Channelling Gogol: Going through the motions

I have good reason to believe that we are reaching the end of the twelfth week of lockdown.  It has been somewhat relaxed: less, I fear, in response to careful balancing of the science around the virus and the mutliple adverse impacts on life and excess mortality caused by lockdown and more to provide covering fire for the increasingly surreal behaviour of members of the government and its senior advisors.  I don’t think a virus has the capability to take control of humans – either directly or fiscally controlling behaviour – but fungi can cause very odd behavour in ants and such capture would explain a lot.  In a world with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis anything is possible…

I have broadly continued with my existing attempts not to go down in history as the Typhoid Mary de nos jour: though I have been enjoying the opportunity for longer bike rides to explore further afield.  I have now cycled to Winchester, Mottisfont, Lyndhurst and Hamble (plus a range of points in between) and each journey has brought its share of joys and annoyingly frequent hills.  The ability of horses to ascend relatively steep slopes has left all too many modern roads, inheritors of more ancient ways, rambling up and down hills for no very good reason.  If only man had discovered the railways sooner and the importance of following a contour line rather than willfully ignoring them!

I can’t be sure that this is a related phenomonen but I have had to say goodbye to an unusually high number of pairs of keks since lockdown began: I am blaming hill-based expansion in my thighs and buttocks for this increased wear-and-tear.  By the way, I do not wear normal keks for cycling but have a small range of padded numbers that I use to try and reduce the impact damage to a somewhat sensitive area occasioned by the relatively poor quality of local road maintenance: so we cannot blame increased friction between my saddle and nethers.

The nature of the last twelve weeks had meant that each day is very much like its predecessor.  I am not claiming that my pre-lockdown life was filled with danger and excitement, I was not typically descending Mont Blanc on my ironing board (to proffer but one example of an activity eschewed), but recent weeks have brought home the extent to which life is a matter of conjuring up, from the stuff of chaos, some semblence of purpose to cover the next sixteen hours of consciousness.  I deliberately chose the word ‘purpose’ rather than ‘meaning’ as I think I gave up on that as a life goal some considerable time ago.  In the first Discworld novel, when explaining the four fundamental forces that apply, Terry Pratchett noted that charm allowed trees to grow and bloody-mindedness kept them up.  I’m not sure that charm had much to do with my being brought forth into this world, though at times I’m fairly certain the bloody-mindedness has kept me here.  More broadly, given that I was brought up to believe that dying was in some unspecified way a slightly rude and attention-seeking activity (the sort of thing that would happen on ITV), it is perhaps as well that the human body decays and tends to force the issue at some point or I fear some weird politesse would render me irritatingly immortal.

Nevertheless, the Sisyphean struggle to imbue each day with purpose does seem to involve a stone and hill of monotonically increasing weight and gradient respectively.  This has led to me turning the mattress, vaccuming areas untouched since I moved and finally connecting my piano and Macbook via MIDI to allow me to “lay down” some tracks.  I would note that my filthy windows show that there are still heavier stones and more tightly packed contour lines yet to be brought to bear.  When not trying to solve the clean energy crisis by boosting the rate at which Bach and Scarlatti are spinning in their respective graves, I have been attempting to create a MIDI track of the right hand (the left hand is a project for a more serious pandemic) of the Noveltones 1963 ‘hit’ Left Bank Two.  And no, I’m afraid I can’t return any of your pictures: I’m not made of stamps.  I have found that the computer faithfully records on the score what I actually play rather than what I am intending to play.  I can generally render all the right notes in the right order, but the length of those right notes and rests between them can diverge somewhat from the accepted mean.  At this stage, I am hoping to pass off this difference as ‘swing’: probably of the continuously variable kind.

Work remains a boon.  On days when I feel too enervated and lacking in energy or focus to watch allegedely mindless television I find I am still quite capable of reading complex legal directives and regulations and indeed drafting my own legal text.  I’m not sure this is some indication of my own desperate mental state or a sign that we are massively over-paying lawyers (and, of course, I cannot discount the possibility that both statements are true).

This past week though was graced by some actual purpose: for the first time since lockdown I had an indoor appointment not in my own tiny flat.  Boosting my solipsism no end, this coincided with the first concerted rainfall in Southampton since the start of lockdown: see I am important, the uncaring universe saves precipitation for almost twelve weeks until it knows it can get me wet (little does it realise I have Welsh antecedents and spent most of my childhood holidays in North Wales: I am broadly waterproof!).  Yes, I had to cycle off to give my socially-distanced blood.  Well, perhaps wisely, NHSBT decided against 2m long needles: they would require extraordinary motor control to hit a vein with any accuracy.  However, we donors were kept apart from each other and masks and near continuous wiping down of everything were de rigeur.  My own donation was made in a specially kitted out conference room in a part of the centre normally off-limits to civilians.  The changed circumstances since twelve weeks ago did mean the process took a little longer than usual – no bad thing when trying to fill each unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run (always good to slip a cake reference in) .  More sadly, there was also a reduction in the range of biscuits available (though due to a purchasing error, KitKat fans were in for a treat) and I had to substitute an Orange Club for my usual Mint and could only consume the one before I felt that I might be outstaying my welcome (I refer you to my earlier remarks on politesse).  Still, it filled a good three hours of my Wednesday with real purpose: roll on another twelve weeks!

Anyway, I have to attempt a solo ceilidh shortly as a sacrificial guinea pig: I may be stripping my own willow within the hour (and I’m not sure my medical insurance covers this).   I shall be relying on the far worse behaviour of senior members of the government which will, no doubt, shortly be unearthed to make this legal before a prosection can be successfully brought.  If only I could get a note from my optician…

The Unregarded Digit

Since the new John Hansard Gallery opened last Friday evening, I have already passed through its doors more often than I did in the four-and-a-half years I’ve lived in Southampton and it was resident at its former site on the university campus.  OK, I’ll admit that this wasn’t that hard (it only required the threshold to be crossed twice) but I think it does illustrate the importance of location for a public cultural institution.  After tomorrow, the Gallery closes again until it opens permanently in May.  To my own astonishment, I find I am going to miss it: I won’t be able to just nip in on my way home from the shops or a haircut and I’ll miss my ‘friends’ of the Sampler who will have been replaced by new exhibitions come May.  It seems a good thing that art and culture is integrated with the other stuff of life, not something apart and only for ‘special’ people.

I think the JHG has one other major advantage over other art galleries in attracting passing trade.  Whereas your typical art gallery may boast a more, or less, architecturally distinguished home it rarely offers any taste of the delights which might lie within, except perhaps for the odd piece of sculpture.  At the JHG, a huge amount of the ground floor is comprised of floor to ceiling glass offering any passers-by a full view of some of the art on offer – even when the gallery is closed!  Whilst this exposure to the sun’s all-too-powerful rays wouldn’t suit every artwork, the interactive Sampler exhibits seem perfectly suited to peaking the interest of the public and drawing them inside.  There is a joy in pressing one’s nose against the glass which most art institutions seem to have neglected to their detriment.

When you do enter, you are presented with Huddlehood and the Conversation Station.  Both of these artworks invite the audience to be involved – both with the art and with each other (and also with the staff of the JHG).  On my visit yesterday, I took well over an hour to get past Conversation Station – and even then, never quite got round to playing with the artwork and using its collection of materials of different sizes, shapes and forms to build my own space for conversation.  Instead, I spent my time in fascinating conversation with the artists supporting the exhibit, talking about what role art and galleries might play in society today and what benefits they bring to visitors.  I’m not sure I brought any particularly novel insights to bear, but I will share a few of my thoughts on the matter (if that is not being rather too grand) as part of this post.

I don’t think I come from a particularly arty background.  I don’t remember visiting art galleries as a child and the only art I can remember at home were prints of Terence Cuneo’s paintings of steam trains, each with a mouse hidden somewhere in the picture and I probably wasn’t aware that the pictures were prints at the time.  My childhood was a long time ago, so I may have forgotten some art-based brainwashing by my parents or teachers – but to the best of my knowledge, visiting art galleries is a project I have developed on my own as an adult (in age-terms, if no others).  I’m not really sure how it began but it might have been going to see an exhibition of pre-Columbian art at the Hayward Gallery after reading a book about the cultures of meso-America or it might have been the Neue Pinakothek in Munich as a plausible (and cheap) touristy thing to do in November and where I first saw a Kandinsky: both of these would have been in my mid 20s when I first lived and worked in London.

I value art and galleries as an escape from the always-on, rushing around, instant gratification of much of modern life.  An art gallery is a space where – unless the exhibition is hideously crowded – one can spend time away from the hectic pace of life in just mooching around and contemplating.  You can approach things in your own time, at your own pace and in your own order: unless some over-zealous curator has imposed an Ikea-like labyrinth on the visitor (Grr!  Just because you studied Art History, you don’t have to inflict it on the rest of us!).  Each artwork acts as the start of a conversation with the viewer, but if you don’t want to join in then it won’t be offended if you move on immediately to find a more appealing interlocutor.  There are no comments below the line with an artwork and you can spend as much time, or as little, as you like considering what it is saying to you – which may be entirely unrelated to what the artist imagined it might say – and allowing your mind to wander where it will.  I usually find a few pieces call out to me immediately demanding attention, but it is often a shyer work which ends up becoming my friend.  Sometimes, as with human friends, it is only after spending time with them – and perhaps going away and returning later – that you come to realise that this is the work for you.  Over the my years of gallery going, I think I have come to enjoy a wider range of artworks then I did at the beginning – perhaps this is just age, or perhaps I understand I wider range of points-of-view and approaches to making art than I did.  I’ll usually still encounter work which I view as a complete waste of time and materials – but then again, I don’t like or understand every book, or TV show or film or song that it created so why should I like or appreciate every work of visual art.  Equally, I can’t think of any gallery visit where I haven’t found something which appeals or makes my think or consider a different view point.

Art galleries do tend to have a rather hushed vibe, like a library, and I will admit to turning my mobile phone off when I visit: though this is probably more about the embarrassment of it ringing (anywhere – it’s equally humiliating on a bus) than any need to maintain a sepulchral feel.  I wonder if this puts people off, along with a certain class of gallery goer?  As I’ve said, art is a conversation and, while I often go alone, I do enjoy going with friends so we can have a good discussion about what we see, its merits and what it might mean.  Yesterday, I went alone but as already established bent the ears of the resident artists for far longer than is acceptable in polite society.  This did yield a strong recommendation to head up the stairs to see a video artwork called Don’t Look at the Finger by Hetain Patel.  I am generally rather sceptical about video art and it always seems to have the wrong feel for a gallery somehow: it forces the conversation too much and creates a long time commitment.  As a result, I tend to skip these parts of galleries – but I am so glad I didn’t yesterday.

I can think of few better ways I might have spent 14-odd minutes – and this despite the fact that it was clearly lunchtime by the time the film started. As a work it is tricky to describe: it has elements of sign-language, of dance and of martial arts blended together in a way which could only work on video.  A more traditional staged approached would not have permitted the audience to be close enough, nor to experience the work from teh right places.  It also features the most incredible textiles in the clothing of the participants and, at one stage, these are changed through an origami-like process to reveal even more glorious detail to their design and to reflect a turning point in the piece.  It has also has a strong emotional element, in particular when the main female protagonist smiles for the first time it lights up the whole room and the life of the viewer.  I spent most of the running time in slack-jawed amazement that anything so incredible had been created and I was allowed to watch it, for free!  I shall be returning to watch it again this afternoon, but there is a certain sadness that I can never again see it for the first time…

My other great joy from my visits so far are the leached-out, grey-scale photographs of the play of light and shadow with forms and angles taken of and during the construction of the building.  Seeing them for a second time, I have new favourites to add to my existing friends.  They are such an interesting way of looking on mundane concrete, plaster board panels, wiring and pipes and I’d love to have some at home: I hope the JHG finds some way to keep them as they are beautiful and a document of its rebirth.  If not, I am going to miss them terribly.

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Embracing the grey!

As usual there is no great message here, but if you have a local art gallery why not take a look and, if they are up for it, why not chat to the people working there: you never know what they might introduce you to!

Overflow

Sadly, GofaDM is not making a brave new move into solving your plumbing issues, though, I do like to think of myself as a rather good theoretical plumber: I just draw the line at getting my hands dirty and actually engaging with the mundane reality of pipes, olives and washers.

I have a tendency to either try and fit far too much into my life or to while away many an hour without any apparent achievement.  Sometimes, I seem to manage to do both at once: which is simultaneously impressive, logically impossible and somewhat frustrating.

Last Saturday was definitely one of the ‘stuff-it-all-in’ kinds of day.  By the end of it, I was surprised that what remains of my grey matter wasn’t oozing out of my ears given the rather excessive amount of stimulation and input I had forced into it.

I first headed into town, as Southwest Trains were once again offering a £15 return to the capital, and Saturday was one of the very few days this quarter when journeying by train to London would not be viewed as rather a palaver by a polar explorer.  Network Rail seem determined to keep those of us lying south-west of Basingstoke away from the City: unless we are willing to devote many hours to the voyage, enjoy bus travel and don’t want to stay out late (or are willing to stay out until the following morning).  My primary objective was to visit a circus (so no great surprise there), but as it was a rare opportunity to access the heady delights of London I managed to crowbar in a couple of gallery visits first.

My first was looking at Painting the Modern Garden at The Royal Academy.  This was very good, if rather busy, but had almost too many paintings for my poor brain to take in.  I did discover that there seems to have been some degree of fashion in blooms – or at least the painting thereof – and that I much prefer the Impressionists’ take on the dahlia than I do that offered by modern gardeners.  Several of the gardens I would like to decamp to right now, but I think my favourite work was a painting of Gertrude Jekyll’s boots.  I remain ever the contrarian!

My second gallery was at the Barbican looking at the work of Charles and Ray Eames.  As you might imagine, there were a fair few chairs on offer – but their oeuvre was much wider than I’d realised.  The exhibition included a splendid film – of the type one used to see through the arched window in the Play School of my youth – showing the making of a fibreglass chair.   However, my favourite take-away was not the film, nor even the chair but one of the three colours in which it was first offered.  How have we forgotten greige?  Surely, the finest name for a colour ever created!  I want my flat repainted and carpeted in greige (which I am pronouncing to rhyme with beige) when next this is needed.  I am determined to restore it to the mainstream!  I want all GofaDM readers to start using it: force it into conversation, email or tweet if you must.

I was ostensibly at the Barbican to see the Australian circus company, Circa (the Eames were just an amuse bouche).  Their current work is called Il Ritorno and was of indescribable (by me at least) brilliance.  The physical work was, in many ways, of a nature and unshowy difficulty I’d never seen before and whilst not narrative delivered a very strong emotional heft.  Not only that, but they have comprehensively outdone me when it comes to juxtaposition.  The amazing and moving physical feats shared the stage with a harpsichord.  Not just a harpsichord, but a harp, cello and violin and their players further augmented by a tenor and a mezzo.  I literally did not know where to look much of the time: almost all my cultural interests on stage at once with circus, theatre and music seamlessly melded.  I fear I left rather shell-shocked and with the need to up my game on all fronts!

Even at that stage, the day was not yet empty of delights.  I returned to Southampton and spent the evening with three stunning guitarists at the Art House café.  I even learnt a little guitar technique from Clive Carroll: though by the time I’m ready to put it into use I fear the lesson may have been lost.

It was a great day, but frankly far more experience than my ageing brain can safely absorb in a twelve hour period.  Were I a computer, I think some sort of overflow error would have been in order.  Luckily, as a biological computer, at no stage did I need to dump my stack and so avoided embarrassment (well, any more than is usually occasioned by my excursions into the wider world).

Stiff awakening

You may suggest that this is an occupational hazard, given my “choice” to be a boy or, for that matter, my advanced age.  However, GofaDM is not at home to innuendo or ageism – so we will all pretend you didn’t suggest any such thing.

Nevertheless, this morning I awoke with all the flexibility of the geriatric love-child of DFS and a King Edward.  I don’k think that I have to look very far for an explanation: only as far as my combination of activities yesterday – and so, in line with the public service remit of GofaDM, I felt I should issue a warning to any readers who might be similarly disposed.

Friday morning was, as is traditional, devoted to gymnastics and to various ring and bar based activities that younger (and wiser) men would baulk at.  Still, foolishness can carry a chap quite a long way and I continue to make astonishing progress towards my ludicrous goals.  I then returned home for a quick shower and some lunch before heading to London.

My afternoon and evening were spend in galleries, with friends, looking at a pretty broad range of art.  We started at the British Museum with its exhibition on Germany.  This ties in with Neil McGregor’s excellent recent Radio 4 series, Germany: Memories of a Nation.  It was fascinating, especially the more recent years which were surprising (to me at least – but then my O level history did stop in 1914) and hold a number of lessons for today’s UK (the parallels with 1930s Germany were alarming).  The series made reference to a number of objects, many of which graced the exhibition.  From this I learned that, despite Neil’s excellent verbal descriptions, my ability to visualise anything from the radio is truly awful.  The exhibition also tied in to some recent reading, Simon Winder’s Danubia, which also covered some of the German speaking world.  It is amazing how much a little background can add to the experience of such an exhibition.

After a brief break for refreshments, we took a look at a smaller exhibition of prints featuring witches – which did very strongly suggest artists through the ages have become worryingly overwrought when thinking about powerful women.  This space led naturally into the Japanese collections of the BM.  This covered two areas of particular interest to me – very old earthenware which was not at all as one imagines Japanese art and very recent ceramics.  Some of the current ceramics were absolutely stunning – elegant forms, beautiful decoration and amazing use of colour.  I was pleased to see that a number of the makers had been officially recognised as Living National Treasures.  Something we might like to consider here, where national treasures tend only to be unofficial and usually need a substantial presence on television for even that.  I suspect Grayson Perry is our closest analogue.

We then moved to the Royal Academy and started with some more serious bodily fortification in the calming space of the Keeper’s House.  The RA is a splendid place to get away from the hustle (and even the bustle: though the bustle is much less fashionable than it was – surely only a matter of time before some Hoxton hipster adopts it once more?) of London and the Keeper’s House, as well as providing sustenance (both liquid and solid), also provides some great people-watching opportunities.

We went to the RA to visit the Anselm Kiefer exhibition (not just for its cafe).  I had no interest in Herr Kiefer – and a slightly negative, if almost entirely uninformed, view of his work – but my friend loves him and her recommendations have never led me astray.  Added to this, as a Friend on the RA there was no cost to risking a modest expansion of my artistic horizons.  The exhibition was incredible and so well curated.  I don’t love all of his work, but almost all is thought provoking and much is very moving.  Ages of the World, a new work commissioned for this exhibition was my favourite – but probably a dozen pieces can add themselves to my (non-existent) list of favourite works of art.  Totally contradicting my earlier pronouncement, arriving with (almost) no preconceived ideas made for a thrilling and emotional evening.  However, our earlier art experiences did feed very well into the Kiefer – especially Germany and the importance of the forest, but also some of the Japanese painting.  Going to the RA in the evening (as it opens late on a Friday) was a revelation – somehow it feels a more natural time than when it is daylight outside – and the galleries were very thinly attended giving lots of opportunity to get up-close and personal with the paintings (though not too close – some used tiny diamonds and if you lean too close to look, alarms go off).

The only downside to all this culture is that gallery visiting is very hard on the body – or at least my body.  I usually try to limit it to an hour or so per day, and even then it makes my legs, back and neck ache.  I don’t know why this should be – but it has been the case for as long as I’ve been visiting galleries (so I don’t think I can blame it on my age).  Yesterday, I probably spend three or more hours doing “art” – and coupling that with the earlier gymnastics may not have been entirely wise.  I strikes me that I have never spotted an elite gymnast in an art gallery and I suspect that my aching body may explain this absence.

Now, I can only personally attest to the combination of gymnastics and then gallery, so it is possible that the reverse sequence leads to an ache-free existence (but I have my doubts).  The again, I had a wonderful day yesterday and a few aches this morning is a small price to pay.  So, readers should view this post as a warning rather than a prohibition.

Trust Twitter (sometimes)

It is very easy to wonder about the point of Twitter: particularly if you have the misfortune to read my occasional productions (or are awaiting the next chapter of my Twitter novel).  It is often seen as the haunt of trolls and a good place to find idiotic young people for the police to arrest in a blaze of publicity (and poppies).

It offers me an outlet for my shorter pieces of written stupidity and provides the occasional chuckle at the witticisms or pictures tweeted by the select(ish) few that I follow.  However, it can also offer real world utility to the user (well, this user anyway).

As has been established, it introduced me to 10 Greek Street which I visited yesterday evening.  I was in town for work, but manage to tack on some pleasure after my duties to “the man” were complete.  It was a particularly good visit in a number of ways:

  • Most practically, I learned a whole new way to prepare curly kale or cavolo nero to avoid introducing excessive stalk into the final dish.  It was a technique I would never have thought of for myself (I might even tell you what the trick is one day, but only after I’ve tested it myself – it looked easy, but that may have been down to the skill of the chefs).
  • The starter also gave me some ideas for something different to do with the squashes that are in season at the moment – and included that 10GS favourite, burrata.
  • The meal was accompanied by a particularly lovely (and reasonably priced) glass (OK, two) of red wine: a Costières de Nîmes.
  • Finally, such is my trust in the food there that I tried a main course that I would never have risked elsewhere (even at home).  I made the right choice!  The onion tart was absolutely sublime – containing halved onions so sweet and delicious I would never have imagined it possible.  It also avoided generating the adverse side-effects which onion-ingestion can engendered in your author.  A fact much appreciate by the later theatre audience and those sharing my train home.

The same chap who introduced me to the delights of Greek Street had also made reference to Albam Clothing – who, all too rarely in this day and age, sell clothing and related items which are manufactured in the UK.  Yesterday, I finally made my way to one of the London shops and left with a smart Aiguille rucksack made in the Lake District, so it should be able to keep my stuff dry even given the rather moist climate which now seems to dominate South Cambs (very much a new lake district in the making).  I also acquired a navy cardigan (the colour rather than the armed service), well I am middle-aged: what did you think I wore?

Before this orgy of food and shopping, I made time for some art.  I decided to check out some of the gear my membership of the Art Fund had helped to secure for the nation.  Can’t say I was wildly impressed by the Titian’s – his heads seem too small for their bodies – but that is probably my fault rather than his.  Still, I did see some very interesting stuff at the National Gallery and could feel that the odd square millimetre (or more likely, micron) of it was, in some way, mine!

Before that I went to a gallery in an area of London never previously graced by my presence – the area between Dalston and Haggeston.  I had previously though this was some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland – and was pleasantly surprised to find that areas were really rather beautiful.  It also led to my first trip on the London Overground – which spent most of its time underground, but then again my immediately preceding journey on the Underground mostly took place above ground – much swankier than the East London line it replaced and hugely extended.

My destination played host to an exhibition I had discovered through Twitter – though I can no longer remember who brought it to my attention.  The exhibition was entitled Horrorgami and was a set of 13 kirigami works – each an iconic building from a horror film – in a light box.  Kirigami is like origami – it is made by folding paper, but you are allowed to cut the paper.  I have no particular interest in horror films, but the “models” were incredible and very beautiful and must require the most incredible planning and cutting and folding precision.  I am now wondering where I could fit one at home: I have narrowed it down to shortlist of four works, but it will need to be installed near a mains supply.  I would thoroughly recommend going to the exhibition – but you’ll have to hurry as tomorrow is the final day!

My final event of the day was unrelated to Twitter, but was vaguely trust-related.  I went to see a play which was very highly rated in reviews when it was on at the Royal Court earlier in the year, but tickets were impossible to come by.  Yesterday, it started a short run in the West End and I managed to snag a ticket for the first night (though at rather higher cost than it would have been at the Royal Court).  The play, Constellations, was very good – and pleasingly brief and interval free (so, home to bed at a reasonable time) – funny, sad and thought provoking.  No real scenery but an amazing set comprised of light globes and balloons and very clever lighting design to capture jumps between the many-worlds involved.

Sometimes, I feel my life is pretty good – but then again, I am a pretty cheap date: my ambitions and desires can generally be met on a pretty modest budget.