They met when they were teenagers.
On fire watch, when incendiary bombs rained flames over the school roof, they spent the nights playing games and eating black market biscuits.
That was in the war. Back then she was graceful and quick witted. Back then he was sharp and handsome.
“She was a looker even then,” he said. “I fancied her but we weren’t courtin’.”
National service and nursing training meant separate ways for a while. A few years later they met again. At a dance, down Roker, he saw her. He was with his mates, and a girl called Robson on his arm.
“I saw her. She was dancing with this lad, he was a hunch back mind but he could dance. I got me mates all lined round the room and every time he went to ask her they buzzed him off.”
“Buzzed him off?”
“Aye, you know, cut in,” He explained. “So in the end she had to dance with me. She was a good dancer too.”
They danced ‘til the band finished playing. He walked her home, across the river, five mile out the wrong way. That was the start of it. They courted and eventually married. He never said what happened to Robson.
He taught me to dance as a child; foxtrot, waltz, quickstep. I don’t remember her dancing at all. I barely remember her walking or moving from her sitting room chair. I wish I’d known them both before age, illness and the inevitable grind of life shrunk them down. An impossible wish.
Old memories are patchy, misleadingly highlighted with photographs and over-told exaggerated tales. An unreliable slide show of family mythology. Mostly I am left to wonder.
I imagine her as a young woman; smart, athletic, stylish. Her hair perfectly arranged in her trademark coiffure. Her waist was, as she said frequently, a mere 21 inches then. Wearing a beautifully tailored dress which spun out as he twirled her around the dance floor. She would have laughed at his charming and ever-so-silly stories. One marriage, four children, seven grandchildren and a great grandchild later, he still tells those stories. I’ll never know if they are true or not.
They had a long run, a whole lifetime of stories, and some are now lost forever. Theirs is story of a boy and a girl in the blackout, and of dancing and family and love.
A team of two for seventy four years.
Married for most of it.
Argued for some of it.
Loved for all of it.
It’s unimaginable to have one without the other.
Open art exhibition.
Words which, especially when combined with ‘local’, make me cringe. Such an exhibition must obviously consist of amateurish attempts at conceptual sculpture, shoddily executed abstracts and an abundance of dull, oily landscapes. More arrrgh than art.When the Poole Open was announced this was the horrorshow hung on the walls of my mind, so it was with a sense of mild dread that I ventured into the gallery.
The inaugural Poole Open invited UK-based artists to submit work with a link to the main themes of the Poole Museum collection. Since the collection can mostly be summed up as pots, yachts and pirates, a lot of boat paintings were expected. Homelife, worklife and wildlife are also recurrent themes throughout the collection. The selected pieces are displayed in Poole Museum until 5 May 2014.
I’m relieved to report that the exhibition was not dominated by the maritime equivalent of ‘Pony Painters’ and the number of twee watercolours and overcooked concepts was fewer than expected.
With any open there are bum notes; an unoriginal subject or a good idea poorly finished are frequent clangers. However, this show had a few nice surprises. In fact some of it was actually quite good and overall it appears to be a well balanced group. Having not seen the other entries it’s difficult to tell. A man stopped for a chat and informed me, with authority and at some length, that his log boat painting was better than the one displayed. Not bitter at all mate are you?
Fifty artists made the cut and over 60 pieces are on show in a variety of media, from painting and sculpture to mixed media, film and photography. Much of it is available to buy, although I suspect sales will suffer from overconfident pricing. And there were a lot of boats…
Most of the work is hung in the gallery spaces but found pieces, prints and sculptures also sneak between the permanent glass cabinets and AV’s catching visitors off guard.
One gems were nestled beside the museum’s boatbuilding display is a tight pen on paper by James Mclellan. “Lovely on the Water”* depicts a boat which wouldn’t look amiss in an illustrated The Owl and the Pussycat Went to Sea. A cartoonish pirate of cardboard protrudes from a frame near a display on Harry Paye. On the ground floor several sheets of paper pinned to the wooden pillars belong to the artist Joseph Young. Their cut out lines replicate the pattern that pinhole borer beetles already made in many of the beams and pillars around the museum. The beetles are long dead, of course, leaving only their tracks behind.
Hiding on the backstairs are Jessica Polglase’s listed building installations. Thin black lines of tape on skimmed walls follow the outlines of Poole’s oldest buildings, cleansing and simplifying their bricks and rafters into something graphically pleasing.
In the upper gallery space a video work takes main stage. “Analogue Kingdom” is Esther Johnson’s sensitive, lyrical portrait of Gerald Wells, a wireless radio collector/geek/obsessive who stole his first radio at age 13. It is worth the 24 minute viewing time and I don’t normally have the patience for video.
Pinhole photography, photoshopped prints, textile interpretations of wildlife and a random but entertaining Google Street View painting on newsprint are also on offer. There’s something for every aesthete. Even Mother would appreciate some of the delicate colourwashed views of Poole.
Among the pieces which raised the bar was Anna Falcini’s “Incarcerated (Vitrines)”. Delicately pencilled ships inhabit tiny vials ‘moored’ along a stylised map of the Thames estuary. The ships in bottles each reference a repurposed naval ship used to house slaves and prisoners along the Thames in the 1800’s. The resulting art is intelligent and beautiful; my favourite kind of art.
As always a group show is only ever as good as the curator, or in this case the team of selectors. While not all to my taste this varied, and occasionally off-kilter, group is worth a gander.
*There were no dates on most of the pieces. I’m not sure why.
Respect goes to the sweaty ones, to the ones with withdrawal shakes and to those craving the booze. Kudos to those with the long list of ambitious goals and lofty dreams. Congratulations to those who self-flagelate via food denial and to those who push through the pushup pain.
They are upgrading themselves, to the New You v2.0. They are Jantastic. They are DryAthletes. They WILL be two stone lighter, get a date, quit smoking, stop drinking and run a marathon. All in 2014.
They are The Resolutioners.
And they are the second most annoying thing about January.
(The other is the car insurance renewal)
Every year the same thing happens. They invade the gym, the Parkrun, the TV, the high street, even the Google Ads are having a field day down the side bar of the world wide web.
Extricating themselves from that sofa dwelling, junk eating existance the Resolutioners promise themselves (and Facebook and Twitter) that THIS IS THE YEAR!
I salute their good intentions. I honestly do believe in bettering oneself.
But if the Resolutioners really wanted to improve their lives why wait until New Year? Why not start on 27 December? Or last May? Why wait until the crappest month of the year replete with the horrors of Christmas anticlimax, being broke and terrible weather? The diet-starts-on-Monday plan never made sense either.
But they all chose January for their fresh starts.
This causes a problem. You see I actually use my gym membership all year round. It was not part of a new year’s resolution.
For the last few weeks, I have struggled to find a parking space at the gym. There were not even cramped awkward spaces designed for a professional stunt driver behind the wheel of a Smart Car. Worse still my favourite treadmill was occupied. There wasn’t enough space on the floor to swing a kettle bell never mind a cat.
It was all highly irritating.
Thankfully in a few weeks it will all be back to normal.
I’ve seen it happen.
Over eager, over ambitious and ultimately destined for failure. Oblivious to the fact that fitness is for life not just for January they go in too hard, too fast and fall over with exertion after three weeks.
At that point everything (everything!) will be hurting. Then a fag, a beer and a takeaway menu will prove too tempting…and oops there goes another one. Ending, of course, in a miserable heap of self loathing watching Supersize-Superskinny and making excuses for themselves.
I’ve been there. When trying to quit drinking for a year I made it four months before someone pissed me off enough to make the urge to get wankered irresistible. Admittedly was a dumbass idea given the number of functioning alcoholics who occupied my social circle at the time.
It is really hard to stick to those promises. So good luck Resolutioners!
I’m sure the feverish bout of pious determination will subside and everyone will feel much better soon. In the mean time I look forward February, an excess of parking spaces and hammering the treadmill on the top floor, three in from the left.
Grandma has a spare room, upstairs at the back of the house. It is filled with sixty years worth of children’s toys.
There have always been children in this house. It’s usually brimming with life, noise, laughter, warmth and banana sandwiches. It even smells of family.
Between the pint-sized plastic kitchen and the zoo of stuffed animals are boxes containing photographs. A few thousand six by four inch glossy paper memories. They document every year of my life. Every year of my father’s life.
When I visit we sometimes take a box down and sit at the dining table to look at them. She reminds me of birthday parties, summers in the garden with Grandpa and the names of a dozen second cousins not seen for years.
“Do you remember when Jessie and Bobbie came over from Canada?”
I nod and smile. I should remember, I was thirteen, but she has shown me the photo’s before and they are the sum total of my recollection.
There is so much I don’t remember.
She shows me a smiling family group stood outside their old house, a modern 60’s build of five bedrooms. It had the luxury of a garage and sliding patio doors; dangerous for little fingers. My vague memory of it involves a huge dark brown building, formidable and scary. In the photo it is bright and sunny and new. It’s always sunny in these photographs. They’re always smiling trademark toothy grins; my dental heritage caught on camera. They look happy. They weren’t. Not that I remember.
In the lounge, religious effigies vie for wall space with a hundred framed faces. Her blue eyed boys, her blonde haired girls and a plethora of chubby, fresh faced grandchildren. She repeats the same stories every time about cousins overseas and a grandchild who’s so advanced, so smart.
She talks about “Yer Dad”, my father, with an edge in her voice. He is not a natural family man. It took half a century for him to settle down with just one woman.
“But they all have their flaws,” she says.
Her boys, made in her late husband’s image; charmers, tellers of stories, gamblers, drinkers, men of lapsed faith and lapsed faithfulness. These things go unmentioned, accepted because it’s too late to change. Accepted because she loves them all, unconditionally.
The tea dregs are cold. The stories are done for the day. She hands me some of the photographs to keep. As I leave she pushes a twenty into my hand,
“’Ere yar, Sarah. I don’t get to see yer often enough”
I try to refuse the bribe. It’s her pension. And what about the other eleven, or is it twelve grandchildren?
“No spendin’ it on drinkin’ and smokin’ mind.”
“Grandma, I don’t smoke. I‘ve never smoked.”
I hug her on the doorstep. As she closes the door I finally recognise the scent; biscuits, fig rolls to be precise. It’s the smell of childhood.
They all make the same face.
Brows knitted in a hybrid of confusion and fear. The efforts of various facial muscles combine to say,
Their tongues say,
Derision seems to drip from their part-curled lips.
This is the reaction of friends, family and colleagues, to the mention of certain personal passions. Sometimes it involves more words, sometimes it’s just a look. That look like I said something dirty enough to make Grandma shrivel in abject horror.
I do not harbour a deep love for stamp collecting nor have a fetish for some filth or other. I’m pretty mainstream. At least I thought so.
Apparently having fun in a museum, attending spoken word events and talking about art exhibitions is not mainstream. It is something to be ridiculed. Outside of arty circles the response is almost universal. Look closely into their eyes when they’re taking the piss. See that?
The dull corneal light that says,
This isn’t for me. I don’t understand it, it’s too complicated. It is boring. Isn’t it for hippies and beardy literature grads?
Their tone of voice is saying,
I’d rather turn my brain to mush by watching a straight 3 hours of Storage Hunters on some malnutritious Freeview channel, 35 clicks away from BBC1.
Each to their own I suppose.
But, The Housemate contorting her face in such a way makes me feel sad.
(She had the same expression when The Other F Word was mentioned but that is another story).
She’s missing out. They are missing out.
If I can understand what it is that turns her and everyone else off about art, poetry and museums then maybe, just maybe, we can get people excited about it. If people could understand it better, if they were open to it, if the idea was sold to them in just the right way… maybe they would love it too.
Because that is what I would really love.
To share the love.
To help people understand the simple pleasure of admiring the emotional depth in a brush stroke or the way a poet slots a sentence together to devastating effect. I want to tell them the story behind museum objects, to humanise an alien house of collected goods and chattels. I want to tell them why it is important and why it’s fucking cool. (It is cool I swear, would I lie to you?)
I want to hear that squee of joy and see something other than the square of television light reflected in their eyes.
It all starts with bit of education and a lot of marketing. Time to crack open some minds and break down some prejudices. *she says, mounting her short pony*
Buried in the belly of the Tate Britain are two white rooms.
Their temporary occupants are a 1970’s Women and Work archive exhibition and next door, a display of the art and craft of Sylvia Pankhurst, the women’s suffrage campaigner.
The Other F-word (Feminism) has been getting a lot of media attention recently so I figured why not find out where it all started; with the Suffrage movement. Concerned with important issues like votes for women and equal employment, these ladies were the pioneers of women’s rights a hundred years ago. They were the Pussy Riot of their day, campaigning, petitioning, getting locked up.
They got us the vote.
With all the radical activism going on with Sylvia et al. I was expecting great things from the exhibition.
I expected corset burning. I was disappointed.
It was characterised by absence of excitement and by being six degrees hotter than the rest of the Tate. I think the heating was broken. I considered getting naked in protest but took my coat off instead.
A written request from Hester Reeve and Olivia Plender, on The Emily Davison Lodge letterhead, was on display. Every page of it behind a plate glass display.
It detailed at why the Tate should put on an exhibition of Sylvia Pankhurst’s designs, paintings and sketches. It explained the cultural and political importance of her work documenting women’s working conditions in her sketches and giving the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) a visual identity.
Pankhurst’s depictions of women at work are technically very good; she did win a scholarship to The Royal School of Art in 1900. From the labelling I understand that her branding for the WSPU was noted as the first known instance of a campaigning group using a logo and colour scheme. (Yes, I read the labels!)
But the display was staid and felt forced. It appeared that little effort was made to make it appealing to the average gallery-goer. If I hadn’t already made the decision to stay and read all the labels I would have walked out. It is by far the most visually disengaging exhibition I have ever had the misfortune to view. It wasn’t Sylvia’s fault.
My guess is that the letter on display is meant to contextualise the exhibition but in fact it looked like an excuse. The curator saying, “I’m sorry visitors, they complained too loudly and I had to do it (which is why I couldn’t be arsed to make it accessible to a non-academic audience.” I could be wrong, of course.
I believe in art for all and that anyone can get excited about art and politics given the right setting. Sadly the curation made Pankhurst look like a middle-class Victorian curtain botherer with a penchant for gouache, rather than the revolutionary she actually was. Exhibitions of feminist work and art when curated poorly can actually do more damage than good. This one succeeded in making an important historical figure look irrelevant to my generation. She should be celebrated, not shoved in a cultural box room at the back.
Sylvia Pankhurst and the Suffragettes did 100 years ago in Holloway Prison what Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and her Pussy Riot comrades are doing today in Russia. With one slight difference.
Sylvia did it with all her clothes on.
She sits quietly, on a plinth, with perfectly chiselled lines, strung like a Stradivarius.
I admired the natural knot and split in the curves. My digits itched for it.
Ooh the temptation.
It would not be the first time I’ve been told off for stroking sculptures. Security guards have something against it. Last time was in the cast gallery at the V&A. (It was a cast! Not even the real thing!).
I just want to feel the texture of the material, to touch what the artist touched. I want to know how it came into being and run my fingers over the rough and smooth of a masterpiece. Wood, stone, metal and marble, against skin.
Tactile sensation is one of my weirdnesses. From a very young age I wandered after Mother in M&S brushing coats, shirts and skirts with my sticky child hands. With age this expanded to include wood furniture, stone walls, expensive book covers and occasional trees.
I am still that annoying child. I still get told off.
There is nothing sexual about it and it is not every object. I passed, without incident, Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel, all mottled light pink and elephant heavy. I like it but it doesn’t make my fingers hungry like the rolling waves of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.
Neither do the classical features of a darkened brass ‘man wrestling snake’ and his naked marble friends. The fig leaves are off-puttingly small. Those poor muscular men having their marble chippers chopped off. Ouch.
No, the Modernists are much more enticing. I love the clean lines and shape.
But I’m on best behaviour in the Tate Britain. There’s a show I came to see and I’m lost amongst the past masters trying to find it. I have a mission! It would not do to get thrown out.
Look, don’t touch.
Fingerprints hurt the art. The pH levels and grease will ruin everything. The men in white gloves say so. They know these things.
Custodians and curators of these objects are cruel. Putting them on show at arms length. These sculptures are just aching to be caressed.
The rules are rules though.
So as I walked past Moore and Hepworth in the Walk Through I kept my childish hands firmly in my pockets.
A ripple of a chill raises the hair on my neck as I enter the store room.
Filled floor to ceiling with the detritus of old signage, retired equipment and stacks of objects longing for a glass cabinet of their own; it is a storage space for lost things. Upright in the corner stands a blackened iron chest the size of a circus strongman. No one has opened it, no one has a key, and no one knows what it is. It looms ominously inviting comparison with Trunchbull’s favourite punishment for Matilda’s classmates; The Chokey.
I choose to ignore it and make a quick exit. I’ve found the ‘Caution Wet Floor’ sign for the juice spillage. Besides it’s cold in there.
Even in the when it’s thirty degrees outside it’s always icy in the museum. Ancient stone walls, a foot thick in places, keep it cooler than air conditioning ever could. That is the logical explanation for the cold. We have an under desk heater to roast shins when thermals just won’t do. It isn’t switched on. No, the chill is something else.
Before it was reborn as a museum the building went through several incarnations. Foundations laid by medieval merchants, roots which were built upon, extended, remodelled, destroyed, rebuilt, and finally restored.
Several centuries of life have wandered through these rooms and they have left their mark. Ragged stonework protrudes at odd intervals, timbered floors are worn to a dark polish and a fireplace is scarred by the graffiti of the civil war soldiers billeted there. The stone is silent but if it could speak it would tell tales of war, drunken sailors, wealthy men and broken tenement dwellers.
Urban legend says that some of the souls who laughed, cried and breathed in these rooms never left. Spectres of children, soldiers and a mysterious woman in a long dress have been seen. In the stillness between 5pm closing and the early morning unlocking the ghosts come out to play.
Outlines of figures flicker across the upstairs windows, objects change places, lights which were switched off turn on again of their own volition. Eerie creaks and sighs are heard. Voices and a child’s laughter echo round the ancient walls. Some rooms are colder than others, some visitors claim the very rooms vibrate with the supernatural. For me there’s just a freaky cold vibe sometimes. The ghost stories and superstitious bullshit hold no interest. The stories are good for the tourists though; they lap them up.
Night is on its way as the last visitor is shepherded out. Shut down is efficient; we take less than ten minutes. One last check for stray people then lights off and doors locked. As the heavy front door thunks closed, and the alarm pips good night, I catch something in my peripheral vision.
A grey shadow crosses the first floor window. My skin prickles. I dismiss it. It’s probably just the lights going again as a the result of weird electric wiring. I tell myself I don’t believe in that crap anyway.
I must be imagining it, because there’s no such thing as ghosts… is there?
It was there.
I saw it glinting in the mirror. Forcing a double-take and a sharp intake of breath.
Thin, smooth silver root to tip, trying unsuccessfully to hide between the blondes and brunettes.
I let it be, for its colour surprises but does not terrify. Neither do the slight creases forming at the edges of my eyes. Without contact lenses I can’t even see them (or anything else for that matter). I know this because on the day of the Big Birthday I spent a good 20 minutes in front of the full length mirror. Do I look fatter? Older? Rougher round the edges? More like my mother? Even a little bit?
Little scars of life which have marked the passing of years are all present. Souvenirs, from white chicken pox rounds on my stomach to the half inch line under the right eyebrow, reminder of a drunken altercation with a pint glass. There are some, lumpen whitened slices, that I am even less proud of. They are remnants of a former self, not the wholesome, new and improved recipe me (with added vitamin C).
I am waiting, still, for the myth of the promised saggy edges. I have been told my metabolism won’t cope with KFC in my thirties. To be fair the women in my family end up crippled and sportless with arthritis by the before they are 45. I refuse to submit to their disease. Refuse to admit that I may, one day, be unable to run.
Anyone who has watched a skincare advert will know how to fight the body aging. Cleanse, tone, moisturise, sleep, eat well, exercise. Nivea and Nigella have got it covered with some help from early morning ‘bootcamp-for-busty-birds’.
Personally I don’t mind the physical manifestations of time but I see others getting older and slower. In mind as well as body. They sit, ensconced in reclining armchairs in front of a box of moving pictures, slowly losing their curiosity. And then their lust. Finally they lose their motivation to change.
As I watch, a particular kind of fear is dawning in my conscious thought. The fear of getting older without anything to show. Wrinkles, grey hair, cellulite, scars; these are inevitable.
I’m talking about a lack of achievement. My parents in their twenties settled down, got careers, a mortgage, a family, happily married and then divorced. They found their conformist place in the world. That was their achievement. I happily wasted my twenties on indecision, fruitless relationships, weekend alcoholism and office temping.
I succumbed, like so many others, to the easy life of 9-5, decent pay, ok pension, debts in check. In routine we forget to think for ourselves. Stop pushing our boundaries. We accept life as it is handed to us. A reasonable enough existence but not enough to force a change.
How do we resist the irresistible draw of complacency?
Look back at the ambitions held as children, teenagers and 20 something’s. What happened to those kids? Have we changed so much as adults that we forgot we wanted to change the world or do something amazing?
Maybe you won’t be an astronaut (there aren’t many vacancies) or maybe you won’t go trekking Asia for a year or run a marathon or build your own grand design house. It seems unachievable, and sometimes it is, so we put it in a box, find excuses and forget about it or continue waiting for the opportunity to arrive. Meanwhile wages must be earned and bills must be paid.
I wanted to be a writer from about the age of 8. There were occasional dalliances with other professions (Tank Driver, Entrepreneur, Professional Athlete, Jazz Singer) but writing was what I came home to after every extramarital fling. Twenty odd years on I was still waiting for the time, the opportunity, the right moment and the relentless wage-slaving to let up.
On the day of the big birthday I looked in the mirror and did a thorough assessment of the grey and the wrinkles. Then a light bulb moment occurred.
I have been procrastinating.
I need to stop waiting for life to come to me, or to at least stop avoiding it altogether. In a bull-by-the-horns moment, I decided to get off the bench, get back in the game, and start doing.
I made a decision to refuse to stagnate.
Want to join me?