In his 2016 book Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, the ‘rest’ consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang muses on earlier temporalities. Life, he suggests was ‘simpler a century ago, distractions were fewer, economies were more forgiving, and leisure was respected’ (2016: page 8). Maybe the nostalgia is not what it used to be, but I doubt few of us would use words such as ‘forgiving’ and ‘respect’ to describe the years around 1916.
I have particular reason to reflect on Soojung-Kim Pang’s interpretation of life one hundred years ago as I have become a custodian of a World War One Memorial. The memorial is to seven men from the urban village where I live who died in the Great War. Two years ago I moved into what was once the Primitive Methodist Chapel in the village, now a private residence. The memorial was removed when the chapel was originally renovated and a group of local residents, organised by a relative of one of the fallen soldiers, campaigned to have the memorial returned to the village. When I learnt about the campaign in the summer of 2018 I suggested that the memorial could return to the chapel on the railings outside. This is now its new home. On Saturday 3rd November 2018 we organised a rededication ceremony outside my house. I was not sure what to expect so was rather overwhelmed when around 80 people turned up. Afterwards we invited people into the ‘chapel’ for tea and cake, around half of those who attended the ceremony joined us inside.
Conversations inside the chapel were mostly reminisces of the role of the chapel in the community in the years immediately after World War II. These recollections were nostalgic for a ‘simpler’ life that echo Soojung-Kim Pang remarks. This nostalgia for the past should not though be confused with empirical evidence of how everyday life has changed. The sociologist Mike Savage describes a characteristic of generations to assume that they work harder and have less time for leisure and community, compared to earlier cohorts. These shared reminisces were normative not empirical. In the chapel in 2018 there was no desire to return to the chapel of 1918.
Having a war memorial outside your home might be regarded as morbid, but I do not experience it this way. Becoming a custodian of a war memorial is not about fetishizing the past, and it is certainly not a tribute to one hundred years ago. Memorials matter to people, not because they celebrate a time that is discrete and different but because they are a material manifestation of continuity and change. The memorial simultaneously encapsulates the previous lives of the chapel, while also demarcating lives that have passed. The service on 3rd November was one of remembrance and celebration. It is also meant different things to different people. The shared enthusiasm for the return of the memorial to the chapel was not just about remembering the tragedy that befell the seven men and their community 100 hundred years ago. It is also about reconfirming that the chapel and the village have changed in multiple ways and it is impossible to generalise about the direction of these transformations. The rededication of the memorial does not have to make a normative judgement about either the past or the present.