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Mo Mowlam (for Kelly)

I’ll admit I know less about Mo Mowlam than I should. So, I suspect, do you.

A classic example of an influential woman, whose wide-reaching and astounding achievements were overshadowed by the personalities of bullish men in positions of power.

Mo, who in her younger years worked for Tony Benn, became the MP for Redcar in 1987 and appointed to the Shadow Cabinet in 1992 under then Labour Leader John Smith. Following Smith’s death, she became the principal organiser of Tony Blair’s leadership campaign, and after his successful election to PM in 1997, was given the role of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. At the time, this was a huge task to undertake, the Troubles were still ongoing and the devastating Omagh bombing in August ’98 illustrates just how inflammable the situation still was. Mo approached the challenge head-on and unafraid, credited by contemporaries as “the catalyst that allowed politics to move forward which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. She cut through conventions and made difficult decisions that gave momentum to political progress.” (Peter Hain 2005)

There’s no doubt that Mo’s work in Ireland during this time was key to the peace process which followed; she ensured Sinn Fein were included in the dialogue leading up to the agreement, helped to restore an IRA ceasefire and visited the notorious Maze prison to talk with loyalist prisoners (many convicted murderers) in an attempt to connect with the ordinary people whose lives her work would be affecting. By all accounts, her ability to empathise and to forge a relationship with the ordinary people involved in the situation, particularly the women, opened up an avenue of dialogue to her which remained closed to others. It was instrumental to her role of negotiator, and is why many people are convinced that the peace process would not have happened without her.

Her part in the development of the agreement began to be deliberately overshadowed by Blair as the links with Unionist parties began to sour. Around this time she remarked to then-US President Bill Clinton: “Didn’t you know? I’m the new tea lady around here”, a clear indication of how she felt to be sidelined, as the men took the glory. In 1999 she was replaced in her role by Peter Mandelson and demoted to Cabinet Office Minster, not exactly deserved recognition for a woman of such astounding achievements.

It is notable how during this process the male position gave with one hand and took away with the other, depending on how it served them best. At the time of her death, Blair rightly said “It is no exaggeration to say she transformed the politics not just of Northern Ireland itself but crucially of relations between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, and it was this transformation that created the culture in which peace-making could flourish … suddenly nationalist, republican and Catholic Ireland had every preconception of the English up-ended and rendered out of date. She didn’t have to talk about equality. She exuded it, naturally and with an absence of affectation that was marvellous to behold … she bowled everyone over.” However in April this year, on the anniversary of the agreement, her name was noticeable in its  absence. Not a single mention for the woman who unlocked the door for the future of peace in Ireland?

Mo’s stepdaughter Henrietta Norton, a filmaker, wrote in an article earlier this year of how she has been trying to get a story about Mo commissioned as a film piece to “celebrate and explore her legacy for contemporary women”. Responses ranged from “no one would be interested” to, we “couldn’t see who would watch it”. Erm…yes they would, I would, and so would most other women I know. It highlights the level to which her role in history has been degraded and overshadowed by the actions of men who did less. A common theme throughout history, and one which we must continually try to combat.

My friend Kelly asked me to produce a portrait of Mo for an exhibition in Dartford celebrating the 100 year anniversary of votes for women. In wondering how to portray her, I instinctively wanted to avoid any obvious signs of the illness for which she is sadly so well remembered, but which must not define her. A number of people said they didn’t recognise her without her thinning hair. My point exactly; I wouldn’t have either. But I will now. I hope people can look closely at her face without the signs of her illness and see in her eyes the determination and bravery of a truly remarkable woman in history.

Produced for Stephen Oliver’s Votes for Women exhibition at his gallery in Dartford. Pencil on paper.

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The animals. That’s how they spot me, the locals I mean. Stroking a feral cat which I am fully aware could riddle me with rabies in a blurred second of diseased saliva on teeth tips; they know I’m English and spot me a mile off, how could they not? But their sad, neglected little faces (the animals, I mean). Their mangy forms hobbling along towards an inadequate patch of ground shaded from the burning sun. It is a familiar and enduring sight of the which I will I never get used to seeing in other countries. But despite my very British show of pet empathy, on my first  trip to the Greek ‘Athens Riviera’ in June of this year the fate of these multitudinous weary strays managed to distract me only momentarily from those extraordinary Athenian ruins of classical antiquity which tower over the city, abiding endlessly as lives begin, are lived and end all around them.

The Acropolis remains are overwhelmingly huge, dominating the city skyline in a way that I felt was more powerful than seeing them at close range. In some cases the sculpture is powerfully enigmatic, the guarding Caryatids evoking in me a childhood memory from the Neverending Story of those two stone oracles, their power and character fascinating me then at six as these beautiful, frightening forms do now at thirty. I inherited an interest in history from my mother, although my thirst for knowledge does not extend to the same reaches nor inhabit the same form as her – ie. sitting up late at night head buried in 3000 page epic overviews of Russian revolutions. My own curiosity takes far more of an immediate form; suffice it to say lengthy summaries of fact spattered with anomalous pellets of prose do not engage me for long, but I would still consider myself a history fan, shall we say. I chose my holidays mostly according to whether there are sites to visit nearby. I sketch the ruins and read the leaflets. So why do I always find myself questioning our obsession with preservation?

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I suppose I’m playing devil’s advocate to an extent, but do find it disturbing how we actively remove significant objects and artefacts from the public reach, particularly those which were created with the proletariat in mind. It embodies the modern edict of look, but don’t touch. It’s a relatively new phenomenon (in the scale of the lives of these buildings) and one whose aspects I do understand in principle; vast increases in visitor numbers and so the inevitability of damage, the fact that to save these artifacts we have to stop direct visitor engagement at some point so why not now, the advances in technology meaning we can now see in more clarity the damage being inflicted etc. Ergo, we have to preserve these artefacts for the future. But do we? Is modern society a bit over obsessed with preservation and conservation, to the point at which we have almost become hoarders on a mass ideological scale?

Ironically of course our consumer culture evidences quite the opposite, most of us are hesitantly complicit in the growth of plastic mountains and new landfill land masses. On the whole we generally attribute little value to objects. Not in the case of historical value though, this attribution transforming something from disposable to preservable. Uniqueness is often the main factor, or its rarity, but our desperation to ensure that the originals of these objects are not lost have led us to sometimes devalue them through corrupting their original public purpose and right to be used. Walking around the Acropolis was a perfect example of this; barred at every corner from experiencing the structures as they were meant to be experienced, I admit I felt cheated. Public structures built as open areas for the people, for the masses to participate in community gathering, now reduced to purely an externally aesthetic pursuit for all except a privileged few specialists. This restriction tarnishes it, sullies the beauty and purity of the architecture and essentially just isn’t fair. But far from this behaviour being unique to what is now ancient construction, we regularly apply it to new, modern creations. ‘Do not touch’ goes without saying in virtually every instance. In artistic terms it does in fact now seem to psychologically add value to something. To be told we can touch instinctively means so can everyone else and the thing is reduced to consumable as opposed to preservable.

I freely admit I do not have an opposing solution to the issues of why we do preserve and am here merely provoking consideration of a concept we all take very much for granted. You could indeed say that if we gave free reign access to works of art or historical artefacts they would be smashed and graffiti covered, but consider that many have been standing there for over 2000 years, significantly damaged primarily due to brutal wars and not local hoodlums, with do not touch rules only being implemented in the last 50 or so. Speculate on why we feel we need to preserve them in their perfected original form at all. Does not time decay and weather all things? With modern technology we persist in working against natural evolution, to stultify it and challenge its process of degeneration. In this case, to what end? Our ability to further our knowledge through them is limited and can be recorded with a variety of techniques, so why not allow the structures to become communal, as a vast amount of them were intended to be? Laying them open to potential damage is a worrying prospect, but to leave them as they are, alien and untouchable, may be even worse. Perhaps it’s time to allow the public to experience the key to why these structures are so amazing and despite what the brochures may want you to think, the answer isn’t in the gift shop.

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Who knew that poor little old Dartford, kicked and teased like the runt of the Kent litter, abandoned in droves by its own people in preference for the nearby shiny happy Bluewater and sneered at down shiny noses by outsiders, should now be found to be hiding such a wealth of undiscovered creativity? Despite living in the area for 29 years, I have in the past few months realised I have barely scratched the surface of what seems to be an impressive but currently sadly under-connected network of artists and art-lovers.

Dartford Creative, an initiative brought to us by Icon Theatre, aims to unearth and develop these links, stimulating that much-neglected erogenous zone of the area; its creative core. Thanks to the tireless and dedicated co-ordination of Nancy, Michelle and countless others involved in the programme, whose belief and optimism have succeeded in overcoming even the most cynical challenges in their path, the enterprise has resulted in an inspiring programme of art events running every Saturday until Christmas. The thinking behind the plan is effectively simple; this series of events is a starter for ten, intended to whet the creative whistle of locals and to initiate a dialogue which will extend to next year, and the next, carrying on the tide the potentially valuable trawl which will be unearthed through this exercise.

Dartford itself has a long and fascinating history involving no less than rebel kings of England, revolutionary leaders and a few famous Artist/Sirs of its own, including Sir Peter Blake who, for those of you who don’t know, designed the famous Beatles Sgt. Pepper album cover. In fact rather a lot of impressively significant events have touched upon the area, as well as some of the more insignificant but equally fascinating! I was, much like many other Dartfordians I imagine, sadly bereft of much of this information until researching for a piece in Dartford Living on the local gasworks. Upon beginning to dig for information I found myself enthralled at the stories I found, each painting a vivid picture of what the town had been, decades, or even centuries before.

Bringing this history to life is one important facet of the Dartford Creative event and will ensure that this knowledge is both stored and nurtured by participants, passed on and down to the next generation; a treasure hunt on 21st September explores local buildings perhaps usually passed by without a second thought. A beautiful 17th Century pub goes unnoticed day by day, while Victorian shop first floor facades gaze down on the high street mournfully, unseen by shoppers. Events such as the treasure hunt specifically aim to point out sites of local importance, but a running theme throughout the programme is the importance of highlighting of a side to Dartford which lies largely in our unconscious; the historical side, the artistic side, the worth-listening-to side. The effects of probing this point continuously, weekly, are that it will stick and grow. It will germinate and spread tendrils of thought which could lead, well, who knows where? I myself have already made nearly 10 fascinating new acquaintances with whom I’m in regular contact and will continue to be after the event finishes. How many could you make? You see the potential.

Since the project launched on 10th August we have already seen a 50’s style street party, clay model making, the launch of the much-anticipated film competition (which will culminate in the winning film being shown in the eye-wateringly cool mini solar cinema), and, brightening up a rather rainy day last Saturday, ukelele lessons from inspiring teacher Steve Ball. Coming up this weekend is your chance to find out about the history of the street you live in and contribute to the town’s own Blue Plaque programme. If you have any sense at all you’ll be down there each and every Saturday without fail, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 10am like a dog on a promise for some buttery toast. But for those of you who might, like me, be a freakishly over-organised planner and not be able to make this one, don’t panic. DON’T PANIC. There’s the treasure hunt the week after that,  then Mr E’s intriguing theatrical museum on the 28th and much, much more to come. Let me not hear you say ‘Oh that’s not for me, I’m no good at art”, as is often the standard, negative protest from the crowd; if even the dog can get involved in playing the ukelele (see photos), I’ve not doubt you can manage it too.

Expect to see a few more posts on this, intended to both keep you up to date and to nag you like a spoilt 10 year old until you defeatedly submit to getting involved, and are within minutes running around gleefully covered in paint/clay/ukeleles etc.

Dartford Creative runs every Saturday at One Bell Corner from 10am-3pm.

Informal artist networking meetings are taking place at the Bull & Vic on the high street (opposite Lloyds bank) on the following dates:

  • Tuesday 17 September, 7-9pm
  • Saturday 28 September 4-6pm and
  • Saturday 5 October,  4-6pm

All welcome. Please come, I want to meet you all!

To enter the film competition see the details on the website and submit your entry to Vimeo by 1st Nov.

Locals learn how to play the Ukelele...even the dog was lulled to sleep by the sweet tones of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Locals learn how to play the Ukelele…even the dog was lulled to sleep by the sweet tones of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Clay model making

Clay model making

A clay face materialises out of the table...

A clay face materialises out of the table…

Ready for the next group of eager Ukelele students

Ready for the next group of eager Ukelele students

Free popcorn while you paint - what's not to like!?

Free popcorn while you paint – what’s not to like!?

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A mini-gallery of some of the work produced so far

A mini-gallery of some of the work produced so far

Kids getting their hands deliciously dirty with the clay models

Kids getting their hands deliciously dirty with the clay models

Steve Ball inspiring local residents with his Ukelele renditions of Guns N Roses

Steve Ball inspiring local residents with his Ukelele renditions of Guns N Roses

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An unofficial addition to the creative vibe of the event - just down the road, local street artist Gee injects some life into the drab hoardings of the derelict shops waiting for development

An unofficial addition to the creative vibe of the event – just down the road, local street artist Gee injects some life into the drab hoardings of the derelict shops waiting for development

Street art by local artist Gee

Street art by local artist Gee