Public View: celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat

<em>Public View:</em> celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat

The Bluecoat is 300 years old. Miraculously, the oldest building in Liverpool city centre has twice survived the threat of destruction (post-war city planners thought it would be a great idea to replace it with an inner-city ring road) to become one of the UK’s oldest arts centres. Completed in 1725, after two centuries serving as a charity school, in 1907 the building was taken over by a group of artists determined to stimulate Liverpool’s artistic and intellectual life. Two years later they hosted the First Post-Impressionist exhibition that featured work by Matisse, Picasso and others. Today, the contemporary arts continue to be showcased in this Grade One listed building. I went down to have a look at Public View, the first in a series of events celebrating the Bluecoat’s first 300 years. Continue reading Public View: celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat”

Tricia Porter’s photographs of Liverpool 8 in the 1970s

Tricia Porter’s photographs of Liverpool 8 in the 1970s

A week or so ago I wrote about L8 Unseen, a photography exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.  Now I’ve been to see another exhibition of photographs from Liverpool 8, this one at the Bluecoat.  Titled, Tricia Porter: Liverpool Photographs 1972-74, the show presents images virtually unseen for 40 years which provide a vivid picture of everyday life in Liverpool 8 at a time when it was undergoing significant change leading to the break-up of close knit communities. Continue reading “Tricia Porter’s photographs of Liverpool 8 in the 1970s”

News from Nowhere: a triumph of patience and hope

News from Nowhere: a triumph of patience and hope

News from Nowhere sign

If you live in Liverpool, love books and are radically inclined, you will be familiar with News from Nowhere, the iconic bookshop that has survived recessions, fascist attacks, and the decimation of independent book retailing by online tax-evaders.  On Sunday I attended an inspiring event at the Bluecoat to celebrate the astonishing fact that News from Nowhere, 40 years old this May, is now Liverpool’s oldest bookshop. How’s that as one in the eye for multinationals, neo-liberalism and austerity?

WeBe40 radical bookfair and forum was a day of events, including talks and readings by authors and poets, displays of radical books and a small exhibition of photos and memorabilia reflecting the bookshop’s history.  I went along to the afternoon session in which Bob Dent, co-founder of News from Nowhere back in 1974 recalled how his dream of opening an alternative bookshop grew from the experience of selling radical newspapers on the streets of Harrogate and running a stall while a student at the LSE.  Speaking alongside Bob was Ross Bradshaw who worked worked in radical book-selling for seventeen years before moving into publishing, and who recently bucked the trend by opening Five Leaves, the first independent bookshop in Nottingham since 2000.  The session was chaired by Mandy Vere, a member of the women’s cooperative which now runs the store.

Manchester Street

Manchester Street, first home of News from Nowhere, in 1964 (photo from Streets of Liverpool)

Both speakers provided humorous and entertaining accounts of their experiences in the radical book trade.  Bob took us back to May Day 1974 when News from Nowhere first opened its doors on Manchester Street. After joining the May Day trade union march from Islington down to the Pier Head, Bib arrived at the freshly-stocked one up, one down shop to find that he couldn’t get in.  After phoning the joiner who had fitted the door he realised his mistake – he was turning the key to the right, when he should have been turning left.

But the dream of opening a radical bookshop began much earlier, in the unlikely setting of the streets of staid and conservative Harrogate. It was the late sixties and as a teenager Bob was developing a lively interest in dissenting ideas.  But where to find the literature to fuel his curiosity?  There was certainly no radical bookshop in Harrogate (neither then, nor now). So he began selling radical newspapers on the streets, an experience, said Bob, which taught him the two qualities that are essential if you’re in the radical book trade – patience and hope.

Later, as a student at the LSE, he ran a weekly stall in the Students Union selling Peace News and literature produced by the libertarian socialist group Solidarity that had attracted Bob’s attention with their emphasis on workers’ self-organisation and critique of both Leninism and Trotskyism.  It was at the LSE that Bob teamed up with Maggie Wellings, who would play a key role in founding News from Nowhere.

News from Nowhere 2

The move to bigger premises: Bob and Mandy outside the second shop on Whitechapel

Maggie shared with Bob the dream of opening an alternative bookshop.  While still students at LSE, they began to plan.  It was Maggie who came up with name for the shop, taking it from the Utopian socialist novel by William Morris.  Bob liked it, too, because of its suggestion of retailing news and ideas from no one particular source.  As Ross Bradshaw explained in more detail in his own presentation, many towns had left-wing bookshops in the late sixties, but invariably they would be party bookshops, run by the Communist Party or other left-wing groups. Instead, Maggie and Bob envisaged a shop that sold anything critical or alternative.

News from Nowhere 8

Bob Dent (speaking) and  Ross Bradshaw at the Bluecoat event

Bob described how he and Maggie boned up on the mechanics of the book trade.  Getting the stock was the easy part: left-wing parties would not ask for money in advance, while back then book publishers would let you have books on a sale or return basis once you had overcome the hurdle of selling their first consignment – and paying for it on time.  The big problem was the money to get started.  In the end, Maggie’s mum (who owned a Chinese restaurant on Bold Street, near where News from Nowhere is now located) lent the pair £1000.

So, with stock acquired, bookshelves knocked up by a local joiner, and cheap premises found on Manchester Street, the story of News from Nowhere began.  A poster to advertise the shop’s opening was silkscreened, based on Walter Crane’s 1894 engraving ‘Workers’ May Pole’, its ribbons declaring the ideals of the socialist lifestyle: ‘Eight Hours’, ‘Leisure For All, ‘Adult Suffrage’, ‘No Starving Children’, ‘Work for All’, ‘Neither Riches nor Poverty’, and ‘The Land for the People’.

Walter Crane, Workers' Maypole, 1894

Walter Crane’s 1894 engraving ‘Workers’ May Pole’

That was where Bob Dent left it in his talk: turning the key to the Manchester Street shop that afternoon, on 1 May 1974.  Mandy Vere – who joined the shop in 1976 – has continued the story of News from Nowhere in a chapter written for Utopia, a collection edited by Ross Bradshaw.  There, she notes that in the early days about a thousand titles were stocked and takings were around £150 a week, ‘kept in a biscuit tin’.  Wages were taken from the tin as necessary.  The shop was so small that (and I remember this quite vividly) staff had to squeeze onto a bench in the window to work.

I had forgotten, until a question from the audience jogged my memory, that The Liverpool Free Press, a wonderful local newspaper started by investigative journalists from the Liverpool Echo, Brian Whitaker and Rob Rohrer, had tiny offices upstairs.  In 1977, News from Nowhere moved into larger premises around the corner in Whitechapel, allowing the stock to be expanded and better displayed.  There were exhibitions (for example, of Don McCullin’s photographs for Jonathan Dimbelby’s book The Palestinians), and even room for coffee-making facilities and a sofa.

News from Nowhere 3

Moving day, 1977

This was the time when News from Nowhere was involved in establishing Liberty Hall, an alternative political and social club cum cabaret which met every Sunday evening downstairs in the Everyman Bistro.  Two doors down Whitechapel, Colin Wilkinson and his Open Eye team had moved into old pub premises, using the space for photographic exhibitions, video training, and a cafe.  In another spin-ff from News from Nowhere, Another View Film Society was established to screen radical political films at Open Eye, often introduced by directors such as Nick Broomfield (who shot his first two documentary films in Liverpool).

News from Nowhere 5

Inside the Whitechapel store

News from Nowhere had always operated as a collective, but in 1980 the shop registered as a Workers’ Cooperative, and, after Bob left in the mid-1980s – evolved into a women-only collective, as it is today.

News from Nowhere 4

Bob and Mandy outside the Whitechapel shop: Bob with his enter who dares stance!

The Bluecoat had organised a small display of photos and memorabilia from the shop’s archives (the source of most of the images in this post).  One item on display was this early product of Bob’s journalistic career – a feature from February 1983 describing the attacks made on the shop premises by right-wing extremists.  The 1980s were a time when News from Nowhere – along with other radical bookshops across the country – endured a campaign of violence, arson and intimidation.

News from Nowhere 7

 Bob Dent’s story in 1983 for the Liverpool Daily Post about the right-wing attacks on News from Nowhere

In her survey of the history of News from Nowhere, Mandy Vere notes that one of the most popular items that the shop sold in the 1980s was the pastiche of the poster for the film Gone with the Wind, in which Ronald Reagan sweeps Margaret Thatcher into his arms beneath a mushroom cloud with the strapline, ‘She promised to follow him to the end of the earth.  He promised to organise it.’ I still have the copy I bought there.

Reagan Thatcher Gone with the Wind poster

Gone with the Wind, both of them

In 1989, weary of the dilapidated, leaky and rat-infested premises on Whitechapel, the collective finally moved into a bright, refurbished shop on Liverpool’s busy, bohemian Bold Street with an even bigger range of books and a dedicated children’s’ area. But ten years later disaster almost struck: the arts organisation that the collective had been sub-letting the shop from had, it transpired, defaulted on the rent.  Now the property company wanted them out.

At this same moment, a health food shop down the road was closing down, and the owner of the site, rather than lease the shop, decided to sell the whole building for £75,000.  At the time this was an unimaginable sum for an alternative collective to even think about. But, an enormous public response to an appeal – and a mortgage from the Cooperative Bank – meant that the building could be bought.  The new shop was opened by Alexei Sayle.

News from Nowhere 6

Grand opening of the current premises in 1996

That News from Nowhere should have outlived nine other radical bookshops in Liverpool and survived in a period when more than a hundred similar bookshops have disappeared nationally is remarkable.  I can only pay tribute to the vision and dedication of Maggie Wellings, Bob Dent, Mandy Vere and all the other members of the collective who have taken the shop from strength to strength through the decades.  It’s a fine achievement and has been an enormous contribution to the political and intellectual culture of Liverpool.

One personal example of how important an independent bookshop could be in those far off days before the internet.  Soon after the move into the Whitechapel store, Rita had tried everywhere – unsuccessfully – to obtain the then-definitive collected works of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, published in America by Ann Arbor.  She sought Bob’s help, and – several weeks later – the edition arrived in the shop.  I think this is a story, too, about the excitement there was in getting hold of relatively obscure items – an excitement that just can’t be experienced in these times, when one click can get anything you want, instantly (mea culpa!).  While Rita was seeking out obscure Russian poets, I wanted a definitive triple LP of Charlie Parker’s Dial recordings that I’d seen in Amsterdam.  Geoff Davies at Probe Records, the independent equivalent on Clarence street of News From Nowhere, obtained it for me.  It took about six weeks – but the joy of holding in your hands something that you could have found nowhere else in Liverpool was indescribable.

News from Nowhere has survived against the odds in enormously difficult conditions for alternative booksellers and publishers, as Ross Bradshaw outlined in his talk.  There are new challenges to face now, not least internet competition and rapacious competition in book publishing that makes it hard to see how independent publishing can survive.  But, Ross Bradshaw concluded his presentation on a positive note, quoting these words, written by William Morris in The Dream of John Ball in 1888:

I pondered all these things, and how people fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.

Meanwhile, Many Vere ended her account of the shop’s story with these words from Bob Dent back at the beginning:

To help us create that better world which William Morris envisaged in News from Nowhere, we need ideas which counter the prevailing ideologies. Access to alternative, creative, radical ideas which help us challenge the different power structures of society is not a sufficient condition for changing the world, but it is a necessary one.

News from Nowehere Bold Street
The present News from Nowhere on Bold Street

See also

Wildness on the edge of town: an Edgelands encounter with Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

Wildness on the edge of town: an Edgelands encounter with Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

I went to the Bluecoat on Thursday evening to hear Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, authors of Edgelands, talk about how their book took shape, read extracts and answer questions from the audience that had packed out the performance space.  They form a great double act, these two northern poets, with Farley sometimes playing the cheeky scouser to Symmons Roberts’ thoughtful and elegantly rounded phrasing.

Edgelands explores the wildness on the edge of town – those liminal spaces passed through on the way somewhere else, ignored and untended places where an overlooked England exists.  The edgelands is the theme of the Bluecoat’s current Soft Estate exhibition to which this presentation was a complementary event.

Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director at the Bluecoat, began by introducing Farley and Roberts, both of whom are successful writers from the North West.  Paul was born in Liverpool in 1965 and (this was news to me) began by studying art – first at Mabel Fletcher College on Smithdown Road – a site now occupied, Bryan noted, by a branch of Tesco.  He’s published several successful volumes of poetry, as well as writing and presenting many radio dramas, documentaries and features. He is Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University.  Michael was born in 1963 in Preston, Lancashire, UK, and spent his childhood in Lancashire before moving south with his family to Newbury in the early 70s.  He has published two novels and several volumes of poetry: his 6th collection – Drysalter – won the 2013 Forward Prize and Costa Poetry Prize, and was short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize.   He is Professor of Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The pair began by launching into a slideshow to illustrate the origins of their collaboration on Edgelands.  The first slide up featured this cover of the 1950s Ladybird book What to Look for in Summer.

Ladybird Summer cover

‘For an entire childhood we wondered where the countryside actually was.’

CF Tunnicliffe’s cover illustration presents a classic image of the English landscape, imprinted on the conciousness of a generation of children, since these were the books by which we learned to read and know the world.  But, as Paul bluntly put it, as children they would wonder, ‘Where the fuck was this England?’  As the pair wrote in Edgelands:

For along while, an entire childhood in fact, we wondered where the countryside actually was, or even if it really existed.

Growing up on the edge of two cities – Liverpool and Manchester – in the early seventies, each had the experience of being able to follow paths across waste ground and along the fringes of housing estates to easily find themselves on the edge of farmland. But none of it ever felt like the countryside of the Ladybird books.

What they found instead were places of ‘possibility, mystery and beauty’: unwatched places in which children  and teenagers felt at home, built dens (in what was, according to Farley, ‘the golden age of den-building’) and pursued a largely feral existence.

Netherley

Paul Farley’s Netherley. ‘We were forever going on expeditions, sorties into a wilderness of drainage brooks, arable fields, sewage farms, disused railways: in today’s A–Zs, the white pages, the blank edges’.

Paul and Michael went on to talk about how they came to write the book, and how it gradually evolved into the form that it eventually took.  Paul recalled that the germ of the book came when they were discussing the essay by Marion Shoard, the eco-geographer, in which she first coined the term ‘edgelands’ to describe a terrain of ‘rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland’.  Paul recalled that Shoard had concluded with a call to arms:

It is time for the edgelands to get the recognition that Emily Brontë and William Wordsworth brought to the moors and mountains and John Betjeman to the suburbs. They too have their story. It is the more cogent and urgent for being the story of our age.

As poets in the English lyric tradition, they were fired up by this and decided to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Shoard.  Michael intervened at this point to make the observation that this all came about in a bar somewhere.

We decided to celebrate the vigour and diversity of these places that were so familiar to us, neither city nor country, wild or not wild, but the unnamed, ignored places which have a strange beauty all of their own. We planned research trips were planned to exotic edgelands locations.

Michael and Paul had often talked about these places – their first, childhood landscapes – before they were ever referred to as ‘edgelands’. In fact, they had both already written about them separately, either in poetry or prose. So our interests converged, and giving them a name just galvanized the whole thing. They began gathering material on the subject long before the decision to write the book was made. Apart from reinforcing each other’s interest and excitement, it was all pretty haphazard to begin with.

They talked about editing an anthology of edgelands writing, commissioned prose and poetry from writers they knew. They mulled over the idea of curating an exhibition of edgelands art having found that visual artists had been among the pioneers investigating the terrain (along with psycho-geographers, and poets such as Sean O’Brien, Jean Sprackland and Philip Larkin (who wrote, in ‘Church Going’ of ‘Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky, /A shape less recognisable each week, A purpose more obscure’).

But the more they talked, the more they came to realise that they wanted to author something together – in prose. Appropriately, they would meet at Tebay Services on the M6 in Lancashire. They eventually decided that the book could be shaped, not as the travelogue of a walk through the edgelands, but thematically, in categories, along the lines of books like Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, Roland Barthes’ Mythologies or George Perec’s Species of Space.

So, they explained, Edgelands came to be co-authored, editing one another as they went along, exchanging emails and computer files of their drafts. They decided to sink their individualities into a single voice – the ‘we’ of the book’s narrative, rather than, for instance, authoring alternate chapters.  As the book took shape they continued to meet at motorway service stations. The first chapter they completed was the one called ‘Water’ – which Paul and Michael then read for us, each voice alternating a page or two at a time.  This is Paul and Michael reading the chapter in a video made at Newcastle University:

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts reading from Edgelands at Newcastle University on Vimeo

I could listen to these two reading aloud for ever. It’s got a lot to do with something that they alluded to in the question and answer session afterwards: their deep-rootedness in the North-West, richly revealed in their voices.  Although, they said, they had explored the edgelands in various parts of the country, in the book they decided to limit the account to the Midlands and the North-West, avoiding London (which had, after all, already had its fair share of scrutiny).  Listening to Paul and Michael read I was made aware, far more than when I had been following text on the page, of how much of the book’s prose comes close to poetry.

So Edgelands was shaped by memories of the places here in the North-West where Paul and Michael have lived,  worked and known all their lives, with the result that many of the most memorable passages hinge on images from childhood memory, details such as a red plastic milk crate in a pond. Responding to one particular question, they acknowledged that during the writing of the book they had found themselves consciously resisting the pull of nostalgia (just as, when writing about aspects of the edgelands terrain, they had tried to resist producing more ‘ruin porn’).

They were asked what it us that fascinates about the edgelands.  Paul was quick to point out that this is an interest not everyone shares – ‘you either get it or you don’t’ – while Michael recalled their hilarious encounter with the  receptionist in a pallet yard:

‘A book?’

‘Yes, a book about the edgelands’.

‘The what?’

‘Pallets, it’s about pallets.’

‘What do you want to do?’

‘Look at the pallets in the yard.’

‘Just look at them?’

‘Well, photograph them and write about them.’

‘I can’t let you take photographs.’

‘Why not?’

‘I can’t authorise that.  You’ll have to spea to head office if you want to do that.’

‘We’ll just write about them then.’

‘What d’you mean?’

‘We’ll just look at them and write about them’.

‘Will you need to sit down?’

‘No, we can write standing up, thank you.’

The fascination which the edgelands exert for some of us has a lot to do, I think, with the sense that they constitute a zone of freedom, beyond restriction and out of sight of authority.  This is why children and teenagers tend to be the main colonisers of the edgelands, with their dens, graffiti and the litter of illicit smoking and drinking sessions.  (It’s also why fly-tippers and litter-louts like the edgelands, too.)

Farley and Roberts reminded us of another reason why the edgelands are interesting:they cannot be pinned down.  This is a terrain of almost limitless variability: compare the strict regimentation of the business park (where ‘anyone on foot is suspicious’) with the wildness of the edgeland’s wastelands, sites of decay which have a strange beauty all of their own.  And the edgelands never stay the same.  They are constantly in a state of flux, so that the litter-strewn site of an abandoned factory or patch of wasteland will turn out on a visit not much later to have been landscaped or transformed into a business park.

There is now a growing body of artistic work interrogating the edgelands terrain in poetry, painting and photography.  In writing Edgelands, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts have challenged the conventional duality of urban and rural that was a marked feature of writing on landscape. Their book reveals how edgelands can be found in many places, in the heart of our cities as well as on their fringes, and even along the verges of a motorway. I was struck by Paul’s observation – as he described how we drive past, or through, such places in a car – that at life-changing moments (such as a car crash, first kiss, or the birth of a child) the memory lays down ‘a thick, multi-tracked record’ that slows down time and preserves the experience.  Whereas, driving the same piece of road each day and seeing the same scenes pass at the edge of our vision as we speed onward, lays down a memory track so thin it lacks all detail. The edgelands may hold strong childhood memories, but they are also places where ‘our slipstream has created a zone of inattention’.

Next: we venture into the wilderness of north Wirral’s edgelands.

See also

Soft Estate: an inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime

Soft Estate: an inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime

Edward Chell, Eclipse, Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus Repens)

Edward Chell, Eclipse, Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus Repens)

I’ve been to see the current exhibition at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre.  Called Soft Estate, the title derives from a term used by the Highways Agency to describe the natural habitats that have evolved along the edges of motorways and trunk roads and which offer a refuge for wildlife and a modern form of wilderness in the midst of intense urbanisation and agro-chemical farming. The exhibition displays work by artists fascinated by the ‘edgelands’ – those familiar yet ignored spaces that are neither city nor countryside. Their works, like a walk through the edgelands, juxtapose beauty and pollution, wilderness and human despoliation.

The main focus of the exhibition is on the work of artist and academic Edward Chell who investigates contemporary motorway landscapes – quintessential examples of the edgelands, lovingly described in the book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness (in a related event on 6 February the two poets will be discussing the book and reading their work).

Edward Chell, M2, Medway services eastbound, 2008

Edward Chell, M2, Medway services eastbound, 2008

In the first room are recent examples of Edward Chell’s recent work that take the form of large, almost ghostly paintings in cream and grey.  They look like that because Chell has incorporated into their making road dust.  They have titles like Motorway Intersection, 2010 and Motorway Island, M62, J3, 2013 – because they are the places explored by Chell (with official permission and wearing a fluorescent jacket) before being portrayed in these large works that depict flourishing grasses and wildflowers with the hard surfaces of the motorway visible beyond. They have been described as combining ‘bleak nostalgia and dirty romanticism’.

Chell has spoken of motorway verges as ‘strangely forbidden zones, Ballardian spaces’:

You’re not allowed to stop there – if you do you’ll be picked up by the police within ten minutes! These are amazing landscapes – full of wildflowers – just really beautiful. Motorways are extremely hard and loud and dangerous, and yet, running alongside them we have these pesticide – free strips which offer us one of the few ‘wilderness’ places in England. There’s something like forty thousand hectares of this land – it’s been described as Britain’s largest unofficial nature reserve.

In an essay entitled The Garden of England, Chell explained how he came to be inspired to explore motorway verges:

I regularly drive from London to Canterbury and back and have done so for the last twelve years. This journey to my workplace in Canterbury takes me down the A2/M2, driving through the middle of what King Henry VIII described as ‘The Garden of England’. My experience of gardens is as quite places of stillness and reflection. The motorway greenery by contrast fizzes rapidly past the windscreen of the car, punctuated by familiar landmarks, signs and intersections. Other people leave and join in ordered succession while the familiar places just pass by, rapidly recede then dissolve in the rear view mirror.

One day, while waiting in a traffic jam I suddenly became aware of how still and vibrant the wildflower ‘meadow’ of the verge actually was. The banks were a varied and lush carpet of greens, broken intermittently by small shrubs, swaying flower heads and the clicks and buzzing of insects. These motorway embankments, which are seemingly part of the despoliation of the landscape, in fact act as biological corridors for some endangered wildflowers and valuable zones free of chemical pest control. This encounter triggered a realization of how these green spaces could act as a primer for minimally painted landscapes which speak of the disjunction between the man made and the natural environment.

These paintings allow us to glimpse a place rich and alive with wildlife, evoked by Chell as one of restful stillness. he makes us aware just how separated and isolated we are from these wild landscapes that we hurtle past in our vehicles. ‘There is a dystopic separation from the land immediately around us’, Chell has remarked, while in Edgelands Farley and Symmons-Roberts speak of Chell being drawn to ‘its inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime in its infinity’, a wilderness ‘as difficult to reach as sea cliffs’.

Edward Chell, Eclipse

Edward Chell, Eclipse

In another room I find Eclipse, a series of 60 silhouette paintings of plants and weeds that inhabit the roadside verges, painted on shellac in a way that brings to mind 18th century silhouette portraits of loved ones carried in lockets.

Edward Chell Eclipse 1

Edward Chell Eclipse 2

Here are plants with wonderfully evocative names: from Angelica, Bindweed and Buddleia  via Dandelion, Fat Hen and Freverfew, to Tansy and Teasel, Wood Anenome and Wood Groundsel, to Yellow Rocket.

Edward Chell Eclipse 3

Edward Chell Eclipse 4

Edward Chell Eclipse 5

One commentator has contrasted the way in which Chell’s work recalls the rational, scientific impulse to record and classify the natural world according to Linnaean rules with the ‘fragile, fugitive, ever-shifting ecosystems on which our existence depends’; or as Chell puts it:

For me these present a fascinating paradox – the motorway network presents a nightmarish vision of the asphalting of our green and pleasant land, but the roadside habitats also amount to an unofficial national nature reserve.

George Shaw. The Gamble

George Shaw, The Gamble, 2012

I’ve written here several times of my admiration for the work of George Shaw, familiar with his paintings – executed in Humbrol model paint – that speak  expressively of the landscapes through which we hurry each day, their elements so familiar that they become almost invisible to us.  The Bluecoat exhibition doesn’t have any of those,  displaying instead a selection of lithographs that have the same subject – the ragged edges of the Tile Hill Estate in Coventry where Shaw grew up and which he explored in childhood expeditions. These are neglected no-place locations.  There’s a shed, abandoned amidst saplings that have grown up around it (The Birthday); the blank entrance to a pedestrian underpass (suggestively entitled The Gamble); and a lonely track through trees on the edge of the estate (The Other Side).

George Shaw. The Birthday

George Shaw, The Birthday

George Shaw - The Other Side

George Shaw, The Other Side

The black and white prints emphasise the contrast between areas of light and deep shadow which lend the works a sinister and ominous ambience. The uncanny atmosphere is heightened by the fact that all of Shaw’s scenes are devoid of human presence. This gives them a feeling that something is about to happen, or perhaps has just taken place.

Day Bowman, Weymouth Portland series

Day Bowman, Weymouth/Portland series, displayed during the b-side Festival,  Portland

Nothing else in the exhibition approaches the insight or achievement of these two artists.  Day Bowman’s work explores the landscapes of Weymouth and Portland that are, like the motorway verges in Edward Chell’s paintings,  passed through and ignored. These are landscapes that can be found on the edges of any city, seen in fleeting glimpses from a car or train window or a departing ferry where quay, wharfs and rusting hulks loom large.  During the Olympic Games, as part of the 2012 b-side Festival in Portland, Bowman’s work appeared on advertising  hoardings placed on the approach  to Weymouth Station.

Laura Oldfield Ford M6 Junction 9

Laura Oldfield Ford, M6 Junction 9, Bescot6, 2011

Laura Oldfield Ford’s drawings on watercolour paper, made in pencil and chalk with acrylic ink additions, represent, in her own words, an ‘investigation into the marginal, a process of burrowing under the heritage version of England to uncover the repressed psyche of a land’.  The works on show here depict the urban wasteland beneath and around the M6 as it has sliced its way through Walsall in the Midlands.  Her work is displayed near to photographs by John Darwell, going under the series title of An Alloted Space, that depict scenes on urban allotments.  I could see nothing special or significant about these at all.

Hind Land

Tim Bowd and Nick Rochowski, Hind Land

All this time I had been exploring the ground floor areas of the exhibition, with the monotonous roar of the motorway ever-present.  Ascending the stars to the first floor it became apparent that what I had been hearing was the sondtrack to a projection and sound installation by Tim Bowd and Nick Rochowski called Hind Land, the result of the two photographers surveying the pedestrian walkways beneath London’s Orbital M25 motorway.  Locating points at which you can pass underneath the motorway on foot, they became fascinated by the voids left by the motorway as it carves through the landscape. The motorway, they say, ‘divides the countryside in two, leaving a visible and audible rip in the environment above the ground, and a no-man’s land beneath’.

No Way Out

Jan Williamson and Chris Teasdale (The Caravan Gallery), No Way Out, Thurrock, 2011

At the top of the stairs was a photographic print by Jan Williamson and Chris Teasdale called No Way Out, Thurrock which I found an amusing commentary on consumerism (as George Monbiot wryly comments in the Guardian this morning, ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores’).

Williamson and Teasdale are an artist partnership ‘interested in recording the reality and surreality of everyday life’.  They specialise in photographic essays which explore sense of place from a psychogeographic perspective and exhibit in their a mobile Caravan Gallery, as well as in galleries, empty shops and temporary spaces. Their Pride of Place Project aims to create thought-provoking exhibitions in collaboration with local communities.  Much of 2013 was devoted to Merseyside, with an exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.

Edward Chell Creeping Buttercup

Edward Chell, Creeping Buttercup

The final display of this exhibition once again showcases work by Edward Chell: a series of screenprints of wasteland plants that have been painted in oil and ‘micro-particulate matter’ or, as we might say, roadside dust.

Edward Chell Songbird

Edward Chell, Songbird, 2011

Finally there was Chell’s Songbird, looking like a motorway sign with words from a poem, ‘This Time of Night’, by Liverpool poet Andrew Taylor in white sans serif lettering on a blue background.

In an essay in the exhibition catalogue, Richard Mabey writes of how ‘nature’s irrepressible inventiveness – those wild, stretching limbs – invades the tidy plans of the architects’:

The un-treed stretches of motorway verges, apart from occasional scrub clearance and mowing for safety purposes, are pretty much allowed to develop as they will, and have turned into a great estate of feral grassland. A botanical survey of the M1 verges in 1970, ten years after it opened, found 185 species of plant had arrived of their own accord. In the following year, a colony of native columbines was destroyed during work on the extension of the M1 in Nottingham shire. Luckily the county naturalists’ trust had the foresight to collect seeds before the bulldozers arrived, and, with some poetic justice, got permission to grow them on in the grounds of a motorway maintenance depot. Later in the year the mature plants were transplanted to the motorway verges as close to the original site as possible. They are still there.

Mabey gives examples of the varied organisms whose habitats the motorways invaded but which have now become ‘part of the foreground of the motorway landscape’ – huge drifts of cowslips on the M4, Michaelmas daisies and golden rod, red kites, buzzards, rooks:

But it is a plant that provides a perfect parable of the motorways’ wild landscapes. it knits the traveller’s need for colour and structure at speed, and the opportunism of nature when faced with new, anthropocentric habitats. In the mid 1980s, colonies of a scarce coastal plant, Danish scurvy grass, began to appear along the edges of motorways and major roads, especially in the prophetically named ‘central reservations’. It’s a modest member of the cabbage family, but in late March these roadside colonies become so dense in places that they resemble a layer of deep and persistent frost. … Today there is scarcely a large road without it.

The only inland region it has failed to colonise is Ireland, despite the species being native to Irish shores. What is different about Irish roads is that no salt is added to the winter grit. There are many reasons for the plant’s spread throughout the UK road system – the turbulent slipstream of traffic whirling the seeds along; the similarity between its native strandline habitat and the stone edges of the road. But there is little doubt that the major factor is the saltiness of the modern road – that shoreline tang sprayed from gritting lorries on icy evenings even in the landlocked heart of Britain. Seen close to, Danish scurvy grass is an undistinguished plant. Streamed by at speed, it is a ribbon of dazzling white at the motorway’s grey edge, a traveller’s joy. I call it wayfrost.

Bluecoat preview of Soft Estate

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Gilad Atzmon at the Bluecoat

Gilad Atzmon at the Bluecoat

Orient House Ensemble

I went to the Bluecoat last night to see Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble drop by as part of their tenth anniversary tour, promoting the acclaimed new album, The Tide Has Changed.  It was, as would be expected from this superb band, a great evening of music that ranged from east to west, through klezmer, Palestinian, German oompah-band, jazz and classical sources.

As always, the huge personality and showmanship of Gilad Atzmon himself dominates proceedings – walking on stage he launches into one of his characteristic riffs about how last time they played the Bluecoat the place was packed, but tonight there are many empty seats.  What happened – did they die? After several more minutes of jocularity he asked: what will it be tonight – music or humour? Some called for politics to which Gilad responded that he could speak at length on the state of Israel – from whichever stance we preferred, since he had heard the arguments rehearsed so many times .

At last, the Ensemble launched into ‘And So Have We’ off the new album, a languid and gentle opener.  But after that, Gilad remarked, ‘I wouldn’t like you to get the impression that this is a quiet band.  It’s about to get very noisy’.  With that, they began to play the title track off the new album; ‘The Tide Has Changed’ opens deceptively as Frank Harrison strums the keyboard and Atzmon builds a tense, melancholy figure on alto sax. Then, suddenly, Atzmon shifts the mood with a staccato riff that signals the entrance of Yaron Stavi on double bass and Eddie Hick on drums. Now the Ensemble drive the piece forward ferociously.

Before the next number, Atzmon made some wry comments about the public spending cuts, announced that afternoon.  ‘The Arts Council is no more…at last us artists are free – free to support our music with raffles’.  He riffed on the this raffles theme for a while, then introduced ‘a raffles number’, which turned out be the hauntingly beautiful ‘Bolero Sunrise’, a variation on Ravel’s Bolero, and the track that, so far, stands out  for me off the new album.  It has the feel of Sketches of Spain.

During the evening Atzmon got in a few digs at the Bluecoat – commenting that the first time they played here was in a wonderful space that has now been converted into a restaurant in which, ‘like the old Soviet Union, most of the dishes were off’ and most of the seats were empty.  At another point, introducing Frank Harrison, he explained that he was playing a Technics keyboard (which, for most of the evening disappointingly sounded like a vibraphone) because the Bluecoat had got rid of the piano to make space for a cappuccino bar.

‘London To Gaza’ was clearly inspired by events in Gaza 18 months ago, and featured Yaron Stavis bowing the double bass to evoke ominous chords behind Atzmon’s plangent sax and Eddie Hick’s clattering percussion. Then there was  the quirky ‘All The Way To Montenegro’,  featuring Gilad’s on clarinet, and ‘We Laugh’, which had Gilad’s alto leading the band in a klezmer-like mprovisation that threw in ‘Salt Peanuts’ somewhere I recall. An old favourite, ‘The Burning Bush’ was reprised from the Refuge album, while ‘Re-Arranging The 20th Century’ off the Musik album was rearranged to become ‘Rearranging the Rearranging’.

Reviewing the new album for All About Jazz, Bruce Lindsay wrote:

Funny, eerie, romantic and intriguing by turns, this is a work of tremendous warmth and strength. Atzmon’s spirit and soul inhabit every one of his compositions, and his playing is truly exceptional, staking a genuine claim to being one of the finest saxophonists in contemporary jazz.  All four of the musicians are at the top of their form. Drummer Eddie Hick, who joined the Ensemble in 2009 at age just 22, is a fine replacement for founding-member Asaf Sirkis. Bassist Yaron Stavi—who, like Atzmon, is Israeli-born but UK-based—took over from original bassist Oli Hayhurst in 2003. He takes control of the music’s core with fluid, lyrical and, at times, darkly brooding playing. Pianist Frank Harrison, an original Ensemble member, is uniformly excellent.

That seems to me to sum up this performance perfectly.

Ten years ago I realised that beauty is the way forward. I saw that art is the true means of transformation. .. The tide has changed and so have we, more than ever, and in spite of all the odds, we laugh.

In the last decade I have managed to surround myself with some of the most incredible musicians around, people who push each other towards the edge of artistic creativity and beyond. I guess that the Orient House Ensemble’s motto is pretty obvious: relentlessly, we remind ourselves why we decided to make music in the first place. I thank the Gods for allowing us to proceed so far.
– Gilad Atzmon

Gilad Atzmon talks about the latest album

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Malcolm Lowry: an exhibition

I popped into the Bluecoat this afternoon to see the exhibition marking the centenary of Malcolm Lowry’s birth, Under the Volcano, which is in its last few days. I was glad I did – it’s an enormously interesting exhibition, featuring paintings inspired by Lowry’s work as well as memorabilia from Lowry’s Wirral and Liverpool upbringing collated by Colin Dilnot.

Malcolm Lowry (1909-57) was inspired by the Wirral of his childhood. His Merseyside youth informs his writing, and Liverpool, which he described as ‘that terrible city whose main street is the ocean’, continued to hold tremendous significance for him. Under The Volcano (1947) is considered one of the most poignant, poetic  and significant novels of the last century. Set in Mexico on the Day Of The Dead, the novel’s tragic resonance and insights into the struggle for creative expression have inspired many artists as well as writers. I read it decades ago – as a student – and only have a vague memory of the atmospherics – carnival noise in the streets and dark, alcohol stupefied interiors.  This exhibition has encouraged me to read it again.

The exhibition focusses on Lowry’s Merseyside origins and his international dimension. It reflects his continuing influence on artists across the creative spectrum – painters, filmmakers, choreographers and musicians, as well as writers and historians. I was impressed particularly with three impressive paintings by Edward Burra , a series by Julian Cooper and work by Adrian Henri.

Edward Burra

Skeleton Party

Extensive notes on this painting at the Tate

Edward Burra: Mexican Church

Extensive notes on this painting at the Tate

Notes on this painting at the Tate

Bluecoat programme notes:

Edward Burra (1905-1976) occupies a particular place in 20th century British art: represented in major collections yet remaining, like Malcolm Lowry, something of an outsider. He is best known for his satirical, often macabre paintings of 1920s and 1930s urban life, particularly its seedier side. He flirted with Surrealism and his allegorical works share some of its characteristics. Working mainly in watercolour, he imbued his art with ‘a feeling of tawdriness and the meretricious and yet, at the same time, (created) such convincing beauty’ (George Melly).

Despite constant ill health, Burra traveled widely, visiting Lowry in Cuernavaca in 1937, together with Lowry’s early mentor and their mutual friend, the American writer Conrad Aiken. On his return to England Surra painted Mexican Church, its composition based on two postcards of churches he’d visited, the cathedral at Taxco and Santa Catarina, Mexico City. Burra and Lowry did not get on, however both shared an interest in Mexican culture.

Burra was influenced particularly by the Mexican muralists and the prints of Jose Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913), whose depictions of lively skeletons had a profound effect, contributing to his interest in representations of death. Under the Volcano’s Day of the Dead theme is echoed in Burra’s other two paintings shown here. Dancing Skeletons, painted after a visit to Spain, anticipates his Mexican journey and immersion in the iconography of death. In Skeleton Party, completed nearly 20 years later, Surra returns to this earlier theme. Whilst the pyramid shapes on the horizon have been identified as slag heaps in an industrial landscape, they could equally suggest the twin peaks of Lowry’s Mexican volcanoes.
– Bryan Biggs Artistic Director The Bluecoat Liverpool: Under The Volcano; An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957

I love Edward Burra’s Harlem paintings. There’s a good selection of his paintings, including some of those, here.

Julian Cooper

Bluecoat programme notes:

The three paintings by Julian Cooper are from a series of seven completed in the 1980s entitled Under the Volcano. The novel was instrumental in the artist’s search to develop a kind of abstract painting using figurative methods, one capable of taking on contemporary experience in the way that Lowry’s novel does, with its intricate symbolism and a vivid representational surface. For Cooper the book ‘had everything. It was set in a landscape, it was outer narrative and inner narrative as well, it had lots of references to literature and cabbalistic religion – it had all the complexity of a Renaissance painting. ‘

Douglas Day’s biography of Lowry in particular, linking the writer’s life to his fiction, provided Cooper with a ‘layering of myth and reality. .. I see the novel now as quite prophetic in the way that its leading metaphor applies as much to an “economic growth” as to an alcohol addiction’.

Like Lowry’s writing, the paintings are meticulously detailed and create a real sense of place and time, an evocation of Mexico and the book’s setting. Each takes a particular episode from the book chosen for its self-sufficiency and symbolic power. They avoid being simply illustrative however, the structure and execution of the paintings echoing the complex layering of meaning found in Lowry’s masterpiece. Despite the specific references, the paintings are autonomous, requiring no prior knowledge of the book.
– Bryan Biggs Artistic Director The Bluecoat Liverpool: Under The Volcano; An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957

Adrian Henri

Bluecoat programme notes:

In his series of paintings and drawings, Adrian Henri (1932-2000) sets the Mexican Day of the Dead in contemporary Liverpool, populating Hope Street with a crowd including artists and writers William Burroughs, Alien Ginsberg, Frida Kahlo, Ed Kienholz and Henri’s Liverpool painter friend, Sam Walsh. In the main painting shown here the white suited, pipe-smoking figure on the far left is Malcolm Lowry.

Henri’s partner Catherine Marcangeli describes his interest in the writer: ‘He went to see the Day of the Dead exhibition at the Museum of Mankind, a visit that had immediate echoes with Lowry. He bought lots of paper-lace patterns, sweets in the shapes of skulls, and all manner of folkloric artifacts … when he painted the Day of the Dead years later those echoes were also mixed with a host of other references, the most important and obvious one being his own earlier painting, Entry of Christ into Liverpool, of which The Day of the Dead, Hope Street is a kind of new version, except that the “friends and heroes” are dead ones here.’

There are other echoes, of a visit Henri made to a graveyard in Lorraine on the Day of the Toussaint (All Saints’ Day in France, when people take flowers to the graves of dead friends or relatives), and of the eerie and sinister masks at the Basle Carnival.
– Bryan Biggs Artistic Director The Bluecoat Liverpool: Under The Volcano; An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957

Bluecoat programme notes:

For Cisco Jimenez, a native of Cuernavaca where Under the Volcano is set, Lowry’s book and his life continue to provide – 70 years after he stayed there – a barometer for measuring the expectations and failures of this Mexican town. For Jimenez the paradox portrayed in the novel repeats: the clash of the popular against the contemporary, tradition under threat from global changes and impositions, and the failure of utopianism (colonial utopias, the social experiments of the 1960s, the neoliberal policies in the 1990s).

Jimenez’s mixed media sculptures make playful reference to Lowry’s life: his drinking (Two Atoms Connected), golfing prowess (Necklace), and in Peddler the imagery and folkloric aspects of Under the Volcano, whilst AK47 Barroca is indicative of the artist’s concern with the contradictions and violence of the everyday in Mexico.

‘Cuemavaca is no longer what it used to be. What remains are tourism and opportunistic “cliches” of the quiet and colonial past – multiple thematic hotels and restaurants for wealthy foreigners and visitors from Mexico City, and real estate speculation. Nature has been covered over with tons of concrete, and the last old mansions with their majestic gardens are slowly falling down, giving way to massive condominiums (which we call “condemoniums”). You face such disaster every day’.

Echo review of the exhibition:

Malcolm Bradbury described Malcolm Lowry as having a “curious internationalism”.  That is what has perhaps led him to be less well known in his home city than he might have been, and is also what the Bluecoat has attempted to reflect in this new exhibition marking the centenary of his birth.  Those who do know of Lowry will probably have read his magnum opus, Under The Volcano. But few will be aware that the author of what has been described as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century was born the son of a Liverpool cotton broker in New Brighton.

In fact, there are many intriguing aspects to the man who was a writer, golfer, nomadic adventurer and inveterate drinker (alcohol caused his death at 47).  The Bluecoat’s two-month celebration of all things Lowry includes the publication of a new book, From The Mersey To The World, the screening of John Huston’s film Under The Volcano starring Albert Finney, and music written by poet Ian McMillan. At its heart, however, is this exhibition of artwork and film inspired by the writer and covering not simply his life in the Mexican town of Cuernavaca (where the novel is set on the Mexican Day of the Dead), but also his fascination with the Isle of Man, his time in New York and his spartan existence in Canada.

It turns out to be perhaps one of the most satisfying exhibitions held recently at the Bluecoat, mostly because while it features disparate artists, it has a pleasingly unified central theme – they all share a fascination with Lowry. Adrian Henri’s vibrant Day Of The Dead In Liverpool paintings sit alongside works from Julian Cooper’s Under The Volcano series, Cooper’s images redolent of Hockney or Hopper.

There are also a series of intricate Under The Volcano-themed prints by Chilean artist Jorge Martinez Garcia, while the Tate has loaned the gallery watercolours by Lowry contemporary Edward Burra which (despite his apparently disliking Lowry) also feature the skeletons so prevalent in day of the dead iconography.  And, most fascinatingly of all, there are never-before-seen telegrams, borrowed from Liverpool Record Office, charting the highs and lows of the globetrotting writer’s hectic life.

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