by the Duke of Connaught, Queen Victoria’s grandson. The proceedings began with Duke inspecting a Guard of Honour drawn up in Little Deans Yard, the main schoolyard of Westminster School. Upon entering School – that big schoolroom – the ceremony opened with the singing of the hymn O Valiant Hearts.

In his remarks, the Headmaster said the gathering had assembled in no spirit of sadness but rather in a spirit of reverent and grateful pride. They were there, he said, to dedicate before the eyes of their successors, and before the eyes of innumerable generations of boyhood yet unborn, a visible token, impressive and beautiful, of the happy and affectionate remembrance in which those names were held, and ever would be held in their old school. From that school, 220 ‘valiant hearts have to their glory come.’

All the stinking pieties. I would have found it unbearable. How could there be no spirit of sadness? I would have wanted to ask, “what is wrong with you, man?” And as for “to their glory gone” – no, that’s not where they’ve gone. They’re compost, food for worms.  

The Headmaster went on – more pieties, horrible stuff if you actually strip it of its glittering wrappings – he said he doubted not that when the boys of that school daily passed through those doors in the sight of that memorial, among the lessons which its voiceless eloquence would give to them would surely be that just as they would never shrink, with those noble examples before them, from drawing the sword if needed in defence of God, the King, their liberties, or their motherland.

Yes, that’s right. Prep up future generations of schoolboys to be cannon fodder when the times.

Kipling’s line again comes to mind, slightly revised, ‘if any ask why we died, tell them because our Headmasters lied.”

The ultimate expression of which is Wilfred Owen’s great World War I poem, Dulce et Decorum Est. If you don’t know it, do not let October 29th, 2022 pass away without making its acquaintance. It’s one of the greatest poems in the English language. It’ll enrich your mental landscape for the rest of your life.

And all of this said, we haven’t got to the kicker. The numbers. That’s the unseen suddenly seen. There are 19 names on the Crimea War and Indian Mutiny Memorial. There are 220 names on that memorial in “School.” And it should be 226. They left out six. 

Two mid-19th century conflicts, 19 names. One Great War – 226 names. From one school. 

And you just go on from there. Though it takes its toll. I stumble down that path I always feel like that screaming man on the bridge in Munch’s great painting, The Scream.

Where does that path take us? Some place almost inconceivable. 888,000 British and Empire soldiers were killed in World War I. Nine million people in total killed in that war. Fifty million people in total killed in World War II. That monster, Joseph Stalin, famously said, “the death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”

T.S. Eliot said, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Ergo the pieties, the lies we tell ourselves. But maybe we should – as horrifying as it is – lift that blindfold of statistics. The great English actor Paul Eddington said he would like his epitaph to be, “he did very little harm.” It seems to me that if we go along with pieties like “220 – or 50 million – ‘valiant hearts have to their glory come’ we’ve done some harm we shouldn’t have done. 

Far better to see the thing for what it is.

My recommendation would be a strong dose of George Orwell, the white-hot core of his essay, A Hanging.

Here it is.

“It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working –bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.”

Now apply that to 59 million people and see how you feel about what Wilfred Owen calls “the old lie.”

And for a Today in London recommendation, how about going to the National Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank. And then maybe afterwards have a coffee out on the Festival Hall’s Riverside Terrace. Look across the river at the West End, watch the Thames – liquid history – flow by. Maybe re-read – and reflect on – Owen’s great poem. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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