Facing my fears for 2017 with the help of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’.

I’ve recently been thinking of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’, the simplest of what are called his black paintings, which he painted on the walls of his house in his last years.

goyas-drowning-dog

Goya’s ‘The Dog’, from the Prado Museum website

All his dark paintings were taken from these walls after his death, and placed in the Prado Museum, Madrid, even though Goya did not necessarily intend them for public view.

It was Laurie Anderson talking about this painting in her personal film essay ‘the heart of a dog’, that made me look it again, as we were nearing the end of 2016.  Like Laurie Anderson, I find that I learn a lot from living alongside dogs, and I have a great love and respect for them.  Perhaps that is why this image of a small dog’s head, submerged in amorphous matter,  makes an emotional impact on me.  In addition, I have been looking at it whilst full of fear for what 2017 will bring – to the UK, the USA, all countries they are connected to; and fear for this lovely planet they are part of.  This small grey dog speaks my fears back to me.

I read its eyes as full of fear, and that this is reinforced through the rest of the painting.  Goya has painted the dog as alone, its body sunk in murky matter.  He has positioned it near the bottom of the wall, just off-centre, facing a rising level of this brown stuff, as if it is about to be enveloped within it.  Trying to describe this painting, to transform it into words, is not straightforward.  No wonder John Berger pointed out

Seeing comes before words

in his seminal TV series and book ‘Ways of Seeing’, way back in the last century (the book I am using was published by the BBC in 1972).

I want to bring in Berger’s work here because it is still highly relevant, but also to mark his recent death at the age of ninety.  He lived his life to the full and used his vision and gift for words to make this human world a kinder, more thoughtful one.

goyas-dog-croppedBerger urged us to consider the context of any painting, as part of its meaning, especially when viewing a reproduction of it, rather than the original, where the work of the painter – the brushstrokes, and colours, close the time gap between the painter and the viewer, and make the communication much more immediate.  That is why I said above that this painting, and all the paintings he did on the walls of this house on the edge of Madrid, were painted for himself, and we have no information about whether he wanted others to look at them, especially in a museum, where they were changed from murals to pictures hung on walls as ‘works of art’.  What we do know is that he had recently recovered from a serious illness before painting them; had gone deaf; that he had experienced the horrors of war in his lifetime, and that the political situation in Spain was very unstable.  A Liberal government that was in power when he he was painting his walls with many disturbing scenes was, in fact, overturned shortly after he moved away.  There are some parallels here between his world and ours, don’t you think? These experiences fed into his painting of the little grey dog.

But the meanings of any image are not fixed by the creator, of course.  The viewer brings to this dialogue their own knowledge and their personal emotional state.  For example, Jonathon Jones, writing about this picture in the Guardian (‘Goya in hell’, 4/10/15), describes the dog thus

Its grey head pokes defiantly out of the brown sludge.

goyas-dog-cropped

 Jones sees defiance where I see fear.  What do you see?

What none of us see, at this moment of reading, is the original mural, or even the painting it was trasformed into.  We are looking at a digital copy – a type of reproduction Berger knew nothing about when discussing the proliferation of reproductions of paintings back then.  He was arguing that the ready availibility of these reproductions needed to be accompanied by a similar spread of knowledge about what the artists were trying to achieve, and how, and the political and art history they are situated in, and communicating about.  He wanted to take this knowledge out of the hands of an elite few, so that:

we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experiences of our relation to the past: that is to saythe experience of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

Now we have the internet, and wikipedia, and museum websites we have instant access to a huge amount of the world’s art, and also to that previously elite knowledge.  I can use this, as I am now, to get to know a painting in which I recognise an experience of anxiety that reaches across time, and death, to connect us.  Goya was trying to deal with old age and illness when he painted this, which I have tet to face, but we share the turbulence of political instabilty caused by the strong drives we humans have to split ourselves into distinct groups of ‘us and them’, so we project our own fears onto others.

The first digital copy of this painting I looked at showed an area at the top of the wall, to the right, as painted a lighter, creamy brown than the rest, almost as if there was a distant sun struggling to penetrate the murk surrounding the small dog – a suggestion of light which the dog’s gaze could reach.  This prompted me to read the possibility of hope as part of the meaning of this work of Goya’s.  But looking at a range of digital copies, and learning more about the painting, and the painter, has led me to dismiss this reading as due to the vagaries of the software rather than as part of Goya’s own work at that time of his life.  I wish I could confirm this with a trip to Madrid, but that will have to wait.

goyas-dog-croppedThere does not seem to be much historical data about this series of murals, which ‘the dog’ is part of, and some even dispute that Goya painted them.  Goya left behind no words of commentary or explanation, or, at least, none have been discovered yet.  He has, though, left us this memorable image of a small grey dog alone in an uninviting space, and this expresses some of my emotional state at the beginning of 2017, as well as his own two hundred years ago.  Getting to know this painting has helped me situate my own fears and consider my own finiteness.  It has also helped me through the absences, through what is not included in the painting.  Dogs and humans work very well together,they build reciprocal relationships, but the human companion, who could encourage the dog to get out of the murk, is absent.  What is missing from this painting is any reference to all the amazing endeavour that is helping us understand how interconnected we all are, and how we must keep facing difficult issues together.  Goya was expressing a despair we can all recognise.  Understanding our feelings is important, but so is what we do next.

from http://www.hiraeth.wales/2011/11/07/wales-greenham-common-and-occupy/

Women working together at Greenham Common

our musical selves

georges-braque-www-guggenheim-org

Georges Braque ‘Guitar, Glass and Fruit Dish on Sideboard from http://www.guggenheim.org

I have been thinking for some time of writing about music as part of our set of ‘selves’, long before Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature!  Since music is an everyday part of most people’s lives, and universal to all cultures in our diverse human world, it should have its own space on this blog.

Music is certainly the basis for more than one of my everyday identities.  For over ten years I’ve been a member of a variety of local choirs, formal and informal. (I am currently part of a small ‘chamber’ choir).  With these different groups I have sung a wide range of music from traditional African songs to large, choral works by Berlioz, Handel, Karl Jenkins, and Brahms.

193222batala-croppedA year ago I also joined a samba/reggae drum band and entered into a new world of rhythms and movement.  According to Ian Cross, a musicologist, the Igbo word, nqwa, which we translate as ‘music’, encompasses singing, playing instruments and dancing.  The sum of these is what ‘music’ means to these people in Nigeria.  Singing is a tiny part of the music we make in the band, but choreographed movement is as important as the drumming, unlike the choir, where embodied action is much more static, and concerned with the lungs, throat and mouth rather than the whole body.  Being part of this band, and performing outside of buildings, in our public spaces, feels like this wider kind of music making, which is not surprising as our rhythms originate from the mixed cultural spaces of North Brazil.

After lengthy periods of ‘apprenticeship’, I can now say I belong to both of these groups.  They draw on quite separate parts of the local community, and my ‘drumming’ self feels distant from my ‘choir’ self – two groups of people making different kinds of music that draw on distinct cultural traditions and networks.

LIPS Choir

Lips Choir, London, (not one of the choirs I have been a member of), photo taken by Michael Eden, on Timeout blog 2014

There is little spatial or social overlap between the two, yet, I move comfortably between them, unifying them within my particular body and mind, and adding them to my other ‘selves’ that I have chosen, or inherited.

For most of my life though, I didn’t actively make music – I was not able to think of myself as having anything ‘musical’ to contribute.  Possibly, I was too busy taking risks in other ways.  But music has always been a part of my everyday life, intertwined with all my experiences, through listening, and through dancing.  Certain concerts I’ve been to are like memory markers in my mind – such as those by Leonard Cohen and Salif Keita in Barcelona, and Ella Fitzgerald in Manchester – mental places I can go back to, and catch the ghosts of fleeting happiness.

Music, however you define it, is, of course, so important in our lives because of its intimacy with our emotions.  It expresses them, and produces them in the listeners, in complex ways. Ludwig Wittegenstein, who could be said to be an epitome of ‘the intellectual’, spending his life wrestling with theory, was also passionate about music (although he limited this passion to a handful of German composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms).  His involvement in this music was as just as intense as his engagement with trying to change the way we see things, such as the language we use.  He became a ‘virtuoso’ whistler, and could whistle whole movements of symphonies.  Listening to, and performing music in this way helped him through his periods of black despair and depression.

Apparently, some evolutionary theorists argue that music is just a ‘by-product’ of other human survival competencies, because it does not ‘produce’ anything essential to survival. They say its disappearance from our worlds would change nothing.  For me, this kind of reasoning results from a detachment from the theorists’ own bodies and emotions, and from the everyday world that surrounds them.  It ignores the ways music can rescue us from emotional darkness, as it did with Wittgenstein,  as well as the ways it is threaded through our celebrations on being alive, of longing and belonging.

vermeer-the-concert

Jan Vermeer ‘The music lesson’ from commons.wikimedia.org

Reading

‘Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution’.  Ian Cross, Annals New York Academy of Sciences, 2006, 930.

‘The Imaginary African: Music, identity and Race’.  Nicholas Cook, Samuel Colerigde-Taylor Newsletter, 2015, 38.

‘Ludwig Wittgenstein: the duty of genius.’  Ray Monk, 1990, Vintage.

Green Man: past and present

This is the Green Man that oversees my garden, courtesy of a local artist.

assorted 2008 and 9 010

I knew he had to be there as soon as I laid eyes on him, but I didn’t know much about his origins, apart from a vague association with pre-Christian beliefs.

UprootedSo I was happy to read Nina Lyon’s recently published book ‘UpRooted’.  This is a book about what little is known about this enigmatic figure, and its current revival.  It’s also about being English and Welsh in these first decades of this century and at times Lyon’s wry descriptions of some of our contemporary rites and rituals (and her own attempts to construct these) made me laugh out loud.  She weaves into these discussions of past and present philosophies about the relationships between Nature and spirituality.

This book is about place, as well as people and their ideas, especially the woods and valleys of the border lands between England and Wales, where the Green Man once had a significant presence.

She takes us to places where images of the Green Man were incorporated into the early medieval buildings of the newer Christian religion, in order, perhaps, to curtail the power of these earlier deities.

Her main focus is on the old kingdom of Archenfield, once a centre for Celtic beliefs, located in what we now call Herefordshire.  She takes us to Garway church, where there is a carving of a horned Green Man.  The church was built by the Knights Templar in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on the site of an earlier wooden one, .

Garway_Church_-_Green_Man

By Kxjan – Photographed from ancient stone carving., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37015203

This early Green Man is on an arch dated to around 1200 and why he is there is not known, but the warring activities of the Templars connect this rural building and place with countries and beliefs far away to the East.  Lyon gives us a detailed description of this image in her book but I wanted to see him for myself, at least digitally for now.   That is the main reason I am writing this post – not to attempt to summarise Lyon’s book (I’d rather you read it for yourself), but to look at these Green men she discusses and reflect on some of what she says about them.

She also takes us to the nearby Kilpeck church, built by local masons in the twelfth century.  These masons are thought to have been overseen by someone who trained, or worked in South West France, so we can see how two small, institutional buildings were part of global networks and set me thinking of William Golding’s richly imaginative account of this earlier time of building in ‘The Spire’.  Like globalising movements today, Kilpeck shows us the local in the global with its rich carvings from pre-Christian life and worship.  There are at least two Green Men, among a wonderful array of Celtic images.  Here is the one you see on the doorway, before going in:

Kilpeck_Green_Man

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=434197

These two powerful images in Garway and Kilpeck are given a more abstracted, distancing human form, in strikingmy garden 2010 comparison to the contemporary Green Man who guards the fertility of my small garden, and oversees my desire to encourage wildness within it, with as light a management as my neighbours will tolerate.

However, the Green Man that was originally on the roof of Dore Abbey, built in the same century as those above, is more recognisably human and approachable :

This is what Nina Lyons says about this Green Man:

He had the demeanour of a laughing Buddha, or an anthropomorphised Sun. This was the Green Man of pub signs and summer-worship.

He is a Green Man made by the Cistercians, formed from within their beliefs of working with the land, and with animals, his smile and colour symbolising the beneficence of Nature, with blue skies and rich harvests.  He reminds me of the version of the old Roman god, Bacchus, who officiated over the drinking of wine and free for all sex, the powers of fertility and creation.  The two Green Men of Garway and Kilpeck, in contrast, index the havoc-wreaking power of Nature we have no control over – the roaring winds, the floods and droughts, the tree roots cracking through concrete and the joyous mass of plants that take back places we have abandoned.

I would like to know what the people who made these images called them, what the people who went into these buildings during that time thought and said about them in their Welsh or medieval English tongues.  They certainly wouldn’t have called them ‘the Green Man’.  As Lyon said, this is a very recent name, invented by Julia Hamilton, writing about folklore in 1939.  Lyon argues that much of the writing about figures such as the Green Man, like Hamilton’s, and those of the Late Victorian, have created new myths, based on speculation, because all we have is a diverse set of images like the ones I have included here, and a rag-bag of remnants of old tales and rites.

Still, as Lyon says, the Green Man himself, representing our relationship with the very force or soul of Nature, has always been with us, ‘It had been there all along, hidden at the edges, doing its own thing, like a wild man of the woods.

These days he is coming out of the edges and into our garden centres and our festivals in new forms, as this photo from the Pilton Green Man day shows.   I think the Green Man, in his multiple guises, is as important for us today as he was to our ancestors, local and global.

Here is a friend’s Green Man,  who watches over her garden – a very ‘foliate’ man, but also less alien than the early medieval representations. green man Mary

 

Green Man 2013 by Mary

‘Words are things’: Mary Kelly’s Multi-Story house

 

IMG_20150226_133142 mary kelly

Mary Kelly: Multi-Story House

Last month I went to the refurbished Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.  I enjoyed the space and light that has been opened up in the development of this old red brick building, and the way it now blurs the boundaries between the park and gardens outside and the wide, white spaces inside.  I was especially struck by the way they have put together specific portraits from their permanent collection – where studies from the eighteenth century are hung next to contemporary paintings, sketches by unknown artists alongside the powerful works of Freud and Bacon.  Here is the link to this exhibition on their website: Whitworth Gallery: Portraits

The majority of the works are drawings and paintings that hang on walls, but they have also included less conventional ‘portraits’ such as the mix of feminist voices in the stories that are central to Mary Kelly’s ‘Multi-Story House’ (2007).  This small, warmly lit ‘glass house’ (the size of a garden shed) is what I want to focus on here.

In contrast with the images of all types of people on the surrounding walls, this bright object creates its portraits through words.  Instead of responding to a representation of a specific body, reading these ‘stories’ summons up a hubbub of different voices.  The words are all carved into acrylic panels in the same cursive style, all are in (or translated into) English, and all address the theme of feminism.  But the words in each extract conjure up a myriad of mouths, because each speaker draws on a differing choice of words and set of contexts.

09_MaryKelly_Multi-Story_House_detail4_documenta12

The narratives are taken from conversations with women of different generations about being a feminist, and to read them you have to move around all the sides of the house, look up at the sloping roof, go inside to read those that present their back to you from the outside.  So it is a physical experience as well as a mental and emotional one, and one I felt I could ‘control’ by choosing which stories to read, by walking away to think about them, and returning later.  However, the artist directs your experience of  the relations between past and present by presenting all the younger women’s narratives on the outside, and the older generation of women (the same generation as the artist herself) on the inside.

Kelly said of this arrangement of time ‘you can’t be in both places‘ in a conversation with Paula McCloskey at the Whitworth in 2011.  She also said that through this ‘dialogue’ between generations of women she is addressing the question of ‘what (-) you feel that you’re obliged to carry on in terms of the legacy.

Questions are fundamental to her work as an artist, she stated in this interview: ‘I recognised that if an artist has a brief, it’s to ask the question – so that’s where I began in my work. It’s not about the answers,’

I like that approach – it makes sense to me – and perhaps helps me work through why I find some art works so stimulating, so thought-provoking.  They fill my mind with questions, they make me look again, physically or mentally.

Words are things

This is the title to a catalogue of an exhibition of her work in Warsaw in 2008.  I don’t know if Kelly chose this title or not, but it caught my eye as it is so central to her work, especially in Multi-Story House, where we are in the collective presence of other feminists through their words.  Words that you can see through, into the interior of the house, carved material symbols that take us on a journey into ourselves and into other selves.

In her conversation with McCloskey, Mary Kelly talked about the re-staging of a street theatre event, originally enacted in 1971, and she referred to the pleasure she remembered of being in the company of women acting together as feminists, a pleasure that re-occurred between the women involved in the re-staging in this century – the pleasure of a ‘collective presence‘.  This kind of pleasure describes well how I felt as I read the stories, and walked round and peered into her Multi-Story House.  I identified with the dialogue on the panels, and a felt a sense of belonging with these speakers from around the world, all actively embracing and re-affirming an identity that means so much to me too.

56_MaryKelly_Mea Culpa_Detail_Johannesburg_2

Mary Kelly: Mea Culpa 1997 from marykellyartist.com

Reference

Paula McCloskey, in conversation with Mary Kelly, Studies in the Maternal, 4(1), 2012, http://www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk

Missing my creative self

P: but then I did hit a point where I had to carry on, carry on with something

K: it was like a real need?

P: yes, definitely, absolutely and having dreams about drawings.  It became a really strong thing.  It’s like a different part of yourself sort of shouting out for some attention.

from Wikiart.com

Paul Klee, ‘Evening shows’, Wikiart.com

The  extract above comes from an interview I did with an artist when researching into creativity and the words we use to talk about it.  Here P is referring to when she became a mother of twins and had no time for her art for a few years (see the page on my book ‘Sourcing the Self’ for more about this research).

I have been thinking about P’s words as I have currently been having to give most of main daily energy to work that gives me a basic income.  At certain times of the year these commitments don’t leave me enough space in the day to continue with my own creative work – in my case, writing. In these periods  I don’t dream about writing, as P did about drawing.  In fact, I’m more likely to dream about my work when I am engaged in daily writing, as I find myself living in the world I am creating through words.

Joyce Kozloff 'voyages 21 Pohnpei' 2004 at wikiart.com

Joyce Kozloff ‘voyages 21 Pohnpei’ 2004 at wikiart.com

I don’t experience such a clear inner voice as P either.  For me it’s more of an indistinct ‘malaise’,  more as if something – not quite tangible – is missing.  Life feels incomplete. During periods where I am working creatively every day I feel much more in balance, and I’m more likely to have an underlying feeling of contentment or something like ‘rightness’, even though I will often be struggling with the writing, and frequently frustrated with my lack of ability to find the right words or to keep going at a steady pace (instead of staring out of the window).

When I don’t have enough time in a week to work creatively then I often question the ‘meaningfulness’ of my life and have many doubts about the value of it, even though I don’t have any illusions that any creative writing of mine will be seen to be of any value to anyone else.  But at least I’m giving it a go, and, more importantly, I get absorbed in it and my experience of time changes dramatically.

Do you have similar experiences, I wonder?

J.Audubon 'Birds of America'

J.Audubon ‘Birds of America’

In praise of trees

Eaves wood, Lancs.

Eaves Wood, Lancashire

‘The Chinese count wood as the fifth element, and Jung considered trees as an archetype. Nothing can compete with these larger-than–life organisms for signalling the changes in the natural world. (…) Trees have a capacity to rise to the heavens and to connect us to the sky, to endure, to renew, to bear fruit, and to burn and warm us through the winter.’
Roger Deakin, ‘Wildwood’.

I can’t imagine living without trees.  As a child I used to climb them, and feel safe among the green leaves, hidden from view and supported by their strong limbs.  As an adult I walk in local woods and make trips to visit venerable and ancient trees.

Martindale yew, Cumbria

Martindale yew, Cumbria

This is one huge branch of the ancient yew tree at Martindale, in the Lake District, reaching out to support itself.    The stone chapel you can see in the photo was built in the twelfth century to accompany it and together they have co-existed in this small Cumbrian valley down the centuries.

This yew could be up to 2000 years old, like at least one of the three remaining standing of Wordsworth’s ‘Fraternal Four’ in Borrowdale, which I also had the privilege to visit.  I was lucky enough to be alone with them for a few hours one Christmas day, probably because it was pouring with rain.  The muscled, reddish-brown trunks glistened with raindrops as the wind blew curtains of rain through the valley.  Hard it was to take in the length of time they had spent in this place, shaped it.  Beneath the wind and rain, in the shelter of these huge yews, there was a hush, a serenity, that these old beings emanated.  I felt that Wordsworth might step out of the mist and into this grove, notebook in hand, as he did a mere one and a half centuries earlier.

Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain) said of the fir trees of the Cairngorms:

‘the fragrance is the sap, is the very life itself. When the aromatic savour of the pine goes searching into the deepest recesses of my lungs, I know it is life that is entering.’

On that wild winter day in Borrowdale I felt that I was touching, and breathing in, not life, but the essence of time itself.

autumn woods

autumn woods

Walking through woods is a sensual experience, whatever the season.

Kicking up piles of crisp, golden leaves, hopping over knotted roots, listening to the woodpecker’s energetic drilling, breathing in the heady scent of bluebells or wild garlic, Middlewood walk May 2015 002tiptoeing past the tree hollow with its nest of shy owlets, sitting on a fallen log listening to the intense summer hum of insects, 2007_0922septemberB070034glimpsing a fox with a glorious brush tail pause as it sees you and the dogs then silently slip away,  resting in the cool green shade on a hot day, rejoicing in the shapely, frosted outlines of bare trees shimmering in the low winter sun.

Here is Nan Shepherd again, on the magic of birch woods:

‘Exquisite when the opening leaves just fleck them with points of green flame, or the thinning leaves turn them to a golden lace, (birch trees) are loveliest of all when naked. In a low sun, the spun silk floss of their twigs seems to be created out of light. Without transfiguration, they are seen to be purple – when the sap is rising, a purple so glowing that I have caught sight of a birchwood on a hillside and for one incredulous moment thought the heather was in bloom.’  (The Living Mountain).

Woods in the daytime and at dusk, woods in winter, spring, summer and autumn – Midsummer Night’s Dream, Under the Greenwood Tree, Wind in the Willows, Teddybears’ picnic….. but what about woods when darkness falls, when Hansel and Gretel are lost, the owls call and mysterious shapes loom in the shadows?

fir wood in Dumfries and Galloway

fir wood in Dumfries and Galloway

When the light goes, and the trees become an undifferentitiated dark mass then all the sounds in a wood become more noticeable, and the imagination gears up.  Where our eyes could see the crows on the low branches, now we only hear the rustle of bush and leaf.  Where we could see the path stretching out empty, now who knows what may be ahead or behind us?  Our imagination – or at least, my imagination – has been fed by all those old fairy tales I read as a child.  Tales that go way back into the past when stories were told, not written, and we all lived surrounded by large dark forests, where you really could get lost, meet strangers, face danger.

2014-04-22 15 05 23As Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes when discussing the tale of the handless maiden, these forests were often the very places where the protagonists had to face their fears and discover their individual psyche or self (Women who run with the wolves):

This large wild forest that the maiden finds is the archetypal sacred initiatory ground.  It is like Leuce, the wild forest the ancient Greeks said grew in the underworld, filled with the sacred and ancestral trees and full of beasts, both wild and human.

It is also in the middle of forests that you need to go to seek out the Baba Yaga, the wild woman who knows about both life and death, learn the powers of intuition, as part of your journey towards maturation.

Spending time in the much smaller woods we have around us today, working to protect them, getting a little lost in the process of getting to know them in all their seasons, is one way to get to know yourself, as well as the trees that create the enchantment of these special places.  Clarissa Pinkola Estes urges us to go out into the woods;

If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.’  (Clarissa Pinkola Estes)

crab apples

crab apples

Frack off! So demonstrating is not dead?

photographed by Mary Hamilton

Anti-fracking demonstration, Preston 23/6/15

On Tuesday 23 June I found myself back on the streets, holding a placard and shouting anti-fracking slogans to the passing cars.  All this in Preston, UK, as Lancashire County Council deliberated over proposals from Cuadrilla to start fracking in two sites in the county.  Voicing my opinion in public, in the company of like-minded others, has been, for me, a normal activity, having gone to university in 1968, one of the key years of rebellion and sit-ins that flowed across the channel from Paris.  Collective demonstrations and marches were part of what it meant to be a university student for many of us – protesting against the apartheid system, nuclear weapons, wars.

These recent anti-fracking demonstrations have contributed to positive results so far, thankfully.   In Preston the County Council finally rejected both proposals for fracking licenses.  (This will not be the end of the fight though as the current government is threatening to overirde these crucial, local decisions).  I’m sure all the petitions and expert submissions to the consultation were the main cause of this happy outcome in Lancashire, but a street presence was important too, with

Anti-fracking demonstration, Preston 23/6/15

Mr Frackhead, a huge puppet bellowing out his greed for the fossil fuels under the ground, hot polar bears and Lancashire ladies in rollers tucked under headscarves, brandishing their feather dusters.

Anti-fracking demonstration, Preston 23/6/15

The demonstration was noisy but humorous and considerate to other users of the street and I felt instantly at home when I joined in.  There were not, though, the few thousands of people I had hoped to be there for a national demonstration.  Has demonstrating become a minority activity in England these days?  Where were all the students?

I wonder if the long-term lack of success of big street demonstrations has reduced the numbers joining in these collective actions here in the England?

My own view on the value of demonstrating had certainly become less positive by the end of the last century.  So much so that I was very reluctant to join in the series of anti-Iraq invasion marches when Blair was prime minister.   ‘What was the point?’ I asked myself.  However, when the farce about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction grew more and more ridiculous I, like millions of others around the world, got up at the crack of the UK dawn on February 15th 2003,and sat on a coach as it headed down the M6 to the capital.  I remember the rising excitement as we spotted coach after coach on the motorway, all heading the same way, with banners and placards at the windows.  There was certainly no disappointment about numbers that day as we joined the huge snaking tail of the march, and danced behind the bands and chatted with fellow marchers, my cynical coat tossed into the gutter.

Anti-Iraq War march, 15/2/03 by Simon Rutherford - http://www.flickr.com/photos/simonru/1667562002/

Anti-Iraq War march, 15/2/03
by Simon Rutherford – http://www.flickr.com/photos/simonru/1667562002/

I felt privileged to be part of the huge diversity of the protestors, reflecting the larger population – people of all ages and colours ; people proclaiming their differing faiths, families with young children, local communities and organsiations.  Here is a short extract from my journal that I wrote the next day:

Near Picadilly a man and a woman stood at the side of the road with handwritten placards- one of which said, “I am Iraqi and I give thanks on behalf of my people.”  We saluted them – a moving moment – the two of them were brave and proud and humble all at the same time.

There was a feeling of coming together, across different identities, lives and beliefs – a very tenuous and fragile union of different peoples – but present none the less.

I was so glad I had shrugged off my layer of cynicism and became a part of that very special day.  It showed me, once again, that my passions and values were also the passions and values of a large and diverse section of the country I am a citizen of.  Yet Blair, like Thatcher before him (I’m thinking of the miners’ strikes), refused to be swayed from his rigid perspective by these millions of people marching in his own city, and across the world.  As Patrick Barkham wrote in the Guardian on the tenth anniversary of this march, this failure led to mass disillusion about British democracy (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/15/iraq-war-mass-protest) .  It could, I think, be argued that the continuing decline in voting numbers for general elections, and the increasing distrust of politicians has been fuelled by Blair’s refusal to take account of this huge anti-war protest.  Its immediate failure certainly cemented my own disillusionment about the power of the mass demonstration.  We still have nuclear weapons in the UK and we are still trying to safeguard the planet.

Like many other women I had also been part of two of the larger rallies at Greenham Common, demonstrating against the presence of American Cruise missiles in this country.  On those days I experienced the power of solidarity with other women, and the courage born from it.

Now that was a successful collective action, eventually, thanks to the dedicated team of women who gave up their daily lives, and sometimes their freedom, for the time it took to free England from these weapons of mass destruction.  This success only came out of dedication, perseverance and committment though.  It required much more from those who achieved it than the odd day of getting up early and joining together with a mass of others sharing the same values.  More recent collective actions such as Occupy have learnt this need for committment to a more enduring identity of protest.

Is there a future for the shorter, mass gathering on the streets (or in threatened green spaces) with other citizens in this country?  Our TV and computer screens show that this is a form of action very much alive in other countries where goverment decisions are seen to have a more immediate impact on their lives.

Barkham argues that the huge anti-Iraq war led to disillusion, but that it also shaped the future lives of many of those who took part in the protest and led to new forms of protest.  He interviewed some of the younger people who joined that march, including a volunteer steward, Shamiul Joarder.  He quotes Joarder as saying, “You can’t go to one protest and think that things are going to change for ever. You can’t email your MP once. We have to engage in a long-term process,”.  Greenham Common showed this too. To create change takes more than a day on the streets with a placard.

Street protests may not bring about immediate change but I think they still have a place within the array of political and

Anti-fracking demonstration, Preston 23/6/15

social activities.  My recent short stint on the streets of Preston has helped me to trample on my heavy coat of cynicism.  These gatherings are important to build solidarity with likeminded others, to renew our energies and proclaim those values that are so important to us.  I shall be back!

Photographs of the Preston demonstration were taken by Mary Hamilton.