Monday, October 10, 2011

Mary on the Green

It's time for an update on Mary on the Green, the campaign to get Mary Wollstonecraft a statue on Newington Green. We got an article in the Islington Tribune on Friday, the hook being that this hyperlocal campaign is soliciting funds from a big UK bank. Here's how it works: you go to Community Force Project 2478, register (hint: all they ask for is an email address; it doesn't have to be your main one), and vote. It's free, it takes less than a minute, and I see no sign that it geolocates. If Mary on the Green gets enough votes, NatWest will donate £6000, which would certainly boost the project. If you love Mary like I love Mary...isn't that a song? Go on, do the decent thing, wherever you live: express your support for the campaign by voting, and tell your friends about it too - Facebook, Twitter, blogs, you know the drill.

Other publicity is bubbling along nicely. Student radio wanted an interview the same day as the local paper; the promised .wav might yet show up. I'll be addressing the new-look and zeitgeisty Stoke Newington Women's Institute this evening, rattling the tin. Three questions to get out of the way first.

Why Mary Wollstonecraft? I hope readers of this blog can provide answers aplenty: England's first feminist (well, close enough) - and so much else besides - lacks any substantial memorial anywhere in the world.

John Betjeman, I love you .
Wikimedia Commons, ILYT.
Why a statue? If you care to argue for some other form of public art, go ahead, but I have my heart set on a representational and recognisable statue, not an abstract reference to her such as a pile of books. Don't get me wrong; I like some pieces of conceptual art very much, but not for this project. Mary on the Green, as a group, has no official view on this; we want to give the artists a free hand and see what they come up with. But I know where my campaigning energies, such as they are, lie.

And why Newington Green? True, there are many other locations associated with Mary, including quite a few in central London (her birthplace in Spitalfields, her garret on the South Bank, her publisher at St Paul's, her chipped teacup lodgings in Bloomsbury, her happy last months in Somers Town and St Pancras). Newington Green was where she lived as a young woman, with her beloved. She arrived an unknown and unpublished schoolteacher; she left a couple of years later, having had her world enlarged by hanging out with well-read, high-minded, hard-working neighbours. Most of them were Rational Dissenters, associated with the little chapel of which Richard Price was the minister. That great and gentle man was kind and generous to her, as was Mrs Burgh, widow of an educationalist, and truly a fairy godmother to Mary. The chapel still says Newington Green Unitarian Church, and is still radical - in fact, it has just rehung on the outside railings the banner that says Birthplace of Feminism (in Mary's honour, and in place of the previous one, 300 Years of Dissent). So Newington Green has a strong claim to Mary.

But the reason that this part of London, as opposed to any other, is going to become the world centre of pilgrimage to Our Lady (this is my blog; let me dream) is because some twenty-first century neighbours care enough to make it happen. I have written before of the formidable team of the Newington Green Action Group, who brought the green itself back to life within the last decade, and who now wish for a cherry atop their cake. NGAG has registered charity status, elected officers, a bank account, a track record, contacts across the borough, kosher paperwork, the whole lot. Mary on the Green had a soft launch of sorts on International Women's Day, with the unveiling of the council's un-blue plaque to Mary, high up on Newington Green Primary School, followed by a children's choir in the church, from that school. We got our letter in the Guardian, signed by all those peers and MPs. (Stop! I'm having flashbacks of those hundreds and hundreds of hideous handmade emails. I've been trying to block it out. More absinthe, please)  The Mary on the Green website went live: cannily and simply I appeared on Woman's Hour and Jenni Murray called me "besotted". That was half a year ago.

In the intervening months, Mary on the Green has been solidifying its structure and plotting its big splash of publicity to entice the money. The former is fairly dry and tedious, but of course necessary: laying the groundwork so that the best, i.e. most suitable, artist and art work will be chosen. What are the criteria for the sculpture? What needs to go into the brief? Who gets to choose the long list, the short list, and the successful candidate? Has anyone thought about pigeonshit and vandalism? (The art world isn't all canapes, I can tell you.) The attention-grabbing splash is rather more juicy. I can't say too much just yet, but think HP sauce, not ketchup!

Photo of Newington Green by Vicky Ayech. Photo of bottles by Jonathan Brodsky. 
Both CC-BY-2.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons 


  1. You've voted? Great! Can you persuade others to? Please get out the word on Twitter, Facebook, by email or however you can.

  2. Yes yes yes, I'm in! Will pass it on too.