Friday, 20 December 2013


            The collective nouns that are used for animals reveals a poetic sensibility that can be evocative but can also be downright impolite. If you were a rhinoceros and hanging out with other rhinos would you want to be referred to as ‘a crash of rhinoceroses’? Or if you were a hippopotamus and were gathering with other hippos would ‘a bloat of hippopotamuses’ float your boat? And I think calling a collection of tigers ‘an ambush of tigers’ is just pre-judging them, just expecting them to misbehave. Birds on the whole come out of this a lot better. ‘A parliament of owls’ is suggestive of thoughtfulness and deliberation even if today’s politicians tend to spoil these associations. You couldn’t imagine anything nicer than ‘a charm of goldfinches’ could you? But even with birds the naming of collectives takes on a gothic tilt: ‘a gulp of magpies’; ‘a murder of crows’; ‘an unkindness of ravens’.
             A murmuration of starlings has to be the best way of naming a collection of starlings, and therefore the best collective noun because starlings are really head and shoulders above the rest of us when it comes to being and acting collectively. For anyone who has witnessed a murmuration of starlings coming in to land in some wetlands, or finding a perch on the burnt out remains of a pleasure pier, it is a stunning sight of pulsing, swooping, flitting movement choreographed by thousands and thousands of birds in synchronised formations. The patterns that these starlings make are formless forms: it looks as if they are constantly on the verge of revealing something – a word, or the face of god. Murmuration is as near as you can get to describing the sorts of clustering that starlings make: it doesn’t suggest the visual aspect of their swarming but nails the white-noise impact of their movement, and the crescendos and diminuendos of their gathering. I think we should reserve the word murmuration for starlings, but if we did use it in another context it might be fitting, albeit differently, for actors. Thus ‘a murmuration of extras’ would designate a large group of actors in a restaurant scene, for instance, whose main role is to provide visual noise and the sort of rise and fall of a humming murmur as background to the protagonists’ dialogue.
              According to Chris Pagham – friend to the ordinary animal, scourge to those who sentimentalise cuteness – Britain is steadily losing its starling populations. It turns out that this has nothing much to do with global warming but is linked to global politics; to be precise, to a form of dictatorial state control in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 40s. It seems that Comrade Stalin was super keen on starlings as a form of natural pest control. He authorised a Union wide programme of environmental encouragement to starlings. When winter froze the ground the starlings migrated, and some of them came to Britain. In the 1940s the winter population of starlings in East Anglia alone was roughly forty million. Now that must have been some spectacle.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

North Sea Gas is coming…

In the November 1967 issue of Good Housekeeping a double page advertisement announces that ‘North Sea gas is coming’. On one side there is writing persuading you to invest £263 on a ‘High Speed gas central heating system’ – ‘the only kind that’s going to run on gas from the North Sea’ – on the other side a photograph of the North Sea (presumably) at sunset. The cold, dark abyss of the sea is glowing yellow and orange from the reflected sun. Perhaps central heating could do this for you – add a warm glow to the cold, dark abyss of your home? At the bottom of the photograph there is a slightly embarrassed aside “…the best bit of luck for 100 years!” It wouldn't do to crow too much about national good fortune.
In the May of 1967 the Natural Gas Conversion Programme was started. Every appliance that ran on gas (cookers, the odd fridge, water heaters and so on) needed altering to be able to use the new type of gas. In the end some forty million appliances were converted, at the cost of £563 million. Britain was ‘switched over’ district by district. A district would be isolated from the network and purged with a huge flame, flaring off what was left of the old gas before the new gas was introduced. Armies of gas engineers went house to house to ensure that all appliances were safe and working. The programme took ten years to complete.
Natural gas might have been expensive to install but it was a cheaper product than the old coal gas. Coal-gas, town-gas, or (with more than a nod to its original purpose) illuminating-gas was the result of an industrial process, and that required large factories for its production. Natural gas arrived, ready to go, from beneath the seabed. The cheapness of natural gas, and its sense of national luck, would have been one crucial incentive for many households to have central heating fitted. The years of the conversion programme follow the years in which central heating gathers momentum in Britain. It is only towards the end of the 1970s when over 50% of households have central heating. But another crucial incentive is home ownership: who would install central heating in a house they were renting? If old Victorian terraces were the architecture of coal-burning grates, and 1930s suburban semis the architecture of the gas fire, then the architecture of central heating was open-plan. Central heating fuelled a culture of shag-pile, floor cushions and informality.
Town gas was the kind of gas you could kill yourself with. ‘Sticking your head in the oven’ used to be the vernacular expression for suicide in general. I don’t know whether death by gas was more or less common than other forms of suicide, but it had a symbolism that other suicides didn't have. I guess it was the ease and domesticity of it that gave it such an awful symbolism, as well as the link to the Holocaust. It was a form of death that was available in the kitchen, on tap, so to say. I'm sure that Sylvia Plath would have had an intuitive sense of that symbolism when she chose this as her way of ending it all in 1963. Natural gas, on the other hand, wasn't going to kill anyone any time soon. You were more likely to blow yourself up than suffocate, and no chance of the woozy dreamless embrace of carbon monoxide poisoning. Natural gas was modern, clean and looked to the future.
In 1968 I started going to school in Chelmsford. Approaching Chelmsford from the east on the A12 on a dark winter’s morning, facing the inevitable traffic jam coming off the duel carriage-way you could see the Chelmsford gasworks on the right hand side. Or at least this is what I remember. It was huge. A mass of gleaming metal pipework, with each pipe illuminated by a string of electric light. It looked other-worldly. A gleaming citadel of metal and light with a flame jet burning off some residual gas. It smelt of sulphur. Natural gas would mean the end for the Chelmsford Gas Works, which had been producing gas since the early nineteenth century. Now the Gas Works has gone, the ground is contaminated, and the wasteland is home to some of the most respected graffiti art in Essex. In 1968, in the dark, with all that fire, electric light and metal, it looked like the beginning of the film Blade Runner. When Blade Runner came out in 1982 it seemed to be describing a future of ‘replicants’ and ‘off-world colonies’, but really it was showing us our past.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Seaside Surrealism

In 1936 the painter Paul Nash published an article in Architectural Review titled ‘Swanage – or Seaside Surrealism’. To my mind if you were after seaside surrealism today you might be even better off visiting the oddly named ‘Manhood Peninsula’ in West Sussex – a bulge of land, south of Chichester that includes the town of Selsey, the sandy beaches of East and West Wittering (where you’ll find the home of rock’s most mummified guitarist, Keith Richards) and the wonderful Pagham harbour.
The peninsula is not the place for flashy spectacular surrealism – if it is an extravaganza of the uncanny that is wanted then a visit to places like Clacton or Scarborough out of season would be more in order. Instead what you find on the Manhood Peninsula is a more quietly disquieting form of surrealism, of historical memory poking through the fragile membrane of the present. Wandering around the town of Selsey you start to notice how many of the houses on or near the seafront are made out of railway carriages. Sometimes all that is left of this history is the regularity and smallness of the windows, but other houses declare their roots (and routes) by fully restoring the carriage-work. Setting up house with a couple of railway carriages is a way of making an immediate habitation, and an immediate claim to a piece of land.
Elsewhere, as you travel from Selsey to the Witterings you’ll find the home-made museum ‘Rejectamenta’ – which sometimes feels a bit like ‘Dejectamenta’ – a collection of ephemera from the early 1970s onwards. For anyone who grew up in the 70s this is a slightly trippy return to a time when commodities gathered loyalty by including tiny – and pretty useless – toys in cereal packets and collectable cards in packs of tea. If you want to know what those ‘free gifts’ look like then Rejectamenta is the place for you. It is part of Earnley Butterflies, Birds and Beasts, and as well as collecting the most ephemeral of the ephemera it also has Biba dresses, posters, and such like.
Pagham Harbour is now a nature reserve presided over by the RSPB (the royal society for the protection of birds). It is, incidentally the place where my son first became interested in bird watching. The RSPB website claims it as an ‘unspoilt haven of big skies, coastal marshes and sea’. But rather than this being one of the few undeveloped areas of an intensely over-developed coastline, Pagham Harbour has a history as an important port in the middle-ages through to the late nineteenth century. Pagham Harbour was taking the lead in developing this coastline for trade. What produced this area of ‘unspoilt’ coastline was a series of massive storms early in the twentieth century that reclaimed the area as a wetland, and cast all of human endeavour into the sea. In this case the ‘unspoilt’ is a double negative that results in the spoiling of the spoilt.  
Put perhaps the pinnacle of this quiet surrealism is Selsey’s very own sound mirror. Sound mirrors, or acoustic mirrors were an early form of radar, built between the wars as early warning systems used to detect incoming air attacks. Built out of concrete they were massive, cumbersome parabolic microphones, that worked by pointing a huge unmovable ear-trumpet to the sky. If you placed a stethoscope-like instrument on the acoustic mirror you could hear aeroplanes, but you couldn’t quite make out where they were coming from, you could also hear the noise of nearby traffic and everything else. But unlike the sinister-looking sound mirrors that you find in Dungeness, the sound mirror in Selsey Bill has been turned into a house that has long since been abandoned and has been cast adrift on a traffic island.

Sound Mirror, Selsey

Sound Mirrors, Dungeness

Monday, 25 November 2013

Never Realised Projects

            When I was at art school in the mid-1980s one of the projects I never got off the desk was a magazine especially designed to collect never-realised projects. It would have consisted primarily of book reviews, exhibition reviews and obituaries. These would have all been fake: reviews of books that had never been written and exhibitions never staged; obituaries of lives that had never been lived. It would be a way of collecting all those ideas and plans that might be less than fully-baked but don’t deserve to be completely rejected or abandoned to the curatorship of the bottom drawer.
            I imagined that the magazine would have made a good home for some of the more incidental ideas that were circulating amongst the group of people I knew. So, for instance, if you came across a particularly odd bit of amateur collecting – say someone who had turned a garden shed into a museum dedicated to all forms of knots and knotting – then you could write a review of a guide book to micro-museums. The guide book wouldn't exist and the micro-museums could also be fictitious (how about a museum of lost keys? Or a museum dedicated to objects with shells stuck on them?). You could cover a lot of ideas in such a magazine: even, or perhaps especially, ideas you found problematic. I imagined writing an obituary about someone who after a traumatic upbringing joined the army and developed a new form of camouflage. He would test out his camouflage by sending camouflaged troops out into the countryside and he would then stand on top of a hill and see if he could spot them: if he could see them then the camouflage didn’t work; if he couldn’t then either the camouflage was working perfectly or the troops hadn’t carried out his instructions. It was an uncertain outcome. After he left the army he became an abstract painter and seemed to be in a permanent state of anxious undecidedness. Needless to say his death was a suicide.  
            The magazine would have been perfect for all those ideas you have that seem good after a few drinks in the pub, or the sort of ideas that might be suitable for someone with more resources than you had. Of course, because the magazine was itself an unrealised project it could have been an item in such a magazine (if it had existed), or it could wait for the invention of the internet and blogging to find a suitable home.
The other day I came across an old art catalogue from the 1980s (Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture – it was an exhibition in Boston, USA in 1986). I must have bought it at about the same time I was imaging a magazine of unrealised projects. Inside is an essay by Thomas Crow. Crow writes about a made-up art critic who provides an effusive critical review of the exhibition by the made-up painter Hank Herron. Herron’s paintings in the 1970s consisted of making exact copies of the work of the abstract painter Frank Stella, a painter who actually existed and is still alive today. Stella made his name as a sort of post-painterly-post-abstract-expressionist-hard-edged-intellectualist painter who was exhibiting from about the end of the 1950s. He was painterly minimalist, who in the 1980s reinvented himself as a painterly maximalist. The made-up critic was claiming that the copies were better than the originals because they critically explored the hollowness of originality and the uncertainty of authenticity. It was a joke – a pastiche, a parody of what would become a world of artworks that cited other artworks. The article by the made-up critic was called ‘The Fake as More’.

Friday, 8 November 2013


When I was growing up jigsaw puzzles were an important part of the arsenal we could deploy in our protracted war on boredom. Of course it wasn't our first line of defence, and probably lay near the bottom of the barrel: but sometimes that barrel needed scraping (to mix metaphors just a little). When friends weren't around, or if it was raining, or when feeling poorly or unsociable, you could get out a jigsaw to suck up some of the time before that thin sliver of kids’ TV started broadcasting (this was before kids' TV existed as its own entity, and well before it had become a central feature in the repertoire of modern parenting). A jigsaw puzzle in the toy cupboard wasn't something you did once and then passed on: it was something you did endlessly. You had your favourites and the ones you barely tolerated; you had the ones that you had to commit to, and the ones that were probably a bit too easy.
There was something about the jigsaw puzzle that both defeated boredom and felt remarkably similar to it: like a flu jab that gave you a minuscule dose of flu as an inoculation. Jigsawing mimicked boredom in the way it set out to encourage lugubrious dithering, and the way it instilled feckless indecision as the basic response to the world. It gave an ersatz sense of direction to the bored person’s lackadaisical directionless. It felt like the myth of Sisyphus stripped of any grandeur, any tragic dimension. It was like Penelope waiting for Odysseus, employing a tactic for fending off suitors (weaving all day, unpicking all night), but without any of the desperate love, without any of the fear that he wasn't coming home. But of course it also brought with it tiny shards of joy: those fitful feelings of success: Oh that goes there! I thought that was part of the sea, but it’s her nose! These little puffs of pride that pop before they can take shape: clever old you for finding out where that piece goes.
There were one or two jigsaws that went beyond the completion of a task that never needed doing in the first place. These were jigsaws that had a more ritualistic element to them. My The Man from U.N.C.L.E jigsaw was in this category. As you can see it featured a coloured pencil drawing of a scene featuring the unflappable secret agents Napoleon Solo (played by Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (played by David McCallum). The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964-68) was, as far as I can remember, a drama that at the height of the Cold War brought together Americans and Russians (can you guess which was which?) to defeat even more malevolent forces than communist world domination (or rather these dastardly forces looked a lot like the Cold War vision of communism as nothing but world domination). Verisimilitude obviously wasn't the jigsaw maker’s top priority: the flight of the bullet leaves a ruler-straight vapour trail, for instance. But they knew their audience; young boys who might aspire to draw vapour trailing bullets who also loved The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Doing this jigsaw was paying homage, offering cultish dedication. It was important that after completing the jigsaw you took it apart again, ready for the next votive offering.
Looking at the jigsaw now, I remember that I always expected to enjoy certain aspects more than others. I continually thought that the highlight would be fitting the pieces that represent Kuryakin’s gun as he reclines in his casual-clothing-for-men-catalogue-pose, or placing the pieces that are the dolphin-coloured tubular floats of the helicopter’s feet. But jigsaws have their own logic, their own peculiarities. The best parts, I remember, where finding and fitting the pieces that were the fronds of the palm tree, the loose purple shading of the hills in the background, and Napoleon Solo’s briefcase. 

Friday, 25 October 2013

Morning Delivery

Sheffield’s Park Hill flats opened in 1961, the year I was born. The flats are still the most complete example of the architectural project optimistically named ‘Streets in the Sky’ urbanism: networks of one-sided residential streets of maisonettes stacked on top of one another, threaded through the landscape and surrounded by park land, yet close to the city centre. The streets in the sky aren't quite the same as the streets that they set out to replace: these have roofs over them for a start, and a long drop on one side. Today they probably have more detractors then they do fans, and when in 1998 they were awarded grade II listing it caused a furore that is still going on today. The streets-in-the-sky were by any standard substantial. Rather than mere practical walkways they were designed for conviviality – for children to play and for adults to pass the time of day. The scale of the streets was also meant to accommodate traffic – but only one type of vehicle – the electric milk float.
The eager, breathless whir of the milk float – like an ordinary car calling out with a stage-whisper – isn't a sound you hear too much anymore. There is clearly much less milk being delivered. When I was about 11 or 12 I, like many other kids at the time, used to supplement my pocket money with money I earned by having a paper round. I used to get to the newsagents at about 5.30 in the morning to pick up my stack of daily papers (supplemented with a few magazines and comics); these were arranged by the newsagent in the well-practiced order of the route. Apart from at the height of summer, it was nearly always dark when I started and usually light, or getting light when I finished. Sometimes, especially if it was raining, it was really miserable, but often I enjoyed the quiet, empty streets and the crisp unfolding of the prelude to the day. It was a time of the day I shared with others who were out delivering papers and post, the odd insomniac dog walker, and the asthmatic wheeze of the milk float.
For the most part post, papers and milk are distributed differently today. Park Hill flats has changed too. Some of it has been erased, some of it remains as social housing, and a large chunk has been taken over and refitted by an architectural group called Urban Splash. Urban Splash has successfully turned many of the maisonettes and flats into up-market, urban living, for those who want the adrenalin of inner-city life and the aesthetics of the warehouse flat. The scheme is all bright colours and wooden floors. It is hard to tell, though, what has happened to the network of elevated streets that were the social heart of the complex. Have they gone? Or are they still functioning? Perhaps amongst the sounds of carbonated water being opened you can just about hear the ghostly echo of the milk float. 

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Birds’ Milk

I think I was always lactose intolerant, culturally. When I was a kid, full-fat milk (though it was just called milk then) was delivered daily to the front door. Often the little metallic lids of the bottles would have been pecked open by hungry birds. As a child I always thought of milk as “birds’ milk”, as if by piercing the lids the birds now owned the content, but more crucially that they had somehow contaminated the milk with their worm-breath, with their dirty beaks, and with their fanatically deranged pecking. I think that bird-pecked-milk was mainly a winter phenomenon, but I could be wrong. In the summer, especially at weekends, the milk had other reasons for encouraging my disgust: it would have been warming-up in the sunshine for a while before breakfast. If this didn't instantaneously make the milk “go off” I was sure it sent it well on its way.
My mother’s culinary likes and dislikes might have been formed before the Second World War but they were irreversibly stamped by that war. Rationing might have been over by the 1960s and 70s but to my mother wasting food was both sinful and probably an act of treason. Whether it was because of rationing or not she has always been drawn to butter, cream and other fatty, milky products. She would keep a small bowl of brown congealed fat in the fridge. This was the run-off fat from the Sunday roast and would be used for her bread-and-dripping sandwiches. For me it meant that a visit to the fridge was always a fairly queasy experience. She was also a great fan of the “top-of-the-milk” – that thick plug of creamy milk that floated to the top of the milk bottle to produce a stopper made of curd. My mum would want this plug for her cornflakes and it would flop out onto the little flakes followed by a flow of less obviously cheesy milk (now, because she buys thinned, semi-skimmed milk, the plug has disappeared, so she adds actual cream).
During the summer we would always go to Padstow in Cornwall. We always stayed in the same chalet with a view of the dredger endlessly fighting the tidal drifts of mud in the harbour. There were always a few days when we couldn't go to the beach because it was raining, then the choice was either going to town and watch The Sound of Music for the zillionth time, or amuse ourselves in the chalet. My sister and I would play “Crossroads” – it was a game based on pretending we were running the famous, but wholly TV-based, Crossroads motel located on some ring-road near Birmingham. The chalet kitchen had a breakfast bar (endlessly exotic, endlessly glamorous to us) and we used this as the “pass” for our restaurant. I have a feeling that this was a game wholly ruled by my sister. We only served two dishes as far as I can remember: “Banana Bombarder” and “Orange On”. I have no idea of what the bombarder bit of “Banana Bombarder” was (or if that is indeed how you spell this made-up word), but I think “Orange On” consisted of orange squash and milk, and that the coagulated results were both fascinating and extremely repulsive.
Since my childhood milk has got thinner and thinner. The birds don’t peck the morning milk anymore because milk delivery is much less common and when it is delivered it comes in plastic or cardboard containers. We get our milk delivered as little pillows of milk (milk in a bag). I don’t touch it of course: to me it is already contaminated. It is and will always remain birds’ milk. 

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Peter Doig in Edinburgh

Alongside the ravine that lies below Castle Rock, in amongst the crag and tail of Edinburgh’s distinctive geography, sits, on an artificial hill, part of the extensive Scottish National Gallery. From August through to early November 2013 the gallery has been playing host to a large exhibition of Peter Doig’s paintings. You couldn't find a more vivid contrast: Edinburgh, often cold and wet, made of stone and shops, with elaborate buildings that declaim their ambition and intent; and then Doig’s paintings depicting the tropical vegetation of Trinidad in a painterly language that is jewelled, mythic, and, considering the size of the canvases, often airily light. There is little in Edinburgh that you would want to describe as ‘light’.
Peter Doig was born in Edinburgh in 1959, spent his youth in Trinidad and Canada, studied at various art schools in London, and found success in the early 1990s when the boosterism around British art was at its height. Doig now lives in Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital, and paints in an old rum distillery which also serves as an improvised arts centre. The paintings collected together in Edinburgh under the title No Foreign Lands are nearly all set in the landscape of Trinidad and are peopled by figures that might have slipped loose from an opium dream – a man dragging a murdered pelican, a drunken and beatified Parisian holding onto a tree in a tropical forest, a man carrying a pink umbrella, a girl in white perched precariously in a tree, and endless figures – male and female – drifting by in canoes.  
The canvases demonstrate the sort of post-perspectival concerns that alert you to the fact that you are at an exhibition of ‘serious’ painting and not a Jack Vettriano show: walls, windows, picture frames are all used in the pictures to productively worry about the planarity and frontality of painting; swathes of coloured paint, in various transparencies, often flecked with painterly incidents, depicting sky, water, sand, and snow are deployed to puzzle over the pull and obduracy of the painted surface. Doig has learnt his art in close proximity to the palette choices of Gauguin and the Fauves, his painterly graphics are indebted to Edvard Munch, and the crust and feel of his mark-making remind you of the landscapes of Gustav Klimt and Egon Scheile. But such borrowings are not mobilised for ironic commentary, rather they are requisitioned to produce the stage effects of the paintings, to make and enliven an intricate world of visual, painterly dramas.
Of course these paintings, with their monumental scale and their breezy figuration, can sit a bit too easily in the Neo-Classical grandeur of the National Gallery. Their post-colonial allusions vacillate between a critical re-imagining of colonised landscapes and a revamped exoticism of the tropics seen by the well-heeled cosmopolitan traveller. Perhaps most of the paintings are caught in the grip of this vacillation, for example the massive speaker stacks of Trinidadian sound systems, depicted as Mayan-like monuments in Maracas (2002-8), or the cricket game on a Gaugin beach where the ball acts as visual puncture, as a white blob that interrupts the blue-licked orange sand in Cricket Painting (Paragrand) (2006-12) (below © Peter Doig). And perhaps there is in the worrying dilemma of those vacillations something that make the paintings more compelling, more intriguing.   

Doig’s paintings don’t answer the question: how do you make art after conceptual art, after the medium-specificity of modernism has been drained of meaning? Such questions, the paintings seem to suggest, are for those for whom time moves incessantly forward as one move trumps the next. It doesn't address the question of the institutional conditions of art, and doesn't seem interested in the curatorial buzz that you can still hear when words like ‘relational’, ‘situational’, ‘participatory’ are invoked. But perhaps they respond to other, more modest questions that are concerned with the state of painting as a global language where a history of expressive mark making can be turned towards the job of furnishing a body of work with an imaginative cosmology. It might sidestep the issue of critical art, but it does offer an imaginative landscape that, if you give yourself over to it, could colour your dreams. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A Jam Jar of Gin

Yesterday, like a booze-fiend playing Russian Roulette with a pledge never to drink again, I opened a bottle of gin had a good sniff and then closed it. For me no drink is quite as evocative as gin – and there is no other drink I would prefer to dab behind my ears or smear on my wrists. The evocation is probably there in the smell slightly more than in the taste. Occasionally I like to take a hefty whiff of gin as a little mnemonic kick. It is one of my more reliable memory transporters: sniffing the distinctive juniper infused alcohol normally brings back memories of being fifteen and swigging neat gin in the lanes behind the school I went to. Sniffing the gin would sensually transport me to the cold nights where my little gang of refuseniks would pass round the jam jars of pilfered booze that we would have purloined from parental drinks cabinets. Sometimes it would be sherry, sometimes brandy, but most often gin. Yesterday however my little mnemonic spark wasn’t forthcoming. I think I must have worn out that particular memory trick.

Marcel Proust, of course, is the go-to guy for such things. It was his dunking and munching of Madeline cakes that named the experience of involuntary reminiscences as Proustian. Of course using cakes and gin fumes on a somewhat regular basis is not what involuntary memory is all about. Involuntary memory is meant to descend on you when you are least expecting it, corner you and mug you when your mnemonic defences are down, so to say. The regular subterfuge of forcing such memory-mugging isn’t in the contract – no wonder that repetition could destroy the mnemonic qualities of the material being used.

Sometimes memory vehicles wear out for other reasons than flagrant memory abuse. Smokers, after years of puffing, find that the occasional cigarette sometimes transports them back to those rushed Players Number 6s or Rothmans that were gasped on shivery afternoons in recreation grounds. But perhaps what happens after a while is there is a shift in remembering, and a second-order memory takes the place of this memory: the rush of memory energy does not reunite us with an event of giddy juvenile smoking but with the memory of the initial involuntary reminiscence seizing us. And then perhaps after more time has elapsed this become a memory of a memory of such seizing, till after a while all that is left is barely a memory at all, just a bare echo, or more like some nagging feeling that you’ve forgotten something and no concentration or effort will bring it back.

Before it dissipates, involuntary memory requires a force of energy to do its work. No wonder then that my examples all involve some slightly dodgy activity – underage smoking and drinking. They still, after all this time, carry with them a little charge that is probably related to the excited tension of transgressing and the possibility of getting caught. No wonder too that such involuntary memory is accessed via the sense forms that seem to, most reliably, escape rational processing: smell, touch and taste, in these cases trump sight and sound for mnemonic spills and thrills. The mnemonic forms that are going to last are also going to be those that are hardest to repeat: a particular smell of industrial cleaning products; the flavours of food that you’re not sure you would want to replicate; the occasional whiff of someone’s body odour.

I could imagine a memory club where addled Proustian types who had worn out their easily accessed mnemonic prompts, could go for help in tracking down these hard to find sensual memory stimuli. There would be rows and rows of jars replicating the smells of particular perspirations. A rack of scratch and sniff memory cards sorted year-by-year, place-by-place: “1963, seaweed in Clacton”, for instance. The smell of smoke-filled, beery pubs might become a bit of a favourite, but might also wear thin too quickly. Sweets might do it; especially those that sat on the edge of revulsion, like the twirls of cough candy. Giant rice puddings with slightly burnt tops might work for some, while for others it will be fiddling with out-of-date bicycle repair kits. There will be something there for everyone. It would look like a nineteenth century gin palace with hard-core reminiscence addicts staggering around befuddled from over-dosing on pear drops.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Sebald’s Natural History

On the back of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn the book is classified as Fiction/Memoir/Travel, which must make it hard to locate in the small number of physical off-line bookshops that remain. The puff on the back cover claims that ‘a desperate intensity of feeling is thrillingly counterpoised by the workings of a wonderfully learned and rigorous mind’. I get the learned and rigorous mind bit; I’m less sure about ‘a desperate intensity of feeling’. Or perhaps the desperate intensity of feeling is a sort of low frequency, reflexive attention: a sort of low-intensity intensity. I would imagine that for many readers it is the mood of the book that is its most compelling achievement.
It is the travel aspect of the book that organises the account as the narrator or author-avatar travels around parts of Norfolk and Suffolk and spend time in such uncanny landscapes as Shingle Street. Sebald’s book is endlessly digressive and along the way we learn all sorts of historical facts, some of which are primarily concerned with human affairs while others connect to the history of fishes and landscape. We learn that at some point in time ‘vast shoals of herring were brought in towards the beaches by the wind and the tides and cast ashore, covering miles of coast to a depth of two feet and more’; and we also learn how during a drought in the late 1870s, which killed millions of people, ‘parents exchanged children because they could not bear to watch the dying torment of their own’. The eerily distant echoes across time and across species are not meant to ride over dissimilarities between fish and humans, but is designed I think to set up a situation whereby the catastrophic history of human beings is seen as natural history: that is the sort of weird species humans are, finding more and more complex ways of negotiating misery. So much for Darwin and Dawkins. 
There is one place in the book where the narrator physically leaves England and finds himself in the Netherlands. In the description of Schiphol Airport Sebald undertakes a vivid and characteristic manoeuvre whereby the incidental and trivial is apprehended as something with eternal significance:

… the airport, filled with a murmuring whisper, seemed to me that morning like an anteroom of that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns. Every now and then the announcers’ voices, disembodied and intoning their messages like angels, would call someone’s name. Passagiers Sandberg en Stromberg naar Copenhagen. Mr Freeman to Lagos. La señora Rodrigo, por favour. Sooner or later the call would come for each and every one of those waiting here. I sat down on one of the upholstered benches where travellers who had spent the night in this place of transit were still asleep, stretched out unconscious or curled up.

In his soporific, but always concentrated prose, Sebald allows the glimpsed possibility to be realised:

Outside, on the tarmac, the summer heat was shimmering, tiny trucks were beetling to and fro, and from the runway aeroplanes with hundreds of people aboard rose, one after another into the blue air. For my part, I must have dozed off for a while as I watched this spectacle, because presently I heard my name from afar, followed by the injunction Immediate boarding at Gate C4 please.

The trivial is our gateway to eternity: but once there, once facing the absolute there is only the trivial. Even if you are a frequent flyer please listen: your nearest emergency exits may well be behind you.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

It is always now

In 1970 when I was nine years old I was faced with a dilemma: I wanted to buy a chart topping single, but I wasn't sure which one. I wasn't sure which song I preferred – Freda Payne’s Band of Gold or Deep Purple’s Black Night: a soul classic or a three minute burst of long-haired, testosterone-fuelled heavy metal. In the end my sister was on hand to point me in the right direction (the direction that would make my decisions intersect with her interests): I bought Band of Gold. I still love the song – an overblown, gothic tale of a woman who gets left with her wedding ring on her wedding night after marrying someone who either won’t or can’t sleep with her. It would be sad in an overly melodramatic sort of way, but the singing and the soulful lilt of the song is so uplifting that the subject matter is never given a chance to set the mood. And anyway, anyone in their right mind would be up and dancing rather than worrying too much about the lyrics (which I now assume suggested that the husband was gay but heavily closeted). I think if it had been a few years later I’d have probably opted for Deep Purple, sibling pressure or not. Nine year olds don’t often have the sort of streamlined taste obsessions that will often emerge when kids hit their teenage years. The period in which music taste is so severely and strictly policed is not always long (13 to 23 is probably the time when it is narrowest) but it is the period when music seems to matter most, when it has the most sonic intensity. Young children and the middle-aged are often fairly catholic in their tastes allowing themselves to like show-tunes, country and western, punk and gospel. Teenagers and young adults are often puritans, listening exclusively to either skiffle or hip-hop – you can’t imagine them liking both soul and heavy metal.
There is an album format that is much maligned but is manna for youngsters who have yet to hitch their ears to a particular style of popular music – they are called things like Now that’s what I call music 7 or more economically Now 82. Often the release date seems to be a seasonal affair, popping up ready for Christmas stockings or as a supplement to an Easter egg or for the start of summer. They represent a sort of bargain bonanza of the latest pop fare, representing all aspects of what is selling in record shops or being downloaded from the internet. The reason they are maligned today is probably due to the chaotic mix of styles and seriousness: one-hit-wonders and established artistes; venerable voices and angelic upstarts.
In the 1970s they were maligned for other reasons too: for reasons of profits – prepared to pay author rights but not performing rights – all the songs were cover-versions recorded by anonymous studio session musicians eager or desperate to earn a crust. I loved them and often preferred the cover-version to the original. Actually that’s not quite right: I got to know a lot of the hit parade through these cover versions and then when I eventually heard the originals they were different which in itself meant that they didn't feel quite right – they weren't my originals. The first example I bought was a seven-inch single that you played at 33 rather than at 45. It began with some spoken words: ‘This is the letter T in your Tesco treasure trail’. It was a promotional record by the supermarket Tesco released in 1970 as part of a competition to win an exotic holiday. I think you were meant to collect 5 records and then you could compete. As far as I can recall the records stopped with this first one (no ‘this is the letter E…’) – but I was 9, what did I know? The Tesco record had covers of Andy Williams, Status Quo, and T-Rex. I loved the Tesco version of Ride a White Swan.
But the compilation of cover versions got serious when the record publishers Music for Pleasure (not to be confused with all those publishers of Music for Pain) entered the fray with the Hot Hits series. I bought the first one, and perhaps a couple after. At only 15 shillings (this was the eve of decimalisation) it meant that for about 75p you got a dozen top hits played adequately by some of the most anonymous session musicians around. The Hot Hits record was a temporary respite for me in 1970 allowing me to refrain, if only for a while, from having to choose my musical identity (as if on the seafront at Brighton, hurling deckchairs – are you a mod or rocker, for god’s sake, whose side are you on?).

The first Hot Hits record had a fantastic array of musical styles that pointed in a number of geographical directions (you have to ignore the cover image to get much idea that there could be anything progressive here). If you didn't like Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime – and what’s not to like with all that huffing and puffing percussion – then there was the classic 70s reggae-lilt of Love of the Common People by Nicky Thomas’s (later covered by anti-anti-smoking campaigner Paul Young). You had versions of songs by the Welsh-Nigerian singer Shirley Bassey and the Greek-Cypriot-Swedish-British Cat Stevens (to become Yusuf Islam later in the 70s). For me the stand out track was the version of Vehicle, originally by the white funk group the Ides of March. It was a stonking funky drive track and if Starsky and Hutch had existed in 1970 then I’m sure that both would have had it on their eight-track in-car stereo turned up to maximum.
The versions offered by Music for Pleasure either exaggerated musical ticks (a particular way of singing – great for any Shirley Bassey wannabes) or smoothed out anything that might seem a bit spiky. By offering a single production of a panoply of musical styles Hot Hits revealed similarities and differences that weren't always apparent when listening to the charts on the radio. In one sense Hot Hits was one long stomp – it was a grove stomp – but a stomp nonetheless. And from here it seemed that the skanking stomp of skinhead reggae was the same stomp of more mod inflected stomps of Mr Bloe. Purple tonic Harrington jackets or hooded Parkers might well amount to the same thing when finding a rhythm for the time. But the differences were equally interesting.
The German philosopher Ernst Bloch in his writings on utopia, hope and the lack of it, used a phrase that translates as ‘non contemporaneous simultaneity’. He was writing about Germany at the time when the National Socialists came to power and he had a sense of the crucial importance of how society can simultaneously support radically different experiences of time and history. For Bloch the 1930s witnessed the ‘blood and soil’ of an atavistic imagination that pointed simultaneously backwards and forwards to a thousand year Reich, while also evidencing all sorts of futuristic fetishes.
The Hot Hits of 1970 is only a tiny fragment from a cultural moment – and that moment is clearly not similar to 1930s Germany. But in offering a synchronic slice of hits we are made aware of a vast temporal unevenness. The gender uncertainty of Cliff’s Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha is a moment of transition, whereas Hotlegs Neanderthal Man offers a perspective from pre-history. The sounds too point to archaic rhythms and futuristic noodlings – survival is mixed with arrival (I Will Survive was originally recorded by Arrival). Hot Hits might have been ‘music for profit’, it might have spawned a sequence of increasingly dire record covers, yet there was – in the bringing of all these hits under the same baton – a tiny shard of a ‘now’ made out of multiple folds of time and space.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Year Zero in the Big Brother House

This morning I was listening to the news on the radio and heard that the National Trust was going to open the Big Brother House to the public – just for one weekend. As a news item on BBC4’s Today programme it was framed as something to incite the indignation of middle England. The Today crew wheeled out Anne Widdecombe (former Tory politician and Strictly Come Dancing contestant from 2010) as the voice of disbelief – for her the BB House can’t be part of our heritage because it hasn’t stood the test of time – oh and also because it is tawdry. Widdecombe – who manages to be both a ‘national treasure’ (for some) and an old-fashioned high church hang-em and flog-em Tory – suggested that a much more suitable building for the Trust would be the BBC’s recently vacated Broadcasting House – which led the interviewer to ask if Widdecombe wasn’t just desperate to get back into the ‘Strictly’ studio. The defence was taken, unsurprisingly, by Ivo Dawney, London Director of the National Trust who claimed that the Big Brother house was ‘a stately home for the digital age’ (a phrase, no doubt, that is a crucial part of the promotion, though it sounded like it just slipped off his tongue) and that we shouldn’t think of heritage as being comprised solely of eighteenth century aristocratic taste.

I think I watched the second series of Big Brother and then for about four or five years after that. I missed Nasty Nick at the time (caught up with him later of course) but I saw Jade Goody – twice – as both original, non-celebrity contestant and then again, on Celebrity Big Brother as a ‘celebrity’ famous for being on Big Brother. If this was TV eating itself it also seemed to mark a moment when TV was becoming a crucial part of how we experienced the seasons. We might not any longer, what with global warming and the infamous waywardness of the British weather, be able to rely on summer being sunny, but we seemed to be able to rely on Big Brother to start its broadcasting at precisely the time when it was meant to be summer. For a generation or so I imagine that Big Brother will be the Madeleine Cake of remembrance for that season rather than the sound of ice cream van’s jingle, just as I’m a celebrity get me out of here will replace the smell of mulled wine and real fires for winter.

But actually I imagine the media archaeologists of the distant future digging up the Big Brother House and finding a caché of old video tapes and a few DVDs and deciding that the house and the show was not a significant moment in the rise of reality TV but a continuation of a much earlier sort of TV – the public information film. Just as for years TV has shown us that we shouldn’t drink and drive, and that we should always ‘clunk, click every trip’ and that Alvin Stardust could tell us a thing or two about road crossing, so Big Brother was really teaching us something. It was a long elaborate lesson in how to live in public. On the eve of an era of social networks, an era that demands full disclosure of everything all the time Big Brother was part of a pedagogical avant-garde showing us how drunken snogs should escalate into national incidents and how every argument, every behavioural tick could be gist to the mill of the blether-sphere. Big Brother saw the future and saw its role as priming us for an age where shame is magnified and embarrassment is embraced, and where letting it all hang out was going to make or break a career. Today we can all live in a Big Brother house – every room is a diary room – we just need to fight for an audience who will care about the indiscretions we perform.  

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Feel the Noize

As a child of about eleven the little gang I hung out with must have felt that we didn't have enough presence in the world. It is all very well treading lightly on the earth but wafer-thin eleven year-olds need some material gravitas or they will float away. One of the many solutions we found to our lack of earthly presence was to intensify our sonic force – to make some noise. This was the early 1970s, a time when Noddy Holder and his Slade comrades were beseeching us to Cum on Feel the Noize (the spelling was designed to approximate the regional dialect of the Black Country area of the Midlands of England).  
One way of making some Noize was to fix pieces of card to the front and back forks of our bikes so that they caught the wheel spokes, producing a clattering noise. This was meant to sound vaguely like a motorbike revving, or the clatter of a football rattle, but sounded exactly like pieces of card being constantly whacked by wire spokes. We were, I'm sure, taught this technique by older kids.
The early 1970s must have been a time when people were worried about gravity and the lack of it as the fashion in shoes resembled the sort of weighted-boot required by deep-sea divers, or the build-up disability shoe needed to counter a disparity in leg lengths. The stacked shoe, the must-have foot ware for any youngster or man or woman-about-town was a weighty thing. Glam-rockers like Slade favoured the excessive soled and heeled boot, which often looked like a bovver-boot with additional soles and heels attached that had then been spray painted silver. High-street fashion could be just as whacky and there was a period, I'm pretty certain, when you were limited to buying varieties of stacked shoe from a quarter-inch sole (favoured by Clarks) to two inches and beyond. It is no wonder that the audiences to the Top of the Pops shows from the early 70s seem to shuffle about – their shoes must have been weighing them down.
My mother would buy my shoes a size or two larger than actually fitted so that I could grow into them (though they usually wore out before this thrifty wisdom came into effect). I must have persuaded her not to get my shoes at Clarks at some point and to opt instead for a fairly decent stack with plastic uppers. They were pretty heavy. For my comrades and me, though, just having a weighty stacked shoe wasn’t going to be enough – we wanted additional sound. So we regularly studded the soles and heels of our shoes with Blakey’s segs: these were little moons of metal that you could stamp into the heels and toes so that you could make the sort of clatter that an inebriated and inexpert tap-dancer might make. They could also produce a stuttering shower of sparks when riding your bike and using your shoes as a break – this worked best on concrete. When you walked down the corridor in school you could sound like your sonic presence was really being noticed by the world.

            One balmy summer night a bunch of us wandered about the cul-de-sac where we lived. We purposefully scuffed our feet as we went, not really realising that the segs we had attached to our shoes were designed to protect them from the wear that scuffing could cause. For us they were an invitation to insistently scuff – a way of learning to become life-long scuffers. Somehow out of nowhere we started to chant, to shout, one word. The word was ‘BOLLOCKS’ and I don’t think any of us knew what it meant – I certainly didn’t. We didn’t shout it with any venom or even disdain. I think we chanted it in a celebratory incantation – in the way that other people might give praise – it was our momentary Hallelujah. Each time we shouted it we grew louder, till the word started ricocheting off the walls and rooftops of the houses. Doors started opening and soon a parent of one of us ran up to us and told us to shut up. That was the end of the night as we all went back to our own houses to receive our own lesson about swearing and to learn our fate.