Thursday 21 June 2018

A New Perspective on The Children of Calais

‘The Children of Calais’ is an unusual piece of public art in a country that tends to memorialize heroes, royals and victories. Britain has a lot of men on horses, columns and pedestals, and quite a few Queen Victorias gazing across towns and parks. But things are slowly changing. April this year saw the first statue to a woman in Parliament Square, Millicent Fawcett. ‘The Children of Calais’, unveiled by Alf Dubs in June, is something different again. The six life-sized, bronze figures, three girls, three boys, that compose the piece are designed to provoke debate about the inhumanity of our response to the children – those most vulnerable to neglect and abuse – caught up  in the ongoing refugee crisis.


Award-winning sculptor and conceptual artist Ian Wolter was inspired by Rodin’s famous ‘The Burghers of Calais’, an edition of which lives in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament. Rodin was commissioned by the City of Calais to commemorate the six burghers of their city who, in the fourteenth century, were prepared to sacrifice themselves to the English king, in order to save their citizens from starvation under siege. The six men are portrayed at the moment they walked out of Calais to their certain death, one carrying the key to the city in an act of silent surrender. Every figure subtly portrays desperation in a different way. Although they are standing close enough to touch one another, each is lost and alone in their misery. Yet as well as expressing sorrow and defeat, they also capture heroic self-sacrifice and human dignity.

On the left,  Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais,  and,  on the right,   Ian Wolter’s The Children of Calais.

‘My six figures are English children,’ Ian explains, ‘children I know, in contemporary clothes, but in poses echoing Rodin’s burghers, with the tallest child holding a life-jacket in place of the Calais city key. Refugee children are simply children at the end of the day, forced from their homes and at the mercy of strangers whose language they may not even speak. When children are portrayed in the way Rodin approached his sculpture, the loneliness and desperation is overlaid with their need for adult care and protection.’
Refugees are not just a contemporary phenomenon. Starvation, war and disease have driven people from their homes for centuries. Labour peer Alf Dubs, who travelled up from London to unveil the sculpture in the North Essex market town of Saffron Walden, is a former child refugee himself.

Alf Dubs and Ian Wolter unveil ‘The Children of Calais’
Just six years old when he left Czechoslovakia, he carried not a key or life-jacket but a simple packed lunch for his journey across Europe on the eve of the Second World War. So terrified was he of wasting his precious meal, that he did not eat at all for two days, until he arrived at London’s Liverpool Street Station. Alf was one of 669 children rescued though Nicholas Winton’s Czech Kindertransport initiative. In 1939, Winton forged Home Office paperwork; in 2003 he was knighted for his ‘services to humanity’, and there is now a plaque to commemorate the rescue in the House of Commons.
“I am emotionally involved’ with the issue of child refugees, Alf made clear at the ‘Children of Calais’ unveiling, but ‘not just because of my background. I believe that most people, if not all in the country, think that we can do more for child refugees… I have never said that Britain should take them all. We should simply take our share.’

It was Save the Children that first informed Alf that there were 95,000 unaccompanied child refugees in camps in Europe, who fell outside of EU law giving families the right to live together. This inspired his ‘Dubs Amendment’, a proposal that Britain should take some 3,000 of these children to live in safety in the UK, even though they had no family link here. Alf already knew the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, because, as Maidenhead locals, they had met at Nicolas Winton’s 100th birthday party. May, however, asked Dubs to withdraw his amendment, a suggestion he rejected.
After returning to the Lords, the Dubs Amendment was finally passed, though later scrapped after only 350 unaccompanied children had been brought to safety in Britain. In 2017 Britain’s inappropriately named Immigration Minister, Robert Goodwill, announced that we had done our bit and ‘met the spirit of the amendment’. Now the issue is being debated again. ‘It is important to recognise that campaigning is not the perogative of any one political party’, Alf made clear, with a quick look at the Conservative MP of Saffron Walden, Kemi Badenoch, who attended the reception after the unveiling of the Children of Calais sculpture. Yvette Cooper, the chair of the Commons home affairs committee, described the government’s approach as ‘completely inadequate’ just days later, but Alf insists ‘we’re getting there – it just takes persistence.’

Saffron Walden residents inspect the new sculpture.

‘What communities choose to commemorate in their public spaces is an expression of what is important to them’ sculptor Ian Wolter said. ‘The people who came to the unveiling of my piece donated over £600 to Safe Passage, there has been huge press interest, and if also some criticism on social media it can only be good if art provokes debate.’

The lives of the six Burghers of Calais, as represented by Rodin, were eventually spared in an act of mercy by the English king’s pregnant wife. ‘I liked that element of the fourteenth century story,’ Ian adds, ‘because in my work it suggests the possibility of a happy ending for child refugees. That in the end, humanity may hold sway.’

First published by the City of Sanctuary here

Wednesday 20 June 2018

Historia Interviews: Michael Morpurgo

Clare Mulley talks to HWA Honorary Patron, Michael Morpurgo, about the extraordinary family history that inspired his latest book.
On 17 August 1944, Michael Morpurgo’s uncle, Francis Cammaerts, was scheduled to be executed. He and two colleagues had been arrested by the Nazi German occupying forces in southern France, who rightly suspected that they were special agents, sent in to arm and organise the French resistance. Having had ‘an ominously good meal’ of vegetable soup, that evening the three men were marched across the prison courtyard towards the football ground, the place used for executions by firing squad. As the sky darkened with a summer storm, they were surprised to suddenly be herded the other way and into a waiting Citro├źn. Once round the first bend, the car stopped to collect a solitary figure, standing silhouetted against the white wall of an isolated farm building. It was Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the Polish-born female special agent who worked with Francis in the field. Unknown to him and the other men, a few days earlier Christine had begged the local resistance to rescue them. After their refusal, she had cycled the 20 kilometers over to the prison, planned, and pulled off the apparently impossible rescue on her own…
A few years ago, not long after my biography of Christine, The Spy Who Loved, had been published, I met Michael Morpurgo at the Harrogate History Festival where he was talking in his capacity as the Honorary Patron of the Historical Writers Association. I asked him whether he might ever write the story of Francis and Christine, their love affair, resistance work, and Christine’s dramatic rescue of the men. Michael told me that he had published almost 800 stories, but this one was too close to him. Last month I went to the launch of In the Mouth of the Wolf, Michael’s latest book, which finally tells the story of Francis, his brother Pieter, and Christine. We met again, a few days ago at Ognisko Polskie, London’s Polish Hearth Club, to talk about why Michael finally chose to share this tale.
‘This story has been at the back of my mind all my life,’ Michael told me, at least ‘since I was six years old.’ Michael was about seven when he first met Francis. Knowing only that his uncle was a great war-hero, and finding him ‘immensely tall’, Michael found him very daunting. ‘Francis was a one-off, very strange. He did not behave like other uncles. He commanded a room whenever he came in. Very handsome. Very impressive. Difficult to talk to’.
Despite this, Michael was deeply inspired by both of his uncles; Francis and his younger brother Pieter, who had joined the RAF and was killed in action early on in the war. When he left school Michael even joined the army, ‘because the story of these brothers was so strong in my head. I was not a very deep-thinking eighteen year old’, he laughs, and he left again pretty swiftly, ‘never having had to go to war, thank god.’ His change of mind about his vocation came during winter training exercises in 1962. Michael tells even this like a story waiting to be written. ‘It was freezing’, he begins, ‘there was snow on the ground and in the trenches, and the enemy’ – in fact some Argyll Highlanders – ‘would cheerfully have killed and eaten us Sandhurst cadets. They shouted at us all night, and in the morning I had an epiphany… I suddenly realised that what I wanted to do was talk to people, not shoot at them. So I left the army.’ Nonetheless, his time as a cadet gave him an understanding of the military that he would later find very useful in his writing.
Like Francis before him, Michael then became a teacher, and the two men found each other again, discussing education. Over time Francis spoke more about his own life. It was his knowledge of the courage of the French people who hid and supported members of the resistance during the war that enabled Michael to write his book about the French occupation, Waiting for Anya, with real integrity.
Francis now also spoke about working with Christine. She had been parachuted in to serve as the courier with his resistance circuit in the south east of France in the summer of 1944. The previous courier, Cecily Lefort, had been arrested some weeks before, and would eventually be killed in the gas chambers. Christine was the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent in the war, and had already operated behind enemy lines in two different theatres of the conflict; in Eastern Europe; and Egypt and the Middle East. She had a reputation both for courage and for getting results. Francis immediately knew that he could trust her, and simply told Michael that it was Christine ‘who made it work.’ What he did not talk about was their love affair. ‘They fell in love extraordinarily quickly’, Michael told me. But Francis was married, and all he would later say was that ‘it is possible to love two women at the same time’.
Michael says he feels indebted to his uncles for many things, not least for having given him the debate of his life, ‘do you or don’t you do what they did, serve and fight?’ Michael believes he would have made the same choices at Pieter, the uncle he never knew. Francis started the war as a conscientious objector, and it was these differences that gave Michael his way into the story. He only dared to write the book after Francis had died, involving his family all the way, sending them drafts. Luckily, he says, ‘they are broadminded’.
In the end, the story of Francis and Christine was one that Michael felt he had to write. ‘History is the most important subject in the world, and the most ignored,’ he told me. ‘There is very little curriculum interest in it. Children are not being taught the story of the story, the development of history. You can start wherever you like, that doesn’t matter at all.’ Michael has told tales from all over the world, and across time, but ultimately, he says, ‘this is the story that I am connected to the most. I grew up during the Second World War. I played in the ruins, and there really was an old soldier with one leg at the end of the street. It was a dark and gloomy London, full of sadness. It was like some monster had come… This war had not just knocked down houses, burnt bodies and taken off flesh, it had also affected my own family.’
Michael and I had chosen to meet in the Polish Hearth Club in London, because last year the club commissioned a bronze bust of Christine, which now lives there on public display. The portrait was sculpted by my husband, Ian Wolter, an award-winning artist, using every photograph of her that I could find, including crime scene pictures released to me under the Freedom of Information Act. At the foundry, we added a handful of Polish and British earth to the bronze, so Christine is literally cast with the soil of her native and adoptive countries. What was it like to finally come face-to-face with Christine, I asked Michael. ‘Very strange,’ he hesitated, ‘to see the face that meant so much to Francis, but who none of us were ever able to meet’.
This is not the place to let you know what made Francis change his mind and fight in the Second World War, or even how Christine saved him and his colleagues-in-arms in a French field in the late summer of 1944. There are books out there for that. As a piece for Historia, I will simply pass on Michael’s passionate belief that, whatever the subject, you ‘have to tell a story that matters to you. If you are not really passionate about the subject then don’t tell it. If it hurts, it hurts. If it’s about war, it will hurt. You look people in the eye when you tell a story… just write.’

Michael Morpurgo’s In the Mouth of the Wolf, illustrated by the brilliant French artist Barroux, is published by Egmont.
Clare Mulley’s The Spy Who Loved, the Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, is published by Macmillan and has been optioned by Universal Studios.
  1. Clare Mulley with Michael Morpurgo at Ognisko Polskie, The Polish Hearth Club in London, 2018. Photo © Ania Mochlinska, Ognisko Polskie.
  2. Francis Cammaerts & Krystyna Skarbek aka Christine Granville
  3. Clare Mulley with Michael Morpurgo at Ognisko Polskie, The Polish Hearth Club in London, 2018. Photo © Ania Mochlinska, Ognisko Polskie.
  4. The stories of Francis; In the Mouth of the Wolf, & Christine; The Spy Who Loved
  5. Ian Wolter’s sculpture of Christine at Ognisko Polskie. © Ania Mochlinska, Ognisko Polskie.
Article originally published on the Historia Website here