Sunday, 21 April 2019


One of the curious things about entering your senior years is the way you start to become invisible. To the young, in particular, you are now simply part of the oppressive grey mass from which they feel the need to differentiate themselves. No matter what tribal affiliations you may have, whatever your politics might be, however productive and active you remain, from the outside you're just another old geezer with thinning hair, a weight problem, and drab clothes from one chain-store beneath a sensible coat from another. Those who were once striking or beautiful probably feel this as a tragic loss; for the rest of us, well, in some ways it comes as a relief and a liberation. A few oldsters, of course, do find a late style that marks them out, or cling on to some of their youthful flamboyance, but the signs have become muddled and unreadable, as arcane and as dated as college scarves or regimental ties: so were you a teddy-punk or a heavy-metal hippie, grandad? And, frankly, as fashion accessories, that hearing aid and those bifocal specs dangling round your neck were never going to be a good look. Sure, you may have been deafened by Hawkwind and worn out your eyes reading Foucault late into the night, but nobody cares. I said NOBODY CARES, you deaf old git.

I felt this strongly when I was in London last week. I was there to meet up with my partner at a John Ruskin exhibition at Two Temple Place, and both on the way from and back to Waterloo station I mingled with the Extinction Rebellion protesters on Waterloo Bridge. Two more different crowds it would be hard to imagine: the eco-warriors, self-consciously ragged and homespun, and excited to be at the leading edge and media focus of an important moment; and the grey-haired art tourists, silently moving from exhibit to exhibit in a billionaire's Palace of Art, bent over the relics of a former age's important moment. Two different tribes, and yet both mine; accepted and invisible in both. For a photographer, of course, this is a very welcome gift. Don't mind me, people, just carry on doing what you're doing...

The Ruskin show was rather dull, though, I thought. It merely served to emphasise that Ruskin himself, competent though he was, was not a great artist. What he was, of course, was a radical and important thinker and writer about art, society, industry and architecture, and the way aesthetics could or should link them all into a seamless polity of mutual respect and equal distribution, at a time when few could see the nature of the disastrous wrong turns and poor choices that were being made, the consequences of which we are living with now. Dipping into his writings since, I realise I'd forgotten how radical he was. Never mind his paintings of leaves and seaweed: you can more or less stick a pin in his encyclopaedic written work to come up with something that, disentangled from its Victorian locutions, still seems relevant today. For example:
Primarily, which is very notable and curious, I observe that men of business rarely know the meaning of the word 'rich'. At least, if they know, they do not in their reasoning allow for the fact, that it is a relative word, implying its opposite 'poor' as positively as the word 'north' implies its opposite 'south'. Men nearly always speak and write as if riches were absolute, and it were possible, by following certain scientific precepts, for everybody to be rich. Whereas riches are a power like that electricity, acting only through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pockets depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbour's pocket. If he did not want it, it would be of no use to you; the degree of power it possesses depends accurately upon the need or desire he has for it,— and the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economist's sense, is therefore equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbour poor.
Unto This Last
But, whatever links there may be between the world of Ruskin the Victorian writer and that of the protesters just down the road, I didn't get any sense of that essential radicalism from the exhibition, and least of all from its visitors. They were the Usual Suspects, the same baffled souls you find at so many exhibitions, seemingly looking for something in a framed picture or a display case that has somehow eluded or been taken from them in the world outside. I may look like one of them, I thought, but I still want to feel like those kids on the bridge, psyched up enough to forget about food, awake enough to do without sleep, and certain enough in the justice of a cause to be willingly carted away by the police, only to return later the same day, and do it all over again. They will remember these days into their own grey age.

I may share the convictions, however, but in my new incarnation as the Invisible Geezer I find I need regular meals, a comfortable bed (my back!), and – crucially – somewhere to pee at least once an hour. Plus, if I'm honest, I can also see the fatal flaw in the defiant, youthful narcissism of their activism, if only for the simple reason that I've been there, done that, myself. Activism is exciting; politics is boring. Real progress towards ambitious goals, I'm sure, will require enough of those grey-haired Usual Suspects, too, to be persuaded that what has eluded or been taken from them is something that can still be recovered, still be achieved, not by gazing upon some coloured marks on a piece of paper, but by demanding political change. That the game is not over; that invisibility is a reversible condition. Ruskin again:
All true opinions are living, and show their life by being capable of nourishment; therefore of change. But their change is that of a tree — not of a cloud.
Modern Painters

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