Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Lockers, Joseph Beuys and gallery assistants

Excess Baggage Group, based in Hayes
is now the private arm of left luggage
and lost property at UK stations
There were once lockers at Leeds train station, I am being told by a man who works for Excess Baggage. I imagine there were, I say. I remember the lockers at Brighton station. They ran all the way along the wall opposite the last platform, a wall now used to display photos of smiling over-50s, all doing active things like gardening, playing guitar etc. not a single one with a grimace or frowning at the camera being pointed at them as they go about the hobby that keeps them useful, busy and in the company of other over-50s. Not one of them is a complainer because to complain is to commit the sin of negativity and when you are negative you die.
I'm, meanwhile, taking my own photo of how much it would have cost me to leave my bag for a morning in Leeds. Customer services, only responsible for Northern Trains, quite rightly say I am wrong when I ask to complain about being misled at Hebden Bridge Station. Are there left luggage lockers, I asked? Yes. The customer services woman says, well he was right. There are. But I can't afford them, I reply. But he didn't mislead you, she says. And she doesn't have any complaints forms anyway.  So who do I complain to about the cost? Network Rail is responsible for the station. She won't let my mistake drop. The information I was given was correct, she says again. We've moved on I say. She's still insisting as I leave. There's no-one else in customer services. What, after all, do they do if they don't even have a complaints form? There's plenty who do pay it, she adds.
At the Network Rail office they don't take complaints of any kind in person. I have to go online. They have no idea why Left Luggage has been privatised. It's all about making money now. My shoulder is aching.
But the guy at Excess Baggage is local and remembers the lockers, as I do mine in Brighton. Lockers big and small with varying charges and keys with a hefty plastic knob on so you couldn't lose them.
So why did they get rid of them, I ask? I was sure I knew the answer. It would be the same as the one I was given earlier at the art gallery where I turned up with my bag - having lugged it all the way from the station - and asked for the cloakroom. And same as the one I was given when I went to the tourist office to complain about a lack of cloakroom. I was sure the answer would be terrorism.
Scala Napoletana by Joseph Beuys, 1985
Although, to be fair, the guy at the tourist office can't bring himself to say that word, anything close to it in fact. He says "well, you know..." as if the reason for getting rid of a cloakroom is a guessing game, or an intimate disease. And when I don't play but instead ask for a complaints form, he can't find one either. A woman in the queue says I'm being rude and by then perhaps I am. I've carried my bag all the way from the station and no-one seems to understand why I'm cross that there's nowhere to put it.
Rudeness is something else. There is confusion about rudeness and complaining nowadays. When I open my mouth to ask a question, hackles often rise. It's quite primitive and very obvious. An identikit image of rudeness tends to be old and female. It has embossed on its forehead: I HAVE ENDURED 60+ YEARS OF DOING THE RIGHT THING AND LOOK WHERE IT GOT ME.
So I think people in authority sense this person has nothing to lose when she asks to speak to the manager she can see hiding in the back office with his feet up. Is it any surprise she speaks her mind? She has been redefined as trouble.
Well, that's me, actually. I am given some plain paper to handwrite my complaint on and I leave it with my email address. Do you understand why I'm cross, I ask? Some of the tension diffused, the manager does. But he can't help himself, you'll have a reply within 15 days, he says. We both know the reply will be meaningless, a waste of time. The word terrorism sits between us like a returned loaf of bread with a dead frog in it.
Robert Tait Mackenzie's
Four Masks of Facial
Expressions: Violent Effort,
Breathlessness, Fatique
Exhaustion   1902
The manager of the art gallery, who's hanging around reception for some reason, does use the word and in a managerial way, his chin jutting out and his eyes fixed on me, challenges me with his body to consider the absence of a cloakroom as unreasonable. 
My bag over my shoulder, people with dripping coats or shopping, up against terrorists....who would be so unreasonable as to complain about the absence of a cloakroom?
The Brighton lockers, now erased by lines of smiling old people being busy and not complaining, went when the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel. The postbox and rubbish bins went at the same time.
The Leeds lockers, the man at Excess Baggage informs me, went when kids put fireworks in them. But terrorism was the excuse, he says. We have a scanner here, you see, he says. For the luggage.
My decision to take a few hours in Leeds on my way home from Hebden Bridge is because there's an exhibition of work by Joseph Beuys.
But I am defeated. I'll just lug my bag around the gallery. In the first room of his work, there's a very kind invigilator, who's heard some of the discussion at reception. She comes up to me. You can put your stuff in the corner, love, and I'll keep an eye on it, she says. She's kind and concerned. I feel as if I can fly around the felt, the sledge, the tins and the floorpaint, light as a feather.
Then into the next room where Scala Napoletana is installed, and the long ladder is projected onto the back wall, in shadow. The invigilator sitting with the ladder and great heavy weights has gloves on and is well wrapped up. It's cold. I dump my bags to take a photo and look around. I sense he's nervous about me not being with my bags and he says, watch your bags, people come in and steal them. They can have them - I tell him about what left luggage costs and he reckons it's the same as all day parking.
Briefly I see my little bag in the space a 4x4 would take up and wonder how it became so dangerous and so expensive.
There are lockers next door, he tells me. I am not sure I've heard right. Is this Beuys speaking? Is this man his channel? The revolution is in us! The social order is overturned! There are lockers....
And indeed there are and I am allowed to use them. They are free. They are made of oak and each key has a number on, a small coloured tag. I have number 13. Next to the bank of wooden lockers is a coat rack, with coats on it as I remember from the past.
And now I am a smiling old woman, looking at all the galleries have on show - Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Jacob Epstein, Paula Rego. I am happily the shadow of the ladder on the wall and I am glad of the kindness of gallery attendants, who live with these artists and because of that, are able to resist and be human.

....Added value quote on Beuys by Allan Antliff, provided by Jane Fordham, my artist collaborator: "That December, Beuys and fifty students demonstrated how direct action could work by sweeping paths through a small public forest in the city of Dusseldorf that was threatened by the planned expansion of a tennis club," writes Antliff. 
"They marked the trees that were to be cut down, exposing just how devastating the destruction would be. Beuys issued a call to 'Overcome the dictatorship of the parties, save the forest!' and distributed a poster announcing 'Let the rich beware, we will not yield. Universal well-being is advancing."

Thursday, January 11, 2018


I went over to mum's last night and we were looking at instruction videos on putting up a polytunnel. I am researching them at the moment - tempted by the best, but aware longevity might not be the most important box to tick. There's a difference of about £200 between the best and the first I looked at.  It reminded me of a poem I had published years ago in The Frogmore Papers, based in Lewes, that I never included in a collection but which now feels like a forerunner to a more recent, and yet to be published poem about Mum's new garden. This older one is about the garden she left behind in Tunbridge Wells, with its bouncy lawn and views over a valley, where we fell asleep in summer and ate under an umbrella. Where Mum had a writing shed with wallpaper.

My mother’s garden

She’s trying to decide where to put an eyeless male head,
so it won’t scare her. Maybe in the wygelia

or among the delphiniums? She grows colour, patches of light
and shade, hiding places. She has benches to follow the sun.

She offers sanctuary to the wind from Greenland, carrying
strands of silk, rustling leaves and snow, stocking wilder beds

with hellebores, succulents. Her garden overlooks a valley
decorated with country houses. It’s calmed by poppies,

white clematis flowers big as side plates. The fence is heavy
with roses and honeysuckle. Sparrows wash in their own stone bath,

squirrels steal peanuts from the feeder. Listen to the steam train
hoot. A gardener needs to sing to her seedlings.

She’s accompanied by the robin, millipedes and flint spearheads. 
She likes the rain on her neck, percussion of a rake on stones.

My mother’s garden takes time. It flows from her fingers
and she digs time into the borders, sows it in her smallest pots.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Drinking from a decent cup

Designs for decorated cups
by Alfred Forrester 1804-72
I woke up about five this morning and it was too cold to get up so I finished The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso, the story of two women in their eighties who are neighbours in Cape Town - one is white, the other black.
South African history's dealt with lightly - this is a story about two women trapped in their sorrows, told well, often surprising.
And one detail that stood out was Hortensia's need to drink out of a decent cup. I've noticed that an Airbnb couple will choose their cups and stick with them for the weekend. I have a preferred coffee cup and another tea cup. Part of the joy of visiting Jane Fordham is a choice of gorgeous cups - each of them a story.
January's a difficult month. Sometimes it feels like it's thrown together in the worst recesses of the mind. I had a few of those hours yesterday but also a stack of books to help me out.
My mood was challenged by the complexity of guilt and regret that Omotoso explores. History overlaid on personal experience provides a good shake out of self-pity.
Owl being mobbed - detail from a 13th century bestiary
in the British Library
A couple of other news stories did the same. Oprah Winfrey became the first black woman to receive the Cecil B DeMille lifetime achievement award. And in accepting it she delivered a history lesson. What made the greatest impression on me was her link between Rosa Parkes and Recy Taylor. The history she summarised so skillfully in her speech echoed in Omotoso's novel as I read through the early hours - different continent, same racial injustice. And then there were two other stories sending good messages:  Toby Young, the journalist friend of Boris Johnson (the only explanation anyone needs), resigned before he was sacked and Carrie Gracie, a BBC presenter and China editor resigned in protest at pay differences for men and women.
Juvenile dotterel, Borgo Bonsignore beach, Sicily
September 2015
Another consolation out of all proportion exists in my photo of this bird. It stood on the beach in Sicily a couple of years ago for most of the day, watching the sea. I had no idea what it was. A chance find on Google images suggests it's a juvenile dotterel - a member of the plover family. The bird migrates from the icy north, where it breeds, to a belt stretching from north Africa to Iran for winter. Like the phalarope, males incubate eggs and look after the chicks.
Which brings me again to Alan Paton's brilliant novel about Africaaner life. Too Late the Phalarope explores a family in which the only book allowed in the house is the Bible. The son who offers his father a book of birds, therefore, is bound to challenge the status quo.
So many invisible lines between books, memories and news....all of them stories.
Since Sicily, watching the dotterel, I've loaded far too much on its young back. Discovering its identity, I can now admire it and hope it had company for the remaining miles as it flew over leaking boats coming in the opposite direction - all of those passengers just wanting to drink from a decent cup.