As per usual I travelled hopefully to Hartlepool this week. Hopefully in the sense that I knew it would be worth filming the centenary commemorations to the one hundred and thirty people who lost their lives, with many more wounded, during the shelling of the Headland (old Hartlepool) on Dec 16th 1914.
I have gotten to know the place from filming for another project – the Rink project – but this will fit in Gestalt. The more I thought about it the more of an obvious fit it is.
I am building up and evolving a body of work that looks at what it is to be captured in the media saturated, relatively safe (so far) islands we call the UK. I am loosely attached to this particular piece of history by a distant relative – tho that isn’t really why I went. Apparently relatives of mine lived in the square that was bombarded. They were in bed. The shell passed straight through their bedroom and went out the other side. These were armour piercing shells and intended to explode when hitting something more substantial (like another ship) so didn’t explode when hitting a house. Instead they must have been hurled through the walls like a battering ram on steroids.
My interest is in how this episode was portrayed at the time – and to some extent how it is still recalled.
Hartlepool is not fashionable – and the somewhat cooler Victorian seaside resorts of Scarborough and Whitby were also shelled by the German Navy on the same day. The war department, seeing a ready-made opportunity to capitalise on this outrage published recruitment posters calling on men to enlist to avenge this defilement. They decided that dowdy Hartlepool (although it was in fact a large industrial town with shipbuilding and docklands at its heart) was not quite so evocative as Scarborough in the propaganda stakes, being as Scarborough was a popular seaside holiday destination. Hence you can find lots of Scarborough themed posters of the time exhorting men to enlist in the defence of their women and children. The idea that a seaside resort could be attacked, that somehow pleasure, fun and freedom are despoiled by the evil aggressor is an easy sell. So even in such adversity Hartlepool got second prize, though its population in fact suffered the most.
There we have it. One hundred years ago the British population sent their men off to war, to abstract places that very few, certainly not the working classes, had ever been to. Many things have changed since then and yet why do I feel even now that we still live in a bubble of informed media protection? It’s very close but it’s all so far away too.
So here I am, stood on the Headland in the sharp, low winters light filming people. There are various film crews here – all jostling for an interview or to capture the ceremony from the best vantage point. I too am interested to see and hear what is said – but I am also interested to see who is here and why. There are the dignitaries, the representatives of the various armed forces, the council officers, the school children, the passing dog walkers, those related to victims generations on, and of course the media. There is even a small contingent of first world war soldiers (actors) who form a guard of honour.
I wandered around looking at the scene. Not so much the actual event but the people as an event. The people and their concern and their need to mark something in this way. I am not cynical about this. It is ritual. I am not sure I would be putting up a monument quite like the one chosen if it was up to me, but I can see why they would. There are poppies – the same ones that surrounded the Tower of London. The children are excited to go up one by one to ‘plant them’.
There is one famous painting called the Bombardment of the Hartlepools by James Clark that hangs in the art gallery. It is the go-to image of this event and it is hmm…a tad chocolate box. A little girl is helped on her way to (implied) safety by an old seafaring type gentleman, whilst a few soldiers are scattered about in various states of disarray. It is rendered in the grand tradition of romanticism. Telling in its own way when looking back on the period. Details of that painting are now embossed in brass on the modern day newly erected slab of granite. So now that original hazy depiction has been passed on one hundred years later. No newer vision, no re-telling, no re-interpretation. Romance from disaster. More of the same. It’s safer somehow.
On returning to Newcastle and looking back through my footage, what is striking is just the poignancy of a small huddle of people holding to that spot. Some no doubt travelled to be there, some local and others just passing through. But held together for a short while. There was a lady with a glass ball. She walked around taking shaky pictures through the ball with her camera. The lighthouse, the sea, the cannon pointing seaward. She told me she was just a beginner but was learning how to take creative pictures. Good for her I thought.
Next day I wanted to just take a few shots after the event so revisited the scene. I got chatting to an old chap who had wandered in. “The cannon comes from Sebastopol “ he said. “They melted some down to make medals – Victoria Crosses” he tells me.
We ponder the fact that the old defunct cannon got recycled into another form which was still a part of war and perpetuated the myth of heroism. “People are bloody fools” he said “They never learn and they never will”. I hadn’t expected him to say that.
On the same spot they had buried a time capsule during the centenary ceremony. I wished I could have filmed him, rewound time, and put that into the time capsule as well.