Between Birth and Death lies Brexit and very little else it seems… until you enter the world of Art

In these final weeks before the Brexit deadline, I should probably be saying a few words. I’m prone to giving little speeches after all. But I just can’t bring myself to join in the clatter of opinions and emotions. Indeed, when we cross the March 29th threshold, I will be far away in another country, and slightly hoping to get stuck there. Anyway, there are more important things in life than bloody Brexit as my recent visit to the Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth exhibition proved. 

On a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning, I arrived at the still closed doors of the Royal Academy determined to be first in and to have my long-standing hero, Michelangelo, to myself with all the quiet intimacy his tiny, yet exquisite drawings require. So I entered the first darkened room wholly unprepared to come face to face with a floor-to-ceiling-high woman squatting with splayed legs in the final throes of childbirth. Next to her, equally huge, a ghostly figure swirled like white ink dropped in black water. And beyond that, the hollow-cheeked face of an old woman sucked her final breaths through a respirator. 

Bill Viola Nante’s Triptych (1992)

While very moving, Bill Viola’s video installation Nante’s Triptych is, in some ways, a fairly obvious depiction of humanity. Between the life-filled rotundity of the baby’s face and the sunken cavities that collapse the old woman’s into little more than a skin-covered scull, lies what we call ‘Life’. Birth and Death become mere moments, portals into and out of the human experience. 

But standing in front of these huge videos I saw something else too. It was like I was staring at a visual rendition of one of the underlying plots of the book I’m writing. For, as I took my first breaths in a nursing home in Kent, my German grandfather was heaving his last in the family home in Schleswig Holstein. Our lives overlapped for a mere six days and yet, behind the changing backdrops to my physical existence, he too continued to exist. As I tripped and tromped my way through the various milestones of my life, he was there; an absent presence, like the shadowy figure of a backstage assistant, moving behind the scenes, invisible to the audience but essential for the illusion of the stage ‘reality’. “The dead are invisible, they are not absent,” St Augustine had said. And looking at that central panel, Viola seems to be saying that too; we all occupy the same space, between Birth, Death and Rebirth.

Michelangelo The lamentation over the Dead Christ (1540)

Overtaking other early visitors immersed in subsequent room-sized Viola installations, I eventually reached a row of Michelangelo’s drawings and shrank my full attention into each one in turn. And there I saw what I value most in the world. There, vibrating through the tiny pencil strokes evoking Mary’s extreme tenderness towards her child, the weightlessness of Christ’s resurrection and the dynamic muscularity of writhing male figures, was the most sublime evidence of the soul. That invisible part of us that transcends birth, life, death… even Brexit. In this country the word ‘soul’ is often spurned for its religious connotations. As a result, even the concept of soul is all but ignored or avoided by modern politics, the school curriculum, medicine and science… but not by Art. In Germany, the word for soul is Seele. It effortlessly encompasses all that is intangible about us – mental, psychological, emotional, spiritual, psychic – so it is more liberally embraced and supported in many spheres of life. This is what I fear we have been losing sight of in pre-Brexit Britain; that essence of what we love and value about a Michelangelo or any other truly great piece of art.

Michelangelo Three labours of Hercules (1530-33)

Whatever happens on March 29th – ok, here we go, here’s my penny’s worth on the subject of Brexit – I see Britain as a nation in grave danger of losing touch with its soul. The fool’s gold of ‘economic growth’, ‘financial independence’, ‘control’, ‘national identity’ and ‘greatness’ with which we are endlessly pounded will merely dump us on a new shore battered, divided and disorientated. Some people and businesses, above all in the City, will thrive, but many more won’t because those aren’t the things that make a nation as a whole happy, fair or humane. Look at the 45% rise in knife crime of recent years… it’s not just down to the cuts in policing. Neither is an increase to policing the main solution. No, this country has been short-sighted and plain wrong to cut out and close down so many of the small things that nurture and nourish peoples’ souls; youth centres, productive activities in prisons, learning assistance, the arts… Those are the things that make a real difference to many peoples’ lives. That’s why I am choosing to duck beneath the turbulent political waves rocking our country and beyond, to fill myself with art and cultivate spaces where the quieter qualities of soul and all that we as humans share in common, can thrive. Because without those, Britain will become infinitely poorer whichever way Brexit goes.

Message to pupils of a Catholic school I recently talked at.

This article by Ben Okri on transcendence in art is one of the best I’ve ever read: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/bill-viola-michelangelo-ben-okri-birth-transcendence

Could the question to start 2019 be: What can we, Great Britain, put in? rather than: What can we get out?

I’d like to focus my last blog of 2018 on a single question that arose out of a letter written by a German citizen and published in The Guardian. It is addressed to all of us here in Britain and I feel it captures the essence of the principles we celebrate and/or practice in some form or other over the Christmas period: family and giving.

It says: “Dear friends in Britain. Maybe you are not aware of what Europe will miss when you leave. We will miss your refreshing views, because living on the continent can give a blinkered viewpoint. We will miss your international experience and networks. We will miss your calmness and pragmatism. We will miss your long democratic experience in developing the future EU. Together we are strong! Please stay. We are waiting for you with open arms.

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Brötchen and Brexit

Just back from a trip to visit family and friends in Hamburg and Cologne. Whenever I am in Germany, I find myself indulging in the familiar, yet distinctly different, smells and tastes of fresh brötchen and good coffee; my body relaxes into the warmth of the modern apartments while my mind clicks into a different gear, re-structuring sentences and dusting down long-unused words and concepts that don’t exist in English. It’s a funny kind of home-coming feeling, away from home.

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I was, of course, asked about Brexit. It has dwindled in significance since the German elections, for Angela Merkel’s ensuing demise has given Germany a headache of its own. It felt strange being in a Germany that is punishing her for her open-arm policy to refugees. ‘Mutti’ has, after all, been such a solid rock and island of hope to us all in the choppy European waters. Nonetheless, the people I met – from bank managers to former colleagues and elderly relatives – all wondered how Brexit was going to work. “I don’t know, I can’t see it yet,” I’d say, trying not to be disloyal to the choices made by the ‘British people’. “The country is very divided on almost every issue involved,” I’d continue, and then change the subject. The impending split always pushes me into a bit of a national vacuum.

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‘Shame’ and ‘Britain’ aren’t usually words we put together, but is that changing?

I have been uncharacteristically struck by a form of blog-writer’s block this month. My usual (dark) themes seemed weirdly irrelevant in this sun and blossom-filled May and most other areas of life have been hijacked by the impending elections and Brexit. And added to that I feel like I’m flat-lining, like my political passions are all but extinguished by my successive losses in all the things I voted for… or against.

Inspiration came just in time though, in the form of a passing conversation with one of my studio neighbours. Totally unprompted he quietly confessed to me that he had begun to feel ashamed of being English, to feel increasing shame in relation to Britain, his own country. “Shame”, well that’s something I can do, it is one of my prime subjects in fact. And asking him further, I discovered his shame was very related to my involuntary growing despondency in the face of our politics.

170508152731-banksy-on-brexit-super-169.jpgBanksy Artwork in Dover, May, 2017

 

With so many hideous Tory attitudes and policies in almost unhindered free flow, with Brexit uncertainties hanging like fog waiting to descend on top of us, Britain has all of a sudden become like a docked ship whose destination we don’t want to reach; a country whose values we can no longer identify with, let alone fully respect. The rhetoric is too self-centered and self-serving, almost embarrassing in the face of the team- and solidarity-building discussions going on between our European neighbours. Theresa May’s aggressive and alienating approach to getting the best Brexit deal – “FOR US” – is sickening in these times when random terrorist attacks and unpredictable world leaders could instead be bringing us all closer together than ever. Neither of us like her indiscriminate, hand-holding alignment with the twitter/trigger-happy Trump. And I am baffled by the unashamed hypocrisy of our morally impoverished, profit-focused arms sales to Saudi, compared to our distracted, feeble lament of the plight of the Yemenis.

I understand my neighbour’s unwanted but encroaching sense of shame. I feel it in my strange longing for the Mutti (Mum) they have in Germany; for Angela Merkel, a genuinely ‘strong and stable’ leader who, in my opinion, makes brave decisions that are individual but not all about “us”. Just like the German Remembrance culture is not only about their fallen soldiers but about victims and the fallen everywhere. I wish we had some of her ideas for what makes a country great. I wish we had opted for her policy of shutting down all nuclear power stations rather than teaming up with the Chinese to build Hinkley Point…

So as we all approach June 9th, where should we place our crosses, my neighbour and I asked each other? Follow your heart knowing your vote will not win, vote tactically to stop the Conservatives…? Most of the main parties have sides that are either plain nasty, slightly lost, idealistic, unreliable or weak. They play tug of war with old policies, pulling and stretching them to fit manifestos that promise little more than to sticky-tape together some sort of status quo. All promise to chuck (often non-existent) money at the ailing areas of our society – the NHS, social care, prisons, schools, infrastructure, railways – while expensive debates on Trident, Heathrow, HS2 drag on unresolved. But where’s the long-term vision, the Grand Plan? I wish the humane ideas that some of the smaller parties have for spending time getting to the root of the problems in order to build up a fairer and more equal society, would become more prominent. The Tory emphasis on profit and wealth for a small minority continues to sicken but in so many areas this country needs to stop and reflect, to think more out of the box on what will really make us great. Because right now I don’t think we are and we need to change radically, above all in attitudes, so we can travel in a direction that really will benefit us all – as human beings.

I’m not angry like I was after Brexit; I’m not really horrified, sad or even disappointed either. I’m just slightly detached and a little deflated, maybe disillusioned, in relation to our politics and politicians. And I think if there was a box called “Wha’eva”, it’s probably the one I would now tick.

There’s an unhelpful form of Tourette Syndrome lurking within certain British men…

What is it about some British men? It’s as if they have a form of Tourette’s that makes it impossible for them not to heed Basil’s advice and not mention the war. Smug winner syndrome, even 70 years on. I mean is it really a good idea, Boris Johnson, is it remotely mature or diplomatic to respond to a perfectly reasonable suggestion that Britain could not expect to get a better deal outside the EU than it enjoyed inside, by equating such an approach to “punishment beatings… in the manner of some world war two movie”? (The Guardian, 18.01.17)

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It honestly makes me wince, not because it’s insensitive, antagonistic or unnecessary, but because it is so unbelievably, pathetically childish. I once laughed at Will Self’s brilliant verbal portrait of Boris as “an enigma wrapped up in a whoopee cushion” but I don’t find him remotely enigmatic or amusing anymore. Just dangerously out of date and out of touch.

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Wish for 2017: Keeping alive Winston Churchill’s unfaltering faith “that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man.”

A last minute blog before the curtains fall on 2016. As a year, will it get a rapturous applause and an encore I wonder? No, I don’t think it will. Not from the point of view of one of my main blog themes – prisons – at least. A re-wind to the beginning and a second chance…? Well that would be wonderful.

This time last year I was excited. I think all those who work in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) were. We were facing unprecedented possibilities of genuine reform within the sector. As Justice Secretary, Michael Gove had done his homework thoroughly, rather ironically consulting and listening to the experts more than most of his predecessors had done. He commissioned Dame Sally Coates to create the Education ReviewUnlocking Potential to which even individuals like me were given an opportunity to contribute. My ambition to make the case for the arts at government level was looking set to be realized.

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