A monument for Penrith

Why does Penrith not have a central memorial commemorating the First World War? Indeed why is there so little sculpture at all? The old First World War memorials are almost completely hidden and forgotten. The only really first-rate sculpture is the Giant’s Tomb in St. Andrew’s Square. It is wonderful – raw hogback stones, soaring crosses, hints of pagan serpents, tamed into Christian devils – but it was set up before 950 AD, on the frontier of a now vanished kingdom. A thousand years in the rain has left it illegible.

Now, one entrance to Penrith is marked by Kentucky Fried Chicken and B&Q, and the other by an avenue of sheds and commercial hangers. The castle, our oldest building, which once dominated the town, is now roofless and ruined, marooned by traffic and over-shadowed by the car-park and McDonalds. The Beacon is hidden. In Penrith, our only really recognisable landmark is the clock, which commemorates Philip Musgrave’s death in 1861. The critic, Nikolaus Pevsner, has been very generous to Cumbria: he calls the Bewcastle Cross “the greatest achievement of its date in the whole of Europe”. But he dismisses the Penrith clock-tower as “utterly insignificant”.

Why have we not produced a memorable monument in so long? Why is there so little good sculpture in Britain’s market towns? In part, because we make decisions by committee. We discover that beauty is subjective, and that then paralyses us. We would like to be contemporary without having a very clear idea of what that might mean. We assume figurative sculpture is ‘old-fashioned’. The dismal results are all around us. Sometimes, we do the minimum. Selkirk marked the three hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Flodden with a statue. It is still, two centuries later, the symbol of the town. But Selkirk marked the five hundredth anniversary by only planting a peace-garden at the base of the statue at an astronomical cost. Sometimes we try to be bold – and produce immense ugliness: look at the profusion of giant metal mythical figures down Scottish motorways, which are trying to compete with the Angel of the North. Or we play safe and fall back, as councils have all over the country, in installing over-sized stainless steel balls.

But we have sculptors in Cumbria capable of producing great classical works. David Williams-Ellis from Lazonby, for example, has made beautiful large bronzes, ranging from dancers now in Shanghai, to a rugby player in full motion, down the wing, warding a tackle, now in Llanelli in Wales. We don’t have a sculpture by David in Penrith: he should make our centenary monument for the First World War.

But how should the First World War be represented in a sculpture? Thomas Hardy’s poem “In the time of the breaking of nations” is one tempting possibility. He does not focus on the battlefield: on guns so loud that they destroy ears with a single explosion; on the night turned into day by flares and flames; on fear, blood, loyalty, or young men dying. Instead he writes:

Only a man harrowing clods/In a slow silent walk/With an old horse that stumbles and nods/Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame/From the heaps of couch-grass;/Yet this will go onward the same/Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight/Come whispering by:/War’s annals will cloud into night/Ere their story die.

We are close enough to see that the horse is half-asleep, and to hear the whisper. But the man, the old horse, the girl, and the boy in the poem have neither features nor names. There are hidden hints of seasons: ‘harrowing’ happens after the ploughing, and before the ground is sown with a new crop, so that scene may be in late autumn. ‘Couch grass’ is best torn up by its roots, and burned, in the spring. But he does not reveal the century or the country.

It is a beautiful poem and a tempting model. But I do not think Penrith in 2013 should evoke Hardy’s rural eternity. An image which for Hardy was difficult, would be for us too easy. Hardy was struggling in 1916 to step out of time, and place, and produce this image of peace, when politicians, and writers-turned-propagandists were roaring about patriotism, and honour, to justify and cover the failures of war. In 2013, by contrast, our whole culture is comfortable with the idea that the First World War was senseless, the soldiers were victims, and that there was a deep contribution from civilians and women on the home front. We find it easy to remember the horse and the lovers at home. We find it more difficult to imagine those whose lived or died in the trenches. Our challenge is to rediscover them as soldiers, as actors in movement, not passive puppets. Penrith needs a monument which is intensely local and personal – which represents real men born in Penrith with individual faces– and which has the courage to present them not as victims, but as they might have wanted to be seen. The Musgrave monument was paid for by a single wealthy family. I wonder if we could show a new energy in a new age, by contributing towards a monument for Penrith together?

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