Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Keep it under your hat

Once upon a time many national cultures were hat-wearing cultures. Everyone, or nearly everyone, wore them, and they wore them every day, not just for funerals and weddings. Kids wore them to school, or when out delivering newspapers; grownups wore them to work and to church, or just to go and fetch some groceries. For men and women a hat denoted a world of class, inflected by gender, ethnicity, age, region and eccentric preferences. Some jobs were signalled immediately by the choice of hat (butcher or bookie, for instance). But it was a dangerous thing simply to assume you knew where a person sat in the social hierarchy just because of the hat that they wore. And of course it wasn’t just the choice of hat that was important, it was also the way you wore it. When hat-wearing died out what was lost was a smorgasbord of micro-gestures: hat tilting, hat tipping, hat hanging, and a range of jaunty and not so jaunty angles. It is hard to imagine the Hollywood worlds of Film Noir without hats, or comedies like His Girl Friday as a hatless movie. Song and dance numbers needed hats the way that tap-dancing required special shoes.
            How did hat wearing die out? When did hat wearing begin to mark you out as an eccentric or as old-fashioned or as an extravert? Presumably it was gradual, the cultural work of a generation. Presumably a young generation of adult males (or mainly males) entering the workplace started to stop wearing hats as they sought to differentiate themselves from an older generation of hat wearers. Or perhaps casualization meant that it just began to become noticeable when young people were wearing hats as if they were trying to be old before their time. School teachers at more progressive schools probably started to jettison the school cap or hat as an affectation of more disciplinarian schools. Gradually hat wearing would seem old-fashioned. But as hat wearing stopped being a ubiquitous part of everyday life hat-based sayings simply carried on unperturbed. People still keep things under their hat even if they have no hat to keep things under; urban nomads might continue to say ‘wherever I lay my hat that’s my home’ even if they are dogmatically hatless.
            Many hats had a practical purpose of protecting the head from the cold and the wind, from rain and snow, or shadowing the eyes from strong sunlight. But there was also something of a lived metaphorics about hat wearing. To put a hat on your head when leaving home in the morning was like putting a roof on your head: it suggested the continuation of a domestic, private space that could continue within the public realm. Peaks and brims worked like awnings and vestibules to suggest a semi-private space. Today we negotiate the private dimensions of public space with earphones and smartphones. But hat culture was always much more permeable and nuanced. Sure you could pull your hat down as a ‘do not disturb sign’, but you could also tip it up a notch to suggest a friendly openness to communication.

Is there anything more intimate than the idea of two be-hatted people kissing?

Friday, 12 June 2015

All that is solid melts into air

Charles Saatchi’s first ‘public’ gallery was in London’s St John’s Wood and opened in the 1980s in an old paint factory, not too far away from Sigmund Freud’s final home. You couldn’t have hoped for a more telling symptom of the times. Here was the advertising guru who had helped Margaret Thatcher (with her espousal of a return to Victorian values) get into power, and here he was collecting and curating avant-garde art. It was like watching epochal change on fast-forward. The old factory that once manufactured paint for industrial and domestic use, produced for painting walls and ceilings, was now being repurposed so that visitors could look at paint in a very different form, and one that was way out of the price range of ninety-nice percent of the visitors.
            The first time that I visited the Saatchi Gallery was for a press opening that I had somehow managed to wangle an invite for (perhaps I intended to write something about the exhibition of American art that was on show). The floor and the walls had all been newly painted with heavy-duty white emulsion. I had been to white cube galleries before, but none that took it quite so literally and none that realised the de-materialising space so completely. At one point in the gallery there was a step between two levels of the gallery. It was almost impossible to see and you would watch journalists regularly tripping over it as they tried to balance canapés and notepads while negotiating this invisible obstacle. The step was a little touch of the real in a space that seemed to have lost all contact with the ground, or with any sense of place or reality.
            It must have been my second visit that I saw and experienced Richard Wilson’s installation 20: 50. The artwork is a room that you enter via a walkway that feels as if it is carved into a solid dark mirror made of oil that completely covers the rest of the room. Wilson’s installation must be the most perfectly realised site-specific artwork for the Saatchi experience: even though the gallery has changed premises a number of times, this work is perfectly suited to the Saatchi ethos. It offers both an immediate embodiment of the Saatchi world – a de-realised space of reflective surface made out of that number one commodity, oil – and an imminent critique of that very same world. This is an art work that un-grounds you while making you dirty. The reflective surface is so perfect, so unworldly, that people can’t help themselves they have to touch the mirroring material. And here is the second touch of the real. What looked sleek and impenetrable turns out to be used sump oil that immediately ruins clothes and saturates skin. There is a legal warning from the Saatchi Gallery that accompanies the exhibit. Should you dirty yourself then Saatchi is not legally responsible for your dry cleaning bill.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Roadside Memorials

For a while I lived in the London ‘village’ of Barnes. It’s just over the river from Hammersmith and is favoured by media types and artists of a certain age (it has become far too expensive for the younger brand of bohemians). I had a very cheap room there as my friend ran the fish shop in the High Street. Sometimes in the morning I would find purple and blue lobsters lumbering around with thick elastic bands around their pincers. (I would see them again later, inert, and a livid orangey-pink.) In one of the residential streets I noticed a blue plaque telling me that Kurt Schwitters had once lived in the area.
            It was in Barnes that the pop star Marc Bolan had died. His Mini had crashed into a tree on the bend of a road. I can remember when he died. Or at least I think I did until I looked it up on the internet and found that he died in 1977, when I was 16. In my memory I was about ten or eleven and one of the teachers at school told us. I remember how he rushed into the classroom visibly upset and told us that Bolan was in hospital and it looked like he was going to die. This can’t have happened as I was at a different school in 1977.
Bolan was for me the iconic pop star of the 1970s. With satin trousers and tousled hair Bolan was the one and only electric warrior. Well perhaps not the only electric warrior: there was always Micky Finn to contend with – the mysterious bongo player who cast an eerie shadow over T-Rex. What was he doing? Who needed a bongo player when you had a drummer? Perhaps he was there for the parties, the glamour; perhaps he was Bolan’s minder or his dealer?
            When I was in Barnes I visited the site of Bolan’s crash. I knew it was a site of pilgrimage for his fans and that a shrine had built up over the years, with keepsakes, letters and ribbons festooning the very tree that had killed him. Like lots of things in life it was a good deal grubbier than I had imagined it. The purple ribbons had frayed and turned the colour of wet concrete. The letters had become unreadable after the predictably unpredictable English weather had had its way with them. I wasn’t sure what looked worse: the thoroughly dead flowers or the plastic ones whose unnaturally bright colour was fading as it absorbed the colour of exhaust fumes.
Where I live now I always pass a roadside memorial on my way to the train station. It must have been there for about ten years. The flowers and cards are replenished once or perhaps twice a year (on the anniversary of the crash, and perhaps the birthday of the deceased, would be my guess). It is formed around the metal post of a road sign. There is little that is more dispiriting that the sight of dead flowers stained with car fumes. The flowers and cards are taped to the post with parcel tape. This year there is a new addition. At the bottom someone had taped (using the same tape) an open can of cider. Perhaps it was the favourite tipple of the person being memorialised. Perhaps a drunk driver had caused the crash and this was a way of marking that fact clear. It reminded me of a wreath that had been fashioned to look like a giant cigarette (it is included in Jeremy Deller’s Folk Archive). The wreath memorialised the deceased’s deep love of cigarettes, a love that for some is also a death sentence.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Coloured Mud

In some distant time, when the treasured items of industrial modernity will have been disinterred from the ruins of the Anthropocene, there will be some questions about what to make of those rectangles of paint on canvas to be found in museums across the world. What could be said, for instance, about those rectangles where the paint is arranged in patterns of line and areas of colour that don’t seem to refer to anything out there in the world (or out there in a world that once existed)? How would an archaeologist specialising in earth-history square the idea that these highly worked surfaces were produced at the same time as the world was producing global communication systems, pursuing space investigation, and developing human organ transplants? Would they be seen as cultic residues from a previous age – some weird, untimely practice with mystical associations? And how would this fit with the incredible monetary value that had been attached to some of these rectangles, or the critical evaluations that had declared these works as ‘cutting edge’, ‘progressive’, and so on?
            Perhaps the producers of these paintings will be seen as mystics, shamans, weavers of magic spells? Or, more reasonably, as people who spent their lives experimenting with colours, space, tone, light and line, as a way of investigating nature, of cultivating an attention towards the perceptual world. From the other side of the Anthropocene such practices will be greeted with some sympathy if they can be understood as attempts to investigate nature but without the added ambition of then being able to exploit it for financial gain. The impetus to investigate colour, for instance, might well be seen as close to the metallurgists working to produce new alloys, but without the same potential impact on the earth. These coloured rectangles would perhaps be seen as non-instrumental experiments that refuse the ambition of wanting to master nature.
            Yet the world of instrumental reason is vindictive. As a planetary force it is spiteful. Here it casts a veil of ludicrous inflated financial worth over these sensorial experiments. To stop us seeing them, it renders them opaque by equating them with the bombastic lustre of the commodity form. It is hard to see a painting of squiggles and blotches when it comes with a price tag in the tens of millions of dollars; it is hard to see it as a project to engage with when it is locked up in the massive jewellery stores that go by the name of National Galleries. An alternative reality would have liberated them, sent them out to grace the walls of primary schools, hospitals, and community centres. In this reality painting abstract paintings would have been seen as a noble pursuit: like keeping an allotment or learning the ukulele or designing a school. 

Saturday, 28 March 2015

First Party

I’m sure I had been to parties before – kids’ parties, with games and jelly and ice cream – that sort of thing. But this was the first party I can actually remember, and the reason I remember it so clearly was because it was a kids’ party which was pretending not to be one. I’m not sure what, exactly, it was trying to be: perhaps something like a child’s idea of how a bunch of fifteen year olds or sixteen year olds might party? Or perhaps, more precisely, a twelve year old’s idea of how a sixteen year old who was imagining a twenty-four year old partying, might party. I was nine at the time, and one of the younger ones. The year was 1970 and on the turn-table that night were the current picks of the pops – Bobby Bloom’s Montego Bay and Three Dog Night’s Mamma Told Me (Not to Come) – these at any rate were the songs I can remember.
I can’t imagine that there were many people at the party: ten, fifteen at the most. It was at a friend’s house and their parents were out. The party was just the neighbourhood children: brothers and sisters between the ages of about eight and twelve. We were tooled-up to party with our treasured collection of seven inch singles, with bottles of cherryade and R Whites lemonade, and with oodles of crisps. The record player was a hulking great teak cabinet with valves. You could stack five or six records at a time, though the more you stacked the looser the traction was: you often ended up with your final single sounding as if it was being dragged, wobbling, down in pitch by half an octave.
What I remember most was the lighting. It felt like a very different kind of party because the lights were turned down so low. Low lighting in an era where bright electrical lighting was easily achieved felt ludicrously debauched. If you didn’t have a dimmer switch you turned off the main light and obscured the brightness from a side light. If you were particularly groovy you might have a coloured lightbulb (red or blue) for the ambient light. Total darkness was always a possibility, but given the amount of crisps and the staining potential of the cherryade who would want to risk it? We did of course.
The Montego Bay single was a great favourite and had one of those sing-a-long choruses which didn’t entail having to learn any actual words just oohs (like the much loved Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye by Steam, and later covered by Bananarama). But it was the Three Dog Night song (which was a cover of a song penned by Randy Newman) that set the aspirational bar for that night and for any party since. Mamma Told Me (Not to Come) was like an obscure lesson in partying the bohemian way. It gave you no clear information about how to achieve the requisite level of partying, but gave you an exceptionally clear indication of what the desired outcome was: ‘This is the craziest party / That could ever be / Don't turn on the lights / 'Cause I don't wanna see’. What sort of a party could this be? So wild that it would terrify you to behold what was going on?
We were young and I have no recollection of seeing anyone snogging or even close dancing. But it was dark. I can imagine the terror for any adult who turned the lights on: children dancing by grinding potato crisps into the shag-pile. Oh the horror.

Monday, 23 March 2015


Like many children in the 1960s, I collected stamps. It was a relatively cheap hobby and there was always the possibility that one day your collection could be a treasure trove of rare gems. I still have my album and it is filled with Hungarian stamps (Magyar Posta) commemorating the 1960 Olympic games in Rome, butterflies, and Jurij Gagarin’s space flight; Polish stamps (Polska) commemorating the 1964 Tokyo games, the Grenoble winter games of 1968, and gliders; and Czechoslovakian stamps (Československo) commemorating Gagarin, flowers and birds. I guess I bought the stamps as pick-and-mix bags from the local newsagent. I can’t imagine that the good people of the village where I lived were in regular correspondence with their comrades behind the iron curtain and were passing their exotic stamps on to me.
During my brief term as a miniature philatelist there was one suite of stamps I particularly liked. This was the British Post Office’s 1971 collection of ‘Modern University Buildings’, featuring buildings from the universities of Southampton, Essex, Leicester and Aberystwyth. To my mind they have the same register and tone as the stamps from Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia – they welcome the future with open arms. And, little known to me at the time, it was my future they were welcoming: I spent too many chaotic nights as a teenager in the student union at Essex University ‘partying’ to Iggy Pop, Roy Harper, the Psychedelic Furs (and so on) – not as a university student (I was at the local FE College).
There is something perfect about a stamp: it is a form of money, yet it has only one particular task to perform – the task of transport. For a while the post office used to sell large-scale versions of their stamps as postcards. The postcards even had crinkle cut edges like the real thing. I wished that these postcards didn’t also require an additional stamp for postage, but they did. It never seemed to be possible that you could send the stamp postcard with an identical postage stamp on the back.  

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Everything Must Go

When the headache-coloured skies of winter descend, the ubiquitous advertising hoardings and illuminated shop fronts take on a new role. Giant backlit transparencies, neon signage or electronic screens punch holes in the drab, proximate environment. Amidst the sleety drizzle and along the wind-whipped pavements, you find sun-blushed, luminous visions that mock the dull muddy greys that fashion the neighbourhood. Through the general hangover darkness of mid-afternoon, you glimpse the gleaming Mediterranean blues of Davidoff Water (and Davidoff eyes); through the dank curtain of another overcast Wednesday you catch sight of Colgate’s smile, Nivea’s pout, and L’Oréal’s self-satisfied grin.
In the 1980s I was taught that this world of advertising needed decoding. Advertising was a text that smuggled in ideologies of a certain kind of life while flogging you unnecessary luxuries. But in many respects the dream-world of advertising is an easy one to interpret: buy this and become attractive; make people envy you by having a fitted-kitchen made out of floating minimalism. And it is easy to recognise that the world fashioned from advertising is made out of impossible bodies, improbably at ease with themselves and each other, living in environments untouched by the worldly forces of decay, disease, poverty, or even something as ordinary as rough, lined, mottled skin. All you have to do, after all, is to look out of the window of the bus and compare the ad-world and the ad-people with you and your fellow passengers. Perhaps rather than decode advertising we just need to see the scale of it. How could you do this? Perhaps some multi-billionaire will buy all the advertising space of a entire city, and all the advertising slots on broadcast media, all the algorithmic adverts on the internet and replace them all with one image: of fire, burning, consuming, crackling...
Rather than interpreting adverts I think I want to return to Raymond William’s 1960s notion of advertising as a magic system, conjuring illusions through misdirection and sleight-of-hand. To get some grip on advertising requires less attention to its manifest and latent contents, and more attention to its phenomenal forms: the way it chases you down as you waft across the internet; the way its impossible images belittle real affection; the way its grammars of value inveigles ordinary talk. It’s a bonanza and everything must go.