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A room of one's Owen
In a small village in northern France this month hundreds of visitors, including ambassadors and government ministers, gathered outside a startling monument.
With its stark, white walls, a roof representing an open book and bold circular ramp, it is no surprise to find it is the work of a Turner Prize nominee, Simon Patterson.
For the house is simultaneously a sculpture, visual work and sound piece, with the internal space filled with animated projections of texts illuminated on the wall.
But it also happens to be a new literary shrine to Wilfred Owen, greatest of the war poets, who is buried nearby in a cemetery at Ors.
How different the Maison Forestiere now looks from the time it was discovered by Oxfordshire-based author Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen’s biographer.
When Mr Hibberd found this place the house did not look much different from the structure that stood in 1918.
Sited on the edge of a modern army camp, the house was empty and semi-dilapidated but Mr Hibberd, then working on his book, Wilfred Owen: The Last Year, uncovered its true significance.
For it was in the dark cellar of the forester’s house that Lieutenant Owen penned his last, and in many ways most extraordinary, letter to his mother, while holed up on November 3, 1918.
The following morning, in one of the last actions of the war, Owen and his fellow soldiers made their way to the Sambre Canal near the village of Ors.
Trying to cross the canal in what now appears a suicidal mission, the men came under murderous fire from well dug-in Germans on the opposite side of the water and Owen was killed, just seven days before Armistice Day.
The letter describes the condition in that smoky, crowded cellar, which mercifully has survived the art scheme.
“As so often, his letter was designed to reassure,” Mr Hibberd tells us in his masterful biography.
“Saying nothing about the impending attack, he kept his mind on the present, describing the high-spirited fellowship around, him, a band of brothers, in the world, yet not of it.”
Crammed in with 29 others, he struggled to write because of “pokes, nudges and jolts” from the other inmates.
Owen tells that the smoke in the cellar was so thick he could hardly see a candle 12 inches away.
An old soldier with a walrus moustache peels potatoes and Keyes, the cook, chops wood.
“It is a great life,” he tells his mother. “I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells.
“There is no danger down here, of if any, it will be well over before you read these lines. I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here . . . Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.”
When Mr Hibberd identified the forester’s house, its huge significance to Wilfred Owen was unrecognised. The front of the house remains attached to Patterson’s modern structure but it too has been painted like “bleached bone”, as the artist describes it.
Sadly, Mr Hibberd who is fighting a serious illness at his home in the West Oxfordshire village of Kingham, where he lives with his friend of 30 years and co-researcher Tom Coulthard, was unable to join the dignitaries and Owen scholars at the unveiling of the new monument, which is expected to attract thousands of visitors every year, with the historic town and battlefield of Cambrai nearby.
Mr Coulthard told me: “Dominic is very pleased that they’ve done something with it. When he identified it in Wilfred Owen: The Last Year in 1992, no one locally knew of its significance to Wilfred Owen and it was unused and semi-derelict, on the edge of a large army camp surrounded by 12ft barbed wire. The energy of the mayor of Ors, Jacky Duminy, in achieving this project, and his kindness and hospitality to members of the Wilfred Owen Association over the years, is, of course, highly commendable.
“But as a future shrine for Owenolatry, as it will doubtless become, I suspect Dominic may have felt a little uneasy about it. But then he always tended to shy away from that side of things.
“One thing Dominic used to say in his lectures was that, even if he had never written a single line of poetry, Wilfred would deserve to be remembered for his letters, and probably would be quite celebrated because of them.”
Artist Mr Patterson said he was commissioned after the mayor and local people first considered and then rejected the idea of a museum or interpretation centre.
Mr Patterson said: “The passion here for Owen’s work and the determination to create a lasting tribute to him is truly moving. It was a great honour to be offered the commission and it was with great trepidation that I accepted the challenge to pay homage to such a man.”
A walk up a ramp leads you to a large, empty space. There are no tanks, guns, photographs or Great War memorabilia here.
When the lights dim you see Owen’s most famous poem Dulce et Decorum Est in the poet’s own handwriting (taken from his manuscript in the British Museum), etched on a translucent skin of glass covering the four walls. The voice of actor Kenneth Branagh reading Owen’s poems then breaks the silence.
One of the guests at the opening was Dr Jane Potter, who teaches book history at Oxford Brookes University, and is a member of the committee of the Wilfred Owen Association. She had travelled to Ors with 70-year-old Peter Owen, the son of Wilfred Owen’s youngest brother, Colin.
Dr Potter said: “When we originally were shown the plans we were dubious.
“We all said ‘the transformation is going to be too radical’.
“But I believe that they have done an amazing job. Although it is the work of a British artist, what has been done to it is very French in style. It’s dramatic and I found it quite moving.”
And her travel companion, Wilfred Owen’s nephew?
“Well, Peter is calling it his conversation on the road to Ors.”