Summa: diary (June 1-13, 2022)

Unthinking established thoughts.

June 1. Ed Pinsent reviews the albums that are sent to The Sound Projector (which he directs), tirelessly. In another life, he’d have made a rigorous academic marker. I’ve learned so much from his knowledge, wisdom, and tact. Once a again, he has been generously supportive. It’s always a tonic to read someone else’s response to my work. In academia, creative practitioners are obliged to provide an extensive commentary on the things that they make; such that they take up too much of that critical space which other writers might otherwise occupy. It’s not good for artists to have the first, last, and only word.

I’ve begun making an ‘end-time’ list of ‘Things to Do’ before I finally and comprehensively take early-retirement. This is my last month of work at the School of Art. July will be given-over to a ‘holiday’ (or, in reality, everything except university work); I’m duty-bound to spend as much as I can of my accrued annual leave before finally pulling the plug on employment, at the close of that month. By my calculation, I’ll still have 92 hours in the holiday bank at the end — for which I’ll not be remunerated. I’m also making another list entitled ‘The Life to Come’. This’ll provide an initial itinerary for the ‘new order’, and be mapped onto a weekly timetable. Drifting from one day to another isn’t an option. Life is short, and getting shorter. (Thus has it ever been. Only now, I’m desperately aware of it.)

June 2. I’m not a royalist. While I respect the Queen and what she’s done for the UK, I’d prefer the monarchy to die with her. If Wales ever achieves independence (and it seems to me that the country is closer to that goal than it has ever been in my lifetime), then, I hope that it also becomes a republic. I’ve nothing against England and the English, other than that part of it which is called Westminster and those, there, who brandish the flag of Toryism. I cannot decide whether it’s either their unprincipled behaviour or incompetence that irks me most. Rather than subject myself to a tiresome parade of fawning, and endless commentary upon fawning, on TV and in social media, I pressed on with the construction of the Penallta Colliery: Sound Pictures website.

I vividly remember the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, but neither her Golden Jubilee nor Diamond Jubilee — even though the latter was the name of the terrace where I lived for the first eighteen years of my life. (It marked the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign.) The Silver Jubilee is memorable because it took place in the year that I left secondary school (mercifully) and began art school: 1977. This was my annus mirabilis. It was the year, too, when the Sex Pistols attempted to disrupt the Jubilee celebrations by performing their single ‘God Save the Queen’ from a boat on the River Thames. They also released their first album — Never Mind the Bollocks: Here’s the Sex Pistols — a few months later. In 1977, the punk rock movement went global. It’d already permeated the art school (in a small way) before I arrived. The Sex Pistols had been booked to play at the Top Rank, Cardiff, a year earlier. However that gig, along with the vast majority of their others in 1976, was cancelled; the band was banned by local councils in anticipation of public order offences. They did, however, perform at the Stowaway Club on Stow Hill, Newport, in December 1977. Not that I’d have dared attend.

June 4. Last blossom on still water.

We had guests for lunch. The husband, who’s a Glaswegian, told me that in his country the locals don’t ask visitors: ‘Where do you come from?’; but, rather, ‘Where do you belong?’ (No wonder Scotland has produced so many philosophers.) It’s a very searching question, and one that can’t be answered straightforwardly. For, I may feel as though I don’t belong to the place where I live, presently, or herald from, originally. ‘Belonging’ summons the sense of our commitment to the place where we fit-in and experience happiness, comfort, and support, and, moreover, can extend these blessings to those with whom we share a common bond. But there’s no guarantee that a such a place can ever be found or stayed.

June 5. Several weeks ago, the basement plumbing sprang a minor leak. It was noticed a few hours after it’d begun, and so the damage was minor. Nevertheless, the ‘inundation’ was sufficient to ruin one cardboard portfolio containing several drawings from the period of 1979 to 1981. (More fool me for placing it on the floor.) At intervals over the Bank Holiday, I confronted the sorry task of assessing the damage: cutting the artworks from the now sodden mounts and laying them out to dry. None of the paper that I worked on back then was acid free. Over the years, it has discoloured … along with the Cow Gum (a dreadful adhesive that ought to have had a conservation health WARNING printed on the tin) used to hold collages together. One tends to forget that paper-based works, such as Braque’s and Picasso’s synthetic-cubist collages (1912-14), no longer look the same as when they were first made. Moth and rust doth corrupt (to adapt Matthew 6.19-20). While in the basement, I began to facedown the stacks of framed and boxed paintings, drawings, and prints that — like so many rescue cats and dogs — never found a home. Alas, some will need to be ‘put down’ over the summer period.

June 7. Oddly, coming to the end of my teaching at the School of Art feels less like a departure than a return home. Although I can’t yet fathom what ‘home’ refers to in this context. However, I’m returning like a space craft hurtling through the atmosphere at speed and feeling the friction’s heat. Much remains to be done during the remainder of the month: students submissions to ‘put to bed’, staff to apprise, modules to be relinquished and handed-on, and reports to be finalised.

There was a felt-moment in the day (which arrived unannounced) inspired and sustained by a particular conjunction of sunlight and music. All about me seemed suffused with goodness. (Profoundly so.) While this awareness was experienced in the here and now, it appeared to emanate from a future place and time to which, I sensed, I was heading. The feeling mediated something that was pure, heart-warming, and uncomplicated — filled with a happiness, generosity, and beneficence that was subtle (rather than overwhelming) and sufficient (rather than overflowing) in its essence.

June 8. Tuesday and Wednesday of this week have been intensely busy. My PhD cohort (bless them) all submitted, over the Bank Holiday, vast swathes of thesis text for me to review. This was anticipated and understandable. My time with them is now a very short piece of string. And there’s also the annual Postgraduate Research Monitoring round to conclude by the end of this month. Not to mention the finalisation of my retirement arrangements. Unhooking oneself from employment isn’t straightforward, and much wisdom and advice is needed and gratefully received.

Some principles and observations derived from today’s PhD Fine Art engagements:

Student: ‘Am I mad?’. Tutor: ‘Certainly! But, then again, so are your peers and I. It’s the “madness” of the prophets’– entirely necessary and respectable.

Writing is like talking to yourself about your work.

You can’t know something before it’s known.

The further you ascend the mountain, the more of the surrounding terrain you’re able to spy; and the more you realise just how little of it you’ve trod. That’s the relationship between learning and a growing sense of one’s own ignorance in so doing.

A composer of music will also practise scales, arpeggios, and chords regularly in order to not only give an accomplished performance of their compositions but also to better understand them. Therefore, practise writing habitually. In so doing, you’ll gain a greater cognizance of your work and (as importantly) of yourself.

News of the Portuguese artist Paula Rego’s (1935-2022) death was announced today. I’d met her in the early 1990s. She was then ‘artist in residence’, painting her Crivelli’s Garden, at the National Gallery of Art, London. My students and I had been invited to visit her studio there. The artist was the perfect host, and welcomed us into a capacious workspace without furnishings, as into her own home. Rego confessed to having an inordinate passion for Coca-Cola. A large number of empty cans — that day’s consumption, I suspect — littered the studio floor. (It wasn’t a good example to set before the students; but — what the heck — we were her guests.) She also confessed to having an allergy to oil paint.

June 9. My recurring dream recurred last night. At some point on my day-trip to somewhere that seemed to be a hybridisation of Bristol, Bath, and a place that I’ve never before been to, I set-down my rucksack but forgot to pick it up again. Following the moment of awful realisation that my luggage was no longer on my shoulder, I spent the remainder of the dream retracing my steps while vainly trying to locate it. Waking from such a scenario is always an enormous relief.

11.00 am: My last Finalists Examination Board meeting.

On this occasion, I was very much the outsider looking in — like a lingering ghost. The External Examiners were highly complementary about the students’ work, as had been the students in their comments to the examiners regarding the staff and the support that they’d rendered over the pandemic period. This year’s finalists have endured the restrictions and dislocations of Covid-19 for longer than any of their peers before them. They’ve done exceptionally well under exceptional circumstances. I’ll miss my ‘family’ at the School of Art. I couldn’t have wished to work with a more supportive, forgiving, dedicated, and hardworking bunch of colleagues. That I’ve never felt the need to seek employment at an art department elsewhere is an eloquent testament to the bonhomie and professional satisfaction that I’ve known while working alongside them.

While rifling through the pensions and retirement folders in my filing cabinet, I came across a newspaper advertisement for my first full-time position at the, then, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. I secured the lectureship. Thirty years ago, the salary-range seemed pretty good. However, academic remuneration has not kept pace with either the rising cost of living or salaries offered by many organisations in the public sector. At least the pension plan was very good when I began full-time employment. (It is no longer.)

June 11. 7.45 am: The trees and sky, especially, seemed to me unusually vital and present this morning. A landward breeze blew across sea continuously, ionising the air. On the Promenade, I met a colleague. We discussed the merits of early retirement, both in experience and prospect. It’s an indictment of the higher-education system in the UK that so many academics are either burnt to a cinder long before their professional sell-by date, or else realise that they’re likely expire long before then, if they keep going at their present rate. Too much of our time is spent in the role of untrained psychologists and social workers, and in loco parentis (or so it often seems), rather than as agents of our discipline — passing onto the students our wisdom and knowledge, and nurturing the same in them, as well as conducting our own research. That said, the staff at the School of Art have been remarkably successful of acquitting themselves of those responsibilities on all fronts.

9.30 am: Today had been set aside for finalising material for the production of the Penallta Colliery: Sound Pictures CD. I reviewed the relative loudness of the tracks in the hope of establishing a common mean. I’ve always found this to be a terribly difficult. Which is why I’ve not listened to the completed tracks for several weeks. The labour requires a fresh ear. It’s my usual practice to play the tracks at 50 dB on the analogue-to-digital interface attached to my studio computer. Unlike volume (which can be measured, scientifically, in decibels), loudness is much harder to quantify because it’s a highly (although not entirely) subjective experience. For example, two tracks may possess the same volume and yet one be perceived as markedly quieter (or less present) than the other. In this respect (and many others), I’m grateful for the sensitive ear and second opinion provided by the sound engineer who has worked on my last four CD releases.

June 12. After lunch, I returned to Borth Beach at low tide, when the ancient submerged forest was visible. Here you can see the stumps of birch, oak, willow, pine, and hazel trees that died around 1500 BC, which have been preserved by the acid anaerobic conditions in the peat. If you ever need a long-term historical perspective on the y0ur present, then, this is the place to come. The past’s remains lie ever before us, even as our lives pass swifter than a weaver’s shuttle (Job 7.6).

June 13. Proof of presence (still).

11.00 am: I caught up with: the current exhibitions at the School of Art; Dr Watkins, one of our part-time secretaries, who has returned to her throne in the office; and Ms Westendorf, who is our Curatorial and Technical Assistant and the building’s unofficial gatekeeper, and — along with Dr Watkins — a fount of knowledge and a haven for the stranger, lost, and dispossessed.

1.40 pm: A walk to the Dingle (Parc Bach y Ceunant), also know as The Penglaise Dingle and, between 1887 and 1930, Elysian Grove (which is not what and where it is today).

With gratitude for the gift.

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