Protest and persist: why giving up hope is not an option, by Rebecca Solnit

Protest and persist: why giving up hope is not an option, by Rebecca Solnit

I have celebrated writing by Rebecca Solnit many times on this blog. In this post I’m reproducing in its entirety ‘Protest and persist: why giving up hope is not an option’, today’s Guardian long read. Because it is a magnificent essay, one of her best pieces. Every paragraph burns with passion and sings like poetry. The Guardian’s strapline reads: ‘The true impact of activism may not be felt for a generation. That alone is reason to fight, rather than surrender to despair.’ Read on and find inspiration in these troubled times. Continue reading “Protest and persist: why giving up hope is not an option, by Rebecca Solnit”


Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

‘The world that I knew, it has vanished and gone,’ sang Eliza Carthy during Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl, a special concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic this week that marked the centennial of the songwriter and Communist activist’s birth. It was a marvellous evening of passionate songs of politics and love which caused me to reflect on the significance of MacColl’s songs in our changed times. Continue reading “Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl”

Election day: Everybody knows

Election day: Everybody knows

Election day. Some words from Leonard, who always lets in the light: Continue reading “Election day: Everybody knows”

Bill Brand: glimpses of the past that have relevance still

Bill Brand: glimpses of the past that have relevance still

Through the long, hot summer of 1976, for eleven weeks, I was gripped by Bill Brand, a TV series written by left-wing playwright Trevor Griffiths and broadcast on ITV in prime-time. Regarded at the time as a brilliant example of how radical ideas could be presented in popular television drama, as the years went by I often recalled the series and hoped to be able to see it again. But the story of how Bill Brand (played by Jack Shepherd), an FE college lecturer from a working-class background, and former member of the Trotskyite International Socialists, is elected as a Labour MP seemed to have forever dissolved into the ether. Continue reading “Bill Brand: glimpses of the past that have relevance still”

The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?

The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?

A revival of David Hare’s 1993 play, The Absence of War, seemed an enticing prospect. A drama portraying the Labour Party as lost in ideological confusion, drained of vitality, and unable to mobilise public support or present a vision or values in any compelling way promised to be highly relevant in present circumstances.

But at the Liverpool Playhouse the other night I found Headlong’s revival an uninspiring disappointment. The production seemed drained of energy, suffering from lifeless acting and direction which did little to overcome a script that suffered from flatness of dialogue and shallowness of characterisation.  It was as airless as the meeting rooms in which most of the action took place and the arguments that were batted back and forth in them. Continue reading “The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?”

Leviathan: politics, religion, and vodka (lots)

Leviathan: politics, religion, and vodka (lots)

Leviathan, the latest film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, opens with waves beating upon a barren shore where rocks as old as the earth face an implacable, slate-grey sea.

Tracking inland across barren wastes to an insistent Phillip Glass score, the camera encounters signs of human imprint on this unforgiving landscape: power lines, the hulks of wrecked and abandoned boats, a settlement of worn clap-board houses. Continue reading “Leviathan: politics, religion, and vodka (lots)”

The eurozone: ‘this machine from hell’

The eurozone: ‘this machine from hell’

There was a rather silly documentary hidden away on BBC4 on night last week all about the crisis facing Europe. Called The Great European Disaster Movie and set in a not too-distant future after the collapse of the EU, it featured an archaeologist (played by Angus Deayton) on a flight to Berlin beset by a menacing storm, explaining to a little girl what the European Union had been. These unconvincing sequences were intercut with case studies of individuals in 2015, in different member states, affected by the present crisis. Continue reading “The eurozone: ‘this machine from hell’”

Austerity Britain: the way we were

Austerity Britain: the way we were

I’ve embarked upon the history of my time.  David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain is the first in a planned history of post-war Britain that begins on VE Day in 1945 and will finally close in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher. I was born in 1948, so Kynaston’s remarkable project almost exactly mirrors the years of my birth, schooling, university student life, and entry into the workforce as a college teacher in the 1970s. Kynaston is a contemporary, born in 1951, the year in which this first volume ends.

Reading Austerity Britain is quite different to reading more conventional histories of a particular period.  Although Kynaston deals with the full range of topics you might expect from a social or political history, he is less concerned with the political manoeuvrings between or within parties than with trying to capture the feel of daily life as experienced by individuals of all social classes, drawing upon sources, many of which give voice to the anonymous majority who go unrecorded by the histories. Continue reading “Austerity Britain: the way we were”

‘The heartbeat of who we are’: Jeanette Winterson on war, wealth and creativity

‘The heartbeat of who we are’: Jeanette Winterson on war, wealth and creativity

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson

She began with Dorothy Wordsworth walking the Lakeland fells in May 1800 and continued by way of Karl Marx, prehistoric cave painting, James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,  John Maynard Keynes, Degas and the Arts Council, to arrive at the First World War and Wilfred Owen.  All this in the space of  a brilliant fifteen minute essay by Jeanette Winterson broadcast on Radio 3 last week.

Winterson’s essay was one of a series in which writers from different countries were asked to reflect on the meaning of the First World War for them personally, and as a creative artist. Lavinia Greenlaw, who curated the series, gave the contributors only the loosest of frameworks, borrowing the title, Goodbye to All That, from Robert Graves’s famously ‘bitter leave-taking of England’ in which he wrote not only of the First World War but also of the questions it raises: how to live, how to live with each other, and how to write.

Jeanette Winterson used her fifteen minutes to sing a hymn of praise to creativity – ‘the heartbeat of who we are’ – and to indict the capitalist system and its drive to maximize profit for fostering inequalities which eliminate for the great majority the opportunity to be creative or to enjoy the creative arts. ‘Underneath the endless, acute crises of our planet’, she argued, ‘is the chronic crisis of how we manage what it is to be human.’ For Winterson, the question posed by the First World War and all those that have followed is: ‘Why is it that no matter what shape we are in we can always afford a war?’

Winterson began with Dorothy Wordsworth in May 1800, walking in Ryedale and meeting a friend who observes that ‘soon there will only be too ranks of people, the very rich and the very poor’.  She notes how Dorothy’s journals were alert to both ‘the flow of beauty – and poverty’, and how her friend, at their meeting in 1800 – alert to the implications of the emerging industrial revolution – had prophesied ‘the present state of our world in which the richest 85 people control more wealth than the poorest three and a half billion’.

A few decades later, Winterson continues, Marx envisaged a socialist future where our basic needs – food, water, shelter, health, rest and so on – could be met collectively, so that people might have the means and the leisure to supply their human needs – education, books, music,art, friendship, and curiosity. In other words – creativity.

In a spell-binding section of her talk Winterson unpacks her understanding of ‘creativity’: she gives examples of daily activities which reveal its presence.  Creativity is there ‘every day in everything we do’ (or at least, it should be, or could be, she insists).  Creativity is revealed in cave paintings from prehistoric times – ‘the earliest expressions of what it means to be a human being’.

Hargreaves’ spinning jenny represented that creativity, too.  But whereas the technology of the Industrial Revolution ought to have been liberating, instead it ‘became a measure of what had been lost’. With all the technological advances since then, Winterson argues, ‘we should be working less, not more’.  That we are not is because ‘profit is more important than people’.

In 2008, when the crisis happened, recalls Winterson, it seemed like a golden opportunity to act a basic question: ‘is the economy for human beings – or are human beings for the economy?’  Instead, as she crisply expresses it, ‘politicians talked about capitalism like a powerful car, stolen for a while by a few crazy teenagers and driven too fast and crashed.  Fix the car, get decent drivers back behind the wheel, and off we go towards the sunshine.’

From there, it’s a short hop to Thomas Picketty, whose Capital in the 21st Century challenged whole basis of modern capitalism by bringing economics back to the key question of inequality. Exploring the nature of inequality and deprivation, Winterson concludes:

I do not believe that the point of being human is for the majority to scrape a living with not a chance at the imaginative, open, ingenious, curious, playful, creative life that we see in every one of our children. How can we dream if we can’t sleep in safety?  What chance to read a book, let alone write one, without a home? How can you buy even the cheapest theatre ticket when you need two jobs just to feed the kids?

Underneath the endless, acute crises of our planet, she argues, is ‘the chronic crisis of how we manage what it is to be human’.  Which brings her, at last, to the significance of the First World War.  ‘Why is it’, she questions, ‘that no matter what shape we are in we can always afford a war?’

War dead

Winterson concludes by reading Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Futility’, written in May 1918, not long before he was killed in a particularly futile effort in the last moments of the war:

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

At the end of the First World War, notes Winterson, the motto became ‘lest we forget’. Recalling that John Maynard Keynes, tasked with negotiating the French war debt to Britain, secured an agreement that a collection of paintings by Degas (modern art!) should be accepted in lieu of payment – and then displayed, free of charge, to the public in the National Gallery, Winterson incisively compares that act with the recent Arts Council cuts in support for the arts forced in consequence of bailing out the collapsed banks.  That same Arts Council, she notes, that was established by Maynard Keynes. No Marxist, Keynes did believe, argues Winterson, that wealth should be in the service of human beings.

‘Lest we forget’: what it means to be human.  Creativity, insists Winterson, is not ‘ornament or luxury’, but ‘the heartbeat of who we are’

Better to hear Jeanette Winterson read the essay herself.  It’s available for a year on iPlayer or permanently as a downloadable podcast. Or you can read it here on the 14-18 website.

A 50 Year Argument: Scorsese’s take on The New York Review Of Books

A 50 Year Argument: Scorsese’s take on The New York Review Of Books

Bob Silvers in NYRB office 2

Editor Bob Silvers in the NYRB office

A 60-minute film about a literary journal celebrating half a century of publishing seems highly improbable, a less than enticing prospect.  Yet The New York Review of Books: A 50 Year Argument, directed by Martin Scorsese and shown on BBC4 last night was a rich and enthralling account of America’s leading journal of ideas that has been a source of intelligent and controversial thinking about the key issues of our time.  Scorsese opened with stirring footage of the encampment in Zuccotti Park at the height of the Occupy movement – just one example of issues debated in the NYRB that range from human rights, racial discrimination, and the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, to the women’s movement, revolution in Eastern Europe and developments in the middle east.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the New York Review of Books. To mark this milestone, editor Bob Silvers approached Martin Scorsese with the idea of making a film. As it happened, Scorsese had been an avid reader since his college days and eagerly accepted the idea. Scorsese’s film told the story of the journal from its founding during the New York Times’ newspaper strike of 1963, making use of rare footage and photographs to provide historical context,and featuring notable essays by writers such as James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky and Norman Mailer alongside interviews with figures like Joan Didion, Colm Toibin, Yasmine el Rashide, Darryl Pinckney, Mary Beard, and Timothy Garton Ash, to produce a rich and heartfelt portrait of a magazine that has been in the vanguard of provocative ideas and commentary for over fifty years.

Bob Silvers in NYRB office

Bob Silvers in his NYRB office

Scorsese’s film was, as much as anything, an homage to Robert Silvers who, at 84, has been editor of the NYRB since the day he helped found it in 1963.  A truly remarkable man, he has edited every issue since then, scrutinising articles and matching new books to reviewers on topics that can range from domestic politics to the the Israel-Palestine conflict, from to cutting-edge developments in neuroscience to the poetry of Derek Walcott.  The film’s title, A 50 Year Argument, is also a reference to how Silvers has made confrontation and original argument the essential part of the magazine’s DNA, frequently reporting stories ignored by other publications and challenging mainstream or accepted ideas.


Facsimiles of the first issue of NYRB

It only happened by chance: the NYRB was born during the four-month-long printers’ strike at the New York Times in 1963, the result of the coincidence of that event with a group of New York intellectuals meeting over dinner one evening, spotting an opening, and with well-connected ease working their contacts to gather a mind-boggling array of stellar writers to contribute work for the launch issue of a new magazine. Bob Silvers was at the time an editor at Harper’s. Elizabeth Hardwick and her husband, poet Robert Lowell, were having dinner with Jason Epstein, a publisher at Random House, and his wife, Barbara, a writer and editor. Epstein knew how much the strike was hurting publishing – with the New York Times Book Review closed for business, there was nowhere to advertise, and no way of telling readers about new books.

Three years earlier, Hardwick  had written a famous piece – ‘The Decline of Book Reviewing’ – which appeared in Harper’s. Scorsese’s film revealed how Hardwick’s essay was the inspiration for the NYRB . Hardwick had called the New York Times Book Review a ‘provincial literary journal’ full of ‘flat praise and faint dissension’.  It was full of  ‘light, little articles’, a publication where ‘lobotomised accommodation reigns’ and ‘the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory’.

That evening the idea for an intellectually vigorous books magazine was born, with Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers as its founding editors. So well-connected were they that they were able to produce what David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker has called the best first issue of any magazine ever. The New York Review of Books made its début on 1 February 1963 with an issue that featured poets WH Auden, Robert Lowell and John Berryman and essays by luminaries such as Susan Sontag, William Styron, Mary McCarthy, and Norman Mailer.

Silvers 2

Bob Silvers with long timeNYRB co-editor Barbara Epstein in 1993

From the story of its founding, Scorsese tells the story of a publication that for half a century has been determined to ‘reveal the truth in all its complexity’.  He utilises some stirring archive footage – including scenes from Town Bloody Hall, the film that documented a 1971 debate between Norman Mailer and four feminist writers, including Germaine Greer and Diana Trilling. The starting point of the discussion was The Prisoner Of Sex, Mailer’s recently published rejoinder to Greer’s The Female Eunuch. It turned into a fracas, as members of the standing-room audience, including Susan Sontag and Betty Friedan, challenged the combative Mailer.

There are many such thrilling moments that reveal the extent to which the NYRB has helped shape literary, political and cultural debate in a period that has witnessed the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the fall of communism, the Arab Spring.  All of these great issues and more have been urgently debated in the pages of the NYRB, along with the books that have shaped the changing cultural landscape of the period.

Sontag NYRB cover Riefenstahl Feb 1975

Throughout, Scorsese honours the writers and their writing.  Space is given to readings from some of the most significant essays which the journal has published. He lingers over two important pieces written by Susan Sontag: Fascinating Fascism, her powerful critique of Leni Riefenstahl, published in 1975; and her essays on photography, published in 1973 and later gathered in book form, a ground-breaking critique of photography that raises forceful moral and aesthetic questions that have become deeply absorbed into discussions about photography:

We linger unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still revelling, our age-old habit, in mere image of the truth. But being educated by photographs isn’t like being educated by older, more crafted images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around claiming our attention. Daguerre started the inventory, with faces, and since then just about everything has been photographed; or so it seems. This very instability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. The most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as anthology of images.

NYRB Didion cover Jan 1991

Perhaps the most powerful moment came when Joan Didion read from her forensic examination of the 1989 Central Park Jogger case – the assault and rape of a female jogger in Central Park which led to five juvenile males, four black and one of Hispanic descent, being convicted for the crime and serving their full sentences.  Didion came at the case from all angles, and took nothing for granted. Her piece questioned the media coverage, the charges, abnd the verdicts when they came:

To those whose preferred view of the city was of an inherently dynamic and productive community ordered by the natural play of its conflicting elements, enriched, as in Mayor Dinkins’s “gorgeous mosaic”, by its very “contrasts”, this case offered a number of useful elements. There was the confirmation of “crime” as the canker corroding the life of the city. There was, in the random and feral evening described by the East Harlem attackers and the clear innocence of and damage done to the Upper East Side and Wall Street victim, an eerily exact and conveniently personalized representation of what the Daily News had called “the rape and the brutalization of a city”. Among the reporters on this case, whose own narrative conventions involved “hero cops” and “brave prosecutors” going hand to hand against “crime” (the “Secret Agony of Jogger DA,” we learned in the Post a few days after the verdicts in the first trial, was that “Brave Prosecutor’s Marriage Failed as She Put Rapists Away”), there seemed an unflagging enthusiasm for the repetition and reinforcement of these elements, and an equally unflagging resistance, even hostility, to exploring the point of view of the defendants’ families and friends and personal or political allies (or, as they were called in news reports, the “supporters”) who gathered daily at the other end of the corridor from the courtroom. […]

The Jogger One defendants were referred to repeatedly in the news columns of the Post as “thugs”. The defendants and their families were often said by reporters to be “sneering”. (The reporters, in turn, were said at the other end of the corridor to be “smirking”.) “We don’t have nearly so strong a question as to the guilt or innocence of the defendants as we did in Bensonhurst,” a Newsday reporter covering the first jogger trial said to the New York Observer, well before the closing arguments, by way of explaining why Newsday‘s coverage may have seemed less extensive on this trial than on the Bensonhurst trials. “There is not a big question as to what happened in Central Park that night. Some details are missing, but it’s fairly clear who did what to whom.”

In fact this came close to the heart of it: that it seemed, on the basis of the videotaped statements, fairly clear who had done what to whom was precisely the case’s liberating aspect, the circumstance that enabled many of the city’s citizens to say and th ink what they might otherwise have left unexpressed. Unlike other recent high visibility cases in New York, unlikes Bensonhurst and unlike Howard Beach and unlike Bernhard Goetz, here was a case in which the issue not exactly of race but of an increasingly visible underclass could be confronted by the middle class, both white and black, without guilt. Here was a case that gave this middle class a way to transfer and express what had clearly become a growing and previously inadmissible rage with the city’s disorder, with the entire range of ills and uneasy guilts that came to mind in a city where entire families slept in the discarded boxes in which new Sub-Zero refrigerators were delivered, at twenty-six hundred per, to more affluent families. Here was also a case, most significantly, in which even that transferred rage could be transferred still further, veiled, personalized: a case in which the city’s distress could be seen to derive not precisely from its underclass but instead from certain identifiable individuals who claimed to speak for this underclass, individuals who, in Robert Morgenthau’s words, “sought to exploit” this case, to “advance their own private agendas”; individuals who wished even to “divide the races”.

The convictions were vacated in 2002 when Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer serving a life sentence for other crimes, confessed to committing the crime alone and DNA evidence confirmed his involvement in the rape. Didion tells Scorsese: ‘I was gratified.  It didn’t get me anywhere being gratified, or the case being vacated.  But being right did’.

nyrb November 2011

There was so much more in this enthralling documentary of ideas. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal clashed over totally opposing views, Yasmine el Rashide questioned assumptions about the overthrow of Morsi in Egypt, Vaclav Havel and Timothy Garton-Ash provided insights into the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, and Darryl Pinckney spoke of his youthful misjudgement of the late work of James Baldwin.

The film was enhanced by voiceover readings of passages from key essays, and the vintage jazz soundtrack added atmosphere to a thematically rich yet wholly accessible film that demonstrated how ideas can open a dialogue that may lead towards social and political change.  Scorsese’s film champions a defiantly radical publication of considerable social, political and cultural importance that was born almost on a whim.

At the end, I regretted just one thing: apart from a couple of years in the late 1970s when Rita had a subscription my acquaintance with the magazine has been only intermittent.  I recall that the subscription was beyond our finances (it’s still pretty pricey) so, apart from occasional issues or the discovery of accessible articles online, much of the NYRB has passed me by.  At one point in the film Zoe Heller says that she likes the NYRB ‘because it educates me’. Seeing Scorsese’s documentary makes me realise that if I had been a regular reader my education would have been so much richer.

The film is on iPlayer for another 6 days, but someone has uploaded it to YouTube; how long it will last there, I don’t know:

See also

Some NYRB articles cited in The 50 Year Argument

Ai Weiwei in the chapel at YSP: ‘The art always wins’

Ai Weiwei in the chapel at YSP: ‘The art always wins’

Iron Tree 1

‘Iron tree’ by Ai Weiwei outside the chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

At Yorkshire Sculpture Park they recently completed the renovation of a sandstone chapel built in 1744 for the owners of Bretton Hall, the Palladian mansion that stands at the heart of the estate now devoted to art. The chapel was a place of worship for the owners of the estate and the local community for over 200 years until it was deconsecrated in the 1970s. Enter it now and you enter a contemplative space occupied by a new installation by Ai Weiwei, a profound and meditative work by an artist whose government has strictly limited his travel and confiscated his passport.

Fairytale – 1001 Chairs consists of 45 antique Chinese chairs dating from the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), each one different and yet arranged so uniformly in nine orderly rows in the nave, each chair occupying an identical, rigorously-defined space so that they seem to lose their individuality. And this is exactly Ai Weiwei’s point.

Unable to travel to Yorkshire, and working from plans and photographs of the chapel, Ai selected 45 chairs from a project displayed in Kassel in 2007 for which he brought (metaphorically) 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel for 20 days, representing each person (otherwise unable to travel outside China) with an antique chair. Ai Weiwei chose 1001 to make a point about the collective and the individual: 1000 is a mass, one is an individual.

FairytaleAi Weiwei, Fairytale-1001 Chairs

Ai Weiwei, ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

In the chapel you are invited to choose a chair and sit.  You are handed poems to read by Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing (1910-1996).  For this is art that is both deeply political and more meditative than any other work by Ai that I have seen. The tranquil space, with its plain stone floor and bare whitewashed walls invokes stillness.  As sunlight slants through the unembellished windowpanes, Ai’s Fairytale Chairs and his father’s words combine to provoke thoughts about power, privilege and the freedom of individual.  The chapel is a refuge, a sanctuary in which thought can take wing.

Fairytale detail

The individual: detail from ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Each of these chairs is a valuable antique which once would have seated a privileged member of Chinese society, and now might be bought at a great price and leave China to stand in the room of a wealthy individual on the far side of the world. To be invited to sit on a chair like this is a freedom not granted to our Chinese contemporaries. These chairs were once the preserve of the privileged, but now – through Ai Weiwei’s intervention – as the crowds of visitors to the YSP sift through the chapel and sit for a moment’s contemplation, they represent democracy.

Society allows artists to explore what we don’t know in ways that are distinct from the approaches of science, religion and philosophy. As a result, art bears a unique responsibility in the search for truth.

Ai Weiwei’s work repeatedly draws attention to unethical government policies. He gained international attention for his collaborative work on the design of Beijing’s National Stadium,nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, built for the 2008 Olympics (he later said that he was ‘proud of the architecture, but hated the way it was used’). His work has often been angry and controversial, including the series of photographs in which he gave the finger to the Chinese government and other international leaders, and breathtaking installation in Munich created from 9,000 children’s backpacks which was his protest over the thousands of students killed when their schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (he blamed the death toll on the Chinese government corruption that permitted shoddy construction).

For nearly a decade, Ai has been harassed, placed under constant surveillance, and sometimes imprisoned. In 2011, state police seized him, threw a black bag over his head and drove him to an undisclosed location, where he languished for 81 days in a tiny prison cell. He is now banned from leaving China and his home remains under constant surveillance. Despite these restrictions, Ai has continued his criticism of the Chinese Communist leadership – which he regards as repressive, immoral and illegitimate – in works that demonstrate a deepening concern with autocratic power and the absence of human rjghts.  Were it not for his international celebrity and the worldwide protests last time he was jailed, Ai would probably be in prison like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence.

Ai’s political activism and confrontational art stem from a tumultuous childhood. In the chapel I sit for a while and read poems by his father, Ai Qing, one of China’s most revered poets, who was imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party in 1932.  It was during the three years he spent in jail that Ai Qing began to write poetry. During the Sino-Japanese war (1931-45), swept along by the rising storm of patriotism in China, Ai Qing travelled to Yan’an, in northern China, the centre of the Communist-controlled area. He officially joined the Party in 1941, and was once close to Mao Tse-tung, who talked to him on several occasions about literary policy. His poems from this time reveal an empathy with China’s poor and their harsh existence.  One of the poems I had been given to read was ‘The North’, written in 1938 in Tongguan; this is the last stanza:

I love this wretched country,
This age-old country,
This country
That has nourished what I have loved:
The world’s most long-suffering 
And most venerable people

Ai Qing’s poems celebrated the natural world and the lives of ordinary people – and the Communist cause, as here in these lines from ‘The Announcement of the Dawn’, another poem available to read in the chapel:

For my sake,
Poet, arise.

And please tell them
That what they wait for is coming.

Tell them I have come, treading the dew,
Guided by the light of the last star.

I come out of the east,
From the sea of billowing waves.

I shall bring light to the world,
Carry warmth to humankind.

Poet, through the lips of a good man,
Please bring them the message.

Tell those whose eyes smart with longing,
Those distant cities and villages steeped in sorrow.

Let them welcome me,
The harbinger of day, messenger of light.

Open every window to welcome me,
Open all the gates to welcome me.

Please blow every whistle in welcome,
Sound every trumpet in welcome.

Let street-cleaners sweep the streets clean,
Let trucks come to remove the garbage,

Let the workers walk on the streets with big strides,
Let the trams pass the squares in splendid procession.

Let the villages wake up in the damp mist,
And open their gates to welcome me …

Ai Qing joined the Communist Party in 1941, and for a time was close to Mao Tse-tung, with whom he would sometimes discuss literary policy. When Ai Qing returned to Beijing in 1949 he was already a cadre in the new government, and began to concentrate his talents more and more on writing poems in praise of Mao Tse-tung and Stalin. Then, in 1958, he wrote a poem that extolled the virtues of a culture that celebrated rather than repressed multiple voices. For this he was publicly denounced as ‘a rightist’ and exiled with his family to a re-education camp, where he was humiliated, beaten and forced to clean toilets for nearly two decades. Ai Weiwei  was one year old and spent his early years in the camp, then another 16 years in exile before the family was allowed to return to Beijing in 1976 following the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution.  In an interview with David Sheff in 2013, Ai Weiwei recalled the years of exile:

I’m a person who likes to make an argument rather than just give emotion or expression a form and shape in art. I became an artist only because I was oppressed by society. I was born into a very political society. When I was a child, my father told me, as a joke, “You can be a politician.” I was 10 years old. I didn’t understand it, because I already knew that politicians were the enemy, the ones who crushed him. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But now I understand. I can be political. I can say something even though we grew up without true education, memorizing Chairman Mao’s slogans. I memorized hundreds of them. I can still sing his songs, recite his poetry. Every morning at school we stood in front of his image, memorizing one of his sentences telling what we should do today to make ourselves a better person.

Another poem by Ai Qing that I read as a sit in the stillness and light of the chapel at the YSP is ‘Wall’, written on a visit to Germany in 1979.  These are the opening and closing stanzas:

A wall is like a knife
It slices a city in half
One half is on the east
The other half is on the west

How tall is this wall?
How thick is it?
How long is it?
Even if it were taller, thicker and longer
It couldn’t be as tall, as thick and as long
As China’s Great Wall
It is only a vestige of history
A nation’s wound
Nobody likes this wall
And how could it block out
A billion people
Whose thoughts are freer than the wind?
Whose will is more entrenched than the earth?
Whose wishes are more infinite than time?

Ai Weiwei has selected three more works for the chapel. ‘Ruyi’ (which means ‘as as one wishes’ is a vividly-coloured porcelain sculpture in the form of a traditional Chinese sceptre of the same name, used by nobles, monks and scholars for around 2,000 years. Ruyi denoted authority and granted individuals the right to speak and be heard, ‘thus enabling orderly and democratic discourse’.

Ai Weiwei, Map of China, 2012. Courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photo Jonty WildeMap of China, 2008 made from wood reclaimed from Qing dynasty temples

Ai Weiwei, ‘Map of China’, 2008 (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Map of China is a massive piece, carved from wood reclaimed from dismantled Qing dynasty temples.  On the wall opposite are displayed two timelines. One consists of some of the terrible dates in China’s history in the last 100 years: the estimated famine deaths across China (five million in 1928-30; 10 million in 1943; 25-45 million after the end of the Great Leap Forward in 1961); troops opening fire on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1989; the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands in 2008.  In a parallel column are listed dates very personal to the artist: 1932, his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, begins to write because he cannot paint while imprisoned as a member of the League of Left Wing Artists; 1958, Ai Qing interned in a labour camp as a “rightist” with his family, including the baby Ai Weiwei, where he spends the next 16 years cleaning the village toilets.

Then there are recent dates from the artist’s own life: 2008, artistic adviser for the Olympic stadium; 2009, project to publish all the unacknowledged names of child victims of the earthquake, and cranial surgery following assault by police; 2010, house arrest as ‘Sunflower Seeds’ opens at Tate Modern; 2011, accused of ‘economic crimes’ and imprisoned for 81 days, his Shanghai studio demolished. The most recent date simply reads: ‘2014, passport confiscated’.


Ai Weiwei, Lantern, 2014 (Photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Upstairs is ‘Lantern’, carved in marble excavated from the same quarries used by emperors to build the Forbidden City, and more recently, to build Mao’s tomb. For some years the Chinese authorities have surrounded Ai’s home with surveillance cameras and every step he takes outside is recorded and monitored. In a gesture of mockery and defiance, Ai  began to decorate the CCTV cameras with red Chinese lanterns.  Then he began to carve the ‘Lantern’ series from marble. In this way the ephemeral becomes permanent, or – as Ai has said – ‘The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.’

Iron Tree 2

Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013

One tree, another tree,
Each standing alone and erect.
The wind and air
Tell their distance apart.

But beneath the cover of earth
Their roots reach out
And at depths that cannot be seen
The roots of the trees intertwine.
– Ai Qing, ‘Tree’,1940

Stepping out of the chapel into the sunlight you are confronted by one of Ai’s most recent works – the six-metre high ‘Iron Tree’, the largest and most complex sculpture to date in a tree series begun in  2009, and inspired by pieces of wood sold by street vendors.

Iron Tree detail 2 Iron Tree detail 1 Iron Tree 3

Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013, details

The work has been constructed from casts of branches, roots and trunks from different trees. Although like a living tree in form, the sculpture is very obviously pieced and joined together with large iron bolts.  ‘Iron Tree’ comprises 97 pieces cast in iron from parts of trees, and interlocked using a classic – and here exaggerated – Chinese method of joining, with prominent nuts and screws. The work ‘expresses Ai’s interest in fragments and the importance of the individual, without which the whole would not exist’.

Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential.  Simply put, aside from using one’s own imagination – perhaps more importantly – creativity is the power to act.  Only through our actions can our expectations for change turn into reality.
– Ai Weiwei


It’s 25 years since a million protesters demanding democratic freedoms gathered in Tiananmen Square, only for the protests to be brutally crushed.  Good piece in the Guardian by author of Beijing Coma, Ma Jian who took part in the protests and is now exiled.

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Tony Benn: we need to think about something more radical

Tony Benn: we need to think about something more radical

Tony Benn in 2009

Tony Benn in 2009

I’ve always thought there was some epochal significance in the fact that when, in 1981, we had friends round to hear the live coverage of the results of Tony Benn’s bid for the Labour deputy leadership, I was upstairs in the bathroom being violently sick.  He lost, of course, defeated by a sliver of votes cast by those who were shortly to abandon Labour to found the SDP.

It was the shock and awe of Thatcher.  Another two years and I was on the doorsteps, trying to persuade voters to support ‘the longest suicide note in history’, the 1983 election manifesto that called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the European Economic Community, abolition of the House of Lords, and the re-nationalisation of recently industries like British Telecom that Thatcher had recently privatised.  Punch drunk from that, a year later we were doing what we could to support the miners in their doomed strike.

These memories returned hearing of Tony Benn’s death today.  The arguments about the extent to which he was responsible for the disaster endured by the Labour Party in the 1980s have resurfaced in the obituaries, but his unswerving political career seems somehow estimable.  He never ceased to believe that there could be an alternative to the neo-liberal consensus that was heralded by Thatcher’s victory in 1979 and sealed by Tony Blair’s ascendancy.

And when it all came crashing down in 2008 and, outrageously, the Labour government was blamed exclusively for the rapaciousness of banks, Benn calmly challenged that view:

What happened in 2007-8 is now used by the government as an example of the failure of the Labour party. But the changes that were brought about led to a need to think about something more radical, and more radical ideas – on, for instance, public ownership and education – would win popular support if they were presented to the public.

Reading those words today reminded me of the superb 2007 conversation between Stuart Hall and Philip Dodd that was repeated shortly after Stuart Hall’s death at the beginning of February.  Dodd put it to Hall: You’ve been fighting for fifty years, which is a long time in any lifetime. It must seem hard that it seems further away than it ever did?

This was Stuart Hall’s reply:

I feel the world as stranger to me than I ever felt before. I feel out of time for the first time in my life.  I do feel the world turned in the 1970s; it turned, you know, fundamentally turned.  The end of that post-war social democratic period in Britain.  The end of Keynesianism.  Glimpsing the end of the welfare state.  This is the big historical shift; it’s the beginning of globalisation, though we didn’t understand that it was.  It’s a move by capitalism away from the constraints of the welfare state, the attempt to tax capital in order to maintain social peace.  It got to the point where they said, ‘if you tax us any more we’ll go out of business’.  This is what Marx said: at a certain point you come to the limits and then you either change the system or the system will go somewhere else, and we are in the middle of ‘all that is sold melts into air’.

Should we have a political party that believes we should tune ourselves up to the global economy?  Of course we should – but not two, or two and a half!  It’s when everyone is operating in so many of the same parameters that the only debate you can have is a sort of Swiftian debate – you know, shall we eat the children now or later on?

It will unravel.  Since that unravelling will mean the death or suffering of large numbers of people, I can’t say I’m glad about that.  But unravel in a way that I can’t now predict, I don’t have any doubt at all.

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