I could have been Mr. Universe.

I was a skinny kid. You wouldn’t believe it if you saw me today. But I was  real skinny, a proper seven stone weakling. I was forever getting sand kicked in my face. Even in kindergarten, in the sand pit, the other kids would kick sand in my face. And when we lived in Blackpool, well you can guess what happened on the beach. It was the same at Southend on Sea, and Skegness. We lived in Libya for a bit, it was painful in Libya.

Got to the stage I avoided sand, avoided going to the beach. It was too traumatic. Reckon I was suffering from Post Traumatic Sand in the Face Disorder.

When I was about 13 or 14, I saw this advertisement, probably on the back page of one of my comics, or maybe in the Reader’s Digest, but wherever, it seemed to me to be the answer to all my traumas. I clipped the coupon and sent off for the Charles Atlas bodybuilding course. Many a youth did the same, thousands in fact. . Me and Arnold Schwarzenegger for example, who was about the same age as me, and probably clipped the same coupon in the same comic, although, to be fair, he probably took it a bit more seriously than did I.

But the course cost something like Twelve guineas and I didn’t have 12 guineas. I was as weak in the pocket as I was in the body. Of course, these advertisements played upon and exploited all the inadequacies and lack of confidence so common amongst teenage boys, and they knew that somehow such teenagers would find the money, without telling their parents, and take up the offer. So it was that after some diligent saving which included searching for and gathering empty bottles and collecting the 3d refunds thereon, I raised the money. Only by that time it had gone up to 15 guineas.

Charles Atlas claimed that he himself had been a “scrawny weakling” before he discovered the secret of “dynamic tension” and “isotonic exercise”. I never fully understood dynamic tension. Or isotonic exercise. It involved putting your muscles under some stress, pretending to push a wall down, for example, or lifting a stick with pretend weights on it. In fact, I was pretty good at lifting a stick with pretend weights on it. Was a bit disappointed I did not quite develop a Mr. Universe physique by lifting such a stick. I ought to have checked with Arnold Schwarzenegger to see what kind so sticks he was using.

The course was supposed to last about 30 days and there was a money back guarantee. I suspect the guarantee was a bit of a scam. The course did not work for me. I was still getting and kicked in my face after 28 days and I reckon that if I had asked for my money back I would have been told to “Piss off!  year weakling punk, ask for yer money again and I’ll come round and kick sand in your face” Consumer protection laws were not very strong in those days. Yeah, it was probably a scam.

There were other entrepreneurs exploiting teenage boys feelings of angst and dread, their unfocused fears of their inadequacies and the state of the world in general. I clipped a coupon, in the superman comic I think, to stop my hair receding prematurely. And there was a book coupon I clipped for a book on “How to Develop a Super Power Memory” Only thing I can remember about it is that I left it on a train. Can’t even remember where the train was going too. And when I was in the army, training as a recruit, I sent away for a book on “How to win Friends and Influence people”. Someone in my barrack room stole it from me. I know who it was. It was easy to tell. He became the most popular bloke in the regiment.

They all had money back guarantees. All a scam.

I kept up the dynamic tension isotonic exercises for most of my life. The sticks with pretend weights might have become shopping bags that I pretend are quite heavy, but I still try, now and then. And it still hasn’t worked. True I am no longer a seven-stone weakling. More like a 15-stone lazy old git. Had sand kicked in my face in Torremolinos last year. I wonder if that guarantee is still valid?   “Dear Mr Atlas, kindly return my postal order as I am still getting sand kicked in my face”

Traffic Warden Hancock and the Union

jk3Traffic wardens can be rather grumpy sods.  It’s a job that attracts the grumpy.   In the early days, and it probably still is the case, they were employed by Police Authorities.   Which is almost certainly why they adopted the blue military style uniform.    Being grumpy sods they often had more grievances than the norm.   And therefore, for trade unions, they were fairly easy to recruit and to unionise.   Trade unions also attract the grumpy sods of the world.  they also, of course, attract committed labour activists, good socialists and defenders of the working class.  Like me.  But there are quite a lot of grumpy sods in the unions as well.  The employers of the traffic wardens, usually local Chief Constables, were not quite used to dealing with uniformed grumpy trade unionists making grumpy demands.  Relationships were therefore often quite fractious.

Traffic warden Hancock was the very essence of the grumpy uniformed officer that we all think of whenever we think of traffic wardens.  Which, thankfully, is not too often.   His patch was West Bridgford in Nottinghamshire and it ran from the city side of Trent Bridge across to the Nott’s County Cricket ground and out into the suburbs of well-heeled well-to-do West Bridgford.    He was a legend out there.   Tall, in his mid ‘50’s, probably about 15 stone, carried his weight well.  Ex-military I think for he had slashed the peak of his traffic warden cap so that it looked like that of a Sgt major in one of the regiments of guards, rather than like, for example the cap of a friendly bus conductor.   He wore fierce looking steel rimmed glasses and he had, this is the absolute truth, a small black toothbrush mustache.   It couldn’t possibly be a coincidence, nor an accident or a fashion statement, that he chose such a mustache.   West Bridgford motorists, or at least some of them, would wind down their windows, stick out their arms and salute him as they drove past.  I may have done it myself. At least once.  He had the most fearsome reputation and you just did not overstay your parking limit in West Bridgford.   You just didn’t do it.

I first engaged with him in rather strange circumstances.  It was nothing to do with the union.  I was at the time, a police photographer and would drive around the county in a blue ford van loaded with photographic equipment, visiting various scenes of crime.  Van had a blue light on top for we often had to get to road traffic accidents in a bit of a rush.    I was driving back to the Central Police Station in Nottingham, from a job in West Bridgford, body in the Trent as I recall.    Driving over Trent Bridge I saw, on the other side of the bridge, coming from the city, a mini car with the bonnet open and smoke pouring from the engine with the occasional lick of flame.  There was a woman in some distress taking stuff out of the car.  Now Police vehicles are quite rightly fitted with fire extinguishers, so I stooped the van on Trent Bridge and leapt out with the extinguisher and ran across and fired the contents into the engine.  There was no doubt I prevented it from developing into fully fledged ball of flame.   Oh I know I’m a hero, but let that, for the moment, pass.   As I stood on the pavement reassuring the distressed female up strolled, hands behind his back, traffic warden Hancock.

 

“Is that your van over there, you can’t park there you know?”

I explained to him that I was a hero (I may have blushed)  and had just put out this fire, that this lady was in distress and that it was an emergency.

“Trent Bridge is a no stopping zone sir, you will have to move that van, you can’t leave it there you know”

I looked him more carefully.  “ I’m a fucking hero you pratt, can’t you fucking see, this fucking engine is still fucking smoking you fucking pratt”  I did not blush.

“No need for that sir, I must ask you to move the van or I shall have to issue a ticket”

“You fucking what?”  I said.  And I considered hitting him with the now empty fire extinguisher.

I didn’t of course.  I left the scene muttering oaths and shaking my head in disbelief.   I had to fill in a form when I got back to explain why I had discharged the fire extinguisher and wrote on it that I nearly got a ticket from traffic warden number, well I can’t remember his number now, but I put in the form.  But nothing happened.

Trent Bridge looking towards the City. The red X marks the spot where the mini was burning.

Trent Bridge looking towards the City. The red X marks the spot where the mini was burning.

I have to admit that I dined out on the story for many years in many a Nottingham pub.   And it might have got a bit enhanced along the way, but it was true.

Many years later.  I mean very many years later, I had moved on form police photography, been to Ruskin College in Oxford and was now a full time trade union organiser for the National Union of Public Employees.    Nottinghamshire was my patch.  If you were low paid and in the public-sector, you were probably being organised by my office.   I loved it!

 

So one morning, I am in my stately offices at Sherwood Rise, busy organising away, when there is a knock on my door and who is it but traffic warden Hancock, who it turns out, was a member of NUPE.    He had been sacked from the traffic warden service and turned now to his Union for help.   He had handled the internal procedures himself, to disastrous effect, and now wanted us to represent him at an Employment Appeals Tribunal.

 

I did not tell him that we had met before!    I thought it discreet not to.  And anyway, if we did well for him at the Tribunal it would assist us in stealing more traffic warden members from our arch rivals who also recruited wardens, the National and Local Government Officers Association.   We were not of course supposed to poach each other’s members,   it was against TUC policy.    But the completion for grumpy traffic warden’s subscriptions was pretty intense.

There must have been great celebrations in the public houses of West Bridgford at the news that traffic warden Hancock had been sacked.   And I would  not have been at all surprised to hear that the Chief Constable had broken out the champagne.      The story was, as he told to me, that he was watching, “observing” was the word he used, a motor car parked in a disabled parking space, complete with disabled parking badge,  waiting for the driver to return to check if he was really disabled.   Upon observing said driver he noted in his book that said driver did not appear to be disabled.   He approached said driver and it was alleged by said driver that he said something to the said driver along the lines,

“You’re not a cripple sir, you can’t park here”

It turned out the said driver had a genuine disability and was highly offended. He and the local disability action group complained traffic warden Hancock to the Chief Constable who duly, and rather hastily, sacked him for gross misconduct.

 

The Employment Appeals Tribunal met in the Birbeck House building on Burton Street, and traffic warden Hancock’s case ran over three days with a lengthy adjournment after day one.  Traffic Warden Hancock wished me to press upon the tribunal that he was a very diligent and efficient traffic warden, that he had sixteen years of unblemished service behind him with a level of productivity in issuing tickets that was un-matched by any of his colleagues.   He told me he had records of every ticket he had ever issued since his first day of employment as a traffic warden and he produced a great box, in fact two boxes, full of black notebooks recording in his neat uniform handwriting, all such tickets;   time; date; car registration; type of vehicle; place parked, limitation period: excess period.   If any of his tickets had been challenged then there was a note about it in red.    The notebooks had a healthy scattering of red entries recording that nearly all such challenges were not upheld.

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My advice to him was that the notebooks should not be entered into evidence as they might be misunderstood and possibly not be very helpful to his case.   But traffic warden Hancock was quite insistent and so, upon his instructions, I advised the tribunal, at the end of the first day, that traffic warden Hancock had, in his time as a traffic warden issued, well I can’t now remember the full number, it was tens of thousands of tickets, and that he wished to put into evidence on the next day of hearing, his notebooks confirming this figure, as evidence of his diligence, efficiency, high productivity and his unblemished record as a traffic warden.

By the time the case came on for the second day of the hearing, some two weeks later, word of his diligent proficiency and his notebook record and his intention to put them into evidence had spread far and wide.   No news editor worth their salt could resist such a story and when we re- entered Birbeck House there was a sizable scrum of news reporters, photographers and TV film cameramen.     We held a brief and impromptu press briefing on the interior staircase of Birbeck House, the main question was a cacophony of “how many tickets?”     I counselled traffic warden Hancock, who was now glorying in his fame, just to say “quite a lot”, but they pressed him, charmed him, encouraged him –  and he couldn’t resist giving them the full number, possibly, for my memory is not too clear, it was 60,000.     They loved him!  They loved his little black mustache!  And there were lots of photographs taken with traffic warden Hancock looking stern through his little mustache holding a small stack of black notebooks and with the light of grievance in his eyes.

I did in fact persuade him that this was not all good and he should re-visit his decision to put the notebooks into evidence.    He somewhat reluctantly agreed.   Given my previous encounter with him on Trent Bridge then I would have enjoyed as much as any motorist, a public humiliation of an over zealous traffic warden.  But in the end he was a union member and I knew where my duty lay.   So the notebooks never went in.

To my astonishment, and to the astonishment of almost everyone in Nottingham, we won the tribunal.  They found the dismissal unfair and  directed he should be re-engaged.   Only person not astonished was Traffic warden Hancock. He absolutely believed, from the very beginning, that he had been treated unfairly and that justice would be done.

There must have been utter despair in the offices of the Chief Constable, they probably broke out the anti-depressants; and in the public houses of West Bridgford there would have been copious weeping into beer.    But it would be tempered by the interpretation of what re-engaged meant.    There was no way in hell that the Chief Constable was going to re-engage him as a traffic warden.  No way in hell.    After long and difficult negotiations during which the representatives of the Chief Constable were showing clear early symptoms of PTSD, they offered him re-deployment, on protected wages, as a boiler man, up at the new police headquarters in Sherwood Forest, which he reluctantly accepted.   If I had any sympathy, and I did not have much, then it would be for the boilers.

And that was it really.   He disappeared into the bowels of the police headquarters, shoveling coal.    I moved on, left the union and became a barrister here in Dublin.   Many years later, I mean many years later, I returned to Nottingham with a friend, a very senior person in the Irish legal profession, for a five day break, to watch England play Australia in a test match at Trent Bridge.    We didn’t have tickets but due to my nefarious contacts from the old days we managed to be made members of the Nott’s County Cricket Club which entitled us to free admission and the use of the member’s pavilion and its rather fine restaurants and bars.

Armed with our newly minted membership cards we approached the reserved entrance for the members only pavilion.   On the door, wearing a long white coat, checking the membership cards with officious scrutiny, was a tall, well-built, familiar looking man with a little grey mustache. Traffic warden Hancock.  He took my card.

“How long have you been a member sir?”

The correct answer was about half an hour. But he did a double take at the name and looked up

“Mr. McGuiggan!   How nice to see you, how the fuck did you get this”

“Hello John” I said “enjoying your retirement?”

“Oh, its good to see you” he said, giving me back my card, “enjoy the cricket”

We walked into the opulent comforts of the member’s pavilion and my friend asked if I knew that chap.

To my surprise, for it had been a banal enough conversation with Traffic Warden Hancock, I found myself rather moved and feeling quite emotional.

“He used to be the man round here for tickets” I said

“For the cricket?”

“Get me a glass of glass of champagne” I said, “and I’ll tell you all about it”

 

 

 

 

The little sods from the !st Monchen Gladbach Scout Troop

scouts-threeIt must have been the summer of 1961. Certainly before the Beatles. The music that year was all Dean Martin and the Drifters, or itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini.* And I recall being in love with a girl in the 4th form at Queens’s school in Rheindalen, Carol, and constantly singing a song to her called “Oh Carol”.** And there was Elvis of course. Anyway, I was in the boy scouts then. Moved on I had from the cubs, left behind all that Akela and dib dib, dib, dob, dob, dob stuff. Cubs had sixers in charge. I had been a sixer when a cub. Born to command I was. Now, in that summer of ’61, I had graduated to the scouts and I was quickly made a Patrol leader. Sometimes I even wore long trousers.

They would meet once a week, Wednesday evening, in St. Georges School in Monchen Gladbach. It was set within the perimeter of Ayrshire barracks,  a huge British military vehicle depot with acres and acres and acres of military Lorries and armoured vehicles and jeeps, motorcycles and trucks of all sorts and sizes, all kept in a high state of readiness for a possible soviet invasion. The school building was possibly the oldest building left in post war Monchen Gladbachscouts-school. It had a chapel at the very top where we would go for Mass on a Sunday, presided over by an elderly Dutch Priest shipped in from Venlo. He had very little English and conducted the Mass in Latin with a Dutch accent. It was an endurance test those masses. No joy, no reflection. Nothing. The school was on the next two floors below. Headmaster was a Mr. Denton. He would laugh a lot, always telling stories and encouraging the children to do the same, he delighted in their company, believed in them. He was perhaps more important a teacher than all those that followed in the fractured educational experience that came the way of service children. He had a gorgeous daughter, Valerie, with whom all the boys were in love. The scouts and cubs met in the basement which was a vast beautifully vaulted space of columns and arches.

We would be taken there in army Volkswagen cars or vans of which the authorities had an inexhaustible store of, and would go out their way to provide them for service families. They were driven by ex-Wehrmacht German soldiers. They still wore they field grey or was it green uniforms and caps. Without, of course the SS flashes or Iron crosses or indeed any insignia or badges at all. They looked rather scruffy and forlorn. Defeated. The Volkswagens would tour the estates of married quarter’s and pick up the children of the service families, convey them to scouts and take them back home afterwards.
We wore a badge on our left shoulder, or perhaps our breast pocket.scouts-badge The same regional badge as the regular army. A Saxon war- axe, which we were told, was modeled on a real axe found by archaeologists when the British Army was building its headquarters up the road in Rheindalen.

Perhaps supervision was a bit of a problem. We found in the vast vaulted basement a large stock of red paint. It was, I think, for painting fire engines. We painted all the vaulted ceilings, the arches and columns in bright red. Even the floor. And possibly a boy scout or two. We were very proud of our extensive work and achievement and reasonably expected to get a painting & decorating “proficiency” badge to wear with our uniforms. Merit badges the Americans call them. But things didn’t quite work out. I was demoted from Patrol leader, busted to simple rank and file boy scout. A rather bitter blow, from which, to be honest, I have never quite gotten over. Thereafter we met in an old Nissan hut and never again graced St. George’s School.

Each summer, and sometimes at Easter, we would go camping. Oh what fun! We camped once at a seaside resort in Holland. We made quite an impression and If there had been a merit badge for shoplifting we would all surely have got it. And we camped up in Paderborn in the mountains. But the place I remember best of all was the forests and hills above the Royal Air Force base at Bruggen near the Dutch boarder.
The tents were of rough green canvas. Six person tents, or in those days, six man tents. scouts-tentsBut you could get eight boy scouts in a six man tent. They would be sited in neat rows and between the rows there were two or three campfires which were kept burning all day and night and upon which we cooked sausages. Lots of sausages. And beans. Lots of beans. And occasionally a fried egg ala twigs. They were set in a valley, the tents, and up at the top of the valley was a wooden hut, about two kilometers away, which served as a tuck shop. One or two afternoons a week a volunteer from the RAF Bruggen scout troop would open the hut to sell confectionery to visiting scout troops, who came to camp from all over the British Army of the Rhine area.

The hut was in truth,  a very tempting target. And we boys, with more merit badges than common sense, highly trained in field craft and rather partial to confectionery decided to raid the tuck shop hut and liberate some of the sweets therein. It was done with military precision. Lookouts posted at strategic positions to warn of any approaching adults. The warning was to be an owl hooting. Terwit terwoo, terwit terwoo. (bird impersonation/merit badge) We had swag sacks to carry away the loot, in reality the sacks that the tent pegs and mallets were stored. There was a signalling system set up with torches. (Morse code/merit badge) The simple lock on the door was prised open with a wood cutters axe. (woodcutting/merit badge)  And suddenly, we were surrounded by all kinds of boxes of sweets.

The sweets and confectionery were divided on a strict basis of equality. Packets of spangles and refreshers, liquorice pipes, scouts-pipessweet cigarettes, Pontefract cakes, Chewits, scouts-cakesImperial mints, wine gums and pastilles,scouts-spangles-2 all religiously distributed regardless of rank age and I suppose, although it didn’t quite figure in our then underdeveloped minds, sexual orientation, there was no merit badge for sexual orientation, although had there been a badge for the philosophy of equality we would all have surely qualified. I might mention the crisps. Two boxes of packets of crisps held in the hut were found, upon being tested, to be not fit for purpose. The crispiness had gone out of them and the little blue bags of salt were a bit damp. Crisp packet technology was not very advanced in those days. We left the crisps behind.

It was late in the afternoon the next day that the RAF Bruggen volunteer tuck shop man was observed approaching the hut (observer/merit badge). He was seen in an agitated condition and shortly afterwards left, only to return sometime later with a landrover following his vehicle in which there were three RAF military policemen. Snowdrops they were called. Now it wasn’t of course the crime of the century and it didn’t need a Sherlock Homes of the Snowdrops to work out who had committed the offence. A wooden hut in the middle of nowhere. Nobody around for a twenty-mile radius except for the green tents of the 1st Monchen Gladbach scout encampment, some two kilometers down the valley. Towards the late afternoon the three snowdrops and the tuck shop hut man began to walk down the valley towards the tents.
We had an early warning system in place with camouflaged observers watching their advance. (camouflage/merit badge) The wooded valley, rather suddenly, filled with the hoots of owls as a mild panic set in amongst the hardy boy-scouts as they desperately attempted to destroy all possible evidence. One of the campfires suddenly burst into fiery life as various packets of sweets were fed to its flames. Some tried to scoff the evidence. I tried, in fact I succeeded, in scoffing a whole box of Pontefract cakes, an act I was later to regret on the primitive latrines of the forested campsite. I recall another of the patrol leaders with a mouth full of sweet cigarettes. By the time the snowdrops special investigation team reached the tents they found a sizable group of scouts gathered around a suspiciously blazing campfire vigorously singing “Ging gang goolle goolie whatcha” with  a rather over the top exaggerated emphasis on the chorus “Shally wally, shally wally, shally wally, shally wally,Oompah, oompah, oompah.” ***
But it was to no avail, they were not impressed. The snowdrops found abundant evidence of the looting. Scouts had pockets full of chewits and spangles wrappers. There were liquorice pipes hidden under pillows and one of our swag bags stuffed with fruit and nu bars and milky ways, tied with a reef knot and a woggle was discovered hoisted half way up a tree. (knot tying/merit badge)
For some reason the German police were not called in. Perhaps because it was Ministry of Defence Property, or was it War Department in those days? Was there a jurisdictional problem, or did they just want to cover it up and avoid all the embarrassment of misbehaving British boy scouts. There was certainly consequences. Reparations had to be made. We had all been told to bring to the camp at least 15 shillings’ pocket money. We scouts-5-bobhad to hand it all over, any shortfall being made up from scout troop scout-10-shillingfunds. And in fairness, they recovered a fair amount of the loot.
Our parents were informed and several scouts, including myself were expelled from the troop and were never again to be allowed to participate in scouting activities. But there were no prosecutions, no arrests, just the eternal shame of it all.   I regret it. Of course I do. I have never again, in all the years since that summer of ’61, never again, sat by a campfire, beneath the stars, the smell of wood-smoke drifting upwards to the open skies, mixed with the odor of burnt sausages, and the scout master strumming his guitar, sitting in the companionship of the best friends you will ever have and singing late and softly into the night, the immortal words of Lord Baden Powell:   Ging,gang,goolie, goolie, whtcha, ging,gang,goo, ging gang goo. ging gang goolie, goolie, goolie watcha, ging, gang goo…… 

Note:  They don’t write lyrics like that anymore::  http://bit.ly/18TKrlJ

Upon being exhibited by Bueys

Joesph Bueys, ex Messerschmidt pilot turned rather Loony professor of Art and acclaimed conceptual/performance artist, collected leftist radicals as bees collect pollen. He thrived on their fresh blood, wanted to display them, encourage them to be creative, give them a platform, develop them, and turn them into honey to feed the left wing communist creative world to which he aspired. He founded the International Free University which became a magnet for activist artists, vegetarians, anarchists and socialists. He collected me. And my colleague. Recruited us from the then Ruskin College International Trade Union Studies Group. He had heard, upon the socialist grapevine, that we were attempting to educate and agitate British shop stewards about the evils of multi-national capitalism. Honey to the struggle thought he, and invited us to perform our multi-media presentation, with him, at the 1977 Kassel Documenta

We were not artists. Not even vegetarians. Nor could we be considered to be appreciative of Art. The only picture I had on the walls of my terraced home in Nottingham was that of the green Chinese lady that I had rescued from a skip when my neighbors did a runner. My colleague was a factory worker, made cars for Ford in Dagenham. I was an ex-soldier. We were both were students at Ruskin in Oxford, mature students, left wing students, studying Marx, Labour history, economics, supporting strikes, making trouble. Activism, not art was our agenda. We knew not and cared not who the hell was Bueys. Nor what on earth was the Kassel Documenta. And the International Free University was unheard of in the British trade union circles that we were then  absorbed in.  But the offer from a strange German of a freebie trip to Germany? We became artists overnight!

In Kassel Bueys had a sizable corner of the main city gallery, the Museum Fridericianum, given over to a work-space for the Free International University, wherein he would give lectures and display his collection of radicals. We were not alone. He had collected an eccentric group of such radicals. He had a pair of artists from New York who had flown under all the New York bridges with either coloured smoke or ribbons, can’t quite remember now. There was a British film maker with a tourist type film of San Francisco which he had mutilated with punched holes, added a psychedelic sound track and possibly edited whilst high on LSD, well that’s what it looked like. It was quite good fun, there was German and Dutch radicals too but I simply do not know what their contribution to the struggle was.

Bueys believed creativity was capital. He would give lectures on socialism and economics and creativity, drawing formulas and diagrams onto a blackboard. At the end of each lecture he would sell the blackboards by way of auction, for quite enormous, astonishing sums of money. After that, one of his collected radicals would give their presentation. It was all very splendid. Very creative. We became exhibits.

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The Kassel Documenta work space with honey pump tubing

Bueys was first and foremost an internationally renowned Artist and sculptor. His major artistic contribution to Kassel Documenta was a honey pump consisting of thick transparent tubing strung around the work space and connected to powerful  pumping machines which would pump honey through the tubing around the work area creating a sense of peace and serenity and helping the process of creativity. Unfortunately it tended to attract a unpleasant number of flies and wasps which rather detracted from the serenity of the work area.

 

 

The rest of the Documenta exhibition was eye popping for us naive British trade unionists turned temporary exhibits or even perhaps temporary artists. Next door was a presentation consisting of two 16 mm projectors side by side, each showing a woman having an epileptic fit. The film was on a loop so just kept going all day showing the two poor women strapped into wooden chairs having violent fits. It was silent. Not a sound. We found it offensive and bought a couple of pairs of good German insulated pliers and regularly cut the cables of the projectors. The German curators simply repaired the cables and the show went on. Cut; repair; cut repair. We were intent on striking a blow for the dignity of the women. They were creating art. It was, in its way a performance. We could probably have got a grant for it.

There was a darkened room with regularly placed slabs of slate, set out in the shape of the seats of a railway carriage. It was designed to represent the sealed carriage in which Lenin traveled from Zurich to Moscow in 1917. As students of Marx we spent some time in the darkened room trying to think of why we were there.

Elsewhere was an Englishman who had buried himself deep in the ground in a box and was living there throughout the exhibition. And in the central square another artist group had rigged up a drilling machine and were drilling a hole one kilometer deep into the center of Kassel. You could buy small tubes of soil from the different depths they had reached. Unemployed Germans got a discount.

Bueys was financing the Free University and his collection of radicals by selling the blackboards for mind boggling sums. He also sold a poem that he had written about food. It was on a long scroll of grey paper, signed at the bottom by Bueys and smeared with his trademark animal fat, and then embossed with the Free University stamp. The animal fat was interesting and represented, according to the philosophy of Bueys, the period in the Second World War when his Messerschmidt was shot down on the Eastern Front and local people saved him by smearing him in fat and wrapping him in felt. Thereafter animal fat became his signature and appeared in every work of art he ever produced. We were perhaps fortunate they had not smeared him with manure.

We enjoyed the most wonderful long lunches, al fresco, in the late summer sunshine, not too much meat, lots of German wine and an odd, left-wing collection of creative radicals. For a while there, during that long German summer, we were exhibits!

Blood on the Streets by Paul O’Brien – a review

Nottingham has been sending fighting troops to Ireland for over 800 years. There is a reference in the 1363 Rolls of Edward III calling upon the Sheriff of Nottingham to ” select 40 of the best and bravest of Archers in Notts and Derby, to assemble at Liverpool, furnished with bow, arrows and other arms, to go to Ireland at the Kings wages for the defence of that land”

But by far the most significant, and the most tragic visit of Nottinghamshire soldiery to Ireland occurred at Eastger 1916 at the time of the Rising when Irish revolutionaries struck for Irish Freedom and the Sherwood Foresters were rushed from their English training depots, to crush rebellion.

Over 300 casualties were inflicted upon the Foresters, by less than 20 Irish rebels. No other regiment has ever suffered greater losses in Ireland. The Englishmen who fell were predominately from Nottingham and from Newark, but their fight and their losses have been mostly forgotten in the long and difficult history of the British in Ireland, swept quietly under the sandbags of the Western Front where the horrendous casualty lists were bloody enough to drown out any embarrassment as to what happened in Ireland.

Paul O’Brien’s new book tells their story shot by shot as they lived and died in Dublin. They were supposed to be marching to Trinity College but came across a carefully prepared rebel position on the banks of Dublin’s Royal Canal, just half a mile from their objective. There they were slaughtered in the leafy tree lined suburb with the roadway and canal bank wet with Nottinghamshire blood. The Rebel Commander was none other than Eamon Devalera, a future President of a Free Ireland. He had placed his twenty or so men with great military skill and care as is evidenced by the casualty lists that followed. The men who marched upon him, Nottinghamshire lads of a terribly tender age, were unskilled soldiers most of whom had not yet completed their military training. Incredibly many had not yet fired their weapons on a range, let alone in anger at an enemy, yet here they marched, the very teeth of the British Empire, onto the rebel guns onto their place in Irish History, onto their destiny.

They are named here; at last, they are named, there are even photographs so you can look into the eyes of these no longer anonymous men. There is the Nottingham Barrister, the son of a Country Farmer, the Sunday School Teacher from Newark, the lads from the factories and mines and fields, schoolboys really. They had volunteered to fight in France these boys, not Ireland. They were prepared, as all the men of the Great War were, to die for their country in Flanders, but not, for Gods sake! Not in Ireland. The barrister, Dietrishen, was even married to a Dublin girl, he’d sent her, with their infant children, back to Dublin to escape Zeppelin raids on Nottingham. His dear dear wife and his dear dear children, to their eternal joy, saw him, cheered him, waved wildly to him as he marched into Dublin at the head of his beloved Robin Hoods. He was the first to die.

This is a graphic and moving story which looks at the battle as much as from the British perspective as from the Irish. Indeed I don’t think there is another Irish book that has ever given so much time to the men of an English Regiment as does this. It treats them with respect, occasionally affection, always as soldiers. It is their testament and if you value the memories of local men, if you wish to know the English history of your town, your people, your nation, your responsibility for what happened and happens in Ireland, then you must read it.

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Picasso and Modern British Art at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

60 outstanding Picasso’s gathered from around the galleries of the world and chosen to show the influence of Picasso upon Modern British Art and Artists. Placed between, amongst and about the Picasso’s are the works of those he so influenced. Henry Moore and Picasso; David Hockney and Picasso; Francis Bacon and Picasso; Wyndham Lewis and Picasso and so on. The exhibition establishes Picasso’s enormous influence on leading British Modernists. It is astonishing this has not been put together before now and it was a real privilege to see it during the festival. It runs until the 4th November 2012.

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Peploe Exhibition in St. Andrews

A day trip north to St. Andrews. A lot of Americans in strange costume carrying clubs.
Unknown to me in advance, and by great good fortune there is an Exhibition of the work of Samuel John Peploe running at the St. Andrews municipal museum. One of my all-time favourite artists, Peploe was the leading Scottish colourist. He is massively underrated and should be up there with Cezanne, Chardin and Manet, but is hardly known outside of Scotland.

The curator has gathered together about 16 or 20 of his works, all of them owned by Fife Council and usually on display at their Kirkcaldy art gallery. It is a small exhibition but quite exquisite. It takes you from his very early days when his palette could only be described as dark and dingy, to the very height of his later achievements in glorious colour and light. You can trace his development and influences, particularly from the French impressionists and as you walk the room the paintings get deeper, more intense in their colour and flooding with light, until towards the end of his career he begins to ever so slightly mute the colour intensity.

It was a real treat to stumble across this. And fair play to Fife Council. I don’t know too many English Councils with such splendid art collections.

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