Saturday, 28 January 2012

From Lime Street to Liverpool

I wrote this piece, 'From Lime Street to Liverpool: A voyage in pixels, stone and glass', a while ago for the artist Simon Faithfull's book Liverpool to Liverpool.

In 2002, Liverpool City Council bought the freehold to the concourse around Lime Street station, with the aim of turning it into an expanded public space and more welcoming approach to the city. As part of this project they commissioned Simon Faithfull to produce a piece of permanent public art. Faithfull chose to create a work which tells the story of an epic journey from Liverpool, UK, to Liverpool, Nova Scotia, made by the artist in the summer of 2008. Faithfull’s images of his journey are engraved into the surfaces of the new concourse, a reminder of Liverpool’s maritime past, its historical dependence on the shipbuilding industry and transatlantic trade, and the survival of these global connections today. They offer a visual record of a voyage towards a remote place, one which has much in common with Liverpool apart from its name.

A common thread that runs through all of Faithfull’s work is his effort to re-enchant the everyday and find the magical in the mundane: his luminous fake moon lit up 2008’s Big Chill music festival in Herefordshire, rising and setting like the real thing and fooling many festival-goers; his book, Lost, each page telling the story of an object he has lost over the last three decades, was left in random places around Britain for strangers to find and then lose again; “Escape Vehicle #6”, a bogstandard office chair, was sent 18 miles upwards dangling from a weather balloon, the onboard camera showing it nestling between the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space. From an early age, Faithfull says, he was gripped by “a melancholy awareness that I was tethered to this mundane realm” and remembers being jealous of flies because they “could even walk on ceilings”.

Faithfull’s transatlantic journey is part of the same exploration of our failed attempts to escape “the trivial, the mundane and the self” but also of the beautiful futility of these dreams of escape. His 3000-mile, one-way trip eats up the vastness of the Atlantic and the Canadian tundra but also negotiates the bathos of a Virgin Pendolino train and the two-lane roads of Nova Scotia. Faithfull’s initial plan was to sail directly from Liverpool to Montreal, but his container ship, the Joni Ritscher, was diverted to Belgium, so on 9th September 2008, he set off from Lime Street for the south coast and then got the early morning ferry to Antwerp to catch the container ship to Montreal. From Montreal he took the train to Halifax, then hopped on a bus and, three weeks after leaving Lime Street, arrived in Liverpool - a small town of just over 3000 people. Naturally, it was named after its British counterpart and also lies on the banks of a river Mersey.

That most of Faithfull’s miles are covered by container ship is not without its ironies. Like many ports, Liverpool, UK has suffered serious downsizing on the back of the rise to global dominance of the ISO (International Standards Organisation) shipping container: that uniform, stackable steel box invented in the 1950s by the American trucking entrepreneur Malcolm McLean, so that goods would not have to be handled when transferring between ships and lorries. These omnipresent cuboids, which Faithfull calls the “quantum units of 21st century life”, are usually seen by ordinary mortals when they are stacked high and stationary near railway lines and motorways. But their parallel, invisible lives are spent in Lego-like stacks in these gargantuan container ships – at 175m long, the Joni Ritscher is a relative midget - carrying the flotsam and jetsam of modern consumerism, from Nintendo Wiis to Nike trainers. Their snail-slow, Homeric voyages are normally noticed only by customs officials and pirates.

Faithfull made about six drawings a day throughout his journey, documenting the detail of daily life on land and sea, from Liverpool to Liverpool, with his Palm Pilot. These sketches are necessarily simple, because the screen on his hand-held device is tiny and the act of drawing with the stylus is fairly tricky: you can scroll sideways to make the drawing bigger, but then this means you can’t see the whole image at once. Yet the improvised, on-the-hoof, quietly observational quality of these drawings somehow fits the quotidian nature of their subject matter, and it is striking how the simplicity and economy of the pixilated line still manages to convey the vivid particulars of the journey, and picks out the contrasts between English Liverpudlians crouched under umbrellas and Canadian Liverpudlians with moustachioed lips and pick-up trucks.

One of the main advantages of drawing digitally was that Faithfull could easily transfer the images into other forms and send them out electronically – an idea he developed on a previous, two-month residency with the British Antarctic Survey, when he emailed his Palm Pilot drawings of icebergs and penguins across the world. In Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Faithfull used a local copyshop to make 181 postcards of his drawings. Having taken the Liverpool (UK) phonebook with him, he then posted the cards to random addresses in it, all saying “Wish you were here”. (Despite being in the Liverpool phonebook, I wasn’t lucky enough to receive one.)

In a creative collision between the newly virtual and the conventionally concrete, these 181 digital drawings have now been sandblasted into some of the York stone pavings and etched into the glass arches at the entrance to Lime Street. Each drawing is given latitude-longitude coordinates inscribed beneath it in the corner of the glass or stone – the kind of navigational northing and easting now familiar to most of us from satnav systems - so that the viewer has a precise location, which in theory they can go away and explore further should they so wish (although please note that the herring gull perched on a lamppost at N.53°24.30 W.2°59.77 may no longer be there).

Harassed train passengers, hurrying through the new concourse to catch trains or taxis, might well miss Faithfull’s relatively unobtrusive artwork. Indeed, its modesty offers a refreshing counterpoint to the spectacularly visual nature of most urban regeneration projects. Such projects tend to favour the grand gesture: an eye-catching new building or a multi-million pound facelift, aimed at instantly changing perceptions about a place and attracting tourists and potential investors. Faithfull’s project instead insists on the importance of the local and vernacular, and the persistence of history and memory in even the most modernised environments. This book includes all 181 digital drawings, and Faithfull’s often wry, imagist commentary on the landscapes he was passing through and the humans he encountered as he drew them. Both the words and images attest to the survival of the texture and detail of individual everyday lives even in our restlessly mobile, globalised world.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Motorway song

It's a shame, when I was writing On Roads, that I didn't come across this poem from Simon Armitage's Travelling Songs (2002):

Oh motorway, motorway,
where have you bin,
oh motorway where are you stopping?
I've bin down to London
to pick up the King
to take him up north to go shopping.

Oh bring him to us
for a Pontefract cake
and we'll light up the sky with a rocket
No, I'm taking him home
with the killings he made
with some fluff that he found in his pocket.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Arrows central

A slightly longer version of the piece I did for the Guardian on Monday.

This last week, I have been staying up late, watching unathletic looking men hurling feathered pieces of steel at a tiny board at the Lakeside Club in Frimley Green, Surrey. I know little about these men, except that they look even more unlikely Olympians than me, but I have been lured slowly into caring about the thing they care most about. The world of darts is a forgiving one in which pot-bellied, dishevelled players can be welcomed on to the stage like stadium rock gods and a thirtysomething can still be described as "the youngster". The two rival world championships are fortuitously scheduled in January, when nothing much else is on, to buoy us up after the post-Christmas slump.

Darts, I discover, is enjoying a renaissance. Last week Jarvis Cocker was spotted at Lakeside; Stephen Fry is a fan and has been known to join Sid Waddell in the commentary box. One of the attractions for me is that, compared to the globalised mercenary trade of premier league football and other elite sports, the players are always identified as coming from a specific town or place. Local newspapers get more excited about the sport than national media. "We are the world capital of darts. Arrows central," declared the Stoke Sentinel after Adrian Lewis retained his PDC World Championship a fortnight ago. North Staffordshire's players, it said, were "the darts equivalents of Sachin Tendulkar or Pele".

Perhaps there is also a sense of non-vicarious liveness and realism, something of the old atmosphere of the tap room and the working men's club coming through the screen. Darts, said Sid Waddell last week, is "pure working class theatre". This, in fact, was the reason why ITV took it off the air in the late 1980s, because its aging working-class audience was less appealing to advertisers. But as Patrick Chaplin points out in his recent book Darts in England: A Social History, it has long been a working-class sport with cross-class appeal, dating back to the interwar era when the pub trade used it to attract custom in the face of declining beer consumption. Unlike snooker, which took a long time to shake off its seedy image, darts was a reputable game without the taint of illegal gambling. Long before Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall graced the PDC World Championship with their presence, the King and Queen gave darts the royal blessing by playing a game in 1937 at a Slough community centre.

What the success of darts on television really demonstrates, though, is the law of unintended consequences. Two serendipitous events brought darts to a mass audience. First, in 1972, the home office minister Christopher Chataway ended all restrictions on broadcasting hours. ITV began broadcasting on weekday afternoons, and one of the cheap programmes it commissioned was The Indoor League, set in a pub which, along with games of dominoes and shove halfpenny, showcased some of the best darts players in the world. Up to five million viewers, many of them also in pubs, watched it on weekday lunchtimes. Second, in 1978, the BBC came up with a technical innovation that coincided with the first darts world championship: the split screen showing both the dart board and the thrower, one of those ideas which seemed unmissably obvious only once someone had thought of it.

The new consumerist ethos that has developed in the multichannel television era treats viewers as rational choosers, flicking through the channels to find what they want and needing to be instantly attracted to a programme. In fact, we do not know what we want, and the things to which we attach meaning and significance are often entirely arbitrary and illogical. Darts, like most sports, is fundamentally silly and meaningless and relies on viewers becoming incrementally familiar with its previously unfathomable rituals. Like that other late-night filler, the snooker, the more you watch it, the more you want to watch it. If I were ever in a focus group, I'm sure I would never say that I wanted to see more darts on television. But, as it turns out, I do.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The art of lost property

My favourite character in Craig Taylor's Londoners, his oral history of the capital which I've just finished reading, is Craig Clark, a clerk at Transport for London's Lost Property Office near Baker Street underground station. There is a lovely opening to this section which illustrates the unconscious synchronisation of millions of urban lives: 'I arrive at Transport for London's Lost Property Office near Baker Street station when it is loudest, between eight and nine in the morning - when all the lost mobile phones, programmed by absent owners and sealed in their individual brown envelopes, begin to chirp and ring and speak in novelty voices and vibrate and arpeggio on the racks where they are shelved, each with its own designated number. The chorus gets louder every quarter of an hour, until a last burst of sound at nine o'clock, and then most alarms go quiet for the rest of the day.'

As Clark the lost property clerk says, 'you learn about trends working here. There's a social aspect to it, you see what's in fashion with women in the summer because there'll be a ton of berets coming in or what's popular reading, like the Dan Brown books when there was that big craze with him, or the latest Harry Potter. You notice if the Evening Standard are giving away a free book or something, you get tons of them in; if we have an influx of six copies of the same book on one day you realize: it just came free with the Standard ... We also occasionally get drunks come in, or crackheads ... Once these two guys came in and said they had lost a swan. I think they were hallucinating.'

Mundane quote for the day: 'But it must be remembered, that life consists not of a series of illustrious actions, or elegant enjoyments; the greater part of our time passes in compliance with necessities, in the performance of daily duties, in the removal of small inconveniences, in the procurement of petty pleasures; and we are well or ill at ease, as the main stream of life glides on smoothly, or is ruffled by small obstacles and frequent interruption. The true state of every nation is the state of common life. The manners of a people are not to be found in the schools of learning, or the palaces of greatness, where the national character is obscured or obliterated by travel or instruction, by philosophy or vanity; nor is public happiness to be estimated by the assemblies of the gay, or the banquets of the rich. The great mass of nations is neither rich nor gay: they whose aggregate constitutes the people, are found in the streets, and the villages, in the shops and farms; and from them collectively considered, must the measure of general prosperity be taken. As they approach to delicacy a nation is refined, as their conveniences are multiplied, a nation, at least a commercial nation, must be denominated wealthy.' - Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Let's play Blockbusters!

The death of Bob Holness has left me feeling rather sad; such happy tea-in-front-of-the-telly memories from long ago. Here is a lovely tribute from George Melly, written in 1988:

'"Let's play Blockbusters!" cries Bob Holness, and whenever possible I'm watching. Nor am I alone. I've discovered that this teenage quiz show has an enormous number of closet fans of all ages, and that when it's off the air we, its addicts, suffer badly from withdrawal symptoms.

What really gets us is the controlled hysteria of Bob Holness himself. Bob has grey, expensively cut hair and junior executive glasses. He wears unadventurous ties and apparently has the run of a whole Burton's warehouse of sports jackets. His manner is that of a fairly popular prep-school house master, but what makes him irresistible is his belief that everybody in the whole world watches Blockbusters ...

He is a master, too, at making sure we come back after the commercial break ("Don't go away now") and at ensuring the game finishes at a decisive moment of tension. He pulls out with a convincing flourish the card with the clue on it, eveything hangs in the balance, and only then he tells us that we'll have to wait "until the next edition of Blockbusters" to find out what happens.

Like all schoolmasters, Bob has his favourite joke. When someone says "I'll have a 'P', Bob", his eyebrows shoot up and he gives vent to a little cough. I suspect he's been told to give this one a rest, but he can seldom resist it ...

Of course, Bob isn't the only point of Blockbusters. There is the burst of Dr Who-like electronic music which precedes and punctuates it, the setting with its bas relief terracotta plaques of "great thinkers", the intermediary and solitary rounds of "gold run", which can yield extra and valuable prizes.

There is the tension as a competitor or competitors draw close to winning five successive heats, the maximum they may aspire to, the Pearl and Dean like logo in which two lozenges whizz through the streets of a sci-fi city towards the studio. There's the deceptive simplicity of some questions ("Yes, it's as simple as that"), the subtlety of others. There's the greed by proxy; it's possible for the champion or champions to win more than £300. There's the shameful pleasure of gloating at the downfall of the smug or unattractive.

But above all, there is Bob. Standing mildly in the quiet, grey space between hero and anti-hero, he is a schoolmaster from yesterday controlling the kids of today, a parental memory of what once was, and a parental fantasy of what might still be, if only ... Mr Chips with everything.'

The Listener, 28 April 1988