A fanfare for the uncommon (wo)man

By Jill Segger
March 16, 2018

The man on the Clapham omnibus, the man on the street, Joe Public. There have been many labels over the years for what are generally considered to be ‘ordinary people’.

The categories of politicians and pollsters are a little more blatant in their condescension: Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman, Pebble-dash People. These are calculated to create distance and at the same time to create a bogus aura of respect and understanding. It is no coincidence that Jesus’ words ‘salt to the world’ – a conferring of noble purpose and high calling – are so often degraded to ‘salt of the earth’, a patronising reach-me-down on the tongues of the middle class when praising their gardeners, nannies and cleaners.

Ordinary is an angle of gaze. It is sometimes enlarging to tilt the head or change the focal length. Art – in that breath-catching capacity to make the everyday sacred and salvific – is so often to be found in humble frames and unremarkable dwellings.

The East London Group of painters were active during the years 1928 to 1936. The best known among them are probably Harold and Walter Steggles, working class London boys whose passion for art was nourished through John Cooper’s art classes at the Bromley and Bow Institute. The social landscape of the artists of this group was that of clerks, factory workers and craftspeople. Some, like Brynhild Parker, were the children of a slightly higher social stratum, though none of them were what would now be considered movers and shakers. But they were rooted people who all embraced and honoured the extraordinary qualities of the ordinary.

The East London artists painted unfashionable streets, humble, sometimes shabby, interiors and rural landscapes, particularly in East Anglia. In doing so, they both recorded much which is now changed beyond recognition and offered those glimpses of transformation which may change and sustain lives. To me, there is a sacramental quality in Brynhild Parker’s depiction of a breakfast table by the window of a first floor room painted in 1930: a chimney stack and a plain house front provide the view, while a milk bottle, bowl and a plate bearing a heel of bread are transfigured into utensils of grace by the artist’s treatment of light. Many of us will have seen something similar a thousand times, but here we are arrested and offered the immense gift of looking again at the quotidian. Here is the mountain top offered in the lodging-house room, here a reminder of the eternal value of sparrows and of the carpenter’s bench.

This visionary potential of the everyday is not confined to the visual arts. I find another outlier of eternity ­in the poems of John Clare. The ‘peasant poet’ who lived such an obscure and ultimately painful life, observed the natural world as only one who lived, breathed and walked among the small and overlooked sphere of fur, feather, plough, lane and copse could do. The farm labourer’s son who died in the Northampton Lunatic Asylum in 1864, was undone by the dispossession of enclosure. That bone-of-bone connection with place has been largely turned into a USP in our own time. As the standing from which the inbreathing of meaning and clear-sighted experience makes possible an exhalation of universal authenticity, truth and power, it is all but done with. Such is the alienating force of ambition and deracination.

In 1942, Aaron Copland composed his ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ in response to a speech given by Henry Wallace in which the US Vice-President proclaimed the ‘dawning of the century of the common man’. It is an engaging enough piece of music. But it seems to me to miss the essence of remaining close to rooted experience under the gracious illumination of humility. Despite the hauteur of the sophisticated and succsssful, something good came out of Nazareth.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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