Friday, 1 August 2014

Keep calm – and carry on being grumpy

Even if ‘50 is the new 40,’ as some claim, it’s very much the case that I am now middle aged. And with it, grumpy.

And this has been a week for grumpiness to thrive.

No, I’m not “grumpy” about children being blown to bits as they sleep; or about an increasingly vicious civil war between, on the one hand, a deeply unpleasant dictator and, on the other, rebels that include a bunch of fundamentalists who are too extreme even for Al-Qaeda to want to be associated with.

Or that Iraq is cracking up – as predicted – with some of those same nutters taking over swathes of the country; or that more nutters in Nigeria are kidnapping scores of women and girls, and killing many more hundreds of people in the name of their particular sky pixie.

Or that someone – concrete evidence appears to be somewhat lacking at present – blew a civilian plane out of the skies in the middle of their own grubby, nasty little nationalistic war, killing the 298 innocent men, women and children on board, including many scientists who have been leading the global fight against HIV/Aids.

Or that our own government, hand-in-hand with a complicit media, is continuing to push policies that increase the prevalence of poverty in the UK, including among those who are in work, while at the same time demonising the vulnerable and, in more and more cases, effectively driving them to their deaths.

Or that there is also, in the UK, increasing evidence of an Establishment cover-up of Establishment abuse of children.

These things don’t make me “grumpy”: these things make me fucking furious.

But today, let’s focus on a few causes of the “grumpy”.

It was 29 July when I was told, via Twitter, to contact Carphone Warehouse by phone.

I refused, because I want something in writing – even if only digitally so.

Let me explain.

I had just discovered that the contract for my mobile phone (the only phone I have) was up. The handset was originally from Carphone Warehouse, while the service was provided by Orange.

It had dawned on me that the contract was nearing its end – not least because, on 14 July, I took a call from a young-sounding man who told me as much, and then tried to engage me in a conversation about renewing or a new deal.

I refused to discuss it on the grounds that I was at work and that I didn’t have any paperwork with me. Not that that stopped him from trying to ignore this and push me into the conversation that he wanted to have.

Now I assumed – rather naively, it now seems – that he was from Orange, since he clearly knew about the expiration of a contract I had. To be frank, I’d forgotten that the handset was from a different company.

That was the second attempt to call me and, between then and this Monday, there were at least nine further attempted calls from that number – a Nottingham landline – that I have a record of.

Quit phoning me, you duplicitous scum!
I refused to answer those I was aware of when the phone was ringing, although I was getting more and more pissed off by what was getting damned close to harassment.

I was steeling myself to ring back and cancel my connection with them.

But before I managed that, I took a call from Carphone Warehouse on Monday morning, telling me that my contract on the handset was up and would I like to renew/upgrade etc.

My suspicions were aroused, and I verified with the caller that I now owed the company nothing – even if I kept the handset.

A short while later, over lunch, there was another of those attempts to phone me from the Nottingham number (0115 828 5045).

By this time, I was seething. So I rang the number back – to hear a recorded message telling me that it was a company called

This was the point at which the air turned blue.

What debt? Why the hell is a company with that name harassing me?

I looked them up online – sure enough, they claim to deal with debt, insolvency etc. I Googled further – they have a reputation for harassment, on the basis of comments from people on various forums.

And also from various forums, Carphone Warehouse has form for selling customers’ data.

On Tuesday, after fielding yet another call from Carphone Warehouse trying to push me into rapidly agreeing a new contract, I called Orange to check a few things with them.

Now, here’s where it gets a bit complicated. I have two contracts with Orange – one for the phone that I got from Carphone Warehouse, and one for a tablet that Carphone Warehouse knows nothing about.

Although the handset contract expired this week, the service contract has a few more weeks to run.

The contract on the tablet, which I bought outright, direct from the maker, expired a short while ago. Orange had missed that, as had I.

Now, given that nobody bothered to ring me about that contract, it seems unlikely that it is Orange that is being careless with my data: why would they sell or pass on details of just one contract when there’s another that’s already expired?

And the pestering has, in time terms, come much more obviously closely to the expiration of my contract for the handset with Carphone Warehouse.

Gambling is not one of my vices, but were I a betting woman, my money would be on Carphone Warehouse as the source from which debtmastersdirect got hold of my details.

Now that could mean either that the company sells or hands on data, or that its data security is poor.
I took to Twitter to complain that the company was selling data.

Companies don’t like that sort of social media coverage, so it responded quite quickly by saying: “we are very sorry to hear this Amanda, if you wish we can remove you from our callers lists?”

It wasn’t Carphone Warehouse calling, though – so how could it help top be taken off one of “our callers [sic] lists”?

It was a Nottingham number that leads directly to a company calling itself debtmastersdirect, which obviously has sidelines in trying to duplicitously bully people into new deals.

I asked Carphone Warehouse if that tweet meant that they were admitting selling data. They responded that they never, ever sell data.

They suggested phoning their customer helpline. Nope. I want this in writing.

They suggested I use the complaint forms on their website. I did, sending them a lengthy screed on Tuesday, detailing the situation and asking, politely, for an explanation.

As of right now –more than 72 hours after been emailed a serious complaint – they have made no reply. So much for customer ‘service’.

And that is what makes me grumpy. One way or another, this is a company that has decided that it has a business ethos of ‘screw the customer’, then ignore them and just hope they go away.

Orange were a little more helpful: once I’d clarified that I had no debt with them, they admitted that, while they say they do not sell data, they do sometimes share it with companies that they have business relationships with, and the very non-pushy human voice at the end of the phone told me that, “unfortunately” they have no control over that data after that.

I may have been na├»ve in instantly believing that that Nottingham caller was from Orange. But when did we develop into a society where we start from an assumption that businesses can simply treat us with contempt, that it is entirely acceptable for grubby little companies to harass you duplicitiously – and that’s it’s our responsibility to check all these things first?

That’s remarkably similar to throwing the onus for dealing with bullying on to the bullied, isn’t it?
Right, that’s one of this week’s gripes.

One of London's typical sights
Up next is the total lack of bins around King’s Cross station that I noticed when I was walking through just this morning.

Oh, there are plenty of places to pick up a coffee or a can of something or so on, and public space in front of the renovated station, which is just so much better than the ’70s monstrosity that it has replaced, includes a mass of places to sit – but where the hell are the bins?

It’s no wonder central London is such a shabby, scruffy mess every single day.

Having used a single incident of the IRA planting a bomb in a railway station bin as an excuse to get rid of vast numbers of bins and thus save the money required to have them emptied regularly, councils have now hived off refuse collection to private companies that do as little as possible in order to gain as much profit from the taxpayer as possible.

The other thing that’s visible with the rubbish is a clear increase in the number of rough sleepers in central London.

I was at Euston station early on Monday morning for the first time in some months. Now I have a clue about what’s happening in this country, but even I found shocking the sight of at least three people folding up bedding on the grass outside the station, while another lay cocooned in a dirty blanket. I have never seen that before.

There are frequently rough sleepers outside the old Thameslink station when I travel through in an early morning, while recently, I’ve also seen people on a mattress on Northdown Street, while earlier this week, there was someone asleep on the wall outside an office building on lower Pentonville Road.

But that’s not the stuff of grumpiness – that’s the stuff of fucking furious.

And for today, let’s stick with the grumpiness – and let’s talk about cigarettes. Or, to be rather more precise, Gauloises.

Now set aside the health issues. I smoke. And I do like a Gauloises.

Until recently, they were available in some shops in the UK. In Hackney, I could get them at a Costcutter on Hackney Road. However, since the Co-op took that over and rebranded it, the range of tobacco products has been cut – including those.

That left a shop on Marchmont Street and one opposite Borough Market. A newsagent off Euston Road found them from one of the wholesalers and would get them regularly for me – he also found that, once he had them in stock, then other customers would buy them too.

Not for Brits any more
But now nobody has them.

Yesterday, via Twitter, Imperial Tobacco – which bought the brand in 2008 – told me that: “Regrettably we took the decision to cease distributing Gauloises in the UK”.

I’ve asked (politely) why, and am awaiting an answer.

In the interim, I assume that, since there is no indication that the company is ceasing production – and it was easy enough to get them in Paris – it’s more a case of there not being enough’ customers wanting them in the UK to make enough’ profit.

But the wider point is that it provides yet another illustration of the reduction of choices available in many areas of life to UK consumers.

Where, for instance, do we have the sort of small, independent tobacconists that one finds in every city and every village, not just in somewhere like France, but in places like Germany too?

French newsagents fascinate me in general, with a range of magazines that goes way beyond what most places stock here. They have magazines about philosophy – on general display! And not just in Paris!

We, on the other hand, have an increasingly homogenised world, where vast corporates get to decide what we will be sold and what we will not be sold; a world where meaningful choice, via a wide range of small independents rather than vast numbers of a very small number of companies, is being continually reduced – not least if you have a limited budget.

So there you have it: three snapshots, taken over just four days, that reveal something about this lunatic asylum of a country, and what 30-plus years of greed-is-good, cut-throat, no-such-thing-as-society, screw-you, bankocracy and corporatocracy-supporting politics means in day-to-day terms.

And strangely enough, those very same political attitudes have played a substantial role in causing all the things I listed at the beginning of this post too; the things that make me rather more than merely “grumpy”.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Never mind all tea in China – the art's not bad either

Andrew Graham-Dixon gets up close to terracotta warriors
The older I get, the more I find myself wondering at just how many evenings I spent, in my youth, waiting to be entertained by the television: or rather, how our family entertainment/relaxation was dependent on the box in the corner.

These days, I tend to watch far less TV – sport is a rare exception and even that’s hardly a daily occurrence.

The disadvantage of this is that I have a tendency to miss things that I would enjoy, so it was with some relief that I discovered, in good time, that a new, three-part series from Andrew Graham-Dixon, on The Art of China, was due to begin last night on BBC4.

Three hours is hardly long to explore an art history of such a vast nation – a history that dates back, uninterrupted, many thousands of years – so Graham-Dixon picks threads and plots themes that allow him to create a remarkably coherent picture of a culture that few of us are very familiar with.

We’ve seen this approach before, in his excellent series on The Art of Germany, for instance, where the first episode had, as an umbrella idea, the importance of the forest in the German psyche.

It’s a recurring analysis that much art is concerned with the afterlife: in the German series, this found realisation in the extraordinary works of religious art, carved from the trees of those same forests.

In China, Graham-Dixon began by introducing us to the extraordinary, freestanding bronze sculptures from the city of Sanxingdui, which is in the south west of the country, in what is now Sichuan.

These artifacts were only uncovered by archeologists in 1987 and radiocarbon dating places them as coming from the 12th-11th centuries BCE. Now that’s old.

Bronze head from Sanxingdui
Many of the sculptures are heads, with protruding eyes and, in some cases, gold masks. There is also an astonishingly intricate and delicate sculpture of a tree, complete with birds.

Various theories abound, but it seems possible that these were linked to some form of worship or ritual, possibly connected to ancestors.

The works had to be pieced, painstakingly back together, after being found, smashed, in two pits.

It all adds to the fascination: not only is this a question of why they were made, but also of why they were destroyed.

The theme continued with a visit to Mr Yang’s Emporium, where the eponymous Mr Yang creates card and paper models for people to burn as tributes to the dead.

However old such an idea might be, the subjects of the tributes were not, with Graham-Dixon showing us a computer on a desk and a Mercedes, although he found a cardboard cow, complete with udder, rather more amusing.

But while the programme branched off into looking at the written Chinese language – it’s the one remaining hieroglyphic language in the world – and explaining some of those hieroglyphs, it returned to the theme of people’s relationship with the afterlife when Graham-Dixon went to look at the Terracotta Army.

Bronze tree from Sanxingdui
It’s incredible to think that they were only legend until being first unearthed as recently as 1974, and that the 8,000 figures are only from a small part of a vast, 22-square-mile site, which could take as long as another century to be fully excavated.

Graham-Dixon was allowed to walk among the figures, which gave him the opportunity to show us how each one was an individual and how they also reflected the ethnic diversity of the realm of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (260–210 BCE).

Looking inside the lower body of one, he was able to point out where the fingers of its maker had pulled up the clay. And on another, where the maker had first made his mark – and then the supervisor had stamped it.

And it was a wonderful description when, looking over the vast building that now houses them, he described it as being “like King’s Cross!” before adding: “Here they are. The imperial guard, the Terracotta Army lined up for all time like commuters waiting to travel into eternity.”

Less familiar, but even more extraordinary, he asserted, is the Qin bronze chariot, which was also found in the site and is formed of more than 3,000 bronze pieces.

But what is just as fascinating about the Terracotta Army as its scale and the skill involved in creating it, is the probable influence of art from further west – in particular, art that more realistically portrayed the human face.

How would that influence have found its way to China? That was where the Silk Road came into the picture.

This trading route – incredibly dangerous in places – provided a way both in and out of China.

Wu Zetian as a Buddha
And along part of it stands the labyrinthine Buddhist cave complex at Dunhuang.

Carved right into rocky cliffs, the individual chapels are decorated lavishly with Buddhist images, including a vast statue of a female Buddha, which is said to represent Wu Zetian (624-705 CE), China’s first female ruler.

She was a great patron of Buddhism – a religion that had been imported to the country from India.

The first programme was, all in all, a fascinating look at the art of China.

Graham-Dixon has the gift of being able to make things approachable and easy to grasp without ever dumbing down.

And the way in which he introduces themes is never forced, but leaves the viewer with more than enough to actually consider well after the closing titles have concluded.

There’s plenty of time to catch up with the first episode – it’s available now on iPlayer – but this bodes very well for two further weeks of seriously good, grown-up and intelligent telly.

You can find out more about the series at the programme’s dedicated website.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Swallowed by the black hole of Suprematism

Self Portrait (1908-10)
It’s difficult to remember, sometimes, both how long ago modern art became ‘modern’ and how much world events can shape what we see in galleries.

Somehow, for instance, it’s difficult to mentally locate Duchamp’s urinal in the years of WWI – perhaps because we look at pictures of that world and the way people were dressed, and find it hard to think of it alongside art works that, even today, are considered so radical that many would not accept that they are art.

But in the context of major political and social upheavals – and a world war – fits rather obviously into such a description – perhaps radical art may well be inevitable as artists search for a way to deal with what is going on.

And of course, in the case of revolution, then exactly the same would be true.

Bathers Seen from Behind (1910)
Now on at the Tate Modern until 26 October, an exhibition of works by Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) is a perfect illustration of such things.

A room of early paintings shows a mixed approach, from conventional portraits to Self Portrait (1908-10), which is far more expressive.

Bathers Seen from Behind (1910) has a modernity in its abstraction of the subject, and Shroud of Christ from 1908 incorporates a background decoration that is reminiscent of Russian icon art.

Incidentally, on Bathers Seen from Behind, anyone else recognise a spot of cloisonnism?

Shroud of Christ (1908)
But this was already a period of huge upheaval in Russian life.

When Malevich had started painting, the country was still a Tsarist autocracy, with a vast percentage of the populace being peasants.

Growing demands for change saw many artists looking west for inspiration, but for others, they sought to create a specifically Russian type of art, focusing on very Russian subjects, which included the peasantry.

In terms of this exhibition, you see Malevich’s
Bather (1911)
style leap forward in 1911, with Bather, but it’s with The Scyther
(1911-12) that we first really see the desire to create a particularly Russian visual language appear.

It was a style that he extended with Morning in the Village After Snowstorm (1912) a work where it’s possible to see both the influences of Cubism and Futurism.

Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto had been published three years earlier, calling on artists to reject the traditional in art in favour the cults of speed, technology and the machine.

In Russia there was just as much enthusiasm as elsewhere, but in Malevich’s works from this period, we find a combination of Futurism with Cubism – Cubo-Futurism.

But hopping between styles, he also produced a number of avowedly Cubist works – In the Grand Hotel (1913) is a particularly fine one, with a rather haunting quality.

In the Grand Hotel (1913)
In early 1914, Malevich had declared that he renounced reason, and when war broke out that autumn, he switched from the absurdism of that year’s An Englishman in Moscow to total abstraction.

Originally painted in 1915 – further versions were painted in 1923 and 1929, and these two are featured at the Tate as the original is too fragile to be moved – Black Square has been an icon of modern art ever since.

This was the birth of Suprematism.

In an ingenious bit of arrangement, the latest of these is hung high in a corner of one of the exhibition rooms, as the first painting was displayed originally, in a deliberate echo of how icons were often hung in homes.

In the previous room, the 1923 version is hung at a more traditional height and you can sit – back to film footage of a US revival of a Suprematist theatre production, Victory Over the Sun – and take it in.

The Scyther (1911-12)
I’m not going to pretend that it’s a work that I particularly ‘like’, but it has something very powerful about it.

It screams out an eradication of everything that had gone before; wipes the slate clean. Or perhaps it’s a suggestion of a black hole that will swallow everything.

There’s something threatening about it.

It is, I think, the use of the black that makes it so powerful: neither the later Red Square (which gave Martin Cruz Smith the idea for a novel of the same name) nor White on White have anything like the same power.

Malevich declared that the painters of the past were “counterfeiters” of nature, and announced that “the artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature”.

It was a revolutionary approach.

Morning in the Village After Snowstorm (1912)
At this stage, the exhibition moves into rooms of canvases made up of geometric shapes in various colours.

Frankly, there’s only so much of these sort of works that I can take. They work best when they’re used in the few cups and saucers that are on display.

After the October Revolution, Malevich gradually moved away from these compositions into increasing simplification, with white forms on white backgrounds.

In 1919, he wrote that: “Painting died like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it”.

But as an artist, where do you go after that?

By the late 1920s, the first Five Year Plan was in place to drive industrialisation.

Black Square (1915)
Malevich returned to painting – mainly strange, rural scenes that are reminiscent in some ways of the earlier Cubo-Futurist ones, but with often blank-faced peasant figures.

I did, however, like Landscape With Five Houses (1932) from this period.

The final room gives us some of the final paintings.

The rural scenes continued, but there was also a return to much more conventional painting. Well, sort of.

There are a number of portraits here with strange hand gestures and even costumes that seem straight out of a Renaissance painting.

That he took to signings his works with a black square suggests that he still believed in his own ideas – but that in turn leads to the conclusion that what he later produced was not  genuine.

Landscape With Five Houses (1932)
Malevich died of cancer in 1935 and, with that, his works disappeared from view in the Soviet Union, failing to meet Stalin’s criteria for art.

The cultural avant garde had long since been viewed as elitist.

Some works re-appeared in Krushchev’s time, but Black Square was not reshown until the 1980s.

This is an interesting exhibition in many ways.

The early works – and the attempt to fashion a particularly Russian form of art – are fascinating.

It’s worth seeing Black Square, not simply because of its iconic value, but also to realise that it is genuinely powerful, whatever your personal response to it is

But after that, the exhibition really all rather peters out.

And after all, once you’ve announced the death of something, how can you really breathe new life into exactly what you claim to have ended?

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The potager's back in business

Not really like coffins at all
It’s just possible that some visitors to this corner of cyberspace may wonder what has happened to the potager – the unkempt wedge of a carpark flower bed that gave me my Schleswig-Holstein moment a couple of years ago.

Well, there were plans, but last autumn, with its soul-destroying grey dampness, rather put paid to them.

But although it was two seasons later than intended, the central scheme has now been realised.
The potager as it existed had a number of problems.

After the housing association had accepted a tender for gardening services from a different company, the flowerbed areas at the back of our small block of flats had been allowed to get into a mess.

In one, weeds had run riot, while a bush that had been growing around a small tree was dying, and rusting bikes, left by long-gone residents, had been left chained to the trellis that formed one border of the patch.

Initially, mine had been a small land grab – enough to put some beans in.

But these things are addictive and, the following year, I increased the size and even managed to produce some very small carrots.

As it was at the start, in 2012
Neighbours then took up the cause and helped clear the entire patch, apart from the tree and one deep, old root from the bush.

And last year, there were a few more very small carrots, one or two miniature turnips, a couple of gigantic courgettes, a few salad leaves and chard that eventually threatened to reach record heights.

But the ground was uneven because of that tree, with roots breaking the surface in a number of places.

The soil is fairly shallow soil, with sand beneath, and that soil is, typically for cities apparently, also very, very clayey – that means it’s very rich, but also very difficult to work and not much cop on the drainage front.

There are now, though, three large raised beds in place, built to fit the space perfectly.

Ian, a local craftsman who has done a number of jobs for us, built them just as I wanted – and then went down to nearby Hackney City Farm and returned with enough well-matured manure to provide a substantial layer at the bottom of each new bed, which was then topped up with soil.

There is, apparently, a whopping two tons of the latter there now – a frankly amazing figure that would never have entered my head when I was planning the little development.

In effect, though, while the area is technically the same, the actual planting space is greater – simply because he has built around and then over roots and unevenness, to create evenness above.

And of course, drainage will be considerably improved.

So we’re back in business.

The first weekend back, I started off by making two trips to Colombia Road flower market – the first with The Other Half to provide extra carrying capacity – coming home with vast amounts of herbs, plus flowers.

Otto exploring slightly later developments
One planter now has those herbs arranged around the outside, with a splash of summer colour in the middle.

Our neighbours seem particularly impressed – even though one of them did apparently suggest to Ian that he could start a new career as a coffin maker.

There’s common thyme and lemon thyme, rosemary, flat leaf parsley, chives, French tarragon, chervil, lovage, common sage and bloody dock sorrel.

We still have oregano on the patio, plus the bay tree, and I’m going to get a really large pot to go there for mint.

But that seems to me like a great herb collection, and the sorrel and sage are already growing at an incredible rate.

And the inclusion of the likes of lovage and chervil are exactly the sort of thing that inspires me to continue this adventure – there is no shop that I know that ever sells such things.

One of the tarragon plants has some leaves that are not happy, but by and large it’s doing okay – and tarragon is notoriously delicate – while the chervil looks to be thriving.

On the herb front, everything else seems to be fine too, although, in spite of regular watering, some of the flowers didn’t take too kindly to the sunshine in the days that followed their being planted out.

This last weekend, I took enjoyed my first harvesting – just a few chives, snipped for a garnish, but bang full of flavour.

And of course, it won’t take long before such things have more than paid for themselves.

If I have to buy chives, for instance, then I have to pay for a bag of (less tasteful) ones at 80p or more, with the chances being that most won’t get used.

This way, I get to just harvest my half dozen chives when I need them, and waste nothing.
And for the winter, I may explore freezing some winter.

The flowers include French marigolds, which apparently help to keep pests away: I’m still trying for the most natural way of gardening possible.

I timed it well – which was a fortunate accident, really – because July seems to be the final month for sowing seeds outside for autumn and winter food crops.

So in the coming days, leeks, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and fennel will all be sown in the next planter.

Now, this isn’t guaranteed to be a rip-roaring success, but there’s really only one way to find out.

And there’s a great deal of pleasure in doing just that.