We were all winners that night. The efforts of so many admirable women were celebrated and, put them together in a group, it just leads to more progress. I was on a table with women rowers who support youth groups coming through the ranks. The discussion lead to the Henley Woman’s Regatta, established in 1988 by chairwoman Patricia Sly, to promote equality for women in the sport of rowing. The Henley Royal Regatta was, in those days, male university students. This new event gave independence to women. It was instrumental in changing the gender bias of the past. The Henley Royal Regatta has now been granted permission to extend its event by a day. The Henley Women’s Regatta’s request for an extension has been met by a barrage of complaints, including the comment, by a councillor, that, ‘they should race during their tea & lunch breaks, start earlier and finish later’.
I approached the Chairman of the Women’s Regatta, Miriam Luke, and proposed the idea of doing a site-specific sculpture addressing climate change. The temporal necessity, the liminality of this historic period in time and the demographic of the event, afforded itself to such a piece. She was interested in what I would come up with. The idea went through the ‘Bishop Mill’, it came up with a plethora of ideas. Then, I watched Question Time. One Conservative representative stated that Thatcher was the first person to mention climate change. Thatcher, the visionary eco-warrior… It threw me straight back to a visit to the Big Pit Museum in Wales I’d made with my daughter, where there was a 1984 picket-line caravan with signs in the window such as ‘Coal Not Dole’. GOAL NO COAL immediately sprang to mind. ‘Save the nation’s energy future’, not the 1984 slogan of ‘Coal the energy’s future’. Zero Carbon. It’s necessary and is going to necessitate legislation. This piece started to address this issue.
Henley-on-Thames. Many think that everyone is rich in Henley. It’s a stereotype. Believe it or not, there are families living on the poverty line who can’t survive without the foodbank. There are struggling families who need help. There may be a big percentage of the population who do have access to privilege, however, there is also a significant percentage who don’t. Henley Town Council have, 3 days ago, declared a climate emergency and have a comprehensive plan of how to proceed. It will need the commitment of the local population to come to fruition. The sculptural piece, at this stage, began to transform itself to include messages relating specifically to Henley as well, and, considering the demographic of the Women’s Regatta, to include messages from the international student protest movement. The significance of Henley to the 1984 Miner’s Strike is evident through its MP of 27 years, Michael Heseltine, who, as Minister for the Environment, closed 31 pits in one day.
As this is a blog, I’ll get personal. My father was Heseltine’s Party Chairman for some years. When Heseltine announced, in a seminal moment, the Sale of Council Houses, it was my Dad, as his chairman, who introduced that speech. I still have the typed copy at home. I have huge political ‘capital’. When, for example, you describe your cultural capital as the TV programmes you used to watch, Swap Shop or Tiswas, then experiential history becomes the anchor. Political capital, therefore, is the political experiential upbringing you were exposed to. I remember my political capital as being campaigning at doorsteps, asking how people were going to vote, sitting at poll stations recording any indicative votes and the party afterwards. As kids, we just wanted to go home.
My father and I, we clashed on certain issues as time progressed. I remember writing an essay at Gillott’s School, in Mr Haines’s class, Yr3=Yr9 now. It was in the midst of the CND protests and we were asked to write our views on uni/multilateral disarmament. Having studied the Cuban Missile Crisis in History, I was scared by the precarity of the touch of the red button. I vehemently argued for unilateral disarmament. I got a B+. I took said essay home and left it for Dad to read that night. In the morning it had red pen scrawled all over it, totally in opposition to my views. However, it was a huge moment. He still loved me. I realised that it was okay to have opposing views, he loved me exactly the same. I had my own voice. When, 10 years later, after his death, I voted a different colour to him, I nearly had a mental breakdown. We had been a very politically anchored family, I’d grown up with all this political capital, and, to go against his views was big for me. He was the love of my life at 18. His death was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. But, he installed me with the confidence that my voice mattered.
Back to the piece. It has evolved. It’s the liveness of a project that draws me to art. I find that invariably pieces get better as they hatch. Space restrictions meant that instead of going across, I needed to go up. I deconstructed the caravan and suddenly had an allusion to the tipping point of the climate crisis. It is with huge respect that I thank the Henley Women’s Regatta for believing in me and for allowing me to give birth to this artwork and let it breathe. As a participatory artwork with people pledging what, as a community, we can do to reduce our carbon footprints, we turn protestial agency into collaborative agency. Working together is the only way forward to secure our future and the future of our loved ones. Disbelief in the climate crisis, is perilous, action now can make a difference. Weather conditions, ironically, have meant that the location and the collaborative aspect of the work have had to change. However, positive change is afoot, Henley-on-Thames Town Council have a solid working plan on how to proceed.