White Hot

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This morning I went down to Stoke Station to pick up tickets for my journey in early September to visit friends in Gloucestershire and Cardiff, taking in a concert by Leonard Cohen. Next to the station stands what is now Staffordshire University. My father taught in those buildings, featured in the photographs. When I was very young it was Stoke-on-Trent College of Technology, which in the mid 1960’s in the ‘white-hot technological’ period of Labour morphed into North Staffs Polytechnic. My father retired in 1970. I remember hearing Tony Benn on the then new Radio 1 supporting the extension to nuclear power, and being rather condescending to the people phoning in about how they liked science fiction and yet didn’t want the developments in modern technology, odd how some things stick in the mind. Polytechnics were going to revolutionise education opening it up to all without the stuffiness and prejudices of the universities, technological courses would be as valued as classics. Aren’t they still talking about the same thing now?

The older building is where I first remember visiting when he taught there. They used to hold Christmas parties for staff children in the staff room, and I remember huge blackboards covered in his neat spidery handwriting and numbers which made no sense to me then and probably not now. He taught maths and pure maths to mining, engineering and other science and technology students. He had a brilliant mind and used to beat the early computers in speed of calculation.

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Later he taught on the top floor of the newer building, built when it became a Poly, I remember he always fast walked up the stairs rather than use the lift as it gave him good exercise.

The changing of names of institutions is something that features in Underpainting, the novel I am publishing here bit by bit, as is the ‘model’ for the buildings. I remember as a teenager meeting my father on the top floor and watching the trains going in and out of Stoke Station and looking down as crowds of students mulled around the college.

It’s odd how these images and sounds and colours stick inside for decades, to then be mined and polished for my writing. As I check through Underpainting before putting it on this blog, I can see how much was just waiting to be released as I wrote what was my first attempt at writing a novel, trying to prove to myself that I could carry a credible and what I hope is an entertaining story over that volume of writing. It has the faults of a first novel in that myriads of small ideas that were brewing for years spilled out onto the page, luckily it took so long to write (about 13 years!), that I got rid of the worst, like having all the chapters called after lines in A Shropshire Lad (WHAT!!).

The photographs, which are nothing special, were taken today on a warm typical English summer day at about 11.15am.

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Underpainting 2

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Chapter 2 of my novel Underpainting.

2

The sky was opaque, not sure whether to rain or just block out the sun all day. Peter looked out from the stuffy staff room window at the 9.18 train to London slowly winding its way into the station. He told himself he would be on that tomorrow morning and felt quite pleased to be going down, even though he had to meet Henry, his agent at Dover Passage Gallery, for lunch. He remembered that in all the fuss last night he’d forgotten to list what paints and brushes he required from Osborne’s, he’d get Tom to do it, he had a tutorial with him later. His mind moved on to the tutorials that morning, Rachel was first on his list, ‘Shit’, he said aloud, and thought ‘Mari won’t be here to help’.

She had gone to her Mothers’ for one of her infrequent visits and Peter knew she’d be in a foul mood when she got back, especially as he wouldn’t be there, it was his night out with Bill. Marianne did some part-time teaching on the Foundation Course and often came in when Peter had tutorials, many of the students seemed to prefer her, he thought they felt she was more interested, ‘perhaps she is’ said Peter to himself, as he watched a huge goods train amble northwards. He looked at his list again, Rachel, then Tom, then Alan, then lunch.

“What a shitty day eh, Pete? Talking to the birds again?”

Peter didn’t turn round, he knew only too well the loud voice of Bill.

“Morning Bill”.

They stood together surveying the day, Bill looked down at a knot of young women students arriving.

“’Think of football’… eh Peter, ‘Think of football’” Bill laughed at the quote and its relevance.

Peter and Bill had started at the college on the same day, Peter as a part-time painting tutor, Bill lecturing in the History of Art. When they embarked upon their careers it was still an Art School, with over a hundred years of tradition, and housed in its original Victorian home with high windows, dark corners, discarded classical casts in the life studio. In the late 70’s it had been absorbed into an Institute of Higher Education which had now changed it’s name to The North Midlands University, moving the ArtDepartment to brand new lifeless premises in 1984 which they nicknamed ‘The Fire Station’.

Bill had been vocal against every change, a thorn in the administrators sides. Peter supported it feeling, perhaps wrongly, that the changes would offer a greater educational opportunity for the students. He thought ‘…why shouldn’t science and arts students work together?’, thinking of the new ideas that could happen. But every move for mixed courses was blocked by difficulties with faculty heads, demarcation lines for technicians, timetables.

Bill and Peter were now Senior Lecturers with contracts for life, unless they did something horrendous, and Bill had been very close to it. Bill often said that whenever he saw one of the grey suited blue striped administrators, he had the uneasy feeling they were dissecting him into dozens of part-time short-term tutors.

Only two months previously Peter had to attend a meeting in the Dean’s office to support Bill after some students and parents had complained at Bill being drunk at a lecture, his language, and the treatment of them. Afterwards they’d got drunk together. The trouble was Bill wouldn’t compromise, he’d provoke the students by calling them middle class Sunday painters… who’d had it too easy and would go running back home to mummy and daddy when they’d got their precious degree, etc. Too close to the truth for many.

Peter remembered how Bill had supported him when he’d stood out against the then Head of Department, when they hadn’t short-listed any women for three lecturer posts. Peter demonstrated outside the College with hundreds of students, caused embarrassment by appearing on local TV and radio. That seemed a long time ago now, and luckily attitudes had, on the surface at least, changed.

Peter was now the University’s ‘star turn’. The Head of Faculty had the Sunday Times Magazine article about him framed on his wall; the Dean had bought one of his pictures for the ‘University Collection’ and it hung in the Committee Room; the Director of Marketing featured him in the University prospectus. All this since he had sold four paintings; one to the Tate, one to the Museum of Modern Art in Phoenix and two to a new collection in Tokyo, following his belated success in the New British Painting show at The Royal Academy. Before that he’d never been noticed, it had even been mentioned that Painting would have to merge with Printing and Sculpture, and at least three lecturers axed, perhaps he’d be one. Nowadays he was asked to all the special events, his department expanded, visitors always brought and introduced to him, and the Dean had even offered him a studio at the University, which he declined.

“Bill, what do you know about Frank Butter?” Peter could smell stale scotch on Bill’s breath.

“That bastard. I’ve got a slide I use for Media Studies of the Sun’s front page, nineteen eighty five or eighty six I think, anyway height of Thatcherism. You remember, after he’d sent in his heavies in with earth movers to get rid of squatters from houses in the way of a development he was into, filled now with yuppies with negative equity and piles. A squatter died, but no one was charged. The Sun had a huge title ‘Serves you right’. Got away with it, gone a bit quiet now, loads of grey suits and old school ties front things, but he’s still there, pulling strings, buying and selling. Why you asking, he going to get an honorary degree or something? Wouldn’t put it past them. They need a new admin block don’t they? Comes from your way doesn’t he?”

“Yes”, Peter knew very well he did and heard Bill start on and on about the evils of developers in the Thatcher years and their similarity with the Dutch entrepreneurs who paid Rembrandt to paint them, usual stuff which he churned out to Second Years each Autumn.

“Got to go Bill, see you later, are you at the Lamb tonight?”

Peter was ten minutes late for Rachel’s tutorial. She had a space in ‘The Fire Station’, a soulless modern factory space, partitioned into small cubicles each one holding a student, from above it would have looked like a beehive. Every year they had to make the spaces smaller as more students were admitted.

When Peter arrived Rachel was making tea in the corner of her ‘block’.

“Sorry I’m late Rachel”

“Tea Peter?”

“No thanks” he walked over to look at some drawings in a folder. “Mind if I look?”

Rachel waived a hand in a gesture saying “OK” as she poured boiling water on a herbal tea bag.

As Peter looked through he could judge just how good Rachel was, she drew people, mainly in life classes, with far more assurance than he could ever reach. He already knew they’d give her a First at the end of all this. The handling of the Conte was superb, the lines and folds of flesh, with subtle variations of light and the ability to convey character. She was good.

“Marianne not coming?”

“No, she’s visiting her Mother”.

Peter walked over to a large half finished painting flat on the floor, surrounded by newspapers and pots of paint. This was when he wished Marianne were there. Rachel’s used her drawings to make very graphic images of what could be interpreted as rape and violent sexual intercourse. Body parts, uniforms, seaside ephemera, shafts of light and dark; her paintings were bleak, cruel, and threatening.

‘What can I say?’ Peter thought, he knew he had to say something constructive, but he felt what he’d say would be inane and fatuous, the paintings came from deep inside, his comments from the surface. ‘Bill loves them’ he thought. Every year at least one student would become obsessive, they’d even had to have areas of degree shows cordoned off for fear of adverse public reaction, but these were different, certainly not the usual obsessions. Peter sensed Rachel would move on from these when she’d got whatever it was out of her system, using her abilities to produce some fine work, ‘but if I say that she’ll think I’m being facetious’.

They stood silent, surveying the work on the floor of the cubicle. Peter felt tall next to Rachel’s dark petite-ness. The string from her tea bag swung from side to side like a pendulum.

“Did Veronica come to see you about that multi media course?”

“Yes, I didn’t know whether I’d have time, but it looked good”.

“I know you’re in the third year and normally we wouldn’t organise these things, but it isn’t often we can get into the Media department. I thought it may help.”

Peter thanked God for finding something to talk about, and they chatted happily for twenty minutes about scanners, photo manipulation, sound, the possibility in the future of exhibitions to a world-wide unseen audience, until it was time for Peter to see Tom.

As he walked into Tom’s cubicle Peter knew Tom would get a Two/Two and go on to make a perfectly good art teacher in a school. He ‘smacked his wrist’ for being nasty about school teachers. ‘I must remember to ask Tom to go to the studio and make that list before I go’.

Peter stood before a canvas covered in a solid mass of paint that to Tom meant something.

Underpainting 1

Hereby begins a novel I began in 1993 and completed in 2007. I will put up 1 or 2 chapters each week and it can be followed on Categories. I hope you enjoy it and would love to hear from you about it.

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Underpainting

Underpainting is the technique of painting multiple thin coats of paint before painting the final layer

1

1990

Peter switched on the strip lights which slowly took hold of the darkness, the last one flickering into full throttle by the time he and Marianne were half way down the long studio. Marianne could smell the expensive paints. When Peter and Marianne argued, which wasn’t often, she told him he was more interested in the paints than in what he painted. Not true, but it caught a nerve. Peter bought paint from Osborne’s in Covent Garden, Marianne went to B&Q.

The studio was part of a former railway warehouse in Longhill, divided into artists’ studios, Peter had one of the largest spaces, he had enough money nowadays. At one end was a large window overlooking the orange glow of the railway yards, rain was streaming down the glass breaking up the dirt into maps of river deltas.

The left hand wall was mainly taken up with a long workbench which Peter had found in the basement. Above it were shelves neatly set out with tins of oil paint, bottles of turpentine and linseed oil, racks of spatulas and brushes, pots full of pencils, chalks and pastels. Some said it looked like a shop. There was an old radio covered in multi coloured finger marks and stuck forever on Radio 4, and a kettle which had once been white plastic but was now a burnt brown colour. Near the door there was a thick roll of expensive canvas and a stack of wood for stretchers. It was orderly, Peter paid students from the college to make sure of that.

Marianne’s much smaller studio was a tip, but her own tip and she hadn’t visited Peter’s studio for ages, and even though they’d been together for more than twenty years. She’d forgotten how methodical he was, very different than at home.

At one end of the room were two racks which Marianne and Peter had constructed together about twelve years previously, when he first moved in. One to store completed paintings, the other for ongoing work. These were supposedly to share but were full of Peter’s work.

On the right hand wall were hung large pieces of hand made paper, covered in preparatory drawings. Marianne stopped to look at them. The hard green strip lights made the thick charcoal shine. She always liked these, ‘sharp images…’, but they never appeared outside the studio, and usually Peter would destroy them when a painting was finished. They were accurate in the extreme often focusing on a tiny section of the completed picture, a stone, a clump of grass, a broken bottle.

“Help me out with this Mari will you?”

Peter was standing beside a large canvas. Her hands caught the wet oil paint at the edge.

“Careful!” he snapped.

“You should use acrylics like George” she retorted. They carried the picture to ‘the stage’, as Peter called it, in front of the window. A couple of years ago he’d bought some theatre lights from a school and set them up so he could always work in the same light, it cost him a fortune replacing bulbs, but he liked to see his work in a constant rather than natural light. They set the canvas on two heavy Victorian easels and made sure it was secure. Peter closed the large black out blinds to get rid of the orange glow. The painting looked dark and dull. He lit up the stage and the colours burst into life.

“It’s finished”, Peter said, with some pride. He was never satisfied with his work and found it hard to finish, but there always came a time when no more could be achieved, that was the completion. He picked up the kettle and went out to the communal kitchen to get water.

Marianne studied the canvas. The painting was crisp and confident, lines sharp and assured. To the left there was a vast block of black paint scraped away from under painting of shapes in greens and reds. The centre was taken up with a pool of cold light in tones of blue and white. Was that a lamp post rising above, or an arm, or a knife? She couldn’t tell. A deep red pool of paint hovered underneath. To the right was set of images, broken up, a wall with posters? No. A house open like a dolls house? No. She moved closer, looked carefully. ‘Claustrophobic’ she thought.

Peter’s paintings evoked the spirit of a place, they picked up the essence rather than topographical details in blocks of colour, unrelated lines, disharmonious shapes. But they were that place, when you knew where it was it never again felt as real as in his paintings.

Peter returned with the kettle and a couple of chipped mugs.

“Herb or Typhoo?”

“Peter?”, she only used his full name when annoyed or needing to be matter of fact. He looked up as he switched the kettle on. “Peter where is he? I thought he wanted some sort of portrait, isn’t that what he’s paid you for?”.

“Oh… he didn’t really mean it, he knows I’m no portrait painter, you should know that”

“Peter… look, you stood there making out as if you knew it all… smarming about…”

“That was the drink… he’ll know that, he’s seen my work before” Peter cut in.

“No Peter he won’t… you stood there telling him about how Renaissance princes would go out and burn down a city, steal cattle, screw the peasants, then pay Fra Angelico or whoever to put them on the right hand of God. I heard you, he loved it”.

“What does he know anyway… he’ll love it, it’s where he grew up, where he started, he’ll know this place as soon as he sees it… it’ll go up in a fancy office and his new friends will be green with envy, they’ll all want one”, he ended quite emphatically.

“Peter, he wanted to be seen in it” Marianne said very definitely.

“Perhaps he is”

She turned and looked at the drawings on the wall. There were details of mud pools, some grass, a gate, a brick, a boot, no person.

“You never intended to put him in did you?”

Peter looked like a naughty boy in front of a headmistress.

“And you know where he gets his money, he won’t like it and he’s nasty, it’s all a front… you know that… and he’s paid you… and you know you’ve screwed him”.

They stood in silence staring intently in the midnight silence at the picture, the central pool of light grew brighter, the colours around deepened, the red pool of paint like dark red blood, the studio seemed miles away.

They jumped as the kettle made a noise like a door buzzer.

Challenge

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My attempt to take a photograph and ‘publish’ it every day this year has rather petered out. It began to ‘fail’ when I had to go into hospital for an operation, though there was absolutely no reason to stop, then I think it has mainly been the blandness of hot sunny weather.

That is my excuse anyway which is better than the one I used for not attending Renegade Writers, that I had been abducted by aliens, however true that had been.

The positive side is that the failed attempt has renewed my interest in using photography alongside writing as a means for expression. I have begun to look again at the poetic potential of imagery, not just internalising it but creating something, and images from usually a very close environment as I don’t own a car now. The ease of ‘developing’ photographs on screen, rather than the need for a darkroom has helped with this, as equally the ease of editing and rewriting, has also helped. Very oddly this has also led to my working on some drawings, though I am far from ready to show anything even here on my blog. I probably need a life drawing class to work on my skills, there is no better discipline.

One of the blogs I follow is by a photographer/artist who I think is based in Australia, she set up a monthly photography challenge, perhaps for herself but also for others to enter, http://thescroobiouspip.com/about-2/. I am thinking I may do something similar, giving myself a challenge each month rather than try to do the daily thing. What will happen of course is that the vision and ideas will come each day as soon as I do that!

From another blog I follow http://helobiae.com/ which is an ongoing daily story, I am going to use another idea. Every now and again the character draws a magic card (those are my favourite episodes), with a word on it, quite often a rather bland abstract word. The last three were Engage, Faster, Awake. So I may choose my ‘challenge’ in that way, fitting with my writing. Where I will get the words I am not sure yet, perhaps from a book or poem.

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Today’s photograph is taken on a wet windy day like a day from last summer, with a colour and b/w version.

Promiscuations

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A couple of days ago I liked an article in The Guardian and shared it on my FB page, which basically argues that the internet far from broadening our horizons, that instead we actually choose to limit them. This is great news for the advertisers who want us to fit very specific remits. It made me think about what I look at and yes, I have to admit how most of my use is within at best 10-15 sites each day, probably less, broadening mainly when I am doing research for my writing.

My regime is look at FB and e-mails, I don’t bother with Twitter only use it for notifications, I usually have a look at the Port Vale site and Onevalefan to see what is happening at my favourite football team. I have a few blogs I read most days and wander round in Pinterest a bit. Messy Nessy’s blog is a favourite as it always brings up some interesting photos. Most days I read a few articles in The Guardian. All of which just back up what I already think. During a week I’d look at various music sites and often a couple of poetry sites. I probably get more from listening to the radio.

There is so much available that we cannot take in what is available. I don’t know if it is true but Leonardo DaVinci was supposed to have read every book available at the time of his life, a good myth, now he would be unable to read everything written in just one day. Do we write too much rather than read and understand? Look at me now writing to what could be a total void!

When I was working for the FWWCP a report on them had been written by The Arts Council a year or so before I was employed by them. One of the things which really annoyed some of the members was a point made that people should stop writing and read more, they may then understand what they write and write better. I mainly agree with that, though it is important for people to write, it is probably more important for people to read and think more about what they write. Poetry is written by millions and read by hundreds. Few people read poetry, especially contemporary writers. It is something most people think they can ‘do’, perhaps because it was part of school writing. I find it sad that so many write and could express their feelings and viewpoints better if they just studied others, and learned about critically editing their work.

Is mine so great? Well not really, but, especially in poetry, I work hard on how each word fits, the meaning of words and phrases, the double or hidden meanings, the irony.

How do we broaden what we look at? Opening the mind is hard, early in our lives we build walls of prejudice that limit us. A friend of mine buys The Daily Star, a paper I cannot even be bothered to scan when she leaves it at my flat, hence I know nothing about the promiscuations of Big Brother contestants or the eating habits of people in reality TV. I don’t bother looking at right wing papers or websites. I am prejudiced against anything the current Government puts forward and am pleased to see their ideas fail.   

When I used to go to the Library many years ago, I’d look through The Daily Telegraph and The Times as well as The Guardian, I didn’t agree with a lot I read but it was useful to read stories from another point of view. For a while I used a cuttings site but it just became a mess! I look at Peurop which is useful as it offers stories from newspapers around Europe, often giving very different viewpoints, but it often just backs-up my pro-European viewpoint.

Does it matter? Well yes, my viewpoint may not be important in the greater scheme of things, but this narrowing goes across the board and we need people to have a much more open view, this goes especially for politicians. In the UK they are going for strong so called populist stances as the next election looms onto the horizon, but which are representative only of tiny pressure groups, much as the politicians in the USA are.

Today’s photograph is of some brickwork I found on a warm cloudy day.