Monday, 13 December 2010

We're All Undesirables Now

The Rebirth of Mass Discontent

As the year draws to a close David Cameron and Nick Clegg must be hoping 2011 will bring a return of the optimism they shared on that spring morning in the Downing Street garden when this unlikely political double act made its first public appearance. Given the events of recent weeks it's a wish that's unlikely to be granted. No-one condones the violence, either from demonstrators or police, that accompanied last Thursday's tuition fee vote but, along with the result, it came as no surprise.

What has been rather more surprising is the radicalisation of a generation of young people since the coalition began its assault on our higher education system. Forget the sanctimonious talk about dreamers and  thugs  what we are witnessing is a fundamental shift in the relationship between a significant section of society and the state. After years of bemoaning the apathy of young voters we are suddenly faced with a movement that  even the Duchess of Cornwall can't ignore and it shows no signs of going away.

Prior to last week's events we had seen unrest on previous student demonstrations against the government's proposals. Then there was the anger directed towards Vodaphone and Top Shop who are allowed to withhold millions from the exchequer while we're told the cost of education is one the treasury can no longer afford. Up and down the country local protests have been organized and universities occupied. Even the Turner Prize ceremony was disrupted by a 'teach-in' at Tate Britain following which the winner, Susan Philipsz, expressed  her commitment to free education.

As this  mass discontent begins to make itself felt commentators have sought to make sense of it all. In the Sentinel our local MPs have been asked for their thoughts while columnist Mick Temple has devoted a page to the subject. Elsewhere comparisons have been made with the anti poll tax movement that signalled the demise of Margaret Thatcher while others have likened it to the student protests of May 1968 that rocked the French government. In the Guardian  Michael Chessum shares this analysis predicting that the current protest could easily turn into a mass anti-privatization movement. This remains to be seen.

The truth is this unexpected wave of activism has taken everyone by surprise and we can only guess where it might lead. One thing appears certain though,  the mood is unlikely to change any time soon. The students have vowed to continue their protests and other flashpoints await. In January the VAT rises come into effect plunging millions into hardship. Benefits are being slashed not only for the unemployed and low paid but for middle class families too. Only last week it was reported that up to 1000 public libraries could close as councils seek to deal with new financial restrictions. Even the police who are expected to deal with any resulting public disorder are facing massive spending cuts.

If nothing else the past weeks have demonstrated  that the genie is out of the bottle and it's going to prove extremely difficult for the government to force the cap back on. One of the  slogans that decorated the streets in May 1968 was Beneath the Paving Stones the Beach. Right now it appears the beach is getting bigger and the danger facing Cameron and Clegg is that  the paving stones could still be flying in their direction this time next year. After all, as they never tire of reminding us, we're all in this together. Which might be interpreted,  to paraphrase another of those memorable slogans, as we're all undesirables now.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Geoff Clowes: Artist & Musician

In Memoriam

Geoff Clowes illustrator, storyboard artist and musician passed away three years ago this week aged 49.

Deciding the life of a Staffordshire coal miner wasn't for him Geoff studied at Newcastle-under-Lyme College before obtaining a degree in fine art at Harrow. 
During a career that took him  to London and Paris  he worked for Disney, Gerry Anderson and Francis Ford Copolla. Later he became involved in the computer game industry contributing to several notable  PlayStation titles.

In an obituary  Grainger Reece (himself since sadly departed) wrote that Geoff never dipped his toes in the water he jumped straight in. All those who knew and miss him will understand this sentiment. Rest in Peace.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Craft, Industry and a River of Fire

William Morris and Leek

It has been said that William Morris (1834-96) harboured a deep knowledge of places and their history. Like memories places clung to him and yet he was always restless, always moving. From Epping Forest to Iceland Morris absorbed the local character and wove it into his life and work. In this sense places mirror his development from poet, craftsman and designer to cultural critic and social reformer. And one of the key locations in this process would prove to be the Staffordshire Moorland town of Leek.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Leek had been an unremarkable town with a population of around 4,000. By the middle to late Victorian years, however, this had increased threefold and its prosperity, based on the rapid expansion of the silk industry, rivalled that of nearby Macclesfield and Congleton. This new wealth was reflected in the splendid churches and public buildings that sprang up boasting of philanthropy and civic pride. Leek was a boom town and it wanted the world to know.

Prominent amongst the local industrialists responsible for this transformation in fortune was Thomas Wardle. It was Wardle's father who had established the family dye works in the town but it was Thomas, working tirelessly with Indian tussur, who  made the breakthrough in technique that put the Hencroft Works on the silk map. At the same time Wardle found the time to dabble in geology and natural history. He was a churchman and composer of canticles. As was frequently the case with entrepreneurs of the age he had many facets to his character - Like Morris he was a man of his time.

The two men came into contact through Wardle’s brother-in-law who was a manager of Morris & Co, a sort of one stop design solution for the Victorian middle-classes, whose founder members included the painters Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris and Co, or 'the firm' as it became known, produced everything from stained glass to wallpaper and its aims and methods – the promotion of the so-called ‘lesser arts’ and an emphasis on truth to materials - would become the model for the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late nineteenth century.

Morris, seeking to expand the firm’s output, persuaded Wardle to embark on a collaborative venture with the aim of developing methods of textile dyeing that could be employed in the production of his fabrics. It says a lot about Wardle that he agreed to the proposal at all given he was warned by Morris from the outset that the project was something he must undertake for pleasure as opposed to commercial gain. “I don’t suppose the dyeing of our wools will ever be a profitable business to anyone” he cautioned. “I think it only fair to put this before you”. To his credit Wardle, perhaps recalling his own experiments with tussur, agreed to proceed.

Morris’s first impressions of Leek were favourable. “The country is certainly very pretty” he wrote to his wife Janey shortly after his arrival. “It is a land of hillocks and little green valleys, all curiously shaped.” But Morris hadn’t travelled to the Moorlands to admire the landscape and was soon elbow deep in the Hencroft dyeing vats. It was hard work, he  discovered, and there were no shortcuts to achieving the results he desired. What Morris strove for, and impressed upon Wardle, was a return organic methods which he believed produced colours that were closer to nature than anything that could be achieved with modern techniques. "The chemical process," he insisted, "has terribly injured the art of dyeing."

Between 1875 and 1878 Morris stayed in Leek on at least five occasions, always with Wardle and his wife Elizabeth, and there is a copious amount of correspondence documenting the obstacles the two men encountered during the course of their experiments. Not least amongst these problems was the attitude of the Hencroft workers. "One thing I must remind you of," he wrote to Wardle, "is that their obstinate refusal to make an ordinary match of their own patterns almost entirely nullifies whatever advantage may be derived from my artistic knowledge and taste, on which the whole of my business depends; however, the subject of these monsters of idiocy is a dismal one and I will say no more than to beg you to impress on them the necessity of following their instructions to the letter whatever may be the results."

The results Morris eventually achieved in Leek provided the basis for one of the most productive periods of his career and include designs for dozens of fabrics, carpets and chintzes that are considered quintessential amongst the firm's catalogue. Of equal importance, as his remarks  reveal, was a growing frustration with the contradiction between the hands-on craft based methods he favoured and the realities of industrial production. It was a contradiction that would concern him for the rest of his life.

It is a common misconception that Morris was opposed to machinery. This is not strictly true. Providing machines could produce goods to the standard he required he had no objection to their use. What worried Morris, and what he was now encountering at first hand in Leek, was what might be described in Marxist terms as the alienation of the industrial worker from the finished product – Like Ruskin he was beginning to see the division of labour as the enemy of good design.

Furthermore in  Leek and across the industrial north Morris saw the flip side of Victorian progress - the regimentation of labour that crushed the spirit, the cramped and squalid living conditions endured by the working classes, the laying to waste of vast areas of the English landscape -and he despised it. "How can you educate men who lead the life of machines?" he asked perhaps regretting his earlier 'monsters of idiocy' remarks. "You cannot educate, you cannot civilise men, unless you give them a share in art."

For Morris this task couldn't be equated to a return to  the values of the Middle Ages as it had to Pugin. He may have  railed against the ruination of its churches in the name of restoration but Morris had no desire to rebuild Catholic England. Instead it was to revolutionary socialism that he looked to bring about the birth of a new art and a society in which all would be free to share in it. Morris would dedicate the rest of his life towards this aim and in lectures such as  Useful Work versus Useless Toil and A Factory as it Might Be  he proposed ways of living that, in recent times, have seen him claimed as a proto-green but it was in Leek that he took the first steps towards what he described as this crossing of a river of fire.

If Leek changed Morris then he in turn left his mark on the town. It was Elizabeth Wardle, encouraged by Morris, who founded the Leek School of Embroidery in 1879. Involving 30-40 local women, both amateur and professional, they produced alter frontals, banners, vestments, kneelers and cushions much of which can still be seen today. In 1896, the year of Morris's death, they converted a former Quaker meeting house  for the purpose of furthering his ideas. Fittingly on the speaker's desk a silk book cover is embroidered with the words The William Morris Labour Church.

Harrison, Charles et al. Art in Theory 1815-1900. Blackwell.2001
MacCarthy, Fiona. William Morris: A Life for Our Time. Faber & Faber. 1994
Naylor, Gillian. William Morris by himself. Macdonald & Co. 1988
Poole, Ray. A History of Leek. Churnet Valley Books. 2002

Friday, 1 October 2010

Facing Art Attacks

Why a Coalition is Required

Over the past few weeks I've repeatedly been asked to demonstrate that I value the arts and to help save the arts. I've been reminded constantly of the extent to which they enrich our lives and I've seen the economic arguments that show that for every £1 of public money the arts receive they generate at least twice that for the national economy. These are convincing arguments. But, then again, I don't need  convincing.

So I've signed the petitions and I've pledged my support although I must confess I haven't added a 'twibbon' to my Twitter avatar as yet. Should the campaign against government funding cuts fail will this lack of commitment on my behalf amount to a contributing factor in that defeat? Of course not because pink ribbons alone  are not going to change coalition policy anymore than Mark Wallinger's striking  contribution is going to amount to anything more than a 25% hole in a reproduction of the nation's favourite painting. As propaganda tools go these symbols are fine but the question they raise is what do they symbolize? Are they clever art jokes for an in-house magazine or are they the  standards behind which a movement is mobilizing?

We must hope it's the latter because the stakes are high. British tourism relies heavily on arts and culture. In 2007 the total value to the economy was estimated at £86 billion and between 1997 - 2006 the creative economy grew faster than any other sector. Like it or not these figures owe a great deal to a government that, maybe for the sake of its own kudos, promoted and supported the notion of 'Cool Britannia'. Today we are faced with a Tory led coalition using the current economic climate as cover for a deeper ideological agenda that is hostile to state funding and determined to cut and slash its way out of  recession.

For arts and culture this approach will have a hugely detrimental effect. Already the British Museum has announced plans to scale back its opening hours and to review its policy of free admission. While announcements like these will inevitably grab the headlines they are only the tip of the iceberg.  According to Air Artists 16% of arts organizations believe they are facing closure in the next 12 months, with a further 29% anticipating the need to scale back activity. They go on to warn that jobs will be lost, institutions will close their doors and the UK will be in danger of losing its position at the forefront as a destination for culture and tourism.

Furthermore we are in danger of creating a culture where the arts become a privilege only the wealthy can enjoy. Is this the intention of the government? Perhaps not but I've yet to meet a Tory who doesn't at some level betray the characteristics of the proverbial Wildean cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. If it furthers their agenda it is a price they are prepared to pay and appealing to their better nature is simply not going to succeed.

Clearly what is required in the face of this short sighted assault is a cohesive and coherent response that goes much further than ribbons and holes. And herein lies both the dilemma and a unique opportunity. The dilemma stems from the fact the arts is not alone in being asked to pay for a crisis not of its own making. The entire public sector is under threat which will mean cuts in frontline services that will affect everyone. If the wider public see their schools and hospitals suffering they will have little sympathy for the problems facing the arts.

It is essential therefore that the arts don't appear to be a special interest group and this is where the opportunity presents itself. Some supporters, I've noticed, have questioned the wisdom of having two campaigns running simultaneously while others are beginning to recognize the need to forge wider partnerships.  So why not an umbrella group to co-ordinate policy and seek alliances? I'm not suggesting that either campaign surrender its independence simply that, on key issues, they present a united front in pursuit of common goals and broader appeal.

This week the PCS union which represents thousands of workers in galleries and museums launched its own campaign to defend the nation's cultural assets. Here is a natural partner but I'd go further. Through this union links could be made with other public sector unions fighting cuts. By engaging with these groups there would be no danger of appearing to be a single issue campaign crying 'not in my back yard.' Such an alliance would provide a powerful voice and demonstrate that the arts is a vital component of society prepared to fight not only for its own interests but for those of others too.

Historically artists have never been afraid to stand shoulder to shoulder with others engaged in struggle. From the French Revolution to battles against racism, sexism and homophobia they have provided both moral and practical support. The current situation demands a similar response and, above all, it demands unity because in the face of Tory intransigence isolation is a recipe for defeat. Ask a group of workers who were once known as miners.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Where my Drunken Uncles Lie

Berry's Burslem Remembered

When I was a child I thought Burslem Town Hall was built from black stone. As the Brown Edge bus crawled down Moorland Road I'd be looking for the angel perched above its great hulk. As Christmas approached I'd turn the other way transfixed by the magical  nativity scene illuminating the December gloom. But it was always there, dark and imposing, a vast slab of coal looming over the bustling rain slicked streets.

Arthur Berry fondly hoped the Potteries would always remain this way. He wanted the six towns to be known as the filthiest place on the planet and attract visitors from the world over who would marvel at the soot and smoke in the same way they marvel at the Sphinx and the Pyramids. It's not a view that would attract much sympathy today but it reflects a lifelong attachment to place and class - to a city and people that forged his character.

Berry - artist, playwright, broadcaster and author of an extraordinarily frank autobiography - was born in Smallthorne in 1925 in a street "where every house seemed to have an old woman, a drunken man, a gang of kids and a snarling dog." It was a world populated by people twisted into strange shapes by hard work and poverty but who, nevertheless, took pride in their homes and appearances. It's a world familiar to Eileen who recalls mothers in headscarves painting front steps and out of work miners with carnations in their lapels. "We had next to nowt" she says. "But what we did have we were proud of."

When his family moved to Biddulph Berry was struck by the differences he encountered but also by the similarities in the way the men dressed and gathered on street corners to pass the time. At school he met a boy who introduced him to the local picture palace and, for a while at least, he stopped visiting his old neighbourhood. It was painting that brought him back and it was through Burslem's famous school of art that his love affair with the Mother Town began.

"It was like Buckingham Palace" Berry wrote of his first impressions of the school. "I'd never seen such an important looking building before." Burslem School of Art had long enjoyed a reputation for producing the talented artists and designers required by the pottery industry. Past students include Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper. Initially however Berry's family couldn't understand how an education in art could benefit a working class lad whose future surely lay on the factory floor or the coal face. "Arthur don't talk so bloody daft," his father told him. "Folks dunner want art round here, it's for the toffs in London. Keep on with it and theyt be a three and sevenpence halfpenny man all thee life."

Eileen recalls girls she worked with being sent by their firms to study at the school. "They went at night" she says. "Them as had the skills. They'd always have work after that. And more money too. But the ones who were there full time weren't from the streets round us." Berry felt this too describing daughters of the wealthy treating it as a finishing school before they got married. "These creatures were like something from another world" he recalled. "They dressed in a provincial bohemian fashion and talked confidently and loudly in upper class accents." His time as a junior secured him a job at Doultons where he overcame the disability of having only one useful arm to become a figure painter. He didn't enjoy the experience and dreaded the thought of spending his working life stuck behind a bench.

For the majority, however, this wasn't a fate they fled from. Burslem was dominated by pot banks and tile works and it wasn't uncommon for entire families to find themselves working side by side. Eileen too worked at Doultons and had friends at Barretts, Woods, Maddox and Wades. "Most of them treated you well" she says. "But if they didn't you could jack it in and go somewhere else. It wasn't like today." Hearing about evening classes in drawing and painting Berry signed up and returned to Burslem School of Art three nights a week and it was here that got his first glimmerings of art history and discovered modern masters like Picasso, Kandinsky and De Chirico and, above all, his great  hero Rouault.

By now Europe was at war and Burslem wasn't untouched by the conflict. "I had six brother's" Eileen tells me. "All of 'em went to war. It was the most sons from any family in Staffordshire I think. By the Grace of God they all came back alive." Berry too, while describing himself as more afraid of spiders than German stormtroopers, was doing his bit for the war effort. Three or four nights a week he'd join the firewatchers on the art school roof chatting and sipping tea. It supplemented his income and gave him an excuse to spend even longer in the town.

To a young man who had begun to understand, or at least conceive an image, of what an artist was, the Potteries was like a metropolis and Burslem was its heart. "The evenings were a cinderous grey" he recalled. "Turning to purple and rust. The night sky was filled with a luminous beauty against which the great kilns were etched in blackness (...) No city in Europe could have produced a more dramatic background (for an artist) It was better than Paris or Barcelona."
The Potteries skyline
The places Berry frequented in this metropolis were cinemas like the Palace and the glamorous Coliseum where Eileen remembers courting couples paying a little extra for a box seat. But it was in Buslem's pubs with their tap rooms and smoke filled snugs that he felt most at home. "There were pubs on every corner back then" Eileen says. "And they were always full. Men liked a drink after a hard days work and there's plenty who went home drunk and penniless.  My mother had to drag my father out of the Star some nights." The Star was a favourite haunt of Berry's too 'the highest temple of booze in the town' from which 'only serious illness or death' could keep its customers out. Often following a night's drinking with labourers, rag and bone men and bar room singers he would wander around the town encountering even more unfortunate and yet fascinating characters.

Chief among these down and outs was a notorious public drunk who has become something of a Potteries legend. Vincent Riley was a First World War veteran who fell off the wagon so hard the wheels came off. Denied his favourite tipple of methylated spirit by Burslem chemists Riley would wander from town to town in search of drink frequently attracting the attention of the police along the way. Indeed throughout his life he received no fewer than 244 prison sentences from which he invariably emerged to end up in the gutter once again.

To Berry, however, who was increasingly drawn towards the grotesque, this ‘king of human derelicts’ was a figure from the imagination of Goya. Observing riff-raff and oddballs like Riley, Berry wanted to paint them from the inside out in the way Van Gogh had painted his peasants. Superficial representation, however accomplished, didn’t appeal to him and he railed against Augustus John and his long-legged gypsy girls with borrowed scarves round their heads.

“Oh he was a character” Eileen chuckles at the mention of Riley’s name. “All the kids in Burslem knew Vincent Riley. He used to sleep in a kiln you know.” Well not inside one perhaps, but tales like this still persist amongst the old folk who gather in the pubs he was no doubt barred from. In the not too distant future he will pass from living memory. Another unadulterated spirit from the 'wickedest drinking town' in the Potteries.

Berry's artistic endeavours would lead him to the Royal College of Art,  located in the Lake District during the war years, and later to London where he enjoyed the life of a South Kensington bohemian while never forgetting his roots. His account of his time in the capital is punctuated with passages of righteous indignation aimed at middle class Southerners living off the backs of the hard working North. And it was to the North  he would return not the first, and by no means the last, provincial artist to feel that the London art world had beaten him.

As Berry was only too well aware though the North with which he was familiar was rapidly disappearing. At the same time he felt a sense of estrangement from the world of international  modern art and wondered how an artist whose heritage was primative Methodism and the chip shop  could compete on such a universal scale. He was frequently plagued by self doubt and a fear of obsolescence. Even his beloved Burslem wasn’t immune to the quickening march of time.

One day coming down Moorland Road I saw the Town Hall (where in 1881 William Morris delivered his lecture on ‘Art and the Beauty of the Earth’) surrounded by scaffolding. From beneath years of soot and smoke the true colour of the building began to emerge. This was in the age of smokeless fuel and clean air acts but it wasn’t all good news. Blind urban planning and civic intransigence would result in the loss of many fine buildings. The Potteries skyline was changing and this was only the beginning. The loss of our pits and the wholesale export of the pottery industry would follow.
Burslem Town Hall
On the one hand Burslem suffered more than most under these blows. Eileen laments the passing of the factories and the bustling shops. “There was no need to leave Burslem” she says. “Everything was on the doorstep. You’d see crowds of workers in their aprons queuing up with money to spend. But when the pot banks closed everything went.” On the other hand it has retained more of its architectural character than any of the other Potteries towns. Alongside the Town Hall Burslem boasts a collection of notable buildings that stand comparison with those of any other town or city in the country. There’s the Venetian Gothic splendour of the Wedgwood Institute for example and, facing it, the School of Art itself which this year hosted an exhibition of rarely seen Berry paintings from private collections.

Wedgwood Institute (detail)
Wedgwood Institute (detail)

Given this, Burslem is perhaps uniquely placed to benefit in the current climate of regeneration. With the right investment and a little imagination the Mother Town could re-invent itself as the city’s true cultural quarter. Art can play an important role in this process. Already The Old Post Office Gallery and ArtWaves are breathing new life into empty buildings. Other art spaces are flourishing too. Providing they are not priced out of any future blue print, evidence from other areas suggests they can go a long way in forging vibrant, creative communities.

Arthur Berry died in 1994. If in his later years he raged against a world that had changed beyond his comprehension it was because he cared. He cared about Burslem and he cared about its people. He was, above all, a humanist and this is evident in all his work. Berry was laid to rest in the town that had nurtured and inspired him close to the remains of another chronicler of the Potteries and its folk Arnold Bennett. And not far from the king of human derelicts Vincent Riley.

Berry, Arthur. A Three and Sevenpence Halfpenny Man. Kermase Editions. 1986
Hughes, Fred. Mother Town. Burslem Community Development Trust. 2000

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

New York, New York

An Extended Footnote

Someone recently remarked that the Beyond the Guildhall piece featured in ST:ART fails to recognize the contribution of a number of New York bands to the history of new wave music. 

Well first of all the feature isn't a history of new wave music - it's a partial history of events leading up to and surrounding one particular night in 1979. Secondly there are many UK bands who made equally important contributions but were also omitted so it's not a case of seeking to deny the US connection and claiming punk rock as an exclusively British, or even English, phenomenon.

However I'm happy to set the record straight in terms of the overall picture. So thanks to the Ramones and the legendary Richard Hell who  both trod the boards (and braved the gob) at the Victoria Hall in the 70s.

Here's to Television (whose timeless Marquee Moon sounds wonderful on my mp3) and  the late, great Johnny Thunders  (the "lost 1977 mix" of L.A.M.F must surely be the definitive version).

Give it up for Talking Heads and Patti Smith who  straggled the boundaries between music and art and in Fear of Music and Horses both produced enduring monuments to the era. And let's not forget Blondie without whom Madonna wouldn't have found it quite so easy to conquer the world and transform herself into a Warhol portrait.

Have I left anyone out? Probably but that's a failure of memory and not a reflection on merit. So one more time let's raise our glasses to the above mentioned pioneers and acknowledge that, in the words of the Ramones, New York City really has it all (Oh Yeah).

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Existence Beyond the Guildhall: The Last Night of Punk

Do you remember where you were when you heard Michael Jackson had died? How about Princess Diana? My mother remembers hearing that Kennedy had been shot while she was doing the ironing.

For a group of local forty-somethings there's a time and place that will live with them in exactly the same way. Friday February 2 1979 - The Guildhall Newcastle. And it links the Staffordshire market town to a tale of rock 'n' roll excess and suspected murder that brought to an end the short life of a pantomime punk star and signalled the passing of an era.

In his excellent history of London music In the City (2009) Paul Du Noyer describes the Sex Pistols as the "last great music hall act." In retrospect it' s easy to understand where he's coming from. While in the seventies it appeared to the establishment that they represented the forces of anarchy that were never far from the surface of a society at war with itself, there was always something reassuringly traditional in their Dickensian posturing.

Indeed at one of their occasional get togethers the group took to the stage to the sound of Vera Lynn's There'll Always be an England and, as Du Noyer notes, it appeared the sentiment was genuine. John Lydon has gone further, claiming "there would never have been a Sex Pistols without dear old London town" and bemoaning the postmodern city with its corporate towers and smoke-free pubs. "Where's my England?" he demands. "I want it fucking back."

Lydon has always been an insightful commentator on the state of the nation. While the bunting and flags were flying to mark the Queen's silver jubilee in 1977 he warned that England was dreaming. God Save the Queen didn't call the monarch a moron but it was banned by the BBC and almost every other station and when it shot to number two that spot was left blank in the charts.

Made You A Moron
By this point original bassist Glen Matlock had been replaced by another young Londoner John Ritchie (also known as John Beverley). Ritchie had been a fan of the Pistols and dabbled with other faces on the London punk scene like Siouxsie Sue and Keith Levene. He looked the part and, in true showbiz fashion, was rechristened Sid Vicious.

Despite the sneering threat "we mean it man" Lydon was intelligent enough to understand that Rotten was a construct. Ritchie, on the other hand, thoroughly believed in Vicious and the self destructive rock 'n' roll mythology of which he was a pantomime product. It was destined to end badly and it did.

Pantomime Product
In the meantime punk had outgrown its London roots and every town from the North to the South boasted a crop of three chord wonders with practiced sneers and soaped- up hair. Staffordshire was no exception. Step forward the Verdict and the Veins and, the only ones to enjoy any degree of national/international success, Discharge.

This tale, however, involves a band whose short career has been eclipsed by the presence of one of its members on the local music scene for the past thirty years. For many, like fan Tony, they were local heroes. "I had my first pint after one of their gigs," he says. "And whistled UFO all the way home." The band in question is, of course, the wonderful Beyond the Wall.

Featuring Chris Bailey, Steve Colclough, Tim Simpson, John Oakes and the irrepressible Gary Jewess, Beyond the Wall combined punky swagger with some genuinely memorable melodies. And, like the Pistols, they were unmistakeably English. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and you'll still find Gary and John singing about bluebells and ten pound notes.

Gary& John: Still 'friendly' after all these years
While Beyond the Wall were attracting an ever growing fan base in North Staffs the leading lights of the London punk contingent were experiencing differing fortunes. Whereas the Pistols were happy to call themselves anarchists in an iconoclastic sense the Clash were earnestly raising the red flag and changing the political direction of a movement that, a couple of years earlier, had flirted dangerously with fascist imagery.

London Calling (curiously, given its 1979 release, Rolling Stone Magazine's album of the 80s) saw the Clash at their expansive best embracing everything from reggae to Americana while, without Matlock's pop sensibility, "the last great music hall act" were floundering and imploding. A chaotic US tour ensued before Lydon walked off stage and reclaimed his own Public Image.

Ritchie/Vicious, still under the Svengali-like control of erstwhile situationist Malcolm McClaren, recorded a couple of solo singles that were intended to establish him as a genuine rock 'n' roll star but My Way and Something Else only underlined the fact that, despite his now legendary status, he couldn't be taken seriously.

By this point, along with his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen, he was struggling with an escalating heroin problem. Let loose in New York the couple took refuge in the famous Chelsea Hotel - the same Chelsea Hotel where Bob Dylan had written Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands and Janis Joplin told Leonard Cohen she preferred handsome men - and it was here that Spungen died and Vicious, protesting his innocence, was charged with her murder.

Nancy: Something Else
Writing in a tabloid newspaper A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess said it was entirely predictable that punk would "end in evil" - as though the movement had never been about anything else other than a bit of ultra-violence. Vicious was released on bail and the orange was ticking.

Back in North Staffs another Beyond the Wall fan, Dean, recalls his own reaction. "I heard it on the news before I went to college," he says. "And I thought 'how bloody stupid'. I know someone had died but it felt more like a farce." Farcical or not Vicious was still a cult figure to many young punk rockers and as they prepared for the Wall's next gig all eyes were on events in New York.

The Guildhall is an eighteenth-century building with some Victorian modifications that dominates the town centre. In recent years it's been a failed pub and has been sadly neglected. Today, fully restored, its the public interface of Newcastle Borough Council. Back in the seventies though it  could be hired for wedding receptions, birthday parties and exhibitions by local art groups. And on a cold February night in 1979 Beyond the Wall took to its low stage and what followed was truly remarkable.

Memory can be unreliable. As any investigator will tell you, ask half a dozen people to describe what they saw at a particular time and you're likely to get four or five differing accounts. When the event in question took place over thirty years ago the problem is compounded. "I think Discharge played too," Tony says. "Did they bollocks. It was the Wall and that was that" Dean insists. "I know it was packed" Tony recalls. Dean nods. "Yeah, I was sweating like fuck."

In an era without mobile phones or Twitter it's difficult to understand how the news from New York was conveyed to the band and their wildly pogoing fans. But at some point in the evening rumours began to emerge that Sid Vicious had died. It was an overdose some people said. It may have been suicide others suggested. "Yeah I heard he'd topped himself" Tony says. "God knows how anyone knew. Was someone listening to a radio?"

Stokebeat describes the evening as the highlight of Beyond the Wall's career. "As rumours and then news filtered through," the website records, "the crowd and the band rose to the occasion." Neale and Pete remember the night too. "John Oakes was particularly cut up about Sid's death" Neale recalls. "I think a lot of young punks felt betrayed by such a senseless act." "If I remember correctly," Pete adds, "John was dressed like Sid Vicious that night." Several witnesses recall people crying. Others describe acts of self mutilation. "Some people just went nuts" Dean says. "The atmosphere was electric."

"It was really charged and vibed up," adds Louis. "I do remember feeling sad that Sid had died but, also, that the crying and gnashing of teeth was bogus. The Sid thing had long been a freak show and people were upset about the passing of their own rebellion. The sadness about this man was genuine but misplaced. Sid's death came at a time when the nihilism and existentialism of punk was shown to be a hollow shell compared to life and death."


The day after the gig Tony remembers going out to buy every newspaper which he saved until he moved house a few years ago. Dean doesn't recall seeing Beyond the Wall ever again. "I don't know if it was their last gig," he says. "But it felt like it. It felt as though the seventies and punk were over."

Indeed within a few months Margaret Thatcher had toppled the crisis ridden government of James Callaghan and Britain entered an era of right wing Tory rule that saw the face of the country changed irrevocably. As for the characters featured in this tale well, they were changed too. "It's like nothing happened before punk but all the choices I've made since are influenced by it to some degree," Tony tells me. "And I wish Gary Jewess would release those Beyond the Wall tapes." Now that would be something else.

To learn more about the North Staffordshire music scene during the 1970s & 1980s visit and the visitors to whose guestbook deserve a special mention. So thanks etc etc....

Monday, 23 August 2010

Borough Boy: A Chance Encounter With Leslie Marr

I don't usually attend exhibition openings. While I'm grateful for the  invitations, luke-warm wine and self congratulatory bonhomie don't really appeal to me. No, I'd much rather leave my viewing until the glitterati have departed and I can mingle with the public safe in the knowledge that I won't have to explain for the hundredth time that I'm NOT a journalist.

Recently however I made an exception based purely on the fact that the invitation arrived in the post and was printed on an attractive reproduction of one of the featured paintings. The exhibition in question was a group show at Keele University featuring a number of contemporary artists which, as is the nature of these things, turned out to be a rather mixed bag.

Having got off the bus at the wrong stop and  then caught in a shower I was already beginning to regret my decision but there was a surprise in store that changed the complexion of the evening entirely. Unbeknown to almost everyone present Professor Ray Pahl had chosen the occasion to donate a painting to Keele and a ceremony had been duly arranged to which the artist of the work, Leslie Marr, had been invited.

                              Leslie Marr, Prof Ray Pahl, Vice Chancellor Dame Janet Finch

Following a short question and answer session in which the reluctant Marr was skillfully prompted by Professor Pahl it was time for that luke-warm wine and the opening of the main event. Glass in hand, browsing  rarely seen portraits from the university's own collection by celebrated twentieth century artists including Jacob Kramer, Julian Trevelyan and George Clausen I was approached by the curator and asked if I'd like to interview the visiting artist. For once I didn't immediately deny the journalist tag.

Leslie Marr is 88 years old but you'd never guess. Accompanied by his charming wife he could easily pass as 20 years younger. But here he was- a living link to the history of  British modern art- to the world of Kossoff and Auerbach and, as I discovered, to his one time father-in-law David Bomberg.

Marr met Bomberg's step-daughter Dinora Mendelson carrying her portfolio in the Wheatsheaf in Soho. "I liked what I saw", he smiled, clearly referring to Dinora the woman as much as Mendelson the artist. Immediately Marr defected to Bomberg's class at the Borough Polytechnic (now London South Bank University) and so began an association that would result in his marriage to Dinora in 1948 and his membership of the Borough Group which he served as secretary.

The Borough Group was established in 1946 to develop the ideas that Bomberg promoted and to provide a platform for furthering those ideas. Bomberg had studied at the Slade under Sickert and displayed an  understanding of avant-garde European painting such as Cubism and Futurism. His early work, described by Marr as his "intellectual work", was abstract and geometric. He exhibited with the Vorticists although he declined membership. Slowly, however, he developed a more "intuitive" style akin to Expressionism. This is the work Marr prefers.

                                               Leslie Marr by David Bomberg

The Borough Group can't really be described as a 'school' as all the artists involved were encouraged to develop their own styles but Bomberg exerted his influence over his followers in a sometimes ruthless manner. On one occasion he expelled a member because she was pregnant and, as she was likely to get pregnant again, could never be a professional artist.

"He was a dreadful man" Marr told me although the two had been close. "He felt neglected and this made him bitter. Before his death (in 1957) he was sharing a house with a woman he never spoke to and living on toast."

With the passing of Bomberg and his divorce from Dinora, Marr's link with this fascinating period of British art history was broken. "I still respect him as an artist", he said. "And it's ironic that now he's talked about as the greatest colourist since Turner. He'd like that." I should, perhaps, go to more opening nights.