Thursday, 13 December 2018

The point at which we vanish

     I've held off writing this for a while, deliberately. Partially because at the time, I didn't have the time to do so. Mostly because I didn't want to piggyback on what was someone else's moment – because it was their moment. More than a moment really, it was their triumph. Whilst those of us who were around during it had our own little moments, it was pretty much down to one person that it even happened at all.

     If you follow me on twitter or we're friends on facebook, you probably know I broke a fairly prolonged period of silence in November to talk about an exhibition that was open for some of those brief moments at St Peter Hungate in Norwich – Vanishing Points, the landscapes, archaeology, artefacts of the Western Front. It was supposed to be solely a photographic exhibition, but like work, it expanded to fill the time & space available, and instead became something far more expansive, personal yet distancing, brutal yet sensitive, visceral yet haunting, the ghosts still flitting past us out of the corner of our eyes, just as long as we didn't watch, still moving.

     An awful lot of you visited. It was like the biggest, longest tweet up that Norwich/Norfolk/even further afield has ever known. I hugged a LOT of people. Sometimes more than once. I grinned lots, I did a happy dance more often in public than one should ever do, I even performed a Charleston around the Visitor Book. I cried too. So many times.

     The comment that kept coming up again and again from people was 'moving'. And it was. Despite having been recruited to help with 'generally kicking arse', having known pretty much every detail of every feature, of every element – sometimes in the most nitpicky fashion – I still, when first faced with it all, burst into tears. And I don't mean I got a bit mimsy mouthed, and let one tear trickle down my face, artistically. No. I properly went. That sort of involuntary response that makes both hands fly up up in a gesture of prayer to cover your mouth, the noise that comes out of your throat that can only accurately be described as a strangled 'mmmpppfff!!', followed by an inevitable and instinctive 'Sorry!' in a high-pitched quavering register that no one would ever recognise as your voice. Twice, in two minutes, that happened, before regaining control of myself, the back of my hand pressed against my mouth to prevent further outbreaks.

    It has previously been recorded, both here and in other places, that my emotions are never far from the surface. I laugh easily, can be a mopey lachrymose twat at the brush of a feather, bridle & swear with no provocation. But in this case, I wasn't alone. For all of my irrational, fractured behaviour, I am sometimes capable of being disciplined, and in this case and place I was, assiduously totting up visitor numbers, and people who, like me, cried.

     1,019 visitors came in through the door in a little over 60 hours. On average, one person an hour cried. Not including me, or anyone else making it a new reality (I say 'new' reality, because it is/was always a reality, but Vanishing Points gave it a new life). And some of those people who cried, made me cry too, just seeing their responses, seeing what it meant to them knowing what that response would mean to the person responsible for it. Sometimes it was old men I can only describe as Paul Whitehouse characters. Sometimes a relative of the deceased. Sometimes when I saw people realise the reality of war is not numbers, but stories.

     But the reactions, despite me knowing how good the exhibition would be, despite understanding it, despite doing my best to help – those reactions took me aback. I realised again the power of stories. How one storyteller can create a narrative that changes us, for the better. I know that's not an entirely popular opinion, it hasn't hasn't found favour with others, and the storyteller could not have done his job without help, insight, and support from many others, playing their parts in different ways. But I was there, as much as I could be, not as much as I wanted to be, and I saw the impact that it had. People who wandered in, smiling & laughing, before departing, slightly hollow-eyed, tearful, and so obviously captivated by the words and landscapes. It lingers in me still. I find it strange that those hours of mine I so gladly gave are no longer so consumed by the stories I wanted to be told, whether visually, with long interpretation boards, or the starkest of words under a monochrome sky, they're ghosts now too. Not just of the places they died in, but the place where people came to meet them for the first time. I miss them.

     I miss them, and I miss talking to people about them, about lives and memories. That will slip away so easily, if other people don't take up the baton of carrying on memories and telling those tales. That was what Vanishing Points did. It told stories, various stories, in various ways, and it connected. It was beautiful and bone shaking, hilarious and heartbreaking, terrible, yet terrific.

     So thank you, to those who came (Hi Mum!). Thanks to those who kept me company and kept me in coffee. Thanks to everyone who played a part. I owe a pint at least to Julian S and Andrew 'no I'm not Nick' M A stupid & ridiculous amount of thanks to Matt for all of the negotiating & facilitating he had to do. Nick... mates, innit. I'd go to the cross for you. Actually, I did, which was the first public snotting I did. After all of the build up there he was, our predecessor in looking a bit arsy, and fighting pointless battles. His spirit lives on, even if the exhibition doesn't.

     Goodbye Francis. Different stories took hold of different people. Yours will never let me go, so I suppose it's not goodbye, not really. It's thank you. All we have left of you are footprints, fragments, fingertips. But what more can anyone hope for than to have left some kind of trace of their story?

     Goodnight Poogy x

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

The Crucible

     'Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life.'

     I was mooching about at Norwich Cathedral last week, because apparently I don't spend enough time hanging out in freezing cold medieval places of worship, taking crap photos of graffiti on my phone. I could add a few examples of these photos here, but you seem nice, and probably don't deserve that.

     Anyway, as I lurked in dark corners and stalked around cloisters and reflected that I definitely do require a far more dramatic coat to make an impressive entrance (my £20 much abused Primark overcoat is fantastically warm & waterproof, but it does make me look a bit as though I'm wearing half a sleeping bag intended for someone of more generous proportions than I. Or, as my son put it 'Your legs look like two pieces of string hanging out of a sack'), I snapped a few later bits of graffiti too. Like this one.

     Lovely handiwork, I think we can all agree. And because it's historic, it's important, so most people assign it not to 'vandalism', but instead as a 'vital record' or 'human heritage' or slightly less charitably (and almost certainly wrongly) as 'bored choirboys/parishioners' etc. The same people who would have a fit if 'J. Brown November 25th 2018' were to appear next to it.

     As we know that's – perhaps ironically – a modern attitude to have towards graffiti. As we also know (shh, you do know, I've told you often enough) 'graffiti' only entered the language relatively recently, only appearing because a term was required to describe the inscriptions being found in Pompeii during its exhumation. It held no negative connotations then, it was just a handy term for people leaving their mark.Now, of course it's anti-social and a sign of how far society has fallen. You know you live in a rough area if it's described as 'riddled with', 'covered in' or 'besmirched by' graffiti. In these times, Banksy would surely replace Pestilence as one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. Except that the pale horse traditionally featured wouldn't be pale these days, but tagged to spray-painted indecipherability, because That's The Way of The Modern World.

     And it is, to a greater or lesser extent. Graffiti creators these days tend not to leave a calling card of full name, date, or anything that could be considered as personally identifying. Instead we have nameless political statements, street art created by someone whose greatest identifier is their alleged anonymity, endless tags. No one signs their name any more.

     'I mean to deny nothing.'

     Seriously, when was the last time you saw a piece of graffiti that was just a simple entry in the visitor book of walls, that was in any meaningful way 'recent'? A carving, pen stroke, or scrawl that actually states nothing more than 'I was here'? If you want to make a 'Kilroy woz 'ere' joke right now, please do so only inside your own head.

     These days, people leave only first names or initials or tell you whom they love or hate. They make statements, or daub political slogans or tag themselves to be seen, heard, read, left for as long as their message is allowed to remain. Left behind, yet very rarely recording who they are, or when, only where. Whether passing through in a brief moment, leaving it to be seen by an intended audience, or just because it gives them bragging rights over a location. Be seen on the scene as The Young People almost certainly wouldn't term it, unless they're hipster wankers who'd say it ironically at their pop up crowdfunded start up heads up... thing.

     What we don't get are things that mark out individuals, as people that future generations might be able to trace. We are always told by people these days that graffiti is antisocial. I, for once not trying to be contrary, disagree. I think it's interesting that the rise in people viewing graffiti as antisocial seems to coincide with graffiti being seen as something subversive, a little bit naughty, something to clutch your pearls over. It also coincides with people becoming more anonymous in how they choose to communicate with a wider, unknown and unknowing world.

     Yet still, graffiti is created, by & for people. Still people find that texts, emails, blogs, forums, social media as a whole, is not enough to say what matters to them, not if it can be traced back to the author, if it leaves any kind of footprint that can be followed. And that's even without considering the age old method of one person making noises out of their mouth and those sound waves being received into the pink and shell like area of another. Graffiti still retains the honour of hiding its face from the world whilst shouting at it. Like a snooker player plotting the trajectory of a ball at The Crucible, the end result is what matters, not who holds the cue. Those who still leave these marks have told us what matters to them. We don't always have to know their name to understand their message.

     'I have given you my soul; leave me my name!'

(yes, congratulations if you also had to study The Crucible at one point).