To the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury yesterday – a Sunday – a charity initiated by the great philanthropist Thomas Coram with the help of Hogarth and Handel and opened in 1739. Coram saw too many abandoned babies dying on the streets of London and was moved to act.
It’s a place that never fails to touch the maternal emotions and this time my eye was caught by a large Victorian painting by Henry Nelson O’Neil called ‘A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris’. This French institution was started sixty or so years before Thomas Coram’s and took in all-comers. The tiny baby sits in a basket ready to be ‘posted’ through a hole in the external wall and into the care of the orderlies. The mother leans weakly into the grating and reaches for the bell-pull to let the hospital know that she is there. She has thrown off her pretty pink bonnet and let her shawl slip to the floor in her misery – O’Neill’s way of showing how little she cares for worldly things while this tragedy unfolds. The baby reaches out for her and the mother’s face already has the haunted quality of how the loss of her child will affect her. It is the perfect example of the way Victorian painters never held back in piling on the emotions to illuminate what they felt about the the struggle between sin and morality. Such images were vital in gaining financial support from wealthy donors – you can hardly condemn this mother because she is clearly suffering enough – and you can certainly not condemn the child. But we should not look away from this picture and dismiss it as history. One of the Coram Charity‘s other roles is in the gathering of statistics: at this time last year there were just under 700,000 children in care, in homes, throughout the United Kingdom. And the numbers are rising.
Today I was interviewed by Virginia Nicholson for her new book about the ‘sixties. It was more like a long chat with an interested new friend, really. But she asked one very engaging question at the end – what did you take from the experience of the ‘sixties?
I think there are three major things that stayed with me from those golden years – one was the joy of living in a positive world – we really did feel in that ten year democratic blip that we – from any background – could do anything – that doors were open or opening that had once been closed. And women were just beginning to spread their wings.
Another thing I’ve retained was a sense of the value of ourselves in the world and the value of the world we were in – not in money terms but in the almost giddy exhuberance, the joy of creativity that rolled in with that decade. Working in the world of contemporary art was all about making things happen, or seeing things being made – on the canvas, on the etching plate, out of bronze or stone, from fresh ideas – making marks and making a mark on the world with them. People bought art because they loved its freshness and vitality. Of course money changed hands for art but not in the way of the mid-‘seventies and beyond. Not Art as Investment in the way it has become. Galleries dared to take risks, artists took risks, buyers took risks – it was exciting – it was young – and it had integrity.
Out of these two things, the sense of democracy and the sense of spiritual integrity rather than secular or corporate value, came the third – my very beady eye – an eye that watched how the world was shaping up and questioned the slickness and money-rush and the resultant tinsel values of the post-‘sixties age. It’s that beady eye, perhaps, which has given me the style in which I write. When a reviewer in ‘The Times’ said I was ‘…Jane Austen in modern dress…’ I was genuinely amazed – but I also knew I was on to something. Her beady eye is legendary and its observations coloured with humour. She was of her time and perhaps I am of mine. If I can follow the brilliant Miss Austen in even a small way then I must look back over my shoulder to those fabulous, life-changing ‘sixties and given them a grateful bow and thank them for their legacy.
Yesterday a walk through the richly historical Hounslow Heath – bleak and barren even with the sun shining brightly and a sharp blue sky – squashed now between four main roads, nudged by horrible industrial buildings and graceless housing – but still a place of Nature and a lung for that part of densely motorised West London. It’s now just 200 acres but it used to be 4000 and one must keep a beady eye on it for future generations.
Once this place was cut through by a Roman Road for marching legions, later it became a royal hunting ground for the Norman Kings onwards – until the seventeenth century when Oliver Cromwell turned it into a militarised zone. A century later it was notorious as one of the most dangerous places for travellers to the West. The Highwaymen of Hounslow Heath were legendary, sometimes robbing the rich to give back to the poor (or so go the stories) – and being polite and gallant to the silk-clad Ladies as they took away their jewels. Despite these Gentlemen Thieves it was known to be one of the most unlawful places in England.
Now, as we walked through its mud and scrub, the law was being broken in a different and much more disgusting way – by dog owners – loads of them – fondly watching their pooches poop where they pleased without so much as a plastic bag to clear it up between them. Clearly they view this protected acreage as one vast dog toilet. One can only stare at these vile dog owners for, with their low-brained mentality to do anything more might encourage them to set the dog upon you (though presumably it would have to wait until Nature took its course – even a Rottweiler is unlikely to attack mid-shit). We mused on the possibility of becoming HighwayWomen – and patrolling those pathways with not guns or daggers but with our cameras – would that stop these fouling fools, we wondered?
Cowardice kicked in. We might be done in, our bodies never to be found as they disappeared into the scrub and undergrowth – perfectly hidden by a pile of dog-poo.
I’d like to send you a short story, for free – you just need to tell me where to send it