About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Monday, 23 December 2013

Filthy rich cities drive creative types over the edge

Fascinating piece on the baleful influence of the super-rich on the cultural life of their favourite cities on the Al Jazeera website this week.

Sarah  Kendzior's article quotes Patti Smith's advice to young would-be artists and musicians thinking of coming to New York City to kick off their careers. The advice - quite simply - is, "Don't!" She and another ageing musician of punkish origins, David Byrne, make the obvious point that cities like New York and London have become "unliveable" to all but the richest one percent. Everyone else is there on sufferance to serve the needs of the super-rich, and then to fuck off back to their miserable ordinary little lives in the outer suburbs.

We've had strong versions of these arguments many times before - recently with that last UB40 generation in the early 1980s, that end-of-the-dole-queue poet era, when you could live in a Brixton squat one week and the next be presenting some new Channel 4  arts prog.

In those days, there were still cheap bits of London that penniless arty-types could flee to. Once Camden and Notting Hill became too pricey, they moved East sand colonised Hackney, SHoreditch, Bethnal Green and Bow.

And now that these areas have themselves become plums in proerty developer portfolio, so the struggling arts types shift to south-east London, Peckham for example, or north-east out to Hackney Wick and Walthamstow.

We've also had the "Occupy" protests in London and other cities.

But Ms Kendzior's piece goes well beyond these anger-fuelled attacks on the new rich and the bankers, the property-billionaires. She digs deeper into the meaning of creativity, and why cities - which once were fertile breeding grounds for artistic movements - are fast becoming the reverse of this.

In NYC there's a company, Sitters Studio, which hires out artists to work as sort of cultural nannies to the children of the most affluent - "This is the New York artist today: A literal servant to corporate elites, hired to impart "creativity" to children whose bank accounts outstrip their own."

The vile reality is that "creativity" in the plutocratic circles of these world cities is encouraged, or at least tolerated, if it can be seen as a useful commodity, one that might help their kids make even more money in business or the professions.  They love creativity when it is applied to accounting and tax bills.

But when it comes to taking risks, or to attacking the values on which the moneyed depend, their attitude to "creatives" can change very quickly. All this media talk about "edgy" fashion and movies and music, well it only goes so far. They love "edgy" when it  makes them look smarter and sexier than their peers, but only when does not threaten their wealth.

But if - as say in the case of a Hirst dot painting or an Emin bed - edgy can earn them handsome profits at auction, then bring it on!

Friday, 13 December 2013

When a novel sucks you in

If you read much recent fiction you'll sometimes get that feeling that - yes, that is exactly right, I have been there, this is precisely how I felt, I know this place, I know these people.

It first happened when I was reading  Geoff Dyer's autobiographical novel The Colour of Memory.
There's a bit where he's describing a sunset over Acre Lane, Brixton, and I imagined myself cycling in the opposite direction, from Clapham and into that exciting exotic world that so many of us wanted to inhabit, back then in the early 1980s.

That was a book that was making me kick myself every other page - why hadn't I written this, or something like it?

Reading John Lanchester's London blockbuster, Capital, I'm getting even more hyperlocal vibrations, in fact at times I feel like I am trapped inside the book. The sensation is there in a way that it is not in many other novels based partly or wholly in this part of south London, simply because he makes it clear exactly where most of the action is happening. And most of it is within a quarter mile of where I am sitting now.

With its cast of multi-ethnic characters - from the posh white Anglo-Saxon bankers to the Polish builders, the Hungarian nanny, the Pakistani shop-keepers, the Zimbabwean refugee traffic warden - this novel could seem a little too obvious.

It has one of those spiralling or tessellated plots, with a fragment of one plot line laid down on top of the part of a previous one, building up to some strong false climaxes. It's based around such stock London subjects as greedy city types getting their comeuppances in the 2008 crash, mistaken arrests of Asians  under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Banksy-style street art pranks, car parking, the curious world of premier league footballers and their managers, etc.

So yes, it is a bit clichéd - and you can find similar cast-sheets in the big London novels of the past decade , including two Zadie Smiths, one Alan Hollinghurst,  Blake Morrison's South of the River , etc -- but its got a lovely rolling plot-line that keeps you reading.

Though perhaps if you're not a Clapham resident the urge to read on to find out exactly which street Pepys road is based on will be lacking. The amount of research Lanchester must have undertaken is impressive - or perhaps he just lives here. He must have visited the hospice up the road (Trinity Hospice) and its sister church on the Common, Holy Trinity.

He gets most things absolutely right; maybe it's stretching it a bit to suggest a 17-year-old Senegalese football prodigy would relax by listening to Fela Kuti, but then again, why not - his dad might have introduced him to the Black President way back.

It's odd how these patches of the city have been so thoroughly trampled over by writers, though. The Common is a character here just as it is in Green's End of the Affair or Nell Dunn's Up The Junction.
You start thinking about what book Penelope Fitzgerald must have been writing in her study in Alma Road while Angela Carter was blending Clapham and Camberwell for her magic toyshop. Clapham often features as the low-point residence in a number of writers' ;lives - Sylvia Plath, Greene, Natsumi Soseki - and it is certainly no longer offers much in the way of a hospitable climate for the impoverished literary exile.

Just plenty of juicy and venal subject matter for highly clued-up writer-reporters like John Lanchester.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Doing nothing

"Doing nothing is a profession. It's very hard."
Maybe the hardest thing there is…"
Marguerite Duras
The North China Lover, 1992

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Me and the Bialetti family: the love just keeps growing

Summary for the impatient: You want a nice cup of Italian-style coffee and you don wanna spend £2+ at some high street costa-bucks? Simple answer: buy a pack of Lavazza Espresso ground coffee (£2.50 or so at Tesco etc) and a Bialetti (or rip-off) 2 or 6-cup Moka Express machine for between £15 and £25 at John Lewis or Italian delicatessens all over town. Or even cheaper at TK MAxx sometimes.

You will get the strongest home -brew coffee, a perfect espresso in 5 minutes. If you need frothed milk spend another £10 or so on the cappuccino maker. Or just whisk boiling milk.

What you must not do is buy any of those mini-Gaggia style electric coffee bar machines for £200+, they might be good if you have friends round every day for coffee and you need to impress but they are hard work and need to be kept very clean. They are simply not worth the investment unless, as I say, you make more than 8 cups a day, every day.

NB - if cost  or flavour is a factor steer well clear of Nespresso and similar capsule-based espresso machines. These are basically money-making scams like razor-blades and printer inks. Yopu pay through the nose for these little capsules and you don't get the pleasure of choosing either the blend or the roast or the grind of your coffee, nor how much you pack in. It's nothing to do with the real thing. If you are tempted then just stick with Costa, at least it gets you out of the house. And  if you think a cafetiere will make you decent coffee, then pass on by, you are reading the wrong blog.
Now, to the autobiographical, totally unnecessary, bit.

Let me tell you about a thirty-five year love affair between a lanky lonely English man and a silvery, shiny, steaming hot Italian legend.

I first met members of the Bialetti family in (what seemed to us) the rather grand and stylish home of our English teacher. It was the long, glorious summer after our  O-levels and this elderly teacher had offered my friend and myself money to re-decorate his "book room".

Fine-ground dark roast Arabica coffee packed into this little Moka-express machine , resulting in a  full-on caffeine hit for the housebound coffee addict. Works out at about 21p per small cup.As well as a reasonable daily rate (I can't remember what) he also gave us lunch - a lunch that gave us a new blueprint for meals for the rest of our lives.

The table was laid, and first came a starter - often some type of paté - and then a main course, the most memorable of which was a beautiful beef stew made with red wine.

To drink we had as much cider as we liked (wine was strictly for the evening).

Then came the fruit and  cheese courses. Our first encounters with Camembert, Brie, Emmenthal, and a smoked Bavarian cheese with little bits of ham in it.

And then, the best bit of all - making the coffee.  He opened a jar of dark roast beans, poured them into the grinder, screwed on the clear brown plastic lid, then held the device at arm's length, and switched it on, off, on, off, on off.

The sound changed from the initial clattering racket to a crunching, swooshing sound and finally to a smooth, higher-pitched buzz. This meant the coffee was properly ground.

All the time the coffee aromas were increasing. He then upended the grinder, slapped the base to empty the ground  coffee into the lid, unscrewed it, and then, with a teaspoon, began to fill the small shiny perforated bowl of the Bialetti.

His "Moka Express" had seen better days, it must be said. The cast aluminium body was by now a dullish grey rather than the shiny silver of a brand new model. But, as he tamped the last spoonful of aromatic grounds into the bowl, our mouths were already watering, our olfactory nodes preparing themselves for an overpowering and deliciously exotic, unfamiliar blast of … coffee, Italian style, a thousand miles removed from this semi-detached bubble on the outskirts of drear south London.

The love affair began there and has never wavered since. Only hardened, intensified. Anyone who thinks they can make drinkable coffee with some fiddly plunger thing - cafetiere or whatever - just, please, just try the polygonal Italian alternative.

And if you are worried about grinding your own coffee, get one of those little German electric grinders (£20 or less), or if like me you are a manual fetishist go straight for the Japanese option, the Hario Slim. This lovely clear acrylic hand-grinder with ceramic burrs is beginning to seem like a new member of the Bialetti affair. A love-triangle - and so we become a threesome.


Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Why is so much of London's recent public sculpture so horrible?

Poor old Charlie Chaplin, knocked off his
place in Leicester Square and now demoted
 to  entertaining the queues outside the Prince Charles Cinema, London
Wandering through Broadgate yesterday - as, if you have much sense, you do not do very often - was
struck by two or three things.

First, just how much of this corporate architecture has gone up in this area in the past decade or so. Broadgate is like a little town all of its own, with its barren streets and squares and shopping areas and  even a little park.

Second - what a sad contrast between the stately Victorian architecture of the old  Liverpool Street Station canopy, and the mock-classicisim of all that flashy 1990s stuff.

Third - the completely repulsive piece of public sculpture, the massive 5-ton bronze nude Broadgate Venus.

In fact this work by a Colombian artist is absolutely perfect for the place; a grotesquely fat, featureless, personality-free female floating pointlessly in the middle of a space surrounded on three sides by identikit office blocks and on the fourth by the rail terminal at  Liverpool Street.

 It's a real cheek calling her Venus - she's got about as much to do with love or sex as an over-inflated barrage balloon. But as symbol of the ugliest sins of the city around her - avarice, cupidity, sheer greed, excess  - she is perfect.

Which is more than you can say of much of the recent public sculpture in this town.

It seems to range from the brash but competent show-off - such as Rudy Weller's  Four Bronze Horses of Helios (1992) rising out of a fountain at the corner of hideous 1980s building near Piccadilly Circus - to the totally naff.

That flashy new development in Knightsbridge overlooking Hyde Park - often referred to as having the most expensive apartments in the world - comes complete with some equally tasteless public sculpture.

I've no idea who it's by but it's a fairly extreme example of what seems fairly dismal public sculptures adorning various commecrial and residential developments in this  city of obscene wealth.

Sadly, even publicly-commissioned work to celebrate the great and the good somehow seem to always go bland. The horribly cliched Charlie Chaplin is one example, now mercifully moved from a prime site in Leicester Square to a dark turning off Lisle Street, as if relegated to the naughty corner.

The strange Oscar Wilde tribute behind St Martins -in-the-Fields is another. But to find the truly horrible modern sculpture you have to turn to the private sector - the stuff that now seems to be obligatory on every posh new residential apartments development anywhere in London.

Richard Serra's Fulcrum, Liverpool Street Station, LondonEvery cynical new block of "desirable" riverside apartments snow seems to have to have its own bit of dismal art. Look at these ghastly characters down by Battersea Bridge adorning one of a thousand similar recently-built Thameside estates for the very rich.

WHy, you wonder, can't these very wealthy people not commission something good - like Elisabeth Frink's work in Piccadilly, or the one great bit of modern sculpture in the CityRichard Serra's Fulcrum  (1987)  at the back entrance to  Liverpool Street Station.

Even if not great art, it knocks you sideways. Meanwhile, there's virtue in comedy - and who cannot but laugh or at least smile when meeting the three-dimensional déjeuner sur l'herbe in Soho Square.

OK, I have to admit - it has to be better to have some naff art, some horrible public art, than to have no public art at all.