This article was originally published on my WordPress blog – February 2014.
A different sort of 1914 anniversary: a plaque in Southampton marking the centenary of the death of the composer Charles Dibdin
Anniversaries are not easy to escape, at least if you’re trying to interpret history. The current plethora of books, TV programmes, online articles and exhibitions about the First World War shows this very clearly. I should say that I’m as guilty of marking anniversaries as anyone else. When I went to Littlehampton Museum in 1992, we were in the middle of the ‘50th anniversary of World War 2’ period. Over the next few years we put on three exhibitions that touched on the war, one about local aviation history, one about D-Day (Littlehampton played its part in that, so the anniversary couldn’t be missed) and one that marked the end of the war. However, by that stage ‘war-weariness’ had set in, so the third show was about the town in the 25 years from 1945.
The point here is that if you work in museums or the media, it is actually very difficult to ignore significant anniversaries. Even further back in my museum career, I worked on the 1988 Spanish Armada exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. It was an extraordinary experience that took up more than two years of my life, but of course the NMM was not the only one to commemorate the Armada campaign in that year. I counted at least 25 different Armada books published in 1988, and then lost track. There were also other Armada-related exhibitions on the Armada around the country, as was only right: the most ingenious-sounding one was a geological show called ‘The Ammonite Armada’.
Without claiming to have studied the history of anniversaries of this kind, it seems to me that, in Britain at least, the habit of commemorating things at 50 and 100-year intervals may have its roots in the period of the Armada and Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The commemoration of both these ‘Popish’ assaults became a mainstay of the 17th-century Protestant calendar in England. As the historian David Cressy reminds us, the anniversaries of these events were marked each year with ‘bonfires and bells’, a mixture of religious observance, public bonfires and in some cases drunken rowdiness (1). The remembrance of the Armada eventually faded from the public calendar, but the story of old Guy Fawkes soldiered on and eventually gave rise to Bonfire Night. Even more recently, the Guy Fawkes’ mask used in the film V for Vendetta (2006) has become an anarchist symbol. It’s odd where the commemoration of anniversaries can lead.
So, here we are in 2014. The year 1914 was one of those times when the world really did start to change irrevocably, and I can’t help feeling that there is something slightly ominous about its centenary year. Of course, this is nonsense, because the world doesn’t work like that. Still, on the whole it’s better to live in a year that gets forgotten.
Blog and photo © Ian Friel 2014
(1) David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England, new edition, The History Press 2004.