Archive for November, 2011

Poppy Hysteria

Posted: November 11, 2011 in Current affairs

Zonnebeke, by Sir William Orpen, 1878-1931

The public hysteria this past few days about the wearing of the poppy rather defeats the act of commemoration it is meant to symbolize. It defeats it because it reduces it to an act of conformity rather than sincere, individual choice; to a display of “Britishness” rather than remembrance. What if someone British chooses not to wear the poppy as a matter of conscience? Does that make them less British? Less patriotic? Less respectful to the memory of those who’ve died in the service of the British armed forces? I wouldn’t dare to judge but sadly many do.

Any BBC reporter or presenter appearing before camera in the weeks (!!) leading up to Remembrance Sunday is required to wear a poppy even though they would rather not; even in Northern Ireland, where most nationalists choose not to wear the poppy because, historically, it’s been used as an assertion of British and unionist identity. And this is a public service broadcaster in a democracy! Imagine a news story from Iran about journalists and other public workers forced to pay public homage or respect to Iran’s war dead or lose their jobs. It would be regarded in Britain as an affront to freedom of speech, a demonstration of state oppression and another good reason to bomb Iranians into regime change.

Or imagine if Iranian football players insisted on wearing a public symbol of commemoration regardless of FIFA regulations. Would that not be seen in Britain as a demonstration of Islamic fanaticism? As crude propaganda? I rather suspect it would. On that note, I wonder about those footballers and football pundits who have spat blood all week about the right of England players to wear the poppy on their jerseys in the game against Spain on Saturday (12 November). If asked, how much would they know about the origins of the poppy as a symbol? How much would they know about the horrors of trench warfare during the First World War in which millions of young men died in the interests not of freedom but of imperialism? How much would they know about the hundreds and thousands of non-British soldiers who have fought and died for the glory of the British armed forces only to be forgotten? The reason I ask is because in the hours of airtime taken up with the issue this week, I’ve heard very little mention of any of that history.

In principle, I think public commemoration of the war dead is a decent thing to do as long as it’s done as a reflection on the futility and horror of war, not as a propagandistic display of patriotism or the glorification of war. I have no problem with people wearing the poppy as long as it’s an act of conscience rather than conformity, as a sincere and sober act of commemoration rather than a fashion statement. I’ve seen some instances on TV where individuals seem to try and outdo each other with the size and style of poppy, departing from the original, simple and humble version most people buy on the street or in the shop.

But what disturbs me most is the way in which the wearing of the poppy has become so politicized – an assertion of Britishness rather than public commemoration in which anyone can participate regardless of identity  – and the hysterical outrage that seems to greet anyone who dares to challenge that and to either insist on its original purpose or choose not to wear it because they can’t identify with its patriotic associations. That’s not democracy. That’s fascism. In the words of the First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, it’s “The old lie. Dulce et decorum est. Pro patria mori” ; it is sweet and right to die for your country.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

(Dulce et decorum est, by Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918). 


It’s an old line but it keeps coming up: public sector strikes against pension reform are unfair to the taxpayer. It came up again on this week’s edition of Question Time  (BBC1, 3 November) in answer to the first question of the night: ‘Is it right for the public sector workers to strike when they have been offered a better deal?’ The question referred to a last-minute concession in the government’s plans to restructure public sector pensions this week, designed to head off a mass public sector day of action scheduled for 30 November. However, it hasn’t been enough to prevent a vote in favour of strike action among members of the biggest public sector union, UNISON.

Step up Home Secretary Theresa May to predictably say, no it’s not right for public sector workers to strike in these circumstances and that it’s not fair on ‘the taxpayer’:

What I think is fair is that we have an arrangement for public sector pensions that gives public sector workers…a decent pension in their retirement but also is a fair deal for the taxpayer…And remember it’s people in the private sector who have seen their pensions devastated in recent years – the taxpayers – who are paying for the public sector pensions’.

Do you see what she did there? Twice, she presents the public sector worker and the taxpayer as mutually exclusive categories and drives the usual wedge between workers in the public and private sectors, a very important tactic in Tory strategy to divide and conquer public opinion about their disastrous fiscal and economic policies. The fact that co-panellist Shirley Williams spoke directly afterwards in support of Theresa May says it all about the shameful role of the Lib Dems as junior allies in this war against jobs and pensions.

Of course, public sector workers are taxpayers too. And just like average-earning taxpayers in the private sector, they are bearing the brunt of having to bail out the banks, subsidize corporate tax evasion and the refusal of government to fairly tax the super-rich, maintain ‘public-private partnerships’ in which private companies run public services for massive profits thanks to ‘the taxpayer’ and fund dubious military adventures abroad (the drums are beating louder for war against Iran now!)

We have to resist this Tory lie and insist again and again that the public and private sectors depend on each other and that hundreds of thousands of workers across this artificial divide are underpaid, work in poor conditions and are victims of one of the most inequitable tax regimes in Europe.

But we also have to build some solidarity. Public sector unions have to speak for the thousands of private sector workers who are forbidden to be part of a union and have no recourse to employment rights. And workers in the private sector have to accept that their counterparts in the public sector are not the enemy here, that they are not the cause of their difficulties.

So is it right to strike? Bloody right it is!  The so-called concession the government offered public sector workers ahead of their strike ballot this week was, again, designed to divide and rule, promising that those within ten years of retirement from 1 April next year would not see a reduction to their pension (Note the date!)  It may even have worked to an extent. The UNISON ballot returned a 78% majority in favour of strike action but that was on the basis of a 29% turnout.

On the other hand, Shadow Chancellor of Exchequer, Ed Balls, also a panellist on the same edition of Question Time, suggests that the government’s last minute offer was calibrated for rejection. An unpopular public sector strike is just what the Tories want – a fig leaf with which to push through further cuts to public sector jobs, pensions and services.

No, comrades!  We have to stand up against this and shout a bit louder – together!

Post hoc

What is (sub)Text?  (sub) Text is an ongoing, collaborative, multimedia art collective comprising of resident studio artists at the Model Gallery in Sligo. The first exhibition, Writing on the Wall,  happened last December (2011) and incorporated sound/film/and hand-written texts. In a departure from the traditional idea of the art exhibition, whereby the public view the finished work of the unseen artist, the Model artists welcomed the public to come and see them at work and, if they wish, to engage with the artistic process. Once the work was finished, it remained on show for only a few days after.

The aim was to demystify and contemplate the relationships in art between concept, process, aesthetics, exhibition and impact. By facilitating an exploration of ideas through different types of text, the installation opens up dialogues between the participating artists and the viewer, challenging the experience and perception of ‘room’ as a contemporary art space…

What is ‘room’?  ‘room’ is an exhibition space at the Model Gallery designated to the resident studio artists.

The Model Gallery is on The Mall in Sligo and is open Wednesday-Saturday, 11am-5.30pm, and Sunday, 12pm-5pm.

Sue Morris:  `The Inverted Triangle of Objectivity’

“With reference to a range of current newspapers, I will deconstruct the highly manufactured ‘objective’ language of news and re-present it as a natural and unconscious form of everyday handwriting. In the act of transcribing headlines and copy, I will move between the tragic and the absurd, the known and the unknown and the explicit and the implied, and hopefully reflect back to the observer the elastic realism of news and question its mythical status as a ‘window on the world’ “

Sarah Stevens:  ‘The Derelict Nation Project’

“I photographed the derelict Old Coach House on the Pearse Road, Sligo and posted the photographs on Flickr as part of the Derelict Nation project. An ex-resident of the house contacted me when she recognised the view from the bathroom window. In July 2011 I met her outside the Coach House and recorded her memories as she reconstructed how the house used to look from looking at my photographs. During the making of sub(TEXT) I will make a time-lapse film of collaborating artists making the work.”

Clea van der Grijn:  ‘John Steinbeck, The Pearl, 1944’

By re-writing John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, 1944, in its entirety; the multi layered metaphors will change with the interwoven dialogues of the artists participating in (sub)TEXT.”

 Michael Wann:  ‘rou tin e en gin e’

“do you take milk? what you reading? what time’s it on? can you ring him? is that to go? will you be there? where’s the remote? are you okay? cant you leave me alone? are you gonna wash that hair? did the postman come? is that rain? does it get easier? is that the door? has anyone seen my glasses? can you text me please? is the alarm set? can you collect the boys? how much will that cost? when will I see you? are we there yet? did you sleep? you want an egg with that? is the camera on? is this for real? why did you do this? is that blood? did you brush your teeth? is that a car next door? did you read this?”

Steve Wickham:  ‘dream diary songs’

“Ever since childhood I’ve been fascinated with the old biblical story of the writing on the wall, and the eerie painting by Rembrandt of Belshazzar’s feast which hangs in the National Gallery in London.The disembodied fingers of a human hand appear at Belshazzar’s feast and write on the wall of the Royal Palace the words מאנ , מאנ , תקל , ופרס י ן

On the surface the words mean ‘two minas, a shekel and two parts”, and yet because of the ghostly hand and the context, they were ominously interpreted to mean “your days are numbered”.

Belshazzar died that night.

I am using two sources for my text: my song lyrics, where there is always an element of riddle and subtext, and my dream diary; thereby drawing from my own personal well of dis-embodiedness. I will also install a sound shower of the artists involved, speaking their words as if the wall could talk.”

(Soundtrack,  featuring the artists, by Steve Wickham)

Reflections of a naive empiricist

They say that news provides us with ‘a window on the world’, reflecting rather than constructing reality, informing us but never influencing us, never shaping our understanding. Apparently, it is a naturally occurring, neutral product, emerging from the objective position of the reporter whose primary duty is to gather the ‘material facts’  – the who, what, where, how and why of the story.

Of course, the reporter is much too busy to decide which facts are more important than others. It is just as well then that the facts speak for themselves, that they have a life, an intelligence of their own. The reporter only has to carry them back with care to the newsroom, place them lovingly in the magic, inverted triangle and watch with wonder as they order themselves within it.

However, we must be ever vigilant for there are those who can’t be trusted with the facts. We must never trust the academic who will question them and theorize endlessly about them in torturous jargon. We must never trust the spin-doctor who is interested only in the facts that suit him. We must never trust the citizen journalist who will order the facts in her own way, not having access to the magic triangle.

But most importantly of all, we must never trust the artist for she will tear the facts from their sacred place and render them how she pleases. She will re-present them, re-articulate them, re-arrange them in no particular order so that they speak for someone or no one at all, stripped as they are of their self-evident, objective authority.

Then what will we do without our window on the world?

Ad hoc: ELEPHANT in the room

While (sub)Text takes time out to think,  an elephant in Cork steps out of character and forgets where she left her car….

And her sister in India gets fed up with her old one…

Speaking of elephants….