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Incidental Odds & Bits

What do you do with the by-products? A frend of mine wrote a thesis based on her interviews with sculptors who emerged in the ‘fifties, when she originally started an interrupted career. Because she was now back as a mature student, I read her thesis in the role of supervisor, though sadly I don’t have a copy. In it she tells of a sculptor who made large heavy works and lived in the country. But then there were problems, the family split up, and he moved to the city. What to do with the works? He hired a JCB and buried them in a large hole in the ground. Whether they were ever retrieved I don’t know: I don’t think the thesis told us.

All of us makars (a Scots word, mainly used of poets, which I’ve purloined to mean anyone who makes things which are not utilitarian, for their own sake: less pretentious than the word ‘creatives’), produce incidental matter, sometimes in profusion. What on earth to do with it?

One solution is to destroy it, or to arrange for it to be destroyed on one’s death, as Vergil did with The Aeneid, or Kafka did with The Trial etc., though the literary executors, Rufus and Tucca in the first case, (forbidden to burn the manuscripts by the Emperor Augustus), Max Brod in the second, failed to carry out their authors’ wishes.

Some makars produce while ignoring the possibility that no-one may see their work. In Stalinist Russia, alongside samisdat, which meant publication by many individuals using the simplest means of reproduction, there was also production for the bottom drawer. There is a memorable moment in a TV documentary when the British composer Kaikhosru Sorabji waves his arms at copious cupboards and says something like “All stuffed with music. All.- Will never be played. Never.”

In my case I have loads of byproduct. Partly because I find it difficult to throw anything away, especially if it took quite a lot of effort to produce. Even if it is crap. Partly also because, as my peers attended proper Art School and did their time in the Life Room, I felt obliged to do a lot of Life Drawing afterwards to catch up. However that may be, I have drawings, of whatever sort, probably in thousands taking up the cupboards and plan-chests Sorabji-style. Sure, most life-drawings are five-finger exercises, but some have value. As for scribbles about ideas – most of us would prefer to preserve Leonardo’s notebooks if it was a choice between them and his mostly insipid paintings. Who knows what is worth which?

Which brings us to the question of value, which I have to say, is not the issue. Some of the sketches/trials are far better than the works they were preparing for. We all know the case of Constable. It’s not in the the makar’s gift definitively to sift the good from the bad. It would be nice to know the difference at the time, but mostly we don’t. We try to wise up to what we can bring off and what we can’t, but we don’t do that either.

No, the problem remains: what are we going to do with all this stuff in the mean-time? And how much effort are we going to leave to someone else to sort out? I have thought of giving everyone a drawing (perhaps rubber-stamped “This Is a Christmas Card” on the verso), instead of the usual offering –but the Post Office have made that a costly solution. Or maybe ”Five free drawings with every painting bought?” “Three egg-cups with every ceramic vase?” “A free bagatelle for every symphony commissioned?”

My friend of the thesis tried a possible solution to a related problem: “ I tore up all of X’s horrible letters” she wrote to me, “and made them into a papier-mache statue. I thought I’d got rid of him, but instead I’ve made him immortal.”

The wasps take slivers from the shed

to make a paper home to raise their grubs.

Our forebears managed much the same for us:

My study’s paper; floor to ceiling books 

and files: this black one here for instance

holds the illicit letters you wrote me

(I hope you hoarded mine away as well),

Brown envelopes like fallen leaves – inside,

your calm Italic clarity describes

day to day news, but always ends with love

So urgent, and so strong.

Now we’re together, always, we don’t say

the things you say in letters:

more a diminuendo than a pause

from holding breath to hear the postman call,

or catch the post in time. And after all

The paper age is over: all that’s done. The Finns 

don’t even teach their kids to write;

the paperless perform

their offices in transit on their phones.

The paper age is over: bring back trees!


What’s left to us are these

last letters of our loves, our generations

that maybe‘d make some sort of sense hereafter

at least to wasps, or bees.


My mother was an industrious person. My father was a marine insurance clerk in the City, and consequently spent most of his life away in London during the week. This was when a man’s income was enough for the mortgage, a wife, and two children. My mother never did paid work after my sister was born (in September 1939 – so she was pushing a pram when others were doing war-work). But she went to the Municipal College, Southend-on-Sea, where she did pottery and glove-making classes – these are the ones I remember, but she probably did others – and after my father died, (because he had been in charge of wood) she also did cabinet-making. The afternoon classes at the Municipal College were known as ‘The Mum’s Classes’: they were generally driven out of the Art Colleges thereafter on the grounds that they were low-level and therefore tending to decrease the perceived tone of the institutions. Oh the stupidity of prestige-inflation! Anyhow, that is where she met Norah Oldfield, who taught the vocational painting class, and so Norah’s husband Tony, who was Deputy Head of the Art School. 

The Oldfields opened a different world for me, in which Art was not a secondary activity, and Art could be Life. Probably prompted by them I signed up for a Life Drawing Class. I was 18, about to go to Oxford. I had drawn and painted seriously since my mid-teens, but never in a formal environment.

I suppose, given the enormous expansion of our visual world, that most people now know what a Life Class is like: a circle of people with easels, desks or note-books, and a naked person, or occasionally two, in the middle, holding a pose for so many minutes (quick pose, long-pose), sitting, standing or lying down, while the onlookers try to draw what they see.

Initially,  when drawing Quentin Crisp, (and being unused to the Life Drawing event) I was slightly fazed by the blue-tinted hair, blue toe and finger-nails, and the somewhat grey (powdered?) skin.  But that disappeared when we were faced with the five-minute poses, which are standard in life drawing classes, and are meant to liberate the drawing (and/or those drawing), from a cramped concentration on accuracy, getting them instead to use fast expressive lines and smudges. At this point Quentin prided himself on extraordinary feats. For instance, holding the stretchers of an ordinary wooden chair he would pose, upside-down, his bum on the edge of the chair seat and his legs stiffly extended resting on the chair-back and up into the air. This was an athletic feat in itself, let alone holding the pose for five minutes; a sort of model’s Olympic Medal performance, the pole vault in, not slow, but no- motion. Magnificent.

I’m not sure on how many occasions I drew him. At any rate, for a long while I kept one of those drawings, but it seems to have disappeared, as these flimsy items do. Because so many of us drew him them, it seems to me that there should be a site stuffed with life drawings of him as model somewhere on the web, as a tribute to him and, by extension to all who have posed.

As I can’t do this homage, here is another drawing instead.  Robin Hughes and I used to go to the John Cass College for an evening’s relaxed drawing after a day of teaching. On this particular occasion, for some reason, there was a real dead swan suspended behind the model. Sometimes the surround, and the other people drawing, became more important than the model.

The joy was when a drawing you were doing took off, like a large bird.

The Wisdom Tree oil on canvas 49 x 40 cm

Raincloud on Claypit Hill . oil on Canvas 60 x 100
Green-Field Sky-Lines . oil on canvas . 91 x 91

Rose-Plants on Dicky Hill, Winter

Like spiders that you had not seen

The kids come out from in-between

Splashing the road with khaki green –

And how their pallid faces gleam

like blossoms on a Chinese stream

The drill hall hunches on the hill. 

the little soldiers gather still: 

The school, where they all learned to play

is only fifty yards away

And still they come, and still they come –

we do not  fight our wars at home, 

Gloucestershire versus Worcestershire,

armies cascading down the hills

to valleys full of boney loam.

The wicked men of Worcestershire

pursue their wickedness, and thrive: 

we don’t mind leaving them alive.

We don’t do War here any more; 

we send our children far and wide 

and visit all that shock and awe 

on lesser breeds without the Law.

And still they come, and still they come   

to take a shilling from the Queen-

They don’t read Hardy or Li Po:

they need to feel before they know

We live on history and fear, 

but they live in the now and here.  

They don’t use tabors when they drill

or scarlet when they dress to kill

but war’s a fashion driven thing:

so dappled coveralls provide

a uniform to wear with pride. 

A  skewbald rag will do as well 

to blow about  that foreign field    

where some poor squaddy leaves behind

a life, a limb, or just his mind.

The corner seat is always there

reserved for mutilés de guerre

The ones who bled, who we ignore.

As Byron  wrote to Wellington: 

who cares, then, when the war is done?

And will they come, and will they come

’till the extinction of mankind?

Will the last human toddler found

pick up a stick from off the ground

to point and say “Bang Bang, you’re dead? 

is it encripted in each mind?

is it engendered in our blood

by genes that cannot be denied?

And if they come, and if they come

The shining ones of space and time, 

will they accept us or decline?

Will our indomitable mind 

condemn us to be left behind

while sunlight falters and grows red

and every living creature’s dead

and all the oceans have run dry

and no-one’s left to see or cry

and all the stars have fled?

Bits of My Life: “Too Good for Working People”

When I was at Corpus Christi College Oxford, studying for a degree in English Literature, the MP for Southend West, where my parents lived & I grew up, was Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, who memorably said in his diaries that it was difficult to go out without spending £100. At that time my father, a Marine Insurance clerk in the City of London, to and from which he commuted every weekday by train, was earning less than £20 a week. It was in my second year at Corpus Christi College, Oxford that Henry’s son Paul came to Christ Church College, dubbed ‘The House,’ next door. He had been in the Army before that. Well, before he had time to finish his degree his father Henry died. Lord and Lady Iveagh, of the Guiness family were patrons of Southend West Conservative Association, Henry having married Lady Honor, their daughter. So it was decided that Paul should succeed his father, the seat being a safe Conservative one. Apparently there were 129 applicants for the candidature, and a campaign was run against the nomination, by the Daily Express, on the grounds that it looked liked nepotism. But Paul was the chosen candidate. His grandmother, the former MP but one, congratulated voters for: “backing a colt when you know the stable he was trained in.”

In due course I was living in Islington and teaching at South Grove, Tottenham, an outpost, one of many, of Hornsey College of Art. I used each weekday to cycle past a plot of land in Tottenham which was due to be developed. At some point a sign went up on the site, bearing a message which went something like this: “ Your Council wishes to build homes on this site, but the Ministry thinks they are too good for working people, signed, David Page”. It was intriguing to have a namesake on Haringey Council: it gave me some satisfaction to ride past it every day, and I could see possibilities in this conjuncture. I wrote to my namesake and told him that if he wanted to be more explicit I would be happy to oblige, for instance with a letter to the press which would have the advantage of deniability – “Not my words” he could have said, “But those of another fellow of the same name.” Quite properly he didn’t reply.

Later I got to know an architect who had worked on the design for the site. To make the best of it they had come up with an innovative ziggurat design, with mono-pitch roofs. It might have looked very impressive, but the Minister, Paul Channon, turned the plans down because the houses were just over the Ministry cost-yard-stick for local authority housing. So the Architect’s Department had to start design, planning, etc, all over again, to come up with properly working-class-looking housing, not exceeding the yard-stick. But of course, if you counted expenditure already made, well above it. The on-costs were presumably not an issue for the Ministry, nor was the delay in providing the accommodation. But then, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes.

The thing is that I’ve always known

These February days when sky

Loses its lustre like a fish’s eye.


These days! I can still see

My mother white-faced in a chair

Carried through white snow to the doctor’s car…


What I first saw was grey

Or mezzotint, perhaps, but you

Set off with colours, green and red and blue


Out in the garden under trees

Loose clothes aflutter in the breeze:  

An August baby greets the world at ease


And that is why the sun shines through

Your optimistic take on who,

and what on earth the world is coming to –


And sometimes why you need to use

A smudge of February haze

To mitigate the keenness of your gaze.

Some of the paintings in my current show at the Fisher Theatre Gallery Upstairs.  There is also a video interview under my name at YouTube – do have a look  The show is on until the 16th April

92. The Beck Riverine through Low Meadow 07 18 40x60 copy

The Beck Riverine through Low Meadow . oil on canvas

90 Lovers knot Fieldmark copy

Lovers Knot Fieldmark . oil on canvas

91 V Marks on a Mauve Field lite copy

Fieldmarks on Mauve Field oil on canvas

95. Autumn Wedge copy

Autumn Wedge oil on canvas

96 Perfrming Tree, Redenhall 12 78 copy

Little Performing Tree at Redenhall . oil on canvas

97 Frosty Field Corner

Frosty Field Corner . oil on canvas

Shadows on Rapefield88 copy 2

House Shadow on Rapefield . oil on canvas

Embrowned Rapefield 87

Embrowned Rapefield . oil on canvas

Leaving the town I see.

absurd, a singing tree

in Rorshach symmetry –

brow, bray, and tray,

and a bird on every spur

coos and clucks in a shower of sound

like leaves that fall on the ground

Fifty birds as I near

fly to the paddock beyond,

and back before I’m gone,

and their chuckling, soothing song,

slides all the way to the bridge,

where the melody’s finally drowned.

So I climb Dicky Hill again

as I’ve so often done before

past each Violet Plantation fir

that strains to catch the sky

and solitary satisfied oaks

stretch into the space they occupy

and I wonder how long it will be

before all my friends have died

or how they will feel to remain

if I’m first to leave them behind

but there isn’t any tree

that will remember me.

I walk home with that in my mind,

Like a flint caught in my shoe

back to our gnarl-branched sloe

where the finches and tits that speed to and fro

cross-hatch incessantly

as long as the seeds and the nuts remain

their flight-paths fade in the blink of an eye –

constant, immediate, gone.

It’s quiet now I’m home

and the window’s inbetween

I leave them there to thrive

out in the freezing air

like the ending of a prayer:

world without end,

amen.

If anyone wants to know about my Alma Mater, I had two: one was the University of Oxford. The other was Ethel.

It came about this way: I was in some lunch-tume eatery in Oxford when I bumped into Jonathan Wordsworth (whom I knew vaguely at that time), and told him I was looking for a room. “In that case” he said “you had better come round to my place – I think my land-lady has a room spare. She does a good breakfast, and you could stay alive on that and her Sunday lunch.” The breakfast was indeed very good – fruit-juice, corn-flakes, an egg, bacon or the like, toast and marmelade, and tea or coffee. Sunday lunch was as good as my mother made, a full-scale meal. It was an optional extra, and cost as I remember seven shillings and sixpence. Jonathan had his own reason for introducing me: reinforcements, because we two were studying in the English School, and at that time the other students there – all of us post-graduate- were scientists. Breakfast and Sunday lunch took place in the lower ground level, strictly speaking this was Ethel and Wilf’s dining room; there was a long table, and I think, normally six of us sitting round it, with Ethel’s kitchen off the side. After breakfast Ethel would have to do the rooms, with a cleaning lady who came in for two hours, and do the shopping. But she was always available if you wanted to talk to her.

3 St. John Street was at the beginning of a long street of terrace houses, just round the corner from the Ashmolean Museum, and stretching up to Wellington Square; basically they comprised three floors, basement and mansard, and many, maybe most of them then, were landlady-run student houses or B&Bs. You went up steps to the door of No 3; on the wall, inside to the left was, or had been, a notice from the past which read ‘Dogs and bicycles not allowed in the Gentlemen’s rooms,’

There was another small kitchen at the end of the entrance corridor, a  few steps down, with a cooker, a sink and a fridge, for use by residents. I must have complained to Ethel about the poor quality of food available in town: she replied “Get yourself some pans and I’ll teach you to cook.” So I did, and she did teach me – how to make a roux, fricassee of veal, and so on. To all our benefits, she was taking a course in Cordon Bleu Cookery at the time, with a particularly ferocious Chef. “He said ‘When I say fry these onions golden-brown, I DON’T MEAN GOLDEN-BLACK!’ ”

This was at the time when the first non-stick pans came onto the market: Ethel came home giggling from a public demonstration by Philip Harben of the new wonder non-stick pan, where the omelette had inevitably stuck (though I went on using Harben’s Penguin cookery book, one of the early no-nonsense cook-books, without losing faith). What you should do, Ethel said, was never wash your frying-pan, but always wipe it clean with salt & newspaper, reaching a fine patina, and never sticking your omelette. My usual objective was to make a stew large enough to portion out during the week, alarming Spon, a biologist, because of the rate of reproduction of bacteria. (He came home from a lecture one day, delighted to have discovered that the fungi which preyed on timber were officially designated White Rotters and Brown Rotters).

The household met for breakfast, and then we went of to our rooms, our work, and to our individual circles of people in the University. On Sundays, however, we would often go to the pub (usually the Walton Arms), together with Wilfred to drink bitter & play darts before lunch. Wilfred was Ethel’s husband, a commercial travellor for Chunky Marmelade at that time. Occasionally, and that must have meant as passengers in Wilfred’s car, we went for a walk in Bagley Woods with Arnold, who was Forestry, or to the Bear and Ragged Staff at Cumnor. We were allowed to be both a community and very distinct individuals.

The house had a garden behind, with a small one-story flat, at the end of it. A large garden door gave onto the lane behind. Ethel and Wilfred had lived in the flat post-war when accommodation was hard to find. Wilf’s father had been Manciple of St John’s so the house was a college servant’s tenancy, the student rooms let out by his wife. The alley itself was a convenient tryst-place for three tarts who operated in the centre of Oxford, known as Freeman, Hardy and Willis after the shop they paraded in front of. Wilf said: “The door would go rattle rattle rattle, and you’d hear her say “You’ll have to hurry up – i’ve got another gentleman coming in ten minutes.”

Ethel had at one time been a dental nurse. I think (she mentioned parties at which laughing gas was sniffed). During the war she had worked for the Civilian Repair Organisation in a team based in Magdalen College, to recover parts from crashed aircraft, which were quickly used to bring other planes up to scratch (79,000 aircraft were restored to the flight-line by the time it was wound up in 1945). Parts in transit were leaned against college buildings. It must have been a sight worthy of Paul Nash (who was a War Artist, and did once have a small private exhibition in 3 St John’s St.) The elderly dons who were left behind in college, younger dons having gone off to the War, grumbled about this desecration: “There they sat” said Ethel “Eating their strawberries and cream, as if there wasn’t any rationing!” But in the War one did what one could, of course. One of Ethels close friends then, she related, was very good-looking, and traded on her looks to get coupon-less meals in restaurants and so on. One of her admirers pestered her to the point that she eventually said “Oh all right then” and took him back to her bedroom. But then , when he got it out, “Ethel”, she said, “I’ve never been so insulted in all my life! It was just like a little white propelling pencil! I told him to leave on the spot.” As to Ethel’s war-time work with aircraft, it was rumoured in the house that she had been offered a gong , but had turned it down. Ethel and Wilf were living in the flat at the end of the garden when Wilf’s mother announced that she was giving it up, so Ethel decided to take it on – she had her son’s education to think about.

Apart from dogs and bicycles, there didn’t seem to be any formal rules; everything was on trust. It was informally understood that women were to be out of the house by an elastic 10 pm. I was standing in the hall talking to Ethel when one girl danced past and out. “She looks like the cat that got the cream,” Ethel said. There was a serious temporary blip in Jonathan’s love-life when he caught the mumps – clearly also a threat to the whole house. We teetered at his scarcely open door and shouted “How do you feel?” He shouted back “Like half a superman!” Ethel was dispatched to buy an outsize jock-strap and a roll of cotton-wool. As things returned to normal Jonathan asked the Doctor about his condition “How will I know if I’m still fertile? ‘The Doctor shrugged; “Trial and error” Jonathan said “I’ll take care of the trials if you take care of the errors.”

When there were celebrations in the house, everyone joined in. I remember one party of mine when Derek, a welcomed visiting friend, and I, drew large murals on brown wrapping paper to decorate the walls: among other dishes Paul Banham brought a large bowl of Chile con Carne which I had not eaten before, and we all drank and made merry, Ethel and Wilf included. In the years after we left, former students, and their friends, and former girl-friends were regular visitors to 3 St John’s St.

I suppose that we were lucky to be at the apogee of 3 St John Street. Though Etherl and Wilf were told their tenancy would not be withdrawn, at the same time the Burser of St John’s gradually increased the rent until it was no longer possible to continue, because normal students in turn could not afford the rents. No doubt a combination of forces would have put paid to the Oxford landlady/digs system, but it was pushed on its way by the unthinking greed of St Johns – a classic case of the part acting against the interest of the whole. Landladies skimped, dipped into their savings, and gave up parts of their own accomodation to make ends meet, but eventually couldn’t and so a whole ecology in parts of Oxford became unviable. Worse than that, the job was no longer enjoyable – there was no fun left. Ethel and Wilf gave up the tenancy in 1963.

The following years were very hectic ones for me: somehow or other I lost touch with Ethel. When I sent her a copy of a children’s book of mine which had been published, hoping she would have enjoyed it, I got no reply. Probably there was no forwarding address and it never reached her.

She’s on that lengthening list of people I loved. who would have understood, and are no longer around.


 
blog, more pix & poems at:
davidpageartist.wordpress.com

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