River Wissey Lovell Fuller


May 2004

Ron confesses to a lack of Artistic understanding but, as usual, offers a real soapbox for people to air their views

Art and the Flying Scotsman

I can only trace my ancestors back a few generations to a time when they were foresters in the New Forest, but I am sure that, if I could go back further in time, I would find that I am descended from a long line of Philistines. I just do not understand art!

Oh, I can use the classic phrase 'I know what I like' and I can appreciate that which I do like. I can recognise and appreciate the craftsmanship of sculptors and of some artists; I stand in awe of the craftsmanship of the old masters working in the days before photography. I am impressed by Monet's impressions but I really do struggle with Picasso and Dali. When it comes to what passes as modern art, however, I am at a total loss. I cannot understand how Hirst's bifurcated calf in formaldehyde is art, or his more recent bull's head with knives and scissors sticking into it. Neither could I see how Tracy Emnin's unmade bed could be regarded as artistic, let alone so artistic as to merit a valuable prize. There was another time when a load of bricks was exhibited and acclaimed. Where is the craftsmanship in these examples? Is it art if it does not require craftsmanship? Very recently a collection of black plastic rubbish bags, apparently full of rubbish, was valued at £80,000, admittedly they were not black plastic bags, they were bronze castings very skilfully sculptured and painted to look like plastic bags full of rubbish, so there was craftsmanship there, but what was the point? Is a group of rubbish bags a thing of beauty? Perhaps so in the eyes of some. Is all craftsmanship art?

With my plainly ignorant and Philistine background I am completely unable to appreciate or enjoy modern art, a visit to Tate Modern would, I am sure, leave me puzzled, frustrated and angry to know that so much money and effort had gone into displaying that which, in my ignorance, I could only see as trash. I am also bemused and puzzled at the value put on some old paintings. Is it because they are a thing of beauty? Is it because of the skill and artistry of the artist? If they are to be exhibited for the public to appreciate cannot the public appreciate the beauty, the artistry and the craftsmanship from viewing a first class print? No doubt such talk would be heresy to those who do understand these things.

What has all this to do with the Flying Scotsman?

The Flying Scotsman was up for sale. It is, to my mind, a masterpiece of British engineering from the first half of last century. It is an awesome thing of beauty, it set many records in its day and was recognised world wide as an engineering achievement. It is still in working order. The National Railway museum wanted to buy it and they needed a minimum of £200,000 in order to do so which they did not have and there was a strong possibility that it would be bought by an overseas buyer. The museum's initial applications for funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources were rejected.

I was incensed; every few months the art world goes through a screaming crisis about some painting or other threatened with export and millions are raised to save it. Not long ago it was Raphael's Madonna in the Pinks for which the Lottery Fund stumped up £11.5 million, but they would not find a mere £200,000 for the Flying Scotsman. People viewing a full size print of Madonna in the Pinks in the National Gallery would probably not be able to distinguish it from the original, almost certainly they would not be able to distinguish it from a copy painted by a skilled craftsman, such men have fooled experts, but there is no way that the National Railway Museum could produce a replica of the Flying Scotsman. In the event, of course, the Heritage Fund did cough up £1.8 M but I am sure that this was only because of the strong public reaction to their initial rejection. Fortunately other donations came from private sources and public collections as well, so that not only will this great locomotive remain in the UK but it will continue to be seen operating on Britain's railways, at least for the time being.

Soft on Crime

Almost every day I hear some spokesman or other protesting about the number of people in prison and putting forward the argument that this or that shoplifter, petty thief, persistent offender of motoring laws and others should not be in prison because they do not represent a threat to society. According to them only murderers, rapists, and those guilty of violent or sexual assault should be locked up.

What happened to the concept of deterrent? Surely prison has to be the final sanction. If the dangerous driver or drink driver who repeatedly ignores his driving ban knows that he will never have to go to prison what will deter him from continuing to drive regardless of any ban? In London last year 18,000 people were convicted of driving whilst disqualified; that no doubt is the tip of the iceberg, just the ones that were caught. Clearly the offenders are already unafraid of being caught, to remove the threat of prison completely can only make matters worse. Similarly the petty thief and small time burglar will continue to offend. What happened to Tony Blair's "Tough on crime" and "Three strikes and you're out"?

Ron Watts

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