From the Yorkshire Evening Post in England:
Forgotten Leeds mural tells enduring story of solidarity
By Chris Bond
Friday 08 December 2017
For decades a giant mural painted by a group of Chilean students and refugees had been forgotten about, hidden from view behind a wall in the foyer at Leeds University Union.
It could have been lost forever had a Chilean PhD student not happened to catch a glimpse of it during a refurbishment earlier this year and recognised his country’s national flag. The student posted a picture online of the artwork, which turned out to be a mural painted in 1976 by Chilean exiles who had fled from General Pinochet’s reign of tyranny in their homeland.
The mural, copied from the kind of cultural poster often found on the streets of Chile prior to Pinochet’s military coup, features miners and agricultural workers along with the slogan ‘And There Will be Work For all’ written in Spanish.
Now, more than 40 years after it was first painted, the damaged mural is being restored with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was originally created in the Students’ Union to help draw attention to the plight of the thousands of Chileans who suffered under Pinochet’s rule in the aftermath of the coup that ousted the democratically elected Marxist leader, Salvadore Allende, in 1973.
The story of the Chilean students and refugees who painted the mural was covered at the time by … the Yorkshire Evening Post. Among those who worked on it was Gilberto Hernandez. He had been a journalist in Chile and spent two years in prison before being released.
He was allowed to leave the country with his young wife, but left behind his mother, sister and friends. Thousands of political refugees fled Chile during this period, with many arriving in the UK and in particular places like Sheffield and Leeds. Mr Hernandez was among those who came to Leeds, arriving here in the autumn of 1975. He said: “There were over 200 Chilean people that came to Leeds and we were supported by organisations like the Chile Solidarity Campaign, which helped us find accommodation and families to stay with until we were settled. “We went to the university for meetings and to use the cafe and we asked them if we could paint a mural and they said ‘yes.’”
Mr Hernandez studied at the university before working as a librarian at The Yorkshire Post for more than 20 years, but over time he and his Chilean friends forgot about the mural. Which is why he is delighted that it has now been ‘found’ and is being restored. He believes it is not only important to Chilean exiles living in the UK, but all those who have found themselves in a similar situation.
He said: “It has a strong meaning to me because it denounces the crimes committed by the Pinochet dictatorship and still acts as a symbol of solidarity and friendship for the people who have been persecuted by dictators and continues to show hope for refugees.” Once restored, the mural will form the centrepiece of a resource library dedicated to refugees and asylum seekers, bringing members of the student, local and Chilean communities together.
Union Affairs Officer Jack Palmer said: “We hope that the mural’s inspiring story will encourage new political artwork in Leeds and bring students, refugees, local residents and the Yorkshire Chilean community closer together.” The restoration work will begin next month and is due to be completed by February. In September 1973, Chile’s president Salvador Allende, the … democratically-elected Marxist head of state, was overthrown and died in a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and backed by the CIA.
Under the subsequent dictatorship, more than 3,000 political opponents were killed, while thousands more were tortured or disappeared. People were arrested for their political or trades union work, or simply for supporting the previous government. Many of the refugees that fled to the UK ended up in Leeds. About 30 refugees landed in the city in November 1974, with the remainder arriving in October the following year.
See also here.
This video from the USA says about itself:
6 December 2017
Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, a little known Saudi Arabian prince, paid a record $450.3 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”. Here’s a few other buyers with deep pockets.
From the New York Times in the USA:
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
DEC. 6, 2017
LONDON — He is a little-known Saudi prince from a remote branch of the royal family, with no history as a major art collector, and no publicly known source of great wealth. But the prince, Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, is the mystery buyer of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “Salvator Mundi,” which fetched a record $450.3 million at auction last month, documents show.
The revelation that Prince Bader is the purchaser, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times, links one of the most captivating mysteries of the art world with palace intrigues in Saudi Arabia that are shaking the region. Prince Bader splurged on this controversial and decidedly un-Islamic portrait of Christ at a time when most members of the Saudi elite, including some in the royal family, are cowering under a sweeping crackdown against corruption and self-enrichment.
The $450.3 million purchase is the clearest indication yet of the selective nature of the crackdown. The crown prince’s supporters portray him as a reformer, but the campaign of extrajudicial arrests has been unprecedented for modern Saudi Arabia,
That the arrests also included royals is unprecedented. Extrajudicial arrests of commoners in Saudi Arabia are not unprecedented at all.
worrying Western governments about political stability in the world’s largest oil producer, alarming rights advocates and investors about the rule of law, and roiling energy markets.
Prince Mohammed’s consolidation of power has upended decades of efforts by previous Saudi rulers to build loyalty and consensus within the royal family. And even before the disclosure of the record-breaking purchase in a New York art auction by one of his associates, Prince Mohammed’s extravagance had already raised eyebrows, most notably with the impulse purchase two years ago in the south of France of a Russian vodka titan’s 440-foot yacht, for half a billion dollars. …
the newly opened branch of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, tweeted that the painting “is coming to Louvre Abu Dhabi.” The Saudi crown prince is a close ally of his counterpart in Abu Dhabi. …
“Salvator Mundi” represented a major prestige purchase in the art world, if a controversial one. Some experts questioned whether the painting was a true Leonardo. Some were simply unimpressed. The painting’s previous owner, Dmitry E. Rybolovlev, is a Russian billionaire who bought a $95 million Florida home from Donald J. Trump nearly a decade ago. Mr. Rybolovlev had paid $127.5 million for the painting in 2013 — less than a third of its sale price last month — and he is still locked in litigation with the dealer who sold it to him over that lofty price, among other transactions.
For Prince Bader, paying such an unprecedented sum for a painting of Christ also risked offending the religious sensibilities of his Muslim countrymen. Muslims teach that Jesus was not the savior [as the painting is called] but a prophet. And most Muslims — especially the clerics of Saudi Arabia — consider the artistic depiction of any of the prophets to be a form of sacrilege. …
Prince Bader appears to have worked with Prince Mohammed on at least one grand project for his own leisure, as well. Together, the two approached Brent Thompson Architects, a firm based in Los Angeles, to design an elaborate resort complex near Jidda, according to a description of the project on the group’s website.
It consisted of as many as seven palaces for princes in the Salman branch of the family, around an artificial body of water in the shape of a flower. “Petals of this tropical flower formed a series of private coves, each the home of an individual palace, its own private beaches, guesthouse, gardens and water sports facilities”, according to the description on the firm’s website.
SO SAUDI ARABIA’S LEADER SPENT $450 MILLION ON A PAINTING Here’s what that would do for the victims of his war in Yemen. [HuffPost]
Translated from Dutch Vroege Vogels radio:
Dragonflies on watercolors
Friday, December 1, 2017
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Belgian Baron Edmond de Sélys Longchamps drew and painted many hundreds of dragonflies. Not for fun, but for science.
An important and valuable collection. Still, the folders with dragonfly aquarelles fell into oblivion. But in 2002 they were found again, almost literally under a layer of dust in a cabinet at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.
Since then the Dutch dragonfly researchers Karin Verspui and Marcel Wasscher have studied the drawings. ‘We are talking about a time when there was obviously no good photography yet. This kind of drawings and watercolors were the gold standard for describing species”, says Verspui. ‘There are very special examples, including many so-called holotype specimens. These are the original individuals used to describe a new species. Where most of the type specimens themselves have completely lost their color, these watercolors are still of exceptional quality. These drawings deserve a larger audience”, says Verspui.
The digitized watercolors can be found on the RBINS site.
Ms Verspui said today on radio that Baron Edmond de Sélys Longchamps was an amateur entomologist. Nevertheless, he wrote scientific descriptions of about 700 dragonfly and damselfly species; about a third of the 2000 species known to science then.
By Sandy English in the USA:
Leonardo painting auctioned for $450 million
21 November 2017
On November 15, a painting attributed to the Florentine artist and polymath, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), sold at Christie’s auction house New York City for $450.3 million dollars, including fees. This is the highest price ever paid for a painting at a public auction. The buyer has remained anonymous, but observers have narrowed the list down to some 150 multi-billionaires.
The painting, Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World, c. 1500), depicts Jesus Christ in Renaissance garb holding a globe of the world in his right hand and raising his left hand in a gesture of benediction. It was commissioned by King Louis XII of France (1462-1515) over 500 years ago.
In recent times, the painting, not then thought to be by Leonardo, was purchased for a mere $10,000 at a New Orleans estate sale in 2005. It eventually ended up, after several transactions, in the hands of the billionaire Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who purchased it for $127 million. His estate then sold it to Christie’s, which took the painting on a world tour as part of its marketing campaign. In 20 minutes of bidding on November 15, the price climbed from over $100 million to the final sum.
The painting has been heavily restored, and its authenticity and provenance have been hotly contested by some, but, as critics have pointed out, now that it has sold for nearly half a billion dollars, it must surely be a Leonardo! It will now be the only one of the Renaissance master’s paintings in a private collection.
The sale of Salvator Mundi has caused consternation even in the highly moneyed art world, in which contemporary and classic art works are routinely sold or auctioned for tens of millions of dollars. One writer at Artnet.com remarked, “The outcome is so far out of bounds that it bends our understanding of reality’s basic parameters.” The New York Times editorialized somewhat nervously that, “something has gone wrong in the balance of value and values.”
Also writing in the Times, perhaps on a sharper note, critic Jason Farago cited the words of the subject of the painting in Luke 6:21: “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.”
Leonardo himself, in his “Ethics for the Painter,” addressed to fellow artists, argued that “you should learn that money earned in excess of our daily requirements is not worth much, and if you desire an abundance of wealth you will end up not using it.” The important artist, he explained, “will leave behind works which will bestow upon you more honour than money would do, because money is celebrated only for its own sake and not for that of he who possessed it, who is like a magnet of envy. … The glory of the virtue of mortals is far greater than that of their treasures. How many emperors, how many princes have there been of whom no memory remains, yet they strove only after territory and wealth to secure their reputations?”
While the astronomical price for Salvator Mundi is shocking, it is a part of a trend, particularly since 2011, of the tiny sliver of billionaires on the planet buying works of art at high prices. The previous record price had been paid by the richest man in Illinois, hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, who reputedly bought Willem de Kooning’s Interchange for $300 million last year. In 2013, Christie’s auctioned Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud for $142 million and in 2015 the auction house sold Pablo Picasso’s 1955 Les femmes d‘Alger (Version ‘O’) for $179 million. In May this year, the Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa spent $110.5 million for a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat at Sotheby’s in London.
As several analysts have observed, a booming art market is directly tied to the ever-rising fortunes of the stock market and the expectation that US President Donald Trump’s tax cuts for the very rich will provide a massive financial windfall.
For most critics and art world insiders, let alone the corporate media, the dizziness will soon wear off. The art world accommodates itself rather quickly to the obscene prices for art work, and, after all, some of the wealth gets spread around. Journalists and the most privileged academics may get a private glimpse of the painting or perhaps even a chance to nuzzle up to its new owner.
Everything about the sale of Salvator Mundi is deplorable, and revealing.
The fact that over two billion people on the planet live on two dollars a day or less and over 60,000 people, many of them children, have no place to live in the city in which the auction took place hardly rates a raised eyelid in the art world media.
Furthermore, the dependence of art on the market has now reached a dangerous threshold from the view of art production itself. Artwork has become a big item commodity for the ultra-wealthy. They invest in it as they would invest in any other property and, as has been observed in this case, the actual quality of the painting, what it tells us about life, what emotions and thoughts it evokes in us, none of this really matters.
The whole affair will have demoralizing influence on artists themselves. It is not the public or critics that judge their works or find pleasure in them, but only a few wealthy individuals. The end goal of a work of art is not to reveal a truth about the world, or even—an increasingly rare phenomenon—to support the artist so he or she can continue to create, but to be burnt in the bonfire of super-profits. Paintings, whether produced by a Renaissance master or even a living New York artist, are locked up for years in climate-controlled vaults and hidden from view, and then released only in a place and at a time acceptable to their beneficent owners.
The purchase of a work of art for this sum demonstrates the fate of art under capitalism. It is a kind of vandalism in which culture is weighed for its net worth and hidden away to appreciate, not for the benefit of masses of people.
However, the history of the painting offers us another side to the broader historical process. Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi at one time belonged to King Charles I of England, who lost the painting because his estate was sold in 1649, the same year the monarch lost his head as the result of a victorious revolution.
This video from Germany says about itself:
30 June 2016
The artist Banu Cennetoğlu explores the political, social and cultural dimension of the production, representation and distribution of knowledge and asks how it feeds into a society’s collective thought and becomes part of its ideology. Cennetoğlu has participated in major international exhibitions such as the 10th Gwangju Biennale, South Korea; at the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009) she and Ahmet Öğüt represented Turkey.
She is represented at the 13th Fellbach Triennial of Small-Scale Sculpture (2016) and currently guest of the DAAD artist programme in Berlin.
The free-lance critic and curator Vasif Kortun is known as one of the most important critical voices in the discourse on Turkey’s radically changing cultural politics. He has organized numerous international exhibitions focussing on art production in Turkey, for example the 3rd and 9th international Istanbul Biennale (1992 and 2005) as well as the Turkish pavilions at the São Paulo Biennale (1994 and 1998) and at the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007).
By Dietmar Henning in Germany:
Artist lists names of fortress Europe’s 33,000 refugee victims
18 November 2017
Artist Banu Cennetoğlu has published a list with the names of 33,293 asylum seekers, refugees and migrants who have died since 1993 while fleeing to Europe or in connection with Europe’s refugee policies.
The 48-page list was enclosed in the November 9 edition of the Berlin-based newspaper Tagesspiegel. As part of Berlin’s autumn salon at the Maxim Gorky Theatre, pages from the list will be posted on advertising pillars in the centre of the city.
Cennetoğlu said the list exposes only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, many more people have died while fleeing, including those who drowned in the Mediterranean. “The List” documents what could be compiled from available data, wrote Tagesspiegel. The data is based on work by the European network United for Intercultural Action.
November 9 was deliberately chosen as the publication date, Tagesspiegel explained in a comment, because in Germany it is a day laden with history. This date is connected with the 1918 revolution, which was suppressed by the Social Democratic Party, the failed putsch by Hitler and Ludendorff in Munich in 1923, the Nazis’ pogrom against the Jews in 1938, known as Kristallnacht, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Born in Ankara in 1970, Banu Cennetoğlu is an internationally successful artist. Her work concentrates mainly on the collection, archiving and publishing of books and newspapers. Giving a place for and names to the countless victims of Europe’s refugee policy has been a part of her work for several years.
In cooperation with Cennetoğlu, the Greek newspaper Ta Nea published in 2007 a list of 8,855 deaths. In 2010, a poster campaign for “The List” organized by the Kunsthalle Basel included the names of 13,284 victims.
Cennetoğlu emphasised that this is not about her or the names. This list is not a work of art, and the publication is not an artistic act, she said. “It is what it is,” she added. She insisted on only one condition: the list cannot be published in part, but only as a whole.
Behind every name there is a human tragedy. Most have drowned in the Mediterranean. Others died in refugee camps, including by committing suicide “with a few shoelaces out of fear of being rejected and sent back home” (Mikhail Bognarchuk from Ukraine in deportation detention). The scale of hopelessness outmatches all power of imagination, added Cennetoğlu.
Tribute is also paid to the 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean near the Turkish city of Bodrum while fleeing Syria on September 2, 2015. The heart-wrenching pictures of the dead boy lying face down in the sand on a beach shocked people around the world. They cast a grim light on the desperate dramas playing out on Europe’s borders.
“It is horrifying how the refugee catastrophe meets with general acceptance,” said the artist. It is not a major priority on the political agenda, she added. If it were a natural disaster, things would be different.
Behind each name on the list there is therefore also an indictment: an indictment of the wars waged by the US and its allies, which are the main reason why millions have been forced to flee their homes.
The decades-long wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Mali, Somalia and Syria, to name only the most important, transformed these countries into a hell on earth. More than 65 million people have been forced to flee from wars and unbearable living conditions.
The European Union member states have responded and continue to respond to the wave of refugees exclusively with suppression and deterrence. They erect barbed wire fences, build mass camps and mobilize police to keep the desperate people away, and in so doing condemn thousands to certain death.
Every name on the list is also an indictment of the “Fortress Europe” established by Europe’s governments.
Only a tiny minority of the world’s 65 million refugees have sought to reach Europe. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 153,355 people have reached Europe across the Mediterranean so far this year, and almost 3,000 have drowned in the process or are missing.
The Mediterranean remains a mass grave for refugees. Supported by the EU, Italy has concluded a similar deal with the various warlords and rulers in Libya as the EU did with the authoritarian regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Refugees are thus prevented from traveling to Europe.
Italy has supplied the Libyan coastguard with patrol boats, helicopters, specialized vehicles, communications gear and other equipment with which they will attempt to prevent boats carrying refugees from leaving Libyan territorial waters. The coastguard has murdered refugees on the high seas and attacked human rights organizations because they wanted to assist refugees.
Since this past summer, hardly any private sea rescue services are operating. Italy forced human rights organizations to sign a code of conduct that included the acceptance of armed police and Frontex officers on their ships. Many organizations, including “Doctors Without Borders” and “Save the Children,” refused and suspended their sea rescue services. Other aid organizations were taken to court on the basis of accusations of assisting smugglers.
The EU boasts that it has destroyed smuggler networks in Libya. Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti claimed in May, “The people who arrive in Italy have put themselves in the hands of brutal human traffickers. We are merely saving them from this fate.”
… In reality, the former smuggler groups are earning more money by preventing refugees from traveling than they did from organizing flight. Italy and the EU pay more than the desperate refugees.
The refugees being held back from traveling to Europe live under inhumane conditions. In Libya alone some 700,000 people are being detained. They are systematically abused, raped and executed at random. Those who cannot pay their guards are often killed or starved to death. Others are sold at modern slave markets in Tripoli—women as sex slaves and men as slave labor.
Joanne Liu, the president of Doctors without Borders, who was in Libya in the late summer, described in an open letter the way refugees are dealt with there. She wrote of a “flourishing business of kidnappings, torture and blackmail,” and accused the EU of being jointly responsible for this. The price for declining numbers of arrivals in Europe is “rapes, torture and enslavement by criminals,” she declared.
The thousands who die in Africa on the way to the Mediterranean coast or in Libya itself are not included in the list collated by Banu Cennetoğlu. They remain nameless.
European President Donald Tusk against refugees in eastern Europe: here.
This video from Britain says about itself:
When we hear how Till Owlyglass cured a small boy’s constipation, and how he taught a merchant to pack eggs tightly. Till Owlyglass (Till Eulenspiegel) is a boy who was special from the day he was baptised three times. But not in a good way. Not in a way his parents liked. He was always in trouble for his rudeness and practical jokes, and grew up to be the most outrageous trickster in Germany. Everyone told stories about him – and they still do five centuries later.
By Louise Raw in Britain:
‘I used to think Marx’s or Lenin’s books said communists must go camping’
Saturday 18th November 2017
I DON’T associate with many creative power couples. The Beckhams call, but there are only so many hours in the day. I’d be surprised, though, if they came much more productive or interesting than Michael Rosen and Emma-Louise Williams.
Williams, a radio producer and film-maker, is curating the current art exhibition at Bow’s Nunnery Gallery, along with her husband. It centres on the life and work of the extraordinary Albert Turpin: window cleaner, firefighter, anti-fascist and post-war mayor of Bethnal Green.
Turpin was a member of the East London group of working-class male and female artists, who painted life as they saw it in a way that was ground-breaking.
As well as the paintings, the exhibition displays Turpin’s sketch books — a pencil drawing of Mother, Asleep is breathtakingly tender — and his scrap books, which show how crucial politics were to him; he carefully preserved cuttings detailing the rise of fascism in the 1930s East End and the push-back from men and women like himself.
Williams has also created the show’s soundscape — an aural tapestry of voices and sounds evoking Turpin’s East London.
She tells me she has a long fascination with what the Germans call Strassenrausch — street clamour — and is often to be found around London, happily recording all its manifestations.
She and Rosen collaborated on the 2011 film Under the Cranes, set in Hackney, which uses both sound and image to capture the atmosphere of the place.
Merging words from a voice play by Rosen with geo-history and the testimony of migrants to the area from Bangladesh, Ghana and the Congo, it’s both dreamlike and politically forceful, showing us 1930s street fights with fascists and raising urgent questions about the treatment of migrants, regeneration and “gentrification.”
Rosen’s new memoir, So They Call You Pisher! (a Yiddish expression meaning “What’s the worst that could happen?”) is also redolent with the presence of the past.
The absences of Jewish relatives, there before the war then just gone, and of Rosen’s elder brother Alan, who died in infancy and whose existence Rosen discovered by chance only when he was 10, were palpable in his childhood. His mother Connie never spoke Alan’s name to him or acknowledged that she knew he knew about him. That silence must have reverberated.
Rosen is proudly the child of this intriguing, intellectually engaged couple. He and Williams come today from a meeting on education, and Rosen’s mother and father, both teachers, developed separate reputations as educational theorists.
Williams has to rush off to finish a blog as well as be ready for their 12-year-old’s return from school and, after we talk, Rosen is headed to Brighton for a publicity event for Pisher! and to meet an old friend — poet, legendary activist and CP member Len Goldman, now a mere 101 years old.
But the former Children’s Laureate still submits graciously to what must be a strikingly unprofessional interview in his publicity round (proper journalists don’t rant intemperately about politics, I think, or fail to make comprehensible notes).
Tremendously good company, Rosen is interested in everything and has read everything (probably twice), but wears his knowledge lightly, with no detectable pomposity.
His warmth and enthusiasm are palpable in his work, and key to the huge popularity of his children’s writing. He was one of the first poets not simply to draw on his childhood experiences for his poems, but recount them in words children could understand, and would use.
He’s modest and honest about the creation of his blockbusting kids’ book We’re Going on A Bear Hunt. It is based on an US folk song he used to perform live and his editor commissioned the magical illustrations by artist Helen Oxenbury.
Impossible as it is now to imagine the book without them, Rosen couldn’t at first see how drawings and text would combine, but trusted the process. It was only feedback from young readers down the years which made him fully appreciate what he and Oxenbury had created.
Men of letters tend not to admit to either their strokes of luck or cock-ups along the way, preferring to imply all was planned with godlike genius — not so Rosen.
In his memoir, he shares awkward moments like the sketch he devised at college in Oxford, intended to mock capitalism, which instead appeared to lampoon a flat-capped worker and the forthright consternation of his father on seeing it.
There was also a youthful essay he felt rather brilliantly skewered Jonathan Swift, until his tutor gently pointed out that Swift’s irony had gone soaring over his head: “I had been a knakke (‘know-all’), and thought I could rumble Swift… You can never rumble Swift,” he says. This is something of a relief, given the otherwise imposing scale and scope of Rosen’s achievements.
As well as the memoir, he has a collection of political poetry, Listening to a Pogrom on the Radio, and a biographical work on Emile Zola’s exile in England out this year alone. He presents the Radio 4 stalwart Word of Mouth and has advised the government on literature and literacy.
When his 18-year-old son Eddie, whom Rosen has called the hub of the family, died suddenly from a strain of meningitis, Rosen managed to parlay desolation into a campaign to add a vaccine to the childhood immunisation schedule and a book which helps children deal with grief.
Much of his art is for more than art’s sake, contributing something to the greater good or focusing on those who have, such as Turpin, who confronted British fascists head on, or Zola, who made his own life difficult by challenging anti-semitism at the highest level over the Dreyfus Affair.
He is very much a public artist, in and of the world, not sequestered in a study but out here with the rest of us, worrying about inequality and discombobulated by Brexit. As he’s written, “Poetry can stick up for the weak or it can mock the mighty; it can glorify our rulers or it can dissect them. You choose.”
Rosen’s father Harold joined the Young Communist League in 1935 and there met Rosen’s mother Connie Isakofsky.
In 1936, the young couple were at the battle of Cable Street; Connie would later work in the typing pool of the Daily Worker, the forerunner of the Morning Star.
Rosen’s childhood was shaped by their politics. His memoir recalls the Tuesday evening routine in his childhood home. He writes: “Now, boys, off you go to bed. We’ve got a party branch meeting.”
“Len Goldman himself was a regular attendee. My father said [he] was terrific’ but sometimes, no-one came.
“Even so, my parents still held their branch meeting. We sat on the stairs and they went into the front room and shut the door.
“I’ve often wondered how those particular meetings went…”
The young Michael copped some flak, too, for his and his parents’ views. A teacher he admired looked sideways at the May Day badge on Rosen’s school blazer and sneered: “Oh. We’re communists, are we?”
Bemused, he told his mum about the incident: “She looked into the distance for a moment and then glanced down at my shoes. She gasped. ‘Look at your shoes. You haven’t polished them. They’re going to think communists are people who don’t polish their shoes’.”
Childhood for the Rosen boys also involved Communist Party camping holidays. “No-one in my school went camping…
“Somewhere in one of those books by Karl Marx or VI Lenin on our shelves, I used to think, it must say communists go camping.”
Camps in France began a life-long love affair between Rosen and France and Frenchness (this has served him well: his page-turner of a book on Emile’s exile to England is all the more so because of Rosen’s translations of Zola’s letters home. It’s compelling to see the great author and political crusader moaning about English cooking — to both his wife and his mistress).
Rosen’s parents left the CP in 1957 though never disengaged from socialist politics.
I ask Rosen how they responded to the anti-semitism they inevitably encountered as a Jewish couple. He tells me they had very different approaches.
His father Harold let insults glance off him, and rather enjoyed baiting anti-semites. From his mother, however, he saw occasional manifestations of the pain and anger absorbing prejudice had caused her, as on the occasion she and Harold were lambasted, post-Hungary, for “betraying the working classes” with their CP membership. “Who else” she asked her accuser, “was going to stick up for us?”
Rosen’s father Harold comes across as formidable in the book, if not to his son, certainly too others; one girlfriend thought him something of an intellectual “ogre.”
I ask Williams how she got on with her late father-in-law. “Very well,” she tells me, though his primary relationship was always with Michael and she bonded with him initially over their shared interest in what made Rosen Junior tick. Through Harold’s reminiscences, she came to know the boy and young man who became her husband (‘It was a conspiracy!” chips in Michael).
I tell Rosen I found his mother a more mysterious presence in the book — harder to grasp. This isn’t a failure of characterisation, though, but deliberate.
Rosen found her that way too and realises that her maternal role was perhaps at the heart of that. The “comforts of philosophy” had to cede to day-to-day-life concerns about what to do about the corned beef, for example, of which she had a cupboard full when there was a health scare about it. Connie’s response was typically gnomic, keeping the tins, but not opening them until the panic was over.
After his mother’s death, Rosen came upon a piece of her autobiographical writing about her girlhood and felt he encountered a woman he didn’t quite know, with thoughts and feelings he hadn’t heard her express.
“I think that she must have felt there wasn’t the space in our home for her to say those things … She wasn’t given (or she didn’t take?) the space for that kind of reflection … the airwaves were taken up by Harold, me and Brian,” he writes. Even in a loving, fairly egalitarian household, corned beef can stifle a woman.
Connie really found herself, Rosen says, when she began to study educational theory in earnest and became known in her own right. She gave a series of morning talks on the BBC and suddenly people were coming to the house not for Harold but to talk to Connie.
I ask him if any of her writing is available now and he tells me he’s going to collate them, as he has his father’s.
Success has not steered Rosen’s own politics to the right. He contributed in 2015 to the e-book Poems for Corbyn.
How does he think Labour is doing now? He remains supportive of Corbyn but says he’s worried by signs Labour might “wobble” on immigration. He’s rightly adamant that the Left should always oppose protectionist arguments, such a dangerously slippery slope.
Labour should just tell the truth loudly and clearly. He thinks migration is and has always been a huge benefit to this country.
And Brexit? He is, he says, a “militant abstainer.” He sees the whole thing as an argument between sections of capital in which socialists wouldn’t involve themselves. “Corbyn should say one thing — that our concern is just jobs, conditions and services. Beyond that, let them fight it out.”
He uses the rather good analogy of of a boxing ring. All the lights and focus are on the two fighters in battling it out, but that’s not where the real game is. Surrounding the ring, quiet in the dark, sit the real players — the money and the men and women whose only interest is profit and who will always try to fix the match to their advantage.
He adds that he knows Labour is preparing for power and trying to cover all bases, that, inevitably the day after a Labour victory, billions will be wiped off the economy and the gloves will really be off. If we think the Establishment has gone after Corbyn before, we’ll see that was nothing, he says.
“[The capitalists elite] doesn’t care who’s in charge, as long as it’s a safe pair of hands for capital and its interests. Blair was fine, Corbyn is not.”
Our response, he says, must be to refuse to be panicked and simply call out the false narrative of the Establishment and media. “We should constantly ask them to prove it, to show us one immigrant who caused the flight of capital that has really rocked the economy, one immigrant who caused Dagenham.
“We should question what they mean when they say it’s ‘bad for the economy’. What is our economy? It’s a capitalist system and we have to constantly remind people of that.”
Would Rosen act as adviser to the Corbyn camp, if asked? Probably, he says, though on an independent basis. He is not a Labour Party member. Had he joined during Corbyn’s early term, he thinks he would have been used as a “scalp” in the same way Mark Steel was and refused membership.
He doesn’t agree, however, with my gloomy assessment that the Right has won the battle of language and thought.
Labour’s slogan, For the many not the few, he points out, is quite brilliant in its simplicity, Marx in a sentence, which has succeeded in turning the debate.
As we wrap up, I tell him that, although his career is inspiring in its refusal to accept limits (why “just” be a poet when you can also write biography, memoirs, plays?), it also seems impossible to emulate today.
Young people wanting a broad artistic career are often told they must “settle down” and specialise. I expect Rosen to agree that his trajectory would be hard to emulate, but, cheeringly, he’s having none of that. He doesn’t accept its uniqueness. “Look at the comedians who act, write and so on.”
He also thinks it would be entirely possible to do today. “I lived on soup for a long while and had one pair of trousers and one pair of shoes, but you can do it.” The key, he says, is to take projects that really interest you, regardless as far as possible of the money, because they will usually lead somewhere interesting.
Surely it’s a tougher world now, though, with arts cuts and austerity? Rosen points out that there are also the advantages of the internet and social media, allowing artists to market themselves more effectively than before. He offers some useful pointers. Keep your website clear and up-to-date, make it obvious what skills you offer and easy to book and contact you.
It’s nice to hear. Too often, those who have “made it” seem more interested in pulling up the ladder after them than helping others climb it.
Rosen’s career is also an illustration of Marx’s observation that most people possess a wide range of interests and abilities which they would enrich over their lives if capitalism wasn’t so stultifying limiting for the “cogs” in its machine.
In the awkward moment where you’ve said goodbye then realise you’re going in the same direction, Rosen has to walk with me to the station.
I feel sorry for him but he’s typically nice about it, and regales me with stories of treatment for his ongoing hip problem which necessitates “having my bum electrocuted, basically.” You wouldn’t, I imagine, have got this from Wordsworth, I ask.
At the last minute, I remember I wanted to ask him about an unusual facet of his autobiographical writing. I’d noticed he rarely tells the reader what the people in his life look like. Is this a deliberate strategy to make us focus on their personalities and voices alone?
Rosen thinks for a second, then says: “I suppose I’m just not very good at all that…” I raise an eyebrow: that seems unlikely for a writer of his calibre. “And I suppose it’s because when I went to school at Watford Boys, I got a lot of negative comments. I was told I looked weird. I think it’s because I looked Jewish, probably.”
As a result, he feels uncomfortable focussing on people’s appearances, to the extent that he feels guilty about having described someone several times as bald. “But he was bald,” I ask. “Yes, but I still feel bad about it.”
Michael Rosen is a poet, biographer, memoirist, film-maker and art curator.
Emma-Louise Williams and Michael Rosen’s free exhibition The Working Artist: The East London Group is on at the Nunnery Gallery until December 17. Entrance is free. For more informatiob visit: bowarts.org.