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Friday, 30 October 2020

Deeply Held Beliefs


What is the difference between a deeply held belief and a belief? The former is probably one which will not easily be given up in the face of apparently invalidating evidence or argument. Indeed, there may be unwillingness to give it up in any circumstances and the believer may acknowledge that by saying the belief is a matter of faith, that they are willing to believe even what is absurd (Credo quia absurdum).

At the same time, someone who tells you that something is for them a deeply held belief may also be warning you off: don’t try to get too close to my belief, don’t offend me by criticising it let alone scoffing at it, acknowledge my entitlement to believe what I like. And, perhaps remarkably, the deep believer often gets their way: other people tip-toe round deeply held beliefs for fear either that they might cause upset or incur some swift punishment for temerity. Deep beliefs can secure you remarkable privileges.  

Two paragraphs down and things aren’t looking good for deeply held beliefs. They already begin to sound like things we could best do without.

Beliefs which their holders characterise in this kind of way must have some kind of history. Are the beliefs or the way they are characterised recent inventions? I am going to guess they are. What are now characterised as deeply held beliefs started out as a new way of pledging allegiance, most obviously to one of the religions which depend on writing and  which began to get themselves organised more than a millennium ago now. That you could recite a long set of beliefs from memory became the proof that you weren’t faking it, that you really were one of us. The demands made on believers were sometimes considerable: the Church of England started off with thirty nine articles of belief and still keeps hold of them. True, it’s not any longer expected that anyone now deeply believes all of them or, indeed, any of them. Nowadays, the test of allegiance may be no more than a contribution to roof repairs. But that was not always true. Like many religious organisations, the Church of England has known better days and but for endless free publicity provided by the Royal Family and the BBC would trouble us as little as the closer-to-the-spirit-of Christianity non-conformist churches.


The alternative to deeply held beliefs are beliefs which we accept as vulnerable to evidence and reasoned argument. People who hold their beliefs in that kind of provisional way are not only better company but safer drivers. At times, they will be as useful in the same way as a canary in a coalmine. They will be better guides when it comes to getting out of a fix. A politician who does not know how to make a U-turn is not to be trusted, no more than someone whose car has no reverse gear.

During a pandemic, deep believers will be the ones keen to keep their churches, mosques and synagogues open, at all costs. They will pay the price - God will single them out for special disfavour (see now footnote *) - but everyone else is made to suffer too.


My younger self was far too pre-occupied with his beliefs and completely inattentive to his dispositions. I can only say that I think this not an uncommon mistake. Theologies of one kind or another have their strongest appeal to the young, to seminarians and students, historically more or less exclusively male castes. Sometimes whole lifetimes are then devoted to elaborating the initial stock of beliefs, taken from one of the well-known tried and failed models. But quite often, people realise that such beliefs are not enough to sustain a life, their enthusiasm wanes, and they become more human. This benefits all of us.

Dispositions matter: generosity and kindness, cruelty and meanness, fairness and thoughtfulness, jealousy and vindictiveness. Of course, those dispositions are often presented as beliefs: young men claim to kill in the name of some article of their religion. They don’t say they kill for the glory or the thrill, though often it seems clear that they do.  If it was really a matter of belief, how come nearly all the killers are young males and not more evenly distributed across the entire community of deep believers, female as well as male, old as well as young?

And when someone refuses to do something “on principle” the one thing you can be reasonably sure of is that they take a peacock pride in themselves. What does “on principle” add to just refusing to do something? You are a soldier lined up facing a hostile crowd. Your commanding officer orders you to fire into the air, you do, and the crowd turns around and runs. You are then ordered to lower your gun and shoot those fleeing, in the back. You could turn to your officer and say that you won’t do that “on principle” or you could just carry on firing into the air and hope that those alongside you do the same. What matters most in the heat of the moment is not your principles but that those running have a chance to get away - and silent mutiny will be at least as effective as grandstanding.


Beliefs are very over-rated. Most of us have far too many for our own good and even more so for the good of others. And we are terribly interested in what other people believe (heresy-hunting alive and well) when really we should be more interested in their dispositions and their circumstances. Is this person disposed to kindness? is an important question. Do they believe in the thirty nine articles of the Christian religion? is not, ever. Can people afford accommodation for themselves which is light, airy, dry, warm, spacious, and secure? is a great deal more important than whether they believe in the one hundred percent social construction of gender identities (ninety nine percent will not do).

I am still overweight with beliefs, but trying to slim down. As for deeply held beliefs, they are the mental equivalent of obesity. Both Ockham’s Razor and simple considerations of mental hygiene ought to persuade us that when it comes to belief we should travel light.

Footnote added 2 February 2021: This prediction turns out to be true. Today's Financial Times publishes a graphic showing United Kingdom COVID mortality rates by religious affiliation. In the period 2nd March to 15 May 2020, mortality per 100 000 affiliates was highest among those who identified themselves as Jewish with Muslims coming in a close second. The numbers then decline through the following categories: Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Other Religion, Religion not stated  ... and, finally, at around half the Jewish rate, "No religion". 

You can interpret the figures in many ways; I just think God has had it with "Religion" - terrible track record when you look at them all -  and has decided to support the other side.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Radical Philosophy

I had a partner who teased me whenever I informed her that I’d worked something out in my own head. She had a sharp ear for pleonasm and so I made attempts to avoid being teased.

Recently, I discovered that the journal Radical Philosophy has been revived. The old one started in 1972 and ran to two hundred issues before running out of steam. This morning in the shower - and nearly fifty years after contributing to the first issue of the original Radical Philosophy [1] -  I had the thought (in my own head), Isn’t the expression radical philosophy a pleonasm?

All philosophy tries to get to the root/s of things, to get beyond the repetition of conventional thoughts, the reliance on unchallenged assumptions, the polite acquiescence in received wisdom. That does not entail that philosophical conclusions must end up being sceptical in character. You may dig down to the roots and discover they are very strong and hold up the tree very well. Your task then becomes that of re-familiarising others, of getting them to look afresh at what has become so familiar that it is too much taken for granted. Take a look, give that root a big kick, and you will find it hurts you more than it hurts the root.

But to confine philosophy to just sceptical and non-sceptical versions is too limiting, anyway. Raymond Geuss titles a recent book Changing The Subject (2017) and broadly speaking argues that philosophers repeatedly change the state of the question. Marx was very explicit about the change he wanted to make: Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. [2]

It’s a commonplace in the philosophy of science at least since Thomas Kuhn’s work (1950s – 1960s)[3] that when a scientific revolution occurs, it’s not just a theory which changes. It is the questions asked, the bits of the world which seem in need of study, the definition of the subject itself. Geuss is casting the history of philosophy as possessed by a similar dynamic. 

But for both science and philosophy, it does not exclude the claim that they aim at truth.

There is art and literature which might be described as philosophical and which also tries to dig down to the roots, either to refresh our understanding of our world or suggest we might be better off shifting ourselves into a different one. William Wordsworth seeks to refresh, to re-imagine our familiar world, to give the charm of novelty to things of everyday as Coleridge puts it in Biographia Literaria

In contrast, there are those who use literary and theatrical techniques of estrangement or alienation to upset our habitual responses, hoping to lead us into questioning the normal, into imagining a world different from this wearying reality of ours. In the recent past the names of Viktor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht [4] are closely linked to such an approach, but the techniques are not new. They are deployed in a long procession of older works in which the morals and manners of other cultures are held up as mirrors to our own: Montaigne's sixteenth century essay "On the Cannibals" is an early example.

Of course, art and literature and philosophy too are often enough produced as comfort food, offering no challenge and packaged like candy. On that, my philosopher’s advice is to refuse substitutes and only curl up on the sofa with real ideas and fairtrade chocolate. [5]

[1] “Sanity, Madness and the Problem of Knowledge”, Radical Philosophy, 1, January 1972, pp. 22-23. Now at 
[2] . The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, dating from 1845.
[3]  Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).
[4] “English Formalism and Russian Formalism”, in my Materials and Medium: An Aesthetics (2016), pp. 71-80.
[5] Here Dr Pateman enters into competition with Dr Peterson who in 12 Rules for Life (2018) recommends a masculine diet of Heidegger and fry-up breakfasts. Cousin Medicine publicly despairs of us both but kindly whispers, Peterson’s diet is much worse.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Mayor of London's Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm

Submission to the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm

(Chairs: Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard and Justine Simons OBE)

“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (Audre Lorde)

This submission is made by way of asking the Commission to consider the argument that the erection of any new statues or monuments to individuals should be discouraged and planning permission refused. At the same time, many existing statues should be removed.

The traditional style of these monuments to individuals  - recently exemplified by the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square - produces a stone or metal effigy or mummy of a dead person, posed upright, and supported by a plinth. A horse has often been deployed to add further height.

This traditional mode has been used for centuries by elites in an attempt to immortalise themselves. 

Though the form probably goes back to the Pharaohs, if not beyond, this kind of grisly monumentalisation has never been a popular art form and is unlikely to become so even if those immortalised are changed.

In addition, and as with Heaven and Hell, a binary choice has to be imposed on history. Either an individual gets a statue or they don’t. This not only produces endless and inconclusive debates about whether someone merits a statue but also obstinately ignores the fact that human beings always have demerits as well as merits; they may be heroes but they are never saints.

Inevitably, the monumental statue system favours leaders over followers and gives no recognition to the part played by groups and movements. When the two are juxtaposed, the effect is sometimes unfortunate: for example, the juxtaposition of the Cenotaph in Whitehall and Earl Haig is indefensible. Haig should not be there.

For public graveyards, there are protocols for clearing them out and starting again. No protocols exist for removing unwanted statues and it will be no easy task for your Commission to formulate any.

I would urge the Commission to consider the many limitations of trying to use public space to create public memory and to have regard in their recommendations to the fact that the world changes faster than bronze or marble wears out.

Submitted 9 June 2020; acknowledged 13 July 2020.

Saturday, 13 June 2020

The General Case Against All Statues

This is a chapter from Trevor Pateman, Between Remembering and Forgetting, published February 2020 and available at Amazon, Blackwell online, and Waterstones.                                                                  

We are afraid of forgetting. From school days on, we are chastised for it and as we sense ourselves ageing become terrified of any forgetfulness as if it can only be a premonition of much worse to come. At school, we got gold stars for remembering and now in our diaries dutifully note birthdays and wedding anniversaries shameful to forget. The diaries themselves are usually printed with reminders of dates we are expected to remember – Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day (such is modern romance). 

The United Nations encourages us to remember a quite different list, to be found at and currently extending to one hundred and fifty six days, beginning with the International Day of Commemoration of the Victims of the Holocaust on 27th January and ending on 20th December with International Human Solidarity Day. The month-long breathing space before it all starts up again is partly owing to the congestion created by the different parties of organised Christianity who remember Saviours born on different Christmas Days. Partly also to the fireworks and inebriation obligatory at New Year. Some of the UN days have a tragic connecting logic: World Tourism Day on 27th September is followed on the 28th by World Rabies Day. Other juxtapositions suggest something else: World Philosophy Day on 15th November is shortly followed on the 19th by World Toilet Day, a delight for fans of Rabelais and Mikhail Bakhtin.

Our obsession with not forgetting anyone or anything is exhausting. We are trying to remember too much and we don’t know how to prioritise, as the time managers might put it. As a result, not only do we have over-stuffed diaries but - to take something I want to discuss - over-stuffed city streets cluttered with bronze and stone effigies, monuments in perpetuity to personages who were erected in order not to be forgotten.

Many tourists visiting London will already know that it is Nelson on top of the column in Trafalgar Square. But other characters are memorialised there, asking for whose names would put an end to anyone’s aspirations to become a TV quiz millionaire. Nobody knows, nobody cares, but if I have driven you to your smart phone you will discover that they include George IV (who contends for the title of England’s most dissolute king), General Sir Charles Napier (“the best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing”) and Major General Sir Henry Havelock (Memoirs of the Afghan Campaign). You don’t even have to make it up.

At the edge of the square, a backdrop to King Charles the First on the inevitable horse was once provided by large bold letters arranged downwards through three storeys and drawing attention to Coles’s Truss Manufactory. They have long since been removed, despite the apostrophe being correctly placed1. But take down those other monuments to past glories because we now no longer have any use or have simply forgotten?  Oh no. They are history, they are heritage. True, no one is corrupt enough to claim that the monuments have artistic merit. No one even tries that on. I defy you to find an aesthetically pleasing, artistically significant monument to a dead king or general bigged up on a plinth or a horse or doubly on both. You might, I suppose, try the Bronze Horseman – the equestrian monument to Peter the Great in St Petersburg. But then look again and you’ll see that it’s the nameless horse which is the success story, not the toy rider. One day they will erect Vladimir Putin and sit him on a motorbike; there will be much knowledgeable discussion of the bike.

I realise that there are people now who want to bring more balance, more diversity to our city streets and squares, people who want to big up a different kind of person. It’s been done recently in London, where in Parliament Square the bronze effigy of a suffragette now stands among the dead men: Millicent Fawcett holding a tea towel to advertise the firm of Gillian Wearing. It’s dire, and necessarily so. If imagination does not extend beyond bigging up in the traditional mould - bronze or marble, on a plinth, upright bearing, best foot forward, chin up, strong gaze towards heaven - then you reduce the challenge and energy of your revolutionaries, your radicals and feminists, to fit the smugness of your generals, your slavers and those famous only for their accident of birth. Get rid of them all. Have the courage of your own forgetting. But also have the courage to remember in different ways – how is it that we have limited them so disastrously?

Memory starts out as personal memory. He was killed in the war, and she remembers him and will remember him until she dies when all will be forgotten. In peacetime, if he had died in a car accident, then neighbours and friends would rally round. In wartime, it is quite different. Everyone has their loss, their losses. Likewise, in a mining disaster when many die it is a community which is affected as well as families and individuals.  So instead of those who have not suffered rallying round those who have, we have shared suffering, shared grief. In that context, it is not surprising that people should look towards shared remembering.

Grief fades with time, and so too does memory. If we are afraid of that, or guilty about it, then one function of a shared ritual of remembrance is to keep the memory alive, perhaps even revive the grief. In some ways it seems a bit perverse; in other respects, we might argue that nothing is ever truly forgotten, no grief ever truly exhausted and so it is better to return, from time to time, to the scene of the crime committed against our hopes and happiness. Or at the very least to show some respect, especially to the memory of those who died that others might live.

In New South Wales, the Mount Kembla mining disaster of 1902 killed ninety six miners leaving thirty three widows and one hundred and twenty fatherless children in the adjacent mining village. We can be sure that none of those children are still alive, but an annual commemoration of the disaster still takes place on the 31st July and the memorial erected still stands. Why? Well, probably some children of the fatherless children are still alive and their lives were no doubt marked in some way, probably a very significant way, by an event which preceded their birth. The disaster is part of their history, even part of the history of one or two further generations.

The last Holocaust survivor will die in the near future, but the Holocaust will take much longer to die in the lives of its children, grand-children, great-grand-children. Eventually, however, it will become one of those things which took place a long time ago and in another country, rather like the Conquest of the Incas which is not now marked by solemn occasions anywhere, though its horrors have been amply documented, and for centuries, in historical works.

But it is not just for short-term memory purposes that people want the monuments, the commemorations, the days of remembrance; they want them to remind us of something, to teach us a lesson. We learn early on that life is about being taught lessons. Mount Kembla reminds us of the negligence of mine owners, one of the most enduring negligences, still delivering its deaths on every continent. So the point of the commemoration, one might say, is directed beyond and outside the circle of those who were most immediately and intimately affected. That, of course, means that there is the possibility of a tension arising between the needs of those directly in line of the hit and the motives of activists and ideologues. It is a commonplace that suffering is hi-jacked, agitators heading to the scene, the current disaster cut and pasted onto the standard issue placard. The Holocaust is well on the way to suffering a similar fate, not so much remembered and grieved over as used to coerce.

Such mismatches between suffering and how it is made use of are most obvious in the ways in which nation states officially recognise the war deaths of those they have sent to fight and, sometimes also, the civilians who were victims of the enemy. In the old Soviet Union, the party line dictated that the twenty million casualties in World War Two could only be memorialised by huge and brutal installations which suggested the crushing might of Russia and the iron will of its fighters. But those memorials - lacking any elements of simplicity, intimacy and privacy - must surely have left those still grieving with feelings of awkwardness and confusion. It could have been done differently.

One day during a 1998 holiday, I walked around the National Gallery of Armenia in Yerevan. My attention was caught by a very large painting (196 x 250 cm) which depicts all kinds of simple but very colourful flowers stuck in jam jars, often only a few to a jar, lined up in rows as if on shelves, some pieces of fruit also scattered around. I smiled, felt warmed, but also felt that the painting expressed some sadness. I looked at the gallery description. It told me that the painting - by Martiros Saryan and dated to 1945 - was a tribute to Armenians who had fought in the Red Army, both those who survived and those many who died. I was astonished and moved. I now saw the jam jars placed on simple graves with whatever flowers were to hand, and imagined the actions and feelings of those who bent to place them there. Perhaps also, the flowers could belong in the centre of kitchen tables, set to celebrate a safe homecoming.

If that second way of seeing the painting is legitimate, then Saryan has done a very interesting thing. His painting allows for the expression of both sadness and joy. If we follow through that idea, it suggests that our habit of firmly separating celebrations from commemorations or remembrances, gaiety from solemnity, should at least sometimes be disrupted. It often is at modern funerals which try to celebrate the life of the deceased instead of mourning their passing. That has its dangers. It may work well for a professional colleague or even a friend of long-standing. It may be harder for those still punched into immediate grief and, worse, little more than denial if they seek to find laughter simply because too much embarrassed by tears.

But even with that caveat, we need to loosen up, be more imaginative about the ways in which we choose to remember as well as more willing to acknowledge and even welcome the fact that we forget. For the present at least, all new statues should be firmly off the plinth if the best we can come up with are effigies in the style of mummification originally favoured by the nasty party of humanity. Those old statues put up to forgotten bit-players of Empire should simply come down. They have had their day.

That a subscription was raised to put up a monument in perpetuity places no obligations on future generations. Let us continue to have the history books about English public school boys trained to put down Indian mutinies and Afghan defiance. But since we have forgotten their names and if, perchance, do remember but no longer admire, the statues should be cleared off the streets, out of the parks, and removed to some outdoor museum – or sent to the scrap yard since they have no artistic or aesthetic value. There would be no vandalism involved. Private graves in cemeteries are eventually bulldozed to make way for new coffins or simply to create public green spaces. No one much cares, though one might want to save for museum purposes the occasional drooping angel to illustrate how monumental masons have conceived drooping angels through the centuries. Likewise, one might reserve a few Queen Victorias and Lenins for the clinical gaze of the historians.

A private subscription or a centuries-old governmental decision cannot take away from us the right to control our own public spaces. We are the ones who have to live in them now and, if the corpses mummified in bronze or stone are forgotten or disdained, they should go. We redecorate our private living spaces, we re-furnish our rooms. There is no reason why we should not do the same with our streets and other public spaces. I know that the urge to clutter public space is very strong – municipal authorities abhor a vacuum and will never miss an opportunity to put up yet another street sign. But we should resist the temptation and if we want to install new things, then we should think more widely and look to the merits of temporary installations, of things which change through the seasons like plants and trees, of objects which are less literal and less static, like fountains -  almost everywhere a neglected genre of public art. We should be more willing to recognise that most heroes are local heroes and temporary ones too, more suitable for writing about in history books than parked on a plinth on our pavements, their only devotees pigeons and dogs. 

There is something to be said for a cityscape where all that is solid melts into air. It has been rammed into us from childhood that forgetting is a fault. We should challenge that. It’s only human to forget and we should sometimes accept our humanity. Those men on plinths had their time and now we have ours. If we are afraid of them, it is only in the Oedipal way that Don Giovanni is afraid of the ghost-statue of the Commendatore. From time to time, such fear is overcome and the statues of Stalin and Saddam Hussein are pulled down to public glee. Since we have largely forgotten them, there’s not much glee to be had in pulling down the bit players, the Napiers and the Havelocks. It’s merely a task for municipal authorities, charged to sustain public spaces which are a pleasure to share both with our friends and the ever changing cast of strangers who come and go. All might take passing delight in a less literal cityscape, furnished with fountains and avenues of trees but not with bodies in rigor mortis petrified on pedestals. For those who deserve to be remembered, there are much better ways of prompting our memory2.

1.      In Culture and Anarchy (1869) Matthew Arnold is horrified by the backdrop standing where it ought not which was reason enough to search for the photograph; Arnold has no qualms about Charles the First.

     2.   This essay was written before I read David Rieff’s excellent book In Praise of Forgetting (2016). Rieff takes a cue from Josef Yerushalmi’s Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982) and probes the idea that the antonym of “forgetting” is not “remembering” but “justice” (p. 91) and expands this by introducing the term “peace”. It is forgetting which often enough enables peace, even without justice; in contrast the demand to remember links easily to the demand for justice, understood in terms of crimes and punishments. Rieff mobilises some significant examples of historical moments when forgetting has been accepted as a way out from conflict, yielding peace even if it does not deliver justice. He references the end of white rule in South Africa, Spain at the time of Franco’s death, Chile in 1990, the 1995 Dayton accords in Bosnia, and the 1998 Good Friday agreement in Ireland.

Thursday, 23 April 2020

The Case Against Conceptual Art

In an impressive piece of recent autobiographical fiction, the narrator of Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking (2017) repeatedly sets herself the task of identifying a work of art - usually a work of conceptual art - which relates to the topic she is currently thinking about. Frankie, the narrator, lists and thumbnails each work in separated paragraphs which always begin with a formulaic phrase on the pattern of Works About Killing Animals, I test myself:

Some of the works are well-known like Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) and Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking (1967), but most are more obscure. Though Baume at the end of her book (pages 303- 307) urges us to go to the works ourselves, I suspect she has actually and accidentally already illustrated a main weakness of conceptual art: you don’t have to see it, or otherwise experience it, in order to talk about it. You just need a description which spells out the idea, the thought, which the work illustrates.

A great deal of what is called conceptual art is illustrative, and that means that as art it is almost certainly weak and banal. Often enough, the realisation of the idea may be elaborate and costly, and sometimes fleeting, but it is all pretty much irrelevant except as an illustration of how easy it is to waste time and money. We can debate the Concept all night with only a nod to the work which illustrated it. There is really no need for us to confront the work itself, if indeed it still exists to be confronted. Frankie/Baume effectively says as much herself:

Works about Time, I test myself: Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010. A 24-hour film, a collage of extracts… Each extract represents a minute of the day … I have never seen it for real. Right the way through from beginning to end. I don’t imagine many people have. Nevertheless, I love this piece. I love the idea. (p 181)

We would simply laugh at someone who said of Baume’s novel I have never actually read it from beginning to end. But I love this work. I love the idea.  You can’t love a novel if you haven’t read it, not even if it’s Ulysses, so how can you love a work of art if you haven’t seen it? All you can love is the idea. That’s almost certainly enough; it would almost certainly be a waste of your time to watch it, even from the comfort of YouTube. You won’t need twenty four hours to get the general idea.

Back in 1997, as part of the Turner Prize show, London’s Tate Gallery projected Gillian Wearing’s Sixty Minutes onto a large screen. This is a video in which a group of people are lined up and asked to stand stock still for sixty minutes while they are filmed by a completely static camera. It would have caused a log-jam in the gallery if visitors had paused for sixty minutes to watch. The gallery correctly assumed that everyone would give it at most a few minutes, to get the general idea and then move on. I sat cross-legged on the floor (no seats provided) for nineteen minutes, outlasting every other visitor in that period by at least seventeen minutes. What would we say about a cinema film which could not hold its audience for more than a few minutes, after which they would all leave because they had got the general idea? But Gillian Wearing was awarded the Turner Prize for her effort.[1]

Suppose Sara Baume had simply made up the majority of the many conceptual art pieces to which she refers, and in a work of fiction, who could object to that?  There would have been no loss of idea. However, this thought experiment does suggest a way of thinking about possible justifications for the embodied element in actual works of conceptual art.

Since Duchamp’s urinal, the actual work is meant to secure by means of a certain outrageousness both attention and discussion; the embodied side of the work is a provocation of a kind which few of us would be bold enough to offer. One philosopher of art, Elisabeth Schellekens, singles out this audaciousness - nerve and cheek - as a central aspect of conceptual art installations and performances[2]. But in highlighting this aspect, the argument does connect the world of art to the world of pranks though Schellekens herself only makes the link to jokes and satirical cartoons (page 86). Another contributor to the volume of essays in which Schellekens develops her argument, Margaret Boden, does however reference (page 228) the rather embarassing case of Alphonse Allais, a nineteenth century Parisian prankster who got there before the po-faced artists of the twentieth century, already in the 1880s exhibiting a canvas painted entirely white and titled Anaemic Young Girls Going To Their First Communion Through a Blizzard.

I think reflection on the Allais case does allow an understanding of much conceptual art. I think most of it does belong to the broad category of Pranks. Pranks usually involve someone in quite a lot of prior thought, maybe mixed in character and motive, and are realised by means which are intended to discomfort or shock some individual, group or institution. The pranks performed by conceptual artists can, however, generally be distinguished from the broader category of pranks by two important features: a general humourlessness and the artist’s sense of entitlement to public funding and/or access to public exhibition space.

So Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) is a contemporary prankster but not a conceptual artist because he aims to make people laugh. And only as a prank would a prankster like Borat seek public funding or an academic job or space in the Tate Gallery. In contrast, conceptual artists feel entitled to all those things. This is consistent with the claims of an institutional theory of art, which is also used by other philosophers as justification for treating conceptual art as art - for example, by Dominic Lopes at page 241 of the same collection of essays to which I have been referring. The institutional theory says that Art just is what institutions like art galleries and art dealers say is Art. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

The crossover case would be that of an artist who has a sense of humour and a distance from the institutional world of art. The crossover is perfectly illustrated by Banksy who produces things which are provocative, which are often funny, which are every discussable, and which Banksy tries to keep at a distance from the “art world”, most strikingly in a recent prank at Sotheby’s auction room. One of his works had just been sold for a very large sum, and as the auction participants still gazed at the work, it self-destructed before their eyes - the coup de théatre achieved by a remote controlled device.

But I think my general claim remains generally true. Conceptual art fails as art when it invites us to respond to it without experiencing it. Art is something you have to experience at first hand in order to respond to it appropriately.

Not so long ago, I wrote a critical piece [3] about a painting by a Dutch portrait painter, Simon Maris, which had been re-titled by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; they had changed its title from Young Negro Girl to Young Girl with a Fan. From the museum’s online images, I was able to argue that both titles missed the fact that the “girl” was wearing a plain gold band on the ring finger of her left hand. Though re-titled, with much attendant publicity, no one appeared to have looked at the painting. Several other relevant claims could be made on the basis of the reproduced images. But then I travelled over to Amsterdam to look at the painting itself. As I entered the room in which it was displayed, there was an immediate and fairly dramatic shock awaiting me. What had looked like a cheerful yellow bonnet in all the reproductions now suddenly dazzled as if it was a golden halo. In consequence, what I had hitherto thought of as a fairly formal portrait, albeit an unusual one, suddenly took me in another direction, towards the tradition of what are called “Black Madonnas”, portraits or statues of the Virgin Mary with a haloed black face which are found in several, maybe most, European countries.

The sight of the halo reminded me of my own conviction: a painting has to be seen. It’s meant to be seen and there is really no other way of seeing it - properly, so that we can appreciate scale and the effect of natural light - than by standing in front of it. In Painting as an Art, Richard Wollheim (1987) said that he was only going to write about paintings which he had not only seen but spent time with; he gave a three hours per painting guide figure. That bears some thinking about in a world where a prize-winning sixty minute video in the Tate Gallery holds the attention of viewers for two minutes at most, and Baume’s narrator Frankie can claim to love a work she has never watched from beginning to end.

My puzzlement about conceptual art dates back to the early 1970s when Michael Corris and a colleague from the US Art & Language group visited me in my rural Devon cottage and solicited a contribution for their new journal The Fox of which three issues appeared and are now collectors’ items. Well, I didn’t really have anything which I felt appropriate but I mentioned a draft study of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which would have been my cover story for a second year in Paris as a student with Roland Barthes had I stayed on after my first year. But I had decided to return to England and a job, and so it had never been worked up or shown to Barthes though a version in French existed. Anyway, to my surprise it was accepted for The Fox and appeared in issue 2 with small editorial additions which irritated me. But for the life of me I did not understand how my essay fitted into their project.

That digression does lead to a final point. Perhaps the core weakness of most conceptual art is that the links between ideas and embodied work are so weak or so opaque, and the ideas themselves so often confused, that really all we are offered (in most cases) is an invitation to free associate. So I think it likely that I got an essay published in The Fox for no good reason because there was no editorial clear thinking about what they were about and free association was the order of the day.

It is notable that in the collection Philosophy and Conceptual Art, from which I have quoted above, even though contributors have been asked to reference at least some among a number of selected works of conceptual art, that no one attempts a serious, say, thousand word piece of criticism which brings to life and understanding a particular piece of conceptual art in its specificity. It’s my belief that most  works of conceptual art could not bear the strain of sustained critical reflection and that is a main reason why it does not happen. Of course, there is plenty of humourless prose produced around conceptual art, which regularly provides satirical material for Private Eye.


Sometimes people know exactly what they are doing. At other times, they haven’t a clue.For an artist, not quite knowing what you are doing is not such a bad place to be. It can mean that you are in the middle of some genuine exploration. Part of my problem with conceptual artists is that I'm not convinced that they are not quite knowing. Either they know exactly or they don't know at all.

[1] For a long critique, see my “The Turner Prize 1997” at
[2] Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens, editors, Philosophy and Conceptual Art (2007)
[3]“Young Girl With a Fan?” in Trevor Pateman, The Best I Can Do (2016)

Monday, 13 April 2020

Veryard: From Hawkchurch via Castle Cary to Tottenham

In Victorian England, everyone was on the move, from rural to urban areas, from country to town. The land could no longer offer employment to all the numerous children of agricultural labourers and, even when and where it could, pay was low and conditions hard. After the repeal of the Corn Laws, agricultural prices collapsed. Meanwhile, commerce and industry thrived. So an explanation for the great migration of the time seems straightforward. But each individual had their own reasons for leaving, for when they left, and for where they went to. Where they went to was often enough dictated by knowing someone who had already made the move and who could provide initial help in a strange place, perhaps even helping with accommodation or finding employment.

My great grandfather Thomas John Veryard moved to London from the small town of Castle Cary in Somerset where he was born in 1854. He moved away after marrying Susan Ridout in 1873 She was born locally in Alford in the same 1854 year as Thomas and lived until 1938 even though she gave birth to a dozen children. He lived until 1932. They have many direct descendants all over the internet.

There were Veryards who stayed put and the surname is still to be found in Castle Cary. Had Thomas stayed, he would not have become one of my great grandfathers. Why did he leave? Well, he had gone to school and probably did a bit better than his peers; he had enough talent to become a typesetter and in later life was self-employed in that skilled and much-in-demand trade. The censuses record him variously as a printer-compositor and letterpress printer , latterly at 79 The Crescent, Tottenham in north London - he can be found in trade directories. But he could have typeset in Castle Cary; there would always have been things which needed printing in a busy small town. Yes, busy small town but small enough for your history to be known.

Thomas was the only living child of a woman who never married, and he kept his mother’s name as his surname. His mother Eliza Veryard, born in 1825, had two children out of wedlock, not in itself unusual in Victorian England. The first was Thomas Morton/Moreton Veryard born in 1849 died in 1852, father unknown but perhaps coded into the child’s middle name. The surname Morton / Moreton is still found in the area notably in nearby Shepton Mallet. On his death certificate, his mother is described as a factory woman. But the child died and left no other mark in history than baptism and burial records. On his baptismal certificate the child’s surname is given as Verriott, as if some disguise is being attempted, but on his death certificate it is Veryard. The slippage is important because Eliza had been born in Hawkchurch, Devon where the Veryard name emerged suddenly around 1731, seemingly the work of  a Verriott family who decided to change or allowed their name to migrate into Veryard which, as it happened, was a more prestigious variant.

There were Devon Veryards in the past who had gone to Oxford before becoming vicars or doctors; one of the medical doctors studied in Holland at the universities of Leiden and Utrecht, travelled extensively for fifteen years, and wrote up his travels in an enormous book published in 1701 and still being printed on demand at Amazon. There were so many Veryards (with spelling variants) in 17th and 18th century Devon and Dorset that it has so far proved impossible for me to conclude that Dr Ellis Veryard ( 1657 - 1714 ) is an ancestor who would falsify my lifetime belief that I was the first ever member of my family to go to university:

Click on Image to Enlarge

To return to Thomas John Veryard,  Eliza's  second illegitimate child, his middle name matching the first name of the man who is pointed to as the father in the internet sources I have consulted: John Paul Donne born in 1829 and dying in the year of Thomas’s birth. So Thomas never knew his father who was buried alongside other family members in nearby Shepton Mallet.

Now it’s possible that Eliza hoped to marry John and was thwarted by his death. She may have turned into a melancholy Miss Havisham; certainly, when Thomas moved to London with his young family he took his mother with him and she remained in his household until she died in Tottenham in 1905, aged eighty, and still unmarried. Thomas gave his mother’s name to  one of his children and she became my grandmother Eliza Kate Veryard, born in London in 1886 and alive when I was a child. She must have had some contact with the Castle Cary Veryards: when my parents married in 1938 they honeymooned in Somerset and spent time in Castle Cary.

But there is more to the story of the first Eliza and John Donne and it suggests that there could not have been a marriage and maybe that the situation was distinctly uncomfortable.

Eliza had come to Castle Cary with her parents from Hawkchurch where by the time of her birth in 1825 the Veryards were well-established and more or less all employed in the dominant local industries based around making ropes and twines, using flax and hemp, and all much in demand in busy local ports like Bridport which was then a significant harbour. On her birth certificate the occupation of her father Thomas Veryard is given as Twine Spinner. Her mother is as usual without occupation, and was Ann Chalk before her marriage, which took place in Dilton Marsh, Wiltshire in 1822. Eliza was a second child when she was born in 1825.

In 1828, when she was three years old, Eliza’s father was convicted in Exeter crown court of a theft regarded as serious enough to merit a whipping and three months in prison (the Exeter House of Correction) with three weeks of that in solitary confinement. Then in 1831, he was convicted of assaulting a constable and sentenced to six months hard labour. Both convictions would have affected his subsequent employability. He was probably rescued from the worst consequences by the death of his father, another Thomas Veryard and another twine spinner born in 1764, who moved to the Bristol area and married a Hannah Bailey who pre-deceased him. In Bristol, he worked for his brother Robert whose advertisement for his business was caught in an 1825 engraving, though later in 1835 Robert went bankrupt:

Click on image to magnify

Before then, his brother the widower Thomas died intestate in 1829. As eldest son born in 1798 Thomas was tasked - on his release from prison and after the law’s usual delays - with winding up his father’s affairs. That indicates some property or money, and Thomas’s final share may have enabled him to move away from Hawkchurch and his damaged reputation and take his family off to Castle Cary.

But having extricated himself from Hawkchurch, Thomas died suddenly at the age of forty five in 1843 when Eliza was eighteen.This left her mother Ann with several children including two younger ones born after the move to Castle Cary: James in 1834 and Solomon in 1842. In the 1851 census, twenty six year old Eliza is at home with her widowed mother and two year old Thomas Morton, still alive. She is working as a shoe thread puller which may have been outwork done at home. By 1861 Eliza  is in lodgings at 87 Mill Lane Castle Cary with second son Thomas John, now six, both of them living just three doors away from her own mother; the son is already a scholar which means simply that he goes to school and so is on track to become literate. In the census, 1861 Eliza is a shoe thread baller.

All of this history points to one conclusion: Eliza Veryard would not have been a suitable wife for John Donne, for he was a son of Castle Cary’s principal employer Thomas Salisbury Donne (1798-1862) who owned the Higher Flax Mills which worked not only with flax but linen, tow, twine - and shoe thread which Eliza Veryard was pulling for him in 1851 and balling in 1861. She was the low-paid outworker of a wealthy and powerful local employer. When she registered the birth of Thomas John in 1854, she signed with a cross; she was illiterate.

If John Donne was indeed Thomas John Veryard’s father, then he is one of my sixteen great great grandparents and connects me to the Donne family. But apart from his parentage, I know nothing about him and since he died aged 25 there may have been little to know. It’s a pity no one asked Eliza Veryard or passed on the tale.

About Ellen Ridout, Thomas John’s wife, I also know nothing, except for part of her line of descent backwards through rural Somerset families: Ridouts, Foots, Lentorns/Linthornes. When her husband decided to move to London, she went with him, and they took her mother in law with them. That’s the main thing.

It is because Thomas Veryard at some point moved his family to 79 The Crescent Tottenham (the Crescent no longer exists) that his daughter Eliza Kate met Albert William Pateman, born in 1885, who was living at 143 Tottenham High Road and working as a chandler’s assistant when he married her in January 1910 at the Edmonton Register Office  - the first Register Office wedding I have come across in my family history. Kate’s oldest sister Ellen was witness, though she had married and was now E J Whatmore. Albert’s older sister Florence was the second witness. Both bride and groom had both parents alive and living locally, so the marriage may have been disapproved of. The bride does not appear to have been pregnant though there could have been a miscarriage before her first child William John was born at the beginning of 1911 and her second, my father, Albert George, eighteen months later.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Turner: Millwrights in Westmoreland, Buckinghamshire, and Kent - and Emma Budd of Hillingdon

If there is a Victorian paterfamilias in my ancestry it must surely be my great grandfather John Turner. He was a brute who killed two wives and several children. That is one way of reading what the archives tell us about his life. But just to balance things up, his first wife Emma Budd left her own baleful legacy which continued into my mother’s mother, my mother and me.

Let’s look at the basic facts.

John Turner was born 1831 and in June 1852 married Emma Matilda Budd born in 1830. They have ten children:

1.      1852 George (date of birth indicates conceived before the marriage) who lives to 80
2.      1854 Richard who dies  within three months of birth
3.      1856 Sarah who dies within six months of birth
4.      1858 Emma Matilda who dies aged three
5.      1860 Ellen who lives to 80
6.      1861 Eliza who dies within six months of birth
7.      1862 Walter  who reaches adulthood
8.      1866 Eliza [taking a dead child’s name] my grandmother who lived to 74
9.      1867 Godfrey who lives to 79
10.  1869 Abraham who lives to 79

The mother of these children dies in 1883 at the age of 53, my grandmother Eliza is  17 at the time.

John Turner re-marries on 10 December 1885 to Agnes Mason who is twenty years his junior - he 54 she 35. On 14 August 1886 and therefore the probable result of a wedding night pregnancy, John Turner becomes father to

11.  1886 Christopher who lives  to 75
and so it continues:
12.  1887 Harry who reaches adulthood
13.  1889 Alice who reaches adulthood
14.  1891 Clara who reaches adulthood
15.  1892 Emma who dies within three months of the birth as does her 43 year old mother; she may have died in childbirth along with the child but the records don’t go into such details.

John Turner did not marry a third time, but his unmarried dead wife’s sister who was already living with them stayed on to care for the four surviving children of his second marriage. Eliza from his first marriage - my grandmother - had already moved out of the house and gone to live locally with her older sister Ellen and her family. Eliza went to work and in the 1891 census is a 24 year old paper mill worker.  John Turner died in 1904, aged 74.

John Turner was a very skilled artisan, a millwright specialising in maintaining the wheels of water-powered flour mills and paper mills. In this he followed his very successful father, about whom more in due course.

It was through his work that John Turner no doubt met Emma Budd. He had been born in 1831 in Wycombe or Wycombe Marsh, Buckinghamshire - now we tend to speak of High Wycombe - and by  1851 had moved out of his father’s home to live with his older brother’s family ( that’s what the census says), but around that time he also went to work in Hillingdon - think Uxbridge, Middlesex - a short distance east. Hillingdon was home to a dozen flour mills and John must have worked on at least one of them.

Since Emma Budd was the daughter of a flour miller, George Budd, it was no doubt through his work that they met and after marrying her he took her back to Chepping Wycombe where he is established in the census of 1861 with his wife and three living children. Whether John had gone up a bit in the world by marrying George Budd’s daughter or she had gone down a bit, I am not sure - I would need to know more about George Budd of Hillingdon.

Between 1854 and 1861 Emma lost four children in infancy, dramatic even by the standards of the time. I think she fell into depression and more precisely into a melancholy which then infused a religious faith - whether already existing or not, I do not know - of a stern and threatening character. She heaped blame on herself for the death of those four children and she felt she deserved to suffer.

It so happens that Emma Budd is the first of my ancestors who has left any written trace now in my possession. In 1882, a year before her death, she inscribed a British and Foreign Bible Society New Testament to her fourteen year old son Godfrey and this is what she wrote:

Click on Image to Enlarge

Thanks, Mum. That’s a really nice present!

But it may be that Emma Budd was also preparing herself for her own death the following year. She may have been ill and known it. I have a photograph on cracked glass which I think may be of her - the facial look is that of her daughter, my grandmother Eliza shown underneath from a 1919 wedding photograph in which she would have been the same age as her mother at death.

Click on Images to Enlarge

My grandmother Eliza remained faithful to her mother’s memory and, like her, strongly believed in punishment for wickedness; she may have disapproved of her father’s second marriage, though he signed as a witness at her marriage in 1892. But as part of her fidelity, Eliza Turner also married her own brute, my grandfather Thomas Redsell Stevens with whom she had seven children who survived and one (according to my mother - but there is no record anywhere) which did not. My mother was probably correct: she would remember the fact not least because she had a miscarriage and a stillbirth before I was born and blamed herself for both. Her melancholy was extreme and she spent four long periods during her life in mental hospitals, preparing to meet a very punitive God.
John Turner’s energy and ambition had taken him out of Wycombe to Hillingdon. Later, it took him to Kent. In 1871 he and his wife are installed with their six living children at “Hawley, Sutton at Hone, Dartford, Kent”. That complicated address uses the names of three localities strung out along the fairly short River Darenth as it flows south to north into the Thames through the chalk downlands of Kent. The Wikipedia entry for the River Darent - that is apparently the modern spelling but I always use Darenth - lists no less than 29 water mills of one kind or another which once lined its banks.

Half a dozen are familiar to me as places where members of my mother’s family and my mother herself worked, usually as mill hands, one as a papermaker, and in John Turner’s case, as a millwright. Once he has moved to the Darenth valley, John Turner stays there - in 1881 he is living in Sutton at Hone, the same in 1891, and in 1901 in “Darenth (St Margaret’s Parish) Dartford". His children work in the paper mills and it would continue that way for another generation: my mother became a mill girl when she left school at thirteen or fourteen in 1921. The mill was just down the road from the Shirehall Road where she lived with her mother Eliza Turner and father Thomas Redsell Stevens.
John Turner’s millwright father probably set his son a high threshold for achievement. Richard Turner, my great great grandfather, was born in 1798 in Westmoreland but it seems that there were southern connections already existing and Richard marries in West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, in 1818. His wife is Sarah Hall born in 1798 in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. (Winchcombe was notable for paper making, the Postlip Mills  best-known, so it's likely that they met in some connection with Richard's work). Both of them end their lives in Wycombe, Richard in 1861 and Sarah in 1878. 

But in between, Richard’s work takes him away from Wycombe and most notably also to the Darenth valley. The census of 1851 has him in Sundridge, a village near Sevenoaks, where he is living with his wife, four children, a grand daughter aged 3 with no attributed parent, a visitor, three servants, and an unclassified paper maker. All eight adults have the word “paper” in their characterisations (two of the servants are paper maker’s daughters), and Richard heads up the household described as a foreman in paper factory, aged 53.

This is clearly some household, and in Sundridge there was only one paper mill. But it was no ordinary mill and in consequence Richard Turner no ordinary foreman. The internet tells me that the mill produced paper for the Bank of England. 

But Richard Turner returned to Wycombe sometime before the 1861 census, perhaps because he was in poor health. In that  census his Wycombe household contains only himself, his wife and two unmarried sons. Richard is working as a dairyman. 

Thanks to Gillian Cable for the genealogical work