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Camden New Journal - One Week with JOHN GULLIVER
Published: 30 August 2007

Deconstruction: Michael
Inmate art after brush with the law

ART by prisoners – some of them serving long sentences – is becoming the rage among collectors, I hear.
The latest exhibition and sale of such art will, I’m sure, draw in collectors and browsers like myself by the thousand.
Altogether there will be a staggering number of 2,000 exhibits for sale housed in the old Victorian governor’s house at Wormwood Scrubs – and when the exhibition opens on September 14 be prepared for a bit of a stampede by the public.
As a worthy organ, the New Journal has always been prepared to promote this artform that was hidden from the public until the Koestler Trust – named after the writer and libertarian Arthur Koestler – began to encourage prisoners to take up the brush. More than 2,000 prisoners sent in art work for the latest Insider Art exhibition at the ICA but space would only permit 150 to go on display.
To show and sell the rest, the trust has packed the Koestler Arts Centre at the old governor’s house at the Scrubs with paintings, ceramics and embroidery.
But however much you may be intrigued by a work of art, it is naturally always difficult to find out much about the artist.
When the trust’s director Tim Robertson emailed me a press release about the sale I was drawn to the edgy quality of a portrait simply entitled, Deconstruction: Michael.
Who is he? What is he inside for?
You could ask, does it matter who or what an artist is? It’s his or her creation that counts. Quite so, when you come to think of the strange lives of writers, composers and painters. But somehow art by prisoners, by those disowned and locked away by society, often puzzles people.
All I can discover about this powerful painting is that the artist is incarcerated at the Grendon prison – the only jail that specialises in art and educational therapy for inmates. He was not allowed to visit the ICA exhibition on day release for, apparently, security reasons.
Great art has often been created in jails. Witness Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol or novels by the great French writer Jean Genet who languished for years in jail until Sartre and Picasso became his patrons.
An accolade from this column, therefore, to the Koestler Trust and to its director, Mr Robertson, who, incidentally, once worked for Camden Council’s social services.
Prices at the sale will range from £10 to £1,000. A third goes to the artist, the remainder is shared between the trust and victim support.
Sir Joseph Pilling, former chief of HM Prison Service, said: “I challenge anyone not to be moved by this exhibition”

Should we take steps to tackle thugs on street?

DO you ‘walk on by’ when a stranger is being assaulted?
The New Statesman magazine asked this question this week in an article by a staff reporter who had witnessed an assault near the Whittington estate in Dartmouth Park. The article prompted an editorial headed ‘The dangers of keeping ourselves to ourselves,’ as well as a cartoon.
Is this the month for scare-mongering? Have newspapers gone a bit potty?
Whatever my thoughts, they were all dispelled when a similar piece of street brutality was chanced upon by a colleague who is doing a spell of work experience at the New Journal – this time at Chalk Farm Tube station on Sunday night.
A group of about six rowdy youths – aged from 12-14 – had been jostling three Dutch tourists who found themselves backed up against the wall. The terrified tourists had been accused of taking a picture of them without their permission – actually, one of them had photographed one of the station’s iconic Tube signs.
The youths pulled at the shirt of the man with a camera, yelling that they wanted it so that they could destroy the film. Nearby three members of the station staff looked on struggling to know what to do.
When my colleague attempted to speak rationally to the youths they shouted back that they only wanted the film! Eventually, a station attendant, on the insistence of my colleague called the police. Meanwhile, the tourists tried to escape but the youths leapt over the barriers pinning them against the wall again – then the youths suddenly screamed “The cops are coming,” and fled.
Recently, I was jostled outside the station one weekend evening – the youths, I was pretty sure, had come from an estate off nearby Belmont Street.
Crime statistics may look healthy, according to the police, but life on the streets is obviously hazardous.

The mysterious demise of Isokon

A COMPLAINT a reader emailed to me yesterday (Wednesday) would make an intriguing story-line for Agatha Christie, but that, I’m sure, will bring cold comfort to Barbara Lindner.
Ms Lindner, who lives in the famous 1930s art-deco block of flats, Isokon, in Lawn Road, Hampstead, is hopping mad with her landlords, Notting Hill Trust, because of their failure to deal with repairs.
She’s got a point, considering that an all-glass security door, shattered in a storm in February, has still not been repaired despite, she maintains, a shoal of emails.
Recently, a flat near the staircase, now open to the public, was – surprise, surprise! – burgled.
That’s not all, says Ms Lindner, for it has now been discovered that the new interior design for the flats left the gas boilers difficult to service. The trust, apparently, accepts this, and is about to deal with the problem.
Readers will recall that Isokon was designed for artists and writers in the 1930s. After the Second World War it fell into disrepair even though Camden Council bought it up in the 1970s. After a campaign it was taken over by Notting Hill Trust for key workers – and everyone cheered.
One of the big-name writers who lived in Isokon was Agatha Christie. And guess who is living in her old flat – Ms Lindner. “I was delighted when I discovered recently her place had become mine,” she told me.

Why didn’t Lib Dems cross the road?

IT can be lonely at the top, but I was surprised to see that, when Sir Menzies Campbell chose to launch a new Lib Dem policy on carbon-neutral travel under the vaulting ceilings of St Pancras station on Tuesday morning, none of the party’s councillors currently running Camden was able to cross the road from the Town Hall to support their leader.
Sir Ming told me that St Pancras, where the Queen will open the Channel Tunnel link in November, was a shining example of how investment in transport can drag people away from their love affair with the car – while his environment spokesman Chris Hulme praised the current council’s green credentials. Perhaps the councillors felt that a trip to hear him would be a waste of CO2.

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