On a fresh morning in Charlotte Square, David Reynolds’s considerable audience made their way to the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s main theatre. The title of the event alludes to his latest text ‘The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century’. With a focus on the impact and legacy of the 1914-1918 conflict Reynolds wants his readers and audience to recognise that our views of ‘World War I’ are tied to ‘World War II’. It is the presence of the later conflict which led to the now-familiar renaming, and reinterpretation, of its predecessor. The ‘Grand Legacy’ is therefore caught up in this, yet Reynolds has taken time to view the Great War in a more isolated context.
As part of the early scene-setting at this event mention was made of Remembrance Day events, as well as the celebrated contributions of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart. It would seem that the collection that is held at the Edinburgh Napier campus has never been so important or perhaps so relevant. The artefacts which have made their way down to us a century later are tangible connections to the work being done at the time, as well as the people themselves of course. Also current, in the months leading up to the outbreak of war, was a concerted effort to discuss and enact Home Rule for the nations of the UK – in particular Ireland and Scotland. With this in mind there were references to both countries in the audience question discussion that closed the event.
Reynolds drew upon nationalism as a key thread for his talk, alongside democracy. He was at pains to describe how the Great War had a considerable impact on both, with Britain’s experience being distinctive on both fronts. Quite apart from Edwardian agitation for Home Rule, for example, it was perfectly possible to support a Scots regiment in the British Army: twin identities that sat easily next to each other. Such is the renewed agitation in the 21st century for a more localised locus of political power in Scotland, that it is perhaps little surprise to see the armed forces (most notably the Trident nuclear base) being nudged into the foreground when it suits one side or the other.
In terms of democracy and its establishment as the preferred form of popular representation, Britain didn’t experience the ‘big bang’ that shook many a continental European state. The extension of the franchise, to one primarily based upon age and inclusive of women, was little compared to the bloody revolution of Russia. Neither did British democracy lay a foundation on which fascist parties could sweep to power, as was seen in Germany through the 1920s and early 1930s. Turning again to the question and answer session, the experience of Ireland was explored as it in turn was clearly distinct from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The legacy of the Great War was therefore considerable and provided a context for the rest of the 20th century to contend with, across Britain, Europe and the Commonwealth. With the final of these in mind, it’s instructive to note that the practice of discussing and establishing the legacy of great events is still very much a common pursuit. On the eve of the 2014 Book Festival, Glasgow hosted the largest sporting event Scotland is ever likely to see: the Commonwealth Games came to town. With publicly funded investment, popular engagement and stirring opportunities to proclaim a national identity there are some parallels between the events in question. Though the sacrifices of ‘our’ athletes do not compare with soldiers of a century ago, they are nonetheless our representatives and they command the support of millions.
The tools available to event managers, academics and civil servants to judge the impacts and legacies of sporting, cultural and artistic events are evolving, developing and improving. What David Reynolds’s work reveals, among his great insights into the War itself, is the complexity of this analysis. He also makes clear that we must take pains not to conflate events where this is counter productive: to see one Commonwealth or Olympic Games through the lens of another (later) edition is to overlook the perspectives of those on the ground at the time, those making decisions and allocating resources. Reynolds also makes it clear that the intangible impacts of events are among their most significant: nationalism and democracy are not quantified in ways that they may take their place alongside the other statistics of war. Likewise the building of communities, the personal development among performers and audiences, the careers forged and the minds opened are hard for festival and event producers to communicate as part of the impacts of their endeavours. They are real though, and to those that are touched by war and festivals they are profoundly meaningful.
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