Steve McQueen and Derek Walcott join forces on Queen and Country project

This week, McQueen’s profoundly moving exhibition of postage stamp portraits of British soldiers killed in Iraq moves to the National Portrait Gallery in London after an extended tour. It should be a moment of satisfaction for the Turner prize-winning artist and film maker, who will mark Saturday’s opening of his Queen and Country exhibition with the publication of a new book recording more than 150 facsimile postage stamp sheets he created from photographs provided by the families of war dead. The book includes a poem by Derek Walcott reproduced below.

Instead, McQueen is spoiling for a fight. After months of patient lobbying, the 40-year-old British artist has failed to persuade Royal Mail to turn his project into real commemorative stamps. The memorial project he always envisaged as a living tribute — with real stamps on real envelopes landing every morning on British doormats — has been stalled by faceless bureaucrats wielding what McQueen considers insulting excuses. McQueen, a burly, barrel-chested figure, looks ready to punch the first postman he sees. “I don’t understand,” he growls. “I just don’t get it. These are people who died for their country. Who is obstructing this and why?”

Queen and Country, which places sheets of stamps in individual drawers in a large oak chest, has won near-universal praise as a poignant memorial that in the words of a critic at The Times, “is clearly neither anti-war nor pro-war”.  “My whole idea was collaboration [with the families],” he says. When he first wrote to relatives asking for pictures he could use on his stamps, he found himself “sitting in my bed, head in hands, thinking no one is going to respond”. Then slowly, one by one, the letters arrived, each with a picture of a lost loved one. Many of them were neither somber nor formal like their official army mugshots, but showed smiling, laughing faces, many of them terribly young. “And I thought, ‘My God, this is happening’,” says McQueen. “And this is why we are here today — because of the families’ response. They are contributing to this artwork, it’s theirs as well as ours and that’s where the power comes from, really.”

Now to be told that putting soldiers’ faces on real stamps might upset those selfsame families — as Royal Mail suggests — has him shaking his head in disbelief. “Every argument they’ve given us we’ve answered,” he says, scowling. “They just don’t have an argument and it needs to be exposed. It’s shameful.” He leans back in his chair, gripping the arms with his big, soft hands, and mutters again under his breath: “It’s shameful.”

For Royal Mail, a public company wholly owned by the government, a public relations nightmare has ensued. Everyone knows that postage stamp issues are sensitive. Yet who can really argue against Queen and Country? What could possibly be controversial about patriotism, duty and sacrifice? Why shouldn’t the faces of British soldiers who died in Iraq on Her Majesty’s service appear on Her Majesty’s stamps? When these questions were put to Royal Mail last week, a spokesman cited the results of an “independent” survey of British servicemen and women. “In the survey, over 75% of respondents felt that it would be both distressing and disrespectful to use images of recently deceased servicemen and women, particularly because of the way they are cancelled/defaced with ink as they pass through our sorting equipment and also because used stamps are mostly binned,” the spokesman declared. He went on to insist that the issue was not about “the artwork involved”, but about highlighting the role of the armed services “presented in a way that they want”. According to the Royal Mail survey, our troops would prefer their contribution and sacrifices to be recorded on stamps with an “iconic symbol”, such as a poppy.

McQueen snorts. “Oh, don’t give me any of that cock and bull,” he says. “Don’t hide behind the families, saying they will be upset. We’ve got 93% of the relatives who say they want the stamps to happen. It’s outrageous, it’s obstruction, it’s a nonsense.”

There will be no mention of these controversies in McQueen’s new book of the project, which contains only a few lines of text. Pondering the layout some time ago, McQueen was struck by the notion of trying to convey the idea of a minute’s silence to accompany the soldiers’ photographs. “I thought of poetry, then who could do this,” he says. A few years earlier in New York, he had met Derek Walcott, the Nobel prize-winning Caribbean poet. I rang him, and spoke to him about silence. How do you verbalize a minute’s silence?” says McQueen, whose parents were both born in the West Indies. “We spoke twice, and by the third time he was finished.”

Walcott says now that the task of conveying silence in words first seemed a “terrifying prospect, but came out tolerably well”. His poem is published for the first time by The Sunday Times; Walcott suggested that readers “leave spaces” between the lines, allowing the silence to be heard. Yet as far as McQueen is concerned, the book is merely another step towards his ultimate artistic goal, which couldn’t be simpler in concept, but which has somehow become so hard to attain. “I wanted stamps, I just wanted stamps,” he says. “Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I thought how could they possibly be against it? You think people are better than they actually are.”

He still hopes that some higher authority — perhaps the Queen herself — will “listen to reason and do the honorable thing”. But for now he can’t hide his dismay. “Why do we have to be mediocre?” he muses. “Why can’t we be brilliant?”

Requiem

A stamp. Its white echo on this page.

The sliding white screen of a cloud.

Silence. A widening blizzard, the linen of surrender.

Silence. When the bugler’s cornet is folded.

Once the boots have stamped, the last order shouted Under the old memorial’s gesturing bronze.

Stamp after stamp, silence, for the young ones who never made it to the harbour of white hair, the bay of old age.

Silence. On the white desert of the page.

Silence. That fills the crowd in the stone square.

There was dew in their eyes. Wet prisms, bright, tender.

Derek Walcott

The Queen and Country book is published by the British Council and will be available for purchase in the National Portrait Gallery bookshop at a special exhibition price of £22 or through www.cornerhouse.org.uk for £25. Those wishing to show their support for the campaign can do so at www.artfund.org/queenandcountry

For more go to http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article7060867.ece

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