Eva Sajovic’s “Be-Longing: Travellers’ Stories, Travellers’ Lives” opens Thursday #sajovic #travellers

Photo by Eva SajovicTen days ago I blogged about the exciting upcoming exhibition from Eva Sajovic, the Slovenian photographer who has worked extensively with Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, including Traveller families from Basildon, for the past two years.

The exhibition opens on Thursday (4 February) and runs until Saturday 20 March. Throughout both months there are various events associated with her exhibition:

Sat 13th Feb 2010
Workshop with Romany artist Delaine Le Bas
Weds 17th Feb 2010
Seminar exploring the role of photography and other artistic media in challenging stereotypes and prejudice.
Tues 9th March 2010
Seminar:  The Future of Travelling Communities
Thurs 18th March 2010
Film Screening of Romano Hip Hop by R Point
Sat 20th March 2010
1-5pm Gallery Open & Closing Event with music

Spaces at these events are limited so please contact the Brixton arts space 198 to reserve yours: info@198.org.uk

For more details please read the full text of her press release.

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“The Woodsman”: When being free is still not cheap enough #basildon #woodsman

I’ve spent some time reflecting on Cllr Tony Ball’s statement that he made regarding “Progression” (see my earlier post “Progression” and “The Woodsman”: A Tale of Two Sculptures):

“We are not against the art – but the cash should be from private sponsorship.”

I realised I didn’t know anything regarding the financial provenance of “The Woodsman” and whether or not Basildon Council had commissioned it, assisted with transportation costs, paid for its installation etc. I decided to email Vin Harrop, heritage director of Our Basildon, and ask that question. His response was fascinating:

“Dave Chapple on behalf of the then Basildon Arts and Design Initiative (BADI)  gifted the finished work to the people of Basildon.  It took him 5 months to complete, working for nothing from June 1995. He was 63 years old at the time and wanted to work on that scale before he got too old. Dave spent three days a week and never missed a day, each day he was surrounded by scores of people inquisitive to know what he was doing, if he had cut down the tree and how much it was costing. Dave always replied “not one penny”.  People were visiting Dave on a regular basis offering gifts in particular food, so you can see he built up quite a rapport with all those using St Martin’s Square. This is why we use the term ‘People’s Artist’, for he was a man of the people (born in Vange) who created his art for the people of Basildon.

Basildon Council gave permission to install scaffolding in front of the Basildon Centre and covered the hire of a lorry to transport the fallen tree from Langdon Hills, and Dave’s public liability- about £300 in total. The scaffolding was provided as part of a sponsorship deal- other funds were sought but they (BADI) were unsuccessful.”

So here we have it. Unlike “Progression”, which was paid for from public funds, “The Woodsman” cost nothing except the £300 for transport and liability insurance. I have since been told that BADI may have actually raised that £300 also.

It would seem that even when a work is sponsored from private funds, the Conservative administration is not interested in maintaining “the art”. I don’t know if that makes Cllr Ball “against the art” – it does, however, leave a bad taste in the mouth to see the landmark carving of a local artist mouldering on its side in Wat Tyler (I understand it now has a tarpaulin over it).

“Hardcore Carvers” are a group of independent artists and entertainers who specialise in making large wooden carvings (often with chainsaws). They treat their external oak sculptures yearly with teak oil.

B&Q’s cheapest teak oil is currently £5.16 a litre.

The Sporting Village is costing £38 million.

It makes you think about the balance of priorities.

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Bird songs and calls – a lucky buy

Popping in to town with Emma yesterday, we dipped into The Works for the last day of their sale. There I found a copy of Geoff Sample’s Garden Bird Songs and Calls. I have always wanted to be able to identify bird song properly. This book is accompanied by a CD and, ripped to my MP3 player, the morning and evening  commutes should become a more relaxing – and more educational – experience!

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“Men of the Hills”: Reflections on a Winter’s morning walk and the frosted beauty of Langdon Hills

Ever since my childhood, there has been an association between walking around Langdon Hills and Saturdays.

Autumn walks particularly are fixed in the memory, the family – not just parents and siblings – slipping into boots and pulling on coats and setting out into Coombe Woods an hour or so before dusk  (Coombe Woods is known to many as “The Bluebell Woods” for its stunning spring carpet of bluebells as far as the eye can see). Five youngsters with over-active imaginations would pass through the gate into the tunnel of trees that lead from Dry Street deep into  a darkly magical woodland kingdom that could only harbour wraiths, twisted goblins and other spectres between the creeping shadows and tendrils of mist.

We would march determinedly past the ponds, past “The Woodpecker Tree”, to the edge of “The Valley”. There, catching our breath, we would gaze out towards the pines that that comprise “The Creepy Copse”, standing tall in silent sentry over the winding path – far below them and us – that leads to “The Ski Slope” (what was then a broad and open slope, lined on each side with pines and with a glorious ancient oak at its summit). “The Woodpecker Tree” has long since fallen, but for years it stood as an object of wonder, its bark-less, limb-less trunk giving it an almost prehistoric appearance. It got its name from the holes that punctuated its upper reaches. Whether or not woodpeckers ever dwelt there I’ve no idea.

If we were feeling brave we would run down the valley into the trees, follow the path through its twists and turns, past “The Sandy Hill” (site of numerous stick battles and rope-swing disasters and not to be confused with “The Sandy Hills” of Westley Heights) before clambering up to “The Ski Slope” where we would follow the upper path towards the old cricket ground at the top of Dry Street. En route we would gather chestnuts from the piles of leaves to roast on the fire before heading back down Dry Street. The smell of creosote on the handrail of the newly-created ranger path was a welcome return to the safety of civilisation. The wraiths and goblins slunk back into the darkness, watching our descent under the comforting yellow glow of the street lights from from their lairs amongst the shadowy twist of brambles.

Reaching home and back indoors, fingers clasped around mugs of tea would ache with that satisfying gnaw of heat on bone. The fire would be lit and stoked to a blaze before chestnuts were roasted in the embers and crumpets toasted on an ancient fork and then buttered and piled high on an old plate, itself precariously balanced on a low brass stand by the kindling. Cousins – who despite their gender were all “Men of the Hills” – would plan their next adventure before settling back, bellies full and imaginations fired, to play and draw and, when we could get away with it, watch The Dukes of Hazzard.

Times change, of course, and “The Men of the Hills” are reunited for their walks less often, though I like to think that we all retain similarly fond memories of those childhood woodland adventures.

Saturday walks for me are now more usually taken in the early morning.

Yesterday, having not enjoyed such an excursion for quite a while, I decided to get up at 6am (something of a feat as I had only gone to bed at 3am!) and head out into the hills. Porridge and tea delayed my start, but at about 6.40am I set out from Gernons, wellington boots on and staff in hand and Radio 4’s Farming Today on my headphones. I walked across Eastley green and used the cut-through (that really must become an all-weather path – it is used by so many), heading down the college entrance road to Nethermayne. As I walked past St Luke’s Hospice and Basildon Hospital, the clouds above the estuary were a spectacular and angry inky swirl against a dark steel blue sky that only lightened towards the horizon.

Despite the day and the hour, traffic was already heavy and it was a relief to turn into Dry Street, the reassuring forms of Dry Street Farm – where so much growing up was done – quickly coming into view. From Dry Street I headed up past Dry Street Memorial Church towards One Tree Hill.

The view from One Tree Hill across the Thames to Kent and then up the river to London is one of the most spectacular I know. We too often take these places for granted, but such open and sweeping vistas are rare and, when the air is clear and the sky light, the views are inhibited only by the quality of your eye-sight. From One Tree Hill I headed through Northlands Woods, before picking up the bridleway through to Hall Woods. Here, switching off the Today Programme to listen to the morning chorus, I could hear a woodpecker drilling and I felt a thrill to be outside in such beauty, the sun now throwing a low and soft golden light on the frosted fields that I could see through the trees.

Walking the unmade roads past the settlements and farm buildings, I headed into Coombe Woods, past “The Ski Slope” and “The Creepy Copse” and stopping at the head of the valley – “The Valley” – to admire a beautiful sunrise on a now cloudless January Saturday morning. Finally, I headed down to Dry Street and the familiar outline of “Hillcroft”, detouring briefly around Northlands Approach and Coombe Drive so that I could enjoy the garden on my way to Mum and Dad’s back door.

As I opened the door I realised I had seen no-one at all until Coombe Woods, where I met a ranger making his way past the ponds, picking litter.

I am going to make the effort to walk this more often through the year, enjoying the very different ways it feels, looks, sounds and smells as season slips to season.

Even at 37 I realise that there are still adventures to be had for the “Men of the Hills” in their old hunting grounds – have your own and see what an incredible place we live in.

Below are the pictures I took as I walked.

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Eco-catastrophe, Apocalypse, a matricidal teen prophet and psycho-babble galore: a rapturous read

It’s rare for me these days to be gripped so completely by a book that I can’t put it down.  I’ve just finished Liz Jensen’s The Rapture.

It is simply, chillingly brilliant.

Set in the near future, Jensen draws you right inside the head of her main protagonist, Gabrielle Fox, carefully weaving the breathy pace of a thriller with the considered reflections of a psychological drama. She baffled this layman convincingly with her climate science and caused me to reflect on my faith in this age of disaster chaos and economic uncertainty. More importantly, she eschews the typically shallow exploration of character that you find in most thrillers and instead delves deep into the psyche of each of her main characters.

To exquisite effect she toys with your recollection of recent events, mixing up recent landmark events, imprinted by a thousand television reports, with fictional facsimiles. It is a confident trick for a first novel and one that has you wondering if you’ve managed to miss a significant news story at some point that really should have fixed itself in the memory. To sustain the intense descriptions of oppressive weather, constrained phsyical circumstance and the unhinged lunacy of Fox’s teen patient until the last pages is a real achievement.

If you are ready for some brutal characterisation, a different sort of heroine, some occasionally lurid story-telling and are confident enough in your faith – if you have any – to read a convincing and ferocious challenge to its presumptions, then I commend this as a very exciting read.

If you don’t mind a spoiler or two, there are some worthwhile reviews in The Guardian (Irvine Welsh), The Telegraph (Helen Brown) and The Independent (Marianne Brace).

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So… Should Basildon be a Borough?

Over on basildonFOCUS, my colleagues and I have launched a survey regarding the forthcoming discussion at Council on Borough status (Wed 24 February 2010). If you live in Basildon and want your views to be heard, please take a few moments to click the relevant buttons.

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Yet another good reason (or five!) why not to get an iPhone #iphone #n900

So buying a phone really shouldn’t be a political exercise, should it?

The fact is, though, that the iPhone is the epitome of the corporatisation of our social networks, looking to control and mould the way we interact rather than giving us a tool to empower us creatively. You’ll probably read this as just another anti-iPhone rant from the Nokia-owning geek, but the Free Software Foundation provide some pretty compelling reasons for thinking twice about chaining yourself to the Apple cart (and WTH do I have to pay more for a crappier contract if I want an iPhone, eh O2?):

You can do what you like with an iPhone – as long as Steve Jobs wants you to do it. The FSF captures the sentiment perfectly:

“The iPhone is an attack on very old and fundamental values — the value of people having control over their stuff rather than their stuff having control over them, the right to freely communicate and share with others, and the importance of privacy.”

Contrast that with Nokia and its approach to the N900:

“The N900 is the most powerful device Nokia has ever created, and it’s built with Maemo software – which is completely open source.

What’s great about this is that it means the N900 can be taken apart and rebuilt, or modded into something entirely new – capable of doing things no device has ever done before.

But things like what? Well, that’s exactly what we asked teams of hackers all around the world. In response, we got hundreds of inspiring dreams and visions.

Now we’re down to 5 teams whose visions are becoming a reality. And this site will follow them every step of the way. ”

Basically, Nokia take the most powerful phone-tablet-thingy they’ve ever designed and, instead of having a precious hissy fit at the thought there might be people out there cleverer than they are, say “Here you go world… play with it!”

Visit MAEMO.org and you will find something quite unique – users, developers and corporate reps all on the same boards, talking about what applications they want and need and some volunteering to do the coding – and finding ways to make this little technological marvel do the most incredible things.

As someone who admires the ingenuity and creativity of individuals – and wishes he could code for toffee – there is no contest.

Besides, I remember the video. And I’d not be seen dead in an Escort:

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Lest we forget: Holocaust Memorial Day 2010 – The Legacy of Hope

It was more made more striking by its ordinariness: a standard-issue Council desk with a signing book and cheap pen placed neatly in the middle and little yellow booklets strewn about. The foyer of the BasCentre bustled, but the space around the table was poignantly empty. Sitting at the desk, words failed me and I was unsure what to write. Everything seemed trite – a sentiment that couldn’t reflect the sheer horror of the Holocaust, sanitised as it is through the combined filters of years and internet technology and information overload.

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day. Visiting the site I discovered that I was the 34,127th person to light a virtual candle and become part of the Legacy of Hope. Each year, Holocaust Memorial Day (known this year as HMD2010”) identifies and develops a particular theme:

Holocaust survivors have played an immense role in bringing our attention to the lessons of the Holocaust. They speak of pain and loss, of strength and survival, of despair and their wish for a Legacy of Hope. They encourage us to look within and without, to be sure of our moral compass, to be certain of our choices and to use our voice, whenever we can, to speak out. They have translated difficult experiences to create a future that is free from the dangers of exclusion and persecution. They have passed a message of resilience and hope to the next generation.

Our responsibility is to remember those who were persecuted and murdered, because their lives were wasted. Our challenge is to make the experience and words of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides a meaningful part of our future. The aspirations of those who have suffered from the effects of the Holocaust and of genocide around the world, should inform our lives today. Their words can make us think about our own attitudes, our behaviour, our choices, the way we vote, the way we interact with one another, the way we respect and celebrate the differences between us and the way in which we build a safer future together. It is their example that can inspire us to greater action. We need to ask ourselves what we should be doing today to build a safer, stronger society so that the risk of the building blocks of genocide ever being laid is removed.

As humanitarian activist Hugo Slim says of the voices that speak out of tragedy to our shared sense of humanity: “We need to listen, for a change.”

Remembering is a responsibility on all of us.

It is too easy in this age of instant tragedy, when an earthquake or tsunami can be broadcast into our living room, to forget the sheer brutality we are capable of inflicting on each other as human beings. I saw the legacy of that insane cruelty in my recent work in Sierra Leone. According to the UNDP, Sierra Leone is the third poorest country in the world. I saw single, double, triple and quadruple amputees attempting to rebuild and live their lives alongside those who had perpetrated their agonies upon them in a vicious civil war.

The Holocaust is the ultimate manifestation of that evil that drives man to brutalise man.

To be honest, I struggle to get my head around the figures involved. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi killing camp, murdering approximately 1,100,000 men, women and children. In total, 6,000,000 Jews were murdered (almost two out of every three Jews in Europe), alongside 200,000 Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) and almost 250,000 mentally or physically disabled people. Tens of thousands of gay men and women, Jehovah’s Witnesses, intellectuals and political opponents were also murdered. They are the sort of stratospheric figures that become meaningless – and in that meaninglessness lies incredible danger.

Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us that genocide is not a thing of the past:

Genocide is with us today. It is another inconvenient truth that, in its hopeless enormity and our helpless inadequacy, we push uncomfortably from our minds.

In Nuremberg, in  Bavaria, the city closest to the village where I spent my first few years growing up, part of the monstrous unfinished remains of the Nazi Party’s Congress Hall (Kongresskalle) has been transformed into a museum of brutal truth: the The Documentation Center Nazi Party Rallying Grounds (Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände). I have visited it three times and it has never failed to move me to tears. It tells the story of the rise of Adolph Hitler and the  Third Reich, the Holocaust, liberation and the Nuremberg trials. It does not flinch in admitting the culpability of the German nation in the Holocaust. It is a harrowing experience – but one that begins to make a dent in the inconceivability of such horror. Importantly, the centre serves as a reminder of the hatred and evil that was spawned in ordinary men and women on that very site.

It demonstrates, in terrifyingly precise detail, the truth in that phrase coined by Hannah Arendt: “The banality of evil”. (Her premise was, essentially, that it is ordinary people -not monsters – who are responsible for the greatest acts of evil in history. They accept what they are told by the state and so participate in even extreme acts because it is normal to do so.)

“First they came…” may be a poem that has become mired in controversy over its origins. However, whether they are the words of the Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller or not, they contain a simple and uncomfortable truth about our preparedness to speak out in circumstances of right and wrong that we should all reflect upon. Read them again and think about them – not with the eyes of knowing, ironic commentators who might claim these words are the refuge of the lazy and clichéd, but as if you’re seeing them for the first time:

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out.”

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The politics of connection: basildonFOCUS #libdems #basildon

My politics, my family’s politics and my party’s politics are about empowering people to take control of their own lives, in communities that we hope can be vibrant and and nurture diversity, ambition and a sense of collective responsibility towards a sustainable future. It can all start to sound very grand. The reality is, though, that taking control starts with very simple and mundane things that politicians – even local ones – start to overlook as their grand designs grow.

Joining the dots between people, the lives they live, their surroundings and the politicians who run the local council is what basildonFOCUS is about. Inspired by Rochford’s onlineFOCUS (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so the cliché goes!), basildonFOCUS is our latest attempt to make it easier for people to raise issues that, if tackled, would make a real change to their immediate area. At the same time, it is our way of trying to keep those who voted for us informed.

The web is often cited as the solution to people’s information needs. It is not. It is part of it. For those who don’t have access, it is irrelevant. For those who have access but little experience or understanding, some supposedly helpful sites are so bloated and confusing that they are more hindrance than help.

Our intention is to keep basildonFOCUS clean-looking, informative and easy to use.

And for those who are interested, click on the excerpt of the preamble to the Liberal Democrat’s constitution to get a sense for the instinctive and inclusive beliefs that underpin the party’s philosophy.

Your comments are welcome.

“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”

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