The Angel of the North

When the Angel of the North, an ambitious piece of public art, was completed in 1998, it overshadowed the surrounding area. From its inception, the project evoked strong reactions with many people voicing their opposition. The site of the project was considered too visible, the scale too vast, and the cost too extravagant. The creator, Antony Gormley, believed public opinion would change as the sculpture became bedded down in the landscape, its significance better understood, and its value to the community realised.

He defended his design, noting that he had never met anyone who had seen an angel and that we all have a responsibility to keep imagining them.

The biblical narrative has much to say about angels. Their function is to provide support, encouragement, guidance, and protection to God’s chosen ones. Their appearance is often unexpected but their message life changing.

Antony Gormley wanted the Angel of the North to speak, to bear witness to the past and to point the way to a better future.  He outlined three functions he saw for the Angel.

  • To be a reminder that for generations, coal miners worked tirelessly underground in the dark, risking their lives, to provide for their families.
  • To be an encouragement to the community during a time of uncertainty and change, as they transition from the industrial to the information age.
  • To be a focus for our hopes and fears, that, like the sculpture, we will need to be strong and resilient to survive and prosper.

Antony Gormley has been vindicated. The Angel of the North is not only loved and appreciated by the residents of Gateshead but by the thousands of international visitors who travel to see it.

My wife and I visited the United Kingdom in 2019, before COVID had its way. We went on several tours, travelling to various parts of Scotland and northern England. Although an iconic landmark, the Angel of the North was unfamiliar to us. The overcast sky added to its sinister appearance. We found its size intimidating and its design austere. It stands twenty metres high and has a wingspan of fifty-four metres, bigger than a Boeing 757. It is made of weather resistant Cor-ten steel and weighs two hundred tonnes. I could only imagine the complexity of the foundations needed to make it secure.

The Angel of the North is imposing, and challenged my preconceived notions of what an angel might look like. I didn’t hear a welcome, nor did I feel warmth. It was confronting rather than nurturing, a warring angel, powerful, indestructible, a guardian of generations past and present.

Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North is a compelling novel by acclaimed author Rachel Joyce. It is the finale to her classic trilogy of heartbreak and healing.

A tragic loss:

Maureen Fry lives with her husband Harold. Their son David died thirty years ago. He took his life. Harold has found some kind of release, a peace within himself. He grieves the loss of his son but no longer feels overwhelmed. Maureen is locked in the past. David’s death has reduced her. The pain, the shame, the guilt, the sorrow, weigh on her. She feels bereft and broken, a disappointment and a failure.  

‘After his suicide thirty years ago, her grief was so great she thought she would die of it. Really, she couldn’t understand how she was not dead. She wanted time to stop. Paralyse itself. But it didn’t…

She didn’t even recognise who she was. She was just this new person, this raging sonless mother, the Shadowy figure you glimpse behind a pair of net curtains. The future she had meant to have was gone. She had no idea how she was living this kind of ghost life instead, in which she could do nothing except watch the person who had taken her place and hate her. All she wanted was her son.’

Ten years ago, Harold left the house to post a letter to his dying friend Queenie and, on the spur of the moment, made up his mind to walk the 627 miles to her instead. He met many people along the way who helped restore his faith in humanity. He felt renewed, able to appreciate life. Little blessings, like watching birds, brought him pleasure.

A place of rest:

Harold’s friend Queenie lived by the sea. She created a memorial garden, a Garden of Relics, which continues to evolve even after her death. It houses an eclectic mix of tokens and statues made of driftwood, bleached animal skulls and ribbons tied to branches, assorted garden tools and rocks with names carved in them.

Queenie installed a memorial to David which upset Maureen and caused her angst. She resents Queenie for having stolen David from her. She has spent hours looking at the garden online and is amazed by the number of visitors, but she can’t find David. She wants to visit the garden and knows she has Harold’s support. He encourages her, believing it will be beneficial.

A journey begun:

Maureen isn’t used to driving long distances and she wonders whether she will make it. Harold reminds her to take regular breaks, to rest when she is feeling weary. Her journey north takes her past the Angel of the North. We read,

‘Already the day was over. That low January sky closing down. The spilled red of a winter sun. The land unfolded and cantilevered outwards, like breathing deeply. Ripon. Bedale. Scotch Corner. Durham. By the time she reached the Angel of the North it was dark again, the sky high-starred. The sculpture appeared before she expected it, leaning out of a hilltop ahead. It was hard to see, but the moon caught the span of its wings and she saw how wide out they stretched, how horizontal, not like ethereal wings at all, and she had the fleeting impression that if this angel came from anywhere, it would not be the heavens or the sky, but somewhere more human and earthbound.’

Maureen is not an easy person. Her mother called her ‘difficult.’ Maureen likes to keep her distance and is not into hugging or being over familiar. She doesn’t even like people calling her by her first name. Her strong opinions often alienate her from others. Her inflexibility translates into a lack of empathy. She finds it difficult to process contrary ideas without being dismissive or judgmental.

A message to be received:

The Angel of the North has a message for Maureen, but it is unclear whether she is ready to receive it. Her journey north will bring her into contact with angels, not other worldly beings, but rather people of the earth, ordinary people, who will bring comfort and inspiration to her. These encounters will help her understand the need for change. She will learn that to live fully, she must give up her controlling ways. It is unhelpful for her and everyone else to insist that she is always right and demand that people bend to her wishes or conform to her expectations.

A concerned angel:

Lenny is a security guard. He is asleep on the job. Maureen bangs on the window to wake him up as she is hopelessly lost. Despite this interruption not fitting his work remit, Lenny offers to help and suggests Maureen use the satnav, but…

‘Maureen was of the generation who had grown up with the phone on the hall table, and a map in the glove compartment. Even online shopping was a stretch.’

Maureen couldn’t tolerate ‘the voice’ and had the satnav disconnected. She wants Lenny to read out the instructions so she can write them down. Lenny obliges and without thinking Maureen thanks him for his kindness. This is something Maureen never does – thanking people, affirming people, encouraging people. She welcomes the feeling, a different feeling, a kind of release.

A further disappointment:

Maureen is weary after fourteen hours of driving. She has instructions to Kate’s place. Harold met Kate on his walk. Maureen is expectant, imagining a cosy retreat, but

‘Inside the truck, there was not one single place for the eye to rest that hadn’t already been claimed by something else. It was like looking directly into a migraine… The place was a hovel. She could try as hard as she liked to be nice but there was no nice way of saying it.’

Maureen is again forced to reflect on her responses and evaluate her lack of charity, her unjust criticism, her ungrateful spirit.

A creative angel:

Maureen leaves early the following morning and eventually arrives at Queenie’s Garden. She finds the layout confusing and eventually asks a volunteer for assistance. They locate the monument to David. Maureen is shocked that the volunteer knows David died young, that he took his life. She is shaken by what she sees…

‘It was the most appalling thing. Crueller even than the rings of bruises around his neck that the undertaker had tried to cover with make-up… The monument was a knotty V-shape, in height only about two feet, the wood weathered to dark grey, crooked and complicated, like a broken lyre, and worn away into sharp points at both ends. It was not a tragic structure… it was angry; it was violent; it was separate and undeniable… This was David. This was him. Too fragile for the world and yet full of youth and complication and pomp and arrogance.’

Queenie has captured David perfectly, revealing his inner turmoil. The monument is beautiful, a gift. Maureen will never be able to erase it from her mind.

A rescue gone wrong:

Maureen returns to the garden under the cover of darkness. She locates ‘David’ and places her hands around the V shape and gives a wrench. It is firmly fixed. She tries again, doubling her effort but loses her grip and stumbles backwards. She hears a sharp crack and experiences an unforgiving pain. Maureen cannot move and a feeling of immense shame washes over her when she contemplates the stupidity of her actions. She only wanted to ‘free’ David.

A caring angel:

Maureen finds she can move if she keeps her head still. Cautiously, she makes her way back to the car. Driving is another matter. She cannot do it. Maureen rings Kate, dysfunctional Kate, and asks for help. Kate rescues Maureen and takes her back to her van where she cares for her, supports her, and loves her. Maureen, free of all responsibility, can rest and begin her recovery.

When Maureen is feeling better, they talk, and Kate says something quite profound.

‘I’m glad you rang me, Maureen, when you needed help. I’m glad you gave me another chance.’

A final thought:

When Maureen lost her son David to suicide it was a private pain, a private loss. Maureen wanted to keep the memory of David to herself. She wanted to keep him safe, untainted by the world. This was Maureen – private, protective, impoverished.

Her journey north has taught her a precious truth, she needs people. She needs their kindness, their acceptance, their strength, their love. Life is never intended to be a solitary pursuit. 

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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