Poppies in London Tower: a story

15th November 2014

I am an unlikely candidate to have a meaningful relationship with the Tower of London, but the truth is, I do.

Denied. I was not previously incarnated as Anne Boleyn or as Oliver Cromwell, each of whom mislaid a head somewhere along its ramparts.

No. I am not the channeled soul of heroic Roger Casement – the Irish humanitarian incarcerated in the Tower, before his unjust hanging in Pentonville, in 1916.

It is music that brought me close to the Tower of London, and that relationship began at the age of 13. I was singing in the chorus-line of The Yeoman of the Guard, in a school production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most operatic operetta.

With teenage hunger, I swallowed the show whole – words, music and at least some of its meaning. There is a special kind of living only a 13 year old knows: hours spent in deep fascination, tenderly riffing on dreams of microscopic focus. In that liminal period, on the edge of puberty, one lives life with mayfly-intensity. Some inner-wisdom whispers that the world will never be so simple, never so pure, again.

Into this vulnerable, layered moment stepped Dame Caruthers, the matronly gatekeeper of The Tower of London. In strong contralto tones, she articulated all that I had come to believe about the Tower of London.

‘And the wicked flames may hiss
Round the heroes who have fought
For conscience and for home
In all its beauty,
But the grim old fortalice
Takes little heed of aught
That comes not in the measure
Of its duty’

Some 35 years later, I am forced to re-think the meaning of her words. Because that supposed hard, cold Tower of London has been reborn in the second half of 2014, through the intervention of ceramic poppies.

888,246 poppies.

Around her beautiful moat are planted legions upon legions of craning, pottery flowers, each representing a British life lost in The Great War.

The effect, in the round, is deeply emotional – and anything but grim.

‘It’s both epic and highly personal’, says the curator of the installation, which is poetically named ‘Blood swept lands and fields of red’. The title is a quote from an unknown war-poet. One can feel the grit in his trench-smeared hands as he wrote those anonymous words.

The epically intimate display of red, inanimate poppies has had a powerful effect on the British people during this year of 1914 remembrance.

I am laid out here, on my sofa, pondering the full meaning of the success of The Tower of London’s great work of art.

It is as if Death itself, with the passage of time, becomes profoundly beautiful.

Perhaps great storytelling thrives in such delicate, liminal spaces. Spaces which encourage our idealised, teenage fantasies, where the world is spun in lithe perfection, though ripe to the point of rotting.
© Brian McIntyre. 2014

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