Winter Fires was a project looking at how working as an artist – ‘artisting‘ as it’s described in the book – can change the experience of old age. I met many people in the 60s, 70s and 80s for whom art is an important aspect of their life. Some were professional, some serious amateurs and some had come to art because it allowed them to talk about the experience of ageing in public. Like all the Regular Marvels, the project was done in partnership with an artist, in this case case my friend Mik Godley. You can see some of the portraits he made using an iPad here.
Courtroom 600 of the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg was the venue for the post-war trials of Nazi leaders, so it is strange to learn that it is still used for the administration of justice. Strange but completely appropriate. Those trials established new principles of international law and the competing concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity. They also showed that what had happened under the Nazi regime was not above the law. The scale or horror of a crime cannot be allowed to take its perpetrator beyond justice, even if it takes them beyond comprehension and perhaps beyond mercy. At the same time, Courtroom 600 is a historic site under the care of the Nuremberg Trials Memorial which works to increase understanding of what happened here.
On 21 November 1945, the American Prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson, began his opening speech by saying
‘That four great nations, flushed with victory…
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Here is the text of my talk at Talk at Independent Creative Living Conference, Baltic, Gateshead (UK) on 28 June 2016; you can download a PDF of the talk by clicking this link; to download a copy of Winter Fires, click here.
Three Great Human Episodes
Towards the end of his own life, the critic and philosopher Edward Said became very interested in the last work of artists, for which he coined the phrase ‘Late Style’. He
saw human beings as engaged in a ‘self-making process’ that was defined by ‘three great human episodes common to all human cultures and traditions’. The first of these is experienced in childhood and youth. It focuses on origin, the starting point in time and space that defines both the possibilities and the limits that will shape a life. The middle concerns the unfolding of that potential, how adult actions fulfil or fail to fulfil the promise of youth, how a character is made by its history. The third, final episode is the story’s end, the descent of the dramatic arc in which resolution is achieved or denied, meaning found, lost or perhaps both. Sense is made, in the end. Sometimes, it is also true. [i]
A beginning, a middle and an end
There are several reasons why this idea appeals to me, including its link with Aristotle’s ideas about dramatic structure, which he described as
the representation of an action that is complete and whole and of a certain amplitude– for a thing may be whole and yet lack amplitude. A whole is that thing which has a beginning, middle, and an end.[ii]
A letter to my friends in the European Union
(including, for now, the British)
After last Thursday’s vote, I wanted to write to friends in other European countries, to share my feelings and just to be in touch with people I care for. I soon realised that there were far too many of them and that I’d be writing emails for days. I also saw that I’d be repeating myself in expressing my dismay and asking them not to lose faith in me, in us, in Europe. So this is a personal letter, a letter of friendship and affection, posted here just as a way to reach all my friends – and, who knows, make new ones. I’d write it in more languages if I could, but I can only manage English and French (below). Thank you for reading.
Une lettre à mes amis de l’Union européenne
(y compris, pour l’instant, les Britanniques)
Depuis le vote de jeudi dernier, j’ai voulu écrire à mes amis dans les autres pays européens pour partager mon émotion et simplement pour être en contact avec ceux qui me sont importants. Je me suis vite rendu compte qu’ils étaient très nombreux et que j’aurai des mèls à écrire pendant des jours entiers. J’ai aussi vu que je me répèterai beaucoup en exprimant ma consternation et en leur demandant de ne pas perdre la foi en moi, en nous, en Europe. Voici donc une lettre bien personnelle, une lettre d’amitié et d’affection, posté ici simplement pour mes amis – et, qui sait, pour en faire de nouveaux. J’aurai écris en allemand, en espagnol, en grec… mais je ne maitrise que l’anglais et le français (plus bas). Merci pour la lecture et bon courage…
I woke: the house where I was born. Rain was falling softly in all the rooms.
In voting to leave the European Union, my fellow-citizens have changed the future. The consequences – for those of us living in this green and rainy island, for our neighbours and even for people in distant lands – are grave and unpredictable. The referendum has exposed and intensified long-standing divisions in our society; it has often turned on grievances unconnected with the EU. And we have no idea what happens now.
In 1947, in a city ruined by the war, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons ‘that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’. In France, Raymond Aron, made a similarly cautious assessment, advocating democracy principally as the best way of limiting the state’s abuse of its power over individuals.
I wish today’s politicians showed similar wisdom in their thinking about democracy, but demagogues thrive by making things simple. I mistrust certainties and those who sell them, so I look to democracy – with Churchill and Aron – to protect our human rights. Electoral choices are not intrinsically good. Democracy is simply the right to choose, and the obligation to accept the consequences. The people may have spoken but what they intended to say – and why – is complex and uncertain. Those on the winning side elevate their choice to a moral truth. It is not. It is just the least bad way we have of deciding what to do.
The British have chosen to leave the European Union. The 48% who disagreed must live with that choice, as the 52% majority remind us. This thing will happen. Those who chose differently, who have other beliefs and alternative visions of the world, must decide what to do now. How do you respond when you wake up and find it’s raining in every room?
As politicians bluster in the media, I fear new borders and barbed wire. But security is built by getting to know those around us, not by planting hedges so we can’t see each other. If our neighbours do take us at our word and leave us alone, we’ll have isolation when we wanted independence.
Many of us – perhaps most – do not want that vision of our future. We know the EU is flawed – but so is our government and our democracy. They’re just the best we can manage at the moment and, as Churchill said, they’re better than the alternatives. If we walked away from everything flawed, we’d never stop walking. In truth, our imperfect systems and human weaknesses are the best explanation of why humanity does better when we work together to meet life’s complex challenges. And, of course, that also applies to this decision. We must work together to make the best of it.
I trust my friends in the European Union to understand the complexities of our struggle with these choices. It can be a difficult, dangerous world: you know as well as us what that means. Democracy’s binary choices cannot adequately reflect the hopes and fears of 35,55,983 individual voters. Only meeting, talking and listening, face to face or virtually, can help us understand each other better.
No one knows what will happen now, but societies belong to people, not governments. They are built through relationships, not treaties, in what we do, not what we say. Most of us want to live in peace with others. Most of us accept that people are different. Most of us know that life is short and precious.
For most of the period that the UK has been a member of the European community, I have worked with people who have expressed their belief in human rights, democracy and our shared humanity through cultural projects. That work is life-enhancing in every sense. It reaches across social, cultural and official divisions and helps us live together. In the past year I have visited cultural activists in many countries from Portugal to Kyrgyzstan, Orkney to Morocco, Serbia to Ireland, and of course, in Britain. Whether or not I’ve needed a visa, whatever the situation or culture of the people I’ve met, I have been inspired by their creativity, optimism and commitment – and especially the imaginative courage of the younger generation. Come what may, that is the world I want to be part of and contribute to.
Yours in friendship
Je m’éveillai, c’était la maison natale. Il pleuvait doucement dans toutes les salles
En votant pour quitter l’Union européenne, mes concitoyens ont changé l’avenir. Les conséquences – pour ceux d’entre nous qui habitent cette île verte et pluvieuse, pour nos voisins et même pour les habitants de pays lointains – sont graves et imprévisibles. Le référendum a exposé et approfondi des divisions de longue durée dans notre société ; il a aussi souvent impliqué des plaintes n’ayant que peu de rapport avec l’UE. Et nous ne savons pas ce qui en adviendra.
En 1947, dans une ville ruinée par la guerre, Winston Churchill a déclaré à la Chambre des communes que « la démocratie est la pire forme de gouvernement, sauf toutes les autres formes qui ont été essayées de temps en temps ». En France, Raymond Aron, fît une évaluation également prudente, prônant la démocratie principalement comme la meilleure façon de limiter l’abus du pouvoir étatique contre l’individu.
J’aurais souhaité que cette génération d’hommes politiques fasse preuve d’une sagesse pareille, mais les démagogues profitent toujours de fausses simplicités. D’instinct je me méfie des certitudes et de ceux qui les vendent. Je demande surtout à la démocratie – avec Churchill et Aron – la protection des droits de l’homme. Les choix électoraux ne sont pas intrinsèquement bons. La démocratie est simplement le droit de choisir, avec l’obligation d’en accepter les conséquences. Le peuple a parlé, mais ce qu’il a voulu dire – et pourquoi – reste complexe et incertain. Du côté des vainqueurs on fait de ce choix à une vérité morale. Il n’en est pas. C’est simplement façon la moins mauvaise que nous avons de faire nos choix collectifs.
Le Royaume-Uni a décidé de quitter l’Union Européenne. Les 48% qui ont voté autrement doivent vivre ce choix, comme nous le rappellent les 52% de la majorité. Cette chose se produira. Ceux d’entre nous qui ont choisi autrement, ayant d’autres croyances et d’autres visions du monde, doivent maintenant décider quoi faire. Comment réagir quand on se réveille pour trouver qu’il pleut dans toutes les chambres?
Maintenant, quand les politiciens fanfaronnent sur les médias, je crains de nouvelles frontières et de nouveau barbelées. Mais la sécurité se construit en apprenant à connaître ceux auprès de nous, pas en plantant des haies pour que nous ne puissions plus nous voir. Si nos voisins nous prennent vraiment à notre mot et nous laissent tranquilles, nous trouverons l’isolement quand nous cherchions l’indépendance.
Beaucoup d’entre nous – peut-être la majorité – ne veulent pas cet avenir. Nous savons que l’UE est imparfaite – mais on peut en dire autant de notre gouvernement, de notre démocratie. C’est simplement ce que nous avons trouvé jusqu’ici de mieux pour gérer nos affaires et, comme le disait Churchill, c’est préférable aux alternatives. Si nous abandonnions tout ce qui est imparfait, nous abandonnerions tout. Il faut accepter que nos systèmes imparfaits et nos faiblesses coopèrent face aux défis complexes de la vie. Et, bien sûr, cela s’applique également à cette décision. Nous devons travailler ensemble pour faire avec.
J’ai confiance en mes amis de l’Union européenne pour comprendre les complexités de notre lutte avec ces choix. Le monde peut être difficile et dangereux : vous aussi le savez bien. Les choix binaires de la démocratie ne peuvent pas refléter les espoirs et les craintes de 35,55,983 électeurs particuliers. Il faut se rencontre, échanger, s’écouter, que ça soit face à face ou en ligne, si nous espérons nous comprendre.
Personne ne sait ce qui va se passer maintenant, mais les sociétés appartiennent aux citoyens, pas aux gouvernements. Elles sont formées par les relations, pas par les traités. Elles sont la somme de nos actes, pas de nos paroles. La plupart d’entre nous veulent vivre en paix avec les autres. La plupart d’entre nous acceptent que les gens soient différents. La plupart d’entre nous savent que la vie est courte et précieuse.
Pendant la plupart du temps le Royaume-Uni a fait partie de la communauté européenne, j’ai travaillé avec des gens qui exprimaient leur engagement aux droits de l’homme, la démocratie et notre humanité partagée par le moyen de projets culturels. Ce travail enrichit dans tous les sens la vie. Il franchit les divisions sociales, culturelles et officielles et nous aide à vivre ensemble. L’année passée j’ai rendu visite à des activistes dans beaucoup de pays – du Portugal au Kirghizistan, des Orcades au Maroc, de la Serbie à l’Irlande et bien sûr, en Grande-Bretagne. Partout, j’ai été inspiré par la créativité des gens, leur optimisme et leur engagement – et particulièrement par le courage et l’imagination de la jeune génération. Advienne que pourra, c’est le monde dont je veux faire partie et auquel je veux contribuer.
With the publication of A Wider Horizon ten days ago, this phase of the Regular Marvels idea draws to a close. I say ‘this phase’ but I don’t know whether or when there may be a second one. Five years ago, I set out to explore different ways of writing about the place of the arts in people’s lives. I was dissatisfied with some aspects of my own previous work, and even more with the language and assumptions of current arts discourse. Two questions concerned me in particular:
- If art is important, why is it not accepted as a valid way to understand arts experience?
- If people are important, why not write about their experience in ways that they might read?
Regular Marvels was a response to both problems. My intention with each book was to:
- Work with a writer’s, not a researcher’s, methods and sensibility;
- Work with a visual artist as an equal partner in the process;
- Choose the subject and focus of each book myself;
- Write about things the art world undervalued or just didn’t see; and
- Write in ways that were approachable and interesting to those involved.
Those ideas shaped both the process and the final books, in particular the commitment to publishing them under a Creative Commons licence and making them free through this site. It also influenced their appearance and content: richly illustrated, legible design, accessible language, no footnotes. I wanted each one to be readable at a sitting – a long train journey perhaps.
A couple of recent but unconnected conversations have been encouraging. Joli Vyann, an exciting young performance company, told me that they’d been inspired by Bread & Salt when they were researching their piece about migration, Stateless. And Lyn Gardner, theatre critic with the Guardian (who has just written generously about A Wider Horizon) mentioned she’d read and quoted from Winter Fires. Writing can seem like a mad obsession, like constantly dropping messages in bottles off an ocean pier. It’s great when you get a reply.
With a bit more distance, I might give a better account of Regular Marvels. For now, I want to thank all those who’ve come on the journey – the people who’ve contributed to the books in countless ways and those who’ve read the results. It’s a big busy world and your attention is appreciated. In September, I’ll post news of a new project. In the meantime, I wish you a good summer (or winter if you’re reading this in the Southern Hemisphere…).
If you’d like a digital copy of A Wider Horizon, click on this link: A Wider Horizon (PDF 5MB). Printed books are available now from Creative Arts East, 19 Griffin Court, Market Street, Wymondham NR18 0GU, Tel: 01953 713390 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A Wider Horizon is available from today. To download a digital copy, please click on the link below:
For a copy of the printed book, please contact:
Creative Arts East, 19 Griffin Court, Market Street, Wymondham NR18 0GU
Tel: 01953 713390 Email: email@example.com
The regular marvels of rural touring
Rural touring schemes are a quiet triumph of the British arts world. For 35 years, these small, independent organisations have brought theatre, music and other performing arts to villages across the country and found enthusiastic local audiences. They have offered life enhancing experiences to people who, because they live far from cities, have limited access to the arts. They have provided rewarding and often challenging work for thousands of artists, from seasoned performers to young people at the start of a career. And, in doing all this, rural touring schemes have allowed more of us to enjoy the arts we pay for as tax payers and national lottery players.
Night after night, gifted artists perform at the invitation of the local community in halls, schools and churches from Cornwall to Cumbria. There might be 40, 70 or a hundred people; few venues can accommodate more anyway. But numbers aren’t the point. This is an art of closeness—chamber music, not the Last Night of the Proms.
‘People like the intimacy of the performance, the fact that you are feet away. You’re not watching at a distance on a screen—you’re involved, you’re part of the action.’
The performers are close: you can see the whites of their eyes. The atmosphere is electric because there’s nowhere to hide if the show isn’t working—and that can be as uncomfortable for the audience as for the artists. But such occasions are rare, partly because touring schemes are skilled at finding good shows, and partly because local promoters decide which ones to put on in their community. It is a joint enterprise with shared risks. And when it works, which is very often, audience and artists share a joyous experience, life enhancing and even, sometimes, life changing: regular marvels, indeed.
A Wider Horizon will be presented at the National Rural Touring Forum conference on 14th July 2015 at Wymondham College in Norfolk. The book will then be available from Creative Arts East and as a download from this site. A Wider Horizon, which is a collaboration with Rosie Redzia, will be the fifth regular marvel, and marks the end of the series, for the present at least. More news about that, and the new work that will follow, will come in the summer.
Designing the regular marvel books is always enjoyable. Visual judgements involve a different part of the mind to writing, and when something works you can see it at once (literally). There’s a way to go, but as far as integration of words and images A Wider Horizon might be the happiest yet. Each book has explored the dialogue between ways of knowing differently. If none has been completely successful, to my mind, I feel they’re getting better.
That’s partly thanks to the work of Dave Everitt, old friend and multi-disciplinary artist, with whom I do the layout. His command of the software has saved me having to learn it but working with a sympathetic spirit is the key. The combination of being painstaking but not opinionated is precious and makes the working process a pleasure.
But if A Wider Horizon does work out, it will be because Rosie Redzia’s drawings of landscapes, people and performers tell their story so well. It’s not my story – that’s the point of her contribution – but we often saw the same things, together or separately, and have talked about them over the years of the project. The result is not just two versions of the experience of rural touring but three, with another emerging from the dialogue between the two. At least that’s the idea: you’ll be able to decide for yourself when the books are available on 16 July.
I once bought a six-volume set of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion. It had been printed in 1717, less than fifty years after the author’s death, and when the English Civil War was as close as the Second World War is today. The leather binding had been repaired with electrical tape, so I paid just 50p a volume. How could something so old be so cheap? But that’s a book for you. For objects that seem so fragile, they are remarkably resilient. They dry out if they get wet. Pages tear, but not volumes. Burning them is hard: it’s a symbolic act or sometimes a desperate one. Perhaps the present fashion for paper recycling will be a greater threat.
Art is precious. We keep our children’s drawings for decades, unable to throw them away because they represent the people who made them. We protect great art with locks and alarms. When a painting is stolen, the great fear is that it might be damaged: money is a secondary concern. Fanatics destroy art. They did it in Europe during the Reformation and they are doing it now in Syria and Iraq. Art is irreplaceable because it is made by irreplaceable people. Both are precious and vulnerable; both deserve care and protection. That is not to equate inanimate objects with human beings, though. Art matters because it symbolises and shares what matters to humanity: that’s why people who burn books always go on to burning people.
Books, it turns out, are a very good way to safeguard art and the values it holds. We can see broken temples and statues from the classical era, but it is books that allow us to hear Socrates’ defence of truth and honesty during his trial. Without books, the voices of those who have lived before us, of those who live in other countries and cultures, of those we will never meet, would all be denied us. A few simple symbols recorded on a surface have given us access to the whole human universe. They have prevented us from lapsing into final barbarism, though we have at times come close.
I like the idea that, years from now, these little regular marvels will still be lying forgotten at the back of a cupboard or in some small town junk shop. Seeds can wait a very long time for fertile soil. The books that do survive the recycling bin will blossom for anyone with the curiosity to pick them up and reward them with a document of another time and a glimpse of how some people thought and felt then. They don’t need looking after. Like messages in bottles, they can bob about and take care of themselves. If you’d like a printed copy, drop me a line and I’ll put it in the post.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and adopted very fast, between 1946 and 1948, by nations reacting to the horrors of the Second World War. It is somewhat neglected nowadays, both in spirit and in fact, but it remains a benchmark of what human beings aspire to be and, since it was ratified by the United Kingdom, it is a standard to which we must hold ourselves. Among its articles is the 27th, which begins by stating that:
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
We have made good progress towards meeting this promise since 1948, through the work of local government, the Arts Council and, perhaps more than any other single body, the BBC. It has probably never been easier to enjoy the arts. Their quality, diversity and accessibility in Britain is extraordinary and a cause for celebration.
But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes an important distinction between enjoying the arts and participating in the cultural life of the community. Both rights are fundamental—and different. One can enjoy the arts alone, intimately, without anyone knowing about it. Millions of commuters do so every day, cocooned with their iPods, Kindles and tablets as the train rushes them from work to home.
In contrast to these private experiences, participating in the cultural life of the community is a public and shared act. And it is central to how individuals find and create the common ground that makes a community or a society. It is why Classical Athens developed the civic ritual of theatre and the civic process of democracy simultaneously. Totalitarian regimes do not bother much with private artistic tastes as long as they control the cultural life of the community. It is the difference between passive consumption and active participation, and each has very different results for individuals, communities and democracy.
There are endless ways of participating in the cultural life of the community. Rural touring is certainly one. In gathering in the village hall for an event that they or their neighbours are responsible for organising, people affirm not just their cultural tastes and values but also their willingness to be a community in the first place. In all my conversations with people about rural touring, over more than ten years now, the most consistent reason they give for being involved is that it brings the community together. Whether they are promoters, neighbours or incomers, the people who turn up on a cold February nights to see an unknown play by an equally unfamiliar theatre group, do so to support the community. And, of course, the best way to promote our values is to enact them. It’s not what we say but what we do that makes a difference.
This is a short extract from the draft of A Wider Horizon. The draft goes out today to the people who’ve been involved in the project for correction and further thought. The design process begins next month and it will be more fun than usual thanks to Rosie Redzia’s fantastic drawings, which will be on every page if I can manage it. The book will be published on 15 July 2015 and available as a free download here.