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Lust for Life: Van Gogh at Tate Britain

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It was always the sodding Sunflowers. The first Van Gogh painting I ever saw and if I’d had my way the last. Seventies student bedsits were crammed with posters of either the Tennis Girl, or Van Gogh’s drab pot of blooms. Perhaps they were right for the 70s in their awful beige flatness. Over the years my opinion of the troubled post-impressionist shifted somewhat, but I can’t say the Tate’s Van Gogh and Britain filled me with expectant joy. Sometimes it’s lovely to be proved wrong.

Everyone is describing this as a blockbuster exhibition so, being a member and to beat the crowds, I snuck in to see the show at 8am on a Sunday morning.

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To be clear, VG never painted a single picture in England though he lived near the Oval in London in his early 20s while working for an art dealer. Apparently, he loved the place, loved Dickens and said: “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes.”

The curators of this exhibition have done an astonishing job in selecting work that influenced the artist and in turn artists who were influenced by the troubled, red-headed Dutchman. He lived for just 37 years, painted for only ten of them and only made his artistic and stylistic breakthrough in the last two years of his life during which he created more than 2,000 pictures. If my maths is right, and I certainly wouldn’t guarantee it, that’s almost 20 a week. He was mentally disturbed and of course took his own life, but the range and intensity of his work leaves the viewer breathless.

A few years ago, the Royal Academy hosted the YBA’s ‘Sensation’ exhibition with the likes of Damien Hurst and Tracey Emin. It had the right-wing press in a lather not knowing whether to be morally outraged or to make fun of it. Twenty years after Van Gogh’s death his paintings were introduced to the British public in an exhibition at the Tate titled: Manet and the Post-Impressionists. At the Tate today there’s a wall of newspaper cuttings looking at that exhibition that are just as snide and sneering as those levelled at ‘Sensation’ but interestingly just like ‘Sensation’ it was wildly popular with the public and attracted more than 25,000 visitors.

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After the war, when people must have been craving colour, the Tate staged a Van Gogh exhibition which also proved highly popular. There’s a photograph in one of the glass cases of punters queuing on the front steps, eager to get in. Similarly, as I left the current exhibition today there was a line of people stretching out the door. Van Gogh identified with the working man, perhaps with everyman and we seem to respond. Even at his most psychedelic, and some of these paintings are eye-melting, he speaks directly to us.

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The standout picture of his in this exhibition is probably Starry Night, but some of the self-portraits are breathtaking and, unlikely as it might seem, a small picture of a pair of boots is heart breaking for reasons it’s hard to explain.

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Obviously, those going to see this exhibition will be looking for pictures by the man himself, but there are wonderful paintings by his Contemporaries and those who came after. I thought John Everett Millais was just another of those drippy pre-Raphaelites. He did the one of Ophelia, a hippy looking bird, drowning in a river. But just take a look at his magnificent ‘Chill October’ which is technically brilliant and seems to epitomise a cold autumnal British landscape. The final three paintings are by Francis Bacon titled Van Gogh in a Landscape and I know most won’t agree but they are perhaps the greatest works in the entire exhibition.

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Perhaps it’s down to decades of prejudice but ‘Sunflowers’ still looks drab, beige and curiously two dimensional. The exact opposite of just about everything else in this overwhelming exhibition. Don’t stop to think about it, just go.


 

Sparrows are back

Sparrows are back

I remember reading articles a few years back about the disappearance of that most common London bird, the sparrow. No one seemed to be able to account for their disappearance, but one day they were here in their millions and the next day they were gone.

I don’t know if it’s just my advancing age, but I never gave birds much thought in my youth, but I do now; they seem like little packets of magic. I grew up in rural Northamptonshire so can name all the common species, which always comes as a shock to my family as they only know me as a metropolitan type with little love for the countryside.

Just over a year ago we lost our cat Ziggy to some vile feline disease and we now have Bucket the Battersea Terrier. Sad as we were to lose Ziggy, it meant I was able to place a bird feeder in our small south London garden a few weeks ago. It hangs from a potted maple tree just outside our kitchen window and we waited to see who might stop by.

I don’t know where the little buggers have been hiding but we are now awash with sparrows. It’s quite common for there to be ten of them in the tree above the feeder, where they sit stropping their beaks, acting like meerkats keeping a lookout while a couple of them dive down to feed. These avian hoodlums are tough guys and the pair of blue tits that nest close by are given short shrift when they duck in to feed.

The winter has been so mild so far that birds don’t really need a free feed yet, but I’m happy to make their life easier as I have a guilty secret.

I’m ashamed to say, and this is genuine shame, that when I was twelve, I begged my parents for an air rifle. They didn’t like the idea, but I persisted and eventually got my way. And what did this vile twelve-year-old do? Why, he went shooting and killing sparrows in the family garden. I’m now a reformed character.

I mourned the apparent passing of these most London of birds and am delighted so many can be seen from my kitchen window. No guns this time little sparrows you’re safe with us, but watch out for the neighbour’s cat.


 

Denmark Street Blues

Denmark Street Blues

I signed one of those on-line petitions the other day to ‘save’ Denmark Street. For those who don’t know, Denmark Street was once the Rock & Roll capital of London. I’m not entirely sure why I thought it was a place worth preserving. In my almost 40 years of visiting ‘Tin Pan Alley’ as it used to be called, I’ve received, almost nothing but snotty nosed, boot-faced condescension from the so-called sales people that frequent the music shops. Most of them look like roadies who may be wonderful at coiling cables but would struggle to sell water in a desert.

The patronising attitude must have seeped into the brickwork, because while the hair styles from 1970 to the present day may have changed their withering looks haven’t. But we’ll come to all that in a moment.

Denmark Street is located just east of Soho and branches off Charing Cross Road just south of Tottenham Court Road. It runs for only 300 metres or so but in its hey-day it was what Harley Street is to medics and what Fleet Street used to be to newspapers. It was the beating heart of London Rock & Roll.

In the 50s and 60s it was home to music publishers, but times changed, and it gave way to recording studios, music clubs and musical instrument shops.

In the 60s the Rolling Stones recorded their first album at Regent Sound located at 4 Denmark Street and Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote ‘Your song’ at offices belonging to music publisher Dick James. The 70s saw the Sex Pistols living and recording there. From 1994 until last year the 12 Bar Club played host to the likes of Jeff Buckley, Bert Jansch and KT Tunstall. It has quite a musical history.

Today, Denmark Street is the victim of a triple whammy: (can you have a triple whammy?) Creeping gentrification, the Crossrail development at Tottenham Court Road and I’m guessing the cold hand of Amazon.

Tin Pan Ally and I go way back, and over the years I’ve been there to buy all matter of guitar playing stuff, but I want to tell you about my first and last visits.

In 1970, I was a budding guitar player which made me virtually identical to just about every other 16-year-old in the western world. But where I differed from all the other players was not in talent, but rather that I had £15 in my pocket. Fifteen quid that was to be spent on my first proper amplifier and there was only one place to go to get it.

I was living with my parents in a village just outside Northampton and I bought an amplifier in a local junk shop that had come out of the Savoy cinema. It was massively heavy, produced almost no volume and was utterly useless.

It was decided, I was to go to London by train, buy an amplifier and return all in one day, ALL BY MYSELF. That rather dull, repetitive sentence does scant justice to the head-spinning, cart-wheeling excitement, that a day in London at the Rock & Roll centre of the universe conjured up. I could barely sleep, and what’s more, I had a new pair of jeans.

To my parents, a trip to London was a special occasion, dressing up was obligatory and I totally bought into that concept. Let me tell you about the new jeans. They were skin tight, and I’d taken my mother’s pinking shears to the generously endowed flairs that spread like spinnakers from my ankles. I looked like I’d been attacked by wolves. Topping them off was a psychedelic tie-dyed T-shirt and a World War 2 military great coat, the latter bought at an army surplus store. It had a small hole in it and I was always slightly bothered that it’s previous owner might have met his end while wearing it.

Top look I’m sure you’ll agree, except my mother didn’t. What DO you think you look like? You can’t go to London looking like that, was the general tenor of her remarks. If I was to retain that all important £15 a compromise had to be reached. And then I had a brain-wave.

Yes of course Mum, I’ll change my trousers and turn down the volume on my shirt. Rather a quick back down in the face of authority you might be thinking. To which I reply HA! You are underestimating the ingenuity of a 16-year-old. I had a largish shoulder bag that I used for carrying albums into which I shoved the ripped jeans and eye-melting T-shirt. Once aboard the train I changed outfits and, I like to think, looked magnificent. Surely, I’d meet rock stars in Denmark Street and we could exchange cool, sardonic nods of recognition. I might also meet girls, a commodity that seemed non-existent in Northampton.

Sadly, the rock stars must have been getting their heads together in the country that day and as for girls, well my extravagant look didn’t have the desired effect.

Because Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton cranked their axes through Marshall amps, I had to have one, but fifteen notes didn’t cut it, so I settled for a Park amplifier instead. This was grudgingly sold to me by a long-haired lout who could barely get out of his chair such was the industrial level of contempt he felt for the whey-faced plank-spanker standing in front of him. Walking out with my prized possession I was philosophical. Sod him for a game of soldiers, I thought, I now own a black, fifty-watt amplifier. Heaven on earth.

A week later I took it to school and someone nicked it. Rock & Roll dreams snuffed out.

Last month I visited Denmark Street in search of mid-priced acoustic guitar to take travelling. I was after an instrument that could get thrown around without too much concern if it got the odd dink or scratch. One massive improvement on being 16 now rather than in 1970 is that for £300 you can score yourself a highly playable, decent sounding guitar. The guitars I was brought up on were untunable and almost unplayable. Or was that my lack of talent?

So, I’m upstairs at Hank’s and the guitar jockey is handing out various specimens for me to try. Just prior to this visit I’d figured out quite a nifty version of the Gershwin classic ‘Summertime.’ It’s not exactly hard to play but involves a descending bass line and some rather groovy chord changes. Next thing I know the guitar sales person looks round and says, ‘Wow, that’s great, how do you do that, could you show me what you’re playing there?’

Young people today, they don’t have a clue how to behave.

In case you’re wondering about the guitar in the picture, it’s a Mexican made Fender Stratocaster that was produced in conjunction with Transport For London.

The Unwelcome Guest: Get outa here

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that on occasion I talk about my prostate cancer treatment under the title The Unwelcome Guest. It’s been pointed out that this more serious stuff sits uncomfortably with the flippant flim-flam and fol-de-rol that I usually turn out here.

That being the case, The Unwelcome Guest has been packed into a removal van and dragged kicking and screaming to its own blog. If you want to keep up with the little bastard this is where you need to be as The Unwelcome Guest won’t be appearing on A Little London Life in the future.