Saturday, 25 November 2006

Gloucester 24th November 2006

Gloucester’s main museum and art gallery is one of the least interesting I’ve seen, but its Folk Museum more than makes up for it. Its focus was on the daily lives of ordinary local people, with lots of artefacts from working life and local industry, but the high point of the permanent exhibition was a mock up of domestic interiors through the 20th century. These always go down a storm with me. I think they appeal to the nosey parker in me; I love the feeling they give you, something like walking past someone’s house at night when they’ve got the curtains open. All the installation lacked was a couple of automata, sat on the sofa having some conversation you could only guess at.
But the icing on the cake was a visiting exhibition on local boy made good, record producer Joe Meek. I say made good, I mean made good, built his own studio over a shoe shop in North London, changed the face of British pop music, became dependent on amphetamines, got sexually obsessed with his blond Germanic protégé Heinz, went a bit bonkers and shot his landlady. It’s a car-crash of a story; terrible and sad, but hard to ignore. The idea of people reinventing themselves seems cheapened these days, when every other daft sod wants to be famous for being famous. But the driven, obsessive way Meek transformed himself from small-town boy to music pioneer by sheer force of will seems almost epic in comparison. He’s mostly remembered now for his big hit, ‘Telstar’, but as the free jukebox of his hits in the exhibition attested, he had a phenomenal work ethic. I could have stood there listening all day.

Sunday, 12 November 2006

Stoke On Trent 10th November 2006

There's not much to see in Stoke On Trent but Webberley’s bookshop is worth a visit. It's not much to look at from the outside, and little better on the inside, with its paintwork the colour of thinly-spread Marmite. But there's something quaint about the place even by the standards of most dog-eared independent bookshops.
The header board of the foreign travel section said ‘overseas holidays’ rather than ‘travel’, as if abroad was a recent invention. I half expected UK travel guides to be shelved under the heading ‘sensible holidays’ and guides to the most exotic destinations to be shelved beneath the warning ‘Here be Monsters.’
The shop proclaimed itself a family business since 1913 as if this is an unambiguous good. I can't honestly say I share that assumption. Heretical as it might be, I think people tend to romanticise small independent businesses, especially when they’re family run.
I once worked in a family-run DIY shop in Hammersmith. I committed the stupid oversight of not being related to the owners. Interbreeding and marriage had assembled a shower of unsuitable incompetents that the most cack-handed interviewing and selection procedure couldn't have matched.
It was a business untouched by the modern managerial mania for constant change. It was the sort of dusty, cluttered hardware shop featured in the well known Two Ronnies ‘four candles’ sketch and it remained pretty much unaltered until it went bust. It was exactly the sort of place where old-fashioned personal service is alleged to live on. Nobody had told the manager, Brian. At least once I saw him tell a customer to fuck off, and he wasn’t above greeting regulars he didn’t like with the words, ‘What can I get you, you horrible prick?’
From what I remember of ‘A’ level Sociology, we abandoned trying to combine family and working life because greater industrialisation demanded a better match between people and the skills required. In family businesses people get humoured and indulged. Lil, the owner's cousin was in charge of stock control at the Hammersmith shop. She wasn’t a natural, but she was allowed to persevere. When I worked there in the mid 1980s I'd occasionally come across items of stock that must have been around since before 1973 because they were priced in pre-decimal currency.
Some similar ill-advised indulgence seemed to be operating on the upper floor of Webberley’s which had a large area devoted to the sale of fountain pens. Maybe some member of the Webberley litter has been allowed his inky little empire because nobody wants to hurt his feelings.
The cultural institutions of the town had a predictable ceramic bent. The council run Potteries museum redeemed itself with an open show in its art gallery. I'm probably a bit old-fashioned art-wise because I usually enjoy open shows more than curated ones, partly because of my enthusiasm for amateurism, but mostly because they tend to feature stuff that looks like stuff.
Deciding I hadn’t quite had enough ceramics for one day I squeezed in a visit to a local family run pottery factory. The factory museum displayed a family tree with mug shots of the firm’s directors down the years. There was an unsettling facial resemblance between them, and I found it hard not to think of Kind Hearts and Coronets.
I've probably been innoculated against the charms of ceramics by the hideous ornamental plates in the back of colour supplements, but there were a couple of pieces that I liked. Among the best were sets of wartime Utility chinaware which due to shortage of materials had a clear glaze revealing the clay colour beneath. But favourite had to be an Army issue teapot, with two spouts to aid the speedy pouring of multiple mugs of tea. Homely genius.