Stories of exile: Queens of Syria, Exodus and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group

Stories of exile: <em>Queens of Syria, Exodus</em> and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group

Another day, yet another atrocity hurled from the maelstrom of conflict in the Middle East, the turmoil which has also resulted in over half of Syria’s people being killed or forced to flee their homes to become refugees. In the evening I attend a performance at the Liverpool Everyman of Queens of Syria, a remarkable touring production, performed by Syrian women from a refugee camp in Amman, which weaves the women’s own stories of exile and war into passages from the ancient Greek play The Trojan Women, theatre’s earliest dramatisation of the plight of women in war.

Earlier this week I watched the BBC documentary trilogy, Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which told the stories of some of the refugees in last year’s huge movement of people fleeing disaster – on dinghies crossing from Turkey to Greece, along the migrant trail through the Balkans, and in the Jungle at Calais – filmed along the way by those same people on mobile phones.

After a referendum campaign which seemed to establish the expression of racist or anti-immigrant sentiment as respectable once more, these three films gave voice to those who have truly lost their homeland, in stark contrast  to those in this country who, having ‘wanted to get their country back’, now truly believe that’s what they have achieved. Continue reading “Stories of exile: Queens of Syria, Exodus and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group”

Wolf Hall: These bloody days have broken my heart

Wolf Hall: These bloody days have broken my heart

‘Simply brilliant TV’ was how the Independent quite rightly lavished praise on the BBC adaptation of the first two volumes of Hilary Mantel’s as yet unfinished Wolf Hall trilogy.  The series – directed by Peter Kosminsky from a superb script by Peter Straughan – was exceptional television, as far removed from routine costume drama as Mantel’s originals were from simple categorisation as historical novels. Continue reading “Wolf Hall: These bloody days have broken my heart”

Merseyside art online

Merseyside art online
David Jacques, Irish Emigrants Entering Liverpool, 1990

For the past year or so the number of paintings you can view on the Your Paintings website has been growing steadily. This joint initiative between the BBC, the Public Catalogue Foundation aims to make all 2000,000 paintings in the UK national public collection available to view online.

Your Paintings is a work in progress, currently just over half way through the massive digitisation programme needed to photograph and document all the paintings in the national collection.  Recently the entire collection of  paintings held by National Museums of Liverpool went online, joining paintings held by other galleries and public institutions on Merseyside.

The brilliant thing about this project is that at any one time only around 20% of the paintings in a gallery’s collection will be on public display. They might be being conserved or repaired, or in storage (because of limited display space).  In addition, many paintings in the public collection are on display in buildings not open to the public.

As far as Merseyside is concerned, works from the Lady Lever Art Gallery, the Walker Art Gallery, Sudley House, The Museum of Liverpool, the International Slavery Museum, Merseyside Maritime Museum, and the UK Border Agency National Museum are now online, as well as items from places like Liverpool Magistrates’ Court, Merseyside Police Headquarters, the Pilkington Glass Collection, the Philharmonic, Tate Liverpool, Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool hospitals, and art from galleries on the Wirral and in Sefton.  Here’s the full list:

You could spend a long time browsing just the Merseyside collection, let alone paintings from other parts of the country.  These are just a few of the paintings that I chanced on as I sifted through the works held locally.

Charles Trevor Prescott, Steble Fountain, William Brown Street

I haven’t been able to find any information about Charles Trevor Prescott other than his dates: 1872–1947.  There are five paintings held locally, all of them paintings of Liverpool scenes in the last decade of the 19th century.  They include views of St John’s Market and the Liverpool Underground Railway.

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase

Amongst the fine paintings in the Walker Art Gallery collection is ‘Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase’  by Paul Nash and Holland, Cold Holland by Albert Richards, both painted in 1944. Richards, who was born in Liverpool in 1919, was a British War Artist at the time of this painting.   After attending the Wallasey School of Art and the Royal College of Art he joined the Royal Engineers in 1940. On D-Day he landed in France by parachute with the 6th Airborne Division and was killed when his jeep ran over a mine on 5 March 1945.  There are pictures by him in the collections of the Walker Art Gallery , the Imperial War Museum and the Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead.

Albert Richards, Holland, Cold Holland


Another local artist was Richard Young.  Once known as ‘ Liverpool’s best kept secret’, Young was a private man who largely worked alone – both as an artist and electrician – and who was not given to blowing his own trumpet. Once asked what was his great achievement, he replied, ‘rewiring the Midland Bank, Bootle, in 1962′.  The painting below (which is mis-titled on Your Paintings), is held by Sefton Council and, like all but one of his seven paintings in Merseyside collections, is not currently on public display.  For more on Dick Young, go to my blog dedicated to his life and work.

Richard Young, Window Marsh Lane, 1986

Two more paintings from the Walker Art Gallery: Winifred Nicholson, ‘View through a Window with Blue Curtains and a Chair’, is fairly typical of her impressionistic style that tended to concentrate on domestic subjects and landscapes, often combined in a view out of a window; and Augustus John’s ‘Two Jamaican Girls’, painted in 1937 .

Winifred Nicholson, View through a Window with Blue Curtains and a Chair, 1960

Augustus John came to Liverpool at the age of 23 John came to Liverpool to work as an art instructor. He was only in Liverpool for eighteen months in 1901-1902, but it was during this time that he first embarked on official portraiture with pictures local dignitaries, including senior members of the University Council.  By the end of the First World War, John had built a reputation as a painter of celebrities. The portrait of the Jamaican girls is radically different.

Augustus John, Two Jamaican Girls, 1937

At Sudley Art Gallery in Liverpool’s Mossley Hill suburb there’s a brilliant late Turner, ‘Margate Harbour’, painted around 1835.  It was acquired by George Holt, who had made his fortune as a cotton broker in early 19th century Liverpool.  He made his home at Sudley in 1884, where his daughter Emma lived until her death in 1944.  She bequeathed the house and the collection of paintings assembled by her father to the city of Liverpool.  George Holt’s sister Anne noted in the family diary in March 1872 that her brother had ‘purchased a nice small Turner at Mr. Leyland’s sale’. It was almost certainly this atmospheric late canvas, whose subject is probably emigrants embarking for new lives abroad.

Turner, Margate Harbour, c.1835

Across the water, at the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight, one of the popular items in the collection is Scottish painter Joseph Farquharson’s ‘The Shortening Winter’s Day is Near a Close’  from 1903.  Farquharson is best known for his paintings of winter landscapes, usually snowy scenes featuring sheep and with poetic sounding titles.   Walter Sickert wrote of Farquharson’s ‘extraordinary virtuosity’ and praised his lightness of touch as ‘the mark of the real painter’.   But The Magazine of Art suggested that Farquharson was guilty of ‘turning out year after year what seem to be stereotyped repetitions of old effects’.  The soap magnate William Hesketh Lever added the painting to his personal collection and it hangs in the gallery that he founded in 1922.

Joseph Farquharson, The Shortening Winter’s Day is Near a Close, 1903

The picture at the top of this post is by local artist David Jacques.  Entitled ‘Irish Emigrants Entering Liverpool’ it was painted  in eight weeks in 1990 at the Kirkby Unemployed Resource Centre and is now on display in the new Museum of Liverpool.

Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere

We’ve had revolution in Tunisia;  in Egypt Mubarak is teetering; in Yemen, Jordan and Syria suddenly protests have appeared. In Greece strikes and riots continue to protest the financial crisis. This week Ahdaf Soueif, author of  The Map of Love, reported from Tahrir Square:

Four generations, more than a million people (according to the army count at 2pm) are here. They are all doing what they have not been able to do for decades; each and every one is having their say in their own way and insisting on being counted. Their dominant demand, of course, is for Mubarak to step down.

In the regime’s response to this people’s revolution they have displayed the same brutality, dullness, dishonesty and predictability that have characterised their 30-year rule. They have shot and gassed their citizens, lied to them and about them, threatened them with F16s, tried to foist a “new” cabinet on them – everything except the decent thing: go.

Meanwhile the citizens on the ground have come into their own. Tahrir is about dignity and image as much as it is about the economy and corruption.

So, asks Paul Mason of BBC’s Newsnight, What’s going on?  This is his answer, in 20 bullet points:

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future

2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany.

3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.

4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.

5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.

6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.

8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.

16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.

17. It is – with international pressure and some powerful NGOs – possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.

18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.

19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest “meme” that is sweeping the world – if that premise is indeed true – is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don’t seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for “autonomy” and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.

20. Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.

Dylan with Liverpool kids, 1966

Dylan with Liverpool kids, 1966

Here’s a BBC documentary film regarding children who were photographed in Liverpool in May 1966 with Bob Dylan – tracked down by Chris Hockenhull 40 years later. It’s about photographs that are my favourites of Dylan at his coolest.

This photograph of  Dylan in the Dock Road area of Liverpool was taken by Barry Feinstein, a photographer who accompanied Dylan during his world tour, a year after he caused uproar among his folk fans by going electric.

According to Chris Hockenhall, a Dylan enthusiast from Merseyside who tracked down the children for a BBC North West documentary, Feinstein didn’t like performance pictures and would take Dylan out to shoot on location.

“Dylan and Feinstein just seemed to have stumbled into what amounted to a kids’ playground. It was such a clash of 1960s culture. The kids looked like Victorian street urchins and Dylan looked like a man from Mars with his loud shirt and wild hair – that’s what fascinated me.”

Barry Feinstein recalls the occasion; “We were down in this area and all these kids were around. I said to Bob ‘Let’s have a picture of them’. The kids all sort of gathered around him and filled in the spaces. He was just sitting there. I think he was enjoying it. He likes kids.”

The location in the photograph still exists, in Dublin Street, close to Liverpool’s Dock Road. The picture was taken on 14 May 1966, Dylan was playing Liverpool’s Odeon Theatre that evening. In the afternoon when the photograph was taken Everton were completing one of the greatest FA Cup Final comebacks against Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley. Many of the children’s parents were watching the game so they were left to play in the local streets.

Dylan with Liverpool kids 1966

The photograph was not published until 1999, when it appeared in a book by Feinstein, Early Dylan. It was also used in a booklet that accompanied the official Colombia Records release of the legendary Royal Albert Hall bootleg, a recording of the concert that actually took place at Manchester Free Trade Hall. Intrigued by the photograph, Mr Hockenhull began searching for the location and eventually found it.

It took a further eight months to track down nine of the 10 children, some of whom were in Scotland and London. One was unable to make the second photograph, taken last November, and the tenth could not be traced.

He said: “Very few of the children had any recollection of the event in 1966. What really fascinated me is that they were not Dylan fans.A man with a cine camera swept into the area in a big black car and offered them 10 shillings to have their picture taken.”

One of the women in the photograph, Bernadette Gill, 47, is now a doctor’s receptionist in Knotty Ash in Liverpool. She said: “I don’t remember a thing about the original photograph. It’s lovely to look at it, though, and realise what you’ve been part of.”