Hope in the Dark

Hope in the Dark

Daryl Hannah and great-grandmother Eleanor Fairchild at Texas tar sands protest

Relentless rain, dark days, bad news all over.  Savage spending cuts – with the poorest councils facing the most drastic reductions that foreshadow a wave of library, social services and leisure centre closures. The British economy heading for an unprecedented triple-dip recession and the poor bearing the brunt. Climate change taking place before our eyes.  The hopes of 2011 – Occupy and the Arab Spring – seeming to fade.  With evidence like this, it’s so easy to adopt the default position of many on the left: doom, gloom, pessimism, impending apocalypse.

But, as the year turns, here’s a message of hope. I’ve just finished Hope in the Dark (the third book by Rebecca Solnit that I have read this year).  It began as a single essay, Acts of Hope, written and posted at Tomdispatch in May 2003, that bleak moment after the huge antiwar demonstrations had seemed to fail and the Bush administration had launched Shock and Awe in Iraq. Solnit’s message might be summarized as a rebuttal of Alice’s assertion in Through the Looking Glass that ‘one can’t believe impossible things’. For Solnit – writer, environmental campaigner and global justice activist – it’s the knee-jerk pessimism, perfectionism and defeatism of many of those involved in these political movements that needs to be resisted. For her, the only war that counts is the war waged to inhibit our collective imagination: in that war every creative act, every thoughtful inquiry, every opening of a mind is a victory for hope.  We may not be able to discern their results immediately, but somewhere down the line there will be consequences.

Writing in 2003, Solnit began Hope in the Dark by accepting the future as dark, a place of probabilities and likelihoods, but no guarantees:

On January 18, 1915, six months into the first world war, as all Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, ‘The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.’ Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfilment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward.  But again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.

Who twenty years ago would have pictured a world in which the Soviet Union had vanished and the Internet had arrived? Who then dreamed that the political prisoner Nelson Mandela would become president of a transformed South Africa?  Who foresaw the resurgence of the indigenous world of which the Zapatista uprising in Southern Mexico is only the most visible face? Who, four decades ago, could have conceived of the changed status of all who are nonwhite, nonmale, or nonstraight, the wide-open conversations about power, nature, economies and ecologies?

There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognise what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom, of justice, and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of.  We adjust to changes without measuring them, we forget how much the culture changed. […]

Zapatistas march in December 2012
Zapatistas march again in Mexico, December 2012

A central tenet of Solnit’s case is that small, seemingly insignificant actions that appear to achieve nothing, can, like the flap of a butterfly’s wings, have consequences in other times or other places. She recalls one such action that seemed to go nowhere:

One June day in 1982, a million people gathered in Central Park to demand a nuclear freeze. They didn’t get it. The movement was full of people who believed they’d realize their goal in a few years and then go home. Many went home disappointed or burned out. But in less than a decade, major nuclear arms reductions were negotiated, helped along by European antinuclear movements and the impetus they gave Gorbachev. Since then, the issue has fallen off the map and we have lost much of what was gained. The US never ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Bush administration is planning to resume the full-fledged nuclear testing halted in 1991, to resume manufacture, to expand the arsenal, and perhaps even to use it in once-proscribed ways.

It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect. I once read an anecdote by someone in Women Strike for Peace, the first great antinuclear movement in the United States in 1963, the one that did contribute to a major victory: the end of aboveground nuclear testing with its radioactive fallout that was showing up in mother’s milk and baby teeth. She told of how foolish and futile she felt standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House. Years later she heard Dr. Benjamin Spock – one of the most high-profile activists on the issue then – say that the turning point for him was seeing a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration himself.

The lesson Solnit draws from this is that many activists make the mistake of expecting that for every action there will be an equal and opposite and punctual reaction.  If there isn’t one, they regard it as failure. But, she argues, history is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent:

It’s a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect. Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary. And though huge causes sometimes have little effect, tiny ones occasionally have huge consequences. […]

From the time the English Quakers first took on the issue of slavery, three quarters of a century passed before it was abolished it in Europe and America. Few if any working on the issue at the beginning lived to see its conclusion, when what had once seemed impossible suddenly began to look, in retrospect, inevitable. And as the law of unintended consequences might lead you to expect, the abolition movement also sparked the first widespread women’s rights movement, which took about the same amount of time to secure the right to vote for American women, has achieved far more in the subsequent 83 years, and is by no means done.

I know this for myself: my radicalism (like many of my generation) was inspired by the actions of people far distant from me in place and experience.  It was the actions, words and joyful music of civil rights activists in the United States and those resisting apartheid in South Africa that galvanised me. Solnit would argue that the student radicalism of the sixties and the Northern Ireland civil rights movement are just further examples of the law of unintended consequences, and that the plunge into the dark that both of those initiating movements represented is still continuing – the fight for equality irrespective of skin colour, ethnic origin, gender or sexual orientation goes on.  A black man wins a second term as President of the United States.

Václav Havel visiting Ruzyne Prison, where he had once been incarcerated, Prague, March 1990
Václav Havel visiting Ruzyne Prison, where he had once been incarcerated, Prague, March 1990

We should not confuse hope with optimism, Solnit argues.  She recalls that F Scott Fitzgerald is often quoted as saying that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.  What people nearly always overlook, says Solnit, is Scott Fitzgerald’s next sentence: ‘One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise’.  Solnit wonders what kept Vaclav Havel hopeful through all those years when the Czechoslovakian communist regime seemed impregnable and he was imprisoned or subject to constant government surveillance.  She offers Havel’s own words as an answer:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.  Hope is a feeling that life and work have meaning. You either have it or you don’t, regardless of the state of the world that surrounds you.  Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.

Nobody knows the consequences of their actions, Solnit says: history is full of small acts that changed the world in surprising ways. She gives an example from her own experience.  In the late 1980s she was one of thousands of activists at the Nevada Test Site, where the US and UK have exploded more than a thousand nuclear bombs, with disastrous effects on the environment and human health:

We didn’t shut down our test site, but our acts inspired the Kazakh poet Olzhas Suleimenov, on February 27, 1989, to read a manifesto instead of poetry on live Kazakh TV – a manifesto demanding a shutdown of the Soviet nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, and calling a meeting. Five thousand Kazakhs gathered at the Writer’s Union the next day and formed a movement to shut down the site. They named themselves the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement.

The Soviet Test Site was indeed shut down. Suleimenov was the catalyst, and though we in Nevada were his inspiration, what gave him his platform was his poetry in a country that loved poets. Perhaps Suleimenov wrote all his poems so that one day he could stand up in front of a TV camera and deliver not a poem but a manifesto. And perhaps Arundhati Roy wrote a ravishing novel that catapulted her to stardom so that when she stood up to oppose dams and destruction of the local for the benefit of the transnational, people would notice. Or perhaps these writers opposed the ravaging of the earth so that poetry too – poetry in the broadest sense – would survive in the world.

Solnit suggests that pessimism about the future often derives from a perfectionism that holds that anything less than total victory is failure, a premise that makes it easy to give up at the start or to disparage small victories or advances:

This is earth. It will never be heaven. There will always be cruelty, always be violence, always be destruction. There is tremendous devastation now. In the time it takes you to read this, acres of rainforest will vanish, a species will go extinct, women will be raped, men shot, and far too many children will die of easily preventable causes. We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its source and foundation: these are victories.

Barack Obama meets Aung San Suu Kyi on historic Burma visit, November 2012
Barack Obama meets Aung San Suu Kyi, elected to Burmese Parliament in April, during his historic Burma visit in November.

Each December since the publication of Hope In The Dark, Rebecca Solnit has written an end of year essay for Tomdispatch. In 2006 she wrote:

The future, of course, is not something you predict and wait for. It is something you invent daily through your actions. As Mas Kodani, a Buddhist in Los Angeles, said in the early twenty-first century: ‘One does not stand still looking for a path. One walks; and as one walks, a path comes into being’.  We make it up as we go, and we make it up by going, or as the Zapatistas more elegantly put it, ‘Walking we ask questions’.  What else can you do?  Perhaps respect the power of the small and the mystery of the future to which we all belong.

In December 2011, Solnit commented on a year that had seen the Arab Spring and the spread of the Occupy movement:

Perhaps the greatest gift that it and the other movements of 2011 have given us is a sharpening of our perceptions – and our conflicts. So much more is out in the open now, including the greed, the brutality with which entities from the Egyptian army to the Oakland police impose the will of rulers, and most of all the deep generosity of spirit that is behind, within, and around these insurgencies and their activists. None of these movements is perfect, and individuals within them are not always the greatest keepers of their brothers and sisters.  But one thing couldn’t be clearer: compassion is our new currency.

Nothing has been more moving to me than this desire, realized imperfectly but repeatedly, to connect across differences, to be a community, to make a better world, to embrace each other. This desire is what lies behind those messy camps, those raucous demonstrations, those cardboard signs and long conversations. Young activists have spoken to me about the extraordinary richness of their experiences at Occupy, and they call it love.

In the spirit of calling things by their true names, let me summon up the description that Ella Baker and Martin Luther King used for the great communities of activists who stood up for civil rights half a century ago: the beloved community. Many who were active then never forgot the deep bonds and deep meaning they found in that struggle. We — and the word “we” encompasses more of us than ever before — have found those things, too, and this year we have come close to something unprecedented, a beloved community that circles the globe.

In her latest end of year essay, Solnit reminds us how mistaken we can be when we judge the past – or the present; there have been losses, but also gains unimaginable three or four decades ago:

When I remember the world I grew up in, I see the parts of it that were Paradise – and I also see all the little hells. I was a kid in California when it had the best public education system in the world and universities were nearly free and the economy was not so hard on people and the rich paid a lot of taxes. The weather was predictable and we weren’t thinking about it changing any time before the next ice age.

That was, however, the same California where domestic violence was not something the law took an interest in, where gays and lesbians were openly discriminated against, where almost all elected officials were white men, where people hadn’t even learned to ask questions about exclusion and racism.

Which is to say, paradises are always partial and, when you look backward, it’s worth trying to see the whole picture. The rights gained over the past 35 years were fought for, hard, while so much of what was neglected – including public education, tuition, wages, banking regulation, corporate power, and working hours – slid into hell.

Pussy Riot members  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were arrested and charged with hooliganism. A third member, Yekaterina Samutsevichtrial
Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich on trial in August.

When you fight, says Solnit, you sometimes win. When you don’t, you always lose. She concludes with a return to a favourite theme – the war on imagination:

This is, among other things, a war of the imagination: the carbon profiteers and their politicians are hoping you don’t connect the dots, or imagine the various futures we could make or they could destroy, or grasp the remarkably beautiful and complex ways the natural world has worked to our benefit and is now being sabotaged, or discover your conscience and voice, or ever picture how different it could all be, how different it will need to be.

They are already at war against the well-being of our Earth. Their greed has no limits, their imagination nothing but limits. Fight back. You have the power. It’s one of your gifts.

Solnit offers many examples of extraordinary acts of civil disobedience by people working to build a better world – one in which humankind and some of the beauty of this world might have a chance of surviving. People resisting the forces threatening our futures and the planet’s. People like 78-year old great-grandmother Eleanor Fairchild and actress Daryl Hannah (picture, top) resisting one of the world’s wealthiest multinational corporations building a pipeline across Texas to carry tar sands oil.  (Fairchild was arrested for trespassing – on her own property.)

In 2012, they rose up from Egypt and Russia to Canada and Chile. They are fighting for themselves and their future, but for us, too. They have remarkably few delusions about how little our world is prepared to offer most of them. They know that the only gifts they’ll get are the ones they can wrestle free from the powers that be.

Paradise is overrated. We dream of the cessation of misery, but who really wants a world without difficulty? We learn through mistakes and suffering. These are the minerals that harden our bones and the milestones on the roads we travel. And we are made to travel, not to sit still.

Take pleasure in the route. There is terrible suffering of many kinds in many places, but solidarity consists of doing something about it, not being miserable. In this heroic age, survival is also going to require seeing what fragments of paradise are still around us, what still blooms, what’s still unimaginably beautiful about rivers, oceans, and evening skies, what exhilaration there is in witnessing the stubbornness of small children and their discovery of a world we think we know.

Reading Solnit’s words brought to mind one of the year’s most inspiring songs for these hard times – Bruce Springsteen’s ‘We Are Alive’:

We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our souls and spirits rise
To carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

This rain must end sometime, these floodwaters recede.

See also

Ill Fares The Land

Tony Judt cover

In 2008, Tony Judt was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. By October 2009, he was paralysed from the neck down. Nevertheless that month, from a wheelchair, he gave a major public lecture on the crisis of social democracy, which was published in the New York Review of Books in December 2009.  That lecture became the basis of his book Ill Fares the Land published posthumously in 2010, that I have just been reading.

Judt begins with a ringing opening sentence:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.

In words that carry even greater resonance in 2011, with the global Occupy movement questioning deepening inequality and the unregulated nature of the capitalist system, he continues:

For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them. […]

We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.

Judt’s purpose in the opening chapter – ‘The Way We Live Now’ – is to describe the extent of ‘private affluence and public squalor’ in America and Europe today.  ‘To understand the depths to which we have fallen’, he writes, ‘we must first appreciate the scale of the changes that have overtaken us’.  From the end of the 19th century, up to the 1970s, western societies all became less unequal.  But, Judt argues, ‘over the past thirty years we have thrown all this away’.  Countries where the enthusiasm for deregulated market capitalism has been most enthusiastic – the USA and UK especially – evince the greatest extremes of private privilege.  Much of his evidence is drawn from The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The following chapter – ‘The World We Have Lost’ – is, essentially, a paean to the postwar ‘Keynesian consensus’ that emerged out of the devastation wrought by world war and depression.  Here, Judt places less emphasis on Keynesian economic tenets, and more on the moral precepts that underpinned them – community, trust and common purpose.  In the 30 years following the Second World War, there was a widespread belief that the state could do a better job than the unregulated market. A benign welfare state would ensure that there was no return to the poverty of the 1930s. It would protect all from cradle to grave. He shows how these assumptions underpinned the postwar consensus in Britain, the Great Society in the United States and European social democracy.

However, in the 1970s, confidence in the efficiency of the state and belief in the necessity for a larger public realm fell apart. Judt advances several explanations for this – the failures of planning, the inefficiencies of public enterprises, the influence of free market economists like Hayek,  and – most surprisingly – the individualism of the ’60s generation.  He writes:

Social justice no longer preoccupied radicals.  What united the ’60s generation was not the interest of all, but the needs and rights of each.  ‘Individualism’ – the assertion of every person’s claim to maximized private freedom and the unrestrained liberty to express autonomous desires … became the left-wing watchword of the hour’.

This is a portrayal of sixties radicalism that I find unrecognisable.  Certainly those currents were present, most markedly on the hippie fringe, but such preoccupations also led radicals to challenge previously invisible forms of social inequality , such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability.  And I can recall considerable energies being devoted to analysing and challenging the failings of the welfare state: think, for example, of the emergence of Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group in this period.  It was, I recall, Margaret Thatcher who said, ‘There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families’.

Tony Judt

These chapters form the strongest part of the book, Judt setting out his case that we have become obsessed with money and have lost any sense of community. His chosen title, Ill Fares the Land, comes from Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’, in which the poet writes of a country ‘to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates, and men decay’. As Judt sees it, the ills from which we presently suffer come very largely from a failure of morality and historical memory.

Judt is much better at describing what went wrong than at setting out how it might get better. He succeeds at conveying the urgency of the present, but becomes vague when it comes to indicating ways forward. What he suggests is that the way forward begins by looking back – to the moral judgements that lay at the heart social democracy after the Second World War.  Judt doesn’t pretend that the social democracy that prevailed in Britain, Europe and (the politics that dare not speak its name) America in the three decades after the war can easily be wished back into existence. The book ends with this sentence:

Social democracy does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent an ideal past. But among the options available to us today, it is better than anything else to hand.

It’s a rather insipid conclusion, with no sign at present that much rethinking of this sort is taking place within the social democratic parties of western nations.  Another weakness is that the book focusses almost entirely on Europe and America, with hardly any mention of the problems flowing from economic globalization.

And yet – in 2011 the exact moral questions that Judt wanted to see posed have been at the forefront of the global Occupy movement.  As evidence for this, take a look at an article written by Naomi Wolf on The Guardian website: The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy.  The scale and ferocityof the coordinated crackdown against Occupy protesters in cities across the USA this past week set Wolf  to wonder: why this massive mobilisation against these inarticulate (according to the media), unarmed people?

It was, Wolf thought, a puzzle: until she found out what it was that Occupy actually wanted.  She went online and solicited answers from Occupy supporters to the question: What is it you want?  The answers were, she says, ‘were truly eye-opening.’

The protesters top agenda item was: get the money out of politics.  The second: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation, and in particular restore the Glass-Steagall Act – the Depression-era law, done away with by President Clinton, that separates investment banks from commercial banks. The third item was, she says, the most clarifying: make it illegal for members of Congress to pass legislation affecting corporations in which they themselves are investors.

When I saw this list – and especially the last agenda item – the scales fell from my eyes. Of course, these unarmed people would be having the shit kicked out of them. … Occupy has touched the third rail: personal Congressional profits streams. Even though they are, as yet, unaware of what the implications of their movement are, those threatened by the stirrings of their dreams of reform are not. …

Americans this week have come one step closer to being true brothers and sisters of the protesters in Tahrir Square. Like them, our own national leaders, who see their own personal wealth under threat from transparency and reform, are now making war upon us.

This could just be the return to the kind of principled and morally-assertive social democracy that Tony Judt dreamed of.

A Democratic Promenade

News reports from around the world suggest a growing momentum behind the Occupy Movement on the morning that I explore the new exhibition at the Bluecoat, Democratic Promenade.  The title comes from Walter Dixon Scott’s description of the Landing Stage in his 1907 book Liverpool, and the exhibition responds to 2011’s Liverpool: City of Radicals theme with an eclectic mashup of examples of artistic,  cultural and political rebellion from the past century in Liverpool.

The City of Radicals celebration has been prompted by events 100 years ago that had a significance culturally, architecturally and politically: a seminal exhibition by the Post-Impressionists at the Bluecoat, the death of Robert Tressell, the opening of the Liver Building, controversial in its design and cast-concrete fabrication, and the transport strike that brought the city ‘near to revolution’.

The exhibition presents artworks and archival material that document and celebrate moments from Liverpool’s radical past (in both a political and a cultural sense) as well as new works from artists interrogating the meaning of democracy and radicalism now, in 2011.

The beginning of the 20th century was a watershed for the Bluecoat, which became the UK’s first combined arts centre in 1907.  It was home to the Sandon Studios Society, whose members included the Polish émigré, Albert Lipczinski  and Roderick Bisson, the latter a major discovery for me – unknown to me, and (a quick Google suggests) pretty much the rest of the world.

Roderick Bisson (1910-87) came under the influence of European modernism in the 1930s and 1940s, reflected in the paintings on display here. Visits to pre-war Paris, reading of avant-garde art publications, and an early adoption of
Surrealism, all combined to give Bisson a highly contemporary outlook and connection to the latest ideas from the Continent.  The work that most struck me was ‘Building Ablaze in Church Alley’ from 1941 – a response to the Liverpool blitz.  The painting, which has echoes of John Piper, pictures Phillip Son & Nephew, the leading Liverpool bookshop of the time (and my time, when I arrived in the city as a student in the late 1960s) ablaze, with a Penguin paperback in the foreground.

‘Woman Asleep’ (above) and ‘Three Women Washing and Brushing Their Hair’ are two other paintings by Bisson featured in the exhibition.

As an example of the eclecticism of this exhibition, the exhibit that caught my attention next was a display of  Smash Robots made in the 1970s by Ford workers at the Halewood plant.  Made clandestinely by workers during their shifts from the company’s materials, they pay homage to the robots from the legendaryCadbury’s Smash Potato advertisements. The model robots, some looking better than the ones in the TV adverts, were later sold in pubs, and to my mind are as radical as anything on display here –  a typically Scouse assertion of autonomy by workers supposedly chained to the regimentation of the assembly-line.

A focal point of the exhibition is a new film commission from David Jacques, The Irlam House Bequest, narrated by local poet Paul Farley,which imagines the discovery of drawings in a Bootle tower block of templates for 19th century trade union banners. Jacques was the creator of the banner commissioned to mark the centenary of Robert Tresssell’s death that has been located on Dale Street for much of this year.

Oliver Walker’s installation Mr Democracy, features 1,000 dolls imported from China, programmed to recite an imagined British constitution written by Chinese law students.  This is the artist’s response to the fact that the UK is one of only three countries in the world not to have a written constitution.  The constitution was developed in Shanghai by three postgraduate constitutional law students from the East China University of Politics and Law.  Ironically exploring ideas about trade, democracy and globalisation, the work poses the question – if you want something manufactured, where else would you have the job done these days but authoritarian China?

Brigitte Jurack’s installation, evoking Arthur Dooley’s lost Speakers’ Podium, is less striking.  It comprises a large red banner draped above a collection of models representing ideas for a 21st century speakers’ platform – none of them at all inspiring  Dooley’s podium, a sort of Tatlin’s Tower once situated at the Pier Head, was a local landmark, and especially close to the hearts of protesters and trade unionists who gathered around it for more than two decades. Alongside Jurack’s installation are displayed nostalgic photographs of the original, first erected in 1973.

The podium was commissioned by the Transport & General Workers Union and designed in 1973 by Arthur Dooley and the architect Jim Hunter. It won a RIBA design award in 1975 but disappeared when the City Council redeveloped the Pier Head in the 1990s.  It was later discovered, rusting away in a Council depot (seen below, in an article from the Liverpool Echo in 1994 displayed in the exhibition).

One gallery on the ground floor illustrates the eclecticism of this exhibition. There are delicate paper designs in the style of 19th century socialist and trade union banners created by Rose Vickers, a contemporary artist who seems to have been influenced by William Morris in her work.  However, the colours and designs are as bland as the slogans: ‘We Make Our Own Future’ and ‘Yesterday Is History, Tomorrow Is A Mystery’. Profound!

On an adjacent wall are photographs  by John Davies that comment on the privatisation of public green space in Liverpool, including the International Garden Festival site.  We can assume there’ll be plenty more of that sort of thing in the near future.  There are cartoons and memorable front pages from the Liverpool Free Press, the city’s great alternative newspaper that exposed corruption and injustice throughout the 1970s.

There’s a lot of Adrian Henri here, too – almost a whole room, it seems.  Not his painting, but his poetry and material that documents his performance art as a member of the Liverpool Scene.

On display, for example, is the cover of the Liverpool Scene’s first album, The Amazing Adventures Of, which shows the regulars outside O’Conners Tavern on Leece Street, where the band performed every week in the upstairs room.  It’s a bit special for me as I used to go along to their heady mixture of poetry, jazz and acoustic guitar every Tuesday evening when I first came here as a university student in 1967. The gatefold cover shows pub regulars on the street outside with the O’Connors landlord, Jimmy Moore, in the centre, (the guy in the braces).

Meanwhile, upstairs Dave Sinclair’s photos document the 1985 School Students’ Strike when thousands of kids marched through Liverpool city centre in protest at job creation schemes which were regarded as cheap labour ‘conscription’, before ending their demonstration at the Pier Head where they were addressed from Dooley’s podium by, amongst others, Militant MP Terry Fields.

There are images, too, of other instances of collective action by crowds occupying public spaces in protests against living and working conditions. One depicts the crowds on St Georges Plateau on 13 August 1911 – ‘Bloody Sunday’ – during the Liverpool Transport Strike. Close on 100,000 workers had turned out to hear speeches by workers and leaders of the unions, including Tom Mann, who made this speech to the crowd:

A hundred thousand people have come to the centre of Liverpool this afternoon. The authorities have allowed us to ‘police’ this hundred thousand ourselves. Why? Because they enjoy surrendering their power? Or because they’re afraid of being trampled underfoot. …

We’re gathered here today, peacefully, to demonstrate our determination to win this long and terrible battle against the employing classes and the state. What does that mean? Only this. All the transport workers of Liverpool are arm-in-arm against the enemy class. We have sent a letter to the employers asking for an early settlement and a speedy return to work. If that brings no reply, if they ignore us, The Strike Committee advises a general strike.

In the face of the military and the police drafted into this city – and of the threat to bring gunboats into the Mersey – we can see nothing except a challenge. A challenge to every worker who values his job. A challenge to every claim each worker makes of his employer. A challenge to every right a worker should expect under common decency. Brothers, we rise to this challenge. And we meet it, head on.”

The demonstration went without incident until about 4 o’clock, when, completely unprovoked, the crowds of workers suddenly came under attack from the police. Indiscriminately attacking bystanders, the police succeeded in clearing the steps of St George’s Hall in half an hour, despite resistance from strikers who used whatever they could find as weapons. Fighting soon spilled out into nearby streets, causing the police and troops to come under attack as workers pelted them with missiles from rooftops.

Another image records the occupation of the Walker Art Gallery by members of the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement (NUWCM) in 1921.  The NUWCM was formed in the years following the First World War when thousands of men had returned from the trenches to mass unemployment and poverty in cities such as Liverpool. Resentment set in and, led by the Communist Party of Great Britain, the NUWCM organized itself under the slogan of ‘Work or Maintenance’ and an agenda for action centred on non-violent protests and demonstrations.

During a rally on St Georges Plateau, one of the organizers said:

I think we’ll go for a walk… A short walk. It’s too late for anything else. We’ll all be art critics this afternoon. We’ll go across and have a look at the pictures in the Art Gallery. Those places are as much for us as anybody else. They belong to the public.

George Garrett who had spoken at the rally later wrote:

Inside the Art Gallery, more police caused pandemonium, men yelped aloud as they were batoned down. Others dashed around panic-stricken. A few desperate ones dropped from an open window into a side street and got away. Those attempting to follow were struck down from behind. The police closed all windows and doors. There were no further escapes. Batons split skull after skull. Men fell where they were hit. The floor streamed with blood. Those lying on it were trampled on by others who were soon flattened out alongside them. Gallery workers were battered, too. The police had gone wild.

Another display brings together photographs, leaflets and posters documenting student protests at Liverpool University between 1968 and 1970, events that began with an expose of the University as the owner of slum housing in which families experienced dreadful living conditions. That revelation brought tenants and students together to protest at the official opening by Princess Alexandra of the new Senate House in May 1969. Growing tensions between students and the university authorities came to a head with the occupation of Senate House in March 1970 over issues encapsulated in ‘The Five Demands’ and dominated by the issue of the racist beliefs of the University Chancellor and questions about University investments in apartheid South Africa.  After the occupation, disciplinary hearings resulted in nine students being suspended (among them Jon Snow) and one expelled.

I was involved in those protests, and in the summer I had been approached by Bryan Biggs, the exhibition curator, who was interested in incorporating something about the student protests in the displays.  He was especially interested in the posters that had been produced during the Senate sit-in, but also borrowed photos, press cuttings and leaflets which are now displayed as part of he exhibition.  There is, for example, this photo of students marching to join tenants on the Princess Alexandra demonstration – that’s me on the far left.

These are the Five Demands of the Senate House occupation, displayed in the window for passers-by to see.

There are examples of the posters produced during the occupation by Frank Milner, influenced by the work of the Atelier Populaire, the poster workshop that emerged during the May events in Paris in 1968.

In one of the exhibition captions, Frank Milner explains how the posters were made;

During the occupation of Senate House I made posters in the large entrance hall. My equipment was woefully crude, a regular wooden frame held by rising butt hinges to a plywood base, with the silk screen nailed tight to the outer edges. But I did use professional ink and had a proper squeegee too. Whip-rounds were made for ink and paper and I found a place in town that sold printer’s offcuts trimmed to poster size at about 50p for 100 sheets.

Paris May ’68 posters were definitely my inspiration, such superb images, so simple and direct. However the French students had photoscreens and all the paraphernalia of proper art departments.  I had a wobbly table and paper stencils that disintegrated after 80 pulls when the turps used to dilute the ink soaked into the paper, and I spread the posters on the floor to dry.  I was very lucky really – left to get on with what I was OK at doing – and everyone was pretty appreciative.  But it was a bit messy.

Silk screen posters, even if they were crude, bridged the gap between the usual laborious hand-drawn placards and the professionally printed job. With the silk screen you could get something out really quickly. When ten students were sent down by the University I produced posters within a couple of hours. Later, when I worked at the Walker Art Gallery, I’d attend exhibition openings in the  entrance hall at Senate House. During the boring opening speeches I used to entertain
myself finding the old ink marks on the floor from the posters I’d made 15 years earlier.

I was pleased with the Old Chancellors poster. Everyone kept banging on about what a frail old man Lord Salisbury was. He seemed pretty active to me, and toxic too – one of  the last people you would want to be your university chancellor. Despite Liverpool University nowadays priding itself on its liberal credentials and recently praising the 1970 occupation, one of its halls of residence is still called Salisbury Hall.

Frank Milner at the exhibition opening

As noted earlier, the exhibition title is taken from Walter Dixon Scott’s description of the Liverpool landing stage at the Pier Head in his 1907 book, Liverpool.  Dixon Scott was born in Kirkdale in 1881, to a well-to-do family and went to work for the Midland Bank in Castle Street, Liverpool. He left when he was 25 to become a writer, but died at Gallipoli nine years later in 1915. Paul Du Noyer, author of Liverpool: Wondrous Place, once said of  Walter Dixon Scott’s book:

This is just the most beautiful set of descriptions about the city, written for the 700th anniversary of its charter. It’s a portrait of the people and industry and commerce vitality and the poorer areas, the clerks commuting on the morning ferries from the Wirral, in that year. The evocation of sky over the city at sunset is superb. It is also illustrated with beautiful engravings of the city, ranging from the waterfront, to the little cigar shop on Mount Pleasant.

A comprehensive  guide accompanies the exhibition, and it begins by elaborating on Walter Dixon Scott’s idea of the democratic promenade:

This ‘democratic promenade’ represented for him a coming together of business and pleasure, the city’s wealthy merchants mixing with its urban poor, Europeans heading to a new life across the seas, and sailors from around the globe dropping anchor on Merseyside. A century later, in the shifting terrain of the modern metropolis, the idea of the city as a democratic promenade also provides a useful measure of how urban centres function: Tony Lane describes successful cities in this new global environment as ‘democratic places whose  citizens are simultaneously intolerant of intolerance and captivated by creativity’. Now though, as ‘the veneer of democracy starts to fade’ with tensions showing within the financial, political and social structures of developed countries, democracy seems to be increasingly ‘under duress’. At the same time there are calls from around the world for democracy and new forms of participation in the political process where none has previously existed. And artists, alongside thinkers, writers, musicians, performers, commentators and others involved in cultural discourse, articulate such concerns or aspirations in different ways – through direct engagement, or more obliquely in their work. Whilst this exhibition does not claim to reflect the present turbulence and calls to establish or re-examine democracy, it is however envisaged as a journey, a promenade, through a diverse range of creative practices,across time and in different places, which engage in some way with processes of change or of radical expression.

I thought of the relevance of that assessment as, later, I read accounts of how, in The Guardian’s words, ‘a month to the day after 1,000 people first turned up in Wall Street to express their outrage at corporate greed and social inequality, campaigners are reflecting on a weekend that saw a relatively modest demonstration in New York swell into a truly global howl of protest‘. In Liverpool, peaceful protesters occupied Barclays Bank.

Even the Financial Times, in its editorial today, says:

Today only the foolhardy would dismiss a movement reflecting the anger and frustration of ordinary citizens from all walks of life around the world … the fundamental call for a fairer distribution of wealth cannot be ignored. …  The bargain has always been that all who work hard should have an opportunity for prosperity. That has been shattered by a crisis brought about by financial excess and political cynicism. The consequence has been growing inequality, rising poverty and sacrifice by those least able to bear it – all of which are failing to deliver economic growth. … The cry for change is one that must be heeded.

Liverpool

Madrid

San Francisco

Boston