Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Eminent Emin

Well, there's a laugh, I sit down in the cafe at the Hayward Gallery to write some thoughts on the Tracey Emin exhibition I have just seen. I type Emin and the iPad immediately changes it to eminent. Clearly I have to mind my words, she has powers I never knew of.

Lois and I came we accidentally saw a documentary about the exhibition on the TV last week and then realised that the exhibition was about to close. We are trying hard to schedule more spontaneity in our lives, so we jumped in the car and set off the very next day.

Over the years, I have come to like Tracey Emin, mostly from seeing her say things on TV programs, rather than a careful study of her art. When Eugenie Scrase won BBC Two's School of Saatchi competition it was Emin who kept her in the hunt in the earlier rounds, at least as far as we could tell from what they showed on TV. I loved the final piece that won, a tree trunk impaled on a fence that Scrase had seen while walking along a London street. Hardly art, you might say, but she did persuade the owners to let her chop out the piece of fence and find a way to exhibit the thing. I was impressed that Tracey Emin had seen something in Scrase’s earlier work that the rest of the judges seemed to miss.

The current exhibition at the Hayward is massive, partly because there are a lot of small pieces, as well as quite a few big ones. For me it was too much to take in while in a gallery that is determined to stop you sitting down to think. I know the Hayward is all dressed concrete, but a few chairs would not go amiss. There are a couple of concrete benches but they are specifically stationed to view particular pieces, so it is hardly fair to use them to simply to muse or let your lower back have a rest from standing.
Most of the people there with me were young women, so maybe they don't get backache from standing too long, but surely they must want to stop and think some of the time.
The audio guide, that can be downloaded to your smart phone relies on some kind of signal, an over enthusiastic assumption in a concrete palace. There is obviously a clever salesman at work somewhere because I had exactly the same problem with a similar system at Tate Modern. Do the people who run these places try using these devices?
 Back to the exhibition, what did I think? The most important thing is that I did think, though I have no idea whether what came into my head was what Tracey intended. In the TV show about the exhibition, she complains at one point about personal criticism in relation to her Viennale exhibition. I can understand why she objected; I looked up some of the reviews, the joys of the Internet mean that they are still available. Much of her work appears to be a personal narrative, endless variation on self-portraiture, much of it nude or semi nude. I am not sure if all the stories are true. It is almost as if she makes up stories about imaginary selves and draws and paints their experience, or maybe they are just embellishments of reality. We all do that of course, the stories that we re-tell are adjusted to suit the audience, even the most truthful people often leave out the boring bits, which makes the rest seem more intense. I suspect Tracey Emin is telling the stories of many of the women who visited the exhibition, or if not their stories, then their worst fears or hottest desires.
She is brave, and the simple truth of that strikes a chord with me. A superficial glance might suggest that she simply does not care what people think, but she is too brutally honest in her drawings for that. If she does indeed care and is prepared to expose herself, embellished or fictional, in this way then she must be brave, and she says things in her art that I suspect many women wish they could say.
The other criticism that comes up a lot is that she can't draw, or can't paint. Again it is easy to see where this comes from, many of the drawings are wild and approximate, often not things of beauty. On the other hand, they have an inner discipline of proportion that makes the subject unmistakable. I think that to be able to draw as "badly" as this you have to know how to draw well.
She is also outrageous and pushy, and that might make for some rotten reviews. Howard Hodgkin once said, "Ambition is so much more important than talent." I am in no doubt that Tracey has ambition, she may also be annoying, arrogant, self centred, and subversive, but at least she does it with verve and she has something to say.

Friday, 26 August 2011


This is a filler while I am writing a longer piece. 

While I was writing, Lois disturbed me to say that the partridges were out by the kitchen. We were adopted by a pair of partridges several years ago and we seem to have had a pair ever since. I don’t know if this is the same birds or whether the partridge grapevine has us down as a source of good food.

Every now and then, they produce babies but most years there are only one or two and they disappear quite quickly - possibly because there are foxes at the bottom of the garden.

This year a much larger brood appears to have survived and this morning they were running around just outside the back door. Despite the low light, I did manage to grab a few pictures with the long lens.

There are even more of them but like many children they won't keep still long enough for a group portrait.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The riots

Everyone seems to be writing about the riots, so here goes. 
I watched the TV in disbelief, trying to make sense of what was happening. It seems that the total number of looters and rioters is probably not more than a few thousand, but a few hundred people descending on an area, intent on doing damage, can certainly cause a lot of trouble before there is any chance of police getting there.
It is also not surprising that no one saw it coming. Opinion polls take samples of a few hundred people, so the chances of finding even one of the looters in a sample is vanishingly small. From listening to the few rioters who have been interviewed it also seems pretty unlikely that their opinion could be sampled, pollsters would be unlikely to make sense of the incoherent ramblings we have seen so far. I also doubt if any pollster has ever asked anyone what he or she would do if they walked past a shop that was smashed open. Would you pick up a cake? Actually I wouldn't, certainly not if it was lying amongst a pile a wreckage. Would I pick up a pair of trainers, or a jacket? It is hard to say, I suspect there is some object out there that none of us could resist.
We are now seeing many people coming through the courts and in due course they will have their lives made worse though serving jail terms, paying fines, losing their jobs and having a criminal record. There is a risk that this will create an underclass that have no reason to take any notice of the sort of rules the rest of us live by. In all probability, some of them will have regrets. It seems clear that some of the looters were just swept along by the opportunity and probably did not imagine getting caught.
One of the first cases to come up was a man who apparently pleaded guilty to something related to the riots. He has a job working in a school. What effect will this have on his career? Hardly likely to improve his prospects I suspect. Two more teenagers were shown coming out of court, one yelled at the media, 'we don't want to be photographed.' There are probably a fair number of shopkeepers happy to yell, 'we don't want to be looted.' The thing about society is that it is a two way street, we all have to play by the rules. You can't loot shops and then say you don't want to be photographed, you can't join in a riot and expect to carry on as normal the next day.
The deeper problem appears to be that there seem to be groups of people who have become disconnected with society in general. Whether this is the 'fault' of 'the schools' or 'the parents' or 'society' is a pointless question. Establishing blame will achieve nothing unless it can be part of a solution. The right question, which the media seem incapable of asking, is "What will it take to put this right?" We do not appear currently, to have any organisations or institutions that are up to the task.
Although parents are often blamed, the care system appears even worse. Children who grow up with the state as a parent are less likely than average to leave school with any sort of qualification. They are also more likely to end up in prison. The care system seems to be very good at taking innocent victims of family breakdown and turning them into people we can blame for something. Taking these children away from the parents would make little sense. Prison does not do much better, the numbers of ex-prisoners who end up back in jail suggests that locking up the looters in our current institutions is unlikely to reform them.
 I am drawn to the idea that something different is required. Fundamentally, it seems to me that the notion of serving time is the wrong model. We need people who are found guilty to come out of the judicial experience less likely to behave badly in future. Personally, I suspect we need something like American Grade School. We need to set some standards for behaviour and everyday competence and when those standards have been achieved, the offender can be released. If you don’t make the grade, you go round again. This is a bit like the theory test before the real driving test. If you can’t pass the theory of society then you need supervision. Some wide consultation would be needed as to the content of the test, the curriculum for being a model citizen, but we already have a citizen test for immigrants, so it can't be too hard to do.
I had always thought that some sort of compliance with society was what the probation service was supposed to achieve. I imagine that some sort of community service order together with geotagging of some sort would probably be effective. Given modern technology it would be simple to tag someone so that we would know where he or she was and if they were anywhere near some future disturbance we would know immediately.
To some extent, supervision must come from an organisation established for the purpose, like the probation service, but some element of supervision could come from the community, either through workplace schemes or contributions to what for anyone else would be voluntary work.
Ultimately if a person continues to offend they will end up in jail, simply to remove them from circulation; but if more potential prisoners were supervised in the community, and effectively by the community, there would be more time and space in jails to do more serious education and reform. It is foolish to assume that prison can completely prepare anyone for a return to normal life; it cannot replicate the same challenges, opportunities and threats. That means that every prison sentence should be followed by a period of supervision and testing in the community.
Of course, it is possible that offenders could cheat, crib the answers or lie, but modern psychometric tests are quite good at lie detection. It can't be very hard to spot many of the bad attitudes and behaviours, much of the time. I'm sure we would all feel more reassured if a significant proportion of potential troublemakers had geotags, and were made to do some useful work, and were only let off when they had proved that they at least knew how they were supposed to behave.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Half-price Senility Kits

As a child I was dyslexic, though at the time I'm not sure the term had been invented. It took me ages to learn to read. All my children have suffered from the same problem, so I suppose I may have inherited it from them (Joke).
One amusing consequence was that I often read things that were not there. This did happen when reading books, but in that case it is easily corrected by the context of the rest of the page. Billboards on the other hand are a different issue. Driving past in a car, I see words on a wall and my brain comes up with some totally ludicrous phrase. I've learned not to swerve, or even attempt to look again. Usually I just manage to laugh and ignore it.
Give me some examples, I can hear you say. Actually, that is very difficult because some other brain mechanism kicks in to ignore the whole thing. I laugh, but I can never remember what I am laughing about. This is a logical mechanism, and, no doubt, some sort of learned response. What is the point of remembering something that is obvious nonsense? It is almost as though my brain has evolved some kind of sense checker, like a spell checker in a computer.
Spell checkers are a wonderful thing for dyslexics, but they did not exist when I was learning to spell. Predictive text is something else. The iPad I am typing on at the moment has an amazing knack of producing words that I certainly did not set out to type. Proof reading has to be twice as good.
Now that I am older, a lot older, I have developed enough habits to keep on top of the dyslexia. However I am now going deaf and a similar phenomenon is becoming apparent, I miss-hear things that people say. David Lodge has written a whole novel around this (Deaf Sentence, Penguin) Actually I thought the book a bit on the self indulgent side with rather too many clever literary bits that seemed to be included just to show off. I will confine myself to just one blog post.
Last night while reading and watching TV at the same time, I heard a special offer for "Half price senility kits." My brain had already started to consider what on earth could be in such a kit before the error checking mechanism kicked in. I had got as far as wondering whether this was a kit to make you senile, or help you deal with it; when I realised that they had said "Half price cinema tickets." There are, of course, those who might consider the two things to be the same thing.
Unlike the circumstances of most of my previous funny dyslexic mistakes, this time I was reading on the iPad, so could immediately make a note. In the morning it still seemed amusing, so blogging seemed the obvious thing.
Although I remembered this particular miss-hear, I usually find that I forget them. It seems as if the brain really does have self-censoring function, spotting it’s own mistakes and forgetting them. I can see some survival advantages in that. Responding to mistakes is probably a sure way to get you killed in the long run, whether that is visual, auditory or cognitive errors. Miss-reads are a bit different in that most of the early ones probably take place in school, where there is a significant pressure not to look foolish. That would add a social stimulus to learn on top of any long term evolutionary effects.
All in all, a half-price senility kit may be worth snapping up, but you wouldn't tell your friends.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Burton Agnes Jazz Festival

I spent the weekend at the Burton Agnes Jazz festival. Burton Agnes is a Yorkshire village centred on an 800-year-old stately home, which is currently kept in very good shape by the current owners. It has some beautiful gardens, a vegetable patch in a walled garden that would put any allotment to shame, ornamental ponds, a maze and woodland walk, and a jazz festival. What more could you want? Well, good weather I guess. However, because it was raining a lot of the time I spent an hour in the main house looking at the paintings. Well worth a trip just for that. A very good collection of impressionists in a beautiful setting.
The sun did shine, some of the time, but it also rained a lot of the time. Fortunately, the stage was well protected and there was a big beer tent and tea tent, which between them were able to keep the crowd dry.
The big attraction, from my point of view was Saffron Byass, my son in law’s sister; I presume that makes her a relative of some sort. Short clip filmed with my Iphone attached.
There were a number of other acts including Jaqui Dankworth, though I thought her set was more suited to an intimate nightclub rather than a large well-groomed field with echoes off the stately home in the background. There were rather loud acts towards midnight that sounded quite good from 300 yards away inside my campervan.
One thing I did find interesting was that almost every act had guitars in their line up. My memories of jazz go back to the early sixties when Chris Barber and Acker Bilk were regulars around Bristol and I once saw Miles Davis. Actually, Miles Davis was utterly brilliant. He had Himself on trumpet, Sonny Stitt on clarinet and alto sax, Paul Chambers on double base and Jimmy Cobb on drums and I think, Wynton Kelly on piano. It was probably the best concert I’ve ever been to so it’s hardly fair to compare anyone with that. My point is that there was never a guitar in sight. In the two days I was at Burton Agnes, I didn’t hear one trombone, trumpet or clarinet. OK so I missed some acts, but it must be some measure of the way that the electric guitar has developed that it can now fill the space left by almost any other instrument.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

100 posts

This is my one-hundredth blog post. Some sort of landmark I guess, though why we are all so obsessed with round numbers remains a mystery to me. I ought to be able to deduce some sort of lessons or conclusions or possibly refine my blogging strategy as a result of this experience.
     Because the nice people at Google provide the data, I can of course instantly find out which are the most popular posts, but what does that mean? Two posts have had more hits than any other and neither of them is typical. A novel look at novels was a blog about playing with a new piece of software made available by Google. The analysis that it enabled was interesting, and I couldn't resist playing with it. Does it tell me what I should blog about? I don't think so. What it does say is that adding a bunch of strangers who are interested in something novel (that word again) will push the numbers up, but those numbers are not associated with a sustained upsurge in interest.
Similarly, the post about the Spearhead dinghy; that actually came top but it was put there in order to provide additional background when we were selling one of the boats on eBay. That didn't produce a sustained upsurge either.
Novelty is fun, but impossible to do all the time and each novelty probably attracts a different audience, who don’t necessarily stay.
What does push the numbers up or down? Not posting, or posting less often causes a downward trend. The couple of months earlier this year when my mother was in hospital, because she had been knocked down by a car, were associated with a considerable reduction in posts. I visited her every day for several months and it just takes up time. In the last few months I have been posting much more regularly, partly because mum is a lot better and also because Lois is now writing five blogs, all about different things, and putting me to shame.
As to subject matter, that is a harder question. The one thing I was sure about when I started was that I wanted to change my creative direction away from all the things I did when I was working. As a result, there has been very little about public health or the terrible things the government may be about to do to the NHS. I still read and correspond about it, but I don’t blog.
There was a brief relapse over Amy Winehouse, but I intend to carry on resisting the temptation as much as I can, though I might just do a bit more about alcohol some day, just to respond to Lexi and emphasise that it is OK to drink; how much, how often, what and how are issues that can be explored.
My biggest interest now is writing, so there are more posts about that than anything else. I still consider myself a learner, so inevitably I post more often on things that I find curious or frustrating. Repeating back to others the things I do understand seems somewhat pointless, at least until I reach the point where I am sure I know what I am writing about. This is of course contrary to the advice from the big-time bloggers. Give people something they need, they say repeatedly. Probably good advice, maybe when I get past two hundred I'll think about it.
The major area that I appear to have ignored altogether is blogging to attract an audience that might read my books. There is a dilemma here, more than one actually. The first is that it is difficult to know who the audience is. Amazon is very good at telling you how many books you have sold, but I have not found any way of getting demographics. On some of the writing sites, information is available and you can guess it from comment on others. The snag is that these are most likely writers who also read. Are they typical of readers in general? I read a much better blog about this by Livia Blackburne 
Her message is that blogging, particularly for fiction writers, may be a waste of time because the readers are likely to be writers and so not the real market.
Ho hum. Add to that a second problem, in my case - I am writing in two different genres. Should I be running two blogs, each aimed at a different audience? The second genre is Young Adult, and so far, I have not finished any of the books. Ideally, I should be doing something to create an audience before I publish a book. There are those who would suggest that the thing to do is to produce one book and virtually give it away in order to attract the audience and then produce another and another.
This is too much introspection for one blog, even my hundredth post. For the moment, I will set myself the modest target of being able to understand all this a lot better by the time I reach two hundred.