Summa: diary (May 1-14, 2022)

If one is to live moment-by-moment, then, one must be self-conscious, moment-by-moment.

May 1.

May 2. What I no longer wish to do. Things that:
1. I’m not passionate about;
2. I’m not convinced by;
3. are interesting but unnecessary;
4. either lead nowhere or bear little fruit;
5. I’ve already done;
6. are easy;
7. are obvious;
8. others have either already done or are doing;
9. lack ambition;
10. don’t enrich either my life or that of others;
11. someone else either could or should do;
12. are ill-conceived;
13. are pointless;
14. are irksome;
15. are a distraction;
16. are undertaken for the wrong reasons;
17. lack relevance;
18. fail to challenge my established ways of thinking;
19. don’t require me to develop new competences;
20. don’t consolidate and extend the work that I’ve undertaken to date.

2.10 pm: Several streets away — an appointment with the CT scanner at the local hospital. I was in and out in ten minutes. It was a top-draw NHS experience, for which I was abundantly grateful. This would be my second experience of being like a particle in the Hadron Collider. The intention was to review the condition of my sinuses, now that I’d experienced a reasonably long period of medication.

May 4. I’d been booked by one of our second year Fine Art and Art History students to answer questions about the Welsh painter of Italian extract, Ernie Zobole (1927-99). He was one of my tutors at the art school in Newport from 1978 to 1981, and among the most self-effacing and kindly artists whom I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.

Ernie grew up in the Rhondda and made visionary paintings based upon its landscape. He did for that valley what Samuel Palmer had done for Shoreham, Kent. For me, Zobole affirmed the legitimacy (which was hard won in those heady days of late-Modernism) of painting one’s home — which was then, and has remained, the ground of my being. At one tutorial he confessed that painting was, on occasion, an irksome and unrewarding business. Something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Nevertheless, he pressed on and stayed in the game until the end. His example buoyed me up when I too, later in my life, was tempted to throw in the towel.

Ernest Zobole, People and Crossing, Rhondda (1952) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

May 5. I had reason to be at the School of Art during the afternoon. The first full show of undergraduate and postgraduate work since the start of the pandemic will be open to the public on 16 May. Of all the miracles that Mr Garrett — our senior technician (and much else besides) — performs during the year, this ranks as his greatest. Once again, he had marshalled teams of students to set up the studio spaces in readiness for the hang next week. I love the almost overwhelming odour of drying white emulsion paint, which is appreciable even through a mask. I knew none of the students’ faces and they, as likely, didn’t know mine. My presence was that of a haunting ‘ghost’. In three months time, I’ll have neither reason nor permission to be here. How strange that’ll be. Today, I received a final letter from the university’s Human Resources department ‘confirming my resignation’ (which is what early-retirement is also called). ‘Resignation’, however, has the force of self-determination about it. I was reminded of Patrick McGoohan’s character in the opening titles of The Prisoner (1967) fiercely striding into his boss’s office for a final confrontation.

May 9. Over the weekend, I’d finalised the design for the Penallta Colliery: Sound Pictures CD cover and booklet. Today, I took a break from the seemingly endless explanation and inquisition of the album and its tracks (which is an inevitable corollary of creative practice in an academic research environment) to review my latest batch of mixes. I’d not listened to them for over two weeks; so my ears were clear to hear. Too often, either the memory of a mix (what I thought I’d heard) or the idealisation of a mix (what I’d hope to hear) fall far short of what I’m actually hearing.

Throughout our creative lives we ought always to be in search of a higher quality of problem. The standard of our response cannot exceed that of our inquiry. In an ideal world (perhaps), the next project we undertake would always prove to be the hardest and most rewarding and successful that we’ve essayed to date. But life, we, and art aren’t like that. Mercifully so. The vicissitudes of our endeavours and the inconstancy of our efforts (in art as in life) keep us from complacency, and encourage humility, perseverance, and striving. Nevertheless, I’d like to believe that my best is yet to come. For, once that hope is abandoned the game is up.

Over the years, I’ve had to counsel a number of tutees who suffered from so-called ‘imposter syndrome’. All have been mature students, and very serious and able ones at that. (Rarely does the uncommitted sluggard of modest ability succumb to this disorder.) It only takes one ungenerous and thoughtless criticism of some aspect of their recent work to undermine confidence both in themselves and everything else they’ve achieved, and that for some considerable time. During which period, they feel as though they’ve been living a lie, delusional, and unworthy of the opportunities afforded them. There are occasions when a tutor must take a student apart, piece by piece. However, that process needs to be managed gently, courteously, and supportively. Furthermore, the tutor should always assume responsibility for putting them back together again at the end. The student should leave the tutor in a better shape than when they arrived at the tutorial.

May 11. A day in PhD-dom.

Here’s the rub: When it comes to writing about their doctoral work, the student has to — at one and the same time — deal with the core ideas and particularities while standing far enough away to see the whole. Each of my tutees is writing out of their life experiences, to a greater or lesser extent. The work is their work is them (and much else besides). I doubt whether I’ll be still in the university’s employ when they each submit the completed thesis. Nevertheless, I’m entirely confident that they’ll meet with success. My task, in the time that remains, is to ensure that they know how to land their own plane.

May 12. 9.00 am: I gave blood samples in order to initiate an investigation into possible allergens contributing to my rhinitis. Several vials of my life force were aspirated. The results of the Research Excellence Framework (which assesses the quality of academics’ research endeavours, every six or more years) were posted today. The university improved its rating overall, and significantly — as did the School of Art in particular. To do so in the face of a mounting teaching and administrative workload, as well as the challenges presented by the pandemic with respect to delivering curriculum and student support, is nothing short of extraordinary. But such commitment and determination has been costly in terms of the health and wellbeing of staff. Success — whether corporate or personal — always has side effects. We’d taught our children that exam results neither defined their worth nor added to or diminished their stature. Furthermore, what they were presently may bear little resemblance to what they might become. Thus, they ought to regard success and failure, and criticism and praise, alike, circumspectly. Nevertheless, the results were the welcome conclusion of my contribution to the School’s research profile. I felt as though I was leaving the team on a high. Bravo all!

May 14. 1.00 pm: I attended the so-called ‘quiet hour’ (for those who were still wary of being in close proximity and a confined space with a great many unmasked visitors) at the opening of the Degree Show and Postgraduate Exhibition at the School of Art. Mr Holland’s posters are always striking, and unlike anything that he’d produced for the previous years’ publicity. He has a gift. This was the first time that I’d had no input into the output of the presentations. Consequently, the work of the painting students in particular was fresh to me. As anticipated, Ms Brisland and Dr Ruddock had done an excellent job in cheering their charge to the finishing line.

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