My son is setting up a gardening business based on the principles of permaculture. He has taken over an allotment to serve as his laboratory. My youngest son and I have spent recent weekends helping him clear this of unwanted foliage and junk. Currently he is proud owner of a very large pile of weeds.
A couple of weeks ago I joined a zoom meeting of Scientists for Labour a group affiliated to the Labour Party. The speaker was physicist and veteran science policy adviser Sir David King. He served Labour and Conservative governments. Under the Blair government he ran a large foresight programme for major events such as a pandemic. He now chairs the Independent SAGE, which appears to comprise the experts one might have expected a government to have consulted in managing a pandemic. The meeting is publicly available. While he talked I tried to sketch (not very well) and made a few notes.
Here he talks about the fact that the UK had been a world leader in preparedness for such a pandemic, setting out how to manage such an event in 2006.
“the biggest foresight program I ran was on the infectious diseases … our report … said that it was highly likely that a pandemic of the kind that has just occurred would occur … it might emerge from a wild animal … it would spread around the world very rapidly … within 3 months … it would have a genetic make up that we would have no defences against … we set out what should be done, the WHO was represented on the group … and it is kind of surprising and amazingly annoying that the country that produced this report … and the WHO responded very well … that we are the country that sits behind every country in terms of our operation. Sixty five thousand excess deaths to date …”
“it is difficult to believe a word of what the government is saying”.
“complete mishandling of this pandemic of appalling proportions”.
“A vast number of people have died unnecessarily …”
This is Packwood House, built by a 16th century family of yoeman farmers (including the second generation lawyer) who accumulated land and built this house through their own labour, likely the unrecognised labour of the household’s women, and the labour of other hired workers (for example, it was extended by Roger Hurlbutt, a notable master carpenter, in 1670). In the eighteenth century that family laid out the huge yew topiary representing the twelve apostles and their master. That lineage having foundered, the much modified Elizabethan house was transformed into a twentieth century artwork by Graham Baron Ash, who incorporated architectural structures from old buildings facing demolition and historical objects harvested from salesrooms. These included a bed slept in by a queen the eve before giving battle and a chimney piece that might once have warmed Shakespeare’s arse. This Ash was fourth generation of a line of business men, two generations prospering through four surviving sons, moving from grocery into manufacturing from zinc. Their company, Ash and Lacey, still operates today: it reported in 2018 a gender pay gap of 15.9% commenting this is lower than the national average. Most zinc is mined. I cannot tell where the Ash family’s zinc originated, perhaps from northern India during the Empire, nor the labour conditions by which the metal was extracted.
Our foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, would not take the knee except to his wife or the queen, sees it as a symbol of subjugation, thinks it comes from Game of Thrones.
We took the knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in the main road. The traffic stopped and waited in silence. It hurts to put weight on one knee that long. It was an honour to do so: celebrating our common humanity, recognising and opposing White power and violence, being part of a 250 year-long history extending from the iconography of Josiah Wedgwood to the actions of Colin Kaepernick and others on the streets and sport-fields.
What is the value of such protests? It seems remarkable that there was a rally, nearing a thousand-strong, in Solihull, a Tory voting suburb on the outskirts of Birmingham. The traffic hooted its support. People of all ethnic backgrounds took part and gave witness. This is reclaiming the history that belongs to us all but which is airbrushed from the curriculum and media. At the war memorial we called on the handful of defensive men to join us, to champion the common values for which those soldiers died, fighting fascism. They refused, embracing their fearful myths and clutching themselves round the cold stone like it might hatch.
Does this raise consciousness? Are White people on these marches just signalling virtue without challenging their relative privilege, without building a better future for all our children? Its hard to know. One thing I will say is this. When you walk, you can chant “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice No Peace” and even “say his name George Floyd“, “say her name “Breonna Taylor“. However, when you say out loud “I can’t breathe” and think, just think, really why we are saying that, then it becomes hard to breathe.
I cycle past this old mill regularly. Its for sale. It looks ridiculously impractical and probably a money trap. Still, I cant help dreaming as I go past. Next to the mill is the river, widening at this point and a ford with a foot bridge. I have drawn from that bridge before, below are sketches from 2016 and 2014.
Race linked to White and Non-White skin colour is an invention founded in exploitation and slavery in Europe and its colonies over centuries. Empire and capitalism created divisions to justify and facilitate the extraction of value from people through actual and economic violence. Alongside this is a history of shared humanity and resistance to these divisions.
White is a fluid concept. To make our lives and our children’s lives more secure, we acquire camouflage to mimic or blend in with privileged people. There is more to this than skin tone, but colour is a key marker. So, like many others, three generations of my ancestors progressively shed their poor Polish Jewish identity to redefine what it is to be White so that it included them, claiming the trappings of being middle class and privileged. That must have been hard, but their skin was pale and no visible tag of that journey remains in me.
Being White, I need not think about race. I can say: I do not have a race; race is a problem for other people, race is a problem for the people we group together as Black and Minority Ethnicity, race is their problem.
As a White social liberal I can say: I treat everyone the same regardless of skin colour and expect the same back; racism is a problem for people being abusive on public transport, or the deplorable Leavers or MAGAs and their antidiluvian attitudes; racism is not my problem; racism is a problem between racists and Black and Minority Ethnicity people.
History is dynamic. We do not make what came before us, but we selectively mythologise historical events to build our culture and identity, continually making and remaking our society. We choose what we see and what we ignore. Privilege means we choose many things in our daily lives that reduce or perpetuate division and exploitation. Being White and privileged, we determine what we expect of our public servants, the politicians, the unelected officials, the police, the teachers. We are small fish swept along in the shoal, but we are also actors. We make choices that influence the direction of the crowd. So in this way, White supremacy is both perpetuated and undermined.
White supremacy is a problem for White people: so it is my problem to solve and if also you are White, then also it is your problem to solve. When we duck the challenge, we support White supremacy.
When we own and oppose White supremacy, we have to actively see what had been invisible to us, seek out the history of empire censored from the curriculum and the news, give way and listen and promote the voices of those who are White supremacy’s most immediate victims, protest, bravely challenge not just the racists but our liberal friends, donate also if we can, make changes through wise and courageous voting.
There are many links. Here are some, for which there is an opportunity to donate. I have included speeches of the many that moved me.
Rapper Killer Mike speaks: “it is time to fortify our own house .. plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize” Note the police chief in the background: she went among the crowds of protesters and listened.
This sculpture was found by Outside Authority. Here I have more or less copied their photograph in charcoal, chalk and white acrylic paint. This took a Bank Holiday afternoon, and is a start, a way of getting to grips with the source material. I have an idea how to take this forward that builds on the segmentation of the image made by the wire fence. I used the companion photograph in a previous piece, starting as a random scribble which I disrupted and reworked as Pilgrimage through the detritus of growth.
But see how OA has worked the same source of inspiration, starting with cut-outs in a manner like Matisse, development, modelling in three dimensions, re-working back onto paper, and expression in fabric. This is a fascinating sequence of work. Also, it is well worth while reviewing the surrounding posts from OA around the same time, the portraiture developing a view from an unconventional angle. I pick two examples from a plethora of work, “Vying” and “Diary” but I find this whole sequence moving, and astonishing in the breadth of exploration through varying media.
We are all doing our best, at home or in scrubs, masked, at work.
Yet there seems a vacuum in government, a deliberate loss of governance.
Four months in, locked down, our health system turned upside down, we have yet to start the actual work of managing the pandemic.
The core work of Public Health is being outsourced to amateurs, like contracting cross-channel supply to a company without boats.
Still no systematic identification of cases, testing, contact tracing, isolation of individuals.
Meanwhile our population isolation is being eased, spasmodically, to suit the news cycle.
Only now we start quarantining arrivals and at the same time, schools are to open, shops to open.
Will home-made masks and two metre distancing be enough to stop another explosion?
And in the midst of this, there is no accountability for those in charge, no rule of law.
Is this a sideshow, have they their own agenda to pursue while we are distracted?
Clever hands deceive the eye.