The poet who saved St Pancras station

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Copyright: Hufton & Crow

St Pancras station, London. It’s many years. I had forgotten just how huge it is. The exterior is now impeccably maintained and inside there are clean brick walls and arcades of shiny, stylish boutiques. I wander around marvelling at the elaborate Victorian architecture and the massive iron vaulting of the train-shed roof. In its day, it was known as the cathedral of British Railways and would have been full of the noise, smoke and steam of the great trains of that era.

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On the upper level of the concourse, I find a wonderful bronze statue of my very favourite poet, the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjemen (1906-1984.) He is depicted as a friendly, academic, rather paunchy figure in a well worn three piece suit with tie askew and coat tails flapping. He has to hang onto his hat to gaze up in awe at Barlow’s girdered sky. He foregoes a briefcase for a canvas hold-all in which, I imagine, there are reams of paper with all sorts of lines about seaside golf and Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. He looks like such a nice old guy. I am sure that a conversation with him would have been a life-enriching experience. Here, he stands on a flat disc of Cumbria slate inscribed with lines from Cornish CliffsAnd in the shadowless unclouded glare / Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where / A misty sea-line meets the wash of air. 

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Betjemen was fascinated by the architecture and railways of Victorian times. In the 1960s, a plan to demolish St Pancras station was unveiled. He referred to this as “criminal folly.” He is now considered instrumental in the campaign that saved this great London landmark. In 2007, when the station became the international terminus for Eurostar, the sculpture was commissioned as a tribute to him.

This beautiful and touching sculpture is the work of Oxford-based Martin Jennings. His figurative style has led him to undertake similar public works of other great names including Charles Dickens and Philip Larkin. His subjects are not exclusively from the literary world, he has also commemorated in bronze the lives of two people who in different ways have advanced care for people wounded in conflict; namely, the Jamaican-born nurse, Mary Seacole who assisted wounded servicemen in the Crimean War and the World War II plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe.

On leaving St Pancras, I notice that a bar in the corner is called…. guess what….. “The John Betjemen”! To be remembered by a fabulous public sculpture and to have a bar bearing one’s name is a double honour. Then I guess you merit both if you wrote wonderful poems and saved a station.

More Geneva cave paintings!

One of our readers, Sari Setiogi, has photographed and curated a fantastic collection of Geneva cave paintings on her Instagram. Which one do you like the most?

Nuts in Marrakesh!

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I arrive at the Sofitel in Marrakesh. I am here for golf! Helpful porters haul my luggage and clubs into a sumptuous lobby. The welcome is warm. The receptioniste is charming. To help me through the formalities of check-in, she offers me a glass of refreshing green tea. A plate appears at my side with cashew nuts, pistachio nuts and little sweet coconut cakes covered with almond nuts. Lots of nuts! I am shown to my room. It is charming and comfortable. I relax on my small balcony. On the small table are some peanuts. More nuts! In the distance, I hear the call to prayer. Allah-U-Akbar!

Something caught my eye at the hotel entrance. I have to go back and take another look. I stare up at a magnificent black bull with bright red testicles. I can’t help being amused as such an overt display of masculine gonadism might be just a tad out of place in this town.

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This is the work of French designer, painter, sculptor (and golfer!) Alain Gerez. His sculptures are particularly popular here and many of them make manifest a rather naughty sense of humour. This big black bull is a bald, tongue-in-cheek tribute to testosterone. The beast seems to dance with Y chromosome-driven joy. His left horn, blood-stained, has just done in the matador that tormented him. Poor dumb animal that he is, he doesn’t realise that the meatworks await him nevertheless. His only present thought is that, free of his tormentor, he can now waltz off to give his cows a good licking and then fill them with the output of those two great swinging red orbs.

Testicles: the family jewels, balls, bollocks, knackers and, of course, nuts. Whatever, I can’t help suspecting that Monsieur Gerez finds great amusement in his contribution to the variety of nuts in Marrakesh!

Art Geneva 2017 opens on a frozen lakeside

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Geneva’s waterfront is blisteringly cold. A bruising north wind still blows off the water after last night’s storm. Swimming is definitely forbidden!

Well, it’s that time of year… but, exceptionally, it’s -6 degrees. Some hardy souls struggle to set up the fabulous lakeside big-sculpture extension of Art Geneva 2017 that opens next week. What I see enthralls me; imaginative, meticulous and outsized beautiful stuff.

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A massive white orchid turns away from the dull grey waves. Despite its pure glacial whiteness, it is delicate and bi-sexually erotic. I search in vain for a little plaque bearing the name of the master-sculptor.

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Just a hundred metres away is a  timber-diamond construction with windows (as yet unattributed). Again, somehow this gels with the subzero settings. I feel I am invited to climb into the mineral heart of this absurdly large wooden gem for shelter and to peer out. An after-thought arrives; whilst inside, I might even be able to make it roll in a semi-circle by a kind of lop-sided hamster-wheel effort.

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Really! How do people think these things up? I can only admire the fantasy-addled mind that created this three-chimneyed hobbit house with its five rooty entrances. If I was rabbit-sized I would hop in without doubt. What I love about it is that the invoked fantasy places me as the in-dweller observing today’s vicious elements from behind the thick glass of a ship-style port hole that, with arrival of the year’s first warm days, could be opened for the spring clean. Brilliant!

After ten minutes my frozen hands can no longer take photographs. I head for cover in a nearby café. I trust other works will appear when the weather permits. Give it a few days and take a stroll by the lakeside. Just admire the creative spirit behind this stuff! Wrap up warm!

Cave paintings in the twenty-first century?

Isaac calls me. “Hey, buddy, what going on with the advertising spaces in Geneva? Half the billboards are just covered with plain white paper. People have started to paint on them.” I grab my camera, hop on my bike and head into town.

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My first stop is right outside the University Hospital. Brilliant! This rapidotriptych by p2 recalls those ubiquitous questionnaires. So…. after your visit to hospital, were you unsatisfied, more-or-less satisfied or very satisfied with your treatment?

It’s cold. I freewheel down to the Plain Palais area.

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I find a bit of inner warmth in this rather beautifully designed rainbow-love-eye. Next to it is RZINO’s grotesque zombie face.

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This is fascinating. I think it most likely that an ad agency has gone bust and not having material to stick up has simply painted its billboards white. I’m a sucker for street painting but there’s always the reasonable debate whether such work is beautiful stuff or vandalism. In my view, if someone leaves open white spaces like this all-around town, then those shadowy figures armed with brush or spray can would reasonably see this as an invitation to set about their business. It’s difficult to call this vandalism; my pendulum of judgement swings towards beautiful stuff.

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This is by “Charles drawin'”?? Clever! Is his work the outcome of natural selection? Charles has been busy; he has covered about twenty billboards. His slick, rapid brush strokes hang between abstract and the figurative. Here, I sort of see a lady running in billowing skirts with a dog hurrying along beside her. I’ve seen less interesting stuff in the most exclusive of galleries.

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And take a look at this! @CRBZ.TYPO has covered the white with mat black and then overlain sumptuous interwoven arabesque golden curves. I am reminded of the liveries of exclusive Middlle-Eastern airlines. Amazing to encounter this “on the street.”

I head over to the other side of town. I find two billboards taken over by half a sun.

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In orbit around our blazing sun are three planets. The blue planet (Earth), the red planet (Mars) and what is obviously a bigger Saturn. A lonely little voice says “Allo”!? reflecting our constant search – or hope – for some kind of cosmic life-form that, we believe, will understand our greeting and respond appropriately. I also love the little random splashes of blue paint. A little bit of chaos theory thrown in?

What is happening on these cold white ad spaces is really exciting. It has a raw appeal. It’s straight from the guts. At the same time, much of it is technically accomplished. (It beats the edndless ads for health and beauty spas, visiting circuses, luxury watches and political parties.) What makes this different from other “art forms” is that it results from people doing their beautiful stuff unbidden and unpaid. Many of us would not even recognise it as “art” (whatever that might be.) I reflect on some aboriginal rock paintings I saw last year in Australia and, in turn, all those famous cave paintings that cause such excitement. So, here’s the question: If there’s no element of vandalism, does filling these empty billboards represent a primal human urge to leave a mark for others? A mark that indicates what I see, what I fear, what I hope for or what I believe in? Are we looking at the equivalent of cave paintings in the twenty-first century?

Maybe other readers of Talking Beautiful Stuff have taken an interest in what is happening on our streets? Have you got photos of other billboards that you think we should see? Send them to us. We’ll try and find your favourite, contact the modern cave-painter and do a feature on his or her work.

Before you go….. look what stared out at me from the shadows as I waited for a tram last night!

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