The disappearance of Ai Weiwei

Artist hasn't been since since Sunday.

I was in Beijing last Friday for the opening of The Art of the Enlightenment, a major Sino-German collaboration between the National Museum of China and the state museums of Berlin, Dresden and Munich. At a symposium the day after the ceremonial opening, the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle (who resigned yesterday as leader of the Free Democrats, the junior partner in Germany's governing coalition), declared that the Enlightenment was not the "invention of Europeans" and that countries the world over were converging on "freedom, democracy and the rule of law" -- though, Westerwelle was careful to stress, at their own speed and by following their "own way".

That caveat now looks grimly premonitory in the light of the news that the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei hasn't been seen since he was detained at Beijing airport on Sunday, the day after Westerwelle lavished such ornate diplomatic sensitivity on his hosts. The Guardian reports that items have also gone missing from his studio and quotes his wife, Lu Qing, as saying: "They asked me about Ai Weiwei's work and the articles he posted online . . . I told them that everything that Ai did was very public, and if they wanted to know his opinions and work they could just look at the internet."

Ai Weiwei, whose Sunflower Seeds installation is currently occupying the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, was due to have his first solo exhibition in this country at the Lisson Gallery in May. In a statement issued today, the gallery's director Greg Hilty said:

We are extremely alarmed by the detention of Ai Weiwei and his colleagues and are greatly concerned for his safety. Ai Weiwei is one of the leading cultural figures of his generation and consistently displays great courage in placing himself at risk to affect social change through his art. He serves as an example for legitimate social criticism and free expression both in China and internationally. Lisson Gallery has a long history of working with political artists and we strongly condemn any form of artistic suppression. We continue to support Ai Weiwei and are fully committed to staging his first solo exhibition at the gallery, opening 13 May 2011.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution