Saturday, 27 August 2011

I am a bit obsessed with these pictures

About two years ago, I bought a set of four postcards from World War 1. They were £1 each, in a slightly odd shop. Three have little homilies, like this one. Two have something scribbled on the back. The messages, scribbled in pencil, are only semi-decipherable. One looks like a bit of poem, and the other is a message home from a guy at the front. The words 'Ypres' and 'safety' are legible, as are the phrases 'love to both my boys' and 'your loving husband'.

It is signed by someone called George Ladd, or maybe Judd, and passed, anonymously, by field censor no 624.

Poor old George, I've no idea if he ever made it home.

Once I had purchased the postcards, I kept picking them up and looking at them, again and again. There are a number of things which are fascinating about them, not least the way the half-understood messages blur out of the past at you, like the echo of a person talking in the next room. The thing is, although the postcards themselves are 100% authentic, the pictures are completely fake. They are clearly photoshoots. First, the people in them look like silent screen actors: they probably are. Second, if you look at this one, you'll figure that the bandage on his arm has been put on after his jacket: otherwise, you'd never get the sleeve over it. Third, if you look carefully, you can see that the people have been superimposed on the background. In effect, they've been photoshopped, 1916 style.

There are also a lot of mixed messages going on. While the themes in the pictures - the mother saying goodbye to her son, the woman looking after her injured husband, the lady missing her special gentleman - must have been incredibly common, and painfully real, they are presented in a weird, saccharine way. The mother saying goodbye to her son is calm and dignified. And yet, if you read the rhyme on the card, it suggests they won't meet again till they're 'at Jesus feet' i.e. when they're both dead. She has no hope of seeing him again. Meanwhile, the chap who is injured has been wounded in a light, picturesque fashion, and is having a nice time, recuperating in the garden. No blood, no missing limbs, no pain or disfigurement. And the pretty lady (she looks quite keen, doesn't she, though I'm afraid he might be having second thoughts) wishing for a chance to get passionate with her hunky man-in-uniform, is imagining him, well - he's brylcreemed his hair, to start with. He's not shivering in a trench.

So the pictures at the same time tell a truth, and peddle total lies. With a little cheery line, they suggest you kiss your loved ones goodbye. And then on the back, there's George, loving husband, real person, missing his two boys.

I find that there is something creepy and fascistic about this. The collision of the real, and the fake, narrative. The sentimentalisation of an awful disaster, for the purposes of those who were in full charge of the disaster. It makes me wonder how people weren't screaming in the streets about the lies being told them.

Which is why I'm obsessed with these images. I keep trying to write a story, to get to the people in the images, reconcile the fake and the real in my own head. Because I feel that there's something that needs to be learnt in there, something about shouting stop before it's all too late. Not because I think we're replaying 1916, I know we won't. But just something about not letting your story be told by liars, and calling out on fakes.


  1. Nice blog and lovely cards. The hiding of true emotions was typical of the time; started by the Victorians and of course exacerbated by the War. It wasn't the purpose of the postcard publishers to deceive, they were merely acting in accordance with what was, at that time, "the way to be".

  2. We are lucky enough to have an entire album of postcards sent to my grandfather (a small child during the first world war) by his much older siblings, aunts etc. and they are nearly all utterly saccharine, they make today's cards look tart by comparison.

  3. The stories these pictures tell are quite fascinating, I'm not surprised you can't drag yourself away. They're a real treasure!