Friday, 25 October 2013

Morning Delivery

Sheffield’s Park Hill flats opened in 1961, the year I was born. The flats are still the most complete example of the architectural project optimistically named ‘Streets in the Sky’ urbanism: networks of one-sided residential streets of maisonettes stacked on top of one another, threaded through the landscape and surrounded by park land, yet close to the city centre. The streets in the sky aren't quite the same as the streets that they set out to replace: these have roofs over them for a start, and a long drop on one side. Today they probably have more detractors then they do fans, and when in 1998 they were awarded grade II listing it caused a furore that is still going on today. The streets-in-the-sky were by any standard substantial. Rather than mere practical walkways they were designed for conviviality – for children to play and for adults to pass the time of day. The scale of the streets was also meant to accommodate traffic – but only one type of vehicle – the electric milk float.
The eager, breathless whir of the milk float – like an ordinary car calling out with a stage-whisper – isn't a sound you hear too much anymore. There is clearly much less milk being delivered. When I was about 11 or 12 I, like many other kids at the time, used to supplement my pocket money with money I earned by having a paper round. I used to get to the newsagents at about 5.30 in the morning to pick up my stack of daily papers (supplemented with a few magazines and comics); these were arranged by the newsagent in the well-practiced order of the route. Apart from at the height of summer, it was nearly always dark when I started and usually light, or getting light when I finished. Sometimes, especially if it was raining, it was really miserable, but often I enjoyed the quiet, empty streets and the crisp unfolding of the prelude to the day. It was a time of the day I shared with others who were out delivering papers and post, the odd insomniac dog walker, and the asthmatic wheeze of the milk float.
For the most part post, papers and milk are distributed differently today. Park Hill flats has changed too. Some of it has been erased, some of it remains as social housing, and a large chunk has been taken over and refitted by an architectural group called Urban Splash. Urban Splash has successfully turned many of the maisonettes and flats into up-market, urban living, for those who want the adrenalin of inner-city life and the aesthetics of the warehouse flat. The scheme is all bright colours and wooden floors. It is hard to tell, though, what has happened to the network of elevated streets that were the social heart of the complex. Have they gone? Or are they still functioning? Perhaps amongst the sounds of carbonated water being opened you can just about hear the ghostly echo of the milk float. 

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Birds’ Milk

I think I was always lactose intolerant, culturally. When I was a kid, full-fat milk (though it was just called milk then) was delivered daily to the front door. Often the little metallic lids of the bottles would have been pecked open by hungry birds. As a child I always thought of milk as “birds’ milk”, as if by piercing the lids the birds now owned the content, but more crucially that they had somehow contaminated the milk with their worm-breath, with their dirty beaks, and with their fanatically deranged pecking. I think that bird-pecked-milk was mainly a winter phenomenon, but I could be wrong. In the summer, especially at weekends, the milk had other reasons for encouraging my disgust: it would have been warming-up in the sunshine for a while before breakfast. If this didn't instantaneously make the milk “go off” I was sure it sent it well on its way.
My mother’s culinary likes and dislikes might have been formed before the Second World War but they were irreversibly stamped by that war. Rationing might have been over by the 1960s and 70s but to my mother wasting food was both sinful and probably an act of treason. Whether it was because of rationing or not she has always been drawn to butter, cream and other fatty, milky products. She would keep a small bowl of brown congealed fat in the fridge. This was the run-off fat from the Sunday roast and would be used for her bread-and-dripping sandwiches. For me it meant that a visit to the fridge was always a fairly queasy experience. She was also a great fan of the “top-of-the-milk” – that thick plug of creamy milk that floated to the top of the milk bottle to produce a stopper made of curd. My mum would want this plug for her cornflakes and it would flop out onto the little flakes followed by a flow of less obviously cheesy milk (now, because she buys thinned, semi-skimmed milk, the plug has disappeared, so she adds actual cream).
During the summer we would always go to Padstow in Cornwall. We always stayed in the same chalet with a view of the dredger endlessly fighting the tidal drifts of mud in the harbour. There were always a few days when we couldn't go to the beach because it was raining, then the choice was either going to town and watch The Sound of Music for the zillionth time, or amuse ourselves in the chalet. My sister and I would play “Crossroads” – it was a game based on pretending we were running the famous, but wholly TV-based, Crossroads motel located on some ring-road near Birmingham. The chalet kitchen had a breakfast bar (endlessly exotic, endlessly glamorous to us) and we used this as the “pass” for our restaurant. I have a feeling that this was a game wholly ruled by my sister. We only served two dishes as far as I can remember: “Banana Bombarder” and “Orange On”. I have no idea of what the bombarder bit of “Banana Bombarder” was (or if that is indeed how you spell this made-up word), but I think “Orange On” consisted of orange squash and milk, and that the coagulated results were both fascinating and extremely repulsive.
Since my childhood milk has got thinner and thinner. The birds don’t peck the morning milk anymore because milk delivery is much less common and when it is delivered it comes in plastic or cardboard containers. We get our milk delivered as little pillows of milk (milk in a bag). I don’t touch it of course: to me it is already contaminated. It is and will always remain birds’ milk. 

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Peter Doig in Edinburgh

Alongside the ravine that lies below Castle Rock, in amongst the crag and tail of Edinburgh’s distinctive geography, sits, on an artificial hill, part of the extensive Scottish National Gallery. From August through to early November 2013 the gallery has been playing host to a large exhibition of Peter Doig’s paintings. You couldn't find a more vivid contrast: Edinburgh, often cold and wet, made of stone and shops, with elaborate buildings that declaim their ambition and intent; and then Doig’s paintings depicting the tropical vegetation of Trinidad in a painterly language that is jewelled, mythic, and, considering the size of the canvases, often airily light. There is little in Edinburgh that you would want to describe as ‘light’.
Peter Doig was born in Edinburgh in 1959, spent his youth in Trinidad and Canada, studied at various art schools in London, and found success in the early 1990s when the boosterism around British art was at its height. Doig now lives in Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital, and paints in an old rum distillery which also serves as an improvised arts centre. The paintings collected together in Edinburgh under the title No Foreign Lands are nearly all set in the landscape of Trinidad and are peopled by figures that might have slipped loose from an opium dream – a man dragging a murdered pelican, a drunken and beatified Parisian holding onto a tree in a tropical forest, a man carrying a pink umbrella, a girl in white perched precariously in a tree, and endless figures – male and female – drifting by in canoes.  
The canvases demonstrate the sort of post-perspectival concerns that alert you to the fact that you are at an exhibition of ‘serious’ painting and not a Jack Vettriano show: walls, windows, picture frames are all used in the pictures to productively worry about the planarity and frontality of painting; swathes of coloured paint, in various transparencies, often flecked with painterly incidents, depicting sky, water, sand, and snow are deployed to puzzle over the pull and obduracy of the painted surface. Doig has learnt his art in close proximity to the palette choices of Gauguin and the Fauves, his painterly graphics are indebted to Edvard Munch, and the crust and feel of his mark-making remind you of the landscapes of Gustav Klimt and Egon Scheile. But such borrowings are not mobilised for ironic commentary, rather they are requisitioned to produce the stage effects of the paintings, to make and enliven an intricate world of visual, painterly dramas.
Of course these paintings, with their monumental scale and their breezy figuration, can sit a bit too easily in the Neo-Classical grandeur of the National Gallery. Their post-colonial allusions vacillate between a critical re-imagining of colonised landscapes and a revamped exoticism of the tropics seen by the well-heeled cosmopolitan traveller. Perhaps most of the paintings are caught in the grip of this vacillation, for example the massive speaker stacks of Trinidadian sound systems, depicted as Mayan-like monuments in Maracas (2002-8), or the cricket game on a Gaugin beach where the ball acts as visual puncture, as a white blob that interrupts the blue-licked orange sand in Cricket Painting (Paragrand) (2006-12) (below © Peter Doig). And perhaps there is in the worrying dilemma of those vacillations something that make the paintings more compelling, more intriguing.   

Doig’s paintings don’t answer the question: how do you make art after conceptual art, after the medium-specificity of modernism has been drained of meaning? Such questions, the paintings seem to suggest, are for those for whom time moves incessantly forward as one move trumps the next. It doesn't address the question of the institutional conditions of art, and doesn't seem interested in the curatorial buzz that you can still hear when words like ‘relational’, ‘situational’, ‘participatory’ are invoked. But perhaps they respond to other, more modest questions that are concerned with the state of painting as a global language where a history of expressive mark making can be turned towards the job of furnishing a body of work with an imaginative cosmology. It might sidestep the issue of critical art, but it does offer an imaginative landscape that, if you give yourself over to it, could colour your dreams. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A Jam Jar of Gin

Yesterday, like a booze-fiend playing Russian Roulette with a pledge never to drink again, I opened a bottle of gin had a good sniff and then closed it. For me no drink is quite as evocative as gin – and there is no other drink I would prefer to dab behind my ears or smear on my wrists. The evocation is probably there in the smell slightly more than in the taste. Occasionally I like to take a hefty whiff of gin as a little mnemonic kick. It is one of my more reliable memory transporters: sniffing the distinctive juniper infused alcohol normally brings back memories of being fifteen and swigging neat gin in the lanes behind the school I went to. Sniffing the gin would sensually transport me to the cold nights where my little gang of refuseniks would pass round the jam jars of pilfered booze that we would have purloined from parental drinks cabinets. Sometimes it would be sherry, sometimes brandy, but most often gin. Yesterday however my little mnemonic spark wasn’t forthcoming. I think I must have worn out that particular memory trick.

Marcel Proust, of course, is the go-to guy for such things. It was his dunking and munching of Madeline cakes that named the experience of involuntary reminiscences as Proustian. Of course using cakes and gin fumes on a somewhat regular basis is not what involuntary memory is all about. Involuntary memory is meant to descend on you when you are least expecting it, corner you and mug you when your mnemonic defences are down, so to say. The regular subterfuge of forcing such memory-mugging isn’t in the contract – no wonder that repetition could destroy the mnemonic qualities of the material being used.

Sometimes memory vehicles wear out for other reasons than flagrant memory abuse. Smokers, after years of puffing, find that the occasional cigarette sometimes transports them back to those rushed Players Number 6s or Rothmans that were gasped on shivery afternoons in recreation grounds. But perhaps what happens after a while is there is a shift in remembering, and a second-order memory takes the place of this memory: the rush of memory energy does not reunite us with an event of giddy juvenile smoking but with the memory of the initial involuntary reminiscence seizing us. And then perhaps after more time has elapsed this become a memory of a memory of such seizing, till after a while all that is left is barely a memory at all, just a bare echo, or more like some nagging feeling that you’ve forgotten something and no concentration or effort will bring it back.

Before it dissipates, involuntary memory requires a force of energy to do its work. No wonder then that my examples all involve some slightly dodgy activity – underage smoking and drinking. They still, after all this time, carry with them a little charge that is probably related to the excited tension of transgressing and the possibility of getting caught. No wonder too that such involuntary memory is accessed via the sense forms that seem to, most reliably, escape rational processing: smell, touch and taste, in these cases trump sight and sound for mnemonic spills and thrills. The mnemonic forms that are going to last are also going to be those that are hardest to repeat: a particular smell of industrial cleaning products; the flavours of food that you’re not sure you would want to replicate; the occasional whiff of someone’s body odour.

I could imagine a memory club where addled Proustian types who had worn out their easily accessed mnemonic prompts, could go for help in tracking down these hard to find sensual memory stimuli. There would be rows and rows of jars replicating the smells of particular perspirations. A rack of scratch and sniff memory cards sorted year-by-year, place-by-place: “1963, seaweed in Clacton”, for instance. The smell of smoke-filled, beery pubs might become a bit of a favourite, but might also wear thin too quickly. Sweets might do it; especially those that sat on the edge of revulsion, like the twirls of cough candy. Giant rice puddings with slightly burnt tops might work for some, while for others it will be fiddling with out-of-date bicycle repair kits. There will be something there for everyone. It would look like a nineteenth century gin palace with hard-core reminiscence addicts staggering around befuddled from over-dosing on pear drops.