HYTHPIC 1

The educational propositions of Utopia, laid out by David Austin and David Page.

 

I was walking past a junior school the other day: a nice school—a clarity of glass and formal brick with a warmth to it. The children had finished their break, the whistle had blown, and they were moving in. Crumpled over the railing in front of the school was an elderly man: as I came nearer I realised that he was convulsed with laughter. Tears were running down his cheeks. I must have looked puzzled, because he gestured with his hand and said, “Excuse me,” and then, as he wiped his eyes, “but it is all so very extraordinary. I have just been to see your zoo,” he said, “and the parallel is exact. You put your young into houses, yes? And there are keepers to control and feed them. Only to watch the tea-party here, it is free.”

 

I must admit I was piqued, although I am not a specially patriotic man. “Look here,” I said, “it’s generally agreed that our educational system is pretty good; we have put up some splendid buildings and we’re working on the old ones. The teachers are decent and thoughtful, on the whole, and the methods are improving—gradually, but perceptibly. How much better do you do in your country?”

 

Hythpic 2

 

His eyes widened. “Oh, but—” he said, “you see, we do not shut small people away, and do things to them. We leave them free, and let them grow in their own way.” I started angrily. “That’s a completely- Utopian idea . . .” but he caught my hand and before I could say any more was pumping my arm like mad, laughing and smiling. “Come, come, we must have a drink together, you are the first person, the first, mark my words, who had guessed my country. Tell me what you know of Utopia.”

 

Though of course, he told me; as we walked to a nearby pub we fell to discussing the stranger’s outrageous view of a generally accepted and admired system. He was not, it seemed, as ignorant of our ways as had appeared at first; but the novelty of the Utopian system gave me the strangest sensation, like a man standing on a path in the early morning mist, perceiving an unfamiliar set of shapes and volumes, not recognising his own house.

 

“Without schooling,” I said, “how can you possibly educate your Utopian children?” “In Utopia No-one is Educated,” he replied. On seeing the surprise and disbelief in my reaction he hastened to explain. “Our language does not have your transitive verb to educate. But what child would choose to go to school except following the Pied Piper, to find out where the other kids had gone? We have no schools to interrupt the process of learning, nor professional educators to corrupt it.”

 

Hythpic 3a

 

“Corrupt it,” I cried, unable to restrain myself, “but the pedagogic profession is most highly respected among us: we keep the remuneration very low, precisely so that mere material gain shall not exercise those who enter it. It is regarded as the vehicle which transmits our culture from generation to generation.” “In Utopia,” the imperturbable stranger replied pleasantly, “we are not as aware as yourselves of the generations. Furthermore your culture seems to me to be trimmed and distorted to fit your educators’ own dimensions. Your educators, after all, need reassurance as to the effectiveness of their work, which they will get by asking questions. To ensure that they will be reassured indeed, they teach children the answers to those questions which they intend to ask. We have a joke in my country about a self-fulfilling Professory. Indeed, it is much easier to pass on neatly ordered knowledge—to teach people a grammar in place of a language—and in the process English teachers produce philistines, and mathematics teachers produce tally-men.

 

” We paused to buy some beer and sit down. I was in something of a brown study over my glass. “Supposing,” I said, “that you are right; what then is the use of our educational system?”

 

“A good question,” he replied. “Primary education is unnecessary —children learn to read and calculate from literate and numerate parents anyway. Children of illiterate innumerate parents do not learn anyway. It is no good teaching children: you must first teach parents. However, primary schools do keep children off the streets, where they might pick up something useful. Secondary schools perform largely the same function, meanwhile selecting a docile group for training as an intellectual elite. Of course, no one knows whether they are intellectually superior, since it cannot be tested, nor what such a phrase implies, but it is enough that everyone believes it to be true, for so one gets your Government by Consent. In tertiary education, then, this elite is trained in obsolescent techniques by those who can’t or won’t make their way in their own profession.”

 

“It’s true,” I said, “that most would say their most intensive period of learning took place in the first two years after the course ended,” and he replied, “Why then postpone this experience?”

 

Hythpic 3b

 

But I wanted to go back a point or two. “You said that it is parents who teach; but in this complex age what two parents could cover the range of learning needed?” “Why two?” he said. “In Utopia a Wise Child Chooses All its Parents. Natural curiosity leads a child to those who can help him. In your country, contrariwise, two parents have two point five children, a dog, a cat, and three rose trees—and they build a wall around them!”

 

“It’s natural to want privacy,” I retorted.

 

“By privacy,” he said, “you mean freedom from intrusion while you do all those things which it is more fun to do in groups. The children, locked in, destroy your ‘privacy’ far more effectively than the neighbours you lock out; yet they long to get away—and do indeed escape for some hours to the community—to a larger house, a larger walled garden, and teachers in loco parentis (a quaint phrase). And through their life they will be pursued by the spectral ideal of the Big Happy Family. In the meantime, however, you protect them from the people next door, and they protect their children from you.”

 

“But eventually,” I said, “their education comes to an end and they get on with the serious business of life.”

 

“You mean this education was not serious?”

 

“Not the same as work.”

 

Hythpic 4a

 

“Aha, work. In Utopia Nobody Works. People make things, people create.. But by work, in your society, you mean doing something for most of the day, by compulsion. I have tried to analyse this. As far as I can see your people do three kinds of work. They slave laboriously because they are cheaper than machines which could do the same job. Secondly they watch machines slaving because they are cheaper than machines which could watch the machines. Thirdly they organise this money which discovers the shocking cost of machines in terms of human labour, and organise it with such complication that everyone forgets what it means. And so you have Economics: the solemn study of the phenomenology of a metaphor. Perhaps the real use of your education is to accustom men to a pattern of work, and to suppress their creative impulse—otherwise who would stand for it? But I forgot, there is a consolation prize, and this too we have not got: In Utopia there is No Dignity of Labour.”

 

“Talking of dignity,” I said, “let us return to the old; how do you look after them?”

 

“I am glad you mention them, for I had been told that here it was impolite to do so.”

 

“But what do you do for them?”

 

“We do not make them different,” he said. “In Utopia we Give Toys on Every Birthday. With toys one explores the world; one stops needing them when one stops learning. While the old learn, they are no different from the young, and in our society the young pass on the culture of the tribe to the old. Here it seems to me, even those in middle age have stopped learning, are frightened. But I forgot your national hero, from your most famous book—looking at his watch and exclaiming ‘Oh my ears and whiskers, I shall be late’.”

 

At this point, suddenly, he would say no more. We played a game of darts, but I got little more from him but a visiting card.

 

Hythpic 4b

 

I have not slept very well recently. I am haunted by the image of a man bent over a railing, helpless with laughter.

 

Note

David Austin and David Page wrote this article for the Spring issue of ARK (Journal of the Royal College of Art) 1970, before they had read Paul Goodman’s article, “The Present Moment in Education” in ANARCHY 107; Homage was then reprinted in Anarchy 115 (sadly without the drawings, more costly to reproduce in those days). We owe this dialogue to English teacher Harold Sheldrake, who made who made DP read Utopia, thus slightly undermining the argument here presented. Isn’t that just like life?

 

 

 

 

 

This was a Guardian headline: it was in fact about museum charges, but all the same it is a good question. The answer is, NO.

 

The great majority of living artists make no money at all: the lucky ones cover their costs. By ‘artists’ here I mean creators of visual or visual /tactile works produced for their own sake, as opposed to the (no less estimable) ‘designers’ who make works to satisfy specified criteria for clients who commission the work in advance. There is a perennial debate about boundaries and what constitutes which. (By extension I also point to all creators of content)

 

In my lifetime I have known very few artists who made a living from their art. Peter Iden from the middle of his life (see my past blog); Terry Frost late in his life…. Like Terry, many artists have made an income from teaching in Art Schools & Departments, but reductions in part-time staffing must have greatly reduced that number. To restate it as emphatically as possible, most of the serious artists I know do not make more money than covers the cost of their activity, most of them living on other work or a pension: no-one I know makes a living wage from their art. We are, in the real sense of the word, amateurs: we only do it because we love it, or are addicted to it, which makes us entirely out of step with the times.

 

Does this mean that there is no longer a demand for visual images, or at any rate, for visual images made by artists? Contrariwise, technological change has enabled a much greater consumption of visual images than was possible in the past. These images used to be mediated by printing and printed media, via a long-winded (but loveable) technology which produced books, newspapers and magazines. Television first broke the monopoly of that technology, followed by other means of instant transmission. The new technologies have also enabled a vast mining of visual material in time and space. You only have to think of the way in which artists mined the visual material of Greece and Rome, using their own drawing via time- and skill-consuming media like etching, and then the way Picasso, Braque, Modigliani etc mined African art, to see that that ease of access has enormously increased the amount of visual material available to any individual. You might think this increase might remove the need for current origination. But no: the demand for new images , new ways of looking at the world, is increased rather than marginalised.

 

Partly this results from what we could call the Many Mansions and Wallpaper phenomenon. There are now an almost infinite number of spaces (Mansions) in the house, almost all of which require a visual element (Wallpaper). In the present world the visual component, which used to be freestanding or an optional extra, has become an essential. Sound is also an optional addition, but, so far, less essential than the visual. Some of us are paid, some of the time, to provide the visual component.

 

Artists are caught out by habits which were appropriate in the past, I mean that we present our reproduced images for free in order to advertise our unique objects; but the terms of trade have changed, and it is the reproduction which is now the valuable commodity. To take a current example, an original Auerbach painting may well be priced north of two million, but his images are dispersed through the media and are consumed, apparently for free, by millions who could never afford his unique object. For most of us, whose unique objects sell very far south of two million, a small incremental payment for each view or reproduction would be liable in aggregate to produce more than returns from sales of the unique objects themselves. This may seem a truism: what is new is its reinforcement by a massive change in technology. Some return comes from the use of our reproduced work in print, or on TV etc, , (though the terms of trade are not very favourable), but little or none flows from the Great Gobbler, ie the Internet. We get even less than musicians, which is saying a lot.

 

One central problem with the Internet, which admirably sets out to make everything available to all, is that a generation has grown up believing that content is, or should be, free for consumers, leaving creators of content marooned high and dry away from the tidal flow of income, which is what everyone else uses to buy the means of life. Well, you can have free content, and when you have done plundering the past there will be no new content, as the creators will have died out. Or you can pay for content and have living creators. You may try to shade it, but it’s that stark a choice. For those of us who are artists, or who want art to continue, there is only one option: to compel the new distributors of content to pay its creators the full fruit of their industry. We would not begrudge distributors their own fair reward for distributing, but we object to their taking 99% of the cake.

 

The traditional way, and still the best way, to confront this problem is through Trades Unions -with the proviso that here once again the new technology changes things. We no longer have the concentrated work-forces who made up the powerful industrial unions with their self-reinforcing ethos of solidarity in the work-place. We do however have instantaneous networks, a different form of connectivity, but potentially just as powerful as the old one. We need a confederal union for all creators of content, and one which transcends national boundaries as the distributors do, so that creators can enforce fair pay for work done. Such a system will not emerge overnight, but it will have to emerge.

 

Meantime the answer to the question “Should Art be Free?”is an emphatic NO. Art is work, and if you want live art, you must pay living artists.

 

 

18 01 2016

 

 

 

A remarkable literary event took place in Redenhall last week: through the diligence of a friend we were there. It might sound pretentious to say that this was a major event, the sort of thing which in London would be heralded by a fanfare of trumpets and celebrated in the media. Here in Norfolk however it was Corbyn-style modest, and no less wonderful for that.

The event was an introduction to, and part reading of, Arnold Wesker’s play Roots. The remarkable thing was that the performance took place in the front room of the actual cottage where Wesker wrote the play. For anyone who doesn’t know this fine play, it is peopled by Norfolk agricultural labourers and written in Norfolk dialect. This can be a problem: I listened to one BBC radio production in which the actors spoke assorted Loamshire (or at any rate, listened as long as I could bear it). On this occasion, however, it was performed in proper spirited speech: (some of the actors were native speakers), so it sounded like what you might hear in a corner of any Norfolk pub – only that it was rather clearer. We were told that the play is constantly in production: on that particular day there were 13 productions taking place elsewhere in the world, presumably translated into the appropriate agricultural regional argots of French, German, Korean or wherever, so the fact that it is not written in King’s English, or Buehnesprache etc, paradoxically makes it more, rather than less, available. So much for the Questione della Lingua: there does not have to be one central official language: we all speak and hear different language versions, and we can all perform in a variety of registers.

 

One way to describe Roots might be to call it a Norfolk Waiting for Godot, only with real people instead of archetypes, and with hope rather than despair. Beatie, the daughter of a farm-labouring family has been living in fabled London with East-End Jewish socialist Ronnie, the hero/anti-hero of the preceding play Chicken Soup with Barley. Here she is, back home, and bringing her family together to await the arrival of wonder boy-friend and intended husband Ronnie. Of course, as with Godot, he never arrives. But, and it is the point of the play, Beatie in a despair of abandonment suddenly discovers in herself an awakened ability to stand and deliver – Ronnie’s victory by proxy – a difficult transition for actor and director, but immensely moving in performance. Goodbye to the ‘ idiocy of rural life.’

It was great to enjoy the introduction to Wesker’s work, (I hadn’t realised how little he was taken to the heart of the British theatrical world), the warmly personal account by his old friend, the nephew of his wife Dusty, and sections of the drama performed, while we the audience looked out through the window, like Beattie’s mother, to see if the bus was passing. Wesker had looked through that window as he wrote the play. As if one could have sat in Dickens’ writing room for a reading of Copperfield, looking through the window from which he saw Miss Mowcher. It was that sort of amazing event.

I had forgotten just how funny, as well as poignant, the play was. When I gave a lecture on it to German students studying for a degree in English, in 1960 or ’61 (‘Contemporary British Literature’) I was worried that it was so much a naturalistic Ibsenite play, at a time when theatre seemed to be moving away from eavesdropping on the room behind the proscenium arch to a much wider and more flexible mode. But hearing it again now, that sort of concern seemed of no importance. Many flowers bloomed, in their own way. I was a bit sad also to hear that Wesker (you can hear him say it on the recent Desert Island Disks) regretted being bundled as an Angry Young Man. Contrariwise, I always wore AYM as a badge of pride. At that time, the mid ‘fifties, we were coming out of another ‘low dishonest decade,’ and there was plenty to feel angry about, and to denounce, and there is plenty of anger, as well as empathy, in the Wesker Trilogy

So rather more than half a century on, here we were, like Beatie, back in Norfolk, at last honouring a prophet in his own country, or at any rate a country he made his own. About time too. Thanks to all those who made it happen.

I suppose most people know the lines:

When I was but thirteen or so

I went a golden land

Chimborazo, Cotopaxi

Took me by the hand

For me romance was as absolute, but engendered differently. An exchange was organised for some of us at school, at the end of the 1940’s (probably via Doris Gare, our French teacher). I was put on a train in London, and met at the Gare du Nord by a man called Monsieur Nash, who took me back to the XIV Arondisement for the night: the next morning he put me on the train to Rochefort-sur-mer. Monsieur N , dressed in navy workers’ jacket and trousers, was an Englishman who had moved to France when young, had lived through the German Occupation unharmed, and now worked as a concierge: he had completely forgotten English: I asked him what words he remembered, and he replied “Plum Pudd-ing?”

At Rochefort I was met by Madame Masson and her son Paul, who was my exchange partner. They lived with M. Masson, le patron, proprietor of the Cafe du Medoc, avenue Camille Pelleton. (I have done a Google-walk, but I can’t see the cafe there now; in the evening the mosquitos used to float in from these plane trees outside, in clouds).

§ Cafe du Medoc   oil on canvas  c. 1951

Cafe du Medoc oil on canvas c. 1951

M.Masson was entirely devoted to his Cafe: he worked seven days a week, from dawn to dusk, and never took a holiday. The Cafe did not have a bathroom: it was a bowl and jug in the room. The cabinet (loo) adjoined the Cafe and was reached from the yard. It was the usual ceramic hole in the ground. with two islands for the feet; on the wall was a wire hook with neatly torn up pages from l’Equipe, the cycle racing paper. If you needed a crap you lowered yourself over the hole by holding onto a bar on the door, which also served to keep the door shut (there was no lock). If someone came and tried to get in while you were on the job it was a bit hard on the stomach muscles. If we needed a bath, there was the Municipal Bath-house, where piping hot yellow water poured into the large bath, straight from the river Charente, silt and all.

Madame Masson was plain but sweet-natured, totally committed to her son, her husband, and to the household. I owe her a lot. I often went along with her early to the morning market, where she would check the whole line, asking “Ils sont a combien les oeufs, Madame?” and so on, finally returning to the best offer. M. Masson, as I said, never left the Cafe, but in the early evening in season he would carefully write the latest placements of the Tour de France on the mirror behind the bar, using a stick dipped in some kind of whitewash,. Those were the grand days of riders like Fausto Coppi and Robic, and I was taken a couple of times for a long wait by the roadside to watch the race swish past in moments.

Mme. Masson took Paul and I to the sea-side – Fouras. Perhaps we all cycled there, and took the Teleferique across the Charente, or maybe we went by bus – like my family, the Massons did not have a car. The Teleferique was a platform which swished across the river suspended on long cables – now preserved as an ancient monument. On the coast we prized oysters off the rocks. We went to a casse-croute cafe with outside tables: you took your own food and just bought drink. Madameproduced a long French loaf and butter to eat with the oysters, and we ordered a bottle of white wine: it was one of the great meals of my life. I must have gone many times to Fouras, sculling a boat there, or swimming in warm water among vast jelly-fish. And of course I drew. and painted all the time, cycling out into the country. Madame Masson reproached me, in the nicest way, for not speaking enough French, but I made pictures relentlessly.

Fort Boyard from the Ile D'aix ?  oil on board c 1951

Fort Boyard from the Ile D’aix ? oil on board c 1951

Paul Masson was an only child, and in those days there didn’t seem to be any mixing of boys with girls in Rochefort: at any rate, though I would have been susceptible to their charms, I never actually got to know any young woman during my exchanges.

The only friendship I made outside the family was with a postman who frequented the cafe. He had a wooden leg, as so many did in those post-war days, but was a vigorous cyclist all the same, with one leg out before him like a prow. He suggested that I should join him fishing for eels -“S’il mouille, on y va pas,” he said. I think it did rain a bit, but we cycled off on a grey day and spent some hours looking at the water, occasionally lifting the cantilevered net, like Puvis de Chavannes’ Pauvre Pecheur, but catching nothing. The wags in the cafe were delighted, and a tall glass duly appeared on the bar, with a dead frog floating in it, and the legend “Specimen of Fishing at XXX.”

I realised, around then, that I was at home in France: I could speak French; sometimes I could even think in French, and I could connect with the past and the present. Later on in my life I spent time in other parts of Europe, and lived in Germany and Greece. I am a European by custom and conviction, a townsman and a countryman.

Yes, it is true that the present governance of this homeland of ours is muddled and inadequate, (partly because the pragmatic British have spent so long with one toe in the water, unwilling to commit). But after so many wars, this is a place within which we have ruled out fighting as a political tool, where we are free to enjoy wonderful lands, a magnificent history and culture. Let nobody try to take my European citizenship away. Have teeth. Will bite.

Over the years I have done a number of paintings which I have called Homages. I define this personal label, in a rather restrictive way, for paintings, interpreted and developed from black and white photographs of painters I admire. The use of news-photos as a basis for paintings is something Sickert freely used, aware that one can’t be there to see what a news-photographer sees, but that the content is immensely tempting: I have done some of that as well. Somehow trying to paint a picture of a painter you admire, in his environment, seems an affirmation and you hope some of it rubs off on you.

I have been making Homages for a long time: the earliest is a painting of Douanier Rousseau in his studio, holding his violin as if it was a palette, and his bow as if it was a rather long brush..

Douanier Rousseau in his studio acrylic

Douanier Rousseau in his studio 1961  acrylic on duck   68 x 46 cm

The image resonates for me with the description of the celebration banquet for the Douanier, described in that entrancing book The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck, at which, after tributes, Rousseau gave the company a waltz on his fiddle. I painted the picture in 1961, when I was living in Galatas, Greece, on the mainland opposite the island of Poros. (There is another, more personal, resonance here: I much later learned that Patrick Leigh-Fermor had lived down the road, at Lemonodassos in 1935. and that John Craxton and Lucien Freud had lived on Poros for a while in 1945). There is a bizarre surreality about the Douanier photograph, which the painting hoped to accentuate. Greek houses at that time tended to have framed photographs on their walls displaying family patriarchs and matriarchs: these were really artworks, because the portraits had been retouched and remodelled on the plate before printing, sometimes so much that the image was more drawing than photograph. This feature of Greece also suggested a possible direction.

What the Homages seek to do is to take an image of the admired (iconic) person – hero, if you like – and to re-interpret it so as to catch something more general about the artist and his view of the world and artistic vision (so far all the subjects have been men), while at the same expressing my own feeling about that  conceptual package. If that sounds pompous I apologise. So, anyway, it is not about making a pastiche, ‘in the style of’, and cannot depart too far from the framework of a photographic image or, as a portrait, from the recognisable features of the subject. These constraints, it seems to me, take the enterprise out to what Browning called ‘the dangerous edge of things’, to contradictions, with the danger of not satisfying any of the implied criteria because of exigencies created by the others.

GEORGES BRAQUE AT VARENGEVILLE FINAL.20.06.15

Georges Braque at Varengeville oil on canvas 2015 100 x 60 cm

The latest picture in this series is called Georges Braque at Varengeville and comes from the b/w photograph at the beginning of Edwin Mullins’ 1968 book on Braque, the first modern master I learned from. Unlike my contemporaries who went to art school, I chose that master before I had fully sharpened my life drawing (honed at the Ruskin School while I was studying English at the University of Oxford). A sort of reverse development from conceptual to perceptual. This picture does not, as I proposed before, try to develop the image via a Braqueian idiom – though when Braque died I had painted a broadly cubist memorial picture: Flowers for George, 1964.

Flowers for George copy

Flowers for George oil on canvas 1964 53 x 40.5 cm

The recent picture accentuates the wonderful seed fronds of grasses which blaze across his silhouetted jacket, like braid on a military uniform: shapes which Braque himself might have wanted to allow to develop into individual entities. Like my old mentor, Tony Oldfield, Braque would not have approved of spatial indicators leading potentially to holes in the picture surface (though I think that the lane does all the same remain more or less vertical like a step-ladder, rather than sliding backwards into depth): he would have tidied and organised the wild growth along the walls of the little canyon which the lane forms. But I wanted Braque set in some confusion and profusion which was not reducible to an organisation of clusters of rational shapes. I saw the silhouette of the painter as an epitome of his elderly self, but the picture widened, tugging at old me, into a statement about age itself. Well, that’s my reaction as the painter, but look and judge for yourself.

The Homages differ from one another, obviously, because they are a response to different personalities and circumstances.

Monet by the Lilly-Pond 2 copy 2

Monet by the Lilly-pond oil on canvas 2007 91.5 x 91.5 cm

Obviously in this one I’ve called Monet by the Lilly-Pond there is a joke about the figure: Monet is so self-consciously posing for the photographer, lying back and holding still, though his right leg wants to pop up as if pulled by the strings on a puppet, and the broad hat prevents one seeing much of the face, just the tip of a nose and a large beard – as often happens in photographs of him outdoors. For me it is all admiration, but irresistably funny – I can’t look at this picture without laughing. Cupped in the curves of the bench, lines of shadow anchor Monet to the ground: behind him there is the lilly-pond back-drop, in a sense his masterpiece. For me a chance to paint a scene, so powerful in Monet’s own pictures that it is almost interdicted as subject-matter for us who come so soon after, was a wonderful experience.

Geoges Braque at Varengeville will be on show in The Forum, Norwich, from July 13 – 17th

I read a piece in the Guardian on 26 May, which said that Fire Songs, by David Harsent, who won the 2014 T S Eliot prize for poetry “the pre-eminent prize for poetry” had so far only sold 151 copies. Wow, I thought; I knew that poets were at the bottom of the ladder economically, the plankton of the arts, who mostly expect to be consumed for free, and could not make a living from selling poems even if they were fairly paid for what they produce. But to win a major prize, and then to sell only 151 copies. Wow.

But it wasn’t quite true. The Guardian then ran a correction: the 151 copies were of the new paperback edition, which had only come out in March; the collection had in fact sold more than 2.000 copies, they said. Oh well, that’s all right then. However, that left a difficulty: The Guardian is on-line, as well as in print. Therefore you can still read the article (about Simon Armitage), but you won’t now find the sentence about Fire Songs in it. I think that’s called redacting.

Mind you, 151 copies sold might be quite good for those of us who haven’t won a literary prize; might at least pay for the printing. The remainder go into the cardboard box labelled “To Be Opened Posthumously If I Suddenly Become Famous.” But why pay for poetry? It’s free, most of it, if you have a computer, which is nice for people like me who like reading poems. But bad for poets, or Makers, if you think that people who make things should be paid a proper price for what they make. At the moment ‘creatives’ seems to be the only word commonly used to cover all those who make things which are without a strictly utilitarian purpose, though I prefer the word Makers (cf William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makirs).

We can’t have a just system of exchange unless there is a system for charging users for the use of intellectual property and paying the Makers a just return. Sorting this out should be somebody’s job, and, lo and behold, there is a British Government Minister for Intellectual Property (bet you didn’t know that). I emailed her before the election; she appears to be in place still, and I have emailed again. When she replies (or if she doesn’t) I will let you know. In the mean time, Makers of the World, Unite!

Think about it.

P1030297

Reflections from Reykjavik

1 Dark into Light (for Jane)

The airbus funnels dumbly through the grey

grey snow, grey sky, the pewter coloured sea

occasional black outcrops of the land

next day is brilliant, and the wind is keen

father and daughter trudging round the streets

as if the gap of years had never been

and houses which were hidden in the murk

flash out like petticoats from inbetween

in red and peppermint and olive green

The landscape doesn’t seek to praise or blame

but all the same

reminds me that some thirty years ago

I said come out, come out into the sun

and out you came

IMG_0354

2   Runes for Leaving (for Boo)

The night before we left the snow did fall

Drifting on roofs and smoothing out the ground

a hazy brightness dancing in the air

utterly still: we saw no-one around.

The houses all stood back to watch us go:

our wheels leaving meander tracks behind,

we crunched down Fjólnisvegur in the snow.

A bend disclosed a family below

Mum, Dad, two kids, the small one on a sledge.

The parents bent, the young boy pulling too,

made runner tracks, and footprints up the hill

which met ours coming down. Briefly, we knew,

these runes would stand, so land could tell the sky

where we had been, where they were going to

Loo card grab

It’s as easy to wreck a small town as it is to wreck a small planet, and in both cases it is done bit by bit.

I live in a small village on the edge of Harleston, one of a string of small market towns along the Suffolk/Norfolk border, industrious, fun to live in centres for the hinterland they serve, and in parts quite beautiful. These towns have had their share of pressure, from the economy, but also from unsympathetic expansion, bad planning, and administrative cock-ups. But they have in the past fought back. For instance, an attempt to impose parking charges on Harleston, which would have had a dire effect on trade, was repulsed by the townspeople.

But Harleston has been caught out by the latest insult, the closure of the town’s only public toilets, and their replacement by new automated loos you have to pay for, as on a railway terminus The former loos (locked up) are in a small redbrick, pantiled building next to the large redbrick, pantiled Budgens supermarket, in a square above the Thoroughfare used for parking. They are a bit rustic, but perfectly serviceable, (when open) as far as I can see, though they are unfortunately rather too distant from the market and the main street. The population is ageing, and none of our bladders are getting more expansive, so what was needed was more available loos in more places, not an inferior replacement of what we already have. But wait a minute; there was some years ago another set of loos next to the Cornhall, excellently placed for the Market wasn’t there? Yes BUT, through some form of benign neglect, these were allowed to dwindle and be converted to a dwelling. Meantime Harleston is growing. There isn’t a dwindling need for loos.

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New loos could have been placed in the town’s other car park where they would in principle have been useful, and where they would at least not have clashed with other buildings. In fact the new block not only looks temporary, it looks silly. Anyone with one eye could have told the planners that it was going to look silly, but apparently there was a shortage of one-eyed people at the time. The block has been carefully oriented to make an alley-way between its front and the old toilet block, so that those who might wish to vandalize it are carefully screened from view – we know from past experience that things placed there are likely to be vandalized
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Adding injury to insult, this new block requires us to pay, though it is sited in middle of the free parking area which the town fought for. Didn’t anybody think that was a contradiction? What we now have is a bit of bad French basic design, in a metal box, dumped alongside the vernacular red brick. It doesn’t even sit happily on the tarmac. The only consolation is that as its complicated systems break down they will provide employment for the town’s plumbers, electricians and engineers.

The joy of using them will not add to the pleasure of the Harleston experience.

The worst part of it all is that the new loo-block must have been studied by a mort of people – planners, architects, councillors, and so on in the planning stages. Put your hand up if you voted for it. And what horrors are you planning next?

DP & Boo in Reykjavik

DP & Boo in Reykjavik

A Private View in Reykjavik

My daughter Boo said “Let’s take a trip to Iceland to celebrate your birthday”. So we did. The first time we went down town to visit the Art Museum we found it hard to find, in a very cold wind that took away one’s concentration. So by the time we arrived it was shut. There’s not a lot of day in Iceland at this time of year: it gets light around 10am and dark by 5pm, so we were surprised it closed so early. However, the next day we got there in good time.

“I can’t sell you a ticket”, said the lady behind the desk, “because the galleries are closed for an Opening.” And indeed, people were wandering about the middle of the ground floor with glasses in their hands. So we crept upstairs, in this clean, functional and rather fine building, and across to a picture window looking out onto the harbour, at the other side. It was very large, with a disconcerting crack at the bottom right hand corner of the glass, as if someone had hurled themselves at the window in a frenzied attempt to get out.

A friendly elderly curator came over to us, and we three chatted for a while, looking out of the window – about the weather, the population of Iceland, and so on. Then he said to Boo “Why don’t you put your rucksack in one of the lockers downstairs: then you can join in.” The lockers were facing the public and free: you just put the key back in when you had retrieved your things. No ‘Security’, as in airports: just informal friendliness.

The Opening now began. We were all welcomed in English. “But now,” said the
speaker, “I must say a few words in Icelandic-” which of course left some of us floundering. Icelandic is apparently (it says here) a fully inflected language, and because it has, with rather more success than the Academie Francaise, resisted absorbing foreign words, there is little for an incomer to latch on to. So the sound of Icelandic rippled on for a while, like the sound of a stream rippling over pebbles, not that you could see the bottom, however. At the end people applauded: I failed to do this, through some vague mimsy fear that I might be endorsing some improbable view or demand, which made me feel mean and discourteous. But at that point the galleries were opened, and we all traipsed upstairs.

The main exhibition seemed to be three or four rooms given over to a young American with an improbable name. One room contained groups of two vertical objects, somewhat modified, leaning in pairs on each of the walls. There was a ski, for instance, a vacuum cleaner, and a skateboard with the face of Bart Simpson on it. In the next room there were vertical video screens each containing a still figure in the upper half, while the lower half contained a moving reflection in water of what was above, quivering and shimmering as you looked at it. Another room held a large video screen playing a loud repeating loop: a basket ball player, seen from behind, bouncing a ball, and then throwing it, jump cut to a frontal view of the player, and then back to the bouncing again

I said to Boo “This seems to be an artist with lots of technical skill and no imagination.” “Hush,” she said, ” He may be just behind you.” I don’t have any objection to conceptual art, but how often does it really grab me? It’s been around a long time now – the R Mutt “Fountain” Man Ray’s |”Gift,” and Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined tea-cup were early twentieth century, and the business of Art shocking people, or even provoking them, is worn, apart from being extremely difficult nowadays – Goya’s Desastros seem no more than a note on reality.

In another gallery were some very large paintings by Erro, whose work I didn’t know before. I was rather distracted from the pictures themselves by their sheer size.- they went on for yards. Having recently struggled to get two 6 x 4 foot canvasses into the back of my estate car in such a way that I could drive without looking (and feeling) like Houdini doing an escape, I wondered how you could transport them without doing damage. Anyhow, they were blown up versions of smaller collages, also on show, They were homages to particular painters, or groups of painters. The format was constructed of meandering paralell lines, with paintings or bits of paintings in the collages stuck down between these lines, the whole thing then blown up large-size and painted throughout. There was a Miro panel, a Matisse panel and a German Expressionist panel. I share the attraction of making a copy of a painting you particularly like, partly to see how it is done, partly to get to know the work better. Of course it also relieves you of worry, as the outcome is already a fine solution. I did enjoy the panache of these pictures and the manic energy it took to produce so many of them.

When we went downstairs we found that there were no post-cards of these, presumably current, works. The old story with lack of post-cards. I also couldn’t find a postcard of work by Louisa Matthiasdottir, another painter I hadn’t know before, but whose work I had seen in a large heavy monograph in a shop at the National Theatre. There was also a largish painter of hers there, donated by the family, hanging in the gloom of the atrium. To my mind it was the wrong picture: one of her over-simplified Icelandic horse pictures, not one of the intense self-portraits. A few more of her pictures would have brightened the place up.

The post-card problem returned when we got back to London. We went to the British Museum. There used to be a large collection of post-cards as you went in, down a corridor to the left. Now it seemed there was only a very shrunken selection of PCs in part of the rotunda. The PC was and is the foundation of the poor man’s, or stdent’s, art gallery, as well as a little celebration of companionship – as when a gaggle of Italian girls out on a spree would all sign a card to someone – it was cheap, celebratory and joyful.

Here is a suggestion to the Post Office: bring back the cheap rate for post-cards. They are the perfect vehicle for short communication. My old tutor, who could get more words on a card than most, used to say that it was a perfect way of not having to settle down to a serious letter. And the picture is a bonus. There is nothing, in this era of the insubstantial screen image, like a real physical object, delivered by hand. Bring back the cheap PC rate, and see the traffic increase.

But I keep forgetting: the Post Office isn’t ours now. It’s Private.

Morning at the Cross copy

Syleham Morning Looking North; Brian at his workshop oil on canvas 4 x 6 feet

Back in the ‘seventies, when I lived part & then full-time in a cottage at the Cross, Syleham, Suffolk, I decided to paint these 6 x 4 foot pictures of the view from the cottage upstairs windows, looking North in the morning, down to the Waveney & Brockdish village, and South in the evening at the humpback hills and the road leading up to Wingfield. At that time Brian lived next door (there was a kind of flying freehold). Queenie Harper lived a bit further along, in the lodge of Monk’s Hall, with her husband, the Estate gamekeeper at that time. Queenie had known the urban life, having been a barmaid at the Maid’s Head hotel in Norwich in her time.

Her husband had served in the war: he told me that after a fierce battle to establish the army in Italy his detachment were called out by the commanding officer, who said: “Now you men. You all come from a farming background, and as you can see, there are no able-bodied men hereabouts, and it’s harvest time. So you are going to get the harvest in.” They were fallen out, into this country of women, children and old men. And when the harvest was duly gathered, they were fallen in again, and continued fighting their way up Italy. There’s a film-script in that.

Looking South the road up the hill on the right led I believe to the house where Margo Mellis had lived with Frances Davidson. (Earlier Margo had lived in Cornwall, and befriended Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth when they fled London & came to an unknown St Ives). That was before my time, but the area obviously attracted artists.

The Old King’s Head in Brockdish is being reopened by Vicky Townley (a member of the Harleston & Waveney Art Trail) and her husband. Great news for the village, which used to have two pubs, a post office/shop and a restaurant. Good news for artists too, as paintings etc will be on show in the new Old King’s Head.

The opening is on Thursday the 19th Feb at twelve o’clock. All welcome.

Evening at the Cross

Syleham Evening Looking South; Queenie Harper Riding By. oil on canvas 4 x 6 feet

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