Saturday, 26 June 2010


I thought I liked foxes.

I spent childhood Saturdays at the Natural History Museum Club. One week someone came in with a pair of soft grey fox-cubs, rescued from their den after their mother had been killed. Their protector brought them back, week after week. They were bottle-fed at first, then weaned onto raw meat as their grey down gave way to red and their faces acquired an adult point. I think there was a plan to release them back into to the wild but I never heard the ending of the story.

Most of the animals I admire are predators. I love the swoop of falcons and eagles – growing up on the ninth floor of a towerblock, I sometimes watched the stoop of sparrowhawks from above in the expanse of sky above Richmond Park. I never feared the coil of a snake and would willingly handle boas and pythons when the animal-man brought them to school. I saw the young foxes grow strong on bloody meat and never doubted their violence.

Encounters with foxes were rarities. I remember deer, rabbits, and badgers in the park – we made special trips to watch them at dawn and dusk – but I think I was an adult when I first sighted a fox in the wild.

“The wild” is an inexact description. It was an urban fox – nervous at night – running across a road. It was hard to be sure it was a fox and not a cat. It was small and some way off. I was enchanted, even though the fox was probably on its way to raid a bin filled with remnants of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The encounter - like many later ones – fulfilled my affection for the untamed. I like the word “feral.”

In the past two months, I've seen several foxes, and begun to wonder if I still like them as much as I did. Urban foxes stroll the pavements of our quiet suburban street in daylight – they sometimes turn to glare. Usually I see just one at a time but there are more than one – a friend, giving me a lift home, caught sight of two outside the gates of different houses. I found one in the garden, two yards away. It lifted its head and looked at me without anxiety. I clapped my hands and shouted until finally it turned and slowly made its way through a gap in the hedge. The foxes seem larger than any I've previously seen in town.

There are stories in the local press about foxes attacking cats – we haven't yet had local stories about foxes attacking children but there have been some in the national papers. Something seems to have changed in the balance of species - I don't know if the new conditions have been created by the hard winter or infrequent bin collections or some other factor. I don't think it's related to the hunting ban – we're a very long way from the nearest hunt and no-one is going to suggest pursuing foxes through tarmac streets crowded with houses and people. Perhaps it's a side-effect of new building developments – could this be another reason to blame Tesco whose vast building site scars our town and whose placards promise an unwanted superstore?

I worry about my cat Joe, who arches his back and prepares to defend his territory when he sees a fox (or dog). I want to keep him in the house but he has his own streak of wildness and needs the outdoors. Like the fox, he's a hunter. He wears a collar with bell - I don't want him to attack – but not all the birds he brings home survive, though my son does his best to rescue and revive them.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The watchers

There's a right length of time for looking at a picture. Some demand lengthy, careful views. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Ghent Cathedral rewards slow appreciation. It's worth sitting before Rembrandt's The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or standing for a long while before the Breughels in Brussels' Musée des Beaux Arts or the classical scenes by Claude Lorrain in the Louvre.

Even some portraits are made for time-consuming adoration. These are usually pictures of the powerful, commissioned to demonstrate their finery as well as their faces. But the poor as well as the rich can seem in control of their images. Murillo's street urchins often display the confidence of the young and free. Even Goya's Maja, clothed or naked, seems in control of how we see her – as does Lucian Freud's model Sue Tilley, the Benefits Supervisor.

Elsewhere the subjects of paintings see less happy with the viewer's gaze. There are nudes by Titian whose lowered or averted eyes can cause discomfort. And I can never look at portraits or even staged domestic interiors by Vermeer for long. The framing of the paintings always brings me slightly too close – I'm forced into the scene like an intruder, as I am.

This history of looking was at the back of my mind as I dithered in the entrance hall of Tate Modern. I couldn't make up my mind about the new exhibition. Not only was the entrance ticket £10 – very high by East Midlands standards, especially for a show of photographs and videos – but the subject itself made me wonder whether I ought to look. The exhibition is called Exposed and the material it shows is grouped around themes of voyeurism and surveillance.

At first I decided I wouldn't look. I'd taken the long escalator to the third floor when I changed my mind and returned to the entrance. The escalator journey felt too much like running away.

There was, of course, something uncomfortable about so many photos grouped around such a theme. Few of them on their own would have sparked such concern even though some areas were banned to under-eighteens because of their sexual subject.

But sex and violence are too familiar to shock. Even the napalm picture, with the running, naked girl (her clothes burnt off) in a world beyond fear and pain, has been reproduced so often that I'm now immune to the horror. I was more moved by the photo of Jackie Kennedy with the new president Johnson and his wife. She seemed numbly vulnerable as she took on the unfamiliar role of presidential widow – beyond comfort and open to the camera's exploitation.

Elsewhere too the camera's glance was surreptitiously controlling. I was disturbed by Walker Evans' pictures of travellers on the New York subway, some tired at the end of the day and enjoying private rest in the carriage's public space. The photos were taken, before the Second World War, with a camera concealed in a coat-sleeve so that no-one could object. All the subjects must be dead by now. For all I know they would have liked the idea that gallery visitors would pay the unbelievable sum of £10 to see their faces – it's a kind of immortality.

Having seen the subway photos, I was initially suspicious of the work of August Sander as he posed and classified “types” - by profession, disability, social status – in his project to document the layers of German society. But as I looked at the individuals he photographed with such care, I warmed to him. The pictures seemed to be the product of a kind of negotiation between photographer and subject. Most of them gazed back at the photographer with the confidence of people who had chosen their pose. There were exceptions of course: the boy labelled “idiot” or the blind girls, sitting together at a school desk. They were photographed in the mid 1920s and despite the labels the children appeared individuals. I wondered what happened to them after the Nazis came to power. Sander's sympathetic categorisation reminded me of the Nazis' brutal hierarchy of types. Yet the Nazis disapproved of Sander's project. His son Erich, a socialist, was imprisoned in the early days of the Nazi regime. After many years, Erich died in prison. Sander photographed his son's death mask.

Of course the exhibition disturbed – it was meant to. But it was far less disturbing than the film I saw two days before, Renzo Martens' Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty.

Martens' film explores poverty in the Congo – the sort of daily, agonising poverty that causes children to die painfully of slow starvation. But it's not like the kind of TV documentary that ends with an appeal to send money, offering the comforting, self-congratulatory reflection that we in the west are nice, charitable people. This begins with a man in the Congo complaining about poverty as he works and angrily showing his small daughter's sores – a result of malnutrition.

At first the film seems a tourist's journey through poverty in which Martens' occasional efforts to understand what he sees don't measure up to the reality. He seems too innocent, too polite. But the guns of the U.N. peacekeepers disturb as do the sharp suits of the wealthy.

But it's easier to look at the powerful than the underpaid workers whose children die so that people like me can buy goods cheaply. And then there's the war and the photo-journalists who follow war and starvation, looking for a scoop. They cluster together with their expensive, heavy cameras, each trying to find the best lighting and angle for a picture of a corpse. The going rate for a publishable picture is $50, on top of the travel and expenses already paid to the photographers. Martens, playing the innocent, asks a photographer a series of questions. Who owns the picture? Do the people in it – or the relatives of the corpse - earn money from it? What pictures sell?

Of course, it's the photographer who profits. The poor children, who aid workers strip and arrange for the camera, get nothing. So Martens reaches his conclusion. Congo has few assets apart from poverty. If the people of Congo are to profit, they must learn to exploit their own poverty. He finds two Congolese photographers, making a small living from pictures of festivals, birthdays and weddings, and urges them to change their subject, telling them that the highest profits come from photographing the dead and injured, raped women and starving children. I'm used to seeing such pictures but I've never before had to sit uncomfortably still while the subject's pose is adjusted and the photographer closes in for the most affecting and aesthetic angle.

There were questions and answers after the film. Martens insisted his work changed nothing – it was art, not politics. But he made a telling comparison with Jonathan Swift's “Modest Proposal,” identifying the film as satire based on a horrible truth. And he said there would be no change because there was no will to change. The people in Congo thought that if those on the outside saw what was happening, they would act – they would not allow such suffering to continue. But there is no outside – we're all in the same world and those of us with power to act do nothing because we benefit from the same system.

Meanwhile, for reasons we cannot bring ourselves to comprehend, pictures of pain and suffering are bought in the west as though they were things of beauty. And the sufferers get nothing for them.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Eliza and the Court of Miracles

In 1885 a tall, red-headed Irishman stood on a street corner in London selling copies of the Pall Mall Gazette. His name was George Bernard Shaw and he was one of many volunteers selling a newspaper publicising a story so scandalous that the usual distributors refused to stock the paper.

The story was headlined “THE MAIDEN TRIBUTE OF MODERN BABYLON” and it told the story of how W.T. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, had joined forces with the repentant madam of a brothel to purchase a girl of thirteen from her father. He didn't intend any harm to the child. He simply wanted to prove the truth of tales he had heard: that, in the poorer parts of London, parents sold their virgin daughters into prostitution. The response of the authorities was swift; Stead and his assistant were arrested and sentenced to terms of imprisonment for assault and child-abduction. But the scandal brought about the result Stead desired. It drew attention to the existence of child prostitution in Britain – and parliament passed an Act which raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen.

Of course, it wasn't as simple as that. The Act expressed all kinds of moral prejudices of the time – and it was the same Act that made homosexuality illegal. Ten years later, Shaw's fellow Irishman and playwright, Oscar Wilde, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour under its provisions.

Even the case of the child sold into prostitution may not have been as simple as it seems – journalists (and many others) have been known to distort and exaggerate facts in order to prove something they “know to be true.” Shaw may have come to this conclusion himself by the time he wrote Pygmalion in which the entirely willing Eliza, who shares a name with the child in the “Maiden Tribute” case, is sold to Professor Higgins by her father for five pounds. These are his “rights as a father,” Alfred Doolittle insists. Five pounds is exactly what Stead paid for the earlier Eliza.

There are numerous myths about what Shaw calls, in the Victorian phrase, “the undeserving poor.” These myths both console and terrify the better off. The idea that the poor are feckless and immoral, prepared to sell their own children at a fiver a time, suggests that charity is always misguided, equality a dream and that what is needed is containment and control.

Paris has another myth (though it isn't limited to Paris): the myth of the Court of Miracles. Colin Jones' history of Paris considers the potency of this myth in the seventeenth century. It tells of a dangerous alternative society thriving in Paris since the Middle Ages – a society of beggars and gypsies who adopted disguises – false wounds, apparent blindness – to exploit the charity of the hard-working bourgeoisie. The Court of Miracles was supposed to have its own king and laws governing this exploitation – and the so-called beggars were not poor and maimed, as they appeared, but living a life of luxurious indolence.

The myth falls apart as soon as it's examined. The beggars are supposed to be simultaneously disciplined and hard-working (as the rules of the Court of Miracles demand) and fecklessly lazy. As Colin Jones points out, the Court of Miracles never existed – though some beggars may have been fakes and liars. But the myth gave Louis XIV the excuse he wanted to round up paupers, beggars, the sick and corral them into hospitals. His main concern was making the streets safe for kings and their courtiers. As the French Revolution shows, this wasn't a complete success.

There are similar myths elsewhere. In the 18th century John Gay's The Beggar's Opera picked up the idea of the Court of Miracles and sets it in London – and Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera gave the story new, even more richly parodic life. The thieves and beggars in Gay and Brecht don't inhabit a space as large as the Court of Miracles but they still combine idleness with industrious trickery. They seem to live outside the law – but at the same time they obey a different, equally strict code. They sing and dance too – it's a fine life being a thief and a beggar.

The myth of the Court of Miracles still flourishes. There are undoubtedly crooks and con-artists among beggars and the poor – just as the rich have their tricksters, whose deceptions are coming to light with the collapse of the markets. As a story, it's a delight – the fortunate who are neither poor nor beggars revel in its freedom - but it's also a dangerous excuse for repression, and for failure to see an equal humanity in the faces of the unlucky who need help and justice.

The story W.T. Stead tells in “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” cannot help relying on the myth of the dangerous poor – the myth is too potent to avoid and the poor know it as well as the rich. His newspaper article is a rich mix – it starts with a lengthy and richly imagined account of the labyrinth in Crete and ends with the scream of a child. He insists that he doesn't oppose the freedom of the libertine rich, so long as the vulnerable poor are protected. He insists that the rich who prey on the young are his main target. Yet his account of the disorderly poor, who know just where to sell their daughters and whose profit is governed by a parody of market forces, recalls the Court of Miracles' parody of the establishment of its day.

Stead believed his own story and undoubtedly there were cases of child abuse, then as now. He served three months in jail for abducting Eliza – the repentant brothel-keeper who helped him served six months. I don't know what happened to her after that. Stead's fame as an editor was secured until his death brought him another kind of fame – he was drowned when the Titanic went down. As for Eliza – not Shaw's Eliza but the original girl – Stead gave her to the Salvation Army for safe keeping. They eventually returned her to her parents, judging that she was not at risk from them. I don't know what happened to her after that.