2016 Wasn’t All Bad — If You Picture It Like This

On top of everything else that happened in 2016, it wasn’t a great year for my blog posts. I’ve managed to update the blog at least once a month for the past few years but since my post on the EU referendum at the end of June, I’ve only managed one more — an overdue review of Isabel Costello’s debut novel (albeit a long one).

Looking back, despite my best intentions, I’m still not exactly sure why I’ve not managed to keep up the previously modest level of posting activity. It’s probably prioritisation by default as I’m still writing and doing just as much interesting stuff in between. There’s also been various developments with the novel that I’m not really able to publicly blog about on here.

But one thing I’ve kept  doing, mainly because it’s nowhere near as time-consuming as blogging, is taking lots of photos.

So in the spirit of a picture telling a thousand words here’s a photographic run through 2016 with a bit of commentary along the way

Perhaps one reason for being distracted from blogging is that I’ve spent the past year working in Soho. For example this place is just around the corner…

Beer Porn @ Brewdog Soho
Beer Porn @ Brewdog Soho

…and even though it’s no longer the groovy Swinging Sixties, there are enough spontaneous ‘happenings’ around where I work for me to have grabbed the odd evocative photo, like this one…

Swinging Soho July 2016
Swinging Soho July 2016

I walk past this iconic place almost daily (it was interesting to see it featured in The Apprentice this year)…

Liberty at Night
Liberty at Night

…and along here often too (and at the moment it’s worth walking to the end of Carnaby Street to the pop up shop set up by the V&A Museum in association with their You Say You Want A Revolution Exhibition).

Carnaby Street
Carnaby Street

And there’s plenty of things to be distracted by nearby — like the amazing Christmas angels in Regent Street…

Regent Street Angel, Christmas 2016
Regent Street Angel, Christmas 2016

…or just weird London scenes like this.

Oxford Street, Summer 2016
Oxford Street, Summer 2016

Sometimes it’s been restorative to occasionally get away from it all and lie (albeit briefly) under a tree on a patch of grass in one of those rare summer lunchtimes.

The Best View of London on a Summer Lunchtime
The Best View of London on a Summer Lunchtime

I don’t say much here about the ‘day job’. Until late 2015 that was partly because I might have been taken out and shot if I said too much! OK. That was meant to be a gross exaggeration about working in a government ministry but the way Theresa May’s government is treating its civil servants then perhaps it’s not. Nevertheless, I have a hazy recollection that I may have signed the Official Secrets Act, not that I had access to much secret stuff but I did work almost literally at the heart of government. I walked daily through the doors of a large ministry — one that was often on the front page of the newspapers — and shared lifts with cabinet ministers.

While I wasn’t exactly Sir Humphrey, I was given invaluable direct experience of the the way government works.

And in terms of writing benefit, I gained insider knowledge of the criminal justice system, through working with the police, HM Courts and Tribunals system ( even doing some work for those seditionary “enemies of the people” in the UK Supreme Court).

It’s all fantastic material should any of my future novels head in the direction of crime or politics.

The organisation where I now spend most of my nine-to-five working hours couldn’t be more different.  I won’t go into specific detail but it’s a media-tech company (hence the Soho base) and uses a lot of clever technology to encourage people to pay money to look as absurd as the people below…

The Future of Entertainment?
The Future of Entertainment?

(Apparently the gun isn’t on sale yet.) Actually, the VR (Virtual Reality) experience is so immersive that these people won’t care how they look from the outside. I’ve tried VR and it’s convincing. I predict that the technology could be on the cusp of going mainstream. And don’t take my word for it — creating a VR game was another activity to be featured on this season’s Apprentice.

2016 produced some unexpected recognition for my writing — non-fiction this time.

I was elected (or admitted or whatever they do) to full membership of the British Guild of Beer Writers. It might seem surprising to some that this organisation even exists but it has a few hundred members, including household names and virtually every author of a book on beer or pubs or contributor on the subject to any broadsheet newspaper or TV or radio broadcast.

I was elected to full membership on the basis of published examples of my writing (which I don’t tend to talk about much on this blog) so it’s a huge honour to be in the company of so many illustrious and expert writers in that field.

Here’s the image that adorns my entry in the BGBW website directory.I’m hard at work at the beer tasting side of the job!

British Guild of Beer Writers Profile Picture
British Guild of Beer Writers Profile Picture

Being a member of the guild let me rub shoulders with the movers and shakers of the beer writing world at their awards ceremony, including the odd, hairy beer-loving celebrity.

Two Hairy People
Two Hairy People

But even though my blog posts may have slipped off the radar, I’m still writing a lot of fiction, even on holiday in France (see below).

Writing by the River Dronne in France
Writing by the River Dronne in France

I could get used to that lifestyle.

With various things happening with The Angel (which, as it’s a book, have been invariably slow moving, I’ve been hard at work on another novel. A heavily adapted version of the new novel’s opening even won a prize in the Winchester Writers’ Festival Writing Can Be Murder crime writing awards this year.

I’ve kept in touch with many writing friends, enjoying their successes, for example, with winning stories at Liars’ League and other writing -related developments that can’t be blogged about. I’ve also kept up my involvement with the RNA (see previous post) and received another great critique from their New Writers’ Scheme.

By providing a series of non-negotiable deadlines every few weeks, my membership of a writing group in London has proved invaluable. I’ve propped myself up and carried on writing well into the early hours on several occasions by working on a piece from the new novel. In the summer I carried on once or twice for the whole night — going to bed (briefly) once that sun had risen.

The standard of my fellow writing group members is generally excellent (one reason why I burn the midnight oil to try to make my submissions at least presentable) and we’re very fortunate that the group is run by someone who’s a professional writing tutor at City University and novelist.

The group’s feedback is excellent — both illuminating and honest — although not usually as brutally frank as the comment below.

Honest Feedback
Honest Feedback

I’ll save details of the current work-in-progress for another post. However,  the next few photos might give a clue about some some of the things I’ve been doing that could act as background research for the world of the novel.

Here’s a shot of a pile of books waiting to be read…

Books for Research 1
Books for Research 1

…and below is another example of my methodical approach to shelving books (Owl Song At Dawn is an excellent novel published this year by my old City University creative writing tutor, Emma Claire Sweeney, who organises Something Rhymed — see earlier post).

Research 2
Research 2

I’ve not been to any music concerts quite as jaw-dropping at Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn (whose recording of the shows was released a few weeks ago and allowed me to relive sitting right in front of the spectacle — and the sonic battering of Omar Hakim’s drums — listen to the extended version of King of the Mountain on the CD and you’ll know what I mean).

But during the year I’ve been to see a couple of other giants of music from the past thirty or so years. Most recently I saw Nile Rodgers, also at the Hammersmith Apollo, who performed an incredibly energetic set of hits by Chic, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and others (several of which I heard a few days later being played from loudspeakers in Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland) and he also played an obscure favourite of mine, Spacer, originally by French singer, Sheila B.

Nile Rodgers, Hammersmith Apollo, 23rd December 2016
Nile Rodgers, Hammersmith Apollo, 23rd December 2016

Seeing Bruce Springsteen live has been one of those bucket list items I’ve always wanted to experience so I took my opportunity when he played Wembley Stadium in June along with 80,000 or so others. Elsewhere in the stadium were Bruce fans and writing acquaintances (and tweeters) Louise Walters (whose second novel is published imminently) and Pete Domican.

Springsteen’s stamina and his rapport with a stadium audience are awesome. He played from around 6.30pm to just before 10pm, non-stop. The sound where I was sitting in the south stand was fairly ropy but I was more dumbfounded by the behaviour of the people in the (not very cheap) seats around me. As can be seen from one of the earlier photos, I like a pint of beer, but many of the mostly middle-aged, middle-class audience seemed to treat the Springsteen show like a visit to a very expensive pub — possibly reliving their rose-tinted memories of some student bar. They constantly shuttled to and from the very expensive Wembley bar and then, inevitably, to the toilets. While loudly declaring their devotion to ‘The Boss’, some dedicated fans danced with their backs to the stage and got so drunk they either had to leave before the end. Some wouldn’t have remembered it anyway.

Springsteen,Wembley, June 2016
Springsteen,Wembley, June 2016

I was a little dubious in advance about another music-related experience in the summer — visiting the Latitude Festival in Suffolk in July. I wanted to go mainly to see Grimes: who’s nothing to do with the music genre grime, but a hugely innovative and original musician from Canada whose music defies any easy description — being both catchy and experimental — and mainly, but not exclusively, electronic.

It was described as one critic as being simultaneously like everything you’ve ever heard reassembled and remixed in a way which sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. That strikes me as something interesting to aspire towards in writing.

What massively impresses me about Grimes is that, with the exception of a couple of guest vocalists, she writes, sings, plays all the instruments, produces and engineers her recordings. I never get bored listening to her most recent album, the brilliant Art Angels . ‘Don’t be boring’ is another great rule of thumb.

Her live performance was equally original and self-reliant, accompanied by only a couple of dancers and her recent collaborator, Hana, on guitar (on left in photo below).

Grimes at Latitude, July 2016
Grimes at Latitude, July 2016

While waiting for Grimes, I had an unexpected opportunity to see Slaves, a two man guitar and drum modern-punk group. While the group themselves would be unlikely to dispute that their music is the opposite of subtle, their performance was amazingly good humoured (with songs about commuting like Cheer Up London or fat-cat bankers ‘Rich man, 
I’m not your bitch man‘) and created such an engagement with the audience that the FT reviewer described it as ‘life affirming’.

Before Slaves I was blown away by an electrifying performance by Christine and the Queens. Along with Art Angels, I must have listened to Chaleur Humaine (Christine and the Queen’s debut album) more than any others this year. I went to one of their two shows at Brixton Academy in November for a repeat of the live experience.


I’ve always had a fondness for French electronic music (Air are another of my favourites). When Héloïse Letissier (Christine is her alter-ego) announced ‘Welcome to the French disco!’ at the start of Science Fiction, one of my favourite tracks, it seemed an appropriate riposte to the narrow-minded bigotry and xenophobia that has scarred other aspects of 2016 which far too many despicable politicians and newspaper editors  spent much the year cultivating.

Christine and the Queens are inclined to do unexpected cover versions live and I had the spine-tingling moment of serendipity when they covered Good Life by Inner City, at the time of its release in the late 1980’s a much-underrated track, but one of those tracks everyone seems to know — maybe because of the almost improvised vocal line that wanders where it’s least expected? But I guess Christine and the Queens may have picked it as an antidote to all 2016’s other shit?

At the other end of the socio-political spectrum to Slaves’ music, I’d been wary of Latitude’s reputation as the Waitrose of music festivals — with rehabilitated hippies regressing to the behaviours they liked to say they indulged in their youths. And, indeed, during the day there was indeed a scattering of baby-boomer types trying to press-gang their extended families into enjoying the festival in a conspicuously worthy way.

Boomer grandchildren were transported around in flower-garlanded trolleys like this one…

Starting Them Young at Latitude
Starting Them Young at Latitude

…and as it got later the place became more like a pop-up Center Parcs, except the vegetal aromas in the forest weren’t coming from wood burning fires. Eventually as the night wore on and the older people retired to their luxury tents the sound-systems and DJ sets attracted large, bouncing swathes of  younger people, like moths to the flashing lights.

Wandering through the woods I came across a series of artists’ nstallations — and immediately recognised the brightly-coloured faces of David Shillinglaw’s work (whose studio I visited a couple of years ago with Love Art London). He’s an exceptionally friendly person and showed me around his unmistakable collection of positively painted sheds, which transformed into a music sound-system after dark.

David Shillinglaw at Latitude 2016
David Shillinglaw’s Exhortation at Latitude 2016

I’d visited Latitude for the music but was most impressed by the festival’s showcasing of all types of art. When I first arrived I stopped off at the the literary arena to listen to an author interview with the Bailey’s Prize winner, Lisa McInery. It was a nice touch to have a bookshop on site.

Coming a few weeks after the EU referendum result, Latitude was a refreshing distraction that emphasised the pleasures found away from the poisonous and vindictive political atmosphere. Ironically, the industries represented by Latitude — art, music , comedy, dance, theatre and literature — are those in which the UK is an undisputed world leader (reflected in much of the content of this blog over the past few years) but seem undervalued by the closed-minded, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, expert-dismissing philistinism of the pro-leave bigots.

The opposite of a huge festival like Latitude is the proverbial gig in the back of a pub. I spent a fascinating evening in July on the Camden Rock’n’Roll Walking Tour, led by Alison Wise. Covering the amazing musical heritage of a relatively small part of London between Camden Town tube station and the Roundhouse near Chalk Farm.

I was especially pleased that we stopped off in several pubs on the way. Each pub had a strong association with one of Camden’s music scenes through the last few decades. The Hawley Arms was Amy Winehouse’s local (with the likes of the Libertines as regulars), The Good Mixer was where the leading Britpop bands hung out, the areas around Dingwalls and Camden Lock have many punk associations and the Dublin Castle in Parkway launched the careers of Madness and many other early eighties bands.

Dublin Castle, Camden
Dublin Castle, Camden

And here’s me with Molly from Minnesota (the only time I’ve ever met her) inside the Dublin Castle in a photo taken by Alison at the end of the tour.

A Pint with Molly from Minnesota in the Dublin Castle
A Pint with Molly from Minnesota in the Dublin Castle

It’s surprising how many of Alison’s tours round Camden and elsewhere are filled by tourists from overseas rather than native Brits or Londoners. Even though I’d worked in Camden for five years a while ago I still learned a lot from the tour — all relevant for writing purposes too. Alison also does Bowie Soho tours and album cover pub crawls which I’m sure are excellent.

I’ve read a lot of books over the year, although nowhere near as many as I’d intended. I’ve worked my way through a lot of musical biographies and autobiographies, including Chrissie Hynde’s frank Reckless, the bizarre Paul Morley prose of Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs and the beautifully written (and non-ghosted) Boys In The Trees by the wonderful Carly Simon.

A few Sunday Times bestselling blockbusters have also made it on to my reading list, mostly out of curiosity to understand the reasons for their success. After having read them, in most cases, I’m not much the wiser.

So I’ve been busy, enjoying lots of new experiences and taking many more photos than those above. It’s even more worthwhile then those experiences to settle into the subconscious, interact and collide and spark off little bits of unexpected inspiration I can later use in my writing. And to help the process, there’s nothing like  taking a bit of time out and reflect.

So the last photo in the post was taken on a long walk between Christmas and New Year s the sun was setting over the Chilterns — a hopefully prescient, peaceful image to usher in 2017.

Deer Against the Chilterns Sunset
Deer Against the Chilterns Sunset

The Tree That Once Belonged to Bob Hoskins (and Other Odd Connections)

The last post loosely took the E.M.Forster quotation ‘only connect’ and asked if this might be at the basis of some of the creative process — can originality be fostered by stuffing your subconscious full of stimulating ideas and experiences which could stew away unsupervised like a warming winter casserole or, alternatively, blast into each other like a psychological Hadron collider.

Bearing this out, I’ve realised there’s a loosely recurring theme of odd and unusual connections in many of the experiences I’ve enjoyed or places I’ve visited over the past few months — locations which are on the margins between conflicted forces or genres where conventionally opposing styles or materials have been placed in opposition.

Shoreditch is the classic example of an area that has been transformed by the influence of artists, with the Village Underground tube train carriages providing a landmark juxtaposition.

Village Underground from Shoreditch
Village Underground from Shoreditch

It’s arguable that Shoreditch has become so ironically commercialised that it’s developing into a caricature of itself. For several years, artists have been priced out of the area (as is Kim in my novel), not just by the geek-cool spillover from David Cameron’s beloved ‘Tech City’ in Old Street but by speculative apartment-buying business types (even more beloved of Cameron). 

The warehouse-squatting, loft-dwelling artists have been dispersed to Peckham (mentioned in Time Out virtually every week), Hackney Wick (whose artists ‘took over’ the V&A at the end of February) and rather bizarrely, as I discovered a few weeks ago, to suburbs like High Barnet.

I climbed four storeys up an external fire-escape with my friends from Love Art London way out in the hipster-there-be-dragons territory of zone 6 to visit the artist, David Shillinglaw. He was a thoroughly generous and entertaining host, welcoming us into his loft studio which was located in an old false-teeth making factory (if it was in a novel this detail would seem way too far-fetched!). The studio was an amazing jumble of finished artworks, pieces in progress, plants (the tree apparently belonged once to Bob Hoskins!), huge rubber balls, artists materials and cats plus everyday objects (I think he lived there too — David Shillinglaw, not Bob Hoskins).

Inside David Shillinglaw's High Barnet Loft Studio
Inside David Shillinglaw’s High Barnet Loft Studio

While the artists move to the likes of Stoke Newington, Deptford and, er, High Barnet, property developers haven’t been slow to make the connection between exploiting the lingering aura of edgy cool and the large plots of under-exploited land in Shoreditch. Schemes that have been approved are in the pipeline that will transform the area irreparably: a 40 storey tower is to be built almost opposite Village Underground with a new shopping centre on the other side.

I may have written a partially historical novel by accident as I have scenes in my novel set in Holywell Street, which will be completely transformed within the next couple of years. (The scene is set in the road between the Village Underground tube trains and the new high rise building in the centre left in the developer’s projected image below.) 

The Planned 'Shoreditch Village' on the Existing Surface Car Park Opposiite Village Underground (Below Left)
The Planned ‘Shoreditch Village’ Either Side of the Railway Viaduct on the Existing Surface Car Park Opposite Village Underground (Below Left) — from  www.ellis-miller.com

Speaking of developers trying to muscle-in (and, in so doing, destroy)  on ‘cool’, ‘gritty’ urban locations, I took the photograph below just before Christmas of one of the most bizarre connections in London — the South Bank’s Bavarian Christmas market set opposite the graffiti-plastered undercroft of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, adopted as London’s skateboarders’ spiritual home.

Drinking steaming glühwein while watching skateboard jumps in a reclaimed space of brutalist architecture is the type of accidentally cosmopolitan experience only London can offer. Unlike some of the most favoured spots for Shoreditch street artists, the undercroft has been reprieved from development into shops.

Bavarian Christmas Market Meets Graffiti Covered Skateboard Undercroft
Bavarian Christmas Market Meets Graffiti Covered Skateboard Undercroft

There are a quite a few posts on this blog that mention street art: in the novel Kim brings her graffiti artist skills to places that haven’t traditionally welcomed them. Perhaps its appeal is partly because of another unusual combination — the traditionally reverential and formal world of fine art and the constantly changing, chaotic, almost anarchic urban spaces that foster street art culture.

My friend Sabina Andron, who runs the I Know What I Like Meetup Group in London, is studying street art for a PhD at University College, London. Over a period of 100 days last year she conducted an intriguing initiative, photographing the same stretches of wall on Leake Street (a virtual tunnel underneath Waterloo station) every day over a month and recording the organic, rapid changes in the artwork.

One of Sabina Andron's Leake Street Photos -- Click on the links in the blog text for the full animation
One of Sabina Andron’s Leake Street Photos — Click on the links in the blog text for the full animation

Sabina won the UCL Graduate School research poster competition for a poster featuring 100 images of one wall. Her website has a page which has time-lapse animations of all the walls. Its well worth viewing and may change your view of street art if you’re sceptical of its artistic value.

Writing, art and geography are, of course, not the only areas in which ‘only connect’ produces exciting  and unusual innovations. Musicians often cross-fertilise, with many whole new genres created from the fusion of apparently unrelated styles. In my local pub the recent English graduate cellarman often exposes the village regulars to his eclectic musical tastes, gained from working at music festivals across Europe. It’s a bizarre experience to walk into a rural English pub and hear dub reggae by the likes of King Tubby flowing from the speakers.

I was having a drink in the pub recently and began to recognise a song I knew very well but was also simultaneously unfamiliar. I worked out it was a track from Dark Side of the Moon. The skanky,offbeat rhythms meant it definitely wasn’t Pink Floyd but it was surprisingly  good — like any good, radical cover version, making the song sound written as if it was specifically for the other genre.

The track was Time and the album was the brilliant Dub Side of the Moon (see above) by the Easy All Stars. I bought it straight away and now listen to it interchangeably with the Pink Floyd original.

And foodies can give musicians a run for their money in terms of matching up bizarre combinations. Food is a major feature of the novel (including the odd matches inspired by the likes of Heston Blumenthal — liquorice ice-cream, snail porridge, mango and douglas-fir puree and the rest). So, wanting to see something of the cutting edge for myself, at the end of last year I visited the Experimental Food Society Spectacular at the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane.

This was an event run by people who like to do weird things with food. Some exhibits were immersive experiences — exploring how story-telling could influence flavours or how different senses interacted with each other. Some were just a bit, well, bonkers. Let’s connect Italian food with an Italian evocation of place by building a model of Rialto Bridge in Venice purely out of dried pasta and crackers (it can be done — see below — although I’m not sure whether an arrabbiata or puttanesca sauce would go best with the balustrades or portico).

Experimental Food -- Top and bottom right: The Rialto Bridge made of pasta and crackers; Bottom left: Vapourised tea.
Experimental Food — Top and bottom right: The Rialto Bridge made of pasta and crackers; Bottom left: Vapourised tea.

The flasks in the photo above left are of different types of tea but you don’t drink it. You inhale it (with a straw) after the people from Camellia’s Tea House put the brew through some clever vaporisation process. The vapour actually condenses on the back of your tongue, which gives a different taste sensation but one I doubt will be replacing the English cuppa very soon. (The breathable tea was so odd the story even made it into the New York Post.)

I’m not sure my fictional pub will go as far as serving its drinks in gaseous form, however intriguing the idea. But with an artist on the premises it could offer something for breakfast similar to the work of another Experimental Food Spectacular exhibitor — Dermot Flynn — Toast Artist.

Dermot Flynn -- Toast Artist
Dermot Flynn — Toast Artist

A little like a street artist, Dermot Flynn, connects art with unusual surfaces — in his case toast (a look at his website shows that he works by no means exclusively in toast but it’s one of the more unusual way he earns a crust).  Love it or hate it, the genre of edible art means it’s unpalatable to use conventional paint, so he uses Marmite instead.

Apparently if the Marmite is applied to white bread (presumably the more manufactured and sterile the better) to create an image which is subsequently put into a toaster, the desiccation process means the picture (or toast) will last for an indefinite period. If you can resist eating your artwork, Dermot told me that it’s perfectly possible to frame it.

For £10, I couldn’t resist the offer of having my portrait created in this unusual medium but I’ve taken the precaution of photographing it in case of unexpected nibbling.

Me in Marmite on Toast
Love Me or Hate Me? 

Falling, Yes I Am Falling

Me Falling at Amy Sharrocks's Studio in Chelsea
Me Falling at Amy Sharrocks’s Studio in Chelsea

The photo above is not, as my friends at Love Art London tweeted, me doing a ‘flying squirrel impression’ but me being a serious, living artwork in Amy Sharrocks’ studio in Chelsea — and she’s a real artist! To my mind it the pose somewhat resembles a rather unenthusiastic induction into some alien giant lizard-worshipping cult crossed with a pathetic attempt to obtain the worst Olympic gymnastic score of all time.

But despite making me look rather odd, the photo — taken by one of Amy’s friends and passed on to me by Love Art London — is effective in illustrating the concept behind the performance art that Amy is currently working on. It’s all about falling. And in the photo I’m just on the cusp of falling — that point when I’ve leant so far forward I’ve breached the point of no return where I know the what’s coming is inevitable but mostly out of my control.

I’d been curious, not to say suspicious, that anyone could produce art about people falling over and that’s why I signed up for the Love Art London studio visit — and the prospect of leaping around on crash mats also appealed (an invigorating change from the usual standing respectfully in front of an artwork to muse upon its qualities).

The studio in which Amy is based for her On Falling residency is a piece of history in its own right — having been used by the renowned sculptor, Elisabeth Frink — apparently she appeared on a commemorative stamp as a woman of achievement in 1996 and is responsible for the curious Shepherd and Sheep sculpture that’s displayed prominently in Paternoster Square.

Elizabeth Frink Sculpture - Paternoster Square
Elisabeth Frink Sculpture – Paternoster Square

The studio is part of a block that was purpose-built in the nineteenth century for artists in Chelsea and is still leased out for limited periods to contemporary artists.

Amy started by showing us a wall of ‘falling words’ (to the right of the photo) that she’d arranged thematically — so negative words like, say, stumble or drop were clustered in one corner and more positive words like dive or cascade would be elsewhere — similarly with other interpretations. It was quite thought-provoking but not exactly what I’d call art.

In fact, it didn’t dissuade me from thinking that the whole thing was a bit, well, bonkers.

Then Amy took us through a photographic falling wall of about a hundred or so images of falling — some were of Amy herself — impressive profile silhouettes of her in the ‘about-to-topple’ position that I’m captured in above, although her images are far more graceful. There were other photos from the work Amy has been doing in the community about falling (and some of her previous works) plus more general images — some quite well-known and, in cases, harrowing, like people falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Amy also mentioned some of the other work she’s done around London and I was pleasantly surprised that she’s the artist behind the Museum of Water — another slightly bizarre but strangely thoughtful initiative that I’d read about this in (probably) the Evening Standard (although it may also have been in Time Out or on Londonist). I’d been really interested in going along to the Soho installation when I’d read about it (but all is not lost, apparently it’s touring the country with it from the autumn onwards).

The water that’s preserved in the museum is water in the loosest sense — one exhibit is a six-year old girl’s phial of tears, others are donated urine in its various appearances. (At this point I shall resist the temptation to pun about taking the proverbial.)

I didn’t realise when I booked with Love Art London to come on the Falling event that Amy was behind both initiatives — but maybe there was something a bit subconscious going on? Perhaps Amy’s imaginative selection of subjects aligns with my own interests?

Mind you, I doubt I’ll be participating in an event she’s hoping to organise in 2015 — a mass swim across the Thames at the point where it’s crossed by Tower Bridge. Amy’s hopeful of getting Boris Johnson onboard — or maybe overboard — for this extension of her Swim London event. (Like the Museum of Water, this Thames-swimming project has had a fair bit of coverage in the press.)

Captivating as all Amy’s pictures and past work was, I was itching to start bouncing around on the crash mat — it was originally located in the garden but had to be dragged into the studio itself as it began to rain. And stepping off a ramp that’s possibly slippy and falling on to a crash mat that’s been rained on would no doubt set health and safety alarm bells ringing somewhere. (Coincidentally, despite the apparent minimal risk involved in falling from a few feet on to a mat that seems to be adequate for pole valuting, there has been some serious head-scratching by powers that be about Amy’s plans to involve the public in her Falling performance art.)

When I thought it was about time that we all started falling over in earnest, Amy turned the tables on us would-be art connoisseurs  and asked for us to share our ‘falling experiences’.  This was surprisingly interesting — people talked about the experience of falling asleep (where one of our number said there’s a scientific name for the feeling you sometimes get of suddenly dropping when you’re on the cusp of falling asleep).

This discussion was very interesting, covering many different types of falling, and made me understand, for the first time, that perhaps Amy had found a subject that was both profoundly universal and open to many different interpretations.

And then, eventually, we were able to put the theory into practice. I was second up after our Love Art London host, who’d done it before. Falling face first, from a height of less than a metre into a crash mat seems simple –it’s nothing like as scary on paper as some of the highwire and zipwire course I’ve done — I fastened myself in the Trossachs (sounds like a Les Dawson joke) to a Go Ape! zipwire that was 400m long and 150ft above a valley.

But in those instances there’s something that will support you (the fear of falling is of anything going wrong) whereas to fall voluntarily, even from a small height, with no support is a peculiarly unsettling experience. There is definitely a split-second when you realise there’s no going back and a bit of panic sets until until you’ve worked out the best way to break the fall. (I think I bottled it a little by bending my legs to decrease the momentum).

One of the most interesting observations Amy makes about watching many people falling in this way is how quickly people get up. Being prone on your front, especially with others gathered around, is arguably an instinctively vulnerable position and while in this type of environment participants don’t feel physically threatened, they have no control or knowledge of the way that the spectators are viewing them — a situation with which, it was suggested,  women were particularly uncomfortable in public.

About half-a-dozen of us had a go at falling — it certainly wasn’t obligatory — and a couple decided to fall backwards, which must be more nerve-wracking to do at the start but does avoid the face-down indignity afterwards. We all had a really interesting and open sharing of our experiences once we’d fallen. And we’d had so much fun talking and falling that we overran and had to head home (or to the pub).

But was it art? Well, officially, it definitely is as Amy is supported by the Royal British Society of Sculptors, amongst others. However, I’d come away from the event having been made to view something as apparently obvious and familiar in a much different and thought-provoking way — and surely that’s the very purpose of all good art in its widest sense?

Parallel Lines

A Rana Begum Work in Her Studio
A Rana Begum Work in Her Studio

Last week I ventured into deepest Stoke Newington for another fascinating Love Art London event. I wasn’t sure what to expect in advance of visit to Rana Begum‘s studio.

The Love Art London website promised that ‘tightly controlled compositions, hard-edge lines coated in thick glossy resin, impeccably applied colour and seductively tactile reflective surfaces are all very powerful features of this extraordinary artist’s work. Rana’s paintings are each an exercise in rhythm, symmetry & repetition which satisfy the eye’s appreciation of order and beauty in its simplest form.’

Indeed. And this is an accurate description of the finished works — but we discovered that behind the discipline and order of Rana’s art there were also some fascinating stories, involving some chance and almost haphazard events, which are as fascinating as the geometry of the work.

Rana’s studio is hidden down the end of a mews just off Stoke Newington Church Street. On entering, it seems more like an engineering workshop than anywhere an artist might be at work, as you walk past metal cutting and sanding machines, propane bottles and stockpiles of aluminium. It’s a paradox when you meet Rana, who’s physically quite petite, that these industrial tools and materials are those with which she (and her team) create her artworks.

Although she is known to her team, uncompromisingly, as ‘the boss’, Rana was an informative, generous and charming host. As the Love Art London party trooped around her studio, she took us through the lifecycle of a typical piece of her work, a good example of which is in the photo above, taken in the studio.

For one of these pieces, using parallel metal bars, square sectioned pieces of aluminium are inspected and then cleaned, cut and sanded and prepared for powder-coating at a specialist supplier — usually in black or a neutral colour. Rana then carefully paints the surface of the material of the component parts as part of an overall pattern. These pieces of metal are precision engineered — to thousands of a millimetre — to ensure that they hang exactly in place.

As can be seen in the photograph above, the colour works in its own right, visibly applied to the metal surface. However, given a blank background and enough light, the colour casts a diffuse reflection on to the space in between the bars. If two facing bars are finished in different colours opposing each other, the reflection of  each interferes with its opposite to form a third colour, which often subtly changes in proportion to the quantity of its ‘parent’ colours (often the patterns taper along the inside metal surfaces).

When the piece is viewed as a whole, these interactions form a fascinating overall pattern within the bars. The photograph above is an example of this effect. It’s very clever – almost as if these industrial, inanimate objects have created their own artwork independently. Add the changing quality of natural light and these inanimate sculptures constantly evolve.

Rana has produced these large scale works for public spaces — one is on Regent Street — and other can be found in places such as health centres, probably a good choice as the pieces can be contemplated for a long time.

She also produces similarly geometrically orientated artworks in other materials — folding sheets of metal like origami and some amazing folding wood benches.

But Rana’s own story is also enthralling — and echoes some of the themes in the last blog post. She was born in rural Bangladesh but moved with her family to this country when she was eight, not being able to speak a word of English. She described how she may have expressed herself primarily through art in the period where she tried to catch up with the language — a skill she extremely modestly said she hadn’t yet fully mastered — don’t believe her, she has — I had a lovely, long conversation with her in the pub after the visit (which was so unpretentious that it ended with Rana pointing me in the right direction for the number 73 bus).

While Rana’s patterns are stark and geometrical, her studio had much human warmth, even eccentricity. There’s the evidence of her two young children’s about the place but it’s additionally home to two team members. One is Pierre, her French (I think) assistant who shares much of the donkey work of sanding and cutting metal. The other is Bob — a thoroughly down-to-earth, somewhat grizzled, East End bloke who, amongst other things, drills the keyholes in the metal so the works can be hung precisely.

It turned out Bob played another role in the Rana’s story – she’d actually bought the studio from him. They’d become acquainted while Rana was working in an artists’ co-operative studio in the building next door. Bob was looking to retire from his engineering business when, serendipitously, Rana was also looking for her own premises.

In a mutually beneficial arrangement, Bob sold his workshop to Rana but, realising that her artwork employed the use of some of his skills, he began to help out with the preparation. Some of Bob’s metal-working machines remain in the studio and he still pops in to help out a few days a week.  He told me he has no idea about the artistic side of Rana’s work but perhaps a trace of his non-nonsense stoicism comes through in the minimalist designs, regardless?

As a result, the studio is an idiosyncratic combination of corners full of Bob’s tools, with the accretion of the detritus of years of use, and Rana’s bright, clean minimalist office and exhibition space.  There are also areas of the studio where Rana gets thoroughly messy – I looked in the spraying room where the painting is done and I noticed shelves full of the Montana Gold spraycans I used in my own street art experiment.

Rana is a now a very successful artist, exhibiting at Bischoff/Weiss plus a gallery in Germany and in India, as well as the major art fairs, such as Frieze and the London Art Fair. I can’t help thinking her story, especially that of her studio, is something of a metaphor for how London has changed – and is changing – with artists moving into previously industrial areas of the capital. But in the case of Rana, she’s not displaced what existed before, but adapted it and worked with such an unlikely artist’s assistant as Bob, to create art that’s both new and inventive and also very reflective of its time.

Know What You Write

I’ve recently been writing a new scene for the novel involving street art. As readers of the blog will know, I’ve spent plenty of time recently learning about street art and observing it around Shoreditch (on Thursday this week I was looking at some recent street art in the car park opposite Village Underground, under the new Overground viaduct, with Jamie and Sabina from I Know What I Like).

What I didn’t know that much about was how the artists actually created their work — I’d seen artists at work, like Amanda Marie (see previous posting) but I wasn’t aware of basic information like where they got their materials, how much they cost and the fundamental experience of what it was like to press your finger on the nozzle of a spraycan and to try and do something creative, especially in an outdoor environment and possibly looking over your shoulder to avoid being arrested.

So I decided to try for myself. Last weekend I became ‘macnovel’ the street artist.

The New Tag on the Block
The New Tag on the Block

First of all, I had to buy the paint — and I wanted the proper stuff that serious artists use, not Halford’s car bodywork cans. An online search produced plenty of websites that would supply aerosol paint cans for delivery but I couldn’t find many bricks and mortar outlets, even in central London.  The best place I could find was Chrome and Black on Bethnal Green Road in Shoreditch, located, perhaps not coincidentally, just round the corner from Redchurch Street.

Montana Gold
My Montana Gold Cans Ready for Action

Chrome and Black is a supplier (I’d hesitate to call it a shop) dedicated to graffiti and street art. It reminded me vaguely of one of those old Swedish government owned liquor stores or the hardware shop in the famous Two Ronnies’ Four Candles sketch, as all the merchandise was locked away behind metal screens or glass cases — and the spraycans and markers came in a bewildering variety of colours. It’s not the sort of place where customers go to casually browse.

Dressed for work and carrying my Evening Standard, there was no way I was going to pretend I was some kind of cool graffiti artist (although from what I overheard I think there may have been a genuine street artist ‘name’ in the place at the time). So I asked the bloke behind the counter for something I could play around and experiment with. He recommended me the Montana Gold range and I took a red and black can of each (they were about £3.99 each, by the way).

Having a couple of cans of graffiti paint stuffed in my work rucksack made the journey back on Chiltern Railways feel faintly subversive. I’d guess a fair number of my fellow passengers would like to bring back hanging for anyone caught in possession of spraycans.

The First Attempt -- Signed Too
The First Attempt — Signed Too

I had the cans but where the hell was I going to use them? Even if I was inclined to do my experimentation in public places there are hardly the post-industrial walls of Brick Lane near where I live. The most readily available blank canvasses would probably be sheep in the fields.

But I remembered the materials used by Adam Neate when he was unknown — he’s now one of the world’s most famous street artists. (The story goes, which is a little romanticised, that he literally left his works in the street for anyone to keep who found them.)

Neate painted his early work — and still sometimes does — on cardboard. He’s now an exceptionally collectible artist which is ironic as the base material for his work is potentially the potentially the contents of a typical recycling bin (he got his cardboard from charity shops I believe). His spray painting has an effect almost like alchemy on this otherwise base material, transforming it into something that art collectors will pay tens of thousands of pounds for.

Having a backlog of cardboard waiting to go to the tip, I decided to use it as my artist’s medium – as it happens, mainly packaging from a John Lewis fold-up bed. But I didn’t want to be ‘just’ an aerosol artist. I wanted to have a go at stencilling too. So I found what I thought was suitable — a thin piece of Amazon card packaging — and cut out a few shapes  with a Stanley knife.

Cans, Stencil and Finished 'Artwork'
Cans, Stencil and Finished ‘Artwork’

I went out into the garden with a willing helper, my spraycans, stencils and cardboard and had a go. And some of my efforts can be seen in the photos here.

Any thoughts on the artwork? I’m actually quite attached to it. I thought I’d throw it away instantly but I’ve hung on to it as I quite like it. Anyone who reads my manuscript will be able to spot exactly which part of the novel I was writing at the time by the stencilling I’ve attempted to do in the picture below.

Can You Guess What It Is Yet?
Can You Guess What It Is Yet?

Clearly they’re just practice efforts but I really enjoyed it –and it was valuable for the writing. There are aspects of the experience that can’t be imagined that easily — or gleaned from a Google search — like the way it’s easy to over-apply the paint so that it starts to dribble and the way the paint coats your fingers. And then there’s the smell — it reeks of solvent. My novel’s graffiti painting scene takes place in an enclosed space and there’s no way that, having had a go at this myself, I could write the piece in the novel without mentioning the smell.

Becoming a temporary street artist might be the most extreme example of how I may have become a ‘method writer’. I don’t know whether there is such a thing but, if there is, I’d imagine it to be a little like the method school of acting which, to simplify greatly, means the actor prepares for the performance by trying to experience the world of the character.

According to the Lee Strasberg Institute website (he’s credited with inventing the technique) it uses ‘the creative play of the affective memory in the actor’s imagination’ to  ‘[create] performances grounded in the human truth of the moment’ — which I take to mean the actor tries to do the same stuff as the character — so these may be drawn upon in performance. So if the character is a dustman, perhaps the actor goes out on a dustcart a few mornings. I’m not sure how it works if a character is something like a serial killer, though.

A Studio Too Messy Even to be in My Novel
A Studio Too Messy Even to be in My Novel

Even so, method acting reinforces Aristotle’s belief that ‘the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself’ — and this must also be true with writing. If the writer doesn’t care about a character, why should the reader? If the writer wants a scene to evoke emotions that create physical reactions in the reader, maybe of danger, peril, grief, anticipation or anger in the reader, then these ought to be more vivid or genuine if the writer also experienced these feelings at the time of putting the words on the page.

The same must also be true for the physical reactions triggered by effective sex scenes. If you’re writing about two characters who are so attracted to each other then it must be a mark of effective writing to engender a sympathetic reaction in the reader — which is probably why they’re so difficult to write that many writers avoid them altogether.  And if they’re difficult to write then it’s a step further to workshop the stuff with your writing course friends, although that’s a pretty good deterrent against going too far along the path of purple prose.

I suspect most of the candidates for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards, due to be announced fairly soon, ended up on the list by obfuscating the fundamental, but discomforting, truths of writing about sex behind over-elaborate prose or strained metaphors.

My MMU Creative Writing tutor last year had the good grace to admit to our class that he won this dubious prize for a passage in novel of his in the 1990s, which used a sewing machine analogy. I have actually read the passage in question and I don’t think it’s particularly cringeworthy, more taken out of context. He must have been unlucky — or lucky, if you think that sort of publicity is the good sort.

Sadly, my method writing hasn’t involved sex and sewing machines but the experience of writing the novel has influenced my life in plenty of other ways. Ironically I’m finding the normal advice of ‘write what you know’ could be better phrased in my case, as ‘know what you write’.

The novel’s themes include business, food and pubs (of which I have a fair amount of practical experience, particularly of the latter) and also art, which is something I’ve learned a lot about while writing the novel. As well as a number of viewings I’ve been to with I Know What I Like, I’ve also taken advantage of working in London to visit many of the high profile art exhibitions and events this summer.

Most recently, I’ve been to see the Turner Prize show and the Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain, Richard Hamilton and the Titian exhibition at the National, British Design at the V&A, the Bauhaus Exhibition (and another I can’t remember) at the Barbican, Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern, the Invisible Art show at the Hayward Gallery, the Lazaridis Bedlam exhibition at the Old Vic Tunnels (used as MI6’s bunker in Skyfall), the Moniker Art Fair at Village Underground and various others.

I doubt I’d have gone to a single event had I not started writing the novel — although going to so many events reduces the time I have available to complete the novel. I sometimes beat myself up about this but, on the other hand, I started writing the novel when working in the cultural wasteland that was an office park on the wrong side of Luton Airport, where the most exciting way of spending a lunchtime was to browse the aisles of the local Asda (although it’s an ambition of mine to write a novel that’s successful and mainstream enough to be put on the shelves there).

But binging on art and cultural events begs the fascinating question of which came first — did I start to write a novel about an artist because I wanted to discover more about art — or is it purely secondary?

That's Adam Neate's Hand Ready to Sign Posters
That’s Adam Neate’s Hand Ready to Sign Posters

And then there’s the access I’ve had to artists via the brilliant Love Art London — about whom I’ve blogged before. How did I know that Adam Neate painted on cardboard? Because I heard him tell me himself at the Love Art London viewing of his show at Elms Lester’s Painting Rooms in St. Giles. I asked the gallery owner how much Adam Neate’s work was priced (as there were no figures on display next to the works on display). I was told they were in the region of £25-30k per piece (and one of his works was recently sold for £80k at auction). The bloke seriously thought I might buy one. Well, maybe, but probably only if this novel gets to the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list one day.

When the artist is able to sell work to serious collectors for so much money, it’s great credit to both Adam Neate and Love Art London that he attended our viewing to talk about the work — and even more impressive that he came to the pub with us afterwards — the appropriately named Angel.

Adam Neate was an incredibly nice, modest bloke — and I know because I ended up chatting to him for about fifteen minutes — even bought him a pint of Sam Smith’s. We talked about Berlin, as he was going there the next day for a weekend break. I told him a bit about the novel — as Berlin is where Kim was trained in the novel — and I’d guess that Berlin and London are the two main centres of urban art, certainly in Europe.

Not a bad journey in terms of method writing — starting by conceiving a character who’s a street artist, then trying to have a practical go at what she does and then talking about the fictional character with someone who’s achieved in reality what my character is striving for in the novel.

The Huge Studio for Scenery Painting at Elms Lester Painting Rooms
The Huge Studio for Scenery Painting at Elms Lester Painting Rooms

I could have spent the time revising the novel rather than going out and validating my portrayal of the artist. Instead I might have a finished novel by now but would it be genuine and informed enough to move readers, particularly those who are interested in art?

It’s worth making a note about the fascinating space at Elms Lesters. The gallery was originally built for huge scale painting for West End theatres. It still has an incredible space about forty feet high and much less wide that was constructed for painting theatrical backdrops — and is now used for filming things like music videos as much as for anything else. It’s quite an extraordinary building.

This Is Not Grafitti

Shoreditch Graffiti -- Gas Meters
Some Artistically Well Connected Gas Meters — with Jamie

Because parts of my novel are set in Shoreditch, I was really looking forward to the Love Art London Shoreditch Graffiti Tour which was held way back at the end of May but which I’ve only just got round to blogging about for various reasons, including the interminable process of editing the novel, but hopefully the photos at least will be worth the wait.

The Shoreditch Graffiti Tour definitely didn’t disappoint. During the event I realised that I’d found exactly what I’d been looking for — and all the better for, perhaps, not having fully understood beforehand what I needed.

Shoreditch Graffiti -- Mushroom
Spot the Mushroom — Redchurch Street, Shoreditch

There was a good turnout for the tour, which for reasons detailed below, might better have been billed as The Shoreditch Not Graffiti Tour. At least twenty of us met Lindsay from Love Art London outside the new Shoreditch High Street Overground station on one of the last decent days of weather we’ve had this year. Cameras and phones at the ready, we were then taken on what was very like an urban safari (we had the weather for it) by our very knowledgeable guides, Sabina Andron and Jamie Ryle.


Sabina and Jamie organise a Meetup Group — I Know What I Like — which is a community of people interested in contemporary urban art — both viewing the artwork and also debating its merits.

Shoreditch Graffiti -- Two Stiks
Two Stik People


Our guides led us across Bethnal Green Roadand into the area east of Shoreditch High Street centred on extraordinary Redchurch Street (the street where the Catlin Prize exhibition was held — see later photo of the building).

This street, running parallel toBethnal Green Road, and the adjoining side streets, such as Chance Street,Ebor Street andTurville Street currently act as a huge ad hoc art gallery. It’s an incredibly concentrated area of street art where our group of intrigued observers only had to move on a few yards before being shown another significant piece of work created on a wall, door or hoarding. (This Redchurch Street locality has been designated a conservation area by Tower Hamlets council, as an example of nineteenth-century urban architecture that has largely disappeared.)

Shoreditch Graffiti -- Ants Compressed
Ants and Rubbish, Shoreditch

Sometimes these were very difficult to spot — small pieces no more than knee high whereas others were huge murals covering a whole block or were artworks placed high above the road (in the case of the mushroom placed on a rooftop).

Sabina and Jamie’s favourite street at the time was Blackall Street on the west side of Shoreditch, past Village Underground. This was temporarily unique because building work had blocked off the Paul Street end of the road, which meant there was very little traffic to disturb the artists and so had become a favoured place for the time being where they could work relatively undisturbed.

Shoreditch Graffiti -- Stik Door
A Very Collectible Stik Door — And Friend

I won’t try to comment on the artworks or the artists themselves — Sabina and Jamie told us some fascinating stories and anecdotes about the works and were able to provide comment on some very recent developments. I’d certainly recommend them as expert guides for anyone who might be interested in street art.

There are also websites such as Londonist that have street art sections (here’s Londonist’s Top 5 locations).

I’ve added several photos alongside the post which illustrate the type of art we saw on the tour. They include work by well-known artists such as Roa (who’s well known for his large monochrome animals), Ben Eine (lettering and typography), Cartrain (stencils and old vinyl records attached to buildings) and Stik (the eponymous stick men whose simple faces convey amazing expressions — and probably my favourites overall).

What surprised me overall was how these artists operated in the margins between criminality and the conventional art world — and also the community spirit of the artists, revealing a well-defined hierarchy and pecking order.

Many of the works we saw were commissioned or at least permitted by the building owners (although not always meeting the approval of the local council as a contentious case with a Roa mural of a crane in Brick Lane and Tower Hamlets council).  This explains why many of the works endure so long — as does the sense of community between the artists which means that they tend to earn respect with each other by repairing each others’ work when it’s inevitably defaced by the taggers (the lowest of the graffiti food chain).

Shoreditch Graffiti -- Catlin
Londonewcastle Building (Home of the Catlin Prize Exhibition) 25th May

The more accomplished and innovative artists are popular with developers, who have realised that well-executed street art attracts the type of young, professional occupants that they chase for both their commercial and residential premises. However, while sanctioned street art communicates a sense of order that might re-assure, it treads a fine line between its non-permissive origins and becoming an adjunct to the corporatism that has created ‘Avant Garde Tower’ – a large block of mainly private residential flats under construction on Bethnal Green Road marketed with a huge rooftop banner bearing the slogan ‘the coolest residential tower in Shoreditch’.

Street art in this context definitely isn’t mere graffiti: the City types to whom the developers are appealing will enjoy spotting work by Roa and Eine on their way to designer bars but will be unsettled by the tags that are reminders that Tower Hamlets (which covers Shoreditch east of Boundary Road) is still one of the most deprived boroughs in the country.

In fact, while the area around Shoreditch High Street station is becoming rapidly gentrified (as is the stretch of Great Eastern Street leading towards Old Street with its Pizza Express and Prêt Á Manger) Redchurch Street itself remains defiantly shabby – with many buildings either abandoned or in poor state of repair – and it is home to a very eclectic selection of shops and bars (see the photo of the Sick clothes shop).

Shoreditch Graffiti -- Sick
Sick Shop — Redchurch Street

My favourite, which I didn’t photograph, is a shop (possibly Speedie’s) with a window full of technologically prehistoric TVs and video equipment from the 70s and 80s.

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that ‘street art’ has now crossed-over into the commercial arts world. David Cameron presented Barack Obama with a Ben Eine work and one of the best episodes of The Apprentice in the most recent series had the would-be apprentices trying to represent some well-known Shoreditch street artists. However, I didn’t realise quite how intertwined the commercial galleries were with street art.

It’s quite common for artists to pursue a two-pronged strategy — advertising their work by putting it on a prominent site in the likes of Redchurch Street but also making it available to purchase in galleries. Consequently, some of the artists make a more than respectable income from their commercial work.

Because some of the artwork is on surfaces that the artist doesn’t have permission to use, many artists use techniques like stencilling and pasting an already created paper-based work. Stencils are quick to use but I thought that pasting something on a wall was more like fly-posting than artwork. It’s an interesting question about the nature of this sort of art — does it matter that it’s created at the place where it’s displayed? This definitely isn’t the case for other forms of painting — a framed painting advertises that it can be hung anywhere. But street art almost by definition seems to need an association with a sense of place.

The tour made me realise that Kim, in my novel, would certainly be extremely familiar with the street art we saw, especially as her studio is at Village Underground, which has three huge walls dedicated to permissive street art. If she’s trying to promote herself as an artist, it’s quite likely that she’d try street art herself — although I can’t remember any of the artists mentioned in our tour being women. (The obvious dangers involved in solitary late-night work on dimly-lit city streets and the likes of railway sidings have historically deterred women from becoming significant members of this community.)

Shoreditch Graffiti -- Roa and Sabina Compressed
A Roa Animal (with Sabina in the Foreground)

As mentioned in a previous post, Love Art London events like to end up in the pub — and fortunately I wasn’t disappointed. Just by chance I ended up chatting to Sabina in the Princess of Shoreditch and found that her interest in street art has led her to work on a PhD at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture. Her thesis has the neat title I’ve borrowed above: ‘This Is Not Graffiti’.

Sabina also introduced the intriguingly-named discipline of ‘geosemiotics’, which I subsequently couldn’t resist inserting into the novel. It means, if I understand properly, the study of meaning of words in a spatial context – so covers both ‘authorised’ signs and unsanctioned graffiti and Sabina’s work looks at the convergence of both – ‘hybrid surface inscriptions’. This may be, for example, where a street sign has been altered unofficially or the message of an advertisement subverted by the addition of extra text.

I found the subject fascinating from a fiction writing perspective – often the art is created out of letters or typography (as in Eine’s case) or, as with taggers, the signature has been stylised to the extent that the letters are often unrecognisable. What Sabina is investigating is an aspect of language that’s often taken for granted (the official public sign) and the conflicting motivations of those that try to undermine or subvert it – on a scale that stretches between principled protest and nihilistic egotism.

A couple of weeks later I visited Bristol, the home city of Banksy, who is synonymous with British street art but whose work we didn’t see in Shoreditch. W.H.Smith in Temple Meads station, featured a biography of Banksy (The Man Behind The Wall by Will Ellsworth-Jones in its bestseller section.  Still intrigued by the Shoreditch tour I decided to buy the book and read it on the train on the way back.

Shoreditch Graffiti -- Robbo 1
King Robbo Tribute Redchurch Street Site on 25th May

Banksy comes across in the book as similar in approach to Damien Hirst — the sort of figure who uses irony like a boomerang.  I was most interested in the stories of rivalry and disputes between the street artists were particularly entertaining. We’d seen some art on the Shoreditch tour that referred to King Robbo, an artist who’d been working around the area since the 80s and pre-dates Banksy.

As was reported on the Shoreditch tour, Robbo was badly injured last year (he was in a coma, although he’s recovering) and many of the other artists paid tribute to his work. It’s not clear from my photos as I didn’t get a complete view of the work originally but there’s a tribute to Robbo by (I believe) an artist called Don on a boarded up shop in Redchurch Street.

Shoreditch Graffiti -- Robbo 2
Robbo Tribute Redchurch Street SIte 2nd June

Around 2008, Robbo and Banksy were involved in an infamous dispute that apparently started when Banksy painted over a Robbo mural on the Regent’s Canal that had, surprisingly, survived intact for many years. There’s an intriguing account of how the mural was then adapted by Robbo and Banksy in turn to trade insults. Being in a relatively inaccessible section of the canal, Robbo had to put on a wetsuit and paddle on an inflatable raft to reach the wall, and falling in the water, which shows the lengths these artists are prepared to go to.

Sabina said that the Regent’s Canal was her favourite spot for street art so I was quite pleased that I have a little scene set on the towpath in my novel, probably very near the Robbo mural. And it seems quite appropriate that the canal is an unusually quiet, reflective place detached from the city — it’s almost at the boundary between urban and rural, one of the themes of the novel.

I drove into London at the weekend and came back via Shoreditch, Dalston and the Holloway Road. It was exactly the journey that’s made by some of my characters in the novel between two extremes of England. Despite having lived in Greater London for 16 years, through the graffiti tour I’ve gained a much better understanding of the urban view.

Two Novel Views of England Within 24 Hours

Here are a couple of contrasting photos taken in the last eighteen hours of the different aspects of England that feature in the novel.

The first is one of the photos I took on the fascinating Love Art London graffiti tour of Shoreditch last night. I’ll have to try and remember the artists featured — or perhaps someone can comment. I’ll post more up on the blog soon and describe the tour in more detail — but not while it’s amazingly sunny outside.

Shoreditch Doorway 25th May 2012
Doorway, Redchurch Street, Shoreditch 25th May 2012

And the other photo is of the verdant English countryside. After the miserable, wet April and early May, the grass and trees have had plenty of water to push into the leaf burst so this year has the most vibrant, stunning greens for a long while — showing the beautiful landscape at its best.

Chiltern View 2 May 2012
Cow Parsley with Coombe Hill and Beacon Hill in the Distance -- the Chilterns

Love Art London and the Catlin Prize

The last post dwelt on art at the celebrity and ‘major gallery spaces’ level  (as Time Out describes them). But my novel is about an artist trying to make a living, someone who doesn’t have the reputation of Picasso or Hirst nor has the resources or the inclination to re-stage the battle of Orgreave. To get an appreciation of how art is produced and sold at the more accessible end of the market I went along to the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea Park in March (handily getting a discount on entry with my Art Fund card!).

The Affordable Art Fair differs from the London Art Fair by maintaining a price ceiling of £4,000 on all works for sale (although I was shown an under-the-counter £20k picture by Billy Childish), which means that those of us who don’t run hedge funds might have a prospect of picking up a decent piece of work for an amount that’s, well, affordable.

I only had a lunch-hour to look around the huge pavilion with hundreds of stands from galleries all over the country so I was intrigued by the ‘Egg Timer Tour’ offered by Love Art London. This was a free tour of ten of the most interesting stands which was guaranteed to take no more than an hour — and to ensure punctuality Chris Pensa, who ran the trip, took along a clockwork egg timer. When it buzzed, it was time to move on, at pace, to the next stand.

(One of the stands we visited had miniature figures within glass containers created by Jimmy Cauty, ex-of the KLF — which is an interesting connection with the Jeremy Deller exhibition mentioned in the previous post.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the tour — it was a fast-moving (literally) and very approachable introduction to the contemporary art world. After the tour I learned more about Love Art London — they organise events approximately once a week, for people interested in art, often visiting galleries for private tours, having Q&A sessions with artists in their own studios and so on — ideal for my writing research purposes. Chris sold membership to me instantly when he said the whole thing was so friendly and informal that they usually end each event in the pub — often drinking with the artists. This organisation could have been created specifically for me!

The first event I went to — a private viewing of Glasweigian duo littlewhitehead ‘s installations in the Sumaria Lunn gallery near Bond Street — was fascinating from my perspective of learning how artists interact with their galleries and collectors. Unfortunately, with the gallery being close to the Mayfair hedge fund types, the pub afterwards was so packed with suited chinless wonders five-deep ordering Roederer Cristal at the bar that I didn’t have time to order myself a drink before I needed to get my train home.

Fortunately, at the next event, I was successfully able to pop into the pub — the Owl and Pussycat in Shoreditch, just round the corner from Kim’s fictional studio in my novel — with fellow Love Art London members and Chris Pensa himself. He told me that he’d set up Love Art London after working for a while at Sotheby’s and he found it very rewarding to provide this sociable and fun way of becoming familiar with the London art world — he also provides a similar service for corporate clients — a different sort of experience than the normal team away-day.

We were in Shoreditch after having had a private viewing of work exhibited by the shortlisted artists for the Catlin Prize. Art Catlin curator, Justin Hammond visits shows by students graduating from British art schools and picks forty artists to feature in a publication — the Catlin Guide — which has become known as an overview of new British art.

Ten of the artists were selected to exhibit in a gallery in Londonewcastle, which appeared to be a warehouse currently undergoing conversion in Shoreditch (I know this as I had to be sneaked round the rest of the building to go to the toilet, having had a very quick couple of pints near Monument on the way) and four of these artists gave us a short talk about the work they had on show, which was fascinating for me in trying to improve my understanding of the way young artists work in London.

Jonny Briggs‘s works were mainly in what was probably the most conventional form — photography — but his photographs had a very surreal quality. He explained that he explores themes related to his awakening as an adult in his teenage years — and rather than alienate his parents as is the stereotype — he involves them in his art. His father appeared in several works — sometimes wearing a latex mask of himself — and providing a bronze cast of a toe for one non-photographic piece.

Max Dovey’s work as a performance artist earned him a place in the Catlin prize shortlist — and he exhibited something that resembled a fixed monument both to an event he’d organised and to mark the passing of the technology that event had marked — the ceasing of analogue television broadcasts. Final Broadcast, a short online video, records a party Max had organised to celebrate the last night of analogue television transmission in the London region (the last in the country). The Last Day of TV, his Catlin exhibit, was a series of five sets of five boxed videotapes which were recordings of the last hours of the type of transmission that had first started about 75 years ago. The videocassettes, which are an almost archaic item themselves, were set on a wall like an apt combination of library books and tombstones.

Julia Vogl, who was named as the overall winner of the Catlin prize last week, designed a very clever participatory exhibit — Let’s Hang Out. She constructed a Mondrian-style grid of black and white, both on the floor and against the wall, like three sides of a cube. This was surrounded by carpet tiles, stacked in about half-a-dozen different colours.

A slogan on the wall challenged viewers to declare what they’d do in a spare ten minutes by tossing a square carpet tile into the grid. A key on the wall assigned colours to activities, which included: ‘Tweet’, ‘Call Mum’, ‘Daydream’ and, the only activity whose colour I remember, ‘Masturbate’ (a yellowy-gold).  I think these gold tiles were winning when we saw the installation, which says something about the visitors to the exhibition — probably their honesty.

On her website, Julia Vogl categorises Let’s Hang Out  as a social sculpture and it captures the Zeitgeist of the times – with its physical, participatory interaction encouraging viewers to share their ‘status’. And the use of such familiar and (literally) workaday material as office carpet tiles also emphasises the democratised perspective of the work (apparently the artist used to work in political polling). Let’s Hang Out was last week declared the winner of the Catlin Prize 2012 — by judges who included the art critics of The Times and Time Out.

But there was another prize, awarded to the artist who polled highest in a public vote — entries were either submitted online or in a ballot box at the entrance to the exhibition. This was won by Adeline de Monseignat. Her work Mother HEB/Loleta also explored touch and texture. The work comprised several glass spheres partially buried in sand — exploring the connection between the smoothness and solidity of glass and the graininess and liquidity of its component material. Most of the spheres were small, set around a much larger glass ball about 70 cms in diameter. Pushed against the inside surface of the bigger globe was something with an organic, furry texture which was folded in irregular ridges like the surface of a brain — and if one looked at the sculpture for long enough, this inner material could be seen to move up and down almost imperceptibly — as if it were alive.

The sculpture had a surreal but soothing other-worldly quality, as if some alien life-form had descended into a desert-scape. With Adeline’s permission, I’ve linked through to a photo of a similar installation on her blog — Emerging.

 Adeline de Monseignat - Emerging

Adeline de Monseignat – ‘Emerging’ © Adeline de Monseignat http://adelinedemonseignat.com/

Adeline gave us a very illuminating talk about how she constructed these unique objects — which I referred to as furry orbs. The material inside was old fur coats, picked up from charity shops and the large glass sphere was custom made by a glassblower and was likely the largest of its kind in the country (any other large transparent sphere would usually be made out of perspex for weight and resilience purposes).

With its understated ‘breathing’, juxtaposition of the sensuality of fur on the inside of the sphere and the sterility of glass on the outside, and the spheres’ resemblance to eggs scattered in a barren desert, the work raises questions about some of the most fundamental issues — such as fertility and the creation of life.

From my novel’s perspective, it was interesting that the two prizewinners were both young women artists who’ve moved from abroad to work in London — Julia Vogl is from the US and Adeline is from Monaco — so it’s a relief that my character is credible in that respect. However, I’m probably never going to a character in a novel written by me that can come up with the sort of innovation and insight that any of these real-life young artists have shown — Kim mainly works in painting with an interesting side-line in photography.

But one thing that’s great fun about writing about art is trying to give enough of a description so the reader can then imagine the work — creating imaginary artworks that exist in the individuals’ minds but that have never actually been physically created — a concept that’s reminiscent of Keats’s famous lines in Ode to A Grecian Urn: ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.’ (Later recycled in the 1980s by ABC as ‘The sweetest melodies are an unheard refrain‘.) Both basically mean that the conception of an artwork is always more perfect than any eventual physical realisation — something also very true of writing.

And so I ended up drinking with the Love Art London people and a few of the Catlin Prize artists outside the Owl and the Pussycat pub. I’m back in Shoreditch again on Friday for Love Art London’s graffiti tour, which I’m looking forward to enormously — again it will be excellent research for the novel. As I prepared to walk back to Old Street station, Chris pointed out some work immediately around the Londonewcastle Gallery — including a stickman by Stick — who’s apparently something of a mysterious celebrity.

I’m not sure if Redchurch Street, Shoreditch is the land where the Bong-tree grows’ but it’s where, for the next few days until 25th May, the works by all ten of the Catlin Prize shortlisted artists can still be seen — and I believe it’s free to get in.