“My art embodies the qualities that differentiate a line of poetry from a line of prose” – Joan Mitchell, Art News, 1957

17 July 2021 By Jan Woodward

“My art embodies the qualities that differentiate a line of poetry from a line of prose”    Joan Mitchell, Art News, 1957

As the first cover ever to be printed by the Novel Hovel Press shows a painting by a contemporary lyrical abstract artist for our collection 52 Weeks, we thought we would look at the connection in the past between the New York School of poets and the artists who found common ground between art and poetry.  We also thought it would be nice to see what the artist of our cover, Eelco Maan, thought on the matter of collaboration, fusion and the creative process. A quick appraisal of the NYS will followed soon by an interview that Eelco kindly agreed to give us this summer (2021).

A group of artists and poets living in New York City became collectively known as the New York School.  They wove in and out of each others lives and work and created art and poetry that possessed a new freedom from form or expectation.  Collaborations and interactions were numerous. Poetry in response to art and art reacting to poetry.  Whilst Frank O’Hara, one of the seminal poets of the New York School, glibly described the interactions of the group as being a result of their preference for the same bars, they were creating a new and exciting vision. 

This strong affinity between artists and poets can be seen where work has been jointly authored, where poems reference art and image and colour is fused with words.  Artist, Norman Bluhm, described the fusing or hybridisation of works between poet and art as “a conversation” between disciplines. 

Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Why I am not a Painter’ (1956) attempts to address the delicate balance, the love affair between disciplines.  He begins with a statement of fact: ‘I am not a painter, I am a poet/Why? I think I would rather be/a painter, but I am not.’ 

Grace Hartington’s Oranges, based on Frank O’Hara’s poems (1953)

The poem talks of how both art and poetry share a common process. He shows us how the artist Mike Goldberg’s painting began as sardines and ended as just letters because ‘it was too much’ and later in the poem how O’Hara starts writing a poem about the colour orange and ends with a poem -twelve poems, no mention of orange but he calls it Oranges: ‘There should be so much more, not of orange, of/words, of how terrible orange is/and life. Days go by. It is even in/ prose, I am a real poet. My poem/ is finished and I haven’t mentioned/ orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call/ it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery/I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.’

Another artist identified with the New York School, Abstract Expressionist painter, Joan Mitchell, has said her painting is more like a poem and often worked using poetry as inspiration. For example her painting ‘La Ligne de la rupture’ was inspired by the poem of the same name by poet Jacques Dupin. The painting is in a Private Collection. The painting to the right (below) is Le Chemin des Ecolliers (1960) and an example of Mitchell’s early work.

The first and second generation of New York School poets and their counterpart abstract expressionist and lyrical expressionist artists shared an anti-traditionalist approach and experimental styles.  They explored a shared sense of abstraction with words, texture and sound being as important as the endeavour to create meaning.

Although first generation artists of the New York School such as  Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko,  have been seen as some of the key proponents of abstraction it is interesting to note that not only was de Kooning seen as an originator of Action Painting(5), a purely abstract form of expression, during the 1950s he  “most often worked from observable reality” according to the Guggenheim Museum; primarily figures and the landscape. The Abstract Expressionist painters each had a unique approach to their work.  In a talk ‘A Desperate View’ delivered in 1949, De Kooning made clear that he thought art should not have to be a certain way: “It is no use worrying about being related to something it is impossible not to be related to”.

For example in his Women series 1950-1955 he integrated form with the recognisable application of brushstrokes, aggressive paint application and vibrant colour associated with Abstract Expressionism. This was seen by some of his staunch abstract fellow artists as a betrayal or a regression. The work Composition (1955-58) once again provides us with greater abstraction but here landscape provides inspiration. Whilst there are no identifiable forms the energetic brushwork and vibrant colour provide us with the feel and pace of city life. The same can be seen in Gotham News (1955).

If we go back in time the issue of abstraction over form is not a new argument.  Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) could be said to be among the first lyrical abstract artists . He helped transform traditional expectations in art from representational forms.  He talked of a synesthetic understanding and manifestation of colour, sound and image, of souls and inner sounds, of spirituality and freedom.

An early encounter with a painting by Monet’s haystack helped him recognise the need for abstraction when he failed to recognise what he was seeing in the picture. Later, looking at one of his own paintings standing on its side in the twilight he, at first, could not again recognise the objects in the piece. This improved the work and he then declared that objects harmed his pictures. (2.)   His synesthetic experience of colour as sound also helped him form his ideas of abstraction. 

Kandinsky’s woodcut ‘The  Singer’ is an early indicator of his ideas on synthesis of sound, colour and word. The limitation of colour and reduction to flat form in the woodcut process acted as an abstraction reducing lines and colour to only those which were necessary. In The Singer he uses ‘lyrical’ soft pinks and greys creating a few simple contrasts against a black background. For the artist the woodcut medium was in “direct parallel to a lyric poem’.(1)  

Kandinsky saw in this work that: “Colour is the keyboard, “the eye is the hammer. The soul the piano, with its many strings” and that the artist “is the hand that purposefully sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key”. 

His prose-poems entitled ‘Sound’ (1908-1912) were published and in 1910 he exhibited with a group of artists that formed the New Artists’ Association of Munich. The works were derided by critics as “carnival clowning”and a “horde of dabblers”(3)  However, this did not deter Kandinksy from his artistic quest.

Matters of the soul were integral to his work. In 1911 the essay ‘On the Spiritual in Art’ was published. Kandinsky believed that the inner voice of the artist overrode any necessity to faithfully reproduce painting from nature, and the “internal necessity” (4) should be the key to a painting. 

Through the decades abstract art veered toward the geometric and minimal, the hard edged and dazzling colours to softer, sensuous, lyrical dream-like. The thread of the artist as the internal initiator running through lyrical abstraction has endured. To express something internal, subjective in a lyrical way, something at the edge of consciousness, brought down onto the canvas in a metaphysical non-representational array of colour.  

De Kooning sometimes internalised external objects as a filter, regenerating life as we see it, sometimes into complete abstraction and other times, as in the Women series, as a partial glimpse, a fusion of abstract and form.  Watch out for our future interview with a contemporary lyrical abstract artist about art, abstraction, inspiration, poetry, music and the need to create.


(1) Wassily Kandinsky – The journey to abstraction/Ulrike Becks-Malomy/Taschen/2007 page 20 (2) page 31 (3) p40 (4) p55

New York School Painters and Poets-Neon in Daylight/Jenni Quilter/Rizzoli New York

Poets.org – Why I am Not a Painter/Frank O’Hara

Literary Theory and Criticism/The New York School of Poetry/literariness.org/Nasrullah Mambrol

Paul,Stella, “Abstract Expressionism” In Heilbrunn Timeline of History: New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd apex.htm (October 2004)

William de Kooning Composition-Guggenheim Museum http://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/9992

Image Credits:

Kandinsky painting ‘Improvisation’ 33 1913/wikimedia/ Txllxt Txllxt, CCBY-5A 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Grace Harrington Oranges/Series based on prose poems by Frank O’Hara (1953) newyorkschoolpoets.wordpress.com

Joan Mitchell/Le Chemin des Ecolliers (1960) wiki art

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Visual Verse

Visual Verse: An Anthology of Art and Words Issue Dec 2021

It was an interesting exercise producing something to a one hour time limit and working from a set image. I wanted to change the ending on this poem but from start to finish, including making coffees and various other things, I had reached my time limit so resisted the temptation to change anything. Thanks to Visual Verse for publishing. You can find them on twitter @visualverse and visualverse.org

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Vaccines – make up your own definition

Emperor’s New Clothes – The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Anderson

CDC alters vaccination definition as Covid-19 vaccine passes are being introduced throughout Europe.

Wales recently announced that vaccine passes will be required to attend nightclubs and large events. They have said this does not amount to curtailing people’s liberty or freedom of choice because a lateral flow result will also be valid.  If free lateral flow tests are revoked, which has been suggested in the past by the government, then the question of immunity given by the vaccine becomes of paramount importance.

In France, for example, it can now cost you between 22 and 50 euros to get the necessary Covid test to go and get a coffee. Not only is this discrimination and curtailing freedom of choice by making it financially prohibitive to go to a restaurant or live event, but vaccinated people can still catch and transmit the virus.   If both groups can still catch Covid and transmit it to others there is no reason to forcefully separate or penalise one group over the other.

This issue of conferring full immunity has been cast into the shadows and a new societal norm is forming whereby those who cannot have the Covid jab for medical reasons are having their liberty and freedoms removed. They are being vilified in the press and yet another division in society is taking place. 

The CDC recently changed its definitions for vaccination and immunity on their website.  Before the change the definition for vaccination read, “the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease.” Now the word ‘immunity’ has been replaced with ‘protection’.  

The fact that the CDC had felt it necessary to change this definition is of immense importance because it also changes our perception of whether it is legal and morally acceptable to penalise those unvaccinated.  There is actually a vast difference between the words immunity and protection. One would mean you then cannot pass a virus on to others, the other means it will protect the person from getting too sick but that they can still catch and carry the virus to then pass on to others in the community who cannot be vaccinated.

A spokesman for the CDC explained that they changed it because the previous definition could have been “interpreted to mean that vaccines were 100% effective, which has never been the case for any vaccine.” But why change it just now when that definition has seen us through for decades as our understanding of vaccination?  In the past vaccines have needed to be been effective enough to not pass on disease to others on an on-going basis, as with the killed Polio vaccine.

There should be no need to segregate vaccinated from unvaccinated people. Each should be safe from the other. The vaccinated person cannot usually transmit the virus or disease because their inoculation has given them immunity, which in turn truly helps those that can’t be vaccinated by creating herd immunity in the long term. Those that can’t be vaccinated only have their own health to be concerned about.

By changing this definition it means that it is more difficult to show the Covid-19 vaccines don’t work in the way we have historically understood a vaccine to work.  The word ‘vaccine’ has also had a make-over on the CDC site. Instead of “a product that stimulates a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease” it now reads “a preparation that is used to stimulate the body’s immune response against disease.” Note the word ‘immunity’ has been removed

Many who question any aspect of the new vaccines are labelled as part of an ‘anti-vax’ brigade, even if answers are genuinely sought around safety and the fact that it has come to light that inoculated people can pass Covid-19 on to others in a similar way to the unvaccinated.  

On the NHS Inform website it tells us how Covid-19 vaccines work. Under the sub-heading Herd Immunity it says, ”Choosing a vaccine is good for you and your community…as more people in a community take a vaccine, fewer people can become sick and pass the disease on to others.” But double vaccinated people are still getting sick . They are able to pass the virus on to others.  In fact research showed that both groups can carry as much virus in their noses  as each other. But the UK government has acted as though they offer the immunity of a traditional vaccine.

Despite the fact that double vaccinated people can catch and transmit Covid,  the ‘civic duty’ rhetoric is regurgitated on social media by the government and in the press.The really troubling fact is that as far as transmission is concerned, the difference between the vaccinated and unvaccinated is mostly smoke and mirrors. Many double vaccinated people have gone on to catch Covid-19 and the fact that they are still capable of transmitting the disease is played down.

Would we all be happy with a polio vaccine, for example, where you got a milder form of polio and could still pass it on? Or your child’s measles and mumps vaccine still meant that although they wouldn’t get so ill, they might pass it on to their family and friends?

In the past vaccine derived poliovirus was seen in rare ‘break-through’ cases. For this reason the USA and the UK stopped using the live vaccine and exclusively used the inactive or ‘killed’ vaccine.  If it was important to change from live to attenuated versions of the Polio vaccine for this reason, what will be done about the seemingly higher numbers of ‘break-through’ cases of Covid-19? How can we ever eradicate Covid if the vaccinated can keep passing the virus on to others?

When break-through cases of Covid are analysed it is mostly in the context of whether those cases were hospitalised or had died. Isn’t the point that there are many people double vaccinated still getting Covid and able to pass it on to others? 

This was happening before the new Omicron variant came on the scene. And even now, when it is fully accepted that two vaccines don’t protect you from the new variant the UK has just passed a bill that makes it mandatory to have two doses of Covid-19 vaccine to attend large events. They have already told the public that two doses of the vaccines don’t work against the new variant which is exactly why they then conducted a mass booster dose campaign. We have been told that the booster can offer some protection against the new variant. Both cannot be true. You either need the third jab to be covered against omicron or you don’t. This is a dangerous game the government is playing. Rather then being in full lock-down again and admitting defeat on the vaccine front, they will allow thousands to attend packed events knowing full well the two dose vaccines offer no protection from either contracting or transmitting the virus. Already we are seeing ‘break-through‘ cases after the booster.

The main issues that we have historically tried to fix with vaccines no longer seem relevant. Whilst the vaccines may lower cases of hospitalisations, which is important, the matter of transmission is equally important if you are going to start taking civil liberties away on the basis that it is safer to be around one set of people over another.

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Boris Johnson’s Government says oil and gas emissions ‘not relevant’ to climate change. 

North Sea oil rig/crativecommons.org

The UK Government won their case to grant a permit for BP to drill for 30 million barrels of oil from a field at Aberdeen, arguing that oil and gas emissions are ‘not relevant’ to climate change.  This came just weeks before the COP26 meeting to address the urgent need for action to halt the damage caused to the environment and human health due to fossil fuel extraction and emissions. Deaths in one year from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels have been shown to be more than double those caused by the Covid-19 virus since the beginning of the pandemic.

Studies have shown that pollution has killed some 8.7 million people worldwide in 2018 alone.  Covid-19 has been officially responsible for more than 4 million deaths over a longer period. Of course this figure is likely to be an underestimation but even so, it is set against a vast amount of people dying unnecessarily annually from preventable pollution. No vaccine needed, just governments go ahead to ban the use of fossil fuels and swap to clean alternatives.

So why are we so scared of Covid but accepting of the massive death rates due to pollution?  Psychologically it seems more difficult for us to respond to deaths that accumulate over a period of time or those that we cannot definitively blame on a scary new virus where we can see the immediate result of its action.  Breathing in toxic air each day over a number of years seems to be something far more difficult for us to process.

A spokesperson for Insulate Britain was recently asked on BBC London if he could see that tactics of blocking roads to highlight climate change was putting lives at risk.  Despite Liam Norton explaining that they had a policy to let ambulances through and that a report from Chatham House showed that if the current trajectory of emissions did not decline then “ten million people a year will experience heat stress exceeding survivability threshold” the interviewer continued her questioning saying that “these actions are happening on the roads today.” Norton clearly frustrated asked: “Do you understand what the survivability threshold is?”

It seems that society cannot see past the present day or year. Norton was talking about 10 million people ‘frying’ to death as a consequence of the heat that we are starting to experience more and more each year with forest fires and extreme heat episodes. Norton asked the interviewer why she didn’t want to hear what he was saying “I’m talking  about putting millions of lives at risk and you continually try to evade the subject. Why is that?, he asked.

This is a good question that we should all be asking ourselves.  Even when we can see countries burning in the most extreme heat ever known, when we see boatloads of people evacuated from their homes from fire and flood, we just cannot see the immediate and seemingly extreme response that is needed.  In recent years we have seen drought in countries that are close to home, such as Italy. Not some far off African desert but water shortage is becoming a reality as temperatures rise and extreme weather patterns become the norm.  

And what was Boris Johnson’s response to climate change in his Conservative party 2021 Conference address?  His only real reference to climate change was to say he did not call climate protesters gluing themselves to roads ‘legitimate protesters’ no, he called them ‘a confounded nuisance’ who the government would ensure with new powers were able to “insulate them snuggly in prison where they belong.”  His overriding ‘levelling up’ rhetoric of society seems rather hollow when we stand on the verge of annihilation as a species. 

He noted that the Conservatives were going to re-wild parts of the country and plant millions of trees and that the beaver had returned to some rivers –  this swift note muddled in amongst beavers building where they want without planning permission and more homes to be built for humans and improving roads and broadband.  A few sentences in his entire speech and then swiftly on to mortgages. 

His answer to our problems in the UK -” fixing the broken housing market, plugging in the gigabit, putting in decent safe bus routes and by investing in skills, skills skills.”  And then another passing mention of “sorting out our energy supply” apparently with just wind and nuclear.  And those lovelies, previous employed by Shell and BP, getting in on the wind industry too. All such spiffing fun!

But what of that age old problem of nuclear waste? What about the tragic environmental and human consequences of Fukushima and Chernobyl and the waste at Sellafield in the UK that we still do not know what to do with?  

This year Japan has approved the release of more than a million tonnes of contaminated water that resulted from the accident at the Fukushima plant in 2011.  There is a concern that the tritium in the water proposed to be released into the sea will end up in the food chain. And what of the damage to the marine environment?

Sellafield in the UK has almost 80,000 tonnes of nuclear waste that the government plans to dump underneath the Irish Sea off the Cumbrian coast. There are now three sites being considered.  As far back  as 2009 it was estimated by engineers that it would cost the best part of £73bn for the cleaning up of Britain’s nuclear past at that date. Today the problem still remains and any place prepared to take it would have to store it for at least 100,000 years to decay to ‘safe’ levels. Of course this assumes no rise in sea levels that might trigger a leak or any other natural disaster. It is clearly far from ‘clean’ energy. 

The UK government wants to appear environmentally friendly on the one hand but on the other seeks to jail climate protesters and fights Greenpeace lawsuits over oil permits. In the afore mentioned BP permit case for drilling at Vorlich Field in Aberdeen, only last month the government argued against the pro-environment organisation in a landmark court case saying that emissions coming from burning oil extracted by BP are ‘not relevant’ to climate change when granting an oil permit. How can this be? Their argument is that it is ‘impossible’ to assess emissions coming from burning oil that has been extracted. But the point is they should just not be granting permits for any fossil fuel extraction at all on a planet whose time has run out if emissions are not immediately halted. Any emissions are too many.

The final rejection of Greenpeace’s case came just weeks before the talks.  As Mel Evans, head of oil and gas transition at Greenpeace UK said, the government’s argument is ‘astonishing’ to say that climate change is ‘not relevant’ to oil permitting decisions.

Then there is the application for drilling for oil at the Cambo oil field in the North Sea. This is for a permit to drill for at least 170 million barrels of oil. The resulting emissions would be equivalent to 18 coal plants running for a year according to Greenpeace.  Whilst 80,000 people have put their name to refuse any permit Boris Johnson stays silent and leaves his options open.  There should be no question that oil drilling has to stop now. According to the International Energy Association exploration and development of new gas and oil fields must stop this year

Jan Woodward

Extra source information: Interview Monday 4 October, 2021 with Liam Norton – BBC News London

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Excerpt from ‘White Roses’ Collection ’52 Weeks’

Available from claremontcontemporary.com/Published by NovelHovelPress

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The Old New Normal

Article in MCS Aware magazine Xmas 2020

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New Project for Peace and Justice Gives Hope.

The recent launch of the Corbyn Project for Peace and Justice was so well attended that they had to switch their platform to YouTube to accommodate the amount of people wanting to view. I was among the many hopeful for change, hopeful in these most dark times that somehow kindness, social justice and love for one another will prevail.

I had been waiting for Jeremy Corbyn’s next move. He seemed a man not to be downtrodden or browbeaten in the past by the daily attacks from the press that he suffered when he was serving as leader of the Labour Party.  On the one hand the people, including many of the next generation of voters cheered him on with the famous chant of adulation of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ and seemed to gather in their thousands to hear him speak, on the other the press villified him at every opportunity. And the press tirade was constant.  Despite this Corbyn never seemed to lose his composure, an amazing feat on its own. I am sure that many lesser politicians would have cracked under the strain.

The truth is Jeremy Corbyn has too much to do that is worthwhile in the world to be silenced by the few.  He simply rose above all of the in-fighting and scandalous press behaviour to remind people that there is too much that needs fixing in the world to be pulled down into the mire that has become the everyday political arena.  Ethics, justice and equality seem to have become low on the government’s agenda.  The rich get ever more richer and the poor get poorer. 

The pandemic has highlighted this in a gruesome way with more people dying in the low income bracket and BAME communities. Again many huge corporations have expanded, with people who have already amassed fortunes making more and more, whilst small businesses have all but closed, many having to use their small amount of savings to survive, others losing their homes and not able to put a meal on the table as they lost their livelihoods overnight.  The pandemic has created a greater awareness of the inequalities that the present societal construct has created.

The mission statement of the Peace and Justice Project includes bringing people together ‘for social and economic justice, peace and human rights, in Britain and across the world’, hoping to ‘solve our common problems together’.  As I watched Noam Chomsky, Ronnie Kasrils, Jeremy Corbyn, a young climate justice leader Scarlet Westbrook, Yanis Varoufakis and others,  I did feel hopeful that these people and the many watching them were able to bring compassion and peace to an impoverished system. Anyone wanting a little bit of hope for the future might like to take a look at the project. You can still watch the launch on YouTube.  They have a number of campaigns that you can be a part of from Climate Justice to Media Reform. It’s worth a look.

On the subject of media reform, I wrote an article a number of years ago which  can be found below. (all views my own.)


Press Freedom – Truth or Lie

When I started out as a junior reporter on a local newspaper I fully believed in integrity of the press.  Along with many of my other colleagues, I had picked journalism as a route to making the world a fairer place and enabling us to uncover injustices, to shine a light into the darker corners of politics where corruption and conflict of interest were rife. 

Many would see the local newspaper as insignificant in terms of investigative journalism on a world stage, but this humble beginning is where reporters learn quickly that ‘news’ can be interpreted from the left or the right and local councils are a fair reflection of the larger political arena.  It is also where the next generation of journalists are born and it is here that many can either learn the worth of principled reporting or pick up some pretty underhand habits, depending on their editor’s approach.

In 2017 we saw the emergence of the term ‘fake news’ from the President of the United States, Donald Trump.  This was aimed at the media who he deemed to be reporting ‘untruths’. In fact he used the term in tweets 183 times in his first year in office since entering the White House.  It dominated headlines and became Collins’ Dictionary’s word of the year.

Next up, another term for our post-truth era was uttered by a key Trump adviser,Kellyanne Conway referring to comments by the White House press secretary as “alternative facts” and not, of course, to be confused with lies.  This backdrop where powerful politicians can dismiss news stories whenever they wish as ‘fake news’ or proffer the concept of ‘alternative facts’ has ushered in a devastating era for journalism.

But 2017 was also the year of silenced news. Take, for example, the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn. In the run up to the general election Corbyn was lambasted by the right-wing press. He was accused of having terrorist friends during the Daily Mail’s relentless anti-Corbyn campaign, and painted as a man who would not protect our country in the event of nuclear war. 

What the anti-Corbyn newspapers omitted is that Jeremy Corbyn is a man of peace. Having been awarded the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Prize for his ‘long-term commitment to world peace’ he is in the company of leaders like Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Junior, also awarded the same prize.

Corbyn has been portrayed in the press as weak because he wouldn’t ‘press the nuclear button’ but as President John F. Kennedy pointed out in an address before the General Assembly of the United Nations, in the September of 1961: “… men may no longer pretend that the quest for disarmament is a sign of weakness, for in a spiralling arms race, a nation’s security may well be shrinking even as its arms increase.” He was an ardent supporter of nuclear disarmament and was keen to usher in an era where “no state could annihilate or be annihilated by another.”   J. F. Kennedy promoted the vision of a “world free from the terrors of mass destruction”.

By the time Corbyn appeared on one of the last TV question and answer debates in 2017 on the run up to polling day, the newspaper headlines had done their work on the psyche of the general public.  Corbyn was subjected to heckling over the questions on nuclear arms with the presenter asking Corbyn many times if he would be happy with a ‘first strike’ policy and happy to push the nuclear button. 

This is a fairly good example of targeted reporting without giving the ‘silent’ side of the news story.  After all, headlines could so easily have read ‘Peace Prize Winner Jezza Set to Keep Britain Safe’.  As for the slant of befriending terrorists, even here the flip- side of this story is that trying to open dialogue with people is more likely to produce results than a perpetual circle of violence.  It was, after all, dialogue that secured the Good Friday agreement. Nelson Mandela, famous for his own long walk to freedom said in 1995 that if you want to make peace with your enemy,  “first you have to work with your enemy.”

Corbyn received a second peace prize in 2017, something that should surely be topical. He was awarded the Sean MacBride Peace Prize alongside Noam Chomsky, a renown intellectual heavyweight.  Again he was awarded for his “sustained and powerful political work for disarmament and peace” because: “he has ceaselessly stood by his principles…to ensure true security and well-being for all – for his constituents, for the citizens of the UK and for the people of the world.”  The silence on these stories was deafening. 

This pattern of omission extended beyond the tabloids. The BBC refused to disclose how many complaints it had received over their lack of coverage of a pro-EU march that was attended by around 100,000 people, according to police figures.  Protesters complained about the BBC ‘black-out’ and former Liberal Democrat MP, Stephen Williams, protested that the BBC TV news had given just five seconds coverage to the pro-EU march whilst giving extensive coverage to UKIP news.

Of course newspapers have always ‘slanted’ the news slightly towards the left or right, but today newspapers seem to act as PR agents rather than independent arbiters.  The public are aware of the need for integrity in the press and the Leveson Inquiry was the result of the practice of phone hacking by a section of the press into private lines.  It was a judicial public enquiry into the ethics, practices and culture of the media in two stages. The Leveson Report was published in 2012 dealing with part one of the inquiry.   As a response to the recommendation’s in the report we have the present system of press regulation. 

Although there are two press regulators: The Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO), which most of the press have signed up to, there is also IMPRESS which, despite only having a small number of publications signed up to it, was given recognition by the new Press Recogniton Panel (PRP). The PRP was devised to oversee any independent regulator.  These new arrangements also seemed controversial in their own way. For example, IPSO is funded by its members but IMPRESS is funded by the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust set up by Max Mosley. It could be said that this makes it seem far from independent.  As it stands today IPSO still appear to be the regulators recognised by the majority of the press.

The second half of the inquiry was originally delayed and in March, 2018, the Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that it would be dropped completely.  Interestingly, part two was to cover, amongst other things  ‘the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International, other media organisations or other organisations’.  The timing of the inquiry being dropped is a point of interest.   

In February of this year the right wing press went after Corbyn again with claims that he had met with a Czechoslovakian spy in the 1980s.  The intimation that Corbyn was passing over secrets about his vegetable garden, I assume!  Labour protested that the allegations were “completely surreal” and Corbyn’s spokesman suggested that the papers who published the stories, once again including the Sun and the Mail, were running scared of a possible Labour government who would look into media ownership.  Corbyn warned press barons that “change is coming” and that “publishing these ridiculous smears that have been refuted by the Czech officials  again just shows how worried media bosses are of the prospect of a Labour government.”

Although Corbyn, in his usual way, joked that the press had gone a little bit “James Bond” the injustice of it all was getting waring for the general public. Instead of believing these type of stories many of us were simply feeling that, once again, the standards that we expect from our press had not been met.  Where was the independent body that could put a stop to newspapers becoming the mouthpiece of their owners? 

In this latest vilification of the Labour leader, Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, highlighted that a Labour government would go ahead with the recommendations for press regulation put forward in the Leveson Report and continue to forge ahead with part two of the inquiry.  By March, the second half of the inquiry had been publicly dropped by the Conservatives. Their reason put forward being cost. 

It would seem that an elaborate game of cloaks and mirrors, an expensive mirage set up to show the Conservatives doing the right thing in response to the peoples’ concerns over press integrity has cost a huge sum of money with minimal results .  Perhaps another answer would be to scrutinise media ownership.  Once a person owns a news outlet they could become subject to legislation that would ensure they relinquish any business interests that could show a ‘conflict of interest’ in terms of ‘news’ control.

For the most part, young reporters go out into the world with all the best intentions for uncovering the big scoop, to become the next Woodward or Bernstein, a couple of journalists famous for uncovering the Watergate scandal in the 70s. They often begin with high hopes for bettering society through their tenacity coupled with a moral understanding that corruption and wrongdoing should be wiped from the political world and the practice of journalism.  During coverage of the Watergate affair Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s journalism was called into question by the White House, denouncing their reports in the Post as ‘biased and misleading’. The reporters were finally vindicated when President Nixon’s own press secretary Ron Zeigler called the White House criticisms‘inoperative’.  It takes great courage to not only be a steadfast reporter but also a supportive publisher.  In 1973 the two journalists were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting.

In 2017, Woodward and Bernstein spoke at the  White House Correspondents’ Dinner with a message for President Donald Trump,  “Mr. President”, said Woodward, “the media is not fake news”, and Bernstein reminded the audience that “Richard Nixon tried to make the conduct of the press more the issue in Watergate instead of the President and his men. We tried to avoid the noise and let the reporting speak”, he said.  Unfortunately, for the first time in history, a President was absent from the Correspondents’ Dinner.

The National Union of Journalists Code of Practice states that a journalist should : strive to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair and that they should differentiate between fact and opinion and  produce no material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, gender, race, colour, creed, legal status, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation.

Brexit coverage showed sections of the UK press at their worst.  Some of the headlines in the tabloid press were truly shocking and relentless on the lead up to Brexit and at the last general election.  A report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance accused the British media, especially the tabloids of “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology”. It also named politicians David Cameron and Nigel Farageamong those that they considered to be fuelling rising xenophobia over Brexit, the refugee crisis and terrorism.  In the light of this conclusion it called for a press regulator according to the recommendations of the Leveson Report because the two competing bodies already in place were not sufficient. 

As society progresses it should follow that our politicians and our press also become ever more enlightened and aware of the responsibility they hold to the people.  It is the people that buy newspapers and elect politicians and they deserve more than to be at the end of a chain that begins with business interests first and that of the people last.

From Conservative MPs not bothering to turn up to a parliamentary induction session on ethical dilemmas in 2010, to journalists using shocking tactics to sway voters, there has to be a new era that supersedes post-truth. It should be one in which ethics in both politics and journalism are given urgent priority.  Let’s hope it turns into the post-lies decade pretty fast.  Journalists should not have to work in an atmosphere of fear – fear of losing jobs or being sued for telling the truth.

In 2012, the Ethical Journalism Network was established with the intention to “advance education, particularly education in ethics and respect for human rights”. They believe that these two principles, along with freedom of expression, are integral features of democracy. 

They note that ethics in journalism have never been more needed in this age where we have fabricated news and new forms of propaganda that can deepen political bias, where we have “undue corporate influence”, conflicts of interest and populism, where the public information platform is “fragmented, intolerant and polarised.” 

They seek to strengthen an ethical approach in the newsroom. “We need more ethical journalism and independent, fact-based reporting to tell all sides of the story, and to show respect and humanity”. But as well as this they note that “transparency and good governance in the ownership and management of media and a meaningful commitment to self-regulation across all platforms of journalism”, is also needed. 

This approach, to reinforce ethics and human rights in journalism, seems to me the only way forward.  We can only hope that the future will see the press adhering more fully to the Editor’s Code of Practice.  But to retain a truly democratic society the political arena also needs to be subject to scrutiny in the field of ethics.  Members of Parliament, rather than skipping ethic induction sessions set up by the Committee on Standards in Public Life(CSPL) should be made to attend on a compulsory basis to reinforce the dangers to the democratic process when conflicts of interest influence political decisions.

The Seven Principles of Public Life include, for example, that holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest, decisions should be taken impartially, fairly and on merit and under the heading of ‘integrity’ that they must “avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work.  They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships”. 

A report issued by the CSPL noted that Members of Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons, were slow to embrace induction “let alone accepting that there is a role for ethics within it.”  Whether it be politics or journalism let’s hope that the next decade becomes the ‘post-lies’ era with ethics becoming the watchword for future generations.

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The Lost Boys

Heat sources around the BR-163, in the municipality of Novo Progresso (PA), in August 2020. (Amazon on fire). With kind permission  ©Lucas Landua/Greenpeace

The Lost Boys

The poignancy of the words of an indigenous woman from the Amazon rainforest telling the world leaders they have lost their way, couldn’t have been greater when we saw the UK government reject all natural human instincts to protect vulnerable children in their country from going hungry during holiday periods.

Wise leadership has to have compassion at its heart, and as Nemonte Nenquimo, a Waorani woman and leader of her people pleaded to governments around the world to halt the devastation of the rainforests, she was not just pleading for herself but for all of humanity. As indigenous peoples, she says, “We are fighting to protect what we love – our way of life, our rivers, the animals, our forests, life on Earth.”  

In her letter the greed of the ‘outsiders’ who come to pillage their world spilling oil into their rivers, stealing gold and leaving open pits and toxins, cutting down forest and replacing them with plantations has to stop. “Our elders are dying from coronavirus,” she says, while you are planning your next moves to cut up our lands to stimulate the economy that has never benefited us.” In her language the word they have for those who come from outside to plunder is  “cowari”. It has come to mean “the white man that knows too little for the power that he wields.” It is not a bad word, she says, “but you have made it so.”  

Her overall message that leaders have “lost their way” which has led to “global pandemic, climate crisis, species extinction, and driving it all, widespread spiritual poverty” is one that needs to be urgently heeded. The ignorance and greed of many world leaders, the corruption, injustice and lack of compassion that seems to be on an upward trajectory at this present time is staggering. Nemonte talks as she would to a naughty child that has not yet the capacity to understand fully the consequences of ‘incorrect’ actions.  It highlights the way in which many world leaders are acting like wayward children, stealing from their friends and smashing up the toys of others that they want for themselves. The difference is that the actions of world leaders can have the dire consequence of killing the planet and everyone on it.

The UK government appears to be mirroring the smash and grab attitude seen in the rainforest.  They seem to have used the chaos of a world pandemic to make money for those within the private sector . Leaked information showed that there is shockingly only one public health expert on the ‘NHS’ track and trace executive committee. But there is room for a former Jaguar Land Rover Executive and former executives from companies such as TalkTalk, Travelex, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. (source ref.1)

During the pandemic vast amounts of money available for private corporations rather than directed to the public sector can be seen as an easy route to favour certain companies and individuals. The only winners being corporations and those high up the ranks within them making huge profit . All of this culminated, for me, with the inhumanity of the whipping of Johnson’s MPs to vote against a motion put forward to allow free school meals to be extended for the needy into the holiday period. This would allow those already struggling with job losses and income from the pandemic to feed their children, take some of the stress and burden off those hardly managing to put food on the table, choosing between heat and food in some cases or adults in the household going without to allow their children to eat.

The Prime Minister has moaned that living on £150,000 a year wage is not enough, and that he may resign next year because of it.  Some of the parents of the children that he  refused a food lifeline during such historically lean times may have lost the meagre salary they earned pre-covid.  The people are having to live with devastated small businesses, careers wiped out and houses being taken when they can no longer pay their rent.  How can anyone be whipped to vote against help for children to survive in such a life-changing time?  It shows that the Conservative Party have gone beyond their tag of the ‘nasty party’. They have shown themselves to be both greedy and callous, even sinister in their new dictatorial stance.  Finally being forced into making a U-turn on the issue doesn’t negate their initial response.

The world is in a mess because of its leaders. Yes, in a democratic society we have chosen those leaders at our peril, but democracy is no longer what it used to be. Did we truly choose those leaders freely with such a dominant right wing press, think back to Brexit voting days, and also with corporations that have overall control of the internet and the ability to hone extremism and whatever untruths they wish? 

The trouble is we need different leaders. We need a re-set for society and that is one in which members of government cannot be an MP with any conflict of interest. Today it can be found that some MPs are making huge profits from shares or through other means and that they are running the country entirely on self-interest.  We need leaders who are rigorously and transparently checked for any business interests either directly or to two generations down.  We need a government where there is a ceiling of an average livable wage so that it is easier for those who govern to empathise with the people.   We need compassionate leaders who have no other interests than governing fairly and honestly.  The only problem they should need to solve is how to make society good for all that live in it, rather than how much they can personally accrue by manipulating society to work around their own future assets.

Anybody that reads the letter by Nenquimo can see the wealth of a non-capitalist society. Anybody that reads the letter can see a true leader and our leaders here in the west such as Trump and Johnson should hang their heads in shame.  Boris Johnson has always wanted to model himself on Winston Churchill, perhaps he could look no further for inspiration than a woman living in the forest who has nothing to gain monetarily and so  can speak the truth.  Perhaps he could start by looking at his ability to empathise with those hungry children living close to the poverty line and then work his way outward. Who knows, when he grows up, he too might even prove to be as inspirational a leader as Nemonte Nenquimo.




(1) https://www.monbiot.com/2020/10/23/without-trace/



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The Elected

Straight square lines

throw out scribbled form

that lights mould-pocked walls,

ephemera of blue,

blood red victory barks and curls,

hisses and bites frozen air.

The candidates declare

in fever-pitch lies,

what they can do for America.

Like cheating lovers,

overly animated,

they give the game away.

A small hand,

mauve veins like mountains 

pick their way to fingertips,

nails broken and bruised,

the clenched fist 

rests upon the table,

slim or underfed –

either way,

too weak, you would think,

to lift pills to red-raw lips

bitten down by the anxiety of debt,

of hunger, of harsh hands,

of living without hope.

The relentless flow of sound 

scavenges for an audience,

cheers fill the dead ears

filtering through days-worth of decay

down into lungs too used to

fighting for dry air,

they seek out the heart with no rhythm, 

no room for excuses or promises.

The girl no longer hears

how many ways

the elected

have suffered.

copyright J. Woodward 2020

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The Masking of a Pandemic

There are remarkably few artistic records of the Spanish Flu pandemic that claimed the 
Edvard_Munch_-_Self-Portrait_with_the_Spanish_Flu_(1919)lives of more than fifty million people over a hundred years ago. Mostly cited are a few paintings by the artists Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele, the former a s
elf-portrait whilst suffering with the illness and the latter an unfinished family portrait painted just before he, his wife and unborn child died of the virus.  But where is the mountain of art and literature that would be expected from those who lived through such a monumental event.Egon_Schiele_-_Die_Familie_1918



It has been said that the First World War, which had been raging for four years before the pandemic hit in 1918, was possibly a good reason for the lack of novels, poetry or art.  The pandemic fell beneath the shadow of the Great War, despite claiming more lives than the entire war itself.  An estimated fifty to a hundred million were lost worldwide to the flu whilst the war claimed around a third as many people.  The irony was that soldiers inadvertently helped spread the deadly flu around the world.

Like the 2020 pandemic, schools, shops, churches, theatres and workplaces were closed down, people were advised to stay indoors and avoid shaking hands. Officials in some communities ordered a similar lockdown and that citizens wear masks. But added to this, due to hospitals being overflowing with the sick and dying, schools, private homes and other buildings had to be converted into temporary hospitals There was also a shortage of medical staff due to the war and many doctors and nurses succumbed to the disease. Funeral parlours became overwhelmed. Wood for the coffins ran out and bodies piled up in the streets. Many had to dig graves for their own families.  Such a grim scenario, such a world-changing event, would ordinarily inspire an unprecedented output from the cultural sector.

One reason for the creative silence may have been due to various governments’ reluctance to let the Germans know that they were under attack from another kind of enemy entirely during the war.  Not wanting to be seen as weakened in any way, there was a blanket shut-down of information to prevent any perception of advantage being given to the opposing side. Some villages and towns thought they were alone in their suffering and had no idea they were experiencing a pandemic.  It became known as the ‘Spanish’ flu, not because it originated from this country, but because Spain was impartial during the war and so journalists were allowed to report on it freely.

Those artists and writers that suffered from the ravages of the flu were taken on a surreal journey of hallucination, fever, inability to breathe, with some their hair turned white overnight, others, like T. S Eliot felt that his brain had been affected, and there is no doubt that any near fatal illness and on-going recovery can also exacerbate depression and anxiety.  The cytokine storm that we have seen with Covid-19 was also seen with the Spanish flu.  It is interesting to note in the BBC article, written in 2018, that it was the general belief that if the virus were replicated today our advanced medical treatments such as vaccines, anti-virals and antibiotics would keep a pandemic at bay.  And yet our best response to Covid 19 is to do much the same as they did over 100 years ago, To isolate, wear masks and hope for a cure. 

Around 2005 genomic technology allowed scientists to reconstruct an active virus from inert samples of the Spanish Flu. This was used to infect mice for study.  We now know that the 1918 strain replicated quickly and triggered an intense immune response. Severe inflammation of many organs of the body, including the brain, took place, much as we are seeing today.

In Munch’s self-portrait ‘Inner Turmoil’ (1920) the artist appears caged in his studio in a state of anxiety.  Is this due to his bout of lethal illness that may have left him more anxious about his relationships and his health?  He painted a series of works between 1919-1921, ‘The Artist and His Model. One work entitled ‘jealousy motif’ seems to betray Munch’s insecurities at this time.  Severe illness can have a profound effect on the way a person thinks, their IMG_1089self-worth and their overall feeling of security in the world, in effect it can alter a person’s life to such a degree that psychologically they may never fully recover.

This was clearly evident with the 1918 pandemic.  In fact in Elizabeth Outka’s paper she states that the virus appeared “capable of invading the brain” and that patients who recovered frequently reported “depression, mental confusion, and even schizophrenia”. A soldier stationed in Dorset reported how many soldiers who succumbed to the flu committed suicide in a wood  below the camp that came to be known as ‘suicide wood’ and that the flu “seemed to leave people with distracted minds”.

So the savage toll on health, the blanket of silence cast by governments and the press could all be factors in the dearth of creative historical documentation. But, even with the ‘will to silence‘ as a result of the war,  it seems extraordinary that the many great writers and artists alive at the time were not moved toRoger_Fry_-_Virginia_Woolf write or paint about what they had seen and experienced first hand.  The writer Virginia Woolf suffered from the virus herself and in her book ‘On Being Ill’ she expands upon the same question. Why was there not more written on illness in general?

She asks if it might be that the English language simply does not have the words to express the experience of illness. Why, she says, were there “no novels devoted to influenza or ‘epic poems to typhoid: odes to pneumonia,” given the life-changing effects that poor health can inflict.  “The public would say that a novel devoted to influenza lacked plot; they would complain that there was no love in it – wrongly however, for illness often takes on the disguise of love , and plays the same old tricks.” 

She went on to write Mrs. Dalloway, a novel with its central character a surviver of the flu.  This novel was published in 1925 and  ‘On Illness’ appeared in T. S. Elliot’s magazine ‘The Criterion’, in 1926 and went on to be published by Woolf’s own press in 1930.  Although Virginia had suffered most of her life with various illnesses, the philosophy of disease and its consequences appear to be externalised during this period that followed on from the pandemic.  Relating to illness in general she continuously questions its neglect in the arts . “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love  and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

Perhaps the lack of writing on illness is a lack of courage on our part Woolf argues.  That the war the body wages on the mind with fever and melancholia are overlooked because you need “the courage of a lion tamer” to “look these things squarely in the face”. 

It is interesting to note that one of the few accounts written about the experiences of surviving the pandemic was written by a woman, Katherine Ann Porter, whose novella ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ tackled the experience of the pandemic head on. Porter was a young journalist when she contracted the virus. Her fever so severe that hair fell out and the newspaper had written her obituary ready for the inevitable. However, she recovered and went on to write a work of fiction that appears a thinly veiled autobiography of her own experiences of the illness. In her novel there are glimpses of life during the 1918 pandemic that echo today’s scenario. One character tells another of the severity of the pandemic with ‘all public places closed and the streets only full of ambulances and funerals’.

So, Is the near absence of pandemic literature and art during the 1918 pandemic simply that illness is not an emotive subject, or is there more to the arts community’s erasing of the Spanish flu from their collective historical narrative?  There is no doubt that deaths due to the First World War were immortalised in art and literature in a way that the deaths from the pandemic were not.

Poetry and art depicting dying soldiers and the horrors of war were in abundance either through the lens of heroism and glorification, or horror at the brutality of the battlefield. ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Pity of War’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Two Fusillers’ by Robert Graves, ‘I have a Rendezvous with Death’, by Alan Seegar, ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McRae, the list is endless. According to BBC’s History Extra, “Some 2,200 writers published poetry about the Great War between 1915-18. Perhaps one of the most famous “The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke begins – If I should die, think only this of me: /That their’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England.  This romanticized view of death during the war was absent when it came to the deaths and suffering from the epidemic raging at home or the soldiers themselves dying from the virus rather than on the battlefield.

The poet Guillaume Apollinaire sustained injuries in the war but it was flu that took his life at just thirty-eight years old.  During his funeral Picasso and ‘all of literary Paris, Paris of the arts, the press’ (1) attended and were met by Armistice revellers coming the other way.  With one great poet’s ending also came the end of World War 1, but the war against the pandemic raced on. As Nurse Catherine Macfie recorded, despite the good news of the ending of the war there was no let-up on deaths. ‘The boys were coming in with colds and a headache and they were dead within two or three days.”

Young soldiers who had survived the war were falling fast from the flu on their return.  Little is said of these soldiers. In fact in many cases soldiers’ deaths from the plague were played down and even ignored on death certificates in some countries.  Soldiers had, in fact, been dying in their thousands from Spanish Flu. The pandemic seemed to be driven from the collective conscience as can be witnessed from a major newspaper of the day filled month by month with war news and very little relating to the pandemic.

Radiolab gives an example of this during their podcast relating to a copy of the New York Times, dated December 20th, 1918. In a newspaper packed with war, relegated to the last page of the newspaper a small five line story finally appears with the headline: ‘Six Million Died of Influenza’ and a subheading: ‘Regarded as the World’s Greatest Plague Since the Black Death’. The story reads:  ‘It seems reasonable to believe that throughout the world six million persons have died of influenza and pneumonia during the last three months.  It has been estimated throughout the world that the war caused the death of twenty million people in four and a half years.’ The journalist continues on to say: ‘Thus, influenza has proved itself five times deadlier than war because, in the same period, at its epidemic rate influenza would have killed a hundred million.‘   This is pretty shocking in terms of priority coverage. It would be similar to the pandemic today taking a five line last page mention wedged between an advert and a small insignificant news item.

We might hope that our attitudes towards illness have changed in society in the intervening years since the last pandemic, but during the 2020 Covid outbreak we still appeared to want to search out a heroic narrative in some form or other.  It seems inherently tied to our philosophy that we need to find a reason for death, much as we do a reason for life. When we can find no reason, other than someone was at the wrong place at the wrong time,  it might feel easier to deflect the question of a ‘meaningless’ death.  We appear to  ignore those that have no choice over their death and applaud those that have some degree of control, turning a perceived weakness in humanity into a strength.

The care workers who nursed the covid patients were ascribed hero status.  They had a choice to put themselves in ‘the line of fire’.  But like many of the soldiers in the First World War, their perceived choice was forced upon them.  Without the correct PPE the careworkers were forced into danger and death as numerous young and old soldiers had been when they were conscripted into the army.  In both cases the applause and heroism rhetoric was ratcheted up by those in government and in both cases the people were led by those in power and responded accordingly.  Another more ‘hidden’ view is that both careworkers and soldiers were victims.

In fact there was much wartime analogy with words like the ‘fallen’ and ‘heroes’ being used by the government continuously during the 2020 lockdown.  We were encouraged to come out every Thursday night and clap for the ‘heroic’ individuals who were helping save us from the war against the ‘enemy’.  We re-lived the 1918 wartime narrative, swapping soldiers for doctors and nurses. The government held a  minute’s silence in memory of the ‘fallen’ in the line of duty, those in the careworker sector who died working in hospitals or other institutions that left them open to picking up the virus. I did wonder what people of the loved ones of all the other thousands of victims might have been thinking.  Why weren’t all of the victims from the pandemic included in this very public memorial service?

Again, in a paper by Elizabeth Outka, she states that in 1918, whilst individuals grieved over those lost to the flu, “there were very few public displays of mourning”, and that there was “little in the way of a conceptual framework or shared rituals or ceremonies, such as those marked by the war.”  In the spring of 2020 on the news each night we saw photos of those who had died as careworkers,  but where were the photos or public role call for the other 40,000 people who had died to date? Today in the UK, even though more than fifty lives are sometimes still being lost per day to Covid, the public announcements have been shut down, the on-going death toll pushed to the sideline, as if these deaths are insignificant.  It seems we still need the heroic rhetoric and storyline to process the pandemic more than a hundred years on.

This attitude is reflected every day in our language around death. People are in a battle with cancer, they either win the fight or lose.  We are always encouraged to be perceived as a fighter of our illnesses when the reality is simply that we all now live in a highly toxic environment that gives us little choice of survival other than genetics and luck.  With every other person expected to get cancer it is more about where you live than any character traits of an individual. And yet society still sees those people who lose this metaphorical battle as weaker or in some way inferior to those that are lucky enough to have a cancer that can be cured. This societal aversion to dying without a cause is seen again here.  We need to die in battle somehow – even if only in metaphor.

Many writers have said they couldn’t write during the 2020 lockdown. But I am confident that we will start to see works appearing as time goes on. Artists from around the world are beginning to respond to the pandemic.  Social media has offered another dimension to break the isolation and problems of gallery closures.  It offers an immediate platform, some sharing their daily works whilst in lockdown, instantly communicating to thousands of people around the world.  Banksy shared a wall painting of nine rats causing havoc in his bathroom called ‘My wife hates it when I work from home’. Painted in lockdown he posted the image on Instagram. Artist David Hockney shared ten of his latest works via iPad whilst in lockdown in Normandy and the sculptor David Gormley, as well as producing works such as Hold, a solitary figure clasping bent knees, has also contributed to a series of on-line artist’s diaries (White Cube gallery).(2)

It has been 4 months since the deadly virus became reality for many in the UK and we have already had news coverage of work from the street artist banksy,  who donated a work to a hospital . It is a portrait of a child holding a nurse doll as a superhero with his batman and spiderman toys in the bin.   Graffiti artists seem to have captured the times, but how long will their work remain on walls and houses? 

This time around I am hoping we will see all sides of the story alongside the heroic element- portraits of those who have been on respirators and only just survived and nurses cheering them as they leave hospital, the huge cemeteries set up to cope with the increased amount of coffins, the silent streets and cafes and finally looking illness ‘squarely in the face’, as Woolf suggested over a hundred years ago . There is huge potential for stories of both loss and renewed connection during this dark time.  

Around the world people’s experience of the pandemic  will differ greatly  despite the common connection of suffering and empathy.  I can’t wait to see the creative response. I really hope that today the arts community will leave more of an historical account than those in the 1918 pandemic and I look forward to reading novels, poetry and art that allows us all to see a different perspective on one of the most life-changing events of the 21stC.



All paintings are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

From top to bottom:  Edvard Munch: Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu 1919

Egon Schiele: The Family 1918

Edvard Munch: Sleepless Night:Self-Portrait Inner Turmoil 1920

Roger Fry:  Virginia Woolf 1917


On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf with Notes from Sick Rooms by Julia Stephenson/Paris Press, Ashfield, Massachusetts/2012

(1)  Prospect magazine/A third of the world’s population were infected: here’s how the diarists recorded the 1918 Spanish Flu/Ian Irvine/Feb20,2018

(2)   BBC News/EllaWills/April 20, 2020









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