Tony Baker: Homage to Homage to Catalonia

HOMAGE TO HOMAGE TO CATALONIA
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In response to Orwell’s account, Tony Baker has produced Homage to Homage to Catalonia, a book of 297 images that contrasts Orwell’s country caught up in the middle of a Civil War with that of a present day Catalonia, that, at the time, was in the process of re-assessing its identity through an (illegal) Independence Referrendum in which 80.8% of the large turnout of cast votes supported the option of Catalonia becoming a state, and of that state being independent of Spain. Through its juxtaposition of photography, digital printmaking and typographic poetry, the book explores the culture and fabric of a country that still continued to have democracy flowing through its veins – where tradition sits happily, side by side with the seemingly irreverent and contradictory presence of the modern world. The four-line typographic poems, that formed the structure of the book, were a direct response to the words of George Orwell, being both chronological and obscurely literal, their intention, through the distillation of his, more detailed narrative, was to add context and contrast to the contemporary-sourced imagery that appeared in the book.
                                                                                                                                                              When George Orwell  first arrived in Barcelona on Boxing Day in 1936,  he was greeted by a city of revolution and radical social change – a city that, to the eyes of the idealistic thirty-something reporter, had realised his socialist dream. Heralded by the election of the Popular Front earlier that year, he discovered the streets of the Catalan capital to be alive with a political fervour that had attracted foreign partisans, such as himself, to join in the fight against the fascist presence that was sweeping across Europe. Shortly after his arrival, he joined the militia of the POUM, and went to fight at the front, incurring a bullet to the neck that nearly killed him, and where he started to write what was to become Homage to Catalonia – his personal account of a country divided by two extremes, and of a war that pitched a ragged army of poorly trained and ill-equipped idealists against the Fascist might of Franco and Mola.

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Homage to Homage to Catalonia by Tony Baker contrasts Orwell’s vision of the country that he  wrote about eighty years ago, with that of present day Catalonia. Juxtaposing the different visual strands that run through it, the book and exhibition presents a selection of images, both visceral and kitsch, that explore the culture and fabric of a country that has democracy flowing through its veins – where tradition appears to sit happily, side by side with the seemingly irreverent and contradictory presence of the modern world.

Largely focussed on the fabric and detail of the country, the images create a jigsaw of statement & observation that combine together to suggest a definition of its cultural landscape. Acting as a commentary on personal experiences of the country and its people, as well as the lingering presence of English tourists on stag weekends, the photographs and digital prints (that wear their traditional printmaking sensibilities on their sleeve), sit side by side with four-line typographic poems based on Orwell’s text, that appear like the residue of slogans found daubed on the walls and street furniture of both the past and present day Catalonia.

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To view a taster of Homage to Homage to Catalonia go to :

About Tony Baker

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Paul Steffan Jones

Thomas Isaac Picton Spain 1937Non-Pacifist Fist Anti-Fascist:                                                                                                 A Tale From My Family’s History

Like many men, I have always been fascinated by tales of courage especially in the theatre of war. I was thrilled when, at an early age, my father gave me the barest bones of a story concerning a member of his Treherbert family who was apparently executed in the Spanish Civil War.  My father didn’t know how this man had been related to us, didn’t even know his name, and believed this unlucky ancestor to have been a journalist.  When I began to become interested in my family history, my research, in the main, was to corroborate this tale but was to uncover a much more intriguing account.

Thomas Isaac Picton was born in Treherbert in 1896 and came from a family of Pembrokeshire miners.  His father, also called Thomas, shows up, aged 18, in the 1881 census living at 8 Tynewydd Huts in the Rhondda Valley, with his uncle John Coles who had been born in Landshipping, Pembrokeshire.  Landshipping was a heart-breaking landmark in the journey of the Picton family for on Valentine’s Day 1844, forty miners including women and boys died there in the Garden Pit Colliery when the eastern Cleddau river (Cleddau Ddu or Black Cleddau) burst into the shaft 67 yards below. Included on the monument to the dead erected by local people are the names of six Pictons and five Coles. Four of the Picton dead were a father and his three sons. Such bad luck doesn’t always encourage you to stick around.

Thomas Isaac Picton was also a miner.  When The Great War broke out,  he enlisted and stayed working with coal, becoming a stoker on the mighty battleships. He was twice decorated for his bravery including during the Battle of Jutland where he spent some time in the water.  His Royal Navy service record measured him at 5 feet 4 and a half inches with blue eyes and dark brown hair and swarthy complexion. It noted that he had a tattoo commemorating his mother in a cross on his right arm. He was discharged with “defective teeth” and had spent 24 days in cells during his war years and 14 days in detention.  The crammed calligraphy of a busy war observes in brackets that he “broke out” of the latter.

boxing

He was an avid boxer who was Wales amateur middleweight champion and he had also been the Navy light heavyweight champion.  He managed to get a small number of professional bouts but was primarily a bare knuckle mountain fighter. At least one of his confrontations led him to prison. On one occasion, he left Cardiff jail after serving a short sentence for assaulting a police officer, wearing the boots of a prisoner who had recently been hanged.

Like many working class people of the inter war years he became radicalised and was a close friend of Communist Councillor George Thomas of Treherbert. In his early forties, Tom joined the International Brigade, older than the typical volunteers, most of whom were also swapping the uncertainty of their blighted industrial zones for the uncertainty of the Spanish Civil War.  Like many of his fellow miners of the South Wales coalfield, he made the choice to illegally leave his country to fight the rising tide of Fascism in a country he had never previously visited. For entertainment on the journey through France, he was put into a ring to wrestle a bear.  This seems an almost cartoon-like scene to the modern mind, a form of larger-than-life existence we have almost forgotten.

On their arrival at the barracks of the International Brigade, they were issued with ill-fitting uniforms and ancient firearms with ill-fitting ammunition.   Some would go on to fight Fascists in another war, facing opponents who had honed their skills in killing machines above Guernica and other memorable places. Tom, due to his First World War experiences and his prowess as a boxer, may have been better equipped for the fight than many of his comrades.

He fought in the Battle of Teruel and was captured soon after and imprisoned in Bilbao.  He was murdered by his jailers in April 1938 after he had punched to the floor a guard who was beating a fellow prisoner with his rifle butt. The Rhondda Leader newspaper of 29 October 1938 reported that he had been “put up against a wall and shot”.  His body was never found.

These  warriors are still remembered, still commemorated. Their sacrifice and their willingness to enrol in “the march of History” are still revered by those on the Left and their selflessness continues to haunt our unconfident, cynical age. I am proud that a member of my family was among them. Before I fully knew Tom’s story, I wrote a short poem: ‘ICONS’, whose third line seemed to aptly describe his stance.

ICONS

Not game footage

but I’ve outlived Stanley Baker

as non-pacifist fist anti-fascist

in humidity following Biblical rainfall

we all rust

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HEARTBREAKFAST

Forensic soul-searching

the dud cheques

the daylight saving hours

thousand raid bombers

a return to 1950

by counting backwards

make cameo appearances

in competition with the deceased

these adhesive moments

cling to the mind

I am behind my eyes

call me Barry Island or someone

something like that

as the light falls on a short day

in the rump empire

that they bray about regaining control of

no ball games

open spaces reduced

to the mass of a flat screen

dreams minimised to jpeg confetti

in the eternal wedding of idiots

 

GUNS OF LONDON

Down the barrel of a machine gun

Blitz capital

everything has changed

the rearranged architecture

the collapsed streets

the maps covered in patinas of ash

the dispersed population

life is cheap

a glut of guns

the old ties broken forever

too much excitement

too much desperation

want to be gangster

want to be moll

want to be American

he types

he smokes

he broadcasts

his propaganda

as into this disintegrating theatre

The Blackout Ripper submerges

waging his own total war

against women

against the clock

tomorrow they die

 

Mission Creep

A lost Christmas gift

they appeal for hats blankets and water

desperately needed by Syrian children

displaced to winter uplands

by our interference and non-intervention

the modern soft focus Nuremberg rally

everyone’s a dictator if you give them a chance

guess we always needed help

so I get another blade with which to scrape the rust

the Battle of Hastings reenacted in farmyards

and dream of seeing Tony Blair and George Bush

crucified side by side

among swimming pools filled with oil

in the land of the Bible

receiving the anointment they deserve

in the oasis they imagined

 

 

“George Orwell means the following to me:
Being vigilant of potential totalitarianism. It’s probably becoming more relevant a stance now as most people have been lulled into thinking it impossible.  It is not.  In a time of executive orders in the USA and a power grab being fuelled by the Tory Party under the guise of Brexit, the choices of ordinary people are becoming more and more limited.  Democracy has been skewed by wealthy, unregulated and shady lobby organisations and the failure of mainstream political parties in the UK to respect the needs of ordinary people.  The rise of extremism all over the world is something that would be familiar to Orwell, regrettably.
Trying to combat inequality.  The gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider by the minute.  The effect of Tory rule since 2010 has been to steal from the lesser well paid members of society to line the pockets of the super rich.  They have achieved this partly through long term wage restraint and Welfare reforms.  Over 2,000 claimants who were claiming health-related benefits died withing a few weeks of being found fit for work.  The under-funding of the NHS and the removal of libraries etc also create inequality.  The North of England still has a far lower life expectancy than the South. The recent Grenfell Tower incident was a particularly stark example of the effects of cost-cutting deregulation.
Orwell’s physical courage.  We live in a relatively comfortable age supported by labour-saving technology and almost infinite information possibilities.  He volunteered to fight against Fascism in Spain, something that few would do today as we have become a nation of lazy cowards with very low standards of heroism, safe in our armchairs, satisfied by social media.
His humanity shines in an age when many people have adopted a dog eat dog attitude to their fellow citizens as they have swallowed the lie about austerity. Bullying is a national sport.”
Biography:
Born Cardigan, Wales, 1961.  Former Civil Servant and Trade Union official.  Two books published to date, ‘Lull of The Bull’ and ‘The Trigger-Happiness’ (Starborn Books).  Won first prize in 2012 West Coast Eisteddfod Online Poetry competition.  Poems have appeared in anthologies and publications such as Poetry Wales, Red Poets Magazine,  Seren Selections, The Slab, The Seventh Quarry and New Welsh Review.  Guest reader with the Red Poets on a number of occasions and regularly perform in South West Wales.  I also write song lyrics and short stories.
Links:

Glenn Ibbitson: Wigan Pier; Book Cover Variations

Orwell Wigan Pier 1Orwell Wigan Pier 2Orwell Wigan Pier 3Orwell Wigan Pier 4

A  variable edition of four screen prints  Six layers; acrylic, acrylic silver, adhesive and graphite powder.  March 2017

Orwell has for me, that most unusual knack of placing me as the reader at the very centre of the action; as the protagonist. When I am reading him, I am Gordon Comstock, I am Winston Smith, I am George Bowling. I am the passenger on the train crossing the North of England catching sight of the woman clearing the drain…* A very few books have placed me in such a position. “Catch 22” did; “Moby Dick” too. Orwell achieves this with a consistency I cannot find in any other of my favourite writers -not even Sterne. I use this this to excuse my hubris in placing myself as the image in these prints on the same surface as the great man’s name.

The composition of tonal blocks separated horizontally and then overlapped into strata was employed to suggest a vertical cross-section mapping through the earth; vital information in the search for valuable coal seams which to mine.

Graphite powder was utilised to echo the dust and grime associated with the activity and products of heavy industry. “The Road to Wigan Pier” is a book so evocative of its geographical and economic setting that  after each reading, I find myself inspecting my fingernails for any buildup of coal dust and metal particles under them. It seemed logical that my treatment of this particular book in Orwell’s canon should be monochromatic, rather than the multiple colour layers I used for other prints in this series. [Homage to Catalonia was printed using a brick red of the earth and the red and yellow of the region’s [country’s] flag.] British newsreels from the 1930’s were shot on black and white film stock; we view the period through archives such as the treasures that are the Picture Post and the BBC Hulton Picture Library. People of course lived this age in colour; we find it difficult to acknowledge this, such is the pervasive power of the photographic image.** Only our own lives are lived in technicolor.

** The Hellenistic world is also viewed as a clean, ‘white’ age, thanks to the exhumation of sculpture and architecture stripped of its original polychromy.

By contrast, and further back in time, the Renaissance may seem a riot of colour, thanks to the efforts of Van Eyck, Titian and Veronese [-and an absence of any monochromatic photographic archive]

*“The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her—her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her—understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier