Thursday, 30 November 2017


Redbridge Towers and M271 flyover

Traffic fumes at sunset...

I wish I could think of a decent alternative to "project", as it's a word with unfortunate associations; I can practically feel people smirking every time I write it. At one extreme, it brings to mind an extended piece of schoolwork ("My Pets", or "Collective Behaviour of Chemotactic Microorganisms in a Viscous Environment", you know the sort of thing). At the other extreme, it's the word actors, models, and musicians use to dignify their self-centred little worlds to us civilians; the words "vanity" and "project" seem to have a horse-and-carriage-style magnetic attraction. But it's a good, useful word, nonetheless, which I use to signify something lying somewhere between two of its Oxford Dictionary definitions, "an individual or collaborative enterprise that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim" or "a proposed or planned undertaking". Delete "carefully" from the first, and emphasise "proposed" in the second, and they're pretty much in the same place, aren't they?

Anyway, my proposed "Soul of Southampton" project (stop that smirking) is slowly getting under way, and may or may not get somewhere in the New Year. As part of my, uh, careful planning, I decided to go for a walk out onto the Redbridge Causeway (a.k.a. the Totton Bypass) on Tuesday. It was a beautiful, cold and crisp day, and by mid-afternoon the sun was already getting low and casting a deceptively warm glow onto the west-facing banks of the Test Estuary. There was nothing deceptively warm about the constant north wind, however.

I've driven over that bridge hundreds of times, as it's the quickest route to the New Forest. As you cross the River Test, you get a fleeting glimpse of the docks and Southampton Water and, depending on the state of the tide, either a gleaming expanse of water or a gleaming expanse of mud. Alongside the dual-carriageway is a narrow path and cycleway, so I threaded my way through the backstreets and underpasses of the Redbridge Estate (another kind of "project", and a lively place, to say the least, at school chucking-out time) and then risked life and limb on the motorway flyover slip-roads so that I could eventually get up onto the walkway, where I hoped to get some good views of the river and the docks.

Which, I hope you'll agree, I did. However, one obvious lesson was re-learned: don't use the rail of a busy road-bridge as a support for a camera. Even when the traffic is light, it's vibrating like a gong, and does absolutely nothing for the sharpness of your photographs.

OurSoles Safety & Workplace Supplies
(No, really...)

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Bar Tacked At Points Of Strain

I haven't really worn jeans for some years – like most middle-aged people, I've come to prefer the comfort and ease of movement of looser styles, particularly "combats" and chinos – but as my daughter had put a pair of Levi's on her Christmas list this year [note to self: aren't my kids earning more than me now?] I had reason to look into buying some and I was amazed, frankly, to discover how much they cost now. I mean, eighty-five pounds for a pair of jeans? Really? When did that happen?

I remember my first pair of Levi's. It was 1969, and I'd had a pair of Wranglers for a year or two, but was always conscious that Levi's were the real thing. In the 1960s you could only buy jeans in outdoorsy and army-surplus type shops; the idea of going into a High Street chain-store for a pair, let alone a high-fashion outlet, was ridiculous. The thing about Levi's was not so much that they were more expensive, which they were (I don't know what the equivalent of £85 was in 1969, but they were certainly nowhere near that expensive), but that they were shrink-to-fit. This strange ritual of entry to jeans subculture was confusing and off-putting to most.

Basically, you had to buy a pair which were a size too large. A pair of new Levi's were practically rigid, the cloth was so thick, and so heavily dyed with indigo that they were a very dark, very even blue, almost black. You pulled on these stiff, oversized trousers, ran a hot bath, and sat in it for as long as you could, while the cloth shrank around you. At the end of the process the bath water would be blue, and so were your legs. But, most important of all, the jeans would be tight; I mean really tight. The whole thing had the sort of louche, sleazy sexiness associated with bikers and fairground workers, with their leather jackets, T-shirts, and tattoos (all of which are now, of course, mainstream fashion choices). It's no wonder the wearing of jeans was frowned upon: they were banned on non-uniform school trips, in nightclubs, and anywhere that valued its respectability. In those days, jeans spelled trouble.

The trouble with tight jeans is...
they wear out in odd places

I suspect Levi's were probably the first clothing brand to capture the awareness of the British youth market. Other brands already had a cult following in certain subcultures – I think of Lewis Leathers, for example, or Clark's desert boots – but Levi's had already made a thing of their brand identity by the time they became generally available in Britain. There was the seagull rear-pocket stitching, the red tab, the distinctive leather label patch, and, crucially, the lack of any visible stitching down the outside leg seam, which marked out every other brand of jeans as greasy kid's stuff. There was even a decorative cardboard label-cum-certificate telling you what an authentic thing the Levi's identity was. Quite soon there would be other brands associated with other subcultures – Ben Sherman shirts, Crombie coats, and Doctor Marten's boots were de rigeur in skinhead circles, for example – but anyone who wanted a piece of the youth-culture action could wear Levi's. Unless, of course, you were sufficiently contrarian and counter-cultural to regard Levi's themselves as a bit, you know, mainstream. "No Logo", as far as I'm concerned, began in 1972.

Throughout, let it be understood, by "Levi's" I am referring to straight-leg 501s. Don't even get me started on the abominations that were flared jeans or split-knee loon jeans, or those short-cuts to unearned street-cred, pre-shrunk and stone-washed jeans. These aberrations all marked the shift from a utility brand, taken up by certain subcultures precisely because of its utility, to a fashion brand. And we all know where that has led us: people walking around in expensive clothes with the labels on the outside, like human advertising hoardings, rather than discreetly tucked away inside where they belong. And it would seem that we might even have Levi's to blame for that, both as originator and perpetuator. I mean, honestly, eighty-five pounds for a pair of jeans!

Why is that peculiar chap at middle left NOT wearing jeans?
Aren't those army-surplus trousers??

Monday, 27 November 2017

Stage Blood

The Barbican

I was up in London on Friday night to see Shakespeare's Julius Caesar performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican. It's an odd play, Julius Caesar. Like Hamlet, it seems to be entirely composed out of famous quotations and turns of phrase that have entered the language, spread out by scenes involving people stabbing each other or themselves with swords and/or daggers. In fact, the play does actually bear a strong family resemblance to both Hamlet and Henry V, both almost certainly written around the same time. To be honest, I could have sworn Mark Antony's words "cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war" were to be found in Henry V, and that the various agonisings by Brutus over the gap between thought and deed were outtakes from Hamlet. Shakespeare clearly had certain things preying on his mind around the turn of the century. The play used to be much more performed than it has been in recent times: the RSC's "revival" of the Roman plays is intended, I'm sure, to point up the contemporary relevance of their meditations on governance, absolutism, and the corruptions of power. They've gone for the full toga and sandals, though, rather than some modern camo-and-Kalashnikov setting, which, these days, counts as bravely controversial. It must be a problem for the crew, getting all that blood off those pristine white togas every night ("Impossible? No, dramaturgical!"*). Or perhaps they're reversible.

This is a perfectly competent version of the play by the RSC, as you would expect, with some nice touches, but oddly under-produced, I thought. In fact, although it improves immensely after the interval, the first half reminded me of nothing so much as a rather superior school play, with its static set, and too many minor characters and extras standing around doing the physical equivalent of muttering "Rhubarb! Rhubarb!". Plus, when a sword penetrates someone's guts on stage, as they frequently do in this play, for £50 a ticket I expect it to come out bloody, and not as shiny as when it went in, and for at least a little gore to be spilled, given the amount that ends up on stage when Caesar is stabbed to death. I mean, srsly; didn't they crack that one in Shakespeare's time? There was also far too much pouncing on hidden ironies and double entendres in the text that could be camped up or over-emphasised to get sitcom style laughs ("Julius Caesar is recorded before a live TV audience"). This is a disease of modern acting that needs stamping out. This is not meant to be a funny play. For me, Mark Antony casually breaking Brutus's boy servant's neck with an audible crack that made the audience gasp rather than titter was far more like it.

The school play comparison seemed to stick in my mind. Well, it's that time of year, isn't it? The end of the winter term draws near, with the days shortening until it's already dark at the end of the school day, and with the tinselly mass-hysteria of Christmas just coming over the horizon. Somehow, old memories seem to crowd in more tightly and in a purer distillation as November becomes December, and few are as vivid as the anxiety that accompanies trying to learn the few lines of some minor walk-on part, or wearing tights in front of your peers. Across the country, some poor devil will have been tasked with putting on a play to be performed in front of parents towards the end of the year – in my day almost invariably a Shakespeare – and imposing some discipline on the untested acting skills of a dozen or two 11-17-year-old children. In fact, I do now vaguely recall Julius Caesar itself being performed at my school somewhere around 1967, but only because one of my classmates was cast as Cinna the Poet, to be chased across the stage and killed in that oddly pointless case of mistaken identity by the brutal, fickle, and easily-swayed mob (it's hard to escape the feeling that Shakespeare was not an instinctive democrat).

Come to think of it, Julius Caesar is a good choice of play for an all-boys school, as there are just two small female roles, wives of leading characters, and the play's mood is about as hyper-masculine as a rugby-club changing room. Even so, I was slightly taken aback by the apparent misogyny on display at the Barbican. Sure, there's a lot of butch Roman talk in the play of Caesar whining like a girl when he's struck down with man-flu in Spain and the like, but the director has woven this into the texture of the whole play. Indeed, a typically Elizabethan display of hand-clasping, embracing, and love-and-eternal-friendship-pledging in all the key male relationships is extended into distinctly homo-erotic territory – bizarrely, the final angry row and reconciliation between Cassius and Brutus before the final, fatal battle is played like a lovers' tiff in a romcom – and the wives are given even shorter shrift by their husbands than the text really warrants. It's a valid take on the play, I suppose, but an odd one to be seeing in 2017, unless the idea is that plots, assassinations, counter-plots, and suicides – bodies all over the stage – are the sort of mess you get into in male-dominated, honour-driven, aristocratic societies unchecked by ameliorating influences. Though, as I say, I think you'd be looking a long time through his plays before finding much evidence of Shakespeare's democratic instincts.

By the way, talking of Christmas, I have now received the first batch of calendars from Vistaprint, and they've done their usual excellent job. I ordered most on 235g premium glossy paper, plus a few on 220g satin paper: the glossy is, um, shiny with deeper blacks and higher contrast, the satin is more of a matte finish, with slightly lower contrast. Both are good. If you decide you'd like to buy one (see previous post) I will assume you want the glossy version unless you say otherwise.

Calendar: October 2018

* One for the regular (and older) readers...

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Project Report 2017

Calendar cover

Suddenly, it's late November and high time to be thinking about year's end activities, like making next year's calendar. As a recovering parent, the advent of Christmas brings with it a range of residual seasonal anxieties which need to be found a suitable home, like household gods, and I suspect that the preparation of cards and calendars is where they have taken up residence. After all, it's not as if anyone else's peace of mind depends on the annual receipt of a selection of my homespun imagery.

November 2018

In previous years I've generally used twelve pictures from a single project that had been commanding my attention during the year; Puck's Song, for example, was perfect for 2015/16, being my twelve illustrations for Kipling's twelve stanza poem. But in 2017 I've been suffering creative overload, and have had any number of things on the go simultaneously. I found I couldn't decide which of them to feature, or which had the strongest dozen images that would each reward a month of viewing (naively, perhaps, I have to assume calendar recipients actually hang the thing somewhere, in preference to Kute Katz Kalendah 2018*). I also had a practical problem with my increasing fondness for the "portrait" orientation, which doesn't really suit the calendar format. So I decided on a Project Report, something like a visual corporate annual report, which would bring together a little of everything in progress during 2017, naming the "project" each picture had been extracted from.

December 2018

Calendar recipients probably don't realise or care quite what an exclusive club they have inadvertently been enrolled into by me. I only make about fifteen or so and, as my family don't need reminding what a weird person I am, these generally go to an inner circle of friends and well-wishers, plus some People of Influence. In recent years I've largely given up on the latter, however, as this little annual reminder of my existence seems to have had zero effect, while the number of friends and well-wishers has, gratifyingly, increased. However, if you're stuck for a gift for someone, or fancy something rich and strange for yourself, I'd get one made and sent to you for £15.00 plus P&P**. All you need to do is drop me an email (my address is in the "Since you ask..." profile section at top right).

June 2018

* An old friend who runs a stained-glass workshop in the Dordogne assures me he always hangs it in the toilet, because of the opportunities for extended contemplation this affords.

** The calendars are made by Vistaprint, on 235g premium glossy paperstock, 28cm x 21cm, wire spiral bound.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017


Southampton Sports Centre

A wonderful thing has just happened. To quote from the email I found in my inbox on Friday:
Dear friends of ECM,

Over the past week ECM begun the process of entering streaming, and from today, the full ECM catalogue is available to subscribers to services including Apple Music,, Spotify, Deezer, TIDAL and Qobuz.
That's .... amazing! There are so many ECM albums I've wanted to hear over the years, but couldn't possibly have afforded to take a gamble on, so this is like receiving the ultimate Christmas present. Let's see... There are the early Bill Frisell recordings, all that Jan Garbarek and Keith Jarrett, those intriguing combinations of world music virtuosos with musicians from the "jazz" tradition, the modern "classical" recordings by the likes of Arvo Pärt , beautiful polyphony from the Hilliard Ensemble... Oh yes, and John Surman and Terje Rypdal, I'd always meant to check them out, and I might even take a cautious look into the world of Carla Bley... The list just goes on.

I know that, for a lot of people, a little ECM goes a long way – "chilly" and "cerebral" are sometimes the words critics reach for, though I prefer "serene" and "uncompromising" – but if I had to nominate one label whose output I would like to be able to sample whenever I felt like it, that label would have to be ECM. So, thanks, Manfred Eicher! Let's hope you (or your artists) don't come to regret this, sales-wise.

So, now may be the time to put some decent Bluetooth speakers on my list for Father Christmas... Any recommendations?

Avonmouth from Clifton Downs, Bristol

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Sour Grape Juice (Best Served Cold)

A while ago back in the summer, I decided to enter three prints for the Royal West of England Academy's open exhibition. I realise this might look as if I only submit work to the exhibitions of bodies with "royal" in their name, but it is simply that the RWA is based in Bristol, and their gallery is a nice space in which to show work.

I had quite a number of candidate pictures so, having done the hard work of making a shortlist, I decided to try an experiment: I solicited the views of a select panel of notorious aesthetes as to which three of my six shortlisted choices they would choose. The results were interesting, in that they more or less coincided with my own top three choices. Make of that what you like. I'm inclined to think that all it demonstrates is that people whose judgement you trust tend to think the same way as you. It's "confirmation bias", or some such phenomenon.

Most interesting of all, though, 100% of cats who expressed an opinion (which was all of them) liked this image, which I titled "Southampton Water", and which was my own no-brainer candidate:

The signs were good. However, in the end, although two of the three (including "Southampton Water") made it into the final round of judgement, neither made it onto the wall. Disappointing, obviously, but these things are always a bit of a lottery. I bear the judges no ill-will, though if bad things have subsequently happened to them, their families, their pets, and their homes, then they only have themselves to blame.

As it happens, I am currently in Bristol for a few days, so I decided to drop by the RWA and take a look at the exhibition, if only to sneer at the work that did make it onto the gallery walls. Well, it turns out I didn't have to try very hard: although there is some excellent and interesting work on show, the overall impression is rather mediocre, and there is quite a lot of work that is so awful you have to wonder what on earth the judges were thinking. This showing of "bad" work was a feature of a couple of rooms in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, too, so I have to conclude there's a thing going on here. As well as just a little touch of sour grapes on my part, of course. Like revenge, I discover, it is a dish best served cold.

Now, obviously, ever since modernism began, there has been a bit of a cult of the "naïve" painter. In reaction to the sterility of academic painting, painters came to distrust their own facility with draughtsmanship and composition – natural skills refined, technically, by the disciplines of the academy – and deliberately made use of awkward and "unrealistic" lines, shapes and colours, often mimicking the bold and expressive work of untrained folk and "outsider" artists. The paintings of Alfred Wallis, for example, exercised a huge influence on the professionally-trained sophisticates of the St. Ives school. As with Derain's Fauvist work that I saw recently at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, there was a certain shock value at the time, but these faux-naïve moves soon became as formulaic as academic realism itself. However, the work I'm seeing on the walls of these open exhibitions (the idea of an "open" exhibition being that anybody may submit work) is not naïve, faux-naïve, bold, or expressive, it is simply bad: poorly executed and poorly conceived work by people not remotely in command of their materials, with no sense of design, line, or colour, often merely illustrating some half-baked political idea, or transparently imitative of other work.

Now, you may say, that is merely your opinion, and of course you'd be right. The challenge to elitist opinions and canons is a significant feature of our times. And I think therein may lie the problem. Like those modernist painters who disavowed their own skill-set, I suspect the judges of open exhibitions (often artists in their own right) are increasingly reluctant to impose their own sophisticated frame of judgement on the work presented to them, and as a consequence give the nod to work that, if they had produced it themselves, would have gone straight in the bin. This is deeply patronising, I think, and also profoundly unfair and confusing to the Sunday painters whose cack-handed daubs are being given prominent gallery space.

Don't believe me? Here's just one example of many:

I mean, honestly! Am I being unfair? Or is it the judges who are being unfair to the painter of this work, by exposing it to the ridicule of everyone I witnessed standing in front of it? I suppose it's a valid question to ask, whether this is (a) the work of a person who can't paint, (b) the work of a person who is artfully pretending not to be able to paint, or (c) the work of someone who doesn't care that you think they can't paint, because they are making a point in a visual language that your bourgeois, stuck-in-the-past imagination can't grasp. Whichever answer you go for, it is merely your own opinion, of course.

It has to be said that some of the most egregious and/or dull work in the show was actually by artists with the letters RWA after their name, which surprised me. I was also very surprised by how little of the work on show has actually been sold with only a couple of weeks to go before it all finally comes down off the walls. Which, as you can imagine, gave me absolutely no pleasure at all.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Old and New

Don't get me wrong on the nature of my proposed Southampton "quest". Although I am a self-declared admirer of the worn and torn over the brand spanking new, I'm not saying that "old" has any necessary correspondence with "soul". Quite often, the appeal of such battered remnants is quite the opposite of that, a sort of orphaned incongruity that is far from comforting, and that expresses the feelings of alienation in a world that is becoming inhospitable and incomprehensible that most of feel from time to time as we get older. We're not talking about favourite old sweaters here; we're talking about the coherence and continuity of civic awareness and culture that make, say, Liverpool "Liverpool", or Bristol "Bristol".

The feeling that Southampton is not, or is no longer "Southampton" may be purely personal, of course. Certain crucial areas of experience are off-limits to me. I will never know what it is like to have grown up here, to have extended family nearby, to have played in these parks and streets, or to have attended local schools, with strong views on their relative merits and mythologies. I cannot enter the thriving docks as I don't have any business there that would get me through the security gates. I have no interest in the lively clubbing scene that emerges between 11 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., leaving its unmissable traces in the streets of the city centre, although I suppose if I wanted to risk life and limb I could attempt to document the late-night mayhem that, I am told, erupts reliably when the clubs shut. Even though I arrived here in 1984, the year the Saints were riding high in the old First Division, I have never once attended a football match, either at the Dell or the new St. Mary's Stadium, and probably never will; I cannot even be bothered to check the team's latest performance on a Saturday. Does this make me less of a "Sotonian"? Probably yes; incomers generally remain incomers. But then I also cannot know what that fully 10% of our population who have come from Poland and other Eastern European countries in recent years make of the city. They already have their own network of shops, and so overfill the local Catholic church at Christmas that the congregation congregates out on the street. Obviously, there are many versions of the city, some more authentic than others, but I have never sensed that they cohere into anything resembling a true civic identity.

I don't think this was always the case, however, and this is where "old" does come in. There are stretches of the city centre where buildings that were not destroyed by the 1940 Blitz or the redevelopers of the 1960s still stand, and many of them are truly outstanding examples of civic architecture. Once, on this evidence, there was money and pride to spare. There are some elegant Georgian terraces, for example (now mainly occupied by legal firms); there are marvellous pubs and hotels and shops and banks with elaborate exteriors, sometimes surviving with their original function and context intact, but more often than not repurposed as clubs and restaurants and sitting uncomfortably next to the thoughtless, off-the-peg architecture of modern retail outlets.

At the more monumental end of the spectrum, there is an extraordinary sculpted memorial to the many Southampton crewmen who went down on the Titanic in 1912, just across the road from an elegant cenotaph inscribed with the names of the men who died in 1914-18, designed by Lutyens and the model for the larger version in London's Whitehall. Then, looming gigantically but somehow hidden in plain sight, there are the remnants of the original mediaeval city wall and the twin drum towers of the Norman Bargate, which was at some point chosen by the Council as the city's logo (accompanied by a tower-block and a tree – ah, symbolism!). This odd device has replaced the city coat of arms on everything from council vans to headed notepaper. In fact, look, there it is on the rubbish bin at the extreme bottom right in my panorama of that magnificent tiled pub frontage below, a stone's throw from the waterfront – where ferries used to leave for France and passenger boats sailed for the farthest reaches of the Empire – and opposite the original railway station, where passengers and, at times, soldiers from all over the country arrived before embarkation. It's not hard to imagine taking pride in a prosperous and purposeful city that once looked like this, though, is it?

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Soul Quest

In a previous post (Solent Soul Suite) I described a potential project, a tentative search for the "soul" of the city of Southampton, which seems to have gone missing somewhere around 1960, having received a bit of a pasting during the Blitz of 1940. It seemed one good initial search strategy would be to become a tourist in my own town, and to do the things I would do if, by some miscalculation, I had ended up here on holiday. So, a couple of times in recent weeks, I've taken myself down to that part of the waterfront which is under development as a residential, business, and leisure district, and relatively open to mooching about with a camera.

It seems quite a transformation has been going on. It's been a while since I was last down in Ocean Village, as it is known, and the developers have been busy. Where there were once wind-blown vacant lots huge high-rise blocks have appeared, with bars and restaurants at ground level, and upscale apartments and office space above. Private residential estates have been packed in around the old dockside, which has been rebranded as a "marina" and now gleams with the hulls of yachts and cruisers, including some Trump-sized vessels that could accommodate a lobbying-party for the entire House of Commons. The only things missing are (a) tourists, and (b) a suitable climate. Admittedly, the centre of Southampton is Party Town for a substantial stretch of the South Coast, but why anyone would want to freeze their kneecaps off in a brisk onshore breeze carrying fumes from the Fawley Refinery while being deafened by the tintinnabulation of halyards slapping a hundred-odd metal masts is a mystery to me.

Soul-wise, whether this makeover will ever become the "real" Southampton only time will tell. Out of sight, round the bend, and behind razor-wire topped fences the business of docking, resupplying, lading and unlading improbably large cruise and container ships carries on regardless. You can still be held up for 10 minutes or more as an endless freight train rumbles into the docks across the only road into the area. On the other side of Southampton Water sits the industrial sprawl of Fawley Refinery. Further round the other way the mighty curve of the Itchen Bridge carries commuter traffic over the river, and near and beneath the bridge little industrial units continue to make and fix things. A little further up the Itchen the enormous St. Mary's Stadium of Southampton FC is located. It's hard not to feel that true traces of a city's soul may be more reliably sensed in these places, rather than down by the marina. But it's a start.

The Itchen Bridge and the new stadium are both emblematic of the continual process of change from "old" Southampton to "new" Southampton; a process which, obviously, is going on in all towns everywhere all the time, but which, here as elsewhere, seems also to have broken some essential element of civic pride and continuity. Any genuine local of my age would recall that, before the bridge was opened in 1977, there was a chain ferry across the Itchen, the so-called Floating Bridge. It had been there, in various incarnations, since 1838, which would make it venerable by most standards, but was clearly inadequate for the needs of modern-day traffic. In fact, the Floating Bridge was itself a compromise, a substitute for a bridge proposed in 1833, but opposed by other local interests, not least the company operating the rival bridge a little upriver at Northam.

Photographically, this sort of thing is hard to express. Bits and pieces of "old" Southampton survive, but need substantial interpretation. A case in point: towards the end of my recent explorations down near the Itchen Bridge, a guy pulled out of a nearby gate in his car and, seeing me, slowed to a halt and rolled down his window. It turned out he was the Scoutmaster of the local Sea Scouts, and was worried I might be sizing the area up for yet more development. On hearing about my actual mission, he started to fill me in on the significance of the local remains. Those tracks on a ramp running into the water? That's where they built Mulberry harbours for D-Day. And that bus-shelter thingie over there? That's the Cross House, built as a place for people waiting to be ferried over the river, back before land was reclaimed to make the current shoreline. It was first mentioned in the sixteenth century, but is probably mediaeval, possibly repurposed from a boundary cross. Now that's old. But it's also isolated nowhere near anywhere any tourist would ever show up: at the side of a dead-end road running through industrial units to a car-park. Which is where I came in.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Scribble, Scribble, Scribble

I spent a useful, if dull, afternoon this week scanning in pages from various sketchbooks. I have always loved scribbling away with a pencil, although it's an aspect of my "creative life" that doesn't get much of a public outing. I wouldn't often compare myself to Henri Cartier-Bresson but, like him, I'm privately convinced my drawings are far better than my photographs, even though, inexplicably, no-one else seems to agree.

It only takes a visit to a gallery or two (I was in the Royal Academy on Monday to see the Matisse in the Studio exhibition) to spark the thought, common to all third-rate artists, that surely my stuff could be as good as that? Yeah, right. Only fifty years too late. Nonetheless, I thought it was time I did the chore of some long-overdue scanning, so I would have some new raw material to play with.

Some scribbles just need a little bit of presentation:

Others invite the full Photoshop treatment, like those in the previous post (yes, underneath all the gilding and garish paint-job there is a simple drawing, sometimes two or three combined), while others just need a light touch, rather like hand-tinting an engraving:

The tricky bit is knowing which are which, and how far to go. As Alberto Giacometti said, "That's the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it." Tell me about it, Alberto!

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Leave It Out

Hey, language watchers, have you noticed the new "out"? No, not that one, that's ancient history, by contemporary standards. Nobody cares, any more, whether you're "out" or not. In fact, being out is very "in", as we used to say. No, it seems "out" is being attached to verbs to create, well, what? These are some examples from the radio this week:

To build out ("The important thing is to build out the public housing stock")
To drive out ("My job is to drive out these changes")
To push out ("We need to push out these policies")

My suspicion is that "out" has detached itself from expressions like "to roll out" (as in "make this product available") or "to work out" (as in "systematic exercise") as a signifier of corporate or personal dynamism. An expression like "to build out" has a literal meaning, a metaphorical meaning, and some modishly muscular usages that hover somewhere in between. As well as houses, you can build out your team, your muscles, or your brand.

The trouble is, "out" is already heavily over-booked, verb-wise, and has been doing a lot of useful work for a long time, so I doubt this new trend has much wider application or even much future. I mean, here I am, writing out my blog, whilst eating out a biscuit, which I bought out at the weekend, after driving out to the supermarket, where I shopped out my weekly groceries. Hmm, those don't really work out, do they?

And another thing. The eighth letter of the alphabet: H. Now, I was not exactly brought up in a snobbish or pretentious environment – far from it – but to pronounce that letter as "haitch" was seen as a marker of unlettered ignorance on a par with eating rice pudding with a biro. I was furious when my children came home from primary school having been taught that "haitch" was "correct", because to say "aitch" mean you were dropping your, um, "haitches". Grrr.

Now, I'm aware that certain regions have always used "haitch"; most notably in Ireland. But it seems this pronunciation is gaining ground as simply an unremarkable variation, like northern versus southern vowels. I hear it often now even on BBC Radio 4, whenever the bank "HSBC" or the shop "H&M" are in the news, or even – and this one really grates on my ears – the "NHS", which is to say, most days. I suppose as a signed-up descriptivist I shouldn't mind, but I do. It's probably a class-and-aspiration issue – I hate it when people disadvantage themselves out of smugness – but may also have to do with the rice-and-biro related scoldings I 'ad to endure t' learn me better.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Noise v. Signal

Detail of installation by Charlotte Moth
Pompidou Centre

Our beliefs –  our true beliefs, I mean, not the sort of rote professions of faith that society demands of us – can be hard to identify, simply because they are the air we believe we breathe, and the solid ground on which we trust we walk. However, it did occur to me recently that for my entire life I have held a profound but irrational belief in the idea of "tempting fate". Profound because it has directed so much of the way I have conducted my life; irrational because, well, it's a pretty insane idea, isn't it? However, recognising the irrationality of this belief is not going to stop me behaving as if it were true; that would be tempting fate.

Equally paradoxically, the idea that art should question our beliefs has become one of the unquestionable core beliefs of contemporary art. No self-respecting contemporary artist is going to stop behaving as if this were true, even though it self-evidently isn't. That is, until some true mould-breaker gives everyone permission to drop the ridiculous pretence that art students have greater insight into the nature of Life, the Universe, and Everything than "ordinary" people. I'm not going to rehearse how and when this belief came about (mainly because I'd have to look it up) but I'm pretty sure all those artists in the Louvre did not have their fingers crossed behind their back as they delivered yet another crucifixion scene to the service door of the cathedral. Neither did Holbein, by drawing the Tudor aristocracy of England with such breathtaking realism, or John Constable, with his endless studies of clouds, intend to challenge anything more than the inability of previous painters to get things right. That  desire to get things right may in itself be quite subversive in an unfair world – the truth will set you free – but that is a different matter.

A camera is quicker...

Hans Hartung in La Musée d'Art Moderne
(I think I'm a fan)

People of an artistic disposition, in my observation, tend to fall into two categories. Consider the way red-headed, pale-skinned folk know, or are advised, how to dress (I recall many such conversations between my mother and sister). Essentially: if in doubt, wear green, and never, ever wear red. It just works, looks right, and is in accordance with some unwritten folk theory of colour. Those who value such practical wisdom are the instinctive artists, the colourists, the lovers of shape and form, often with a conservative preference for "natural" beauty. On the other side, there are the contrary red-headed folk who insist on wearing whatever they like, decking themselves out in red and purple stripes precisely because it's what they're not supposed to do. These are the conceptual artists, whose work is all about transgression, challenge, and rejection of norms, who tend to celebrate the urban and the artificial, and reject "natural" categories (like, say, gender) as constructed impositions on their liberty. In the past, the latter won't have got much work; today, they run the show.

I think this is what can make a contemporary art gallery such a confusing place. It will quite likely be full of work that, like some deeply conflicted and angry teenager, is simultaneously demanding your love and attention while telling you to piss off. Look, I'm turning the lights on and off! Isn't that brilliantly annoying, you boring scumbag? I hate you! Now please give me prizes and money!! Unfortunately, those of us who venture into art galleries (as opposed to the sort of people who own or fill them) generally have a craving for something visually exciting, and are not looking to get an angry lecture from some self-righteous trustafarian on our complacency. However, like the parents of that angry adolescent, we sigh deeply, suspend judgement, and look for something to like. After all, as I have said here before, we should all be alert to that "Hendrix Moment", when something is so new that it makes no sense yet, and seems to be all noise and no signal.

Derain, Le Quai Victoria, 1906-1907
Hard to imagine, now, how outrageous this was in 1907.

Such was certainly the case when Henri Matisse and André Derain hit the scene in 1905, earning themselves the label of "fauves" (wild beasts) which they immediately adopted as an ironic badge of honour. There was an excellent show of Derain's work at the Pompidou Centre while we were in Paris, and it was fascinating to get to see the full length of a painter's career who seemed, like a weathercock, to change styles depending on who he'd been hanging out with – Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, and many others all seem to have had a transformative effect on him. But there can be little doubt that those earliest "fauvist" works have now moved decisively from "all noise" (wild beasts!) to "all signal" (lovely paintings!). Who wouldn't want to have one of his paintings of London on their wall?

Matisse by Derain
(Whatever is in that pipe, it works...)

Also in the Pompidou was an exhibition of the contenders for the Marcel Duchamp Prize (yes, there really is such a thing, and it is not a gold urinal). Here, I found myself distinctly back in noisy territory. It's antediluvian, I know, but I do like my art to be two-dimensional and framed; yes, well, I suppose I do find it hard to separate "art" and "interior decoration". But I get impatient with large-scale, immersive installation work that can only be successfully experienced in a gallery setting. How is it that white-cube galleries and pitch-black projection rooms are the only spaces where contemporary art can exist? I mean, does any wealthy private individual even have their own installation space? It just seems so elitist, and so completely reliant on institutional support and funding.

Wait... Isn't that an underpass cinema??
(Pompidou Centre video installation)

Anyway, for what it's worth, I did enjoy the work by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (core samples from Athens, Paris, and Beirut hung from the ceiling in long glass tubes) who, in fact, turned out to be the prizewinners, though I would have enjoyed it equally as much if it had been a display of core samples hanging from the ceiling of a geological museum. In fact, I think I would have enjoyed it more, because then its aesthetic qualities would have been my own discovery, and I would have been spared the statements of the sociologically and archaeologically bleedin' obvious that accompanied it. As Keats wrote in one of his letters: "We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us — and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket." Which is a nice way of saying, "Give me the art, but spare me the statement." Telling me what I should think about your work is just tempting fate...

Ah well, enough of Paris. Southampton awaits!

Paris from La Butte Montmartre

Friday, 3 November 2017

A Barbarian in the Church of Art

In Paris for five days, I visited four art galleries. No big deal; that's the same as the number of restaurants I ate in. It's what you do, isn't it, when visiting Paris, or Florence, or anywhere that looms large on the cultural map? It's what I do, anyway, along with the thousands of others queueing for tickets, and walking the parquet floors in an arted-out trance. Cultural heritage is big business.

But, art... It may be big, but it's a funny old business, too, isn't it? At some point in the 18th century, painting and certain allied trades began to throw off the label of mere "decorative crafts" and became the focus of a new but ill-defined set of attitudes in European society around talent and individual genius, and also of certain yearnings towards transcendence that were, at about the same time, shaking themselves free from religion. Like paper money, works of art by bankable names came to be regarded as objects that embodied certain values greater than themselves, and – for as long as that faith and bankability remained good – assigned a monetary value that far exceeded the net worth of their actual canvas and paint or billable hours of labour. To own a Rembrandt and to be Rembrandt were rather different things.

Arted out

This revaluation was applied retrospectively to works made in the past, so that former jobbing painters became "artists", and were ranked according to their relative endowment of "genius". Thus, painting acquired both a history and a hierarchy, the administration and authentication of which inevitably gave rise to a new priesthood. As a consequence, although the great galleries of Britain and France are, essentially, bank vaults for the trophies brought home from abroad by aristocrats on their Grand Tours or looted by their invading armies, they function more like churches of art. We tourists shuffle reverently from chapel to chapel within the great cathedrals of art such as the Louvre, mentally genuflecting before, say, the Mona Lisa, although we may often be as baffled by the unspeaking physical actuality* of such a famous painting as any peasant hoping for a few intimate words of advice or comfort from the Virgin Mary.

Almost a perfect "Mona Lisa selfie scrum" picture...
Can you believe that guy's bag? And can you see
 anyone looking at the damn picture?
Sadly, it's not as sharp as I'd like.

On the evidence of the Uffizi in Florence last summer, and the Louvre this year, such world-famous paintings actually serve mainly as ticks on a bucket-list, or as a backdrop for a selfie, on a par with the Eiffel Tower or standing in front of an impassive sentry at Buckingham Palace. If you want to know where the Big Pictures are just follow the crowd; the rest are just handy space-fillers to spread the Big Ones out a bit. And let me be perfectly honest: I wouldn't care in the slightest if 80-90% of the paintings in the Louvre were stolen tonight (you'll be needing a very big van). I wouldn't contribute one Euro to the ransom. Much as I love the enamelled perfection of a mediaeval altarpiece, I have no interest whatsoever in the repetitive, unimaginative, grandiose, post-Renaissance art that occupies wall after wall after wall. It puts me in mind of the racks of suits, shirts, and ties in Marks & Spencer: nothing here for me, let's move on.

Priestess and worshippers

Obviously, most of us lack the education or background to evaluate or distinguish one royal portrait, martyrdom, Annunciation, or Ovidian transformation from another. I certainly do, and I'm pretty sure that the ever-increasing numbers of gallery visitors from the Far East have about the same grasp of Christian or Classical iconography as the typical western tourist has of those of Angkor Wat or the Todaiji Temple. Although we are free to simply pick out the bits we like and ignore the rest – and I do – you can feel rather like a barbarian stripping the gold and prising out the jewelled eyes of a Byzantine statue. But the only alternative (apart from doing lots of homework) is to take the value and relative merits of what is on display as a matter of faith and, on balance, I'm a happy barbarian: I reject your faith but I have a use for that gold and those jewelled eyes!

This matter of faith is most sorely tested when standing before (or, increasingly, inside) the more baffling manifestations of contemporary art, but that will have to be another post.

Nice frame! I can see a use for that...
(N.B. would you believe this is by Raphael?)

And nice devils! Ditto...

* This is where the audio guide comes in... Only an extra 10 Euros!