Lincoln Drill Hall

Thursday, 24 March 2016

George Boole and public art

I am a huge fan of George Boole and totally agree that he should be celebrated in Lincoln.

Is public art the way to do it?

I am filled with admiration at the inventors of the tank and the Lincoln women who built them. I love the commemoration on Tritton Road.

Is public art though about more than this? This what I wrote for the Lincolnshire Echo.

Mention the words ‘public art’ in some circles and the groan will, if not audible, most emphatically be there. Why? Because we don’t understand it; there again, why should we? So, if not that then perhaps because some public art just doesn’t work. Is it the word ‘art’, yet again? I admit it, for years the very word ‘art’ was for me a ‘no entry’ sign. So, surely, ‘art’ in a public place, where I can’t escape it, must be a nightmare scenario.

I then began to ponder as I walked around our city. Public art at its most visible and permanent is of course architecture and, in Lincoln, we are blessed by great examples. I see from the new cathedral website that my favourite quote from John Ruskin, whom I am writing about at the moment, has been superseded:

“I have always held and proposed against all comers to maintain that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles”

I still like it, and, more importantly, the point remains that we do have a massive example of great public art. Yet it is art that speaks of the past. What of the present?

I was one who said that the Barons would never catch on. I thought that the idea of a bunch of medieval toffs was so far removed from how I read the legacy of Magna Carta. I was wrong. They worked, not perhaps because they were ‘great art’, whatever that is, but because they were playful and engaged people of all ages. It was wonderful to see them being painted, and, yes, there were some great designs beautifully executed.

Another piece of public art from last year was the sand sculpture in the castle. I went with grandchildren to see it taking shape. We knew all about sand castles and so wondered at the skill of the makers and the huge risk of creating something from such material: a little too sunny or a little too rainy and a shapeless pile would be the result. Why did it work? Because it spoke of a subject that echoed elsewhere in the city? Actually it really worked for me because the artist was being creative in a public place.

Is this what we mean by public art in Lincoln?

A few years ago some of us explored the possibility of having Henry Moore sculptures in various places around the city centre. For various reasons it didn’t happen then, but perhaps it could in future. Is that was we mean?

For me there are perhaps two or three key points, and this is very much a personal view.

One of the big problems is that public art is often there for too long; it was a good idea at the time. How often do we see a piece of art that has been neglected and has deteriorated because the  artist used the wrong material or because the commissioning body forgot that it would need to be maintained. Again a big plus point for the Barons was that they didn’t stay. The sand sculpture didn’t stay long enough. The poppies in the castle will probably be there for the right amount of time. A piece created for a long stay needs a great deal of care.

Public art must be in reach of us all. That means that it shouldn't be in a privileged place. The Barons were accessible; they were all round the city centre.

Public art in progress has a great potential to engage; so rather than a ‘thing’, an object, how about a space or spaces where things can be created? I would love it if the spaces were not just the ‘usual’ suspects: Cathedral, Castle, the Brayford and Cornhill. Why not St Giles, the Ermine or Birchwood? There is a precedent: St Giles has the wonderful 18th century church with it amazing story; the Ermine has Sam Scorer’s wonderful parabolic roofed church.

Art is not just an object; it can be performance. I love the immersive theatre I have experienced at the Drill Hall. Why not perform it in the open? Watch this space for this coming July.

These are my thoughts for what they are worth. If art is to be public we should all have our say. What do you think?

As published in the Lincolnshire Echo 24 March 2016

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

I was concerned that I was exaggerating the plight of the refugees

I compared the plight of the refugees with the of experience of British PoWs on the Long March in the harsh winter of 1945. I was worried that I may have overstepped the mark. It has gone from worse to even worse.

The very next week a senior Greek politician compared the Idomeni refugee camp on the Macedonian border to a Nazi concentration camp. There were stories about Pakistanis being handcuffed and herded into trucks. News is coming out of refugees being forcibly returned to the country from which they were fleeing.

MSF and the UNHCR have both withdrawn since they can no longer be part of what is going on. Of course it is the refugees who suffer, but the point must be made.

We now have the dreadful Brussels attacks which receive wide coverage. All the time atrocities go on elsewhere and get nowhere near the same exposure.

John Simpson sees part of the problem as the lack of foreign correspondents.

Many ordinary people are reporting on social media. Perhaps this needs more air time on the major channels and Fleet Street.

This latest message from a volunteer tells it all. At least the FT reports it as it is. Were it war, this would be a war crime.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

One Nation

Disraeli's famous description of his politics as one nation Tory is brought back centre stage by the resignation of Ian Duncan Smith.

I have absolutely no doubt that all in our nation must be valued equally. That does not mean they will all fare the same in economic terms, but they will have an equality of opportunity and will all benefit fro the same safety net in hard times.

As an adherent to the European dream, I am heartened that membership of the EU has brought up the income of poorer countries. Membership of a country should bring up the income of groups, whether they be regional or grouped by other common attributes. As Jeremy Corbyn said, we are all only a road crash away from disability.

I don't know why Mr Duncan Smith resigned. That is a matter for him. I do know that I disagree with him totally over Europe. On his concerns about welfare, I note Nick Clegg's comment that he took a long time to resign. What matters is that our government is a government for all and not just the privileged.


Thursday, 17 March 2016

All they wanted was to be treated as human beings

My first book, War on Wheels, is to be published in September by The History Press. I have also been working on two more books, and one strikes me as particularly pertinent as I sit here waiting for a film crew from BBC Look North to arrive to interview Maggie and me about the refugees crisis. You may have read back in January an account of our time on Lesvos.

On the face of it the book I am referring to is about something completely different: Bomber Command in WW2. It tells the remarkable story of a mother who had lost her three sons, two in the service of the RAF, in the early years of the war. She wanted her dead sons to have their ‘reply’, and so she bought a Stirling Bomber for 15 Squadron. This cost something like £700,000 in today’s money, but she was a wealthy widow, her husband having made his fortune in India and her parents being a well to do family from New England.

The aircraft, called the MacRobert’s Reply, had the life of many such aircraft: it carried young men at great risk on missions over Germany, and it crashed as most did. Its particular crash was in Denmark and all the crew were killed but for one who amazingly, miraculously, survived. The Danish resistance found his badly injured body and only handed him over to the German authorities when they realised his injuries needed serious medical attention. This he received, but he ended up as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft VIIIB in southern Poland.

I met him last year and he told me something of his RAF days, but he told me very little about his time as a PoW, save that it was a seemingly endless period of nothingness and was followed by the truly horrific experience of being force marched through the bitter Polish winter of 1945 away from the Russian advance.

I agreed with his son, who had wanted the book written, that I should research the accounts of others who had had a similar PoW experience in order to give the reader a sense of what he endured. So I visited the Imperial War Museum and read and listened to a good number of accounts.

It was an experience I will never forget, as I discovered the dreadful hardship that these brave young men suffered as a result of their selfless sacrifice for their country and the liberty of others. Being a PoW meant that they all became malnourished even with occasional Red Cross parcels. The march, the Long March as it is known, took them through deep snow with inadequate clothing, few suitable places to stay en route and the ill temper of their German guards. There were, though, occasional small acts of kindness.

All the time the same thought kept coming through my mind, the more recent memory of those refugees in Lesvos and the accounts I read of their subsequent journey through the bitter Macedonian winter. Their’s is not a selfless sacrifice, but a brave attempt to secure, for their families, safety from oppression.

They do have something in common. All that any of these people ever wanted was to be treated as human beings: do as you would be done by.

Will we never learn?
Article published in the Lincolnshire Echo on 17 March 2016

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The shame is that everyone is running scared

Today's Guardian ran advertisements from both Save the Children and The Red Cross seeking aid for those suffering from the Syrian civil war. In the same edition there is the horrific story of Syrians and other refugees desperately crossing the river marking the border between Greece and Macedonia.

It is dreadful that the major NGOs do not appear to be active in Greece, MSN seemingly a shining exception. They are doing good work, but we are not hearing about it in the press. There seems almost a conspiracy of silence.

We understood from our time on Lesvos that the major NGOs were finding barriers to registering to offer aid to refugees in Greece. It seemed tied up with political gesturing with Brussels. If this is the case, then shame on the EU.

Without question the very large number of refugees now making their way slowly to Germany is a massive political problem, not least in the light of the recent elections in Germany. Nevertheless, it is even more shameful that governments cannot man up and take action, rather than leaving defenceless men, women and children to suffer.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Have we earned it, our life as free people?

A reflection on the book, A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson might inform the referendum debate

The grandson of the hero of the story, who had piloted Halifax bombers in WW2, at one point has this thought:

‘They were his own age, doing something noble, something heroic. They were lucky. They’d been given history. It wasn’t going to happen to him. He was never going to be given the chance to be noble and heroic.’

This is something that haunts the post war generation; OK it haunts me: we have never played our part. It is perhaps the same as those dreadful lines said to Private Ryan at the end that film, ‘now earn it’. 

Have we earned it: our life as free people? Is there something we can do to go at least part of the way? 

I suggest that the Referendum gives us an opportunity. 

The European Union, the connection between previously warring European countries is at the heart. I freely accept that the EU is not perfect; it comes out with nonsense too often, but that is our fault for letting it; members states must take a greater say. Let none of this though hide the fact that it is a union of nations, of peoples with a common heritage, peoples who face the same questions. Surely it makes sense to face the questions together. 

As peoples and nations we can move on from our history of war and conflict. We can remember with pride those things we have done which have selflessly benefitted mankind, not least in the way we together tackled the massive refugee crisis left behind by WW2. 

The current refugee crisis is perhaps an acid test. Do we individually close our doors? This would run counter to our history and any claim we may have to a place on the world stage, let alone to reflect our national belief in fairness. 

If we vote ‘no’, with the objective of keeping the refugee out, we deny much that is good about Britain. If we vote ‘no’, because the current institution falls short, we are terminally short of imagination.

The horrors those Bomber Boys and so many others went through need not be in front of us every day, but they do matter. Some might say it is old and past and we should no longer dwell on it. To fly over enemy territory in a Halifax, Stirling or Lancaster is more fear in a single night than most of us have had to face in a lifetime, not to mention the Atlantic convoys, the leading vehicle in an armoured column, making it ashore on D Day or enduring years in captivity. 

Let us grasp this opportunity to do our bit to make the world a better place and move forward together with our neighbours.


Philip Hamlyn Williams - Lincoln - 7 March 2016