The poet who saved St Pancras station

St Pancras station 1

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.

St Pancras station 2

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.

Nuts in Marrakesh!

Nuts 1

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.

Nuts 2

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!

The 2016 Turner Prize Shortlist: Baffling, Brazen, Banal and Beguiling

Turner 1

Michael Dean

I pluck up courage to visit the exhibition by the four shortlisted candidates for this year’s Turner Prize. I am not sure that anything I have to say is relevant. This is, after all, one of the most prestigious international visual arts awards; it specifically celebrates new developments. Unsurprisingly, it is probably the most controversial as well; especially since that bed business. But Tate Britain asks visitors for their opinion. So, here goes!

I ask the helpful staff member personning the entrance if it’s safe to go in there. She laughs. She is well used to the occasional barbed comment; this is about as contemporary as it gets. We chat. She assures me that there is nothing a five year-old could have done. It’s my turn to laugh. She has a preference but feels she should keep this to herself for fear of prejudicing my visit. She agrees to tell me when I come out.

Turner 2

Helen Marten (Photo: Martin Godwin for the Guardian)

The first space is given over to work stations each housing a construction by Helen Marten. They are bizarre and baffling. However, their placement is careful. Their construction is complex and heterogenous in source material, colour, texture and form. I am drawn in to examine them minutely. The close encounter is gratifying.

Turner 3

Helen Marten

Despite a steampunkish feel, there is, at the same time, something quiet about Marten’s work. It is proportioned. It is unthreatening. It does not confuse.

Turner 4

Anthea Hamilton

The next space is lined by brick-wall-paper. In one corner, a matching suit is suspended on a hanger. Whilst trying to assimilate this easy-on-the-eye juxtaposition, I turn around…….

Turner 5

Anthea Hamilton

On the opposing wall, drawing sniggers from other viewers – one of whom who was kind enough to take a direct sub-anal stance for scale purposes – is…. well…. description is superfluous. It is, apparently, a direct take-off of a 1970s proposal by designer Gaetano Pesce for a doorway into an apartment building in New York. The back door?

Anthea Hamilton’s space is brazen. It provokes a reaction, for sure. My problem is that I am aware that my reaction feeds off a latent schoolboy sense of humour. I struggle to find aesthetic appeal. Is this important? Despite my years as surgical registrar on the proctology unit of University College Hospital, London, I want to by-pass the self-pulled-apart buttocks (‘Ere, Doc, take a look at this!) I want to look away. The cocktail of amusement and discomfort is unique. I feel a creeping embarrassment that, by appreciating it as contemporary “art,” I might become a figure of ridicule. I harbour a forlorn hope that somehow, the trousers of the suspended suit behind me are pulled up over this supersized bum. I would love to know if this paragraph represents mission accomplished for Hamilton.

Turner 6

Josephine Pryde

The next, more modest space is taken by Josephine Pryde. It is something of a relief. It also, I am sorry to say, leaves me a bit flat. In the centre of the room is a model train. I read the Turner Prize text. “The New Media Express in a Temporary Siding (Baby Wants To Ride) is a scale model of a Class 66 diesel locomotive and carriages in DB Schenker livery. The carriages are tagged by graffiti artists from the cities in which the train has previously been exhibited…”

Turner 7

Josephine Pryde

On the wall Pryde has hung a series of closely cropped photographs of well-manicured women’s hands. Each image shows the hands in contact with, for example, clothing, a book or a mobile phone. I read that “our attention is drawn to the point at which the body and the object meet and to the gestures the hands perform.” I’m struggling.

One more space to visit and I am not sure I have yet seen my new friend’s preferred work. And then, as I edge myself into the next space, it is obvious (and is later confirmed when I leave.) I am in Michael Dean’s beguiling white-out-scrap-heap-alphabet-jungle. I am confronted first by tight angry cement fists impaled on a coiled steel reinforcing rod. I feel an immediate little burst of outrage; about what, I am not sure. I squeeze around the margins of this mesmerising jumble of discarded materials. From a visual perspective, I cannot help be drawn into it.

Turner 8

Michael Dean

I am captivated by four standing slats of corrugated iron. Each has two holes near the top. These eye-holes transform the slats into a dull humanoid family whose feet are planted in a thick layer of coppery glittering grit. I move in for a closer look. The grit consists of thousands upon thousands of one-penny pieces. That feeling of outrage is finding a focus.

Turner 9

Michael Dean

The title of this work takes some beating: “United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and two children: twenty thousand four hundred and thirty six pounds sterling as published on 1st September 2016″ This annual subsistence sum is represented here by 2,043,600 pennies. In fact, there is one penny less. When installing the work, Dean removed one coin meaning that the family has to get by on one penny less than the poverty line.

I later ask myself if I am qualified to judge these works and commit my judgement to e-print. One internal voice tells me this would be unwise; I am not swimmer enough to plunge into such controversial waters. Another voice tells me that not so many people are prepared to take the plunge and I may swim as strongly as anyone who is. Whatever, here’s my judgement for what it’s worth. Dean!

Anywhen: live report day 2

Yesterday’s experience of Anywhen stays with me overnight. I can’t help thinking that, ultimately, what Phillippe Parreno is doing is playing with our absolute desire for certainty in our lives. I decide to give it another go. And so, at 11.45 today, I return to the famous Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Sombre base non-melodic music greets me. And…..  Wow! A helium filled fish drifts by. Children leap in excitement. Adults point their iPhones.

Anywhen day two 1

I take my place on the carpet. I sit down among a hundred others. Amazingly, most are under twenty years old.

11.50 The music continues; it increases in volume. The lights go up. The suspended screens perform a little vertical shuffle with squeaky mechanical noises.

Certainty. It is essential for our mental and social well-being. We look for it in our daily routines, in the sun rising, in religious beliefs and in statistics. The seemingly random happenings in Anywhen deprive us of any certainty in our immediate surroundings. I hear a voice behind from a young lady “I guess it’s all about anticipation!” I guess it is.

11.55 The lights go down again. More music. Some people leave. Others arrive; they wonder why everyone is lying on the carpet. I make a new friend.

Anywhen day two 2

12.04 The ventriloquist lady (Nina Conti) and the cuttlefish-squid are back on the screen.

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12.10 She asks “Who is the master? Who is the slave?” My fellow viewers (experiencers?) are drawn into the hypnotic log-curve forms of the fish.

12.25 I look behind. Everyone has a mesmerised expression. A huge chaotic noise rolls down the hall. A hundred school children arrive in hi-viz vests. This, I assume but without certainty, is not part of Perrano’s “immersive” creation.

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12.32 Lights flash. A woman screams “Attention!” Electronic bips and burps. Then silence. Microphone feedback squeal. “Grass!” an android voice shouts. “Rain!”

12.36 The screens descend but only partially. More people drift in expecting the show to begin. I am certain that this is far from certain. I harbour a little smug feeling that I can anticipate their disappointment.

12.38 Right on cue. The lights come on and the screens are hauled back up. Everyone stays. Scratchy recording of folky guitar song.

12.39 Very noisy airplane swoop. Some of us duck in a startled way. Another fish swims by about two metres off the floor. A young girl tries to catch it.

Anywhen day two 5

13.01 Only electronic sounds. Nobody seems bored. Some snooze. Some kiss. Some check their snapchats, instagrams and whatsapps.

13.10 Nothing new to report. Feeling hungry. Feeling also rather happy I came back.

13.11 Total silence. Surprising.

13.15 I try to examine my very mixed feelings. I remain intrigued. I am not disappointed. Thanks to the others around me, I am far from bored.

13.20 I conclude that Anywhen is a remarkable experience. It seems the uncertainty that this concept serves up appeals to younger people. Perhaps this is because modern life is so full of … well…. certainties. Who knows for certain? Sorry about yesterday’s blog post, Tate Modern. Bravo, Monsieur Parreno!

13.25 Lunch.