Brushes with Culture

This is a space where I can reflect on the many fascinating things that I experience. Some of the things I brush with are Culture with a capital C. Others are just intriguing moments. Sometimes I am brushing with these moments in a hurry. This is a chance to relive those moments in tranquility. These are the stories I tell myself in those quieter moments.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Making a Statement

Pizza Express in Dulwich Village has just charged me £1.10 for extra onions on my salad. Sign of the times when customisation is just the press of a button on the till. I wonder if sun-dried tomatoes cost the same. I wonder what happened to the restaurants where the waitress gives you a shrewd look and says 'I'll see what I can do...'

We are moaning about how aspirational South London has become. And where better to do that than Dulwich, which used to be bohemian? South London ...aspirational or shabby and, in some places, both. The two of us have independently decided that it is time to move on. She's been looking at houses. I've just been looking at websites.

OK, I concede I'm not really materialistic - I'm a dreamer: I still believe in society. And, like my supper companion, I value inspiration over aspiration (for goodness sake, we both like teaching!) So can we find a place to move that reflects those values?

Maybe nowadays all we can hope for is a web that overlays the actual places we move through; a series of connections among people who see the world the same way. Friends are rather far flung.

But friends, in general, continue to be more creative than materialistic. They continue to believe in doing something, not just getting their kids in to the right school. And thank goodness for that.

I've been having an attenuated exchange with an artist about a line I sent him: "Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say". It's the name of a collection of work by Gillian Wearing that's getting a showing at Tate Liverpool at the moment. There was silence for a while and then I receive:
i have been thinking about this for weeks. It is so relevant to so many of my students' projects yet it is deceptively simple. I like it because i think it goes beyond what other people think you might be saying and suggests that people only hear what fits their ideology. There is also a suggestion of power and linguistic control which I think is implicit in everyday dialogue and communication. This has been particularly interesting recently as I have been trying to write a statement for a forthcoming exhibition. On sending it out to friends I received a range of reactions which all had layers of their interpretation that met their ideologies, their agendas, which is okay, but it wasn't so much a misinterpretation but a reminder that we only hear or read what we want to hear or read. I think this is largely true of art. I thought I might send you the statement as you might enjoy it.

And it's the kind of statement that should be published. I don't know if John writes a blog, but I am including it here. I'd also like to include a link to the man himself as a tribute - after all, I don't want you thinking that these fine words are mine. But the first three John Hammersleys I google are a mathematician born in 1920, a writer of psalms and a young lad at Durham University, also studying maths. They are there in abundance and I get bored looking, and so, with no dressing but his own words, I give you the 4th John Hammersley's statement (with permission):




I haven't worked out what my particular ideology or agenda makes of it yet. It says nothing of costly onions, house hunting or the aspirations of South Londoners. I think I just find it heartening.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A Spring in the Step

I came out of a restaurant this evening into warm rain and Spring had arrived. Umbrella up, I meandered to the tube station singing Cole Porter. No one much was around, but they'd have heard me if they had been. It's the first time I've sung in a while and I couldn't do the words, but I could do the tune. It felt just right.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Materialism is Relative

Someone gave me a copy of the Sunday Telegraph on the train south yesterday and by the time I got to the tube I saw no reason not to dip into it. After all, you can't use a laptop on the tube.

It has a supplement called Stella which is all about beautiful people in the fashion industry - like Claudia Schiffer choosing her favourite dress. As someone who has occasionally glanced at my sister's Heat magazine, I was a bit shocked that further excesses of trivia existed beyond the heartache of D-cup C-list celebs. This supplement is worse than the Evening Standard for name dropping and the content was so precious (Alexander McQueen at over £2000) and flimsy (it wouldn't be warm enough anyway for London in March), that I turned with some pleasure to the quiz: "Are you Materialistic?"

Before beginning the quiz, my answer would have been: "Fairly, but perhaps 'acquisitive' captures it better." I like things that remind me of places and people. At one point, I'd steal momentoes - kind of deliberately not returning books and hats - but I grew out of that when I thought how annoying it must be. Still, I know how to spend.

So, there are 10 questions and you can score between 1 (never) and 5 (always) for each answer. Maximum 50, minimum 10 (Yep, that great maths thing keeps going...).

Q1: I go shopping to cheer myself up.
A1: Yes, I do. I often go to the supermarket if I'm feeling a bit glum; it has a trancelike effect.

Q2: I feel overwhelmed by the amount of 'stuff' I have.
A2: Already I am getting confused. I often feel overwhelmed by my stuff. But surely that's a reaction against materialism.

It goes down from there. I would never choose friends or partners according to their wealth and I don't find it hard to get on with people who have less money. I score 1 on every single remaining question.

The 10-18 category says: "To you, 'dry clean only' is a designer label.

Now this is insightful. I do look for 'dry clean only' labels and avoid them because they're high maintenance and I'm in favour of nice clean bright clothes that come out of a washing machine looking ready to wear. And I don't mind at all if they don't cost more than guarantees the person who made it a living wage.

That didn't stop me spending £xxxx on a carpet in India. It has 1600 knots per inch, shimmers gold in one direction and cool cream in the other, captures something of the formal garden design that I've been looking for over years, and it's sooo beautiful that I bought it out of passion.

Which is why I mistrust the Sunday Telegraph even more now than I did before. It has revealed to me that there are leagues of materialism I didn't know about and I'm in some junior backwater ranking of people who only think they are contenders. Crumbs, I look positively spiritual on my crusade for meaning in my textiles and trance with my groceries.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Kerala and Oxford

The strange thing about wandering around Kerala with a group of people who were all strongly connected to Oxford was the way that we all shared Kerala but Oxford was a foreign country to me.

I've been to Oxford and, having got over its similarity to Cambridge and Bath - which I knew better (they're all posh, in-yer-face historic and much appreciated by tourists) - I decided some time ago that I quite liked it, almost despite the dreaming spires. But I can't claim to appreciate the intricacies of the private views, ironmongers and other esoterica that my fellow travellers came to converse about as we got closer and closer to going home.

Funny the way that conversation progresses, given three weeks. First, it's all superficialities - the things we enjoy; the things we've just seen; the things we've left behind to come out here. Then it dances on and we find ourselves enmeshed: we can stop being so polite; we know what to say to one person and not another; we live together through a range of moods and circumstances (including some early morning occasions we'd never countenance at home). Last, we start to pull away again and our thoughts return to where we're going back to.

Which, for most of the group, was Oxford. And for the two that no longer live there, there was still the pleasure of shared recognition that calling up images of familiar places and events can produce.

But, as I listened, I got bored.

Then, back in Tooting, I am having breakfast with a friend. And although we are ostensibly meeting to talk about our recent trips, we come instead to be discussing The Time Traveller's Wife. And we've both cried over it (apparently that's natural behaviour if you're a girl and reading that book). 'Cos it's rather beautiful and, in my case, has all sorts of resonances about knowing your future so you don't get it wrong (whatever that means...).

And I thought no more about it till now.

This weekend past, I happened to be visiting Oxford to see someone that I'd met at a conference in the Lake District and who had nothing at all to do with my trip to Kerala. She urged me to move to Oxford. It's the kind of thing people do.

And I am walking back to the station, past the dreaming spires, and the words come to me: 'Some have Oxford in their past, but maybe I have Oxford in my future'.

And I have no book that unfolds in non-sequential time to help me sort this out. Just a sense that something pivotal happened in Kerala and that, if time can hinge, then maybe my connection with Oxford just hadn't happened yet when the chat about the ironmonger took place.

I should have listened more carefully.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Make your own Elephant

Long overdue is any reference to going to Kerala, though its impact on this blog has been sadly felt- first in the long gap while I worked super hard to get ready to go away, then in the long gap while I was away and then... yes, I'm still catching up.

But this picture came by email in a note about making your own zoo and I just had to capture it as a forerunner to a lot of chat about beings with trunks.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Simplicity with Light Sabres

Somewhere between an American icecream parlor and an exercise in changing colour through context... I've been to see Dan Flavin at the Hayward.

Yet there was one piece of work I really admired - it brought the rest into perspective for me and made it more than art history or "than just a load of flourescent tubes" as my companion put it. It was dedicated to William of Ockham (he of Ockham's Razor, who preached that the simplest idea is the best explanation) and it was three groupings of plain white tubes. The wall showing them was about 12ft across, white, and the gallery wound you round in such a way that you faced it head on as you left the last work.

The first grouping, to the left of the wall, is actually a single tube, ceiling to floor.

The second is two tubes lined up in the middle of the wall, ceiling to floor.

The third group consists of three tubes parallel, just like the first two only with one added, and to the right as far as they can go.

Though if you were to parse it right to left, the number of tubes decreases by one each time. That was also a possibility.

1, 2, 3 or 3, 2, 1. Either way, it was beautiful. It was rendered in what we had learnt to recognise as 'white' rather than 'daylight' white fluorescence, having seen a lot of different tubes on the way round. And it was a very fine thing.

We speculated on whether we would go home and try to create this in our respective living rooms but it seemed too difficult to commit to such simplicity.

And then we went off in all directions. I got very excited about the counting: the possibilities that our numbers carry in them to be calculated with (I mean, what a fantastic technology - where would capitalism be now without such good tools for arithmetic?). And we talked about the invention of zero, and magic squares and how neither of us like Sudoku.

And that really proved the point: both the value of the simple straight white lines and the impossibility of avoiding tangents.

Interestingly, the piece that first brought Dan Flavin fame went off at an angle. It's called "the diagonal of May 25 1963, (to Constantin Brancusi), 1963". It was a yellow tube at 45 degrees.

The Hayward quotes him describing his practice ‘as plain and open and direct an art as you will ever find’. So, a man who knew his worth then.

The gallery had commissioned a soundtrack for certain works, but thankfully not for that, as we found them universally silly and distracting (the gallery getting it wrong). Or maybe it was the hilarity of sharing an IPod to listen to them, which had two sensible grown women giggling like... like you are not supposed to in art galleries.

More impressive was the feature where they explain the science of electric light and fluorescence too (the gallery getting it right), which we played in nicely at the end.

Then there was the classic finish to every visit to every gallery I've ever made: no postcards of the best work. Some consolation that it wouldn't have looked much anyway: white on white at 4" by 6". No aide memoire. So, I guess it is the living room option then...

Apparently Habitat sells fluorescent tubes designed to lean against walls and we never knew why. Let's just be grateful we've finally caught up with that 60s chic thing.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

A Further Word on GC

I am not alone in the admiration I feel for the rebellious Mr Clooney and the only thing that would console us for the loss of his talents both in front and behind the camera would be the prospect that he would take the job at the White House when Dubya is through. A friend tells me that the only shortcoming identified by the many people who will never elect him, partly because we live in England and partly because he doesn't seem keen to stand, is that he cannot commit romantically. Well, personally I've never seen anything wrong in that, and the same friend who tells me of this inconstancy considers it a positive virtue:

'It means that I am in with a chance of dating George Clooney...'

'But it wouldn't last.'

'It doesn't matter: I could go to my death having dated George Clooney.'

Hmmm. I take another mouthful of camomile tea and the windows of the Tooting cafe in which we sit steam up for a moment at the prospect.

Friday, March 10, 2006

At the Astoria tonight...

Tonight I went to see gypsy punks: the Ukrainian band Gogol Bordello, and wasn't that a frenzy of flying limbs and frenetic sawing. Wiry, too. Leadman Eugene Hutz shed bits of clothing until his trousers were all that garnered him and eventually even those began to slip and we were witness to 'builder's bottom', but it has to be said that I've not seen a builder with a butt like that escaping his jeans, or quite so electrically, dementedly mobile either.

I had a grandstand view just behind the mixing desks, which allowed me the pleasure of actually seeing the band - it may be cute to be short, but it's not great at gigs - and to multitask - not just watching the band, but also watching as the visiting Gogol sound guy strutted his stuff and the indigenous sound lady let her hair down amid some vibes of their own.

When I've bothered to download the images from my phone, I will share the snapshots of bright lights and waving hands that I have to settle for as gig pics.

My stuff was shaken. Very good. Though the only song I really understood beseeched us to wear purple.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Good Night and Good Film

"Movies have the power to inspire. You have the power to act. Participate." says the Report It Now site, launched in the wake of "Good Night and Good Luck". Quite right. It is a film to inspire. We left the cinema this evening with stars in our eyes, approval in our hearts and consoled that George Clooney is prepared to give up acting to stand behind the camera. In fact, I think I've just become a George Clooney fan.

This was intelligent in every dimension: black and white photography that made faces interesting and a cast that was interesting to look at anyway and the first film I've seen where Robert Downey Jnr didn't act everyone else into a shopping trolley, because everyone else could hold their own. The story was good and talking heads never more compelling; with a balanced attack, a superb integration of history and a strong and enduring point. How nice to sit and recognise a moral one can rally round; at a time when it is not only the American press that looks a tad compliant and obsessed with the picayune. A PG certificate makes it inclusive... Oh, even the music... super cool jazz that was never quite part of the story, nor wholly outside it; and the fabbiest singer.

One of the best films I've ever seen? But I would say that: I'm a journalist. I'm in love.