A man can lose himself in London

I have always loved London.  Although born and brought up in Nottinghamshire, from an early age I have always felt engaged with our capital.  As a boy my parents regularly took my brother and me on day trips to London, sometimes to site-see and other times to visit shops.  A treat for me was being dropped off at Hamley’s toy shop on Regent Street where I would happily spend hours exploring its seven floors of fun.  As I grew older my taste in toys would develop with me as Action Man was pushed aside in favour of Subbuteo Football and all its many accessories.  A highlight was in 1975 when my brother won a drawing competition and the prize was £60.00 worth of Hamley’s vouchers.  In 1975, £60.00 was a lot of money even split 50/50 between us.

In the late 1980s old school friends would move to London which gave my more grown- up self opportunities to savour the city’s pubs and clubs as well as attending the odd party.  I once went on a football coach run by Nott’s County FC to see them play Millwall and recall the excitement in me just from seeing that change in architecture so unique to London; the brown bricks and white window frames, buildings piled on top of buildings and that instantly recognisable character, the Londoner.

I support a London football team – Tottenham Hotspur and my favourite band, Saint Etienne, are from London too.  London never lets you down, it is loyal, it is faithful, it always has something to offer.  And so, on Wednesday June 13th, I set off on the train from Preston to arrive in London Euston at 12:33.

First stop, The London Review Cafe.

I have three favourite shops in the UK; Rough Trade in Nottingham, Oi Polloi in Manchester and The London Review Bookshop set in Bloomsbury in London.  I cannot  visit London without paying a visit to the LRB bookshop and its cafe which is the only place I know selling palatable vegan food.

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The book shop is on the right, the cafe is on the left.  The menu is small and light, the food is reliably excellent, the selection of teas perfect.  There is an opening between the cafe and bookshop so you can easily walk between the two.  From the book shop I bought a couple  – Transit by Rachel Cusk and Yalo by Elias Khoury.

Next, a short walk to The British Museum for The Rodin and the art of Ancient Greece exhibition.  I have memories of visiting the Tutenkhamoun exhibition here in 1972 only to arrive with my family without booking a ticket and turning back on seeing the queue snake all around the forecourt, through the gate and around the iron railings surrounding the museum.  No such problems this time, just a short wait to have my ruck-sack scanned and I was on my way in.  Inside the museum I was surrounded by Japanese and Chinese tourists who seemed more interested in taking photos of themselves on stair cases and cafes rather than taking an interest in the exhibits  Which was fortunate because there was no great line to buy tickets for Rodin.  £17.00 lighter I made my way into the exhibition.

My knowledge of art and sculpture is scant but I had read some rave reviews about this exhibition beforehand and I was determined to see it and appreciate it.  I wasn’t disappointed.  I walked in and was confronted by The Kiss.

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I was surprised at first to learn that this amazing feature is carved out of plaster but standing beside it I really fancied having a snog with someone (ahem).  Composing myself I moved on to something equally as familiar, the mighty Thinker.

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To be close to a great sculpture is to recognise the delicacy of the work of the artist and how something so subtle and so sublime can emerge at his or hands, from what is, essentially a lump of rock.  As well as Rodin’s work, the exhibition had several items of sculpture from the works of Ancient Greeks including relics and fragments from The Parthenon.  It was all amazing to see and it was so tempting to reach out a hand to touch a work of art forged by hands over two and a half thousand years ago.  I didn’t but these works which convey such movement and such delicacy almost look as if they possess like itself.

I had a bit of time to kill after the museum so I had a walk down to Soho and a mooch round the shops there.  Aware that an Oi Polloi exists somewhere in the area I managed to locate it and buy a light knit jumper and bum bag.  The shop isn’t quite on the scale of it’s Mancunian big brother but it still sells a great array of clobber which I could easily have thrown too much money at.

Then it was off to my final port of call, The Institut Francais de Royaume Uni in South Kensington, practically opposite that other architecturally fine building, The Natural History Museum.

I had come to London today specifically to attend an event to promote the new book by Anglophile, Parisian author Agnès Poirier, Left Bank.  I first came across Agnès Porier on the BBC News Channel programme, Dateline London.  Thown together with a host of other British and foreign news correspondents, a panel of 4 debate and discuss the national and international news of the day.  I always found Mme Poirier interesting for her Gallic charm, wit and general wry take on the news of the week.  I often feel she is not as sharp or as on point as many of her more serious news colleagues but I find she excels in the written word such as her Guardian Newspaper article on the reaction to the #MeToo campaign in France and of course her new book, Left Bank .

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I’m about two thirds of the way through Left Bank and it’s an excellent book.  It tells the story of Paris between 1940 and 1950, under German occupation followed by the rise of the existentialist movement through the formidable figures of Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and a host of other artists, intellectuals and writers who made the city such a fascinating place to live in during that time.  Mme Poirier was interviewed for the event by Professor A C Grayling who had recently come to my attention through his outspoken comments against Brexit.  The thirty minute interview was genteel and followed by a further half hour of questions from the audience.  Mme Poirier appeared a little nervous, not making eye contact with the audience but speaking passionately nonetheless about her subject which had occupied her over the past 10 years.  I had intended to sit on the edge of the second row but was muscled out of it by an elderly lady and ended up right in the middle of the front row.  I felt a little awkward and wondered if AP recognised me from our occasional exchanges on Twitter.  The very fine room we were in was full of books and even had a mezzanine floor which no library should be without and a high domed wall will of obscured glass panes to let in more light, no doubt.

After the talk we made our way down to the foyer where Mme Poirier signed copies of her book.  I had taken my own copy along with me and was quite delighted when Mme Poirier recognised me as ‘Fish’ from Twitter and signed my book accordingly.  She invited me, amongst others to the bar for a glass of wine and we convened round a table with comfortable chairs.  I ended up sitting next to Professor Grayling who appeared at first a little perturbed that I had plonked myself next to him; I felt it a little like that awkward first encounter between Mr D’Arcy and the clergyman William Collins in Pride and Prejudice.  No matter, the delightful hostess busied herself around us and the conversation began to flow.  I regaled people with my northern background and lamented the lack of events like this in my home town area near Blackpool but spoke positively about the Home arts complex in Manchester, even though we all agreed it has an atrocious name.  I threw in the question of ‘what exactly is existentialism’ which A C Grayling, Professor of Philosophy was only too happy to answer.  I then entered into a debate about existentialism with the good professor who appeared to warm to me after I mentioned the loss of my first wife.  We then had a discussion about sorrow and mourning and I showed him the very excellent article I read that very morning on the same subject written by Matthew Parris in this week’s Spectator magazine.

With one eye on my watch I had to leave earlier than I would have liked to catch the 21:10 train back to Preston.  So, just time for a photo with Mme Poirier…here it is, taken by Professor Grayling, no less.IMG_1158.JPG

And with one of those double kisses on the cheeks the French are famous for, I bid my adieus and left.  The train was 20 minutes late but no matter, it was a good day in London; a city I love.

 

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Books 2018 – Ways of Seeing

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Phew, what a read;  I think I read each paragraph, on average, three times or as many times as it took for me to comprehend what was on the page.  You see, when it comes to art, I don’t know my stuff.  The book is attributed to John Berger as author but inside its making is credited to five individuals, none of whom I have heard of, except for John Berger.

John Berger, I know, was an intellectual.  I have watched a couple of videos of him including one of him in conversation with American intellectual giant Susan Sontag and I recently finished another of his books, Confabulations (see previous review).

Published in 1972, Ways of Seeing is written by an intellectual in an intellectual style.  But at a time when there were only 2 or 3 TV channels and AJP Tayor could command a huge prime-time TV audience just by standing infant of a camera and speaking, off the cuff, about history for half an hour.  Our population at that time had not yet been subject to the dumbed-down, celebrity led culture which began in earnest in the 1980s.  Before then, when miners formed their own poetry groups, people could read this kind of stuff and understand it.  I often struggled but even though I feel like I read this book three or more times in one go, I kind of got it.  In fact, part way through I visited Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery and the knowledge I gained from both this book and the recently read Keeping an Eye Open by Julia Barnes helped me enjoy a much more tangible experience with art.

John Berger was a committed Marxist and saw art as the province of the ruling classes.  He makes many references to capitalism, ownership, class and the objectivity of women in art.  Many of his political points are supported by the inclusion of a gallery of paintings depicted in black and white thought the book.  Published in 1971 it is the earliest example in a book I know of which covers the subject of sexism by the objectification of women in culture and art in the centuries of patriarchal society.  Berger describes a painting of a nude woman by Memling (1435-1494).  An attractive woman painted in full frontal nudity, is holding a mirror and thus the painting is called Vanity.  The mirror is a device simply used to disparage the woman and detract from the real intention of the commissioner or buyer of the painting to provide sexual titillation, a  form of 15th century pornography.

The final chapter brings art up to date (or as up to date as it could have been in 1971) by both focussing on publicity and drawing on the parallels between painting in oil and advertising.  I took from this chapter the line, “Publicity is the culture of the consumer society.”   Where art was once commissioned by men of property to project their status, now, publicity is used to fill the space caused by the deficit in democracy in our age of consumerism by projecting the image of our future selves which, as much as we envy it, is never attainable always deferred.

If, like me, you’ve been to a gallery and felt intimidated by the sheer volume of art on display without having a real understanding of whether it’s any good or not, you will gain a great deal of insight from this book and books like it.  I read it through over three days but feel like I read it three or four times it was that much of a challenge.  It was first published in 1972 at a time when miners formed poetry groups at colliery meetings and austere historian AJP Taylor could command an enormous prime-time TV audience just from standing before a camera and speaking, unscripted, for thirty minutes on a topic from history.  It’s a reminder of just how dumbed-down our culture has become over the past three decades but this book remains accessible if challenging and the reward for reading it is immense.  Read it and then visit a gallery.  I was pleased to note that some of the art on display at The Whitworth was crap but other was sublime – that will be Francis N Souza.

Books 2018 – Keeping an Eye Open

julian-barnes-art-essaysI first came across this book in a review on another blog.  It would be a struggle for me to find it again but it was complementary and struck me as a book which could teach me a thing or two about art and how to enjoy it.  Last year I visited The Manchester Art Gallery and The Walker Gallery in Liverpool.  I saw some paintings I liked and many I didn’t or couldn’t really be bothered to give more than a five second glance to.  To be honest I didn’t ‘get’ many of them and didn’t know how to.  In fact, I felt quite disappointed while walking around The Walker; pictures you had to walk backwards and backwards from due to the position of a light throwing an almighty blob of luminescence right across the canvass at the optimum viewing angle.

But then, a few years ago, lazing by a swimming pool in Spain I read Jeremy Paxman’s The Victorians which shed its own light on paintings from the Victorian era. The book described how many works of art from the period reflected the growing technological advances of the era and the developing sense of women’s sexual awakening.  Paxman spent a good few pages on Ford Madox Brown’s, Work which I confronted me during my walk around The Manchester Art Gallery.  The whole canvass was a revelation because I got it, I really did get it because, thanks to Paxman I knew how to read it and solve it.  It was a revelatory moment during which I genuinely enjoyed regarding a painting.  And when the Arts Officer at the local council told me what a wonderful gallery The Walker is, I realised I was missing something, largely through ignorance.

So on another visit to the wonderful London Review Bookshop I bought Keeping an Eye Open.  I began it in mid January but my reading was curtailed for two weeks when I was struck down with flu and I had neither the energy or inclination to do anything as remotely active as holding up a book.  But on making a full recovery I returned to this very readable book which contains a collection of essays by the author primarily known for writing novels including Booker winner The Sense Of An Ending.  This work of non-fiction focuses on the art and lives of, in mostly chronological order, a succession of artists rom Géricault to Hodgkin, many of whom I hadn’t even heard of.   It’s by thanks to the wonder of the internet as well as some handy prints on the pages I realised I had seen many of the paintings described but had done nothing more than assign their image to my subconscious.

Each essay offers a compact biography of each artist highlighting their friends, their contemporaries, their lovers and their beligerancies.  It helped me understand that a painting is not some two dimensional drawing on canvas but an expression of the thought and attitude of the artist which contains more within it than the latest box-set available to download from Netflix.  As the title tells us, it’s all about keeping an eye open and not being a “window-shopping gallery-goer”, who will give a painting, “a five second glance”.

Keeping an Eye Open is a great introduction to artists and art.  It doesn’t talk down to the reader but invites them to see art for what it is and how to enjoy it.  Now I’ve completed it, I can’t wait to re-visit The Walker!

Basically, if you can hold a pen you can draw

Basically, if you can hold a pen you can draw

The title of this post is the response I received recently to a comment I made about some great art I saw in a blog and expressed my envy at being a hopeles artist and having no skill with a pen, pencil or brush.

You see, in my family all the artistic DNA went to my brother who was clearly a skilled artist from an early age winning countless drawing and art competitions as well as having his work published in the local press. I literally couldn’t draw for toffee and my earliest recollections of any attempts by myself at art were weekly drawing lessons at Infants School where we were asked to draw a picture to show the class. I recall that the teacher was less than impressed with my weekly offering of a circle crayoned in yellow with strands emanating from it which I presented as a picture of the sun. I eventually improved my output and extended my portfolio by drawing a square with a triangle on top with 4 smaller squares in the corners and an oblong in the middle on the ground. Have you guessed what it is yet? Yes…a house.

Art became something of a dread lesson for me and I used to quake with fear whenever it was announced we had to produce a collage. A bloody collage; that pointless objective when the teacher would produce a large sack of surplus material obviously left over from the sewing class and us 7 year old pupils would be asked to create a picture using pieces of material cut from the swatches using blunt scissors and stuck on (sugar)paper with a white liquid glue called Marvin. Suffice to say I was hopeless at it and after one particular attempt at around Christmas time was hauled off to the headmaster’s office to show him the dereliction of my artistic talent. Thankfully the headmaster was away so for want of someone else to humiliate me in front of the teacher decided the school secretary was the best she could come up with so together they discussed how crap my collage was. Naturally the tears were flowing by now to such an extent that I remember quite clearly a big green bogey flew from my nostril and landed quite prominently on the corner of the secretary’s desk. At that point the secretary was quite anxious for us to leave and as it was home time I grabbed my satchel as quick as I could and dashed home with no desire ever to draw, paint, stick or glue ever again.

In spite of my complete inability to produce anything worthy of being described as art, that is not to say I do not appreciate and enjoy art, it’s just that I can’t do it myself, or thought I couldn’t. Since being an active blogger I’ve looked with admiration at reams of drawings, paintings and pictures of varying degrees of detail on this site and been persistently impressed. When I was told that I also could draw…because I can indeed hold a pencil, I decided yesterday during a quiet moment at work to give it a go. So in between seeing customers I scanned my surroundings to find something suitable to draw. Well; here’s the drawing (biro on paper) of a plant and pot as it looked in front of me and to be honest I don’t think – for a first attempt – it’s all that bad. In fact, I’ve shown it to a few people in work who have been quite wowed in a fun sort of way. I was so chuffed that I’ve even cut the paper out and stuck it in my Moleskine notebook for posterity.

Now, what can I choose for my next subject?