john davies
notes from a small curate

    pic of the month - May 2006

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    Still from Island Race
    a William Raban film

    I recently came across Raban's film Island Race at the Tate Liverpool exhibition Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now. Filmed between 1994 and 1995 in the East End of London, Raban described Island Race as 'rediscovering' a part of London he had lived in for 20 years. The material for his observations included the funeral of Ronnie Kray, VE Day street parties, a British National Party campaign and anti-racist demonstrations. The Tate said that "Raban intended the film to question if this view of a small part of London 'would offer up any clues as to the general condition of the country at large.'"

    April was a timely month in which to discover Raban's filmic meditations. A month in which I got the go-ahead for a major project of my own which might be said to share some of Raban's aims: observing life in the raw across Northern England, with a view to seeing what the material gathered might say about 'the general condition of the country at large'.

    And a month in which the run-up to the local council elections brought into sharp focus the tensions inherent in taking a committed interest in one's country - massive tensions between valuing the cultures which form(ed) us and falling into dogmatic, oppositional nationalism. Somewhere between Billy Bragg's desire to reinvent Englishness in a celebration of multiculturalism and the BNP's hatred of any suspect 'others', lie fascinating projects such as Raban's contemporary river pilgrimage Thames Film, or the Lux event Visionary Landscapes, a gathering of 'diverse voices and perspectives on representations of English landscape and folk culture' held at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 2003. (I missed the event but the web page is a mine of fascinating cultural resources).

    Among others linking to the Visionary Landscapes web page are White Nationalist organisations concerned with ethnological purity. And the BNP are behind The Iona Project, a 'treasure house of some of the enormous cultural and traditional aspects of the Islands Of the North Atlantic'. The site carries some interesting articles, but because of the hidden ideology which drives the project the islanders and The Iona Community have felt compelled to dissociate themselves from it.

    Such are the complexities of trying to explore and address issues of national identity. And I think you can see so many of these tensions in the frown-lines of this young girl's face. At a May Day dance, red, white and blue ribbons in her hair, her face is being prepared as a living fleshly carrier of the Union flag. Why the flag? Why the frown? Why the flash in those angry-weary eyes? What does it mean to her to be English at that moment? And what is Englishness doing to her?

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