Sunday, 22 March 2009


One of the merits of advancing age is increasing invisibility. By the time my hair is white, I shall probably float ghost-like down streets and be able to act exactly as I like without anyone noticing. But I'm not quite there yet.

I went to London to visit my parents on the day before Mother's Day. I reckoned I was probably even less visible than usual, slightly shuffling and convalescent after a late winter virus got me by the throat and left me tired and shaky. I stopped at an unfamiliar supermarket to get lunch ingredients and when a young woman rammed my shopping trolley into me, complaining that I wasn't quick or efficient enough at making way for her, I decided I'd probably slipped into the role of Unnecessary Older Person, as far as she was concerned. Perhaps she was too young to realise that most women are so accustomed to mild brutality and insults from strangers, that a rammed shopping trolley is hardly more than a slight annoyance.

As an older woman, I feel rather safer than when I was young. I've never forgotten the time - nearly thirty years ago - when I was walking across a university carpark and a car-load of drunken students thought it funny to drive the car at me a few times, hurling sexual insults and shrieking with laughter at their "wit." That really was frightening. I don't think they planned to hit me - though I couldn't be sure - but I wasn't sure they were sober enough to control the car, or that I could run fast enough to get away. I didn't go to the police. The headlights dazzled me so that I couldn't see their faces though I had a good idea who they were from the brayed, precise insults. The police were unlikely to take my word against a group of posh - and well-connected - young men.

That was the scariest instance but of course there were others. Men sometimes tell me I'm stupid to walk alone after dark but years ago I decided that I preferred to risk abuse and threats rather than live in a prison created by abusive strangers. I've had a fuller life as result. And by now I'm used to dealing with the occasional insult. They've tailed off as I've grown older and become more confident. I worry for my daughter, of course.

It was good to see my parents. I don't visit often enough. This was another short visit - four hours' travelling each way doesn't allow much time to stay, but at least I managed to cook lunch, wash up and deliver small gifts to my mum. I was pleased I'd made it, but more tired than usual - this year's viruses seem particularly draining.

I'd worried a little about getting the tube at Putney Bridge. Dad and I had been watching the football results and the unlikely scoreline - Fulham 2, Manchester United 0 - could result in a few disconsolate United fans on the way home. But all I saw were yellow-jacketed police - some on horseback - outside the supporters' favourite pub. Jubilant songs and chants filled the air.

Reaching the Piccadilly Line, I realised I could be standing for quite a while. The Victoria Line was closed for the weekend, pushing passengers onto other routes. The platform wasn't too crowded as I arrived but within two minutes passengers were three or four deep and more kept arriving. There was no point in letting a crowded train go in the hope of a seat on the next one. I boarded and followed the usual command to "Move right down the carriage." I was just reflecting on how shaky I felt and my probable invisibility when a young man stood up and offered me his seat. I wasn't so invisible after all - and immensely lucky. Plenty of other people who could have done with a seat were left swaying and strap-hanging. After thanking the young man, I immersed myself in my book - one of the Scandanavian detective stories to which I've recently become addicted.

My journey involved a change of mainline trains and a pause in a waiting room. The book, which involved axe murders, a bright young woman inspector and an older beer-drinking, chess-playing detective, had gripped me. I settled down for my 25-minute wait and continued with the story.

There were three other people in waiting-room: a young couple wrapped up in one another and a solitary man listening to music. It felt safe enough. Then the youths came in, giggling, pleased with themselves, possibly a bit drunk. They swaggered round, giggling. I was more interested in my book and perhaps this annoyed them. They stood in front of me, staring, thinking of an insult. Eventually, one of them came up with the epithet they wanted: "Book-reader!" They giggled. They tried it out a few more times, circling round me. I looked up, unimpressed, and went back to my book, "Book-reader!" they said again. And then one tried, bemusingly, "Sexy! She's sexy for a book-reader. Sexy for a nerd." I think I was supposed to be scared. I wasn't. They went out.

Later, when a couple of more people had entered the waiting room, they came back. They tried saying, at no-one in particular, the worst racial insult they could think of. They said it again and laughed. It plainly didn't apply to any of the people in the waiting room. They tried to start a conversation with a solitary young woman who was witting there. She dismissed them with monosyllables and they gave up, giggled and went outside again. I think the youths were beginning to feel cross that no-one responded to them - I hope they were. Perhaps it was their turn to feel invisible.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Time and Relative Dimensions in Space

I wish I could remember which Big Issue seller to thank.

I wasn't going to buy a copy. I smiled, said sorry, walked past - and then had second thoughts. There was enough money in my pocket, I had a train journey ahead and the Big Issue seller would probably be cheered by a sale. I walked back and bought one.

I was already planning my trip to London. I'd have an afternoon free, starting in the Victoria area. Perhaps the V&A, I thought - free admission and I could enjoy treasures I'd loved in childhood, from the Bayeaux Tapestry reproduction to Tipoo's Tiger. But then I saw the picture of Mark Wallinger's TARDIS and read the review of the exhibition he's curating: The Russian Linesman. I looked up the cost of admission to the Hayward Gallery. £9. Quite a lot by East Midlands standards. But I hadn't been to a major London art exhibition for a couple of years.

The South Bank was peopled by large green lizards and faceless queens. That is not a metaphor. These were living statues and I don't know what had drawn them to congregate by the river. They sparkled in the March sun. Passers by and tourists stopped to marvel.

I'm less familiar with the South Bank than I was and briefly forgot which concrete walkway would take me to the Hayward. I found myself at the bottom of a damp-streaked stairwell stacked with rubbish where two young people in the bright uniforms of catering staff clung together in an intense embrace. I doubt they noticed me. From there I saw the way I should have gone and reached the Hayward entrance.

I hadn't realised there were three exhibitions. Before reaching The Russian Linesman, I had to pass through a retrospective exhibition of Annette Messager. I wasn't familiar with her work and at first I wasn't sure I wanted to be.

Messager uses all kinds of ordinary materials including pictures cut from magazines, soft toys, gloves, pencils and, disturbingly, dead birds to create sculptures and installations. Her early work was evidently influenced by the Women's Movement and concerned with how women were seen. People who look back on the Women's Movement tend to assume it simply criticised men for seeing women in sexual ways. But that wasn't the main problem. The real difficulty was that a particular way of seeing women had become so dominant that it was hard to establish any other way of seeing. The male view of women was so dominant that it influenced all areas of life: work, education, culture - even the way women saw themselves.

Messager's early work challenged this. She created alternative selves, presenting herself as a trickster who played with how women were seen (as mothers, lovers, objects of desire) and how women might see men. This was exciting - even dangerous - in the 1970s but I couldn't feel the raw thrill of it any more. I wanted something that challenged me now.

I found the first challenge in Messager's treatment of childhood and motherhood. Dead sparrows, dressed as dolls, fastened to miniature carriages for outings, pinned down for punishment reminded me of the cruelties that are taken for granted in conventional children's games. An exhibit called (I think) Children with their Eyes Scratched Out suggested that women's relationship to children and motherhood was less easy than society supposes.

The bigger, later works combined beauty and horror. Soft toys were dismembered and hung up like the kind of votive offerings I've seen in Mediterranean churches. And three room-sized exhibits were in motion. In Gonflage/Degonflage (Inflation/Deflation), huge body parts - pastel-shaded and cushiony soft - did what the title suggested: inflated and deflated. That wasn't frightening but filled me with awe. Casino (a section from Messager's Pinocchio-themed installation for the Venice Biennale) represented the interior of a whale. Movements of cloth, changes of light and the gradual descent of small shapes from the ceiling created an entrancing experience that simulatneously warmed and disturbed. Finally an installation triggered by mad cow disease created the kind of scene Hieronymus Bosch might have dreamt up if all he had at hand was a selection of human-size soft toys.

Disturbed by Messager's work, I fled up the stairs to the exhibition that had brought me to the gallery.

At first glance, The Russian Linesman looked small, restrained and sane. There was a lack of brightly-coloured soft toys. Instead there were sculptures, videos, frames. Most of the frames contained pictures. But there were also door frames (two frames, one door) and frames that were fragile outlines of thread, creating borders for empty air.

Borders were one of the themes of the exhibition - those fragile lines that contain us. But related to borders was the bigger theme of uncertainty and lack of knowledge. Some of the works exhibited were caught in history. No-one could see the Joseph Beuys lithograph, in which the twin towers are renamed Cosmos and Damian (for two saints killed because they refused to profit from good deeds) without recalling the destruction of 9/11 and the destruction that followed. There was no picture of Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the towers but there was film from a CNN helicopter showing the thin cord still linking the towers, recalling what came immediately before as well as what occurred years later.

The exhibition showed how easily the brain processes and organises contradictory information - how we impose order on what is disorderly and incoherent. The most obvious way this was shown was the stereoscopic photographs, in which two different two-dimensional pictures - one seen by each eye - together create, in the brain of the viewer, an impossibly sharp and three-dimensional image. The photographs themselves were disturbing: including Nazi propaganda pictures of Hitler and a border post between Germany and Russia. But there were also films shown in parallel: East German feature films screened beside recreations in the same street twenty years later. It was hard to work out what I was seeing.

Everywhere the exhibition disconcerted me. There was raw footage from the recent conflict in Sarajevo - footage discarded by the BBC. It was shown in silence so that I was suddenly aware of how news footage is edited, and shaped by the commentary offered. When I watched film of a corpse clumsily taken from a river, I just saw that the man was dead and didn't know what side he was on. Somehow I was even more upset by the group of happy young people, relaxed and laughing in a bullet-pocked cafe.

There were tricks everywhere - old-style trompe-d'oeuil and Thomas Demand's Poll 2001, a huge photograph of a facsimile of the desk at the Palm Beach count which determined the United States election. There are no people, there is no writing, there are no numbers and the photograph has the same hyperreality as the stereoscopic images.

I wandered into an impossible maze, stood in a sound installation, looked at the 17th century painting by an unknown artist. It showed a dead, unknown soldier - so unknown that no-one knows what war he fought in nor what side he supported - only that he is quite young and wears the clothes of a wealthy man.

Finally I approached Mark Wallinger's stainless steel TARDIS. From a distance it looked disappointingly solid but, as I approached it, the shining, mirrored sides seemed less substantial. I walked round it. At times I caught sight of myself in the shining steel. At others, it seemed on the point of shimmering into nothingness. I walked away and found myself listening to the voice of James Joyce, reading from Anna Livia Plurabelle, in which words and meanings blur to make language anew.

I was losing track of the world. Between them, two exhibitions had skewed my visions so much that I'd find my way home if I stayed much longer. After two and a half hours it was time to leave, while I still could. Perhaps I'd return later, I thought, and asked if that was allowed. But once out, I knew I couldn't go back. I needed to reflect on what I'd seen.

On the way out, I spent time in the Hayward's third exhibition, an installation by Ujino and the Rotators. 1950s furniture and domestic appliances performed a cross between noise music and 1970s disco sounds. It seemed sensible and I listened for a while, feeling I'd returned to a safe, normal world.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

"All bright and glittering"

I was muttering as I crossed the bridge. Once I was word-perfect in Wordsworth's famous sonnet. I began securely enough, "Earth has not anything to show more fair ...", had a bit of a hiccup at the list of "Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples" and jumped straight from the sky to the sun. I was pleased to recall the stand-alone line, "The river glideth at his own sweet will" and wondered, as I reached the end, if I'd managed the complete poem. I checked later - I'd missed the line "All bright and glittering in the smokeless air." That line still works although these days we expect our cities to be "smokeless."

Perhaps my muttering made others think I was mad. It would have had that effect in the East Midlands. But in London it's easier to be an eccentric. And I couldn't cross Westminster Bridge without trying to recall Wordsworth's lines, even though they weren't entirely applicable to a crowded lunchtime.

In some ways, my brief visit to London felt like coming home - it always does. London is where I belong. But it's more than twenty years since I lived and worked there. There were familiar sights - the Byzantine exterior of Westminster Cathedral is unchanged and a sign still points to the Royal Horticultural Hall. The Army and Navy Stores vanished years ago and I wasn't sure if it had been replaced by House of Fraser or a new row of expensive little shops. I marvelled at their shiny exterior and gazed through the plate glass. But I felt more at home wandering round one of the little markets for locals and office workers, in a street of cafes and shops selling all sorts of goods from hardware to secondhand books. I had to resist the temptation of cheap hot lunches to take away: food from a range of European and Asian cuisines.

We were near Westminster. Signs warned that the area was designated under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 - and that any bicycles left near Westminster Abbey would be taken away. Brian Haw continued his camp, surrounded by flags of Commonwealth countries. Opposite him, policemen carried big guns. Westminster Abbey was closed for the day and no reason was given.

I wandered along the tourist routes and gradually realised what was strange about central London. Where were the empty shops, the "closing down" signs, the advertisements offering a "fantastic retail opportunities"? Nothing seemed to be "to let" or "for sale." Cafes where coffee costs £3 a cup were at least half-full.

There was so little evidence of poverty in London that I was relieved when I came across a young man, drunk and bruised, sitting on Maggi Hambling's monument to Oscar Wilde. The young man was solemnly sharing a bottle of white cider with "Sir Oscar," as he called him. "Sir Oscar's my friend," he told me. I hope Oscar would have approved.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Billy and the bananas

On Friday evening I got to hear - and briefly talk to - Billy Bragg. On Saturday morning I encountered a large number of bananas. It was an unusual beginning to the weekend.

Billy Bragg was "in conversation." Tickets cost £3 and, as my son's a fan, I bought two. Then my son was ill with a virus. At the last minute, I asked a colleague. She turned out to be a fan and was delighted at the invitation - she'd been too late to get a ticket. "I'm going to marry Billy Bragg," she told me, as we headed to the event. "My husband says it's fine and he quite understands, so long as it's Billy."

I didn't have quite the same enthusiasm. I enjoy some of Billy Bragg's songs and was interested to hear him talk but half my reason for attending was to report back to my son.

Within two minutes' of Billy Bragg's arrival, I knew I'd made the right decision. He's quick-witted, intelligent, funny, modest and passionate about changing the world. One of the questioners from the audience asked why he didn't stand from parliament. Billy gave two answers. First, he's a singer, not a politicians. And second, he thinks politics is for ever, not just professional politicians.

I don't always agree with Billy. I can see why he thinks patriotism is important (and I'd like "Jerusalem" as an English national anthem) but I simply don't share his love of country. I love places and people but I'm not a patriot in that sense. Perhaps I felt an outsider to early in my life. And I think Billy is too optimistic - but that's a good fault. I wouldn't mind sharing his optimism.

What I share is his concern to involve people in political action and public debate. There are dangers in that - people won't always make the right decision - but sometimes the people are right and their leaders wrong. At least 1 in 50 people in Britain marched against the Iraq war and they were supported by the majority of the population. That opposition came out of public debate - but the leaders told us contemptuously that we were wrong, stupid and cowardly. On the question of Iraq, the majority was right and our leaders were disastrously, cruelly wrong.

Billy was on his way to a gig for the 25th anniversary of the miners' strike. He'd been involved in the campaign to support the miners. I wasn't. Living in London at the time, I thought Arthur Scargill should call a ballot - and that no government would ever close the coalmines on the scale Scargill suggested. I was wrong. I couldn't have done much to support the striking miners but I wish I'd done something.

On the day that Billy prepared for his gig, I too took political action - but it was more modestly expressed. I ate a banana.

It was part of an attempt to set a world banana-eating record (the most in a particular place in a 24-hour period) in support of Fair Trade. There were fairly-traded goods to try (mostly cake and chocolate) as well as games and information. Quite a few people were dressed as bananas.

I'm in support of Fair Trade. Rich countries have a bad record of exploiting poor people in poor countries, forcing them to work for low wages. Obviously we should pay decent wages rather than forcing farmers and labourers into near-destitution. But I'm uncomfortable about the way bigger companies have begun to use Fair Trade to lure shoppers away from small companies and shops. Cadbury is to start using Fair Trade cocoa in its chocolate bars, guaranteeing the minimum Fair Trade wage to its producers. But the world price of cocoa has risen so much in the recent market turmoil that it's not going to cost Cadbury anything just now.

The Fair Trade bananas which we ate for our attempt on the record were provided by Sainsbury's. Speakers thanked Sainsbury's for their generosity and the people in the square applauded. But I wonder what the small greengrocer on the edge of the square thought. Hallam's has been selling fish and vegetables for more than a century. I don't eat fish but the vegetables are good and often grown locally. They had a fine display of organic, fairly-traded bananas - but I wonder how many people bought from Hallam's when Sainsbury's was giving bananas away.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Propaganda and art

Only two minutes' walk from the exhibition of American prints is a smaller, less flashy exhibition with much narrower scope. As its title suggests, Windows on War: Soviet War Posters 1943-45 looks at the development of a particular kind of propaganda poster in a narrow but significant period.

The collection of posters survived in Nottingham by a mixture of chance and generosity. A university professor - Vivian de Sola Pinto - was posted to Moscow on war service and collected a number of the window posters and printed posters which were produced by TASS (the Central Soviet Telegraph Agency). He collected more than 100 big window posters as well as some smaller printed posters and brought them home with them. Eventually he donated them to Nottingham University. They're a fragile collection and rare too - although major artists and poets collaborated on the work, the posters were a response to the war and intended to have an immediate effect.

I've never worried that artists of all kinds create work that is labelled "propaganda." Every work of art is propaganda for something, whether the work is loudly and ostentatiously political or quietly insists that art itself matters. All artistic creators have views, beliefs and prejudices - not necessarily comfortable ones - and these inevitably leak into their work. I'd rather deal with the unpleasant beliefs of Pound or the jingoism of Kipling, which are openly proclaimed, than the respectable-sounding class and racial sneers of T.S. Eliot or the deeply embedded prejudices of Philip Larkin. But it's the Eliot and Larkin who make it into school syllabuses while Pound and Kipling are judged too propagandist.

On the whole I can deal with overt propaganda, though I may dislike it and disagree strongly. I'm less comfortable when artists have been forced to produce propagandist art, not just because of the danger of bad art (though insincere art isn't necessarily bad; the compliments to Elizabeth I in A Midsummer Night's Dream are as delightful as they were - almost certainly - insincere). What I dislike is the power structure that harnesses art in this way and treats its effects as utilitarian and quantifiable. There's almost always something brutal about governments that do this.

The Soviet posters disturbed me for a range of reasons. Few of these were to do with power structures. To my surprise, Soviet leaders were rarely present in the posters though there was one in which a child held up a picture of Stalin as if brandishing an icon for veneration. The posters in the collection were largely focussed on hatred of Germans and the desire for vengeance. I suppose that in the years since World War II we've become so used to the evils of Nazism that we expect war posters to assert some sort of moral high ground. Looking back on British posters and cartoons of the period, they probably show the same desire for hatred and vengeance. I notice it less because it's rooted in traditions with which I'm familiar. But that desire to inflict known and unbearable pain on other human beings makes me feel sick and hopeless.

Occasionally the posters were gentler in tone. A headscarfed woman held her finger to her lips, warning that careless talk costs lives. A nurse gave water to a wounded soldier. A sturdy blond woman stood surrounded by her sturdy blond children. She was a "heroine of the Soviet Union," officially honoured for giving birth ten times. Her children, it was implied, would grow into new soldiers, replacing those who had died repelling the invaders.

Invading armies are not loved. It's not a new thought. From Sparta to the present day, mothers have sent their children to kill or be killed - and poets have praised vengeance as wel as lovel.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

American scenes and the WPA

When visiting art galleries in my teens, I used to dash past small, dingy prints for the lush expanses of oil on canvas. There were exceptions: I recall an exhibition of Durer which fascinated me and the Henry Moore lithographs for Auden poems - lovely to look at if not quite belonging to the poems that inspired them. Even now, I expect less of prints than of gaudy paintings so the touring exhibition The American Scene was a revelation.

I was reminded of the work of print-making - the various intricate methods from woodcuts to etching and engraving - which require the marriage of craft skills with inspiration. And in an exhibition in which most works were in shades of grey or brown, I soon realised how much variety, detail and texture could be achieved in a small space. Prints are also a more democratic form of art than the one-off big canvases. Public buildings that can never afford an original oil painting can display prints which convey the artist's work better than muddy reproductions. I began to understand why so many American artists had spent time learning to cut, etch and engrave.

The prints in this exhibition, made from the beginning of the 20th century to the early 1950s, are also a history of American life in miniature. There are cityscapes that still look like an imagined future and rural scenes from an age when electricity had not yet reached the remote farmlands. Grant Wood's print Sultry Night was judged obscene by the U.S. postal services for its depiction of a nude man. But what I see in the print is the farm-worker's exhaustion after a day's work in the draining heat. With no running water, he cools down by going to the horse-trough and tipping buckets of water over his aching body.

Violence and war are recurrent themes but despite the artists' shared love of their country there's no consistent approach. Sometimes, as in a print of a boxing match, it's hard to tell how we are expected to respond. War is both a source of pain and a matter for celebration. One print echoes Picasso's Guernica while another enjoys the geometric patterning of U.S. bombing aircraft. But to my surprise, the prints responding to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed nothing of the triumphalism that was the initial public reaction - the artists could imagine the victims.

Many of the prints from the 1930s and early 1940s were produced under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, which funded public works including artistic projects. WPA-funded prints could be sent to schools, libraries and public offices, fulfilling the WPA's double purpose of employing the unemployed (the artists and print-makers) and benefiting communities across America through the hard years of the Depression. But the WPA had its own aesthetic, as the exhibition notes made clear. Realism was favoured over abstraction and experimentalism was discouraged.

The WPA's preference for the figurative is disappointing. For me, the figurative prints that work best in the exhibition are those which suggest a mystery, whether its a wider, undisclosed story in the works of Edward Hopper and Martin Lewis or the terrifying enigmas of John Ward McClellan. Untutored audiences can respond to "difficult" abstraction - even the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock - so long as they aren't intimidated by overly obscure notes and allowed to experience their own responses.

My personal favourites in the exhibition were a sequence of plates with text by Louise Bourgeois with the title "He Disappeared into Complete Silence." The text heightens the mystery of the illustrations. There's a book, apparently, but it's out of stock at Amazon. One day, perhaps, it will return. Perhaps it will re-appear in time for Christmas. Or perhaps it's disappeared forever, as mysteriously as the tales it nearly tells.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

High-class shopping

I bought an excellent pair of shoes in Nottingham yesterday. It cost me £5. The shoes were last year's style and shop-soiled and I found them on a market stall, tucked away in a side street opposite the glossy and uncomfortable Victoria Centre. I couldn't face the Victoria Centre. It has a lively market area, which I love - you can get the best espresso coffee in Nottingham at a small Italian stall - but the main shopping centre, with its mirrored columns, lifts and escalators, disorients me.

I dislike shopping but sometimes the liveliness of Nottingham draws me. I like its atmosphere and variety. I enjoy seeing the Goths and political campaigners mingling by the steps of the Council House. I like the buskers and still miss the much-loved Xylophone Man. And while too many of the surviving shops are national chains, with windows arranged according to order from Head Office, the mobile stalls have been decorated with character and are set up with individual care. Much of the character of Nottingham as a shopping centre comes from these street traders.

Apparently the councillors disagree. They don't like the stalls where customers can buy a hat, an apple, a bunch of flowers or a hot baked potato - and propose to put all the stalls together, out of the way of city centre shoppers. They say the stall detracts from Nottingham as a place for "high-class shopping".

Obviously I'm not a high-class shopper. I looked at the stalls as I wandered round. Behind the Victorian Oven, which has been selling baked potatoes to the people of Nottingham for 24 years, there's a mobile phone shop, a branch of Ann Summers and a big Primark. Not what I thought of as "high class" but the councillors seem to have a different idea. The fruit stall and flower stall masked a large, empty - but very "high-class" - shop. They caught the sun and were so colourful that I wandered past them down Bridlesmith Gate instead of crossing the Old Market Square.

The street traders, who support families through their established businesses, are shocked at the Council's threat to turf them out of work in an economic crisis. Yesterday regular customers were queuing to sign a petition to keep the stalls. There's outrage in the local newspaper. I'm outraged too. What affluent, high-class shoppers does the Council want to attract? Bankers, perhaps.

I'm not a high-class shopper. Perhaps the Council will follow this absurdity by establishing a dress code and stationing bouncers at all entrances to Nottingham City Centre. Plainly people like me aren't welcome there.