Sunday, 13 July 2014

◉ ◉ a week when a critical debate is to take place in the House of Lords on Assisted Dying, it's heartening to hear Desmond Tutu speak out in favour of serious debate on this, the most important of subjects. The debate takes place on Friday and you can find out more, by clicking here.  

For those of you who missed last weeks blog, Rebecca and I have been thrilled with the positive responses to the new International Evidence Base that interrogates the Long-Term Health Benefits of Participating in the Arts. Thank you.

APPG update...
I know some people are curious about the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing (APPG), so I thought I’d just give you a flavour of the session that took place on Wednesday 2nd July. A full set of formal notes from the meeting will be HERE very soon, but these are my informal notes.

The APPG was really quite something, chaired beautifully as ever by Lord Howarth of Newport and with guest speakers Sir Robert Francis QC, (author of the Francis Report) Dr Elen Storm (paediatric trainee and award-winning poet), Head of Arts Strategy at Guys and St Thomas’ charity, Nikki Crane and her collaborator Dr Suzy Wilson, Artistic Director of Clod Ensemble. The framework for the session was The Care Act and the question: How the arts and culture can contribute to the quality of care following the Francis Inquiry? 

It was refreshing and inspiring to hear Robert Francis wistfully and with a smile, reflect that he wished that he had included an arts recommendation in his report. In truth, amongst other things, he used the group to share a personal account of his own mothers admission to hospital via a 7 hour wait in casualty and his provocative question - was EastEnders on a pay-for TV set, really the best cultural offer we can give people staying in our hospitals?

Describing hospitals as ‘bleak places’ he reminded us that it is poetry that communicates the reality of disease, citing poet Clare Best’s lyrical description of a breast cancer mastectomy, which had moved him in ways beyond any functional description of the procedure. He emphasised ‘the healing properties of the arts’ and described the arts as having ‘an important part to play in health and care.’ Perhaps some of his more potent reflections were on health care staff who start their careers with good intention and vision but who ‘have it crushed out of them.’ He suggested very persuasively that he believed that ‘the arts can address this.’

Questions and comments from the floor that particularly resonated with me, included Professor Chris Fowler from Health Education England. who questioned the that the evidence could ever be completely definitive, but describing the work needing to be a social movement. Former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham astutely pointed out that this work is about the ‘social process rather than a scientific process and the evidence can lead to a culture change in the NHS.’ 

It would be very easy to ask, is this just another talking shop? Well, I'm one of the most cynical, but what I see and hear, are passionate and committed people, who aren't chasing votes, but actively pursuing a vision for greater health and wellbeing - and critically - who see creativity, the arts and culture - as a powerful force for change. The full minutes will shortly be available from a dedicated webpage alongside the other material already available here. My personal thanks to Alex Coulter for her brilliant organisation.

I've had the pleasure of speaking at two public health conferences over the last couple of weeks and have been blown-away by the response of people in the field. It genuinely feels like we are at an important moment in this Arts and Public Health Movement. I have been particularly impressed by Valerie A. Little the Director of Public Health for Dudley's annual report, which in fact, is an Arts and Health report par exellence. Brilliant work Creative Health too! Click on the image above to see just what I mean.

Opened in the Holden Gallery on Friday evening. My thanks to Dr Steven Gartside and Zoe Watson for their excellent vision, curation, and planning. Whilst the Will Self event is sold out, I am keeping a waiting list, so click on his name to join it. If you have booked tickets, but can’t make it, I’d appreciate it if you would also click on his name and cancel your place.

Whilst at last years collaborative MORTALITY exhibition, I contributed an essay to the catalogue, to this year exhibition, I offer a tidbit below as my small contribution to this Urban Psychosis agenda. No offence is intended - well maybe just a little...

Ive been obsessing over a few images recently, both of which somehow remind me of my childhood. One is a photograph by John Davies of the cooling towers of the long-gone Agecroft Power Station in Salford; the others are the aggregated urban fantasies of my hometowns latter-day Fauvist, Chas Jacobs. Its a cloying nostalgia from which Im suffering, in which these works provoke a little melancholia and just a touch of impotent rage. It doesn’t matter if you dont know these works; I'll explain my thinking.

In the late 1970s, I came into my own, initiating a retreat from the shadows of some familial dysfunction by starting to paint. Id observed my mother doing something similar as part of her own escape into increasingly complex painting-by-numbers kits. This was considered high art by the family, and my own experiments in copying portraits of pop stars from the NME were considered a bit pretentious by comparison. Only my early emulation of the erotic fantasy world of Frank Frazzetta generated some interest from the men of the house. In truth, this kind of copying was lazy and uninspired. Eventually, art school beat it out of me, and I settled down into a flat and bland style, something akin to Patrick Caulfields colour-blind, half-witted acolyte. Although I didn’t quite realise at the time, I was really quite talentless. 

Over this same period of long hot summers and first kisses, I was increasingly aware of the slow decline of my home town, Morecambe. Its once grand promenade was witnessing the up-market Littlewoods transformation into a down-beat Hitchens, which, in turn, congealed into an anonymous discount furniture warehouse. Busy high streets have slowly emptied, their cinemas and swimming-pools closed. Tourists dwindled and, with the building of two nuclear power stations, a different kind of economy emerged, based on transient labour. Many were the hours that my brother spent with the navvies who set up camps on the building sites around our school, his appetite for drink nurtured at an early age.

Much of my distorted memory from this period is moderated by television, with its three-channel output burnt into my memory the bleached out technology-obsessed utopia pitched at us through the lens of free-marketeers. How beautiful Spaghetti Junction looked alongside well-oiled industry when mediated by a smooth-tasting Cadburys aesthetic, Jimmy Saville promises, Diddy Men, Dirty Old Men and Bernie the Bolt. 

Like others who grew up in this era, I was peddled fast-moving and high-rise glamour plumes of smoke from chimneys and curling around seductive mouths. Ive found that aesthetic hard to shift, and have incrementally become drawn to the beauty of the discreet urban invasion of giant pylons, carrying the necessary electricity to televisions, computers and mobile phones alike. Like a latter-day Marinetti, I am continually enticed by our beautiful scarson the landscape.

Is it unthinkable to love the belching plumes of sulphurous smoke that somehow enhance swaying cornfields? Does this mean Im divorced from any neo-romantic aesthetic? The most thrilling part of a journey across England this week was the emergence of the eight water-cooling towers of Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station. In the early morning sun, these sentinels thrilled me to the core. Give me the Kalgoorlie Super Pit over any divinely created Arizonan land gash. Intelligent design? No. Imagined and created by human minds and hands. Quite thrilling.

Actually, there must be poets lying in brown-belt factory discharge, waxing lyrical about our augmented, liminal no-mans land. Werent Bernd and Hilla Becher doing something of that through their meticulous documentation of our industrial landscapes? Its natural then, that Im drawn to this sumptuous photograph of Agecroft Power Station taken by John Davies in 1982. 

As public art seems to balloon in size, we appear to be hell-bent on destroying these functional industrial giants. Yet, at the same time, the NIMBYs assert/defend their rights to a manicured or rustic Arcadia those smug, self-centered guardians of our green and pleasant land, who rally the troops to protect their myopic individualism and who bleat the loudest when the tides rise and they cant get the power on, hysterical when the phone signal goes and desperate for high-speed access to stocks and shares. So artists are drafted in to redesign electricity pylons to blend inwith the countryside or look beautiful, and those nasty radio-transmitting masts can be dressed up as trees, to disguise their function. Hoorah. Youre deceiving yourselves. Not in My Back Yard? YES, in MY Back Yard. 

I dream of the largest wind turbine being erected in my meagre back yard, its fat base bolted into Victorian tiles and its constantly moving shadow blocking out the light, like some great sundial, counting my days, soothing me to sleep. I can but dream.


A Chas Jacobs design on a chip shop plastic bag, found in the gutter outside my home and which was the spur to write this doggerel
I recently had the pleasure of sitting with my fellow, pallid patients in the waiting rooms of my GPs surgery and local hospital, and it was with great horror that, in both these settings, I was subjected to the psychological battery of some dim-witted middle managers idea of an ill-conceived son et lumière  on repeat! The local radio station, 96.9 The Bay, droned on through my extended wait in the doctors, whilst daytime TV was the dish of the day in the hospital. Force fed sound local adverts, inane chatter and the music Ive studiously avoided all my life. But it was the walls of the rooms that drove me to despair, peppered with nastily framed monstrosities that are the feverish delusion of local artist, Chas Jacobs. (no link your own google search) Imagine, if you will, some bilious flattened-out, artless rendition of purgatory, dressed up with figments of your own home town a fifth-hand rendition of an opiate addicts directions from one tourist hell-hole to the next. If I was the talentless mimicker of Caulfield, this is surely L.S. Lowrys simpering, punch-drunk offspring. If an arts and health researcher had taken bloods, saliva, heart rate etc, they would have found my mind and body grievously assaulted by this deficit of imagination, in its bargain-bucket approach to aesthetics. Unnecessary harm was inflicted on me by our dear NHS. 

Those who create delusional romantic pot-boilers from the rubbish-strewn streets of faded seaside ghettos are oblivious of a deeper aesthetic. Let the dwarf mountains of Morecambe Bay, still bathed in Chernobyl's wind-swept phosphorescence, hold onto that temporary setting sun. Lets imagine that Friday night booze-spewed tsunami engulfing it all. Chrome Yellow, Soylent Green, Purple Haze, Blue Velvet, Lady in Red, Lady Di dead (and dancing with some trumped-up hanger-on). Street loads of dying flowers to someone you never knew and despite all the caressing of HIV hands, she probably never really gave a damn about you and your 9 to-5 life. Pigs are eating pigs, cows are eating cows and were crying as we eat the horses, knee-deep in our own shit. Please Chas, this is the vision of dear Albion that needs your rendition.

My High Street is less the idiosyncratic idyl of Eric Ravilious, and anyhow, it has been replaced by the cloying stench of hand madecosmetics, spewing out insidious pseudo-organic toxins from the open doorways of air-conditioned soap and candle shops. How I miss the sickly-sweet stench of my own childhood and the weekly rendering of animal parts at the poetically named Nightingale Hall Farm. 

The countryside can, indeed, be enhanced by a carefully positioned smelting unit. Derek Jarmans little shack is only what it is because it hitches a ride on the shadow of Dungenesss advanced gas-cooled nuclear reactor. No potted plants can detract from the beauty of this, the ultimate provider of all our consumer needs.

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