Saints Of Nowhere
After hearing this interview with George Shaw, where he reeled off a list of influences (or “saints”), I started thinking about how I would respond in those circumstances. I’ve always been wary of having personal heroes, mainly because I’ve met a few over the years and the vast majority turned out to be disappointments, and in some cases absolute twats, so when isolating my influences I’ve tended to focus on things people have done rather than the people doing them.
1. Mogwai mixtape
I’ve liked this band since I first heard them in 1996. It’s easy to romanticise the past, but the 90’s were probably the last great decade for experimentation and advancement in music, an evolutionary process that stalled with the turn of the century. Mogwai are still going and have been fully assimilated into the monoculture (I once heard one of their tracks used in a BBC Gardening programme), but in the mid-90’s they were quite radical – taking the quiet/loud dynamic associated with ‘grunge’, stripping away the vocals and pushing everything to the edge. Total silence alongside shrieking noise, gentle piano motifs and banshee howls of guitar feedback, pretentious and sometimes silly titles pitched just on the right side of art – it caught my imagination and hasn’t ever really let go. In 2008 I made a major change in my artistic life, abandoning comics and pop culture imagery for painting and more personal imagery, and Mogwai became the soundtrack of that mutation. I liked the apparent contradiction of their extremes, and while they’ve mellowed with age (as we all should) they’ve lost none of their knack for creating potent atmospheres. For me though, there’s never been a single album of theirs that was The One, so I’ve always taken what I think are their best tracks and made my own mixtapes, a process that changes with each new album or e.p.
2. George Shaw
The major change of 2008 I alluded to above had been a long time coming. I’d got sick and tired of drawing what I had been drawing since my teenage years and was looking to do something/anything different. I’d just started trying to make changes, and can vaguely recall a really bad drawing of a ruined suburban house that I’d tried to make into a painting. It was crap, but it was a start. Then I tried my first painting on a canvas panel and made this:
Something was going on (as a psychoanalyst later confirmed), but I lacked confidence and direction, which all changed when a friend dropped the name ‘George Shaw’ into an email. One Google image search later and my mind was blown. I’d never seen paintings like this before, which looked like x-rays of the memories of my own childhood. I grew up on a council estate in south Leeds, and the places George painted (of his childhood home in Tile Hill, near Coventry) looked just like where I grew up. The rush of memories and sensations that looking at his work brought was completely overwhelming, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel like that ever again. It was a true epiphany, and I immediately knew what I had to do with my own art. The content had to be loaded with personal significance, using the most mundane subject matter and saying “this is important, because I say it is.” George’s early work from the early 90’s/early 00’s is my favourite period. He’d acquired a level of skill with his chosen medium of Humbrol enamel, a skill that allowed him to render his scenes of collapsing garages and muddy paths with a Pre-Raphaelite attention to detail that eventually bordered on the insane. He’s since reined that tendency in a bit, but I liked that obsessiveness which gives his best paintings an appeal that never fades. My two favourites of his paintings are framed and hanging in my ‘studio’ (alright, back bedroom):
This is Ash Wednesday 6.30am (2004-5). It reminds me of so many things, but nothing specific. Getting up early on a Saturday to tazz down to the newsagent’s on my bike to get the new issue of 2000A.D. Walking around the fields behind the estate in the dewy dawn of 6th November looking for spent fireworks. Going through the park to have tea at my nan’s house. All are memories from the late 70’s/early 80’s, and I think the reason his work made such an impression on me is that up to that point I’d repressed a lot of those memories and feelings, and certainly never considered using them as prima materia for art. I never believed it would be accepted as valid subject matter and it took me a while to understand that your own life really is the only worthwhile subject matter.
This is Scenes From The Passion: Hometime (1999). Even more than the Ash Wednesday painting, this is my entire childhood summed up in a single image. My nan’s flat was next to a row of old garages as ruined and graffiti-splattered as these. The garages were next to an electricity substation surrounded by overgrown weeds, hiding a path that led up to the park. Going to her flat for my tea after school and then trudging off home to wait for my parents to come home from their respective shift jobs – this is what my walk home would have looked like. If you were lucky you’d find a crumpled copy of Club International thrown into the bushes, or a couple of glass pop bottles you could trade in at the offie for a few pennies, and at the time I could never ever have suspected that those mundane everyday moments would one day command so much of my imagination and demand an artistic response.
3. John Burnside: A Lie About My Father / Glister
I discovered John Burnside’s writing around the same time as I discovered George Shaw’s paintings. I soon realised that some of his novels were just as autobiographical as his memoirs (to date he’s written three) and that they explored the same kind of physical and psychic territory as George does in his art, so for me the two men’s work are forever fused, a fusion reinforced when I saw that his poem ‘Scalpel’ featured in the catalogue for George Shaw’s 2003-4 exhibition What I Did This Summer. John Burnside has had an interesting life, full of as much booze, drugs, sex and violence as any rock band biography, but he brings an intellectual curiosity to those experiences that elevates his writing to a whole other level. I’ll admit that don’t like all of his books, and have never really been able to get on with his poetry (which is where he started out) but his being a poet certainly helps to give his prose a substance and resonance that might otherwise be lacking, and in his best work that prose is immaculate. The novel Glister (2009) is one I re-read every year, but I’ve still not managed to figure it out. This is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It’s as ambiguous in its setting, it’s structure and especially in its conclusion as the best kind of art cinema, and is certainly ripe for a filmed version, though it would be too bleak for most. Child murder, home invasion, teenage killers and friendly devils, all played out in an unnamed former industrial hell hole somewhere in Britain. The land is poisoned, the people are corrupted (physically and morally), and there is a growing sense that the town is haunted by guilt, guilt that manifests in the form of an avenging angel who opens up a dark event horizon deep in the ruins of the old factory that serves as Pandemonium in this unique vision of Hades.
A Lie About My Father is Burnside’s first memoir, the story of his father’s life and how it shaped his own. Raised in poverty in Scotland, his family moved to Corby New Town in the 1960’s where his father got work in the steel mills. Location is vital throughout, from the semi-rural fringes of Cowdenbeath, to the streets of Corby where toxic dust stained the washing on the lines and weekend nights were infused with sudden violence. It’s a male territory of scabby knuckles, pint glasses, fag ash and barely-suppressed rage. Burnside navigates his way through this, developing a love of books but still able to throw a punch when it kicks off outside the pub. Self-medicating with street drugs, he drifted through the 70’s while his old man’s hard man reputation diminished as his physical prowess succumbed to advancing age. It’s a tough tale, but a compelling one and throughout there are passages of immense power:
The shadows, the trees, the wide lawns – it was all as it should be, but it was too still, too heavy, waiting for the day when the dead would return, coming through rain, coming through the wind, seeking out the angles and corners they knew, the faces they could name, the bodies that were flesh of their flesh.
This passage is my particular favourite:
Everything begins elsewhere, he knows that: dawn, Christmas, love, beauty, terror, the wind, the sky, the horizon, his own soul. It begins far in the woods, or out on some windy field by the sea. He wants to be there, not here; he wants to be where things begin, and he is so close, so near. Only – for reasons he cannot explain – something stands in his way, something he didn’t ask for. Reason, terror, unworthiness, he can’t even name it, it takes different guises every time, but it is always there, standing in his way, keeping him from his destiny.
Both of these books can be picked up via Amazon for 1p & postage, and I strongly recommend them both.
4. My Notebook
I’ve been keeping notebooks since the late 1990’s, shortly before we moved south. I don’t write many notes, as I prefer to keep my ideas in my head and if they stick around then they must be worth using. The rest just fall away into the silt of forgetting. I recently completed my first notebook, so it now contains 20 years of quotes and aphorisms I’ve collected, together with clippings from magazines and newspapers, concert tickets, flyers, and other scraps of printed ephemera. Looking back through it is like studying my medical records, except these pages document the ebb and flow of my psychic well-being and I’ve increasingly started to refer to it as a means of grounding me when everything else seems to be cut adrift. Here’s a few sample pages:
5. J.A Baker, The Peregrine
Revered as the gold standard of ‘nature writing’, this book was written by a poet who decided to direct his incredible facility with language towards the prosaic act of bird watching. It’s much more than that though. It’s an elegy for a landscape soon to be subsumed by the urban sprawl of outer London, and a lament for a species that Baker expected to see gone within his lifetime. In the late 1950’s/early 1960’s, when much of the book was written, the peregrine falcon was a seriously endangered species – mainly due to agricultural pesticides, but also thanks to their treatment as ‘vermin’ by landed gentry. The species has since recovered beyond all expectations, and Baker’s dire view of their prospects may have been shaped by his own increasingly-failing health. Throughout his adult life he battled arthritis, and in lieu of a more substantial biography of the man, it’s long been believed that he was afforded the free time to make his extensive studies of the Essex countryside while recovering from a serious illness. It’s not clear why he became fixated upon the peregrine falcon. It’s not like he had been an ornithologist since he was a child. As he writes: “I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor on the edge of vision.” But fixated he did become, spending a ten-year period cycling around east Essex, attuning his senses to the weather and wildlife that surrounded him. At evening he would return home to write up his notes, and it was from these notes that The Peregrine was composed.
First published in 1967, The Peregrine won the Duff Cooper Prize and soon earned justified renown as one of the great books about ‘nature’. It’s a dark book though, tainted with a despair – if not outright disdain – for the human that, for some, borders on the nihilistic. Baker fuses with his subject to an extreme degree, wilfully choosing to be the bird:
Wherever he goes this winter, I will follow him. I will share the feat, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.
You can see why Werner Herzog loves this stuff. I love it too, and don’t care how dark and how bleak it is. There’s beauty in the bleakness, and it’s a necessary counterpoint to the Springwatch agenda:
It was high tide in the estuary. As the land light faded, the sky above would grow bright with the shine of brimming water. The peregrine would fall upon the scattered tribes of sleeping waders. Their wings would rise into the sunset, like smoke above the sacrifice.
I take out my copy of The Peregrine whenever I need my perspective adjusted, and it’s never failed me yet.
6. Vancouver Island
My wife and I travelled to the west coast of North America in 1998. We spent a week in Seattle and Vancouver, before taking the ferry to Vancouver Island to stay with some of her distant relatives. For me it was like a homecoming, except that I’d never been there before. Something about the place struck a deep chord in what might be called my soul, telling me that this was the place I should be living. I was far removed from the land of my upbringing, but I felt like I’d finally found home. We travelled around the south of the island, visited neighbouring islands and saw repeated examples of how art – paintings, pottery, sculpture – was less of an ornamentation for people’s houses than something that people seemed to really need in their daily lives. It connected them to the deeper currents, and I wanted to be part of that. But, up to that point, I’d been doing comics and drawings that could be most politely summed up as ‘trash culture’. There was absolutely no spiritual depth to it, nothing that would haunt anyone. I was wasting my time, and now I knew it, so I spent most of my jet-lagged nights while I was there staring at the ceiling wondering how I was going to make the changes I needed to make. We both came back from Vancouver Island as changed people, and within 6 months we’d moved 200 miles south and opened up a new chapter in our lives. The change in my art took another ten years to bring about, which now seems like time wasted to me, but at least the change was made, and I can trace my decision to do so to an afternoon spent on the beach at East Sook, watching the moon rise over Mount Baker. The above picture was taken on that afternoon.
This selection of influences is by no means definitive. Plenty of other things have affected me over the years, but much of it has been left behind (“things I used to value I no longer have a use for, I ridicule myself and all the things those symbols stood for”) and what few traces remain are little more than nostalgic touchstones, a harmless enough reminder of where I came from that offer no clue as to where I am going. Not that I know where I am going, but wherever it is I am on my way.