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Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Message in a bottle

I imagine art was once an intuitive melding of vision and craft and judged on those terms, albeit with a nod to the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Conceptual art has elevated the ‘nod,' making it part of the ‘art’ itself.

For the conceptual artist, the idea or concept behind the art is apparently more important than the finished work.  A conceptual artist may use whatever materials and whatever form is most appropriate to putting their ideas across. It is the thought processes and methods of production that create the value of the work.

Another authority claims that ‘it raises the issue of authorship, time, space, and even ownership.’

Hence, I present to you:

The bottle.


It was given to me some years ago by friends who’d discovered the joys of deep sea diving. They found it embedded in mud at Scapa Flow where, on the 21st June 1919, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter  scuttled the German fleet rather than allow it  fall into Allied hands.

Between 10am and 1700 pm  on that day, 52 German warships were deliberately sunk much to the displeasure of the British who got there too late to stop it.





 Admiral Freemantle felt obliged – through an interpreter – to give the Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter a public dressing down for behaving ‘dishonourably,’ though privately he admitted ‘I could not resist feeling some sympathy for von Reuter, who had preserved his dignity when placed against his will in a highly unpleasant and invidious position.’

Another British Admiral – Wemyss – even expressed relief:
 ‘I look upon the sinking of the German fleet as a real blessing. It disposes, once and for all, the thorny question of the redistribution of these ships.’ He may have had the French in mind, who’d set their hearts on acquiring at least some of them and perhaps the very bottle I occasionally stroke.

After almost a century beneath rolling seas, scoured by sediment, weed, and small scuttling things, it has the feel of warm silk; it conjures up images of the man that last drank from it, and when you blow over its top, you detect the echo of German Imperial pride—if you’re so minded.

 In the words of Admiral Reinhard Scheer:
‘I rejoice. The stain of surrender has been wiped from the escutcheon of the German Fleet. The sinking of these ships has proved that the spirit of the fleet is not dead.The last act is true to the best traditions of the German Navy.’


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So then, my bottle is a work of art if the idea or concept is more important than the finished work itself. In this case my bottle was conceived and created by man, has been further shaped by oceanic currents and will be forever associated with a specific historic event. As for ‘authorship, time and space,’  thing, when I hold it, I think of the transience of life

Friday, 8 December 2017

A small life on the outside

I remember, as a boy of fourteen or so, standing on a traffic island in the middle of a busy road in Liverpool.Traffic thundered by in every direction, the air heavy in petrol fumes, heavy in direction and purpose. I had purpose, too. I wanted to get home but beyond that—nothing. The future was a grey immensity, and I remember standing there, thinking on it and feeling suddenly terrified. What happened to you when you left school at fifteen, unqualified, unskilled and no real purpose in life? I didn’t know, and at that moment, I didn’t want to step off the roundabout.

It’s a feeling I’ve never forgot, and every so often I return to the memory with a sense of great gratitude, the realisation that life is full of strange and unexpected paths, and that I explored as many as I could – not out of courage. I have none; more the fear of missing out.

It's quite a small life in the great scale of things, but hugely enjoyed. And when all's said and done, a life is much like a Tardis.

And in the words of a great sage:



But until then we just carry on








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Saturday, 2 December 2017

Food for thought


Josephine Tey wrote a fine book called The Daughter of Time. It focuses on a Scotland Yard Inspector - Alan Grant, injured and bored out of his mind in a hospital bed. Then a friend introduces him to the mystery of Richard III and the disappearance of the ‘two princes in the tower.’ It’s a wonderful historical ‘who-dunnit’ and I’d recommend it to anyone. 

I was put in mind of it halfway through ‘LovingVincent,’ which has had mixed reviews. The story is told through the medium of his paintings and portraits, animated and spoken through actors. Some have found it visually unsettling, others thought it lacked emotional depth in the same way a cartoon might. I thoroughly enjoyed it both as a visual spectacle and for introducing me to the mystery of Vincent van Gogh’s death. It was an adroitly told ‘whodunnit’ which left more questions than answers and, as I said, put me in mind of a now largely forgotten book.  

Before I move on to another event, I’d urge with the zeal of . . . a zealot to google Van Gogh quotes. For me they were an eye-opener – another unexpected bonus of the film. Two in particular apply particularly well to the writer:

"Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don't know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, ‘You can't do a thing’. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of `you can't' once and for all.”
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, October 1884)

And in another letter, another useful tip especially for those who deal in words.

Exaggerate the essential, leave the obvious vague

The second event of an action packed week was a concert in the Newport Centre featuring Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott. I don’t know about a ‘starry starry night’ but this was a bloody freezing night.

 Even before they came on stage I was forcibly reminded of two tips I should never have forgotten. 1) Bring a hip flask with you. The beer was overpriced and the queues immense. 2) The seats are booked so for God’s sake only arrive when the act you’ve paid to see come on to the stage. The support act is usually a waste of time. In this case it was a Philadelphian band called ‘Son Little.’ (the singer) 

They ambled on stage like disconsolate factory hands starting a nightshift. The drummer went bang bang bang. The two guitars went ‘thrum thrum thrum’ and the singer shouted. Pretty basic stuff.
And then Heaton and Abbot took to the stage and the magic began. And I confess now, I wasn’t a particularly devoted fan. That is my wife’s privilege. But the artistry, professionalism and sheer stage presence won me over: sharp lyrics, harmonic chemistry and the ability to work a crowd from years of experience followed by three encores. I remarked afterwards they must have left the stage on a high, buoyed on a wave of gratification. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime.

A selection of videos and some very nice ‘Dad Dancing’
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igYq3CEaHvU
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7vEImmJq8E

So, a book, a film, and Paul Heatonand Jacqui Abbott’s latest album all recommended

Saturday, 25 November 2017

It's not a pretty sight

I think I was born judgemental, coming out of the womb in horsehair wig and red robes, a tiny gavel to hand. I imagine I had view on the quality of the placenta, my mother’s milk. I certainly had views on codliver oil and National Milk powder that came in blue and white tins. A Catholic education fed the urge to judge even more. The nuns were ferocious and unbending, and we learned the script quickly. Marxism was another layer, another script, another worldview. Then there was teaching and the never-ending supply of weird and wonderful minds.Unfortunately teaching involved grading, making judgements based on attendance records, ‘personal qualities’ and academic achievement. The judging continued via staffroom gossip and the subliminal drive for consensus.

I think it was teaching—not the fabled summer of ‘peace and love’ that passed me by in a blip—which undermined certainty and the desire to judge others. After ten years of ‘judging’ I’d had enough, and I had another twenty or so years to go. 

The habit though is hard to resist and I still cringe at how I once judged a middle aged Dutch couple who invited me to dinner in Queens. I found them boring and failed to appreciate their generosity—certainly with sufficient warmth—though now of course I’m judging myself. Judgmentalism is  indiscriminate. It strikes where it can.

Judging has a more benign twin: ‘sizing up.’ In fact ‘sizing up’ the stranger is an essential life skill, especially in Liverpool where it’s taught in the womb.

Explaining the difference between ‘sizing up’ and ‘judging’ is relatively easy. A few days ago I passed a man, well into his middle age, walking arm in arm with an attractive Filipino woman. ‘Sizing up’ conjured up various scenarios/explanations—a habit with me. I do it everyday on the keyboard. Sizing up possibilities is relatively neutral. It becomes judgmental when you focus on one and vent an opinion—whether it be ‘Good on you, mate’ or ‘you should be ashamed of yourself.’


I have yet to achieve the serenity of Buddha or the kindness of Christ. Politicians remain fair game along with celebrities and pundits pissed on ego juice. There are times when I spit with rage. I try to be alone on such occasions. It’s not a pretty sight.

Friday, 17 November 2017

A Day In A Life

This is one of my quieter fantasies lacking only one thing: the sea bashing against a mullioned window as the storm grows more fierce. Not likely to happen in the Cotswolds, though I thought I detected the murmuring of sheep. A pleasant twenty or so minutes passed with a pint of Hobgoblin followed by a pint of premium German lager, Warsteiner, I think. It doesn’t get much better but then I am easily contented.

The beer is on its way

Fire and a Hobgoblin


Fire and a lager


Good things only last forever in Heaven and fires only in Hell. This fire crumbled into greyness and my legs began to feel cold and still no sea lashing the window.


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Salvation came in the form of a man in an elegant and beautifully cut suit. He squatted nimbly and crushed newspaper into loose balls. These he shoved beneath the grill holding the fire. Next, with some dexterity and grace, he arranged kindling wood in the form of a wigwam on top of the grill immediately above the paper. Finally and with the flourish of an artist enjoying his job, he placed three small logs on each side of the wigwam. The lighter appeared from nowhere. The man was a magician. In seconds the paper was alight, shooting flames through the grill and catching the kindling. I almost felt impelled to stand and applaud but instead stayed where I was and moved my legs closer to the fire. A third pint would have been nice, but there were things to do, people to see. Besides, we were staying the night and there would be other fires and more pints. For those curious, it was the Slaughter's Country Inn.

If only the Murenger had a fire.