New & Noteworthy

 

These brief reviews highlight recent books and articles as well as older materials worth revisiting. Publications are chosen for their relevance to the men and women profiled elsewhere on this site, and to the themes of service and duty.

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Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, Tim Cook, 2017: In Vimy, Dr. Cook, the author of many studies on Canada’s role in the First and Second World Wars, focuses on the military and mythic significance of the April 1917 battle and the art and architecture of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. He writes that Walter Allward, the memorial’s sculptor-architect, created “a monument to peace, not victory, an homage to loss and death, and a call to remembrance.” What he did not create, Cook writes, was a tribute to militarism or even nationalism: “Allward emphasized that his memorial was not about celebrating a martial triumph, or, it would seem, the birth of the Canadian nation.”

Cook quotes Allward’s statement in the mid-1930s that his work was intended to be “a protest in a quiet way against the futility of war, challenging humanity to hate war instead of being proud of it.” He notes that though Allward initially resisted inscribing the names of the 11,285 Canadians killed in France with no known grave, he later devised a fitting way to do so and, in effect, to memorialize all of Canada’s war dead. Cook tells us, too, that Allward – who’d given fifteen years to the memorial – wasn’t asked to speak at its unveiling in July 1936. The official speakers – mostly politicians – mentioned him only once, and then “almost as an afterthought.” Tim Cook’s Vimy is a must read for anyone interested in Canada’s First World War, or in Allward’s stubborn and inspired act of service.

 

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Articles on the Vimy Memorial, Walter Allward, and the Battle of Hill 70:

Marking the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the April-May 2017 issue of Canada’s History features several articles on the Vimy Memorial. The principal piece, Tim Cook’s “Ghosts of Vimy,” details the genesis of Walter Allward’s greatest work, noting that “The Vimy Memorial became Allward’s legacy project. Never before or since has Canada built such a monument to anything in its history.” Other articles describe the battle itself, as well as Vimy’s new visitor centre, student tours of battle sites in France and Belgium, and the “postwar pilgrims” (many of whom were veterans) who travelled to France for the monument’s unveiling in 1936. Finally, there are brief profiles of nine Canadian soldiers who served at Vimy, seven of whom died at the front.

On April 2, 2017, The Toronto Star published an article about Vimy and Allward by Donovan Vincent. Entitled “The forgotten man behind the unforgettable Vimy memorial,” it is essentially a review of Tim Cook’s Vimy, but it also cites an earlier Star piece by Christopher Hume: “Vimy’s monumental artist.” Writing in April 2007, just before the rededication of the memorial, Hume begins: “In an age of irony such as ours, there is no room for an artist like Walter Allward. The great Canadian sculptor . . . was the product of a different time, one in which art served not just as a means of self-expression, of celebration and social criticism, but of commemoration.” Hume declares that the memorial, overwhelmingly a work of public art and “a unique moment in Canadian cultural history,” is unparalleled in scope and ambition. That said, the battle and its memorial are of the past: “A 21st-century Vimy [the battle] would tear Canada apart, not bring it together. Its significant commemorative art would be informal, certainly unofficial, perhaps unwanted. It would take the form of graffiti and other such anonymous expressions of bitterness and anger.” For our veterans of Afghanistan, he says, “there will be no Allward and no Vimy Memorials.”

James Ernest Brown, the subject of Soldier for his times and a veteran of the Somme, Vimy,  Arleux, Passchendaele, and the Hundred Days Campaign also served with the Canadian Army’s 7th Battalion at the Battle of Hill 70 and referred to it as “the roughest corner I ever was in.” For more about Hill 70, which took place four months after Vimy, see Tim Cook’s excellent “Vimy: A Battle Remembered, Hill 70: A Battle Forgotten” (Legion Magazine, March 1, 2012). Several fine photographs accompany the text. One is captioned: “A wounded Canadian escorts a German captured at Hill 70.” To my eye, they’re escorting each other.

For the strange and moving story of a 7th Battalion comrade and fellow Hill 70 veteran, see the Wikipedia entry and other online sources re stretcher-bearer Pvt. Michael James O’Rourke, VC, MM.

 

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The 2017 fall/winter issue of Ornamentum: Decorative Arts in Canada features an article by Jacqueline Hucker entitled “The Redemptive Power of the Vimy Monument.” Hucker, an architectural historian who served on the monument’s restoration team from 2004 to 2007, reveals the artist-architect’s intention, in her words, “to evoke a spiritual sanctuary” at Vimy. She quotes Allward’s statement that the monument’s pylons were meant to suggest “the upper part of a cross,” with the play of sunlight on sculptures creating “a cathedral effect.” She points as well to Vimy’s rootedness in the “redemptive power of beauty and nature,” while tracing its creator’s indebtedness to stage designers Gordon Craig and Roy Mitchell, whose aim was, again in her words, “to capture the essential aspects of life.” She also notes Allward’s links to Canada’s Group of Seven painters, including Lawren Harris, whose stylized landscapes strove to render nature’s spiritual dimension. In the end, however, it’s Allward’s humanity that cuts deepest, and I’m grateful to Hucker for the following: “His live model for the figure of Canada Bereft was a young woman named Edna Moynihan. She later recalled that Allward had measured her with calipers, explaining that he wanted to design a stone figure with shoulders wide enough to carry the sorrow she felt for her dead children.”

 

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La Foce: A Garden and Landscape in Tuscany; authors: Benedetta Origo, Morna Livingston, Laurie Olin, and John Dixon Hunt; University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Beautifully produced, La Foce includes detailed and authoritative text about the formal gardens at the Origo estate in southeastern Tuscany, as well as dozens of illustrations and photos of the villa, gardens, surrounding farms, and countryside. But it’s the long and absorbing preface, written by one of Iris Origo’s daughters, Benedetta Origo, that tells the story. “Between the Mountain and the Valley: The Making of La Foce” is an account of a place remarkable not just for its landscape, architecture, and garden design but for its human stories and social idealism. Benedetta sketches La Foce’s  history – the house, originally a tavern, dates from 1498 – and describes the almost feudal society in which its farmers and workers lived well into the twentieth century. When Iris and Antonio bought La Foce and the Chiarentana property that bordered it in 1924, La Foce’s main house was in rough shape, and the fields and tenants’ homes had been neglected. Deforestation and soil erosion had reduced much of the land to a dry, barren, almost “lunar landscape,” and La Foce’s impoverished residents lived hard and isolated lives.

Restoring the land, repairing the house, and improving the health and welfare of tenants became Iris and Antonio’s life project. Benedetta writes that “La Foce is certainly a mirror of their two – very strong – personalities. Their need to have an ultimate goal that would justify their own life, to leave their mark in this world, to pit their strength against innumerable odds – as well as their sense of adventure and the desire to help others – all this was felt, in different degrees, by both my parents and led to the making of La Foce.”

By 1934, the Origo estate comprised 57 farms on 7,900 acres. La Foce flourished, surviving the Depression and Second World War, despite being shelled and pillaged in 1944. Benedetta makes it clear, however, that the decades of peace and prosperity that followed the war were the most difficult, bringing as they did social unrest, violence, and class hatred. As Iris said in her memoir, Images and Shadows, “We had become the Enemies of the People, the abusers of the poor,” and Benedetta says of the 1970s, with its legacy of kidnappings and the Red Brigades: “Those were the worst years: an angry period of transition.” But the family held on, and today the estates of La Foce (Benedetta’s home) and Chiarentana (her sister Donata’s) thrive.

“Between the Mountain and the Valley” is a first-rate read, and its colour photographs do justice to the Origos’ formal gardens and the beauty of southeastern Tuscany. Note: Benedetta writes that the buildings her parents constructed on the estate – including a school and kindergarten for tenant families – were designed by the legendary Cecil Pinsent. Pinsent is the subject of Ethne Clarke’s recent An Infinity of Graces: Cecil Ross Pinsent, an English Architect in the Italian Landscape.

 

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Iris Origo died in 1988. In 2017, her previously unpublished diary from 1939-1940 was issued by Pushkin Press in London. Katia Lysy, Iris’s granddaughter and literary executor, had discovered the diary in La Foce’s attic and saw it through publication as A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939-40. Iris’s private record of a pivotal sixteen months turned out to be an instructive first-hand account of a nation slipping into a war that few citizens anticipated or wanted.

In her introduction, Lucy Hughes-Hallett summarizes the book’s political and biographical context, setting the stage for Iris’s observations on the era’s political maneuvering and duplicity, its anxiety and dissembling. She quotes Iris’s decision in the face of an uncertain future to keep a diary: “I decided that, for the time being, all that was required of me was to try to keep as steady as possible . . . Perhaps it might be useful to try to clear my mind by setting down, as truthfully and simply as I can, the tiny facet of the world’s events which I myself, in the months ahead, shall encounter at first hand.”

By the mid-1930s, Iris and Antonio’s marriage had failed, strained in part by the death of their young son, Gianni. For several years, Iris spent more time in England than Italy, living far from La Foce in every sense. In the late 1930s, however, forced by international tensions to weigh her loyalties, she chose Italy and her life with Antonio in the Val d’Orcia.

Two passages in A Chill in the Air are critical. Three months before Germany invaded Poland and tipped the world into chaos, she asked about Italy: “Is it possible to move a country to war, against its historical traditions, against the natural instincts and character of the majority of its inhabitants, and very possibly against its own interests? Apparently it is possible.” She notes among the Italian people a “strange, melancholy acquiescence.”

And in late August, several days before war was declared, she wrote of the apparent calm of the men and women around her: “But it isn’t exactly calm. It is a mixture of passive fatalism and of a genuine faith in their leader: the fruits of fifteen years of being taught not to think. It is certainly not a readiness for war, but merely a blind belief that, ‘somehow’, it won’t happen.”

Despite years of Fascist propaganda, directed especially against Britain, Iris’s birthplace, most Italians still hoped for peace and trusted that Mussolini would avoid armed conflict with the Allies no matter what. In trust and passivity lay their ruin.

Iris’s diary is a “very private record” and reveals little about her personal life. In a superb afterward, Katia writes that the diary gave her grandmother a place “to give voice to thoughts and feelings she was usually forced to suppress, an occasion to reflect on the extraordinary events to which she was witness and could only discuss with her husband and a handful of friends.” Fortunately for readers who want a more personal view of Iris and Antonio, Katia provides a warm and respectful description of both. My favourite passages, including the following, concern Antonio:

Readers will ask why Iris almost never mentions my grandfather in any of her books. The answer lies, I believe, in both Antonio and Iris’s fundamental belief in safeguarding their privacy. Though immensely proud of his wife’s writing, Antonio would never have sanctioned any speculation about his personal sentiments and loyalties, . . . or his growing feelings of shame and betrayal caused by the behavior of his King and the Fascist government.

Thanks to Katia Lysy, I see Antonio more fully. Thanks to Iris, I feel more sharply our own chill in the air.

 

John Burge, March 2018