Saturday, 31 May 2014

A cellar full of noise

For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to mark students’ work in my office accompanied by the ambient noise of drilling and banging in the basement. God knows what the builders are doing down there, but the walls in my room have actually vibrated with their efforts. The odd thing is that I seem to be the only one bothered by the din. It has made me wonder about the subjectivity of noise, the way that certain sounds that some of us simply filter out can drive the rest of us to distraction.

I have just read Michael King’s biography of the New Zealand writer Janet Frame, and am struck by how much the story of her life was a gradual retreat from extraneous noise. In her solitary bedsit in London in the 1950s, she tried to build a soundproof booth in the centre of the room, draped with towels and blankets, to keep out the noise of her landlady’s baby and a booming TV set. Back in New Zealand, she moved house any number of times simply to get away from the noise of motorcycles or barking dogs. On the suburban sounds of lawnmowers and do-it-yourself carpenters she wrote:

‘They are all an invasion of privacy. You wouldn’t let a stranger enter your house without knocking, so why let his noise come in unwanted? Chekhov made the same complaint, and in some meagre way I can compare myself to him. Silence and solitude are the only ways to get on with my work. If you want to write you must get on with it. There’s no point in socialising. When I was younger and leading a sort of hippie existence in London I used to go to the cafés and see all the young people who said they wanted to write. But if they had really wanted to write they wouldn’t have been there, would they? They’d have been in a quiet room getting on with it.’

According to Michael Foley in his book Embracing the Ordinary, Henri Bergson and Marcel Proust spent most of their only meeting with each other moaning about how much they were distracted by other people’s noise. Proust recommended that Bergson try Quiès ear plugs. ‘I have found that people are curiously insensitive to the nuisances they inflict on other people,’ the Orcardian poet George Mackay Brown wrote in his autobiography. ‘The air is full of noises; sound is thought to be a natural and acceptable background in the twentieth century. Silence is the thing to be dreaded.’ Brown was so sensitive to noise that, during a stay at a TB sanatorium, he grabbed his roommate’s transistor radio in a fit of rage and smashed it against the wall.

I don’t want to become like these people, aural versions of the fairy-tale princess distracted by the tiny pea under dozens of mattresses. I don’t have the talent to justify their neuroticism. But sometimes I can’t help agreeing with Jules Laforgue who wrote that ‘the modern world has embarked on a conspiracy to establish that silence does not exist’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Have you noticed that the BBC keeps its silliest programmes, and its jokiest announcers, for those times in the morning and evening when people are on their way to and from work. It’s very significant. Why should the BBC choose those times to cover the land in a pall of fatuity? What is it about work that we have to be hurried to and from it by drivelling idiots?’ Alan Bennett, Getting On

Saturday, 24 May 2014

All flesh is as grass

This is the bench at work where I sit and have my lunch if the weather allows it. Our building, which used to be a convent, backs on to a couple of acres of garden where the nuns used to tend their allotments. Here I sit and smell the mown grass and watch the trees coming into leaf while I wonder how many people before me have unwrapped a forlorn-looking sandwich from its tin-foil wrapper and ruminated on a bar of fruit and nut. The garden is dotted with benches, many of them with plaques dedicated to former members of staff or students who have died. Even without these associations, there is something melancholy about a park bench, that unchanging design which has accommodated so many nameless human behinds.

The artist Tom Phillips has produced a series of paintings which enlarge and subtly modify postcards incorporating municipal park benches. The first and best known of these is Benches (1971), the material for which has been reworked and adapted in a number of other works including Ma Vlast (1972) and The Flower Before the Bench (1973-74). Benches interlaces a number of apparently insignificant details from similar postcards of people sitting or strolling in parks in Battersea, Harrogate, Bournemouth and Brighton.

The main focus of the painting is the people who inhabit the parks, and who are often at the margins of the original postcards but are placed in the centre of Phillips’s work. Unlike the more posed shots of family albums, these postcards bring unsuspecting strangers together, forcing them into a relationship with each other at a moment frozen in time for public consumption. As the French cultural theorist Maurice Blanchot writes, one of the reasons the everyday evades analysis or perception is that it is ‘without a subject,’ so that when we live the everyday ‘it is anyone, anyone whatsoever, who does so’. The subjectlessness of these postcards gives a sense of both commonality and isolation: of a civic life suggested by benches, paths, well-kept lawns and other public amenities, but also of countless isolated, anonymous and interchangeable selves moving within it, what de Michel de Certeau calls that ‘multitude of quantified heroes who lose names and faces as they become the ciphered river of the streets’.

Phillips notes elsewhere that postcard images tend to ‘deceitfully inhabit their own eternal summer’ and, once the tinting process has done its worst, have a much higher proportion than in real life of brightly-coloured clothes and cars with the shiny newness of die-cast models. In the postcards used in Benches, though, this artificial sunniness comes up against the blandness and uniformity of the public parks, their carefully arranged flower beds, neatly trimmed foliage and ubiquitous concrete. We see not an idealised spectacle but a random moment of daily life, in which the faceless individuals in the postcards could easily be replaced by other people. Reminding us that the people pictured in postcards are sometimes dead by the time the card is purchased, Phillips describes Benches as ‘a plea against dying’ and includes a stencilled quote at the bottom of the painting from Isaiah 40: ‘All Flesh is as Grass … the Grass Withereth.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘There it was, your life of everyday, with its duties and its meals, its small comforts and its upholstery, and wordy goings on; with its fragile and often unexpressed affinities, homely jests and intrusion of the infinite.’ - Pamela Bright, The Day’s End (1959), p. 183