Saturday, 16 December 2017

Feeling The Pressure?

Last Sunday I attended two musical concerts themed for Christmas, one of them performed by a big band, the other by a gospel choir with orchestral accompaniment. It was a good way to appreciate the huge repertoire of Christmas tunes – from the intensely sacred to the profoundly secular. It was also, incidentally, a chance to admire the variety of personal adornments worn by many as an expression of their enthusiasm for the festive season. I am talking of Santa hats, elf caps, antlers, Christmas jumpers and the like. These accessories, seen dispassionately, look ridiculous on anyone, but are nonetheless a light-hearted expression of the party atmosphere at this time of year. It strikes me, however, that there is a darker aspect to them – and to the jumpers in particular.
Christmas jumpers make me feel – jumpy. Their designs shout the message “Christmas is fun!” and defy anyone to disagree. It seems to me that those who sport them are throwing down a challenge to join in, get knitwear-competitive or else face being ostracised and condemned as a spoilsport, sour-faced misery-guts. The thing is that, while I can appreciate the ironic humour, the intentional tackiness and/or the naive enthusiasm of some of the designs, I see them all as endorsing the underlying vision of Christmas as a prolonged period of over-indulgence. If I like Christmas at all, it is the version remembered from my youth – a visit to midnight mass and a couple of days of treats and family togetherness – not the present-day orgy of consumerism, encouraged and sustained by the retail and credit industries intent on testing the season of goodwill to the deepest recesses of our pockets. Therefore when I came across a chap this week wearing a seriously anti-Christmas jumper I congratulated him. Admittedly, he was not at much risk of being derided, since he was selling cinema tickets at the local arthouse, a place that teems with liberals and free-thinkers: but his protest was no less noble for that. Besides, it may be that he wore it prominently on the tram, travelling home with the shoppers.
I’ve bought quite a few cinema tickets lately, being eager to keep abreast of the new releases prior to leaving the country for a prolonged and determined spell of Christmas-avoidance. I enjoyed all of them, including two that appeared to have typos in the titles: Happy End, which I thought lacked the gerundive -ing, and Good Time, which seemed to cry out for the plural. Not everyone will agree that these titles are grammatically unexpected; however, they are misleading concerning their respective plots, which are, in fact, so full of mishaps and bad behaviour that both films could be described as “disaster movies” – if only that term had not been appropriated previously by the Hollywood blockbuster industry. Another film – James Franco’s The Disaster Movie – also has a misleading title, since it is not about earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or dystopian outcomes of any sort. In fact, it tells the true story of the making of a movie that was so bad it failed to attract an audience.
Finally, there was Menache, the story of a widower stuck in a low-paying job and doing his best to bring up his adolescent son – a difficult situation. His real predicament, however, is defined by the fact that, being a member of a religious community governed strictly by its traditions, there is pressure on him to conform to the rules: he must either get a new wife or allow his son to be brought up by relatives. The widower wants neither option and argues the case for keeping his son, knowing all along that the system is adamant. His dilemma is serious – the real-life equivalent of, say, accepting that one’s choice is not whether to wear a Christmas jumper, but which design to choose.

Monday, 11 December 2017


This week I went to see an exhibition of work by Percy Wyndham Lewis, a man described by some as a genius on account of his radical writings and paintings. Apparently he did not like the name Percy and tried to shake it off – perhaps its poetic association did not fit with his self-image as the hard-man of contemporary artistic ideology. However, he certainly had no image problem in the physiognomy department: judging by contemporary descriptions and the various images of him, he was a handsome, fierce-looking young man – the sort one could imagine as fearless in the promotion of his principles. I was shocked, therefore, to see him interviewed on film in 1938, at the age of 56, looking jowly and rotten of tooth, sporting gratuitous arty accessories – a Sherlock pipe, a superfluous scarf, a ridiculous hat and ‘statement’ spectacles. Even though the look may have been ‘on-trend’ for artists at that time, the perils of image-management are clear: get it wrong and you can look more pillock than genius.
Wyndham Lewis lived at a time when very few people had a visible public persona to consider, but these days, thanks to free, internet-enabled social media, everybody can have one – considered or otherwise. This phenomenon impinged on me recently when I was recruited to write some short pieces for an online travel guide, Spotted by Locals. Before proceeding, however, the publisher required of me a mug shot and a potted biography – presumably so that would-be readers might judge the credibility of my recommendations in the context of my perceived identity. Fair enough – but, without a professional PR consultant acting on my behalf, I had choices to make. In the end, I submitted a photo of myself in jovial mode and, for the biography, made light of my lifetime of experience and accumulated wisdom. I wanted to ensure I would not be mistaken for a polemicist with a grudge-fuelled agenda. Percy, I’m certain, would have taken me for a wimp, but tourists, after all, just want to know where to get a decent lunch.
There was yet another aspect to the writing gig that I had not considered: the requirement to tweet in order to promote the publication. I knew in theory how the medium works, but had not mastered the practicalities and, unlike Mr. Trump, was nervous of tweeting the wrong thing to the wrong people. Hesitantly, I dusted off my dormant Twitter account and dipped my toe into the shark-infested waters. I was encouraged by an early success when I picked up a tweet from a chap who had a spare ticket to a sold-out gig that I was keen to attend (Jacob Collier – highly recommended). We concluded the deal by phone, as I very soon lost the thread, but I have since become more familiar with the technique – which I do  not  find intuitive – and am working to increase the number of my followers into double digits (@joeholdsworth47, in case you are interested). My relative success with Twitter, however, is only part of the act. Next, I have to refine my presence on Instagram.
Professional marketeers consider these digital self-publicity tools essential to raising the profile of any brand, although I suspect there is a limit to the public’s tolerance of such constant bombardment. Nevertheless, I bet Percy (I know, I can’t resist teasing him) would have loved and made full use of them. He was commercially unfortunate, in that he had few exhibitions, struggled to find eager publishers and had two World Wars interrupt his career. He made very little money from his limited audience, but a marketing campaign which co-ordinated his Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts could have done wonders for the monetisation of his output – though in his later years he would have been well advised to hire a personal stylist.

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Intrepid Culture Vulture

Hands up all those who know Modigliani’s first name. I’m sure many of you do, but the point is that the style is so recognisable that he/she no longer has need of a first name. In the commercial world such a degree of recognition would be regarded as successful branding, but in the sphere of creative arts that term is probably too crass to be acceptable – assuming, that is, that the artist’s adoption of a unique style is not a cynical marketing ploy but a result of genuinely artistic exploration. In any case, being in London for a few days, I wanted to take advantage of some of the cultural goodies on offer, and the Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern was one of them.
Some of his (Amedeo’s) works are so familiar that I assumed I knew what to expect, but I was surprised by something I had not previously noticed: many of his faces have no eyeballs. I became obsessed with this for a while, thinking it odd that an artist could disregard the “windows to the soul” yet still convey soulfulness. Eventually I made the connection between the paintings and his earlier sculptures – stylised stone busts with blank eyeballs – and the fact that artists have never really needed to treat eyeballs – or anything else – realistically in order to express the subtleties of human experience. Perhaps I should scrutinise art more closely in future, I thought, and by the time I got to the Courtauld Gallery to see Chaim (I really did not know his first name) Soutine’s portraits, my attention was focused a little too intently on his treatment of the eyes.
However, my cultural outings included more than painting: I popped into the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, attracted by a morbid curiosity to see the exhibition of medical paraphernalia and the special display Ayurvedic Man comprising Oriental medicinal tracts, artefacts and illustrations acquired by Mr. Wellcome at the turn of the 20th century. There, I expected merely to be amused by the trappings and mumbo-jumbo of faith-based cures devoid of empirical proof of efficacy and, to some extent, that was my experience. However, as well as the snake oil, there were long-standing traditions of plant-based remedies which, considering modern drugs are similarly derived, have to be convincing. Moreover, there was an 18th century engraving of a patient with a new nose, evidence that Indians had by then mastered reconstructive surgery, having reportedly practised it for hundreds of years. I stood corrected, once more, on my preconceptions – though not convinced that I need to realign or cleanse my chakras.
And so to music – or, rather, to Wilton’s in the East End, the 1850’s Music Hall that has been rescued from oblivion in the nick of time. Any excuse to attend this charming and evocative venue should be grasped so, when encouraged to meet a small party of friends and relatives there, I bought a ticket for an event titled The Voice of the Violin – despite my aversion to the instrument. (I secretly hoped that the unique acoustic of the venue might flatter its sound.) The programme was ambitious: it comprised 18 pieces for solo violin, each of which was played on an instrument contemporary to the era of its composition. In the event, despite the unquestionable virtuosity of the performer, I did find the concert quite testing. The experience was rather like listening to a collection of emblematic guitar solos taken out of the context of the tunes they were intended to enhance. Not only was the prolonged jumble of showy, over-excited pieces too much for my senses, but my hopes for acoustic enhancement went unrealised and I was quietly relieved when it ground to an end. Some prejudices, it seems, are insurmountable. 

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Must'nt Grumble

I watched a lone tourist arrange himself for a photo against the backdrop of London’s Tower Bridge. Selfie-stick raised, he put on his best ‘chuffed-to-be-here’ expression, cocked his thumb in a gesture that said “A-OK” and pressed the button (or pulled the lever or whatever.) When done, his face crumpled into a vacant expression and he wandered off in search of the next photo-op. I imagined he was gathering evidence to convince the folks back home that he was having fun, bagging landmarks in a foreign land. However, from another perspective, there is no such thing as foreign land: it is the traveller only that is foreign. Certainly, when I am abroad, I am aware that the alien is me, not the host population, and I do my best to be respectful of cultural differences.
Such respect, however, is difficult to maintain when I consider the repressive systems of governance prevalent in so many countries. For example, I used to like going to Egypt but now avoid it because I don’t want to endorse or encourage the dictatorial regime by giving them any of my tourist money. The same applies to Turkey, only more so because the tyrant in charge there has actually been elected and that fact diminishes my respect for the people who elected him. For the same reason, I felt uneasy about my recent visit to America: although the President there is not yet a full-blown tyrant, his ardent followers would that he were. Tyrants and demagogues grab power whenever and wherever they can and, today, I have my fingers crossed for Zimbabweans in the hope that their sudden emancipation from Robert Mugabe is not about to be usurped by his understudy, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Of course, I would like to be able to claim that Britain has an ideal system of governance. Unfortunately, however, I could only go so far as to say that on the scale of repression it scores low, though the personal freedoms Britons enjoy mask the fact that ultimate control of power and money is in the hands of a relatively small elite. Moreover, the pending act of self-imposed cultural isolation, economic penury and defensive degradation a.k.a. Brexit will probably reinforce the hold of that elite by restricting opportunities for the rest of us to break out of the mould. The idea of migrating to Canada has lately become an attractive one: if only I were twenty years younger...
Still, as we British like to say, “mustn’t grumble”: things could have been worse – for me and my ilk especially. We grew up with a rudimentary education, sanitary living conditions, comprehensive healthcare, a nourishing – if basic – diet, freedom from conscription into war and, crucially, the right to express opinions without let or hindrance. It is well to remember that we were – and are – the lucky few.
This musing has come about because, yesterday, I visited the exhibition Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution In Visual Culture, which is showing at the Tate Modern. The social revolution that transformed the Russian Empire into the USSR was marked by an upsurge of avant-garde thinking in art, architecture, music and graphic design, the latter, especially, being harnessed by the Communist Party, with spectacular results, for the dissemination of propaganda. Many of the images seen in the exhibition are familiar: so strong was their impact that they have endured way beyond their remit. But while artists of remarkable talent and vision were inspired by the ideals of revolution and communism, the leadership itself became corrupted and used their talents cynically. Stalin even murdered some of them when they were no longer useful to him.
Come to think of it, Putin does not have clean hands either, yet he remains popular with his people. Dictatorship, tyranny and repression are nasty, foreign practices – but they are never far from home.  

Friday, 17 November 2017

Sculpture Blazes a Trail

The train journey back from London, which was pleasant enough already, became more so when the buffet-bar operator announced his wares over the speakers. He had devised a poem and, although it was rudimentary – rhyming “snack” with “track” and “the price is nifty at three pounds fifty” – it was a welcome act of creativity in a situation where none was expected. Moreover, if you agree with Marianne Moore that poetry is “the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads,” the job was well done: there are toads aplenty in Virgin Trains’ buffet bars, however wonderful poetry may imagine them.
Reality hit us, however, when we arrived home to find that our broadband was broken. The subsequent tedious procedure will be familiar, no doubt, to many of you. In this case it comprised the ISP trying to prove that we had unplugged something until, eventually – after two hours on the phone – it conceded that the router was faulty: which left us with the prospect of a weekend (at least) of cadging free wi-fi around town. “Not the end of the world,” I said, “just a return to life as it was Before Broadband, let’s says BB minus10.” And so it was, in this rediscovered spirit of freedom from the shackles of the PC, that we decided to take a Sunday hike from our front door northwards to Bury, following the river Irwell and the Irwell Sculpture Trail.
Old-fashioned luck was on our side, delivering a cloudless sky and a stiff headwind from the Arctic to keep us alert. We packed a picnic and set off early, the days being short at this time of year. The first point of interest, a pictorial mosaic panel set into the footpath of a tiny park in Salford, was in a state of disintegration, despite having been renovated not long ago. Across the road, however, a bronze representation of a giant sycamore seed stood proud and intact, possibly because of its situation in a small square overlooked by a cluster of smart new town houses. Such are the challenges that face public art installations in the urban environment. Further on, we came to the historic Peel Park, established by public subscription in 1846. It had since fallen into disrepair – and disrepute – but, in 2015, acquired a new lease of life with a £1.6 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This money enabled not only the renovation of the park but also the recruitment of a (single) park-keeper. It did not run, however, to the upkeep of the sculptures, one of which had been tarmacked over, the other missing-presumed-stolen, it having been made of steel.
Further upriver, however, the landscape becomes less populated and the sculptures show fewer signs of violation by vandals. Perhaps it is too far off their beat. In places rough woodlands stand where once there were industrial works or small-holdings; there are extensive playing fields at Kearsley; and, at Clifton, a ‘Country Park’ occupies former coal fields. In fact, there were times during the walk when the sights and sounds of the city conurbation were almost absent and where we were at risk of getting lost in the bush. “Keep the sun on your left shoulder and the wind in your face,” I had to remind myself.
We never made it as far as Bury: the way was winding and took longer than expected, and tiredness began to take precedence over diversions to sculptures that were off the beaten track. When we spotted a station at Radcliffe, we called it a day and hopped aboard a tram amid the throngs of people heading for the Christmas markets in the City Centre. There are 25 more miles of the Trail to explore and, while it may not be an idyll of objets d’art positioned tastefully in landscapes of unaffected natural grace, it does engage the mind and senses with the historic impacts – both destructive and creative – of humans on the landscape. In this respect, there is a kind of poetry to be found in this garden of toads.