On my recent trip to London, I was struck by this work of art that was positioned at the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The mosaic carries an important message and I was impressed by both the message and the medium.
It is possible that this art work was there because of the exhibition ‘Disobedient Objects’ which I visited recently. In any case, the truth it contains is one worth remembering. Perhaps a companion piece should remind us that history is written by the victors.
I went through a phase of reading sonnets. This was when I was a student so is forgivable in terms of the intensity with which I indulged myself. The strange thing is I can remember very few of them now. Some remain, though, and this is one of Shakespeare’s sonnets that has stayed lodged in my mind.
Sonnet 97 ‘How like a winter hath my absence been’
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness every where!
And yet this time remov’d was summer’s time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lord’s decease:
Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me
But hope of orphans and unfather’d fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.
The sonnets of William Shakespeare are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I am working my way back through films that were significant in my childhood. My parents were not keen cinema goers so my own habit developed when I gained the freedom to go by myself or with friends. This means that some films from my past had greater significance by virtue of being one of the rare times I went to the cinema in the 60s.
The film was released in 1964 but I think I saw it a few years later. I may be wrong but I think the gap between cinema releases and showing them on television was longer back then, allowing some films to resurface at cinemas.
It depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift when soldiers from a Welsh regiment of the British army fought Zulus in January 1879. This was a period when the Zulus regularly fought each other, not surprising when you consider the British were in their country! There were 150 British soldiers at a rest station, many of the soldiers were sick or wounded. Against them were about 4,000 Zulu warriors. The odds were stacked against the British but they held off the attacks and won out in the end.
As a boy, I thought the British were heroic and I was very proud to see them win. My views have shifted over the years but I can still see the heroism involved. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to soldiers engaged in this Battle. This was the most awarded for a single event up to that time.
The best scene and the one that stuck in my mind over the years was when the British soldiers sang ‘Men of Harlech’ in response to the ominous Zulu chanting and foot stamping in the distance.
‘Zulu’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I could not visit London without calling in at the treasure house that is the British Museum. The reason for this visit was to track down the Head of Augustus with his piercing blue eyes. Often called the Meroe Head, because it was found in the Nubian site of Meroe in what is now Sudan.
The story of the survival of this head is important. Across the Roman empire, the power of the Emperor was displayed through images such as this. Statues were placed prominently so that the figure of Augustus could be admired. This head was hacked off and buried, suggesting that the Nubians were less than impressed.
Their act of defiance, though, means that, today, we have a well preserved head to admire ourselves. The British archaeologist John Garstang discovered the head (or the team he was leading did!) in December 1910. It was found at the entrance of a victory temple, its position carefully thought out as a deliberate snub since people would have walked over the buried head as they entered. The burial of the head meant that it remained well preserved over the centuries.
The eyes make this a spectacular sculpture, in my opinion. The irises are made of glass and eyelashes were made of gold, with the head itself made of bronze. In many statues from this period the eyes are lost, so this piece is amazing.
I suppose the reason this head resonates today is that it acts as a symbol of defiance in the face of a great empire. The Romans, especially in the time of Augustus Caesar, saw themselves as all conquering. Yet history shows us that people react against great empires and the Meroe head is a reminder that there are limits to power.
‘The Meroe head of Augustus’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In London to see the revival of this play from the 90s. It is a great comedy and shows the pressure points in relationships among friends, especially when love is involved. The fact that all the friends are gay adds to the poignancy and the humour. The poignancy comes from the background spectre of AIDS which affects each of the men in different ways; this play is set in the 80s when so many young men were lost.
The ‘Reg’ of the title is never seen but much discussed and is a major presence in the lives of the men. How he affects them is revealed as one scene gives way to another. Each scene shows how time has moved on. Through the play we see friends gather for reunions and funerals.
I missed out on the play when it was first produced in the mid- 90s but I saw the BBC version made for television. I was glad to finally see it on stage. It was written by Kevin Elyot who died last year.
I came away with one question: is it still the case that gay friends gather together as it seemed, from this play they did in the 80s? I wonder because I hope we have moved on, become a more tolerant society, especially where love is involved and love is where it falls. I have a hope that, although gay friends and couples have much in common with other gay friends, the need to huddle together for safety is no longer there. In any case, they had some fantastic one liners in this play.
‘My Night with Reg’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In London, so I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum. I was keen to see the ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition and managed to catch it on the weekend it closed. The objects displayed covered a period from the 70s to the present day. What I found wonderful and inspiring was the creativity shown by individuals and groups. Objects of protest developed by protesters were amazing; my favourite objects were the giant book covers developed as shields. The ‘books’ were specially chosen to be significant receivers of police blows when the batons were produced.
I was impressed too by the Bread and Puppets theatre company who produced giant puppets for use on demonstrations. In the V and A they had an Iraqi mother holding a dead child and a banker as part of a tableau from an anti- war demonstration.
The exhibition reminded me that progress only comes when ordinary people speak truth to power. Many of the campaigns from the past, including stands for gay rights, women’s rights and freedom of expression, have only been won because ordinary people have taken a stand.
I spent much of the late 70s and pretty much all the 80s campaigning and on marches. The governments of the time seemed to consist of just the sort of mean spirited people that needed reminding they were elected to serve us. The objects here were inspirational and reminded me that progress comes when we ‘push the wheel’.
‘Disobedient Objects’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?