Summa: Alt+Shift (June-August, 2021)*

My second online dairy concluded on June 30, 2021. It was begun on September 16, 2018, only twelve days after the first diary ceased ‘transmission’. Clearly, I’d unfinished business. Together, over a seven-year period, the diaries gave an account of not only my research, teaching, and admin at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, but also what took place during what little time I’d leftover for my ‘other life’.

I consider that the diaristic mode of writing is, for now, exhausted. It risks becoming repetitive, and a paler and paler echo of the initial impetus and intent.  Furthermore, my undergraduate teaching, which contributed so much to the content – in the form of the ‘principles and observations’ (and, sometimes, the ‘observations and principles’) sections, principally — has come to an end. Moreover and henceforth, I wish to live my life rather than write about it. The diaries had thrown-up ideas, themes, ways of thinking, and directions in writing that couldn’t be pursued other than in a cursory manner within the framework of a day-by-day account. In the ‘Alt-World’ that’s to come, these avenues will be explored within the context of the Intersections: Sound, Image, Words, and Life website.

A month after the second diary ended, so did my full-time contract as a member of academic staff at the School of Art, Aberystwyth university. I’d made the decision to retire three-years ago. However, at the time, I’d not planned to do so either via a phased-retirement plan, or amid a global pandemic, or in the company of two colleagues who’re now fully retired. Therefore, as it turns out, the School and I, together, embark upon an exciting new period in our histories.

The summer of 2021 has been dedicated to tidying-up, taking stock of, and curating, my career to date. I’ve wanted to draw a line under the past, clear a space that’ll be filled with my forthcoming activities and preoccupations, and lay out all my work so that I could take the measure of it. In the background, I initiated a rigorous rationalisation of my social-media presence, and a thorough updating and extending of my existing professional websites. I also launched several new websites. One is an archive of audio recordings representing a cross section of the academic presentations, public addresses, and art history lectures I’d delivered since 1984. Another makes some of the entries from my Aural Diary publicly accessible for the first time. As I write, a further website dedicated to my visual art practice and future consultancy services is under construction. At times, I’ve felt like someone putting their affairs in order in anticipation of their approaching demise.

Albrecht Dürer, The Penance of St John Chrysostom (1497)

‘Lay aside every weight’ and ‘run with patience the race’, wrote the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Olympians don’t sprint while carrying a suitcase full of old clothes in each hand. So as my ship sets sail, I endeavour to leave at the dock the luggage that’s ‘not wanted on voyage’. But ‘life is messy’, as one vicar remarked wryly. You can’t put away, and walk away from, every aspect of the past — ‘just like that’ (to quote Tommy Cooper). Reputation, scandal, regret, sadness, disappointment, and the vexations of body and mind follow like our shadow. Curiously, it’s our most reprehensible traits that cling to us most stubbornly: inappropriate patterns of thought and behaviour, unprofitable distractions, corrupting influences, those habits that weakens resolve, and our ‘sins of omission’, being all the things that we should’ve and could’ve done to the betterment of others and ourselves … but didn’t. Jettisoning this dross is a lifetime’s mission, even when aided by a liberal disposal of divine grace. As is, too, the determination to substitute it with the virtues of courage, self-control, perseverance, single-mindedness, constancy, loyalty, prudence, mercy, sympathy, liberality, honesty, diligence, benevolence, conscientiousness, industry, intelligence, self-sacrifice, humility, good humour, contentment, and the joy of living well.

In late July, while rummaging through my archive of cassette-tape recordings, I found one containing an informal interview that I’d given in December 1984. This was not long after I’d completed my MA Visual Arts studies at the, then, Department of Art, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Several things struck me forcibly on hearing it for the time thirty-seven years. Most immediately, I was appalled by my thickset South Walian accent and syntactical idiosyncrasies. Whatever happened to that pedantic, idealistic, and green-behind-the-ears valley boy? The other revelation was entirely acceptable. Setting modesty aside for the moment, I was impressed by the clarity of my convictions and determinations back then. My preoccupation with the themes of biblical and spiritual evocation and visual analogy and metaphor, and rooting my practice in the historical, homiletic, religious, and industrial traditions of South Walian culture, stem from this period. These enthusiasms have persisted and found expression in my visual, audible, and textual work to the present day. And, I suspect, they’ll endure for the time that there’s left to me too. As one colleague remarked some years ago: ‘You’ve been ploughing the same furrow for a very long time’. Like a needle in the groove of a vinyl record, I’ve been moving in a spiral outward, passing over the same point again and again, but never at the same distance.

At the beginning of August, unexpectedly, my Akai 4000DB MkII reel-to-reel tape recorder was returned to me by a local electrician to whom I’d sold it in the 1990s. I’d purchased the device in 1975, when I was sixteen years of age. All my early sound artwork was recorded on it. Some examples from 1975 to 1977 are still extant, and can be heard on the album entitled The Last Things.) The tape recorder’s homecoming seemed appropriate, given that I too was currently returning to and from my past in so many ways: rewinding my professional and personal life in order to fast-forward both.

I now work only two days a week for the university. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are dedicated to MA Fine Art and PhD Fine Art tutorials, delivered either online or face-to-face. I’m responsible for both my own contingent of MA painting students as well as Dr Forster’s brood, in her absence. (She’d taught them exceedingly well.) Many of them will conclude their Masters once their second exhibition has been installed, in September. Next year’s contingent of MA painters will be tutored by our pair of newbie lecturers. I’ve five PhD Fine Art students to see across the finishing line by the close of July 2022. They’ll represent the lion’s share of my responsibility during the next academic year. They’re, to a woman and man, a joy to work with and very able. I’ll learn a great deal from them, I’m sure.

2021 to 2022 will be transitional year. (The shift towards an alternative way of being has already begun.) I’ll need to constrain my teaching to those two days, ruthlessly. I’ve learned from others who’ve passed this way that if you let slip your resolve just a little then a landslide soon ensues, and you end up working for far more hours than your paid (which has always been the case, of course). I need to ‘take back control!’ (I can’t believe I wrote that.) The remainder of each week will require a routine and schedule of activities that’s no less binding on the stewardship of my abilities, time, and their deployment than the university’s timetable has been. I cannot afford to drift during the shift.

Stephen Chilton, Aria Light: Lyra (2013)

Accordingly, I’ve already completed an academic paper and submitted it for peer review, and furthered two sound art CD projects: PitWorks [working title] and Seven Prayers for Stephen Chilton. Alongside, I’m continuing to research a book on sound and the Bible.

Gradually, I’m moving ‘Out of office’ in the most profound sense of that term. I’ve worked in Room 203, on the ground floor of the School, since 2005. Now I must leave, so that my replacement can take-up accommodation. There’re many decades of papers to shred, lecture notes to box, equipment to either donate to the departmental stock or ship-back home, furniture to dismantle (Habitat, late-1980s), a computer to decommission (iMac, c.2009), and rubbish to skip. Unplugging my patch cables from the switchboard (as it were), will take time.

*Summa is an occasional digest of my undertakings and experiences over the period of several months.

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