Late flowering

This text was partly inspired by my experiences meeting older artists, as documented in Winter Fires

Parliament of Dreams

Art and wellbeing in old age

[This is the English text of a chapter I contributed to a book on art and ageing called Lang Leven Kunst, which was published on 18 June 2013 in Rotterdam.It’s rather long for a blog post, so to download a PDF of the whole text, please click on this link.]

Everybody knows that human beings now live much longer than they did in the past, and not only in the rich West but across the globe. We know too the reasons for this change: better health care and nutrition, less manual labour, access to education, growing prosperity and so on. We even know the economic and social challenges this ‘long tail’ presents, as humanity’s demographic profile changes. What we do not seem to know is what we should do with our lengthening lives.

Spiritually conscious cultures often associate the last years of…

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Warnings from history

How far have we come: IN June 1963, George Romney, father of losing Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney, marches for civil rights with in Detroit.
How far have we come: In June 1963, George Romney, father of 2012 Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney, marches for civil rights with NAACP Detroit president Edward Turner in Detroit.

The generation born after the Second World War, known today as the Baby Boomers, is widely associated with comfort, prosperity and what was once known as the permissive society. Their claims and their imagination created the Sixties—as cultural phenomenon not decade—and today they are blamed both for the decline of Western culture and for eating all the pies.

One difficulty with this narrative (and there are many) is why the ‘greatest generation’, who defeated fascism and eventually totalitarian communism, should have produced the most selfish.

As a child of the 1950s, of parents who survived the war, I don’t recognise the regressive interpretation of my generation’s values and history. The world of my youth—which the French look back on wistfully as ‘les Trente Glorieuses‘—was admirable in many ways, though certainly not all. But it was impossible to forget that our peace, prosperity and freedom had been won by our parents at unimaginable human cost or that war on an even larger scale was an ever-present possibility.

The events of the 1930s and 1940s were a constant reference point. Here were the mistakes that had cost seas of blood and mountains of ash. Here were the warnings that must be understood and acted upon. Here was the land of ‘Never Again‘.

st_pauls-bomb-damageBut with time, and with the passing of our parents’ generation, that idea has lost its anchorage. It has become, too often, a hollow mantra pressed into service for increasingly dubious causes.

The failure of Britain and France to challenge Hitler in the 1930s, itself a more complex story than is often allowed, is now used to justify wars of aggression. The failure to prevent the Shoah is used to justify ‘humanitarian intervention’, but on a curiously selective basis. And then there is the warning from the 1930s that has fallen silent: the danger of scapegoating minorities in a time of economic crisis and unemployment. In the 1970s and 1980s, we, the Baby Boomers, drew just that parallel in opposing the intermittent stirrings of the far right in Britain. Today, comparisons with Weimar Germany seem hopelessly distant, though the threat of populist nationalism is greater than it has been in my lifetime.

In Britain, the government indulges in a high-profile media campaign against irregular immigrants, inviting TV cameras to film Border Agency raids on corner shops. In Russia, the election of Moscow’s mayor has become a question of who can be toughest on migrants. In Australia, the Prime Minister is standing for re-election with a deal to imprison migrants in Papua New Guinea so that they aren’t even on Australia soil while their applications are assessed. In Greece, Channel 4 has filmed members of Golden Dawn fantasizing about turning immigrants into bars of soap.

Human beings face grave problems today, individually, collectively and globally. How easy it is for those aspiring to power to get support by stoking fear and hate. That is the real lesson of history and I learned it from people who’d lived it, as a child of the Baby Boom, of that moment of hope that grew from and in reaction to the ashes of death.

Srebrenica memorialAnd if that’s too far back now, think of Yugoslavia, holiday destination for so many in the 1970s and 1980s, and charnel house in the 1990s. The Greatest Generation gave us the best chance in history of making a good and just society in Europe. We owe it to them not to waste it.

The value of taking your time

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The landscape of the Fens remains impervious to the 21st century’s need for speed. Elsewhere trunk roads have been transformed into dual carriageways on which ever-fatter cars rush to appointments like beetles on roller skates. But the huge drains carved here by Dutch engineers hundreds of years ago still do their job of keeping this land out of the sea. Their course is dictated by nature. Having once dug them as nature required, humans must obey the narrow, zigzagging routes they make. When animals and carts set the pace of travel, these high roads were safe enough. But cars must proceed with caution if they are not to tumble off the banks into a field or, worse, into a drain.

A slow drive across this landscape brought me on Friday to the village of Magdalen, hidden in the fenland south of Kings Lynn, for the first meetings in what will eventually become A Wider Horizon. Although I’ve met many people involved in village cultural activities in the past, I was touched by the ease and friendliness I met when I turned up at the weekly coffee morning in Magdalen Village Hall. Perhaps it’s something about the pace of movement that makes people happy to take their time and talk with a stranger about such personal topics as their artistic experiences and the pattern of their lives.

Our conversations ranged from cultural life during the last war to the latest exhibitions in London. They touched on swing bands, foreign cinema, War Horse, dance lessons, nature drawing, L. S Lowry, bell ringing, Tommy Cooper, Pompeii, the church art exhibition and a great deal more. There was so much to tell that people kept remembering aspects of their cultural lives they’d forgotten to mention. But they took their time, with striking good humour and plenty of laughter.

A Wider Horizon explores how people discover art and form their tastes, and it deliberately does so in a part of the country that is usually seen by the art world as a kind of cultural desert, distant as it is from Norwich or Cambridge, to say nothing of London. This first meeting showed how simplistic that view can be: like a Romantic landscape, carefully stripped of people and laid out before the inspired gaze of the cultured walker, it is just another social construct. How it is maintained and whose interests it serves is another question.

This Regular Marvel has got off to a slow start—the foundations were laid last year—but not being in a hurry has its advantages. Some things take time to grow, and watching them do it doesn’t make it happen any faster. There will be many more conversations and encounters in the months to come, and I have no idea what will emerge. But I do think I’ll see more at a walking pace.