Thursday, 4 September 2014

How to Knit Yourself A Patronising Idiot (pattern not included)

Last night I read that a government minister called Brooks Newmark thinks that 'charities should stick to knitting and stay out of politics.' Now, as someone who has worked for various charities over a number of years and who likes knitting, I have a few things to say about this.

First, Newmark clearly has no idea about about charities. He still thinks it's about little old ladies knitting blankets to send to the poor black children in Africa. He has no idea how large these organisations are, or that anyone working for a charity in Africa is more likely to be a skilled professional like a doctor or a sanitation engineer, than someone dishing out blankets and copies of the bible. And thank God for that, I say.

Charities that work in the UK also employ a wide range of qualified professionals like social workers, nurses, scientists, ecologists, artists and architects, not to mention all the other skilled jobs it takes to run an organisation, such as finance, fundraising, marketing, and planning. People in charities often have the most specialist expertise in their field - why would you want to shut them out of a discussion? Unless, of course, you were an ignorant oaf from Eton who'd rather stew in his own prejudices than listen to the views of a qualified expert.

Secondly, Newmark clearly has no idea about about knitting. He thinks it's something for the simple, the senile and the stupid. He has no idea it's something that requires intelligence and technical skill, that something knitted is a valued item, not a bit of worthless scrap. I'm currently knitting this bit of fair isle. It has a lot in common with the budget spreadsheets I created at work, in that it requires the retention of numerous bits of information; contains a large number of variables; has many things that can go wrong; and if I drop one bit, I'll write off a years' work. I do this for relaxation. I know.

One of the places I work (amongst others, since I freelance) is Labour Behind the Label, an organisation which campaigns for the rights of garment workers. It's not actually a charity, since what it does it classed as 'too political', even though in most respects it runs like one. Apparently ensuring that the people who sew your pants don't get crushed to death while they're doing it is political, while sending your son, who you called after a firm of dry cleaners, to Eton, is very much a charitable activity.

If I thought that Newmark understood what kind of people do knitting, I'd say he'd be a bit justified in despising us. But I don't. I really don't give him the credit. He just thinks we're daft old women. Quite apart from the fact that most of the old women I know have more sense than the average Tory MP, most knitters I know are in their 30s and 40s, the very kind of people that hold communities together. They're extremely sociable: likely to be propping up the committee at the local community centre, running cafés, organising fêtes, and probably setting up their own business while bringing up children. They're kind of people that put life back into high streets, dig allotments, turn up for neighbourhood events, make cake for fundraisers, and notice when the library gets closed down. As I said, he'd hate us, because although this is the kind of activity the Tory Party professes to support, in secret it makes them nervous. They don't like all this interaction, all this interpersonal womanly interconnection stuff. It makes them frankly nervous. What they'd really really like is if we all got up in the dark, drove alone for an hour to work, worked at our corporate desk, then drove home again, to eat a ready meal prepared by a supermarket, before sitting in front of the TV with our arms at our sides. It's all so much more, well, manageable than all you lot with your horrid prams and upcycled dresses and homemade cake in tins and your six stupid sheep in a paddock that you keep ringing the inland revenue about because you can't work the forms they set up with a company of 1 million turnover in mind. But as I said, he doesn't know all that. He'd just hate it if he had to. He is, in effect, pre-despising you in advance.

No, he hasn't a clue. He only knows one thing: which is if you knit, he despises you. If you work for a charity, he despises you. If you're a woman, he despises you too. And you know what, this is really what I came here to say.

Brooks, honey, it's mutual.


Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Review: Jeremy Deller 'English Magic' at Bristol Museum

I was supposed to be going camping today. However it was heaving it down and the forecast was worse, so instead of fighting my way onto an overcrowded, overpriced train and sitting in a damp campsite, drinking tea and pretending to enjoy myself (being English option 1) I decided to go and see the English Magic exhibition by Jeremy Deller at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

Now, generally I like things about Englishness. It interests me. I also like folk art type things and cultural comment, both of which I was promised on the blurb.

Reader, what I got was a half-arsed video with some slo-mo footage of owls and some old Land Rovers being crushed. Land Rovers. It's like a metaphor for the destruction of British industry, innit? I don't know what the owls were there for. Some of them were stuffed.

Um. Yeah.
There was, in the next room, a bunch of newspaper photos from the 70s and a map of the 1973 Ziggy Stardust tour. Also, some of these massive hangings, which are composed without interest or skill. Upstairs, there was a massive painting of another bird of prey picking up another Landrover. Apparently this was something about Prince Harry. Also some neolithic arrow heads. If you don't know what the connection between these things are, frankly, neither do I.

Also in this room were a selection of drawings done by prisoners, many of whom were ex-servicemen who had been to Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of these were very good, some were horribly, appallingly childlike. They all roused both pity and horror. But how they fitted into the rest of the display was never made clear, and it seems to me tooth-grindingly exploitative to use these vulnerable people as part of such an otherwise self-indulgent display.

In the last room (yes, three large rooms) is some tale about William Morris (of the arts and crafts wallpaper) upsetting an oligarch's yacht. There is a gigantic picture, which is neither by Jeremy Deller nor particularly good, and a lot of framed bits of financial ephemera from Russia.

All in all, it's like Deller collected a few bits of the zeitgeist as found on the Guardian's comment pages - oligarchs, traffic issues, Tony Blair, the Royal family and the death of pop music and strung them together without meaning or comment. It has all the coherence and consistency of your twitter timeline, when none of the interesting people are there.

Deller's Wikipedia page says he deals with the "devaluation of artistic ego through the involvement of other people in the creative process." I can only presume this was written by his agent, since what it means is that there is not one piece of art in the exhibition, except presumably the film, that is made by Deller himself. For 'curating' this meaningless jumble, he gets his name all over it.

Wikipedia also says that his work is 'political' but one thing that is rampantly apparent is that Deller has no personal experience of the shittiness of modern Britain. This is hardly surprising since apparently he went to Dulwich College, one of the UK's poshest schools, and if there is one thing screaming out from this random assembly of bits and bobs it's the noise of a no-longer-young public school boy desperately trying to look edgy. The thing I can't believe is that this kind of crud still gets lauded, and I can only presume its sociological purpose is to reassure privileged, comfortable people that they are still 'with it' in some way.

If I sound like I'm taking this unnecessarily personally, I am: I know people who create things with far more skill and meaning, often they don't even think of themselves as artists, but simply craftspeople, and usually have another job to survive. I've seen stuff like this (but better) in festival tents and teashops and on neighbourhood arts trails.

Recently, I went to the Folk Art exhibition at the Tate. That featured dozens of wonderful and beautifully crafted objects made by ordinary, and often nameless, artisans. It cost £14 and was worth every penny. This, on the other hand, was free, and I still want my money back.

Yes it really was that busy. On a rainy afternoon in the holidays.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Review: The Libertine, Bristol Old Vic

I am always a sucker for a few ruffles and double-entendres, so theoretically The Libertine, the latest thing at Bristol Old Vic's main house, should be right up my street.

Photo: Eoin Carey
This production, by Glasgow's Citizen's Theatre has lots to recommend it, from excellent sets and costumes to great acting and a witty script. It follows the fate of the real-life John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who was a famous rake and poet at the court of Charles II. Rochester, who points out at the beginning of the play that he is quite unlikeable, then proceeds to drink, shag, and provoke other people until he finally ensures his own destruction.

I couldn't find anything to fault in any of the performances, and it was great to see a play with a whole bunch of functional female characters, who have personalities and motivations in their own right. There was certainly plenty of ruffles, and double-entendres, and I did genuinely laugh.

Nonetheless, I just couldn't get caught up in the earl's #seventeenthcenturyproblems enough to feel involved. The Earl is rich, he is privileged, he commands the love of several women, to whom he is routinely unfaithful. He might be a genius, but can't be arsed to write a play to prove it. It's true that the character says you will not like him, but at the end, I couldn't help wondering, really, is he an iconoclast, or just a bit of a self-indulgent bore? I mean this as no disrespect to the actor that played the part, since this is a question for the playwright.

The play the Libertine was written by Stephen Jeffreys 20 years ago, and the odd thing for me is not how much it whiffs of the Restoration, which it is supposed to evoke, but of the cultural mores of the baby-boomer generation, with their veneration of rock stars, and the cult of the drunken genius rebelling against conformity. Twenty years later, amidst the massive and unshifting corruption of politics, the unravelling of the ghastly sex offences of the rich and famous in a series of almost-televised trials, and the omnipresent lurk of pornography on the internet, the poor Earl's attempts at debauchery look positively mild.

To put it bluntly, if you find Russell Brand dangerous and edgy, you'll like this. If you don't, you won't. Personally, I find myself caring less and less for anti-heroes in any story I'm exposed to. I'm so cynical about cynicism, these days. Perhaps when one lives in harder times there seems less romance in self-destruction, and more in the simple act of surviving.