Out Now!

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Scumbag Maggot

If you’re lucky, you might spot signs of Harry and Meghan’s wedding, some windblown confetti stuck to a lamppost, or even a feather from one of those ridiculous hats. My wife and her friend spotted some Morris Dancers, for whom I retain a soft spot, having once fiddled for a Welsh-dancing troupe, but I was treated to a tour of the Windsor and Eton brewery, a far more attractive proposition. Their mission statement is to ‘make Windsor more famous for its beers than any other attraction.’ Well, good luck with that, though if this blog post helps, you know where to send a crate of your finest.

We walked up to a fairly nondescript building in a nondescript street of terraced housing, through a plate glass door, and into a small and bland looking drinking area full of serious men (and women, though they were fewer on the ground) The smell was something else and my nose and throat quivered.

The guy who showed us around was made for the job, beard, jolly and plump, and with the gift of the gab. We learned a lot in under an hour and drank a lot too. I was dubious at first, when he asked us to chew some barley grain, probably one of the most unexciting tastes the world has to offer. You might as well be chewing  wood pellets with a residue of sweetness; a homeopath might detect a touch of the field. Then he moved us on to a partially roasted barley grain, and when he thought we were ready, one fully roasted. He spoke with the fervour of a wine connoisseur or one extolling the virtues of Lebanese or Acapulco Gold. I kept tasting small variations in wood, though three small glasses of beer admittedly helped.

Things became exciting when he pulled down bunches of hops from the rafters. I love a hoppy tasting beer but what we did next was something else. We followed instructions, rubbing the leaves into the palm of a hand with a vigorous thumb. We rubbed until our palms were green. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘I want you to lick those palms.’ The tongue puckered. I thought it was going to wither and die. ‘A little goes a long way,’ he told us, unnecessarily, I thought.

But then he divulged the secret, the El Dorado of beermakers, and why people drink more beer than perhaps they should: its achieving a perfect combination of bitter and sweet in the beer. It’s like playing yo-yo with the tastebuds of the tongue: your first sip, a refreshing mix of sweet and bitter but leaving that bitter aftertaste. This leads on to another sip in the unconscious hope of washing it down. It’s a vicious or virtuous cycle, depending on your point of view. Damn clever either way.

They have an astute symbiosis with the Windsor estate. Their barley comes from the Windsor farms and they feed their slurry to the Windsor pigs. They don't miss a trick, marketing a new beer for Harry and Meghan's wedding. 

We also learnt why most British and American lager is rubbish. The original lager yeast came from Bavaria in the C16th and had been cultured to ferment at low temperatures for a very long time, thus giving it a rich and subtle taste. It can take months to mature (Lagern meaning ‘To store’) This is anamatha to industrial breweries which takes shortcuts to hasten the process. It’s why lagers are served ‘chilled’. Drink it warm at your peril.

We finished with a scumbag maggot. It was interesting.

Friday, 21 June 2019

It's not FGM but then we're not trees

A mountain of cork as you enter.

A week or two ago we went to the David Nash exhibition in Cardiff. (Who he? I would have been the first to ask) but it was an interesting experience, seeing ‘wood’ in so many guises.  In an interview with the Guardian, he said:
 “I’d like people who visit to think they have been engaged with something, taken out of their normal chain of thought and feeling. I’d like to think people will find it joyful.”
Joyful wasn’t my initial experience, but slowly, accumulatively, I saw ‘wood’ in an entirely different way.

He rejoices in the texture of wood, here the trunk, and below it's top, which resembles the surface of 
an alien planet. 

This has been charred and then rubbed with linseed oil.

Nash doesn’t just sculpt windfall and dead trees, he buggers about with live trees; unobjectionable in most cases. I particularly liked his ‘Ash dome,’ a circle of 22 trees planted in a secret Ffestiniog vally in 1977. Guests are escorted there blindfolded so that the location remains concealed. Unfortunately ash dieback is killing his piece of living sculpture, which Nash accepts as part of the art. “Fungus is a natural force.” Undeterred his dying ash dome is now encircled by 22 oak saplings, which in time will replace it.

What I did find objectionable (on a primitive gut level reaction) was his treatment of living birch trees in the interests of art. He has planted a copse of them but allows no branches. As soon as one shows it is neatly lopped off to encourage straightness and height – a copse of silver birch spears. I don’t like gelding pets, docking ears or tails, and I hate with a vengeance the Japanese art of Bonsai where trees are deliberately dwarfed by ruthlessly trimming their roots. It’s not FGM, but then we are not trees.

Nash is getting on a bit now and his outlook is perhaps understandably jaundiced.

“People are parasites, the land’s slowly dying.”

“There’s a certain dullness I can feel. I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s actually there. I can feel a lack of vibrancy in the land. When I look at the Moelwyn Mountains, which I’ve looked at since I was four years old, they don’t seem to have that dynamic they used to have. There’s something in the texture maybe. It’s a feeling not a fact.” I imagine it’s a feeling shared by most old codgers, either that or he needs to visit ‘SpecSavers.’

There’s no doubt David Nash is one hell of fine artist. Also a visionary in the style of an Old Testament prophet:

“We are killing ourselves. There are too many of us. I think there will be some huge plague or pestilence.”

And then every tree will breathe with relief.

And for those who'd like to see more of his exhibits

A nice Henge like quality, but again close ups invite you to explore the texture of wood.

Is it just me or am I seeing fossilised 'Pac Men' 

One lugubrious serpent

Two lugubrious serpents

And the rest, feel free to label as you see them

A close up of a larger piece, purely for texture

Friday, 14 June 2019

Noir doodles and kickstarts

I’ve never experienced writer's block, sometimes I’m lethargic, other times I’m content to write rubbish. The important thing is to keep the tap running. Recently I’ve returned to Clay Cross in a series of short stories, three written—ten more to go. And I’ve discovered a new trick, new to me at least.

It involved using pinterest noir/and pulp covers. I stare at the picture and let my mind wander, but ultimately describe what I see. It focuses the mind, gets the keyboard going and five minutes later I have a workable paragraph, some of which immediately suggest a short story in that vein.

I’ve included a few examples, illustration of the method rather than anything profound. As I said from the start, I’m quite happy to write rubbish. These are mere doodles.

They danced slowly and I watched mesmerised, the woman in her ivory silk dress covered in large red roses, the man guiding her with his hand on her back like a brown malevolent crab. A hot crab that sweated.

She sat on top of an open piano, legs crossed and in a short black dress. There was sheet music, and the guy was playing, but his gaze remained fixed on where her thighs almost crossed. There was a smile on his face, like he couldn’t believe his luck, and ever so often he puffed as though remembering the cigarette in his mouth.

It gave me a view of the street and the alley in which the punk stood. He looked like a cheap imitation of a hard man, a P I on top of his game. He looked like a cheap imitation of me, except the cigarette in his mouth was unlit and worn like an accessory to the dark Italian suit, black shirt and sharp-knotted tie. The hat, too, looked new and was a little too small for his head. Still,  he had a rod in his pocket,  and he was looking at the same thing as me: a brightly lit window over the bar, framing in amber a woman slowly getting undressed.

She sat on the sidewalk wearing only a shirt and breathing in rain

Light slanted in from two tall windows, cutting through the bar but doing little to dispel the gloom that heaved in light and shadow. Men hunched around tables, in trench coats, fedoras, some wearing cloth caps. Others stood, looking on as though wondering what they were doing there, or where they were going to next.

The air was thick in mist and snow, given a warm sepia tint by a hint of street lighting on the hard-packed slush. But my eyes were focused on something else, something that had no place being there: a woman who by all accounts was dead, and a small black and white dog. Both were staring at the other in quiet understanding or a battle of will that would end in one of their deaths. In that, the dame had the advantage seeing she was already dead, or so people told me.

And if I was going to write something historical, this picture is crying out for words. Those at the front appear quite relaxed, but what are they talking about? Is the preacher thinking of his sermon or perhaps why his wife is so damned miserable?  Why is the girl nervous? She's seen or heard something. The men at the back are definitely alarmed. What's going to happen next?

Pilgrims Going To Church by George Henry Boughton. 

Thursday, 6 June 2019

For those not born yet

Recently we went to Tate Britain to see their exhibition of Van Gogh and Britain. The first section focuses on Van Gogh’s fairly miserable life in Britain and on the writers and painters that influenced him. The second section focuses, in turn, on the British artists who were  later influenced by him, their paintings hung in close proximity to his.  One critic was fairly sniffy about it, but I loved the fact that it was relatively uncrowded and you could get to within nose touching distance of each painting. I also loved the fact that it introduced you to paintings I had never seen before, even if their influence on Van Gogh is open to debate.

I had never seen Constable’s Valley Farm before.

 For Van Gogh, it is one  of the very few ‘autumnal’ paintings to be found amongst the ‘old masters’. But the one that really caught his eye, and mine, was Millais’ Chill October. I read afterwards that resonated with the then melancholic Van Gogh suffering from the solitude of his London boarding house, his unrequited love for his landlady’s daughter, and alienation from his employer and family.

But, standing in front of it, the scene seemed more than alive, as though you could step into it. A reviewer for the Illustrated News explained why when he wrote about it being ‘deeply saturated . . . with the sad and cold, lonely foreboding sentiment of Autumn.’ He pointed out the ‘tactile rendering of swaying grasses’ that sweep the eye into the depth, the diminishing layers water, trees and distant birds to a far horizon. He pointed out the ‘dull earthy palette’ adding to the sombre tone and how the water illuminated the dying day. I wished, I’d read that at the time, as I said, I just felt I could step into it.  

A week or so after our visit to the Tate, we saw the magnificent ‘At Eternity's Gate’ starring the equally wonderful Willem Dafoe, an actor I first came across in Mississippi Burning in 1988 playing an earnest FBI agent.  In At Eternity's Gate’   Dafoe brings Van Gogh alive. It’s a mesmerising performance, reinforced by superb casting and intuitive camera work – though critics disagree on that last point. There is a lovely portrayal of Paul Gauguin, the perfect foil to Van Gogh, and my ears pricked up when I heard this:

“The painters I like all paint fast in one clear stroke,” Van Gogh says.

Gauguin responds. “You paint fast and then you over paint – the surface looks like its made out of clay. It’s more like sculpture than painting.”

Two great talents with diverging views, and it struck home after seeing Van Gogh and Britain.  

We were able to get so close to the pictures and understand Gauguin’s observation, and the truth that no one is wholly right in art.
And no one has emerald streaks on their faces, but it works for Van Gogh

In a later, poignant remark to Mads Mikkelson playing a well meaning but stupid priest, Van Gogh sums it up. When the priest holds up one of his paintings in puzzled disgust, Van Gogh considers and then responds: ‘Maybe I’m a painter for those not born yet.’