Saturday, 9 June 2012

From West End to West Coast


The exceptionally warm weather that hung over the British Isles recently was the inevitable subject of conversations everywhere - although many of them started from the mistaken assumption that everyone loves hot, sunny weather. Even weather presenters had to restrain their enthusiastic comments and try to maintain some pretence of professional objectivity.

I was pondering this as I sweltered in a non air-conditioned taxi creeping its way around Trafalgar Square, its meter calculating the pounds per inch/second travelled. I was on my way to the opening of an exhibition of Peter Fraser’s work at a commercial art gallery in the West End. I like to experience art but, better still, I like going to openings. They are occasions when friends, acquaintances and strangers can mingle in an environment where convenient, ready-made conversation pieces hang on walls. The artist, whose soul may be thus displayed, might wish for more reverence and consideration of their work but opening nights are a celebration rather than a quantification of achievement and therefore deserve a party. I have no sympathy: artists should ensure they have the chutzpah to see them safely through personal attendance at the exposition of their work.

At the Tate Modern the next day I saw exhibitions of work by Yayoi Kusama and Alighiero Boetti  who, so far as I was aware, were not present but resting elsewhere on their laurels. These are big, retrospective shows covering entire careers so the documented chronology explains the context to what otherwise might be perceived as random collections of unrelated works. With abstract art this can be helpful in illuminating (but not necessarily validating) the themes the artist is developing. But enough of arty angst: it was time to leave the hot, crowded city and rendezvous with Nature for a more visceral challenge.

Just two days later my partner and I were labouring, fully loaded with rucksacks bulging, up the slopes of Ben Nevis where residual patches of snow lay on the ground despite the persistently hot weather. The leaflet we had picked up at the visitor centre warned of the treachery of the mountain and advised meticulous preparation, protective clothing, Kendal mint cake and a back-up plan for disaster. But that summery day was open season for all-comers, including clutches of impulsive car-park strollers, which may explain the extreme diversity of punters - and the trail of discarded cigarette ends all the way to the top. Ben Nevis is cloud-covered nine days out of ten so this was our lucky day to scale it and be rewarded with a view. A multitude of others had also spotted the opportunity and were tackling it in a variety of styles: there was a solo German woman who commandeered strangers to take her photo; teenage triplet girls in jaunty baseball caps who ate fruit-loaf and sweeties at the summit; middle-aged hikers overdressed and perspiring in expensive kit and a wiry old chap who came bounding down the rocky path wearing only shoes and eccentrically skimpy shorts.



A short stay at the summit was cool enough to merit an extra layer of clothing but it seemed a lot of effort for momentary relief from the heat. Besides it was rather busy and there was a sense that our achievement had been somewhat diminished by the presence of hundreds of others.

The day of the Royal Jubilee celebrations was approaching and heavy rain was forecast in London but on the West coast of Scotland the sun continued its traverse through the clear sky. We boarded the ferry to the remote Knoydart peninsula where we had planned a couple of days of trekking and wild camping in anticipation of a more solitary, less crowded personal challenge.


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