Visiting the National Gallery

Visiting the National Gallery during this pandemic is, somewhat perversely, something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I saw a tweet from someone I follow who was one of the earliest visitors after the doors reopened and the new system was in place.

The system for limiting numbers and following a one way system is necessary to enable galleries like this one to reopen. Although they are large spaces, they can be tricky to navigate and – possibly even by design – allow the visitor to get lost in a reverie and wander the halls for hours. This sort of flaneuring is incompatible with the Covid world, and one way systems are now found everywhere from supermarkets to art galleries.

The National Gallery is still free to visit, and access is still reasonably easy, albeit via an online ticketing system. Those wishing to remain anonymous might wish to utilise a burner email account, and I’m not sure if there is a satisfactory offline system for those who find the online world daunting or unusable.

Entry is simple enough – I ran there, actually, and was a few minutes late. There was a small holding queue around the corner from the entrance and I assume this was for the next batch of visitors; when I told the guard my time slot and apologised for being a few minutes late, he happily waved me through and I walked straight in. Just inside, I scanned my QR code for the NHS app, and I was waved inside by another bank of security guards who had no desire to see inside my running backpack, thankyouverymuch.

Inside the main (Salisbury wing) entrance, a lady asked if I was here to see “the exhibition”, which threw me a little, but she probably meant the paid-for/ticketed one. No, I said, I was planning to follow route B. Hearing this, she gave me some slightly convoluted directions.

For a gallery with a tricky layout like the National, they have devised three lettered routes for visitors to follow, which means deciding between a greatest hits of artists. There’s no bad route to follow, in fairness – though I must admit I was a bit daunted by the choices and  a bit like a kid choosing between different Now! compilations, I didn’t know if I wanted the one with Michelangelo and Raphael, the one with Van Gogh, Rubens and Pissarro, or the one with Holbein and Canaletto.

(It turns out that routes B and C actually overlap, so you get some Monet and Seurat and co whichever you choose.)

I went with route B, and wasn’t disappointed. I can’t remember if the gallery is deliberately laid out in chronological order, but this route certainly is. (There is a chuckle-worthy sign near the loos on the way in which riffs on this, kindly informing you that the next toilets are 700 years away, e.g. at the other end of the gallery by the exit.)

The gallery did, indeed, feel quite empty. I don’t tend to make a bee-line for institutions like this at times when they are normally busy – a sunny Saturday afternoon in Trafalgar Square and you’ll find me far, far away. But a rainy Monday afternoon in a pandemic with enforced restrictions on visitor numbers? Bliss.

I found that some of the curators seemed quite keen to give impromptu explanations of this painting or that. I’m not sure if they’re normally this chatty, but it caught me off-guard and I somewhat ashamedly found myself mentally rehearsing what I’d do if one of them sidled up to me and asked me if I wanted to know more about this Rubens painting. What am I going to say, “no”? Such are the trials of the introverted gallery-goer.

Most people were doing as they were told. Arrow signage on the floor was subtle but useful. The curators that weren’t spouting off wisdom were doing the other thing they not-so-secretly love: quietly telling visitors what to do. In this case, it was almost always asking them to put their damn masks on properly. Too right. Most people I see in London are doing this fairly well, but I’m regularly left frustrated by the amount I see who have gone to the effort of putting a mask on, only for it to hang below one or more of the few holes in their head it’s designed to cover.

Art-wise, I found myself gravitating towards the landscapes, and paintings featuring architecture. I can only take so many religious allegories or portraits of dead rich people. Show me a photo-realistic streetscape with sunlight glancing off stonework, or a sea of roofs punctuated by smoking chimneys and I am away, floating off into a daydream as close to time travel as I can get.

I recently updated the screensaver images on my Fire stick so that it shows a slideshow of photographs we’ve taken over the years. I also added about fifteen artworks from a little list I keep when visiting galleries. It was nice visiting the National Gallery today, knowing that a few of the images that now grace my TV screen while it’s idling are on show here. But of course most of the time they are much larger in real-life than on a 40″ screen.

And that’s part of the joy of coming to an art gallery. Not just the sheer variety and quantity of what’s on show, but the physicality of each individual, unique object. These are not prints or facsimiles: each one is the final, painted, physical, three-dimensional object. This is, of course, obvious. But it’s worth reminding oneself of this simple fact. The way the light plays off the brush-strokes set hard all those years ago. The vastness of some of the canvasses and the logistics involved in not just framing it or moving it from one building to another but even painting the damn thing. It’s amazing.

And of course the final piece of the art gallery package is the space itself, particularly one as large as the National Gallery. Huge long halls create vistas and focal points in and of themselves; the art hanging on their walls suddenly playing second fiddle. The high ceilings and the inimitable ambience of hushed voices and shuffling footsteps, occasionally interrupted by a clipping heel or a voice suddenly coming out louder than one expects which reminds everyone how quiet it has been up to that point. That subtle atmosphere that can only be conjured by a congregation of bodies in a space has become a rare sensation in 2020.

My visit to the National Gallery today was much-needed, partly to top myself up on some art and a visit to a London institution (to remind myself they’re there). But also to show me with my own eyes how the world works now. I’m glad places like this have made it work so well. Not everywhere can.

95bFM

After listening to 95bFM for the first time in a while, albeit as an on-demand podcast of the top ten, this morning I am listening live – to the end of the top ten show, and now to Freak the Sheep (the NZ music show). Haven’t listened live to 95bFM in so long.

95bFM is an Auckland-based student radio station, one of a nationwide network. They play great music, from ambient chillout and hip-hop to rock and metal. I’ve been listening to bFM for the best part of two decades* (their website and online streaming has always been quite ahead of global trends for radio stations, particularly of their size).

* The first mention in my diary of bFM is from November 2004, by which time I apparently felt cosy enough with listening online to text the overnight DJ and request a song, which they kindly played for me.

It also has that ‘I keep getting older, they stay the same age’ vibe that all good student radio stations can have – bFM seems simultaneously not to have changed in the time I’ve been listening to it, and yet they still seem fresh and cool, and they engage in fresh talent in their DJs and the songs they play, as well as not forgetting to look back.

Like all good radio, listening live to a station like this is where it’s at: brief mentions of local news and affairs, plus ads for local events and businesses, it all makes it feel very local and takes you right there.

An ad for a camera rental firm in Newmarket, sent me straight to Google Maps trying to see where it fits into my very patchy mental map of Parnell and Newmarket, where I was based for a few months in late 2008. This was initially very confusing, but it was quite a nice sensation feeling the bits slip into place as my brain wrapped itself around the physical map/streetview.

I’m also struck by something I know I’ve felt before, but perhaps never written down, which is that I tend to find myself gravitating towards checking out 95bFM as the seasons change – rarely in deep winter or the height of summer (though I’ve always enjoyed the mental juxtaposition of hearing about surf conditions out at Piha in mid-December or ski conditions at Cardrona while I’m experiencing a heat wave).

Rather, it’s more when there’s a noticeable change in the weather and my mind seems to wander to the other side of the world where a similar change is happening, albeit in reverse. Can’t put my finger on the cause of this, but it’s something that I’ve always been half aware of.


On a related note, I’ve often likened music from the early 1980s by Dunedin and Christchurch bands – early Flying Nun releases, the so-called Dunedin Sound – with what I imagine were drafty, damp student digs in the winter term.

Inevitably there’s a lot of poetic licence and leaps of imagination in this: the truth is probably far less ‘neat’, but I do find myself conjuring images of a frosty morning in Christchurch, or emerging from a foggy, cold street into a pub in Dunedin when I listen to the Chills (hah!), the Clean or the Verlaines. Woolly jumpers and smoking a fag in the cold night air, or trying to get the car started first thing in the morning with steamy breath visible.

I got the Roger Shepherd book about Flying Nun Records for Christmas a couple of years ago and haven’t read it yet. Haven’t found myself in the right mood to really dig in. Want to give it my full attention and wallow in a book that, a few years ago, I’d have lapped up. Perhaps that’s part of it: I listen to 1980s NZ music far less nowadays than I used to. But it’s still in my bones.

And so I want to crank that up a little bit more, get it more into the foreground, and get into the right headspace to read the book, my mind all the more receptive to every morsel and anecdote. And as the nights draw in (we haven’t done the clocks yet, but with gloomier weather, the evenings do feel that bit darker suddenly), perhaps it’s becoming a good time to get back into that mood.


Back to the original thread, and that’s one other thing I love about occasionally dipping into 95bFM (and the other bnet stations): I can hear brand new and even unreleased demos by up and coming NZ bands played alongside the kind of stuff I hear daily on BBC 6 Music, and then occasional plays of proper NZ alternative classics – legendary tracks by some of the bands I mentioned earlier – just dropped into the playlist because they’re part of the fabric of NZ radio and popular culture (or at least alternative pop culture, perhaps not quite the mainstream). Hearing a track by someone like the Chills on 6 Music is almost unheard of – almost, because every few years they seem to play some of their Peel Session recordings at an obscure hour. But that’s pretty much it.


Oh – one more thing while I’m at it: a thing I want someone to invent, which feels like it should exist, but I haven’t even Googled yet to see if it does:

I want to have a database of loads of global radio stations (ideally with good streaming), and an input form where I drop in a few bands I’m digging lately. The database holds all these stations’ playlists. It then returns stations which have played those bands I love recently. Some sort of background algorithm so that it doesn’t just find a station that played one Deftones track yesterday, but nothing else for months, but actually ‘weights’ the results by stations that more consistently play tracks by artists I’m into.

Better yet: let me plug my last.fm or Spotify library into the database: scrape my favourite artists and show me which radio station – anywhere in the world – aligns most closely to my taste in music.

This feels like it could exist, but would necessarily depend on radio stations accurately logging their playlists in a common format. Which seems… unlikely. Unless there was an over-arching authority like PRS that did a better job of this. But still. Seems as unlikely as it does a cool concept. I can dream.

 

Re-cyclblog

I recently remembered I had a cycling tumblr (remember tumblr?) called cyclblog and thought to myself: ‘huh: there were some pretty nice posts on that tumblr.’ And so I am planning to re-host the best of that blog somewhere here. I can’t decide whether to just import the old posts as WordPress posts, sufficiently tagged and dated. Or to keep the idea of a cyclblg-esque sub-domain and keep it separate.

The tumblr, naturally, combines my own blog-type posts with reblogged tumblr posts from other users, as well as ‘hey, this is cool’ brief links to other web properties like tweets or photographs.

Tumblr’s export function (when it finally worked – mine took about a week!) has produced some actually quite nice, clean standalone HTML pages of each post, with embedded media linked to a folder. I’m tempted to just use these de-tumblrified HTML pages under a sub-domain, but maybe I’ll do something else.

My own longer-form written posts are (I like to think) decent enough to warrant retaining and reposting (or re-hosting). But there’s something about the re-blogged stuff on cyclblg that I like, too, and want to keep alive. It’s a sort of scrapbook of stuff that either felt adjacent to my own interests, or even served to inspire the activities I would go on to write about myself.

Three of those longer-form posts borrowed the term microadventure from Alastair Humphreys who was one of a number of folks back when cyclblg was active who absolutely inspired me to get out there and have some little adventures of my own. My own microadventures tended to be bike overnights** from my base at the time of Milton Keynes:

** Bikeovernights.org is another website that definitely inspired me around this time

Anyway. It’ll be nice to do something with these old posts, and hopefully it’ll be an enjoyable experience re-reading some of those adventures again.

The notebook

Finishing a notebook is… not exactly a very noteworthy (hah!) event. Or is it? I find it’s far more common to start a new notebook than to finish one. But when you spend four years with the same notebook, you start to think, “Hey…maybe this is it? The one, true notebook? Maybe when this one is done I should… Get another one exactly the same…?”

Shortly followed by “Shit, four years have passed – do they even still make this notebook?”

They do.

Thank goodness.

As I say, I’ve never really had to worry about this before. I’ve had jobs where I’ve been supplied with a succession of the same notebooks. At Network Rail, the stationery cupboard was filled with these lovely ring-bound blue hardback A5 notebooks that I loved. And other jobs have supplied me with big ol’ Black n’ Red notebooks that feel very luxe, but the A4 format is destined only for a desk.

But this thing… It’s A5, with rounded corners. It’s got a soft leather(ette?) wraparound cover with nice off-white pages, and a little inside back cover pouch for odd bits and pieces. It has a bookmark ribbon and an elastic band to hold it closed. And I’ve carted it around all over the place: to the park, to the office, to various libraries and archives. I’ve written in it on trains and in cafes and… even, at my desk.

It started out as a notebook, occasionally becoming a diary (for one or two honest-to-goodness dated diary entries when I suppose I must have felt in the mood to write one out longhand), and it’s filled with things on various topics and in a variety of formats from diagrams, lists, scribbles, and word clouds, to multi-page prose and website mock-ups.

It is, I suppose, the nearest thing I have to a commonplace book.

I’ve often wanted to start a commonplace book. In my head, I’d sit and lick the end of my pencil (okay, not really), then note down the things I’d just learned, carefully indexing the pages to ensure I could return to the subject at a later date.

Nonsense.

I chuck most of that stuff into Google Keep as, nine times out of ten, the note-taking device I have on me is my phone. So most of my thought-vomit is aimed there, where it is (hopefully) searchable later.

So the notebook is a bit more intentional. I take it places. I have rudimentary sections: short wave radio logs; website mock-ups and admin work logs; diary entries, work timetables and to-do lists; opening pages of unfinished (unstarted!) book projects; sketches of imaginary photo book and magazine spreads. And so on. I can flip through it and see little snippets of ideas that never came to be, or concepts that still bubble around in my head from time to time, slowly gathering momentum. Or I can see, almost word-for-word, the introduction to the first edition of my book on Charles Paget Wade that I scribbled down one coffee-fuelled morning.

And here I am, some four or five years on and I am coming to the end of this one. I didn’t date the opening pages, but not far in there’s a diary entry from January 2016. It has held together beautifully, has travelled well, and has even permitted me to tear pages out occasionally to act as quick notelets. I suppose it’s odd that it’s taken me that long to use 150 pages. But it’s been there when I needed it. And I am very glad WHSmith still sells the same model. Especially so as I was able to see old and new side by side, and see how the years have taken their toll on the first one, as well as how neat and tidy and fresh the new one looks.

What adventures we may have. I can’t wait to see what the new one ends up containing.

George Clarke’s National Trust Unlocked

George Clarke’s National Trust Unlocked is a recent Channel 4 series that saw Clarke (and occasionally his dog) take advantage of the country’s state of lockdown by visiting an array of National Trust properties while they were closed to the public.

Clarke’s a very likeable host – he has somehow wormed his way into my TV viewing via various vaguely architecture-related shows, and his north-east lilt and passion for almost everything he sees or sets foot in is infectious and makes for very pleasant, easy viewing.

This series – which would ordinarily be of quite some interest to me on its own – was brought to my attention thanks to a Google Alert I have set up for mentions of Charles Paget Wade.

I wrote a book on Wade, see, and it’s fun to learn when that book gets mentioned (rarely; usually just bot-led ebook piracy websites) or just Wade in general (of late, mainly his family’s connection to the slave trade).

In reality, Wade doesn’t come up very often. He’s occasionally mentioned in guides to days out in Gloucestershire, or perhaps as the holder of a unique collection of this or that. But it was interesting to see a Daily Mail piece on Wade and his house Snowshill Manor that he spent thirty years filling with stuff.

And why was the Mail talking about Wade? The episode of National Trust Unlocked that aired the previous night had featured Snowshill and its one-time owner.

Wade lived in London from 1906 to about 1919, during which time he worked under Parker and Unwin as an architect and illustrator supporting the new Hampstead Garden Suburb development. When he had done all he was really able to under that umbrella (as well as becoming obscenely rich following the death of his father), he branched out into more illustration projects until the First World War interrupted things. Towards the end of the War he spotted an advert for Snowshill in Country Life magazine and vowed to buy it if it should still be available on his return from the front.

It was, and he did.

He then spent the next few years restoring the buildings, and having the gardens laid out by M.H. Baillie Scott, before moving his already-vast collection of crafts, furniture and…stuff… into the house, and then opening the place up to visitors. Visitors who, as the TV show explains, Wade would lead around the shadowy corners of the house, before nipping into literal secret passages where he would don a theatrical outfit and re-appear somewhere else, making his guests feel even more certain that Snowshill was inhabited by ghosts.

It was really nice seeing the curator at Snowshill tell Clarke about Wade and his collection. It felt somewhat eerie watching someone else talk about something I have decided to become a sort of small-time expert on. Of course the Snowshill staff and curators are Wade experts, but I haven’t been to Snowshill for nearly a decade, and I don’t often find myself in conversations where I’m not the one who happens to know the most about Wade. It’s not that I’m possessive over him – I literally wrote a book about the man in hopes I can tell the world about this fascinating character! – but it’s always a funny feeling when you hear about something close to your heart discussed on TV or in a book.

Anyway, I can thoroughly recommend this episode of National Trust Unlocked, and the whole series seems to just be extremely nice viewing. It’s George Clarke poking around deserted National Trust properties, being delighted at absolutely everything he finds. It’s like a lovely warm, comforting blanket.

There’s a detailed breakdown of the National Trust properties featured in each episode on the National Trust website and the whole series is now available on All4.