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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.

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