Dreams of iron and steel

On November 20, 2013, in Art, Galleries, by Luke McKernan


Who saw this one coming? Bob Dylan as a welder of gates? The Halcyon Gallery in Bond Street is currently hosting Mood Swings, an exhibition of ornamental gates and associated metalwork crafted by a man, who when he isn’t composing, recording, touring, writing, broadcasting or indeed painting, clearly likes to go a junkyard, pick up a few bits of metal to take back to his copious workroom, and build gates.

The results are extraordinary. I’m not sure how one can got about reviewing a gate, though it has to be said that none of the Dylan’s constructions would function terribly well as an actual gate. Instead they are creative, playful sculptures that you could say offer a way in to the greater understanding of the artist. The introductory notes to the exhibition point out Dylan’s family roots in Hibbing, Minnesota, home to the world’s largest open-pit iron mine. Here is a man who can properly claim, as he does in ‘Never Say Goodbye’ (one of my favourite Dylan songs), “My dreams are made of iron and steel”.

However, there is nothing heavily industrial about the gates, which relate more to his poetry than his hometown. What impresses you is their lightness, invention, wit and proportion. They are indeed made up of material re-used from the scrapyard. One may spot wheels, cogs, chains, spanner, hooks, handles, horseshoes, in one place a dog, in another a guitar. The number of re-purposed tools that feature in the gates seems like some sort of joke made about the nature of construction. There is something floral about the way the metal parts have been arranged, like a briar rose – indeed, the full verse from ‘Never Say Goodbye’ goes:

My dreams are made of iron and steel
With a big bouquet
Of roses hanging down
From the heavens to the ground

The welding itself seems to be rudimentary, with obvious joins between the pieces, but those who know their ironmongery have, it seems, praised what they have seen. Each piece is marked with a buffalo trademark. Should you be interested in purchasing one – they’d look nice on any wall – prices range from £50K to £250K. Three in the upper price bracket already had red dots beside them, indicating that they had been purchased, when I visited. So hurry.


If it wasn’t apparent already, it is obvious now that Bob Dylan is not just a musician. He works across many media, working words and images as the heart dictates (his haunting paintings of railways tracks can also be seen at the Halcyon gallery). The late flowering of this vision, at a time when his contemporaries are either dead or reproducing identikit versions of the songs of their far far off youth, is extraordinary to witness, and makes you realise how it is going to be necessary to revalue the man all over again, just as he continually reworks his songs in performance (he is playing the UK this week, with his usual playing of familiar songs rendered utterly unfamiliar). This is what made the speech by France’s Culture Minister, Aurelie Filippetti, so awful when Dylan was awarded the Legion d’Honneur last week. Her narrow view of Dylan still as protest singer, making a call for liberty, was a complete misreading of the man, his music, and of how the artist operates. Artists work for themselves, not for us. They express what they see and feel. What we then get out of the process is recognising something of ourselves in what they have expressed.


There are multiple Bob Dylans out there, with one part of that identity being the creative team that fashions his work for an online audience through bobdylan.com. This other Dylan, working in his name, continually thinks up new ways in which to keep his name at the cultural forefront, placing innovation above the marketing of tradition. A genuinely ground-breaking example of this is the video of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ released this week. The song may be a little over-worked by now, but the ingenious solution they have come up with is to make the video like the experience of flipping through TV channels, on each of which there is someone lip-synching to the words of the song. Newsreaders, sportsmen, shopping channel presenters, TV cooks, soap actors, all spout out the snarling words, while the ability of the viewer to flip between these channels (as the song continues seamlessly) makes every viewing a unique one, as well as presumably rending the video impossible to reproduce on any other video platform. At any rate, it has re-imagined the music video, and hundreds of video producers around the globe must now be cursing themselves and asking why they didn’t think of something like this before.



Of course Bob Dylan didn’t think up how to treat ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ for the video-savvy generation. He was too busy with his blow-torch. But it is all part of the same flowering.

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Anand v Carlsen

On November 10, 2013, in Games, Web, by Luke McKernan


Carlsen and Anand (with his back to the camera) before the start of their first game on 9 November 2013

The World Chess Championship has started, and I am glued to my screen. Along with millions of others, I am able to follow the contest between India’s Vishy Anand (the current world champion) and Norway’s Magnus Carlsen through a bewildering variety of options, as the internet connects up all of us across the globe to the mental activity of two men in Chennai, India, seated facing each other across a board with sixty-four squares and thirty-two pieces. What takes place in the brain of the two leading exponents of the world’s finest game radiates outwards across the globe, replayed on screens and boards, analysed by programmes, commented upon, tweeted. It is the perfect exemplification of our interconnected world.

The content is taking place over 12 games, between 9 and 28 November, with blitz tie-break games to be played on the 28th is all is square by the 26th. I have been watching via the official site, which provides three views – video of the game itself, video of two commentators with a chessboard on which they play out possible variations, and a board documenting the moves of the game itself. The experience of watching and listening is a little odd, because there is a time lag between electronic board and video (which the commentators are following), so one sees what has been played on the board, then a minute later sees the documented on the would-be live video stream, and then the commentary coming in third.


Game one from the display at http://chennai2013.fide.com, with video of the players, commentators and the main board

This is just one site among many which is following the game. Alternative include Chess.com’s live TV stream, 2700chess.com, the official YouTube channel and Chessdom. There’s also a handy Twitter guide to the world chess championship.

Given all the hype and the technology, it has been a tad disappointing that the first two games were both quick draws by repetitions, the players early on reaching situations where they would rather repeat sequences than risk a disadvantage – when both players play the same moves three times, a draw is automatically declared. Much more of this and the joined-up world is going to be mightily disappointed, but the age of romantic chess, with its sacrifices, surprises and innovations is long over. That sort of play now exists only in blitz chess, where all the moves must be made in something like five minutes and errors are inevitable. Here instead we have two minds almost cancelling one another out, practically before the games has begun. Chess followers are familiar with grandmaster draws where players follow familiar lines and end up at some point in the middle game where neither can see an advantage to be had and so agree a draw. But will we eventually get to a point where every opening strategy is so well known – and the pitfalls over steering clear of such strategies so obvious – that someone will play e4 for their opening move and a draw is immediately declared? Will chess have then come to an end?

Hopefully not just yet, and hopefully the full contest will prove worthy of its billing. I’m not much bothered about who will win. I want the game to win.

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On November 3, 2013, in Photography, Web, by Luke McKernan


A brick wall in Rochester (Boley Hill, near the castle, in case you want to seek it out sometime)

Here’s a curious anecdote. I live in a town rich in brick walls of every age and description. I like photographing them (I wrote a post about this a while ago). I put several of these photographs on my Flickr site, should anyone want to look at photographs of brick walls for themselves.

Time moved on, and a web designer got in touch with me. He had been looking on Flickr for photographs of walls and just happened to like one of the ones that I had taken. Would it be possible to use it? Sure, I said, what for? For the website of a taxi firm, it turns out. His commission was to come up witha website for a taxi company that wanted to promote booking its vehicles through a phone app. I wondered to myself how a photograph of an ancient brick wall and pavement could be used to denote taxis, but I’m not a designer. I’m not a photographer either, but I said he was free to use the photograph and he promised to get back to me.



Time moved on again, and the website is ready. It’s for Streamline taxis of Headcorn in mid-Kent, and their booking site is called Scan, Click & Go (smart move to have secured that web address, certainly). And sure enough, there’s my photograph, greyed out, with coloured lines to demonstrate travel, a pink car, and a QR code for you to scan with your phone. I’m still not quite sure why you need to show a brick wall, when cars travel along roads, but what the heck. It certainly is different, and I think gets its point across.


A Streamline taxi

But there’s more, because I hadn’t realised the full extent of the design plans. The photo, design and QR code appear not only on the website but on the taxis themselves. All across mid-Kent, Streamline taxis are heading out to deliver passengers with my photograph splashed across the side of the vehicles. It’s the oddest thing. I’ve been racking my brain for a moral to the tale, but maybe it’s just a case where curiosity is the story in itself. I took a photograph of a brick wall. I put it on the Internet. Now it’s on a taxi. Rum world.


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I remember # 7

On November 1, 2013, in I remember, by Luke McKernan

189. I remember delighting in the name of the cricketer Brian Brain

190. I remember Brand X

191. I remember my first football

192. I remember turning off the sound on the television when Vision On was broadcast to impress upon my younger brothers what it was like for the deaf

193. I remember Jackdaws, which were collections of copies of primary source documents about some historical event, gathered together in a folder

194. I remember the Partridge Family

195. I remember the Beaufort Scale

196. I remember collecting miniature busts of French presidents at petrol stations in France on a family holiday

197. I remember Professor Stanley Unwin

198. I remember that the name of the girl seen by a blackboard on the BBC testcard was Carole Hersee

199. I remember Rhoda and her plain sister, who went on to provide the voice for Marge in The Simpsons

200. I remember my friend’s mother who always stood to attention when the national anthem was played at the end of an evening’s television

201. I remember Picador paperbacks

202. I remember the Durutti Column (I still have his first album with its sandpaper cover)

203. I remember TV interludes (the potter’s wheel, the ploughing horse) which the BBC showed during gaps in the programming

204. I remember the round window, the square window and the arched window

205. I remember one man bands

206. I remember Elkan Allan

207. I remember the magician David Nixon

208. I remember Chip Club, whose magazine was circulated to schools with lists of books that children were encouraged to buy

209. I remember Viv Stanshall exclaiming ‘Mandolin!’ (on the album Tubular Bells)

210. I remember when young watching a television interview with a woman who said she expected her menfolk to be violent, and realising that there were different worlds outside of our small corner of Tunbridge Wells

211. I remember the scorpion square dance from The Living Desert

212. I remember a tracking shot of starving Africans in a queue shown on a 1970s TV documentary that just carried on and on and on, past the point of belief

213. I remember Jack Jones the trade unionist, and Jack Jones the singer

214. I remember Professor Branestawm and his many pairs of glasses

215. I remember the great sense of excitement and honour I felt whenever a Shakespeare play was shown on television

216. I remember sky ray lollies

217. I remember Clarence the cross-eyed lion

218. I remember the first Argos catalogue

219. I remember when Foyle’s bookshop made you collect a book from one till then take a slip to a second till where the cashier sat (a system they immediately halted on the death of Christina Foyle – who I also remember, as she sat in on all interviews for prospective staff. I failed the interview)

220. I remember the sense of national shock and shame when England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup

221. I remember wah-wah pedals

222. I remember playground war games where we divided into English and Germans

223. I remember fording streams

224. I remember coal bunkers