On this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, German tanks will be heading to Ukraine to fight Russia. Are we learning from or repeating the past?

With the approach of Holocaust Memorial Day, I find myself engaging with some of my customary questions around how to remember the past and learn from it. 

There is no question that 27th January is a day to collectively bear witness to those murdered under Nazi Germany’s heinous regime. To honour their memories and acknowledge the agonising voids they once filled. To hold in our minds and hearts those who survived and those born later scarred by the violence inflicted on their families. I personally can’t imagine a time when this is not the right thing to do.

Added to remembrance, is the necessity to grasp and implement the lessons of such dark episodes in history. The most obvious ones centre on the dangers and wrongness of discrimination; of othering fellow human beings for their perceived inferiorities or differences in religion, outlook, appearance, social standing, sexual orientation etc. This may feel relatively straightforward for decent people. It becomes less easy, however, when we are requested to act in the face of similar wrongdoings, rather than look away or rant on social media; to become ‘upstanders’ rather than bystanders. How do we do that in this world where injustices can be found everywhere?

One could deduce, that punishing the culprits is an important aspect of commemorating the Holocaust and avoiding future genocides, though the time for that may now have passed. Just over a month ago, the 97-year-old German care home resident, Irmgard Furchner, became possibly the last person to be convicted of Nazi war crimes. After a divisive trial in Itzehoe, she was given a 2-year suspended sentence for her role as the 18-year-old secretary to the Stutthof concentration camp commandant, Paul-Werner Hoppe. For many people, this is justice, no matter how late, and all the more deserved due to Furchner’s evident absence of remorse. For some, however, it is a vindictive attempt to assuage Germany’s collective guilt. For others, it is misplaced and sickening virtue-signalling, pointless scape-goating… the debate is lively.

Irmgard Furchner

A positive outcome of Germany’s learning from its dark past is its nigh on eighty years of pacifism. But this too appears to be being brought to an end, albeit with huge reluctance and resistance within the country. Putin’s illegal war and NATO’s unified military response in support of Ukraine have put understandable pressure on Germany to break its resolve not to get involved in military conflicts and supply Ukraine with its world class Leopard 2 tanks specifically designed to compete with the Russian T-90 tanks. Last night, after months of hesitation and debate, the Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the German government finally agreed to send a company of battle tanks and allowed other countries to send their German-made tanks too.

The whole issue is extremely complex, I know, but the psychological irony seems unavoidable. 

On the one hand, the widespread tendency to never let Germany forget the wrongs of its Nazi past is still alive and kicking. On the other, there is now equally widespread demand that it does just that. Or rather that it selectively remembers some bits of its past and forgets others, such as the traumatic memories of the last time German tanks rolled into Russia with the horrifically high death tolls and suffering of tens of millions that ensued. I wish I could ask my German grandfather what he thinks of the situation, having fought on the eastern front for so long… (See Chapters 14 & 15 in my book In My Grandfather’s Shadow)

Operation Barbarossa, 1941

From many points of view, including a growing number within Germany itself, there are compelling arguments for the government to embrace a Zeitenwende’ (turning of the times) in its foreign policy and to override its long-standing commitment to peacekeeping, up its defence budget and contribute more military solidarity to its NATO allies in a shared effort to support Ukraine against Russia. I am not saying this is right or wrong, just recognising that it is a HUGE step for Germans and Germany, a potential game-changer for either good or bad, and one we should try to understand rather than simply criticise and judge. 

Within the over-simplified, clean-cut narrative of Putin = bad, Ukraine/NATO = good, (which is naturally true from the West’s perspective but not from Russia’s and its allies, hence the conflict), space should be allowed for Germany’s justified fears of an escalation. Its visceral memories of fighting Russia and closer proximity to the country, raise genuinely terrifying concerns that we need to take seriously. At the same time, the contradictions in the messages being delivered to Germany surely don’t go unnoticed: Remember and take the full blame for the atrocities you caused with the Holocaust and the Second World War… but actually, forget some of them now and immediately dispatch tanks against the former enemy with whom you have been trying to make some kind of peace or amends and play a decisive and deadly frontline role in what could easily become a Third World War.

Maybe it really is time for Germany to move beyond its WW2 identity. I hope that this Zeitenwende in German policy will also find a counter Zeitenwende in certain mindsets.

Further Reading:

Was this Germany’s last ever Nazi war crime trial?

Why Germany hesitates on sending battle tanks to Ukraine

Why Germany is struggling to stomach the idea of sending tanks to Ukraine

Germany to send Leopard tanks to Kyiv and allow others to do so

Forthcoming Events focusing on In My Grandfather’s Shadow and open to Public:

Thursday 2nd February, 6-8.30pm, Painswick, Glos: First Thursday In ConversationMore info

Thursday 23rd March, 6pm – Summer Town Library, Oxford: Talk and Q&AMore info soon

Wednesday 29th March, 2-3pm – Oxford Literary Festival: In Conversation with Miranda Gold… More info

Looking back and looking forward…

Looking back over the past year, it seems that whatever lens you look through – global, political, environmental, financial, social – it was a pretty shit year. And looking ahead to 2023, it is hard to see how matters can improve enough to turn things around. Collectively we have been hurtling down a cul-de-sac with a gung-ho ‘it’ll be fine’ attitude for far too long and now we are finally waking up to the reality of the wall at the end. 

I was convinced the upside of the covid pandemic would be that the errors of our ways would become so obvious it would be impossible to return to ‘normality’. If they did, it was a short-lived awakening that hasn’t translated into political policy-making. Then again, maybe we are in more of a transition phase than we know. Maybe the upheavals and misery we are witnessing in the widespread strikes, the fuel and food crises, in Iran and so many other places are all part of a necessary disintegration of the old. Like the breaking up of soil for new shoots to emerge and bear different fruits.

Talking with people, it is evident that our outlooks on life and values have been subtly, if not dramatically impacted by the disruption across the planet. Change takes time and attracts resistance. Those who cling to the status quo will have a harder or more frustrating time in the long term, because ultimately the old models were built on dodgy foundations of exploitation and waste of natural and human resources; on greed and a psychological fear of lack; on delusions of superiority or entitlement; on widespread lies, incompetency, unresolved trauma and an epidemic of (often anonymous) nastiness… 

When, however, you turn away from the incessant rumble of worrying news, hardship and suffering that infiltrate our lives and look at the tiny pockets of society we as individuals inhabit, there is still a huge amount of kindness, generosity of spirit, vision, action, personal awakening and growth. So maybe we are all being invited to think differently? My strategy for 2023 is therefore to at least try to see the unrest everywhere as an essential part of a positive and necessary process of change in the world for the good of humanity. An osteopathic realignment of our shared spine. We have a long way to go. There will be casualties and loss. But I do believe in the power of little steps.

I think that is the biggest lesson writing my book has taught me. Getting to publication in July was a long, long climb, a bumpy road, at times a dark and lonely tunnel, at others a heart-expanding series of intimate encounters. Always focusing on the next step rather than the far-off goal, and taking that step were what eventually got me to the other side. 2023 offers a new chapter, a different landscape with expansive new horizons and possibilities. I wish that sense of possibility and hope for change for you and everyone in some small or big way. 

Have a happy, healthy, peace-filled and kind 2023! 

Links relating to the past year:

Read about my book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, here

Listen to radio interviews and podcasts about it here

View paintings in my Studio Sale here

Read more blogs here

In Praise of Empty Space…

November, in many cultures, is the month designated to remembering those who are no longer there. With a strange synchronicity, everything I did, watched, read or listened to pointed towards ‘absence,’ that non-presence devoid of form that artists call ‘negative space.’ “Empty space is the silence between musical notes, the pauses in poetry, the stillness of a dancer. Therein often lies the meaning or drama of a piece.” (In My Grandfather’s Shadow, Ch 11, p.144)  

I have just returned from a week in St Ives, the Cornish place that boasts the highest concentration of blue light in the UK and challenges many an artist to capture its effect in paint. A kind author friend each year offers her house of clean white rooms overlooking the beach and cliffs as a form of writing retreat for three of her fellow writer friends. All four of us want to make the most of precious time out, so the interiors fall silent during the days that in turn empty of all structure, just as our minds declutter of chores. 

I spent my time reading the diaries of my intrepid, spinster great great aunt, who travelled alone to the Himalayas in 1939 to gather flowers for Kew Gardens. I followed her slow, awe-filled progress as she step-by-stepped her precarious way through lofty peaks and flower- or snow-filled valleys, pausing with her when she rested to stare at the perfectly choreographed performance of clouds and weather dancing in front of my window. Thoughts wafted through my mind, some being noted, others just fading in and out like rainbows. For a whole week, I simply was.

My time there, along with books and films I have recently ingested, have been making me realise just how much I miss and yearn to regain some of what I remember loving doing as a child… nothing. Being born a day-dreamer, the spaces between activity and connection were always filled with a rich, albeit invisible world that had the capacity to entertain, or indeed bore. Boredom… how rarely we have time for that potentially creative vacuum within today’s ubiquitous overload of information, social media and communications that interrupt our rhythms with an octave of pings. I don’t think this is just a grumpy, old-age thing. (Well it may be a bit.) This nostalgia is captured well in ‘The End of Absence’ by the considerably younger and hipper author, Michael Harris. He reminds us of what we are in danger of losing as generations, who have never known life without the internet, gradually overtake those of us who have. 

The recently released and highly acclaimed film ‘Living’ based on the book by Akira Krosawa, screen written by Kazuo Ishiguro and starring Bill Nighy is set in 1950s London. Not a lot happens, and what does, happens incredibly slowly. The cinematography is stunning and emulates the subtle grace described in ‘In Praise of Shadows,’ a slim book by Junichiro Tanizaki that gently reveals traditional Japanese aesthetics and use of space. Unlike us in the west where the achievement of light is basically both goal and God, in Japan it was – and maybe still is in places – the creation of shadows that was the source of beauty and mystery. This quiet understatement is part of what I want to rediscover.

Another film I watched where even less happens but with still more potency and power, is The Banshees of Inisherin. Dark, sad, funny and impeccable in every way, including the acting of its two ‘In Bruges’ stars, Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, it basically portrays the painful ending of an long-standing friendship caused by the simple declaration by one: ‘I don’t want to be friends with you anymore’. The extensive space the film allows each facial movement, scene, sentence… one can almost feel the multi-layered clutter of ones own world begging to be emptied into black bin bags, or deleted.

With this increasingly strong desire to create more space, I decided to have a big Studio Sale of my art. (All works available can be viewed here.) And to finally sort through my real and digital filing office and cabinets in order to establish more clarity and space for new shoots and fruits. 

So with the start of Advent this Sunday and the build-up to the crazy, all-consuming Christmas season, I would like to invite you to join me in seeking out and reclaiming some of those quiet spaces life used to offer in abundance, and still does if we just stop… feel… and dream our way into them.

Wishing you a very Happy and Meaningful Advent…

Related Links

To buy my book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, as a Christmas present, please order from your local bookshop or online here

In My Grandfather’s Shadow’ is a brave, powerful, honest, thoughtful and meticulously researched book. I enjoyed it immensely. It has made me think very hard about intergenerational trauma transfer and explains so much about Germany, and perhaps, in the current context, Russia.General Sir Richard Shirreff, former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and author of ‘War with Russia’

To listen to the recent 5-part Interview with Chris Baxter on Radio West, please go to BBC iPlayer here

To look through and/or buy a piece of ART please go to my website: www.angelafindlay.com

Remembering Russia’s past as a way to understanding its present

The Remembrance Sunday of 2022 will be one of thankfully few since 1945 that sees another war in Europe raging. As we remember those who lost their lives in past wars, fellow Europeans will be losing theirs in the all too real conflict fighting itself out in Ukraine.

In my last blog I wrote about travelling the Berlin Wall Way, itself a form of 100+ mile-long memorial remembering both a repressive episode in history and those who lost their lives trying to escape it. Well, a little off that route in what was central East Berlin is Treptower Park, the largest Soviet military memorial outside the Soviet Union. Opened on 8th May 1949, it is a 10-hectare cemetery for 7000 of the more than 22,000 Soviet soldiers killed in the battle to take Berlin in the final months of the Second World War and contains the world-famous symbol of the role played by the Soviet Union in destroying National Socialism: the 13-meter towering statue of a Soviet soldier holding a lowered sword over a shattered swastika and cradling a rescued German child in his arm.

The Soviet Warrior Monument built by Yevgeny Vuchetich

To experience this place is to experience a sense of the enormity and profundity of the impact WW2 had on the Soviet / Russian people. For a start it is vast. And the extensive layout is designed to take you through a process of mourning and remembrance to honouring the victors as heroes and liberators. 

‘Heroes and liberators.’

We too use those words in relation to our own soldiers. But how often have we – or do we – actively honour the decisive role the Soviet soldiers played in defeating Nazi Germany? And how often do we include the mind-boggling numbers of Russians murdered or killed in the process (25 million to give a rough/round figure) in our process of remembrance? We don’t really, is the only answer I can find. And yet they were our allies in a war that we, as a nation, have made central to our national identity. Could our slightly introspective leanings and lack of acknowledgment of the Soviet sacrifices and achievement (among many other factors, not least the horrors of the Stalin era) have contributed to the attitudes of subsequent regimes and politics towards the West? Just a question… but one that walking through Treptower Park certainly made me ask.

‘Mother Homeland’

Entering through one of two avenues, the (tiny) visitor is led first to the statue of a grieving “Mother Homeland.” 

From there a promenade lined with weeping birches – incredibly moving witnessing trees seemingly crumpled in grief – you arrive at two sphynx-like kneeling soldiers that act as guardians to the cemetery section below. 

Looking back to the avenue of weeping birches
Looking ahead to the cemetery

Beautifully executed stone reliefs illustrating scenes from the ‘Great Patriotic War’ decorate the sixteen marble sarcophagi flanking the graves, while gold-lettered quotes by J. Stalin, the commander in chief of the Soviet armed forces, underscore the importance of the Communist Party and the Red Army under his leadership. Though clearly outdated, these quotes survived Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalinist rule in 1956 with the subsequent cull of Stalin-statues and effective banning of any mention of his name in public. 

The sarcophagi tell the story of the Second World War in Russia…
…through extraordinary imagery and craftsmanship.
Dedicated to the ‘heroic dying’ of the Russian people

At the very far end, you climb a stepped hill to a mausoleum supporting the aforementioned bronze statue of a Soviet soldier holding a small German girl.

Turning around to descend, you get an overview of the whole dramatic panorama that reflects the historical narratives and artistic concepts dominant in the Soviet Union under Stalin and to a degree still exist today: monumentality, hero worship, a personality cult, and a claim to exclusivity.

Treptower Park has been and continues to be a frequent venue for commemorative events. Since 1990, with the signing of the German-Soviet treaty on neighbourly relations and the German-Russian agreement on the upkeep of war graves in 1992, the Federal Republic of Germany committed itself to the care, renovation and maintenance of all Soviet military graves and war memorials in Germany. 

The evident meticulousness with which the whole site continues to be maintained (and patrolled by German police) is another of Germany’s visible expressions of understanding and reconciliation that have been extended to the Russian Federation and other countries brutally destroyed in the Third Reich’s expansionist and ideological wake. Does this reaching out in friendship make it easier to understand Angela Merkel’s unpopular (certainly in retrospect) policy relating to the Nord Stream pipeline? And the apparent weakness of Olaf Scholz’s initial reluctance to break Germany’s practice and permit the transfer of lethal weapons to areas of conflict… in this case, to Ukraine?

If the premise of my book is true and unresolved traumas of one generation can impact the lives and behaviour of subsequent generations, then the extreme collective traumas experienced by the Russian people over the past century are part of what we are seeing playing out in the attitudes, politics and actions of Russia today. Trauma responses such as emotional numbness, low self-esteem, acceptance of poverty might go some way to explain the apparent passivity and gullibility of large swathes of the population. Likewise, trauma responses such as shame might be producing the violence, megalomania and greed of those in power. Is this then, by extension of the idea, the natural destiny of all traumatised nations? After all we can see similar dysfunction and violence in Africa, South America and plenty of other nations once brutally colonised.

Psychohistory‘ – a new but exciting term to me that I appear to have already been practicing – seems to offer a way forward in thinking about these things. It combines history with psychology/psychoanalysis and social sciences/humanities to understand the emotional origin of the behavior of individuals, groups and nations, past and present. In other words, the ‘why’ of history.

I don’t have any answers, nor even the right questions yet, just an ever-growing sense of discomfort in simple, black and white narratives of good and bad, right and wrong. And an increasing belief that we are still very far from seeing, let alone comprehending the fuller picture. But we need to become more trauma-informed in all areas of life. For to neglect trauma is to leave people in a state of emotional numbness. And when you don’t feel, you become capable of overriding humanity and care for fellow living beings and life itself.

Further Reading / Viewing: 

These questions are explored more deeply in my book: In My Grandfather’s Shadow. Published by Penguin Transworld and Bantam Press in July 2022 and available in most bookshops and the usual online outlets

The brilliant BBC documentary ‘Russia 1985-1999: Traumazone’ by Adam Curtis is made up of multiple film snippets taken in those years. As a fly on the wall experience and from the comfort of an armchair, it doesn’t get much ‘better’ in terms of an experience of Russia. To have lived through those years of extreme deprivation, corruption and hunger must have been little short of appalling.

Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone review – ingenious, essential viewing from Adam Curtis

‘Generations of hurt’: Children and grandchildren of war survivors fear ripple effect of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Russia has yet to recover from the trauma of the Stalin era – The Guardian

Cycling the Berlin Wall Way… an education, a warning, an inspiration

In the faultless pageantry of Queen Elizabeth’s recent funeral, we witnessed one of the things that Britain does really well. Whether you are pro- or anti-monarchy, it was a spectacular display of planning, coordination, ritual, symbolism and attention to detail, as well as a gratitude- and love-filled farewell to the only ‘Her Majesty’ we have known. Impossible though it might sound, I missed most of it!

I was in Berlin experiencing what Germany does really well: remembrance and commemoration of a difficult and painful history. It was, however, not Germany’s intensive and on-going process of coming to terms with its Nazi past that I was focused on. This time, I was with my two siblings cycling the Berlin Wall Way, a continuous bicycle path that follows the former footprint of the 100-mile long Berlin Wall as closely as possible. Taking five days to complete, with added time to explore some of the many poignant locations in the centre, it was a total eye-opener, not least to the very concept of a divided city and country.

Map of West Berlin with the 160km Wall marked in red

The first initially confusing fact to digest is that, contrary to the widely held idea that the Berlin Wall was a north-to-south boundary separating West and East Berlin, in reality the wall went all the way round West Berlin thereby creating a democratic West German island within socialist East Germany. Even with a map, we found ourselves frequently asking: So, are we in the West or the East? the answer to which, I assure you, is rarely as straightforward or obvious as it sounds.

The second tangible shock felt while snaking along its course, was the utter illogic and arbitrariness of this ideological divide – through streets, houses, communities, lakes and woodlands. This randomness would have started as a line drawn on a map by the leaders of the victorious nations – USA’s President Harry S. Truman, Josef Stalin of the USSR, Britain’s prime ministers Winston Churchill and then Clement Attlee as well as other leading members of the three delegations present. That’s probably how most of the other contested border lines around the world have originated. To engage with the whole concept of division, not to mention the impact it had on families and friends separated for nearly three decades, is almost impossible. An enormous 360˚panorama entitled THE WALL by artist Jadegar Asisi gave us arguably our most immediate and visceral sense of being in West Berlin looking at and over the wall into the deadly world behind.

From the360˚ panorama THE WALL by Jadegar Asisi

The third challenge was understanding the complex evolution and structure of the wall that was built in three phases, starting overnight on 13th August 1961 as Berliners slept. What began as a barbed wire barrier and the closure of all but 13 of the 81 established crossing points between the Western and Soviet sectors, eventually developed into not one but two concrete walls separated by a corridor of no man’s land known as the ‘death strip’ with mines, raked sand to detect footprints, trip wire machine guns and armed East German guards in watch towers or patrolling on foot with dogs. By 1989, the Wall was lined with 302 watchtowers and more than 136 people had died trying to cross it.

An example of a section of the wall. What we call the Berlin Wall is on the left

Our little trio started our circumnavigation of West Berlin on the famous Glienicker Bridge in Potsdam in the middle of which spies were on a number of occasions exchanged in the dead of night.

Glienicker Bridge

Following a reassuringly well-marked ‘Mauerweg’ route, we soon passed Schloss Cecilienhof, host to the 1945 Potsdam Conference where the division of Berlin and Germany into occupied zones was decided. From there we hugged the shoreline of beautiful lakes, passing the Sacrower Heilandskirche, the church stranded in the controlled border strip and cut off from its congregation.

Heilandskirche, Sacrow, 1961

Heading north, we reached Alexander House, whose history became the subject of the acclaimed book by Thomas Harding, The House by the Lake, and is now a place of education and reconciliation.

Alexander House: The House by the Lake

Staying in different hotels en route at intervals of roughly 30 miles enabled us to gain a sense of the scale of the wall and the extraordinary episode in history that only ended a little over 30 years ago. Sections of the concrete boundary, a double cobbled stripe embedded into the pavement or road surface, information boards with photographs and explanations all punctuated our journey.

Most moving were the memorials telling heartbreaking stories of failed escapes, largely by young twenty-something-year-old men. With the same unflinching honesty for which all German WW2 or Holocaust-related museums and memorials have come to be known, these allowed us to feel the individual human cost of an ideology based on fear and a necessity to keep people in rather than keeping undesirables out, as the East’s ‘Anti-Fascist Wall’ name misleadingly proclaimed.

Continuing along canals and suburbs, we crossed the ‘Bösebrücke,’ the ‘Bad Bridge’ or Bornholm Bridge that made history on the evening of 9th November 1989 through the jubilant scenes of East Germans flooding across to be greeted by their Western “brothers and sisters” with sparkling wine, cheers and hugs while bemused Eastern border guards watched on helplessly. Unlike my former visits to Berlin while researching for my book, it was this joyous energy of liberation that primarily accompanied me on this trip and allowed me to experience the incredible resilience of Berlin’s inhabitants, past and present, and the revival of its worldwide status as a brilliantly creative, thriving city.

The Bornholm Bridge today and 1989 (pictured)

On we cycled, heading south through the beautifully curated but frequently harrowing Mauerpark (Wall Park) that leads into the Bernauer Strasse from which many of the well-known pictures of people jumping out of house windows into tautly held blankets in the West were taken. It was also the street under which various escape tunnels were dug similar to that shown in the 1962 documentary, The Tunnel and including the ‘Tunnel 29’ of the brilliant podcast and book with the same name.

An extended section of the wall and border strip have been preserved as a chilling testimony to its once terrifying presence.

Bernauer Strasse

The Wall then continues through Berlin Mitte past some of Berlin’s most famous landmarks: the Reichstag, the Brandenberg Gates, Under den Linden and the Tiergarten, past Potsdamer Platz and Check Point Charlie and along the boundary of what is now one of Berlin’s most chilling museums – the Topography of Terror – but what once was the location of many of the most sinister ministries of the Nazi regime. Then through graffiti-covered Kreuzberg, over the River Spree and to the longest surviving stretch of the inner wall painted in 1991 by painters from all over the world to form the colourful East Side Gallery.

Eastside Gallery: ‘My God. Help me to survive this deadly love.” From a press photograph of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker painted by by Dmitri Vrubel.

The final 40 miles or so along the southern strip of the wall’s course back to Potsdam was largely rural. A sense of peace replaces the former horror of all that the border came to represent. Long stretches of open fields, avenues of birch trees and an alley of 800 ornamental cherry trees donated by Japanese citizens and a TV station in 1995 “out of joy over the reunification of Germany.”

Finally, the three of us arrived back on the Glienicker Bridge from which we had begun our trip, each a little changed, each with a greater knowledge and understanding of German history and our German roots. Each with different emotional responses but a shared sense of the ultimate triumph of humanity and freedom over inhumane systems of repression.

Back on Glienicker Bridge

Upcoming Events relating to my book – In My Grandfather’s Shadow:

Friday 7th October, 7pm. Ebeneza Presents, Somerset: In My Grandfather’s Shadow. More information and tickets here

Sunday 9th October, 4pm. Cuckfield Book Festival: I will be in conversation with Julia Boyd, the best-selling author of Travellers in the Third Reich and A Village in the Third Reich.
More information and tickets here

Wednesday 12th October, 4pm. Mere Literary Festival: In Conversation with Jo Hall. More information and tickets here

Sunday 3rd November, 8.30pm. Stroud Book Festival: In Conversation with Alice Jolly, novelist, playwright and memoirist. More information and tickets here

Where Earth meets Art

There’s something about August that has left me with a form of blog-blankness.

It may be due to my first bout of covid leaving me in a congested fog. Or the fact that the news and politics are too depressing to listen to let alone engage with. I mean, just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, we are faced with the increasingly likely prospect of Liz Truss becoming prime minister! 

Whichever way you look, there’s evidence of climate change, stories of polluted rivers, strikes, shortages, waste, price hikes, incompetency… Seeking out the positives is possible, there are plenty of them around. But most people are having to dig deep to find resources of resilience. For some, these will be primarily financial: basic survival – food, heating, shelter. For others, the focus might be on mental or physical health, practicalities, business strategies… or a mix of all of the above. Somehow it all feels so huge.

Today I did something I haven’t done for a while. I went to an art exhibition. Entitled EARTH: Digging Deep in British Art 1781-2022, it was the fourth in Bristol’s RWA series based on the four elements.  Earth has made a regular appearance in my work. It was a major component of my mud paintings, of my exhibition Re-dressing Absence about the paupers buried in Stroud Cemetery in unmarked graves, and it features prominently in my recently published book In My Grandfather’s Shadow (IMGS) both literally and metaphorically. 

Me gathering River Severn mud for my paintings, 2002

I can’t say the RWA’s EARTH was the most interesting exhibition I’ve ever been to in my life, but in my current mind-fog state of finding it hard to form a coherent narrative about anything, I’d like to intermingle some of my thoughts, experiences and passages from my book relating to ‘earth’ with loosely corresponding artworks by some of the exhibiting artists. 

For me, the earth – as old as time itself – holds the memories of history. ‘Like a smell or tune or piece of material heritage, a particular location can instantly evoke a past that appears to have been buried.’ (IMGS p. 145)

Katie Paterson (b. 1981) Fossil Necklace, 2013
Katie Paterson (b. 1981) Fossil Necklace, 2013

It absorbs the blood, sweat and tears of humanity’s passage over its surface. 

Paul Nash (1889-1946) Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917, 1918

It is the life-giving womb of Mother Nature and a resting place for most of us after death. 

Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) Downs in Winter, 1935

Earth offers a metaphor for our hidden roots. ‘Though at times it felt like it, I am, of course far from the only person to try to rattle and sieve the truth from the soil of the past. But the truth is not easily dislodged when it is triple-bound by trauma, guilt and accusations of complicity.’ (IMGS p. 279)

Michael Porter RWA (b. 1948) Dirt Series, 2018-2021

It’s a place of darkness, difficult to access, but also the guardian of precious secrets, materials and gems. ‘While I continued to pursue answers to unresolved questions, sometimes I dreaded having to descend like a miner into the darkness of the Second World War. It always took so long to adjust to the lack of light and air…’ (IMGS p. 314)

Graham Sutherland OM (1903-1980) Tin Mine, Emerging Miner 1942

It became part of my process to come to terms with my German heritage. ‘There was one more task to accomplish before we left La Stanga: my soil ritual. With its fusion of site-specific rite, remembrance and reconciliation, I had come to see this… as a form of acupuncture, using a trowel instead of needles to stimulate the healing of wounded places and wounded people…’ (IMGS p. 150)

Emma Stibbon RA RWA (b. 1962) Broken Terrain, 2017

The earth holds energy. And as David Malone says in his beautiful BBC documentary The Secret Life of Waves, ‘Energy can never be destroyed, it can only change from one form to another. That is the premise of the intergenerational transmission of emotions that I have written about in In My Grandfather’s Shadow. That is why I instinctively traveled to significant places as part of my research. That is why I used earth in my art and my ritual. I wanted to feel the energy and work with that energy in order to understand.

Maybe, if we just keep noticing and moving towards those little moments when all the elements are in perfect harmony, we will find the inner resilience we need to get through the more challenging times.

Sunrise

EVENTS COMING UP:

Thursday 22nd September, 2pm: The Chelsea History Festival at the National Army Museum, London.
Join Angela Findlay as she discusses the process of coming to terms with her grandfather’s wartime service in the German Army and the heritability of guilt. Book tickets here  

Monday 26th September, 3-6.30pm: Online Training: Developing a Shame-Informed Approach Information and Registration here 

Sunday 9th October, 4pm: Cuckfield Book Festival. Julia Boyd and Angela Findlay in conversation about A Village in the Third Reich and In My Grandfather’s Shadow. More information and tickets here

Wednesday 12th October, 4pm: Mere Literary Festival. Angela Findlay in conversation with Jo Hall. More information and tickets here