The Soldier And The Painter

A few months ago I read The Noise Of Time by Julian Barnes, written from the perspective of the composer Shostakovich in Stalinist Russia. I remember thinking at the time how difficult it must have been for creatives living under such regimes. Often it is the writers and the poets who are the first among the disappeared.


I woke in the early hours of this morning with the remnants of a dream clinging to the shirt tails of my emerging sense of self. The dream was of an artist-a painter, who was living in a country that was under some kind of communist or military rule. He had been called to be conscripted into the army, but his passion was for his art. He was stood before a desk being questioned by a seated officer, a strict disciplinarian, who was giving him the party line about what his duty to his country was, and what an honour it is to serve the ‘leader’ and to give your life for the cause. 

The young man replied that he had no intention to die for the cause, but rather to live for his art.

This provoked a concerted effort from the officer to bring the young man around to the official way of thinking.

The artist replied “I’m not going to be a soldier anymore than you are going to be my psychologist.”

That was it. I woke up with that last line rattling around my brain, a film with no closure, a story with no end.

It has been some months since I read The Nosie Of Time, and haven’t really thought of it since, so I’m not too sure if that was where the seeds of my dream were sown. And to be honest the storyline was not really the same as that in my dream.

But I feel a little cheated. I was filled with admiration for my conjured character, whoever he was. Maybe he served as an archetype for all of those creative types that I spoke about at the start of this post. I feel like I really need to know what happened to that young artist, and what price he paid for his courageous stance.

I probably will never know. Perhaps I should write it myself.

First World War Centenary Series #1: Two Unknown Soldiers

With today marking the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into the First World War, I hope to do a series of posts from a personal, family angle. I hope you will indulge me a little.

Nationally there are many events taking place. I know that the moat of the Tower of London is being filled with poppies, and tonight people are being encouraged to turn off their lights between 10 and 11pm. 

Even if you are a staunch pacifist, it’s not about glorifying war. It’s about remembering the millions whose lives were lost to the senseless slaughter that engulfed the world. The millions who were unfortunate enough to have been born in that period of our history. How thankful I am that I arrived in the seventies, I don’t think I could have measured up to those guys.



I am attending a service in a local church this afternoon.

Of all the old family photographs I have, there are two that sometimes get overlooked because the people on them have not been identified. I do wish my ancestors would have thought to write their names on the back of them-would have been so much easier!

The following photograph is connected to my Gran’s family on my Mum’s side.


I have no idea who this soldier is. Although my Gt.Grandfather Albert was a Sergeant (coming in a later post) I don’t think that this is him. The woman looks like she is a Campbell-my Great Gran Ada’s family. Ada was the one married to my Gt.Grandfather Albert. Again-later!

I look at this photograph and wonder about both the circumstance and context. Was this a trip to the seaside, one last outing before the soldier left the woman behind to go to war? One last happy memory before a final parting?

Or was the soldier home on leave, and had just been gazing out to sea before the photographer called out to him? Perhaps he had been thinking of his friends overseas? Maybe even fearful of what fate awaited him over there. Without knowing who he was, his future will forever remain unknown to me.

The following photograph is connected to my Grandfather’s family on my Dad’s side.


I believe that the man on the end,right (as you look at it) is one of my Grandfather’s brothers, but I don’t know which one of two possible candidates he is. He could be John Murray, born in 1893. I have no other (known) photograph of John to compare this to. He died in 1947 of Pulmonary TB.

If not John, then it could be his brother, James Murray, three years younger, being born around 1896. I have a couple of other photographs of James, including this one with his wife May. What do you think-could it be him?


The problem is that all the Murray’s looked like each other!  

What of the photograph of the soldiers itself? On the rear was written Ham-En-Artois, which is a French farming village close to the Belgian border. I intend to look up its relevance in the war. The thing with family history is it’s never ending!

The chevrons on the right sleeves that the soldiers seem to be proudly displaying signifies overseas service, twelve months per chevron. The ‘bar’ stripe on the lower left cuff signifies that the man has been previously wounded. Also, the men are wearing spurs on their boots (gaiters?) which indicate they could have been part of a gun unit in the Royal Field Artillery. Or maybe the Horse Artillery.

Whether it is my Great Uncle John Murray or my Great Uncle James Murray in this photograph, I do know that they both survived the war. Whether the other three friends did I will never know. 

Be it John or James,  perhaps this scene was often viewed in grief, with a sense of loss for friendships forged and lost on the battlefield. Though this photograph remains, the stories, the heroism, the tragedies, are all now lost.

One last thing, thinking of horses in the war. I remember a few years ago reading of the fondness the men had for the poor creatures who were brought into that man-made carnage, and this painting stuck in my mind. Its title is ‘Goodbye, Old Man.”