Bricks

On June 30, 2013, in Art, by Luke McKernan

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I was wandering past some of the unlovely new homes being built on the Rochester riverfront with their regimented, office-like brick walls, and the idea of a post on bricks came to mind. I thought of the many kinds of beautiful bricks walls, from Jacobean to modern times, that can be found in this town. I thought of bricks in painting, in sculpture (Carl Andre’s notorious Equivalent VIII that confirmed the anti-modern art prejudices of a generation), in literature, in nursery tales (The Three Little Pigs) and in music (The Diagram Brothers’ 1981 classic ‘Bricks’). I thought of bricks as toys and the phenomenal success – culturally and commercially – of Lego; I thought of the wonder that is animated Lego, or brickfilms. I thought of bricks in films (such as the hero of The Village of the Damned keeping out the psychic powers of children by thinking of a brick wall) and television (he opening credit sequence of Coronation Street). I thought of the art of brickmaking, and the art of bricklaying.

And what argument emerged? Nothing. I thought there might be something to be construed about the ordering of bricks and some forms of art, but if there is such an argument to be made, I’m just not interested enough to expend any effort on it. But, having spent a curious afternoon photographing bricks (doubtless puzzling several passers-by), here at least are the illustrations to the post, which is probably much the better for having lost its words. Instead, let us simply contemplate the strange beauty of bricks.

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You’ve never heard anything like it

On June 15, 2013, in Music, by Luke McKernan

Time to return to the modest indulgence of reviving musical obscurities from the punk and new wave era which can can be found on YouTube and not really anywhere else. Previous posts, Where’s the New Wave now? and It was easy, it was cheap – go and do it, have revived happy personal memories of the Cybermen, the Golinski Brothers, Epic Soundtracks, Liliput, the Desperate Bicycles and others whose passion for the liberating ethos of the new wave still rings out even if fate has condemned them to obscurity. So I dug out my box of 45s, leafed through making notes of records I could no longer remember the reason for buying, and others whose tunes automatically leapt out at me the moment I saw that familiar sleeve once more. And then I went hunting for them on YouTube.

First up The Freshmen. They came from Ireland, and were as far away from the genuine New Wave as you might imagine. They were formed back in 1962, and were a showband, specialising in covers which they played up and down the land in ballrooms and the like. They had assorted hits in Ireland, and were commemorated on a set of Irish stamps in 2000. As their final record in 1979, they released ‘You’ve never heard anything like it’, a sing-a-long parody of punk rock. Cringe-making? Anything but. The magnificence of the rousing chorus raises the song above its mocking intentions into something approaching greatness, not unlike Plastic Betrand’s similarly-intentioned ‘Ça plane pour moi’. Probably it would have been squirm-inducing to watch, but with the music alone – and a striking sleeve – it is joyous.

The Moondogs were Derry’s second finest, a power pop trio who actually had their own TV series for a while (Moondog Matinee, made for Granada). They spent a lot of time as the support act for Derry’s prime musical export, The Undertones, but never quite hit the big time. ‘Who’s Gonna Tell Mary?’ dates from 1980 and you couldn’t hope for a better pop record – professional, but completely sincere, from a time when pop somehow mattered.

I had completely forgotten about Ludus until I came across this number, ‘My Cherry is in Sherry’, among that box of 45s, but I can see why I bought it. It’s a sparky, inventive and continually surprising piece of deconstructive post-punk, which starts off reasonably conventionally with the angular guitar style so common back in 1980, but then goes off at wild tangent after wild tangent. They hailed from Manchester, and were headed by Linder [sic] Sterling (famed for having once dressed for a concert in a dress of red meat, decades before Lady Gaga). Morrisey is a great fan of theirs.

The New Wave era coincided with, or incorporated, the ska revival, from which we got Madness, The Specials, UB40 and so forth. But there were plenty of British ska bands who tried but never quite made an impression on the charts. Take The Same, for instance. ‘Movements’ dates from 1980, and it’s a gem – delicate, tuneful, danceable. I know little about the band, except they seem to have come from the Brighton area and were part of the Mod revival of those times.

OK this one was an alternative chart hit at the time (1979) and its cult fame has endured, but the relatively low number of hits on YouTube suggests it is not appreciated as much as it should be. The great thing about Spizzenergi were the band’s name changes. Led by Kenneth Spiers (Spizz), they changed their name every year, which can’t have helped the marketing, but did give us Spizzoil, Spizzenergi, Athletico Spizz 80, The Spizzles, and the disappointingly unimaginative Spizzenergi 2. ‘Where’s Captain Kirk?’ doesn’t just have a gimmicky theme – it’s a really musically inventive number, with a tune slyly adapted from the TV series theme tune and more twists and turns in its structure than the programme ever managed.

The Prefects hailed from Birmingham and were led by Robert Lloyd, who went on to form The Nightingales, a firm John Peel favourite. Their one single, ‘Going Through the Motions’, was released on Rough Trade in 1979 after the band had broken up, and is just magnificent. The hyped-up rock opening makes you think you are going to listen to a standard upbeat rocker, but the beat slows down to a menacing trudge, guitars jangle menacingly and a rasping saxophone plays in the background. Of its time, yet unlike anything else, a great anti-song and a great record.

More overlooked ska, from The Outline, with the single ‘I like bluebeat’ (1980). The release of this was a bit of an oddity, as the other side has a different recording of the track by the same band under a different name, Cairo. The latter is a bit over-produced for my taste, but either way it’s irresistibly catchy, with a sweet chorus (‘I like b-l-u-e-b-e-a-t, I like bluebeat’). Apparently two versions of the same song on the same record by ostensibly different groups did not sales, which doesn’t come as a surprise. Bluebeat was a pre-reggae variant of ska.

Eyeless in Gaza were a duo, Martyn Bates and Peter Becker, who hailed from Nuneaton. They produced tastefully anguished electronica, like a bohemian folk Soft Cell. Their records came with beautiful black-and-white photography. They have maintained a small but enthusiastic cult since the 1980s, and ‘Invisibility’, their second single I think (from 1981), is their finest moment. It builds up gradually, with a falling melody behind somewhat mannered vocals that some how turns into something beautiful, as the music richens and the vocals reveal real feeling. A poem of a piece.

Who were The Paranoids? I have an idea of them being a small-time band who turned up in a studio in 1979, when a producer a sensed a hit from a poppy tune they were rehearsing. Said producer threw in the works, with strings, background singers and big beat production, and told them they were going to have a number one. It didn’t happen. In an alternate universe this is the song that everyone sung through the summer of ’79 and now turns up on the soundtrack of every nostalgic TV programme. But in this universe it didn’t happen. Perhaps it was the stupid music sleeve that condemned it.

Talking of classics that never got their chance to become classics, here’s Cowboys International and their single ‘Today’ from 1980. Strictly speaking they were a person rather than a band, Ken Lockie, who lingered on the fringes of being big (Terry Chimes and Keith Levene played in the group for a while) without it ever happening for them. This restrained epic pop song has lingered in my mind for thirty years, with its yearning sense of having caught the temper of the times. Unfortunately the version on YouTube comes with someone’s DIY video rather than the record sleeve (and I never managed to track down a copy at the time), but just close your eyes and listen to yesterday’s today.

Update: The other posts in this musical series are:

 

I remember # 3

On June 13, 2013, in I remember, by Luke McKernan

60. I remember Persia.

61. I remember David Bedford lapping other long-distance runners, a mustachioed superman.

62. I remember deciding that when older I would fly in a plane, reach out to grab a piece of a cloud, and then report back to a grateful world what it was made of.

63. I remember florins.

64. I remember when the National Film Theatre put on an event showing people what the Internet looked like, and an audience paying to see it.

65. I remember pet rocks. I still have my pet rock (they weren’t just for Christmas).

66. I remember worrying about neutron bombs, which would destroy people but not buildings.

67. I remember Thunderbirds toys in cereal packets.

68. I remember string vests.

69. I remember Fad Gadget.

70. I remember being torn between shock and laughter at hearing the word ‘bloody’ in a Flanders and Swann song (A Song of the Weather).

71. I remember the Arsenal shirt my mother made for me with one white sleeve noticeably longer than the other, but with a no. 7 on the back so I could dream that I was George Armstrong.

72. I remember walking along the pavement reading a book which I literally could not put down.

73. I remember following Francis Chichester’s round-the-world sailing adventure on a map pinned to the classroom wall.

74. I remember Ayesha.

75. I remember a family holiday to Ireland, where I was told that there were forty shades of green, and trying to count them all.

76. I remember Teds v Punks.

77. I remember Fyfe Robertson.

78. I remember winning over friends at a new school by my ability to sing the comic Irish songs popularised by Val Doonican.

79. I remember Barbara Castle.

80. I remember reading a children’s novel which featured a man who could perform true magic coming to a town where ordinary magicians were meeting, and not being recognised for what he was. The poignancy of it has stayed with me for years. What was the story?

81. I remember dizzy Anne Aston.

82. I remember the Portsmouth Sinfonia.

83. I remember my first radio, and feeling that I somehow now owned the whole world.

84. I remember Action Men, and when they first acquired beards.

85. I remember The Impossibles, a Hanna-Barbera animated TV series featuring a pop group with unusual powers (I particularly admired the group member who had the ability to turn into water and thus slip under locked doors, which seemed to my young self to be a particularly valuable talent to possess).

86. I remember believing in Robin Hood.

87. I remember Gimme Dat Ding.

88. I remember scrambling.

 

Walking with Charles Dickens

On June 9, 2013, in Literature, People, Travel, by Luke McKernan

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The road between Cooling and High Halstow

My walking is of two kinds: one, straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace; one, objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond. In the latter state, no gipsy on earth is a greater vagabond than myself; it is so natural to me, and strong with me, that I think I must be the descendant, at no great distance, of some irreclaimable tramp.

Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller

I live in the heart of Charles Dickens territory. Rochester and the Medway towns are where Dickens grew up, where he returned to in prosperous middle age, and provide umpteen locations for scenes in his novels. Rochester revels in the association, with two annual festivals in which numerous vaguely Dickensian events are put on and many people dress up as Dickensian characters. The high street businesses alone bear witness to the Dickensian connection: they include Tiny Tim’s Tearooms, Fezziwig’s, Mr Tope’s, Ebenezer’s, Pips of Rochester, Sweet Expectations, and the inspired A Taste of Two Cities. In days past we have had Hard Times the antique shop, and – believe it or not – the Havisham Wedding Centre, which perhaps not surprisingly went out of business.

What with Dickens’ bicentenary last year I decided I needed to a bit more to acknowledge my Dickens surroundings, and decided that I would undertake a series of Dickens walks. Charles Dickens was a prodigious walker. Whether on his night walks through London, or tramping through the Kent countryside, Dickens clocked up a huge number of miles on foot. He is estimated to have walked twelve miles per day – Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Dickens, says that he habitually walked twelves miles in two-and-a-half hours, with just a five-minute break. That’s 4.8mph, which is at the upper limit of human walking speed (Dickens himself estimates that his average walking speech was 4 mph), and Dickens maintained this in all weathers. Dickens understood his passion for walking to be prodigious. In The Uncommercial Traveller, he writes:

So much of my travelling is done on foot, that if I cherished betting propensities, I should probably be found registered in sporting newspapers under some such title as the Elastic Novice, challenging all eleven stone mankind to competition in walking. My last special feat was turning out of bed at two, after a hard day, pedestrian and otherwise, and walking thirty miles into the country to breakfast.

Pedestrianism, or competitive walking, was popular in nineteenth-century Britain. Dickens made references to the renowned walker Captain Robert Barclay in his writings, and probably could have challenged the leading athletes of the time in endurance races. The thirty-mile feat probably refers to a famous walk he made when he escaped tensions at his London home, Tavistock House, and walked through the night to his Kent home, Gad’s Hill.

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Gad’s Hill, Higham in Kent, Charles Dickens’ home and now a school

Gad’s Hill is a forty-minute walk out of Rochester (or thirty minutes, if you were Dickens). The journey has probably lost a little of its poetry since the 1850s. Crossing Rochester bridge, he process up the hill through the unremittingly unpoetic Strood, then walk along the Gravesend Road, or the A226, then cross the busy A289 before you walk up Gad’s Hill itself to the relative quietness of the small town of Higham. Dickens made this journey frequently, and it is easy to imagine the less athletically inclined members of his family and visitors sighing as they were busied along on another visit to the main town and back, struggling to keep up as the great made strode ahead.

However, Dickens mostly walked alone. He did so because walking time was thinking time, or perhaps more accurately dreaming time. Whether walking purposefully or in vagabond style, as he classifies his walking habits in The Uncommercial Traveller, Dickens proceeded in a reverie, acutely attuned to the significance of his surroundings. G.K. Chesterton, in Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906), makes this remarkable judgment of the connection between Dickens’ writing and walking:

Herein is the whole secret of that eerie realism with which Dickens could always vitalize some dark or dull corner of London. There are details in the Dickens descriptions — a window, or a railing, or the keyhole of a door — which he endows with demoniac life. The things seem more actual than things really are. Indeed, that degree of realism does not exist in reality: it is the unbearable realism of a dream. And this kind of realism can only be gained by walking dreamily in a place; it cannot be gained by walking observantly.

It takes some sort of critical genius to understand Dickens’ walking not to be observant in the conventional sense, but an act of dreaming. He walked not to see things but to get the sense of them. Chesterton’s subtle observation is discussed in Rebecca Solnit’s excellent Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000). For Solnit, Dickens walked for multiple reasons: physical, metaphysical, investigative, vagabond. “I am both a town traveller and a country traveller, and am always on the road” he writes in The Uncommercial Traveller, his series of essays linked by the idea of walking, and there is there the sense of Dickens having always to walk, so that he was travelling in his mind wherever he might be, and being released into the act of walking became a necessary expression of his mind’s direction. And to understand Dickens we need to walk likewise, even if like his family and friends we may struggle to keep up.

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Courtesy of Bing Maps

I am more of an ambler than a walker, so my most recent Dickens-inspired walk took more than double the time the man himself would have expended. I walked from Rochester to Higham, then across the Hoo peninsula to Cooling, High Halstow, then down to Upnor and finally back to Rochester once more. The Hoo Peninsula is a sparsely-populated area of north Kent that juts out into the Thames estuary. It is familiar to Dickens’ readers as the marshland setting for the opening chapters on Great Expectations, and much of the area still retains that plain, bleak quality, particularly around the Northwood Hill National Nature Reserve. There are few houses, and much farmland, while heavy industry in the form of power stations, gravel works, and a container terminal occupies the edges, particularly around Cliffe and the Isle of Grain. It would have been stark territory indeed when Dickens walked.

I went from Higham a couple of miles north to St Mary’s church, Dickens’ parish church (I sensed how family members must have groaned on a Sunday and wished that either they or the church could have been a little nearer). The road gives up at this point, and I proceeded across fields, along little-used railways lines and past water-filled gravel pits, past Cliffe and onwards to Cooling, which was the main purpose of my journey. Cooling is a small strip of a village with the ruins of a privately-owned castle and St James’ church, which was a favourite Dickens picnic location (more groans from the footsore family). It’s an ancient, now disused (but handsomely maintained) church with a 13th century font and some 14th century pews. But its most famous feature is found in the graveyard – thirteen gravestones of the children of two families, known now at ‘Pip’s graves’.

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The thirteen children’s gravestones at St James’ church, Cooling, inspiration for the opening scene of Great Expectations

In Great Expectations, Pip describes seeing:

… five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine, — who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle …

Famously Dickens reduced the number from thirteen to five, so as not to stretch the credibility of his readers too far. But the thirteen gravestones are there in a row, even if they do derive from two families rather than one. The names are no longer readable, but they are of the Baker and Comport families, none of whom lived beyond the age of seventeen months, having died between 1771 and 1779. They may all have died of malaria (ague), no great surprise in a marshland area. I was there on a bright summer’s day, but one can readily imagine the scene in the greys of winter with a sharp wind coming in off the North Sea to feel that overpowering sense of time, place and consequence – “the unbearable realism of a dream” – that is the cornerstone of Dickens’ art.

To be at St James’ church is to feel that you are on the edge of nowhere. Though there were signs of human habitation, there were no humans, bar myself. The church, no longer functioning as a church, pays witness to lives lived on the margin, people whose lives came and went unnoticed. It is a place of minimal expectations. Yet those lives went on, and there is a powerful sense of a life on the margins being a life for all that, something which imbues the UK’s many used and disused (or redundant) churches, which makes their continued preservation so important. It is not the chancels, naves and pews that matter, though they have their value. It is the lives past that revolved around such buildings that are important. They make things more actual than things really are; they turn plain reality into reverie, and connect our lives to stories – such as Pip’s. Something of this Charles Dickens saw in Cooling, as he walked by, paused awhile, and then walked on.

I headed on to High Halstow, turned right down Dux Court Road, then past Deangate, Lower Upnor, Upnor, Strood and home again. And then wrote this.

Links:

 

Olympic view

On June 6, 2013, in Archives, Sport, by Luke McKernan

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Looking at the Olympic venues from the John Lewis viewing area

I was in Stratford, London, the other day and went for a nostalgic look at the Olympic Park. You’re not allowed into the Park, of course, and a perimeter fence ensures that you keep your distance, but if you got to the top of the John Lewis store at the Westfield shopping centre, they have created a viewing area from which you may survey the whole scene. Clearly there are others as nostalgic as myself for the heady days of London 2012, who sit on the benches provided and look out on times past.

The renamed Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is due to reopen on 27 July 2013, with concerts, sporting events, festivals and more all promised, though some elements of the grand plan won’t be completed until 2014. Looking at the work-in-progress as we have it, the main stadium (currently shorn of exterior stairs) will become the ground for West Ham United in 2016; the Aquatics Centre has lost those rather ugly wings that greatly expanded its seating capacity, and can now be appreciated for its harmonious beauty (and will be open for anyone keen for a swim); the Orbit still stands and will become a permanent visitor attraction; the Basketball Arena has gone (housing will be built in its place); the Copper Box still stands, due for use as a community sports centre; the water polo and hockey arenas have been dismantled; the BMX track remains but with its seating removed; and the Velodrome still stands proudly as anything that looks so like a Pringle is able to stand.

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Meanwhile workmen and women busy themselves, moving objects hither and thither to the dictates of that grand plan. A temporary showjumping stadium has been built near to the Aquatics Centre. It doesn’t look like everything is going to fall into place less than two months from now, but of course it will, and I’ll be joining the throngs of people milling through the place once more. Will we be there to remember what once was, or to witness what it has changed into? And what was I looking for, as I took my seat in the viewing area?

Simulated aerial view of what the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park will look like

I miss the Olympic Games, like a lost childhood. Everything just came together so perfectly. The pettiness of everyday concerns was completely overcome. It was two weeks of euphoria. Viewed coldly, it was just a public holiday with some sporting contests that few would think to follow in the normal course of events, put together at colossal expense for unclear economic value and dubious political advantage, all at the behest of a bizarre international institution with a far too elevated sense of itself. But none of that mattered – we were lifted above it all. That was what was so beautiful about it.

So I stared at the venues and tried to work out what it was that lay behind my doing so. I’m not especially nostalgic about things – the past is something from which the future is there to enable us to escape. But here it really hit me. I want to go back, and I can’t. I want to replay those times, and the memories are insufficient; the souvenirs, the articles, the webpages, the photos and the videos have become otherworldly, representative of themselves, not windows to recovering what went before. What remains is not what was. This is the sad fact behind archives, which is that fundamentally they say nothing true about the times that created them for those who were there, because they are not the life itself but its shadows. Yet for someone in the future those shadows can offer such a sense of the light that created them, if they have the imagination to appreciate it. The future may envy the experience of those who lived through past times, but the benefit is really with them. Those who were there have lost it all, and it will never return.

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Magic and metaphor

On June 3, 2013, in Art, Exhibitions, Video, by Luke McKernan

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I have been engrossed by Turner Prize-winning Jeremy Deller‘s video installation English Magic. Produced as part of, and as a synthesis of, his Venice Biennale exhibition of the same name, the British artist’s work is a playful and visually profound statement on the state of the nation (particularly the English nation). The video is a 14-minute piece in four sections linked by three pieces of music played by a steel orchestra whose performance frames the entire work. The four sections show birds of prey, vehicles being crushed, a ‘bouncy castle’ version of Stonehenge (an earlier Deller work), and the Lord Mayor of London’s parade, after which we return to the birds of prey. The three pieces of music are Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 5, third movement; ‘Voodoo Ray’ by A Guy Called Gerard; and David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.

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We begin by seeing the members of the Melodians Steel Orchestra setting up at Abbey Road studios. The conductor bids them to begin, and to the gentle, tremulous tones of the Vaughan Williams (played on steel drums as though the composer had always intended the instruments for his work) we cut to stunning slow motion images of various birds of prey swooping down towards a post against an almost idyllic countryside background (a road cuts through the middle of it). They are animals in the wild but also very obviously tamed – each bears the tethers to show they have been released by a trainer. The idea of tamed wildness sets us up for the remainder of the video.

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The music changes to ‘Voodoo Ray’ which (I have now learned) was an acid house record released in the late 1980s, but played once again by the steel orchestra, so that Vaughan Williams and acid house segue naturally into one another. The talons of the birds of prey have been replaced by the claw of a crane which lifts a Range Rover towards a crusher, thrillingly filmed from above in some shots, and continuing the visual delight of the pin-sharp imagery, even while we have moved from (apparently) tamed wildness to the banality of a crushing plant.

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In interviews, Deller has expressed his particular dislike for Range Rovers. He cites an incident where Prince Harry, or one of his entourage, is said to have shot at some birds of prey, presumably having been driven to the spot in such a vehicle, but it doesn’t need the specifics of such a story. The Range Rover itself says everything about a synthetic, privileged engagement – or disengagement – with nature. Deller gets his visual revenge by focussing with visual glee on a Range Rover being squeezed into oblivion. No image, it is clear, is accidental in this film. From the straps on the birds, to the make of car, to the snow at the crushing plant, to the absence (of course) of any greenery at the plant – everything is there to be read.

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With ‘Voodoo Ray’ still playing, the scene changes to Deller’s Olympic year installation, ‘Sacrilege’, the piquant name he gave to a ‘bouncy castle’ version of Stonehenge. Stonehenge inflates, a large number of children (and some adults) gleefully jump on board and starting bouncing around, then they are filmed bouncing backwards, then Stonehenge deflates. The comment on the cheapening of heritage and the disconnect between modern lives and our past selves seems obvious enough. There are connections with other ‘state of nation’ exercises, however. In the background of some shots we see the O2 arena, which in another life was the venue for the 2000 Millennium Experience that so struggled to serve as a portrait of a nation that was no longer certain how it should be portrayed. And the narrative divided into sections that seek to re-imagine national heritage has echoes of Danny Boyce and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games.

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We see the Melodians readying themselves for their third piece. They are not how one expects a steel band to look at all. Multicultural in make-up, they look like a collection of ordinary people who just came in off the street, put down their shopping, and will now play the steel drums together in happy unison. The tune they are playing is David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, and what we now see are scenes from the Lord Mayor’s Show, that bizarre spectacle in which representatives of assorted civic bodies parade through the city to bemusement of tourists and the scattered cheers of loyalists. There is much fun to be had in Deller’s choice of images. I particularly enjoyed spotting Angry Birds passing by, a knowing reference to the birds of prey we saw earlier.

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The satirical jabs at capitalism are blatant, from the use of Bowie’s song to the rather absurd parade of city types wearing silly hats and bearing banners that announce themselves to be actuaries, chartered secretaries and tax advisers. One wonders who it is in the crowd cheered as they went past. And then the Freemasons go by on an opened-topped bus. Little details intrigue and build up the picture – the man dressed as a bishop who grins to the crowd, then puts on a serious face and kisses his cross; the fierce-looking horses who would seem to prefer to go backwards rather than forwards (more wildness tamed). Nothing here is irrelevant.

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The parade sequence cuts between these exemplars of civic virtues and scenes of the military. It starts with a marching band with troops following, crisply shot with (I think) a tilt-shift lens arrangement to accentuate the focus. We cut back and forth to armoured vehicles, following immediately by a parade of hospital trolleys bearing dummy victims. Troops in battle fatigues wave cheerily to the crowd, and to us (probably Deller’s camera operator looked like just another happy tourist recording the parade for the folks back home).

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The parade goes by. The steel orchestra plays on with intense concentration, an harmonious paragon. We return to the birds of prey, coming to land in their protected area. Maybe they think that they are wild, maybe they think that they are not. An owl stares at us, knowing something. A final shot looks down at the steel orchestra who have stopped playing, and look up anxiously as if to ask what happens next, knowing nothing.

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This is an extraordinary piece of work. Jeremy Deller is best known in the film world for his re-enactment of the Battle of Ogreave from the 1984 Miner’s Strike, which was filmed by Mike Figgis. This work shows a remarkable feeling for the rhythms of cinematic construction and for visual metaphor. I’ve tried to give some indication of some of the themes the artist has woven into the work, but the ones you can express in words tend only to be the most obvious ones. It is the images that speak only as images that linger longest in the mind. Inevitably each viewer will interpret such a piece differently. I was struck by the similarities to Boyle and Boyce’s London 2012 opening ceremony, whose debt to documentary film history, specifically the work of Humphrey Jennings, I’ve commented on before now. Here I see echoes with Jennings’ 1939 film Spare Time, which portrays a nation in tune with its past and its present, bound together with music. Where Jennings celebrates harmony (with some discordant tones), Deller is troubled by forces that harm, oppress, cheapen or tame us. But both use film to say more than words can say. (Both, incidentally or otherwise, made films on the nation at the behest of the nation: Jennings filmed for those state bodies the GPO Film Unit, the Ministry of Information and the Central Office of Information; Deller’s film was commissioned by the British Council.)

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Following its Venice exhibition (which runs to 24 November 2013), UK audiences will be able to see ‘English Magic’ at the William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and Turner Contemporary, Margate during 2014.

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