I’m a driver, I’m a winner

BMW is notorious for the paucity of the basic equipment that comes as standard on its cars. No leather, no heated seats, no stereo, no sunroof. Every comfort has to be paid for. Every luxury beyond the price of the badge comes at extra cost. Even so the brand name is still hugely popular with the socially aspirational. This to the point that so desperate are many to prove to themselves and other people that their lives are a success that they will scrape together enough cash or credit to buy the most under-equipped model. Provided they have the car, familiar to millions with its pig-snouted bonnet grill, many even forego such basic kit as directional indicators.

Float on a river for ever and ever

I went to school with a girl called Emily Moore. She was, like her homophonic namesake, tall and thin and had something retro chic about her. Emily would always wear colours that I connect to the swinging sixties. She was like watching footage of Harold Wilson with the Beatles at the Variety Club dinner, wandering through Conran’s Habitat and the original days of Biba. Browns and turquoise, orange, pea greens coloured her personality at junior school. Grey, black and white when we hit Darton High School and she got into The Smiths. She had that pale look to her from the days before package holidays and cheap flights to Torremolinos. Like a young Julie Christie in Billy Liar. I associate her in my mind with ankle warmers and Kim Wilde moodiness; catching the Staincross Common bus back from school and out of my way so that I could talk to her, feigning an interest in Big Country and Aha then walking home, my imagination racing.

The physical, topographical Emley Moor is located on a hill overlooking the South and West Yorkshire border. At the apron of the Pennines. Visible from both Barnsley and Bradford it is astounding. Not even familiarity can blunt the spectacle. As relics of civilizations go Emley Moor rivals the pyramids at Giza and Wiltshire’s Stonehenge. This is a 20th Century ziggurat. And it’s bloody massive. Whenever I’ve been away, the sight of the tower as I crest the hill at junction 41 of the M1 (heading South) or finally pass junction 37 and Barnsley, travelling North, making for the Haigh roundabout, means that I’m not that far away from home. Like a salmon breast-stroking up its natal stream. I’m back in God’s Own County.

The mast carries with it the same retro-modern flavour as the golf balls at Fillingdales and Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire. Hi-tech plonked amongst the heather and the old dry stone walls. Like finding the Space shuttle Atlantis coming in to land smack bang in the middle of an Ashley Jackson painting. Astronauts at Top Withens. It’s a sight repeated with the wind farm above Millhouse Green. The huge cooling towers of Drax, Ferrybridge and (formerly) Tinsley. What is it about Yorkshire and these massive industrial/futuristic structures? The juxtaposition of flat caps and asbestos clad pyramids. Pigeon racing and spacemen. Pure white against a green background, gun metal sky. Grey concrete contrasted with egg shell blue. It’s like Compo, Clegg and Foggy from Last of the Summer Wine taking a hike through Pepperland and onto the cover of a lost Pink Floyd album.

At 1084 feet the mast was once the tallest structure in Europe (a distinction now held by the Ostankino Tower in Moscow – Soviet pride in phallic form. Mine’s bigger than yours). The tower is Grade II listed. Built in 1969, it became active in 1971 as Britain struggled with decimalization and the sight of a man with glitter on his face getting it on. In those thirty odd years it has beamed the world to my particular part of the north of England. It told us about the raid on the Iranian Embassy in 1980, the invasion on the Falklands in 1982 I counted them all out and I’ve counted them all back in again. The Miners’ Strike. The Brighton bomb. The Berlin Wall being ripped down by David Hasselhoff. It brought us ‘Play for today’ and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Crown Court and the Batman and Robin Christmas episode of Only Fools and Horses. The funeral of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997. The attacks on the Twin Towers. The grudge final between Will Young and Gareth Gates in 2002. The tower is a gossip.

The structure holds a special significance for me. Though oftentimes I’m a feckless, foul-weather friend. I roam up to the mast during periods of crisis. Sitting at the base in the lay-by, watching the landscape darken. Or it offers a focus for me when I’m out walking, wrapped up like a Caspar David Friedrich anti-hero, alone with my dogs and the elements. Staring at the red lights of the tower through the freezing, watery darkness from Staincross Common. Through summer haze across fields of wheat.

When I was growing up I used to think that Steve Austin was in there somewhere. That episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man were filmed inside its smooth, circular concrete walls. Tardis-like I allowed it to have the ability to expand by some clever means as and when required. I believed in the technology. I pictured Marilyn Webb, Richard Whitely and Geoff Druett reading the news on Calendar from a windowless room, mid-way up, behind the rings of re-enforced concrete. Terrifying us all with reports of the Yorkshire Ripper, snatched children and day 94 of the Miners’ Strike. John Helm reporting on yet another inevitable Barnsley FC disappointment, live pictures of the fire at Valley Parade. Then rounding it off with reports of Denby Dale and its world beating pie. A parental bedtime story after a rough day at primary school. It was the days of long, snowy winters and expansive summers with clear blue skies. A time when everything seemed to last forever. Ice creams never melted. 7 inch singles sounded original. We had forever. I’m still convinced that in 1981 I had a Polo mint that it took me a week to suck.

Emley Moor registered ‘10 Tonybens’ on Jonathan Meades’ Abroad Again. Indicative of its iconic significance of the future that died a generation ago. Emley Moor is Big Tech, when ‘they looked forward and looked up’. The mast is representative of a time when Britain had faith in technology and blind confidence in science. We might have lost the Empire but we’d beaten the Germans to colour TV.

We turned our back on naked technology in the 1980s. Suddenly we wanted our gadgets and gizmos to be homely. To be camouflaged in the familiar. Video tapes were pushed into bound covers, passing themselves off as books. The Complete Works of Charles Dickens hid the BASF home tapings of Howards Way and The Tube. TVs were concealed in wooden cabinets. The dysfunctional marriage of William Morris and Hitachi. Atari shacked up and living over the brush with Heppelwhite. Teak laminate was favoured in place of Formica. Reconstituted stone, cladding breeze blocks, replaced concrete. We wanted our New Tech to be comfortable. Accustomed. Functionality was out. We folded the envelope. We became Ludditie’s in our tastes. More Helen Allingham than Jackson Pollock. The housing estates that clothed the green belt and old colliery workings pitched themselves as Bourneville for profit. Workers cottages for the man who worked at the insurance company. An Almshouse for the Bank Manager. Gone were huge through lounges, G-plan and clean lines. Now we had pointless beams, rustic porches and bolt on bay windows. The combie boiler hid behind a dovecote in the hallway.

Perhaps the iPod has reintroduced something of the design aesthetic that gave us Emley Moor. That is, to make practical objects beautiful but still patently what they are. Stylish utilitarianism. And let’s not forget that Apple brought white back into fashion. Silver and black were suddenly old hat. HAL’s back out, on probation. Play-listing the Beatles back catalogue and 808 State. Ricky Gervais podcasts and games of Patience. Suddenly technology is sexy again.

There are plans to turn Emley Moor into the world’s largest sun dial. The feat has been registered with Guinness and the potential record breakers are looking for sponsors. It would easily trump the present record holder, the Giant Sundial of Jantar Mantar in India. Emley Moor is more than 300 metres taller. The long shadow touching huge numbered dials as cows crop the grass. I’d like to see that. It might confuse archaeologists in a few thousand years. ‘It’s definitely a time piece, Tony,’ says some Space Age Phil Harding. And the idea of Emley Moor’s dual purpose as a sun dial fits in with Yorkshire’s own peculiar take on futurism. With the flat vowels and the Quantum Theorems.

Today I’m just happy to sit in the lay-by off Jagger Lane in my car, look up at the scarlet lights that helter-skelter skywards and watch the weather change. The tops of the fir trees’ slowly blending with the darkening sky. Gun metal grey to French Navy to black. The cold landscape offers a comfort. The countryside falling down to West Yorkshire on one side and South Yorkshire on the other, seen through the sentimental eyes of Joseph Farquharson. The sun hath closed a winter’s day. In this moment I’m in touch with the past and the present, mindful of the future. Echoes of all three transmitting through the cold air high above.

Problem Solving

I sat in the garden this morning, throwing pebbles at a golf ball twenty-five feet away. I was precise with my aim on each throw. Trying my best. Weighting the pebble, adjusting from the last miss. I threw fifty and not one hit the target.

I scooped up a handful of pebbles. Say I had about a dozen or so in my hand. I tossed them all at the golf ball. Ping! First throw. The target went flying.

And so we have the concept of brainstorming.

In 2001 I was working for the internet service provider Freeserve. It was a peculiar place. With some interesting characters on the team. There was porn star Claire. Attractive and well-endowed with the intelligence of a whelk. Dodgy Paul who somehow acquired 200 pairs of Rockport boots to sell. Then there was Scott Rhodes, unable to get credit after his flatmate took out some Blockbuster videos on his membership card. The flatmate moved out a few weeks later, taking the videos with him. Rhodesy ignored the demands from Blockbuster. Took no notice of the angry letters. Then he got the CCJ and stung with a bill for £750. All this for ‘Porky’s 3’ and ‘Convoy’. As he said himself: ‘I wouldn’t mind so much, but I never got to watch either of them.’ Sat next to me was Nick. Periodically growing a beard, big American-style smile. Playing online games and hooking up with girls from school on Friends Reunited.

We had monthly team meetings in the conference room. A white wall down one side, a floor to ceiling window down the other, a coffee machine and a huge board table made from blonde wood. I remember one meeting. ‘I’ve been working on a problem,’ Kelly – the Team Leader – said. ‘And I’d like you to come up with ideas with me.’ The discussion was how we could deal with unsatisfied customers. Kelly said: ‘So I’m going to throw it open to the group. Give me what you’ve got. Be wild. Go crazy.’

After an embarrassed silence Kelly got us started herself. ‘Sympathize,’ she said, writing the word on a white board in black pen. And the floodgates opened. ‘Offer solutions,’ the fat girl with glasses remarked. ‘Nice one, Jane,’ Kelly said, turning to the board. Rhodesy offered: ‘Listen and respond.’ One more to be noted down. Like my pebbles at the golf ball, we were thinking as a group. Problem solving en masse. Banging down another cracking idea on the wall, Kelly turned, getting into the groove. With a shrug Chevy Chase-look-a-like Nick said: ‘Just hang up on ‘em.’

Ping! Four words: nail on the head.

The Dogs of War & Brave Buccephalus

The British are, above all, passionate about two things – their animals and their Nationalism. At the outbreak of World War I, when Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to take over the world, twenty-five thousand German Shepherd dogs were destroyed by their British owners. Another ten thousand Schnauzers were put down and five thousand Rottweilers went west. A further casualty of that war to end all wars was a Golden Retriever in Bolton, Lancashire who was drowned by his patriotic master. The Golden Retriever is not a Germanic breed but this one happened to have been called Bill.

A million horses were conscripted into the British Army during WWI. Approximately 62,000 survived the conflict. Of these few returned to Britain after the Armistice. Most were sold, ending their lives on French dinner tables.

1066 and all that

History may be signposted by the dates of battles and divided into eras by the reigns of Royal Houses, but it is the detail that brings the past and those who populate it to life. The Emperor Napoleon (1769 – 1821) conquered most of Southern Europe and courted fame for his victories at Lodi and Austerlitz. But at periods of crisis or exuberance the pocket-sized Corsican had the habit of violently pinching the fleshy bits of those standing nearest to him [1]. During the Battle of Waterloo Marshal Ney became so incensed with Boney’s persistently nipping his buttock cheeks that the Commander, a hero of the retreat from Moscow, flung down his baton of office and declared: ‘Continuez, une fois de plus! Et il est vous et moi, ici et maintenant!’

The baton falling was read as a signal to advance by the French left wing. The movement was premature, creating a weak point and allowing the pleasantly surprised allied forces to gain an advantage which they were quick to capitalize on. The mistaken order eventually led to a collapse in the Republican line and victory for the Allies.

Learning of the incident later, the Duke of Wellington observed: ‘That explains the pose – the hand tucked in the coat and all that. Frenchman, you see, no self control.’

Following the restoration of the monarchy, Marshal Ney was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by firing squad in December 1815. However, the execution was faked and Ney subsequently escaped to America where he settled in North Carolina as a school teacher.

[1] Napoleon, his wives and women by Christopher Hibbert p. 40-41

I Remember Everything

The tortoise is famed for its longevity. One – Tu’i Malila – was presented to the Tongan Royal Family by Captain Cook in the late 18th Century and died in 1965, aged roughly 188 years old. But long life comes at a cost. They find Autumn and Winter unbearable due to their invocation of melancholy and loss, spending the entire seasons in mournful hibernation.

My web browsing

In the studio with John Squire. I’m not sure about his latest exhibition. Original paintings over-written with text. The words gleaned from conversations he’s secretly recorded in and around Manchester. I’ve got an image of him, bearded, on the tram heading in to town via Salford, through Timpleton, making a pilgrimage past his old stomping ground of Chorlton-cum-Hardy. Out to Hyde. Dukinfield. Wythenshawe. The same route that he found the letter to Sally Cinnamon. Then into the city centre. Mooching around pensioners, couples, workers. A microphone poking out of his sleeve, the hard disc multi-track recorder tucked in an inside pocket of his field jacket. Recording random conversations. Each new one side by side on separate tracks. Layering each other. But has he translated that into visual art? Hmm. ‘Dinner party’ does nothing for me. Sixth form stuff. Others I like. ‘Seascape’ is Turner-esque. Late period, ‘Rain, steam & speed’. I’ve been fond of Squire’s paintings in the past and have my eye on one for the bedroom wall. And I can understand why the visual arts are a release from music. Defining a moment in a different way. But you wouldn’t think that he’d give out his address, would you? I might visit him. According to Google maps’ route planner it’s 50 miles from Lodge Towers to Squire Manor. Over the Woodhead Pass, through Tintwistle, down the A523. Just call in. John, get the kettle on. Biscuit? John, why are you holding your arm like that? Are you recording this?

My favourite books #1

The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher

Huge and expansive. This book lives on the bottom shelf of my coffee table, together with The London Encyclopaedia and the latest copy of Golf Punk. Graphic design, quirky zen short stories told over a pint, illicit doodles on work’s notepaper, peculiar facts, optical posers. Don’t start at the beginning. Open any page randomly and this book will live with you forever. Clever, trivial, funny, profound and surprising. The thinking man’s scrap book. I love it.

I’ve had my copy about three years and only stumbled on this last night. Classic.

For fish the world is water; for one old lady it was a tortoise. At a public lecture a well-known scientist (some say William James, others Bertrand Russell) described how the earth orbits the sun, which orbits around the stars, and so forth. At the end of the lecture, up jumped a little old lady: ‘Absolute rubbish,’ she said, ‘the world is a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.’ The lecturer, with a superior smile asked, ‘and so what is the tortoise standing on?’ ‘You’re clever, young man, very clever,’ said the old lady, ‘but it’s tortoises all the way down.’

Jack Vettriano?

Jack Vettriano is ‘the most successful and popular Scottish artist in history’. So says the gallery blurb.

His prints are ubiquitous. Who hasn’t seen ‘The Singing Butler’? A couple in evening dress dance on a beach, the sands stretch away to the horizon. Meanwhile a bonneted maid, holding onto her hat whilst chewing some toffee, together with an anonymous, podgy Jeeves stand by. The butler’s umbrella unfurled to shield the lovers from a squally blast. Yes? You must have. It’s everywhere. It’s up at my doctor’s surgery and I stared at it the other morning until the District Nurse called out my name. Sat next to the old woman with the hacking cough. Did she imagine herself in the arms of Valentino, shifting her arthritic body to Les Norman and his Bethnal Green Bambinos as she hawked up yellow flem? Or did she like me wonder what the hell it was all about?

In the public consciousness the image occupies a position akin to Diana the Princess of Wales, the poem about footsteps in the sand and Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’. It is the ‘People’s Picture’. And Vettriano’s success is not limited to mass produced prints. His original works command, as they say in auction circles, high prices. In 2004 the source painting (if you like) of ‘The Singing Butler’ sold for just shy of £750,000. His ‘Bluebird at Bonneville’ was flogged by Sotheby’s for £468,000 in the summer of 2007. Collectors of his works include Jack Nicholson and fellow Scot Sir Alex Ferguson.

Obviously he’s successful. Commercially, at least. Though the art world looks at his work in mild horror. He struggles – and apparently strives – for academic acceptance. So what is the style? Where does it fit? Though it has elements of sentimentality, his work is not kitsch. It’s not genre painting. It might conceivably be surreal if you were to look at it after a night on Skol and a handful of Magic Mushrooms. But no. Where Vettriano succeeds in spades is in that blandest of artistic endeavours – Decorative Art. Something to be bought framed off from the internet, ready for the conservatory. The spare room. A bit of colour to go with the new makeover. We’ve only fifteen minutes to turn this drab semi in Morley into a designer pad for Kelly, Pete and the five kids. ‘Ere, whack up that picture with the posh people dancing on the beach. Sorted. He creates visual muzak. Images piped in with the acoustic instrumentals of ‘Knights in white satin’ and the potpourri. He is listed as in the top ten best selling artists of all time on allposters.com. Up there with Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet. He’s certainly earned more from his art than Van Gogh or Modigliani ever did. But Vettriano produces the sort of images you’d expect to see on the book jacket of a re-issue of Agatha Christie novels. Flat colours on the horizon. A period look to the figures without the aesthetic sensibilities of Simon Palmer. An ill-fitting anachronism. To go back to ‘The Singing Butler’, which made its first appearance in the 1992 exhibition God’s children. This could quite easily be morphed into Inspector Japp trying to protect a crime scene on a beach with an umbrella while Poirot livens up his little grey cells during a swift polka with Captain Hastings.

Vettriano’s work is art as commissioned by Athena. If anyone ever does a painted version of ‘Man holding baby’ it will be Vettriano. Same goes for some woman pulling up her sweaty knickers during a game of tennis – he could re-capture that in oils. Put together a triptych featuring a Mack truck, a psychedelic image of Che Guevara and a skyscraper. Rock Stars of the 20th Century, the Haywood Gallery, numbered prints, a limited edition catalogue, Melvin Bragg tonking on some Vicks Synex is in raptures.

His most characteristic paintings represent a teenage girl’s vision of romance in a Hollywood neverneverland. Some point between the two world wars, with long bodied sports cars in British racing green, a falling handkerchief and some long fella in an evening suit lurching to pick it up. His women are modelled on a young Princess Margaret, fag in hand, polka dot poodle skirts. His men like Leslie Howard and Michael Wilding in heavily tailored suits and trilby hats. You’re so damned attractive, Gladys! I think I’m going to kiss you! You see them time and again. His paintings mass produced into prints are ideal for adding a ‘bit of class’ to the wall of a café in Leeds. A B & B in Ventnor. A dentist’s waiting room in Preston. A doctor’s in Barnsley. I’m sure he’s technically very capable, pulling off some artful impasto and a beautiful licked finish, and his images are soft and fluid, but his subjects are the artistic equivalent of plastic flowers in a vase that someone has plonked on the work’s canteen table. They are incongruous and irrelevant.

Recently he seems to be aiming for some sort of genre credibility. Affairs Of The Heart from 2004 seeks some kind of Sickhertian glimpse into seedy rooms and fractured relationships. But the anachronism remains and Vettriano’s ‘darkness’ comes across as a tawdry post-war pessimism. Storyboards from a forgotten B movie. Interior #3, afternoon, faded beauty with black stockings. Enter Lawrence Harvey, smoking, a frown on his face.

Who is this art for?

Vettriano himself states that he hails from Fife and trained as a mining engineer. He is self taught, using models in books as studies for figures. I get the impression of working class artisan. Burnt umber and a pint of bitter. LS Lowry, easel up on the moors watching the mills in the valley below. So whence the butlers? Dancers in evening dress? The peculiar (and slightly disturbing) Latino men walking across the sands in ‘The Billy Boys’? Where is Vettriano in his work? How does this convey anything? Should we imagine Fergie heading home from the Man U dug out, back to his Cheshire mansion, peeling off the team puffa jacket, a nip of Old Grouse to keep out the cold? He stares at the painting above his fireplace, a tear in his eye for family holidays of yesteryear to Saltcoats. I can remember in my day as a wee lad when we’d shake the soot of Govan from our shoulders and head to the coast but were never allowed onto the beach for all the rich folks dancing…

Who knows?

The man in the queue

Death alters everything and changes nothing. Not least the world. The contrast is appalling. I went for a walk yesterday. The physical landscape remains the same. The same narrow foot bridge over the brown river, the same conker trees, the same rising slope to the park, the same view from the vantage point. The familiar rolling fields, the wooded hills fringing the valley. The perennial traffic hissing along the motorway. The same hidden, secret paths amongst the long yellow grass. Unchanged from yesterday. I’m walking. I turn. And I want everything to be as it was a breath ago. I can see it all. A brindle coat like chocolate chip, a white flash. A smile and the kindest eyes in the world. Come on, slow coach. Rocking his body, he picks up the pace, muzzles my hand as he catches up. But the mental and emotional images that I project onto it have gone. Though life may be the same for everyone else, what I see and consequently feel is altered forever. Familiar places look strange and empty. And it is I that am the ghost. The spirit wandering. Not able to depart.

And I ask myself: what am I going to do?

My grief has three stages. There is numbness. I function. I get up. Go to work. Drive home. Stare at the TV. Sleep. And repeat. Subdued perhaps, but still running. Serviceable. I assume my assigned role and carry out what needs to be done. I am here. Guilty by association. There is the howling loss. Faced with bleak facts. Disbelief. The thoughts played out. I stare incredulous at the empty room. My habits are interrupted by their incompleteness. I remove a DVD from its box. The reflection on the floor isn’t chased. I open a can of Guinness and no one wants to share. Death induced claustrophobia. Emotions caving in. The roof falling. Trapped. Like being diagnosed with cancer or facing a huge, un-payable debt. No escape. No happy ever after. Options exhausted. So there’s nothing else you can do? And then there are the small steps forward. I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me. We grieve for ourselves. For the country we’ve lost. In these moments it’s not a case of ‘getting over it’. But finding a way of coping. Of managing the pain. Like learning to carry an awkward object. Aware that I’ll take one step forwards only to take two steps back.

We are all on the same journey – whether we recognize it or not. There is no substance in the conceit we feel in our own good health or good fortune. Our patronizing sureness. Ordinarily we try to find certainty in routine. Incubate ourselves from change through the familiar route to work, the celebrations, watching the TV. Or else in our purchases. The material success. Longevity assured by the credit agreement, leather upholstery and the heated seats. His Dad’s dead, you know? Is he? Thumbing through the Thomson brochure. Do you fancy two weeks in Alcudia next year, Dave? John Donne and all that. Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

The older I get the less afraid I find myself of dying. The more people I love that walk through the door into that other room. The more familiar death becomes. The physical bits and bobs – the blood and the needles, the pain, the disappointment of leaving the party before it’s my turn on the karaoke – remain a worry. But the idea of death somehow consoles. Deep at the heart of death there is a comfort. Not in the grief. Not in the loss or the appalling pain of bereavement. Not in the apparent unfairness. Not in the separation. In what then? How? Where? When? In the continuity? Listen up, sweet child of mine, have I got news for you. Nobody leaves this place alive. We’ll die here. Join the queue.