Laurence meet Laurence

laurence18-thumb11:50 am Friday 27 August 1999. And I am standing on the north bank of the Thames with the House of  Commons for my back drop .I am feeling nervous, (not one of my common emotions ) and all this emphasised by the 18 lb of glass sided suitcase in my hand. As I cross the road to stand on my first traffic island of the day, I ask myself quite simply “What am I doing here?” As perhaps you are too? I must admit to not being noticed as much as I thought I would; standing here in my outfit of black with a suitcase of breath, and a freshly shorn head. There is a strange clean comfort in wearing these never before worn clothes, and my jet black socks seem to slide around inside these jet black shoes , which just serves to emphasize the vulnerability and crackibility  of the heavy suitcase I am carrying.

Back at the beginning of 1999 I was approached, and asked to take part in a project call ‘Spare Time.’ The project had sprung from the Mass-Observations in and around 1939. I was asked to make a piece of work which could be produced in an edition of 500 on the subject of heritage. The work  I produced was called “ In-Heritage “ and was a pamphlet about me, and the history my Grandfather had left behind.

In order for you to understand what brought me here we will need to go forward one day and back 60 years to the 28th August 1939. It is hard for us now to imagine the madness of that time, as Britain and Germany moved closer to a war neither wanted, a little fact which seems to have been forgotten! But then many people today seem to be under the impression that the war was fought for the Jews rather than because Britain decided to back the military in Poland, a regime only equalled in arrogance by that in Germany.(This  is of course a gross simplification.) But then that is the nature of history. So back to the 28th of  August!

A Mr. Laurence Hislam found himself walking towards Downing St with a suitcase in one hand and a pre-written note ready in the other. Laurence was a clerk from Camberwell and what he did next was to change his life. Heading into Downing St Laurence worked his way through the assembled crowd until he spotted the policeman on duty, an Inspector Alfred Giles. The note that Laurence then handed to Alfred quite simply said “How would you like bombs in Downing Street?”  Alfred said later “I noticed the word ‘bombs.’” by which point Laurence was running down the street. Alfred fell easily in to his part in this scene and shouted for the man to be stopped as he gave chase. But Laurence was quick on his feet and opened the suitcase in his hand as he sped down Downing Street. The contents of the suitcase was thrown at the assembled crowd:17 black bombs? Or something else, perhaps! The crowd quite understandably panicked, people fainted and fell to the ground. Alfred did eventually catch up with Laurence and arrested him. Unfortunately for Laurence’s face the crowd also caught up with him, so by the time he was in Bow St. police station his right eye was completely closed. In truth, there were no bombs, just rubber balls with peace symbols and messages on them. It is to my knowledge Laurence Hislam’s first pacifistic direct action, and the beginning of a new life dedicated to the cause of peace. Laurence was in prison when the war started serving 4 weeks hard labour for the Downing St incident .

Time, I guess to look at how I came to be standing here on a street corner with a glass sided suitcase full of, glass bombs!

Well first of all, most of the information about the incident in 1939 did not come to my attention until the beginning of 1999. Second, my name, Benedict Laurence Hislam. I am the grandson as well as the first male descendant of Laurence Hislam. In 1909 Laurence was born. I followed in 1969 and so it is only in this year (the 60th anniversary  of the suitcase incident ) that I could be the same age as he was in the same place with a distance between us of 60 years! Which is the distance between us. As crazy mathematicians always seem to be saying, “I like the numbers!” i.e. 1909-1939-1969-1999. the thing is because I did not know about most of this until this year the other coincidences in our lives were also unknown to me. These coincidences include activities  in common, such as shaving our heads; he for demonstration, me for preparation! The writing of manifestos and political pamphlets: we have both spoken on Speakers’ Corner and been founding member of organizations which have striven against the madness of the norm.

I myself co-founded FIELD STUDY in 1993, an organization which believes that everyone is an artist and that it is in the space between the activities on our CVs  that are the true creative times ! Laurence was a founding member of the committee of 100, an organization with members who were all prepared to go to prison for their beliefs, which were based on an absolute abhorrence of violence and commitment to the removal of nuclear weapons from the U.K. As in many other actions in his life Laurence was imprisoned in1961, this time with Bertrand Russell and three other members of the committee of 100. I think of this incident which took place while he was there.

At 9 pm every night the lights went out. But Laurence liked to read before going to sleep, so he re-wired the light in his cell and blew all the lights in the prison. It reminded me of the suitcase and all those vulnerable spheres of  breath held in the air tight case. And what my grandmother said “It was never boring living with Laurence.”

By the time I was standing on my second traffic island of the day I could feel people’s eyes upon me. By this time I could see the gates to Downing Street and my speed was faster as I moved down the pavement towards my 12 o’clock appointment with history. The blackness of the clothes I was wearing ( in homage to my grandfather’s Hiroshima vigils) stood out against the multi-coloured day-glow and summer wear all around me. Though I was aware of the curiosity of the crowd I moved straight through it at speed with no hint of a collision, or a foot out of place. I felt like I was on some kind of predestined auto-pilot. At the moment I reached those big and black gates two things happened at the same moment. First I was surrounded by puzzled faces, to my back tourists and to my front a small line of policemen. And second, an old friend of mine shouted my name and took a picture of me as I turned to look his way. I introduced myself to the policemen, who informed me that though my name was on his list my photographer’s was not. So I found myself, like my grand father before me, walking up Downing Street alone.

So Tony Blair has this suitcase in his entrance hall, it is so much heavier than you would expect .In fact the policeman who took it on Tony’s behalf and placed it on the entrance hall table decided to turn back to it almost immediately and  place it on its side on the newspapers there. Then returning to me he asked whether there were any documents to accompany it. I said that they would follow  later and handed him my card which has a picture of me on the front grinning, with the words MY ART, YOUR FACE running round the top edge of my head, with my name; BENEDICT underneath.

I presume that Tony will have to declare my gift ! I will be most interested to know what he will say it is!

I said to Mr. Blair in my letter “I am writing to enquire whether you have yet had a chance to examine my gift to you”. (As well as asking“ How far we have come? And how far do we have to go?”) And Tony said

“ Dear Mr. Hislam,

The prime minister has asked me to thank you for your

recent letter and glass case.

Mr. Blair is most grateful to you for your kind thought in


I also explained to Mr Blair in my letter that:

“This glass sided suitcase filled with 18 glass vessels I delivered to 11 Downing Street at 12 noon on the 27 Aug 1999. 17 of the 18 vessels contain a human breath which was blown in to the vessels after the writing then reading (in silence for the most part) of prayers and poems for peace . Quite simply you can not see these prayers or the breath for peace, but that does not mean they are not there. The case itself is 18lb in weight and if you have had the impulse to lift it then you will know what a burden these prayers can be, as well as knowing that it must be placed carefully so as not to crack or smash its air tight body”.

Quite simply my action’s first  purpose was as a reminder of the importance of life. Despite all the celebration as we reach the end of the century, the reiteration of that phrase “ we should never forget, so it can never happen again “ seems like a banal mantra to me, when over one hundred and sixty million people have been killed in wars in this century. When I hear “we must never forget , so it can never happen again”. Shit that’s so off the mark it makes me sick. I have to ask ‘So what can never happen again? Rape, war , slavery, ethnic cleansing, never again! We say “never forget” but I see, it never stops. So how far we have come? And how far do we have to go? These questions seem as pertinent today as when my grandfather asked them in his way, 60 years ago. As Ghandi said ”I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary and the evil it does is permanent”.

Duchamp gave a vessel of Paris air to the man who had ‘everything money could buy’ the year my grandfather was ten. I have given the breath of the anonymous to a man whose job it is to promise everything! My case is quite a weight to lift but then if Tony drops my big glass, the copy is already made!

For the time being anyway I feel I will keep the prayers and poems to myself, except the one which I re-enacted on Laurence’s behalf. This was from some time after the suitcase incident when he was being interviewed by the BBC TV.

“There is one thing that those who believe in this co-operative community know – that a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both ends”.

I will finish this story of suitcases and similarities with something Duchamp said

“ I breathe”.

Benedict Laurence Hislam