A lovely meal and then a lurch into the unknown

Bath Natural Theatre Company strutting their stuff in the early 70’s

We were there – well not there in the photograph, but around at the time and living near Bath – which made lunch last week with one of the original provocateurs and his partner a total joy. Most young people probably think we’re a bunch of old farts who never did anything interesting – after all the world was only invented when they came along – but here’s the evidence – complete with incriminating photos and only mildly bowdlerized accounts of the fun and games that went on. There was a serious side to the counterculture because it helped mobilize public opinion against the Buchanan Plan which was contemplating the destruction of one of Bath’s most historic neighbourhoods in order to build a huge road. As it was, a great chunk of old Bath was demolished in favour of ugly flats – now a local crime hotspot – a habit which has continued with the recent Crest Nicholson Western Riverside development which would make a Russian bonded warehouse look good. There’s a well known polemic called The Sack of Bath written in 1973 by Adam Fergusson which also threw a spanner into the planners’ designs and undoubtedly helped save Bath from wholesale destruction. Interestingly we bumped into his daughter in a bar in Hay on Wye in December. She was very proud of her Dad who’s still alive. We need him back here!

A lot of last week was taken up haggling with recalcitrant software. As ever the obvious problem with my mobile router never occurred to me until I’d tried everything else out and wasted vast amounts of energy shouting fruitlessly at a lump of space junk whose only fault was an expired SIM card. Of course, somewhere at the back of my disorderly mind I’d known it all along, but – hey ho. The router will soon be needed as we get the campervan back on the road. After a couple of years of Covid when we often couldn’t use the van, we’d seriously considered selling it. It costs a lot of money just to leave it standing in a compound doing nothing and we thought it might be better to spend the money on trips. For one whole evening we even thought we’d buy an interrail pass and spend six months back in Europe. The downside to these utopian plans was always that we have a family, an allotment, the Bath Nats and a pile of friends we like to keep in touch with. In the cold light of morning and whilst putting the empties out, Plan A sounded a bit naff because what we really really enjoy is to park the campervan up on a site somewhere quiet and remote in the midst of a wildlife hotspot – like Mendip or mid Wales for instance – and go walking, birdwatching and plant hunting. So the plan was shelved with the two of us in complete agreement that we needed to keep the van.

The campervan’s been standing idle since we got back from St Davids in September and whilst we agonised over it we also neglected it a bit, so as well as software wars we also took ourselves down to the edge of the Severn to get the batteries recharged and to empty out the cupboards and generally get it ready for spring. We soon found that the upholstery had got very damp, the sink needed repairing (again!) and the mice had raided for nest building materials although a thorough search failed to find any nests; cue much more irritable spluttering and rummaging through tiny spaces at the expense of bashed elbows and a sore head. Ah – life’s rich tapestry – we thought as we lumped an 80lb generator and our dehumidifier into the car along with a spare battery and a heap of tools.

However, amidst all these distractions I also managed to spend time getting my head in gear for plant hunting in a few weeks time; checking out useful databases and maps and scouring lists. I do love a good list – this may be some kind of symptom. The upshot of all this botanical fantasising was that at the AGM on Saturday I volunteered to join the Council of the Bath Nats, thereby turning my retirement resolution never to join another committee – on its head. Naturally (it’s a voluntary organisation) my offer was warmly accepted and after a brief moment of undeserved pride I fell into a pit of self-doubt, bordering on imposter syndrome. The members of the Council are just so much more experienced and knowledgeable than me, they’ll find me out in a moment. Another sleepless night.

The van’s called Polly – it’s a he!

And so today has two tasks; to go back to the van and figure out how to carry out the necessary repairs and to run the dehumidifier for a few hours now we’ve remembered to put some petrol into the generator. Then I need to get a new data SIM and get the router working and sit down with Madame and plan the seed order for the allotment. We’ve already agreed to simplify and to concentrate on low maintenance plants to give ourselves more time for the other things we like to do. Then there’s marmalade to make as well. Who knew retirement could be so exhausting?

Gardeners of the imagination

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This is a pretty rubbish photo taken in a basement exhibition with my phone – the best way of getting an idea of this piece is to visit Fiona Hingstons website.

We spent yesterday with friends, eating, drinking wine, gossiping and then later trying to visit as many of the Fringe Arts Bath venues as we could. It turned out to be a more challenging and exhilerating day than I could have anticipated, and somehow this piece (there are two from the same series on display) really fired up my imagination. It’s a bit unfair to pick just one piece from four whole galleries worth of work, but it was the last exhibition we visited, so I think what finally clicked in me was an almost euphoric sense that something quite unexpected is happening.

First, a small confession.  Before I started to search online for some of the artists whose work I’d liked, I made the assumption that they were all young and post art-school at the beginnings of their journeys.  It’s true there were quite a few in that category and I’ll say a bit more about that in a moment, but one of the ‘gallery minders’ gave me the answer in the first exhibition and it took 24 hours to mean anything to me.  We’d been in the first gallery in Walcot Street and I’d been excited by the work I’d seen.  Grasping for an explanation I said to her that it was good to see that some of the idealistic ethos of the seventies hadn’t been crushed by the grim apparatus of austerity, and she said ‘oh no, the hippy ethos is still alive and well!’

After decades of the dead hand of the Arts Council, now shrunk to the skeletal remains of a sponsorship agency for big business, we’re beginning to see the re-emergence of the ‘underground’, the ‘counterculture’ – both utterly tainted and compromised in the way they were co-opted to shift product,  but regaining something of their old strength.  All of which is a rather long way of saying that there were artists of all ages and dispositions being shown.

That’s absolutely not to say that the exhibitions were living in a world wholly detached from the way we ‘do things round here’. These artists didn’t seem to be in any sense separatists, dreaming of a better place somewhere unreachably beyond where we are now.  In fact I kept thinking of Anne Frank, Charlotte Salomon, Louise Bourgeois and for some reason Francesca Woodman.  Madame made a hugely perceptive remark when I mentioned this on our way around.  She said that some of the exhibits reminded her of Francesca Woodman in the way that it seemed the artist had passed through the room and left a ghostly trace of herself. For instance there was one group of works gathered together under the title “Enshrine”. Many of the objects were very small, the kind of thing you might make when there’s not much space to work in, no grand studios for rent – maybe living with parents.  So they were being shaped  by the brutal economics of the artistic life, but also there was something poignant in the background.  The tiniest hint that these precious objects, filled with recovered memories and imagined worlds , could be hidden at short notice, stuffed into a bag when the knock on the door came.

There was a pervasive sense of threat to the environment which was being challenged by intense engagement. I found Fiona Hingston’s website I laughed out loud to see the title of one of her postings – “Making = Remembering”. Making, in this case, means making by hand using wire and masking tape.  Obsessive reflective, meditative and faintly disturbing, remembering becomes a subversive act when it points out what’s been lost.

I think I’d fallen into the sad conclusion that all the dreams, prophecies and visions of the past had dried up and that we are condemned to live (and in our case probably die) in the frozen steppes of corporate greed. “Not so soon” was the reply. The pervasive feeling was that these artists’ work was a challenge to the ‘way we do things round here’. A challenge with force, with heft.

It’s a shame so few politicians ever visit a gallery except to rub shoulders with the wealthy and powerful. Culture is a far bigger force than a gallery with some free wine, and if I were in public office right now, I’d be nervous.  These gardeners of the imagination have been working away, against the odds, and they’re not going away any time soon.

 

 

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