Oh to be standing on the shore, staring out at the sea, dreaming of far off lands, somewhere over the horizon.
White privilege is the societal privilege that benefits white people over non-white people…
These include cultural affirmations of one’s own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play and speak freely. Wikipedia 2020*
What follows are some of the thoughts I have had over the past forty-eight hours:
The Earth is being observed from a distant galaxy.
The Observers are interested in observing a life form that imagines itself to be the dominant species on Earth – Mankind.
They observe a male with a toothbrush moustache at a rally in Nuremberg in the 1933.
They observe an African American male on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963.
They observe a male in a white suit standing on a stage on the Isle of Wight in 1969 in front of 600,000 people including somebody who looks a lot like the 16 year old me.
They observe a male who used to be called Anthony Wedgewood Benn addressing the members at a Labour Party Conference in Blackpool in 1980.
They observe a male campaigning for presidency of the United States of America at a rally in Texas in 2016.
They observe that the individuals of this species, are drawn to gathering in crowds. Crowds of thousands, listening to and hero worshipping a male on a platform before them. They observe that it does not really matter what that male is saying, as long as it makes the crowd feel good about themselves. In exchange the crowd gives the object of their focus power and status.
This is the only life form that the Observer has ever witnessed behaving in this way. And the Observer does not know why this life form chooses to behave in this way.
In July 1858, John Hanning Speke discovered what he claimed to be the source of the River Nile.
In January 1912, Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole seven weeks too late and then died on his return journey.
In May 1953, Edmund Hillary may have been the first man to climb Mount Everest.
We can now think of these three as white western males driven by their vanities to prove something that was hardly worth proving. But in their time they were celebrated by millions of other white western males (and females) across the British Empire.
In light of the three examples I have given above.
And the thousands of refugees willing to risk their lives and everything else they have or have not got, to cross the English Channel.
And the several million carbon footprints I have left in my trail.
And as a white Western male born into the British Empire, I have to question the motivations that drive The 25 Paintings twelve year world tour.
I take a break from thinking these thoughts to look out of the window. I pick up my iPhone 7 and re-click on the White Privilege page at Wikipedia, I scroll down, there is a quote from a Peggy McIntosh, it reads:
“White privilege is an invisible weightless knapsack of assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”
Aside from the American spelling of the word cheques, these are exactly the items that I pack in my weightless knapsack for each leg of The 25 Paintings world tour.
Am I just a remnant from a bygone era? Me thinking I can strut around the globe, pissing in whatever pot I fancy. Just like those three examples above and the many hundreds of thousands of others that never achieved their fame or infamy, but did their bit in propping up the British Empire in its far-flung corners. At the same time as destroying or appropriating whatever ‘primitive’ cultures lay before them.
Maybe it has been these last few months of the global pandemic and the resulting lockdown, plus me having to confront my own diminishing physical and mental health, that have forced me to consider the above question. As in me being a remnant from a bygone era.
In early May, I was sitting on the sofa watching a TV news story about BANKSY having secretly donated a painting to a hospital in Southampton. According to the report, it was a thank you to the NHS. To me, sitting on the sofa, it seemed weak and patronising – a middlebrow action pandering to the editors of the programme I was watching. This was not what we wanted from our BANKSY. I wanted to throw the TV out of the window, but I didn’t have it in me to get up off the sofa.
Then on the 7th of June, when sitting on the same sofa, I watched the TV news footage of the statue of Edward Colston being toppled in Bristol and dumped in the dock. And I thought – “How could any art compete with that?” This was the real deal. This was activism supplanting art. And not art posing as activism.
When Echo & The Bunnymen were playing the Colston Hall in Bristol, back in the early 80s, we had no idea who or what Edward Colston was, we just wanted to know if we had sold the place out. And if we did know who he was, I don’t think it would have made any difference. I mean, a couple of hundred years ago weren’t many of our cities built on the slave trade or the East India Company or the like? I mean it wasn’t our job to feel guilty or address what our forefathers had done back in history. I don’t blame my German friends for what their grandfathers did to the Jews.
Back in 2018, The 25 Paintings twelve year world tour took me to be working in Lexington, North Carolina. While there, I was surprised to see a statue of a Confederate soldier acting as a war memorial in the centre of the town. It was there to commemorate the local young men who “took a rebel stand” and died in the American Civil War. They were fighting, amongst other things, for their right to keep the local black population in slavery. I was surprised that nobody, over the past one hundred years, had pulled this statue down. Hadn’t the civil rights movement sorted all this sort of stuff out? But I did know one thing, I knew it was not my job to do that pulling down.
What is my job?
What is your job?
Then just after 6am on the 15th of July I heard a breaking news story on my bedside radio. It was about a statue of a young black female protester that had been secretly placed on the plinth where the toppled statue of Edward Colston had stood. And as the story broke further, I learned that this young black female protester had stood there herself giving the black power salute just after Colston had been toppled. This was brilliant. Inspiring. This was activism as art. And it worked. I celebrated by getting up and putting the kettle on.
But then it came out that this whole thing – as in the statute of the young black female protester – had been masterminded by Marc Quinn. Marc Quinn being one of the major movers and shakers in the Brit Art crowd back in the mid 1990s. This somewhat undermined it for me. Was this merely art posing as activism.?
But there was another voice in my head going “But Bill, it was obviously going to take a person with confidence and the where-with-all to make an action like this happen. And that should not undermine the message.”
But it was not until that evening while sitting on the sofa again, watching the news with my partner Ronita – Ronita being a woman of colour sees things differently to me – that I got a real sense of it being just another worthless statement of white privilege. It was Ronita’s reaction at seeing this statue of a young black woman having been done by another middle aged, middle class white male with an international art reputation, with art works in private collections and public galleries around the globe, that it really sank in. And the fact that he was there on the Ten O’clock News being interviewed made it even worse. He might have been thinking he was doing it for all the right reasons, but in reality, if you take a few steps back you see his action for what it is – white saviour complex to the max. White privilege writ large. Whatever Marc Quinn thinks or says does not change that.
And does not change the fact that I would have done the same as him if I could only have got up off of that sofa. And does not change my motivations behind The 25 Paintings twelve year world tour. A tour being done off the back of white privilege, however I might want to dress it up, and tell whoever might be listening that I am sidestepping the art world of private collectors and public galleries. I mean you have seen the film Best Before Death, right?
All of this, what Marc Quinn did, what I’m doing on The 25 Paintings twelve year world tour, is all as pompous as being the first white man to claim to have discovered the source of the Nile, or getting to South Pole, or maybe the first to climb Everest.
Am I aspiring to be whatever the equivalent of a 21st century statue on a plinth? A statue that should be toppled before it has even been erected.
Earlier this week, I got an email from the Deputy Director of Museums in Liverpool. He was reminding me how I had done one of my posters back in 2007, the year before Liverpool became European City of Culture. At the time I had printed forty of them. The majority I had fly posted around the city. But a few I kept back and folded them into large paper boats. These I then set sail on the ebb tide of the River Mersey. And I watched them as they drifted out towards the Irish Sea.
The tone of the text on the poster was that I was challenging Liverpool to achieve something in their year as European City of Culture, something that only Liverpool could do. This Deputy Director was telling me that they have a copy of this poster and they are planning on putting it up as part of their ‘permanent’ collection in one of their museums. He wanted to know if I wanted to write a few words to go with the exhibit. This request started a domino affect. The pieces are still falling.
This is the artwork for the original poster:
This is it fly-posted on the streets of Chinatown, Liverpool circa 2007:
This might be the artwork for a new poster circa 2020:
I have written on numerous occasions before how, John Lennon in his Plastic Ono Band phase was a massive hero to the 16 year old me. He was why, at the age of 18, I chose to go to Liverpool College of Art. I might have lost interest in him after his Imagine album. But John Lennon is the one person that I know exactly where I was when I heard they had been killed – in my front room just off Penny Lane.
Over the years since his assassination, Liverpool has reinvented itself as a tourist destination. A big part of that tourism is based on The Beatles. I hate this. I think it is fake. And I think it is cynical. But people need jobs. People need to trade in whatever they have got, be it apples, drugs, dingies across the English Channel or slaves. Or just the sweat on their brow.
Statues exist to be toppled.
There are a number of statues of John Lennon in Liverpool, as well as an airport renamed in his honour. Even the art school I went to took his name.
John Colston did a lot of good for the city of Bristol. He paid for schools, almshouses and hospitals for the people of the city. That was why there were statues and concert halls and streets named after him in the city. Any atrocities he may have been party to were ignored.
And unwittingly by being killed at the age he was, the legacy of John Lennon was ripe for exploitation by Liverpool’s city fathers. Thus by default has done a lot of good for the city. But the reality was, John Lennon, like the rest of The Beatles, got out of Liverpool as soon as he could. And he never put anything creatively or financially back into the city. Some would also argue that along the way, John Lennon culturally appropriated the music of Black and Jewish America. I am in no position to comment on that argument. My whole working life has been largely based on cultural appropriation.
We are led to understand that John Lennon was a wife beater.
All it needs is for there to be a high profile domestic violence case, to then trigger an equivalent to the Me Too / Black Lives Matter movements for the City of Liverpool to have to confront the way it markets itself to the world. Will they have the wherewithal to remove the John Lennon statues and change the name of the airport and art school before the statues get toppled and the airport and art school are raised to the ground?
Today I got an email from a woman and a man in Great Yarmouth. Her name is Jules. His name is Kaavous. They were wanting to know when this year’s Ragwort Week is going to be. This email triggered a bit of a dialogue.
Great Yarmouth is just a few miles up the coast from my workshop by Sizewell B.
Great Yarmouth is one of those many English seaside resorts that are on their uppers. As in Great Yarmouth no longer serves the purpose that it once did. Who wants to go to Great Yarmouth when you can go to Ibiza for less? There is an upside to this. Many of its boarding houses and hotels are having a new lease of life as temporary lodgings for refugees and asylum seekers. And many of these asylum seekers in Great Yarmouth are from the Portuguese speaking African countries, such as Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Angola.
Jules and Kaavous’s thinking was that the African Portuguese population in Great Yarmouth were rising up through the cracks in the pavement like the Ragworts that I praise and celebrate during Ragwort Week.
Jules and Kaavous’s thinking was that maybe I should do Ragwort Week in Great Yarmouth sometime soon working with this African Portuguese population.
I like the Portuguese language. Have done ever since I hitch hiked to Portugal to join the Carnation Revolution back in 1974.
I have fond memories of being taken to Great Yarmouth by my grandfather when I was a child and where I had a ride on the big wheel. This was back in 1962.
As stated above, Great Yarmouth is just up the road from my workshop by Sizewell B. Thus very few carbon footprints away.
Jules and Kaavous then sent me an image of a space that they have access to in an empty department store. I like empty department stores. They are the future.
Maybe next year (2021) The 25 Paintings world tour should head for Great Yarmouth instead of Kampala on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda – as in the claimed source of the Nile. This being where it was going to be going. And all The 25 Paintings will be done in Portuguese and I will work with this community in Great Yarmouth. And I will attempt to do it in a way that is not patronising. And maybe, for one year only, I will use green instead of blue in the paintings as most of the countries in Africa that speak Portuguese have green in their flags. Or is that me just bending my own self imposed rules to patronise the blackman? And anyway I hate flags.
Maybe in the year 2022, The 25 Paintings world tour should head for Liverpool, to help celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Beatles making the hit parade for the first time. And maybe all The 25 Paintings should be repainted with the exact same statement – BEATLE FREE ZONE. And all done identically in black & white. And during October, I position these 25 identical paintings at different but pertinent places around the city. Examples being Penny Lane, Mathew Street, Menlove Avenue, Frank Hessy’s, Quarry Bank School, Speke Airport, Strawberry Fields, The Welsh Streets, The Art School etc etc.
Maybe – taking into account my physical and mental health, my carbon footprint, my white privilege, my family responsibilities and the ongoing global pandemic – from there on in, as in for the four remaining years of The 25 Paintings twelve year world tour, I should take it to the failing sea side towns and ports on this island and work with those refugees and asylum seekers that have done the crossing of the seas for me – proper travellers with a reason to cross continents. It can be them that will bang the drum and blow the horn, even if it is still me that makes the bed and bakes the cakes. I might not be able to suppress my white saviour complex completely and may have to accept my white privilege as something I was born with.
Spaghetti Junction will still be the hub of this twelve year world tour. It will still be Spaghetti Junction that I return to for each of these remaining years to proclaim the title of the next step. And it will be Spaghetti Junction that I will return to when all of this has been done and dusted. In fact maybe I should get up to Spaghetti Junction as soon as things allow to paint onto “my” wall the words of the opening sentence of this whole piece.
One of the jobs on each of these seaside locations might be to stand on the shore and stare out to sea and dream of the far off lands somewhere over the horizon. Lands that I will never know.
And maybe even if I don’t get to do it, someday someone will walk the road from Jerusalem to Damascus.
Actually don’t discuss yet there is a Post Script:
The Beatles recorded all their records; lived in; had their Apple offices in, a city called London.
The Beatles chose not to be a Liverpool band.
The Beatles chose to be a London band.
Echo & The Bunnymen, Faron’s Flamingoes, The Wild Swans, The Clayton Squares, The Farm, The Liverpool Scene, The Real Thing, The La’s, The Big Three, The Coral, Pink Military Stand Alone, Clinic, The Searchers, A Flock of Seagulls, Shack, The Undertakers, The Icicle Works, Big In Japan, 29th & Dearborn, The Lotus Eaters, China Crisis, The Mighty Wah!, The Room, Deaf School, Apollo 440, Ellery Bop, Lawnmower, Benny Profane, The Zutons, Care, The Wombats, The Spitfire Boys, SPINN, Those Naughty Lumps, The Merseybeats, Amsterdam, The Quarrymen, A Shallow Madness, Gerry & The Pacemakers, CamelPhat, Albert Dock & The Codfish Warriors, The Roadrunners, Atomic Kitten, Space, The Teardrop Explodes, Black, Cast, Frankie Goes To Hollywood are all and will always be Liverpool bands. There are others. Many, many others.
Yes, there are some great bands from Across The Water, as in Dalek I Love You, Pele, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and of course Half Man Half Biscuit. But as Across The Water is not technically Liverpool, they can chose to ignore all of this, but they would be more than welcome to catch the ferry across the Mersey to lend a helping hand in making Liverpool shite again.
Okay, now discuss.
*Dave Balfe has been a colleague and friend for the past forty two years and counting. Dave Balfe is from Across The Water. Like me, he has been a Beatles fan since childhood. I thought he might have issues with some of what I wrote above, so I sent it to him. He has just got back to me. He has numerous issues with what I have written. The overriding one being that men in our position in life should learn to shut up. But one of his more specific issues was with me quoting Wikipedia. He explained that to be seen quoting Wikipedia, is to reveal how shallow ones research has been, thus you do not really know what you are talking about. I stand accused. He also accused me of indulging in mea culpa. I had to look it up on Wikipedia.