Monday, July 20, 2009

The Great Art Giveaway

Iain McLean is a photographer. In my opinion he is a very good photographer. In the opinion of a lot of residents in Pollokshaws, a suburb of Glasgow, he is probably regarded as a very good photographer.

The evidence for this is that they have taken the entire collection of his photographs from a public exhibition. This is a short account of how they came to do this.

But first some context for the story.

Pollokshaws is one of those rare and strange places. It has a long and noble history as a place in its own right. However, in modern day Glasgow you would not appreciate this because social engineering has changed the trade and makeup of this area. It was developed in the late 1950’s as the second Comprehensive Development Area. The first was Hutchesontown where Sir Basil Spence built his modernist tower block that only had a life span of 30 years before being demolished in 1993 to be replaced with modern flats and houses. The tower blocks in Pollokshaws are going the same way and this is where Iain McLean came to take a particular interest.

Iain is a member of the long established Queens Park Camera Club. This is a creative hub that I remembered when I was a member twenty years ago at a time when digital photography did not exist. No one appears to use film or to develop their own prints now. Iain has been co-ordinating a small group of photographers with a concept of community photography. Trying to help direct folk towards a sense of photography for its own sake and not for competition.

Pollokshaws and its second period of major regeneration in a hundred years meant that there was a danger of another lost community. Iain decided to make a record of this re-development before the community disappeared. Over a period of a year he has been visiting the community and taking lots of photos. He then got a grant to print and mount his pictures and was able to put them on exhibition at Pollokshaws Public Library for a fortnight in June.

The pictures are an interesting record of the community taken from every conceivable angle. Iain also came across a number of interesting characters who lived and worked in the area who were pleased to let him take their portrait. Some of his photographs are astonishing from an art point of view with an abstract angle that is highly original.

Iain had a big idea. He wanted not only to record and display his work, he also wanted the community to have the benefit of owning it. He could have sold it to the residents. He could have donated it the pictures as a permanent collection to the library where they were shown. Instead, Iain wanted to do something in the way that Banksy might have nodded approval to. He chose to display the entire collection from one end of the main through road to the other. On walls, in bus shelters, on shop fronts. And then he wanted to leave a note inviting the public to take a picture if they like it. He called it the Great Art Giveaway – amongst other titles.

And so it was, at the beginning of July on a Friday morning that I linked up with Iain to help him achieve this ambition.

We started at the bus shelter outside the library where we located the first picture. We posted a small poster next to it advising the public why it was there and inviting them to take it if they liked it. We zig zagged across the road and put up a mini exhibition of five photographs. At this point a woman and her grandchild came to catch a bus and asked wht the pictures were being put for. We explained. "But you can’t leave them there, people will take them." That was the whole point Iain said. She took a fancy to one. Take it we said. Perhaps, on my way back, if it’s still there.

Iain had to return across the road and he spoke to an elderly couple who were waiting for the bus. One of them asked what it was about and Iain invited him to help himself to it. "Just you leave it there," said the wife to her husband. "It looks just fine where it is."

Next, to the bridge over the River Cart. A series connected to the block of flats adjacent to it was put up. The activity of doing this was challenging people to come up and ask what we were doing. It created a community discussion about what was happening to the area.

Further down the road Iain called into a sweet shop where he had taken a portrait of the owner. Returning the picture to the person it had a sense of returning to the community what belonged to the community. This took on a different dimension when we arrived at the police station to discover that the community police officer whose portrait Iain had taken, was on duty. He was brought back out to the street and his photograph taken again holding his portrait.

One portrait could not be recognised and Iain had to enquire at the pub whose face it was. It was left there for the owner to collect.

Along the way other photographers known to Iain appeared out of nowhere and joined in with the activity. It became a fun day out for us and an intrigue for the residents. Did Banksy do his work like this we wondered ? Did he have a merry band of supporters who rushed around carrying his boxes of stencils and a set of ladders ? Or as in our case, a box of photographs and block of blu tack.

The task complete I wandered back home along the route we had taken. Slowly but surely, the work was being removed. In one case it was removed and relocated in a case of what one of Iains colleagues described as "community curation".

Shortly after this event, on 11 July, a photographer in Tyneside died. Jimmy Forsyth came to photography late in life when he realised that his own community of Elswick was about to be re- developed and the lives of this thriving community changed for ever. He bought a second hand box camera and his photographs record the people of Elswick before it disappeared. Jimmy was a life long socialist who believed that his work should be publicly available. In his Guardian obituary he is quoted:

"It’s no good burying the pictures, they should be given out to more people, and they should be free. After all, they belong to their subjects, to the people themselves."

As an act of democratic art in the community, Iain’s ‘installation’ went unnoticed by the media. But not unnoticed by the people that mattered.

You can see a photographic record of the event on this Flickr page

Monday, June 02, 2008

Milan 2008

Milan, it's industrial, its dirty, it's got graffiti eveywhere (and not much of that is nice), very expensive, see the charge for a beer and two wines ?
Well one benefit is that there is a lift up to the roof of the Duomo. And that was a positive comment from an architect!
The challenge was to find something really positive about Milan before actually arriving. However, no one seemed to want to extol the beauty of the city.
After spending three nights and two days exploring the second capital city of Italy (but don't say that to the Milanese - they will feel insulted) I can safely report that:
  1. It is an unusually attractive city to tour with unique architecture and an international history that is worth studying
  2. It has a user friendly transport infrastructure which is good to use
  3. It manifestly is a city of design and people watching is an entertainment in itself.

We stayed in the Hotel Spadari which is so central, we were virtually in the Piazza Duomo. This made for an easy stay. Much of our trail was subsequently on foot. The hotel was very modern and our room, seemingly the most expensive in the hotel, was a roof top apartment with a sunken bed area that one walked down into. It was a great position to look out onto the city from.

Our first two days were very warm, although overcast, but hats were needed when up on the roof of the Duomo.

The Duomo is the worlds largest Gothic cathedral and it is an extraordinarily beautiful building. The interior marble columns are colossal by any standard. The statues on the roof pinnacles are numerous and phenomenal. And yes, there is a lift which delivers you very fast to the top. A real benefit with my pre-operational hip.

Milan can be as expensive as you want it to be. It is worth spending a little on style, but you can take it in long doses at your leisure. Even though it feels like renting space to see and be seen. Well, yes the beer and wine can be expensive, but no more so than a good watering hole in any British city.

So, what does industrial exactly mean ? It conjures up images of factories and goods wagon and heavy transport and a working class environment. If you go to Glasgow, this was one of the UK's greatest industrial cities - but with little evidence of this now. If you go to Lanarkshire - this was one of Scotlands main coal mining and steel counties - with little evidence of this now to the visitor. In Milan you can find no evidence of industry in the city cente an its environs. Milan is a commercial city, not an industral city and it is a working city like London. One suspects that most cities would have had some industry at some time - as London had its incredible East End docklands that generated employment for thousands based upon dynasties of families. This has disappeared completely but the names and sites of this industry still remain. There is none of this obvious to the tourist in Milan, but the banks and businesses are evident. As is the design industry - which is evidenced in the wonderful clothes and expnsive stores. This is not to deny the fact that Milan must have a significant industrial history with evidence of the same social and political development that London and Lanarkshire experienced.

And is it dirty ? No. It has a well worn post colonial feel - and what city does not have some smattering of graffiti ?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ashes, sunshine, blue sky and rainbows

To Plumpton Races on Sunday. As you can see from the race card above, it was a family gathering to scatter the ashes of my parents now that they were together. My father died ten years ago. He was a bookmaker for most of my life before he retired. Not an on course bookie but a turf accountant. He opened a betting shop as soon as they were made legal in the early 1960's and I have many memories of earning my pocket money on a Saturday, marking up the results for him.

My mother died in September this year and she had been preparing for this occasion for the past year. She had written to the Clerk of the Course at Plumpton in September 2005 inquiring about the possibility of her husbands ashes, which she had kept in her flat in a wicker basket on top of a dresser since he had died, being scattered on the course. She received a beautiful letter letting her know that this was a request that they always tried to accommodate.

The baton was taken up by my sister who then contacted the course and arranged for the scattering to take place for the pair of them. The 19th November was the closest date and being a Sunday it meant that most of us would be able to attend. My sister liased and organised with everyone to create the perfect day from our side. On the other side, there were good runners and the races were exciting. But the best thing was the weather which was a day of glorious sunshine and blue sky.

We had been asked to gather at 11am which is when the gates to the course were opened. My sister had to arrange for the Clerk of the Course to show us onto the course and he was most amenable for us to lay their ashes across the finishing line. We walked to the allotted position and gathered to organise the scattering. It had been agreed that the boys would do the scattering, three of us. The eldest brother present began to say a few words to mark the occasion and just as he began the course announcer came onto the tannoy to welcome racegoers to the meeting ! Any way, it brought a smile to our faces. There was a light breeze and we stood one the right side of the line. We scattered the ashes in silence and then took some photographs on the line to mark the occasion.

We all had tickets for the Grandstand and were able to watch the racing and the horses crossing the line. Our parents would have appreciated very much the way we were marking and celebrating their lives. Absent members of the family were also remembered.

The racing was magnificent and some of us won a lot of money and some of us broke even and some of us lost. But we all had fantastic fun and had a beer or two. One of us also had some jellied eels and by golly they were good. It must have been 1982 when I last had jellied eels, our youngest brother had ordered a whole basin full from Tubby Isaacs to bring to our parents golden wedding anniversary. One of us also received a tip from the Clerk of the Course which subsequently won. But she didn't think to tell us !

The sun shone on the prettiest of race courses all afternoon. Just before the last race a single rain cloud moved over and gave us a short shower. This created two beautiful rainbows over the course. Make of this what you want. But it brought a knowing smile to the faces of all the family members who were there.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Flaming Lips

To the SECC on Friday night to see the Flaming Lips. I had been introduced to them properly by my son after he had sent me 'The Soft Bulletin' for my fathers day gift. I had heard of them via their other popular album awhile back, about a Japanese girl defeating a robot. (you couldn't make this stuff up really could you ?). I loved it instantly. The music, melodies, storyline about saving the world. It was perfect music to drive to work with.

So when I saw the advert for their gig in Glasgow I sent a text to both my son and daughter. "Want to come and see Flaming Lips with me - my treat." I had an instant affirmative from both within minutes. They are regular music goers and probably have already notched up more live gigs than I have had breakfasts. In the 1960's we were a bit limited in the London suburbs and you had to consider travelling into the city for clubs such as the 51 Club, aka Ken Colyers, or to Les Cousins to catch the latest singers on the folk and blues circuit.

It felt good going off with my two wonderful adult children, well nearly and recently adult children, to share a gig that we all wanted to enjoy. It was a shock to my system. The SECC is like a barn with hi tec infrastructure that looks like the innards of a factory or air plane hangar. I should have realised when I saw my ticket number that we were to be among 5000 others. We arrived in time to catch the end of the support which was a really weird couple making 1970's experimental electronic loop music. I asked my son if he wanted a pint. This was a very significant question. I had tried subtley on a number of occasions during the past years to get him to bond with me over a beer. He never has. This night it worked. Yes, he said nonchalantly. Next I turned to my daughter and with trepidation that she was going to ask for a diet coke, she said "What sort of beer is it ?" Well you could have knocked me over with a boa feather. I told her it was just beer. "I'll have one then." Now, not having been to an event as big as a mini festival in my life, I was fascinated by the bar. They didn't have a beer pump or a button to press to servce a single pint. They had a mega beer machine that could fill a dozen pints at the same time. This commitment to getting the beer to the customer faster than you could pour a glass of water was absolutely stunning. So we stood, proud father and his children, supping pints of lager.

This is significant in more ways than one. It was in 1963 when I was introduced to my first beer at the tender age of 16. We were returning home from visiting my grandparents in Sanderstead, Surrey and my older brother asked my father to drop him off in Purley. My dad asked him where he was off to at 3pm in the afternoon. To a folk club he said. Why dont you take your brother ? Heres a10/- (ten shillings) note each, go and enjoy yourselves. I don't know if my brother wanted his younger sibling with him, but it came with a ten bob note. He took me to the Under the Olive Tree coffee bar in South Croydon, just down from the bus garage. Each Sunday afternoon they had a folk and blues club in the cellar. That was when I first came across Long John Baldry. Now known for his somewhat mushy soul songs that made him popular, he was standing alone on the small stage down below in this cellar and singing the blues. No accompaniment, just him and the blues for half an hour. He was stunning. And that was the start of my musical life. Forty five years later and I am still listening to the music of my roots alongside other stuff. Anyway the significance of this was that my brother took me off to a pub afterwards and bought me my first beer. A half pint of Red Barrel. He then taught me the rudiments of paying for your round. This was a rite of passage that I shall never forget.

I wonder if thats what happened for me and my children on Friday night ?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Journey Begins

I could never understand why regular commuters don't do anything on the train. They look out of the window, stare around them, play with their gloves. If they have no companion they do not seem occupied other than with their own thoughts.

Why no book ? Or a newspaper ? Pen and paper ?

The moment I hit the seat I go into a routine. The journey, although an hour long, is too short. Each minute requires some discipline, whether it is reading or presenting the ticket, getting off and buying the newspaper, boarding again and greeting a companion, arriving at the destination and walking to the office.

Other commuters don't seem to do anything. But are they doing something that we have no clue about ? Or do they see the journey as something that is endured and not enjoyed ?

I have been blogging for over a year now and find it a real alternative to television.
Nearly all my creative thinking and chatter takes place on the train. At one point it became the vehicle of angst which found expression in a defunct blog called My Travel Blog of Woe. This was designed to vent my frustration at the appalling antidiluvian method of ticket selling and inspection on my train system. My frustration vented after I discovered the GNER to London which stopped at my station, Motherwell. My other blog of course is Down on the Allotment, my hobby and pastime for the past two years and a source of fun. For eight hours a day my work is accounted, reported, recorded and filed. But what should happen to the rest of my day and how will those stories and accounts of the past, present and future get put away where they can be found and shared ?

This question was answered for me ten days ago on the journey home. Two colleagues were asking me about Michael Marra, whose review had appeared in the paper that day. In the space of five minutes I had recounted my story about him and how I first met him. You should put it in your blog, my colleagues said.

And so the idea took to seed. And this is the result. And this is the beginning.

There is no objective other than to have a depository for stories and links which to all other purposes might be a diary. But no, this is a journal of daily ramblings. Ramblings on my daily train of thoughts, conversations and links to the information and stories that nail me to the mast.