Archive for November, 2015

Back in the north

November 28, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I went back to the north for a conference in Middlesbrough.* Some academics complain about having to go to conferences but for me, no matter where they take place (even Holloway Road), there’s always something to be learnt by getting out of the conference and having a good wander around.

This was a particularly tough week for the people of Middlesbrough as the planned closure of the local steel plant had just been announced, an action which would result in the loss of thousands of jobs. I’ve been to a lot of conferences in random British and Irish cities over the last few years, and have visited others in the course of researching prospective universities with my eldest son and while doing my own research. This has taken me to Newcastle, Sheffield, Leeds, Belfast, Dublin, Leeds, Luton, Portsmouth, Coventry, Durham, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool and others that I can’t remember off the top of my head right now. I have to say that of all these Middlesbrough felt the most bleak.


The Captain Cook. Fairly bleak.

One of the themes to come out of the conference (where the majority of the papers addressed local history) was that Middlesbrough was once a town that was centred around the river, in fact was born of the river. For those not familiar with the area Middlesbrough was the original industrial boom town, even more so than its more famous contemporary Manchester. While Manchester was an established conurbation at the onset of industrialisation Middlesbrough was practically non-existent. It was built from the establishment of the iron industry in the mid-nineteenth century and grew at such a rapid rate, exporting processed iron and then steel to a global market, that it became known as the ‘infant Hercules’ or ‘Ironopolis’. The river was central to exploiting the export market for such goods, as it was for the chemical plants that also became established throughout the twentieth century.

What is less well-remembered, but was brought up by several papers at conference, was that the river was also during the boom-times absolutely central to the recreation of the townspeople with rowing, sailing and even swimming (hard to believe given the filthiness of the water in those days!) competitions being annual festive events that drew hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators. I was glad to be reminded of this because arriving in the town now (by train at least) there is little encouragement for the modern visitor to go to the river.


Bottle of Notes by Claes Oldenburg. Getting in touch with his Teesside roots.

The University campus is centred away from the river, south beyond the town centre and mima.** There are signs of a town turning a corner around the University campus. There’s the University itself, which like the University of Bedfordshire seems to be making a good fist of bringing Higher Education to a part of the world that old fashioned élitists would like to think isn’t suitable for it.*** And there’s a smattering of businesses in Baker Street, like Sherlock’s micropub, that show an entrepreneurial culture getting established that was largely absent in my North-East town up the road when I was growing up.

But mima? Hmm … a trick has been missed. Look at the Oldenburg that they planted outside the Euroarchitect-designed purpose-built shed that houses the gallery. On his website the artist claims to have been inspired by Middlesbrough’s riverside location and its links to Captain Cook, Gulliver’s Travels, a short story by Poe about a sailor caught in a maelstrom, the local steel industry and much other guff besides.

There’s a problem with this. The local elements which would really anchor the piece in the history of Middlesbrough – the sea, Cook and the steel industry – are not within staggering distance of the gallery.**** They’re disconnected from it. Or rather the gallery is disconnected from them. It’s in the wrong place.

Look at the picture of Bottle of Notes. It’s set in a nondescript park beside a sub-Stirling lump of 80s Post-Modernism. Look the other way and you have the (magnificent) 19th C Town Hall dwarfed by some beige 70s garbage. I won’t trouble your eyes with the gallery, the building holds no interest.***** Where’s the river? Where’s the steel? Where’s the chemicals? Where’s Middlebrough?******


Victorian town hall from ‘mima’

Inside the gallery interesting things are happening. There’s a smattering of good modern art (a lot of it prints and drawings, which is telling), a temporary exhibition by a politically radical British feminist artist (interesting but not exactly uplifting on a cold November day) and a nationally important jewellery collection (sure it’s good but not my bag).

The main exhibition, Localism, is the interesting part. Its prospectus is worth quoting in full,

‘Localism’ is an ambitious project telling the story of art in Middlesbrough from its beginnings in 1829 to now. It takes a radical approach to exhibition making, inviting the public to help write the narrative with workshops that grow the show, adding to it as we go, thus creating an encyclopaedic family tree of creativity on Teesside.
It’s also more than just an exhibition as we join up people and places across the region to celebrate and debate our own cultural history and its impact on the wider world. Topics include Christopher Dresser and the Linthorpe Pottery, bridge building, the remarkable Boosbeck Industries in the 1930s and the existence of mima itself. In a thoroughly internationalised world, Localism restates the vitally important role of the local in the development of art and society.

Basically they’ve realised that the people of Middlesbrough are not especially fussed about radical feminist politics, nationally important jewellery collections or much modern art. I’m sure that quite a few people in Middlesbrough (and environs) are, just not the people of Middlesbrough. Looking at what the people of Middlesbrough ask to be displayed in the gallery through Localism they’re concerned with jobs and industry, football, crafts, education and the countryside, i.e. the things that they love about their city and of which they are proud. And they’re slowly repurposing the gallery as a museum about their town’s history, told through documents, ephemera and artworks. And it works. Localism is a perfect exhibition for the outsider to Middlesbrough. It contextualises the town. It tells you why you should visit the place and why the closure of the steelworks, while making cold economic sense, is a tragedy. The dismal walk from station to gallery past the usual signs of economic decline does not.

Walking the other way from the station, away from the town and towards the river is a bit dismal too. There are many maltreated buildings (like the Captain Cook above) which are splendid things but have no investment. They remind you that this was once one of the wealthiest towns in England and indeed the world.


Which one (or collection of several) of these solid Victorian buildings could have been the home for a combined museum of Middlesbrough and modern art? Buildings that would have connected the museum directly to the river, to the sea, to the world? I walked past half a dozen candidates at least on my way to the riverside. And once you’re there you arrive at a view of one of the great kinetic sculptures of the nineteenth century in a setting to make an aesthete’s heart skip.


Transporter Bridge. The greatest sculpture in Middlesborough

Who needs Oldenburg? You can chuck that bottle in the sea and ask for your money back.

*At the University of Teesside, for their conference on sport and urban history. I talked about a French sportsman, Frantz Reichel, and the history of his statue in Paris. You can find the paper (or the bare bones of it) here.

** note The Artful Way They’ve Avoided Capital Letters? the Initials Stand For middlesbrough institute of modern art. The avoidance of capital letters stands for Nothing.

*** When people attack previous governments’ aspirations to get a greater percentage of young people into university-level education it’s places like Teesside that they’re thinking of as being a ‘waste of money’. In fact by bringing universities closer to the homes of more and more people you  make education more affordable for those from lower-income backgrounds, even if they have to pay for the course itself. Universities like these act as drivers of the local economy and points of aspiration for post-industrial communities in a function that ‘traditional’ university towns’ communities take for granted.

**** Although Cook is a bit of a stretch, the town didn’t exist when he was around and he’s more connected with Stockton-on-Tees upriver.

***** Oh, go on then – here’s a really long staircase with a fire extinguisher at the bottom. Worth it.


****** Where’s the people too?! It was lunchtime on a Saturday.

Voluntary work for the Poppy Appeal

November 4, 2015

Once a year (or twice if I’m feeling very energetic and can get the time off work) I volunteer to collect donations on behalf of the Poppy Appeal.* It’s something that I welcome doing as a small act of remembering a good friend (now passed away) who once organised the poppy collectors of Chelsea, and also as a way of making my own small contribution to the very necessary work of the British Legion beyond shoving a note in a tin. As something to do I’d recommend it unequivocally for the pleasure of giving time to a good cause at the temporary expense of a pair of shot knees. I’d also recommend it for giving a distinctive view of London going about its business. My beat is usually Sloane Square, one of the wealthiest parts of town and therefore not exactly the toughest gig on the poppy collecting circuit. Outside the tube or outside Peter Jones are the top spots but decent trade can be found down by the Saatchi or along the King’s Road if someone’s already bagged those.

Theoretically the poppy collector is the opposite of Baudelaire’s flâneur. The flâneur moves through the city, an anonymous observer in the crowd. The poppy seller on the other hand is usually rooted to a pitch and has to lug a collecting tin in one hand and a poppy box suspended off the shoulders. This box is a temperamental and cumbersome beast to the early-career collector, apt to tangles, spills and rain damage. And it makes you feel as though you stand out like a sore thumb.

However, the box, like any uniform, gives a certain amount of anonymity to its wearer. People tend to see the box and not the person, and poppy collectors are so ubiquitous from the end of October that they rapidly become part of the street furniture. So yes, I welcome my once a year standing in Sloane Square as an opportunity to observe, to scrutinise, to wallow in a quarter of the city that I rarely visit on any other occasion. It’s rather fun.

Of course the first to be observed are the poppy punters or poppy shunners. I like to feign indifference to the public until it’s apparent that someone is coming to buy a poppy. I’m not a hunter after donations, fixing people with a guilt-inducing beady eye to induce them to cough up some change. I also spurn naming a figure when asked how much they should give (against advice from my poppy hierarch) as it seems vulgar to begin some kind of morally tinged haggle. I know people often are unsure how much they should donate and in asking me are seeking approval for whatever amount they’ve already got in their palm. My advice is always that one should give what one can afford.

But while I feign disengagement with the public at large really I’m thoroughly scrutacious. Very few people don’t see the poppy collector at all and people’s reactions once they have seen you are to an extent categorisable. There are foreigners who have no idea what you’re doing and are not interested. There are a lot of these in Sloane Square, a magnet for tourists and with a significant residential population of non-British origin. There is the occasional foreigner, usually a tourist (or actually, more often a tourist child) who is curious and will ask you in great depth about the poppy and what it is. I like these people, it’s good to chat with them and talk about British culture and history.

So what of the British? You have people who already have a poppy but whose hand goes to where their poppy is just to check that it’s there and can be seen. Sometimes it’s missing (they do fall off if not secured properly with a pin (I put mine through the petal – it looks ugly but it’s very effective)) and you can see them considering how annoying it is to have to get another one. But they usually do. Or their poppy is on their other coat, the one they left at home, and they’re thinking about whether they should get another one for this coat when they could just transfer the one from the other coat when they get home. But they usually buy another one too. Good souls.

Of course there are people who don’t donate out of conviction. Arrogantly they look at you sometimes (I don’t like that) but more often obviously not wishing to be judged. I wouldn’t judge them – there are cogent arguments (I don’t subscribe to them) as to why the poppy appeal should be rejected by pacifists, or by those who feel coerced into a national act of mourning and remembrance with which they have no sympathy. Freedom of opinion is a good thing.

But the majority of British people that I see (and I would include people of the ‘British World’ in that) either have a poppy already or when they see you are already putting their hand in their pocket or their purse to find a donation. The most heart-warming of donators are the ones who already have a poppy but who give you a donation anyway. Often these people are (ex-) service personnel or people closely related to them. They’ll often ask me if I’m in the armed forces myself (I think they usually know that I’m not! I don’t quite have a military bearing) and will chat about their motivation for giving (I like that too).

So for a thing to do I would heartily recommend getting out on the streets for the Poppy Appeal, if I’ve sold you on it there’ll be an organising committee near you I’m sure.

Sloane Square - my patch for the morning

Sloane Square – my patch for the morning

If the charitable angle isn’t enough for you then let me add another motivation, an aesthetic one. Over the last few years I’ve been trying to visit one or two of the big galleries in London solely to look at one painting at a time. One of the frustrations in going abroad to look at art is gallery fatigue.** Canvas blindness is another way of putting it. You get it in blockbusters here too so every now and then I try and do my art viewing in smaller chunks of focussed time.

Standing in the street for a few hours forces you to look at the cityscape in the same way as you would study a great painting. I’ve looked at the fixtures of Sloane Square (the theatre, the war memorial, the buildings) until they’ve become old friends visited once a year. Sometimes they change but essentially they remain the same. Then there are the medium variable things that shift but keep a rhythm – the sky, buses and traffic gridlock – unfolding in predictable but erratic ways over the course of a morning. And then there are the variable variable things – the people. Over time you observe a whole society in operation, from the people with the wealth*** down through those who service them. Wealthy people (hedge fund managers, art collectors, trophy wives and husbands, gilded offspring, mistresses, little kids dressed like Ralphy models, minor royalty, oligarchs) wealth professionals (lawyers, financial advisers, art buyers), lifestyle facilitators (designers, restauranteurs, personal trainers), doers (builders, windowcleaners, personal shoppers, delivery men), providers (shopworkers, newsagents, guides, drivers) and askers (Big Issue salespeople, charity collectors, beggars).

Of the cavalcade of local humanity that passes before one’s eyes in Chelsea the one group that doesn’t fit into this scheme are the Chelsea Pensioners. They’ve earned their independence through serving the nation, rich and poor. That’s the motivation.

* British people (forgivably) assume that this time of the year is as well known outside the UK as it is within. Having had a regular group of Belgians in November for the last few years I now realise that this isn’t the case, even among people from those nations who were directly affected by the First World War.

So for those who have no idea what the Poppy Appeal is, it is a charity that collects money from the public in return for distinctive decorative poppies and other paraphernalia (badges, wristbands, stickers etc). It began as a way of raising money for the casualties of World War One and rapidly developed into a national tradition (with some dissenting voices) for remembering the sacrifice of those who have served in conflicts around the world. The money raised now goes towards supporting supporting ex-servicemen and women and their families in manifold ways.

** Last suffered in the Künsthistorische Museum in Vienna where there are TOO MANY BREUGHELS. I’ll probably never go back and aggh!! Ugh, want to see those Breughels properly.

*** Contrary to radical perception the 1% and their circle are not a faceless, hidden away group. They’re fascinating and they’re out there. The display of expensive lifestyle is a joy, a technicolour cavalcade of skin, teeth, hair, clothes and accessories. Although occasionally it’s ostentatiously monochrome.

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