“THE WRITING ON THE WALL” BY STUART BORTHWICK
Large Paperback: 240 pages square format
Publisher: The Bluecoat Press (20 Oct. 2015)
R.S.Price : £18.00 or thereabouts…
In the cities and towns of Northern Ireland, perhaps uniquely in all of the world, the citizens have found the need over several generations to cover the gable- walls of some houses with huge mural paintings, sometimes of unusual complexity and symbolism. This phenomenon has come to the attention of someone who thought that it merited closer study and decided to produce a book about it.
For the digital generation…. especially those younger members , already developing a new , shortened “textspeak” language on their cell-phones to better convey their thoughts ever more quickly and with more haste than the-not -fast- enough English language that they might normally use in common parlance, there is obviously a growing modern preference for quickly assimilated information. You see it in the editing of fast-paced modern films, for example. Many people don’t want to bother with the detail and detritus of life. ; they prefer the slam , bang ,wallop approach of instant gratification. There’s so much information about and as the White Rabbit with a stop-watch in “Alice in Wonderland” would emote,”There’s too little time and so much to do”.
This book I am going to talk about , although something of a multi-faceted gem ,should suit that kind of modern sensibility perfectly and yet possibly slow that kind of reader down enough to savour its undoubted worth.If they have had the patience to have read this far, I’ll attempt to explain…
STUART BORTHWICK of Liverpool’s John Moore University, is a senior academic ,who among many other roles, leads in the promotion of equality and diversity .His main meat is the study of popular music and popular culture and he led the university’s BA Popular Music Studies programme for many years.Stuart is also a trustee of the largest celebration of African music in the UK: the fabulous , annual colourful jamboree which is the free ,two-day “Africa Oye” festival, which I had the great pleasure to attend, in Liverpool’s Sefton Park earlier in the summer. He has spent this past eight years completing his assemblage and photographic “take” on the Northern Irish Troubles from the 1960s until their end . Aided by “Kickstarter”, his book finally rolled off the presses in the Autumn of 2015.
He has produced what we’ll probably recognise as a large , well -made coffee-table book .You may not want to read this tome in bed, for example ,because it is large, quite heavy and floppy, but if you leave it on your bookshelf or casual- table, you may find yourself returning to its imagery time and time again.It is a beautiful production and is obviously a labour of love. The photography and paper-quality are of the highest order and the presentation and binding has all the grace of a high-standard art-book. The photography is crystal clear, pristine and clean , all the better to pick up on any subtleties and details. To fully capture the featured artwork , given its colossal image -size, has surely taken some technical effort. The accompanying text explains some of the more esoteric details and points out the occasional oddity contained in the imagery.
You may say that this could be viewed as an alternative or additional and “particular” people’s history of an era , encapsulated within these two hundred -odd pages of images. What it depicts is a world that has already undergone some radical changes but has also in some ways remained wholly unchanged .Many of these images .are of well-embedded and sometimes distorted folk-memories . The fantasy of King William of Orange on his gleaming white charger springs to mind.That romanticised image has been a constant even before the advent of the Troubles, appearing on Orange Order banners and gable- walls for some hundred years and the legend of the romantic white horse has now become a “real”historical “fact”.The reality , as we know, was probably of a more common-place steed.Such images do not necessarily tell a truth but they do tell what a community wants to be that “truth”. Of course some are very much the historical truth.
Many of these will no longer exist in another fifty years as the walls they’ve been painted on may no longer exist and hopefully the apartheid nature of Northern Ireland society will also gradually change for the better, so I’d imagine that this book will be something of a historical record too….a gauge and a depiction of a society during a specific time-period.Some might concur that it is solely about the “folk-art” but there is much more to see on closer study as many angels and devils hide in the details.Many of the paintings are, in effect, only the territorial pissings of a specific breed of overactive terror-dogs, for example. although many also show a real degree of artistry . At other times some of the work displays a knowledge of the graphic notes of artists such as Jim Fitzpatrick , the Irish progenitor of the famous and emblematic “CHE” (Guevara) 1968 poster and his Book of Kells/Art Nouveau inspired depictions of Celtic myths.The resulting mash of graphic styles also mirroring some of the comic -book artistry of Jack Kirby and his inker Joe Sinnott in full cosmic mode . At other times, Pablo Picasso’s “dove” peace symbol makes an appearance and indeed his anti-war depiction of the destruction of Guernica is twice recreated , once in an edited version to include modern warplanes. Picasso , himself , might even have approved. I imagine.
The ultimate purpose is usually the demarcation and separation of areas.At times the threat is very real and the ominous woolly- hooded figures depicted as guardians of their domain, can sometimes seem as noxious as some satanic “golliwog” (If we can be politically incorrect for a moment) from a frightened child’s nightmare . The woollen balaclavas depicted barely conceal the murderous intent behind the flat , dead painted eyes.Gollies from hell’s nether regions, indeed! I found myself asking just who would want such a depiction painted on the gable wall of their home.How could the children sleep at night with that imagery as a daily presence. That is not the whole story though, for there are many different kinds of murals.
This book aims to tell a history of “The Troubles ” in Northern Ireland by collecting and displaying “event murals” to illustrate the story.These are gathered and provide a sequenced “Troubles” time-line. They may not always have been painted at the exact time of the events depicted ,but they are now arranged to reflect ,for posterity , the exact sequence of those temporal events. These murals are exactly a form of modern folk-art ;this is not “aesthetic gallery art, but something of an elaborate extension of the graffito ; that subversive notion of passing information quickly by writing it on the walls. In other words , the old saw that “a picture paints a thousand words”, developed in Ireland into an art-form, initially as a propagandist’s tool , much like the idea of the posters churned out on a daily basis during the French “evenements” of 1968…
Mr Borthwick has assessed his material in an non-judgemental sort of way , in that he neither shows favour for the nationalist narrative nor the unionist one.The story of Ireland and the Irish Troubles are shown to be based on events stretching back centuries in time. It is clear that the latest “Troubles” from the 1960s -1990s began with the over- reaction to the Civil Rights Movement due to issues of equality, health, housing, social conditions, and employment, and not simply because of the existence of an IRA, which did not actually exist at the time. If you asked for a starting point, then that starting point is quite graphically evident and that fact is very much worth remembering. If specific events such as the many other atrocities missing from this story are not evident, that is not the fault of Mr Borthwick or a censor, but rather due to the various painters and their sponsors.They chose to paint what suited their own distinct agendas at specific times, so many real events have been excluded and edited out of the ongoing story.What is left are these intensely colourful snapshots, as though oddments falling from an old photo-album.
As for the imagery , what comes across amid the heraldry , scraps of ancient barely-understood Latin and occasional sign-writing eloquence ,is the near- constant glamorisation of struggle, death , battle , war and sometimes ,grisly martyrdom. Ireland obsesses with martyrdom.The most frightening and Grimms Brothers’ horror – imagery of masked or hooded men with dead shark’s eyes , grasping weaponry tightly .What messages of sociopathy this was supposed to convey to an already frightened and dysfunctional community can only be guessed at by the modern “Troubles’ Tourists” who come to see these bones of a war.
That , of course , does not detract from the images’ efficacy as a story-telling tool. The images represented are usually large paintings , squared and scaled -up in size, almost like a giant painting -by-numbers exercise, to cover the entire gable wall of an invariably , red-bricked terraced house.Sometimes the images are crudely delineated and at other times there is much skill evident .The best of them are fine examples of graphic art. Photo-imagery is sometimes employed and copied from newspaper stories of real events.Sometimes the subject matter is satirically humorous and at other times inane and crude in its barbarism. All the images tell a story . It’s worth considering why an individual or a group of individuals would gather to build scaffolding and erect ladders to proclaim their thoughts to the world. None of the artists are named , so there is no notion of a subversive, social “Banksy” here, and there are no real Fine Art considerations either, in the imagery. The painters are obviously known among their own communities but prefer to be largely anonymous to the outside world.Their work is never signed.
These are stories that someone ,very obviously, wanted to tell and wanted the world to see. This is not about scribbling poems in a darkened corner which no-one will see or read.This is about getting a message out and getting yourself heard in the most emotive way possible. These images very loudly subverted the media of the “chattering classes” and said exactly what was on the minds of some individuals in the communities where they were displayed. They could not be ignored , because people in their everyday lives were forced to see them daily as part of the furniture of their daily existence. The images, like huge , permanent advertising hoardings , quickly became part of the”Irish Troubles” story itself.
As background, there are some distinct differences in style and content to be seen across the divided communities in the scenes represented in these murals.In Irish Republican areas the content seems more diverse, encompassing depictions of the Hunger Strikes and Bobby Sands, but also international solidarity with other world-wide revolutionary groups and freedom fighters. Often specific social issues are highlighted to bring attention to them. Issue may have been made about the “Ballymurphy Massacres” or the “McGurk’s Bar” bombing,or “Bloody Sunday” in Irish nationalist/ republican areas, for example . In Loyalist/Unionist working -class areas, the agenda is seemingly more insular and reactionary, wholly concerned with the defence of their own locale and religion. A common trend is one of promoting and recruiting for local terrorist paramilitary groupings such as the Ulster Defence Association(UDA) , the Ulster Volunteer Force(UVF) or possibly the Ulster Freedom Fighters(UFF). That appears to be the main theme.Hero-worship is very evident too. Dead members of these groups might be commemorated in the paintings, for example across the communities.There is a wish to remember the dead .On both sides there are the now traditional themes of depicting community origin stories as either the 1916 Irish Republican Rising against British rule , or alternately William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, where he crushed Catholic King James ‘ army. Much reference is made to death and sacrifice , especially the slaughter of young men at the Somme in the First World War.That has particular resonance. Many young Irishmen died in that battle but specifically many of the original UVF lost their lives in it.There is a constant harking back to a long-ago past as if it happened mere days ago, in the case of Unionist Loyalists depictions, whereas the republican murals ,while sharing some of this, also depict the much more recent ,radicalised ideas of a more- politicised movement. Some murals of later vintage , since the ending of the conflict, can even depict more traditional themes and tales from Irish mythology , sporting heroes, or scenes from the Great Irish Famine, but that trend is sometimes reversed at times of tension too, to be replaced by more fearsome themes.
This book should suit the kind of modern channel-hopping, net -surfing , browser’s sensibility perfectly. I am in no way disparaging this method as an approach.It plainly works. The comic -art graphic format has used a similar kind of presentational approach very effectively , as a modern art form to convey information very quickly. In some respects , this book’s format provides an easily digestible way to tell a historical narrative very skilfully, and is possibly a jumping off -point for further , more detailed study and research. In this respect Stuart Borthwick has provided possibly the most attractive, if at times appalling, visual synopsis of the recent social history of Northern Ireland during a specific time of horrific social conflict and murderous activity. In their own way these images are as iconographic of a time as are the Art Nouveau posters of Alphonse Mucha’s 1880’s Paris , or the psychedelic concert posters of Rick Griffin and his graphic cohorts in 1960s San Francisco.
The imagery may not at times be as inventive or be as artistically stunning as those produced by the aforementioned artists, but they are equally as valid as an artistic statement. Like the collages or “objets trouves” of a Marcel Duchamp, they will continue to be evocative of a time and place. In that respect they are equally historically valid and deserve to be preserved in this format . To this Mr Borthwick has added his own well- written, concise synopsis. If you flicked through the pages quickly, the entire history of Ireland would flow before your eyes like some end-of -life experience. It can be read as a readily accessible history book or dipped-into and browsed at leisure.
If you wanted to explain the Troubles to an outsider , this written text and these assembled murals might very well be a good starting point.