The Covid-19 pandemic – what else? But this time seen through an artist’s eyes

Covid-19’s march across the world and into our daily lives scares, astonishes and negatively impacts me like everyone. I can’t comment on the daily shape-shiftings of scientific, economic and political strategies, for I know nothing about any of them. But as a visual artist largely working from the right side of my brain, I am used to stepping back to see the bigger picture and my eyes are trained to blur out details and see things in terms of shapes, colours and gestures. A quick way to experience this shift away from the logical thought of our left brain is to squint your eyes and look through your eyelashes. Or take a painting or photo and turn it upside down. Both methods filter out what we ‘know’ enabling us to see familiar things differently. Objects of importance might fade. A shadow, a colour, a form might stand out.

When I look in this way at what is happening around us, I of course see the total upheaval and devastation for so many. But I can also see something that gives me glimmers of hope where before I had none. For within the language of tragedy and loss – of lives, jobs, holidays and everything we consider ‘normal’ – are calls to pay attention to areas of society we normally neglect. Maybe you too can see that there is a bigger, more subtle picture as well as a huge opportunity behind the obvious reasons we are universally being told to ‘stop’?

Not all the symbols I see fit of course, and some people will dismiss them as coincidental. But what if this pandemic is actually a natural and inevitable effect of what decades of human behaviour have caused? Covid-19 primarily attacks the lungs and airways, leaving people starved of oxygen. If trees are the lungs of our planet producing the vital oxygen we need to live, haven’t decades of excessive, shortsighted, polluting and disposable lifestyles had the same impact on the world as that of heavy smoking on a person? 

As in cases of disease in the microcosm of any individual’s life, a massive pause button has been pressed grinding the cogs of contemporary life to a halt and forcing us to rest, reflect on and reconsider our lifestyle choices. In the constant pursuit of economic ‘growth’, we have been travelling at high speed down a cul-de-sac. What we are experiencing now is the slamming on of brakes and screeching to a halt before we hit the wall. We knew it was there but we did not listen or act. We now have to do both.   

Suddenly priorities have shifted into reverse and our full attention is turned to the protection of the elderly, the vulnerable, those on zero-hour contracts, single-parent families, nurses and medical staff. Suddenly the ‘invisible’ refuse collectors, hospital cleaners, shelf stackers and ambulance drivers become the vital heroes that will keep the last cogs of a groaning infrastructure moving. Suddenly the idea of locking people into tiny cells for up to 23 hours appears unacceptably inhumane and reducing the overcrowding of prisons becomes an obvious first step. 

Forced self-isolation will give many people a taste of the extreme solitude many people face each day, from those bereaved, unemployed or sick to artists and writers. It highlights the danger of ‘home’ for children of violent parents or domestically abused women. And as food shelves are stripped by panicked stock-piling, one has to think of those who can only afford to live from one day to the next and will be faced with empty shelves. 

While the language of the media is understandably dramatic and war references temptingly apposite, they are not necessarily helpful. We are not at war with anyone. Like war, this situation will probably bring out the best and worst ends of the spectrum of human nature. Unlike war, and yet like nothing we have faced previously, we are all in this together. All united in our shared desire to continue being able to breathe. 

Seeing the world’s beautiful cities and bays emptied of tourists, traffic and cruise ships, the skies emptied of planes is eerie (and economically catastrophic for many), but all this could inspire us to change our habits from endless consumption and movement to a greater appreciation of stillness, each other and simply being alive. So, while we are being collectively advised and forced to change our habits and embrace new priorities, why don’t we collectively work on changing them for good… in both senses of the word?

Keep well and safe, everybody. Spring is coming regardless.

Oh yes, and some really good news, which was going to be the theme of this month’s blog… I have signed a contract with Penguin Transworld to publish my book! I have a considerable amount of work still to do on it but will keep you posted.

How worried should we be about the rise of the far right?

I raise this question specifically in the wake of last week’s 75th anniversary of the Dresden bombing raid by the Allies, an occasion of remembrance that is known for bringing far-right protestors out in droves. Each year, in what they call their ‘Trauermarsch’ (funeral march), several hundred neo-Nazis, xenophobic Pegida and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) protestors set off from the city’s central station to commemorate the dead. The blatantly neo-Nazi flags, tattoos and slogans, however, betray their true agenda. 

While part of me is swift to unreservedly dismiss all forms of far-right nationalism and extremism, another part is keen to understand: What are their grievances? What are their goals? And how should we, as individuals, meet this growing trend around the world? 

I am at the very beginning of my research into these questions, but in relation to the Dresden bombings of 13th and 14th February 1945, it seems that the far-right scene have several axes to grind. For them, Dresden has become a symbol of how the Allies rewrote the history of the Second World War. Drawing on the language and inflated figures first propagated by Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda ministry, Dresden was a “terror attack,” an indisputable war crime in which up to 300,000 people – primarily women, children and refugees fleeing from the east – were horrendously murdered over three nights. (This claim is in spite of the 2010 historical investigation commissioned by the city and largely accepted by historians that conclude figures would be closer to 25,000.) By shifting the focus onto atrocities committed by the victors, they can call for a stop to Germany’s culture of atonement and guilt.

Dresden, the “Florence on the Elbe”
Dresden after the bombing in 1945

This year, the emphasis of their message was not so much on the numbers as on what they call “the truth” about the bombings. They want to make a stand against the way the bombing of Dresden, once known as the “Florence on the Elbe” for its Baroque beauty, is relativised and compared with what happens in wars all around the world. They want to preserve Dresden’s uniqueness, the myth of martyrdom and its status as a ‘city of innocence.’ In some of this they do have a point. The debate about whether Dresden was a war crime or not still divides international historians and the public alike. Just a few weeks ago, I travelled to Coventry Cathedral to hear historian Dan Snow explore the legitimacy of Dresden as a target with Sinclair McKay, whose book Dresden, The Fire and The Darkness has recently been published. 

In the official ceremonies two days before the far right took to the streets, the man who has become a bit of a hero in my eyes, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, addressed the dangers of this way of thinking. Unlike the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz at which he had spoken a few weeks before (see my January blog), the victimhood of Germans had to be placed centre-stage here. For whether perceived as deserved retribution or a tactical military operation, the bombing raids were calculatedly horrendous creating infernos of such intense heat that people literally melted. It’s an event that does indeed deserve much self-reflection and on-going soul-searching by the Allies as well as a continuation of the already considerable efforts of reconciliation by the British. 

Speaking with his hallmark combination of deep sensitivity and resolute strength, Steinmeier remembered the victims but, even here, he was quick to remind Germans of their role as perpetrators. He warned against the “political forces” that seek to “manipulate history and abuse it like a weapon.” He reached out to all present to “work together for a commemoration that focuses on the suffering of the victims and the bereaved, but also asks about the reasons for this suffering.” And, seemingly referring to the far right directly, he said, “Whoever pits the dead of Dresden against the dead of Auschwitz, whoever seeks to talk down German wrongs, whoever falsifies improved knowledge and historical facts, we as democrats must loudly and clearly contradict them. We must defy them.”

Steinmeier later joined thousands of residents in holding hands to form the annual human chain of “peace and tolerance.” Standing quietly beside him in icy rain and wind was the Duke of Kent, a long-standing contributor to British reconciliation efforts and Patron of The Dresden Trust (of which I am now honoured to be a Trustee). I don’t think Steinmeier dared initiate what happened next, but to his credit, the Duke did. Over a delightful few seconds, the nearly eighty-five-year-old royal looked down and, seeing the empty right hand of the German President, reached out and took it in his. And there they stood for a considerable time, hand in hand bearing witness to their respective nations’ capacities for the wholesale destruction of innocents.

The Duke of Kent (left) holding hands with German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier

So far, my answer to my own questions is that there are way too many of us prepared to make a stand against the dark desires of the far right for them to gain significant power. In Dresden, two days after Steinmeier’s call to protect democracy, thousands of anti-fascist counter-demonstrators took to the streets forcing the comparatively low numbers of neo-Nazis to change their route. As one said, “On a day like this, you can’t just stand idly by. We are here to say that this is not our Dresden. There is no room for Nazis in this city — not now, not ever.”

Learn more:

Dresden marks WWII bombing in far-right stronghold.

Dresden: The World War Two bombing 75 years on – BBC News

History Extra Podcast: The bombing of Dresden

To honour Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, I urge you to support their positive attitudes to rehabilitation

Sometimes something is reported in the news that inspires an immediate counter-response to the usual political finger-pointing that ensues. When faced with horrific and tragic incidents like the London Bridge attack on Friday 29thNovember, it is all too easy for our knees to jerk us into the simplistic mindsets of wanting to punish, blame and demand, or promise, policies that are ‘tougher on crime.’ After all, two bright young people – 23-year old Saskia Jones and 25-year old Jack Merritt – were killed. What’s more, it was while attending a conference celebrating the five-year anniversary of Learning Together, a prison education initiative from the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, through which students and prisoners learn side-by-side. 

Jack and Saskia were clearly two shining lights whose hearts and talents were directed towards helping those residing in the darkest corners of our society. In words taken from tributes to them: 

“Saskia’s warm disposition and extraordinary intellectual creativity was combined with a strong belief that people who have committed criminal offences should have opportunities for rehabilitation… (More here)

“Jack lived his principles; he believed in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and he always took the side of the underdog. He was deeply, creatively and courageously engaged with the world, advocating for a politics of love.” (More here)

The incident is tragic. Our anger is justified. Our desire for action, natural. Our fear of the same thing happening again, heightened… But when political leaders and media outlets effortlessly slip into the amplification of these emotions, there follows a rash of promises and policies often based on inaccuracies or blatant lies, which all too often lead to harmful and unforeseen failures further down the line. I am relieved that over the weekend this process was quickly called out and widely condemned as “beyond disgusting.” And David Merritt, Jack’s father, tweeted: “Don’t use my son’s death, and his colleague’s photos to promote your vile propaganda. Jack stood against everything you stand for – hatred, division, ignorance.”

According to his father, “Jack Merritt died doing what he loved, surrounded by people he loved and who loved him…” That knowledge will, I hope, bring him and his family comfort during the dark times ahead. When I worked in prisons and was often, if not daily, in situations where I could have been harmed, I sometimes wondered whether I would stop my work with prisoners if something terrible happened. I was lucky, I wasn’t attacked. But even if I had been, I don’t believe I would have necessarily stopped, for I too loved and believed in what I was doing, in spite of the risk. Just as a fire fighter can love his/her work while knowing they may well get burned, or even die.

Back in the nineties, I came close to falling victim to the dangerous “Sex Beast of Cologne,” as the tabloids labeled the quiet, unassuming man in my art class who, unbeknownst to me, was plotting to take me hostage. His plans failed, but if they hadn’t, I know I would not have wanted macho bravado and knee-jerk reactions to dominate the post-incident discourse. Nor would I necessarily conclude that my way of working had failed or was wrong. It would have devastated me if the prison had closed down or placed guards in my art classes thereby destroying the chances for rehabilitation I was so dedicated to establishing. Of course there are lessons to be learned, but may the right lessons be learned. 

Me teaching ‘The Sex Beast’ in 1996

Over the next days and weeks, as more facts emerge, we’ll hear more simplified explanations of the causes, more tough talk, more blame and more reactive and punitive measures being promised… I beg you not to fall for unashamed political optimisations of this tragic situation such as our prime minister’s “Give me a majority and I’ll keep you safe from terror.” Boris Johnson’s policies on prisons and crime do not make sense. They have long been proven not to work. They will not make you safer. You can see that for yourself here. And here. And here.

I believe the best way to make sense of such seemingly senseless tragedies is to hear and honour what the people who died stood for. So I urge you to heed Jack’s wishes as passed on by his father:

“What Jack would want from this is for all of us to walk through the door he has booted down, in his black Doc Martens.

That door opens up a world where we do not lock up and throw away the key. Where we do not give indeterminate sentences, or convict people on joint enterprise. Where we do not slash prison budgets, and where we focus on rehabilitation not revenge. Where we do not consistently undermine our public services, the lifeline of our nation. Jack believed in the inherent goodness of humanity, and felt a deep social responsibility to protect that. Through us all, Jack marches on.

Borrow his intelligence, share his drive, feel his passion, burn with his anger, and extinguish hatred with his kindness. Never give up his fight.

You can read Dave Merrit’s full article here

And a few of the many other related articles… if you can face the political blame and shame games:

London Bridge attack: Boris Johnson ignores family’s plea not to exploit victims’ deaths

London Bridge victim’s father said his death shouldn’t be used to justify ‘draconian sentences,’ as Conservatives call for tougher punishment

Johnson’s response to London Bridge attack ignores complex reality

Blame game: Johnson and Corbyn clash as political row over London Bridge terrorism continues

A talk, an exhibition and a TV series…

October is a busy month. Lots to see and do or get done. Can I just add three things to your list? The first two are London-based and optional; the third should really be compulsory for everybody.

So firstly, for anyone in London on Friday 11th October at 4pm, I am very excited to be speaking at the National Army Museum’s inaugural Chelsea History Festival. My talk How Germany Remembers is just one in a whole line-up of talks by impressive historians, writers and speakers – including Max Hastings.

Secondly, and also this month until 3rd November, The Koestler Arts annual exhibition – Another Me – will be showing at the Southbank. I personally haven’t been yet but I know it will once again provide visitors with a glimpse of the huge talent and potential locked up in our prisons. It is a showcase for what the arts can do for people’s well-being, self-esteem and rehabilitation.

I was in fact invited to expand on these benefits for the autumn edition of The Arts Society magazine. Please feel free to read my article ‘Art behind Bars’ to learn more.

But thirdly, and in stark contrast to the positivity of the arts, is the shocking Channel 4 series Crime and Punishment. I know, I know, I have been here many times before. You are probably sick of me going on about the plight of prisoners and state of our prison system. But you won’t be half as sick as all the people involved, who know how acute the crisis is.

Please watch it. Even just Episode 2. And then compare what you see with the Ministry of Justice’s evidence-based summary of what works…

Even I was aghast at what I saw in the first three episodes, and I have been in many of our jails. Everything has got so much worse since the 43% cuts to the budget from 2011 onwards: the levels of frustration from being locked 23 hours a day in conditions that even animal rights campaigners would protest against; the levels of desperation that lead people to shred their bodies or hang themselves to get a radio or better clothes to wear for a visit from their wife and kid; the levels of terror in young officers who patrol the wings after just 10 weeks training and 2 weeks shadowing; and the levels of weary resignation of those who enrolled to help and make a difference but are repeatedly forced to cower behind plastic shields and just ‘contain’.

Photograph 3
Guernsey Prison, Margaret Macdonald Platinum Award for Photography 2019, Koestler Arts

I believe everybody you see in this series is doing their best. But increasingly without hope of change. What you witness is the underbelly of our society. A society that punishes disadvantage, that punishes mental health, that punishes lack of education. In almost every shot, hopelessness seeps under the cell doors to mix with the blood of self-harm.

We all probably feel there are far better causes to engage with – cancer patients, the rain forests, refugees and hedgehogs; that offenders have only themselves to blame and that prison has nothing really to do with us. But if you are reading this, it probably does. Because so many of us have had advantage, education, guidance and love. And it is precisely us who can help bring about change. How? you might ask. Well a good start would be to recognise that Boris Johnson’s policies to extend sentences and build more and bigger prisons are wholly illogical and will only make the situation worse. You could then take a moment to retreat into your imagination, put on the battered, ill-fitting shoes of some of these offenders and try to walk a few steps. See how far you are able to get. The barriers to a crime-free productive life on release are enormous and once more of us realise just how bad things are, we can all join in with the other voices that are demanding: enough is enough.

We love commemorating our victories and losses… but not our declarations of war it seems?

Could it be that even the British have become weary of commemorating the World Wars? Or was the lack of fanfare around the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War earlier this month down to having a selective national memory? Do we only like to remember the bits where we emerge as clear heroes, victors or victims?

To my surprise, nothing, or very little, happened in this country on 3rd September 2019. Yet, at 11.15am on that day in 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in a somber broadcast to the nation made from the Cabinet room in 10 Downing Street, announced with regret that his efforts to ensure peace had failed and that “this country is at war with Germany.” The ensuing conflict lasted six years and cost around 50 million lives.

For Poland this anniversary was obviously a huge deal. Germany’s invasion was the catalyst for Britain’s and France’s declaration of war and few places suffered the same level of death and destruction between 1939 and 1945. It lost about a fifth – that’s six million – of its population including the vast majority of its three million Jewish citizens. Wielun, the first city to be bombarded by the Luftwaffe, was the chosen location for forty world leaders and representatives of other countries to gather together for a dawn ceremony on Sunday 1st September at 4am (2am GMT). Polish President Andrzej Duda, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, US Vice President Mike Pence were all present. (President Trump cancelled citing the approach of Hurricane Dorian as his reason for basically spending the day on the golf course.) President Putin wasn’t invited. But, why wasn’t our Prime Minister there? I think we sent our Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, to a subsequent ceremony in Warsaw but…? 

Surely a bit more than just a nod to our role in the unfolding of the most momentous episode in modern history would have been appropriate? Maybe a moment where we press pause on all justifications and humbly reflect on the regrettable escalation of the horrors that our declaration of war unleashed? Or a clearly stated renewed commitment to peace in Europe? Or an informed and respectful acknowledgment of the far greater losses suffered by so many other nations? I recently asked friends how many people they thought died in WW2. “Seven million Soviets? Two million Germans? Two million British?” they guessed. “Actually we have no idea,” they admitted. And they didn’t. Most British people don’t. It was between 20 and 27 million Soviets, 7 million Germans and 450,000 British… that’s including Crown Colonies.

To be fair, Boris Johnson, in a videoed speech that circulated on Twitter, praised the “dogged and unconquerable resistance” Poland displayed during the Second World War and how it “never succumbed to tyranny…” But he also couldn’t help slipping in a quick pat on the UK’s back for standing with Poland “in times of triumph and tragedy.” Hmmmh, you just have to listen to Neil Macgregor’s excellent series on Radio 4 As others see us to realise that this is not quite how Poland sees things. Part of their otherwise generally positive national memory of us is of ‘betrayal’, not once but three times! (This relates to the Katyn massacre, ignoring the plight of Polish Jews and Britain’s role at the Yalta Conference in 1945 when it was decided that Poland would be given to the Soviets.

British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, just rolled out the same old tired stuff about Britain going to war to “defend our values and our allies from the Nazis”. (Defending ones values and friends is how all sides justify conflict, however small or large.) He added, “Even though nearly every family in the UK still possessed the memories and hurt of the First World War, they were prepared again to make the ultimate sacrifice. The incredible courage of that generation who fought for our freedom must never be forgotten.” Aaaagh, they just can’t help themselves, these men! It is always all about usOur heroism, our sacrifice, our justified defence. Wouldn’t this have been the perfect time to engage with Polish history? The imbalance between what we know about others and what others know about us is embarrassing. Our narrative that “We went to war for Poland” is, for example, in Polish minds “We declared war for Poland” because the much hoped for military support didn’t actually follow. We really need to start embracing a wider-angled view of history! (This podcast is a great start)

For me it was once again the German contribution that lit a way forward for us all. Speaking with typical unreserved apologetic candour, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier described how “Eighty years ago, at this very moment, all hell rained down on Wielun, fueled by German racist barbarity and the desire to annihilate… My country unleashed a horrific war that would cost more than 50 million people – among them millions of Polish citizens – their lives. This war was a German crime… I, along with [Merkel], want to tell all Poles today that we will not forget. We will not forget the wounds that Germans inflicted on Poland. We will not forget the suffering of Polish families and nor will we forget the courage of their resistance.” He then went on, with a bowed head and speaking in both German and Polish, to ask for Polish forgiveness. “I bow my head before the victims of the attack on Wielun. I bow my head before the Polish victims of Germany’s tyranny. And I ask for your forgiveness.”  

Wow! I know, this is not new. Germany has been publicly apologising for years, starting back in 1970 with Willy Brandt’s silent ‘Kniefall‘. Nevertheless, can we just pause and reflect a moment. The president of a powerful country holding up his hands in surrender and basically saying: “What we did was shit. We were shits. There are no words to describe just how shit we were and nothing can ever change that.” Just imagine how difficult that is to do. And how different the world would be if more people did that. The power of apology. The power of asking for forgiveness. (Whether it is possible to ask for forgiveness on behalf of another / others is debatable as Bernard Schlink does so well in his book ‘Guilt about the past’. But still…)

I’m glad that in a return speech, President Duda thanked Steinmeier for his presence at the painful anniversary before continuing to rightly denounce Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland as “an act of barbarity” and list other massacres and atrocities on Polish soil. He also drew attention to the genocide and mass murder continuing around the world today, and underlined the importance of international alliances like NATO and the European Union. (The question of further compensation was also raised later on… but you can read a fuller summary of the speeches here.) The pain still lingering between these countries that were so utterly destroyed on so many levels is visceral. As is the will for lasting reconciliation.

As much as I am frustrated and disappointed by our on-going and often unimaginative, inward-looking and lop-sided to the point of ignorant rhetoric on the World Wars, I am also optimistic. Younger generations are asking awkward questions that force a re-evaluation of the dusty, airbrushed pictures of our ‘glorious’ Empire. And the answers they are finding are uncomfortable. Maybe when we stop hiding our misdeeds behind the undisputedly ghastly deeds of the Nazis and the Holocaust and finally acknowledge our own national shadow, when we admit that the whole British Empire was based on the genocide of indigenous people and a forcing of our values on others, maybe then we can be genuinely better in the present and the future. 

Further reading:

https://www.dw.com/en/german-president-asks-for-polish-forgiveness-on-wwii-anniversary/a-50247207

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/09/01/german-president-asks-forgiveness-80th-anniversary-start-second/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_em

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/30/truth-is-a-casualty-80-years-after-start-of-second-world-war