Earlier today I carried out some contemporary archaeology. The site of excavation was Nottingham’s branch of Modelzone. This toy and hobby retailer has gone into administration and all eighteen of its remaining stores will close over the coming weeks.(1) Today it was the turn of the outlet at Broadmarsh shopping centre. Its demise is part of the terminal decline of this much-derided mall. Back in January I watched the last death throes of shoe emporium Gordon Scott.(2) This had occupied a unit adjacent to Modelzone ever since Broadmarsh opened in the 1970s. Nowadays customers in search of footwear must exit the mall and make their way to Lister Gate.
The closure of Modelzone is worth recording, not least as a reminder that over 500 people have lost their jobs following the company’s liquidation.(3)
Given that they are now things-of-the-past, all manner of quotidian Modelzone-related artefacts have suddenly accrued heritage-value. Thus the till receipt recording my last purchase plus the plastic carrier bag with its Modelzone logo merit preservation in preparation for their future museum-status.
My choice of purchase on this final day was deliberate. It involved a box of British paratroopers from the Falklands War, lovingly sculpted in plastic in a scale of 1:76. It seemed appropriate to buy these tokens of a post-imperial (sic) military adventure just as Britain is on the cusp of war with a new foreign enemy. (But see Supplemental note below.)
But not all Britons are as enthusiastic for another Middle East campaign as the current British government.(4) Upon leaving Broadmarsh I headed for Old Market Square. At “Speakers’ Corner” I came across a small band of protestors, urging the people of Nottingham to join them in opposing any British involvement in Syria’s bloody civil conflict.
One thing seems certain, however. If British soldiers do engage this new foe, it will no doubt lead to the production of more model soldiers. One day it will become possible to purchase items from the range marked:
“British Paratroopers (Syria War, 2013-?)”
We shall have to acquire them from an online store, of course given that soon the notion of physical shops on something that used to be known as “the high-street” will be a quaint, nostalgic Woolworths-sweet-wrapped memory (the last bag of which sold on eBay for a reported £14,500 (5)).
(1) Simon Neville, “Modelzone toy retailer collapses after failure to find buyer”, The Guardian, 28/09/2013, http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/aug/28/modelzone-collapses-deloitte-fails-buyer.
(2) Stuart Burch, “Respect for the Riddler”, 27/01/2013, http://www.stuartburch.com/1/post/2013/01/respect-for-the-riddler.html.
(3) Neville, op cit.
(4) “Syria crisis: David Cameron makes case for military action”, 29/08/2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23883427.
(5) “Last ever bag of Woolworths pick 'n' mix sweets sells for £14,500 on eBay”, Daily Mail, 21/02/2009, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1151542/Last-bag-Woolworths-pick-n-mix-sweets-sells-14-500-eBay.html.
Cancel that box of toy soldiers! In a rare outbreak of democracy, the Westminster parliament has put a temporary halt to a British foreign policy formulated in Washington DC.(1) Can it really be that, at long last, “Britain's illusion of empire is over”?(2) Only time will tell. But for now at least let us savour the true taste of Tony Blair’s political legacy.
(1) “Syria crisis: Commentators react to Cameron defeat”, BBC News, 30/08/2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23894749.
(2) Polly Toynbee, “No 10 curses, but Britain’s illusion of empire is over”, The Guardian, 29/08/2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/29/no-10-curses-but-empire-is-over.
“The name is like Mother Goose to a chemical librarian,
like George Washington, like Christopher Columbus.”
What’s in a Name? / Death of a Honey-Blonde
1956 / 1968
I have been disrupted twice in the last couple of days. On both occasions the disruption has been presented to me as positively welcome – something to celebrate.
The first disturbance arose during a talk about MOOCs. This acronym stands for massive online open courses. Their proponents claim these to be the-next-big-thing in education. Old fashioned universities beware: soon they’ll be superseded by entirely online providers charging a fraction of the price and servicing hundreds of thousands of participants drawn from the four corners of the globe. This is all thanks to disruptive technologies: IT innovations that disturb the status quo as surely as music downloads have annihilated the high-street record store. Be that as it may, listening to a gorgeously slick gentleman from a posh US university preaching about disruption made me suspicious. Don’t be lulled into thinking that this particular brand of commotion is inherently exciting, radical or open. Because that would be to belie the imperialistic ambitions of many of the organisations that lurk beneath the mantle of disruptive technology.
The next day also proved to be cheerfully disruptive. On this occasion the challenge to the natural order occurred towards the close of a highly civilized seminar hosted by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Representatives of groups funded by the AHRC’s various knowledge exchange schemes were invited to meet in Bristol and share ideas. One participant happened to mention how her scheme had helped facilitate “disruptive thinking”.
This in turn got me thinking disruptively. To what extent do funders tolerate such behaviour? Moreover, “disruptive thinking” is promoted because it can lead to failure. But it would take a bold person to declare in an end-of-project-report that their research was brilliantly abortive, that they didn’t bother doing what they had promised and had in fact consciously subverted the aims of the funding organisation: all in the name of disruptive thinking.
Would such disruptions be welcome? Would they lead to renewed investment from a grateful funding body? Bear in mind that these sources of money must also be accountable to a board of trustees, some government department or the largess of a tax avoiding business.
I pondered these things whilst making my way to Bristol Temple Meads to catch my train back to snowy Nottingham. Suddenly I looked up and – to my surprise – found myself in the midst of a ferocious riot. Sword-wielding soldiers on horseback were pitching into a crowd of angry protestors. Such was the ferocity of this incident that I was mighty pleased to have turned up after it had started. Precisely 182 years after.
The incident in question was taking place in a large mural painted on the backdrop to a patch of rough ground adjacent to the Bath Road. It commemorates the Reform Bill riots that took place in Bristol’s Queen Square in 1831.
This disturbance has a resonance in the city to which I was headed. In Nottingham similar acts of insurrection also took place in 1831. On 10th October a crowd of residents, frustrated by the lack of progress towards electoral reform, gathered in Market Square before heading up the hill to the site of the old Nottingham castle, then the home of the dukes of Newcastle. They burnt the mansion to the ground. It stayed that way for fifty years until the gutted shell was transformed into a municipal museum and art gallery.
The fullness of time has turned the disruptive events of 1831 into local histories. They are also part of a neat linear story of political change leading to universal suffrage.
But would the imperfect democracy enjoyed by Britons today have been achieved if some individuals weren’t prepared to disrupt the present order?
And wouldn’t it be ironic if these disruptive deeds were to one day become the subject matter of some not-for-profit (sic) MOOC or even a British knowledge exchange initiative?
Goodness, what a disruptive thought! The third one this week!
Marc Quinn, The Creation of History (2012)
On Thursday 4th August 2011 officers of the Metropolitan Police Service stopped a taxi on Ferry Lane in Tottenham Hale, London. Its occupant – Mark Duggan – was subsequently shot dead in uncertain circumstances.
This single incident gave rise to a spate of riots across England. The worst scenes took place in the capital. A defining image of that summer of violence is a photograph taken by the Turkish born photojournalist, Kerim Okten.
It shows a man in a grey tracksuit and trainers. The skin on his hands is covered by black gloves. His face is veiled by a mask such that only his eyes are visible: they gaze fixedly at the camera lens. Framing that stare are the orange flames and choking black smoke of a burning vehicle.
Various versions of this iconic scene are available online. They differ in all sorts of major and minor ways. Some depict the main protagonist in alternative poses; others show bystanders looking on at the searing shell of the car.
Text invariably accompanies the picture wherever it appears. A front page headline such as “The battle for London” turns this masked celebrity into a capital warrior. Replace that caption with something like “Yob rule” and our battle-scarred warrior becomes a mindless hoodlum. His slow, purposeful steps and cold stare do indeed make this lord of misrule appear above the law.
The rights to Okten’s image have now been acquired by the British artist Marc Quinn. He has used it as the inspiration for a variety of artworks including paintings, a sculpture and even a tapestry. The latter has been entitled The Creation of History (2012) and exists in an edition of five.
The title chose by Quinn reflects his belief that the 2011 riots constitute “a piece of contemporary history”. The artist is quick to add, however, that this history – like every past event – is “a complex story and raises as many questions as it [does] answers. Is this man a politically motivated rioter? A looter? What is in his pocket? And rucksack? More intriguingly, the mask he wears appears to be police-issue: could he even be a policeman?”(1)
The merest suggestion that our photogenic “yob” might in fact be a lawgiver rather than a lawbreaker disturbs this already troubling image, transforming it before our very eyes.
This is exacerbated further in Quinn’s tapestry transmutation. Metamorphosing the pixels of a digital photo into the knots of a woven image catapults this contemporary history back in time. Now our “yob” can stand alongside armour-suited warriors in a medieval pageant.
The rich heritage of Quinn’s The Creation of History makes it worthy to enter into the sacred realm of the museum. And what better institution than Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery? This establishment rose like a phoenix from the flames of a riot: on 10th October 1831 a group of rabble-rousers intent on creating a little history of their own torched the palatial home of the Duke of Newcastle in protest at his opposition to electoral reform.
For fifty years the burnt out shell of the building remained an admonitory reminder of this bad behaviour. Then, in the 1870s, it was converted into the first municipally funded museum outside of London.
This place of learning and leisure still stands. And it only exists thanks to the sort of scenes that were to take place 180 years later – not only in London but also Nottingham, where Canning Circus police station was firebombed by tracksuited warriors / yobs.
So, with this in mind, wouldn’t it make perfect sense for the curators at Nottingham Castle Museum to acquire one of the five editions of Marc Quinn’s The Creation of History? It could hang on the same walls that were once covered by tapestries – before “yob rule” led to them being unceremoniously ripped down and either burnt or “sold to bystanders at three shillings per yard.”(2)
(1) Cited in Gareth Harris, “London riots get tied up in knots”, The Art Newspaper, Iss. 243, 07/02/2013, accessed 08/02/2013 at http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/quinn-tapestry/28545.
(2) Harry Gill, A Short History of Nottingham Castle (1904), available at, http://www.nottshistory.org.uk/gill1904/reformbill.htm._
Yesterday afternoon was spent wandering aimlessly around Nottingham city centre. On the way to nowhere I stopped off at Nottingham Contemporary where two new exhibitions have just opened. Not really in the mood for art, I devoted most time to looking at all the tiny trinkets on sale in the shop. Trendy, totally superfluous treasures were mixed in with the art publications and designer tat.
Exiting briefly into the sunshine I promptly plunged into a very different world: that of the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre. Hurrying past the serried ranks of empty retail units I descended into the bowels of the earth. Reaching the end of the escalator I glanced momentarily at the entrance to the so-called “City of Caves”. This place always makes me chuckle: I am supposed to have a professional interest in museums and heritage. Nevertheless, in the decade that I’ve spent living in Nottingham I have not once entered this tourist-attraction-that-time-forgot.
Moving on I glimpsed another sad sight: Gordon Scott. This shoe shop has been in the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre ever since the monstrous mall opened in the early 1970s. Now all that’s left are a few pairs of sale items and a couple of extraordinarily bored-looking staff waiting to be made properly redundant. Even more depressing is the disappearance of the mechanical monkey from the shop window. His loopy tricks on the horizontal bar were, for me, the centre’s absolute high point. He was the retail world equivalent of Wollaton Hall’s George the gorilla.
These textual “traffic signals” had a dual purpose.
Firstly, of course, they signified the Riddler. This is not the first time that this cartoon villain has featured in Newling’s art: a precedent was Between (Even the Riddler Makes Wishes), an installation from 1996 commissioned and hosted by Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema and Arts Centre.
Yesterday at the Broadmarsh Centre the Riddler’s question marks had an additional function. Passersby were stopped and asked to identify something that they valued. In return they were given a swatch of the same cloth used to make the Riddler’s jacket. They could then head off into the crowds with this pinned to their chests – generating riddles wherever they went.
My smart-arse answer to the question – what do you value? – was respect.
Because that’s the quality I appreciate most in people and groups: “the condition or state of being esteemed, honoured, or highly thought of.” If you think about it, the root cause of our society’s ills is the general lack of respect for politicians, big business, organisations and for so many individuals we come into contact with in our daily lives. And how many of us manage to get through life with their self-respect intact?
Newling intends to collate the “public values” gathered together at the Broadmarsh Centre and integrate them into a talk to be given as part of his “Ecologies of Value”, on show at Nottingham Contemporary until 7th April.
My advice would be to get there as soon as you can – and ideally before the whole of Nottingham city centre goes into liquidation and all that we value goes with it.
Le Corbusier (1867-1965)
Vers une Architecture / Toward an Architecture
Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute
1923 | 2007, p. 102
Yesterday a group of people gathered in Custom House Square, Belfast. They then opened three large freezers, removed 1,517 diminutive frozen figures and began placing them around the square. When the task was complete they stood back and spent the next twenty minutes watching as these human icicles melted before their eyes.
This happening was part of a festival to mark the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
The person responsible for this particular commemorative response was the Brazilian born artist, Néle Azevedo (born 1950). Her poignant idea was entitled, Minimum Monument. It was intended as a celebration of the “ephemeral and diminutive, as opposed to what is monumental and grandiose.”(1)
For instances of the “monumental and grandiose” one might turn to John Blackwood’s book London’s Immortals: The complete commemorative outdoor statues (Savoy Press, 1989). The cover features an individual who exudes monumentality and grandiosity. This is all the more remarkable given that the person being represented is physically frail – so weak in fact that he requires a walking stick to support his gargantuan frame. But his greatness comes from the courage of his convictions rather than the strength of his sinews. The bronze effigy commemorates a man who is seemingly so famous that he requires no elaborate inscription. On the pedestal on which he is placed is but a single word: Churchill.
Statues of this nature are intended to create the illusion of universal acclaim and permanence. This façade came crashing down during my investigations into this sculpture and the other commemorative monuments that surround the Houses of Parliament in London. In the year 2000 a riot broke out where the natural order was inverted: protestors mounted Churchill’s plinth and daubed it with graffiti. In the process they turned the war hero into a bloated warmonger. For a short time this establishment figure became a punk icon (courtesy of the grass mohican draped over his pate).(2)
I wonder what the late, great playwright and author, Dennis Potter would have made of such bad behaviour? I ask because, way back in 1967 in one of his earliest plays for television, Potter took a “swipe at Churchillianism”.(3) Alas, the original recordings of this and two other such works were subsequently deleted by the BBC.
Years later Potter reflected on his vanished play. He dismissed it as “polemical” and “overtly political”, something with which now felt uncomfortable.(4) We are not in a position to judge if he was right to be so self-critical given that the work no longer exists. This makes the title of the play deeply ironic. It was called, Message for Posterity.
That phrase sums up Ivor Roberts Jones’s titanic statue of Churchill that has scowled at parliament ever since its inauguration in 1973.
But messages for posterity do not always have to be like this. They can be more modest and far less bombastic – like Néle Azevedo’s already vanished tribute to the 1,517 lives cut short when the monumental and grandiose prow of the Titanic sank beneath the icy waves of the North Atlantic Ocean.
(1) Nuala McCann, “Poignant ice tribute to Titanic victims”, BBC News, 21/10/2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-20020498
(2) For more about this, see my doctoral thesis, On Stage at the Theatre of State: The Monuments and Memorials in Parliament Square, London (A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of Nottingham Trent University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, March 2003).
(3) Graham Fuller (ed.), Potter on Potter, London, Faber and Faber, 1993, p. 17.
(4) Potter on Potter, pp. 31-32.
The British Museum possesses many thousands of fascinating objects. One of its self-styled “highlights” is a rather plain looking marble inscription. It comes from Rome and is dated around AD 193-211. What makes it so interesting are the things it does not show. These include the names of two relatives of the Roman emperor, Septimius Severus (AD 145-211), namely his daughter-in-law Plautilla and his son Geta. The latter was murdered by Septimius Severus’ other son Caracalla. He was Plautilla’s husband and Geta’s brother. The two siblings were bitter rivals following the death of their father. It is believed that Caracalla murdered Geta and then had his treacherous and much despised wife executed. And, to make matters even worse, they were then subjected to the posthumous punishment of damnatio memoriae:
their names were expunged from all official records and inscriptions
and their statues and all images of them were destroyed.
This process [damnatio memoriae] was the most horrendous fate
a Roman could suffer, as it removed him from the memory of society.(1)
However, removing Geta from public consciousness was not a straightforward matter. Caracalla was obliged to give his brother a proper funeral and burial due to Geta’s popularity both with the Roman army and among substantial sections of Roman society. This explains why the names of Geta and Plautilla were included on the British Museum’s marble inscription, only to be scratched out later on.
Why am I mentioning all this? Because a modern-day form of damnatio memoriae is currently unfolding in British society. This is in relation to the disc jockey, children’s television presenter and media celebrity, Sir Jimmy Savile OBE, KCSG, LLD (1926-2011). When he died last year at the ripe old age of 84 he was hailed a loveable hero who had done much for charity. Now, however, revelations have come to light suggesting that he was, in the words of the police, a “predatory sex offender”.(2)
As a result, strenuous efforts are being made to expunge him from the public record.(3) Thus, the charity that bears his name is considering a rebrand. A plaque attached to his former home in Scarborough was vandalised and has since been removed. So too has the sign denoting “Savile’s View” in the same town. Meanwhile, in Leeds, his name has been deleted from a list of great achievers at the Civic Hall. A statue in Glasgow has been taken down in an act of officially sanctioned iconoclasm. The same fate has been dished out to the elaborate headstone marking Savile’s grave. This last-named act of damnatio memoriae is in some ways a pity given the unintended poignancy of the epitaph inscribed on the stone: “It Was Good While It Lasted”. It was almost as if Savile knew that he would one day have to atone for his evil deeds.
Atonement has, alas, come too late for those that suffered at the hands of Savile. To make matters worse, his considerable fame has been replaced by a burgeoning notoriety. This is reminiscent of the damnatio memoriae that befell Geta and his sister-in-law Plautilla. The marble inscription that once carried their name is a “highlight” of the British Museum precisely because of the dark deeds associated with them and the futile efforts made to delete them from history. In their case, damnatio memoriae has, in a perverse way, enhanced their posthumous status centuries after their grisly deaths. Let’s hope that the same will not be said of the late Jimmy Savile – an individual who has gone from saint to scoundrel in the space of just a few short months.
(1) “Marble inscription with damnatio memoriae of Geta, son of Septimius Severus” (Roman, AD 193-211, from Rome, Italy, height 81.5 cm, width 47.5 cm, British Museum, Townley Collection, GR 1805.7-3.210, http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/m/marble_inscription.aspx).
(2) Martin Beckford, “Sir Jimmy Savile was a ‘predatory sex offender’, police say”, The Daily Telegraph, 09/10/2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9597158/Sir-Jimmy-Savile-was-a-predatory-sex-offender-police-say.html.
(3) “Jimmy Savile’s headstone removed from Scarborough cemetery” and “Sir Jimmy Savile Scarborough footpath sign removed”, BBC News, 12/10 & 08/10/2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-york-north-yorkshire-19893373 and www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-york-north-yorkshire-19867893.
“Nothing like commemorating an event to help you forget it.”
So wrote Art Spiegelman in his cathartic book, In the Shadow of No Towers (2004). This monumental tome is an analogue to the Twin Towers that Spiegelman saw vanish from the place this self-styled “‘rooted’ cosmopolitan” calls home.
I am reading Spiegelman’s book to help me write my own work of memorialisation under the provisional title, “Forked no lightning: remembering and forgetting in the shadow of Big Ben”.
Half-way through In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman recalls feeling asphyxiated by the flag-waving nationalism that characterised the “mind-numbing 2002 ‘anniversary’ event” (p.5). A year later the same date left him railing against the exact same “jingoistic strutting” (p. 10).
So perhaps Spiegelman was right to argue that there really is nothing like a good (or bad) commemoration to help you forget something?
Then it struck me: today is Tuesday 11th September! It’s gone 9 pm as I write, which means that almost an entire “9/11” has passed by without comment from family, friends, colleagues, strangers or those hourly BBC Radio 4 news bulletins that punctuate my day.
“The unmentionable odour of death offends the September night”. So wrote W.H. Auden in his poem “September 1st, 1939”. In 2003, Spiegelman asserted that this odour “still offends as we commemorate two years of squandered chances to bring the community of nations together” (p.10).
Many more chances have been missed since then. But at least the air seems to have cleared. Indeed, the breeze is so brisk that it appears to have blown away the cobwebs of 9/11 entirely. I guess we’ll just have to wait for a nice round number before we start remembering again...
And with that thought I slide my battered copy of In the Shadow of No Towers back into the oblivion of my bookcase. A lot of dust is destined to gather before a frisson of nostalgia prompts me to reach for it once again on 9/11/2021.
I stand corrected. BBC Radio 4’s “The World Tonight” at 10 o’clock has just referred to the anniversary of 9/11. It did so in relation to the Stars and Stripes that was hanging at half-mast at the US Embassy in Cairo. Why was this mournful flag mentioned? Because protestors stormed the compound, tore it down and replaced it with an Islamist banner. They were angered by the imminent release of the film Innocence of Muslims. This appears to have some connection to Florida Pastor and part-time religious book burner, Terry Jones.(1)
I do hope that news of this depressing incident doesn’t reach Art Spiegelman. It’ll simply confirm his despairing belief that “brigands suffering from war fever have since hijacked those tragic events…” (p. 4).
(1) For the background to this story and its deadly consequences see Matt Bradley and Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. Missions Stormed in Libya, Egypt”, The Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444017504577645681057498266.html
This affair becomes more tragic with every passing hour. Reports from Libya indicate that at least four consulate staff - including US ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens - have been killed. What a tragic act of pseudo commemoration._
Para, jämsides med.
En annan sort.
Bevingaren, 1980: 90
I once posted comments as Bevingaren at guardian.co.uk
Even a parasite like me should be permitted to feed at the banquet of knowledge
Note All parasitoids are parasites, but not all parasites are parasitoids
Parasitoid "A parasite that always ultimately destroys its host" (Oxford English Dictionary)
I live off you
And you live off me
And the whole world
Lives off everybody
See we gotta be exploited
By somebody, by somebody, by somebody
<I live off you>
Germ Free Adolescents
is a short step.
The word is
now a virus.
key words: architecture | archive | art | commemoration | design | ethics | framing | freedom of speech | heritage | heroes and villains | history | illicit trade | landscape | media | memorial | memory | museum | music | nordic | nottingham trent university | para | parasite | politics | science fiction | statue | stuart burch | tourism | words |