Some years ago one of my sons was in a class studying the First World War; for me this was an incentive to look again at a box of objects that had belonged to my grandfather, in particular, to look at his Great War medals. In the box also was his diary for 1918.
At about the same time I was fulfilling a long-held ambition to write a book of etymologies, and was looking closely at words in history. And I visited the area where my grandfather had been stationed at the time of the diary, and made detailed drawings of the soil.
There were two striking uses of words in my grandfather's diary: an entry for 9th October when his unit was stationed at Houplines in Belgium, bearing the word 'Gassed'; and in the last pages of the book, the lyrics of a comic song. My grandfather was a comic song performer, singing at functions, dinners, parties, and concerts - in fact also in the box was the programme for a concert at Stratford Town Hall, given in aid of Belgian refugees in October 1914, at which he sang four songs.
I learned these four songs and on a warm day in April 2010 I sang them unaccompanied in a field at Houplines. My partner made a film of the singing, which is called Gone Away.
I now rent a studio in a building in east London which provided accommodation for up to 50 Belgian refugees from late 1914. Some of them lived in the room I work in, looked out of the window I look out of. In this room I set up a project in which I enabled current-day refugees and migrants to examine the stories and images of the First World War Belgian refugees, and to make collage and assemblage works based on their ideas. In some cases they wrote texts in languages that I did not understand.
I have long thought about the environment that could embrace the extremes of human experience which could be summed up in the word 'Gassed' and the words of a comic song.
At the core of the experience is the space where words break down. According to my father, my grandfather, like many, maybe most, other former combatants, 'never spoke about the war'. The words I have researched sit round this experience, framing it, outlining it, perhaps defining it.
The words in the diary entry for 13th October are 'Began to see a little'. After five years of turning the subject over in my mind I am still only feeling my way towards the point where I begin to see a little.