Saturday, 15 November 2014

Bucolic

Bucolic is a word that to my ear always sounds as though it should be used to describe people who are far from well: ‘we were expecting it, just before he died he had a bucolic look about him’, ‘blimey, you don’t half look bucolic’, etc. Of course it means quite the opposite and points to a world of countryside fecundity and pastoral idylls. My misapprehension of bucolic as describing ill-health is partly due, I would guess, to its phonic similarity to the word bubonic. Close in sound, distant in meaning. But perhaps the phonic similarity does suggest some instability in our truck with the countryside or at least how that countryside is often experienced.
My very first, and very vague, memory of wild nature (at the age of about 2 or 3) is a hollow tree that stood on the edge of a wood near where we lived. Perhaps I don’t really remember it so much as remember being told that this was a tree my sister and I loved. We called it the Owly tree, for reasons I can’t fully remember (perhaps an association with Owl in the Winnie-the-pooh stories). Many years later I visited this tree to see if it brought with it a wash of involuntary memories. Instead I was confronted by a small stumpy tree which looked rotten. It was also by the side of a fairly busy road and had the distinct tarnish of a petroleum-exhaust glaze. [In the mid-1980s I was living in Barnes in London and went to visit the tree that Marc Bolan crashed into when he died. It had become a shrine kept going by his many devoted fans who placed purple ribbons and sorrowful sentiments all over the trunk of the tree. All the ribbons and cards looked filthy with dirt and pollution.]
            For many people growing up in some form of peri-urbanism, this is the sort of commerce we have with the countryside. When as a child I could go out-and-about by myself, my friends and I used to go to a place that we called the Volcano. It was a sloping patch of bare earth in a scrub of woodland. It was magical to us and became our den. We thought of it as extensive, untamed, remote. In reality it existed as a strip of woodland between a main road and a housing development. Like a lot of such places there were signs of peripatetic existence: a fire, some empty cans, a newspaper, the odd piece of clothing. Such signs of occupancy conjured-up the romance of a vagabond life, but they also looked like the scene of a peculiarly nasty crime.
            The artist Stephen Willats gets something of this instability in a series of photographs he produced in 1978 for his book The Lurky Place. Willats offers us views of scrubland and unfarmed fields that could plausibly fit an idea of the picturesque. Yet these are landscape littered with signs of a life: a used paper target; the wheel from a pram. To describe this life as bucolic would be wrong unless the describer was caught in the misapprehension that the word could describe a rural world that was closer to fetid than fecund.   




Friday, 14 November 2014

Deplanning


Looking around our urban environments what is most evident is the hand of the planner. We see road systems and streets, office blocks and parks, roundabouts and street furniture. We are directed by planners, and negotiate our way through their diverse and labyrinthine work. For anyone who has lived in the same city for a while what is most noticeable is the latest planning development: the new shopping complex; a new pedestrian area; a new road. Older projects are part of our habitual world: they are what we have come to expect. Some of these older projects are clearly hanging around waiting for re-development. The sort of concrete passageways that pass under large roads are no longer considered desirable. In the late 1960s and 70s the increase in urban traffic, and the inherent problems that this created (air pollution, danger to pedestrians, snarl-ups on inadequate roads, etc.) was met with an idea of creating different levels for pedestrians and traffic. Planners imagined pedestrian-only piazzas and shopping areas, while cars zipped across the city on some other level. Usually the cars were raised above the pedestrians and shops, who were dropped into excavated sites in what turned out to be dank and unlovely walkways. For these concrete underpasses the days are clearly numbered.
But what is less visible in our towns and cities are those projects that never quite happened. In 1972-3 Bristol city council acquisitioned a large area of land close to where I live. They tore down about 500 houses and a significant number of shops to make way for what would be an outer orbital road. The road was never built. The residents of the area, who were often chronically poor, put up a valiant fight against the planners. They lost. What was left were vast tracts of nothingness, and a memory of an area once filled with shops that connected the enclaves of Totterdown and Knowle to the centre of Bristol. The demolition produced discontinuity, gaps, and a sudden jolt in the environment as you moved from the centre to what was now clearly marked-out as the periphery.
Cities are discontinuous. The process of uneven development marks out an area as on the rise or falling: one neighbourhood is high-bourgeois in one century and ghetto in the next. The planner’s job is unenviable: they are caught between ameliorating the effects of uneven-development and facilitating those forces that produce it. No wonder that planning is never simply about bringing plans to fruition. It is also about losing your nerve and giving up on one plan as you embrace another. Priorities change, personnel change. And we live with other people’s dreams and nightmares. We live a peculiar form of the future perfect where that future never came to be. It is the world articulated in the title track of Laurie Anderson’s wonderful 1982 album Big Science:

Hey Pal! How do I get to town from here?
And he said: Well just take a right where
they're going to build that new shopping mall,
go straight past where they're going to put in the freeway,
take a left at what's going to be the new sports center,
and keep going until you hit the place where
they're thinking of building that drive-in bank.
You can't miss it. And I said: This must be the place.



Wednesday, 12 November 2014

For your listening pleasure…



            Yesterday, on the train to Brighton, I found myself sitting next to a business man. Everything about him screamed ‘Business’; from his pink striped shirt, to what was left of the grey hair on his balding head (he must have only been a few years older than me, but to my deluded eyes he was from another generation). Just in case it wasn’t quite clear how deeply connected he was to the world of high-finance, his IBM ‘think pad’ laptop was attached to an Ernst and Young lanyard. Ernst and Young are a huge global financial organization that undertake financial audits, tax services and all kinds of financial advising: I was clearly in the presence of a money drone. Because I’m nosey and can’t help myself from trying to read lines of text or titles of books, I had a sneaky peak at the flow charts on his lap top, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of them. But after about an hour I did notice what he was listening to on his mp3 player: Cabaret Voltaire’s Nag, Nag, Nag from the late 1970s. Cabaret Voltaire are, or at least were, purveyors of loud, throbbing industrial noise music, often accompanied by experimental films when they played live. They were the sort of pre-post-punk band that made nearly all-other punk bands and post-punk bands seem a bit on the cute side.
            I had a vision. Perhaps all the CEOs of large companies, all the managers of Hedge Funds, all the directors of Merchant Banks were still deeply attached to the music of their late teens. I imagined mahogany panelled offices with extensive views of the Thames being inhabited by suited business men with headphones blasting out classic Fall anthems (‘the West German government sent over big yellow trains to the Teesside docks… the North Will Rise Again!’). Perhaps there were boardrooms stuffed with people undertaking acquisitions and mergers whose playlist were brimming with the caustic sentiments and sonic blasts of the Pop Group, Pere Ubu, the Au Pairs, and Blurt.
A little while later my fellow commuter changed his mp3 player to the proto-rap of Gil Scott Heron. The revolution will not be televised. Indeed.
Was this a contradiction? Were these the fifth columnists working in the market place? Were all these money drones really working to bring about the demise of capitalism (in which case they were doing a pretty impressive job)? Or was it something else; a form of mourning?
Some years ago they built a large supermarket in an area of my town that once had a large open market next to a dog track. At one point it was a thriving area. The supermarket and the other large box stores that accompanied it put paid to that. Inside the large supermarket were wall-size photo-murals depicting in sepia tones the bygone age of open-air markets. There is was no irony here, or contradiction. Just dislocation and discontinuity. This will kill that. This has killed that. Nag, Nag, Nag is the torturous cry of a de-industrialising age. It is ghost music.   

Monday, 20 October 2014

Metal Fatigue


The sociologist Bruno Latour once wrote that ‘no human is as relentlessly moral as a machine’. By this I think he meant that no human has the sort of immediate, automatic, and unflinching certainty that machines manifest. You know where you are with machines and tools: they do what they say they’re going to do; they open cans, bang in nails, vacuum clean your house. If they let you down – and they do – it is because of some systemic failure; they don’t let you down by being insincere, by going behind your back, by lying about you or by handing you over to the State Police on the strength of a bribe. When they let you down it isn’t an issue of morality.
            Basil Fawlty (from the 1970s comedy drama Fawlty Towers) functions, for the most part, at a pitch of seething fury. The narrative arc of each show moves from a state of potential joy (Basil hopes to make some money on the horses; he has a new upmarket menu; and so on) to seeing his hopes dashed on the rocks of his own overreaching social ambition, snobbery and ill-humor. In perhaps the most famous scene from the show he canes his car (that he has failed to get fixed) for being willfully disobedient, for conspiring to ruin his plans. It is a scene of anthropomorphism aimed at the inorganic (“right, you’ve asked for it” he screams when the car yet again won’t start), and it claims intentionality and consciousness for the supremely indifferent car.
            Basil Fawlty behaves irrationally: who could possibly believe that the car had it in for him? Much better, no doubt, to think that the inorganic world of tools and circuits will work just as long as they are able to, and that when a piston fails, when rubber perishes, when a connection disconnects, that this is due to the laws of entropy rather than a malevolence that has found its way into the world of things. Yet when the handlebars of a bicycle snap in two when you are hurtling downhill, or when a chair disintegrates after you’ve been sitting on it for twenty minutes, or when your computer simply won’t follow commands it has been following for several years, who can remain rational?   
Two weeks ago I bought a small kitchen knife. It is fiercely sharp. I think it could split molecules if not atoms. The first time I used it I was cutting up some lettuce (totally the wrong knife for the job) and sliced through the side of my thumb. I knew that the knife hadn’t meant to wound me: it wasn’t a vindictive knife or an angry knife, or a psychotic knife. I only had myself to blame. Yet I can’t bear to look at that knife now. I can’t forgive it and I have tucked it away at the very back of the knife drawer where it will languish unused forever. So there.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Seen From Above


In 1980 the French intellectual Michel de Certeau wrote about what it was like to look down on the streets of Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. De Certeau died before those towers took on the meanings that they have had since 9/11, 2001. But his point wasn't about those towers in particular. He thought that the “pleasure” of looking down on the world from a great height was due to the way that it freed you from the pulsating and ultimately unknowable hubbub taking place at ground level. The view from above was the God-like perspective which rendered the world readable at the cost of our separation from it. Cartographers, city planners, bureaucrats, and administrators viewed the world in this way because it abstracted populations and landmasses so as to render them knowable, manageable, and malleable.
There is pleasure in aerial photography and it’s hard not to see this as connected to its power to abstract. Aerial photographs have a special kind of beauty because they both register the world and offer us a view of that world that most of the time is unavailable to us. We find it hard to connect the photographs to a world that we know: much easier to enjoy the patchwork, the shapes, the lines cut by rivers or roads. That this perspective has been associated with death, with killing is of course unavoidable. The Orson Wells character in The Third Man justifies his racketeering in dodgy pharmaceuticals with the view from the top of a Ferris-Wheel in Vienna.Look down there” he says “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving for ever? If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money - or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”
In a book of aerial photography that was published in 1953 (Our World from the Air: An International Survey of Man and his Environment) a foreword claims that the twentieth century is the century of the air in the same way that the 19th century was the century of the railway. Because the echo of the Second World War was still reverberating loudly it at once recognises that mechanical flight had allowed humans to drop thousands and thousands of bombs on each other, but wanted to push the reader into thinking about how aerial photography could be used by “the geologist, the archaeologist, the town-planner, the sociologist”.
Today when so many more people have had the experience of mechanical flight, aerial photography still offers an uncanny vision of the world. The view of the world you get from your budget airline passenger seat is never really vertical (unless something has seriously gone wrong) and is always mediated by the slightly cloudy double-glazing of the tiny windows. Aerial photographs have a calmness that is never available in the cramped seating of economy class.
They seems to speak more readily of some of the experiences of the young flyers who became pilots during the Second World War:

The physically amazing thing about flying, after the speed impression of taking off and low flying, is that as you gain height the sense of motion drops away. It’s nothing like looking out of the railway carriage and seeing the blurry silver worms zipping past or the ritual nodding of telegraph lines. It is impressively stable and still up there and this is the important point, the world is laid out for you in unfamiliar terms… the visual field is flattened more after the plan view of the microscope section than the elevation that everyday seeing is accustomed to.

This is the artist Nigel Henderson remembering his experience of flying. It was an experience that went from enormous pleasure to nerve-wracking fear. However familiar it may become, and however it is used for instrumental ends, the view from above is also always vertiginous and discombobulating. A god-like view is the view of someone who has no place. The view from above is also the view of someone falling to earth.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Apocalyptic Wallpaper


In North America in 1952 the critic Harold Rosenberg coined a phrase – ‘Action painters’. Action painters referred to those who today are more usually termed abstract expressionists: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, and so on. Rosenberg wanted us to recognise these artists as performing an existential act in the studio. He had some words of warning too. He warned that abstract artists could end up producing nothing more than ‘apocalyptic wallpaper’ if they weren’t careful. The fear of wallpaper and domestic design is everywhere in American abstraction at this time. Mark Rothko, for instance, somewhat earlier, reckoned his paintings ‘must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration; pictures for the home; pictures for over the mantel’. Likewise the critic Clement Greenberg was constantly wringing his hands at the way that certain artists could descend into the decorative as if it were a bad case of the ‘dreaded lurgy’.
Across the Atlantic there didn’t seem to be such a fear of the decorative, nor of the domestic. For instance in 1955 the sculptor and collagist Eduardo Paolozzi with his friends Nigel and Judith Henderson set themselves up as a firm to produce wallpaper, textiles, furniture and so on. The firm was called Hammer Prints Ltd. Paolozzi was at the time having a huge success with his sculpture. I like to think that British artists like Paolozzi (and by British I mean Scottish-Italian-British) had read Harold Rosenberg’s essay on action painting, and instead of heeding the warning about apocalyptic wallpaper decided that that was precisely what they wanted to do. What, after all, would it be like to live in house papered with apocalyptic wallpaper?
One of my favourite set of paintings is by the wonderful artist Susan Hiller. I saw an exhibition of her work at the ICA in London in the late 1980s. One of the exhibits was a series of works of paint on the wallpaper used to paper children’s bedrooms: wallpaper featuring parachute jumpers floating through the sky, or action heroes, or cute aliens. These were the gendered wallpapers of a different sort of action: masters of the universe saving the world – not so much existential actors as testosterone-fuelled maniacs. The paint obliterated most of the figuration, but allowed snippets to poke through. The painting used scaled-up images of Hiller’s automatic writing. In some of the paintings it looked like the male action figures were drowning in an unconscious patterning of paint.
For a while I was an abstract painter. My dad used to say that my paintings would look really good in the corridors and boardrooms of a large corporation. I think he was imagining the money that might come my way if I could snag such a commission, but he was also keying into the way that the corridors of power for a while at least, loved the sort of tasteful abstraction that looked simultaneously expensive and inoffensive. I think he also couldn't imagine anyone in their right mind buying one my paintings for their home. 


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Foreign Holidays


When I was about eleven my parents took my sister and I on a driving holiday on ‘the continent’ (as we called mainland Europe). Over two weeks we dashed from one picturesque town to another across France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Italy staying in an uneven range of small hotels. We were ill-equipped for such travel in the early 1970s because no one apart from my sister could speak another language, and she was always too shy or too stubborn to lend a linguistic hand. On one occasion, in a small German town, my dad dropped us off at a restaurant, parked the car and came to find us. He had made a note of the name of the street and so after the meal we went to look for the car in Einbahnstrasse. We found what we thought was the street but there was no car there. It was only by luck that we chanced upon the car in another street, and eventually understood that Einbahnstrasse didn't name the street just its condition of one-way-ness.
It was a holiday that was organised by a travel agent; a sort of package-holiday for people who don’t know how to relax (or are a bit suspicious of such hedonism). So we would keep bumping into the same fraught British families as we raced from one destination to the next. It was an era before air-conditioned cars where the seats were nearly always plastic, and where parking a car in a non-shady spot would result in the interior taking on an almost molten state (car rugs were needed to protect bare flesh from being fused to the fiercely hot seats). It was a holiday punctuated with travel-sickness, sullen silences (we took turns and picked up the slack left my dad’s endless optimism), and new experiences. Continental food, even in tourist-ready hotels, could prove tricky and my sister, who had been warned-off eating anything at all by a barmy xenophobic school teacher, maintained a strict ascetic diet of bread and fizzy drinks. And the fizzy drinks were a highlight – who knew that fizzy drinks could taste of apple, or that fizzy orange didn't have to have a radioactive colour and a flavour that made pure sugar taste bitter?
These days the frisson of difference doesn't seem so extreme. I notice it most in the small details. The pylons and telegraph poles are different. The grass is thicker, coarser, more springy. The street signs are placed differently. There are less road markings. The advertising hoardings seem to articulate different causes for commodity-based happiness. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Sensibility Primer


In 1983 the architect Alison Smithson published a book called AS in DS: An Eye on the Road. It was a project she had been very loosely working on since the late 1950s when she and Peter Smithson traded in their Volkswagen Beetle for a Citroën DS (the books title refers to Alison in the Citroën AS in DS). The book (which is still available) is shaped to look like a Citroën DS seen from above and is called a ‘sensibility primer’. The inspiration for the book came about when Alison experienced the interior space of the Citroën as completely different from their VW Beetle: ‘I remember thinking you were so close together in the Volks and so far apart in the DS your relationship as a married couple was bound to subtly change. Now you could stand off the situation of each other. Then it was love in a box.’ Design, it would seem, has effects and affects and could alter the way you related to others, the way you loved.
            AS in DS is a phenomenology of a vehicle. It has diagrams of the car’s design, maps of the journeys that the Smithsons took, photographs and sketches of the views that she saw when travelling through various landscapes and roadscapes, and a continual diary of car experience. It is about sensibility. It is about the way perceptions and feelings alter when you are placed in a specific set of relationships to those around you and to your environment. It represents an alternative to a sociology of design that would look to see what sort of aspirations could be associated with driving a DS, what such a car symbolised. It is also an alternative to the aesthetic and practical discussion of what constitutes ‘good design’. It deserves to be much better known as an initial sally in the phenomenology of design culture.
We've just given up on our beloved Fiat Multipla (it was falling apart) and bought a second hand Volkswagen Turan. The Multipla is unusual because it has three separate seats in the front and the back (the one we had also had the distinctive forehead bulge between the windshield and the bonnet). With three seats you could have the middle one down which immediately allowed for more communication between those in the front and those in the back, or you could sit three across in the front. I think I only realised how brilliant this was when we gave it up. A car with two seats in the front seems to insist on that fundamental arrangement of cars: the front reserved for Mum and Dad, or Dad and Dad, or Mum and Mum, and the back seat the ‘ghetto’ for the kids. These generational zones (serious up front, bickering in the back; getting lost and anxious in the front, getting bored and fractious in the back) have been the familial shape performed by millions and millions of cars. The Multipla wanted something different.


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Goggle Box


News just in: TV has eaten itself and it is still hungry. Actually this is old news. In the heady days when people spoke about postmodern this and postmodern that (the 1980s and 90s – such talk was probably killed off by the millennium bug) TV was always eating itself. Shows like Max Headroom on the newly convened MTV and films like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure seemed to be as much about TV as about the world. The wonderful Royle Family from the late 1990s seemed to herald the final move; here we – the audience – were positioned as if we were the TV watching a family that was looking back at us. A sort of mirror poking through the back of the TV into another room with a family looking back at the screen and getting on with life. Not a window on the world, then, but a mirror reflecting back the domestic setting of TV.
But the Royle Family was not the endgame of such self-reflection, it was merely the last time that it seemed exceptional. Now we have Goggle Box where couples and families offer commentary on TV programmes. They too are positioned facing the screen and we view them from the TV. And in case anyone was failing to get all the references to the Royle Family, Goggle Box is narrated by Caroline Aherne who wrote and starred in the Royle Family. What is significant about Goggle Box is not the strange tautological fact that you are watching people watching TV on TV, but that this seems perfectly fine, as if this is exactly what TV is all about. And TV does seem to be about the watching, about the chat, about the comfy sofa as much as about the programme. Friends always understood this: the characters always seem to be watching any-old-thing – the enjoyment came from the furnishings, from each other.
Goggle Box though doesn’t present a hermetic TV world. It offers us the pleasures of connecting to other ‘just like us’ who are also watching TV, chatting, poking fun at some of the shows, discussing others, sleeping through the occasional one or two. When you watch Goggle Box there is no need to think ‘but I could do that’ – you are doing it, already. Ta da. Goggle Box is the materialisation of TV seen under conditions of social media. What is odd about it is that people just seem to be watching TV and talking; where are the mobile phones? Where are the tablets? Goggle Box has incorporated the pleasures of social media into its format and returned it to us as something like a sit-com with the emphasis on the sit.


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Etch-A-Sketch


The Etch-A-Sketch toy came onto the market in the 1960s. I was trying to imagine what was going through André Cassagnes’ mind when he invented the device. The first thing that came to mind was that perhaps he felt that drawing, using pencil or some other mark-making equipment and paper, was just far too easy. What was needed was something to make it a lot tougher. Etch-A-Sketch is first of all an impediment to drawing. As a toy it is a drawing frustrater, an un-drawing machine. What makes those scenes so fabulous in Toy Story and Elf, where an Etch-A-Sketch is used to conjure finely-rendered images and maps is that in reality it takes ages just to write your wobbly initials.
My second thought was that this updated version of the ‘mystic writing pad’ plays on the glamour of the TV set. You have to cast your mind (or your browsing searches) back several decades to get to TVs where you had to tune them in to one of three channels using a dial. The dialling of knobs is the key. The endless twiddling as you run through the wavelengths is put to some sort of productive use in the Etch-A-Sketch. It is hard to see old TV sets as glamorous, but in the days of dial-tuned TVs, three channels and shut down at about midnight, a TV was an enchantment. We, as kids, tried to make our own by cutting holes in shoe boxes and sticking photos from magazines inside.
In the short history of electronic image technology it is perhaps fitting that a drawing device tried to look like a TV. Devices, electronic or not were always mimicking other devices – they still are. In the 1940s TV looks like giant cabinets, perhaps for holding drinks and glasses, for making cocktails. When microwaves came on the scene they took their look from the 1970s TV. Today it is not so much TV that is the form to mimic but the mobile phone, the laptop, and the iPad. The illuminated advert casings that you find at bus stops and along the street now look like giant iPads and iPhones. The Etch-A-Sketch anticipated the laptop and the tablet computer in the way that playing it felt like having a TV-like thing that could be used horizontally rather than vertically and was small enough to place on your lap. It is fitting then that one of the shells that you buy for your iPad is a shell that makes it look like an Etch-A-Sketch toy, and it seems right that someone would make a felt Etch-A-Sketch phone cover for their iPhone. 




Monday, 14 July 2014

Avocado Roulette

  
          For a while, in the 1970s, one way of recognising the signs of middle-class bohemianism was to spot sad looking wood-like balls, pierced with cocktail sticks, sitting over glasses of water, waiting to sprout or to rot, on windowsills. These were the seeds or stones of avocados. It was a practice driven by hope rather than experience. Perhaps some of these stones did sprout roots, and then perhaps a leaf formed, but as plants the avocado had little future in the inclement British weather. Someone somewhere said that 'knowledge, is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to include it in a fruit salad'. The fruit of the avocado tree is a berry (botanically speaking, or rather Wikipedially speaking) made up of a single seed. Someone somewhere played a mean trick on those new to avocados by calling the ‘fruit’ of the tree an ‘avocado pear’ and then laughing when you didn’t treat it as a salad vegetable. Apparently when the shop Marks and Spencer first sold avocados in the early 1970s people would buy them and eat them with custard and then complain that they didn’t taste very nice.
            Avocados in Britain are a hit-and-miss affair. As a regular purchaser of avocados I’d say that 30% of the ones I buy are inedible (either they’ve gone bad or are rock-hard); 60% are good-bad (they have bits of string in them, some black bits, but also some parts that look OK); 10% are perfect. That’s not good odds. But it means that when you’ve snagged a perfect one you feel as if you’ve hit the jackpot (avocadally speaking). We have a tea-towel with the legend ‘the Seven Stages of the Avocado’ written on it. Underneath the legend are seven identical pictures of avocados and underneath the pictures are the words: ‘not ripe, not ripe, not ripe, not ripe, not ripe, not ripe’, and then under the last avocado, simply ‘bad’. But buying an avocado is not just a gamble in trying to find an edible one, it is playing roulette with your taste. I love the 10% of perfect ones (I can’t think of any foods I love more), but the vast majority of avocados all have something that fills me with disgust, makes me shudder and nauseous and threatens to make me give up on them.
            But I stick with the imported avocado. My favourite avocado dish is very simple. For some reason in this house we call it ‘the taste of California’. It was passed on to us by old friends. It is made up of a simple dressing (white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, good olive oil), some good oranges (skinned and sliced and pips removed), a couple of perfect avocados (peeled, de-stoned, and sliced) and a big clump of fresh coriander leaves (chopped). Just throw it all together, or arrange in a pattern. It is fresh tasting, and lovely. In the last months of my dad’s life the only thing he really enjoyed eating was avocados. Not ‘the taste of California’. Just cut in half, with some French dressing in hole where the stone was. Eaten with a tea spoon. Thanks avocados.  


Saturday, 21 June 2014

Coveted Coats



The first coat I really coveted was a Parka. In the cul-de-sac where we lived Parka-wearing older boys swaggered about on autumn evenings, smoking fags and looking like they owned the place. I was probably seven years old, perhaps eight or nine. It’s hard to be precise. Amongst my gang I learnt that there were rules about wearing a Parka, about whether you did it up or not and what you did with the strange stringy flappy bit at the back. Now I think about it the fixation of my coat-envy shifted as the seasons changed and as those kids around me altered. By spring the Parka was no longer my ideal. Something glorious had arrived on the horizon to take its place: the tonic Harrington. The tonic (burgundy-colour was the standard) Harrington was an object to covet: it looked like it had been woven from the eyelashes of peacocks. The two-tone tonic Harrington glinted and glimmered like a new kind of metallic cloth that changed colour as it shimmered across a palate of purples and greens. A few winters later my envy was fixed on the friends of my teenage sister who wore Afghan coats. I remember tagging along on a trip to watch a theatre production of Jesus Christ Superstar with my sister’s, probably religious, youth club. This was the first time I met an Afghan coat and the first time I saw and heard an electric guitar being played live: it was a heady night.
My taste in coats and jackets had little to do with the wider world of fashion and little to do with youth subcultures. I knew nothing about mods, about skinheads, about hippies. I doubt if many of the people wearing them had that much of an idea either: I imagine that they too were emulating older siblings and their milieu rather than donning themselves purposefully in the garb of a specific tribe that came with a set of cultural meanings and values. Having a taste for a Harrington or a Parka or an Afghan coat meant little to us as a symbolic statement that could talk to a wider world.  
Did I really want those coats? What was the form of my envy? Surely if I really wanted a Parka, for instance, I could have petitioned my parents and eventually got one – if only as a Christmas present or birthday gift rather than as essential clothing? Perhaps my mum was disdainful – seeing it as common, frivolous, cultish, rough. But I’m not sure I did really want one. I think I knew that it wasn’t so much the coat that I wanted as to have the sort of gravity that would be needed to pull off wearing one. I wanted to be someone who could wear a Parka, or a Harrington, or an Afghan without looking like a kid playing at being someone who might wear such a coat. I wanted the chutzpah and swag that it would take to wear it well.
Perhaps a lot of taste is like this. Not so much aspirational or acquisitive but as a way of measuring your own weird gravitational density. Perhaps the tastes that matter most are the ones you never quite act on. Do I still covet coats? Let’s just say that I can occasionally can be found lurking amongst racks of distressed leather jackets, weighing them in my hands, sometimes trying them on, knowing I’ll never buy one.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

An Easy Touch



I was ten years old in 1971 when Britain went decimal. Out with the old money (twelve pence to the shilling, twenty shillings to the pound) and in came the new. It seemed like a good time to collect coins. It was a short lived craze that I probably shared with thousands of others who saw 1971 as an opportune moment to quickly amass a sizeable collection of newly worthless coins (though my avaricious little mind imagined untold riches in the future). Pennies, halfpennies, threepenny-bits, shillings, half-crowns – some worn thin with use – were quickly accumulated. The constant touching and sorting of coins was a slightly queasy affair: your hands quickly began to smell of money – a sort of acrid metallic sweat. My favourite job was dipping the coins in vinegar to clean them.
To ‘touch’ someone, in a vernacular sense, can mean to extract money from them, so that to be an easy ‘touch’ is to be someone who lends money easily but with the inference that you are not so much generous as just a little bit gullible. The person putting the ‘touch’ on the other is the operator; the person being ‘touched’ may never get their money returned. To be touched can also mean to have a mental disability, though I don’t think anyone has ever quite associated chronic gullibility with mental impairment (but I could be wrong here). Touch and trust, touch and money, touch and mind. One of my favourite sentences in the whole wide world is a question that the Mass-Observation team used to ask in the 1930s (quickly and amidst a barrage of other questions): “do you welcome or shrink form the contact by touch or smell of your fellow men?”
At some point between decimalisation and today the manner by which cashiers gave you your change changed. It used to be that cashiers and shop-keepers would count the money into your hand, starting off with the lowest domination and working upwards. You could pocket the money as you went along. Then someone must have decided that this was not the way to behave. Perhaps people just shrank from placing coins into hot sweaty hands; perhaps it was a security measure; perhaps it was an efficiency drive. At any rate something changed. Today when you pay for some sweets with a ten-pound note you will receive your change as one packet: a five pound note with various coins stacked upon it. I used to find this particularly awkward as I tried to pick the coins out while holding the note and trying to stop the coins sliding off, but now I’ve learnt to bend the note so as to shape into a funnel so that I can pour the coins into my purse: one less touch of flesh and metal money. 

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Silver service and tears


I think if I wrote a novel it would have to be set in a hotel, or perhaps the story would revolve around a restaurant. After I left school I spent a number of years waiting on tables in hotel restaurants and then later in restaurant-bars in London. I generally enjoyed it and always had a sense of the theatre and mystery of such places: who were the nervous couple giving off such a strong sense of trepidation; who was the woman eating alone with such a singular expression?
When I first started-out I worked in a smallish provincial hotel that thought of itself as rather posher than it really was. Waiters had to learn ‘silver service’: a system where every part of the meal was served separately by the waiter onto the customer’s place. This meant that you turned up at the customer’s table with a trolley with a large variety of serving dishes. First you would spoon on the main element of the dish (usually some greying meat and gravy), and this would be followed by a myriad of vegetables. By the time you had finished serving everyone the one thing that you could be sure of was that the food was now at best lukewarm. The danger was with anything gloopy like mash-potato: because you were serving one-handed (the other hand held the serving dish) you had to flick the serving spoon to get the mash to leave, which could then hit a puddle of gravy which in turn could splash onto the customer. I was taught silver service by a man who had first worked as a waiter in a restaurant in London in the 1940s where waiters didn’t get paid. Instead they paid a small amount to the maître d and lived entirely off their tips.       
There is one day of waiting on tables that is etched in my memory. I was working in a trendy new restaurant on the banks of the Thames. It was a very busy Sunday lunch with over a hundred covers booked. At some point, early in the service, the chef and the sous chef had a fist fight. The manager sent them both home and stepped in with a junior chef to take over the cooking. Meals were taking over an hour to get to the tables. We were giving away free drinks. The customers were furious. My job consisted mainly of apologising and trying to placate the customers. For three hours I sucked-up all their fury, all their frustrations, all their indignation. At the end of the service one table said I had done a brilliant job. That was too much. I went and sat by the river and sobbed big fat tears that fell in the Thames and were washed out to sea.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Wooden Legs

            I was always fascinated by my grandfather’s wooden leg. It seemed to have various switches and catches, and perhaps some gears. When he sat down he would click it into place, by moving a latch just above his knee and to the side. But just as I was fascinated by his prosthetic leg I was even more in awe of his absence of leg when he wasn't wearing it. When he came to stay he would come down for breakfast not wearing his artificial leg, and this would involve a good deal of hopping while holding on to the banisters, and then the use of crutches when he arrived downstairs. I can’t remember what he did with the loose and empty leg of his pyjama bottoms: perhaps he knotted one leg, or just tucked the loose material into his waist band.
            Having only one leg meant that he had to drive an automatic car – something of a rarity in late 1960s Britain. His car of choice was a Ford Zephyr with a bench seat and amazingly (for the time) electric windows. I can’t for the life of me think why he needed or wanted such an enormous car. He was the least ostentatious person you could meet: a small-town vicar with an evangelical streak that got wider and wider as he got older (he used to talk-in-tongues when we visited him – which was as scary as it sounds). The car was exotic: everything about it seemed to articulate another world of movement. It wasn't just that the windows moved up and down with a slow purr rather than a jerky hand powered movement: the car itself seemed to move differently. Perhaps it was the way it was driven. My grandfather was the sort of driver who terrified his passengers by his indifference to basic road safety and by his willingness to be distracted. If you sat in the back you would never ask any questions because he would just turn round and start talking to you, forgetting that he was belting along a Norfolk road.
            Of course his leg wasn't wooden. It was, I would guess, mainly plastic with some metal and some textile fastenings. It made him move about in a slightly unpredictable manner – as if he needed more room for turning, as if he required more warning time if he was expected to stop. It was the same with the car: he would let it swing round corners in a manner that felt like a slingshot, and he was always slightly soft when breaking at lights. With the leg and the Zephyr (and perhaps the evangelicalism) there was a sense that he was moving in a different medium to the rest of us, more like a boat manoeuvring in water, or a satellite docking in space. Or perhaps more accurately like a fish out of water. 


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Kew Gardens


In the early 1980s the price of admission to London’s Kew Gardens was two pence (2p). I remember hearing low, dark rumblings at the time about how terrible this was. Apparently admission to Kew had been just a penny, so the hundred percent price hike was seen as pretty staggering. Those with a mind to, blamed decimalisation – though this was ten years earlier. My guess is that ‘a penny’ in pre-decimal currency became a 1p in 1970 (one-pee is how you had to say it so as not to confuse it with ‘a penny’, two-pee rather than tuppence) which was already slightly more than a hundred percent rise. ‘Old money’ consciousness was still going strong in the 1980s and people still translated back into ‘half-a-crown’ and ‘ten-bob’ and such like (20p – you mean four shillings for that!).
I used to go regularly to the gardens and more particularly to the hot houses which looked like versions of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. In the depth of winter, living in houses that were only heated with smelly old paraffin heaters, or noisy fan heaters, Kew was one of the few places where you could get properly warm in winter. In the palm houses warmth would find its way into your bones and you could feel thoroughly tropical even though it was freezing outside. In the houses I lived in none had central heating: these were houses that had been purchased by housing associations and local councils that were waiting for modernisation. They would, eventually, when a new spending budget had been found, become centrally heated, double-glazed, newly wired and plumbed. Some would have their Victorian scale thoroughly diminished as rooms would be carved up into multiple smaller spaces. But by that time we were long gone.
I used to think of the Palm Houses at Kew as these strangely opulent, sensual worlds that were also slightly lascivious. I could imagine prim Victorian couples blushing slightly at the over-ripe state of some of the tropical plants. Years later I went and the cost of admission had reached something staggering like £2 (it is now £14.50). They had added a new hot house, this one dedicated to dry heat. It was filled with all sorts of spiky plants and the occasional one that gobbled bugs. In amongst all this was the most humorous tree I have seen. It looked like a normal tree as seen by a tiny insect sitting at its base. It was ludicrously foreshortened and had a large tree trunk base (about six foot in diameter) but from this it extended towards a miniscule tree top with four weeny leaves. It looked like the plant equivalent of the Eiffel Tower topped off with a little cluster of leaves. You could imagine a massive root system trying to find water in the desert while its tiny leaves photosynthesize the gruelling sunlight. 


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Rolling Beatles

I left school in 1979 and took up residence in a world of art schools, dole offices, and legal squats. I loved it. It was the fag end of punk, Thatcher had taken up residence in Downing Street, and for me (despite Thatcher, or more particularly, in spite of her) the world was drenched in vitality: I lapped it up. The music that my friends and I listened to was that firmament of post-punk, of dub reggae, of old soul and funk. Some of the bands we loved seemed to transmogrify from one song to the next. The wonderful Glaxo Babies started off by intoning that permanently splenetic slur that was the hallmark of the punk ethos. In songs like Christine Keeler their choppy, no-nonsense guitar chug, and wailing saxophone, was matched with hectic vocals recovering a murky past of political shenanigans. When I bought their next musical outing it was a funked-up groove with a syncopated brass section. The songs were an elongated dance track. There would be no pogoing to this, no sir.
Inevitably I half-heartedly joined a band. No, that sounds far too active, far too intentional, and far too ambitious. We were obsessed by music, with listening to it (endlessly), and going to concerts (when we could afford it). We talked about becoming a band the way we talked about travelling to Latin America – as something to contemplate, to invoke, but not necessarily something to work towards. While we listened to music we talked a lot, smoked and drank. We were on the dole, what else was there to do? The reason we didn't play much was due to a general ineptness in which I think I was the leader (my other band members were quite talented). We had ideas though. The main one was in our name, which would conjure up the idea of a super-super-group – so we called ourselves ‘the Rolling Beatles’. Our shambolic racket would be neatly framed by the amalgam of the two most famous rock outfits in the UK, in the world. When we practiced (though I think that is overstating what we actually did) we rehearsed a version of ‘Walk on By’ (this would be our busking song, get it?) and a version of ‘Gimme dat ding’ (a swing song from 1970) – for Kazoo, voice and guitar.  
We didn't suffer from what I've heard described as ‘delusions of adequacy’. Nope – our arrogance was much more exaggerated: we imagined that our chronic incompetence would actually be interesting and entertaining. We were radically democratic in that ego-fueled way of youth – you could all join in (after all if we could play then anyone could) it’s just that we would just be your leaders, your pied pipers. If groups like the Raincoats (whom I adored) could make a virtue of bare competence (though clearly the base player was rock solid) and Furious Pig (who supported them) could do without musical instruments and just bellow into cardboard tubes, then clearly traditional skills was no guarantee of success.

Luckily no traces of the Rolling Beatles remain.


Saturday, 22 March 2014

Connoisseurs


One of the pleasures of the TV programme Food and Drink, when it was in its first incarnation on the BBC in the 1980s, was watching and listening to the effervescent Jilly Goolden. Goolden was known for her exuberant descriptions of the flavour and smell of drink, especially of wine. With Goolden the language of wine developed an expressive palette of referents and descriptors. A wine might be said to be ‘creamy, nutty with slight honey notes and an apple oak taste’. But that would be Goolden with the hand-break on. On more memorable occasions she could invoke the smell of pencil shavings, the hint of liquorice, kerosene notes, the slight scent of wet tarmac, and so on. Mythically – but perhaps actually too – she could invoke an echo of cat pee meandering through some Chardonnay.
To my ear it sounded excessively detailed. To others it was hugely pretentious and seemed to ‘out’ would-be sommeliers, oenologists, viticulturists (the exotic names were enough to condemn them) as snobs and toffs trying to make their booze of choice something posher, more highly cultured than it was. It was wine. It was red, it was white and occasionally it was pink. It either made you wince or it didn’t. It either went down-the-hatch with pleasure or not.
Some years later I heard Goolden being interviewed on the radio. It was fascinating. When she first got interested in wine, reviewers could write such things like: ‘this is the kind of wine you could shake by the hand and introduce to your club’. Not only was it thoroughly aristocratic it was also ludicrously uninformative. All you got was the equivalent of a thumbs-up, or thumbs-down. Goolden’s emphasis on description and the reference to tastes and scents in the world was a radically materialist refusal of this world of gentlemen’s clubs and the posh back-slapping that went with it. Hers was an intervention that aimed to offer sensorial accuracy and democratic availability. Cheers Jilly. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Hotel of Dreams


About seven years ago I started working at a university in another town to the one I lived in, which meant that I either had to find some sort of permanent digs there or else stay in bed-and-breakfasts and cheap hotels. I chose the latter. The hotels and b&bs, as you might expect, turned out to be of varied character: one b&b room had the main light switch for the room located outside in the corridor. I decided that to make all this more bearable I should try and turn it into a project of some sort.
In Tom Waits’ song ‘9th and Hennepin’ from Rain Dogs the singer offers a description of a down-at-heal part of town seen and imagined from a passing train. He is clearly looking at a cheap hotel when he sings: ‘And the rooms all smell like diesel, and you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here’. It is a scary thought that when sleeping in a hotel your dream-life could be invaded by the dream-world of another, or that the dreams of others might seep under the doors, through the walls and congregate in your pillow. But, I wondered, would it be too far-fetched to imagine that the room itself was some sort of repository of dreams, or that it was an agent in dreaming, shaping and populating your dreams?
The idea might not mean straying that far from classical Freudianism. After all it was Freud who taught us that the content of dreams couldn’t be translated willy-nilly into a symbolic vocabulary of dreaming. It was Freud that came up with the formula that dreams were poetic utterances that used the flotsam and jetsam of our ordinary life and arranged it according to a grammar of memory and desire. Perhaps quite rightly those interested in psychoanalysis have concentrated on the memory and desire part of this rather than what Freud calls the ‘day’s residue’, but it could be that it is the day’s residue that should be given more attention. Where better to find these residues than in the immediate environs of such uncanny worlds of cheap hotels?
My project (which I must admit I have pursued fairly diffidently) consists of taking a photograph of the hotel room and the view from the window of the room, a photograph after I have slept in the bed, and accompanied this with an account of the dream that occurred in this ‘dream site’. I was hoping to avoid the strange disconnect and boredom that occurs when you hear another’s dream, because I would be offering a material context and suggesting that perhaps the dream belonged as much to the room as it belonged to me. The idea would be that at some point I would make a ‘coffee table’ type book called Dream Hotels and that while it might encourage the reader to think that they would be encountering sumptuous swanky hotels they would in fact find more run-of-the-mill hotels, as well as actual rather than idealised dreams. Anyway here is a dream from this project and above and below is the room it occurred in:

We might be in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. We are in a thick forest. There is a man with a beard and a hat sitting in a dark old-fashioned car (it could be a Humber). On the passenger seat is a very large bushel of twigs. There is a complicated heist in process that involves a lot of double crossing. The man in the car has a canny plan that will mean that he secures the heist and leaves everyone else empty handed. I am the man but I have forgotten the plan.


Sunday, 2 March 2014

Richard Hamilton, persistent pasticheur


The comprehensive Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern (13 February to 26 May 2014) is, I think, something of a surprise. I usually think that Hamilton’s work suffers when it is shown in museum surveys of modern art: the worked smoothness of the surface, the range of media (various print technologies) and what seemed like quotations of more visceral painting styles, often feels overly-laboured and intellectually cool compared to the bravura displays of painterly panache of work contemporaneous with Hamilton’s. However much you felt that the labouring and the quotations were part of the point, it still felt that there were swirls of mist floating between viewer and painting compared to the more emphatic and immediate paintwork of Hamilton’s contemporary Magda Cordell (and you can go and search out a fantastic Cordell painting in Tate Modern after the Hamilton show). But seen all together some of Hamilton’s work looks great with their trademark micro-splodges and smears seemingly not just referring back to abstract expressionism but forward to a sort of ruinous waste infecting the surface of the modern.
The scatological is a major theme in Hamilton’s work and one of his most famous works is The Citizen which depicts the dirty protest of IRA prisoners held in the Maze prison. Brian Sewell has declared thisone of the very few great paintings in the history of British art in the later 20th century”, an evaluation that, no doubt, Hamilton would have been proud of, yet how would he have felt about such an assessment coming from the pen of someone whose unworried connoisseurialism was precisely what Hamilton and his colleagues in the Independent Group fought against?
The scatological is also foregrounded in one of the most successful rooms in the exhibition: ‘Shit and Flowers’. The title seems like a provocation, and on first flush the paintings of luscious sunsets illuminating large, healthy turds looks like the joke of a punky A-level student. Yet when seen beside the re-worked adverts of Andrex toilet tissues we get to see this as part of an anthropology of the contemporary: we live in a world were nature is incessantly praised as long as it doesn’t include the nature of our evacuations; we are seduced to buy toilet paper with promises of beautiful women and unspoilt woods as long as we can’t imagine such women having a shit. In a conversation with Michael Craig-Martin, Hamilton told him: “As a student I learned by imitating, I was a persistent pasticheur”. While pastiche doesn’t always get a great press, Hamilton reveals its analytic power. I would take undergraduate media studies students to see this show because the analysis of advertising is more powerful, more cutting, than any of the standard textbooks on “how to analyse an advert”.
One of the true finds in this exhibition, for me at least, didn’t occur in the exhibition itself but in the exhibition book shop. Here you can buy a catalogue produced for Richard Hamilton’s exhibition at the British Pavilion in the Venice Biennale of 1993. The catalogue is written by Sarat Maharaj who at the time had been working on a monograph on Hamilton. The monograph, unfortunately, never appeared and this is perhaps the closest you get to it. It is, as many would expect, intellectual and analytic, but the big surprise is just how funny it is. On the back page is an advert for an invented conference on Hamilton’s work. At the bottom is a detachable slip for sending off for more information about the symposium. It also alerts you to the fact that there are “concession rates if you book an all-round superb-value ‘Avant-garde in Venice’ excursion. Arrive at the Hamilton show by water taxi!” I wonder how many people sent off for more information, or did try and book for the excursion?

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Lost Museums

From about the age of seven through to when I was ten or eleven my dad used to take me to London, to visit a museum and to take-in a film. I used to think of it as an annual, summertime event, even though it only happened three or four times (and might well have happened during the Easter break). The film was always the latest James Bond saga, or else something equally spectacular, like one of the Alistair MacLean adaptations (Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra, When Eight Bells Toll). But before we saw the chosen film, with its excess of death, testosterone, and weaponry, with its unproblematic distribution of good and bad (with Nazis or Nazis-equivalents), we did our educational duty and spent time wandering around the Natural History Museum, or the Science Museum, or the Victoria and Albert Museum (or was it just the Science Museum each time?). I only have a dim memory of those days and how they felt. I was young enough to hold my dad’s hand, I think, and I loved the sense of ritual of those days but I probably felt slightly awkward too – I was not used to spending a whole day with him. But they were precious times. (There was always the worry that he would quiz me about school. Later, when these ‘father and son’ trips stopped, there was always the worry that being alone with him would be an occasion for him to talk to me about ‘the facts of life’. Awkward.)
The museum visit was a bit of an ordeal – but it was a penance for the main events, food, fizzy drinks, and an action film. There is something about museums – especially those museums in Kensington – that weighs on young visitors, however enthused they are about seeing displays about evolution, combustion engines, and such like. I think it must be something to do with the quality of the air: it induces a sort of sluggish languor. Perhaps the cost of an environment fit for preserving museum specimens, old books, art objects and so on, is an atmosphere that drains the liveliness from the living. Even now, as an adult overly enraptured by the past, someone who has managed to visit five museums in one day in Ghent, I still feel that sense of grinding ennui when visiting museums, galleries and libraries. The only solution I can think of is to rush round them as if the place is about to close.
Of course I could imagine museums closing for the night, but I couldn’t imagine a museum closing down, forever. How would that work: the institutions dedicated to preservation would of course be preserved otherwise there would be little point in their endeavour. The museums in Kensington have for the most part been preserved, but as I grew older and trips with my dad became relegated to the past I learnt that museums could have a precarious life. The Museum of Mankind, for instance, only existed for 27 years, from 1970-1997. But even more fleeting was the life of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, which only lasted from 2002 to 2008. More comforting are museums like the Whitby Museum that has been going since 1823, though not in the same building. It is wonderful mainly because it has refused to pander to changing museum fashions. It is, in many respects, a museum exhibit within the vast imaginary museum of museums. Such a vast imaginary institution has clearly lost some exhibits along the way, all the more reason to cherish Whitby’s tenacious displays, with their hand-written cards and casings that allow you to weigh a Narwhal wales’ tusk in your hands.



Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Camouflage Inspector


            I once caught a snippet of a radio programme where a man was describing his job as a camouflage inspector. He described how he taught troops effective camouflage methods, and detailed the sorts of things that they could use to camouflage themselves. Then came the inspection: camouflaged units of troops would be sent out to go to ground in the local countryside. They would have to disguise themselves as best they could, deploying all the skills they had and using the available resources around them. The camouflage inspector would then go to the top of a nearby hill and look out to see if he could see the troops. Failure was simple: if you were seen, then the camouflage was not complete. Success, though, was much more precarious. If there was nothing to be seen this meant that either the camouflage was completely successful, or that the unit had wandered off in another direction or simply taken themselves off to the nearest pub. I have always thought that the perils of interpretation are glimpsed in the work of the camouflage inspector: all is fine when there is something to see, where a location, a presence is given away, but what is to be made of blankness, absence, and silence. Given that so much of twentieth century art seems to want to avoid meaning and content, to purposefully embrace the blank, then interpretation becomes a perilous task.
            In the Second World War a group of English surrealists ended up becoming camouflage instructors and camouflage designers. One of the leaders of camouflaging was the English surrealist painter and ‘best-pal-of-Picasso’, Roland Penrose, and he was responsible for training a slightly younger generation of surrealist including the likes of Julian Trevelyan in camouflage techniques. For Trevelyan the war was decisive in making the sorts of surrealism that had seemed so dangerous and urgent in the 1930, appear both impossible and ludicrous: how could the sort of surrealist juxtaposition (sewing machines on operating tables) compete with real world juxtapositions produced by high-explosive bombs that opened up houses, ripped apart bodies, and concretised Marx’s sense that ‘all that is solid melts into air’. But in his path from surrealism to something quieter Trevelyan worked as a camouflage artists disguising small military instillations such as pill boxes with an aesthetic straight out of the Romantic tradition: pill boxes became picturesque ruins or Romany caravans. Presumably Luftwaffe pilots and navigators (or some of them) saw an English landscape peppered with the quaint and evocative, rather than a landscape in the grip of total mobilisation.
            The task of interpretation may well be easier when one thing is disguised as another. This is, after all, what allegory is. Perhaps the English surrealists, during the war, became specialists in allegorical camouflage.



Saturday, 1 February 2014

Sputnik Balloon Seller


This photograph was taken on 21 December 1957. When the photograph was taken it had been 12 years since the end of the Second World War. It is an odd photograph, and without some accompanying information you could be forgiven for thinking it was a collage of sorts with some improbably spiky shapes added to a fairly ordinary photograph of people milling around a street corner. But there is no artifice to the photograph (though plenty, perhaps, in the photograph). The man with the light coat in the foreground is selling a balloon to the man with the darker coat who is also holding a bag. The balloons must be filled with helium and the spikes that stick out of them are meant to represent the Sputnik satellite, denoting radio aerials that were used to send signals back from the real Sputnik satellite to Mother Russia in its Soviet garb.
We are at the junction of three streets: Broad Weir, Merchant Street and Castle Mill Street. What we can see is an older Bristol that is about to be transformed: the buildings we can see on the left of the picture will be pulled down to make way for new shops and shopping precincts, and eventually for shopping malls. On the right we can see the massive corrugated iron fences that were used to fence-off bombsites. The bombing of Bristol effectively changed the shape of the city, making new spaces for development while leaving previously thriving streets to fall into decline. My great-grandfather had a haberdashery shop in Old Market Street; it now sells second hand electric guitars and amplifiers and science-fiction paraphernalia. It is rare to see a customer in there.    
What, I wonder, was going through the mind of the purchaser of a Sputnik balloon in Bristol on this day in December in 1957? Had the Cold War infected this man who was clearly old enough to have played some part in the war? Or did he still feel a huge sense of comradely spirit for our Soviet Allies who lost so many lives during the war, fighting for our freedom as much as theirs? And what about the satellite, pointing towards the stars: was he filled with optimism for what some would learn to call the ‘white heat of technology’ leading us all into a starry future? And what did he feel about the fences pointing towards a slow rebuilding of Bristol and elsewhere? Was this heading towards the stars or to something more pedestrian in the shape of Woolworths, Marks and Spencer, and W. H. Smiths?


Friday, 17 January 2014

Books about the House

I wrote this piece for the Guardian Online:

10 of the best books about the home…


The Great Indoors explores changes in domestic life over the last hundred years or so, and it does so room by room (starting in the hallway and ending in the attic). I was interested in how these “living” rooms have been used, what they have been filled with and what they felt like across the twentieth century and into the twenty first.
My concern was with the house as it was imagined by advertisers and designers as well as the house as it has actually been lived, and this took me to a variety of archives: the V&A archives in the fantastic Blythe House, the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, and that treasure trove of the ordinary the Mass-Observation archive at the University of Sussex. I was also interested in how home interiors have been the stage for domestic dramas, and for this I looked at novels and films, and especially, sit-coms.
Along the way I grew a fondness for these fellow travellers in scrutinising the domestic scene:

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
Today The Road to Wigan Pier is often dismissed as part of a 1930s social adventurism performed by posh Oxbridge types who wrote for a left-leaning London audience about the horrors to be found ‘Up-North’. Actually the book is both a fastidious examination of how humiliation is given material form by impoverished housing and how class might be less a form of consciousness and more a deeply ingrained and embodied set of habits.

W. J. Turner, Exmoor Village
This book came out in 1947 as part of the work of Mass-Observation. It is an audit of one rural village at the end of the war, accompanied by some tremendous photographs by John Hinde. The village was not supplied by mains gas or electricity, and everybody washed in the scullery sink. Turner’s book tells you what was contained on the bookshelves of the villagers and what furniture they had.

Barbara Vine, The House of Stairs
Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine is brilliant at capturing the uncanniness of some houses. Freud wrote a famous essay on the uncanny and reminded us that the German word for the uncanny is literally translated as un-homely. For him what is unnerving about the uncanny is that this is strangeness found in familiar places. If you want a sense of that experience then read The House of Stairs.

Judy Attfield, Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life
Judy Attfield was a design historian who followed ordinary domestic objects into the home. She was less concerned with what designers intended when they produced chairs or rugs, than how people used their objects and what these objects meant to them. She was particularly interested in how we get attached to the material world around us, and in one memorable passage she writes about her recently deceased dad’s jumper, and how it was the touch and the smell of it that held the trace of him.

Brian Dillon, In the Dark Room
I read a number of autobiographies when I was researching The Great Indoors, nearly all of them had incredibly affecting descriptions of the author’s childhood home (but sparse description of other homes that the authors must have lived in). Brian Dillon’s book is a distillation of this aspect of autobiography, and a wonderful reflection on the power of childhood domestic space to shape and evoke memories. 

Christina Hardyment, From Mangle to Microwave: The Mechanization of Household Work
Christina Hardyment has published a small raft of books about the history of domestic life. She mines archives to show us what we used to eat, how we use to raise babies and small children and how we have conducted the management of the household. This book is full of great turns of phrase like “gimcrack gadgetry”, but the real story is how nineteenth and twentieth century “labour-saving” came with a whole host of added expectations that fulfilled Betty Friedan’s reworked Parkinson’s Law: “Housewifery expands to fill the time available”.

Michael McMillan, The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home
Michael McMillan’s book is a sumptuous array of domestic photographs and oral history telling how Caribbean migrants fashioned their houses in a cold and often unwelcoming Britain in the postwar years. It is interesting to see that in many ways these families were even more traditionally British than their contemporary white peers, and while most white families had given up the “kept for best” parlour by the 1960s many Caribbean families maintained these more traditional domestic practices.

John Braine, Life at the Top
John Braine’s had a massive success with Room at the Top. This is the sequel and Joe Lampton is living in middle-class suburbia. It is great on the way that success is sometimes measured in the material accoutrements of domestic life (TV, expensive sofas, and drinks cabinet). In Life at the Top it seems that these furnishings offer no comfort for his emotional restlessness. 

Deborah Sugg Ryan, The Ideal Home through the Twentieth Century
The Daily Mail’s Ideal Home Exhibition has been since 1908 (with a few gaps) a perennial showcase of all that is new in home furnishings and domestic culture. It has been an important agent for popularising new fads, such as DIY. There is something magical about the show – the streets of fake-real houses in the main hall – and something banal about the relentless commercialism of it. Deborah Sugg Ryan’s magnificently illustrated volume is a rip-roaring tour of both sides of the exhibition.

Penny Sparke, As Long as it’s Pink: The Sexual Politics of Taste
It is no wonder that most of the best writers about the house are women – the house has always been the stage for performing our expectations and perceptions about gender – and for this the stakes have been higher for women than for men. When second wave feminism said the personal is political then the logical object to look at is the home. Penny Sparke shows how the world of interior design and household advice is peppered with gendered assumptions, and how “taste” was used to reinforce gendered differences.