Find out what we’ve been up to, where we’ve been and what we’re thinking.
As a student I was a big fan of the SDP. That is, for some reason, not as easy to admit now as it was in 1981 when Britain’s political landscape was changed forever. Some have argued that the SDP allowed Thatcher and her stormtroopers to rule unopposed for more than a decade but the Gang of Four certainly broke the mould. Amongst them was the late great Roy Jenkins, a superb biography of whom has recently been published. (‘A Well-Rounded Life’ by John Campbell).
Jenkins lived a rich and fulfilled life. He was widely mocked and nicknamed ‘Woy’ by the press and the public because of inability to pronounce the letter R but from humble origins (he was the son of a Welsh miner) he made friends across the entire spectrum of British society. There were rumours of affairs – with both men and women – but nothing so scandalous as to rock the foundations of Parliament. He was described as a class traitor because he was known to share his love of good wine with many a Tory grandee but in government he oversaw some of the most significant social reforms of the 60’s and 70’s.
His life was certainly interesting but it was the manner of his passing that has made him, for me, a legend. Not for him the long decline into senility and incontinence that awaits so many of us. He died on January 5th 2003, just a few pages short of completing a biography of President Roosevelt. It would have been his 23rd book. His last words to Jennifer, his loyal and tolerant wife of 62 years, were to ask for ‘two eggs, lightly poached.” When she came back with them, he was gone.
Walking around the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art recently, I suddenly found myself becoming a huge fan. Her work is deeply personal but immediately takes a ‘known’ place in the viewer’s psyche. Bourgeois worked in all sorts of media: fabric, bronze, found objects, drawing, painting, poetry, embroidery. But in all her pieces she serves her message by placing you somewhere near her initial idea or thought, only ‘near’ because there is a mystery in all of it too, some of the motivation must have been very private but she takes you tantalisingly close to the most intimate of moments. The work portrays all the emotions from love and hate to humour and anger. The pieces are beautifully made no matter which particular material she chooses, there are no arbitrary ‘mistakes’ or bad moves, only the necessary and the functional, it seems; each work directed at the heart and the brain through the eye of you.
So when you walk away from the gallery the work of Louise Bourgeois all stays with you, a story she has told with no beginning and no end, the scenery of a dark and exciting voyage about being a human.
Above all the work looks ‘young’, much of it is, Bourgeois worked until she was very old. There is one piece in the show that was made very close to her death in 2010 but it looks as though she was going to carry on the next week or next day with the same solid exploration, innovation and creativity. Bourgeois looked for the images and materials that most exemplified her innermost soul and never ran out of ideas or imagery to tease us.
That word ‘innovation’ was bandied around quite a lot last year in this office, I notice now that we even have a cabinet minister for innovation. When I mentioned to my son, who works for a branding/advertising agency, that we were making a film about innovation, he commented that it was a ‘slippery’ word… what does it really mean? Innovation may be the new word for ‘creativity’ – another word that is drawn out in almost every walk of life now as if we needed to define it and align ourselves to it. In days gone by we probably didn’t need to use words like innovation and creativity because our daily lives and work were dependent on our artisanal skills, our ability to make something or to be part of the making. There was a sequence in Jeremy Paxman’s BBC1 series Britain’s Great War where he visited The Shuttleworth Collection of ancient World War 1 aircraft. Paxman took a flight in a Bristol F.2B, an extraordinary evocation of innovation and creativity, using available skills and materials in the service of a modern idea – Flight.
In the digital age our artisanal skills are not so evident but somehow we need to remind ourselves of their attraction and function. The trouble is our education system (and modern industry to a degree) has worked against our very strong artisanal gene, the desire to create. Now we need a cabinet minister and conferences about creativity, and we are asked to make films about innovation to encourage our industries to think creatively.
When I sit down at my kitchen table, the Fylde Ariel guitar on a stand in the corner responds with a little open chord. It’s as if it’s reminding me that it’s there. But what it’s really saying is “I am so responsive, I have been so well crafted that you don’t even have to touch me, I’m responding to your footsteps, the vibrations they make as you walk across the floor”. My Ariel was made by Roger Bucknall, Fylde’s founder. The guitars are made in a tiny factory on the outskirts of Penrith, about as far away from the music ‘industry’ as you can get but everyone from Pete Townsend and Martin Carthy to Cliff Richard has got one. You can’t buy a Fylde off the shelf, you have to ask Mr Bucknall to make you one and he quite openly tells you it will be between six and nine months before you see it – and then asks for fifty percent up front. I should say that the price of a Fylde guitar does not seem to be cheap; you would quite rightly expect something very good indeed for £1800 for an entry-level piece. When you take delivery of your Fylde guitar many months later, having almost forgotten that you had ordered it, the instrument will exceed all your expectations. For a very average player like myself, you will hear the guitar’s musical possibilities in a completely different light because you will be able to hear every nuance of every note anywhere on the scale. Not only that, when you look at the guitar you see that it has a lovely simplicity, almost like a piece of Shaker furniture; it doesn’t shriek its presence but when you look closely it is the most beautifully crafted wooden object.
Anyway this isn’t about guitars but about the notion of ‘luxury’, because when the Ariel made its little open chord “hello” the other day it made me reflect upon the nature of luxury. On the surface of it The Fylde is a luxury item but it will go on giving pleasure and saying “hello” to people long after I have left this mortal coil. In fact most solid wood guitars like the Ariel will improve with each passing year. As long as no one sits on it, it will be there forever; a testament to Bucknall’s skills and the Cedar and Sapele trees it came from.
I am not a wealthy person but I enjoy ‘luxury’ in relatively inexpensive items. I am aware that for many, luxury is about cars, expensive hotels, the best address, the best table at the best restaurant etc, but in the spirit of the almost-done age of austerity here are a few things that make me feel I’m in the lap of luxury:
Wearing cologne everyday, Jo Malone hand soap, Egyptian cotton sheets, cuff links, Richard James socks, English Breakfast tea, music, Gibson J45 guitar (good as a Fylde but in a different way) Guardian iPad edition, Condor touring bike and Anthony Hudson who looks after it, Moleskine note books, Lamy rollerball pen, leather shoes, paintings by Mali Morris, John McLean, Jeff Rigden and Roger Hilton, Hyacinths, novels, large bath towels, Americano coffee every day, Philippa my dental hygienist, Lumix GX7 and 20mm pancake lens, Schmincke water colours and Midas Touch travel brushes, my garden and Siggy who looks after it, Proudfoot Ltd’s office in Clerkenwell and the people in it, Wendy’s crimson painted toenails, even in winter, Fred Perry Harrington, BBC4, Chris Morphet, Mike James, Marc Rovira, (cameramen) Andreas Törner, Charles Davies, Matt Spurr (editors) Simon Couzens (sound mixer).
‘My name is Clare Elwell, I’m a Professor of Medical Physics at University College London, and I like brain imaging and swimming. And doughnuts.’
When we visited Clare on Wednesday I was somewhat enchanted by the nuts-and-bolts creative chaos of the workshop she shares with her colleagues. Tubs of components, rolls of wire and a soldering iron or two sit alongside coloured maps of brain regions. On the bench opposite is a slightly unsettling array of plastic babies’ heads with various markings and devices attached to them; Clare tells me the decapitated doll bodies are languishing in a cupboard somewhere. Also to be found in in the lab were a homemade quad-copter with fetching blue and red LEDs, and a drawer labelled ‘BANANA CROC’. We wheeled out a large imaging unit named MONSTIR to make room for filming and asked Clare about her extraordinary work.
The team at UCL, in collaboration with Sarah Lloyd-Fox and the Birkbeck Babylab, is working on a safe, cheap and unobtrusive method to look at babies’ brains, which could give vital insight into the effect of malnutrition on brain development in infancy. Clare explains it much better than I could, so keep an eye out for our upcoming video for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation!
One of the most insightful things said at the The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Weekend was by Harvard professor Homi Bhabha, who said, “A great work of art is impossible to forget because it is difficult to remember…..a work of art should be an unfathomable experience, you know it, but you never know it”. I thought yes! – it’s not often that someone says something that seems to encapsulate what it’s all about, describing why (more…)
Our eagerly awaited documentary on folk legend Nic Jones is revealed to the world tonight!
Nic Jones was the rising star of the folk world in the early ’80s. His 1980 record Penguin Eggs remains among the top 100 albums of all time and he was playing sell-out gigs up and down the country.
Driving home late after one such performance, he collided with a brick lorry. He was lucky to survive. The resulting injuries destroyed his career and left him unable to play guitar in the intricate, percussive style he had pioneered. Last summer, after almost three decades, he returned to the stage with his son, Joe.
We follow Nic in his return to performing and speak to his family, friends and fans about his journey and his legacy.
Packed with guest appearances from fellow musicians, this moving tribute to Britain’s lost folk hero is a treat for your ears and your eyes. Catch it tonight at 10pm on BBC4.
“Gorgeous, moving tribute” – The Guardian
“Affectionate and perceptive” – The Daily Telegraph
“Director Michael Proudfoot’s biggest tribute to Jones is understatement, largely remaining faithful to his [Jones’] cheery nonchalance about the cruelty of fate and the dark humour of his son, Joe…” – Colin Irwin, MOJO Magazine
“It’s a lovely, lovely film.” Mark Radcliffe reviews the documentary on BBC Radio 2, with a beautiful track from one of the comeback gigs:
Soheila Sokhanvari works in something of a sanctuary, which is apposite considering that her work is inspired in part by illuminated manuscripts. Nestled in green, villagey space outside Cambridge, her neo-monastic studio is a whitewashed, tin-roofed room owned by the Wysing Arts Centre; one of a row of connected spaces whose slanted ceilings and split-pane doors suggest they might have once been stables. This, too, is appropriate as she has previously created sculptures around taxidermy horses.
Sepia-toned images hang in a neat row on the simple white walls, showing groups of laughing holidaymakers and fashionable young things posing on car bonnets. These could be reproductions of 1960s Hollywood promo shots, but in fact they are pictures copied from the artist’s family photo album, lovingly inked in shades of Iranian crude oil. This is the first hint that things may not be quite as they first appear. (more…)