Flashback: Birmingham Library in the 1970s. Photo: Getty
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Why Gillian Wearing made a statue of two single mothers

Her sculpture depicts two sisters, Roma and Emma Jones (who, like Wearing, were born in Birmingham), and their sons. It has attracted local interest, as well as complaints from fathers and the far right.

In Centenary Square in Birmingham, opposite the new library, there are statues of three industrialists – Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch – who transformed this city into “the workshop of the world”. On 30 October they will be joined by a very different statue, when Gillian Wearing’s A Real Birmingham Family is unveiled across the road.

Her sculpture depicts two sisters, Roma and Emma Jones (who, like Wearing, were born in Birmingham), and their sons Kyan and Shane. It has attracted local interest, as well as complaints from disgruntled fathers and the far right.

It was commissioned by the Ikon Gallery, which has been a bastion of contemporary art in Birmingham throughout the past 50 years. Ikon held a public competition, open to any local family. All entrants had to do was submit a photo and a short statement about what family – and Birmingham – meant to them. The selection panel included Wearing, Jonathan Watkins, director of Ikon, the editor of the Birmingham Post, a sociology lecturer and Ian Taylor, a former Aston Villa footballer. There were 372 entrants. On a rainy Monday morning this month, I met the winners just before they saw their statue for the first time.

Roma heard about the contest when she took her son, Kyan, to the library. She asked her younger sister, Emma, if she’d like to enter, too. “We’ve always been our own little family,” Roma says, over coffee in Ikon’s cosy café. “We’re not just like sisters,” Emma agrees. “Our relationship’s a lot more than just that.”

When the statue was cast, Emma was visibly pregnant. She has since given birth to Isaac, who is here with her today. Her first son, Shane, is now five years old. Roma’s son, Kyan, is four.

Wearing has explored this kind of territory before. A Typical Trentino Family, which she made in 2008, was also a statue of “ordinary” people, but for that work she chose a family that reflected the local average. This time, in a more diverse city, she wanted to commemorate something less conventional.

“We always feel like we’re different, because we’re mixed-race and single parents,” Emma says. “That’s what the statue’s about. It’s about being from Birmingham.” It’s a very conventional statue but that is what gives it such authority. Stylistically, it’s no different from the statue of Edward VII down the road.

“We were so passionate about winning because we wanted to represent single parents,” Emma says. “When children hear stories, they hear about a mummy bear, daddy bear and baby bear. They don’t hear about a mummy bear and an auntie bear.” They believe their home town is more accepting than a lot of other places. “In Birmingham, you feel like you can be who you are,” says Roma. And they hope the statue will inspire other unconventional families to feel proud of themselves.

The local press has been very positive but the “below the line” stuff has upset the sisters. “Those comments really hurt me,” Emma says. “They weren’t saying things about us. They were saying things about single parents.” They are a little apprehensive about how people will react once the statue is standing outside the library – a Birmingham landmark, with a life and identity of its own.

“It’s weird that it’s going to be so public, because to us it’s really personal,” Emma says. And what do Kyan and Shane make of it? “The children don’t really understand that not everybody has a statue,” she says. “They don’t realise what an amazing thing it is.” 

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt