Sunday, July 20, 2014

Art Therapy

I was meant to be in Wales this weekend, attending a reunion, but circumstances conspired against me. It was frustrating - I'd be been looking forward to going for months - so I decided to make up for it with a day out in the local area.

Instead of driving 275 miles west, I drove 20 miles east:

Beachy Head is usually a little bracing, as the almost horizontal trees bear witness, but yesterday it was more like the Costa de la Luz, with warm winds gently buffeting the coast.

The suicide chaplin half-heartedly did his rounds, looking for solitary figures at the cliff edge, but I think he knew that it was going to be a quiet day.

Before going to Beachy Head, I stopped off at Birling Gap, to see what damage the winter storms had done. The small pile of debris at the bottom of the cliff was a bit of a disappointment, but I knew that the tearoom I took my mother to last summer had fallen into the sea.

The newly-rendered side of this terrace suggests that the storms had also claimed a house:

I don't know how much these houses are worth, but I suspect that a 25-year mortgage isn't on the cards.

After viewing scenes of carnage and destruction, I ambled along the coast to Eastbourne's Towner Gallery, to see an exhibition of works by Peggy Angus:

Rather than give you a potted history here, I would recommend visiting the website of James Russell, who is an expert on mid-20th century British artists in the Ravillious/Nash/Bawden milieu. He has written some excellent books on Ravillious, Paul Nash and Edward Seago and has just published a new title on the life and art of Peggy Angus.

I think it would be fair to say that the sum of Peggy Angus's art was greater than its parts. Her paintings don't compare well to those of her friend Eric Ravillious, but her greatness lay in her determination to bring art into everyday life, energising everyone around her.

Not content to remain in the rarified world of fine art, she also designed tiles for public buildings, wallpapers for homes and clothes to wear. She passionately believed that we should resist mass-production and uniformity, creating our own art.

Mrs Steerforth was as impressed as I was and we both agreed that we should put some of Peggy Angus's ideas into practice in our own lives.

The Towner Gallery is one of the best in the south-east. The building is well-designed and, unlike some of its counterparts, has an impressive amount of content. Entrance is free, but after a visit to a chi chi cafe with 'artisan' bread rolls, I must have funded the purchase of at least one new painting for their collection.

In addition to the Peggy Angus exhibition, there is also an excellent collection called Designing the Everyday:

I particularly like this rather insouciant depiction of the male theatre-goers as porcine, purse-lipped fops.

And this plate by Ravillious is one of many that I coveted.

Bouyed-up by our day at the Towner, we decided to take our youngest son to Charleston Farmhouse, where the Bloomsbury Group covered almost every square inch of the interior in murals, tiles and paintings:

My son is eight and has an interest in art and architecture (his favourite programme is Grand Designs) that has come entirely from within him. We are trying to foster this enthusiasm with visits to galleries and 'make and do' sessions at home, but don't want to be too heavy-handed.

It mustn't feel like schoolwork.

Charleston usually has guided tours, which are very interesting but would have bored my son rigid, so I picked the one day in the week where there are no tours. I wanted him to be able to wander around freely, looking at whatever took his fancy.

Sadly, from the moment we arrived, a posse of eager women pounced on us. Would our son like to fill in a quiz? No. Had we been here before? Yes, so bugger off and leave us alone.

There was one volunteer guide per room and most of them seemed determined to tell us everything they knew about each room, whether we wanted to hear it or not. When one particularly keen woman asked my son what the table legs reminded him of, I wanted to say "Leave the boy alone! Let him look in peace."

Luckily, my wife was only too happy to respond to the guides and started asking them increasingly obscure questions. She pointed at a violin and asked "Who played that?" The guide looked crestfallen. "Oh...I don't know." Then, like an admonished child, added "But I know all of the main things."

I shouldn't be rude about the guides. They are genuinely passionate about Charleston and the guided tours are some of the most interesting I've ever had, but they need to realise that some visitors just want to look at the art without any distractions.

I used to have similar problems with my older son, who has Asperger's. During one visit to Kipling's house, a well-intentioned volunteer started asking him questions about school. She was trying to be friendly, but within seconds he went from being relatively relaxed to feeling as if he was going to be sick.

Perhaps these places could introduce a scheme where people who wanted to be left alone could wear a simple badge. If it was successful, it could extended to taxis, hairdressers and barbers.

The visit ended in the beautiful gardens. I asked my son what he thought. "It was great. I really liked it, but not those guides."

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Fall

My mother had a fall last week, so I've been spending a lot of time at her flat. Sometimes I feel like Alan Bennett with his mother, trying to make sense of the stream of consciousness that pours from her lips:

"Pat's been to the hospital again. It's DVD this time. If it was Val you'd never hear the last of it. Those chrysanthemums have lasted haven't they. I can feel a draught. Mind you, I water them more than Louise does, but not too much. Do you want a biscuit? They're nice. I just have two, but Sheila's diabetic and she eats a whole packet..."

Today, the highlight was the abusive behaviour of one of her neighbours, who keeps shouting at the Albanian builders who are half-heartedly decorating their flats:

"Joe's been awful. Julia said that he shouted a word at them that's even worse than the F word. I didn't know there was one. Did you?"

I made a noise behind my Rich Tea biscuit that could have meant yes or no.

"I asked Daphne if she knew of a worse word than the F word and she said she didn't know there was one either. There's no need for it. Any rate, the doctor says he won't see him again. The reminds me, you gave me a cooking apple yesterday."
I listen and after years of practice, know exactly what my mother is talking about.

Sometimes she drives me mad, particularly her morbid obsession with other people's ill health. But I live in dread of the day when a particular phone call comes.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Star Trek - The HR Perspective

I watched an episode of Star Trek yesterday, for the first time in years. The episode was called 'The Immunity Syndrome'. I have fond memories of the programme from the 1970s, when I would have a bath in the evening before changing into my Star Trek pyjamas, exclusive to buyers of Kellogg's Sugar Smacks.

Sadly, the programme wasn't as exciting as I remember and I spotted a number of things which, frankly, gave me cause for concern. There were several health and safety violations, an alarmingly high number of incidences of sexual harrassment and a performance issue that needs to be raised at an appraisal.

I will be raising the following points with the Starship Enterprise's HR manager:

1. A Poor Ergonomic Working Environment:

Mr Spock's 'What the Butler Saw' machine, where he looks at science and tells the Captain what is happening, is a health hazard. The many hours spent in a stooping posture will produce chronic back problems and may necessitate sick leave, leading to early retirement.

I also noticed several tripping hazards. A health and safety review is urgently needed.

2. Disabled Access:

With its steps and barriers, there is no provision for disabled employees on the Bridge. If Captain Pike decided to pay a visit, he would have to remain in the lift.

I would recommend introducing ramps and conduct a Disability Compliance Check throughout the whole ship.

3. Sexual Harrassment

A number of instances of sexual harrassment were noted. This is a particular concern, given that most of the sexual remarks originated from Captain Kirk himself. I would recommend instigating disciplinary action for Kirk, with a compulsory attendance at a workshop on Star Base 12.

I would also suggest that standard, genderless uniforms should replace the current division between trousers for men and short dresses for women.

4. Sexism in the Workplace:

During this conference on how to save the galaxy, the female member of staff remained silent. None of the male members of staff asked her for an opinion and only made eye contact with each other.

I would recommend attendance at a Workplace Sexism Awareness course for all male officers and ensure that a helpline number is displayed on every staff noticeboard.

5. Substance Abuse:

A constant use of amphetamines was observed, sanctioned by the Chief Medical Officer. These are controlled Class B drugs and it is well documented that regular use can cause psychotic behaviour.

I would recommend revoking the doctor's licence to practise and sending Captain Kirk to a substance abuse clinic.

6. Poor Discipline.

The Chief Engineer's attitude to authority is a major cause for concern.

During routine requests for more power from the engines, his response is always negative and possessive. There is also a tendency to anthropomorphise the engines, referring to them as 'she'. I would recommend a written warning, accompanied by a requirement for compulsory counselling.

7. Inadequate Equipment:

I am particularly concerned by the Shuttle Craft, which is continually running out of power. Poor equipment has a corrosive effect on staff morale. Staff should be provided with equipment which is fully maintained and subject to a regular MOT inspection.

I would suggest the introduction of daily compliance checks, to ensure that the Shuttle Craft is always fully charged and in possession of more than half an hour's life support.

I hope that my suggestions will be acted on. I don't want to have to take this up with the United Federation of Planets.

Friday, June 27, 2014


For many, opening a bookshop in 2014 is as recklessly anachronistic as buying a typewriter or investing in a new VCR, but Waterstones (now sans apostrophe) have defied the odds and just opened a new branch in Lewes. Don't they know we're all reading on Kindles now?

However, if any new bookshop is going to succeed, it will be this one. I've written quite a few posts in the past citing what's wrong with Waterstone's (and when they were owned by HMV, it was a long list), so it came as a pleasant surprise to see a new branch that was absolutely pitch perfect.

Everything, from the Farrow and Ball paint to the quirky range of titles, was exactly right for Lewes. But does that mean they'll make any money?

On Wednesday, I had a drink with a former colleague from Waterstones who'd been overseeing the Lewes opening and asked her how things were going. She was cautiously optimistic, painting a picture that wasn't one of universal doom and gloom. I know from experience that her default setting is positive, but she didn't gloss over the many challenges that high street booksellers face. It was encouraging to hear that some bookshops still had a future.

The age of the 15,000 sq foot behemoths is clearly over, as far as new openings go, but there is a place for smaller shops and apparently, people are still buying books. Just not everywhere.

I'm not a betting man, but I'd put money on the Lewes branch being here in five years' time. It deserves to succeed.

In other news, as they say on the television, I have finished moving out of the rat-infested hovel that I haven't called home for the last 20 months. I will miss the robins:

But I won't miss the smell of several months of accumulated bovine excrement, or the sound of bulls sodomising each other.

The move was relatively straightforward, apart from one mishap today, when a piece of metal fell on my head. I feel fine, but it's left a mark that looks like the scar from a frontal lobotomy. I hope it heals, otherwise I will have to wear a hat for the rest of my life.

One other piece of good news is that we have succeded in getting a Statement of Special Educational Needs for our oldest son. I won't bore you with the details, but the gist is that if we find a school that can help our son, the local authority will now pay for it. Awards like these rarely get past the application stage, so I can only assume that my son made an impression.

On a sadder note, last week we attended the funeral of our closest friend in Lewes. She was 56 and had twin 14-year-old boys, one of whom is severely autistic.

The funeral was in two parts: a Catholic Mass in Lewes, followed by a cremation in Brighton. I'd never been to a Catholic service before and felt that both the length and use of ritual added a gravitas and dignity that is often missing from funerals. I'll have to do a deathbed conversion.

The ritualistic aspects of the Mass were rather confusing for the Protestants and heathens. About a quarter of the people at the servive were Catholics and every now and then, they would pop up from their seats like a flashmob and chant something. The rest of us sat awkwardly in our pews.

When the coffin arrived, everybody took a deep breath and tried to maintain their composure. It seemed extraordinary that our friend was in this small wooden box. A few weeks earlier she'd had lunch with my wife and on the way home, they'd popped into the church hall to vote in the European elections. She voted Green.

There was a hushed atmosphere as the coffin was slowly carried along the aisle, then the silence was suddenly broken by the autistic son, who uttered just one word in a flat, emotionless voice: "Upset."

At that point, everybody broke down.

At some funerals I've experienced grief as a sense of personal loss, but on this occasion it was just a terrible sadness for a friend whose life had been cut short.

Our friend faced death without any self-pity and remained interested in the world right up until the last week. She was obviously worried about her sons, but took comfort in the knowledge that her sister in Los Angeles has agreed to take the boys. In a few weeks' time, they will leave Lewes and begin a new life in California.

At some point I will write a tribute to our quirky, interesting friend. In the meantime, here's a trailer for a film that was written by her late father, who died only a year earlier. She would have liked this: