At first sight, as you walk uphill along New Street, it looks as if a UFO has landed in Birmingham’s Victoria Square. As you get closer, it turns out to be a boat, stranded in mid air – on top of what used to be a statue of Queen Victoria, outside the city’s council buildings. Victoria stands in the middle of the boat, surrounded by four smaller replicas. The cloned queens are all looking outwards, their bodies pointing in the direction of travel. But the boat isn’t going anywhere, fixed as it is to the top of a plinth.
Coastal towns in south-east England tend to be portrayed both as bolt-holes for metropolitan creatives priced out of London, and as repositories of a ‘left-behind’ Englishness.
Museum of Austerity is an immersive exhibition ‘that preserves memories of public and private events from the austerity era’. You could visit Room 1 at this year’s London Film Festival. It told the stories of disabled benefit claimants who died in the UK between 2010 and 2020. On my way in I was given an augmented reality headset and told to raise my hand if at any point I felt uncomfortable.
On the last weekend before England entered its second lockdown, two slabs of the Berlin Wall were standing on the concourse at Lewisham Shopping Centre. They marked the entrance to the Migration Museum, a roving exhibition space that has made a temporary home in south-east London, near a branch of Footasylum and a stall selling phone cases. Inside, the museum’s main space was laid out like an airport terminal, for Departures, an exhibition about emigration from the Britain, which has shaped the country’s history (not to mention the world’s) at least as much as immigration to it has. A short film took visitors on a brisk tour of the last 400 years, from early efforts at colonial ‘plantation’ in Virginia and Ulster, through to the 19th and early 20th centuries – when more than 17 million people left Britain and Ireland, mainly for North America – and the more recent period of free movement within the EU.
The Financial Times reported today that the UK has the worst death rate from Covid-19 ‘among countries that produce comparable data’ (new data from Spain now put it ahead of the UK). The delay to introducing lockdown measures was made worse by shortages of PPE, a chaotic testing policy and a failure to protect care homes. The standard the government wanted to be measured by was ‘excess deaths’ – a public health term meaning the number of deaths above the expected level in any given period – and by this measure its policies have fallen short. ‘The UK has registered 59,537 more deaths than usual since the week ending 20 March,’ the FT says. The evidence points to a catastrophic mistake. But something worries me about the apparent neutrality of the term ‘excess deaths’. British political culture is very good at making avoidable deaths seem like an unfortunate fact of life, or a matter of personal responsibility.
On 13 May, Italy’s government unveiled an economic support package that, among other measures, includes an amnesty for undocumented migrants who work on farms and in social care. ‘It’s true. I cried,’ the agriculture minister, Teresa Bellanova, who had proposed the amnesty, wrote on Facebook. ‘Because I fought for something I believed in from the beginning, because I closed the circle of a life that is not only mine, but that of many women and men like me who worked in the fields.’ Bellanova, who was born in the southern region of Puglia in 1958, began work as a day labourer on farms around Brindisi at the age of 15. She says she saw girls her age die from the harsh working conditions. She spent years as a trade unionist before being elected to parliament in 2006.
Two years ago Sajid Javid, newly appointed home secretary after the Windrush scandal, declared an end to the phrase ‘hostile environment’. It was an ‘unhelpful’ form of words, he told Parliament, which ‘doesn’t represent our values as a country’. The phrase, which describes the bureaucratic obstacles conceived in 2012 to make life in the UK impossible for unwanted immigrants, may have disappeared from the official lexicon, but the policies remain, even during a pandemic.
For the past few months, Margarete Kraus’s face has been looking out at passengers in the lifts at Russell Square tube station. Photographed in the 1960s, she is leaning from the window of her caravan, smiling. Her Auschwitz prisoner number is tattooed on her left forearm. Kraus, who came from Czechoslovakia, was one of the hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti people targeted by the Nazis for extermination in the 1940s. Her story is told, alongside those of others, by an exhibition at the Wiener Holocaust Library.
At the House of European History in Brussels, a long display cabinet sets out the forces that have shaped Europe through the centuries: philosophy, democracy, rule of law, ‘omnipresence of Christianity’, state terror, the slave trade, colonialism, humanism, the Enlightenment, revolutions, capitalism, Marxism, the nation state. For each, a historical image is matched with something contemporary: for philosophy, you get a bust of Socrates and a photograph of Žižek; for revolutions, Liberty Leading the People and the uprising in Kiev’s Maidan Square; for the slave trade, iron shackles and a Banksy painting about child labour.
Far-right terrorist ‘manifestos’, like the one apparently published by one of the Christchurch shooters, are a kind of Rorschach test, inviting the reader to finish the job by finding meaning in the incoherent and contradictory ideas it contains. An act of mass murder is turned into a global spectacle by the use of real-time social media networks. Traditional media organisations and individuals online are drawn into repeating, arguing over and sharing the claims and images made by the perpetrator.