Archive for April, 2015

On snoooker

April 22, 2015

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Update 28th April 2016

Apparently someone else has found the fat flavour of snooker too strong to resist at Time Out! About time too … the club goes from strength to strength with fresh baize on the tables and the fairground punchbag only intermittently slapped to disconcerting effect.

I noticed rather late that the snooker is upon us. In fact it was hearing Barry Hearn on Fighting Talk that first brought my attention to it. And while Barry tried his best to draw attention to the characters in the modern game the vibe was most definitely that Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be. Take out Ronnie and what have you got? Actually, some spectacularly skilled snooker players who, given the nature of their trade, are ever unlikely to have the physique or skin tone of Christian Ronaldo. And now that most of them are off the sauce they’re a lot less ‘colourful’ than the cue-men of yore.

Some youngsters, or people who only remember the good stuff, might think watching the baize on the box was great in the old days? Really?!? Imagine watching Steve Davies playing Cliff Thorburn. On a Sunday. In the 80s. For four hours. In a small northern (ex-)mining town. When the pubs were shut all afternoon. And there was only Bonanza and Songs of Praise on the other side. Because there were only two other sides.

Who’s hot for the time machine now?

Of course then and now the alternative to bemoaning the state of pro snooker is to go out there and do it yourself. There’s a table near you – you just have to find it. And the barriers to entry are so low! £6 an hour in our local hall (for a twelve foot table – how many games of pool could you get through in an hour for a pound a pop in your local pub?) and the cues they provide, while not perfect, are free. Chalk too. Clean bogs, smoking ban in force nowadays – that was lightly unnerving at first. You can get a drink if you want (bottle of Stella £2.50) and they make a cheese toastie straight out of Ali’s Caff in Albert Square.

So why is it that only me and Travis Jr were in there last week with a smattering of Polish guys? When Wimbledon starts you can’t move for the inept middle classes showing off their latest tennis gear. The Crucible revs up and it’s the skunk eye from sporting north Londoners. Perhaps it’s too sunny outside to enter the dark womb of Ridleys? Perhaps you’re deterred by the shabby exterior? Fear not, inside you have the anonymity of one of the last bastions of working class masculine hegemony. Like the bookie, like the strip club, like the shabby municipal golf course, the snooker hall is the place where nobody wants to know your name. Because they’re escaping too.

And if I haven’t given you reason enough yet, imagine stumbling across this portrait of Jimmy White.

Jimmy White. Geezer.

Jimmy White. Geezer.

He has the wistful, haunted look of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington (currently displayed in a fine exhibition at the NPG). Only Jimmy never saw a Waterloo. I think the photographer (uncredited) anticipates the tragedy of that.

And by popular demand (well, one person asked if I had another – I can bring you Doug Mountjoy next time around if you like) here’s Ray Reardon. Well, what the low-lit/spotlighted atmosphere of the Green Lanes Snooker Club would allow me to capture of him.

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On Blockbuster vs Bijou Exhibitions

April 20, 2015

On Friday I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to the National’s latest blockbuster, Less of an Exhibition, More of a Thesis (or Inventing Impressionism: The Man Who Sold a Thousand Monets). I won’t expand too much on the drawback of such exhibitions to the average punter – too crowded, bed blockers parking themselves with their audio guides in front of the good stuff, the sharp elbows of the English Middle Classes, the inexplicable amount of babies and toddlers, the all-too-BIGNESS of the show. We all have our personal grievances on emerging from these things.

Across the road is another show, a teeny tiny one, of work by Jeff Wall, put on by White Cube in the Canada House Gallery. I’d been to visit it a few weeks ago in altogether different circumstances to those in the NG. Apart from having to go through an airport-style security check (it is part of the embassy after all and you can forgive them for being rigorous after the events in Ottawa last year) I didn’t see another person in the place. I had the room to myself to contemplate a handful of pictures, among which was at least one masterpiece, in absolute peace.

So, to an extent this is a piece about the value of seeking out the free treasures that are to be found in London’s art world. The various charitable spaces, private art dealers, cultural centres and auction houses that bespeckle the London map are full of things that the big institutions, even the free ones like the National, would make you pay to view as part of their monster spectacles.

From memory over the last few months I’ve seen a Breughel exhibition at Bonham’s as high quality as any you’d find in Brussels or Vienna (also with a lot of modern toss larded between), a collection of masterpieces at Christie’s that ranged from Chinese art to Rembrandt and Monet, and a little exhibition of Martin Parr photographs at some private dealer off Bond Street. As far as I remember I’d only gone to them because I’d passed them in strolling around and thought to pop in or go back when I had the spare time. Each time I had the Exhibition largely to myself.

What luxury. What pleasure for the cost of slithering under the gaze of the laser-eyed harpies that often act as the gardiennes of these places. So yes, do visit these things.

But do more than that. Think too. For what is the curse of the blockbuster exhibition? It is the audio guide. The mental crutch of the intellectually crippled. Fully formed opinion at the cost of a fiver and a surrender of self-respect.

And here the experience of gallery-going ties in with academia. By all means seek opinion, an academic lecture is after all just opinion (if you’re lucky, expert opinion) that should inform your own writing or lecturing but not dictate it. Students should be encouraged to question the view of their teacher but all too often they listen (well, it depends what time of day it is) and repeat without a digesting process in between. Which is what the audio guide does, it gives you opinion (of excellent quality no doubt) at second hand. It interrupts thinking. Put it away and think.

In an exhibition of the most tremendous quality (I urge you if you can to get to the NG before it shuts) one picture, for me, stood out in particular. Manet’s The Battle of ‘Kearsarge’ and the ‘Alabama’ (1864, Philadelphia Museum of Art). This is an extraordinary painting of an incident I knew nothing about. Now I know a little more. During the American Civil War the Confederacy operated a guerilla war at sea against the navy of the Union. The Kearsarge was a Union warship keeping watch off the French coast for three Confederate Navy commerce raiders: Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. The Alabama was lying off the coast near Cherbourg, waiting for a response from the French authorities to a request to land civilians captured in the course of capturing and burning two United States merchant ships, the Rockingham and Tycoon. After some to-ing and fro-ing, during which the anticipated battle between the two ships had attracted the attention of the world’s media and brought a number of visitors to Brittany to witness the event for themselves. The battle finally took place on 19th June 1864 and the Alabama was sunk in short order. Such is what I have learned this morning but intend to find out more, especially what Manet was up to.*

But that was afterwards. I don’t know what the commentary said about the painting, although judging by the catalogue it almost certainly told of when Durand-Ruel bought it and how much he sold it for. My immediate thoughts on looking at it were of what an extraordinary thing it is – big, contemporary, striking. A colossal study in grey-blue. With echoes of the Raft of the Medusa and parallels in Manet’s own work (so much more politically engaged, it seems to me, than a lot of the other impressionists and hence why he’s of more interest to historians) The Execution of Emperor Maximilian and its concern with the modern world.

Apparently contemporary critics decried the amount of space that Manet gave to the sea, seeing it as overwhelming the more important matter of the battle. Yet to me this is what thrilled because the sea he makes a turbulent danger. The sea is the subject in any maritime painting for anyone concerned about the individual. This occurred to me as I watched coverage of the ongoing losses of life in the Mediterranean as people try to escape conflict in Africa to make a better life in Europe, at enormous risk. A fisherman turned coastguard showed the humanity that Manet shares in his canvas when he pointed out that fishermen-coastguards and the refugees they pluck from the water both share an awareness of the brutality of the sea. Its indifference to what is tossed into it and what is pulled out.

Such a sentiment was also in my mind at the Jeff Wall exhibition. At the two previous shows of his that I’ve seen, at Whitechapel years ago (when I worked in the City and snuck off for intellectual nourishment (being a Guardian reader on the IPE I naturally earned the nickname Trotsky (when the traders were in a benevolent mood – usually I was called far worse))) and Tate Modern more recently, I perceived in Wall’s work this theme of the indifference of nature. I saw it in his A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) and also in his faintly menacing landscapes.

At Canada House there’s a picture I realised I’d seen before but probably through gallery fatigue hadn’t really looked at, Boy Falling From A Tree. It could be comic, most boys have fallen from trees haven’t they? It viscerally reminded me of the sensation of falling off a thing, or not so much the falling off as the landing – landing on the ground after falling off a shed when playing at a friend’s house and laughing at my dizziness after banging my head, or landing on a big bush after falling out of a window at university and impaling my leg on a branch.

Then there is the metaphorical implications of falling from the Icarus story to Lucifer, which put me in mind of Breughel (another favourite artist). But these stories involve human agency and what I get from the dispassionate view of Wall, and to an extent Manet, is that it’s not the person but the thing that is the agent. The sea swallows errant sailors. The earth crushes those who fall onto it. They are moral tales that warn us to be cautious, to be respectful of natural phenomena for our own good. And in this election time, after listening to the leader of the Green Party go on about what we are doing to the earth through our misguided actions I was struck by how wrong-headed this approach is. Nature is indifferent to us, both globally and individually. If we should persuade people to respect nature the more we should thus appeal to self-interest. Nature is capable of a far more brutal retribution on us for the wrongs we heap upon it. Manet and Wall show us that.

* My source is J. Wilson-Bareau & D. C. Degener, Manet and the American Civil War: The Battle of U.S.S. Kearsarge and C.S.S. Alabama (Yale University Press, 2003)

On Pop Music

April 15, 2015

http://www.secret-7.com at Somerset House

This last week or so has been an unusually poppy week (being more a classical hound by nature (of which more anon … that’s for another post)) but I wasn’t thinking to write about it until I stumbled across the Secret 7″ exhibition space at Somerset House.

By chance it was the first day of its opening to the public (yep, most of my most hipsterish moves are usually by accident rather than by design and I was wandering around Aldwych in a post-pub (The Lyceum on the Strand, recommended if you’re skint in the West End, you can get a booth and you don’t mind Sam Smith ales) funk trying to kill time before going to a mate’s party. The party is relevant.). So yes, a little caffeine freshener at Fernandez & Wells in the courtyard of Somerset ‘Arse (stumpy, it has to be a stumpy) and then a wander to see what they had on for free, my visits to the Courtauld being less frequent now that I’m no longer a UoL student and have to stump up cash like a regular Joe.

And there, at the river end of the building, I found a crowd of hipsters admiring rack upon rack of hand-made single covers. The record cover as a fetish object with people having selfies, taking portraits, coveting and discussing them. Secret 7″ ask celebs, artists, designers and other random groovy f*ckers to decorate the sleeves then display them anonymously. The public are then invited to pay half a ton for a unique, potentially very valuable, item on the day of the end of the exhibition. The  proceeds of this and other charitable acts (a roll-a-penny chute that tishes a cymbal,  limited editions of the records by named designers) goes to Nordoff Robbins, a charity that uses music as part of its therapy for people with problems of a variety too numerous to go into here.

A view of the bridge from Secret 7"

A view of the bridge from Secret 7″

All very worthy but why bring it up here? ‘What is point?’ as the feller on Down the Line would ask. The aforementioned friend just gave a paper at a conference about the nostalgia for Britpop (he’ll be giving another on this phenomenon at the seminar series I co-convene at the end of June). I also saw Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young the previous weekend. And the night before I went to the exhibition (and my friend’s party) I’d been to see Courtney Barnett at the Electric Ballroom in Camden.

So this is my theme. Nostalgia in pop music. In Baumbach’s film the young hipster is a man obsessed with the eighties, or the bits of it that he likes (the Miners’ Strike, Kajagoogoo, Ipswich Town’s decline from a footballing powerhouse to a provincial bit-player and Thundercats don’t get a mention), who has a pristine record collection (i.e vinyl, see above) alongside his domestic chicken pod. In short, he’s a major irritant for using nostalgia as a generator of supposed originality.

Which I guess was one of the points that Baumbach was trying to make. That we seem to be living in a desperately unoriginal and conservative culture, in spite of the constant hum of creativity being the supposed fuel of post-industrialised Western economies. And that this conservatism appears to be affecting the very people who shouldn’t be giving a shit about what their parent’s generation did, i.e. people like me (sorry Mum, I know the 70s had good bits but I never chose to be born in them).

And I began to see this everywhere. At Secret 7″ – which is a fantastic cause, don’t get me wrong, and has some wonderful things for sale that would grace any hipster’s wall. But what music do they have on the singles? The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, Peter Gabriel, Underworld, oh and The Maccabees and St Vincent for the ‘kids’. You can almost sense the ad agency carefully weighing the revenue/gender/ethnicity issues in a finely calibrated balance. But not age because age always wins out in the world of pop music nowadays. The labels have to exploit those old acts. Dinosaurs are big in music.

And Courtney Barnett? She’s a great performer, I love her lyrics, I wish her well. But her sound? It’s a bit underwhelming; it reminds you of other things. And when I go to a thing I might want to be reminded of other things but not other things that are better than what I’m at. And the last few gigs I’ve been to (The Orwells (who at least had the relative novelty of being absolutely badly behaved, quite rare in modern pop), Darlia, Barnett) have not been original enough for me to have thought that I wouldn’t have been better off going to a pub and watching a local band do something that I could get a decent pint at and chat to them afterwards (if I wanted to, unlikely given that I’m not especially sociable).

Which is part of the point that Dion was making in his paper. Recycling is happening (of course it’s always been there in pop music, brazenly) and it’s more commercialised than ever before. Blur release an album on the twentieth anniversary of Britpop to rave reviews and wall to wall coverage. Somehow Liam Gallagher is popular enough with the (dwindling) purchasers of the NME to merit being on its cover on a seeming four week cycle. And young acts want to tell you they love Bowie/Gabriel/Suede instead of wanting to spit on their corpses and kill their wizened fans. London, that once spiky culture, has turned into Paris, the most faux-radical city in the world.

No wonder when anyone under 40 can hardly afford to live in the place and it costs excruciating amounts of money to get around. The ‘creatives’ can’t afford to connect with the places where the money is. Unless they connect with the conservative culture that money tends to like.

So, in anticipation of a further post about London’s thriving classical music scene I’ll finish by saying that I think that the most radical things are now being done in those areas that I would have thought the most conservative when I was a youngster – jazz and classical. If I want to hear something I haven’t heard before I’m more likely to get it at Café Oto or the Guildhall than in Camden or Brixton.

A paean to Birkbeck College

April 12, 2015

This week saw a celebratory lunch with two friends who I first met on my MA course at Birkbeck some ten years ago. Out of a dozen or so people on that course (London Studies, sadly now defunct) three of us came away with doctorates. I wouldn’t know the hit rate for people turning MA dissertation subjects into successful theses (and I’m not going to spend Sunday morning finding out) but I suspect it’s fairly low.*

So what does this mean? Obviously we were

1) Good at that shit

2) Worked hard, and

3) Had the fortune to find

i)  subjects we cared about

ii) supervisors who helped us to see the process through to the end.**

This has been done before but unoriginality never stopped me banging about something in the past (sorry Denize), so here are some thoughts on what to consider when you’re considering embarking on a PhD if you’re an old dudette or dude, like me.*** I may come back to thinking about what to consider while you’re doing The Thing ( as I referred to it until I’d finished) when I feel the urge to pontificate.

The Subject

Think very carefully about how interested you are in your subject. You have to live with this thing in your head not just for the duration of your PhD (2 years minimum, mine was 6 years) but most likely for a year or two afterwards as you try and turn it into a published piece of work. That could be 8 years of thinking about, researching and writing about the same thing ALL OF THE TIME. So if you have any doubt about whether you want to write on your subject don’t even begin.

You will also have to talk about your thesis to people who are only asking you about it out of politeness A LOT. This person may be a friend, family, your partner, your kids, colleagues or complete strangers (yeah, sorry to that woman on the plane to South Africa). If you can’t explain what the idea of your thesis is in a couple of sentences you have no coherent thesis and you have no right to bore someone else at a party talking about it. A thesis is around 70k words but it is, more importantly, an idea. Or a series of ideas (if you’re really brainy).

If you have no idea, or argument, that can be simply explained to the average civilian don’t start your PhD until you’ve found one.****

The Supervisor


I didn’t exactly choose my supervisor. I was writing about South African cricket and Hilary was the southern Africanist in our department at Birkbeck. I was lucky that we got on. This doesn’t always happen but I think it was crucial to my completing the thesis. Having a distant, unsympathetic or (and it happens) hostile supervisor will ruin your writing, and potentially ruin your life for a while.

Your supervisor may be someone you don’t meet that often but for a while they will be parent, boss and friend (or none of these if your relationship is disfunctional). They cannot make you complete – only you can do that – but they can certainly prevent you from completing.

Think hard and choose wisely. The illustration below is of a busted horsehair sofa. You will feel like that A LOT during the course of you PhD.

So I should round off as I began by praising Birkbeck again. While I may think that I’m great (though I suspect that I’m not) I know for certain that Birkbeck College is one of the most remarkable institutions in London.

If you’re thinking of studying there do that thing.


* Actually, I did try and find out but could find no definitive answer. Slate reckons around 49% of humanities PhD students complete their thesis; assuming (generously) that around 25% of MA students begin trying to turn their dissertation into a thesis that would produce a 12.5% hit rate.

** thank you Hilary, you are a saint.

*** I started my MA when I was 30 and finished my PhD when I was 40. My children were 6 & 8 when I started, they’re now both nearly grown up. I worked in two jobs throughout the process and co-managed a football team for two of those years.

**** Preferably original.

A busted horsehair sofa

A busted horsehair sofa

Beginning the blog

April 7, 2015

Cheekily I’ve borrowed the title of this blog from a book I admire very much, Nairn’s London, which was reprinted in 2014 by Penguin.* Had he been around now my guess is that Nairn would not have been especially impressed with much of the built environment of London as it has developed over the last few years.

I think he would, however, have been mightily impressed by the range of communication by which writers, readers, viewers and listeners can communicate with one another nowadays. Nairn seems to me to have been a natural blogger before the form was invented – a master of the short form, of the neglected corner, of the new way of looking at something entirely familiar. In short he is someone whose writing you just want to share and say, ‘Look, here’s someone who cares.’

Thus an exemplar to all people who want to write in that he wrote with the reader in mind. Thoughtful, spicy opinions that, whether you agreed with him or not, are essential reading on London and the world in which he lived.

So yes, this rag bag commentary on my guiding, academic and social lives is a faint testimony to Nairn’s ability to inspire topophilia. I hope to share places and experiences, triumphs and disasters, the joy and boredom of city life.

I took a first dabble at this kind of thing with my ‘Restaurants of 2013’ Google Map in which I kept a diary of all the places in which I paid to eat that year as a means of giving myself light relief in between writing up my thesis. I had intended to pick it up again this year but decided it might be fun to envelope it in a broader project of talking about the cultural events and places, and to include thoughts on my academic work (such as it is).

So if you haven’t read Nairn’s London I suggest you do so. And in this time of election fever start with the entry on Guy’s Hospital Chapel.

  • I have since altered the name of the blog! It was too presumptuous.

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