Sun Inn, Canterbury
"Our memories remain collective... and are recalled to us through others even though only we were participants in the events or saw the things concerned. In reality, we are never alone. Other men (sic) need not be physically present, since we always carry with us and in us a number of distinct persons.
"I arrive for the first time in London and take walks with different companions… Even if I were unaccompanied, I need only have read their varying descriptions of the city, been given advice on what aspects to see, or merely studied a map. Now suppose I went walking alone. Could it be said that I preserve of that tour only individual remembrances, belonging solely to me? Only in appearance did I take a walk alone. Passing before Westminster, I thought about my historian friend's comments (or, what amounts to the same thing, what I have read in history books). Crossing a bridge, I noticed the effects of perspective that were pointed out by my painter friend (or struck me in a picture or engraving). Or I conducted my tour with the aid of a map. Many impressions during my first visit to London – St. Paul's, Mansion House, the Strand, or the Inns of Court – reminded me of Dickens' novels read in childhood, so I took my walk with Dickens. In each of these moments I cannot say that I was alone, that I reflected alone, because I had put myself in thought into this or that group… Other men (sic) have had these remembrances in common with me. Moreover, they help me to recall them. I turn to these people, I momentarily adopt their viewpoint, and I re-enter their group in order to better remember. I can still feel the group's influence and recognize in myself many ideas and ways of thinking that could not have originated with me and that keep me in contact with it."
Maurice Halbwachs, The Collective Memory, trans. F.J. Ditter Jr and V. Yazdi Ditter (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), pp. 23-24.
Tell me who can I trust? I wanna fly to the stars.
Janelle Monáe, 'Sally Ride', The Electric Lady, 2013
Ian Prince (1960-2017)
A tool box. What a perfect way to remember Ian Prince. A man who spent all his time making, building and repairing. Ian was a doer not a thinker. I’m the opposite: I just sit around thinking about things. And sometimes I think about my Uncle Ian and the legendary advice he gave me: ‘Here, Stu – if you keep studying your brain’ll explode.’
Education wasn’t for Ian. He was in much too much of a rush to get out into the world and do stuff. That tendency goes right back to some of his earliest and happiest memories. Of spending time with his dad at work on the railways; catching lifts with him on the train, riding on the footplate, cooking breakfast in the cab.
No matter what he did, Ian was always his dad’s favourite. His old man used to say that he loved every hair on Ian’s sweet little head. That was probably just as well, because Ian was no angel.
I’d like to tell you about some of the naughty things he got up to.
Mm, it’s probably best if I don’t mention that one…
Oh, and I’m definitely not reading this out loud…
Ah, here’s one I’ll risk sharing. It links to that song we heard at the start, which was one of Ian’s favourites. The Style Council’s ‘You’re the best thing’. It includes the lines: ‘I might shoot to win / And commit the sin’. Perhaps these words reminded Ian of the air rifle he got one Christmas. He tested it on the neighbour’s greenhouse. Not one pane of glass survived to see in the New Year.
At least when Ian was at school, his parents could relax for a few hours. Right? Wrong. As one memorable school report put it: ‘Ian Prince? Who’s Ian Prince?’
Ian enrolled in the school of life – and passed with flying colours. He began his career as an apprentice plasterer working for the construction firm, Beazer – a local business that started out as a family firm in the early 19th century. The young Ian’s ever-loving dad dragged him out of bed, made his sandwiches and strove to keep him on the right track. It worked. Ian learnt a trade before moving on to the engineering company Stothert & Pitt.
Ian was both physically strong and mentally resilient. He could turn his hand to anything. He was fearless and took many risks while working.
This recklessness plus a wicked sense of humour were developed at an early age. Take, for example, the occasion when his older brothers persuaded innocent little Ian to jump out of a first floor window. ‘Don’t worry!’, they explained: ‘Hold this umbrella and you’ll float gently to the ground. It’ll be just like in Mary Poppins!’
Another early aerial experience involved being sat in the branches of a tree with his sister, Gill. She must have been about 10 or 11 years old. They were spotted by some local girls, one of whom pointed up and shouted: ‘My sister wants to go out with you!’ We can only begin to imagine Ian’s excitement upon hearing this news. Sadly, his fantasies were short-lived. ‘No, not you! Your sister!’ (I think the signs were there early on, Gilly.)
This must have been one of those very rare occasions when Ian failed with the opposite sex. When this did happen he could always turn to the other love of his life: motorbikes. Picture the young Ian, not as Mary Poppins, but as James Dean, riding a motorbike over Pennyquick in Bath. Richard remembers one occasion when Ian asked if he could have a little go on his new motorbike. Rich didn’t see either again until the petrol ran out. Ian had to push the bike home and face one very pissed off brother; but I bet it was worth it.
I think Ian must have been an easy person to forgive. He lived up to his name: Ian was Prince Charming; a handsome, charismatic man with a passion for fashion. His hand-me-down clothes took pride of place in my brother Chris’s wardrobe. They were more than just cast-offs. They symbolised the uncle he idolised. A bad boy role model who introduced him to all the things he shouldn’t have done then and can only dream about now.
Ian had the gift of the gab. He was a natural wheeler dealer who could always negotiate a bargain and get his own way. But as he matured he used those qualities to build a strong family. A man can achieve great things if he is blessed with the love of a good woman. That song we heard at the start should be interpreted as Ian’s message to Helen:
‘You’re the best thing that ever happened / To me or my world’.
But, as we all know, in the real world a Prince doesn’t turn into a frog after just one kiss. The old Ian never really went away. Josh, for example, remembers some extra classes arranged by his dad. This involved taking him out of school to have paid lessons with a top motocross rider. This was such a success that it happened again – and again, and again. Ian knew that Helen would be delighted by this educational experiment meaning that there was really no need for Josh to mention it to his mum.
Indeed, Ian was so concerned about his son’s education that it led to a special one-to-one meeting with Josh’s headmaster. This was because Josh gave his dad the wrong date for parents’ evening. So Ian turned up a day late and bumped into a rather surprised headmaster. After all those years, that old school report was still ringing true: ‘Ian Prince? Who’s Ian Prince?’
But be in no doubt: Ian was a doting father who always ensured that Lauren and Josh had the very best.
Don’t forget, though, that Ian also had first-hand experience of what kids get up to when their parents aren’t around. So it’s not surprising that he was perhaps a tiny bit overprotective. Like that time when he sent out a search party to locate the teenage Lauren – and promptly reported her missing when the search failed. Lauren, of course, was having the time of her life at a house party just round the corner, too afraid to tell her dad where she was going and struggling to think of an appropriate response to a text message from Bath police station asking her to contact them urgently.
The great thing about growing up is that we can look back on such things and realise that our parents were irritating and embarrassing because they loved us. Ian’s not around anymore, but his love for his family will never end. He’ll be a constant presence in your lives. Just as you were in his.
So let me end by referring one final time to that Style Council song. Ian knew that his family were the best thing that ever happened to him. And, the song adds: ‘So don’t go away’. Well, Ian, we haven’t – we’re here to say thank you and to let you know that we’ll never forget you.
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.
“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony...”
These words of St. Francis of Assisi were cited by Margaret Thatcher on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street on Friday 4th May 1979 – the day she took office as the first female prime minister of Great Britain. Mrs Thatcher went on to add some thoughts of her own: “and to all the British people – howsoever they voted – may I say this. Now that the Election is over, may we get together and strive to serve and strengthen the country of which we’re so proud to be a part.”(1)
This is indicative of a paradox that runs right through Thatcher’s long and eventful period in power.
Those who laud her achievements urge her detractors to accept that, whilst they might not have agreed with her politics, she should be admired as a great patriot with a “lion-hearted love for this country”. That was how David Cameron characterised her on the day she died. He chose to deliver his eulogy on the spot from where his predecessor addressed the media back in 1979. Nevertheless, at the same time as praising the person he regarded as “saving” the country, Cameron added: “We can’t deny that Lady Thatcher divided opinion.” He insisted, however, that Thatcher “has her well-earned place in history and the enduring respect and gratitude of the British people.”(2)
It is characteristic of Mr Cameron that he should deliver such a contradictory statement. If Thatcher “divided opinion” how can “the British people” be of one mind? And if she loved Britain so much, how could Thatcher encourage a climate in which some Britons prospered and thrived at the expense of others?
This continues to pose a problem now that she is dead. How should she be memorialised? Bear in mind that a statue erected in her lifetime has already been decapitated by an irate “patriot”.(3)
An early opportunity to test the public mood will come during the ceremony leading to her cremation. Whilst she will not be given a state funeral, she will be accorded a military procession to St Paul’s Cathedral. During that parade all manner of socialists, former miners, Irish nationalists, Argentines, anti-Apartheid veterans, LGBT campaigners and others might seek to pay their final respects in ways that will subvert David Cameron’s confident assertion regarding Thatcher’s “place in history and the enduring respect and gratitude of the British people.”
Once the funeral is over thoughts will turn to a more permanent commemoration. At that point the Iron Lady will be transmogrified into bronze. The obvious place to site such a memorial is Parliament Square.(5) There she can surmount a pedestal alongside the petrified Churchill and generate an interesting dialogue with the statues of two South Africans, Jan Smuts and Nelson Mandela.
Thatcher’s opposition to international sanctions against Apartheid South Africa – plus her hostility to German reunification – are reminders that differences of opinion over her legacy are not confined to England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. In each of these areas one can cite a litany of issues that remain contentious today, from the North-South divide in England to the piloting of the Poll Tax in Scotland, the decimation of the industrial communities of South Wales and her administration’s secret negotiations with the IRA in stark contrast to Thatcher’s publicly stated position.
It seems inevitable that an official memorial to Lady Thatcher will be erected in the not-too-distant future. All too often such commemorations pretend to be natural occurrences that are universally supported. That lie will be impossible to sustain in this particular instance. A literal Iron Lady will confirm an observation made by Kirk Savage: “Public monuments do not arise as if by natural law to celebrate the deserving; they are built by people with sufficient power to marshal (or impose) public consent to their erection.”(4)
Waves of attacks will be unleashed on any tangible memorial to Thatcher. These will be dismissed as vandalism or accepted as iconoclasm depending on one’s point of view. But the daubs of paint or attempts at decapitation will confirm one thing. Mrs Thatcher achieved much, but by her own measure she failed in at least one regard. She came to office urging Britons to “get together” and help her “bring harmony”. Yet her enduring legacy is division and discord.
And that’s something that even David Cameron cannot deny.
(1) Margaret Thatcher, “Remarks on becoming Prime Minister (St Francis’s prayer)”, 04/05/1979, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=104078
(2) Steven Swinford & James Kirkup, “Margaret Thatcher: Iron Lady who made a nation on its knees stand tall”, Daily Telegraph, 08/04/2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/9980285/Margaret-Thatcher-Iron-Lady-who-made-a-nation-on-its-knees-stand-tall.html
(3) The perpetrator was Paul Kelleher, a thirty-seven year old theatre producer. His justified his actions by claiming that the attack was in protest against global capitalism. See Stuart Burch, 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), pp. 350-351.
(4) Kirk Savage, “The politics of memory: Black emancipation and the Civil War monument”, in John R Gillis (ed.), Commemorations: the politics of national identity, Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 135.
(5) This was something that I called for a decade ago: “An image of Margaret Thatcher in the sacred yet so vulnerable domain of Parliament Square would infuse it with ‘living power’. For the statue, taking its rightful place alongside Churchill, would be finely posited between veneration and disdain and then, in the fullness of time, between neglect and ignorance.” Burch, On Stage at the Theatre of State, 2003, p. 351.
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!
The sunset poem of the Reverend Eli Jenkins. (1)
In memory of Barbara Ann Burch.
“Remember her. She is forgetting.” (2)
(1) Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood, London: Dent, 1995, pp. 57-58.
(2) Under Milk Wood, p. 52.
Plans to erect a statue of George Harrison in Henley-on-Thames have been dropped following opposition from The Beatles’ widow, Olivia Harrison. Instead she is reported to favour “a community project in his name.”(1)
This incident reflects longstanding reservations about devoting so much time and money in producing yet another mute monument. Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate a life in ways that benefit the present? And is this not all the more necessary in our increasingly digital age?
With this in mind, it is salutary to see the emergence of a collective commemoration of Aaron Swartz (1986-2013).
During his short life this freedom of speech advocate urged people to sign up to his “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto”.
His tragic suicide has given rise to the Twitter trend, #pdftribute whereby academics are encouraged to upload their scholarly papers that are withheld from public circulation due to what Swartz condemned as “the privatization of knowledge”.
The result is a collaborative, politically motivated memorial act that is the antithesis of an effigy on a stone pedestal. It is instead a living, livid legacy that is entirely in keeping with the circumstances that led to the death of Aaron Swartz..
(1) “George Harrison Henley-on-Thames statue campaign halted”, BBC News, 12/01/2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-20997626.
Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)
Full text of “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto”
History today according to the BBC
The front page of today’s BBC news website reveals a great deal about how historical events impinge on the present. This needs to be seen as indicative of a widespread obsession with the past. But it shouldn’t make us overlook the fact that the primary interest is current affairs. Simply put, history needs to have some contemporary resonance in order to count as “news”.
This is the case with the deaths of two men in their 90s. Their passing is, of course, a personal loss to their friends and relatives. I never knew them, but I am invited to pay my respects because these two gentlemen feature in the collective consciousness. This is due to two events that form part of the national story, namely the Jarrow March of 1936 and the experiences of Britons incarcerated overseas during the Second World War.
The demise of Con Shiels (the last survivor of the Jarrow March) and Alfie Fripp (a veteran of no fewer than twelve POW camps) marks the moment when two iconic occurrences pass from lived experience to “history”. This liminal moment gives the past a special frisson. We watch as the final living link to a momentous event is broken. This is history in the making.
There are lots of other issues that flow from these particular stories. Is history made by the many or the heroic (or villainous) few? Can we learn from “everyday heroes” like Con Shiels and Alfie Fripp? If so, what part (if any) do we play in history? And what actually counts as a historical event? How influential was the Jarrow March? Did it change the course of history? Or is its significance given undue importance by subsequent commentators?
In the BBC’s report of the death of Con Shiels it is notable that the trade unionist, Steve Turner is quoted calling for a “new ‘rage against poverty’”. Similarly, in 2011 the Jarrow March was re-enacted to mark its 75th anniversary and draw attention to youth unemployment. This demonstrates how a historical “fact” is nothing without interpretation. And this makes it inevitable that the politics of the present will get woven into the patterns of the past.
The Jarrow example provides a flavour of things to come. Get ready for the bickering and arguing that will be triggered when Margaret Thatcher dies!
The shadow of the Iron Lady looms large over another historically-flavoured news story: the status of the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). This latest episode relates to Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s open letter to British prime minister, David Cameron in which she decries the continuance of “a blatant exercise of 19th-century colonialism” and calls for a negotiated solution as urged by the General Assembly of the United Nations way back in 1965.
Interestingly enough, one of the BBC web links connected to de Kirchner’s rhetorical salvo refers to new documents released under the British government’s 30-year rule. These reveal just how surprised Thatcher was by the Argentine invasion. Access or restrictions concerning such primary evidence play a crucial role in determining how history gets written and re-written.
Another link stemming from the latest crisis facing the Falkland Islands reminds us of the glorious / tragic events of 1982 via the commemorative events marking the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the Anglo-Argentine war.
An anniversary such as this represents an additional way in which the past enters the present. The commemorative re-enactment of the Jarrow March is a case in point. A further example is to be seen amongst today’s crop of news stories, namely the centenary of Rhiwbina garden village in Cardiff.
But what about events of today that are destined to become tomorrow’s history?
Well, the year that has just passed has gone down in the record books as the “second wettest on record”. There is reason to believe that this will soon be surpassed, with reports that “extreme rainfall” is on the rise.
And this is an appropriately apocalyptic note to end this account of history today. Because one of the factors motivating our love of the past is a widespread anxiety about the future. History’s near cousin is nostalgia. Poverty, unemployment and war take on a rosy hue thanks to the patina of time. Using the vantage point of the present we know that things worked out alright in the end...
Or did they?
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.
Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel has just been published. This 400-page document investigates an incident which occurred on 15th April 1989 at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. On that awful day a soccer match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest had to be abandoned when the Leppings Lane stand became overcrowded. The ensuing crush led to the death of 96 Liverpool football fans.
This terrible loss of life and the unbearable grief of their loved ones have been compounded over the past 23 years by a deliberate and systematic attempt to cover up what happened. That much is clear from the report released today.
One of its most startling findings relates to the fact that written statements made at the time by police officers and members of the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service were altered. Why? The answer is emphatic:
“Some 116 of the 164 [police] statements identified for substantive amendment were amended to remove or alter comments unfavourable to SYP [South Yorkshire Police].”(1)
In other words, our supposed custodians of law and order – both then and since – have been more interested in their own image and reputation than in finding out what went so catastrophically wrong.
And this, I argue, is why a so-called “academic” subject such as History is so vital to a democratic and viable society. Compare the contemporary example set out above with this quotation from The Historian’s Craft by Marc Bloch:
One of the most difficult tasks of the historian is that of assembling those documents which
he [or she] considers necessary... Despite what the beginners sometimes seem to imagine,
documents do not suddenly materialize, in one place or another, as if by some mysterious
decree of the gods. Their presence or absence in the depths of this archive or that library
are due to human causes which by no means elude analysis. The problems posed by
their transmission, far from having importance only for the technical experts, are
most intimately connected with the life of the past, for what is at stake is nothing less
than the passing down of memory from one generation to another.
Bloch had no need to restrict his attention to “the life of the past”. Because “the passing down of memory from one generation to another” occurs in the here and now. The Hillsborough disaster is history. But its living legacies are life, truth and justice in the present. These qualities should be our memorial to ten-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley who, together with 95 fellow supporters, became the innocent victim of official incompetence, misconduct and suppression on that fateful day in April 1989.
(1) Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, September 2012, HC 581, London: The Stationery Office, p. 339.
(2) Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004, pp. 57-59.
“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._
“The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space
on which we map them for our own convenience.
None of them was ever more than a thin slice,
held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time;
remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment;
and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”
Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, Volume I,
translated by Charles Kenneth Scott-Moncrieff
After writing Manipulating Moderna Museet, I decided to revisit the museum for one last look at "Image over Image" – a temporary exhibition devoted to the work of Elaine Sturtevant.
This decision was in itself noteworthy. In one of the gallery spaces it’s possible to watch a video of “The Powerful Pull of Simulacra”. This is the title of the lecture Sturtevant gave in conjunction with the show.(1) In it she argues that “objects are out; image is the power”. But if this is the case, why do we need a museum of objects such as Moderna Museet? Indeed, what is the point of making a physical pilgrimage to see “Image over Image”?
The answer, I think, is all to do with “the powerful pull of simulacra”. I paid a repeat visit to “Image over Image” in order to savour being in the presence of what might be termed “genuine fakes”. This is a reference to one of the most striking moments of Sturtevant’s lecture: the part when she talks about “falsity presented as truth”.
That evocative phrase – “falsity presented as truth” – encapsulates “Image over Image”.
My moment of epiphany came as I genuflected in a room containing four works entitled Warhol Flowers. These are all dated 1990 – the same year of creation as those Brillo boxes that Pontus Hultén so very generously donated to Moderna Museet.
And then it struck me!
Moderna Museet is a secular temple. Its sacred spaces and canonical texts authenticate that which it displays.
Sturtevant’s “Image over Image” has allowed Moderna Museet to reclaim Pontus Hultén’s “fake” Brillo boxes. This in turn expunges their questionable provenance which threatened to besmirch the good name of Moderna Museet’s most illustrious leader.
Thanks to Sturtevant, it is now possible for the Brillo boxes’ falsity to be presented as truth. For is it not the case that, at the very same time that Sturtevant was propagating Warhol Flowers, Hultén was conjuring up a whole new suite of Brillo boxes? Endorsing the former has the effect of validating the latter.
And that’s how dead artist’s can produce genuine works of art long after their deaths.
If you still don’t get it, well, that’s probably just your “determination to be stupid” – to quote that true original, Elaine Sturtevant.(2)
(1) Elaine Sturtevant, “The Powerful Pull of Simulacra”, a talk given at the symposium, Beyond Cynicism: Political Forms of Opposition, Protest, and Provocation in Art, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 18th March 2012.
clone, copy, counterfeit,
fabrication, facsimile, fake, forgery,
imitation, impersonation, impression,
replica, reproduction, ringer,
Each of the words listed above mean roughly the same thing. Yet they are distinguised by subtle nuances, each of which leads to crucial differences in import.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word synonym as:
two or more words (in the same language) having the same general sense,
but possessing each of them meanings which are not shared by the other or others,
or having different shades of meaning or implications appropriate to different contexts.
The notion that meaning and implication are context dependent is highly significant. Take, for example, the following scenarios:
a) A forgery on sale for millions of pounds at an auction
b) a study hanging on the wall of an art gallery
The first of these two examples indicates a deliberate (often criminal) attempt to pass one thing off as another in order to undermine the art world and/or swindle both the potential buyer and the auction house.
A “study”, however, is an entirely different class of object:
An artistic production executed for the sake of acquiring skill or knowledge,
or to serve as a preparation for future work; a careful preliminary sketch for
a work of art, or (more usually) for some detail or portion of it;
an artist’s pictorial record of his observation of some object, incident,
or effect, or of something that occurs to his mind, intended for his
own guidance in his subsequent work.
The intention of the creator and the characterisation of the object determine in large part whether something is a worthless “forgery” or a valuable “study”.
The fascinating implications of all this have been apparent to people visiting Moderna Museet's “Image over Image” (17/03 – 26/08/2012).
At first glance this temporary exhibition looks like an impressive assemblage of iconic pieces by the likes of Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.
However, the person responsible for these works (and a few sex toys besides) is in fact the American artist, Elaine Sturtevant (born 1930).
A leaflet accompanying the show revels in this assemblage of playfully deceptive things that “defies description and instead frustrates, provokes and gathers strength in maintaining a perpetual stance of opposition.”
This characterisation is exactly the sort of on-the-edge radicalism to which Moderna Museet aspires. The Sturtevant show provides the institution with an opportunity to demonstrate that “Moderna Museet also has a history of confronting authenticity”. Cited in this regard are “the now internationally infamous Brillo boxes.”
The museum leaflet does not go into detail about why they are so infamous. Nor does it point out that they are currently exhibited in a gallery space immediately after the Sturtevant exhibition. The boxes in question are piled up in a corner alongside a label that reads:
Here, Moderna Museet emphatically does not deploy the Sturtevant exhibition to “confront” questions of authenticity or explore the nuances of words such as fabrication, facsimile, fake, forgery... Instead it lulls the vast majority of visitors into believing that the pile of boxes in the corner is a genuine artwork by Andy Warhol – produced three years after his death.
In truth these items were donated to Moderna Museet by their creator: its former director, Pontus Hultén. He used this institutional endorsement as leverage when selling other such boxes to private collectors at enormous personal profit.(1)
None of this is mentioned. Visitors are instead fed the normal fare of artspeak mystification enfolding both the temporary Sturtevant exhibition and the museum’s permanent collection. Of the latter, one room is themed: “Art as idea, language and process”. An introductory text panel by Cecilia Widenheim explains how the likes of “Marcel Broodthaers and Hans Haacke were among the first to criticise the art museum as an institution.” At the same time an artist such as “Öyvind Fahlström encouraged his viewers to ‘manipulate’ language.”
A superb example of language manipulation and the continuing need to critique an institution such as Moderna Museet lies immediately behind this vapid statement, namely those Brillo boxes by Andy Warhol (sic).
The means to highlight this are simple. All it would take is an action entirely in the spirit of Sturtevant’s “perpetual stance of opposition” and Moderna Museet’s proud “history of confronting authenticity” and Öyvind Fahlström’s encouragement for “viewers to ‘manipulate’ language.”
All one need do is quietly remove the “manipulative” label next to that pile of Brillo boxes and replace it with the following – what shall we call it? – facsimile, imitation, likeness, parody, transcription:
(1) See my chapter “Introducing Mr Moderna Museet: Pontus Hultén and Sweden’s Museum of Modern Art” in Kate Hill (ed.) Museums and Biographies: Stories, Objects, Identities (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2012), pp. 29-44.
For a follow up to this story, see Falsity presented as truth (22/08/2012).
Para, jämsides med.
En annan sort.
Bevingaren, 1980: 90
Even a parasite like me should be permitted to feed at the banquet of knowledge
I once posted comments as Bevingaren at guardian.co.uk
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 | parasite | politics | science fiction | shockmolt | statue | stuart burch | tourism | words |