Saturday, 29 October 2011

Worried about Wakefield

Two names connected up in my consciousness this week: Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor, and John Lewis, the retailer. The latter came up in conversation with a friend for whom the department store is a preferred destination. The former featured a couple of days later when I travelled to Wakefield to visit the newly-built art gallery, devoted to and named for the famous daughter of that city. It was there that the dots were joined up and I ‘discovered’ what many people already know: that Barbara was commissioned, in 1962, to create a sculpture to adorn the face of John’s shop in Oxford Street. It’s still there – although I admit to having never noticed it.

I’ve always liked Barbara Hepworth’s work, more especially since visiting her wonderfully evocative studio in St. Ives some years ago, and although Wakefield did not promise the romantic or artistic allure of the North Cornwall fishing port, I had decided that it is close enough to home for an easy excursion. But if, like me, you had Wakefield stereotyped as a run-down Northern backwater then arriving by train at Kirkgate station would perfectly confirm your prejudice: desolate, derelict and downright dangerous it is incredible – but for the fact of the matter - that this unmanned station is in daily use in the centre of an English city.

The walk from Kirkgate to the Hepworth gallery, though short, is unpleasant because it requires the crossing of complex, busy trunk roads. But the destination, a bend in the river, is attractive and well chosen and the new building, despite its profusion of blank, sharply angled, blue-grey concrete walls, manages to look at home, nestled cosily in the bosom of nature.

It was a school holiday when I visited so, once inside, my bleak, edge-of-town experience was quickly displaced by the cheerful hubbub of visiting families. The gallery itself is beautifully fit-for-purpose and the exhibits are intelligently displayed so as to present their most dramatic faces. The whole is undoubtedly a collection of world-class art housed in an appropriately magnificent setting – just as I had expected.

The walk back to the station, however, revealed something I had not expected. I took a more considered look at the surroundings and went a little out of the way, crossing busy traffic routes, so as to get close to the mediaeval Chantry Chapel. This fabulously ornate jewel of a building is isolated on a now disused bridge over the river. There were no visiting families admiring the intricate stone carvings. There was not even one passer-by. It was closed-up but for a notice pinned to the door advertising occasional services of worship. This building is a spectacular reminder not only of the former prosperity of Wakefield but also of the cultural shifts that have occurred since. Now it stands neglected and vulnerable to vandalism.

Approaching the station on foot was another revelation. The elegantly symmetrical, stone-faced station building dates back to 1845 and was listed (in 1979) as historically important. Although much damage has been done to it before and since, the grandeur of the architecture still proclaims its former significance as it clings, along with its later spawn of scruffy industrial sheds, to the commanding hillside position where it once served as a lynchpin of the regional economy. Its present owners afford it no respect.

The very small slice of Wakefield that I walked through contains important mediaeval, Victorian and contemporary heritage landmarks; yet all the money and attention has been lavished on just one of them. The new gallery is certainly a ‘destination’ but it is only the latest milestone in Wakefield’s history; as a newcomer it has no right to elbow the others into obscurity. And the City is, more than ever before, accessible at the centre of a network of canals, motorways and railways: Kirkgate station is a stop on the main rail line to and from London. Someone in the City Council should be thinking about joining up the dots.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Loyal or Habitual?

Some mornings are just a bit dull: inspiration is elusive, the in-tray is full of trivia and there’s no one around to talk to. On such mornings I need to kick-start the day so I shun the desk, get washed and brushed-up, step briskly out of the front door and go in search of coffee. The only problem is that, within five minutes walk of my front door, there are least (without counting properly) 25 coffee bars to choose from so, as the door closes behind me, I become embroiled in a decision-making process fraught with unwanted anxiety.

The process is a struggle between logic and emotion. How do I choose the optimum venue to get the feel-good factor I crave? Should I go to one of the bustling coffee bars on the main road, where I could, by association, catch a little energy? Would I prefer somewhere quieter on a side-street where I might study the paper, undisturbed by hubbub? But then, busy or quiet, which of those slick, themed chain establishments - Italian, Spanish, American or South-American - should it be?  Then, just as I’m making progress, conscience intervenes to remind me I should support the newly-established, worthy-but-cheesy, fair-trade independent. By contrast- and for proper, old-fashioned service- how about that posh hotel lounge with (if the weather’s fine) its south-facing patio? But how decadent is that? Surely I should make better use of my time and go to the one in the bookshop where I could browse; or maybe the one in the art gallery where I could get cultured? Then again I’m tempted by the fashionable bar where the seats are comfortable and cast a glance over at the local deli where they are not. Perhaps I should narrow the choice by deciding which type of coffee I fancy: medium-roasted in a cafetiere or dark-roasted espresso?

It’s now getting on for lunchtime so I take the lazy way out of my dilemma and decide to deploy one of my loyalty cards – the one with the most stamps on it. I know they didn’t invent loyalty cards just to help indecisive people like me; they are really a nifty device to keep us overpaying for cups of coffee in anticipation of the eventual accumulation of sufficient points to get a ‘free’ one (in which case they should rightly be called Bribery Cards). But my problem is solved and that coffee does taste so much better for being free of charge.

Nevertheless, I feel pathetic about my reliance on the loyalty card and begin to reflect on the subtle, insinuating danger they embody: their pernicious effect is to encourage habitual behaviour - and I don’t need much encouragement for that. Not only is my wallet is stuffed with cards but they have also spilled out and infiltrated my head in such a way that I have acquired quite a few ‘virtual’ loyalty cards of my own. I have one for French wine, one for English ale and one for a certain style of jazz to name but three. In fact my virtual loyalty cards, rather like my plastic ones, have accumulated, unnoticed, to a tipping point: that at which they define my lifestyle by excluding the possibilities of novel experiences.

So, enough of this timid, repetitive, self-assuring behaviour; next time the morning is a bit dull I intend to set out on a (sort-of) systematic attempt to take coffee in every one of the venues that qualifies as within five minutes walk. The resulting experiences will be laboriously turned into a novel and published under the title ‘Sod the Loyalty Card’.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Dancing on Graves

If there is such a thing as a ‘modern architecture gene’ then I certainly have one. I became aware of it during my teenage years in Plymouth. The centre of the city was completely re-modelled in the 1950s and, although I had no knowledge of what it was like before it was laid waste by the German bombers of World War Two, I instinctively approved of the reincarnation: wide, straight boulevards and bright buildings of concrete, white stone and glass, clean and unadorned except for a little meaningful modern sculpture here and there. This patch of modernity, however, was not about denying the city’s deep heritage which is rooted in the places visible from the hilly vistas down to Plymouth Sound. Places such as the Barbican, the Royal Naval Dockyards, Stonehouse and the Hoe continue to be the lifeblood of the city.

Proudly positioned high on the Hoe stands a structure dedicated as a reminder of the city’s role in history. It is the memorial monument to the Royal Naval personnel who died in the two World Wars. I was drawn to it visually by its striking, sombre architecture but then, more intimately, by the lists of names recorded there on bronze tablets. I began, out of simple curiosity, by looking for my own family name but soon progressed to friends’ family names and then to any name that might be familiar - by whatever connection. During this process the realisation dawned that I was related, by shared values and common ground, to all of those on the list and that I was myself a part of the continuous process called ‘history’. I understood that the names were posted in order to give each their individual place in that same history and that the names stood for real men of my father’s and grandfathers’ generation who had died in circumstances I could only imagine.

At Tower Hill in London there is a similar monument (it also has a World War Two “extension”, designed by Sir Edward Maufe, in the form of a sunken, walled garden) except that this one is dedicated to the civilian, merchant seamen who perished. And, while the backdrop history of the wars may be the same, the listings themselves hint at a broader picture. Many of the names are more exotic or foreign-sounding than the typically British names of the period which suggests that they may have been recruited in the faraway ports of a once sprawling maritime empire. Their names are grouped under the ships they sailed on and the ports to which those ships were registered. The names of the ships may not be familiar but the ports - such as Aberdeen, West Hartlepool, Belfast, Liverpool, Cardiff, Hull, Glasgow, Grimsby, Troon, Scarborough, London and so on - certainly are - although most are now shadows of what they used to be. Once thronged with ships and ship-building, they are now sidelined by containerisation and airfreight, their industrial expertise all but lost, searching for other reasons to be.

I was at the Tower Hill Memorial on a sunny afternoon when the place, because it has a tiny park attached, is a magnet for office workers on their breaks and for tourists hovering around the Tower of London. The tourists did not stop to read the cast-bronze plaques fixed to the stonework. They ambled past them, wide-eyed for the big picture, stopping only briefly to photograph each other with the Tower in the background. The office workers read their books and papers, ate their snacks and closed their eyes to look up to the sun for a recharge before heading back to work.
The tourists and the lunchtime solace-seekers may be forgiven their nonchalance. The owner of the land, Tower Hamlets Council, may not. It has agreed to rent the park to a hospitality company who will cover it with a marquee for four weeks in the run-up to Christmas. There they will host lavish office parties for the very City firms who have wrecked our economy and will now be encouraged to dance on our graves. 

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Caught on Film

Those who like to watch films will be familiar with the debate over whether the size of the screen and the excellence of the sound system make any difference to the quality of the experience. My vote is a qualified “Yes, they do”. I tried watching Star Trek – the First Mission on the TV the other evening but I didn’t start to enjoy it until I projected it onto my big screen, turned up the surround-sound and was able to wallow in the special effects. I concluded that, if a film lacks qualities that are emotionally, intellectually or dramatically engaging, its only saviour is likely to be good, hi-tech presentation.

Meanwhile, in search of filmic fulfilment at the local cinema, I caught up with several new releases. Troll Hunter was the first, followed, in rapid succession, by Jane Eyre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy...and Drive. The trailers for all of these films promised that they were un-missable (as they always do) and trailers are a very clever way of beguiling potential customers. There we are, sitting comfortably, thankful that the adverts have finished and anticipating something special. All they have to do is employ their well-practised skills of creative editing to produce a tantalising taste of what is to come.

I was duly hooked for these four, all of which have impressive production pedigrees: they are excellent right through from casting and acting, to lighting, camera work, sound-tracks and editing. But films also need to have content and context which is meaningful to their intended viewers. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy... is set in the 1970’s and based on the intrigues of the Cold War. It may have a perplexing plot (I haven’t read the novel on which it is based) but it does have an historical background which is familiar and a visual re-creation of the period which is accurate and evocative of times I have lived through. Some of these qualities might count for less with a viewer from a generation later but they were crucial for me.

Drive is a film with a background familiar to me in a different way: I have seen other films like it. The world of organised crime in Los Angeles is not my special subject and this film may or may not represent it accurately. I hope that the unremittingly extreme violence it portrays is a characteristic of the genre to which it belongs rather than a real depiction of a few days in the life of a minor criminal: but I don’t know and am therefore left suspended between fantasy and reality.

And who needs another version of Jane Eyre? Perhaps the cynical answer is that nobody does. But, since there are directors who feel the need, we may as well enjoy the fruits of their labour. It’s a love story which, historical setting apart, has universal appeal although, for me, the history adds layers of fascination to the story. I was able, within a few days of seeing the film, to visit Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, where much of the filming took place. Haddon Hall is one of those places which can so easily teleport us back through English history by the magic of its un-spoiled and enduring presence in the midst of altered environs. The concurrence of the place, the social history, the literary tradition and the love story make the film itself meaningful beyond its undoubted technical attributes.

In another tradition, Trolls - not those brightly coloured, cute little dolls that used to live on car dashboards and on the ends of pencils - are big, smelly, nasty creatures of Norwegian mythology. That’s all I know about them which is why Troll Hunter is a film best experienced in a hi-tech cinema with a very large screen and a monster sound system.  

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Seen in a Different Light

When the sun shines brightly over Manchester it affords an opportunity to appreciate some of the finer qualities of its ornate, Victorian buildings. So did it shine one recent morning as I walked to the city’s main art gallery to see the newly-opened exhibition of the works of Ford Maddox Brown: the rays hit the buildings acutely, lighting up their decorative features and bringing into sharp relief the intricate detailing of stone, brick and terra-cotta. My eyes were drawn, for the first time, to three words embossed above the second storey windows of a grand, commercial, red-brick edifice: HONESTY, PRUDENCE and PERSEVERANCE. A little further up the road one of the Gallery’s buildings, the classical, Italianate stone-built Athenaeum, competed for the moral high ground with its own inscription, carved around the frieze: FOR THE ADVANCEMENT AND DIFFUSION OF KNOWLEDGE. The buildings on this street could not be described as ambivalent.

Nor is ambivalence a feature of the work of Ford Madox Brown. Now recognised as an innovative, pioneering painter his work created a new style which profoundly influenced the young Pre-Raphaelites. He was also an original partner in the firm founded by William Morris in 1861, for which he designed stained-glass windows, textiles, wallpapers and even furniture. But, despite this diversity, the exhibition of multi-faceted art created by him is much more than the display of visual splendour we might expect.

The passionate colours of his painting and the haunting qualities of its subjects may be what first command attention but closer inspection reveals layers of social and political comment implicit in the imagery- an approach which was unique at the time. Two of his most famous paintings, Work and The Last of England, demonstrate this quality most conspicuously but it is to be found in many of his other works as well. In the latter part of his career he worked - and lived for some years - in Manchester where he had been commissioned to create murals for the Town Hall. During this time he participated actively with the life of the city, leaving traces which we may now delight in detecting through the work he left behind and the ways in which it intertwines with local history. As an example, a five-minute walk from the Gallery, there is a statue of President Lincoln. It is there to commemorate his gratitude to the mill-workers of Lancashire for the stand they took against slavery despite their consequent loss of livelihood due to the ensuing blockade of cotton from the southern states. Back in the exhibition hangs a painting which Brown donated to raise funds for the relief of those workers.

The location of the exhibition, placed in a building dedicated to art and craft, in a city built out of monumental social change, reinforces the sense that Brown’s creativity is engaged not only in his art but in design, politics and society as well. On leaving the Gallery I looked up again, respectfully, at the motto on the frieze. A little more knowledge had been advanced in my direction and I felt inspired to play a small part in its diffusion.

The sunlight lasted into that evening, reflecting soft hues of deep, dusky pink from the monumental, 19th century red brick buildings, bouncing back from the 20th century glass towers and soaking into the honey-coloured stone of the classical-themed fantasies to display a tableau of urban development and social change in one great, unstructured son et lumiere. I thought about the inscribed pledge of honesty, prudence and perseverance which proclaimed the values of the incumbent business of an earlier age and compared it with modern-day, bland ‘mission statements’ about customer satisfaction. I began to dream of persuading banks to resurrect the old values and to post them proudly on their web-sites. But then I remembered one of the last works in the exhibition: a portrait of St. Jude – the patron saint of hopeless causes.