The eightieth anniversary of Dunkirk falls in May 2020 while here in Britain we are still living through the coronavirus pandemic. My artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk is the largest book in the British Library’s Contemporary British collection, and curators at the British Library had been planning some events with me to mark the moment, but since it became clear that no public events would be possible, I’ve been working with Jeremy Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications, to make an artists’ film of my artists' book Thames to Dunkirk (below). Under lockdown conditions we have assembled the elements of the soundtrack - on which the soldier-poet Basil Bonallack is voiced by his grandson Christopher Peters, and Virginia Woolf’s questioning lines from The Waves by me Liz Mathews - over my own photography of the book, and the film was edited by Jeremy Jenkins.
Front cover of Thames to Dunkirk
Thames to Dunkirk, an artists' book by Liz Mathews, on film.
I made Thames to Dunkirk in 2009, and it’s been in the Library’s collection for a decade, a surreally large book to echo the extraordinary nature of an event shared by over 300,000 people, each with their own individual experience and their own story to tell. It’s made from twenty-four sheets of the largest handmade paper in the world, each 1 metre high and 1.4 metres wide - and it opens out to a free-standing paper sculpture 17 metres long and a metre high.
Looking at Thames to Dunkirk again now, as its maker I’m both reminded of my original aim, and struck by the many parallels with our current situation. Hearing Dunkirk 1940 invoked so often during the lockdown - exemplifying British ingenuity, courage and adaptability in a desperate crisis - has brought that long ago time vividly to mind. So what is it about Dunkirk that speaks so urgently to our times? Who could read the following accounts in these days without recognising the ‘absolute mayhem’, the fear and anxiety, the ‘public catastrophe’, the ‘terrible suspense’?
‘The Dunkirk crisis was unbelievable. A lot of people coming back had jettisoned their guns and vehicles, they just got there as fast as they could. There were lots of refugees coming in - it was absolute mayhem. Dunkirk had been bombed. We knew that a lot of troops were sheltering along the shore. We had no idea they were going to be rescued - it seemed the whole army was going to be captured. I was extremely upset, because it never occurred to me that we would survive. I though we were defeated, that we would surrender and sue for peace.’ (Corporal Elizabeth Quale, WAAF liaison officer, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Second World War, Ebury Press / IWM 2004)
Thames to Dunkirk, p.21.
On May 26th 1940 the rescue began, an event of such enormity that it has become one of our most potent national myths. The British army fighting in France and Belgium had been outflanked and surrounded by the invading army of Nazi Germany, and ‘there was nothing for it but to fall back, made almost impossible by the multitudes of refugees on the roads. Our men could only crawl back, while the enemy raced to cut them off from the sea.’ (John Masefield, The Nine Days Wonder Heinemann, 1940).
By 26th May a solid mass of men had already gathered on the beaches and in the dunes near the town, and thousands more were still struggling to get there. Churchill’s government had a plan for the Royal Navy to rescue them, with the help of a makeshift armada of ‘little ships’, privately owned boats, yachts, lifeboats and small ships from England’s south coast and the Thames, to ferry the men out from the beaches to the waiting Naval ships.
Thames to Dunkirk, p.10
But ‘when Operation Dynamo began it was thought that only a few thousand could be saved. The next day the situation was so much worse that we had to be prepared for a desperate scramble to pick up survivors from a great disaster.’ (JM, ibid)
Meanwhile at home, Leonard and Virginia Woolf were among the millions waiting for news: ‘In Rodmell Dunkirk was a harrowing business. There was not merely the public catastrophe, the terrible suspense with Britain on the razor’s edge of complete disaster; in the village we were domestically on the beaches. For Percy, and Jim and Dick and Chris, whom I had known as small boys in the village school and watched grow up onto farm workers and tractor drivers were now, one knew, retreating, driven back to the Dunkirk beaches. There they presumably were waiting, and we in Rodmell waited.’ (Leonard Woolf The Journey not the Arrival Matters The Hogarth Press, 1969)
And from Virginia Woolf’s diary: ‘Louie comes agog. [Her brother] Harry come back on Monday. It pours out - how he hadn’t boots off for 3 days; the beach at Dunkirk - the bombers as low as trees - the bullets like moth holes in his coat… He looted a Belgian shop & stuffed his pockets with rings which fell out in the sea; but 2 watches pinned to his coat survived… He was talking to a chap, who showed him a silk handkerchief bought for his joy lady. That moment a bomb killed him. Harry took the handkerchief. He saw his cousin dead on the beach; & another man from the street. Harry swam off, a boat neared. Say chum can you row? Yes, he said, hauled in, rowed for 5 hours, saw England, landed - didn’t know if it were day or night or what town - didn’t ask - couldn’t write to his mother - was despatched to his regiment.’ (Virginia Woolf, Diary Volume Five, ed. Anne Olivier Bell The Hogarth Press, 1984)
Virginia Woolf’s story about Harry West set me on a path of discovering first-hand accounts of that time, and gave me the idea of making Thames to Dunkirk. Along both sides of the huge book’s length are juxtaposed four significant lines: first, soldier-poet BG Bonallack’s eye-witness account of Dunkirk 1940 from his poem The Retreat; second, Virginia Woolf’s introspective questioning lines from The Waves flowing beneath as an undercurrent; and then on one side a watercolour map of the Thames from source to sea, lettered with the names of most of the little ships that went to the rescue; and on the other a 17m long watercolour of the great stretch of Dunkirk beaches and dunes, with the names of many people who were there during those nine days in 1940.
Thames to Dunkirk, p.18.
There’s Alexander Graham King, ‘the mad hatter’ who played his accordion to entertain the queues of waiting soldiers for seven days, and Captain NC Strother-Smith, who could spare a thought for the refugees on the roads ‘machine-gunned and attacked by Bombers and fighters’ in this impossible situation. There’s Philip Newman, the army surgeon who treated wounded men by the thousands in ‘the Chateau’, remained behind with men too badly wounded to be moved, was captured and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp as a POW. And there’s Louie’s brother Harry - his name lettered in a queue out into the sea; I see him with the water up to his armpits, worrying about his looted watches getting wet.
Marking Thames to Dunkirk book with a wooden clothes peg
Each person whose story I found is there in the crowd on the book; the letters of their names stand as individuals in the mass, marked with a wooden clothes peg, an incongruous domestic tool to reference a background of home for each person. The little ships’ names, too, are set along the watercolour map of the Thames in paint mixed with Thames water, the words lettered with a Thames driftwood stick, to draw the material presence of the river into the book, to bring in the stories not only of the gallant boats but of all those across Britain doing what they could to help, volunteering, nursing the wounded, waiting for news.
Card for the Dunkirk Project
As for my aims: I wanted Thames to Dunkirk to represent all the voices of Dunkirk, not a simplified impersonal official version; to catch the event in all its diversity and complexity. Once it was made, it became the central thread of The Dunkirk Project, an online installation that collects and shared hidden or forgotten stories from Dunkirk. Presented in the form of daily news from 26th May to 4th June, this River of Stories made up of many voices, many different perspectives, shows how this multi-layered event defies simplistic reduction but still has important truths for today.
The voices of Thames to Dunkirk speak to our uncertain times at an apt moment. It’s more important than ever to acknowledge the European, multi-national nature of Britain’s wartime struggle against fascism, as exemplified at Dunkirk, and to recognise how we, the inheritors of the world that was made then, are still living with the consequences of our past. In June 1940 when the Dunkirk evacuation had brought most of the army home again, the threat of invasion was at its most acute - and Britain was still at war for a further four years. The parallels for our wounded world are all too clear: while we’ve been struggling with Brexit and the pandemic, the Climate Emergency has not gone away.
Thames to Dunkirk, p.20-1
Now, coronavirus has forced us to re-examine our priorities. Another clear correspondence with Dunkirk 1940 is that amidst the devastation and the suffering there have been some positives: the many heroes we’ve met - Captain/Sir Tom Moore, every NHS doctor and nurse, three-quarters of a million volunteers, our bus drivers, our care workers and Andrea our local pharmacist, to name just a few - have outnumbered the villains, and we’ve found a renewed compassionate empathy and awareness of community.
Captain Tom Moore post-mark
British engineers and fashion designers are falling over themselves to adapt factories to make essential personal protective equipment and ventilators; universities and research institutions are vying to produce tests, vaccine, antibodies; our theatres, online arts and the BBC are keeping us sane - in short, the real maverick Dunkirk spirit is alive and well in Britain today. Now is a good time to look again at this parallel crisis in our nation’s past, in order to understand the present better, and prepare for the future.