Thursday, April 28, 2011

"If I Could Find Anything Blacker Than Black, I'd Use It"

Two days ago, my reputation as a member of the middle class intelligensia was almost in tatters.

It started innocently enough. I was talking about the Royal Wedding with some people from North London and unthinkingly remarked that I thought that Kate Middleton would make a lovely queen. Obviously this was the wrong thing to say. If you are a Guardianista, you must regard the Royal Family and everything they do as an absurd and rather vulgar anachronism. I had committed a thoughtcrime.

Luckily, I got away with it. My companions thought that I was satirising the cap-doffing attitudes of Middle England and laughed politely, unaware that my statement was free of any irony or cynicism.

"She'll be a lovely queen."

But the whole sorry episode weighed heavily on my conscience. I knew that I had committed a major transgression and only an act of atonement would enable me to look my fellow cognoscenti in the eye. But what? A box of organic vegetables or a bottle of artisan-made balsamic vinegar wouldn't be enough this time. I had to perform the Hadj.

The following morning, I began a long, difficult journey of pilgrimage to Margate, home of the newest contemporary art gallery.

Margate was once a promised land for the working classes. Families could escape from the drudgery and, sometimes, squalor of their daily lives and spend a couple of weeks in a fantasy world of music hall shows, fairground rides and sunshine:

But the two weeks passed too quickly and then it was back to the unlived life. For many Eastenders, the dream was that one day they would go back to Margate and never leave, spending their final days breathing fresh air. The whole town was fuelled by working class dreams (although, incongrously, Eliot wrote the third part of 'The Waste Land' here: 'On Margate Sands. I can connect nothing with nothing').

The last time Margate really buzzed with life was in the 1960s, when mods and rockers terrorised the bank holiday crowds:

Then the package holiday arrived. People quickly realised that for the same amount of money they could have a holiday in Spain, where the sunshine was almost guaranteed. Like many so British coastal resorts, Margate went into a long, slow decline, beset by high unemployment and under-investment.

Which brings us to the present. How do you revitalise a depressed area? Industry is no longer an option and the dreaded 'retail park' may create a few hundred jobs (if you can persuade retailers to set up in a town with no money), but it's a Faustian pact which ultimately does more harm than good to the local economy.

The only answer is to attract more middle class people into the town and the best way of doing that is to build an art gallery.

Once, the notion that an economically depressed town could be revived with an art gallery (and a modern art gallery at that!) would have sounded absurd, like something out of Sim City, but the evidence is irrefutable.

The phenomenal success of the Tate Modern, which opened in 2000, has shown that contemporary art is far more popular than many people believed and the last decade has seen an unprecedented number of successful gallery openings; many in very unlikely places. When these galleries opened, people were suprised by how quickly new businesses started to appear.

This was the rationale behind the Turner Contemporary in Margate. It wasn't a universally popular idea - many locals would have prefered a leisure centre - but the gallery had some very vocal supporters, including local girl Tracy Emin:

(If the Royal Family met with an unfortunate end, I would quite happily install Tracy Emin as the next queen of England)

Like all great building projects, the plans and budget for the Turner Contemporary underwent a number of revisions and compromises, but thanks to the tenacity of its supporters, the gallery was eventually opened earlier this month by Emin and Jools Holland.

From a distance, the Turner Contemporary is underwhelming, but the gallery is more impressive as you get closer:

Designed by Sir David Chipperfield, the Turner Contemporary boldly faces the sea. Some have questioned the logic of placing a valuable art collection in such a vulnerable position, but the building feels very solid.

I was pleased to see that the steps were packed with visitors and as I walked through the entrance, I was struck by how the building was already buzzing with energy, less than a month after opening:

This atrium is hugely impressive - a wonderful use of space involving mirrored walls and this stunning view of the sea:

I wasn't completely convinced by the steps up to the first floor. Inspired by Turner's enigmatic last words, which could have meant either "The sun is god", "The son is God" or "The sun is God", this all looked a bit like something out of art college:

But I liked the next exhibit. I tried to read what it was all about, but there were so many people in the gallery I became distracted and decided to read more on the gallery's website when I got home, but oddly there doesn't seem to be much content about the exhibits.

As far as I can tell, it's a mural of work by young people from Margate and reflects on the town's past, present and hopes for the future:

I wish that I'd read the blurb more thoroughly.

This section contains the great Turner quote "If I could find anything blacker than black, I'd use it."

At this point, I should explain (for anyone who is blissfully unaware of the Turner Contemporary) where Turner comes into the story. This is from the gallery's website:

“Where therefore, and in this very town of Margate, he lived, when he chose to be quit of London, and yet not to travel” John Ruskin

Turner’s connection with Margate was the founding inspiration for our organisation. He loved Margate for the sea, the skies, and his landlady Mrs Booth.

He first came to the seaside town aged 11, having been sent by his parents to school in Love Lane in Margate. He returned to sketch here aged 21 and from the 1820s onwards became a regular visitor.

Visitors who are expecting a collection of Turner paintings will be disappointed. There is only one picture in the collection, although the gallery hopes to remedy this. Admittedly it's a pretty impressive painting, but did it really need a 'tensabarrier' in front?

This installation looked promising:

Inside, there is a collection of backlit engravings of Margate. It's a nice, contemporary take on the traditional 19th century engraving and the images are really good, but unfortunately it is impossible to look at them without seeing a reflection of the works on the wall behind. It's a great pity and I'm surprised that nobody has done anything about this (a simple black curtain across the centre would solve the problem).

This remarkable installation, by Conrad Shawcross, was far more successful:

In the art world, people are forever talking about 'the space' as being almost as important as the exhibits and in general, I'd agree. The Turner Contemporary is a fantastic 'space', but there's just a little too much of it. I would have liked to have seen some more exhibits. There is clearly some work to be done (including the amount of content on the website), but the gallery has got off to a good start.

At the moment, to coin Dr Johnson's description of the Giant's Causeway, the Turner Contemporary is "worth seeing, but not worth going to see", at least, if your journey is longer than a couple of hours. It took me over three hours to make the 90-mile trip from Lewes.

On the plus side there's a nice cafe in the gallery and it's only a matter of time before a succession of chi-chi resaturants and shops appear in this nearby road:

The future definitely looks brighter for Margate. Sadly, this will be the last new gallery in Britain for the foreseeable future.

Even if the Turner Contemporary doesn't have enough exhibits to justify a day trip, there's plenty to see in Margate and if you prefer your resorts to be a little more genteel, Broadstairs is only a couple of miles away:

I've never been to this part of Kent before and was impressed by the number of quirky, interesting buildings, including the original model for 'Bleak House', which towers above the beach:

Charles Dickens was a big fan of Broadstairs:

I had obviously come on a quiet day:

As Dickens might have said, "I searched in vain for a fish and chip emporium that was open for travellers and instead, decided to embark on an agreeable perambulation of the town's environs".

The alleys and back streets revealed many eccentric features, like this nautical gate:

It goes without saying that I am a big fan of 'David Copperfield', so I didn't miss the chance to visit the house which was owned by the model for Betsey Trotwood and now contains the Dickens Museum. It's strange to think the young Dickens sat in this very room:

The museum was a little disappointing. Apart from a few letters written by the author, it was mainly a collection of Dickens-related ephemera (with no pictures of Steerforth), but with an entrance fee of around £3, it was still worth a visit.

I finished the day by having a brief drink in Deal with an old schoolfriend. He has just joined a French punk band and told me some hilarious stories, which would be a whole blog post in itself. I know that he hates anything to do with blogging and social networking, so I will shamelessly steal his anecdotes.

After our drink, I began the ridiculously long journey back to Lewes. At first I resented the fact that it took over three hours to make a 90-mile journey, but on reflection, if we had more motorways and better rail links, everywhere would turn into commuterland.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tower Power

Last year, my mother-in-law was struggling to think of something to buy me for my birthday and asked if there was anything that I particularly wanted. There wasn't. I live in a small house that's under permanent siege from an army of plastic toys and DVDs - one more thing would only add to the clutter. But I still wanted a present.

Then I realised that what I needed was an experience, not a possession. I knew that my mother-in-law had just enjoyed a private tour of the Tower of London and asked if she could arrange one for me. I'd been to the Tower once as a child, but the sight of hordes of badly dressed, bumbelt-wearing tourists had put me off making a return visit.

A private viewing was the perfect solution.

The tour was booked for last Wednesday and I can't stress how satisfying it was to walk past the long queue of tourists and have a Beefeater lift up a rope to let me in. Queue jumping is a petty, slightly malicious pleasure that plays to my vain conceit that I'm a cut above the hoi polloi (I know I'm not, but it's fun pretending for a few minutes).

Once we were inside the Tower complex, I was struck by how separate it felt from the rest of London, as if we were in an independent city state like the Vatican, with only a tenuous connection to the present. Everywhere we looked, there were reminders of the Tower's sad, brutal history.

I knew about some of the more famous executions: Thomas Moore, Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, but this anecdote was new to me:

'In 1541, it was the turn of the 71-year-old Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, whose offence was being the last surviving member of the Plantagenet dynasty, overthrown by the Tudors. The Countess refused to place her head on the block, and had to be chased around the green by the executioner, who hacked her to death.' (From

If you like your historical buildings to be a bit "Hey-nonny-no", where you can almost hear the sound of lutes playing, I'd recommend Hampton Court Palace. The Tower of London is all about power and retribution. Initially built to dissuade the English from rebelling against their new masters, it is now said to be the only building in London that would still be standing in a thousand years if we all suddenly became extinct.

At one point my mother-in-law turned to me and said "Well, you must have one and a half blog posts here." But I haven't. What can you say about 900 years of history that hasn't already been said?

One of the highlights of the visit was seeing the tomb of Sir Thomas More, which is in the crypt of St Peter ad Vincula. The crypt isn't open to the public and I was told that very few people are allowed to see it:

I was going to start writing about how much I admire Sir Thomas More, but I quickly realised that the entire basis of my knowledge comes from watching Paul Schofield in 'A Man For All Seasons', so it's probably better to shut up. However, it is a very good film and this final scene is very moving:

The other highlight of the visit was seeing Henry VIII's suit of armour, with it's absurd codpiece. Apparently, in the 16th century, it was fashionable to accentuate the male features (but mitigate the female ones):

This Cylon-style armour was made in the 1540s, when Henry had put on a few pounds. But there were also other suits of armour from the days when Henry was the svelte renaissance prince who composed 'Pastime with Good Company'. It was the first and last time a member of the Royal Family wrote a chart hit.

If you're not familiar with the song, here's my crude, two-part arrangement:

Not a bad tune is it? Sorry about the performance.

Once we'd seen the armour, we decided to give the Crown Jewels a miss and decamp to the nearest pub. As I nursed my thirst-quenching pint of Amstell, I reflected on how lucky I was to be born in a more civilised age.

Just as I thought this, a City banker entered with a much younger woman who clearly wasn't his wife, and found a discreet booth where they couldn't be spotted by any colleagues:

We may not hack elderly duchesses to death, but greed, lust and betrayal still have their part to play in London life.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

RIP Elisabeth Sladen (or Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith)

I was really upset to hear this evening's announcement that the actress Elisabeth Sladen has died at the age of 63, after a long (and well hidden) struggle with cancer. I suspect that a lot of people of my age, who were children in the 1970s, will mourn the death of 'Sarah Jane'.

It's strange how we can let so many tragic news stories wash over us, but feel genuine grief when a much-loved television presenter or actor from our childhood dies. I suppose it's not just because we feel an affection for them, but also because they were part of that secure wall that protects us from the uncomfortable reality of our own mortality. Every time a well-known figure from the older generation dies, the wall weakens and the world becomes slightly less familiar.

The following clip shows Elisabeth Sladen's final scene in Doctor Who (until she revived the character of Sarah Jane Smith 30 years later). It's particularly moving now and also shows what a great actress she was, portraying a character that was both ballsy and vulnerable at the same time:

But it won't just be people of my generation who'll be upset. Elisabeth Sladen's career underwent a spectacular renaissance four years ago with the 'Sarah Jane Adventures'.

What am I going to tell my sons?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

After the Edwardians

Yesterday, another photograph album appeared in the office. Almost as if it was continuing a narrative, the photos began in the Edwardian age, where this recent post ended.

The people featured in these images are more solidly middle class, but their story is no different to last week's family. Born in the Victorian age, they grew up in the cosy complacency of the fin de si├Ęcle, unaware of the catastrophe that was about to change their world.

In these photographs, it is the women's fashions that are the most telling indicator of social change. The contrast between the impractical, 'feminine' outfits of the Edwardian era and the more austere, utilitarian clothing of the 1920s is striking. It's as if 50 years have passed rather then ten.

When my father died I inherited a lot of papers, including an unfinished family history project. I probably won't complete it, as my family isn't terribly interesting (even to me), but I did gain an important insight into the impact the First World War had on my ancestors. Reading between the lines, it was quite clear that my grandmother had had a nervous breakdown after her older brother went 'missing' after the Battle of Loos. It was never acknowledged as a breakdown, but she was unable to work for six years.

Much has been written about 'shell shock' but what was the psychological impact on a generation of women who lost brothers, fathers, husbands, sweethearts and friends? (I think it's time to read 'Testament of Youth')

In the meantime, here are the photos:

This woman features in many of the pictures. I like her intelligent, enquiring face and clear eyes. She looks like someone who would have been worth meeting. I wonder if our lives overlapped?

Her she is as a teenager:

This is a wonderful picture of three generations and I felt that it deserved to be enlarged:

I know exactly how the girl feels, but I now also empathse with the father. I like the way the grandmother is ignoring the photographer and continuing to write her letter.

If I had a time machine, I'd type in the coordinates of this scene and join them. I particularly like the straw hamper and boater.

This genetleman seems remarkably sanguine, given that he's sitting directly undernerneath a raw sewerage outflow pipe.

This Wild West picture was turned into a postcard. On the back, it mentions a photographic studio in Clapham. As usual there are few names, dates or places in the actual album (I never discovered the name of the woman), but I found one reference to a street in Raynes Park. By a strange coincidence, their family home was in the same road as my father-in-law's house.

This photo reveals the gulf between the older and younger generations. I wonder, which of these men returned from the Front?

This man is named in the album as Harold Duncan-Teape. A quick Google search reveals that he was a major in the 4th battalion of the London Regiment of the Royal Fusiliers during the First World War. According to another reference, from the Illustrated London News, Duncan Teape died in Croydon on October 23rd, 1929.

The fashions are clearly different in this photo - less florid and more practical, striking a stark contrast with the clothes of the previous decade.

I have no idea what this occasion is - the first Rembrance Day, perhaps?

'Uncle Jim'

This isn't a young David Cameron. Apparently he's called Ian. The young woman's name isn't mentioned, but I expect she's called Pam.

Here's Ian again, enjoying the nautical life. It looks like a cruise ship, but I suppose it could be Bournemouth Pier.

We like to complain about the sexualisation of children these days, pressurised by the media into growing up too soon, but what about these girls, forced to dress up as 'flappers'? I'm sure they'd rather be riding ponies and solving mysteries.

By now, the stuffy world of the Edwardians has vanished and no-one stands still long enough to remain in focus. And isn't that Ian in the background, enjoying it all?

I don't want to over-egg the 'World War One as an agent of social change' pudding - Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto was published in 1909 and the evidence suggests that the First World War was a sympton rather than the cause. But if the status quo had remained, would Western society have undergone the huge seismic shift that took place in the 1920s?

The album ends in the late 1940s. The woman with the beautiful eyes lost her looks and became overweight, Uncle Jim disappeared into the ether and the group photographs suggest that the Victorians were no longer around either. But there are lots of photos of children playing and laughing, breathing new life into the sleepy suburb of SW20.