Monday, December 14, 2015

SHETLAND REMEMBRANCE – PLACE AND PAST







If one wants to get a sense of, to get a feel for 'remembrance,' that quality referred to in architectural theory as suits the moods, ideas and fashions of our era, c.f. Body, Memory and Architecture by Kent C. Bloomer and Charles W. Moore, Yale University Press, 1978, and Memory Without Monuments: Vernacular Architecture by Stanford Anderson, TDSR Volume XI, Number 1, 1999, then one should read the remarkable book that the Scottish history group identifies as 'rare.' It may be 'rare' physically in the sense of being 'scarce,' and valued because of this, but the book is uniquely special in defining the impact and experience of war for all to see, understand and feel on an intimate, a personal basis. The question is: if this is remembrance, how might it inform architecture?





In the traditional context, remembrance is more anchored, more precisely defined, and more critical of our era because of this certain sense of identity. Remembrance is the kernel, the centre of concepts; the remembering of origins: the story of being. Remembrance is seen as the core essence of art that was never merely self-expression, the work of an inspired genius, or just different, quirky things 'of interest.' All art held remembrance at its nucleus; it was what art did. Beauty had rules and distinct ambitions; it was never merely a random or ad hoc aesthetic possibility or personal whim.






The advertisement in The Shetland Times gave the place, date and time of the house clearance. In true Shetland style there was no indication of any precise location other than a crossroad near a ferry terminal. On arrival, we parked and started to walk, looking for clues. Soon others were also seen walking around in the vicinity trying to guess which house it might be. The only definite detail was the date and the time, but the time had already elapsed. There was nothing that gave even the slightest hint of the location. All was quiet. Eventually the place was revealed, identified by a neighbour answering a knock on the door. It was the first house passed. One says 'true Shetland style' because homes in Shetland are like this – bland, looking almost derelict, anonymous outside, but rich and vital inside - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/shetland-vernacular-buildings.html  This place was no exception.






After looking through the living/dining room and detouring around the kitchen and bathroom into the bed room, the loop was completed. It was a small house. The ceilings must have been about 2100 high. It was cosy. A small shelving unit looked interesting, but one soon realised that it was too wide for the door we wanted it to go through. Back in the living/dining room lying on the sideboard under a collection of sundry items - picture frames, place mats and magazines - a very tatty book was noticed. Items like this always need to be investigated just to see what the 'mess' is. Catch 22 said that some folk know how to manage a mess, viz. artists. The blue cloth cover was splotchy, shabby and baggy. The spine was tattered and torn in the most extreme form of this cloth-covered cliché. The title was illegible. The pages were a frill of loose leaves, curled, misaligned, torn and worn. The book looked like a loss, less. On carefully lifting the layered clutter free from its encumbrances, the full sorry mess was revealed. It was a hopeless case ready to be dumped, discarded, of no use at all. What could this shambles of an assemblage be but trash? Who would ever be interested in purchasing this disordered collection? The book, well, the shuffled clutter of covers and leaves, was opened cautiously. One did not want to be embarrassed by dropping a confetti of pages everywhere across the floor. The sundry sheets were separated slowly to reveal a familiar format of images known from childhood – portrait photographs of uniformed Shetlanders lost at war, WW1 - 4 per page set out formally in a roll of honour; 140 pages of images – a total of 560 men. This must have been a large percentage of the population of men in the Shetland Islands.









Father had been sent a copy of this publication - Shetland's Roll of Honour and Roll of Service produced by T. & J. MANSON, Lerwick, in 1920 - in Australia, as if all living Shetland folk had to share in the lament. In the old childhood home, the roll had lain in its special place on the bottom shelf of the dining room sideboard with the eight-inch-thick family bible that had a heavily sculpted cover embossed with gold. Occasionally, as children, either book would be taken out and perused with a puzzling expectation that was never requieted. The Bible had interesting forewords and spaces for family records etc. along with the usual Victorian interpretations of the instructive biblical stories illustrated in the mystical, 'Holman Hunt' style. The roll had photos of men and other lists for recognition and remembrance. It meant little to the young child, appearing boring and very old fashioned, useless, a little like the memorials seen in churches and those returned soldier monuments seen in every Australian town that, with time, had all seemed to have lost any significant meaning to become merely an artifact. The pages represented an era of loss and suffering being recorded with the unusual, excessive emotional Victorian display of facts. It was a good match for the Bible filled with visual parables and allegories to inform and remind, but the roll kept its real meaning for those who knew. To the outsider, the images meant nothing, were nothing but a catalogue, a list: a relic of another, unknown era.



Time passed; the child became an adult. The book moved with the occupants. Father died. The cottage on Unst, the childhood icon of that other place - granny's home - was in danger of falling into ruin. It was purchased. The idea had always been a romantic ideal: naive? - such are childhood visions. The little home was done up in spite of all impossibilities. Slowly the adult got to know the locals from father's birthplace, Unst, and they him. This was the cottage that father was born in. Places were learned; genealogies discovered; relatives known; relationships disclosed; histories revealed. Life's little things became clearer. The whole understanding of place came to be comprehended in all of the integrated richness that island life brings.





Some time later on a trip to Unst, mother decided to donate the Roll of Remembrance to the Unst Heritage Centre, in remembrance of father. The publication was gladly received and is still well cared for. It is truly historic. One always wondered if the roll should not have found its home in the little cottage in order to fulfil its wholeness - that of the house and the book - with its origins and reverences, this provenance, to be like the pair of Victorian ceramic mantle-piece dogs and fiddles that make the Shetland house a home. It seemed that every place should have this book to give depth and resonance to its meaning, its history, its remembrance, rather than being a mere modern, synthetic reproduction impressed with itself, clinically encompassing only the slick and new for ME and MY reputation.



Then, literally out of the blue, this book appeared at the house clearance, as if it was meant to be. It was available for sale. In spite of its poor state, it was purchased. Rarely has such a book in such atrocious condition been purchased for such a sum, but it seemed to be a necessity. At last, the cottage could truly touch the past, that of the war and father. The roll could become a part of life again, and learn more and tell more of it and the community it formed a part of: its grief and hopes. This was a record of loss and commitment. It was only a little after this purchase, a few hours in fact, that the Ratter photo was acquired. It was a memorable day.




Ratter landscape - cloud, moon, sea and land

The Ratter is another essential for Shetland homes. These are images caught by a photographer of old whose prints recorded in beautiful compositions and crystal sharp images, old Shetland place - settlements and landscapes: their native beauty. So it was that Shetland's Roll of Honour and Roll of Service T. & J. Mason, Shetland News Offices, Lerwick, 1920 became, along with the Ratter image of clouds in moonlight, a part of the birthplace, the cottage of my grandmother, and her mother; my father. The roll was paid for and taken home with two other books discovered in the bedroom - Graham's The Shetland Dictionary and Christie-Johnston's Shetland Words. It was all a lovely set of things Shetland that could enrich habitation as well as inform.





Some time later the roll was opened, just to see if all of the pages were there. It appeared so; but one could not help noticing how two pages in different parts of the photographic section had been repaired with adhesive tape to stop them falling out. A closer look at the book made one ponder: why was it so worn? One could only think of how it must have been taken out and thumbed through time and time again by loved ones remembering those gone – sons, brothers, cousins, nephews, uncles, husbands, all now dead, lost.




The book was divided into two parts: a roll of honour - the dead whose images had been collected and published; and roll of service - names of those who survived and returned. It recorded both the dead and the living. To become so worn, the book must have been handled very frequently. Who knows what emotions were involved as the images were turned, turned to the same place again and again and again, so that the pages eventually fell out, to be lovingly taped back up as a repair to allow the sad eyes to peruse those gone in a terrible war as a quiet lamentation. Each photograph had the name, the rank, the role and the relatives, (parents, wives), the place of home, and where and how the man was killed, and his age - they were all young men; no women. One can envisage the despair, the sadness as the words were read over and over and over; as the hands cradled the book with care and hopeless despair, as the eyes met those in the familiar image never to be seen again as flesh and blood, while recalling those last moments when the hands touched, bodies embraced and eyes met, lips caressed - that last goodbye: perhaps also wondering if it was all worth it.


20 years


36 years

28 years

The book, its state of disrepair, shows how it has been much cared for rather than abused; how the loved ones at home have repeatedly handled the book as a memorial, a remembrance, perhaps daily? Those organising the house clearance said that it had been discovered in the bottom of a high cupboard, tucked away safely, in a special, protected place, like that held in the heart. Had the book been sent to father so that he could read about those that he knew? Turning to the Roll of Service, one could read about the Jamiesons and Spences from Baliasta who had served. Father must have known each of these individuals as well as the others from Unst, the island he left when just nineteen. He too could read through the names and ponder; but his book was not as worn as the one discovered in the house clearance. Reading through the photographs, one notes that there are no Jamiesons or Spences from Unst illustrated. There was no tattered lament for those close. This book in Australia, it seems, was more personally perused for others known: friends, neighbours and distant relatives. Was it seen as a last goodbye; perhaps a lasting goodbye? Did all from Baliasta return? Was there something to be proud of here?


36 years

36 years

The bold abstractions and knowledgeable schematics of history as told in text books are all made real and personal in this roll that identifies individuals, the place, method and date of death and their ages, home and family. Rarely has history been made so gravely explicit, so personally exposed as a set of facts. Instead of seeing the book as a derelict item ready for the tip, or the outcome of ignorant neglect, carelessness, it has come to be seen as a symbol of sadness, an expression of longing and wondering; a lament of love tinged with a silent, lingering regret: of hope lost. It is all the more special because of this. One takes on the obligation of continued care, a cradling of past lives and loves. It is this that makes the tatty book so special, so essential a part of the old cottage. It is never enough to just 'do up' an old place, no matter how sensitively this might be carried out, or how 'Grand' a 'McCloud' design it might be or be presented as: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/is-architecture-just-grand.html A place does not become a home that resonates with time without the richness of bits and pieces being incorporated into its being, its shelter, 'sedimenting the past in the present.'* This roll now has the honour of helping the cottage once again be one, a home that touches life and living, its community, sedimenting it, cementing it with love and remembrance. It has become a shelter for more than the present as it echoes, reverberates quietly with thoughts for and facts from the past. Reading the roll touches other lives and unknown silences all nearby on this island, down the hill; over the rise: family, friends, acquaintances. Remembrance is the core of being, of being who we are. What are we without it? What are we without love? What is architecture without it but a shell?



Each page was illustrated with images from home: Scalloway?

Memories of home: see - 

Architects should know this. Architecture has nothing to do with the cheeky immediacy of the slick or smart people or things making declarations, demanding the recognition and admiration of personal genius. A reading of the roll tells something about the small, quiet feelings in life that are squashed by showy arrogance and the intolerance that creates both grand designs and wars - 'Blessed are the meek.' The personal horror of war is exposed in all of its raw intimacies and specific realities: 'this man named . . . , from . . . , whose parents/wife were/was . . . , died in this way at . . . on . . . - 560 men: 560 specific listings of facts, the horror of each declared along with the personal resonance of family; of home and loved ones: missing, gone. This void is what made this blue book so tatty. One can only feel, be amazed by the tiny histories that are recorded here, stories that will never reach the mighty, heroic tomes on war like those written by Churchill, et.al. They will just remain a part of intimate, ordinary life stories, like so much in this world that gets neglected in favour of the preferred grand vision. There is nothing heroic in war or in architecture. Academics need to know this; architects must remember this too. One of the most memorable architectural books read was not written by an architect, but by a social historian. It was about lost places: towns, homes that have been left, either by necessity or choice: the experience of loss, and, in some cases, e.g. the flooding of a town by a dam that drops in level, of return. War gave this experience to the Shetlanders. The roll remembers, records, respects. This is life lived; life lost; this is war, its impact on the ordinary everyday seen as the mundane that never really is. Rarely has this been recorded so clearly, so precisely. May they rest in peace: lest we forget – but we do. Sadly, we never seem to learn to remember the tiny things in life: see BEGINNINGS in sidebar: 'remind us to remember.'


Drawing of Burrafirth? Sumburgh?

Illustration of Lerwick - top left-hand corner


*Adolf Loos wrote about interiors in “Poor Little Rich Man”: Loos's argument implied a rejection of the dictatorial manner in which “stylish” homes had been decorated in the past. This position was articulated forcefully in “Poor Little Rich Man.” Regardless of approved taste, interiors were to be built up by owners themselves, making each interior individual and unique, as were its inhabitants. Such an interior would age with the family, changing as it does, yet sedimenting the past in the “present.” On Weathering The Life of Buildings in Time Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1993, p.82.




Signs of yearning for so many, so young



24 years

45 years
Most faces look directly into the camera, into the eyes of the reader.

21 years

19 years

22 years

25 years

31 years

48 years

21 years

24 years

30 years
and the list continues . . . 560.


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