Argus title : I would paint a resurrection like Stanley Spencer’s but with soldiers and the homeless rising from death
As temperatures rose during the recent heat wave, the Department of Health advised elderly, very young or vulnerable people to stay indoors and drink as much water as possible.
This was not advice which homeless people could easily heed. Many have no roof to shield them. Those who live in derelict houses rarely have running water. For them, staying “hydrated” is a near impossibility.
This week the Argus reported on the efforts of a local homelessness charity to ensure its service users have access to water and sun protection. The staff of Brighton Housing Trust (BHT) had become deeply concerned about the risk to homeless people of heat stroke, dehydration and serious sunburn.
They point out that many homeless people are in poor health and that those with addictions may have liver and kidney damage. During the heat-wave several people came into BHT’s First Base Day Centre showing signs of serious sunburn and dehydration.
The staff responded to the crisis by plying people with glasses of water and squash. However, they remained deeply concerned that when homeless people left their services at the end of the day they would once again have no access to water.
BHT’s Chief Executive, Andy Winter, telephoned a well-known supermarket to ask for a donation of bottled water for the use of homeless people. The request was refused. I asked my him whether he’d mentioned the fact that just weeks before a homeless man had been found dead in the car-park of another local branch of the same supermarket. He had not. Like all charity managers he could not afford to offend a potential donor.
Instead he and colleagues drove to yet another local supermarket with the intention of buying a large quantity of water. They were allowed to take some, but when they asked to buy a whole pallet-full a manager refused, saying he could order some, but it would take “at least 3 days to arrive”.
Andy Winter explained that the water was urgently needed for homeless people. The manager replied “We need it for our regular customers”.
It was an illuminating response. The manager must have realised that most ‘regular’ customers have homes and probably jobs and therefore easy access to running water. For such people bottled water is usually a luxury not a necessity. Nonetheless, he felt their needs should come first.
It’s both obscene and sad to think that this great natural resource, which makes up the bigger part of our bodies, upon which we reply for life and which circles and dominates the earth, should be haggled over and bought and sold in this way.
There was a time when every town and village had wells and water fountains. It was taken for granted that water should be made available to wayfarers and passing animals. Now the wells and fountains have gone and water is privatised. A resource which used to belong to all the people is now a commodity, sold for profit.
Private water companies instruct the public to conserve supplies, while failing to repair damaged pipes which leak precious water into the earth.
As global warming tightens its grip these companies scent profits, but ordinary people fear for the planet. Whatever their political affiliation, more and more of them are beginning to say the water industry should be brought back under public ownership.
In many traditions and cosmologies water is the symbol of renewal and resurrection and life itself is said to spring from it. Folk culture retains tales of water sprites, monsters in lochs, sirens, mermaids and water kelpies, princesses transformed into swans and frogs into princes. Mythology and literature are full of lakes and oceans and rivers. To a great extent, we are ourselves water creatures.
I was thinking about this last week as I walked through the
North Laine. It was a particularly hot day and I stopped in a bookshop, as much for shade as anything else. I bought 2 art books, one about the Russian Jewish painter Marc Chagall, and another about the English artist Stanley Spencer.
I’ve always loved the paintings of Chagall and Spencer. Chagall’s elements are air and fire. His lovers and rabbis and cows and fiddlers defy gravity. They fly through the air and or simply hover above the earth. The colours are vibrant reds, oranges and blues. Even the pious rabbis dressed in black, sing with life.
Spencer’s paintings, on the other hand, are of water and earth, while his colours are more muted blues and greens and browns. His paintings too use sacred images and are a celebration of life.
He painted by the Thames in Cookham, treating the
Berkshire villages and countryside as holy soil. Just as Chagall used flying cows, Spencer portrayed the Cookham swans as images of perfect natural beauty. He placed sacred images in the most ordinary of settings, painting the front gardens of cottages with as much reverence as the crucifixion.
Spencer painted Christ carrying the cross down Cookham High Street – and preaching at Cookham Regatta. Just as Chagall’s paintings defy gravity, so Spencer’s defy death.
One of his most famous paintings is of The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard. The dead rise sleepily to life covered in earth, with clods of grassy earth and flowers on their heads, yawning and pushing their grave stones aside. Some are naked, others in nightgowns or workaday clothes. Nobody appears surprised. And in the background more of the resurrected dead sail home to Cookham across the
Between 1927 – 1932 Spencer painted a mural on the theme of resurrection as a memorial to the dead of the Great War. His Resurrection of the Soldiers shows hundreds of stunned soldiers in brown uniforms tumbling out of their graves, pushing aside the plain white military crosses which marked them. Here too there is a river, but it is a dry river bed, cutting through the graves. You expect at any moment to see a wall of fresh water flow down towards you as the dead come to life.
It is an extraordinary image and I am surprised not to have seen it during the recent commemorations of the Battle of the
On the day I bought the art books, I walked down to the War memorial in the Old Steine. I stood there in the baking heat thinking about how terrible it must have been to die far from home, wounded and without water.
I watched the seagulls bobbing in the memorial waters – like Spencer’s swans they were alive and beautiful.
I saw a homeless man sweltering in the heat. I remembered that years ago when I worked with homeless people none of them would wash in or drink from the Memorial waters. Many of them were ex-servicemen and had enormous respect for what it represented.
It seems that 2 days after I stood in that place, thinking about death and life, thirst, water and resurrection, another homeless man was to die, just a few hundred yards away. Scott York (32) was found dead at the High Street car park in
Town in the baking heat of Tuesday morning. He was a drug addict who had recently been discharged from detention under the Mental Health Act.
It is said that when soldiers lie dying the 2 things they call for most often are their mothers and water. For homeless people everyday life is a battle, and the city is their battlefield. Too many of them are dying here, thirsty, alone and uncared for.
If I were an artist like Stanley Spencer, I would paint a Resurrection of the Homeless in
Brighton. I’d set it in the Old Steine because so many homeless people have died within a mile of it and so many have been ex-soldiers.
I’d paint them rising out of the derelict houses, construction sites, car parks and building skips they died in. I’d show the ex-soldiers paddling in the memorial waters with the seagulls splashing around them. I’d fill the Steine with fountains exploding with water, with all the city’s people drinking there – homeless or addicted, old or young, black or white, female or male, gay or straight, frail or strong. I’d show us as one people, a community.
And, just as Spencer in his Resurrection painted a boat on the Thames, I’d paint a troop ship by
Brighton pier. And on its decks there’d be men in uniform – soldiers killed in the dust and heat of Iraq and Afghanistan – sailing home again to the cool waters of