Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

mugshot 600Michael Madden: thoughts on visual art, politics and the planet (1)

Michael Madden, painter, sculptor, restorer, environmental campaigner and Hastings resident, talks with HOT’s Chandra Masoliver about his life, work, the Labour Party and the state of the planet. 

CM: You work as a restorer and muralist but have also been involved with trade unions and environmental campaigns. Can you outline a personal history for me? 

MM: I was born in East London to socialist parents. I wanted to work with animals but was streamed out of the sciences and into the ‘the arts’ at school. I chose visual art.

But at art college I found little teaching and left after a few terms to begin a late apprenticeship under a master specialist-decorator. I learned how to mimic wood grains and types of marble with paint glazes and basic techniques of oil gilding. In a sense it was fakery, but I learned artistic skills and about the rhythms and patterns of nature. We decorated the Sultan of Oman’s throne room, the Ritz Casino, the RAC Club and many other well-known London interiors and some on the continent.

But after nearly seven years and various health problems, the glazes had damaged my hands and I looked for conventional medical help without luck. I eventually found a Chinese herbal doctor who cured me and advised me to abandon the trade. I‘d become tired of working for the very wealthy anyway, so I joined Lambeth Council and swept Brixton’s streets for a year – then went back to college to study restoration/carving.

Green Man: carved limewood.

Green Man: carved limewood (1987).

What did you do afterwards? 

Soon after leaving, I worked in a carving workshop but developed more health problems and had to leave. Then I won a competition to transform Raphael’s painting The Bridgewater Madonna into a life-size woodcarving for the tenth richest man in the world. He was happy with it, but my wage was less than a road-sweeper’s.

After a few years, I applied for a salaried job as an exhibition technician at the Natural History Museum, where I painted murals and exhibitions and where the wages were better. I liked working with others on interesting projects.

Did you get involved politically?

Yes. The exhibition department was being changed due to Thatcher’s accountancy management and the ratio between managers and hands-on staff was 1:3 in my team – a wasteful, top-heavy system. I became Technicians’ Rep and later Branch Secretary of the Public & Commercial Services Union. I and my friend (the Chair) negotiated staff pay and conditions with managers, trustees and government advisers. Our branch won the best pay and conditions in the Arts and Heritage sector, earning respect from managers and staff for handling tricky issues.

The museum featured in the broadsheet newspapers over a fraud scandal that involved senior managers. Meanwhile, our HQ representative was happy to do as little as possible. And I soon realised that trade unions were no longer what they’d been – the core of the Labour Party and its historical grass roots.

What did you think of the politics of that time, and how did they affect your life?

I’d always thought of myself as an Old Labour ‘socialist’ and felt concerned when New Labour scrapped Clause Four while in opposition.

In ‘97 Tony Blair became PM, and I was living in South London when his government decided to re-route aircraft stacks coming into Heathrow, to begin their last turn and descent above our South London flat instead of the more moneyed area of Barnes, where they had before. Finding myself unable to sleep past 4.30am, I joined a campaign to reduce aircraft noise. We lobbied the government but without success and many of us had to leave an area where we’d been very happy.

Phoenix The Calf (2001).

Phoenix The Calf (2001).

My partner at the time also hated the effects of accountancy management at her workplace, so we tried to leave the rat race, heading for Cumbria, and buying a very old house in a remote rural area. But the rat race followed us. Within a few months, the foot and mouth outbreak hit Britain and huge pyres were burning all around; people were forbidden from walking the fells in case their boots became contaminated.

The Government spoke in terms of a “war” on a “medieval plague”, but in fact animals generally survive the disease, though they don’t regain their peak weight. The Government’s motive was to keep beef and lamb prices high in Europe by retaining the stock’s “disease-free” status. To justify that, farmers were ruined, some committed suicide; and farming families were traumatised by six months of animal fires, spoiled land and bankruptcies.

By now I mistrusted the Blair government and joined a group that sought to expose the real facts by creating art works and books on the subject alongside the farming community. The result was my cover and illustrations for a book written by two linguists from Nottingham University, which analysed the terminology the government used. It was pure spin, which Blair was famous for. Our three years there showed me the duplicity of that government, but I carried on voting Labour.

Foot and Mouth Window: painting and book cover (2001).

Foot and Mouth Window: painting and book cover (2001).

I then landed another sculptural job and drove to and from Lancashire where I made master models in clay – replacement figures for the London Coliseum – at a terracotta company called Shaws of Darwen, working beside highly skilled, poorly paid men with no union. Under Blair, wage inequality fell but the 1% kept on getting richer, and several million Europeans came to live and work in Britain, arguably fuelling a resentment that would finally lead to Brexit. We returned to London with money to spare because our house had unexpectedly doubled in value. I lived by restoring antiques, but our relationship didn’t survive.

So where did you go next?

I moved out and lived in Hastings briefly, where I met my wife-to-be and after a few years back in London we moved here. We were attracted mostly by the Country Park – a unique asset that should be the envy of all other large towns and cities in Britain. But the rat race followed us again – within a couple of years the dramatic landslip at Ecclesbourne Glen took place and I joined Chris Hurrell, Andrew Blackman and Tim Cross in a new group called Save Ecclesbourne Glen (SEG). Hastings Borough Council had allowed too many caravans on the lower slopes, a road to be built and tree-felling in the Glen, which led to such a high concentration of water run-off that the topsoil was removed. The Wealden clay swelled and slipped down the Glen, crossing the pathway with mature trees.

SEG asked the Council to initiate an independent review and the Coffey Report backed our suspicions. We tried as hard as we could to work with the Council until it became clear that they were stringing us along, and would never agree to try and help the lower Glen back to its former glory. The same business also built a holiday home overlooking the Glen, the so-called Bunker. Every councillor said it should come down but it was built anyway. The Bahcheli Report was the final straw for me – a supposedly ‘impartial’ outsider, brought in to review the council’s planning department. It seemed like a whitewash.

Soon after I left SEG, I was persuaded to go to a public meeting at the Stade Hall, where a Tory councillor requested an internal inquiry to look into the planning department because local people were coming to him in tears over council-backed developments that were affecting their environment and quality of life. All Labour councillors voted against him. I shouted out that the council was a disgrace to the Labour Party and Peter Chowney responded, saying that I wasn’t “allowed in here.” It was a public meeting.

I had dropped out of SEG because I saw the problems with Hastings Council mirrored elsewhere in the country, especially in London’s Labour-controlled boroughs. In Herne Hill exactly the same excuses were used by a Labour dominated council to reduce services at a Carnegie Library and open a private gym. My sister became involved in the campaign to stop it, which was lost.

I now realised that the lack of democratic accountability in my party (Labour) was bigger than the Glen alone and thought that the SEG campaign needed to grow and make more alliances with other groups – i.e. to democratise, in order to expose what was wrong with local democracy. Others disagreed and in the end, the campaign was lost, after four years of hard work from some excellent locals, that the council labelled “vexatious complainants”.

The path through the Glen will probably never re-open even though the landslip seems to have stabilised recently. The Council did not even monitor the movement, as advised by the Coffey Report, which they had commissioned and all taxpayers had paid for. I resented the time I’d spent away from my work and I still blame the Council for being so secretive and confrontational. I never walk in Ecclesbourne Glen any more.


All illustrated artworks are by Michael Madden. See also his website.

Further parts of the interview, on the current state of democracy, the environment and art, will be published at roughly weekly intervals.

Posted 15:57 Tuesday, Sep 24, 2019 In: Hastings People


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  1. Ms.Doubtfire

    HBC planning a farce? That is putting it very mildly indeed – I have a friend whose neighbour has built a rear extension under this hideous Permitted Development Rights scheme and they now find that the side window to this extension gives an uninterruped view into their patio area, their conservatory and beyond.. and the planning department say although the owner of the extension has put obscured glass in this window he has been advised by the planning department that he can have clear glass if he wishes!!! This window is only 3 feet from my friends property…and now of course nobody in the household feels comfortable that he may take out the obscured glass and replace it with the clear glass…we always thought that loss of privacy and overlooking were material considerations and sacrosanct…so this is causing my friends considerable stress and probably lawyers fees because taking a complaint to this council is a fruitless task. They do not listen and if they can ignore the major landslip up at the Eccelsbourne Glen why would they care about a family who are now fraught that they can be watched from such a close position if the neighbour so desires.
    What does it take to bring this councils planning department to task? There has to be an answer to the numerous complaints about this department..

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Monday, Sep 30, 2019 @ 20:29

  2. ken davis

    A very interesting back story from Michael showing a struggle for his art and against political and bureaucratic absurdities. The HBC planning department are a farce which the politicians have failed to deal with in such a way that the general public are left thinking corruption (of both sorts) is in the ascendance.
    The consequence is a breakdown of trust in politics generally which inevitable weakens democracy. Is it any wonder we are in the present mess over the ‘B’ word.

    Comment by ken davis — Monday, Sep 30, 2019 @ 09:14

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