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Dear John Humphries,

I heard you recently belabouring a spokesperson for the Labour Party with Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the Falklands War. Well, that was thirty-five years ago, and we might have modified our views or our language in the meantime. But I was also opposed to the Falklands War at that time – as was Tam Dalyell, so it was hardly a lefty knee-jerk reaction. or one which ought to be used to score sound-bite points out of context.

An immediate cause of that war was the decision by the British Government to withdraw the Royal Naval Ice Patrol Vessel ‘Endurance’ – our only naval presence in those waters at that time. The Argentinians took that as a further signal that the British were not overly concerned with the future of the Falklands. Margaret Thatcher made a small saving in Defence to lose the Falklands, and made a war and paid a fortune to retrieve them. But once you start a war you start killing and injuring people: the financial cost was less important than the human cost, and the effect on the world.

In that Falklands War 907 people were killed (649 Argentinian, 255 British and three Falklanders). Of course many were also injured. The population of the Falkland Islands at that time was 2932. Dalyell’s objection (also mine) was that the official Opposition immediately endorsed whatever warlike action the Government might take. With a great deal of hindsight we now know that the then Argentinian rulers were unwilling to negotiate, and too stupid to see what might happen next (in spite of warnings from the Americans), though this does not justify our inadequate pressure for a negotiated settlement. The crucial factor was generous support for Britain from the US, without which the British strike might well have failed.

Thatcher was determined to have a military solution. Sir John Nott (who was then Defence Secretary) said he would have preferred a diplomatic solution, but added “Mrs Thatcher was of the view, which in retrospect proved correct, that unless we actually landed on the Falkland Islands and defeated the Argentinians, that the national humiliation which we ‘d suffered would not be retrieved.” (see report in the Independent, 21 April 1989). Thatcher does not seem to have considered the national humiliation which would have occurred if we had failed, and presumably took the projected loss of lives as a given.

By her action she backed big-nation power over principle and international law, and war war over jaw jaw. The principle which needed, and still needs, to be reinforced (often ignored in the past) was that sovereignty always rightly belongs to the people who live there. This is the only point on which I disagree with Tam Dalyell. Australia was not terra nullius, nobody’s land, and Palestine was not Balfour’s to give away. By once again discounting this principle rather than insisting on it, Thatcher made the world less safe. Furthermore, we took on a moral obligation to the US which did not stand us (or them) in good stead later on.

It may be that Corbyn’s reaction thirty-five years ago was a bit strident, in yer face Dave Spart-speak. But basically it was right. And now we would be safer, not less safe, with someone for whom war is not a solution until the last resort, and who does not believe in a first strike, or a last strike, ensured destruction of people and poisoning of the planet.

The greatest political step in my life-time has been the creation of the European Union. Through the foresight and good faith of the likes of Adenauer and Monet, and for the first time in centuries, the tribes of Europe inside this new entity have stopped killing one another: this greatest of achievements went almost unmentioned during our silly Referendum. But the biblical adage remains true, “They that live by the sword shall perish by the sword.”

This poem was written to celebrate the first named Storm Lady, about a year ago, so perhaps it is still appropriate now.

 

Storm Ladies

 

 

Storm Lady Immogen hammers our doors and our windows

it’s the fault of Aeolus for letting her out of his bag

and our fault as well, for tattooing a name on her

innocent shoulder.

 

Is she tempted to blow as when all Suffolk’s windmills

indignantly groaned into flame, with their arms madly whirling,

ripped oaks out like sprout stems, demolishing church-towers and drowning

some eight thousand sailors?

 

‘A once-in-five-hundred-year tempest,’ could blow up again, any minute.

because Gaia’s provoked, or a force generated at random ?

Either way we can’t see, cannot draw, this fierce air that we picture as sinister

isobars, sliding and clenching.

 

“But I love wind” you say, and we know what you mean is

the scent on spring breezes and bracing brown gusts in the autumn

that whirl leaves round our heads and throw rooks like old rags round the sky

But beware what you love, for

 

the Wind-God has ungentle daughters, his feline avengers:

watch out for a day which is still, with the grass hardly moving,

when we peer through the pane, and we ask ourselves

‘What is that roaring?’

 

 

 

 

02 2016

 

 

 

 

We were going to a wedding near Plymouth, so we booked through train tickets well in advance, and first class for more room and comfort, on the 10.17 from Diss in Norfolk – one and a half hours to London Liverpool Street. Once we were nicely installed and comfortable the pleasant voice of a lady conductor told us that we were to be ‘re-trained’ at Colchester because torrential rain the preceding night had affected the main line. So we scrambled, with our luggage, up and over to the other platform, where we slid randomly into uncomfortable seats amid everyone’s piled up luggage. This local train set off at a leisurely trundle, including an unscheduled stop, round Marks Tey and other stations towards Shenfield (whence, hopefully, to Liverpool Street). The comfortable one hour’s transfer time to get from Liverpool Street to Paddington gradually eroded. It was a relief from tension when we reached the time at which catching our connection was now entirely impossible.

 

Our train had eventually got onto the main line to Liverpool Street and seemed to be running normally when it stopped suddenly. The driver told us we had a red light: when someone told him what it was about, he would tell us. A few minutes later he said “There’s a problem with the points, and they are sending someone to check them.” A bit later he said ” They know what is wrong with the points, and they are sending for a man with a spanner” More minutes passed. “They’ve now told me to reverse the train back to Manor Park, then they’ll decide what to do next, so you’ll see me walking through the train to the back cab.”. So he passed through, after which we reversed in stately fashion back down the line to the station.

 

“I’m going to open the doors to let some fresh air in, but they may fix the points any time so that we can go forward, so don’t get out here, unless you want to.” A longer pause.

 

“After all that, it’s probably better for the completion of your journeys, and for my sanity, if you leave the train now, cross the platform, and take the tube – I’ve checked with Transport for London – will you honour their tickets? – Yes.” So we gathered our rucksack, luggage and wedding present and humped up and over again. We got into Liverpool Street at 14.10. Whether the train we left at Manor Park ever made it to London I don’t know.

 

We crossed by tube to Paddington where there can a long walk to the platforms, depending on which tube line you cross by. In the old days there were porters: nowadays an increasingly elderly population has to carry and trudge. The walks get longer. We can do this now, but in a few years? Fortunately, though we missed our booked connection, Great Western waved us through, and we slid into comfortable seats on the 15. 15 to Penzance. And settled down for an uneventful journey

 

Except that there were non-scheduled stops at Dawlish and Dawlish Warren. And then. just before Plymouth, the train stops. The impeccably voiced train conductor informs us that there is a cow on the line – : “Actually, cows.” Armed with a flag, he descends to shoo them off, and when he gets back in we proceed towards Plymouth, being told en route that passengers for the Looe line are to descend here, and take provided road transport, because they will by now have missed the connection from Liskeard.

 

“A collision with a cow could have serious consequences,” the conductor continues, “including possible derailment, so we will have to run slowly for a bit, until we know that we are well clear. Please don’t lean out of the windows here, you can easily catch a branch or something on the way, and endanger your eyes. I have had a number of injuries on this train, so do please be sensible.”

 

At last we get out at Plymouth Station, to find that we are penned in a long queue shuffling out through only one turn-style (while several station operatives lean on rails and watch impassively as if it is nothing to do with them). Our tickets have already been checked, several times – why is this happening to us? We’re very late, and tired, and we want to get out!

 

Most of the railway workers we encountered on this trip were diligent, helpful and friendly. They wanted to do a good job, they wanted to be proud of their enterprise. But the overall organisation let them (and us) down endlessly, just as it does in the NHS, of which more in a later blog.

 

Emergency has to be planned for. Rainstorms happen, just like snow, and leaves on the line; track and machinery need maintenance, as does trackside fencing, trees and hedges. All this means labour, labour means wages, more wages means reduced profits for railway companies, but better service and therefore greater profit (or lower losses) for citizens of this nation. I imagine most of us would prefer the railway system to be a national treasure, run by staff who are not only properly paid, but proud of their institution and anxious for it to give a sterling service to the person and the nation. Esprit de corps during the Olympics was wonderful to watch – but it shouldn’t be only for athletes..

 

 

Choices

‘No black!’ I heard my father say
‘Mourners in the East wear white’
his mourners tried to get it right –
everyone turned up wearing grey.

‘A barrow and a wooden tray
will do to wheel my body there:
leave the live flowers to bloom in air –
cut flowers will shrivel in a day.’

The coffin paused, my mother ran
and threw red roses on the lid
we didn’t know she had them hid,
it wasn’t anybody’s plan;

whatever it was the vicar said
I knew my father didn’t mind –
mourning is for the left behind
you get no choices when you’re dead.

 

Dear Penny,

 

You asked me where I stood on the referendum. I haven’t forgotten: I have been thinking about it. I did at first think it was an enormous red herring, and obscured the fact that Casino Capitalism (ie the City of London) was the main enemy, but I now think it has been useful. if only because people who aren’t obsessed by, or much interested in, politics begin to see that there are very few ‘facts’ and that most economic or political predictions or projections are (and always have been) guesses. Economics is still the dismal science. People do keep complaining they are not being given “The Facts” This is because there aren’t any. There is no clear “What is going to happen,” and policy remains the best honesty. Not “Where will we be in five years?” but “Where do we want to be in five years,” which is a better indicator of where we should be aiming, and which nobody seems daring enough to pronounce.

 

Where are we? For centuries up to 1945 Europeans in various nation-states have been killing one another. The European Community was an attempt to stop that happening, and has been an outstanding success: seventy two years ago it was still happening, but since then Europeans within the EC have stopped killing one another. This is not trivial. Some people will tell us that peace is due to Nato, which underlines how hypocritical the debate is. By belonging to Nato we give away some of this sovereignty which is so much talked about, to a supra-national body, led by America. (cf Article 13 of the Nato treaty which makes it clear that this is America’s outfit).

 

The fact is that no nation can have absolute sovereignty. We can’t go back to” Making our own decisions.” We give some sovereignty away by accepting the United Nations Organisation, the Geneva Convention, the International Court at the Hague, the Law of the Sea for territorial waters, and so on. We may or may not agree with EC Fisheries policy, but clearly some organisation has to sort out competing claims and sustainability unless we are to go back to the Cod Wars. There are many other cases like this.

 

There are also many issues which can only be sorted out by a supra-national organisation which has clout. We can’t face down trans-national companies unless we can deprive them of a substantial proportion of their customers by way of persuading them to get into line. We can’t cope with migration on our own. There are millions of people outside Europe who want to get in. Our borders are the borders of Europe: if we can’t control those (and at the moment we can’t), we certainly can’t control the coastline of these off-shore islands with two boats, a few coast-guards, and a bit of Dad’s Army. (Some enterprising East Anglians have been demonstrating that we can people-smuggle with the best of them). King Canute went down to the shore to show his people that you can’t stop the tide from coming in: he wasn’t trying to deal with a tsunami.

 

If you say “Well, the EC fails to cope with immigration at the moment,” then I agree. But the organisation exists, the means is there. Where is the British Government’s great plan, with our partners, to deal with European borders and immigration? The British have been lousy team-players in the EC. If the alternative, Little Britain, policy is not to let foreigners in, you have to ask, how do they propose to keep foreigners out?

 

What we have is an inadequate European Community with many faults. But it is broadly benevolent and democratic. Here please note another of the hypocrisies. In the UK we have an electoral system which does not represent votes cast, and a revising House of Lords packed with entirely unelected old fogies. And we should complain about democracy in the EC? The answer is reform. Reform the UK, decide what you want the EC to be and reform that as well. Those who want to get out might well ask themselves: did we ever, really, get in?

 

I haven’t talked about economics and trade, because they are ephemeral issues on which hundreds of politicians and experts are fantasising. As I said before, there are no hard facts. That discussion has become unreal and boring, though I have no doubt that Brexit will be economically dire, the Brexiters, and I suspect the Government and the Civil Service, having no plans for that eventuality. Reminds me of a Head of Faculty of ours who memorably said “How can we have a contingency plan when we don’t know what is going to happen?”

 

Me, I want to belong to the group of nations who have created the culture I live in, and live by. I’m on the side of Bach and Beethoven, Dante and Verdi, Cervantes and Goya, Monet and Manet, Tolstoi and Turgenev (my Europe will definitely include Russia, when that country becomes a democracy again), and I want it to be wedded to ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity and sorority, and the proper use of a small planet. So I shall vote to stay in, with reservations, as a start. And I don’t believe they can legally deprive me of my European Citizenship.

P1000044

 

Here it is again – my friendly fieldmark. Most years the field next door (Claypit Hill rising to Dicky Hill- the two fields were merged in the years after the War, part of a general amalgamation of fields, and tearing out of hedgerows here), is ploughed up, harrowed, raked and sown, and then a final fieldmark is embossed on it like a watermark by a heavy tractor. It will sit here now for the next three seasons, accentuated by the growth as it comes, modified by the nature of the crop. It’s a natural  symbol – a bit like a Greek alpha or a rune, but very much itself. Next years fieldmark will probably look similar – but not the same – and will stare up at the changing moon, currently an orange sickle in the West at dusk, who presides over this sort of variability. It will certainly creep into some future picture of mine, as it has so many times in the past.

 

HYTHPIC 1

The educational propositions of Utopia, laid out by David Austin and David Page.

 

I was walking past a junior school the other day: a nice school—a clarity of glass and formal brick with a warmth to it. The children had finished their break, the whistle had blown, and they were moving in. Crumpled over the railing in front of the school was an elderly man: as I came nearer I realised that he was convulsed with laughter. Tears were running down his cheeks. I must have looked puzzled, because he gestured with his hand and said, “Excuse me,” and then, as he wiped his eyes, “but it is all so very extraordinary. I have just been to see your zoo,” he said, “and the parallel is exact. You put your young into houses, yes? And there are keepers to control and feed them. Only to watch the tea-party here, it is free.”

 

I must admit I was piqued, although I am not a specially patriotic man. “Look here,” I said, “it’s generally agreed that our educational system is pretty good; we have put up some splendid buildings and we’re working on the old ones. The teachers are decent and thoughtful, on the whole, and the methods are improving—gradually, but perceptibly. How much better do you do in your country?”

 

Hythpic 2

 

His eyes widened. “Oh, but—” he said, “you see, we do not shut small people away, and do things to them. We leave them free, and let them grow in their own way.” I started angrily. “That’s a completely- Utopian idea . . .” but he caught my hand and before I could say any more was pumping my arm like mad, laughing and smiling. “Come, come, we must have a drink together, you are the first person, the first, mark my words, who had guessed my country. Tell me what you know of Utopia.”

 

Though of course, he told me; as we walked to a nearby pub we fell to discussing the stranger’s outrageous view of a generally accepted and admired system. He was not, it seemed, as ignorant of our ways as had appeared at first; but the novelty of the Utopian system gave me the strangest sensation, like a man standing on a path in the early morning mist, perceiving an unfamiliar set of shapes and volumes, not recognising his own house.

 

“Without schooling,” I said, “how can you possibly educate your Utopian children?” “In Utopia No-one is Educated,” he replied. On seeing the surprise and disbelief in my reaction he hastened to explain. “Our language does not have your transitive verb to educate. But what child would choose to go to school except following the Pied Piper, to find out where the other kids had gone? We have no schools to interrupt the process of learning, nor professional educators to corrupt it.”

 

Hythpic 3a

 

“Corrupt it,” I cried, unable to restrain myself, “but the pedagogic profession is most highly respected among us: we keep the remuneration very low, precisely so that mere material gain shall not exercise those who enter it. It is regarded as the vehicle which transmits our culture from generation to generation.” “In Utopia,” the imperturbable stranger replied pleasantly, “we are not as aware as yourselves of the generations. Furthermore your culture seems to me to be trimmed and distorted to fit your educators’ own dimensions. Your educators, after all, need reassurance as to the effectiveness of their work, which they will get by asking questions. To ensure that they will be reassured indeed, they teach children the answers to those questions which they intend to ask. We have a joke in my country about a self-fulfilling Professory. Indeed, it is much easier to pass on neatly ordered knowledge—to teach people a grammar in place of a language—and in the process English teachers produce philistines, and mathematics teachers produce tally-men.

 

” We paused to buy some beer and sit down. I was in something of a brown study over my glass. “Supposing,” I said, “that you are right; what then is the use of our educational system?”

 

“A good question,” he replied. “Primary education is unnecessary —children learn to read and calculate from literate and numerate parents anyway. Children of illiterate innumerate parents do not learn anyway. It is no good teaching children: you must first teach parents. However, primary schools do keep children off the streets, where they might pick up something useful. Secondary schools perform largely the same function, meanwhile selecting a docile group for training as an intellectual elite. Of course, no one knows whether they are intellectually superior, since it cannot be tested, nor what such a phrase implies, but it is enough that everyone believes it to be true, for so one gets your Government by Consent. In tertiary education, then, this elite is trained in obsolescent techniques by those who can’t or won’t make their way in their own profession.”

 

“It’s true,” I said, “that most would say their most intensive period of learning took place in the first two years after the course ended,” and he replied, “Why then postpone this experience?”

 

Hythpic 3b

 

But I wanted to go back a point or two. “You said that it is parents who teach; but in this complex age what two parents could cover the range of learning needed?” “Why two?” he said. “In Utopia a Wise Child Chooses All its Parents. Natural curiosity leads a child to those who can help him. In your country, contrariwise, two parents have two point five children, a dog, a cat, and three rose trees—and they build a wall around them!”

 

“It’s natural to want privacy,” I retorted.

 

“By privacy,” he said, “you mean freedom from intrusion while you do all those things which it is more fun to do in groups. The children, locked in, destroy your ‘privacy’ far more effectively than the neighbours you lock out; yet they long to get away—and do indeed escape for some hours to the community—to a larger house, a larger walled garden, and teachers in loco parentis (a quaint phrase). And through their life they will be pursued by the spectral ideal of the Big Happy Family. In the meantime, however, you protect them from the people next door, and they protect their children from you.”

 

“But eventually,” I said, “their education comes to an end and they get on with the serious business of life.”

 

“You mean this education was not serious?”

 

“Not the same as work.”

 

Hythpic 4a

 

“Aha, work. In Utopia Nobody Works. People make things, people create.. But by work, in your society, you mean doing something for most of the day, by compulsion. I have tried to analyse this. As far as I can see your people do three kinds of work. They slave laboriously because they are cheaper than machines which could do the same job. Secondly they watch machines slaving because they are cheaper than machines which could watch the machines. Thirdly they organise this money which discovers the shocking cost of machines in terms of human labour, and organise it with such complication that everyone forgets what it means. And so you have Economics: the solemn study of the phenomenology of a metaphor. Perhaps the real use of your education is to accustom men to a pattern of work, and to suppress their creative impulse—otherwise who would stand for it? But I forgot, there is a consolation prize, and this too we have not got: In Utopia there is No Dignity of Labour.”

 

“Talking of dignity,” I said, “let us return to the old; how do you look after them?”

 

“I am glad you mention them, for I had been told that here it was impolite to do so.”

 

“But what do you do for them?”

 

“We do not make them different,” he said. “In Utopia we Give Toys on Every Birthday. With toys one explores the world; one stops needing them when one stops learning. While the old learn, they are no different from the young, and in our society the young pass on the culture of the tribe to the old. Here it seems to me, even those in middle age have stopped learning, are frightened. But I forgot your national hero, from your most famous book—looking at his watch and exclaiming ‘Oh my ears and whiskers, I shall be late’.”

 

At this point, suddenly, he would say no more. We played a game of darts, but I got little more from him but a visiting card.

 

Hythpic 4b

 

I have not slept very well recently. I am haunted by the image of a man bent over a railing, helpless with laughter.

 

Note

David Austin and David Page wrote this article for the Spring issue of ARK (Journal of the Royal College of Art) 1970, before they had read Paul Goodman’s article, “The Present Moment in Education” in ANARCHY 107; Homage was then reprinted in Anarchy 115 (sadly without the drawings, more costly to reproduce in those days). We owe this dialogue to English teacher Harold Sheldrake, who made who made DP read Utopia, thus slightly undermining the argument here presented. Isn’t that just like life?

 

 

 

 

 

This was a Guardian headline: it was in fact about museum charges, but all the same it is a good question. The answer is, NO.

 

The great majority of living artists make no money at all: the lucky ones cover their costs. By ‘artists’ here I mean creators of visual or visual /tactile works produced for their own sake, as opposed to the (no less estimable) ‘designers’ who make works to satisfy specified criteria for clients who commission the work in advance. There is a perennial debate about boundaries and what constitutes which. (By extension I also point to all creators of content)

 

In my lifetime I have known very few artists who made a living from their art. Peter Iden from the middle of his life (see my past blog); Terry Frost late in his life…. Like Terry, many artists have made an income from teaching in Art Schools & Departments, but reductions in part-time staffing must have greatly reduced that number. To restate it as emphatically as possible, most of the serious artists I know do not make more money than covers the cost of their activity, most of them living on other work or a pension: no-one I know makes a living wage from their art. We are, in the real sense of the word, amateurs: we only do it because we love it, or are addicted to it, which makes us entirely out of step with the times.

 

Does this mean that there is no longer a demand for visual images, or at any rate, for visual images made by artists? Contrariwise, technological change has enabled a much greater consumption of visual images than was possible in the past. These images used to be mediated by printing and printed media, via a long-winded (but loveable) technology which produced books, newspapers and magazines. Television first broke the monopoly of that technology, followed by other means of instant transmission. The new technologies have also enabled a vast mining of visual material in time and space. You only have to think of the way in which artists mined the visual material of Greece and Rome, using their own drawing via time- and skill-consuming media like etching, and then the way Picasso, Braque, Modigliani etc mined African art, to see that that ease of access has enormously increased the amount of visual material available to any individual. You might think this increase might remove the need for current origination. But no: the demand for new images , new ways of looking at the world, is increased rather than marginalised.

 

Partly this results from what we could call the Many Mansions and Wallpaper phenomenon. There are now an almost infinite number of spaces (Mansions) in the house, almost all of which require a visual element (Wallpaper). In the present world the visual component, which used to be freestanding or an optional extra, has become an essential. Sound is also an optional addition, but, so far, less essential than the visual. Some of us are paid, some of the time, to provide the visual component.

 

Artists are caught out by habits which were appropriate in the past, I mean that we present our reproduced images for free in order to advertise our unique objects; but the terms of trade have changed, and it is the reproduction which is now the valuable commodity. To take a current example, an original Auerbach painting may well be priced north of two million, but his images are dispersed through the media and are consumed, apparently for free, by millions who could never afford his unique object. For most of us, whose unique objects sell very far south of two million, a small incremental payment for each view or reproduction would be liable in aggregate to produce more than returns from sales of the unique objects themselves. This may seem a truism: what is new is its reinforcement by a massive change in technology. Some return comes from the use of our reproduced work in print, or on TV etc, , (though the terms of trade are not very favourable), but little or none flows from the Great Gobbler, ie the Internet. We get even less than musicians, which is saying a lot.

 

One central problem with the Internet, which admirably sets out to make everything available to all, is that a generation has grown up believing that content is, or should be, free for consumers, leaving creators of content marooned high and dry away from the tidal flow of income, which is what everyone else uses to buy the means of life. Well, you can have free content, and when you have done plundering the past there will be no new content, as the creators will have died out. Or you can pay for content and have living creators. You may try to shade it, but it’s that stark a choice. For those of us who are artists, or who want art to continue, there is only one option: to compel the new distributors of content to pay its creators the full fruit of their industry. We would not begrudge distributors their own fair reward for distributing, but we object to their taking 99% of the cake.

 

The traditional way, and still the best way, to confront this problem is through Trades Unions -with the proviso that here once again the new technology changes things. We no longer have the concentrated work-forces who made up the powerful industrial unions with their self-reinforcing ethos of solidarity in the work-place. We do however have instantaneous networks, a different form of connectivity, but potentially just as powerful as the old one. We need a confederal union for all creators of content, and one which transcends national boundaries as the distributors do, so that creators can enforce fair pay for work done. Such a system will not emerge overnight, but it will have to emerge.

 

Meantime the answer to the question “Should Art be Free?”is an emphatic NO. Art is work, and if you want live art, you must pay living artists.

 

 

18 01 2016

 

 

 

A remarkable literary event took place in Redenhall last week: through the diligence of a friend we were there. It might sound pretentious to say that this was a major event, the sort of thing which in London would be heralded by a fanfare of trumpets and celebrated in the media. Here in Norfolk however it was Corbyn-style modest, and no less wonderful for that.

The event was an introduction to, and part reading of, Arnold Wesker’s play Roots. The remarkable thing was that the performance took place in the front room of the actual cottage where Wesker wrote the play. For anyone who doesn’t know this fine play, it is peopled by Norfolk agricultural labourers and written in Norfolk dialect. This can be a problem: I listened to one BBC radio production in which the actors spoke assorted Loamshire (or at any rate, listened as long as I could bear it). On this occasion, however, it was performed in proper spirited speech: (some of the actors were native speakers), so it sounded like what you might hear in a corner of any Norfolk pub – only that it was rather clearer. We were told that the play is constantly in production: on that particular day there were 13 productions taking place elsewhere in the world, presumably translated into the appropriate agricultural regional argots of French, German, Korean or wherever, so the fact that it is not written in King’s English, or Buehnesprache etc, paradoxically makes it more, rather than less, available. So much for the Questione della Lingua: there does not have to be one central official language: we all speak and hear different language versions, and we can all perform in a variety of registers.

 

One way to describe Roots might be to call it a Norfolk Waiting for Godot, only with real people instead of archetypes, and with hope rather than despair. Beatie, the daughter of a farm-labouring family has been living in fabled London with East-End Jewish socialist Ronnie, the hero/anti-hero of the preceding play Chicken Soup with Barley. Here she is, back home, and bringing her family together to await the arrival of wonder boy-friend and intended husband Ronnie. Of course, as with Godot, he never arrives. But, and it is the point of the play, Beatie in a despair of abandonment suddenly discovers in herself an awakened ability to stand and deliver – Ronnie’s victory by proxy – a difficult transition for actor and director, but immensely moving in performance. Goodbye to the ‘ idiocy of rural life.’

It was great to enjoy the introduction to Wesker’s work, (I hadn’t realised how little he was taken to the heart of the British theatrical world), the warmly personal account by his old friend, the nephew of his wife Dusty, and sections of the drama performed, while we the audience looked out through the window, like Beattie’s mother, to see if the bus was passing. Wesker had looked through that window as he wrote the play. As if one could have sat in Dickens’ writing room for a reading of Copperfield, looking through the window from which he saw Miss Mowcher. It was that sort of amazing event.

I had forgotten just how funny, as well as poignant, the play was. When I gave a lecture on it to German students studying for a degree in English, in 1960 or ’61 (‘Contemporary British Literature’) I was worried that it was so much a naturalistic Ibsenite play, at a time when theatre seemed to be moving away from eavesdropping on the room behind the proscenium arch to a much wider and more flexible mode. But hearing it again now, that sort of concern seemed of no importance. Many flowers bloomed, in their own way. I was a bit sad also to hear that Wesker (you can hear him say it on the recent Desert Island Disks) regretted being bundled as an Angry Young Man. Contrariwise, I always wore AYM as a badge of pride. At that time, the mid ‘fifties, we were coming out of another ‘low dishonest decade,’ and there was plenty to feel angry about, and to denounce, and there is plenty of anger, as well as empathy, in the Wesker Trilogy

So rather more than half a century on, here we were, like Beatie, back in Norfolk, at last honouring a prophet in his own country, or at any rate a country he made his own. About time too. Thanks to all those who made it happen.

I read a piece in the Guardian on 26 May, which said that Fire Songs, by David Harsent, who won the 2014 T S Eliot prize for poetry “the pre-eminent prize for poetry” had so far only sold 151 copies. Wow, I thought; I knew that poets were at the bottom of the ladder economically, the plankton of the arts, who mostly expect to be consumed for free, and could not make a living from selling poems even if they were fairly paid for what they produce. But to win a major prize, and then to sell only 151 copies. Wow.

But it wasn’t quite true. The Guardian then ran a correction: the 151 copies were of the new paperback edition, which had only come out in March; the collection had in fact sold more than 2.000 copies, they said. Oh well, that’s all right then. However, that left a difficulty: The Guardian is on-line, as well as in print. Therefore you can still read the article (about Simon Armitage), but you won’t now find the sentence about Fire Songs in it. I think that’s called redacting.

Mind you, 151 copies sold might be quite good for those of us who haven’t won a literary prize; might at least pay for the printing. The remainder go into the cardboard box labelled “To Be Opened Posthumously If I Suddenly Become Famous.” But why pay for poetry? It’s free, most of it, if you have a computer, which is nice for people like me who like reading poems. But bad for poets, or Makers, if you think that people who make things should be paid a proper price for what they make. At the moment ‘creatives’ seems to be the only word commonly used to cover all those who make things which are without a strictly utilitarian purpose, though I prefer the word Makers (cf William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makirs).

We can’t have a just system of exchange unless there is a system for charging users for the use of intellectual property and paying the Makers a just return. Sorting this out should be somebody’s job, and, lo and behold, there is a British Government Minister for Intellectual Property (bet you didn’t know that). I emailed her before the election; she appears to be in place still, and I have emailed again. When she replies (or if she doesn’t) I will let you know. In the mean time, Makers of the World, Unite!

Think about it.