Catholic Herald, 10 March 1989
Ever since I was thrown out of pottery classes for persistently crying into my clay, I’ve had a weakness for sculpture. The frustration of not being able to make my hands do what my mind so clearly saw, melted into passive admiration.
Epstein’s magnificent Lazarus, which dominates the chapel at New College, Oxford, is the piece I unashamedly covet. Those of you with similar learnings who live near Guildford have an artistic feast on the doorstep in a shopping centre.
The President of the Royal Academy recently unveiled an eight foot bronze sculpture in the refurbished Tunsgate Square. The “walking man” is the work of 31-year-old Martin Jennings, and is part of a scheme that involves stained glass windows by Anne Smyth and brick carving and lettering by Alec Peever.
The sculpture harmonises with the words of poet Matt Black. His dreamy phrases, inscribed on bronze tablets, form a poetry “trail” spaced around the precinct. The “walking man” (no idler this, but a chap of purpose) is intended to create an analogy between the movement of people through a specific space, and the process of change that characterises their lives.
This process is symbolised by delicate leaf casts, inspired by the ebb and flow of people through the Square. The leaves finally collect in a bowl next to the figure where the inscription reads “into the heart returning”. Figure, leaves and words combine into a satisfying artistic resolution. A fine example of spatial planning and well worth a detour, even without the excuse of shopping.
Martin Jennings, schooled at Ampleforth, Oxford and the City and Guilds London, was apprenticed for two years to Richard Kindersley, the lettering craftsman. A visit to Martin’s studio discloses a housewife’s nightmare – dust everywhere, mercilessly exposed by the strong daylight essential to his work. Show me a fat and tidy sculptor . . . The combination of howling draughts, near Arctic temperature and hard labour no doubt account for Martin’s half-starved-in-a-garret physique, which one yearns to succour with thick soup.
One can only admire the single-minded dedication and self-denial which drives the artist to create beautiful things for the rest of us to enjoy. This sculptor also teaches occasionally. For a year he taught art in the local prison – which neatly stiches up with my next subject.
“They won’t play with me.” For a parent this sentence is full of foreboding. Twenty years ago, when we moved to a new neighbourhood, I discovered that my children were being ostracised by the native kids. My brood had told their intended playmates their dad had been in prison. It took half a morning to explain the meaning of Second World War political prisoners in Eastern Europe, but the effort ensured a place for my lot in the hop-scotch squads.
Would that all rehabilitation was so swift and easy. I remembered that incident when I joined the Catholic Chaplain for Mass in Oxford prison the other day.
In the nature of things a prison turns its back on the world. Ours is as remote as Mars.
Fr Peter Cornwell, successful author and one of the chaplains to the university, also ministers to the Catholic prisoners. Their number varies of course and the pastoral work is complicated by a fairly rapid turnover. Every prisoner has the right to hear Mass if he wishes.
The morning I was there, about a dozen prisoners were present, with two prison officers in attendance. Two or three university students regularly accompany Fr Cornwell to make the music and chat with prisoners afterwards. The chaplain is keen to connect life in prison with the outside world and these students help to make that link.
The majority of the prisoners were under 25, a sad reflection on our society. The peaceful atmosphere, (once the locking of doors was done with) the flowers, hymns, candles and attentive faces might have been seen in any chapel anywhere that Sunday morning.
And the often-criticised sign of peace took on a new meaning here. Next time you’re tempted to gaze churlishly at the floor, remember the prisoner.
Fr Cornwell is interested in the dynamics of small communities. While still an Anglican priest (he is “famous” for being one of the five married convert priests in this country) he served in a mining community in the North. His experience there, and in a university world within the world, helps him to recognise the tensions and flashpoints that may occur in any enclosed space.
The first 24 hours in prison can be a terrible experience for even hardened men, and the anxieties particularly for the first-timer, may be overwhelming. No-one should minimise the extreme discomfort of prison says Fr Cornwell. In addition there is the genuine guilt and shame many prisoners find so hard to cope with. And yet, paradoxically, for those who come from chaotic backgrounds, the rhythm and order of prison life can come as a relief.
This can create problems on discharge: how to re-adjust to chaos after the regular meals, exercise and recreation? Fr Cornwell tries to put his charges in touch with their parish priests when they leave – a challenge the laity might help out with, in a spirit of charity and welcome.
The Chaplain “tries to leave himself around”. He likes to visit the prisoners in their cells, their temporary homes. His unhurried personality and warm good humour makes him readily approachable. He works closely with the representatives of other faiths, and remarks on the frequent beams of human goodness he finds; among prisoners and those who look after them.
He is touched by the way prisoners discover little bits of their Faith they had half-forgotten. It is no surprise to find that a rosary is often asked for. While he never condones self-pity, he is the least judgmental of men: “To judge would imply I come from a world outside where there is no sin, to a world where there is an excessive amount of it”.
He stresses that in his experience, the Prison Officers and Probation Officers do a difficult job with good humour and humanity. The Prison Service is grossly under-funded; those employed in it have to make the system work. It ill-behoves society, only too ready to pass on its dirty work for others to deal with, to sling mud when things go wrong.
As we dispersed after the final hymn that sunny Sunday, me to the warmth of my family circle, they to their cells, I couldn’t help thinking, there but for the grace of God . . .