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The naughty step: going for a Liddle

As some of you may know on Sunday, This happened.

To cut a long story short, Rod Liddle opened his mouth and bigotry came out. Again. Fellow Guardian readers might recall the days when he was considered fit to show his face there. These days he scribbles for lesser, Murdoch-tainted publications and regularly gets himself into hot water with his hackneyed, racist views. From his prattling and posturing, you’d think he was some sort of groundbreaking original thinker. In fact, he’s a puffed up reactionary of the worst kind- a turd of the same odour as Nigel Farrage and Nick Griffin. Now, before you start yelling about ‘freedom of speech’, consider this: freedom of speech protects the rights of individuals and groups to self-expression. It does not guarantee a god-given right to publish discriminatory slander in national newspapers without repercussion.

Right from the start, Liddle’s ‘piece’ was a lazy piece of racist journalism. I get the impression that he literally dashed this off after a couple of pints and clicked it into existence without engaging brain. Not that this is any kind of excuse- coming from somebody who’s supposed to be a professional journalist, it’s more in the way of an aggravating rather than a mitigating circumstance. The snide, peremeptory way he spoke about ‘something indecipherable with no proper vowels’ showed his deep ignorance of all things Welsh. He also repeated the gross calumny that Wales is a third world country. This sort of thing was bad enough when the otherwise great blackadder did it, but that was thirty years ago. The days when Wales was the last place you could insult with impunity are over, and it’s time we let this tired, opinionated hack know it.

I’ve known people in this past to say things like ‘Oh, it’s not racist, because the Welsh aren’t a race’. Really. In this day and age. Firstly, it doesn’t really work that way, does it?- you’re still discriminating on a blanket basis against a group of people. Secondly, as the notion of ‘race’ has very little actual scientific merit, you’d pretty much have to be a racist to make a statement like that in the first place. Not that his piece was ever thought out as far as that- it’s merely a knee-jerk piece of racial slander that repeats well worn clichés. Racist ones.

As for the issue itself, I’m fairly neutral. I’m fairly fond of the future king Charles III, but I can see why Welsh people would want something different. The issue itself has now been completely overshadowed by Liddle’s crapulent squitter. How in god’s name he ever thought this would be acceptable is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he’s lived too long in the Murdoch echo chamber, where nasty views like this are seen as normal. Then again this is a man who thinks nothing of using the media to be vindictive towards his ex-wife, and allegedly did much worse towards her while she was pregnant.

Yours truly has actually filed a complaint with the IPSO. I hope they remove his anus.


‘Golwg’ at Carmarthen museum

If I can beg your indulgence, just for a few lines, my favourite part of Carmarthen museum is the big old staircase. Wooden, wide and tall, large without being overpowering, it is every bit the staircase from a bishop’s residence. The carpet is exactly right for the colour of the wood, each step is not too big or too little and the quality of the woodwork is exquisite.

But if you mount this lovely staircase now, you will be rewarded with a rather good little exhibition in the gallery upstairs. A handful of Welsh artists have collaborated to show some very rewarding work. The word ‘Golwg’ means ‘look’ in Welsh, but in this exhibition vision is presented as a handmaiden to allegory in a different, deeper sense of vision that drips with mythology and faith.

This is nowhere more evident than in Mauricia Penn’s amazingly huge piecework textile work, ‘yesterday’s vision of tomorrow’. It’s a highly original textile re-imagining of christian iconography. To skip over or shrink from the appeal to religious faith here would be to do both the work and yourself a disservice here, whether you have a different faith or none at at all. It’s not derivative in any sense, but the complex symbolism (handily explained in the accompanying text) does bring to mind something by fra angelico, but turbocharged with a vivid approach to colour; the simplicity of the depiction of the saint is counterbalanced by a virtually halucinogenic landscape, powerfully realised in oranges, yellows and blues, and all penned in by an austere and restrained use of architectural motifs. The angel, leek in hand, is an integral part of the piece, not merely a supernatural being drafted in to make the composition work as in so much religious art. The whole really does make us wonder: what did this saint really believe? It almost certainly wouldn’t be what we expect him to believe, and that’s all that we can say- this is a piece that deals with uncertainty head on.

In a different vein entirely are Lisa Rochelle Burki’s little glass pieces. The dominant colour is red, and here foreground and background take the place of the traditional figure and ground. There are tightly realised symbolic elements, contrasting with fiercer, almost randomised, passages of tone created with sand blasting. This isn’t glass as we know it- it has a dark edge. The word ‘golwg’ here is used in a vernacular, waspish way. The artist talks about her relations using the phrase ‘y golwg are hwnna’, loosely translated: “The look on that”. The central square creations pulse with a viscous, moody energy. These are multi-layered, intricate statements that repay close examination.

At the far end of the room are Lynne Bebb’s idiosyncratic, witty sculptures. One might associate the medium used- papier maché- with much less ambitious pieces. There is a witty, almost manic, energy to the way figures are made out of reams of paper. These, however, are cunningly and carefully assembled pieces of sculpture. ‘Watery Cwtch’, in particular has a beautiful baroque quality, like a papier maché bernini, and of course here the means used are entirely conducive to the sculptural effect- paper is this artist’s equivalent of marble, and she does beautiful things with it.

Then there are Ian Fisher’s engravings. The sheer level of craftmanship and fine detail involved alone are something to behold. The landscapes and architecture are as well drawn as any ever were. There is also a formal inventiveness here, though. In particular I am thinking of ‘eagle’. The titular bird lurks sardonically in the foreground, and in the main open space of the picture we are given this deep, inky ground that pulses and fades with a saturated, cthonic intensity. All of these pictures celebrate the confinements of the medium of engraving rather than work against them.

All of these artists have produced bodies of work that stand in their own right, but being presented with all of them at once gives a rich texture to the exhibition that would repay several visits. I highly recommend you go and have a look.

I have tried and failed to find examples of the artists’ work online. If you know of any, please feel free to leave a comment.

Home gym hell #1: my home gym commandments

“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”

After years of scribbling odd little things about fitness here and there in my workout log, I’ve realised I need a regular outlet for training-related stuff. Not that I recommend to anybody to follow my ideas- I’m not in the business of telling people what to do, it’s purely an outlet for ramblings that would otherwise only accumulate and cause long term psychological harm. I’ve put it in a separate section to respect the wishes of those who want to read about art and don’t want a load of random sweaty-beast stuff in their faces, especially early in the morning.

I have a home gym. I call it a home gym, but in reality it’s a carport with a cruddy 5′ barbell, dumbbells, a heavy bag, an A-frame I use for pullups (and also lifting engines out of vehicles) and a few other toys in it. I don’t even have a bench and stands anymore, since one of the bolts on my cheap, crappy york enforcer sheared while I was benching (scary). But I think this is all you really need. Yes, I envy people who go to real gyms their olympic barbells, bumper plates and sturdy pieces of kit, and I covet this  like other people covet wives and livestock, but I think there’s much wisdom in the sentence ‘don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough’. In other words, I do the best I can with what I’ve got, and there are advantages. I have freedom in home gym hell to set my own rules. I can grunt, I can swear, I can do weird, dangerous exercises and routines. I find it hard to believe, but there are people going to gyms that aren’t allowed- allowed, mark you- to deadlift. Are these people even allowed to work out?

Added to that, the excellent T-nation  often asks the question ‘who is the most obnoxious person in the gym. Well, I can say without reserve (but with a certain amount of shame) that it’s me- and since I work out at home, that’s fine. I leave my weights lying all over the place, even to the extent of having lost a couple of them when the grass grew over them. I curl where I damn well please. I occasionally drink beer while I’m working out. I psyche myself up and do stupid things. And since I’m not forcing this behaviour on anybody else and despite the comment in brackets above, I don’t feel the slightest twinge of shame.

However, with freedom comes responsibility. I set myself certain ground rules to keep things real. There have been many versions of these ground rules, but the editted version, (cut down to ten commandments out of a misplaced quasi-religious fervour born of recent alcohol abuse) looks like this:

  1. It has to be simple. As a rule of thumb, I think if I have to write the workout down in order to remember what you’re doing, then it’s best not to bother. I believe in the basics: simple, but never easy.
  2. It has to be old school. I do not believe in this modern bollocks of single leg squatting, wood choppers and ‘flexed arm hangs’. If I can’t imagine an ancient roman or a real old school japanese karate guy doing it, then it’s out. I believe that a big part of the modern malaise of weakness is this tendency to only do exercises which we like. Not that I ignore point
  3. It has to be fun. I only really half-believe in self improvement. To me, a much better reason to work out is the fact that feeling your own strength in action is the best feeling in the world. And the fact that it lets you do cool stuff. Doing stuff you don’t like to enable you to do stuff you do like is the way I rationalise this.
  4. It has to be easy to implement. I fit the workout to the equipment, not the other way around. This makes it easier to get out of bed and work out before the day begins. If I have to spend time lugging weights around, setting things up and working out percentages, it kills the fun for me and makes it much easier to make my excuses and not work out at all.#
  5. It has to help me in karate, the sport that I practise. I think it’s important, if you really want a body to be proud of, to get out of the house and actually do a real sport with other people. So everything I do, even my weight training, has to be geared towards sucking less at karate. However,
  6. It has to be balanced. I have no wish to become a 300 pound monster who can lift big weights but can’t run a mile in 10 minutes. I don’t judge people who do have this desire, it’s just not my thing. Nor do I have any desire to waste away and become a skinny runt with an impressive 5k time. Again, if that’s your thing I see no reason to judge, but I like the glow of health that comes with a reasonable amount of strength.
  7. I always do what I set out to do. If I set myself a target, I will sweat blood to achieve it. This has, over the years, taught me to only set out to do something that is reasonably feasible. However:
  8. It has to be ambitious. “The task must be made difficult, for only difficulty inspires the noble hearted”- look it up if you don’t believe me, it’s a real quote
  9. It has to fit in with my life. Currently, I’m in a routine where I get up early, drink coffee and potter for 20 minutes, then I get my workout clothes on and do whatever I’ve set myself to do in the gym, then I get on with my day. I believe in building habits, not following programs.
  10. It has to be productive, in a general sense. An obvious one, but with a twist: There are people who are actually worried about doing different exercises for a while because they think they won’t have any ‘carryover’ into the three powerlifts, their sport or their love life. This is evidence, first and foremost, of a timorous and stunted intellectual function. Exercises are designed to improve certain aspects of physical performance. They are not designed to make you better at that exercise, and if they are, I don’t do them.

So there we are, my ten commandments on which I predicate my strange obsession with moving heavy things (including myself) around. I hope somebody, somewhere, finds this in any way illuminating or entertaining. Or funny. Or pathetic. Or something.

The imaginary town II: Mad Vernon

Welcome to the second installment. I hope you enjoy it.


I was banking over ready to take the corner on the bottom of the hill when the engine in my bike cut out. It was an MZ, an old eastern block two-stroke. Well, what do you expect for three hundred quid? I nearly fell over, but I remembered just in time to take in the clutch and apply the brakes. Even so, I nearly went into the hedge on the other side.

I’d long since developed a reasonable and justified fear of this machine’s temperamental faults. Usually, it was the spark plug. The spark plug would mysteriously oil up in the most disconcerting manner. No amount of mechanical pottering could trace the origin of this misery-inducing fault. Fortunately I was in the habit of carrying tools around with me- but not in the machine’s actual toolbox. It was barely held on. The tools were in my rucksack. I unclipped the top flap and drew the cord, and took out the plug spanner. On inspection, there was nothing wrong with the plug. But I brushed the fins on the engine, and they were hot. Oh great, I thought, it’s overheated again.

Just then, a voice came from behind the bushes.

“Oh, the perils of riding old two stroke motorcycles” the unseen speaker said. I laughed. A figure emerged at the gate in the hedge. He was a giant of a man, with unruly, silvering hair and a curious upright bearing. He wore an aged barbour jacket and holed, fading jeans. The overall impression was of a pleasant, retired gent.

“Overheated, eh?” He asked.

“Yes. I don’t know what to do.”

“You’d better leave her alone for a while to let it cool down, young man. Do come and have a cup of tea in the garden, it’s a lovely day.”

“Thank you very much”, I said, and pushed the machine over into the verge.

“This way” he said, brushing away the untidy greenery that clustered around the gate. I followed him into a sunlit yard, studded with the stumps of trees. It had obviously been cleared recently. Everywhere around me were tens, if not hundreds, of the most unlikely objects. There was a sculpture of a young woman, a clay dog, a toy tractor, all sorts of diverse and unlikely things.

“Let me just make the tea” said the benevolent giant and shuffled off inside the house, a decaying but pretty cottage, framed with wisteria and honeysuckle. I took a moment to look at the artefacts. They all seemed to have a compulsive quality. They begged to be touched, to be posessed. Even the concrete frog had a highly collectable look.

When my benefactor emerged from the house, he saw me looking at this collection of things.

“I collect what I call small sculptures” He said “Of course, to me anything desirable is a sculpture. I think even a burned out light bulb has a certain charm”. He passed me a cup of deep brown tea, the colour of mahogany.

“Of course, in retrospect, I think I should have specified some sort of limit to what counted as ‘small’” He said “By which I mean, I have a steam engine”.

“Pardon?” I asked. “Oh, a model one? My dad used to make those.”

“Oh no”He said “Come and look. It’s round the back.”

We passed a little gate by the side of the cottage, up a couple of low concrete steps. In the alley beyond, made narrow by clusters of objects, I noticed various objects. An old doll’s house with remarkably lifelike furniture sat side by side with a model triplane powered by a rubber band.

At the other end of the alley, a path made of round stepping stones headed out into a vast and neglected garden.

“Oh” He said “Where are my manners? My name is Vernon. They call me ‘mad Vernon’, but it doesn’t upset me much.”

“I don’t do much weeding, I’m afraid” He said. “I see it as a way of trying to bully nature. I much prefer to just let things grow.”

I could see something huge, bulky and green concealed behind a knot of bushes. Was this the steam engine? Vernon led me around behind them, and sure enough there it was- a compact green tank engine, sitting on tracks. The tracks had been concealed by a slight rise in the ground, but now I saw that they described a wide circle, around the woods and fields surrounding the house. How on earth could something like this be invisible from the road?

“Wow” I said, inarticulately. “You wouldn’t think this was here judging by the view from the road”

“No” He said, sipping his tea “I contrive to keep my little engine well hidden. Those planning officials can be ever so tiresome. I hardly see how anybody ever gets anything done in this country with those hawk-eyed officials observing everything. It’s wonderful to have so much land. I can hide nearly anything in my little abode here. I haven’t shown you the aeroplane yet, have I?”

He seemed in no hurry to do so. I was still taken aback by the scale of what he had hidden here in his garden.

“As you can see, my hesitance to define the word ‘small’ has led me down strange paths. The word ‘small’, you see, is relative. My statue of minerva in the front yard, barely knee height, is small compared to the original, and my little tank engine is small compared to, say, the flying scotsman”.

I could begin to see why the locals had named this man ‘mad Vernon’. I couldn’t bring myself to say this to the kind stranger who had invited me into his garden, but he could obviously see what I was thinking, because he said

“Oh yes, you see, I am mad I’m afraid. Quite, quite barmy. But it doesn’t seem to upset me at all.”

He continued. “You see, it’s important to me that what I collect has a life. That it does what it was intended to do. Veronica the steam engine here was never intended to stand idle, collecting rust, so of course I had to have these tracks built so that she could steam gently around. I clean her down, oil her and take her around once a week or so. When I’ve got time away from my other predilictions.”

I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there, drinking tea. A thought occurred to me.

“But who laid the tracks?” I asked, thinking that there was far too much work involved for one elderly man.

“Oh, various people. A lot of the boys around here come to see my engine from time to time. I seem to collect hangers-on as well as my little objects. It’s tremendously gratifying to see one’s life’s work appreciated to the extent that people will pitch in, you know.”

Mad Vernon, I was to learn, had a strange habit of appearing to read minds. I was speculating, to my shame, about how he could possibly afford it.

“Inheritance, dear boy. If one is so incredibly fortunate as to inherit a lot of money, I feel one should do something worthwhile with it. I intend to open a museum one day. Of course, anyone can come and see my little collection any time they like, but it would be so lovely if I could advertise and draw in the wider world. I have a passion for these things, you see, and I intend to share my collection with humanity at large. Quite how it will all work out I have no idea, but for now I simply enjoy my collection.” He sipped his tea. “Of course, the aeroplane! I must show you my aeroplane.”

We ambled slowly down a long, winding path of grey concrete stepping stones that lead through a hedge of mature trees, almost a woodland. Concealed in the limbs of the trees was a large shed.

“Do give me a hand with the door, my poor old back isn’t what it was” he said.

Together, we lifted a large baulk of timber from two brackets that were bolted to the doors. Vernon then swung open the doors. What a difference there was- the outside of the shed was decayed and ramshackle, but interior was neat and orderly, with spare parts and tools arranged tidily on shelves. In the centre lay a small aeroplane, silvery and gleaming, with rivets countersunk into the dazzling gleam of the steel. The thing gave an impression of speed and was no larger, all told, than a small car.

“As you can see, small compared to other aircraft. I’m told it once belonged to Howard Huges” said Vernon “A great man. Such a pity his mind went to hell the way it did. A true pioneer.”

Beyond the shed was a field, cropped short, with a landing strip running its length away from the shed. I speculated about the amount of work involved in the upkeep of this marvel.

“And now, dear boy, we must take a look at your motorcycle. Do let me know if you intend to sell it one day- those little two strokes are quite the thing for zipping around country lanes.”

And so, we walked back to the road, my head swimming with what I’d seen. And I found myself volunteering to come back and help maintain the airfield. Vernon, I was to learn, had a knack of attracting camp followers.

’40 years of here’- a staff show at Carmarthen school of art

40 years of here_Welsh.jpg

To repeat what I said in an earlier post, did you know that you can actually walk up to Carmarthen school of art and take a look in their gallery? I recommend you do because at the moment there’s a display of work by the staff, and it gives an excellent flavour of the sort of thing that Carmarthen school of art does.

This show was conceived to mark 40 years of continuous education at Carmarthen school of art. Some of the lecturers have been here the whole time and have become elder statesmen of the college. The collection of ties by Mike Williams is very eloquent and funny for what is just, in its elements, a box of ties.

What’s really great in this show is that it captures a sample of the fizzy, raw, creative ferment that goes on at this college. I’m told that the students were queuing around the coridoor to see this show as soon as it was ready to open. The attitudes and approach of the staff filters down to the students, and the staff seem to combine teaching into their creative practice. The clearest example of this is Andy Griffith’s meaty, tactile sculptures. His ‘cult chariot of the sun’ appears like some sort of immense juggernaut made out of earnest pop culture references. The cast bronze my little ponies are a great touch. Some of this work is very recent- ‘breathing space’ for instance, I am told, was literally warm to the touch when it was mounted. This work depicts the column of hot gas that a space rocket throws behind itself as it launches, frozen in bronze. It’s an amazingly tactile work- you want to reach out and touch the column.

In the same vein are Lee Odishaw’s works that stand poised on the boundary between cast sculpture and assemblage. ‘Chameleon conversation (karma chameleon), for example, at first appears witty and light, and then gets darker when we realise that these are real (quite dead, the artist assures us that no chameleons were harmed) chameleons.

Another distinguishing feature of this college is the consistently high standard of making skills. This is one of the colleges that still offers life drawing, for example, and it shows, even in the photography- the basics of image making here are obviously very well drilled, take Mandy Lane’s sculptures- they are obviously more than just casts- you can feel the visual texture of the modelling.The cracks and breaks are a clever intervention, too- it saves the work from going full Ron Mueck. Not that any of this work is derivative. There is clearly a personal, intimate dimension to much of it, which reaches its apogee in Amelia Kilvington’s brilliantly cropped little photograph of the moment of contact between a mother and an infant.


Untitled (is lapis lazuli a conflict mineral?) by Amanda Blake.

Another heartening element of this show is the voracious, high-powered intellectualism. The fact that there are definitions of the word ‘staff’ on the walls points to this, but perhaps the keenest example of this is Amanda Blake’s work. Take untitled(‘is lapiz lazuli a conflict mineral?). The work, on the surface is simplicity itself- an isometric projection of a cube, drawn with tight lines of marble dust mixed with lapis lazuli. The art historical references are clear- the drawing brings to mind the sort of underdrawing that was done in renaissance times, and yet this is a thoroughly contemporary image that also asks the question in the title, relating to morality and the ethics of artistic production.

Another work by Amanda Blake is also very simple in appearance- it consists simply of text carved into a gesso surface, but again the references to art history and the idea of fugitive pigments it describes lifts it, conceptually. The word I would use about this art is apollonian: it’s rational, balanced, clean and minimal. The same could be said of Catherine Fairgreaves’ laser cut drawings: there’s no flab anywhere in them. They have an enigmatic, almost spiritual aura.

A show like this could have been too disparate, with so many different cooks, but what ties it together is a certain kind of metaphorical symbolism, that uses representational language, but doesn’t work entirely through representational means. The clearest example of this is probably Daniel Trivedy’s film, ‘misdirection, which works as a kind of film collage, with words, symbols, numbers and clips of film working together, almost in a surrealist way. The way the paper fish curls up in somebody’s hand on screen, for example, is a simple but brilliantly evocative visual conceit that ties back to the words and images. This film, in fact, ties the entire exhibition together.

It’s this kind of metaphorical visual language that pervades much of the student’s work, year after year. And it’s a great thing precisely because it is so adaptable- it forms a core of interpretive and aesthetic power that is easily capable of incorporating new influences. It’s good to see new blood here- take Ray Church’s ancient Greek pots that, on closer inspection, turn into friezes of contemporary life, with nude women in nylons. It’s a great thing that the faculty receives constant injections of new ideas and different perspectives, and yet manages to work them into its unique weave of creative ideas.

You can find the details on Carmarthen school of art’s facebook page here:

‘Continuums’ by divergent contemporary art collective at King Street gallery

King Street gallery have done it again in the Chate room. At the moment, there’s a diverse, fresh selection of work by a group calling themselves ‘divergent’.

And divergent it certainly is. There’s a wide variety of different visual texture on display. Tom Morris’ fragmentary, obsessive painted collages sit next to Amy Goldring’s sumptuously realised portraits of fabric shapes. Kate Bell’s powerful works in oil are counterpointed by Fi Latus’ humble but deeply thought-out sculptures. And along the near wall, a series of graphic scores for piano put together by Susan Mathews.

I don’t know what these are like as scores, but as drawings, they are incisive. They are sparsely realised, tasty little creations, using sombre brown stains, quotes from sheet music and poetically apposite words pasted into them. They’re tinkly, tentative creations that create an atmosphere that would almost be studious if it wasn’t for the quotations and the jagged, mildly dissonant way they are put together.

Then, progressing along the left hand side of the room, we have Tom Morris’ paintings. These are colourful, intricate and eclectic combinations of usually highly stylised imagery. There’s a cartoon-like, flat visual language at work references non-western artistic styles, and the graphic design work the artist has done. They’re almost too much- a few more colours and the whole thing would fall flat. As it is, they’re incredibly dynamic, a sensory flood that seems to pulse with life.

And, dotted around the room, there are Amy Goldring’s fabrics that partake of a certain kind of surrealism in that the painting of the fabric becomes a second-hand symbolism. To explain, an oil painting of a piece of fabric is allowed to become a shape that evokes, suggests, a presence rather than tortuously defining it in absolute terms. And yet the painting is completely what we would call ‘representational’ in the old fashioned sense. This is sophisticated stuff. She’s at her best, though, when she gives us less- ‘infinity manifest’ is a direct transcription of the fabric shape with some ambiguous marks that remind us of the objecthood of the painting. These long brown streaks- claw marks? Fingertips caressing the surface?- elevate the image to something even more complex, yet also shockingly direct.

Then there are Kate Bell’s paintings. These are vividly realised things. There’s an expressionist quality to the paint handling that puts me in mind of colour field painting somewhat. The passages of white are particularly well handled. . For me, ‘incoming tide’ is her strongest piece. The way she marries the scratchy, jagged charcoal drawing with the fields of colour reveals a very highly attuned aesthetic sense. The series of paintings against the left hand wall are very nearly landscapes, but in Kate Bell’s hands they become what you might call ‘mindscapes’, very special arenas for visual language that evokes the natural world in emotional, human terms.

And if there’s something that I feel unites all this work, it’s the reference to ‘scapes’- a way of mapping a particular kind of human experience in visual terms. Tom Morris’ works could be called ‘dreamscapes’. Susan Mathews makes ‘soundscapes’, etc. Kate Bell is perhaps the artist here who most explicitly recognises this process, but for me it seems to run through the whole show.

Then there are Fi Latus’ sculptures. I like to see at least some sculpture in an exhibition, because it gives the exhibition a feeling of depth, something that you are in rather than something against the walls that you walk around. These, however, are the opposite of the sort of sculpture that towers over you- the compact little forms huddle protectively on their natural wood mounts. She does a lot with a little, and there is great eloquence, especially in the ‘hearts in nude’. These works are different from the other work here- instead of mapping out a ‘scape’, these small objects occupy an implied larger territory. They become markers of a concept as well as mere objects.

Here’s a link to King street gallery’s listing of the exhibition:

and you can find divergent on facebook here:

The armies of kitsch march onwards, ever onwards, to death, glory and the great annoyance of Clement Greenberg’s ghost.

Welcome to the imaginary town, what I hope will become a regular feature of fictionalised and greatly exaggerated accounts of town life. Names and places have been redacted to protect both the innocent and the very guilty, particularly as I am one of the guilty parties. Having established that, read on:

Some time ago, I completed a jobcentre placement at a charity shop. I enjoyed it, and I got extra money on my dole. What wasn’t to like? The only trouble with it was that I couldn’t stand the waiting. It was fine when I was working in the stockroom- I could happily spend hours sorting things and I flatter myself that I did so in a clean, meticulous and methodical way. But sometimes I would have to spend hours cooling my heels behind the till.

Any charity shop has certain items that keep being donated to them again and again. A friend in another charity shop used to say that ‘It’s not a charity shop without a copy of the Da Vinci code’. Certain books are tediously recurrent. Forget the bestseller lists and the reviews in the papers- the best indication of what people are actually reading lies in which books are regularly donated to charity shops. They are read but not kept- you seldom saw a copy of, say, the lord of the rings or one of Stephen King’s dark tower books mouldering on the shelves. Dan Brown books were parcticularly likely to crop up in this context- at any one time we would have up to five copies of ‘the Da Vinci code’ laying dormant in the stock room. These are the cheap books- throwaway fantasies for the modern age. But who knows how posterity might judge them? The thought occurs that Shakespeare was simply writing popular entertainment. The box of Mills and Boon novels always kept by the bookshelves for reasons of space, I suppose, were more conventional escapism. They spoke to an obvious desire, but what dark, subterranean urge gives birth to popular fiction? Curiously, these books don’t seem to have the same lifespan as books that are explicitly within the fantasy genre.They were bought, read and then taken to the charity shop, perhaps with an interval of some months.

Nor was this phenomenon confined to the bookshelves. A particular dress might be donated twice or three times. I suspect that some of our customers bought clothes one week, wore them and then donated them the next. But that didn’t account for some items being donated in their tens- halterneck tops and T-shirts with allegedly humorous slogans. This particular charity shop- I omit the name to protect the innocent- was cursed with a profusion of tiny kitsch figurines. Teddy bears with drums, the three wise monkeys, that sort of thing. I found a huge box of them out in the shed, formerly a dumping ground that was being re-organised by the manageress, who’d only recently started at the shop. They barely sold- somebody might be particularly struck by a particular figure and take it off our hands, but by and large they sat in their box collecting dust. Eventually, my boredom and the free availability of these neglected creations combined to produce spurts of purposesful activity. I created little tableau with the figurines, acting out scenes from my imagination. I would have them all facing the shop, like a little army or crowded around a central figure. I added more, and they started to resemble a small army. This struck a chord in my imagination, and I started fetching more and more of them. I refrained from this frankly childish pursuit as much as possible, but eventually the long stale hours defeated me. I began to spend more and more time fantasising about the doings of these little plastic creatures, and re-arranging them according to my whims.

To begin with, my little objects occupied a small shelf by the door, but gradually and imperceptibly, they started to occupy more and more space, some with their little legs dangling over the edge of the shelf, others facing in a properly martial manner towards each other, or set apart, commanding the masses of dolls and toy cars. Their little empire kept on growing, until it reached the racks of reduced womenswear. This presented something of an obstacle, which I overcame by arranging them in a line along the floor of the shop. Undaunted, the little domains of these creatures kept spreading.

Had the manager been present, of course, this empire building of plastic figurines would have been called to a halt. But then the manager went away for a few days, and I went into overdrive. The fantasies associated with these neglected little objects became more and more elaborate. From one minute to the next they could change from being conquering armies to peaceful citizens of a wise and enlightened republic of toys. The other staff took an indulgent view of these activities, but as the people’s plastic republic began to encroach on the menswear section, that bemusement turned to alarm. Soon, the whole of the shop was inhabited on every flat surface with hundreds of little rabbits, china dolls and plastic toys of every description. I briefly christened the display ‘the armies of kitsch march onwards ever onwards to death, glory and the great annoyance of Clement Greenberg’s ghost’. Clement Greenberg was the man who described kitsch as a ‘tool of fascism’. For a while, the little empire became an authoritarian state in line with the thinking of that statement, then it would morph as other ideas took hold into a democratic state or a theocracy. I renamed it as the much shorter ‘people’s plastic republic’ Figures would sit in circles and assemblages as I imagined them discussing weighty matters of state policy. The jewellry stand became the seat of government, with two chambers of government and a president. The rightwingers were led by a transformers action figure, while the liberal left had a pair of doves as their joint leaders.

The effect of this little enterprise was to encourage customers to buy the figurines in droves. I’d long ago taught myself from the till manual how to print a total of the day’s takings. We were making more money than we normally did. This hadn’t been my intention, in so far as I had ever had an intention. The actual purpose of my work at the charity shop had long been occluded by the need to re-arrange and animate the people’s plastic republic. Piqued, I began to fetch the figurines in bags and for every one of the ‘fallen’ I would place ten of them back on the shelves. This activity had grown from a minor childish diversion to an all-consuming mania. I imagined how the citizens of the people’s plastic republic would react to the threat posed to their civilisation by these giant people who would buy their citizens and take them off to who knows where. Little squads of ‘guards’ emerged commanded by a leader, a fierce and hard-bitten teenage mutant ninja turtle, facing out to fend off the threat. These little guardians would disappear by twos and threes as customers bought them. Many of them were visibly amused, and people started coming back and buying more. Our shop became the centre of attention on the high street- people would come and admire the people’s plastic republic. Children especially were very taken with it. I began to weave the responses of the customers into my fantasies.

It occurred to me that the people’s plastic republic, while it had achieved so much, was still looking for a greater purpose, a unifying quest to unite its people. Something like the ‘great leap forward’. Now there was a third political party in the people’s plastic republic- the colonisers. I looked out the window and as I saw shoppers strolling in the morning sun, it seemed to me that the citizens of the people’s plastic republic must be aware in some way of the world outside the shop. They all came from other places, after all. The scientists and thinkers of this state, It seemed to me, had to have some plan, some vision of colonising the exterior world. And so, little groups of figures started appearing on street corners, in telephone boxes, radiating out from the shop.

When the manager returned, she opened the door in the morning to find an entire shop of plastic figurines, with just enough space for her to enter and see the armies of kitsch on every shelf and cupboard, marching across the floor, lines of them all converging on the door.

“What the bloody hell happened here?” She said…