Saturday, 25 June 2011

The man in the bowler hat

Before this blog started talking about the everyday, the avant-garde got there first. Surrealism and Dada juxtaposed random elements of daily life in the hope of making surprising connections, taking their inspiration from the Comte de Lautréamont’s The Songs of Maldorer (1869): ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table.’ They produced collages out of the ordinary scraps of urban life such as bus tickets, torn newspapers, bits of clothing and bottle-tops; transposed commonplace objects such as bowler hats or pipes into unfamiliar surroundings; read aloud from the telephone directory; and created poems by cutting out and reassembling words from newspapers, a practice continued today in the magnetic poetry that adorns a million kitchen surfaces.

I have just got back from the Magritte exhibition at the Liverpool Tate. One of the paintings on display I have always loved: that rainfall of bowler hatted commuters otherwise known as Golconda. In his book, The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography, Fred Miller Robinson reveals that the bowler hat has not always served as a synecdoche for the respectable commuter. In the nineteenth century, the bowler was ‘the male (and sometimes female) headgear of motion and mobility, unfixed as to region, occupation, class, or gender. It was as fashionable among costermongers as among gentry, among cabdrivers as among bankers.’

The shift seems to have come in the first half of the last century, when Magritte was producing his series of bowler hatted themed paintings. W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice refer in Letters from Iceland to ‘the bowler hat who straphangs in the tube’. And in a chapter of his 1946 book The English Way, titled ‘Class Feeling and Bowler Hats’, Pierre Maillaud reflects on Sean O’Faolain’s remark that ‘between England and Revolution there will always stand an army of bowler hats’. After the Second World War, Miller Robinson writes, the bowler was worn almost exclusively by men in the City of London, or by London men who wished others to think they were in banking or trade ‘at the heart of things British’.

In the surprisingly late date of 1962, Anthony Sampson wrote that in the inner square of the city nearly everyone still wore a dark suit and bowler and carried an umbrella. ‘Every lunch time, the taxis and government Humbers draw up outside the palazzi of Pall Mall, and bowlers and umbrellas disappear through the great stone doorways, acknowledged by reverent porters,’ he writes about London clubland. ‘Through the big windows you see men reading The Times, hailing each other, exchanging surreptitious conversation with special clubman’s gestures – the pat on the shoulder, the grip on the forearm, the steering from the back.’

In my lifetime, the bowler hat hardened into cliché in the form of comedy sketches and adverts for the Bradford and Bingley building society. Perhaps bankers could try wearing them again to adopt an air of patrician respectability. Or maybe it is too late for that.

Despite my interest in bowler hats, I managed to resist the temptation to buy the bowler hat ceiling light in the Liverpool Tate gift shop, priced at £175.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Hancock’s moroseness was the very content of his humour – a humour based on the boredom and exasperation of a man who hated being ordinary. Sellers’ characters, intead of slumping and moaning, yawning and grunting, to get laughs, are in hyper-manic flight from the mundane.’ – Roger Lewis, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

Monday, 20 June 2011

Still no news

I have blogged before about Not Many Dead, the column in the Oldie magazine which demonstrates conclusively that much of what finds its way into our newspapers is not in fact news at all but entirely banal and inconsequential. Since then, just for my own amusement, I’ve been collating some more examples of these non-news stories. They are not difficult to find. Most of the stories below are taken just from the last few days.

It should have been the headlines viewers were focusing on but last night all eyes were actually on newsreader Fiona Bruce’s glasses. The 47-year-old was sporting a new pair of spectacles as she read the 6pm bulletin on BBC1. Miss Bruce usually wears contact lenses when she is presenting programming but occasionally wears glasses to rest her eyes. But yesterday she was forced to wear them because she has a small eye infection, preventing her from wearing lenses or any make-up around her eyes. – Daily Mail

The prime minister has told the BBC that Larry the cat has caught three mice since he moved into Number 10. The four-year-old tabby was recruited in February after a rat was spotted in Downing Street. Speaking to Radio 2's Steve Wright, David Cameron said he was ‘a good mouser’ and was ‘doing well’. - BBC News website

Nicholas Cole, owner of the Scent with Love florists discovered a duck in residence in one of the hanging baskets outside his shop on Greevegate on Thursday morning. Since then, five eggs have been laid in the basket and there could be many more. - Lynn News

Emma Watson may be the new face of beauty and skincare giant Lancome and hailed as the ‘icon of her generation’. But the actress showed she wasn’t immune to the irritations faced by most other 20-year-olds. The star suffered an untimely break-out of spots only a few days after it was announced that she is taking over from Julia Roberts as the face of Lancome. – Daily Mail

A waxwork of former England and Newcastle United striker Alan Shearer has been unveiled. The figure, which took four months to make, is on show at Madame Tussauds in Blackpool. Shearer’s figure will stand in the ‘locker room’ with models of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney … Experts assessed Shearer’s hair, eyes and skin colour, studied pictures and watched videos to get to know a little bit more about his character. – BBC News website

‘I have been targeted by a very tiresome bloggerist who keeps altering my biog on wikipedia,’ tweets Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg. ‘My wife is not called Sue, we did not meet in the frozen fish section of Cheam Sainsburys and I have never owned a lettuce farm.’ – Telegraph blogs

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Yesterday's papers

'Who want’s yesterday’s papers? Nobody in the world’, sang the Rolling Stones. Well, actually, the British Library is beginning to digitise millions of pages of old newspapers held at the newspaper library at Colindale and making them available online from this summer onwards. At present they are just nineteenth century newspapers but they want to make more recent ones available, although James Murdoch isn’t very happy about that. As a cultural historian dealing with the history of ephemera I spend a lot of time reading old newspapers, and am very familiar with the journey up the northern line to Colindale, with its special atmosphere honed out of the feel and smell of crumbling old paper and ink and the sound of frantic spooling through hundreds of pages of the Orkney Herald in the Microfilm room. There is something slightly subversive about perusing old newspapers because they are not meant to be read after their sell-by date. The French word ‘journal’ sums it up: a newspaper is ‘of the day’. ‘Quotidien’ also appears a lot on newspaper mastheads in France – a word that literally means to mark time. And the Greek word for newspaper, I learnt from a recent article by Graham Swift in the Guardian, is ephemeritha. Like the ephemeron fly, the newspaper is meant to die on the day it is born.

In his new book, Paraphernalia, the academic and cultural critic Steven Connor – whom I have quoted from before on these pages - writes that ‘newspapers are an emblem of the impermanence of writing, the subordination of writing to time. Time pulps the differentiality of newspapers – pro-government, anti-government, Establishment, sporting, samizdat, quality, tabloid – into pure indifference.’ Connor offers an intriguing aside on the history of using newspaper for bottom-wiping. He notes that the first proprietary lavatory paper in the mid-nineteenth century ‘made much of fact that printer’s ink in newspapers, along with traces of vitriol, lime and potash, was likely to cause or aggravate piles’.

Looking through old newspapers is a slightly melancholic activity. It has given me a particular perspective, a certain scepticism about collective manias and gadarene thinking, because there always seems to be another piece of groupthink along in a minute. You realise there is nothing new under the sun, almost everything is quickly erased from collective memory and lots of even quite famous people – TV presenters, writers, politicians, columnists - are forgotten as though they had never been. All that hot air you see on the newspaper comment sites: it will disappear like smoke. And even if is archived by the British Library, the chances are that no one will read it ever again.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The newspaper, incapable of seizing the insignificance of the everyday, is only able to render its value apprehensible by declaring it sensational. Incapable of following the movement of the everyday insofar as it is inapparent, the newspaper seizes upon it in the dramatic form of a trial.’ – Maurice Blanchot

Monday, 13 June 2011

Cut grass lies frail

I had some kind comments about the lawns piece, although several people have asked me if the poetry of lawnmowing is quite as capacious a subgenre of English literature as I suggested or if I was exercising poetic licence. Well, apart from Douglas Dunn’s poem on Terry Street that has already appeared on these pages, and the examples provided by the commenters on the previous post that I didn’t know about, there is MacNeice:

While the lawn-mower sings moving up and down
Spirting its little fountain of vivid green,
I, like Poussin, make a still-bound fete of us
Suspending every noise, of insect or machine.

Larkin once wrote of McNeice in the New Statesman: ‘When we were young … his poetry was the poetry of everyday life, of shop-windows, traffic policemen, ice-cream soda, lawn mowers, and an uneasy awareness of what the newsboys were shouting. In addition he displayed a sophisticated sentimentality about falling leaves and cigarette stubs: he could have written the words of “These Foolish Things”. We were grateful to him for having found a place in poetry for these properties.’

And then of course there is Betjeman:

From out the Queen’s Highcliffe for weeks at a stretch
I watched how the mower evaded the vetch,
So that over the putting-course rashes were seen
Of pink and of yellow among the burnt green.

Andrew Motion has written a moving poem, ‘The Mower’, about his father, who seems to have been like Larkin in that he felt the mowing had to be done, and would manicure the lawn into ‘those trim swipes and hover sweeps’, but did it grudgingly.

Larkin really does write about mowing the lawn all the way through his letters. To Robert Conquest he wrote: ‘I've spent the weekend slaving away in my sodding garden, mowing and scratching up weeds. Anything that looks bright and positive I take to be a weed.’ Mowing the lawn doesn’t appear much in the recent Letters to Monica, however, because he only acquired a lawnmower shortly after buying his first house in 1974, when he had more or less stopped writing to his sometime companion, Monica Jones. Ironically, she inherited his lawnmower, which she in turn donated to the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, where Larkin was librarian.

There is, or was, a lawnmower museum somewhere. Raphael Samuel cites it in Theatres of Memory as an example of the vernacularisation of history. No doubt it is also mentioned in that anthology of English eccentricity, Bollocks to Alton Towers.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The hiss of summer lawns

A slightly longer version of a piece I did for today’s Guardian about lawns:

At the Hay Festival last week, the Gardeners’ World presenter, Carol Klein, laid into lawns, calling them “monocultures”. Klein’s is one of several recent voices to suggest that, with climate change and greater awareness of the need to save water, we may be witnessing the slow death of the British lawn. Contemplating a future of dry springs and hosepipe bans, the nation’s gardeners may wonder if, as happened during the great drought of 1976, the brown lawn will soon be seen as the sign of the true patriot.

The ecological argument against lawns has only compounded their growing unfashionability over the last few decades. Once status symbols found mainly in royal estates and university quads, they became signifiers of suffocating suburban respectability. A survey by the London Wildlife Trust this week found that lawn area in London decreased by 11% between 1998 and 2006 as homeowners replaced grass with garden sheds and paving. In gardening fashion, the rectangle of grass surrounded by rosebeds has given way to more sinuous shapes and varied planting. Meanwhile the nature writers currently enjoying a resurgence in the non-fiction lists have tended to stress the value of non-human wildness and weeds, not the human-enforced, geometric neatness of lawns. And it is true that the environmental case against lawns is unanswerable. They are the most artificial of natural landscapes, using up copious amounts of water and chemicals for the benefit of a few species of grass at the expense of all other living things, from earthworms to daisies.

And yet I would be sorry to see the end of the lawn. Like the new nature writers, I appreciate the value of wildness, but I also value the capacity of people to impose shape and meaning on the world, however meaningless this might seem to those looking in from the outside. The poetry of lawnmowing, a surprisingly capacious subgenre of English literature running from Louis MacNeice to Andrew Motion, usually hones in on the touching futility of the ritual. The great lyricist of mowing the lawn is Philip Larkin, who mentions it throughout his poems and letters. “Have bought a new lawnmower ready for the spring offensive,” he wrote to a friend in 1981. “Must get the flame-thrower serviced, and invest in a few gallon drums of Weedol.” Larkin, it will be noted, was not afflicted with our modern anxiety about interfering with fragile ecosystems; for him, tending the lawn was biological warfare. And yet in his poem “The Mower”, he wrote movingly about accidentally killing a hedgehog with his rotary blades one June day in 1979.

Like many gardeners, Larkin moaned constantly about having to cut the grass, but never questioned the fact that he had to do it, in the same way that he complained about the tedium of library committee meetings while diligently chairing them and collecting the minutes. His ambivalent attitude to lawnmowing finds an echo in his poetry, which often suggests that everything is ephemeral and nothing ultimately means anything, but that in our fragile social conventions we find a respite from this knowledge.

Anyone who talks to a gardener with a carefully trimmed lawn will know that lawn care is a rich subculture full of social expectation and shared knowledge, from the relative merits of cylinder and rotary mowers to the dangers of close cropping. Like a lot of things in life in which we invest our physical and emotional labour, keeping a lawn tidy is ultimately pointless. The grass carries on growing, and the lawnmower eventually packs up, followed by its owner. If you want a vivid illustration of this, you can find Larkin’s rusty, grass-coated Victa Powerplus lawnmower (not, happily, the one that did for the hedgehog) in the Hull University library archive.

I work in an office that overlooks a large stretch of lawn. Every Monday morning a man comes to mow it. No one notices him, or the lawn, and I wonder if he ever reflects on the endlessness and thanklessness of his task. I barely notice him either, except to mutter under my breath about the noise from his strimmer while I am trying to work. But I do love the smell of newly mown grass in what Larkin called “the white hours of young-leafed June”, and would not want to see a nation carpeted in artificial turf. So when he comes next Monday, I’m going to go down and thank that man - for mowing the lawn.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The address book

I’ve just read Tim Harford’s new book The Address Book, which is inspired by the tendency of children to locate themselves very precisely in space through writing extended addresses in books eg Joe Moran, 14 Gladstone St, Glossop, Derbyshire, SK13 8LX, United Kingdom, Europe, The World, Interplanetary Space, The Milky Way, Intergalactic Space, the Universe.

The power of the address in defining modern identity is brilliantly conveyed in the artist Tom Phillips’s ongoing work A Quest for Identity (1974-), a series of collages of envelope fronts from letters, bills and junk mail addressed or mis-addressed to Phillips’s various homes.

In recent years, the power of the address has been compounded by the addition of the postcode. Postcodes were once simply alphanumeric devices to help with the mechanical sorting of mail, assigned using an arbitrary combination of geographical location, alphabetical order and sorting office pragmatism. When the Royal Mail introduced the postcode system throughout Britain between 1959 and 1974, the well-to-do did not like having postcodes at all, in the same way that they traditionally preferred to have house names rather than numbers. As Nancy Mitford advised them in Noblesse Oblige (1956), the ideal upper-class address was simply a place-name, a describer and a county: ‘Shirwell Hall, Salop’.

It was the pioneering gentrifiers of the 1960s, doing up rundown Georgian terraces on the wild north London frontier, who first saw the power of the postcode as a way of marking upward mobility. Not for nothing was Alan Bennett’s 1966 TV satire about Camden’s media darlings called ‘Life and Times in NW1’, a title later borrowed by Mark Boxer for his Listener cartoon strip. In Soft City (1974), Jonathan Raban noted that London postcodes were becoming like talismans, ‘endowed with curiously absolutist values’ and ‘magical guarantees of a certain kind of identity’. In more recent years, the snob value of postcodes has increased as they are now a crucial piece of actuarial shorthand, used at no cost to themselves by banks, insurers and retailers to classify potential customers and target services.

Postcodes are ambiguous not just because they arbitrarily overlap the more natural divisions of districts and neighbourhoods, but because they are interpreted crudely. Most estate agents and housebuyers concentrate on the outward code (the first part, which denotes the general area) and ignore the inward code (the second part, separated by a space, which pinpoints the specific street). The latter code would be a much more accurate indicator of class and status in the complex demography of London neighbourhoods.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day to day living that wears you out.’ – Anton Chekhov