Category Archives: Creativity

Leaving it all behind

I never thought I’d do it, but here I am, writing my first blog from Devon.

Leaving London after living there for more than 50 years was a wrench.

Having said that, I don’t miss the dirt, the crowds or the noise (all of which have increased over the years). Of course, I miss having galleries on my doorstep (or being able to go to one on a whim) and being able to go to the cinema without making it a planned activity based on bus timetables and what’s on. I miss living at the centre of national and international politics and debate. Big BenAnd I miss being able to shop for anything I’ve forgotten when I feel like it. I also miss some of the individuals I got to know (although many of them live, or lived, far from the centre of the action).

But, much more than generally speaking, life down here in Devon is far better than life up there in London. For one thing, the air is cleaner and it’s a great deal better to be woken by the squawk of seagulls – even though they still look bad-tempered and sound as if they’re laughing at me – or by the trilling of other birds than it is by the wail of sirens. I could do without the sound of the sea washing the pebbles clean each time it rushes out, instead of the swoosh of tyres on one of London’s wet main roads. But I can’t say I’d swap one for the other.

If I were many years younger, I would no doubt think differently. I would want  something going on all the time; clubs or discos to go to nearby, more young people my age around and willing to do much the same things. But, as an older person, the quieter life down here is just what I want. Goodness me, I can even shop in peace and buy The Guardian!

Doing what they said

Of course, I’m not the only one leaving things behind.

Donald Trump promised much in his campaign, pedalling a brand of patriotic rhetoric that got him elected to the highest office in the so-called free world. But he’s dealing in international pragmatism nowadays. Hell (as they say over there), he’s even stopped talking about building a wall.

Theresa May sat so firmly on the fence during 2016’s European referendum debate, refusing to say which side she was on, she must’ve hurt herself. It must be the reason why, today, she wears an expression of permanent pain whenever she extols what’s become known as ‘a hard Brexit’. She even has to peddle the same line as those she was supposedly against.

No, I don’t miss any of what I left behind. I can pick and choose what I want to pay attention to. I can even follow the fortunes of my favourite top-of-the-pile football club! And I will, eventually, be able to live the life I want to, once all the material things to do with moving have been sorted out.

It was a good move. Maybe even one I should’ve made some time ago. But, ‘there is a tide in the affairs of men’.

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Art and the age of invention

In the London art world at least, 2014 may well be remembered as the year of the old men.

Three of Europe’s most influential artists – Henri Matisse, JMW Turner and Rembrandt van Rijn – have all been honoured with major exhibitions at the capital’s Tate Modern and Tate Britain galleries, and the National Gallery.

Whether by coincidence or collusion, these three shows have focused on work produced in the artists’ later years.

But that’s not the only thread that draws them together.

For me, the most astonishing thing about all these exhibitions has been the sheer invention on display.

Cutting edge

Matisse was old and infirm when he began to create images using scissors and paper.
Matisse-The-Parakeet-and-the-Mermaid-1952

Yet his mind was quick and his hands as strong and deft as ever.

Working at an incredible speed – and often far into the night – he produced images that, in many ways, have come to define his life’s work.

His version of The Snail, which hangs in Tate Britain, is probably one of his best-known works; famous for often evoking the retort: “My five-year-old could’ve done that!”

But Matisse wasn’t five. He was a very old man, confined to bed, or at best his wheelchair, unable to see the real world around him, yet driven to create and – critically – to experiment with new techniques.

And determined, too, to fill his world with images of joyful life and playful fun, as The Parakeet and the Mermaid so aptly demonstrate.

A man gone mad

Turner was another who, in his later years, broke free from anything resembling the chains of convention – which he always railed against – and, in his sixties and seventies, produced some of the most remarkable images of his entire life.
Joseph-Mallord-William-Turner-Paintings-Whalers-Boiling-Blubber-Entangled-in-Flaw-Ice-1846
So extreme were his ideas about light, and so seemingly perverse his use of oils and watercolours, many contemporary art lovers believed he had not so much lost the plot but suffered a complete disconnect from his senses.

Today, of course, when we see a painting like Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves, which Turner produced when he was 71, we know we are looking at the work of a man who, far from being mad, was still trying to push his medium to its limit; still wanting to show us the sensations of the world rather than its mere surface.

The Dutch master

Born 169 years before Turner, and dead exactly 100 years before Matisse was even born, Rembrandt van Rijn never stopped experimenting.

How much he influenced the other two is open to question.

But, if nothing else is certain, he should have been a role model of determination and invention.

rembrandt.1661Here, in this late self-portrait, he is experimenting with the effects of light and paint on a flat surface, working with the very stuff of oil and pigment to create an image that says: “I may be old, bankrupt and out of fashion, but I’m not finished yet. See, I can still draw circles!”

If we are to take anything from these three remarkable exhibitions – and there is much to enjoy and savour in reflection – it is this: that age never diminishes the creative spirit and infirmity cannot destroy the will to communicate ideas.

Matisse, Turner and Rembrandt have not only been role models for the thousands of painters who have followed them, but also for us all.

At the end of this, the year of the old men, we should remember that vigour and imagination, skill and dexterity, truth and vision are attributes and virtues to be valued and striven for, right to the end.

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The chips that flew the Atlantic

We had exchanged emails and knew something about each other, but nothing had prepared me for the welcome I got in Bloomfield, Prince Edward County in September.

Wood turner Paul Ross and his wife, Lynne, are both small people. But their hearts are huge, their smiles wide, her soups delicious and his handshake as firm as the grip you’d expect from a man who spends his days steadying his chisels as they cut into the fast-turning pieces of maple chucked onto his lathe.

Drawn together by 26 Atlantic Crossings, the three of us spent several hours over the weekend of the Prince Edward County Studio Tour, swapping notes on everything from how to learn a craft skill and make a living from it, to the life and wines of this very pretty Ontarian county.

On more than one occasion, our animated conversations were lubricated by some of the product under discussion.

Beauty in wood

The piece Paul had made for what turned out to be our shared Atlantic Crossing was as delightful to see in life as it was unexpectedly beautiful to touch.Star Bound

It had taken days, weeks and even months of drying, hollowing, turning and decorating to create this very special, smooth-as-silk Star Bound urn, which I had been asked to write about.

As I visited other artists taking part in the Tour, I learned of other endeavours that had stimulated creativity and, in some cases, tested patience and challenged confidence.

The astonishing blue bridge-like item, made by Kirei Samuel of Lalaland Glass Studio from fused glass fragments, involved ideas and techniques that, Kirei told me, had no precedent.

“I went out of my mind trying to figure out how to make it”, she said. “And I was well and truly out of my mind by the time I’d finished it.”

I wasn’t out of my mind when I left Prince Edward County, but there’s no doubt that my sensibilities, like Paul’s maple, had been turned.

My few days in Ontario showed me that, with a little endeavour and a lot of skill, anyone can chip away at life’s obstacles and turn their ideas into tangible objects worth crossing the Atlantic to see.

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What’s in a word?

Words are a strange phenomenon.

Tall or wide, they sit there on your screen, or lie there flat on a page in front of you, doing nothing.

Strangely, for all their inherent meaning, they have no third dimension.

Yet, as we know, strong words can leave you feeling admonished; powerful words can be very uplifting.

You’ll hear stern words if you’ve committed a misdemeanour.

A pain might be eased by soothing words.

Or you could be left feeling abraded by harsh words.

Your first words may have been things of joy and wonder for your parents.

Their advice on life might’ve been wise words.

If you’re lucky, you’ll never hear a cross word.

And a few well-chosen words are often more useful than any number of random words.

At times when you’re down you can be lifted by kind words.

And a few loving words will almost certainly make you feel good.

If you’re close to death, someone might record your last words.

And that could be the end of this idea.

 

 

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A transatlantic adventure with a wood turner

As anyone who’s crossed it will tell you, the Atlantic is a very big ocean. I know, because I crossed and re-crossed it as a merchant seaman.

But my most recent transatlantic adventure has been quite different.

Not for me the ocean’s harsh, wet, winter winds and wild waves. Cocooned in the comfort of my own home, I’ve been travelling through time and space, trading ideas and information with a Canadian wood turner whose creative skills make maple sing.

Paul Ross and I were brought together by ’26’, a writers’ collective that numbers me amongst its many more than 26 members.

A unique marriage

Together with 25 other arts, crafts and wordsmith pairings – all given a similar job in various media – Paul and I were tasked with marrying his manipulation of maple with my ability to respond to his work with a literary construct of exactly 62 words: a sestude.

Separated as we are by three-and-a-half thousand miles, it seemed an impossible task.

But hey, we live in a technological world!

Emails flew. Questions were posed. Answers returned. Concepts were revealed and ideas were latched onto. A relationship was established.

As the days passed, Paul’s ‘Star Bound’ became my sestude. The task was completed.

Between us we had united our skills and created something utterly unique: an object made of wood and finished with thread, married to 62 carefully chosen words knitted together in exactly the right order.

A course stayed

Unlike my earlier Atlantic crossings, this has been a different kind of adventure.

At times, I thought I was losing my way. I couldn’t find my compass and – changing course too often – it seemed as if I was headed for oblivion.

But Paul’s ‘Star Bound’ was constant. I had only to return to its substance and explore its mysteries to find a way to my destination.

You can see the results of our journey, and download  a free copy of the resulting book featuring all twenty-six connections, at: www.26.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/26AC-ebook.pdf

Sadly, the delightful video shot at a recent exhibition held in Picton, Ontario, has been taken down by The Wellington Times. Maybe they don’t keep things on their site for long. If so that’s a shame, because I think you would’ve enjoyed it.

I will be in Ontario for the upcoming Studio Tour; a weekend when Prince Edward County’s creative community opens its doors to the public.

It’s bound to be a lot of fun. Much more so than weathering a January force nine in the middle of the Atlantic.

 

 

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Camera or canvas? Which conveys the truth?

There’s been a lot of debate over the past week or so about the amount of money spent by the British parliament on works of art.

Many of those making the most noise have complained that the reported £250,000 handed out since the 1990s – about £10,000 a year on average, unless my math is haywire – has been taxpayer’s money.

One of the points I picked up was that, so far as the politicians’ portraits are concerned, someone believed that photographs would’ve been cheaper than paintings.

I have to say I haven’t heard such a misguided view for quite a while!

Where’s the power?

Photographs might’ve cost less but, with the exception of the memorable portrait of Winston Churchill created by Karsh of Ottawa, and perhaps one of two of Margaret Thatcher, I cannot recall any that convey the truth of any politicians’ character, personality or dynamism.

Most say no more than the average corporate mugshot taken for an annual report.

Painting, on the other hand, is a much more searching medium.

Look at this portrait of Tony Blair, for example. Tony Blair PortraitPainted by Phil Hale in 2007, it shows a parliamentarian reaching the end of his time in office, possibly exhausted by the rigours of Prime Ministerial responsibility and perhaps contemplating the winding down of one career and the start of another.

But look at it more carefully. To me it shows a side of Tony Blair that no photograph could ever capture.

Yes, he could be described as contemplative. But I think it goes much deeper than that.

Blair looks like a man full of uncertainties; a man wondering about his key political decisions and executive actions, who has doubts about the rightness of some of his choices.

What this painting also reveals to me is a man who I believe for years projected the idea of his personal certainty by constantly displaying an up-beat appearance and an almost manic enthusiasm for global politics that bordered on messianic zeal.

Not for nothing did the cartoonist, Steve Bell, light upon Blair’s one “mad” eye as his most telling characteristic!

What’s the truth?

For me, the setting, the pose, the expression – indeed, the whole painting – shows a man uncertain of his truth.

Blair was, after all, a public-school-educated leader of the Labour Party, which is something of a contradiction in itself.

He claimed to be the working man’s MP, but is known to have admired Margaret Thatcher.

He believed he had the right prescription for all Britain’s ills, but provided some catastrophic medicine that, at times, made the patient suffer even greater pain.

He was loved when he came to power and loathed by the time he left office.

Ultimately, this image seems to be that of a man asking himself: “How will I be judged?”

And I have to ask: “Could any photograph capture – and convey – that so effectively?”

I have to say I doubt it.

Photography may lay claim to be the medium that never lies, but painting searches for and finds truths that might otherwise remain hidden.

Even Tony Blair might agree with that.

A postscript

Blair always pointedly refused to sit for artists while he was in office. This portrait was commissioned towards the end of his tenure. Hugo Swire, who chaired the committee that appointed Phil Hale (a Boston-born American artist who lives in London) said at the time that he chose Hale because he was impressed by his portrait of the composer, Thomas Adès, which hangs in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery. You can see more of Hale’s work at Allen Spiegel Fine Arts. Go visit!

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To blog, or not to blog?

That is the question.

Whether ‘tis nobler on the screen to be arrogant or amusing, blithe or bellicose; to chatter or chastise, denounce or deify, entertain or elucidate; to fulminate or flatter; to be gay or garrulous, to harangue or be hilarious; to imitate or invent, be jocular or jealous; kingly or kind, laughing or lachrymose; to be mirthful or morose, neither nasty nor nice; obstreperous or oily, prattling or precise, querulous or quirky, ranting or reticent; to be sonorous or silent, threatening or timid, uxorious or unfaithful, vain or venomous, witty or wilful, x-rated or xanthic; to yatter or yowl or be zealous or zany.

Thus the lexicon of language doth make ditherers of us all and cloud our minds with fogs of indecision as enterprises of great import and endeavours of no account slip away on streams of words propelled by emboldened others compelled to comment on all the seas of troubles and cataracts of mirth that constitute our life this while.

In truth, there is no right answer.

To blog is not to live but to merely comment on life.

Not to blog is not to die, but simply remain silent while all around the noise and clamour of more raucous souls deafens the world to what may be gained by quiet reflection.

Here endeth the blog.

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Over-working the hard-working

“If I hear that expression once more, I’ll scream”.

So said my partner, a few weeks ago.

Thank goodness she was speaking figuratively, otherwise I’d be deaf by now.

The phrase she hates with such passion, and which I’ve come to loath in equal measure, is “hard working people”.

We hear it all the time these days.

Politicians from every party constantly talk about “hard working people”, as if they’ve identified a special group in society – the hard workers – that they want to identify with.

How many times have you heard David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg, David Milliband, Ed Balls and a host of others say they’re “on the side of hard working people”?

Britain’s Tories quite clearly are. The phrase is splashed all over their current party conference.

Even President Obama used the phrase in a recent discussion about the value of Obamacare. Apparently, it’s for America’s hard working people everywhere.

What I want to know is this?

What’s the difference between hard working people and people who just work? Even people who just work hard?

Do we all have to be grafters employed on production lines to fit into the group and get the benefits? How dehumanising could that become?

Do we all have to have fingers worn to the bone by hard work? How painful would that be?

Must we spend endless hours slaving at work we’d rather not do? How much stress must one person bear?

Are our noses to be worn smooth by constant contact with the daily grind? Where’s the fun in that?

Can’t we have just a little bit of fun, even at work?

Must we always be working so hard?

A joyless life

It seems to me that, if we’re all expected to be so “hard-working” in order to reap the rewards offered by the politicians – the tax breaks, the mortgage deals and so on – we’re likely to lose something along the way.

We’ll all be so exhausted we’ll have nothing left to give to our lives outside work. No time. No energy. Nothing.

Creativity will wither, unless someone’s paying for it. Why would anyone create anything just for it’s own sake?

Family life may suffer, unless one works hard to find a sane balance. How much energy will be left for that?

Joy may become just a woman’s name.

Because everything in life will be governed by whether or not it – or the person who’s done or made it – qualifies as “hard-working”.

I’m sorry, but I don’t subscribe.

I’ve never been afraid of hard work; not ever in 50+ years of near-continous employment.

But I hate being expected to join the ranks of the “hard-working” just to remain part of the government’s thinking.

And I suspect the government’s thinking centres on how much tax it can harvest from “hard working” people rather than how much joy it can sow in the hearts of the country’s careworn population.

What a miserable, over-worked “hard working” lot we may become!

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Big it up for Elmore

Jackie Collins has two big things: big hair and big sales.

She’s also revealed that she’s a big fan of the late Elmore Leonard, who died on August 20 2013.

Writing in The Guardian she says: “I am for ever a fan”.

That, at least, is something she and I can share.

What I don’t quite agree with is her response to Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.  Only three of them appeal to her: “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly”; “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things”; and “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”.

Perhaps what Collins is missing is that Leonard’s rules were for him and for people who wanted to either write like him or at least write for his chosen genre.

I don’t think he was suggesting they were universal.

Interestingly, Collins makes no mention of Leonard’s earliest work as an advertising writer. Nor does she say anything about how he believed that – as a writer of fiction – he should be invisible in his work.

These two things are related.

Speaking as an advertising writer, I know how important it is to remain anonymous. If anybody’s going to be identified as the author of an ad, it should be either the client or the product, not the copywriter.

My reckoning is that Leonard carried this through his entire career.

It may not be what makes Collins, me and countless others such big fans.

But it points the way.

He was – and always will be – a big influence on anyone who wants to write originally.

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The ties that no longer bind

Rummaging through some stuff the other day, looking for something else, I came across a photograph of myself, taken in 1950 at the first school I ever went to.

Nothing unusual in that, of course. We’re always finding things we didn’t expect when we’re looking for something else.

No. What struck me about the image was that, even at the tender age of nine, I was wearing a tie.

A couple of days later, a friend of mine emailed some pictures he’d turned out while he was rummaging through some of his own stuff.

They were of him and me, and me on my own, and dated back to the early nineteen-fifties. Once again, I was struck by the fact that we were both wearing ties.

What was even more intriguing was that, in the short time it had taken me to graduate from primary school to grammar school, I’d figured out how to look sharp.

I’d even learned how to tie my tie in a Windsor knot!

A dandified stylist

In those days, the Windsor knot was de rigueur for dandies.

And, boy, did I fancy myself as a dandy! I even turned my droopy shirt collars inwards and upwards, to mimic the shape of the sharp, cut-away versions worn by society’s fashionable elite.

All this fancy fiddling came to an end when, at the tender age of thirteen, I went to a pre-sea training school and spent the next three years dressed as a small but nimble able seaman in Her Majesty’s navy.

No ties in that uniform, sadly, but plenty of opportunities for razor-sharp trouser creases, fancy-dan cap-ribbon bows and jaunty-angled cap wearing to keep me happy.

It was much the same when I joined the Merchant Navy.

The only ties that offered much joy were the black bows required for dress uniform. So I quickly learned how to tie my own. There’s class!

In the mid-1960s, I left the Merchant Navy and went to work in the City where, if I thought about it at all, I imagine I’d expected everyone to be dressed the same. And probably in drab.

Not a bit of it. To my great surprise, I discovered an entirely new set of uniforms.

I soon learned to recognise old school and regimental ties, and to distinguish between a discount broker and a stock broker. The former wore a silk top hat, the latter often wore a bowler.

But most intriguing – even exciting – was the joy of personal ties. I encountered striped ones, spotted ones, tartan ones, psychedelic ones and plain ones in slim, wide and even kippered versions.

Good grief, I even bought some Liberty fabric and made some of my own!

I was in tie heaven.

The advent of the trademark

When I left my job in the City and finally found my way into advertising, I soon discovered yet more liberties to take with ties.

I took to wearing bows bearing patterns.

I’d haunt the halls of Harrods at sale time, scouring their displays for ever more outré offerings.

I drew the line at the county set’s dogs and horses, looking instead for ideas born of original thinking.

Eager as I was for examples of creativity, I have to admit some of the patterns didn’t bear much thinking about!

Nevertheless, bows – the ones you have to tie yourself – had become my trademark. And I loved them.

I could even be seen sporting one as I cycled to work.

A passing identity

In the late 1980s, when I left my job as Creative Director of a somewhat sadly and eventually badly managed advertising agency and started working as a freelance writer, I was still wearing bow ties.

Perhaps, in a changing world, I was clinging to the last vestiges of my working identity.

Maybe I was simply still trying to be different.

All I know now is that, when I look around at today’s world, it saddens me to see so few men wearing ties.

And even fewer wearing bows.

I shouldn’t carp for, these days, I seldom wear one myself.

But, when I do, I feel – not trussed or buttoned up as some might think – simply more complete.

Like anyone else wearing any kind of uniform, I feel more composed, more grown-up, more responsible. Even, dare I suggest it, more authoritative.

All of which raises an interesting question for me: does the demise of the tie, and the shedding of so many uniforms we used to respect – doctors’ white coats, teachers’ black gowns, bus drivers’ peaked caps – signify some kind of diminution of societal responsibility?

Are we, in becoming less formal in our dress, becoming less formalised as a society?

As we loosen the knots around our necks, are we casting off the ties that used to bind us together in coherent, organised groups?

Or is it – as has been so often said of late – that society is becoming increasingly divided along its old class lines and – in the choice of wearing or discarding ties – we’re seeing a resurgence of the split between the old boy brigade, who still wear ties and cling to uniform habits, and their counterparts, the hoi polli who, the brigade might say, know no better than to tear about tieless?

A knotty problem

Of course, there’s nothing sinister in being seen tieless. It doesn’t mark a man out as a bad hat.

But it does worry me when I see male journalists on television, standing in some august setting, reporting on a serious subject in an open-necked shirt that doesn’t fit very well.

They seem to lack authority.

I’m not suggesting reporters should be made to wear evening dress – which used to be the case for newsreaders when television was young – but I do think it would be better if they were dis-encouraged from looking as if they’ve just got up from a deck-chair on Brighton beach and wandered into shot.

Perhaps the answer is quite simple.

Those who like ties, or have to wear them, should exercise their choice or play by the rules. Those who don’t shouldn’t or needn’t.

So long as I can wear one when I feel like it, I won’t get into a knot about it!

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