Saturday, 30 May 2015

Flag it up!

If you'd been down to the little villages around Heathrow Airport today, you'd have seen a different flag on every this one. 

It's for 'Flag it up!', an arts event put on for local children by 'Transition Heathrow', the environmental activists who set up 'Grow Heathrow' on an abandoned market garden 5 years ago.

The squat wasn't just to set up an eco camp but to occupy the proposed site of the planned new runway for the airport. That was going to flatten at least two of the villages, wipe out the medieval barn at Harmondsworth and require the exhumation of all the people buried in Cherry Lane Cemetary.

Those plans are now in doubt, and the camp remains although it is under threat of eviction. They've also been working with the local community to organise this arts event.

Then it just had to pour with rain!

But that couldn't deter these children from Harmondsworth who were setting off on the long walk to Sipson and then after lunch on to Harlington;

When I can, I always try to show solidarity with the next door villages and support them in our shared fight to try to stop the eternal expansion of Heathrow.
As you can see there were lots of bikes;

And some happy faces despite the rain;

Here's 'Transition Heathrow's' banner getting up to speed

It's been sunny all week - such a shame for the kids;

Here's one of the adverts for the day;

The third runway may now follow a different route or they may try to go back to the original scheme. Either way, the three villages are united in their opposition.

Here's Robyn holding up one of the flags for me;

I was there to support the eco camp and it's aims but I had another reason to come as well.
Back in 1968 I took part in something quite different but along the same lines. I was on holiday in Devon and the beach was taken over by a bizarre collection of artists, engineers and students who put on a series of weird events over a couple of days.
I was about 10 or 11 years old and was captivated by what I saw. I remember a huge bingo game on the beach - all free and very popular. There was a professional (I thought) Bingo caller and proper cards.
There were even prizes. They got a crowd together of about a hundred eager people.
We tried to mark our cards as best as we could with sand as the numbers were called out....the tension mounted. Then all of a sudden everybody yelled 'Bingo!' all at the same time.
All the cards were identical. 
I found it hilarious.
I also remember a buried man, deep under the sand who could only be spoken to down a pipe. Occasionally, food would be passed down to him. Later, when contact was lost he was dug up to reveal....a scarecrow.
It was all nonsense, of course, but I never forgot it and a few years ago I took some time out to find out who had been behind it all.
It was then that I found out all about the remarkable artist John Fox and his partner who had continued to take art into communities for over 40 years - many of which were spent developing an arts centre and their ideas in Ulverston, Cumbria.
If there's a street theatre, a carnival or a public celebration of some kind it's likely that at least some of the inspiration came from John Fox and his motley band of followers.
He then wrote a handbook 'Engineers of the Imagination' which covered how to organise festivals, create illuminated lanterns and how to excite and interest people who would never think of themselves as 'artists'.... to be just that.
Oh, and they had a chapter on making flags and holding that's where the idea came from! 
Here's their own history from their old website;
About Welfare State International

Founded in 1968 by John Fox and Sue Gill, Roger Coleman and others, Welfare State International was a loose association of freelance artists bought together by shared values and philosophy.
HoadWSI first became well known for large-scale outdoor spectacular events. When the company began, taking art out of theatres and galleries into the street was considered revolutionary. The company's name was originally 'The Welfare State' offering art for all on the same basis as education and health.
Under the Welfare State umbrella, a remarkable group of engineers, musicians, sculptors, performers, poets and pyrotechnicians invented and developed site-specific theatre in landscape, lantern processions, spectacular fireshows, community carnivals and participatory festivals. These creations were by turns beautiful, abrasive, didactic, provocative, disturbing, wondrous and even gently therapeutic.
Some big events such as "The Raising of the Titanic" (London International Festival of Theatre 1983), 'False Creek' in Expo '86, Vancouver, and the biggest lantern festival in Europe (Glasgow City of Culture 1990) have become touchstones balancing the aesthetic with the social.
Welfare State International also exported artists, ideas, prototypes and artworks nationally and internationally.
Nativity of the Beasts'Engineers of the Imagination', the WSI Handbook, spread ideas and techniques worldwide and is still essential reading for artists working in the community. Many artists and companies in Britain and abroad have been influenced by Welfare State's vision and practice.
From 1983 WSI championed local participation in lantern parades, street flag displays and carnival performance from its new base in Ulverston, Cumbria. Today Ulverston is known as a 'Festivals Town' where culture and economic regeneration go hand in hand.
Looking beyond public festival, the company also moved into inventing and leading ceremonies for rites of passage, creating installations, and working with children and their parents to explore imaginative play.
What was so revolutionary in 1968 is now the accepted language - of festivals, of the London Olympics, of schoolchildren's lives.
Here you can watch a 2006 documentary celebrating John Fox's success in bringing the arts to the people over the years. I rather like the foolishness of 'Raising the Titanic' in London's Dockland. I immediately recognised what I saw in 1968.
I rather wish I'd been there;
And now what they started has come to three of the Heathrow villages. I hope the kids remember this experience as long as I did mine.
Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)

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