By Pip Thornton
Last week I gave a talk to the 2nd year Human Geography undergraduates in their Urban Geography module. The session was on ‘Militarisation’, and Pete Adey had asked me to present on my original PhD topic ‘Soldier in the City’. It’s a topic that was (and still is) very close to my heart and is based on how the figure of the soldier fits into society and space at ‘home’. How soldiers are visualised in the city has long been an ontologically challenging balancing act between ceremony and security; the pomp and circumstance of the parade often in stark contrast to the reception of ‘squaddies’ into certain establishments or neighbourhoods, or the uniform banning days of the IRA’s mainland campaigns. These days, the blurred geographical and social boundaries of the ‘War on Terror’ make the presence of the soldier on the streets of London even more complicated, and potentially more dangerous, both in terms of personal security, but also the wider political, social and religious tensions for which the soldier seems to have become a catalyst.
To illustrate my talk I was lucky enough to obtain permission from Artangel to show some of Belgian artist Francis Alys’s 2005 film Guards. It’s a fascinating short film for which Alys had a company of Coldstream Guards wander about the streets of the City of London in full ceremonial uniform. At first walking casually on their own, each time they meet with other Guards, they fall into step until they have formed a squad of 64, whereby they march to the nearest bridge and disperse.
When making the film, Alys said he wanted to ‘make the poetic political’, which he certainly does. The film poses questions as to who really ‘guards’ London, what is the role of the military in their own capital city, why a single soldier seems so visually discontinuous and dislocated in ‘out-of-place’ environments, and also raises real questions of identity – the soldiers are, says, Alys, not soldiers until they are in step with another.
But perhaps the most interesting factor for me is the timeline. Since Alys first showed Guards in 2005 there has been a seismic – and often completely polarising- shift in how soldiers are viewed on the streets of London, and in particular in different parts of London. To illustrate this I also showed a clip of the Royal Anglian Regiment parading through the streets of Barking in 2010. Significant in this 4.5 minute clip is the relatively short time (a matter of seconds as they march past) the soldiers are actually on camera. The rest of the clip consists of two opposing groups of protesters, Muslims against Crusades on the one side, and EDL supporters on the other, both sides vocally antagonistic and raising cultural and political issues which go far deeper and last much longer than the actual march itself. Fast forward another two years to the London Olympics, and the sight of military personnel in London was almost commonplace, although not without controversy; there was, of course, massive resistance to the apparent militarisation of ‘Fortress London,’ and the soldiers’ presence in some neighbouring areas was also less than welcome.
A few months later, a soldier lay dead on a London street, killed by men avenging British foreign policy who declared London a warzone, and themselves as soldiers. In this context the red-coated photograph of Lee Rigby is a powerful yet troubling echo of Alys’s guardsmen.
Thus it seems as if the ontologically ambiguous, culturally loaded and historically controversial figure of the soldier has come to reside in an inherently unstable place, lying somewhere between protector/protected, hunter/hunted, or the age-old, but more recently magnified hero/villain. But what has always intrigued me about this is the way that despite the fluctuating, and politically and geographically divided response to living soldiers on the streets of London, in the militarised spaces of security and in the very fabric of memorial, ceremony and remembrance, soldiers are quite literally built into the city in a way which is ironically less invasive than the ‘real thing’.
The last clip I showed was of the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday 2014, which illustrated the reverence shown to the ‘Glorious Dead’, and to the eponymous tomb on top of the monument. A few hundred metres away in Westminster Abbey lies the occupied, yet anonymous tomb of the Unknown Soldier, while all over London and the wider UK, war memorials and stone soldiers nestle fairly innocuously in the heart of town centres and communities. It still seems to me – and the almost universal support for the Tower of London poppy installation last year would seem to corroborate this – that dead soldiers (or representations thereof) are somehow more ‘at home’ in their own capital than living ones.