On Saturday afternoon, rain pouring down and family at the cinema, a mail arrived in my inbox telling me that Harry Davies had mentioned me on Facebook. Logging on, there it was. I was stunned. the text was a plug for the Burslem to Lidice Bike Ride - very kind of you, Harry. But the image was a hollow-eyed, desolate face, a distinct touch of the crucified Christ about it, but superficially more childlike, though desperately sad in a way no child should ever be - the face of someone who has seen too much.
That was my initial response. I claim no knowledge of or skill in art, but, here's my five penn'orth - my personal reaction. you'll judge whether i have missed the point or not.
I downloaded the image and enlarged it. The more one looked the more there was. Here it seems was a face resigned to death but held in some kind of limbo in which life carried on though an inevitable death awaited imminently. And unlike the crucified Christ, with no resurrection and no purpose. Little flecks off colour began to appear; the tracks of tears, stains of blood, the discolouration of death? And the mouth, set without fear or shut in eternal silence? Looked again at the eyes; sunken and baggy, closed or plucked out or raised to Heaven or rolling in death-throes? Does this face see or hear or just exist for the moment, its inner being to be snuffed out by a power with no care or compassion? Could it speak, or utter a sound? Is there nothing to say in its hopeless, helpless world? No anger or accusation; of this world, but beyond it; alive, but dead.
A ringing phone snapped me out of it. I thought to myself, "what pretentious stuff - what do I know?" I'd been to art galleries before and admired and even thought about the work on display. At one time my attitude to paintings was related to the dodgy plasterwork in the living room. Most were too small. What I needed was one of those vast battle panoramas from the nineteenth century, with lots of evening sky, a lot of wrecked artillery, a few piles of corpses and a band of smiling generals feeling happy with their victory, to cover the lumps and hollows. So, the above is my first and second take - untutored and simply my own. And each time I look, the face seems older, though the victims, we know, never aged.
Back to the image. Harry had entitled the piece, "Waiting for the Magirus." I'd tried to think about the image before thinking about the title. What did it mean? Well, Google "Magirus" and you get a page full of results about a truck manufacturer in Ulm, Bavaria. Digging deeper and it emerged that they had a specialism in fire-engines. Indeed, they were credited with producing the first ladder on a rotating platform, so important in rescuing people from upper storeys.
A little deeper and a website explained how the SS adapted Magirus trucks (not fire-engines), as well as trucks made by Saurer, Opel and others. There is no suggestion that these companies built vehicles to be used as "gas-trucks" where a simple adaptation or two meant people could be killed using carbon-monoxide . It was the SS who chose them because they could take up to seventy people at a time and converted them into murder machines.
Interviewed after the war, several locals stated that they had seen these vehicles operating in the forests around Chelmno in 1942. The "Black Raven" revved gently for ten minutes and then drove away to some crematorium or pit. It seems that such was the fate of the children of Lidice, and Lezaky and countless others. I believe that gas-trucks were first used, within the Third Reich, to kill the handicapped and congenitally ill, removing them from the blood-line of the Herrenvolk.
Is the "wait" of the title for arrival, for its task to be done, or to reach the final destination? I hope it is something that we are not all waiting for. It can't be our world, can it?
Hard fact and art both disturb us. Yet, as my jaunt across Europe approaches, I suddenly felt uplifted. Why? Harry Davies' work hangs in the Lidice Gallery alongside that of artists from around the world. What a privilege to carry this in my panniers. More so, what a wonderful act to trust such an emotionally-charged creation to me. It made me feel like some sort of conduit of goodwill - albeit one that will still enjoy the ride, despite the added responsibility. My wife suggested that it would be safer to send it by post and pick it up there to pass on. To me that would miss the point.
Harry Davies has put an extra swagger in the pedal-stroke as I ride to Lidice. In the past I have ridden many a mile, often with a theme in mind. When I decided to ride to Lidice, it was because of my own personal interest and a vague desire to support an excellent cause. Now, I have a real purpose!
Mark, my cycling body on the trip, is finishing off his ceramic piece. It promises to be very different. More of that later.