Monday, 25 October 2021

The Good, The Bad, and The Innocent

An innocent, 1960

Something someone said on the radio about children's easy access to pornography and ultra-violent video on their phones made me wonder whether I had, in fact, grown up in an age of innocence. Looking back over 60-odd years, I think I was a fairly innocent boy, in the old-fashioned sense of "unacquainted with vulgarity", until I reached the age of about 12. My parents were self-consciously decent people who never swore and never got drunk – indeed, rarely drank alcohol at all – and I'll never forget being chased down the street by my grandmother (for whom the word "feisty" might have been coined) after I'd been encouraged to tell her to "buzz off!" by another boy. I may have been unacquainted with vulgarity, but was fairly familiar with corporal chastisement. Nothing ultra-violent, though.

In those far-off days, most of us were innocent in that sense, I think. It wasn't that children from decent working-class families were living within a protective bubble, far from it, but more that we were somehow immunised by the common culture against "adult" concerns. We were kids, and only interested in kids' stuff. The grown-up stuff was there, but hidden in plain sight behind a screen of innuendo. For boys, the ritual transition to long trousers from the shorts we wore even in winter, generally somewhere around age 11 or 12, marked the beginning of the end of innocence. But even as smut-seeking teenagers, you had to work pretty hard at coming across anything remotely resembling pornography, as until the mid-1960s the vaguest hint of "indecency" in sexual or bodily matters was heavily censored, to the point of hilarity: censors often detected filth and depravity where none existed, other than in their own inquisitorial, smut-seeking minds.

That said, I knew all about the mechanics of reproduction from a fairly young age due to my precocious interest in and reading about natural history – "the male inserts his penis", etc. – but these so-called "facts of life" aroused no prurience or erotic feelings at all. In a way that is very hard to imagine today, in our hyper-sexualised world, we children were strictly gendered but mostly asexual beings, unable to pick up on the cues that, in adolescence, would connect anything and everything to sex, sex, sex.

Mostly. A few – generally but not only boys – told "dirty" jokes in the playground that no-one else got, and sniggered at innuendoes that no-one else saw, and seemed to exist in a mental stew of unrealisable concupiscence. I suspect these would have been kids with older, sex-obsessed adolescent brothers, or perhaps even those poor devils who, as we now know, were suffering various types of abuse. For some reason, recently I found myself recalling some jokes told to me by one such lad among my primary school classmates, when we were around age nine or ten. We'll call him Frank, and he happened to be the son of one of our teachers. He seemed to have a bottomless fund of these jokes, which were all of the sort that (I imagine) get told in rugby club changing rooms and golf club bars. To find them funny, you need a reasonably sophisticated understanding of the mechanics of a range of sex acts, a fairly misogynistic cast of mind, a good grasp of racist and anti-semitic stereotypes, and a profound dread of homosexuality. Needless to say, they went entirely over my head at the time.

It then struck me: where had he been getting this stuff from? Frank had no older siblings, just a younger sister. Also, although they lived in a nearby street, he was kept on a short leash by his really rather scary father, a jowly disciplinarian with an unpredictable temper, and was rarely allowed out to play with us other boys, despite being friends with us in school. It dawned on me, with a certain mix of horror and bemusement, that those jokes might well have been – had most likely been – told to him at home, and most probably by his own father [1].

Now, the telling of the classic narrative-style joke with a punchline seems to have gone out of fashion in recent times, and was probably never in fashion in sophisticated circles. I cringe when I recall some of the appalling jokes I retailed merrily to my new, more politically-advanced friends in my first days as a student; let's just say that social idiocy is another kind of innocence. But I'm pretty sure that even back in 1963 it would have been, let us say, unusual for a professional-class man, a teacher, to be regularly sharing off-colour jokes with his nine-year-old son, who was then passing them on in the playground of his own school. Assuming, of course, that was the case; I suppose the guilty party might have been some creepy neighbour, relative, or regular adult visitor.

Whoever it was, surely that would have been frowned upon even then? I'm pretty certain that if my father had got wind of what was happening and who was responsible, he'd have been straight round to have words with Frank's father, deference be damned. And wouldn't we now regard it as a form of child-abuse, or at the very least as laying the foundation for a life in which sex, aggression, and repressed anxiety would form an unhealthy threesome? But then maybe I was, and maybe I still am more of an innocent than I like to think. In a wicked world, that may not be such a bad thing. Call me Candide.

An idiot, 2021

1. A classic example of this would be the set-up line, "It's nice out, isn't it?", frequently uttered by comedian Eric Morecambe towards the end of the ultimate British Saturday night family-viewing TV, The Morecambe and Wise Show, only to be quickly shut down by a flustered Ernie Wise. To know why this was funny, you needed the never-spoken punchline, "Yes, but put it away now, there's a policeman coming". Plus, of course, you needed to know what "it" was, and why on earth anyone would be taking "it" out in public, sitting with a friend. Frank, alone in our class, knew the punchline, and why it was supposed to be funny. I very much doubt he worked this out for himself.

Thursday, 21 October 2021

North View Parade

North View, Bristol

North Parade, Bath

Let's say I'm walking along a street, maybe out shopping and most likely without a camera (I need to think of a less loaded term than "proper camera") and suddenly right next to me there is a lovely jumble of stuff in a shop window, perfectly lit by the afternoon sun, or perhaps diffused by a beaded curtain of condensation and overlaid with reflections. At that point, as I stop to admire it, I used to think: wish I'd brought a camera! But I am learning to overcome years of prejudice and now remember to reach for my phone. In fact, increasingly I find myself choosing to go out with just my phone in a pocket; I need to have it with me, anyway, and what it can do well (which is not everything) it does as well as any pocketable "proper" camera. It's amazing, really, for a tarot-card sized slab of hi-tech wizardry.

Antique and junk shops are a favourite source of shop-window scenarios for me, reliably providing the sort of accidental still-life combinations that intrigue the eye with their hint of some deeper, layered, but elusive (and probably illusory) meaning. Curiously, it was only when putting this post together with these iPhone photos taken earlier in October that I realised the similarity of the names of these two very different streets in Bristol and Bath: North View and North Parade. Which is a coincidence as meaningless and yet as satisfying as the way those two mighty wooden heroes below might appear to be standing guard over a suburban street.

North Parade, Bath

North View, Bristol

Sunday, 17 October 2021

United We Stand

What seems a lifetime ago, back in January, I mentioned how I had entered some work for a magazine cover competition: 

Despite my previously declared indifference – indeed, positive hostility – towards competitions, I confess I got bitten by the competitive bug when my casually-submitted Royal Academy entry in 2017 proved so successful (and, ah, lucrative).  As a result, I now keep an eye out for the sort of open entry submissions where my sort of work might stand a chance of getting a showing and even a few sales. Why not?

Last year I spotted the Evolver Prize, a competition to design the front cover of a future issue of Evolver, "the Wessex Arts & Culture Guide", a really useful "what's on in Wessex" publication that I had come across in a Dorset gallery. The winner would get £1000 (no, really) and the top 50 entries shown in an exhibition. Naturally, I submitted an entry and, although I didn't win, I was selected for the exhibition. Result!

Yesterday, in the process of looking for something completely different, I opened the folder where the work I'd done for that competition is stored, and was struck by these pairings. My original purpose in putting two potential cover images onto one sheet of A3+ paper (actually US-style 13" x 19") was practical: I could run them through the printer at the same time, and then cut the sheet in two. But, seeing them with fresh eyes, I realised how well they work together as a single, undivided image. So they may yet get another run-out, together this time, next time I see a tempting open call.

Incidentally, it was the top two I submitted to Evolver, and the one on the right that made it into the Top Fifty exhibition. Obviously, the original reason for the "empty" space in the top quarter of each was to allow space for the magazine's title and cover text, but I rather like it, especially with the subtly patterned texturing of the background.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Strange Behaviour

Blogger has been behaving strangely recently. On the one hand, I'm being told that comments are failing to make it through the system. On the other, it seems that at least one person who had signed up for the allegedly defunct Feedburner service (the one that used to send email notifications of new posts) is once again getting them. Is anyone else?

There have been various other little glitches that only a blog owner would notice. It's rather like the flicker of a lightbulb that is about to give out. Hopefully, it's just some fool at Blogger wiggling a wire or leaning on a button, and not the death throes of the service. I'd be curious to know whether anyone else who runs a Blogger blog is experiencing this.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Southampton, City of Culture


Sorry, I shouldn't scoff. But, seriously? It seems the longlist for the 2025 City of Culture goes as follows: Armagh City, Bradford, County Durham, Cornwall, Derby, Southampton, Stirling, and Wrexham County Borough. Setting aside the fine but distinctly honorary cities of, ah, Cornwall, County Durham, and Wrexham County Borough, it might seem that we are now fast approaching the bottom of the cultural barrel.

However, this bizarre competition is not really an acknowledgement of any actually-existing culture of "culture" of any distinction, beyond the usual theatres, galleries, and such that grace any moderately-sized town, but is a reward for the best bid essentially describing "what we would do with the money, if we got it". To individual artists, of course, this is a familiar experience: submit a bid that ticks the right boxes, and some committee might grant you the cash to do some piece of commissioned work. The skill lies in the writing of the bid, and the willingness to bend your efforts to match someone's pre-conceived set of criteria. Whether this is a matter of rising to "an exciting challenge" or an opportunity to eat shit probably depends on your independence of mind and need for the cash. As it is, the competitors for City of Culture 2025 were asked, apparently, "to explain how they would use culture to grow and strengthen their local area, and how they would use it to recover from the impact of Covid". Which do not strike me as the most self-evident "uses" of culture.

It's easy to be cynical. This whole impulse to boost cultural activity as a mean to other ends is often described as the "Bilbao Effect". That is, that a massive investment in culture, broadly defined (ideally plus some prestigious architectural project like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) equals economic transformation for some city or region formerly mired in a post-industrial slump. Well, it worked once, why not repeat it again (and again, and yet again, until it stops working)? And look, Liverpool seems to have benefitted a bit from being declared "European Capital of Culture 2008" so, hey, why don't we start a four-yearly UK "City of Culture" competition? It's bound to work, isn't it?

There is something profoundly ironic about the way this failure of imagination on the part of politicians depends on whipping up the creativity level in somewhere like, say, Southampton, where I happen to live, and which, like Glasgow, is miles better, culturally, than it was. Of course, ideas like "culture" and "creativity" are subject to very broad interpretation. Do you regard the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics in London as a pinnacle or a nadir of our national culture? Does having an enthusiastically-supported Premier League football team in your town, or a theatre that only puts on musicals, pantomimes, and MOR acts count as evidence of a thriving local culture? For you, is art seen at its best as popular entertainment, as grant-funded communal projects with an emphasis on "representation", or as the solitary practice of self-motivated but utterly unrepresentative (and quite possibly mentally unsound) individuals?

There's also a fundamental distinction to be made between the consumption and the creation of "culture". Broadly speaking, it's the consumption that drives the economic recovery, but the creation that drives the consumption. So a lot comes down to how far and what sort of culture-makers are prepared to buy in to this contemporary fashion for boosterism yoked to political and social-engineering ends. After all, how much worthwhile contemporary art is celebratory or positive in spirit, or created in line with current government policy?  And is someone like, for example, me (self-motivated, utterly unrepresentative, and quite possibly mentally unsound) a vital part of our town's culture, or am I just some "citizen of nowhere", an off-message outlier, and not part of the programme? As I haven't been able to show any work in Southampton so far this century, that last one answers itself, I suppose.

I think what I find most dubious about such competitions is their Bilbao-inspired instrumentality. In the words of recently appointed Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries – actually "Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport"[1] – put it in a recent statement: "Winning the UK City of Culture competition has a hugely positive impact on an area, driving investment, creating jobs, and highlighting that culture is for everyone, regardless of their background. This year's focus is on levelling up access to culture across the country and making sure there is a legacy that continues for generations to come." (BBC report). Really? It's going to deliver investment, jobs, and "levelling up" (this government's unavoidable but incomprehensible mission statement)? Evidence, please. And what exactly is supposed to happen in the cities that fail to win?

For a pretty accurate description of the current mid-pandemic cultural health of Southampton, I can't really improve on this report by Vanessa Thorpe from 2020. The so-called "cultural quarter" of Southampton is now essentially a wind-blown area of about 200 square meters, where youngsters can rehearse their skateboarding technique, and nothing much else is going on. Even before Covid it was still more of an ambition than a reality. As long ago as 1985 I can remember talking with an elderly colleague who said that in contrast to his home city, Liverpool, Southampton seemed to have little or no civic pride, or even any real awareness of its historic and continuing role as a major port, the self-declared "Gateway to Empire"; for him, it was a "nowhere place", without even a truly distinctive local accent. Whether any of this could be improved by a cash-inspired, year-long flurry of activities planned by a committee hobbled by some "levelling up" brief is an interesting question.

More interesting, though, is what will happen if, as seems the most likely outcome, Southampton does not emerge as 2025's victorious City of Culture. Will the ill-starred Cultural Quarter revive? Without its new theatre, which went bust early in 2020 and cannot find a buyer, it will certainly struggle. The John Hansard and City Art Galleries are still major assets, but probably rather niche with regard to drawing in more of the city's population. But most important of all, will any truly talented youngsters – in any cultural field, from any background – be content to remain in the city, or will they take the first train up to London, and never return?

1.  Now there's a portfolio. And "for digital"? Digital what?

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Going Postal

A few weeks ago we caught up over lunch with some old friends from our Bristol days [1], and the conversation inevitably turned to how different things are now for our children than they were for us back then, when we were their age; not necessarily worse or better, just different. Very different. Having broached the usual topics of senior reminiscence – phones (scarcity of), internet (absence of), typewriters (noisy ubiquity of), TV (absence of and indifference to), music (incontrovertible superiority of), and so on – we stumbled onto something we all had in common but hadn't before realised out loud, as it were: that when we were college-age and to an extent into our twenties, we all used to send and receive regular letters to and from our closest friends.

A letter, I should probably point out for the sake of younger readers, is (or was) a personal communication, usually written by hand on a sheet of paper but sometimes typewritten for the sake of legibility, which was then folded and placed into a paper enclosure known as an envelope onto which the name and street address of the intended recipient had to be inscribed, and which was sealed by licking the gummed flap (!). A postage stamp of a suitable denomination then had to be stuck on, also by licking the gummed back of the stamp (!!). The whole "letter" assemblage was then entrusted to the mail service by "posting" it into a post box, a sturdy receptacle usually situated within a few hundred yards somewhere on a nearby street. You may have seen these quaint relics of a former era round and about (no, not the ones with a door, those are phone boxes, another story altogether). Within a few days, and only occasionally more than a week later, the letter would (usually) reach its destination, and (usually) be pushed through the appropriate "letter-box", that is, that draughty aperture in the front door mainly used these days for pizza flyers and charity bags. Unless, of course, it was going abroad, in which case several weeks or more might well pass between posting and receipt.

I don't have many surviving samples of this obsolete mode of communication from that time in my life any more, and with any luck few of mine will have survived, either. Welcome as they were at the time, most were not worth keeping after a few years going stale in a drawer. Compared to the published correspondence of literary and political figures, the letters we wrote rarely rose above the juvenile, the facetious, and the ephemeral; we were, after all, little more than kids, and no-one in my circle was writing with even half an eye on posterity. Some, though – and these were always letters from female friends – did feature the kind of post-adolescent, introspective sincerity that can soar to a dizzy peak of emotion from a standing start, like a torch-song sung by Whitney Houston or Adele, or equally well sink into an abyss of abjection (ditto) [2]. The weight of the envelope was usually the best hint of what lay inside: the heavier it was, the more likely it was to be some late-night, multi-page threnody, fuelled by one too many spliffs, a faithless boyfriend, or even – I suppose I should admit the possibility – my own thoughtless words or behaviour. It can be tough learning not to be a complete dickhead, although I like to think I was what the Americans call a quick study.

However, from that lunch-time conversation it emerged that the regular exchange of letters with friends, however trivial or hair-raising the content, seems to have been an important feature of that phase of life for many of my generation; at least, based on a sample of four. People have always written letters, of course, long before the establishment of a reliable postal service or even the invention of paper – the clatter of a cuneiform clay slab coming through the tablet-box must have made the morning of many a Mesopotamian – but I think this was something new: ordinary young people – young men, in particular – staying in touch with the friends of their youth by written exchanges of news, views, and long-distance, long-delay badinage.

It's possible this had something to do with the epistolary habits encouraged by "pen-pal" and foreign exchange programmes, both essentially phenomena of the second half of the 20th century, set up to promote friendly relations across Europe after two devastating world wars. I have often been surprised to learn of friendships that began as stiff exercises in language-learning, nurtured over decades of home visits and letter-writing, with the eventual result that the mutual pen-friends became, in effect, members of each other's families. Surprised, I suppose, because nothing of the sort was ever going to happen in the case of my own German exchange partner, with whom I had absolutely nothing in common other than the fact that we both lived in flats, unusual in our "twinned" towns, and the only conceivable reason we'd been partnered. We couldn't stop writing to each other soon enough.

In fact, I suspect this letter-writing between friends probably had a lot more to do with the confluence of two other factors. First, the advent after 1945 in Britain of extended free schooling for state-educated children, up to and including university. In the memoir of his life that I encouraged my father to write in his last years, no mention is made of any friends before his war service, which began when he was 21. After all, he had left school at 14, and by 1939 had already been an apprentice and employed in a foundry and then an engineering firm for seven years, an eternity at that age. By contrast, I spent my entire youth until the age of 18 in the company of essentially the same group of thirty boys. The melodrama of friendships and loyalties might change over that time, but the cast remained the same. When some of us went off to university, staying in touch by letter seemed a natural thing to do. Especially for me, left behind at home for a "gap year" enforced by the peculiar timing of the Oxbridge entry exams.

Added to that were the close bonds formed within the youth counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. By 1970, the fashionable habits and attitudes of metropolitan bohemia had spread out to the young in even the dullest suburbs and villages, carried by pop-cultural vectors like records and magazines. As even the softest of recreational substances were heavy-handedly policed and frowned upon by even the most easy-going parents, a degree of secrecy and trust were a necessary feature of the close-knit home-town crews that were springing up everywhere, even though indulgence in anything stronger than an underage pint was more often a fantasy than a reality. Belonging to a secretive in-group possessed of forbidden knowledge and with its own home-grown myths and legends builds a special sort of bond, with the consequence that, when these small-town bohemian friendship circles were split up and scattered by higher education and social mobility, their half-life was rather longer than usual. Indeed, in my case I'm still in sporadic touch with a few of my old homies, although it's true this has everything to do with the magic of email, and nothing to do with the chore of letter-writing, which fizzled out decades ago along with the residual legibility of my handwriting.

I've already described how much I like email (You Have Mail) and I still do: for me, it's a perfect fit as a communication medium. Despite its use of snail-mail metaphors – right down to the open and closed envelope icons – email has few of the disadvantages of letter-writing. For a start, unless you had been writing with an eye on posterity and kept copies of your own letters (and how narcissistic would that have been?) you would probably have only the vaguest memory of what you had actually written in a letter, and in all probability would never see it again. By the time your correspondent felt sufficiently motivated to sit down and write you a reply, even that vague memory would have dissipated. They, of course, would have your actual letter immediately to hand, and would be writing a reply, quite specifically, to whatever had been set down on paper by you. Oddly, it seems rarely to have occurred to many respondents – myself included, I'm sure – that you might need reminding of what, precisely, you had written; it was as if they thought you were still somehow personally present, embodied in whatever illegible scrawl your hand-eye co-ordination had risen to deep into the small hours. So you would eventually get a letter, weeks or months later, that contained mystifying allusions, angry refutations, and baffling responses that, abstracted from their instigating source material, could seem like the free-form effusions of a lunatic. I do still occasionally get such ravings by email, but at least I now know why.

In the end, the only real redeeming factors of a letter over email are its dogged persistence as a material object (if kept well away from fire, the shredder, or the bin, of course, which is where most end up), and, primarily, its intimate connection to its author. That sense that someone has taken the trouble to follow the comparatively elaborate and time-consuming procedure of writing and posting a letter, leaving traces of their physical presence on paper in the process, does endow a certain magic, not to say value if that person has achieved some prominence in their life. By contrast, it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever pay several thousand pounds at auction for an email allegedly from some notable person, or for their comment on a blog or Twitter feed, much less go to the trouble of tracking them all down in ancient decommissioned mail-servers to compile into a volume or database of "collected e-correspondence".

Assuming that would even be possible. The idea that "everything is still out there on the internet" is an illusion. We seem to have passed into a time when ephemerality is taken for granted: it is the price we pay for convenience and immediacy and the relentless churn of technological advance. In terms of historical documents, these years – when, ironically, millions might seem to be busily documenting their every moment, their every passing thought  – may well turn out to be a new Dark Age, invisible to posterity.

When I retired I intended to preserve some of the hundreds of useful and important emails I had accumulated over my working life by downloading them selectively, but in the end sorting a bucketful of e-wheat from the mountain of e-chaff was too much: I had to let it all vanish when my account was deleted. Which, I have to admit, did feel as liberating, personally, as when I periodically empty into the recycling all the greetings cards, bills, payslips, and other redundant paper stuff that has come through my letter-box. But, say anyone wanted or needed to trace back any of the work-related projects I'd been involved in? What if they had to track down all the electronic back and forth between me, my colleagues, and the various third parties we had to deal with over the years? Well, tough: there is no equivalent to the grey steel filing cabinet full of memos, minutes, and correspondence I inherited from my predecessor. Everything was email and attachments, and everything has gone; which, I suppose, both simplifies and complicates matters. But, as we were saying a few weeks ago when we caught up over lunch with those old friends from our Bristol days, life today is not necessarily better or worse than it was 40+ years ago, just different. Very different.

Another letter-box

1. Late 1970s to mid-80s, in my case broken by a year in London: it all still seems like yesterday...
2. Sadly, two of my most voluminous correspondents are now dead. It's doubtful whether they would have kept any of my letters and, if they did, I'm sure their husbands would have quickly disposed of ancient mail from anyone who knew the bride when she used to rock'n'roll. Certainly, their letters to me have all long gone. Well, most of them...

Sunday, 3 October 2021

BSA21 Update

As only one of my two shortlisted pictures got hung in the 116th (!) Bath Society of Artists Open Exhibition, I had to go over to Bath for a second time on Saturday, this time to collect my unhung work. It was a very wet day, but luckily the Victoria Art Gallery is only a short walk from Bath Spa station.

While I was there I did get a chance to grab a shot of my picture "Descent (Southampton Water)" which has been hung rather sympathetically, and conveniently near the cash desk. Impulse purchase, anyone? And, look, that's me, No. 86 in the catalogue:

I presume some names are in bold because they are members of the Society, and not because of some random word-processing error. The overall standard of the 366 works on show is high – it's like a mini RA Summer Exhibition – even if, inevitably, something of a mixed bag. As always, though, I am prompted to question the sanity of many creators of 3-D work; mental unrest seems so much less disturbing when translated into two dimensions and displayed flat against a wall, rather than cast in knobbly bronze or wrought in tortured steel and placed on a podium. As for ceramicists, well, I blame Grayson Perry.

Update to the Update: I've been asked for the dimensions of the framed print of "Descent". It's roughly 55cm x 40cm (21.5" x 15.5").