Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The art of worry.. Or how I came to stop worrying and love Mark Rothko.

To the worried in an art gallery.

Look at me, an experienced clinician and communicator sitting poised, fingers hovering, not knowing where to start. I know what I want to say but there's something almost tangible holding me back.

That last sentence caused me to pause for a full minute.

There. I made coffee.

It's worry that makes me hesitate. See? There's no flow. because, it seems disproportionately worrying that I maintain standards. That the reader can access my thoughts via my style. That my thoughts are accurately translated onto the screen.

Worry goes both ways though. Whilst I worry that this may be coming across as rambling nonsense, you, the reader worry that it may maintain this level of solipsism, that I may stay with my train of thought meandering through well trodden vistas without becoming something interesting.

Here's something interesting.

We go to an art gallery to see art. We go to a big building either commissioned in the last couple of centuries to reflect the importance of a private benefactor or more recently, designed to enhance the intellectual experience of looking at art. In a room full of other people. Who are worrying that they might not get it either.

I am writing to invite you to stop worrying about whether or not a picture is accessible to you, whether or not it means something. Rather, to approach the whole issue differently.

Here are a couple of pictures. Scenes of rural living taken from around and about my house in Northumberland.

An oddly composed picture of a familiar medieval bridge over the Coquet.
 An almost abstract picture that invites the viewer to enjoy the atmosphere rather than the detail.
Similarly, the unexpectedly placed cloud offers interest beyond the composition.

Poppies by Monet
Poppies by me

The first three images are (pardon my conceit) pleasant enough  due to their balance, tonal palette or dissonance. The last two are enjoyable because we recognise that Claude Monet made a pretty good job of representing something we can capture in a 250th of a second and value as 'Art'. Except he didn't. He did far more than that. I know which one I would prefer to live with and, if you give a second or two to look at the differences, I suspect most people would agree.
We prefer to enjoy other people's art when it adds their own experience to a shared vision. Deciding just how Monet imbued his figures with their respective qualities of innocence and experience is not easy to quantify. knowing he did is sufficient. He understood this, as did the other Impressionists. He asks the viewer to join him and to add their own feelings to the picture. In seeing a Monet you can almost watch him painting it. 

Artists Look then they See. So that we can too.

Three years ago, I visited the Tate on the South Bank for the first time in many years. I was a blase, seasoned gallery drifter who had studied Art and felt right at home in my critical skin. I was happy that, if asked, I could give a little information on most of the works on show. But I had forgotten, somewhere down the line and over the years, how to be still and see.

Turning a corner, past two contrasting Jackson Pollock pictures (Pre and post sobriety), I almost literally stumbled into Mark Rothko. Something held my look. I had been familiar with this painting pretty well all my life but suddenly, I was moved to actually spend less time wondering what he was all about. In the process I was moved to tears. I disn't move for fully ten minutes.

Over the following few days, it became almost blindingly obvious what had occurred in the Tate that had not been given rein previously.

We are used to enjoying colour fields and pleasing geometry in everyday living. The juxtaposition of Yellow and Blue in a Rape field/ Blue sky composition is a universal cause for celebration. Especially when enhanced by a skylark's song, the smell of Hawthorn or the sun-warmed Rape flowers and a light breeze. What we reduce the whole to however, are the two huge areas of primary colour.

If you look beyond the surface of a Rothko painting, beyond the initial impression of simple slabs of colour, the layers and glazes of paint become apparent. His attention to where the essence of his work bleeds out into the world we share with him, via the edges of the paintings is a new cause for astonishment. Not because the viewer is made demands of but more simply because we all have limits. Some of us hide those limits and present a variety of facades and frames to make our fragile and scary personae more universally palatable. (Were we to openly wear our hearts at all times it would get messy very quickly!)

We all worry. Rothko used to worry me. Not any more. He astonishes me now. If only because it is immediately as well as gradually evident just how much effort and care went into his works. That alone touches us and bridges the generational gap between us. Within that effort was the expression of such power and vulnerability, accessible to anyone who takes a little bit of time to ignore their first impression. These could not be painted by a child.
They do ask us all to try to be a little more child-like however.

I am very pleased to have made this acquaintance after all these years. Even if my renewed encounter was blurred by tears.


Friday, 19 April 2013

Google Glass is nearly here. The small, lightweight cloud driven portal to alternative reality is just around the corner. A corner that, in the very near future could be defined by you, to a pattern created by you or as a surprise in a world you purchase or borrow.

Moores Law is becoming visibly influential on our lives. For many years, the growth of the transistor market has been measured by us end users by how small the next stereo system or how flat our TV.. The enticing world of invisible computer power has been frustratingly out of reach. Until soon.

Google are masters of marketing. For months, I waited to see if my application for a Gmail address would be accepted. I gradually started tidying up my Yahoo and Hotmail accounts and abandoned 'Stand alone' email providers altogether. I was being encouraged to see my future relationship with the computer on my desk as being dependent on remote servers, benignly linked for my convenience and there to service my every need. Google had me. Even when the doomed 'Wave' came and went and as I see G+ as less and less relevant, I stick with them. I now rely on Google invisibly stitching the elements of my web presence together seamlessly. Clones of familiar programs in Google Drive raking up the loose leaves of my Word, Exel and Powerpoint and offering them back with little fuss. Google and I are happy to be co owners of the processors I have bought. The key word is trust.

I have spent years wondering why this is. How this relationship has been allowed to come about. Whether or not I have been deluding myself, I have come to the conclusion that Google are the closest thing to an analogue version of my own inquiry. They sit happily gathering information about me as I shamelessly relinquish my ability to pick up a book and lazily plunder their search engines. I do so however, feeling as if I am somehow engaged in a partnership. A partnership forged by exploration.

It is comforting to see some of my flimsy forecasts come to reality as they are gradually realised by industry. Over time, I have enjoyed daydreaming in a Clarkeian fashion. His 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic', has been a great 'Get out of jail free' card as I have dreamed of music storage with no moving parts. Of TV screens of higher and higher resolution and cardboard thinness. (I would like to add a long held prediction that the ultimate goal for television resolution will come when a mirror portrayed on screen will actually reflect an image of the observer outside it). Computers that become ubiquitous and indispensable. Most of all, my musings have landed most frequently on Reality Augmentation.

Imagine a world where one may hold a device up to frame it. Labels and information overlaying landmarks or shops as you walk. Adverts and easy directions offered, inviting you to visit or merely educating you as you amble about. This is already here. My Nokia and any Smartphone will now offer City Lens or equivalent, adjusting detail as you go and combining advertising with GPS. No need to ask a local. We are all locals now.

Gaming will be next. Our world is made of shapes. Shapes that are easily located in space and time by existing technology. Overlaying those shapes will become the norm. True 'Holodeck' 3D imagary will not be quick in coming, but Reconstruction will be here very soon. A bus may become anything large and trundling. Mammoths will face rebirth. A lamppost? a tree, or the corner location of a building retrieved from elsewhere. Existing Multiplayer adventures will be experienced in the real world. Ordinary pedestrians woven into the narratives we choose as Non Playing Characters. The future is fraught with hilarious accident. If we're lucky.

The equipment, as offered by Google is small and neat. But that is what they said about the first industrially viable computers. (Please see previous post, here). It would seem reasonable to expect this magic to become gradually indistinguishable from our own design. The processors further miniaturised and floating displays generated using our own corneal tissues. Unfortunately, someone in a cushion strewn R and D office in the Apple complex will come up with The 'i-Eye' and a new logo will appear.

It even has a purpose built touch tablet stylus. How convenient is that?

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Determination and change. (Part 2)

Recipes, like any stories, are subject to variation in and of the telling. I record these efforts at substitution so as not to forget the basic principles. It would be useful to think that this is the setting of an intention in amber. Hence my choice of a 60's style for the picture elements. Umbers, ochres and caramels are comfort colours. Suited to the need for the assurance of end of austerity when first employed, This palette a reminder of softer times. Packed with oils and greases and sugars, my mother's recipe books were as warming as the Raeburn stove they curled upon. Here's to the spirits of Marguerita Patten, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson.

So, intent on removing as many lipids as possible, I set about exploring covered frying. During the process of change, My utensil drawer has rearranged itself. Ironically, I no longer avoid the frying pans and wok. I fry more but 'Fry' less as it were.
Similarly, my initial attempts at releasing flavour were helped along by my continued dependence on oil. Gradually, I have relinquished my grip on 1-Cal Spray. It still remains a useful adjunct but I use far less now. I am confident that, if tested by Sainsburys, many of my dishes would be marketed as 'Fat Free'.
It is, for example, easy to arrive at 'Fried Onions' (I tend to use Shallots as they are some of the more successful survivors of the dreadful summer) using only tiny additions of water as the vegetables sweat.

The absence of the almost immediate caramelisation that arises from frying in oil allows for the slower, more deliberate tempering of flavours through careful use of the liquids and sugars already locked into vegetables themselves. Here, I have used the onions with peppers and herbs as a base for Paprika Chicken.

Skinning the Shallots is best done warm. I pour boiling water onto them and allow to cool to benign temperature before cutting off the root end and slipping the flesh out of the skins. This is a very satisfactory exercise. Each onion pops out with a small leaf end intact. No cutting required. No tears.

The onions then go into a warm saute pan or frying pan with lid and given an occasional shake over moderate heat. At the first hint of hissing and whiff of onion, I add a small quantity of water. Only a tablespoon or so. This will disappear quickly but, as it does so, it starts the process of self steaming/ sauteing that will continue to caramelisation in time.

As the onions take on a little colour, I add more liquid in the form of any additional veg you may want to incorporate. Here, Red Peppers cut into strips. The lid goes back on and confidence increases. Still no spray required.

Soon, the dish is complete. This, with the addition of fresh herbs, salt and pepper is an excellent accompaniment to whatever.

I went on to reduce it further in this instance. Continue cooking until the onions are soft. The peppers will long since have given up the ghost. Add dried herbs towards the end of this process and slosh in a tin of tomatoes. Tomato puree will thicken even more but it also lends acidity so, unless this is tempered by a fruit I am careful with it. Stir over low heat until roughly smooth.

Chicken breasts, skin removed are placed in a bag with a tablespoon or so of Paprika, a teaspoon of Chilli and a pinch of salt. Shake well and leave to absorb for a few minutes. Here, a choice. Either a quick spray of oil onto a grill pan or the use of the mighty Mushroom (more of his later). Here, I used oil but again, keeping the heat down, the chicken browns and cooks without fuss. You are left with no oil to drain and all flavour intact.

I serve this with plain boiled rice.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Donald McKechnie

Donald belonged in tar.
Black brown wellington top boots
with boot socks, grimed round and
welded to his once dress trousers
tied with twine. Brown baler twine.
He rolled from boot to boot, a shovel
shouldered as a boy's carved rifle good
for nothing more than propping as he cut twist.
I swear his right the thicker wrist
a knife with a curved blade blunt from all the
pigtail shag. He turned his hand
Plugging a gap in pegged teeth.
Donald walked. A roll and twist and halt in left or right
He mended holes in roads with grit left by the lorry boys.
One good eye and that eye not good enough
he turned his look to look at me,
A look from straight beneath the hill. A look that curdled sunlight.
'Now, it is yourself' he'd spit.
'Here, try this now, it's just like liquorice'.

Determination and change (Part 1)

As years advance, I have found a gradual increase in the frequency of monitoring offered by my local Gp services.

Once content to sit and wait for my occasional panicky visits or pleas for compassionate sick notes, they now reach out to me. They have me on alerts for BP monitoring, Peak Flow checks and wellness MOTs for men. There is no escape from my external conscience. I should know. I used to be part of that myself. Issuing offers of health checks to the unwilling. following up with reminders that felt as paternalistic as they did patronising. All the while I was pretty pleased to be contributing to the smooth running of a few people, even as they resisted our attempts to help.

So, I determined to reduce the level of contact. Active health care provision works. I look after myself better in order to minimise contact with my health care team. If this is arse forwards, so be it. I well remember selling sessions on good eating habits to the homeless by suggesting that they may benefit from my future absence as they replace me with a few vegetables. A pitiful 'Five a Day' as I recall.

Being prone to 'Falling to flesh' is a curse for a Bon Viveur. I am a classic Yo-yo dieter, small successes rewarded by 'Holidays' or 'Rewards' leading to further lapses, as resolve takes a nosedive. This time round, I have made some more logical, selfish decisions. No longer willing to engage myself in a familiar conflict between hunger and seemingly unattainable goals there should be no hunger and there should be no discernible goals (plural). Weight loss should be a constant pleasure rather than a chore. Meals must be shareable with those unconcerned by calorie control. There should be no immediate evidence that food is being manipulated into being inoffensive. Taste and substance should be all.

It helps that one of my principle pleasures is in the cooking and serving of food. It would be terrible to embark on this exercise if I had to learn to love the kitchen. Thankfully, experimentation and good teaching have left a rich legacy of cheerful enthusiasm. Musing on this, I found myself recalling early influences. My mother's utter abandon where butter was concerned as well as her unconventionally forward thinking health conscious approach. She was hopeless with chips but understood dairy as if it were hard wired into her arteries. 'Never cook vegetables in more water than you wash them in' and 'Don't worry, I'll sling some Lurpack into it' were her mantras. Conversely, her easy attitude to children's likes and dislikes encouraged my pocket money purchase of frozen peas or mixed vegetables instead of sweets and I was weaned on adult leftovers. Broccoli and Broad Beans were family members. Nothing was out of bounds, singly or in combination. I could bake bread by the time I was tall enough to knead and was happiest with a recipe book propped up as I ate breakfast.

There were few around to comment or criticise, (this came sharply to the fore later, when at senior school and suddenly talking an alien language to other hungry boarders in the small hours, of which more in a separate entry) our meals would certainly have been considered 'exotic' or 'different'. My father too, ventured worldwide for inspiration. Fried eggs came laced with garlic and vinegar, finished with nut brown butter and flipped happily onto tomato sauce puddles as Huevos en Salsa Negra. Curries offered just this side of tolerably hot to the juvenile tongue. Soups served with a substantial handful of porridge oats. Lentils and herbs as a main course. This was home cooking. All the while, 1960's school dinners and friends teatime invites were pretty mundane stuff. Some a blessed, bland relief but most, an unfinished work in progress, halted at 'Boil' or 'Fry' and served with duty not with pleasure.

This was all very well as a foundation for culinary adventure but not great for this boy as he approaches late middle age with a drawer full of trousers that fail to meet themselves around the way. This joyful exuberance must be replaced with a bit of science but no less risk. Ways round must be found. I had to reinvent my systems and forget the fats.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Simply saying..

In an interview on Revelation TV, Professor Dawkins is invited to comment on the presenting pastor's own moment of revelation.

He describes a variety of somatic phenomena including, hypersensitivity to colours and sounds, an impression of invulnerability in combination with insignificance and euphoria. These are apparently his principle reasons for belief in God.
Whilst always having been a Christian, he chose his professional pathway at this point.
In countering Dawkins' gentle suggestion that there may be more than one explanation for these issues, none of which need be paranormal, the pastor responds;

'I am just a simple man Richard.. Not an Intellectual like yourself'.

More in the spirit of a rant than a blog entry I must address this pastor and all others I have heard make such ill considered statements. Claiming 'Simplicity' has no virtue. We are all 'Simple men', the more for taking a reasoned approach when discussing such matters.

A step by step, evidenced based enquiry is a much simpler process than fitting a God into the gaps in your knowledge. I have no need of a god since the gaps I have in my understanding are simply filled by learning.

 How refreshing it is to sometimes stumble upon believers who are willing to consider alternatives to magical thinking and assumption. They exist in numbers. Their variety as great as any philosophically minded people.

We share the potential for intellectual inquiry, please try not to substitute assumption for understanding.  Education is not scary when you open your mind and religion is no substitute for intellect and cultural experience. No need to fear. Celebrate your cerebral self!

Saturday, 5 May 2012


Those who follow my Twitter feed will by now be fed up to the molars with posts about my conversions. Apologies to you all..
In a similar vein to the Woodstore from a Packing Crate post, I include Pallet to Table. Our house is now surrounded and perfused by the reclaimed. I make no apology for this.

I was enthused about this conversion, to the extent that I didn't stop to think about a 'step by step' Photo Story. Rest assured, the beat up character of the table ably reflects the beat up nature of the source materials. I hardly had to make any mistakes at all!