Saturday, 25 February 2012

A London Diary

I was sitting, with about 20 other people, in a 150 foot diameter brick cylinder sunk vertically 100 feet into the ground next to Rotherhithe station. It was cold, bleak, dimly lit and coated with soot - yet we had paid money for the privilege of being there. Our guide, in a bid to make us feel special, assured us we were “among the first” people to have been in that place in 145 years and that recently it had been ranked number three in the world’s top ten industrial heritage sites. He then told the story of how Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel (you couldn’t make it up) had, between 1825 and 1843, been the first ever to tunnel under a river inventing, in the process, methods and techniques of engineering which are still in use today.

It is not actually necessary to visit a historical site in order to comprehend its significance but in so doing there is a bonus to be had: a feeling of being part of the process by which past events shape future conditions. That same tunnel, which was built for horse-drawn goods wagons, is used now by trains which carry about nine million passengers a year under the river Thames. How many of them take the journey without realising that the tunnel, in its day, was considered to be the eighth wonder of the world?

I was sitting, with about 50 other people - a full-capacity audience - in a small theatre over a pub called The Rosemary Branch on the northern border of Hoxton. Theatre spaces such as this have a special intimacy which fosters interaction between all those present. Resources may be modest but the ingenuity with which they are employed is cause for admiration and, sometimes, amusement. A sense of sharing pervades the audience more readily than in larger, more formal theatres.

Half a dozen actors performed a witty and charming adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility, a story very much of its time reflecting, as it does, the necessity for young, middle-class women to find husbands who can support them materially. Dramatic tension is introduced when their mission is complicated by the inconvenient but all too human tendency to fall in love inappropriately. Austen’s novel was published a decade before Messrs. Brunel began their tunnel and is evocative of social mores which disintegrated in the wake of such technological advances as they initiated.

I was sitting, with my friend and about 20 other people, in a former shop in deepest Shoreditch. It had been converted, at low cost, into a trendy pub/bar/restaurant (somebody, please, invent a name for such places). On our table was a ‘flight’ of locally-brewed ales for me to sample and a pint of ale of my friend’s choosing. This place, like others we visited that night, celebrates the revival of beers brewed locally and on a small scale. They are a welcome antidote to the dull homogeneity of taste perpetuated by global-reach companies whose products monopolise markets by eliminating alternatives. Many of the traditional pubs in Shoreditch have rejuvenated themselves by catering for the changing demographics of the area, making their venues attractive to a new generation which challenges stale patterns of behaviour while relishing the best traditions of social interaction. In this way are new layers of cultural complexity added for the next generation to savour - along with its beer.

Although these interactions and these places are small-scale, intimate and off-beat, I am sure that their accumulation will add up to more than the sum of the parts: their latent energy ripples the surface of society. To quote John Peel, today’s underground becomes tomorrow’s pop.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Art is History

It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing but it does not follow that a lot of knowledge is any less dangerous. Proof of this theory can be found in the discipline of economics which, despite its elevation to the status of a science, has not yet found a cure for the world’s financial woes. In fact, the mind-boggling confliction of economists’ analyses makes me question whether they will ever learn from the past.

I turn, for solace, to the less worldly subject of art - not as an artist but as a consumer - and while I readily concede that my limited knowledge of the subject could be classified as ‘dangerous’, it could only be so to me since I have little or no influence over what others may deduce.

I used to believe that art is a product of leisure time, given the fact that the richer a society becomes the more art it will sustain, but when I saw the 33,000 year-old Chauvet cave paintings I had to question my assumption. How much leisure time was there back in the Ice Age? How were those early humans motivated to make art when they had more pressing concerns such as foraging for food and fending off fierce, predatory beasts? Surely the need to sustain oneself must trump the need to create art?

But artists, I suppose, are not all from the same mould: some are tortured souls who need to express themselves at all costs; others are skilled professionals who work for the market; yet others are amateurs who inhabit the fringes. I do personally know artists who, whilst not prepared to forego food, are willing to put it in second place and to rely on precarious networks to sustain them until the market recognises their talent and rewards them handsomely (preferably not posthumously).

All of which makes it hard for the uninformed art-consumer to make sense of their output - which is why I was at a lecture recently on the history of art. (I persist in my quest for knowledge, despite the unlikely event of my enlightenment, on account of another theory: the more you get to know about a subject, the more interesting it becomes). The lecturer made the following point in respect of the appreciation of works of art: ‘liking’ and ‘disliking’ are best put aside, not because they are invalid responses but because, being emotional, they are likely to cloud the perspective and context within which the work may be understood. He advised instead that we think of an artwork as “an invitation to a journey”, so that we may then consider whether or not we want to go along. If we decide to go we might learn something along the way: if we decide to stay we learn nothing new.

I like this focus on perspective and context and find it useful in understanding how artists build techniques on what went before and how their subject matter is affected by prevailing social conditions. Applying it to the Chauvet cave paintings, however, does not bring such rewards since nothing of what went before survives and we know very little of the social conditions of the time. We depart on a journey to that past without any charts to guide us: all we have is the images that remain which, despite their being a direct and uncompromised link to our ancestors, present many more questions than answers.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Valentine Covered

While caught up in a pedestrian jam I overheard part of a conversation between two young women just in front of me.
First Woman: “What, the decent one or the shit one?”
Second Woman: “No, the decent one! The shit one was weird.”
I was intrigued by this snippet and curious to know what the subject of their summary judgement might be. I resolved to follow them and find out more but they turned abruptly into a branch of Accessorize and my resolve disappeared leaving me to guess whether the subject was a man, a dress, a cell phone or a sandwich; and whether she meant it was shit because it was weird; and what exactly had she meant by “weird”. Did she mean simply ‘different’ or did she mean ‘strange’ – as in unpalatable?

I continued to speculate as I made my way to one of the two remaining CD shops in town in pursuit of yet another overheard snippet: part of a recording of My Funny Valentine as performed by Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker. If my younger self could see me doing this he would be incredulous. When I first heard the song, it being of my parents’ generation, I took no notice of it. Bereft of historical references, I assumed that all songs were inseparable from the artists who recorded them as hits. It followed that adulation of the artist was a prerequisite for my liking the song and, in this case, the artist was some old geezer who did not feature in the Top Twenty list.

Because of my conviction that song and artist were inseparable, it also followed that any cover version was bound to be inferior to the original. Yet I was always amazed that there was no shortage of cover versions around. The BBC had a pop orchestra which broadcast live versions of hit numbers to an audience of disparaging, disappointed youths. Woolworth’s sold recorded covers of the hits at prices lower than the authentic ones - though I never knew anyone who bought them. They just weren’t cool.

But I have come to realise that not all covers may be dismissed as worthless: even shameless, blatant imitation requires skilful mimicry. When Etta James died a few weeks ago a minor controversy was rekindled: should she, rather than Beyonce, have been invited to sing At Last for President and Mrs. Obama at the inauguration? It may be a moot point, since Etta’s version was itself a cover of the original, but Beyonce’s version was a very skilful copy of Etta’s: it’s just that it could have been more interesting if she had given it her own interpretation.

Covers which have been musically re-interpreted benefit from fresh creative input. When musicians break the link between song and singer, deconstructing a melody and exploring ways to enhance it, they create something original upon the framework of what went before. Mix in some improvisation and it all starts to add up to jazz. The better the framework, the more creative scope there is – and there are some very good frameworks out there. My Funny Valentine, as it turns out, is one of them. It may not be among the top three of all time (Summertime, My Way and Yesterday – in case you wanted to know) but it will probably be number one for a while on Tuesday.

I couldn’t find a recording in the shop - I was unsure which one I had heard anyway – so I asked the assistant. He politely declared it to be “not something we would stock.” I guess I will have to research and buy it online. Meanwhile, in case you’re wondering what the fuss is about, here is a version of it - a decent one.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Cultural Exchanges

In 1793 the British sent their first trade delegation to Imperial China. They were 700 strong but only one of them, Thomas, the 12 year old son of Sir George Staunton, could speak Chinese: he had taken the trouble to learn it during the outward voyage.

Two hundred years on, the Chinese have the upper hand commercially and the tables are turned. They have established centres within our universities in order to promote their language and culture under the auspices of The Confucius Institute. Some regard this as the exercise of “soft power” - and the same has been said of the British Council: in any case, it is better to be engaged with the competition than to ignore it.

And so I accepted an invitation to attend a gala performance, staged by The Confucius Institute, to celebrate the advent of the Year of the Dragon - the year of good luck. Red (also for good luck) was the colour used to decorate the theatre with bunting and lanterns. I can’t imagine how everyone in the world will have good luck this year but I didn’t challenge my hosts on the subject. Instead I studied the programme, a visually clumsy mix of elegant Chinese characters and ill-matched English typefaces - an indication of what was follow. The acts were to include a traditional dance routine; demonstrations of Kung Fu, Tai Chi and calligraphy; the singing of folk songs and the performance of National Minority dances which “reflect the happy lives of people in different ethnic minorities”.

The spectacle of foreign culture can be at once dazzling and perplexing. I was enthralled by the way the girl dancers conjured sensuality out of modesty with their flowing silk costumes and graceful movements; yet I was disconcerted by their rigidly fixed smiles. During the martial arts demonstrations I admired the elegant outfits and fluid physicality but was disturbed by the fierce facial expressions and the aggressive posturing – as terrifying as a Maori Haka executed by an All-Blacks’ first fifteen. A ‘folk song’, powerfully delivered by a tiny young woman, surprised me with its complex, soaring melody and its similarity to the operatic arias of Verdi.

Cultural style-clashes, as prefigured by the typeface crisis, were inevitable: the show was compered by a bright young double act – he in a shiny stage suit and bow tie, she in a flared red dress and gold high-heels – like clich├ęd hosts from a European TV talent show; and they were especially pleased to introduce the penultimate act, a rendition of ‘Greensleeves’, sung as a duet. It was a polished performance and the hands-across-the-sea gesture was much appreciated but the modern singing style and schmaltzy, mock-orchestral backing highlighted a superficial knowledge of this ‘folk song’s’ significance within our history.
Later in the week, taking advantage of the clear but cold, blue skies over Cumbria, I took a solo hike on the fells above Eskdale where, in five hours of walking, I saw no other person.  I had gone there to see the ancient stone circles that were built about 5,000 years ago. They are not on the same scale as Stonehenge, or even Castlerigg, but they possess the same kind of power to invoke a feeling for the pre-history of the place. On such a clear day, in such a desolate location, gazing at the diminished but still impressive remains of an ancient culture, it was easy to connect with the past by imagining; and it was easy to see how its mystery could induce feelings of spirituality.

There may be a limit to what we will ever know for certain about our ancestors but the deep roots of their history, real or imagined, surely nurture our generations and imbue them with a sense of time and place which cultural exchanges will never be able to convey.