Wednesday, 24 May 2017

By the Way, Which One's Pink?

I had an interesting day this week. We've got roofers in (on?) at the moment, tracking down a leak and generally fixing up the roof and gutters, so after one day of banging and scraping, I thought I'd make myself scarce by going up to London for the day on Tuesday. Looking through the "what's on" listings, I saw that there is a new Pink Floyd exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which sounded intriguing, so I booked myself in for an early afternoon slot.

Like everyone but a lunatic minority, I was appalled by the news from Manchester when I woke up that morning. If you've ever dropped excited children off at their first real gig, and later hung around outside to collect them as the crowds emerge, you'll know a little of the terror and panic that will have been experienced around the Manchester Arena the night before. It really doesn't bear thinking about.

In the aftershock of an event like that, so recently following the attack on Westminster Bridge, you expect security everywhere to be tight, but especially so in the capital. Now, I'm not a complete idiot. I know that, to a certain mindset, I can look suspicious, especially if I'm doing my thing with the camera. You know: Hey, what's that scruffy guy with the beard and backpack doing, taking pictures of blank walls, windows, and doorways? So, especially in central London, I take care not to look furtive. I use the camera openly, I don't sneak around, I do my best to look like what I am: a harmless tourist in town for the day. So, I was taken by surprise when, waiting for the crossing lights to change near Westminster, a police van pulled up, two enormous uniformed officers got out, and asked me to step to one side so they could ask me a few questions, if I didn't mind. When two more rocked up from behind, followed by a second van, they had my complete attention.

Obviously, on Tuesday security was on a hair trigger. It seems someone inside one of the government buildings I had just been working – lovely stained hoardings! – had thought I looked noteworthy, but not in a good way, and within a minute I had become the focus of a co-ordinated police operation. In my younger days, we used to play silly games with the police when stopped and searched; it was a foolish and risky rite of passage that said, you've chosen to waste my time so now I'll waste yours, just to amuse my pals. But not nowadays, and certainly not on a day of such heightened tension. I am cut from the same cloth as most policemen (if not generously enough to make a complete one) so, once it became obvious I was a harmless idiot with a baffling but unthreatening urge to photograph random marks on walls, we had a nice, friendly chat while my identity and story was being checked out, and a third police van was waved away as it arrived. It turned out my main interrogator was from my home town – we get everywhere – and I found myself interrogating him about his personal repertoire of streets and pubs and schools, rather more closely than he was prepared for, which clearly amused his colleagues. Most surprising of all, though, was that one of the most bulky coppers – who can't have been older than 30 at most – was very interested to hear that the V&A was having a Pink Floyd show, and keen to see it for himself. What is the world coming to?

So, eventually, as they say, I proceeded on my way in a westerly direction, until I reached the V&A, in good time to sit in the sunshine for a while in the spacious interior courtyard, eating my lunch before heading to the Floyd exhibition. It may have been residual paranoia from my recent encounter, but I got the distinct impression people were surreptitiously checking me out, as well as various other silver-haired bohemian types draped around the place. I think they were trying to decide whether or not we were somebody, most likely minor aristocracy from the Prog Era. It's a curious phenomenon that we become more generic as we age and wear our youthful flamboyance more lightly: after all, today's David Gilmour could easily be a prosperous IT consultant who'd always wished he was David Gilmour, and collects vintage Fenders. But, in Emily Dickinson's words, nope, I'm nobody, who are you?

In the queue for the time-slot I had booked, 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, the balding and grey-haired IT consultants and guitar collectors were out in force. Hardly surprising: it would be impossible to overestimate the significance of Pink Floyd in the lives of a certain senior segment of the population. If you were intelligent, counter-cultural, and born between, say, 1946 and 1956 then you, like me, will have spent many hours listening to their albums, although "absorbing" may be a better word. A little younger, and Pink Floyd will have represented everything you affected to despise in music; a little older, and you will have thought of them (if at all) as pretentious druggie drivel.

Look, isn't that Pink?

However, my own acquaintance with the Floyd is both narrow and very deep: I can honestly say that I know Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here as intimately as I know any other works of art, from Hamlet on down. Although I have barely listened to most of the other Pink Floyd albums, if at all. But then, I could say the same about the works of Shakespeare, or Keats, or Beethoven. I would have no hesitation in ranking Dark Side of the Moon among the great cultural achievements of the 20th century, and as one of the bedrock elements in my own psyche.

Which is why, for me, the V&A show is such a waste of time and effort. It's a multi-room, multi-media extravaganza, with a clever, location-sensitive audio-guide, all of which probably seemed pretty far out in the planning, but is actually impossible to follow in dark rooms crowded with knots of relic-worshippers hunched over guitars, gizmos and documents, impossible to see in their dimly-lit glass cases. The show is also utterly meretricious in its sensibility. It reminded me of how the Floyd's journey went from the thoughtful English romanticism of Dark Side of the Moon and the jagged, self-harming nostalgia of Wish You Were Here to giant inflatable pigs in a single, ill-judged stride.

So in the end I took off my headset and made my way to the exit through the now bizarrely silent rooms full of headphone-isolated zombies. It reminded me of nothing so much as being at the Knebworth Festival in 1975, where Pink Floyd conspicuously failed to rise to the occasion, dogged by technical problems, and I ended up wandering through the crowd thinking that this whole thing – not just this gig but the whole counter-cultural idea – had all gone horribly wrong, and been transmuted into mere merchandise-shifting and show-biz, and yet nobody seemed to have realised it quite yet.

And yet, it seems, in another part of the wood they had... [cue opening bars of "God Save the Queen"].

Exit through the gift shop...


amolitor said...

Pink Floyd is so interesting. There seem to be about 8 different bands, made up of roughly the same people.

There's Syd's, of course, which nobody listens to but everyone reveres. Then there's the Ummagamma etc era, and then yours, and then there's The Wall (mine), and then there's a bunch of other stuff I never paid much attention to, but I suppose there are two or three or twenty quite separate waves of fans there as well, all of whom "know and revere" The Wall, or Dark Side of the Moon, or whatever, but never listen to.

Of course, every single instance of Pink Floyd was constantly on the verge of vanishing up its own ass through sheer pretentiousness, saved only by their own
ability. Mostly.

Mike C. said...


Your observation is very true: I find Syd-era Floyd just annoying (there are interesting links to be drawn between a fey obsession with childhood and rural England and the extreme right), and have actually never listened to "The Wall" (apart from the single and "Comfortably Numb").

It's the classic story of aligning the acerbic, angry one (Waters/Lennon) with the smoother, tuneful one (Gilmour/McCartney)... Obviously, I think "Dark Side of the Moon" is where it all comes together.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it funny that in times of public safety under threat, everybody is on the watchout for conspicuous persons? It would make more sense to look out for the conspicuously unconspicuous.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


That is exactly what I said to the police... Though, of course, they're just doing what they're told. I have a lot more sympathy for police and the job they do, in the main, these days than I used to.


amolitor said...

Not to descend into the bowels of politics, but most visible anti terror activities are based on the idea that terrorists have the worst tradecraft imaginable.

Which is sometimes true, but not often enough. Terrorists who are both motivated and not imbeciles are, thank god, rare, but almost always successful.

Martin said...

I once went for a MRI scan. "Bring a CD for us to play you," they said. I took Wish You Were Here. Are you laying uncomfortably? Then I'll begin. And what did the wag play me? Welcome to the Machine, that's what!

Mike C. said...


Now that is funny...


Kent Wiley said...

A busy day, that was Mike. A lot to talk about. So we'll start with the easy stuff: Floyd. Amazingly, some of us like pretty much all of it (excepting the Syd stuff, natch). I've even watched longish vids from recent concerts, bought the Waters version of The Wall, and am always on the look out for a new Gilmour solo. I can do without his lyrics (some Wikipediaing turns up that many come from his wife), but his playing is worlds apart. Now that I've offended at least half the travelers through the Hat, I'd really rather talk about the gift shop.

Well, your photo from the gift shop display. What caught my eye was the cover photo of the book in the middle. Even with my new eyes, I had to get out the magnifier to read the title: “The Black Strat.” Cool title, but the photo is immediately recognizable. It’s from a landscape that is one of the most memorable places I’ve ever visited, in Northern Arizona, only across the border from Utah. The Bureau of Land Management has a limited number of passes for people to visit each day, and then a drawing the day prior for another ten who show up at the ranger station. I was lucky enough to be included the following day, my birthday. A stellar present. This being the pre digital era (for me at least), I exposed three or four rolls of 220 medium format film that day. But curiously I’ve never gone back and looked at those pictures of a stunning landscape. It can’t be contained by images we create. The forces that created the land were too immense. And our picture making too insignificant.

Mike C. said...


Blimey, well spotted, those new eyes are clearly paying off!