Pyongyang to Moscow by train – with comments and observations along the way – Part 2

Commemoration of the Supreme Leaders

Commemoration of the Supreme Leaders

What’s the train like?

To describe my ‘home’ (I thought) for all but one night of the next 10 days.

The ‘soft seat’ coach was the very last of about 18 carriages which comprised the Pyongyang –Rajin train. As I’ve written in the post on train travel in China the name ‘soft seat’ is a bit of misnomer. It might have had relevance when the ‘hard seat’ was actually a wooden board (and not a six-berth compartment as it is now) but I can assure anyone that after spending a considerable amount of time travelling on trains in China, the DPRK and Russia the last adjective to describe those seats is ‘soft’.

The carriage had 9 compartments (4 berths in each) with a corridor running down one side – the sort of carriages that were the norm on British railways until they were phased out from the 1970s. This one was Russian made – quite a long time ago – and all the original signage was in Cyrillic. Everything was clean and the berths in all the compartments were laid with sheets and blankets ready for the passengers most (if not all) of whom, in this coach, would be travelling well into the night. Unlike the Chinese trains there was no hot water flask in the compartment.

There was a toilet at either end, the WC kind – some of these carriages often have a squat toilet as one of the options but not this particular one. There was a smaller two berth compartment (which was for the staff) next to which was a small galley – not very well equipped but adequate for the task it was to perform. Next to the galley, accessible to the public, was a large hot water boiler – an indispensable piece of kit for any train operating in the east Asian and Russian area – instant, dried noodles being a staple for many travellers.

The carriage had seen better days but as I got to ‘know’ it over the next few hours I thought that I would be able to accept what it had to offer for the time of my journey. Until I arrived in Rason (and more particularly after I had arrived in Tumangang) I thought it would be this very carriage that would see me all the way through to Moscow – I was wrong (but, again, that will come later). It could have done with a bit of tender loving care and a small investment would make it as acceptable as anything new and more up to date. It didn’t have a power point in the compartment – which I would have liked for my computer – but there were a couple of points in the corridor and with a little bit of planning and forethought the power issue could be overcome.

I knew there were no catering facilities available but a short time after the train left Pyongyang, when I went exploring, I realised that the connection between this final carriage and the rest of the train was locked and that a trolley that would serve the rest of the train couldn’t come anywhere close to me. That was something I wasn’t expecting, having thought that the trolley would be able to supplement whatever I had brought with me. Here was another of those ‘unknowns’ that didn’t work out as I had hoped. This had not been the case on the Dandong-Pyongyang train as the two young women who operated the trolley on that journey seemed quite fascinated that two Caucasians were on board – and who were wound up by some of the men in the carriage about our reasons for travelling.

Another point worthwhile making here, before going any further, is that even though the people in the north of the Korean peninsula are demonised by so many of the governments (and its sycophantic media) in the capitalist world (including the erstwhile Socialist countries of China and Russia) I never encountered any animosity in the limited amount of contact I had with the people during my time in the DPRK. In fact, it was quite the opposite when they realised that I was there to try to learn and understand a bit more about their country and not to continually find fault with all that I saw. I’m not saying that the country doesn’t have its issues but critics would do well to look at the problems in their own countries before loading their opprobrium on to the DPRK.

When I had arrived at the station there was a lot of activity in and around the carriage as those travelling stowed their luggage (many people who travel on these long train journeys often travel with huge amounts of luggage and there’s a rush to find space before others get there first) but once we moved away from the station the whole carriage got very quiet, everyone, including the staff but apart from me, retreating to their compartments, doors closed, probably resting after an early start. Even the samovar took some time to warm up and it was three hours or so before hot water was available.

It’s always possible to see much more from a train than in a mini-bus so it was useful to get my bearings as we passed through the outskirts of Pyongyang, picking out the landmarks helped as there are some very tall and distinctive buildings in the city, and was able to put together a mental image of the locations I had been to, and had passed, in the previous days. Pyongyang main railway station is in the west of the city (the newer part expanding towards the east and the south) so the route out is initially to the north-west and then curving around to the north and the city is left behind after less than 10 kilometres into the just a smidgen under 800 kilometre journey.

The importance of rice

Being predominantly an agricultural society it wasn’t long after leaving the capital behind that the route took us between rice paddies, as far as the eye could see. This had been the same on the journey from Dandong, all the fields on both sides of the train filled with the golden colour of just about to be harvested rice. And this went on for miles, only being broken up by occasional orchards, fields growing cabbage (for the ubiquitous kimchi) and other smaller concentrations of other vegetables.

Not being an expert on rice everything looked well to me. The crop looked ripe, it wasn’t blown down or damaged (except in a very small number of paddies – indicating that the weather hadn’t been unfavourable at the wrong time) and some of the early rice was already being harvested – an increasing number of paddies had cut sheaves of rice standing on end in order to dry out before being taken away for threshing. Although the area covered by rice was huge the paddies were of varying sizes, as is the case with paddies in order to make the flooding manageable, but there was no indication of any individual ownership. When people were working in the fields they were almost always in groups much larger than you would get with private ownership so these must have been collective or State farms.

This should mean that the autumn 2017 rice crop was a good one for the DPRK. There have been a few bad years in the recent past, an issue which is affecting many countries due to the consequences of climate change, so a good year offers the country the opportunity to fill up grain stores for possible collapses in the crop in the future.

The country’s dependence upon one crop is something I would have thought should have been studied. If so much importance is placed on one crop then there are any number of possible problems that could arise from climate being wrong at the wrong time to the threat to a whole crop that could arise from pests and disease. Although I was only travelling along a very narrow corridor rice dominated the horizon and the only change in the dominant crop occurred when passing through areas where rice was impossible to grow – where maize became ubiquitous.

One thing that was very obvious, from both the train journeys and passing so many rice paddies, was the lack of any significant mechanisation in the process, of either the harvesting or the transporting of the rice crop. Although land ownership looked collective I only saw one small tractor being used during all the time I was looking out the window. There are economic reasons why mechanisation is not appropriate for farmers with small areas of cultivation but when it comes to a whole village working the land surrounding it there should be more than an economic reason to employ machinery. Rice planting and cutting is a particularly back-breaking form of agricultural labour – constant bending being necessary – so anything that can reduce that will have an immediate benefit to the workers in the countryside.

The collectivisation of agriculture in the Soviet Union in the 1930s – and 20 years later in China – was only possible with the revolutionary transformation of industry in the cities and the bringing of the industrial revolution to the countryside. Tractor stations which provided, and maintained, all the machinery needed for an efficient and productive countryside were an integral part of collectivisation. Without one you wouldn’t have had the other. Not only is it economically more efficient it also transforms the peasant in the countryside into a worker in the countryside, raising him/her to the same status as the worker in the city. Breaking down the divide between the town and country being an important aim of the revolution in what were predominantly peasant countries.

Reducing the time spent in the fields doing hard manual work allows the agricultural workers to diversify and also to improve their skills through education for themselves and their children. There’s nothing wrong with children working, at times, in the countryside, especially at times of harvest, as it educates them into the world of labour. But to depend upon that labour has the potential of keeping the countryside in the past and prevents developments for the future.

Economic sanctions under which the DPRK has had to live for a number of years now (assisted by the pusillanimous and sycophantic attitude of both Russia and China – whose own self-interests are more with the DPRK than the US imperialists and their hangers-on) don’t help. Fuel oils being in short supply mean that priorities have to be decided and perhaps fuel for farm machinery is one area that suffers. However, after so many years after Liberation I would have liked to have seen more evidence of machinery in the countryside.

I don’t think that people who haven’t spent a significant amount of time living in an Asian country can quite understand the importance of the rice crop and how much of a staple it is. Rice is served at EVERY meal and people eat rice in quantities which have never ceased to amaze me. Rice has an importance in Asia which is not reflected in the same way with the staples in the west, which is spread across a number of crops. Maize does play a small role in diversification – and in those areas of the country where rice growing is impossible maize is much more in evidence – but it can only be a small percentage of the whole. I don’t know how much effort is being made to wean the population off such total dependence on one crop but with the uncertainties with which agriculture is having to deal with the man-made effects on the climate it would seem to be a priority.

I also don’t know how productive these paddies might be. It’s quite possible to fill the land with low yield strains that look good but have low productivity. I would like to think that this issue has been addressed in the DPRK as they have had many years where they have been developing their own science institutes. As an example of this I was shown a small area in Pyongyang where experiments are being carried out to grow rice directly on slow flowing rivers. In a country where levels of pollution of the rivers is low this makes more use of valuable resources, both of water and land.

Obviously, a good crop in itself doesn’t mean that the food gets to all who need it. This is an issue everywhere and is evident in all capitalist countries. The supermarkets in Europe and America are bulging with all kinds of foodstuffs but the same countries have an increasing rate of poverty and food shortages are a serious problem for many. If that’s wasn’t the case why is there the abomination of the proliferation of food banks in some of the richest countries in the world. Yes, many people depend upon them, but what does that say about these societies? It’s not what you produce, or how much, it’s all a matter of distribution and control of the means of production. As long as profit dominates people will go hungry.

In my limited time in the DPRK I wasn’t aware of these problems. People in all the places I visited seemed healthy enough, the people on the streets of Pyongyang, the people in the two trains I travelled on, the cultural places I visited as well as the people in the countryside. Those in the cities were well dressed and seemed, more or less, content with their lot. If you are up to your shins in mud cutting rice stalks all day you are unlikely to be wearing your best party frock so judging people in the countryside by what they are wearing is fraught with danger. But the bicycles and motorbikes that were standing close to the railway, whilst their owners worked in the fields, looked quite modern and functioning well.

Yes, often there were children working in the fields. That’s not unusual in agricultural communities, especially at harvest time, throughout the world. However, I would suggest that children in the fields in the DPRK is a long way from the children who are forced to work in sweatshops in the likes of the so-called ‘world’s biggest democracy’ of India, so a little bit of perspective might well be useful here. As children do in all parts of the world they would look up from their work, or from playing at the sides of the fields as their parents worked, and wave at the passengers going by. (Perhaps not in all countries. In Albania and Vietnam – for reasons I just don’t understand – they throw rocks.)

A short anecdote about child poverty

When I went around the National Art Gallery in Pyongyang I was asked how I read a painting of a poor, young, peasant boy ignoring a large dragonfly which was hovering around his head. This introduced one of the many cultural differences between Britain and Korea. For Koreans this had an immediate significance as it seems that all young Koreans (and here I assume both north and south of the false border at the 38th parallel) love to chase the big dragon flies that can be found throughout the countryside. The fact that he was ignoring the insect was proof that he was too tired or concerned with more important things, i.e., his empty stomach, than the almost innate wish of Korean children to chase these large insects.

As well as the people the buildings in the countless small villages the train passed through looked in a good condition and gave the impression of a thriving community. Yes, many of the roads weren’t paved but when you have an embargo on the import of petroleum products that doesn’t leave a lot of slack for the ‘luxury’ of a paved road.


Over the entrance into the railway station buildings there was always the dual portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. In many of the villages you can also see columns commemorating these two previous leaders of the country. Also large mosaics would be erected in the main squares, sometimes with images from the revolutionary past, a visit from one of the Kim’s to the area or depicting life in the countryside – I saw one on the way from Dandong to Pyongyang of a couple of white cranes flying over the ripe rice paddies.

Village showing revolutionary mosaic

Village showing revolutionary mosaic

Restrictions on foreigners?

Although, in the main, I understand the restrictions that foreign travellers have whilst travelling in the DPRK, they can, at times, be frustrating. After a little over an hour into the journey the train stopped at the town of Pyongsong. Here there were quite a few stalls selling whatever. Other passengers from the carriage had got off so I knew we would be there for at least a few minutes but when I tried to get off – just to see what was going on, after all I didn’t have any local currency even if I did want to buy something (although Chinese Yuan might have been accepted if you got that far) – it was politely indicated to me that it was not permitted.

Now it’s possible that the train staff knew that the stop was only for a matter of a few minutes and they didn’t want me to get myself stranded. This is not as far-fetched as it might sound, as in many Asian countries foreigners are not considered to be really adults and are treated like children – probably based on the inability of generations of Europeans being able to understand the people and the customs in the countries they have invaded, normally due to their lack of desire to do so. In all these situations I encountered until I got into Moscow ten days later I could only use supposition to try to understand what was happening as the lack of any meaningful, verbal interaction was virtually nil – there’s only so much that can be conveyed by body language.

This restriction was not repeated at any of the other stops where the ongoing passengers got off to buy something or to just smoke or stretch their legs so I’ll have to remain mystified why it occurred at the first station stop which was longer than just one allowing passengers to alight or jump on board. Needless to say that when I did go on to the platform, or beside the track when in the middle of nowhere, I never strayed too far and always kept a watch on what everyone else was doing, which was to include a few false alarms for all us.

I think it was when we had just left Pyongsong that I received a salute from a young soldier who was manning one of the rail/road crossings. The train was still moving very slowly and I was just looking out of the window and he saluted as soon as he saw me. I smiled and nodded in return. I think that was the first time I’ve had such a response in my travels – often authority figures, whilst not necessarily being hostile (although I’ve met enough of them) are certainly more distant to foreign visitors.

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Pyongyang to Moscow by train – with comments and observations along the way – Part 1

National Reunification

National Reunification


Easy enough to organisebut not without surprises

The problem of the best way to put together a visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and to then be in the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for the 100th Anniversary of the Great October Russian Revolution seemed to have been solved when the option of taking the train from Pyongyang – the capital of the DPRK – direct to Moscow – the capital of the former Socialist country – was presented to me.

At first the arrangement seemed fairly straightforward. Instead of heading back to China at the end of the 11 Day Party Foundation Tour (which I had initially considered) I would now say my farewells to the group as I headed for the railway station in the centre of Pyongyang as they headed off to the airport for a relatively short flight to Beijing. My journey was going to be far from ‘short’ – the first stage (from Pyongyang to the biggest city in the north-east of the country, Rajin) would take 33 hours but I wasn’t in any real hurry (there being the best part of three weeks before the anniversary of the Revolution on the 7th November).

Matters started to get confusing as soon as I started to confirm my travel arrangements. It didn’t help in understanding the situation when the people I was dealing with didn’t seem to fully understand the situation either – the travel company in Berlin as well as those who worked at the Korea International Travel Company (KITC) in Pyongyang. It may be useful to remind readers here that independent travel to the DPRK is not an option and some officially recognised intermediary is a necessity.

Although slightly frustrating, as it wasn’t until I was actually in the country that I got to know my exact itinerary, it did have its plus side. People didn’t know what the situation was as not many people had actually made this journey before and they were making statements based upon what could, theoretically, be done without having a lot of actual practice to back it up. Though not a trail-blazer I very soon realised (and learnt even more so as I progressed along the almost 10,000 kilometre journey) that I wasn’t following in many others’ footsteps.

The ‘problem’ arose as it seemed to be impossible to get an exact date from Pyongyang until a matter of a week or so before departure. The date for the departure from Tumangang (the last station of the DPRK side of the border with Russia) was fixed in stone. On the other hand departures from Pyongyang seemed to be quite flexible. I couldn’t understand this as the ‘reason’ that ‘they do things differently’ in another country doesn’t make sense when it goes against all logic, especially when it comes to train timetables. After all it was around rail transport that time took on a different meaning during the Industrial Revolution in Britain, from the early part of the 19th century onwards.

The other issue with being a foreign tourist was that although the train that I eventually took from Pyongyang would go through to the terminus at Tumangang I had to get off in the city of Rajin, spend a night there and then get taken to the border station by road the next day – in order to make a late afternoon border crossing.

As an aside here I’ll comment on how information is transmitted by the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America to foreign tourists when the people giving the ‘information’ don’t have any idea of what the actual situation might be. Anyone who has travelled extensively in any of those parts of the world would have invariably come across similar situations at various times. The consequence of this is that the information that is imparted has little more practical value than what could be found in a novel.

I must stress here that the ‘information’ that is given is not passed on with any malice. What happens is that they a) don’t want to say they don’t know and b) don’t want the foreigner to leave with nothing. The theory seems to be that something, however inaccurate, is better than nothing. This meant that I received, in an authoritative tone, all kinds of answers to my questions that bore no relationship to actual reality.

In the context of the proposed journey of nine or ten days on a train there is another factor that has to be taken into account. Although not directly stated by the people I dealt with in Pyongyang they definitely thought that someone who would choose to travel all the way from Pyongyang to Moscow on a train – when they could take a flight that would take fewer hours than the train takes in days – must be crazy. People who have little chance of travelling to and from such places are probably even more bemused.

Although many people, more often than not those who have never (and don’t intend to) set foot in the DPRK write and talk about not being able to travel without being accompanied by local guides having them with you does make life an awful lot easier. The main Pyongyang Railway station was only a matter of a couple of hundred metres from my hotel, the Koryo, but on the day of departure I was collected and driven there in the mini bus that had been ‘mine’ for the three days I had had a private tour.

Tipping in Socialist Countries

Before leaving the mini-bus for the last time there was a ritual that had to be gone through and that was the tipping of the driver. This is something that is being expected in China, as well as the DPRK, as foreign tourism becomes more popular. This is expected to be paid in either Chinese Yuan or Euros (US dollars aren’t welcomed) and is one of those aspects of tourism in what are supposed to be Socialist countries which has been problematic for a long time.

Working with foreigners where, for example, meals are taken in westernised ‘Korean’ restaurants, beyond the means of many local people, a small group of a few hundred people in Pyongyang live a different life-style from their compatriots. Getting from 5-10 Euros per day from each member of the group (which is the recommended amount from virtually all the travel companies I investigated before booking my trip) means that they can, in theory, receive an income far in excess of that of the other people in their country who do much more important, useful and worthwhile jobs than cater for a bunch of over-privileged foreigners, some of whom (though by no means all) are there to find fault with as much as possible in order to return home with their ‘horror’ stories.

Unfortunately, nothing has been learnt from the experience of the Beryozka stores in the Revisionist Soviet Union where goods could only be paid for in foreign currency. In 1973 I had the experience of witnessing the guide for the group of which I was a member pulling out a roll of various European and North American currencies, which she had obviously saved up over a period of time, to take advantage of the luxury foreign-made goods that were not available in normal shops and to the vast majority of the population. The existence of such places is an anathema to Socialism and only served to perpetuate inequality and breeds corruption. I’m not aware of an equivalent shopping situation in the DPRK (although there are supermarkets in Pyongyang that will accept Chinese Yuan and Euros) but foreign currencies in the hands of a select few can only but be a cause for concern.

On top of that potential of undermining any development towards Socialism there is also the question of what role tipping should have in a society claiming to be constructing Socialism. Tipping under capitalism is used to supplement poor wages and employers use them as an excuse to pay less than the rate for the job. Any country that claims to be building any version of Socialism – as the DPRK does with its Juche variety – should outlaw tipping, considering the practice one that comes from a class divided society and the giving of which insults the worker.

But when you are at the mercy of such an arrangement it becomes churlish to not participate.

Pyongyang Station

At the station there was a steady stream of people going in through the main entrance but myself and the two guides went through a door (at the left hand side of the station façade) that looked like an entrance to an office. This was the door that foreigners have to use and so we ‘jumped the queue’. I wasn’t aware that anyone really controlled that entrance but the way it was set up inside it appeared as if it was also the entrance for those who were travelling in the soft sleepers – what would be the equivalent of ‘first class’ on other rail systems. My guides had to sort out a platform ticket (so they could get out again when the train left) and no more than three or four minutes after arriving at the station we were standing on the platform.

On the platform things looked chaotic around the last carriage of the train – my soft sleeper. This was due to the fact that there were many more people seeing off friends and relations than were actually travelling – when the train did move off the carriage was far from full.

The taking of photos in the DPRK is not as restrictive as many would have you believe but a foreign tourist is always at the whim of their guides and although the two young women who had been my guides for the last three days of my trip to the country were friendly, approachable and efficient they also had an attitude of not allowing me to impose of their fellow countrymen and women.

Although I would liked to have taken a few more pictures of the station to record an impression of what it’s like in preparation for a long distance train journey in the country I do respect the idea that some people might not like having a camera pointed at them to satisfy the whims of someone from the other side of the world. In my photography in the countries I have had the chance to visit I tend to concentrate on things rather than people – not being a person who is too happy to be the subject of another’s photo myself. And anyway, the single picture I did take, of the destination board on the side of the carriage, was later deleted by the immigration police before I left the country to cross over to Russia from Tumangang but, again, more of that later.

The journey of 10,000 kilometres starts with the first turn of the wheel

The train departed at 07.50 on the dot and worked its way through the centre of Pyongyang, passing many of the places I had visited in my 11 day trip. The train never gathered anything like the speed of trains in Europe, not least because it was a single track for much of the way and of a narrower gauge than that used in the west. This made for a more interesting journey as life outside the train didn’t go by in flash and it was possible to see much of what was taking place in different parts of the countryside. Most tours to the DPRK will take in some places outside of Pyongyang but seeing the world from the window of a mini-bus is very different from the window of a train.

(I didn’t have the information with me at the time but anyone planning this journey might find it useful to copy the relevant information about the route and the stopping stations from this website. At a speed of (very roughly 25 km per hour) you can make a guess of the station or have something to show local people to get confirmation. So many times in life ‘if we only knew then what we know now’.)

Meeting the ‘locals’

Much is made in the ‘west’ about the fact that foreigners don’t have the opportunity to meet and talk with local people when travelling in the DPRK. If these are ordinary people who are just regurgitating the pap fed to them by the capitalist media they are very often the same sort of people who go on holiday to southern Europe (here I’m talking about people from the UK) and stay in resorts where the only contact they have with the ‘locals’ is in a bar or restaurant – or even worse stay at ‘all inclusive’ holiday resorts where they never leave the complex. In a way that makes sense. They don’t go into areas with which they are unfamiliar and where they can’t be understood (most English depending upon the ‘locals’ to speak English, in whatever part of the globe they might be visiting) because they will be like fish out of water. However, when it is not permitted all of a sudden it’s something they must do or their ‘freedom’ is being limited.

If they are arrogant journalists like the BBC’s Rupert Winfield-Hayes they want to go where they are asked not to go because being part of the BBC they think they have the right to do whatever they want, wherever they want to do it. He was arrested in Pyongyang in 2016 when in the country filming for an episode of the BBC news programme ‘Panorama’. I like to think that the DPRK security forces arrested him for a joke, just to put the fear of God up him. He was such an ineffectual prick he could have done little harm.

However, there is one way that a visiting tourist can get to ‘know’ the locals and that’s by travelling on trains. Again, the travel options, at present, are limited (the route from Dandong in China and this route to the Rason area) but there’s every opportunity to meet people from the country with no one there to oversee the conversation. On the journey into the country we (I was travelling with my brother on that part of the journey) got into a conversation with someone returning home after a trip in China. He had a bit of English and the conversation was the sort you normally have on such occasions, more passing the time of day than an interrogation about conditions of life within the country. Any more than that and you go outside what is considered the norm in any country. What would the British think if every time they met someone from Europe they were asked to justify their stance on the European referendum, whatever side they took?

When you are travelling in another country there’s no sense in creating conflict with someone you don’t know, when you will only be in their company for a very short time and will almost certainly never meet again. Not least because anywhere in the world you won’t get any controversial information from someone who doesn’t know you. It takes time for people to develop trust and a train journey, or a chance encounter in a street, does not allow that trust time to develop.

You pass the time of day, possibly share a drink (as we did on the way to Pyongyang) and part wishing each other all the best.

If that’s what you wish to do when travelling then a long, overnight train journey is as good a place as any to start.


Realism made a come back in Edinburgh – Autumn 2017

The Moon Goes Round the Earth - Keith Henderson

The Moon Goes Round the Earth – Keith Henderson

Having some knowledge of Socialist Realist Art from the erstwhile Socialist countries it was a pleasure to be able to visit the exhibition in Edinburgh, in the autumn of 2017, on British Realist Painting of the 1920s and 1930s to see what was shared – and what wasn’t. After all the style fell out of favour here and became a victim of the Cold War – collateral damage in the propaganda war against Communism.

In the main, these examples of British Realism compared to Socialist Realism are as different as chalk and cheese. In Socialist Realism context is everything, the period in which a picture is painted, the reason for its creation, who or what is depicted and the audience at which the image is aimed are all important .

With the British paintings what is most obvious from the start is the difference in the subjects. British Realism was fine art in its most literal sense. Some of the painters used single sable hair brushes in their work. Some of these paintings took years to complete. There’s no doubting the skill and draughtsmanship of such creations but they were, in many ways, products of their time and the social relations that existed in the decades between the two world wars.

With few exceptions the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’ prevailed. They were vanity products of a privileged minority, who had private incomes, who came from ‘old’ wealth. Even those from working class backgrounds rarely reflected their heritage in the subjects and themes they chose to paint.

Many of the male painters had direct experience of the First World War – although a few were pacifists or conscientious objectors and one, Maxwell Armfield, even went to the US to avoid conscription. Their rank during the conflict indicated their class background but most bullets and gas don’t respect class and many returned from the war scarred physically or mentally. Instead of reacting against the carnage most chose to retreat into an idealised past, or a beautiful present, rather than use their art to prevent such atrocities from being perpetrated in the future.

This is especially obvious in an idealised view of the countryside, harking back to a time of innocence, before mechanisation, which had, as a corollary, produced the weapons of the early 20th century which had turned once fertile farmland in France into a murderous quagmire. Their countryside is idyllic, the sun always shines and all is good with the world with happy workers bringing in the harvest or tourists enjoying the countryside in their spare time. In their pastoral images there is no reference to the almost feudal working and living conditions under which most agricultural workers existed. As a result they created paintings which included horse drawn rakes and workers harvesting with scythes – backbreaking and low productivity labour.

British Realism included no drama, narrative, or anecdote. It doesn’t really tell a story. It’s more like a photo of a specific time, location or individual but it’s a photo that doesn’t have a back story. It’s an image frozen in time but without any indication of a past or a future.

But ‘Realism’ doesn’t mean real.

By the Hills - Gerald Brockhurst

By the Hills – Gerald Brockhurst

By the Hills (Brockhurst),

Woman Reclining - Meredith Frampton

Woman Reclining – Meredith Frampton

Woman Reclining,

A Game of Patience - Meredith Frampton

A Game of Patience – Meredith Frampton

A Game of Patience (both by Frampton) and

Pauline Waiting - Herbert James Gunn

Pauline Waiting – Herbert James Gunn

Pauline Waiting (Gunn) are images of incredibly beautiful women, perfect in every way. But no one’s that perfect. All of them oil on canvas, the style which results in a ‘brushless, flawless finish’ is used to produce an impossibly flawless image.

The paintings look the same as they do in the catalogue – like large, blown up (and retouched, or, perhaps I should say Photoshopped) photographs. The only difference with the originals is that when close up you can actually see the small hairs on these women’s faces and arms. Their perfection is what gives them away as paintings – such technologies in retouching weren’t available at the time. The artists aimed for, and achieved, perfection before the ravages of time would take that away forever. Standing in front of these portraits you know Oliver Cromwell, with his ‘warts and all’, would not have been a welcomed sitter in these technicians’ studios.

Some artists during this heyday of British Realism also played around with materials, reverting to tempera (using egg yolks, the norm before the invention of oil based paints) which produces a much softer, watercolour effect. What had, half a millennium ago, restricted artists in their desires to depict the world around them was reinvented to depict contemporary society – the medium not as restrictive as once thought. They rejected oil for the previously rejected egg.

British Realism came closest to Soviet Socialist Realism with the works of Branson

Selling the 'Daily Worker' outside Projectile Engineering Works - Clive Branson

Selling the ‘Daily Worker’ outside Projectile Engineering Works – Clive Branson

(Selling the ‘Daily Worker’ outside Projectile Engineering Works) and Rowe

The Fried Fish Shop - Clifford Rowe

The Fried Fish Shop – Clifford Rowe

(The Fried Fish Shop). This is not surprising. Both were Communists and used their art to comment on the capitalist society that had just come out of the worst economic crisis (to that time) and was rushing headlong into the worst and most destructive conflict so far known to mankind. In depicting ordinary working people, even in the mundane act of eating fish and chips, they were referencing those who could take society along another, more prosperous and peaceful road.

There was also a similarity to the Soviet example in the works of Matania

Blackpool - Fortunino Matania

Blackpool – Fortunino Matania

(whose Blackpool was used as a poster advertising the seaside town) and that of Taylor

Restaurant Car - Leonard Taylor

Restaurant Car – Leonard Taylor

(whose Restaurant Car was used to advertise luxury rail travel). In this way they paralleled the work of Soviet artists who were producing public information posters in all fields of Soviet life at exactly the same time.

Flawed but illuminating, museums and art galleries should hunt out further treasures of British Realism and present them to the public. Let the people decide what is ‘art’ and not leave it to the Turner Prize jury.

The National Galleries of Scotland produced a wonderfully illustrated book to accompany the exhibition, True to Life – British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s, by Patrick Elliot and Sacha Llewellyn. Apart from the reproductions of the paintings that were in the exhibition the text puts the Movement into its context.