Tuesday 30 January 2018

Professor Mega-Breakfast

Portraiture is not really my thing. At least, it hasn't been. But recently, I've been doing some more playing around with pictures of friends and family (do I ever do anything except play around?) and I like this one. This sturdy fellow is a Professor of Rural Medicine, composited with certain elements that seemed fitting. That's the Beauly Firth in the background, and more or less the view from his house a few miles outside Inverness.

I won't embarrass him by telling you what a remarkable chap he is. A medical man by vocation, I've known him since our college days, and he has continued to distinguish himself ever since, in that impressively modest way that medical folk have. Like teachers, they know what they do matters, so don't need to make a song and dance about it.

One curious fact, though: Phil has run the West Highland Way ultramarathon (that is, the 95 miles from Milngavie, just north of Glasgow, to Fort William, up hill, down dale, through bog...) not once but twice, both times in his fifties, and yet, and perhaps more impressively, I have seen him eat the twelve-part mega-breakfast at Cobbs Cafe in Highland Industrial Supplies (for the record, I had a bacon roll). Apparently, this is a regular treat. Let's see: that's bacon, sausage, black pudding, baked beans, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, fried tomato, fried bread, and three other "foods to avoid" I can't recall... Awesome. It seems doctors take a very different view on what constitutes a healthy diet from food faddists...

Sunday 28 January 2018

Happy Days

I was up in London last week to celebrate my partner's birthday together with our children, who both now live and work in the city. We spent the night at the house of some old friends, and by the time I caught the train back to Southampton the next morning I was well primed for one of those reveries that train journeys seem to induce. As Eastleigh rolled past in the bright but misty sunlight, I saw a young man in blue overalls kneeling on an industrial roof, pausing in his work with what looked liked some wiring to talk to an older man, standing on a ladder. They were both smiling and laughing, and something about the youngster's body language suggested to me that he was entirely happy in his work up there. Which reminded me that once I, too, was a young man in overalls, deeply contented and absorbed by his labours.

One of the oddities of the British educational system back in the 1970s was that Oxford and Cambridge still ran their own entrance examinations. Inconveniently, these happened during the winter term, followed by interviews, with admission results published in the national broadsheet papers around Christmas. So, unlike their private-school counterparts, potential Oxbridge candidates from state schools would first have to get some university offers in place, wait for their A-Level results in the summer and, if these were judged good enough, defer their year of university entrance and then spend an extra term at school preparing for and taking the entrance exams. Meanwhile, all your contemporaries would have left, either for university or the real world. As a consequence, successful or not, you had to experience a peculiar extended spell under a secondary school regime – uniform, haircuts and all – followed by nine months with nothing much to do.

I suppose children from wealthier families probably treated this as an opportunity for travel and adventure: what today would be called a "gap year". But I and my classmates Dave and Alan – two of us successful in our applications, one not – all came from typical New Town families, and needed to find paid work. Luckily, there was an informal agreement between some of Stevenage's schools that any Oxbridge candidates (there were never that many) might be taken on as temporary teaching assistants, and that's what we did. Dave went to a primary school, and Alan and I went to the Catholic boy's grammar school, St. Michael's, where I was put to work mainly as an art assistant.

Those two terms were some of the most intensely contented months in my life. Seeing that overalled young man on the roof brought back a wave of happy memories. I was earning real money for the first time and, outside of work hours, was free to do whatever I wanted: no more homework, no more exams, and with friends away at university I could visit them at weekends in exotic, faraway places like Bristol, Norwich, Birmingham, and Brighton. I was finally able to let my hair and beard grow, too, with the result that the boys at St. Michael's nicknamed me "Roy", after Roy Wood of Wizzard, a group that was a bit of a fixture on Top of the Pops in 1972/73.

At work I mainly wore overalls, as my main duties included attending to the kilns and clay bins in the art rooms, a messy business. It was also a hazardous and necessary business. The art and craft rooms at St. Michael's were very superior to those at my school, and in addition to a couple of kilns for firing pottery they boasted a plastic-injection machine, which melted little plastic beads to make moulded objects. Given a chance, boys would grab a handful of these beads and scatter them into the wet clay in the bins. If these weren't removed any pot placed into the kiln would explode, destroying much of the the other work being fired, even if it, too, hadn't been primed to self-destruct. One of my daily tasks was to pick through the clay to find these accursed things, which were about three millimetres in diameter and transparent, like clear plastic fish roe.

At the same time I had to keep a wary eye out for the Stanley-knife blades that would also occasionally get tossed into the clay, with potentially lethal consequences. Any boy caught doing this would suffer the ultimate penalty: being sent to see the school priest. I have no idea what went on in there, but it was clearly very effective. As far as I know he may even have been related to many of the boys, as his name was Father Brennan, and there seemed to be at least one Brennan in most classes throughout the school. Although, being in the main populated by the large extended families of the Irish construction workers who had built the New Town and decided to make it their home, the roll-call of names in every class was remarkably and confusingly similar.

"Roy", the carefree technician, 1973
(What, me worry?)

But I loved the work. I was a "technician": I learned to stack and fire a kiln, how to prepare slips and glazes and other useful hands-on skills, such as how to make screens for screen-printing, and racks to hang prints and paintings to dry. Sometimes I did help boys realise their art projects, and occasionally gave a hand with remedial literacy classes, and during the Easter break in 1973 I was among the staff accompanying two mini-vans full of boys to a Youth Hostel in Derbyshire's Peak District (I think it was there that my love of hills and hill-walking was awakened); but it was mainly brain-light manual work. I did an awful lot of sweeping up, tidying up, and putting tools back in racks and cupboards, as well as the eternal de-hazarding of the clay-bins.

I made friends with some of the younger teachers, and was invited to their houses. There I first became aware of the ways of the new, semi-bohemian middle-classes, with their duvets, Habitat furniture, and all sorts of eye-pleasing junk-shop bric-a-brac; antique glass bottles, stoneware jugs, and lacquered boxes, which sometimes concealed a little lump of hash for their weekend soirées. One couple, in particular, introduced me to the pleasures of illustrated books, of which they had a significant collection, including Arthur Rackham's Ring Cycle books and Some British Ballads [1]. In return, I introduced them to Joni Mitchell and Fairport Convention [2].

To those teachers I expect I was just a curiosity, one of the natives with unexpected tastes and ambitions, but to me this was the start of my New Life. These were the people I aspired to become, and I studied them like an Ancient Briton hoping to become a Roman citizen. This, combined with the rather wilder times I and my old schoolfriends were having together, meant that by the time I turned up at college the following October I considered myself quite the worldly sophisticate, especially compared to my privately-educated peers, who were arriving more or less straight from school.

Heh. Little did I know how much I had to learn, and what a gulf there was between the home-life and aspirations of a secondary school teacher in a New Town and those brought up to expect privilege and prominence by right of birth. But this lesson I had learned and knew for sure: that there is great satisfaction to be had in doing a necessary, skilled, reasonably-paid manual job well, free from worries and responsibilities, with the anticipation of a pleasure-filled weekend just a few days away. It's what young people are for. It's Saturday night and I just got paid... Here comes the weekend...

It doesn't last, of  course, but is one of the Best Things while it does. So what on earth are we thinking, and what on earth is the point of stealing that precious, carefree transition into adulthood from so many of our own youngsters by taking away so many of precisely those semi-skilled manual jobs, and filling their young lives not with useful, meaningful work but instead with idleness, insecurity, and anxiety about the future? They need to be up on the roof in overalls, fixing something that needs to be fixed, happy in the working moment and looking forward to a little weekend mayhem, not flipping burgers or stuck at home flipping listlessly through social media on their phones.

And they certainly should not be obsessing about how us Boomers ate all the pies. Even if we do go on about how very tasty they were, back in the day. Which, I have to say, they were (probably something to do with all the MSG they used to dose us with...).

(with apologies to Beatrix Potter)

1. I saw all of these for the first time in 45 years in a bookshop in Bridport over Christmas, which had clearly acquired someone's Rackham collection, and my heart leapt, then sank when I saw the prices: £190 each...
2. It's hard to imagine, now, how quickly one lost touch back then with the "latest thing" after settling into adult life. The hipper reaches of pop culture were mainly passed on by word-of-mouth, and the very idea of a middle-aged enthusiast for what was still, essentially, young people's music was actually in the process of being invented by that generation. No-one could afford the speculative investment in vinyl records that would have been necessary to keep up with the burgeoning scene, and radio-play was still effectively non-existent: weeklies like the NME and new TV shows like "The Old Grey Whistle Test" were vital sources of information for these house-, child-, and career-bound bohemians.

Thursday 25 January 2018


On Friday night we saw the touring production of Peter Bellamy's "folk opera" The Transports, or rather, the show which has been made out the raw material of Bellamy's 1977 album of songs on the theme of transportation of prisoners to Australia, best described in the programme notes:

Inspired by the true story of two petty criminals transported unjustly from Norfolk to Australia in 1787, Peter Bellamy created a cycle of folk ballads called The Transports. He released this in 1977 as an album, featuring arrangements by Dolly Collins and a glittering roster of folk musicians and singers including Dave Swarbrick, Nic Jones, June Tabor, AL Lloyd, Cyril Tawney, Vic Legg, Mike & Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy. This album became legendary in English folk music. 

In 2016 producer Michael Hughes of The Young’uns, and musical director Paul Sartin brought in storyteller Matthew Crampton to re-work the piece. Captivated by the original story, Matthew wrote a narration to tell the tale more fully, give historical context, and set up each song and character. New elements include Sean Cooney's somg Dark Water and local migrant stories from the Parallel Lives project. Paul arranged the songs afresh, drawing on the company's strengths and broadening the ballads with extensive harmony singing.

I've written about Peter Bellamy before (Borrowing Ballads) and, despite my declared intention finally to listen to The Transports never did get around to it. Folk had already stopped being my thing by 1977, and has never really regained its former place in my affections. Whole generations of performers and fashions in singing-style and instrumentation have been and gone since I last followed the scene: tellingly, I know all the names in the first paragraph of those programme notes, none in the second. When I was working in Bristol in the late 70s I must admit I was fairly dismissive of one of my colleagues who was an avid folkie and – worse – a morris dancer: at that exciting time for popular music, it seemed even more complacent and reactionary than a taste for heavy metal or disco. Similarly, I have written before about the suspicious political currents to be detected behind "roots" music (You (don't really) Need Roots). and have had no real reason to change my mind.

But The Transports, especially as adapted by Matthew Crampton, is different. It's not anti-modern yearning for a non-existent bucolic past, nor is it a gateway into some ethnic or nationalistic cul-de-sac, but is an exploration of the conditions of the poor in the late 18th century, using the musical styles of the time, which follows the remarkable true story of one couple on the very first convict transport fleet to Australia.

Matthew Crampton's narrative does what it says on the programme: it explains what it was like to be poor in East Anglia around 1780, and how easy it was for a decent person under pressure of poverty to end up on the gallows or languishing in the squalor of Norwich gaol for the pettiest of crimes. It also goes further, and links their story of enforced transportation to those of later migrants – Huguenots and Jews and Africans – including those of our own times. In a nice touch, these stories are sourced locally for each night's audience; in our case, Southampton, there was a particularly rich vein of stories to mine.

However, in this last regard, worthy as it is as a topic, I think the show is flawed. The parallel between the transportation of convicts and the migration of refugees is a little strained, and does feel as if the adapters have bolted it on to Bellamy's original work. The second half of the show is also rather brisker, narratively, than the first, and – given we're dealing with what is, in effect, the founding family of (white) Australia – peters out rather quickly once Botany Bay is finally reached. There appear to be no post-voyage songs, and you have to wonder whether this is due to the "20 minutes a side" constraint of the LP format. Also (and I realise I'm in danger here of sounding like the sort of pedant who counts the buttons on guardsmen's uniforms) as an East Anglian myself I was slightly disappointed that most of the performers appeared to be singing in the accents of the north-east of England [1].

Those reservations aside, it was a brilliant and rousing evening, culminating in a mighty, ten-voice rendering of Bellamy's sea-shanty "Roll Down", which really tingled the spine, especially if you were sitting as near the front as we were. If you can't get to see a performance, I recommend buying a copy of the Transports CD, just released, which includes much of the narration as well as all the sung material. Put the volume up to 11 and listen to "The Green Fields of England" and then "Roll Down". If your spine isn't tingled, then you may be in need of a spell in Norwich gaol.
So farewell to all judges so kind and forgiving,
Farewell to your prisons and cells,
For though we must leave all that makes life worth living,
We are leaving you bastards as well!

Here's adieu, here's adieu,
To the green fields of England,
Now we're parting from you.

1. This may be one of those folk-fashions that I've missed. Obviously, most folk-singers are not ex-trawlermen or sons and daughters of toil, and there has always been an element of what I call the "dressing-up box" in folk. It used to be the fashion to adopt a braying Mummerset voice (see: Peter Bellamy), and maybe the fashion has now swung north and east (for some reason, Richard Thompson himself has long adopted a NE accent when singing). Or, of course, that may be where they mainly come from.

Tuesday 23 January 2018


A bright winter moon in fading daylight commands attention: "Oi, you! Yes, you! Look up here! Go on, take my picture!" Although, as I have observed before, the half a degree of arc that the moon actually occupies means that including it as a compositional element in a photograph is a tricky business; it's got all that sky around it, for one thing, and is a long way away, for another.

Walking out by St. Catherine's Hill, I was quite moonstruck for a while, not least because I had a telephoto zoom lens with me, which can help a bit with the first problem, but not much with the other. I did eventually tire of accommodating the moon's insistence on being included in every shot, however. It really only has the one expression, after all. But somehow you know it's still there, just out of the frame.

Saturday 20 January 2018

Beside the Seaside

Charmouth, December 2017

Over Christmas we were in Dorset and, as I usually do, I visited a bookshop in Bridport, one of very few remaining second-hand and antiquarian bookshops anywhere in the country. It is appropriately named Bridport Old Books, and is at 11 South Street, should you ever be down that way. It always has a wonderful stock – this time, they had a whole shelf of illustrated books by Arthur Rackham, fortunately all far too expensive for me – and I rarely come away without some unexpected treasure tucked under my arm. When the kids were small and we were on a Dorset seaside holiday, a certain Bridport toyshop was their rainy-day treat, and a visit to Bridport Old Books was mine. They may have outgrown the toyshop now – just as well, as it has recently closed – but that bookshop is still high on my to-do list.

Now, although I have generally aspired to be a "never look back" sort of guy, I'm as susceptible to nostalgia as anyone, especially when it takes me by surprise. Which it did, that same day in Bridport Old Books. Actually, "nostalgia" is the wrong word for what I experienced, but I don't know a better one. I'm talking about that rush you get when, after half a lifetime of trying to remember something important from your deep childhood – in my case, inevitably, a book, but it might equally well be a toy, or a picture, or even something off TV – you bump into it, as if it had always been waiting for you to stop by. Hello, old friend! Where have you been?

For many, many years, I have been tantalised by half a memory: a small, narrowly rectangular book, unusually printed in orange, that for some reason seemed like the secret key to some special place where I had been supremely happy. Given the resources now available on the internet, it's generally possible to triangulate a book from the flimsiest of clues; it's also a skill I have refined, professionally, over the years, and I rate myself pretty highly as a "book detective" [1]. But this one has always eluded me, mainly because the clues were so vague; I may even have been pre-literate when I last held it.

But: incredibly and unmistakably, there it was, laid out on a table, in a display of "collectable" children's books. Or, rather, there they were, as there were four of them, all different titles in Enid Blyton's "Mary Mouse" series, published by Brockhampton Press, printed in black line and orange body colour, each about 6" x 2.75", and simply stapled together along the narrow edge, with red linen tape covering the staples, like a cheque-book. It's not often that something so simple and throwaway can give such an intense rush of recognition and pleasure. But that's how it is with nostalgia: it doesn't take a Beethoven quartet to open a magic door onto childhood, merely the chime of an ice-cream van.

However, once I looked inside, I realised that although this was clearly the right format from the right publisher, these were not the right books. "My" book had trains in it, I was pretty sure. Maybe there was another one, "Mary Mouse Goes Trainspotting", perhaps, or "Mary Mouse is Enraged by Rail Privatisation"? Later, a little investigation on Google revealed the existence of another Brockhampton series by illustrator Neville Main [2], concerning Jimmy and His Engines; I'm pretty sure one of those is the secret key to some special place where I was once supremely happy. Unfortunately, that place is in the past, some sixty years ago, and even finding precisely the right key would be useless. "Never look back"? There's nowhere back there to be looking: the lock and the door and the room behind it are long gone.

But I'm happy enough to have caught this intense little flash of my own deep past, like the memory of the waves sparkling on Swanage Bay, in that exciting first glimpse of the sea on the first morning of our summer holidays, walking down to the beach. The title Jimmy at the Seaside did catch my eye... I wonder if that might have been it? It might well have been, but it might equally well have been Jimmy at the Zoo, or Jimmy Goes to a Party, or some other Brockhampton title altogether... But I think this particular tantalising quest has now been satisfied, thanks to Bridport Old Books.

Now: what about that annual bought for me to read in hospital when I had my tonsils removed around 1960, with its story about a giant pterodactyl trapped inside an iceberg that haunted my dreams for years? The truth is out there...

1. Got a book you can't find? Try me!
2. It turns out that in his long career Neville Main drew – among many others  comic strip versions of Muffin the Mule, Four Feather Falls, Fireball XL5, and the original Doctor Who strips. Anyone else remember the puppet version of Four Feather Falls on TV? It was something of a cult at my primary school!

Friday 19 January 2018

H & M 5

Oh, all right ... Just one more. Then we're done for now.

Wednesday 17 January 2018

H & M 4

I'm going to make this the last instalment of Aitch 'n' Em to be trickled out via the blog for now, for two simple reasons. First, I don't see how anyone will be able to follow what's going on once the frames start getting spread out by regular blog stuff. Second, I'm enjoying this a lot, but I'm aware I'm entering territory with its own well-established "language", one which I barely speak. I can see a visit to Forbidden Planet in my future, and I wish I was in France, where shops specialising in BDs (bandes dessinées) are thicker on the ground, and incredibly well stocked.

In case you haven't twigged – unlikely, if [a] you didn't also grow up in my near neighbourhood, and [b] don't have any interest in Nordic mythology – the basic scenario is that Odin's two ravens, Huginn and Muninn ("thought" and "memory"), have been sent on a mission to [spoiler removed] in the block of council flats where I spent my adolescent years, now sadly demolished (which in architectural terms is the equivalent of being sadly dead). If (a big if) I develop this further, the idea is that these two birds will go on to have further adventures; this may happen quite quickly, as I will shortly run out of flat-related pictures to use.

I may, from time to time, show a choice frame or two on the blog as I learn my trade, and will also make available PDF "books" of any coherent stories that emerge. Meanwhile, here is a rainy Paris seen from the interior of a typical BD shop. Who knows? Maybe Aitch 'n' Em figurines will be on sale there one day (or Ache et Emme, I suppose). Although I must admit I do find these very expensive and purposeless items aimed at adult collectors rather sad, don't you? Even if I were stinking rich, I can't imagine wanting to put my arrested development as a reader on public display like that. Of course, writing the stuff is a very different matter...

Saturday 13 January 2018

H & M

Once upon a time in Stevenage there was a boy who lived in a flat...

Wednesday 10 January 2018

The Idiotic Hat Guide to Unleashing Your Creativity

My recent pontifications on the nature of creativity reminded me that, back in November 2010 (which, in blog years, is a very long time ago indeed), I had already posted some advice which, with a little revision, might still set a few people on the right path. You're welcome! So, here it comes again, pay attention this time [1]:

There is a minor industry in self-improvement books, encouraging you to get in touch with your frustrated inner artist, in order to unleash the creative dynamo that is the Real You. The underlying dodgy thesis (there's always an underlying dodgy thesis) is nearly always the same, and it's this:
All children are born creative and free, but this innate joy is squeezed out of them by a sequence of grim, grey tyrants, starting with their parents, but of whom the most egregious and grimly grey are the schoolteachers. "Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!" But, rejoice, it's never too late to re-awaken your inner Kreative Kid. Have you considered one of our workshops?
Sound familiar? It should do. It's pretty much a default position, these days, and would deserve an entry under "creativity" in any contemporary equivalent of Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idées reçues. But this idea is such nonsense, it's hard to know where to begin. It's as if the writers of these books had never been to primary school, and had never encountered other children there. Worse, it seems they may have been cruelly denied those most enticing of creative toys – pencils, paints, and paper – both at home and in the classroom.

I suppose my counter-thesis would go like this:
It is my observation that most children are actually born vicious dullards who, without schooling, would torment each other into an early grave. The few exceptions – the bright, the creative, the open-minded, the talented – quickly learn to go to ground until it's safe to come out again later in life. Which the strongest and most motivated always do.
Trust me, I know. As a moderately talented child, I watched in horror as less wary contemporaries had their "show-off" tendencies relentlessly hacked down to playground level, not by our wonderful and encouraging teachers but by our predatory peers, whose "creativity" expressed itself in ensuring that everyone who was not normal was policed into dull, watchful conformity. Few of these playground vigilantes went on to become teachers – you really do have to be some kind of saint to be a teacher – but their poisonous legacy lives on in anyone who is afraid to deviate from a crowd-sourced norm.

So, here is a possible ten point path to fulfilment through creativity:

1. Stop being so dull. It's OK, you can come out now, it's safe. Take a walk on the wild side, and see whether it's for you. Ideally, why not try being gay, or left-handed? It seems to work for a lot of artists.

2. Stop worrying about what people might think about you. Instead, find out what they actually do think about you – probably nothing – then work at giving them gossip-worthy new things to think about you. See (1). As Oscar Wilde said, there's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's losing control of your PR strategy.

3. Self-reinvention is the name of the game. Don't like the person you have become? Neither do we. So stop it. Become someone more interesting. It's easier than you think, see (2).

4. Wear an idiotic hat. Goes without saying, really. See any prominent jazz musician. Correlation or cause? It takes courage and self-belief to look that ridiculous, and it's a good way to see how seriously people are taking you: nobody laughed at Thelonious Monk.

5. Follow your dream. Find out where it goes during the day. Be there waiting for it next time, introduce yourself, and buy it a drink. Tell it to be clearer about what it really wants, or else to stop bothering you. Why should anyone be stalked by their own subconscious mind?

6. Think outside the box. Think inside the box. Think round the back of the box. Imagine you are a box. Make a box, and put it inside a box. Learn to box on Boxing Day. When the word "box" finally becomes absurd through repetition, you will have escaped the prison-house of language, and will briefly be outside the word "box", if not the actual box, whatever and wherever that is. Does that freedom feel good, or bad? If it feels bad, "creativity" is probably not for you.

7. Steal other people's work and ideas shamelessly. Go on, try them on for size. Art is not a museum with guards and alarms, it is a charity shop with a lax policy on shoplifting.

8. Be aware that it is easier to buy books about creativity, than it is actually to read those books. Worse, it is also easier to read a book about writing, than actually to write anything oneself. A writer is a person who writes. But preferably not a person who writes a book about how to write.

9. Encourage your kids, and give them plenty of paints, pencils and paper. Be unstinting in your praise of their efforts, no matter how dull. Then perhaps they'll stop bullying that other funny little kid in their class who is so much better at drawing, or dancing, or whatever it is than they are, and they realise just how awesome he or she really is.

Which brings us to the serious bit.

Sadly, despite following this, or any other advice, it will probably turn out that you are not a fount of original creative genius after all. Why should you be? You're probably not much of a footballer or chef, either, judged by the highest standards, much as you might enjoy a kickabout or playing around in the kitchen. But that is not the point. This is the point:

10. Taking part. The artistic life of any community depends as much on a lively, informed audience, many of whom will themselves be enthusiastic amateurs, as it does on its stellar practitioners. We all need to get out of the house more, and get into the habit of going to exhibitions and concerts and the theatre; we simply need to keep showing up. Our physical presence and our ticket money is what keeps venues for live music or theatre or exhibitions open. Also, why not write a fan letter or two to the artists you admire? You'd be amazed at how pathetically grateful even prominent figures can be for a few words of encouragement. But buy their work, too, whether it be books, CDs, pictures, post-gig merch T-shirts, whatever; sales of work are what pay bills, as well as being the most sincere form of flattery.

Besides – and this is a harsh truth – nobody cares whether you unleash your creativity or not. If your novels, plays, or songs never get written, or your pictures never get painted, no-one will wonder what went wrong. David Bowie was silent for a whole decade, and did anyone really notice?

No, the real grim, grey tyrants are not the parents who told you not to get paint over your nice clean clothes, or the teachers who failed to notice your brilliance, or the friends who undermined your confidence, for the simple reason that the culture seems to get along just fine in the absence of any particular individual's input. Who does the real damage are people who try to shut off the free flow of creative output, by cutting funding for the arts, by putting property developers' interests above anyone else's, by introducing unhelpful by-laws and taxes on "entertainment", or simply by going along with the complacent, lowest-common-denominator philistinism that thinks markets, league-tables, and opinion-polls are the measure of everything.

So, probably the most creative thing that most of us can do is to speak up against (and not vote for) these small-minded political playground vigilantes whenever we can. Let's make the playground a safe place for everyone in 2018!

[1] For non-Brits: I'm very aware that the play of irony we enjoy so much in these islands ("Now I'm serious, now I'm not; now I'm saying what I mean, now I'm obviously saying the exact opposite of what I mean") can be confusing. It's like our weather, shifting and changing by the minute, and something you either learn to enjoy, or emigrate.

Sunday 7 January 2018

What A Croc

I originally came up with this combination of elements (mainly from a visit to Paris in October last year) as one part of a crocodilian triptych. But, whenever I looked at the whole three-parter, this left-hand panel seemed stronger than the other two elements and, with a bit of further work, to have enough integrity to stand on its own.

I think it's got "it". I'm not sure what "it" is, but whatever it is, this picture has a healthy dose of it, I'm pretty sure. This probably means no more than that this picture has something about it that happens to excite me, just now. The fact that I made it myself is simply part of the bizarre self-reflexive nature of creativity: Ovid knew what he was talking about, when describing Pygmalion's erotic obsession with his own sculpture in Metamorphoses. One of the peculiar things about being a compulsively creative person is the way it ties you into a shifting sensual relationship with the world: you tend to have a series of intense but brief affairs with particular subjects, or even just combinations of colours and shapes, that can fade quickly into indifference. Sorry, turquoise blue: the thrill is gone. It's not you, it's me.

This is a large part of the murky mystery of "inspiration". Most artists and writers get a bit touchy on the subject, particularly when asked some variation on the questions, "Where do you get your ideas from?", or, "Who are your influences?" These are annoyingly reductive questions, not only because they offend against a creative person's grandiose self-image as a spontaneous fount of originality, but also because of the implication that art finds nourishment primarily, even solely, in other art. It's a convenient view to take, from the vantage point of art history – to link artist to artist in a chain of influence and disruption – but about as far from the truth as any wacky conspiracy theory of political history.

I recently read an interview with Japanese artist Chaco Terada on the Photo-Eye blog, which contained this exchange:
What moves you or inspires you? Specifically which photographers have been the most influential?

CT:  I pay attention when I see the similar taste in someone’s photograph. I would not be influenced by it because I already have it. My works come from own experiences of daily life. Every day, I observe how all the elements surround me and interact with my feelings. The time comes when I naturally start making artworks.
Allowing for Terada's incomplete command of English, and her slightly precious evasiveness under interrogation, I think this nails it. If my own modest experience is typical, no artist looks at the work of another artist as an oeuvre, as a body of work to be understood and appreciated in its wholeness, something which has developed and expanded across time, mediums, and genres. Neither is it seen, with certain revered exceptions, as exemplary work to be admired, emulated, and learned from, although it would be a conventional courtesy to pretend this is so. Nope: it's all just another junkyard or curiosity shop in which to fossick about, looking for missing bits of your own work, alongside all the rest of the sensory world, from passing clouds to cracks in the pavement.

So, what are you implying, says the writer, by "where do I get my ideas from"? What are you getting at, says the artist, with "who are my influences"? As soon as I read it or saw it, I realised I already had it in me, so it was obviously mine all along! It's all already mine, all always my original work... This may not ever be strictly true, but it is a necessary fiction. There are few things more annoying to an artist than being told how much their work is reminiscent of someone else's, and yet well-meaning people do it all the time. I've done it myself.

Of course, originality has been a contested term since at least the Book of Ecclesiastes, i.e. roughly 450 B.C. As it is put in the King James version: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." Or, in my preferred translation, the LOLcat Bible: "Has happen? Gunna be agin. Nuthing new undur teh sunz. Kitteh can not sez 'OMFGZ sumthing new!' is jus REPOST!"

Thursday 4 January 2018

The In Crowd

I was reading a review of a new translation of Federico García Lorca, and was struck, not for the first time, by the way household names in the arts seem to cluster together. Not only had Lorca known Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel at university in Madrid – what are the chances of that? – but his first performance of Poema del cante jondo in Granada was accompanied by none other than Andrés Segovia, destined to become the most famous exponent of the guitar in the days before it became the instrument of choice of every wannabe musician. Wherever you look, it seems, premier league artists and writers are hanging out exclusively together, bedding each other, falling out with each other, and boosting or putting down their famous friends and enemies. I recently saw the big Jasper Johns exhibition at the RA, and – quite apart from his intimate relationship with Robert Rauschenberg – it seems he couldn't turn a corner in New York without bumping into some other Famous Dude coming the other way, hoping to borrow a tube of Afghan Black.

We tend to mock films and TV programmes where the entire cast is made up of notables, of whose identity or significance the audience may nonetheless be uncertain, and who therefore must be given constant little nudges, along the lines of, "I say, Virginia Woolf! Stop writing that famous novel for a minute! Have you met Mr. Maynard Keynes, the economist? We were introduced by Vita Sackville-West, your best friend the poet and celebrity gardener, at Mr. Lytton Strachey's house party last week... I honestly can't remember what Lytton is going to be famous for, but it's bound to be something splendid!" But, in fact, I suspect this is an accurate reflection of celebrity reality – let's call it CR – an alternative universe where everybody is famous, talented, notorious, or about to be discovered. The only other people in the room are civilian nobodies: servants and hangers-on, candidates for nothing more than diary-keeping duties, designated-driver status and a little light sexual harassment.

Tina Brown's recently-published diaries have rightly been much mocked for this CR name-dropping tendency. As it happens, I did once find myself at a party hosted (I think) by Tina Brown. I have no reliable memories of it, or of how, or why I was there, other than that I had briefly attained some notoriety as the artist behind some mildly scandalous student magazine covers and a couple of theatre posters. I imagine I had probably been bigged-up by the same friends who got me the poster commissions, with the result that, for about ten minutes in 1973, I was pre-famous, which is what gets you temporarily turbocharged into CR orbit. At which point you have to decide: do I really want to trade sharp elbows with all the Tinas, Virginias, and Federicos competing for attention, and risk being reduced to celebrity space-debris, or would I rather fall back to earth and resume normal [in]visibility? A normal person will always choose normality, of course, and that's what I did – despite never having being entirely normal – and immediately became transparent again in CR, like some trick of the light.

One of the worst things that ever happened to pop and rock was when it went meta in the 1970s, and it seemed that every other song was about how hard it is to deal with fame and the trappings of success, and how sweet it was when you were still just a nobody strumming a guitar. I think we were supposed to admire singer-songwriters for their acuity and honesty in blaming us for what we had done to them by buying their records, and inflating their self-esteem to unmanageably messianic proportions. Self-pitying references to crucifixion became alarmingly common. John Lennon's "The Ballad of John and Yoko" is just one obvious example.

It's what finally killed off my teen loyalty to Jethro Tull; in the end, Ian Anderson just couldn't get over himself and – if you really listened to his lyrics – despised his fans, his fellow musicians, the industry that had made him a fortune, and pretty much everything else. It's one thing to attack the Church of England, but Chrysalis Records? Steady on now, man...  Joni Mitchell herself went into a fairly terminal sulk over "industry issues", although it had always been a bit of theme, from "Real Good for Free" on Ladies of the Canyon to "Free Man in Paris" on Court and Spark. I think it's why I can never understand why people love that latter album so much – what do you care about CR parties where everybody wears "passport smiles"? How much of your perception has been distorted by living inside the entertainment industry bubble? It simply didn't read across into my life back then, even as a metaphor, and still doesn't. It seems the sanity of many celebrated individuals may have been permanently disrupted by the push-pull of a contradictory craving for maximum recognition and for maximum privacy from its consequences. The exclusivity of CR may perhaps best be seen as a defensive, virtual asylum for the fame-impaired.

It must be bizarre, though, living inside this gated CR world where everyone else is also a character in the soap opera of Fame, although it probably seems the most natural thing in the world to its inmates. It must also be very inconvenient. For you, there's no popping down to the takeaway for a biriani late at night when your face is never off TV and your best friends are a Booker Prize-winning novelist, and an actor instantly recognisable at 100 yards. The audience is not quite so agreeably invisible when you're off-stage, either, I'd guess, especially when it demands, "Oi, aren't you that bloke off the telly?" But, at the same time, it must gratify every craving of your needy, greedy soul, like a puff of crack, to have the world perpetually tugging at your sleeve, or to look around a room and think, "Yep, I'm in with the In Crowd..."
Fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame
What's your name?

David Bowie, Fame
I wear what the In Crowd wears...

Monday 1 January 2018

New Year's Day

When I woke up this morning I was beginning to think I might as well re-post last year's New Year's Day post without altering a thing. After all, we're in Bristol, as we were last year, intending to head out to Clevedon, as we did last year, and the weather was looking truly awful, exactly as it was last year.

But then around mid-morning it transformed into an almost spring-like day of "sunshine and showers". We spent an enjoyable hour or so on Clevedon Pier staring across the Bristol Channel in the direction of the folk on the other side in Cardiff and Newport, presumably staring back across at us.

2018? So far, it's metaphors, all the way down.