angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

“Britain’s Shame” – the price for trying to be “Great”?

Last month I wrote about how the words “Britain” and “shame” rarely appear in the same sentence. This month the two words have been inseparable. “Britain’s Shame” even became the title for BBC’s Panorama programme on the horrifying and heartbreaking fire at Grenfell Tower on 14th June. The programme opens with the accusation that shoved these two words together to sit unwillingly and uncomfortably side by side for all the world to see: “They were warned several times, countless times; they were warned probably until the day before the fire…”

IMG_1336.jpg‘Falling on deaf ears’, Koestler Trust entry from HMP Standford Hill

I don’t feel in any position to write about the tragedy that has ended or blighted so many innocent peoples’ lives. It is too sad and it is too soon. But I do feel in a position to talk about the shame that surrounds it, the shame that needs to be looked at and above all felt so that vital changes can be swiftly made before another tinderbox of neglect ignites.

For well over a year, with Brexit and the recent elections, we the British public have been being fed narratives about what will make us “great”. Boil them down and they are usually about economics and what apparently will make life better, above all, for “hard working families”. I don’t agree. No country can be great while a large proportion of its population have to foot the bill for the high standards of a minority. So many people in this country are living in sub-standard, unsafe conditions and struggling to make ends meet in spite of working their bollocks off. Our prisoners are too. And like our fire-hazard clad tower blocks, prisons are also just waiting to combust.

Some of the world’s greatest thinkers knew this. They knew that for a country to be truly great, you have to look at the standards of life of the poorest, the most vulnerable, the weakest and the troubled. And when we do that, Britain falls very short of the greatness to which it so aspires.

Fyodor Dostoevski: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Winston Churchill: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country…”

Nelson Mandela: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.”

For years prison inspectors, charities, prison reform campaigners, enlightened politicians, prisoners and officers alike have been warning the government that the prison system is not fit for purpose. Suicide rates have doubled in four years; assaults and self-harm incidents have reached record levels; overcrowding, understaffing, underfunding make our prisons not only unsafe but also “shameful places” of wasted opportunity and wasted human potential; warehouses of broken and dysfunctional humanity being held often in little more than cages, then ejected back into society only for half or two thirds to return within the year.

Last year’s Queen’s speech announced the long promised Prison and Courts Reform bill as the “biggest prison shake-up since Victorian times”. It had made real progress through parliament, received broad parliamentary support and was welcomed by campaigners – like me – who had been consulted and listened to in ways we hadn’t been before. There was a genuine excitement and will to reform our prisons and this law would have required the government to respond to the consistently bad findings of the Prison Inspectors. But, in another U-turn by the Tory Government, it has been omitted from this year’s Queen’s speech. And so once again the momentum behind vital prison reform gets reduced to a stutter as ministers get re-shuffled and implementations of good ideas get delayed.

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The government and those responsible for the mistakes surrounding Grenfell Tower need to feel the shame of the wholly avoidable tragedy. And we as a nation, need to feel ashamed about our treatment of prisoners. It is all too easy to look at them as second- or third-rate citizens, who have lost their right to fair treatment; who are at the bottom of the pile of people to care about just as some of those in power look on the inhabitants of social housing. Some prisoners, yes, it is harder to care about them. But the vast majority are just people, people who deserve help to make their lives work for themselves and ultimately us. They are just people, 70% of whom have some kind of mental health issues, 52% of whom are dyslexic, 50% of whom can’t write, 25% of whom have spent time in care, others who themselves were victims… Disadvantaged people who didn’t have the advantages that so many of us were fortunate enough to take for granted.

Let us feel ashamed for a moment, because shame can lead to genuine humility and lasting change, above all in attitude. Germany’s emergence out of the biggest and darkest pool of shame in recent history is a good example of how facing ones shame can lead to better policies. If any good at all can come out of the devastating tragedy of Grenfell Tower, may it be that those responsible listen to the warnings and pleas for help or change coming from all those affected by, or connected to, the various areas of British society that are not “great”. For to ignore them further would now not just be negligent but criminal.

‘Shame’ and ‘Britain’ aren’t usually words we put together, but is that changing?

I have been uncharacteristically struck by a form of blog-writer’s block this month. My usual (dark) themes seemed weirdly irrelevant in this sun and blossom-filled May and most other areas of life have been hijacked by the impending elections and Brexit. And added to that I feel like I’m flat-lining, like my political passions are all but extinguished by my successive losses in all the things I voted for… or against.

Inspiration came just in time though, in the form of a passing conversation with one of my studio neighbours. Totally unprompted he quietly confessed to me that he had begun to feel ashamed of being English, to feel increasing shame in relation to Britain, his own country. “Shame”, well that’s something I can do, it is one of my prime subjects in fact. And asking him further, I discovered his shame was very related to my involuntary growing despondency in the face of our politics.

170508152731-banksy-on-brexit-super-169.jpgBanksy Artwork in Dover, May, 2017

With so many hideous Tory attitudes and policies in almost unhindered free flow, with Brexit uncertainties hanging like fog waiting to descend on top of us, Britain has all of a sudden become like a docked ship whose destination we don’t want to reach; a country whose values we can no longer identify with, let alone fully respect. The rhetoric is too self-centered and self-serving, almost embarrassing in the face of the team- and solidarity-building discussions going on between our European neighbours. Theresa May’s aggressive and alienating approach to getting the best Brexit deal – “FOR US” – is sickening in these times when random terrorist attacks and unpredictable world leaders could instead be bringing us all closer together than ever. Neither of us like her indiscriminate, hand-holding alignment with the twitter/trigger-happy Trump. And I am baffled by the unashamed hypocrisy of our morally impoverished, profit-focused arms sales to Saudi, compared to our distracted, feeble lament of the plight of the Yemenis.

I understand my neighbour’s unwanted but encroaching sense of shame. I feel it in my strange longing for the Mutti (Mum) they have in Germany; for Angela Merkel, a genuinely ‘strong and stable’ leader who, in my opinion, makes brave decisions that are individual but not all about “us”. Just like the German Remembrance culture is not only about their fallen soldiers but about victims and the fallen everywhere. I wish we had some of her ideas for what makes a country great. I wish we had opted for her policy of shutting down all nuclear power stations rather than teaming up with the Chinese to build Hinkley Point…

So as we all approach June 9th, where should we place our crosses, my neighbour and I asked each other? Follow your heart knowing your vote will not win, vote tactically to stop the Conservatives…? Most of the main parties have sides that are either plain nasty, slightly lost, idealistic, unreliable or weak. They play tug of war with old policies, pulling and stretching them to fit manifestos that promise little more than to sticky-tape together some sort of status quo. All promise to chuck (often non-existent) money at the ailing areas of our society – the NHS, social care, prisons, schools, infrastructure, railways – while expensive debates on Trident, Heathrow, HS2 drag on unresolved. But where’s the long-term vision, the Grand Plan? I wish the humane ideas that some of the smaller parties have for spending time getting to the root of the problems in order to build up a fairer and more equal society, would become more prominent. The Tory emphasis on profit and wealth for a small minority continues to sicken but in so many areas this country needs to stop and reflect, to think more out of the box on what will really make us great. Because right now I don’t think we are and we need to change radically, above all in attitudes, so we can travel in a direction that really will benefit us all – as human beings.

I’m not angry like I was after Brexit; I’m not really horrified, sad or even disappointed either. I’m just slightly detached and a little deflated, maybe disillusioned, in relation to our politics and politicians. And I think if there was a box called “Wha’eva”, it’s probably the one I would now tick.

Standing in their footprints…

What is it that makes standing in the exact location of something historical, momentous or simply in the footprints of someone famous, so thrilling? Or horrifying? On Tuesday I was standing on a stage in the beautiful east coastal town of Aldeburgh ready to give one of my talks on Germany’s WW2 memorial culture when someone said, “You’re standing exactly where Bill Nighy stood last night”. It was tiny but there it was, a subtle tingle, a flutter of excitement. I like Bill Nighy and I liked knowing that I was so hot on his heels, talking in a venue in which he too had talked. But what’s really happening, what are our bodies or minds reacting to when we are in the presence even of such tenuous claims to fame or significance?

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This visceral reaction to places or objects that are linked to certain people or events has always fascinated me. The idea that the physical world can hold the memory of something or someone is not new. It is what lies behind the religious culture of relics and its modern day equivalence seen in the inflated profits that arise at auctions of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag or Princess Diana’s Versace dress. Holding my deceased father’s hairbrush is for me a way of feeling him close. People just do feel more strongly connected to other people via “things” or places.

IMG_0284.jpgscene of the Beer Hall Putsch, 1923

Three weeks ago I was in Munich, both to visit friends and cousins and to do research for my book about the long shadows of WW2. There is probably no other city in Germany in which visitors can bump so casually and frequently into the hefty pillars that supported the rise of Nazism. On a two-hour walking tour we visited the beer hall, scene of the famous 1923 Beer Hall Putsch; the site of the ‘Brown House’, now destroyed but then headquarters of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Worker’s Party); the Gestapo Headquarters; the Führerbau, now a Music School, where the 1938 Munich Treaty was signed by Western leaders in a hopeful attempt to halt Hitler in his tracks. And just outside the city, is Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, site of infinite suffering, cruelty and death and home to the infamous sign Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free).

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With my now well-trained imagination, I find it easy to superimpose the black and white photographs of the 1930s and 40s onto the vibrant, colourful scenes of contemporary Munich and bring them to life. The cobbled streets and stone walls of the massive buildings seem to whisper me some of their memories. I can ‘hear’ the synchronized march of Nazi boots, the cheers of jubilant crowds that once filled the vast squares. I can ‘see’ the bombed devastation behind the renovated facades. Nothing, however, prepared me for Nuremberg.

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It’s a medieval town, home to Albrecht Dürer, Kaspar Hauser… and the Nuremberg Rallies of 1923-38. I visited the Rally grounds with the now almost obligatory Information Centre, one of hundreds around the country casting an unflinching gaze on every aspect of Germany’s Nazi past. I walked past the unfinished Congress Hall where a young couple was posing in full wedding attire for a camera.

IMG_0574Nuremberg Congress Hall

I walked around the edges of the Zepplin Grandstand with its countless entrances enabling people to stream in with the greatest ease and fill it to maximum capacity. I walked along the now overgrown rows of stone seats that had once looked out onto the spectacle…

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and then onto the small platform from which Hitler had addressed the people.

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The scale of the place, the vastness of the now empty space bar a few parked lorries, it was nothing less than completely horrifying. I felt terror fill my body. I felt sick. I hurt from the ache of pure dread. Never have I stood in such a powerful place, the exact place from which Hitler had fired his deadliest poison arrows into the minds and hearts of ordinary Germans.

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The air echoed with his evil words disguised as virtue and full of empty promise; the space filled with the theatrical displays of military might. I could see the whole force of the Nazi movement in all its ugly, popular power. And for that moment, standing in that place, I understood it all. How it had happened. How it had worked so effectively. But far worse, I understood the hitherto unthinkable thought, that it could, one day, all happen again.

But it won’t, not it we don’t let it. Not if we don’t forget that it did.

 

 

Munich in March

A city in which the ruins of history survive to serve as warnings for the present and pointers to a different future…

German memorials honour the brave resistors of Nazism, unreservedly condemn the perpetrators, apologise to the victims and warn us all to remain vigilant so these things can never happen again.

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A video installation outside the former Nazi headquarters

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In honour of Georg Elser, who tried but failed to single-handedly blow up Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi leaders on 8th November 1939. Elser was held prisoner for five years and then executed in Dachau.

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A large open square with benches created in the heart of Munich in 1946, dedicated to remembering the reasons why the victims of Nazism were targeted: for their politics or religion, for their sexual identity, disabilities, race, for being Jewish or for not doing the Hitler salute…

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An eternal flame has been burning since 1985. A warning as much as a commemoration

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Dachau concentration camp, one of the first, started in 1933. Birdsong filled silence seemed to say what words can’t.

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Infront of the Staatskanzlei / State Chancellery…

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a memorial to Munich’s fallen soldiers in WWI. After WWII few if any memorials were built honouring Germany’s soldiers, but gradually inscriptions were added to remember the fallen and missing.

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Remembering Sophie Scholl, the 21 year old student, and the White Rose Resistance members who were arrested and executed for distributing anti-war leaflets.

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In memory of those citizens who risked their lives taking this alley in order to avoid walking past the Nazi Commemoration of the Beerhall Putsch, where it was obligatory to do the Nazi salute.

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Jewish memorial at Dachau

“We write to understand…”

As I write my February blog, Sir Anthony Beevor, historian and bestselling author of epics such as “Berlin” and “Stalingrad”, is talking on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I am humbled by his ongoing questioning of the facts in spite of his already huge achievements in bringing World War 2 to life in extraordinary detail. And I’m grateful for his admission of how hard it is to research this horrendous episode of history. His voice wobbles as he talks of reading the gruesome accounts of the rapes, murders and infinite human suffering. “We write to understand,” he says, emphasising the necessity for us to “learn the lessons of history”.

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For years now, I too have been staring into the darkness of German history, the soil in which half my family’s roots reside, trying to understand what happened, how something like Nazism and the Holocaust could have happened. I read and read and watch endless footage, like a detective piecing together the evidence from a crime scene. I don’t have any need to blame or justify, I just find my eyes straining in their attempts to make out the outlines of some kind of meaning to it all, for anybody.

Germany as a nation has heaved itself out of the rubble, brushed itself down and with cap in hand has apologized, over and over again. And now the shroud of silence in which post-war Germans wrapped themselves with a stubborn “We knew nothing”, is also finally being shed in painful spasms as more and more grandchildren excavate their family stories in search of the truth. In his brilliant new book The German War: A Nation Under Arms 1939-45, Nicholas Stargardt dispels the myth of total ignorance of what was going on once and for all by gently revealing the inner thoughts of German soldiers and civilians as expressed in their letters and diaries. For many people, however, it is still too painful, too shameful, to go anywhere near their past and I can totally appreciate why.

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Writing my book is without doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For months now I have been living in the sepia world of the 1940’s, digging down like a miner into the bloodied soil of Germany’s past to retrieve the shards of its shattered reality. Each time I come up for air I have to adjust my eyes to the bright lights of 2017, re-learn how to laugh and talk and enjoy. But like the Sunday evening of a weekend home from boarding school, the impending descent back into the mineshaft looms, until I climb down the ladder and re-enter the blackness once more, waiting for my eyes to adjust before I can continue my work.

It is indeed painful work. It challenges family loyalties threatening to expose the wounds around which new lives were built, like barbed wire absorbed by tree trunks on their way to the sky. It hurts to question the thoughts and actions of your own much-loved grandparents in those impossible times, to grasp what decisions they were faced with and to accept their possible fallibility. I don’t want to be the surgeon that rips off the bandages that held their psyches together, for I too am on the operating table, and yet the promise of understanding, of learning the lessons of the past, and of healing both generations, overrides everything, like the promise of gold urges the miner to keep on digging.

There’s an unhelpful form of Tourette Syndrome lurking within certain British men…

What is it about some British men? It’s as if they have a form of Tourette’s that makes it impossible for them not to heed Basil’s advice and not mention the war. Smug winner syndrome, even 70 years on. I mean is it really a good idea, Boris Johnson, is it remotely mature or diplomatic to respond to a perfectly reasonable suggestion that Britain could not expect to get a better deal outside the EU than it enjoyed inside, by equating such an approach to “punishment beatings… in the manner of some world war two movie”? (The Guardian, 18.01.17)

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It honestly makes me wince, not because it’s insensitive, antagonistic or unnecessary, but because it is so unbelievably, pathetically childish. I once laughed at Will Self’s brilliant verbal portrait of Boris as “an enigma wrapped up in a whoopee cushion” but I don’t find him remotely enigmatic or amusing anymore. Just dangerously out of date and out of touch.

Then shortly after Boris had demonstrated his true nature once again, another national embarrassment came to his rescue in the form of Michael Gove tweeting: People “offended” by The Foreign Secretary’s comments today are humourless, deliberately obtuse, snowflakes – it’s a witty metaphor ‪#getalife

Witty? It’s such an old hat trick to try and stand on the head of ones opponent to make oneself taller when they are winning the argument, that any residual humour was sucked out of it decades ago. Are such British men – and I say men because (correct me if I am wrong) I’ve never heard a woman say such things – remotely aware of how stupid they look harping on about WW2 so long after the event? Especially at a time when our country is a total mess, while the losers of the war have long since brushed themselves down, built their country up, learnt the lessons of the past, apologised for it with deep earnestness and humility, and are now trying to move forward in ways informed by the kind of maturity that arises out of darkly, sobering experiences.

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An Antiques Roadshow episode on BBC 1 was recently dedicated as a Holocaust Memorial with survivors telling the stories behind the extraordinary, treasured and priceless ‘bits and pieces’ they had salvaged from those dreadful times. It was deeply moving and stood in such stark contrast to the flippant and thoughtless comments by our own homegrown, floppy-haired idiot.

So, apologies for not “#getting a life” in the way Michael Gove would like me to. I’ve tolerated such jokes and references since I was little and trust me they get very boring indeed. And we as a nation are made to look ridiculous, and have been for years, when allowing our integrity to be debased by cheap jibes at old wounds. I once felt ashamed of my German roots for obvious reasons. But right now, with some of the people we have front-lining our national face to the rest of the world, I feel fortunate to be able to look to Germany and Angela Merkel for some of my sense of national pride.

 

 

Wish for 2017: Keeping alive Winston Churchill’s unfaltering faith “that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man.”

A last minute blog before the curtains fall on 2016. As a year, will it get a rapturous applause and an encore I wonder? No, I don’t think it will. Not from the point of view of one of my main blog themes – prisons – at least. A re-wind to the beginning and a second chance…? Well that would be wonderful.

This time last year I was excited. I think all those who work in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) were. We were facing unprecedented possibilities of genuine reform within the sector. As Justice Secretary, Michael Gove had done his homework thoroughly, rather ironically consulting and listening to the experts more than most of his predecessors had done. He commissioned Dame Sally Coates to create the Education ReviewUnlocking Potential to which even individuals like me were given an opportunity to contribute. My ambition to make the case for the arts at government level was looking set to be realized. One meeting rapidly followed another until I found myself sitting at a round table in the Ministry of Justice next to Ed Vaizey, (Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries), Andrew Selous, (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Prisons and Probation) and leading representatives from the main Arts charities and organizations. It was a unique gathering of brains stuffed with experience and insights, and muscle–toned limbs used to pushing open locked doors to deliver the goods. Together the ideas expressed by each person in turn formed a blissful chorus of logic and humanity.

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In previous speeches since July 2015, Michael Gove had been setting a compassionate tone for the reforms to be made: The most important transformation I think we need to make is not in the structure of the estate, it’s in the souls of its inmates. Revolutionary words for a Conservative Justice Secretary, welcome words for all of us who have worked for decades to get this message to policy level. And in February 2016, as the first Prime Minister in over 20 years to do so, David Cameron had made a speech wholly dedicated to Prison Reform in which he finally dashed all die-hard claims that “Prison Works!” and condemned them as a scandalous failure, finally shifting the emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation: In short: we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed”.

So there we were, on July 14th, a harmonious choir of top experts and government ministers, all singing from the same song sheets, endless verses of ideas that would work; that would reduce re-offending rates, make prisons safer, more productive and cost-effective; that would help prisoners learn their way out of their cul-de-sac situations and find their potential to be their better selves. Hallelujah indeed! But outside the vultures were circling above the exit to St James’s Park tube station where the Evening Standard headlines screeched like car brakes: GOVE SACKED.

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In his own words several months on, “No matter how many times you rerun the movie, it has the same ending: me driving 100mph and crashing into a brick wall”. He hadn’t only written off his own position and career though, he had also blown up his own vision leaving our song sheets fluttering in the wind. The very next day Ed Vaizey, who had been nervously consulting his phone throughout the meeting, had lost his post and shortly after, Teresa May’s government asked Andrew Selous to step down too. In one clean wipe of the round table, the vital government hands and arms of the ideas were gone and with them many of the hopes for imminent reform. In their place we have an as yet unimpressive Liz Truss, moved from her position as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – a position of staggering irrelevance to her new clientele. And while she commissions yet more reviews, people in our prisons riot, commit suicide and die violent deaths.

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British prisons are in more dire need of reform now than when I started my career in the 1980s. They are inhumane, illogical, ineffective places that cost us all a fortune. They do not work because the ideas that were sung around that table are being shuffled back to the bottom of the pack in favour of the crisis management sticking plasters that constitute normal reforms. We need radical visions, a change of attitude and approach. We need that Rehabilitation Revolution we were promised. And above all we need to treasure hunt in the heart of our prisoners, for, once they have discovered their own treasure, they will not re-offend.

“Lest we forget”… what? Surely not just the fallen soldiers, but also the futility, waste, destruction and misery of war?

After my talks on Germany’s unique culture of ‘counter memorials’, I am often asked what I would do differently within our British culture of Remembrance. I am always reluctant to pass any kind of judgment on what is one of Britain’s most poignant occasions, for we are true experts in creating meaningful and visual spectacles of solemn ceremony, national pride and gratitude. But now, as the last witnesses of the two World Wars disappear, is it time to shift the emphasis of our remembrance culture from an almost exclusive focus on the fallen soldiers of those two wars to include a broader picture of the casualties and victims of war in general?

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The Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal seemed to think it is time, and this year asked the nation to Rethink Remembrance by recognising the sacrifices made by today’s generation too. I would go even further and shine a spotlight onto the ordinary women, children and elderly who are less obviously “heroic”, but no less brave, casualties of war. For they too pay the ultimate price. Then there are all those whose lives will be impacted for years to come by the losses of their soldier spouses, children or parents, plus the innocent victims of our wartime aggressions – the civilians of the enemy caught in the cross fire of our military strategies and sometimes dubious political decisions. And there are those who have been left physically or mentally scarred for life… who have lost homes, jobs, loved ones… the list is so long.

With our beautiful solemn rituals and sanitizing language, are we in danger of justifying war in a way that makes it an attractive option today? By calling all soldiers who died “fallen heroes” are we mis-using the words ‘heroes’ and ‘fall’, because thousands of them were just young men who were simply following orders to run into a storm of bullets and die a certain death as part of an ill-conceived campaign? Is that heroic, or could we now own the painful facts that it was a tragic misjudgment on the part of those in power with catastrophic results?

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Shrouds of the Somme, a moving new memorial by the artist Rob Heard, first displayed in Exeter and now on in Bristol, seems to me to get closer to the imagery and reality of war that can redress the gulf between the glory of victory and what in reality is generally a bloody, muddy mess. If our rhetoric could include a broader victim awareness along side our wholly justified practice of remembering and honouring those who died defending their countries, I wonder if we would be reminded of the futility, waste, destruction and total sadness of war and seek to avoid it with even more resolve ?

 

 

INSIDE – an exhibition where art replaces prisoners and visitors can feel how tiny a cell is

“Outside the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always midnight in one’s heart.” Oscar Wilde, de Profundis, 1897

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People were moving around the building as if it were an ancient site, a relic of times long past. Tentatively they stepped into the tiny cells, their barred windows raised to a height designed to deprive. Metal bunks, the squeak of their springs still echoing in the silence of long nights past; a painted table, names etched into the surface, reminders of identities transformed into numbers; and toilets tucked behind waist-high partitions separating toothbrushes and washing-up from another’s piss and shit.

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“When one is in prison, the most important thing is the door.” Robert Bresson

IMG_9043.jpgJean-Michel Pancin – the original door to Oscar Wilde’s cell C.3.3.

The clank of bolts and metal doors slamming open and shut, open and shut is replaced by absorbed voices of visitors wandering the wings, dipping in and out of cells in a new form of free-flow. Which one was Oscar Wilde’s? Cell C.3.3. now Cell C.2.2. on the second floor, no different from the rest. On the ground floor below, looking up out of wooden cabinets, mugshots of the others who shared his time with him, breathing the same thick air.

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This is the now-closed Reading Prison, home to the site-specific INSIDE exhibition commissioned and produced by the innovative ArtAngel and to which artists and writers from all over the world were invited to submit work. Reading Gaol was a state of the art Victorian prison opened in 1844 its cruciform architecture designed to move the inmates out of dormitories and into the isolation of individual cells. Locked in for up to 23 hours a day there was to be no contact with other prisoners. This was to be the end of prisons as schools of crime, part of a progressive mission to not solely lock up prisoners but also to reform and improve them.

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From the raised viewpoints of our contemporary thinking we look back at Victorian institutions as belonging to a distant history, times that were largely more barbaric, inhumane and backward than ours today. And yet, until 2013 Reading Prison was in full operation, latterly as a Young Offenders Institution, but often with two, sometimes three, 18-21 year olds sharing the space specifically designed for one. All around the UK there are others still in operation except now they are plagued with the additional elements of ever-increasing overcrowding, underfunding, understaffing, drugs, suicides and violence.

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Just back in 2004 I wandered these corridors myself meeting the young men who, with hammers and chisels and blocks of stone, participated in one of our Learning to Learn through the Arts Scheme 5-week projects. I have been into so many prisons, they have never fazed me and yet, each time I am struck by the same sense of utter illogic, injustice and tragic waste, human waste. We need prisons, of course we do, but as they are, how can they possibly really help these people? They are just making things worse.

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Here in Reading Prison art works replace prisoners as artists strive to find meaning in the dark corners of our society where at times there seems to be none. Our thinking has got stuck with devastating results and what Oscar Wilde could articulate then, so many prisoners still feel but can’t express: “In the great prison where I was then incarcerated, I was merely the figure and the letter of a little cell in a long gallery, one of a thousand lifeless numbers as of a thousand lifeless lives.” Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, 79812

 

What are the collective nouns for a mass of unknowns or a pile of question marks?

I think I am politically depressed!

As a new academic year kicks off for another round of the seasonal clock, I find myself back behind the steering wheel and darting all over the country to deliver my talks. A busy lifestyle but it has always felt worthwhile. Even just knowing the next generation of school leavers will launch themselves into the world with at least a tiny awareness that our prison system is a disaster and most prisoners are not monsters but people, with stories and needs for help rather than punishment. That’s always been enough.

Something has changed though. In the rare moments of stillness between bookings I’m noticing the edges of a void appearing, a new blackness where the lights of the future once twinkled. It is as if the stars have been dimmed and the clanking sounds of activity muffled. I can’t hear a single strong voice of leadership I want to follow. I can’t see any sharp outlines defining a destination I want to reach. I can’t get a sense of where we are going and even the vocal activist in me feels subdued, as if there is no longer much point contributing to the discourse, it’s all happening as it is anyway. Does anyone else – or does everyone – feel like this?

1215231_origFrom the Life of Pi

A friend recently articulated that this is the first time in her politically aware life that she doesn’t feel represented in parliament. I feel the same. And I’d take it further. I don’t feel represented anywhere in the world. As I see it, there’s Trump and Clinton presenting a both farcical and terrifying picture of a Superpower gone mad; admirable, grounded Angela Merkel is slipping down the slope of political decline; humane Nick Clegg and the liberal Lib Dems have all but evaporated; and Michael Gove’s self-implosion lost him the position as the most forward thinking, compassionate Justice Secretary we have ever had. And with him go many of our excited hopes for imminent and radical prison reform. Then there’s unelected Theresa May offering an increasingly scary version of the right and Jeremy Corbyn a worthy but slightly lack-lustre left and hovering around them in the wings are Putin, Assad, ISIS, Chinese-controlled Nuclear Power Stations… But above all, there’s this thing, this – what is the collective noun for a mass of “unknowns”? Like the carnivorous algae island in The Life of Pi, the ground we have taken for granted for so long, has become a heaving jellyfish that consumes existing strategies and ideas; a bouncy castle that is hard to walk on without slipping down the sides; a brexit of unknowns.

Maybe that’s what it is! Maybe, above all, it’s this post-Brexit / pre-actual Brexit place we are now in that is preventing so many of us from moving forward with the confident strides we used to. We are collectively fumbling in the dark, uncertainty everywhere creating a fertile ground for hesitation and indecision, which can easily grow into inertia and despondency until a sense of helpless despair stops people dead in their tracks. We are facing years of disruption both to the enormous mechanisms of our society as well as the minutiae of everyday life. Change is good, I am so for change, and life is good in so many ways, but this, this blobby no-man’s land littered with question marks is distracting too much from the urgent issues affecting some peoples’ lives right now and temporarily shelving reforms for a day when the ground stops moving. Which is… when…?

Ok, I am definitely politically depressed! Take no notice of me. It’ll pass.

 

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