Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Category Archives: 101 unrealised projects

Fear and loathing at the local archives

The doors to the Archives:
Abandon Hope all ye who Enter Here

Even before the doors of the Archives are open, we’re all there, stood awkwardly outside with our mini-rucksacks and folders. Some of us appear critically infirm. One or two clearly wish to be considered by the world as characters, and have invested considerable effort in cultivating discreet but assertive eccentricities of dress or manner. Others, oblivious to anything outside the focus of their pet projects, betray in their behaviour that narrowed spatial awareness of the selfish elderly. Nearly all of us have white hair, or no hair at all.

Well, it’s a cheap day out: an oldie’s bus pass takes us from the Park and Ride, and we bring our flasks and a cheese sandwich for a lunchtime break. On the stroke of ten we file in, though we are not at all relaxed about it; there is an edginess in the air, a concealed, competitive panic in our movements as we claim our lockers, sign the sheet and jostle politely to book in with the archivist at the counter. This politeness is the tense, superficial, survivalist formality of a dying person sucking milk through a straw. Our urgency is the hurry of mortality; few of us seem much under seventy five, and we are single-mindedly anxious to pin down definitively our family histories before we ourselves become just another small part of them. We need to know who we are, before we become no one. And when the last ancestor is pinned to the tree, then we may close our eyes and sleep beneath it, as we deserve. Not that I am here to research my own genealogy, which puts me in a clear minority in this company. (As a matter of fact, I am studying the local military history of the period of the Napoleonic wars, though that is beside the point, and unlikely to interest you.)

On my way to the secure door of the reading room, I peel off a number of my fellow researchers who, with practised urgency, hunch down busily over microfilm readers, winding on their chosen reels with clear desperation. They peer over their glasses at the screens, eyes narrowed and teeth bared in rictus sneers of concentration. Already, a couple of them have accosted the archivist, whom they attempt to involve in the dead ends of their researches into the dead, concerning which they provide unnecessarily lengthy detail. The job of an archivist is demanding; listening skills are clearly a key qualification. The aged speechifiers do not seek solutions, though. Rather, they demand affirmation, a sign of solidarity, an indication that a fellow human being may be properly interested in the minutiae that have overwhelmed their own diminishing attention span.

In the reading room I claim my pre-ordered documents, and sharpen a pencil while the assistant unboxes them. When they arrive, it appears that there is a problem. As this deposit has never been fully catalogued, its numbers refer to bundles rather than to individual documents, and some of the bundles bear no numbers. The archivist and I try unsuccessfully to reconcile the unidentified bundles with the leather bound typescript catalogue that is supposed to reference them. I sense that I also am beginning to speechify, so I compromise graciously, and forego some bundles, which in any case appear to be worryingly fragile. The archivist is nervous about material like this being issued to tables. I suspect that she would prefer to ensure its preservation at all costs, even if this means that no-one ever reads it. Ever. But what if one of the untouchable bundles contains evidence that is key to my lines of enquiry?

Ancestral angst in the reading room

And the relation between those lines is problematic. It all begins with the catalogue system, and that is not coherent. A new searchable database does exist, but there is much material that it does not yet contain, and may never catch up with. Beyond that we must have recourse to the long shelves of old bound volumes, into which, between the wars, anaemic and bespectacled clerks attempted to list in numerical order the essentials of many thousands of pieces of faded paper, most of which have never been scrutinised since. These volumes are neither uniform nor consistent in their organisation or purpose, and there are suspicious gaps in their coverage. So where is the catalogue of catalogues, the meta-catalogue? There have been several attempts to compile over-arching subject indices, but these were sketchy at the time of their compilation, and have been made inadequate by the arrival of new acquisitions. There is, it seems, no central comprehensive overview, no catalogue of the catalogues of catalogues.

In the volume I am attempting to use, a well thumbed slip, pasted onto the first page, offers a Gestetnered apology for chaos:

“This actual collection was deposited in several stages. Some basic sorting had been undertaken in advance of deposit and this process was initially continued after the material arrived. The listing and indexing of some sections was also begun while additional records were also received, some of the latter actually relating to the sections already listed. These factors have inhibited a comprehensive sort of the collection and its archival arrangement.”

I chew at my pencil, haunted by the suspicion that at unknown intervals in the locked vaults may be entombed richly illuminating jewels of information, unobtainable anywhere else, but unlisted or misidentified, and so forever beyond access. My study may never be complete. The notion of completeness is always an ideal that withdraws, like a doorway in a dream. I know that. And it seems that, once again, I will have to downgrade. But at what point does my “complete” plunge so far that it falls into absolute incompleteness, and becomes worthless?

And in any case, what am I eventually going to do with all these accumulated pads of scribbled notes? I haven’t quite decided. In my more aspirational moments I imagine that I will complete a substantial and definitive volume, exhaustively footnoted and handsomely illustrated. Self-published at considerable expense, admittedly, but at least I will proudly present copies to a delegation of grateful local historians, and my name will be immortalised on Google.

Right now I need to make a decision about which bundle of crumbling papers to ask for next, but the archivist seems to have slipped out for coffee, and her assistant has been engaged by an elderly man sporting a lifelong collection of lapel badges, a single bicycle clip and a fresh spot of morning toothpaste on his chin, who is in full flow with regard to the vexed issue of copyright on a  photograph of a demolished fire station.

Let’s face it – this isn’t going to happen.

[From 101 Unrealised Projects, a stubbornly incomplete work in suspended progress.]

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The failure of self-image

We all parade around with a picture inside our heads of how we think we look. It’s amusing to sit people-watching, and mind-read by decoding appearances, working backwards from the less impressive reality of the optimistic haircut and the too-young clothes. Amusing, that is, until you catch sight of yourself in the mirror …

The failure of self-image. We slip seamlessly from lamb to mutton, from Promethean to Quixotic, from the aspirational to the absurd.

On the other hand, it takes balls to wear skinny leggings, six inch heels and a plastic flower in your hair when you’re well over seventy, like the lady who has just walked into the supermarket café as I write. Respect, madam! Failures of self-image, we salute you! The absurd is always absurd, but it can take on a heroic dignity. At least we’re trying, even if our efforts fall short, as we know in our hearts that they will.

The gap between aspiration and absurdity: this is the space in which we all live.

(from 101 Unrealised Projects, a work possibly in progress)

Roundabout safari

Roundabouts. Small but perfect islands, still jewels set in hostile, rushing rivers of metal and tarmac noise. Islands of silence, uninhabited, unvisited. How often, as you have swept off at the second exit, cursing the poor lane management of the driver in front, while catching momentary, parting glimpses of your sidewards fellow voyagers, each, like yourself, tight lipped and frozen darkly behind glass – how often have you not longed to explore, at your leisure, the strange topography of that grassy Eden, planted with two silver birches, a few shrubs like tired mounds of pubic hair, and a small placard sponsored by a local haulier – a topography of which you have been aware, as of an unsatisfactory vision in a dream, only from the corner of your eye?

Cease your motion, says the vision. Stop a while. Visit me. Find refuge here.

But there are no visitors. These are deserted islands. Cousins, in fact, to the desert islands in that peculiar genre of single column, quick gag cartoons, now probably encountered only in the cartoon museum, that are set on gentle, circular mounds with a single palm tree, against the horizon of a sea that is featureless, save for the occasional circling shark fin. But cartoon islands sustain, miraculously, two or three shipwrecked characters. (Seated woman glowering at edge of island, her back to standing man who leans casually against the palm tree as he addresses second woman: “My wife thinks I’m having an affair.”) So where are the Robinson Crusoes of our roundabouts, the astronauts who will land upon these inverted craters? Where are the actors to create situations in these open air theatres in the round, these amphitheatres of turf?

Their absence has been noted. The official mind has considered the emptiness of these spaces and has logged it as a source of social anxiety. And it has offered an improving solution: roundabout sculpture. As a genre, this has been properly neglected by the critics. It is produced, like much civic outdoor art, by artists you have never heard of, usually references some local industrial heritage in which the community is to be encouraged to take pride now that it is long and entirely gone, and is often financed by a distant European Union fund. As art pops up across the panoramas of the planning departments, our roundabouts now sprout industrial abstractions, spangled Pegasi, or rusting piles of steel that resemble abandoned rockets. Most of this is regrettable. None of it begins to compensate for the human absence.

For three decades until his death from pneumonia in 2007 at the age of 86, Josef Stawinoga, generally known as “Fred the Ring Road Tramp”, lived under canvas on a stretch of the grassy central reservation of the Wolverhampton ring road, where he busied himself each day sweeping up the leaves into neat piles under the overlooking trees. There are some interesting aspects to his story, not least his veneration as a holy man by the local Hindu and Sikh communities, and the urban legends that attached to him – had he been a guard in Hitler’s SS? Did he really have a huge stash of untouched pension money? And so on. But the essential point here is that Fred had colonised, if not a roundabout, at least a sizeable piece of virgin urban no man’s land, untrodden by any human boot since that of the engineers and landscapers who laid it out, and had claimed it as his habitation.

That this was setting a dangerous precedent was recognised shortly after Fred’s funeral by District Judge Shamim Quereshi, in imposing an exclusion order on Christopher Phillips, aged 26, who had been living in a tent on another section of the ring road with his partner whom he had assaulted while drunk and disorderly. Judge Quereshi defined the limit of the exclusion order as the outer edge of the road. “This is not going to be a tented ring road for people who have nowhere else to live,” he declared. “Only one tramp was allowed to do that, and he is now dead.” He added helpfully: “This will effectively make you homeless but you are homeless anyway.”

But these are only the pioneers, the first to hear the call of the last wild places on earth. Our roundabouts demand their explorers, their settlers, their dramatis personae. Had I the time, energy and sponsorship (which I have not), I would take steps immediately to organise a well equipped and substantial expedition, that would traverse England by foot from Newquay to Norfolk, planting its tents on each roundabout within its route. Photos would evidence these small triumphs, an enormously popular blog would record the team’s progress, and documentary rights would be sold to Channel Four.

So be brave, my imaginary crew, and take back the roundabouts of Albion! Carve your pathway through the mosaic of KFC wrappers and cracked plastic wheel trim, the flotsam and jetsam of a tired civilisation that decorate the outer shores of the chosen ground that will host your tents. Ascend the gentle but significant dome of turf that marks this as a real place, a locus that requires your genius – your mound, your castle, your keep, your finders keepers. Brush apart the corporate daffodils and plant firmly at their centre the flag of your new republic. The world will applaud.

(from 101 Unrealised Projects, a work still in progress)

Slackerdom

The school at which I work boasts a Student News Broadcast (SNB) group. Its remit is to put together some little news films, or, failing that, at least to produce the occasional newsletter. It has been running for almost two years, and so far has managed neither. The sixth formers in charge admit that they have “underestimated” the time and skill needed to translate their great ideas –which have been legion – into any kind of outcome. This hasn’t prevented them from entering their SNB responsibilities prominently in their CV’s for Uni application.

I blame Thinking Skills. De Bono (that’s Edward, not U2) and his coloured thinking hats, that sort of stuff. Our school promoted it for a while. Kids were given the impression that all they needed to do to succeed in life was fill in a bubble map with great ideas. After a year or two, our enthusiasm for thinking skills dwindled, and the initiative, like so many others, was long forgotten before it ever amounted to much. (Or, in education-speak, it was “embedded in the curriculum”.) But in the process, the kids all turned slackers. I set a treasure hunt for my form one summer when they were bored. Some were non-plussed by the notion that you had to go somewhere physically to look for the answers. They felt they should be able to do it by sitting in the classroom and staring at the clues on the paper.

The Boy Blagger, his smart new MacBook under one arm (though he has nothing worthwhile to show on it), is the heroic type of the slacker culture. In a world of spectacle where all that was once directly lived has receded into representation, he knows that appearances count for everything, and that his own are probably in his favour. Educators and government have told him that he can become anything he wants to be, provided he believes in himself sufficiently. He has no use for results. He has ideas.

(from 101 Unrealised Projects, a work in progress)