We are living in this country under an extremist government. Every day we witness a systemic attack on society’s poor, which the government seem to openly despise; the vulnerable, with the shameless treatment of the disabled and the sick at the sharp end of the Atos axe and the vile bedroom tax; and the state, as it is ruthlessly stripped back and away as we step back to a pre-war England that serves the vested interest of the very few at the behest of the rest of society (but of course, there is ‘no such thing as society’). And we have an opposition party that sits dithering at the side, not wanting to rock the boat, upset the middle. I am genuinely frightened every day, and angry, but also feel very disempowered and helpless, like a lot of people, about what to bloody do about it, and where we will be as a nation at the end of these catastrophic times.
I recently enjoyed a series of Ken Loach films on Film 4, including the recent ‘The Spirit of 45’. I found this documentary about the building of the Welfare State after the Second World War by the Attlee led Labour Government incredibly inspiring and affirming that things can change for the common good when working people and communities work collectively together. The final part of the film however, which covered the rise of Thatcher and the brutal beginning of her assault on the State and working class communities, particularly in the North and Midlands, and the celebration of an ideology based on individualism and competition and materialism depressing viewing. It also highlighted just how dangerous these times are that we are living in in this country as this coalition drag us gleefully back to pre-war times, when any societal gains to be made are for the benefit of the very few rich, not the many. Britain is a country of such enormous inequalities. So no, don’t ask me to be pleased about the birth of the next ‘heir to the throne’.
Archive photo of the construction of the M6 motorway, Bescot, near Walsall 1960s
I’ve travelled fairly extensively around the UK and Europe, and visited New York a few times too, but probably, and somewhat bizarrely, one of my favourite journeys is the small stretch of the M6 between Walsall and Birmingham. It has a grey, bleak beauty that really appeals to my sensibility. I love the views of the rusty train sidings, the large, anonymous, block factories, the football stadiums, digital advertising hoardings, the wire and steel fields of pylons in the skyline; the skeletal frames of the gas stations, the looping concrete highway of Spaghetti Junction as you leave at exit 6 to swoop roller coaster-like into the city, taking in the strange architecture of Star City on the left and the older buildings of Aston on the right. You feel pulled underground into the belly of Birmingham by the Aston Expressway and spat out again on the other side by the Queensway tunnel, which has taken you in and out so quickly that you haven’t witnessed anything other than the enveloping tunnel walls that speed past. For the same reasons regarding the industrial, bleak view I also really like the small stretch of the M5 from Junction 5 to 1, which brings you into West Bromwich. I travel this most weeks as I visit my parents, and it is underneath here, just by Junction 2 in fact, that my current paintings are based in a location in the canal basin near Smethwick hidden underneath the monolithic, roaring motorway above.
These journeys into cities are romantic, even in their own way the ones into Birmingham or West Brom. Two other favourite journey’s like this include the trip into New York from the airport on the New Jersey Turnpike, which has many mythic rock ‘n’ roll associations, from Bruce to Dylan to Chuck Berry. It’s incredibly exciting whizzing along, dodging in and out of the busy lanes of the highway as the impressive New York skyline starts to appear, mirage-like, on the horizon.
I also really like the trip into Paris from the autoroute, as you head through the outlying Parisien suburbs of graffited tower blocks and concrete tenements (a place brilliantly captured in the film ‘La Haine’ in 1995). These are the places that the Parisien working class were forced into decades ago, as the French capital became more gentrified and exclusive. You can see the same thing currently happening in London where all the current shameless benefit cuts are forcing people out of their long established communities. Anyway, my first trip to Paris was accompanying students on a residential visit. It was particularly memorable as being my first trip to this mainland Europe, travelling overnight on the Eurotunnel and reading all about David Bowie, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop and their creative adventures in Berlin in the 1970’s. It seemed to aptly set the scene as we headed into the city and the museums and galleries. In the next few days I would find myself understanding painting on a much more profound level than ever before, staggering from David to Courbet to Picasso and everything else, totally giddy, leaving museums with pockets full of postcards I would line around my small hotel room each night. Seeing these great artworks in the context of this great city made me realize just how important painting really was, and how different Europe’s relation to art and culture was than England’s tired skepticism.
'La Haine', film still, 1995
I love travelling (it was this time last year I was in Scandinavia), but this romanticism for the local motorway journey, underscores a lot of my current thinking about the idea of home and identity as I develop my interest in landscape, in particular the edgelands of my native Black Country. It’s surprising to me that my landscape work has settled into looking at the places I have always known, yet I realize that this is what all the landscape painters I admire, current and past, have done. It’s not really profound, but it’s only now that I’m trying to carve my own place in painting the land that I have really reflected upon it more deeply.
The recent death of Thatcher bought up a lot of memories and feelings about her destructive ‘legacy’ on the Black Country and the industrial landscape of the West Midlands when I was growing up in the 1980’s. I’m trying to bring some of this experience into some of the new paintings I’m working on to exhibit in Nuneaton in January next year. The exhibition will be called ‘Black Highway’.
I’ve been working on this current painting (above) for about six weeks, which is not like me (readers of this blog may know that I normally try and execute my paintings in one session), but I’m enjoying it. It’s borne a bit out of circumstance, as my summer holidays these days are taken up looking after my children, whereas before becoming a parent the six weeks break were a very productive time. Now I have to accept it has to be a break from the studio. It’s not finished yet. I’ve been looking at the treatment of architecture in Giotto’s paintings in the last couple of days for some new ideas. I’ve particularly struggled with the factory in the background, as I remain unconvinced by what I’ve done.
This summer I have also become a parent again to a beautiful baby girl, which has been lovely. I’ve therefore only been able to work on this painting for a couple of hours each evening after throwing the kids in bed, but it has been a good experience. I’ve just been chucking a great deal of paint and turpentine on the surface, rubbing it back, building it up, responding to accident, thinking each day in between parenting (I know doesn’t sound good!) about what next, until I return each evening. I’ve wanted to throw a few different things in the mix with my painting for some time, and with my new arrival, it looks like this may be the way I’ll be doing things for a while. It’s all good though…..it certainly helps keep things in perspective.