Mightier than the sword…

By which I clearly do not mean that anything is more conditional than a potential ploughshare, which foolishness leads me nicely into today’s opening apology.  I’m not entirely sure where this post will take us (but let’s all hope it doesn’t involve a ‘journey’!) but as its genesis was in a pun of such appalling weakness that it is virtually homeopathic, I fear it may be an uncomfortable experience.  So, I shall not be offended if those of weaker moral fibre (or greater common sense) turn back now and spare themselves the horrors that may be about to unfold.

As the final Thursday to form part of November’s boxset ebbed away, I returned home having (perhaps) lived not wisely but too well.  I happened to glance at Twitter before interring myself beneath my continental quilt and chanced upon a link to Things by Dan, shared by someone I follow, and clicked upon’t.  Who, at this temporal remove, can explain the causes that led to me going further? Was ethanol implicated?  Was it a desire to drag myself away from the angler fish like lure of the glowing screen?  A retro urge to return to the world of pen and ink in the hope of discovering my inner calligrapher or artist?  We can never be certain, but I have a feeling that the causal root of my decision comes down to one of two possibilities:

  • either the slightly ninja vibe of a blade nib pen: it might not prove mightier than a sword but could, in extremis, double as one; or
  • the irresistible draw of nearly 6 inches of some rather fine wood, especially when shod in brass, and not forgetting its glorious feel in the hand.

Whatever the proximal cause and its potential to suggest filth, I went ahead and ordered myself a blade nib fountain pen and yesterday the postman delivered it into my waiting hands (saving him the climb to my first floor eyrie).  What a gorgeous thing it is!

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Ready to write a suitably cutting response…

I have not yet been able to do anything other than admire its visual and tactile appeal (I have, so far, resisted the urge to run my tongue along it) as my house lacks any suitable ink.  Given the date, I am reluctant to brave the city centre and its desperate hordes to seek supplies.  This seems to leave me with but two real options:

My first would be to attempt to startle a squid and capture its response in some suitable vessel.  However, my knowledge of marine biology is – I fear – inadequate to (a) find a squid and (b) approach it unawares so that I may deliver it a mild shock, allowing me to fill my pen while it makes good its escape.

My other option would be to seek out the discarded home of an oak gall wasp and grind it with the iron (II) sulphate (a staple in every household, I’m sure) to make my own ink.  My biological knowledge is sufficient to this task but it has been many years since I last saw an oak apple.  They used to be everywhere when I was a lad, but despite living a stone’s throw from several oak trees there is not a sign of the work of Andricus kollari.  Admittedly, it is probably the wrong time of year though I would note that this has not stopped a couple of local azaleas from bursting into full bloom this week: a decision they may come to regret…

I find myself wishing that my new acquisition had made a pact with the forces of darkness for the grant of life eternal.  Had it entered into such a devilish pact, it would be able to feed on the ink of other (probably bustier) pens to remain eternally youthful and capable of writing, using its nib as a single vampiric fang.  I suppose the downside would be the need to move to a drafty castle, though this would have the benefit of a creepy butler and fully-featured organ with which to accompany the children of the night (not to mention the extra storage space).  Given that this putative vampire would be undead stationery, I suppose this castle would be sited in the Appalachian mountains, rather than the Carpathians. “Why?“, I don’t hear you ask for fear of me delivering the answer and, if I’m honest, the whole purpose of this post.  Well, in the situation that the undead would more normally be seen residing on the shelves of W H Smiths than stacking them, their natural home would not be Transylvania but Pennsylvania!  (Or even, Pencil-vania!)

I thank you!  Please consider this my Christmas gift to you, the GofaDM readership: you are very welcome…

 

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Home is where the art is

When the Talking Heads closed, one of my homes in the city was lost to me and I wondered where, if anywhere, would take its place: a pressing issue given the very diminutive dimensions of my actual home.  In fact a number of places have taken up some of the slack, I’ve followed some of the surviving regular events at the Heads to their new homes and have taken advantage of the expanded programme at NST (the Nuffield Theatre, as was) – though NST was already a home, it has just become a more regular one (albeit now in two places).  No, the Southampton cultural space which has taken the place of the Heads as a second home is the John Hansard Gallery.  Rare indeed is the week where I do not pass through its welcoming doors at least once.

I do not remember being dragged reluctantly round art galleries as a child in an attempt to ‘improve’ me.  This may be because it didn’t happen or just that my brain has repurposed that storage space for even less useful trivia.  This absence may explain my lack of antipathy towards art galleries, though does less to explain why I started going: it was probably originally to get out of the rain and then got out of hand.  It may certainly go some way to explaining my enduring unimproved condition.

Over the years, I have been to see an ever wider range of art – generally dating from the second half of the 19th Century or later – and have often found something to enjoy in at least some modern art.  However, the realm of the truly modern and the conceptual – which is the métier of the JHG – had always passed me by.  I’d visited the gallery only once in its old home on the university campus and was largely baffled by what I saw.  But then, earlier this year, it moved to Studio 144 in the heart of town and on my way to (or from, given the commutative nature of translations in space) almost anywhere in or near the city centre.  After a brief taster session, it opened properly in late Spring and it was from then that my engagement with a whole multidimensional hypersphere of new art began.

Of the eleven main artists whose work has been shown in the gallery since its opening proper, I had heard of only two, and one of those I knew no more than the name.  Had the gallery still been at the campus, I probably wouldn’t have been to see any of the exhibitions and my life would have been so much poorer as a result. Given that the gallery is free to enter and, in its new location is so often on my way to or form some other errand, it is just so easy to pop in: so I do.  It is a lovely excuse for a little time out from the stresses of quotidien life and to escape into a whole different realm.  In the midst of a shopping expedition, or when stuck on something at work, I can lose myself in a picture, sculpture or film (or something even more strange) for a few precious minutes.  I cannot claim to have loved everything I’ve seen, but most have prompted new thoughts to bubble up in what remains of my brain and many of the artworks have become friends.  That’s the joy of being able to visit the same visiting exhibition multiple times, which I’ve never really had a chance to do before: the familiarity builds deeper links with the works and some that you might initially overlook become firm favourites.  It is always a wrench when a exhibition leaves, though my feelings of loss are tempered by the excitement of thinking about what will be next to fill the gallery…

The JHG does not just rely on the art itself and its location to draw people in, it also has a very solid programme of public engagement.  From the start, it has organised free talks and workshops reacting to, inspired by, or explaining the art or artists on display.  As often as I can, I have attended these – initially, as the token member of the public but now as part of a wider community.  The talks are always interesting and having been to a number, I have started – occasionally – understanding something of what is said!  I exaggerate (slightly), but I do still get quite excited when I understand one of the references to another artist or artwork.  I also now run a book (currently only with myself) for how far into a talk the first reference to Roland Barthes will come: I really must read the chap one of these days…  As well as these more intellectual talks, it seems that most weekends there is some activity for children to get involved in art: last weekend it was making camerae obscurae, which did rather struggle with the dim December light.

It is not just a home for visual art: the gallery had a Writer-in-Residence as it transitioned and I was somewhat startled to see myself in the video which accompanied his piece (1:01:01 long) when I came to hear it performed.  The gallery also acted as the host to the recent So: to Speak Festival Small Presses Poetry Showcase – which was an amazing afternoon: three presses, ten poets and 200 minutes of poetry in one afternoon.  I’ll admit that my brain was somewhat frazzled after so many words and ideas were forced into it in a such a short time: who needs mind-altering drugs with stimulus like that!

One of the key aspects of the JHG that have made it a second home is the staff, they are friendly and welcoming in way which I didn’t really expect from an art gallery.  There is a beautiful neon sign in the foyer, in the pink and blue of the transgender flag, which bears the legend “You Belong Here” and the gallery assistants veil this glowing message in the flesh that makes it a living reality.  Given the regularity of his visits, these poor souls are now all too familiar with the author.

I think it was one of the gallery assistants who, as November drew to its apotheosis, organised the first Gallery Session: where live musicians took over the gallery foyer for the evening.  This was not the first music in the gallery, as they had a short series of works responding to their Gerhard Richter exhibition of which I only managed to catch one (even I have to work from time-to-time: probably more often than is suggested by these pages), but the first time music was ‘exhibited’ independently of the visual art.  This was such an enjoyable evening, always helped by programming three of my favourite local bands in a familiar space.  From a JHG perspective, this was their first time in the gallery for several members of the audience: so it worked as a real way to bring new audience into the building and showing that it’s not at all scary.  I believe a second session is already on the cards…

Last night, I was at the gallery once again for the preview of their latest exhibition of sculpture by Siobhán Hapanska.  These are four extraordinary pieces, each one large but completely different from its fellows and really benefiting from the breathing space they are given in Gallery 1.  They look gloriously tactile but cannot (sadly) be enjoyed haptically: perhaps appropriate, as one has a theme of temptation.  It was so exciting experiencing them for the first time and it is good to know that I can keep returning to them, each time seeing something new.  To avoid excessive spoilers, I shall show you a mere teaser fragment of Love, which may also act a metaphor for the story of my life and its lack of emotional maturity?

I also wandered upstairs to check out how the indigo is moving through the great curtain of Anya Gallaccio‘s All the rest is silence – what a marvel to have an artwork which has changed each time you go back to see it.

The final current exhibition is a retrospective of the photography of Edward Woodman (who has never, so far I know, played Callan or the Equalizer – a missed opportunity?).  Some of these photos are quite extraordinary, while others do nothing for me at all: which is entirely as it should be!  He has inspired me to look at the world around me in different ways – and to attempt to photograph it.  Not for me the laborious set up, thought and preparation of the view camera: I am more of the school of the slightly inebriated quick snap with my phone, just now (sometimes) with an additional nod in the direction of art.

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Making tracks (after Woodman, but little threat to him)

For those with a desire to see more of my attempts at ‘artistic’ snaps (don’t worry, I have yet to tackle the nude and rarely use myself as a subject), my Instagram feed is available (other, better feeds are also available and the work of real photographers should also be recommended at this time).  My feed is also available to those with no such desire and for them this paragraph can act as an early warning and an opportunity to dodge a potentially painful visual encounter.

Spending time with contemporary art has enriched my life so much, and it’s not just the art.  In recent weeks, I have used the gallery as a respite from the rain and during the long hot summer I became an habitué of the deliciously cool environs of Gallery 2.  When I visit, I’m almost certain to bump into at least one friend: as was the case with the Heads.  The location is also very handy and a talk or preview at the gallery can act as the first of act of a whole evening of cultural fun.  Last night, after enjoying the art, free wine and conversation available at the preview I ambled a few doors up Above Bar Street for some wonderful folk tunes from Alex and Hannah Cumming at the Art House.  They delivered a marvelous mix of traditional tunes, including a smattering of carols, but it was their rendition of the Grey Funnel Line that I found particularly affecting.

With most of my second home needs now catered for, I just need to find a tame space with a grand piano…

I am but a fool

My last post gained some unexpected traction, which made slightly galling a scattering of rather obvious uses of words which, despite some similarities with the desired word, were clearly typos.  I believe these have now been fixed but as the author and proof-reader share a brain (or what remains of one) this cannot be guaranteed.

Given the above, you may chose to believe that the title represents a charming bit of self-deprecation by the author or, perhaps, some long awaited self-awareness on his part.  If you wish to retain either of these beliefs, I strongly recommend that you stop reading now.

With a scant fortnight to go until the most heavily-freighted bank holiday in the local calendar, I find myself forced to face up to its imminence (it has been immanent, at least in the retail sense, since September).  This post could be considered a form of displacement activity particularly coming, as it does, after the completion of a number of domestic chores.  Nevertheless, I insist that it is thematically relevant as it will cover a couple of Christmas themed gigs I have been to over the past extended weekend.

The first concert was a celebration of the Oxford Book of Carols, originally published in 1928 (the Oxford Book of Catherines is yet to see the light of day and anyone hoping to see the Oxford Book of Zadies must be planning to live well into the next millenium).  Our guide was the gloriously enthusiastic, even eccentric, David Owen Norris who really made the book, and unusually its preface and notes, come to life.  Among many lessons, we learned that carols are not just for Christmas but there are examples for many times of the year: especially harvest-time and May.  The audience were encouraged to join in with several of the carols – all of them new to me (while simultaneously being very old) – with surprisingly pleasing musical results.  In fact, the book appeared to contain very few carols with which I have any familiarity (perhaps none) though the older members of the audience seemed to remember more than me.  Nevertheless, it was a wonderfully enjoyable way to spend the early part of my evening, rendered even better by the provision of free mulled wine and mince pies to the singers after the show: tackling unknown carols can be very draining and current medical advice strongly advocates that participants should seek warming sustenance as soon as possible after any such undertaking.  I left the event filled with seasonal spirit and festive cheer, not bad for an outlay of a fiver! I am rather tempted to acquire a copy of the book and to try and bring a few of its gems back into more frequent circulation (at least chez moi): though I am slightly daunted by the authors’ expectation that the user should be able to transpose a complex piano part from C to E in their head while playing! (I shall have to rely on the use of tighter kecks to keep singer and accompaniment in a common key.)

Last night, I ventured by bike and train to darkest Netley (and boy was it dark!) to the recently restored Royal Victoria Hospital Chapel.  Despite it dominating the country park in which it now sits, it was remarkably hard to find by bike from Netley station.  As it transpires, my route was pretty direct despite being based on a combination of dead-reckoning and guesswork having briefly checked a map on leaving the station.  Even more surprisingly, I managed to find my way back to the much less obvious station in the pitch black relying on vague memories of trees and fencing with only one minor mis-pedal.

The chapel was once part of the world’s largest hospital but is now the only element that survives: but what a survival!  It is a very impressive building – with a lovely little cafe – and the new interior decor sounds a huge improvement on the previous brown (which I never saw).  I was there to attend the Christmas-timed (if not themed) Sofar Sounds gig.  I’ve been to a few Sofar Sounds gigs now and rather enjoy them, though recognise that they are not for everyone.  You have to book without knowing either where they will be held or which musicians you will be seeing (though I do sometimes have some insider information, though for legal reasons I never trade on this).  They are often held away from traditional venues and are designed to put the music and its purveyors at the heart of the experience: which is not always the case at music gigs.  Usually, most of the audience have to sit on a cushion on the floor, which I tend to do as part of my more general raging against the dying of the light despite the protestations of various of my joints.  I am always pleasantly surprised by the ability of Sofar to sell tickets for these gigs, given the general reluctance of people to go out and even more to go out and see something new.  I assume the international brand name must count for a lot of this success: visitors to a city (and more than 400 of them take part world-wide) might be more willing to try the relatively known quantity of a Sofar Sounds gig than to experiment with an unknown local venue.  Interestingly, the guy who started the whole thing was there last night and got introduced to me for his pains (an unexpected downside of his otherwise successful project).  I wonder if his examples offers any lessons here for more traditional venues…

Last night’s bill of fare offered four local bands – at least one of which I had, disgracefully, never seen before (I’ve almost seen them several times but that really doesn’t count).  They covered a diverse range of musical styles but happily the audience seemed to be there to enjoy themselves and there was a really great atmosphere.  A ‘good’ audience can really help to make a gig a night to remember, it’s a real boost if they are an active part of the experience rather merely being physically present (in which role they could be replaced by a similar number of cardboard cut-outs or a single matte painting).  I had an absolute ball and even, egged on by Route2Roots (the last band), ‘danced’ to the last of the songs (and not just as an excuse to stretch my legs – though I’ll admit that did act as a spur).  Only one of the bands played a Christmas song and Wild Front‘s rendition of We Three Kings was one of the best, and most haunting, I have heard in many years.  It also marked the third time I’d seen their lead singer perform in the last ten days: though I wish to make clear that I am not stalking the poor chap, it is purely a coincidence.

There will likely be more music with at least a nod to the season over the next couple of weeks and there will definitely be more dancing as I am at a ceilidh on Saturday.  However, for now I really ought to return to putting some festive preparation into my own life or Tuesday week will find me playing the role of a woeful, modern-day Æthelred.  As I wave adieu this wordy procrastination, I shall leave the explanation of my choice of title as an exercise for the reader: it is not just at gigs that the audience should be an active participant!

Not flying tonight

I had originally planned to be spending this time at a workshop learning about things rhythmical and folk-related with the splendid people of Folk Active but instead find myself in front of the keyboard, full of cold.   Having a cold was not, of itself, enough to keep me from learning the arcane secrets of the spoons and the jig-doll but this morning, while my body’s doughty defenders attempted to fight off their undead (and unalive) viral assailants, I slumbered on.  By the time I awoke, it was too late – lacking both breakfast and a working teleport – to make it to the workshop in time.

Having fixed one of these lacks – and starting at the bottom of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs (so, I remain without a working teleport) – I have decided to work on the principle that ‘misery loves company’ and share a new post with the uncaring world.  I should point out, lest any of you are worried, that I am not miserable.  The sun is actually shining outside and whilst I may have missed one rendezvous with the spoons, the battlefield of my body has delivered a full night of unbroken sleep – something it is generally incapable of achieving during peacetime.  This sleep may also owe something to a couple of glasses of mulled cider and some Night Nurse taken just before bedtime to provide a little +1 Armour for the home team.

As the regular reader will know, I am a frequent commuter across the Irish Sea for work and so am intimate with the passenger experience on a FlyBe Dash 8 Q 400.  I can sing-a-long with the flight safety demonstration and perform the relevant actions better than most of the cabin crew.  I also know Southampton, Belfast City and Dublin (Terminal 1) Airports far better than would be considered to form part of the ideal life.  Despite this familiarity, I remain bemused by the exhortation – issued by the captain or first officer – to ‘sit back and enjoy the flight’.  I am basically in a glorified bus: though it lacks the free wifi, charging point or anything like the legroom or seat width of the local buses.  I suppose it does have wings and is capable of flight which is certainly helpful when crossing an open body of water and beyond the compass of most buses.

Given that the plane’s seats are not placed adjacent to the aircraft windows (if anything they seem to have a window-phobia – perhaps Microsoft related?), added to which the pod holding the engines and landing gear obscures the view from most of the windows, passengers can only obtain rather limited entertainment (usually involving some degree of neck-strain) from observing the ground and clouds unfurl beneath us.  Food is limited, not great and rather over-priced.  The ears are assailed by the constant drone of the engines.  On only a tiny fraction of the FlyBe fleet do the seats recline – enabling one to ‘sit back’ – and given the rather cramped quarters I have never felt it fair to use this functionality and further squash the poor soul travelling behind me.  My feeling is that the only enjoyment to be had on the flight will either come from conversation with the passenger sitting next to you or, more likely, you will have to bring it yourself.  Modern technology makes this straightforward but I feel I am less ‘enjoying the flight’ and more enjoying myself, as best I can, while the flight continues in the background.  All of the enjoyment I have obtained on these flights could easily have been accomplished in greater comfort without the flight!

Is there some flight-related fun to be had on a Dash 8 that I remain unaware of?  Could the low-level vibrations be used to some pleasurable (and legal in public) end?  Should we, the passengers, be playing a high-altitude version of sardines on the flight?  And if so, how would this interact with the allocated seating and the severely nose-heavy nature of the Dash 8?

This last Wednesday, I ‘sat back’ (bolt upright) and ‘enjoyed’ (endured) my last two flights of 2018.  The first was somewhat delayed by the entire check-in systems at Southampton airport crashing and the staff having to return to a hand-written, paper-based system to ensure the right passengers and luggage ended up on each aircraft.  The return took place in the 21st century and it was with a feeling of release (and relief) that I climbed down the ricketty steps for the last time until mid-January.

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My final sky-chariot of 2018 (not pulled by goats, disappointingly)

It is somehow sad that an activity which would have been miraculous for most of human history and until recently would have been the reserve of a wealthy elite has been rendered so mundane and even tedious.  There is slightly more ceremony involved than catching the bus or train – but only because of security and the relative infrequency of flights and their inability to take standing passengers (though I’m sure Michael O’Leary is working on the latter) – but short-haul flying is very short of romance (unless that is what I should be doing in the air while sitting back?).

On Thursday evening, I once again found myself in ‘a space’ arts‘ Arch 04 for the latest instalment of Playlist.  This started with Karla Powell playing Luciano Berio’s Sequenza vii – the most extraordinarily virtuosic piece for the oboe I have ever seen: it must have been an exhausting 7 minutes and the sheet music looked terrifying!

The concert finished with Tom Moore and Archie Churchill-Moss giving us a modern twist on folk tunes on the violin/viola and the accordion.  As it transpires, this was almost exactly a year since I last saw the boys at the launch of their first album – Laguna – at the Harrison in London.  I rather hope they will continue to name their albums after Renaults and look forward to their sophomore effort: Megane or 19, perhaps.  It is becoming a regular event for Facebook to provide a memory of what I was doing exactly 12 months ago and for me to discover that I had done (almost) exactly the same thing last night.  It sometimes feels like I’m stuck in a time loop – destined to repeat myself until the merciful release of death – or is that just being middle-aged?

However, it is the middle piece of the concert – by Seán Clancy – that is relevant to my thesis.  He is a composer based in Dublin but working at the Birmingham Conservatoire.  As a result, he too spends a lot of time in the air over the Irish Sea – though he has the further disadvantage of using Ryanair, who I suspect make FlyBe appear the very paragon of customer service.  Rather than chanelling this experience into rather too many words, he took the main events of each flight, their typical timings and the engine noise to produce an amazing 35(ish) minute drone piece called Ireland-England.  This he played on some astonishingly compact synths (ideal for the regular commuter to or from Hibernia and quite tempting future purchases for more than one member of the audience!) with a slideshow with various facts about what brings people from the island of Ireland to England (some of which were new to me).  It was an amazing piece and I’d love to have an extended version (which I think is doable) – Southampton to Belfast/Dublin by turboprop takes rather longer than Dublin to Birmingham by jet –  to listen to on my next flight.  I think that this, coupled with some noise-cancelling headphones to ensure that the only drones were Seán’s, would allow me to sit back and enjoy myself (though, I would – once again – be the one bringing the source of my enjoyment).

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Tuning the synths… (who knew?)

It is events like these that could send me into a downward solipsistic spiral, but I think I shall continue to treasure my insignificance (even within the human realm) and put it down to coincidence.  Well, that plus the fact that if I go out often enough some things are bound to be linked eventually (and so appear in these pages)…

 

PS: For any readers pondering the goat reference, Odin’s chariot is pulled by two goats: Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr .  These are then eaten by the gods, before being resurrected by Mjölnir to allow the process to be repeated.  The Norse gods were surprisingly sustainable!