Friday 28th October

October 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

I shall miss my greengrocers when I move away from Sherwood. The Thompson Brothers have been mainstays in my life for the best part of twenty years, and I shall endeavour to keep buying my produce from them, even at my new house, almost 3 miles away. It may not seem that far to some, but I will be passing several greengrocers and around eight Tescos to do so. It’s funny how distance is relative to your lifestyle. In London, “round the corner” can mean three tube stops, “close-by” can be in a different district. Where as for me, the Thompson Brothers really are close; 1 minute walk from my front door, for 1 more month.

Anyone who has lived in Sherwood will attest to their value. What makes them stand out from most greengrocers, firstly, is the fact that they are identical twins, and with it, somewhat ageless. They have looked the same since forever, probably. Secondly, they bring banter to even the most banal of shopping trips. (In fact, if it wasn’t for them, I would say do away with the word “banter” all together)

The other day an old asian man and his wife had bought two bags worth of vegetables. The man got Stephen’s attention, and in a polite, almost incomprehensibly quiet tone, asked for another plastic bag to bind around the handles of the one he was carrying, as the weight of the vegetables made the handle cut a little into his hand. Stephen was incredulous. “What? What? What on Earth are you talking about? I’ve never heard anything so pathetic in all my life. Ridiculous!” The old man stood answerless, and seemed not to understand. Stephen’s response had been so vehemently against all good-practice in “customer services”, that what he was being told didn’t register. He didn’t… just… say that. Did he?

The Thompsons always hold to their values, whatever the situation, and won’t back down in an argument. (I have heard stories from friends who worked Saturday jobs at their shop that there were often occasions when they would “take each other outside” to the backyard and physically fight to settle unresolved disputes between themselves. They would come back in bloody-nosed, and quiet. They are also known for having, for a time -though not anymore- ritually drunk gin and tonics all day on Saturdays, leaving work completely inebriated come 7pm.)

The asian man politely repeated his request, just in case Stephen hadn’t understood. Stephen interrupted. “Where are you parked? I’ll take the bags myself. Honestly. The cheek of it. And don’t use your age as an excuse. We’re not going to save the world with plastic bags, you know.”

Apparently they do deliveries too. Thank god. Hopefully I won’t miss out on my weekly dose of Thompsons’ jolly chaffing. For a long and brilliant interview with them, see this article on the Leftlion website:

The magazine has also introduced a regular “Talking with the Thompsons” column, where you can keep up-to-date with their views on current affairs, even if you are irreparably distant from NG5.


Friday 21st October

October 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

In travelling to London last weekend I got trapped in a train door and my bag ripped. I should have known better. A blind woman had just been crushed by the same door moments before, only to have fellow passengers force the door open. The blind leading…

London is a tiring place. I go rarely, and when I do I often have big plans for my time, bespoke scrawled maps in hand, detailing the exact route to take: overground, underground, buses and “short cuts” through parks (that always end up taking me somewhere else entirely), in order to get the most out of my days. But what it always comes down to are the small pleasures.

I saw two exhibitions this time, both of young(ish) contemporary artists, who in different ways, played with existing modes of presentation to make complex statements around ideas of authenticity and hybridity. I had read the press releases beforehand on the gallery websites, and as is often the case, I found the research and ideas behind the work much more interesting than the shows themselves. I should learn. Maybe from now on, the rule of thumb is: if a show reads well online, then leave it at that; it probably won’t get any better.

What I found (and find often) is that the work on show not only failed to communicate the ideas of the artist clearly, but that the act of making the work largely didn’t justify the material cost of the process. Maybe I am too simple to appreciate nuanced conceptual works, or maybe I haven’t read enough of the right books, but for me, a good work, be it highly conceptual or traditional in approach, must leave clues that lead a path to some kind of reading. I often find myself left cold by much I see, and not only that, angry. As figureheads of alternative lifestyles and purveyors of alternative viewpoints, I think artists have a responsibility to higher ideals, beyond their own immediate impulses. The sheer material waste at hand in the construction of some art is staggering, and in lean times such as these, highly unappealing. Is your work going to be treasured in five years? Ten? Thirty? One-hundred? I’m sure many artists will say that they don’t think in such terms, that they aren’t interested in being part of an “art history”; that their work is a product of our materialist times. Unless they truly don’t care about other people and the world we live in (in which surely the only solution is that they kill themselves), then I think there is a great deal of dishonesty in such an approach.

There is nothing like high-concept art to bring corporeal appetites to the fore. When leaving art galleries, my bladder always seems to swell to a medicine ball, and pangs of hunger rage, as if whilst inside the space my body had retracted into itself like a cornered lizard, only to expand with relief once out the door and up the street; my senses restored. Finding a nice cafe nearby, using their “facilities” and having a pastry makes even a mediocre exhibition seem like valid use of time. In London, I aim high, but the simple pleasures are what keep me alive. Like the ritual of subtly changing the date on my travel card with pencil to get the bus on the morning, or visiting Brick Lane for the ritual bagels of salt beef and salmon/cream cheese. Incidentally, stood out the front of my shop of choice, eating my hot treats, different people on separate occasions led uninitiated friends to the second bagel shop, not mine, saying “no, this is the one; this one’s better”. Damn. But then, they are the people who eat bagels enough to know the difference between good and the real deal. I just know when they’ve gone off.

On the homeward stretch, in St. Pancras station, I came across an audio work by Lavinia Greenlaw, Audio Obscura, free to access via headphones borrowed from a booth in the shopping promenade. An Artangel public commission, the work used the ambient noise of a busy station to create a loose narrative in which we “overhear” the conversations and thoughts of fellow commuters. The artist described these voices as being much like reflections, an idea that appeals to me. As we listen to the work, wandering around the station as we might do anyway when killing time before our train, our eyes are drawn to people engaged in their lives. Having a heightened version of its own soundtrack imposed over the top has the effect of a kind of collage, where rather than forcing meaning on to what we see, we are somehow presented with what we already know, thought, or thought we saw being said and enacted by these strangers that pass us by. In this sense, the work very much is a reflection. It is like looking at a stranger from the reflections of the window whilst sat on the train: we see them through ourselves, our image super-imposed over theirs, as an act of intimacy, but above all projection.

Though the work didn’t fully realise all that it could, it was certainly very atmospheric. Above all else, though, it was the format of the work I appreciated. The audio guide, in our age of 24hour culture, is a welcome break from the visual. Somehow the ideas feed more directly to the imagination than it would as a thing made of stuff. Why add to this world of clutter anyway?

Back home in Nottingham, and in looking for a cheaper place to live, I came across this wonderful plaque outside a house in Sneinton:

If true, it makes me feel a little better about the digital prints of Andy Warhol knock-offs for sale in the commercial galleries around the city.

Tuesday 11th October

October 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have a love-hate relationship with computer games. I remember fondly time spent in my childhood sat in front of a screen, for many hours, with only a tin of Bourbon biscuits as sustenance. Different eras of computer systems came and went; the Spectrum, Atari, NES, Megadrive and SNES, Playstation and PC… But at some point, the love stopped.

I recently watched an episode of Live at the Apollo on the BBC IPlayer. I love Dara O’Briain. He is one the finest standup comedians around today. In his routine, he spoke extensively about computer games. Below is a YouTube clip of him in action:

Besides being completely hilarious, this routine resonated deeply with my own experience of computer games, in particular, his recreation of the absurdities of gaming, and the idea of buying into an illusion.

Like many young men of my generation, I was, for a time, completely addicted to Championship Manager- a football management simulator. For those uninitiated in the world of “Champ-Man”, it is essentially a brightly coloured spreadsheet that flashes at you now and again. There is no football. There are no players. Just lists. Statistics. Data. I would regularly spend a working day of eight hours sat in front of this spreadsheet, wiling away my life. Is it absurd to suggest that the game could have been part funded by Experian, to groom future drones? (I once constructed a team completely of players with names like swearwords. I can only remember a few of the starting eleven: David Seaman, Julian Dicks, David Batty, Stefan Kuntz, Roger…)

On one typically committed day of gaming, having got up early especially to play (and still in my pyjamas at 4 o’clock in the afternoon- no food eaten), my dad knocked on the door and poked his head through the frame. “Do you want a sandwich, Hugh?” he asked. Oh, yes please, that would be amazing. “Then go make one yourself,” he responded with uncharacteristic sternness. It was not long before I set myself the rule: play the game as long as you want, but you have to play it standing up. Yes, it is an absurd approach, but it worked as an act of self-discipline.

It’s not uncommon to treat oneself as a subject, or subordinate even, and think about our actions as if they were someone else’s. It rings true to experience to assume that conscious and unconscious decisions are not neatly separated from one another, nor our self-image from the “I” of the living moment. Sometimes we have to tell ourselves to stop being stupid, make pacts with our greed or laziness. I know plenty of people (all girls) who have “hidden” chocolate from themselves. These self-directed negotiations, born out of self-hate and a desire for better control over our urges, are small leaps of faith.

Computer games, equally, require leaps of faith from the gamer. Dara O’Briain speaks about this best when he describes his experience of the violent espionage-themed game Metal Gear Solid:

“When Snake (the game’s protagonist and who the gamer controls) dies, the camera pulls cinematically up above him and the voice of the man Snake has been speaking to on his Comms Unit goes: Snake… Snaaake… Snaaaaaaake! …every time he dies. When I play as Snake, he dies a lot. But the man’s sadness seems undiminished by the regularity with which he has to mourn Snake. You’d think once or twice he’d go: Ah, Snake…”

In our current era, we are seeing ever more life-like human representations on games, real-time play and explorable environments, but even so, we don’t buy into the emotion of the story, unlike films, where (I must admit) I have cried at the John Candy movie Cool Runnings, every time I have watched it. Perhaps it is because in playing a computer game, we are in control of what is essentially a sophisticated puzzle, and we are engaging a different area of our brain to where our ’emotional reserves’ reside. No death in a computer game is real, nor is any scene of love, or violence; which makes people’s attachment to these worlds worryingly without precedent. Who has heard of someone locking themselves in their room for days at a time in order to complete an entire book of crosswords in one sitting? These immersive computer games turns the addicted (or afflicted depending on your viewpoint) gamer into a square-eyed Rain Man, but without any applicable skills to impress our brother-with-a-proper-job.

It is the gaps in the logic and illusion of games that I always enjoyed the most. Quite often I would sidetrack for extended periods to draw myself further into the absurd loops these faults inhabit.

It is quite common for groups of boys to sit around watching a friend play on a one-player computer game for hours, waiting their own turn: the controller being passed only when the character dies. On one such occasion when I was around 14, I finally got to be in the hot seat for Tomb Raider 3, the series famous for big-boobed heroine Lara Croft. I spent my entire time with the controller on the ‘non-level’ of Lara’s mansion home (where you could practice your control of the character sans peril, before playing the real levels), trapping her butler in the walk-in meat freezer. The dumb butler was programmed to stalk Lara around the house, to act as your interface to leave the mansion when you wanted, and enter into the game for real. I tricked him into this cupboard, shut the door behind, and watched him walk on the spot with intent to follow me out of the room; his polygonal face seeping through the surface of the door, as the graphics struggled to cope with his punishment.

Another such occasion, and perhaps the moment I have laughed most in my life, was when me and a friend played on one of the WWE’s (formerly WWF) wrestling simulators on the Playstation. You could create your own wrestler, with a number of set costumes and body types, which you could alter in colour, size, and so on. Now of course, being teenage boys, the first thing we did was to try and make naked people. This did not work, as the game was written so that your characters must always wear clothes. With a little bit of creative work, we designed two grotesquely fat, bald men, whose clothes where the same colour of their skin, and thus to all appearances, completely in the buff. Bald Man A was bright red, whilst Bald Man B was royal blue. Whilst in a wrestling match, we discovered that if you took your player to the corner of the ring and made him climb the corner post (from where you could dive off on to dazed, prostrate opponents to finish them off), there was a moment where your player would be slightly elevated and bent over: the big, fat arse of our absurd and gross creations sticking out like some kind of lingerie model. It didn’t take long to learn that the other player could pick up a folded chair (one of many props you could use in your fight) and spank the jutting buttocks of his brightly coloured twin, sending him flailing in a dramatic tumble to the ground. We too were on the ground, rolling with uncontrollable laughter as we, again and again, climbed up the corner post (our demonic blobs elegantly agile despite their size, and completely unaware of their terminal fate) and spanked each other’s brightly coloured little men. Ahem. It was like our creations were from in some kind of absurd brotherhood of bondage; a parallel universe where such obscure actions constituted religion, or work, or love, or everything. This was their life.

Is it too much to suggest the characters we control in video games are like performing seals? In the 1998 compilation of essays Faith in Fakes, Umberto Eco speaks about trained animal performances in water-parks and the like.

“In the humanisation of animals is concealed one of the most clever resources of the Absolute Fake industry, and for this reason the Marinelands must be compared with the wax museums that reconstruct the last day of Marie Antoinette. In the latter all is sign but aspires to seem reality. In the Marinelands all is reality but aspires to appears sign. The killer whales perform a square dance and answer the trainers’ questions not because they have acquired linguistic ability, but because they have been trained through conditioned reflexes, and we interpret the stimulus-response relationship as a relationship of meaning.”

Similarly, the constructed realities of computer games establish boundaries that attempt to mimic the laws of the world we live in; gravity, weight, solid objects, liquids, people to talk to, transport to move in/with, intimate relationships, negotiation, death. They offer escapism to those who wish to enact great gun battles or a career as a third-division football manager, and as an unconscious side-product, offer license over a kind of absurdity we don’t usually experience in our own daily lives; absurdity we recognise as possible but commonly out of our command. In finding these schisms in the game’s programming we can find a new value to the game: an alternative underbelly of lawlessness and puerility, where you control the lack of control.

Thursday 6th October

October 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have just come back from a few days abroad, visiting a friend who lives in Livorno, Tuscany. Consequently I am still in the post-trip haze that makes daily life seem both alien, and all too real. My pants are drying on the line, the speedos back in their draw… and so to this blog.

Like train journeys, and other transitional environments, airports fascinate me immensely. From the car park to the departure lounge (via the Duty Free), they are stages for mini-dramas about and of the stuff of life; what makes us the same and what makes us different. To quote Alain de Botton, airports are “gifts to the curious, allowing one to glimpse deep into the lives of other people”. It is where we feel part of a bigger picture, and somehow crushed by the reality of that realisation. More than at railway stations, the airport is host to profound extremes of emotion, something de Botton links to the mortal threat inherent to trusting strangers with our lives, as we do when we step on an aeroplane. Perhaps this is true. The environment of your average airport -with its white, cold aesthetic, bright lights and indeterminate waiting- does feel like a kind of purgatory. In this in-between place, “departures” can’t help but feel grave, especially when paired with the word “terminal”.

Again to quote Alain de Botton, speaking at the end of a writer’s residency at Heathrow in 2009, airports bring together the big ideas of our time, but above all else, “remind us of the insignificance of the individual in the vast bureaucracies of modern society”.

An airport is the natural habitat of spurious rule-makers, a veritable day spa of officialdom. Through its overt seriousness, though, it has an implied lawlessness, like a modern wild west of chancers, drifters and shady types, where there is apparently need to ask each of us if we have a gun in our bags, or a Shuriken even. (In asking whether I have anything that could be used as a weapon, I decide against suggesting my legs and arms, lest they chop them off. Also, my industrial-sized Toblerone has quite a weight to it)

They are places where there is no budge in the rules; where personal discretion (and individual thinking) in staff is apparently akin to outright immorality. There are signs about rules, rules about rule signs, and signs about the rules about rule signs. My favourite from this week’s visit to Stansted was Ryanair’s declaration that, as a policy, they do not overbook their flights. Now for me, this seems to be a pretty essential piece of organisation, and something I hoped would not need stating in a special sign of its own. It’s a little like a medicine for something trivial listing possible side-affects on the packet that are worse than the original ailment. If you’re confident that the plane will have the right number of seats (and oxygen masks hopefully), then please don’t go out of your way to tell us. It’s not showing off- our lives are in your hands. From there it’s not much of a leap to: As a policy, Ryanair only employs qualified pilots to fly their planes. However, should they eat the fish option during your flight…

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