The idea for this came to me on a trip to see my parents in Dunstable, wandering around a big branch of Wilkinson, taking delight in the vibrant colours and varied textures of all the cheap household goods.

I quite often have moments when I look at some simple mundane thing and think – how cool would it be to have a thousand of those and create something bonkers? It’s one of my standard cod-artistic responses to the world around me. But for some reason, wandering around the shop that day in 2002, I decided to make it happen.Wilkinson

I have a taste both in sound and vision for things made of small repeating units, where subtle changes can occur within a predictable frame and new rhythms and textures emerge with scale. I like the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, for example, and I’m often fascinated by the messy and disrupted repetition seen in weathered brick walls and tiled roofs.

It so happened that my flat in Bermondsey had a long low space above the dining table, and I‘d been looking around for some time for a suitably shaped picture.

So one Sunday soon afterwards I looked up the closest branches of Wilkinson and set off for Stratford to buy the goods. I don’t think I’d ever been to Stratford before so it felt quite an adventure.StoreFinder

I was particularly drawn to the metal mesh type scourers that come in both silvery stainless steel and a more expensive copper coated version. Unfortunately the shop only had about 5 packets of each type, so I had to buy the whole lot. There were also plastic equivalents in multi-coloured packs that were less exciting but I thought might add variety to whatever I was going to make, so I bought a few of those too. I’m afraid there must have been a few disappointed people in Stratford who couldn’t do their washing up properly that week!MetalScourers

Next I spent a few days laying them out on the table at home, trying various arrangements to find something satisfying, experimenting with various types of alternation, repetition and disruption, in random and predictable patterns, using the small stock I already had and imagining what I could achieve with further purchases.PlasticScourers

Eventually I chose a very simple symmetrical arrangement that matched the size I needed for the wall, using long lines of each colour. Rather like a layer cake or some kind of sandwich biscuit, with the outside rows in red and blue enclosing three inside rows laid out in the metallic colours. I realised that there’s so much texture and visual interest in the individual scouring pads that the design needed to be kept very simple. I also rejected the paler plastic colours entirely as I wanted quite a bold overall feel that would be in keeping with other features of the flat, and they seemed to detract.

The pads tessellate quite nicely and squeeze into something like hexagons (like a honeycomb) with a little pressure, so I had 5 rows with 28 and 27 alternating – a total of 138 pads. This only required two more trips to Stratford, allowing sufficient time for them to restock between each visit!ScourerPattern

Meanwhile I asked my local picture framer on Tower Bridge Road to make a box frame of the necessary size, approximately 50 x 200cm. One thing I can distinctly recall is being too embarrased to tell him what I was planning to use it for, which seems very odd now. It was such a creative time in my life; I was really just beginning to think of the possibility of making things for myself. My life was full of extraordinary new people, new colour, new energy – liberation really – and yet I was obviously still easily embarrassed about being playful around people. I do wonder what Helen, my flatmate, thought – perhaps I can persuade her to contribute below!BijanArt

I painted the interior of the frame black, and then simply used pressure and lots and lots of glue to persuade the pads to take up their arrangement. I really like the squeezed-squishedness of it; that became part of the appeal as I got used to the feel and texture of the scourers.

A day later came the exceedingly anxious moment of raising it up onto the wall. To my delight it stayed in one piece. I was very nervous going to look at it the next morning too, but it was still there … and it’s still in one piece nearly ten years later, surviving numerous parties, a house move and now hanging appropriately in the kitchen. I’m confident that someday it will explode into 139 pieces – and when it does the materials can belatedly begin to take turns on washing up duty, though I’ll probably make some kind of photomontage to continue their traces and memories.Completed

Over the years I’ve always looked out for scouring pad siblings and cousins, hoping to encounter kindred spirits around the world. I’ve had just one success: at Burning Man 2006 I met a man wearing a spectacular spacesuit covered with about 100 pads fixed all over his front, back, legs and arms. I really wish I had a picture.

In preparing this post I’ve looked on the web in some depth to see what’s out there, but scouring pad art / craft / design / music / fashion does seem to be an exceptionally little-travelled road. Even less than you might expect.

Glass artist Ercole Barovier apparently used streaks of steel wool in his Crepuscolo series. There is evidence of a few projects on Etsy such as this and this, and a few other small-scale household projects such as this and (my favourite) this (apologies if any of the links have died). I’m surprised to find that many obvious search terms have zero results in Google. I’m not going to be starting a club.

I’ve really no idea why I made this, but I’m extremely happy that I did. It has a calm simplicity combined with jazzy extroversion that reminds me every day of the possibilities of play and imagination – and also of following through with an idea to completion.Raymond Baxter

I realise now that I had seen work by a few artists in those years that had probably been percolating in my head – Damien Hirst’s pharmaceuticals, Sarah Lucas’s cigarettes. And above all the bricks: I’ve always admired Carl André and his exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2000 had a big impact on me. “I think it is impossible not to like his work” – Raymond Baxter (possibly a slight exaggeration, but he was Carl’s uncle after all).

Shortage of desert islands

January 22, 2012

Having blogged about my Desert island sideboard last week I can’t resist returning to the more traditional topic of favourite music. Two very interesting posts about Desert Island Discs by The Cross-Eyed Pianist and The Argumentative Old Git set me thinking. As well as sharing their own marvellous music choices, they drew my attention to the BBC’s highly addictive archive of castaways.

The archive lists every broadcast back to the show’s earliest days in 1942, which to date means there are 2881 editions – the guests being 805 female and 2086 male – including Roy Plomley himself on two occasions, requiring guest presenters Lesley Perowne and Eamonn Andrews to be wheeled in to interview him. The archive tells us that Plomley had a youthful passion for Borodin in 1942, which he had evidently lost by 1958.

Roy Plomley

Roy Plomley

I find the archive utterly compelling, and have spent hours browsing across the decades, enjoying flashes of involuntary memory, wondering what I have actually heard and what I am just inventing, trying and failing to track down the earliest show I can remember.

I’ve never been a regular listener. Desert Island Discs has always been one of those things I listen to quite randomly, idly, often indifferently. It’s not something I think about or talk about much. I’m sure I heard it quite a lot at university, when any time of day and day of week was convenient for idleness, and probably sometimes in the middle of the night while I was travelling in 1995/96.

But perhaps for those very reasons the archive touches on a delicious type of soft memory, prodding at forgotten moments of solitude, distant times when I was fleetingly touched by intimacies and revelations that were meaningful for me, but didn’t form part of the big narrative of life. Listening to the radio generally takes place in the gaps between things – including the big things that are pondered and shaped and shored up into an inner sense of history and self.

A few names that jumped out at me were Nigel Hawthorne (1986), Kenneth Williams (1987), Tony Benn (1989), Dirk Bogarde (1989), Kaffe Fassett (!) (1990), Jeffrey Bernard (1991), Stephen Hawking (1992), Ian Dury (1996) and Clive Stafford Smith (2004). I think I heard all those when they were broadcast.

Thomas Quasthoff

Thomas Quasthoff

There was clearly something potent for me in hearing people describe how they coped with formative aspects of their identity – such as sexuality and disability. But if there was a programme called Desert Island Radio Broadcasts the one I would pick above all would be the exceptionally moving interview with Thomas Quasthoff (2009), sadly recently retired from singing.

There are also many tantalising broadcasts in the archive that I’m keen to download and hear for the first time (e.g. Grayson Perry, Ian Hislop, Brian Sewell, Madhur Jaffrey, David Munrow …) though they are currently only available back as far as 1988.

But moving on … the main impetus for this post was in fact a desire to find out if there are equivalent programmes elsewhere around the world. I assumed the concept of Desert Island Discs would be just about universally interesting to people and, being easy to implement, I would find large numbers of broadcasters offering very similar concepts, probably becoming well-loved national institutions in many countries.

But that’s not what I’ve found, after a few hours research.

The internet abounds with thousands of references to the original. Everywhere you look there are people saying “hey, there’s this great show from the BBC that’s been running since … ” etc.,  but almost never do they go on to comment “just like our … on KFC3”. There are all sorts of discussions, suggestions, blogposts and forums trying to adapt the idea for local groups and communities, types of music, and for other favourite things like movies, clothes – I even found a marketing group debating desert island brands. How wonderful to live out your days joyfully admiring a beautiful Volkswagen logo and catchy HSBC slogan.

There have been quite a few imitators in the UK – Celebrity Choice on Classic FM, Face to Face on Smooth FM, various local and community station shows – mostly now gone, with the exception of Radio 3’s more highbrow offering, the long running Private Passions. But I found very little by way of actually established broadcast programmes in other countries.

Here are the three I did find:

1. SommarSweden.  This is quite distant from Desert Island Discs in format but is certainly comparable in spirit and the only other show I’ve found that seems to have become quite celebrated in its home nation. Every day from June to August a ‘summer speaker’ has 90 minutes to give a monologue about their life, including favourite music. It’s been running on Swedish Radio since 1959 and apparently the announcement of each summer’s line-up of ‘sommarpratare’ is quite an event, given out at a big press conference like a season’s football fixtures.

Lars Ulvenstam

Lars Ulvenstam

The speakers appear to be limited to Swedish people, and for some reason tradition states that author and journalist Lars Ulvenstam is the last speaker every season. I believe there is now also a short Vinter series.

Browsing the lists of recent speakers Björn Ulvaeus (2008) caught my eye – what would he choose?! Well you can listen to the whole broadcast here.  I find his voice strangely compelling in a late-night sort of way. His music choices aren’t surprising – Bowie, The Everly Brothers, The Beach Boys, Sondheim.

Björn Ulvaeus

Björn Ulvaeus

2. My Life, My MusicSlovenia.  “Now it’s time for a musical discussion with interesting characters”. This is very close to Desert Island Discs in format: weekly, with an interviewer (Chris Wherry, though possibly now changed) and allowing 8 music choices.

Chris Wherry

Chris Wherry

I found My Life, My Music thanks to the interesting Argentine blogger Carlos Yoder who was a guest on the show in 2011 – you can listen via a link on his blog.

This show is broadcast on Radio Slovenia International, Solvenia’s English / German language channel, and I suspect there is a limited range of people of international renown available to choose, though I’m sure they are genuinely interesting, and based on my sample of two probably make more thoughtful music choices than many UK celebrities. This week the guest is the second oboe player of the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra, Marjorie Carrington.

3. The Morning Interview with Margaret ThrosbyAustralia. This is broadcast on ABC Classic FM as well as the Radio Australia shortwave network. It also has the familiar life-story interview and music choices format, but with a looser interpretation of the rules. I do have a suspicion that there’s something particularly British about the preciely disciplined structure and no-you-mustn’t-be-naughty closing minutes of Desert Island Discs.

Margaret Throsby

Margaret Throsby

The programme has been hosted by Margaret Throsby for more than 15 years. Heston Blumenthal was a guest recently, interviewed in Dinner rather than having to travel to Australia. The discussion was very interesting, but accompanied by some pretty dull music choices (O Fortuna, Concierto de Aranjuez, etc.) plus a heavy duty plug for Heston’s latest book that would have been out of the question on Radio 4!

And that’s really all I found. Does anyone have any stories from other countries? I would love to hear.

I expect there are quite a few more loose variants on the interview-plus-music format around the world that have been hidden from me by use of a wide variety of programme names. I did find slight evidence of something in Canada but couldn’t verify its existence – perhaps it was in the distant past before everything was documented on the web.

I’m left wondering if the absence of obvious Desert Island Discs copies is mostly about commercial restrictions or about culture. I suspect there must be some specific issue preventing the show being licensed around the world, but is that all there is to it, or is there also something about Britain that makes this concept particularly popular here? I would be delighted to hear any opinions!

Of course, having got this far, I can’t resist adding my own list.

When I went travelling for 18 months, before internet cafés and mobile phones, I knew my Sony Walkman was going to be crucial to staying sane, so I had to do this for real. I gave myself the luxury of filling ten 120 minute cassettes, and I’m sure I spent weeks choosing.

TDK AD-120

TDK AD-120

But I haven’t thought very hard about the list below – it applies for today only, and is slightly distorted by what I could find on Spotify, as I wanted everything to be freely available to try. But it does include some of the more radically life changing pieces I’ve encountered over the years – and that’s a topic deserving a separate post.

Machaut – Messe de Notre Dame

Bach – St. Matthew Passion

MozartLe Nozze di Figaro

BeethovenSymphony No. 7


Brahms – Double Concerto

Bartók – String Quartet No. 5

ShostakovichCello Concerto No. 1

Messiaen – Catalogue d’Oiseaux

Boulez – Dérive 1

Worldwide misadventures

January 15, 2012

It’s been said that I’m bad luck as a travelling companion. In my defence, I’ve rarely had any problems when travelling alone, although this post will mostly be about the single major exception to that claim.

I’ve started by making a list of the main mishaps I can think of that have occurred while travelling in the safety of a group:

1. Interrailing robbery #11987.  In my second undergraduate summer vacation I toured Europe with two friends from Mauritius, Yusuf and Sadek. I’ve always loved train travel and spending many nights speeding across France, Italy and Spain with no hotel costs was brilliantly convenient and fun. Unfortunately the local thieves had caught onto this and there was an epidemic of robbery from sleeping students that year. My camera and a few other bits and pieces were nabbed in the night en route to Nice, so I can’t share any pictures from the trip. I can clearly remember the policeman: “que’st-ce que la marque de la camera?”  Some poor sod was even fined for pulling the emergency cord.Interrail

2. Interrailing robbery #21987. That was just bad luck, but it was arguably quite careless to allow the same thing to happen again two days later. I can’t remember what was stolen but it was while travelling overnight into Rome.

3. Interrailing robbery #3 – 1987. And then, later the same day, waiting in a tourist information office to book a hotel, the bag containing my dwindling collection of valuables was stolen from right between Yusuf’s feet. My passport was gone, so this caused several days delay, but the saddest thing was that lost with the bag was also the police report from the previous robbery. It took me quite a few years to recover my goodwill towards Italy and Italians!

In retrospect the most astonishing thing about that trip was that we travelled by train to Athens and back. I recall that with Interrail you could pay extra to go by boat from Brindisi, but instead we went overland right through Yugoslavia. It’s strange to think that this was before the Yugoslav wars. We spoke to people in broken German; I don’t believe that’s necessary any longer.

4. Driving into a brick, USA1993. In the dark, on the way out of Yosemite. Wrecked the automatic transition and had to get a new car. A minor obstacle really.


With Yusuf and Steve, companions on several trips

5. Bubonic plague outbreak, India1994. This didn’t directly affect my group, except that the railways in Gujurat seemed even more full than usual with people despetately trying to flee the affected areas. We decided it was best to just get on with the trip and hope for the best. Worst affected were probably those back home hearing all about the spreading plague on TV. To be honest, I doubted the veracity of my memory on this, but it is confirmed here.

6. Dysentry in Nepal1994. Unfortunately I didn’t escape the effects of this one. I quite enjoyed being the subject of tropical disease quarantine procedures back home and having to ask around the office if anyone was pregnant or otherwise at high risk.

7. Street robbery in Peru1995. I was the victim of a classic push & shove & snatch type robbery in the beautiful city of Ayacucho. The highland route from Lima to Cuzco had only recently opened up to tourists following years of violent threat from the Maoist Sendero Luminoso, and so it was a pretty risky area. Plus it felt a punishment of sorts for eating guinea pig the previous evening. I lost my second passport in this incident (the one that had been issued at the Consulate in Rome).


Peruvian guinea pigs


Venezuelan Monopoly

8. Taxi robbery in Venezuela1998. This was really spectacularly bad and stupid. My only justification in retrospect is that it was at the end of a three week trip and I was very much softened to the friendly Venezuelans. Nevertheless, accepting cups of coffee from a taxi driver in Caracas was a classic mistake. He drove round and round until my friend Jeremy and I were nicely dozy and then politely invited us to get out. And drove off with all the luggage. I half-remember surreal hours wandering around Caracas getting strange looks from locals, at one point buying and then quickly dropping an ice cream. No lasting damage (I think!), and of everything that was the lost what stood out most as irreplacable was my Venezuela Monopoly set. It featured Casualidad and Arca Comunal cards and I hope our taxi driver was caught out by a swift Váyase a la Cárcel!

I’ve been inspired to write about this today for two reasons. Firstly, I’ve just read Julian Barnes’ book The Sense of an Ending. I found it really quite unpleasant. I tend to empathise strongly with characters in well-written books and often notice myself invaded by their emotional preoccupations and speaking with aspects of their voice (points to another possible blogpost). Well, I’ve rarely found a narrator more unpleasant company than the unreliable hero of The Sense of an Ending, and I hope I can forget him swiftly. But the point is that the book revolves around documents from the past resurfacing which radically challenge the first hand memory of events.

Travel diary

Travel diary

I’m old enough now to have a few documents that could potentially do that, and as I was reading my thoughts turned to one in particular. I travelled the world for about 18 months in 1995-96 and, very unusually for me, I kept a diary every day, in a notebook covered with frogs. I tracked it down today and have been checking my memories of people, places and events, such as the Ayacucho robbery mentioned above.

The second reason for writing this today is the news of yesterday’s sinking of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy.

So I’d like to share some choice excerpts from my travel diary written during the week or so I was touring the Galápagos Islands, which could reasonably have been expected to be one of the highlights of the whole trip. Interspersed are a few scanned pictures from that trip, taken with a quite basic camera that I conclusively dropped into the ocean a few months later while stretching for a special shot on Bora Bora.

– – – – – – – – – –


The Lumabeda

5th July 1995 – “To my great relief I have not been completely ripped off: a boat actually does exist. In addition to a Spanish-speaking guide there is a Fleming who looks like Siegfried.” … “The Lumabeda is currently moored, taking on water, beneath a brilliantly-illuminated alien sky.”

6th July 1995– “Last night the boat ran aground on submerged sand at about 9pm. We all took to the lifeboat which proceeded to try to pull the boat free for two hours. We boarded a nearby boat for coffee and humour and watched ours gradually fall over as the tide lowered until it was completely horizontal, which left the Dutch lady artist weeping for the destruction of her drawing book in the inundation which appeared inevitable” … “But the ship was successfully unwrecked and cleaned up remarkably well.”


Maginificent Frigatebirds


Giant tortoise

7th July 1995 – “Still rather stunned and newly bonded passengers attempted to continue with naturalistic pursuits. I fall sick and narrowly avoid vomiting on a hill walk.” … “We sail all evening to Puerto Ayora; dolphins circle the boat en route.”

8th July 1995 – “One of the Germans is injured boarding the boat due to it being dangerous. It is a boat which seems to encourage people to fall down staircases or into the sea. Today, in fact, my third hat does just that.” … “I have been unable to eat for two days because of illness compounded by seasickness compounded by terrible food. Play Monopoly.”

9th July 1995 – “Awaken mid-ocean to a depressing silence and seasickness all round. The engine has broken down terminally. The situation inspires the cook to new horrors, which fall on the floor due to the sway” … “A fishing boat arrives at 3pm to tug us to San Cristóbal.” … “By 1am we are in sight of port but the boat is lurching and taking on water again. Flares are lit, but we succeed in limping to port with the aid of a water pump.” … “The hotel appears to be owned by an appalling disgusting character who also owns the Lumabeda and probably other crimes.”

10th July 1995 – “We take a day trip on a small boat and much argument breaks out, principally the German and Swiss males against Fate. They have long zoom lenses and strange motorists’ goggles.” … “Española Island tomorrow. Wine and appalling cake.”


Blue-footed Booby

11th July 1995 – “We sail at 6:30 but after 30 minutes the boat begins to take on water, and we turn back with six of us in the lifeboat and the remaining passengers and crew still in the boat removing water by bucket. Disconcerting.” … “Dinghies arrive from a naval base and rescue the other people. Minutes afterwards, we watch the Rábida sink. We return to the Hotel Chatham for another day of recriminations and negotiations. The survivors of the wreck are the centre of attention.”

12th July 1995 – “Third attempt to reach Española is successful. I am transferred to the good ship Seaman which appears to be from a different world and proves that none of the discomforts and incompetences of the week were remotely universal in Galápagos.”


An interesting cactus

13th July 1995– “I succeed in playing an almost complete game of Monopoly since no-one is seasick on this boat and the pieces do not fall all over the floor.”

– – – – – – – – – –


At the end of the tour

Well, my memory of the events was just about perfect. But I’m fascinated by how much my voice has changed. There is such a mischievous energy, and also so much mockery and judgement.

These events are all long in the past. I do love travel. And I intend to return to the Galápagos Islands someday.

Desert island sideboard

January 11, 2012

What’s the difference between contemporary art and craft? To me this feels a big question only because of the very different economic and critical worlds in which they have been produced, discussed and consumed over the past generation. But I’m not convinced that it’s a helpful distinction to make any more, and it certainly isn’t a clear cut one.

I’ve been set thinking about this by seeing remarkable work by both Grayson Perry and Dale Chihuly recently in London. Perry has an ambiguous rather teasing relationship with the art world and uses a range of traditional craft techniques, but with a very personal expressive intent and almost confessional communication. Chihuly is a master glassblower with an astonishing visual imagination who trained in Venice and works with a team to create work on an almost industrial scale. The Halcyon Gallery makes the rather uncomfortable claim that he “is credited with elevating the medium from the realm of craft to groundbreaking fine art”. They both make a mess of the distinction between art and craft.Grayson Perry

What could it be? Uniqueness? Originality? Non-functionality? Conceptual content? Or simply an attitude, an intent? Expression and communication as opposed to technique and tradition? I can see that these were very important distinctions to make for much of the twentieth century, to allow art to be reborn and free itself. But now, in a world saturated with concept and individuality I suggest it’s no longer particularly helpful to raise these up as the dominant qualities conferring value. Dale Chihuly

Last year I attended the spectacular Collect exhibition organised by the Crafts Council, and I found it the most exciting range of work I’ve seen at the Saatchi Gallery at least since it moved from Boundary Road.

I was struck by the fact that, almost all the work being unaffordable to me (so I was not too distracted by acquisitive hunger), I was looking at in exactly the same way I would be looking at an art display. I couldn’t find a difference in what the work was doing to me: exciting me, moving me, horrifying me, astounding me – even though it mostly had some notional practical function.

The very fact of it being shown at that venue probably signals the breakdown of the art / craft distinction, or at least that a meeting point has been found. Actually I suspect it’s a relationship that comes and goes in long cycles over time.

But all this reflection is by way of preamble to a rather indulgent post I want to make about some of my favourite creators.

Living in London it’s become apparent to me how rich and thriving the crafts, in the sense of people individually making things out of a range of materials that at least nod at some kind of practical function, now are. I’m thinking of ceramics, glass, objects in wood and metal, jewellery, and also a variety of other work in less obvious materials such as paper, plastics, and textiles. Even in the realm of objects that are more affordable I see around me an extraordinary range of imaginative creativity. For so many of the things that we buy in the course of life, from knives and forks to engagement rings, there is a deeply considered, locally handmade alternative to the standard mass produced options.

I’ve been thinking about a kind of personal Desert Island Discs of contemporary craft … or perhaps a Desert Island Sideboard.

There are hundreds of people I could name, but here’s a selection of eight that include some of the most personally significant to me plus some that are simply favourites:

1. Peter Beardceramics

Peter’s work has long been a favourite of mine, and Vanessa and I acquired a piece as a wedding present to ourselves. He creates robust timeless forms decorated with complex rhythmic patterns reminiscent of rock, fire and water.Peter Beard

2. Jo Hayes Wardjewellery

Jo brings a radically modernist aesthetic to the creation of jewellery intricately surfaced with repetitions of tiny building blocks such as shimmering cubes and interlocking hexagons.Jo Hayes Ward

3. Janice Tchalenkoceramics

I still love Janice’s work but she’s mainly included here because my very first purchase of an object that I consciously considered craft rather than simply shopping was a humble coffee cup in her Dartington Poppy range. I bought it at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery sometime in the earlyish 90s and it was probably the only piece I could afford. Lots of her work can be seen at the V&A.Janice Tchalenko

4. Roger Tyeglass

Roger’s hallucinatory organic forms and startlingly vivid colours are sometimes reminiscent of Chihuly.Roger Tye

As an aside I’d like to briefly turn to Japan, a culture with a wonderfully charged relationship between deference to tradition and radical modernity. Travelling there in 2007 I was delighted to learn about the concept of Living National Treasures (Ningen Kokuhō). This is a status conferred by the Japanese government to help preserve important cultural traditions, and comes with a grant of 2 million yen a year!.

It covers performing arts like Gagaku and Noh as well as crafts. There’s a big list of potters here. The focus on preservation is interesting, although to be fair the recipients are by no means all traditionalists. A couple of my favourites are Matsui Kosei, master of Neriage, and Ito Sekisui.

Similar awards have been introduced in other countries, and I’ve started to notice the term being used informally here – in recent years I’ve heard David Attenborough, Paul McCartney and Sean Connery all described as Living National Treasures. I would pay at least one of them 2 million yen a year to retire.Sasha Wardell

Back to the second group of celebrities on my sideboard:

5. Sasha Wardellceramics

Sasha creates extremely delicate translucent porcelain vessels. One of my bigger disappointments of recent years was breaking one of them at the Royal Opera House cloakroom!

6. Malcolm Morrisjewellery

I was originally drawn to a piece from Malcolm’s Apple Blossom series, and in time that led to commissioning an engagement ring and two wedding rings. Visits to his home-studio-workshop complex in Walthamstow to discuss designs and select stones made for a charming and very personalised experience.Malcolm Morris

7. Merete Rasmussenceramics

Gorgeously sensual intensely coloured sculptural forms, further from any practical function than anything else on my list. I love staring intensely at them in Contemporary Ceramics where they can often be seen. Mood-changing objects that  evoke anything from dried leaves to ships’ propellers. Definitely high on my long-term wishlist (but, I fear, risky to own). And as a bonus, Merete at work looks rather like a Vermeer.Merete Rasmussen

8. Amanda Simmonsglass

Amanda is my favourite glass artist and despite working far way in Scotland I’ve amassed a slightly excessive collection of 10 pieces. It’s lovely to meet her once or twice a year at events such as Collect. According to her website she is motivated by themes such as love, baking and hills. I can empathise.Amanda Simmons

Rot around the clock

January 7, 2012

Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, celebrating with friends at The French Table, I found myself tipsily comparing flavours and fragrances of some wonderfully delicious sweet wines. And in particular I was looking out for the distinctive concentration and complexity characteristic of noble rot, the benevolent form of botrytis cinerea.Staring into the wine

The recorded history of deliberate use of the botrytis fungus in winemaking dates back to 16th century Hungary, but I think it’s highly likely that the technique has been known much longer, especially as sweetness in wine has historically been valued much more highly than it generally is today. I’m sure the Romans would have loved the idea but I haven’t found any evidence they discovered it – probably just because the Mediterranean climate is unsuitable.

The rot spread from Hungary to Germany and France, and for centuries has been an established part of winemaking in all three countries, producing highly prized intensely sweet wines – Tokaji Aszú; the sweet wines of Bordeaux, notably Sauternes, and the Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese rieslings of Germany. It’s now also made in several other countries including Australia, the USA and South Africa, I believe using introduced spores.Sweet wine collection

As an aside, I strongly advocate trying some of these wines if you haven’t already!

Botrytis cinerea is a fungus that affects many plant species. I don’t believe its effects are considered beneficial in any of the others – but has this been tested? Strawberry Sauternes anyone? Rhubarb Aszú? –  and it can be disastrous for grapes just as easily as delicious, if the climate isn’t just right in a particular year.

It requires a very particular damp temperate climate with a pattern of misty mornings and sunny afternoons that can arise around certain fortunate river valleys. If the weather stays wet too long into the autumn, the malevolent form of botrytis – grey rot – can form and destroy the whole crop. As with so many things, perfection is close to disaster.Botrytis strawberry

There are of course alternative techniques for making intensely sweet wines, with freezing on the vine (ice wine) being another approach that is also highly prized, risky and laborious.

This set me thinking more generally about what types of food and drink tend to become established as delicacies, and why. In many cases it’s simply rarity – including difficulty of extraction – caviar, saffron and truffles are examples. Some favourites may originate with a fleeting fashion such as a monarch’s preference.

Sensory preferences can rarely be explained in rational terms, and structuralists would have plenty to say about the need for a hierarchy of qualities to give meaning within a value system. We have a social need for some things to be declared exceptionally fine and exceptionally base. It helps make sense of everything between. And psychologically it makes sense to me that we are drawn to declare things supreme in some rather irrational, but potent, ways – proximity to danger (e.g. fugu), powerful physically challenging sensations (e.g. durian), and proximity to putrefaction, whether caused by fungus, bacteria or other natural processes, such as botrytis in wine.Choosing durian in Bali

I strongly suspect that in cultures all around the world there are examples of this botrytic knife-edge between the exquisite and rank, mostly originating in historical accident, but now elevated to the state of expensive delicacy. I’ve listed a few here, and I’d love to hear about any more!


Slimy, pungent, intensely flavoured fermented soy beans usually eaten with rice. Natto

Shiokara Japan

Salty fermented seafood viscera made into a thick lumpy paste.

Hundred-year eggsChina

Eggs preserved in an alkaline mix of clay, ash, salt and lime for several months, developing deep green and brown colouration and a cocktail of new flavours and odours.

Blue cheese is another obvious European example, and it divides opinion in my household every Christmas. Veining with penecillium mould is for me a visual, taste and aromatic treat, though it does require care in matching with other foods and drinks. Both fungus and bacterial growth contribute to the complexity of cheeses like Stilton and Roquefort. In general dairy products seem prone to natural processes that can invite differences of interpretation. For example, I’ve always considered that an old yoghurt simply morphs into a different type of yoghurt (experiments were carried out in undergraduate days), but not all agree.

I’m reasonably adventurous with cheeses, but there are a few notable specialities that I haven’t yet tried:

Casu MarzuSardinia

A traditional sheep’s milk cheese carefully decomposed using fly larvae.


A zesty aged quark with a rind fermented by small tyrophagus casei mites.Cheese mite

Garum, the classic flavour of the Mediterranean world in ancient times, is an interesting example. A nutritious salty sauce made from intestines and other parts of fish, it was widely produced in many varieties from a basic table condiment to elevated gourmet forms for Roman haute cuisine, and also used in cosmetics.

Like several of the foods mentioned here, fermentation is the key, with processing by salt and enzymes preventing other forms of spoliation that would be harmful. It was essential for the raw ingredients to be extremely fresh, hence facilities being located very near the sea. We know perfectly well how to make garum because ancient writers explained it, and quite a few people have tried. See links here, here and here.

Finally a few more mostly fishy things to finish:


King salmon and other fish heads allowed to decompose to a carefully controlled degree – similar processes are applied to many foods in the far north.


A form of fermented herring made with subtle bacterial processes to maintain nutritional value, developed as an alternative to salting. There is said to be a Surströmming museum at Skeppsmalen on the Gulf of Bothnia (no website).


Greenland shark hung for many months to allow bacteria to remove dangerous toxins, but leaving a strong ammonia odour. I did wonder if this might appear in the lyrics of any Sigur Rós songs but it seems to inhabit the wrong aesthetic universe. There is however a fun track from Simian Mobile Disco on their intriguing album Delicacies.

I’m conscious that this topic leads neatly onto thinking about foods and drinks believed to have spiritual qualities, including perhaps aphrodisiacs. But that calls for at least one more blogpost.

The composer Elliott Carter was born in New York City on 11th December 1908, one day after Olivier Messiaen’s birth in Avignon, France. By way of introduction, here’s Bridget Kibbey playing part of his 1992 harp solo Bariolage.

Carter gave this piece a motto from Rilke (Sonnets to Orpheus, 2, 10):

But existence is still enchanting for us; in hundreds

Of places still pristine. A play of pure forces

Untouched except by one who kneels in wonder.Elliott Carter

Like many artists of his time, Carter is burdened with a sometimes excessive discussion of his technique and historical significance, which can perhaps be offputting to listeners. I find it hard to resist joining in with this chatter, but suffice it to say he has a preoccupation with the perception of time – a splintering of regular time to match the complexity of twentieth century life; a taste for long expressive melodic lines, and a powerful sense of drama driven by giving idiosyncratic characters to different instruments or groups.

I first encountered Carter’s music at one of my first ever proms back in 1985. It was the première of a substantial chamber piece called Penthode, conducted by Pierre Boulez. I didn’t know much classical music at all at the time and I can’t honestly remember what I made of it. But I do recall a critic sniping about the 1985 season as a whole, saying something like “too much sadly neglected British music plus a helping of Elliott Carter is sure to get the audiences fleeing in their droves”. My teenage identity gave me no interest in the former but demanded I should make a determined effort to befriend Elliott’s spiky complexity.

And I have to admit it’s taken me a long time to really befriend him! I always found his music interesting and enjoyable, but it’s taken me many years to find a real emotional engagement. Unlike, for example, Boulez, with his glittering frenzy, or Birtwistle, with his powerfully evocative dark rites.

I’ve returned to Carter numerous times over the years, encouraged by one work in particular I’ve always loved, Night Fantasies. This long piano piece from 1980 is of fearsome technical complexity (I definitely do not recommend reading up on what’s going on in there compositionally), but to me it invites a very direct emotional response, as befits the title.

My breakthrough came quite recently when I put on a CD of Symphonia (1996). To my great surprise I soon found myself spontaneously rising from my seat and starting to dance around the room to it. I’ve no idea how that happened, but it certainly did, and it signalled a different kind of listening, or perhaps not-listening: certainly not trying to listen.

That experience has transformed how I feel about all of Elliott’s music. I’m still unsure how to put into words my poetic response in the way I easily can for, say, Boulez. I’ve realised there’s a huge difference between musical style and musical personality – a topic that deserves it’s own blogpost – and I’m still wondering who really is similar to Carter in personality, as opposed to style. Names that come to mind are Schoenberg and Berg, who seem to overlap with his robust emotional world. But my response is now much more physical, and through that emotional, and I’m left with a fantasy of finding a DJ willing to play his records for me late into the night.

I’m also left wondering if Carter demands close attentive concentration, or if in fact the opposite is true – and in general if technically complex modern music can sometimes benefit from a more relaxed approach by the listener? I believe there’s room for both. I certainly spent far too long trying to understand Carter’s technique and personality, whereas in the end my response was at least partly physical. You either respond to the energy, drama and playfulness or you don’t – and quite possibly with your feet.

I don’t think it’s ridiculous to suggest that the creative output of a significant artist beyond the age of 100 is of enormous intrinsic interest. Elliott’s recent works (and they are legion) have a new delicacy and simplicity, remain playful, and have less expressive extremes but still a wide range of mood. Charles Rosen means no insult in commenting that Carter is “a rare instance in which losing a little edge in old age is not a bad thing”.

In 2010 he composed a song cycle called A Sunbeam’s Architecture, the title referring to the following lines by E. E. Cummings:

such was a poet and shall be and is

who’ll solve the depths of horror to defend

a sunbeam’s architecture with his life:

and carve immortal jungles of despair

to hold a mountain’s heartbeat in his hand

Finally, here are some interesting short video interviews on the Boosey & Hawkes website. Near the end Carter comments that unlike many modernist composers who raised a fist to the past, “I’ve always loved so many kinds of music … Bach and Beethoven … Guillaume de Machaut … and my music is somehow a thankyou note to all of that.”

Recommended recordings:

Symphonia / Clarinet Concerto

Night Fantasies / Ravel

Figments and Fragments

String Quartets


A box of buttons

January 3, 2012

A few months ago a delightful blogpost by Julia Parsons inspired me to embark upon possibly my silliest ever craft project. With the exception, arguably, of my 2002 scouring pad project, which will have to wait for another day.

Julia wrote with sparkling nostalgia about her love for her grandmother’s secret stash of buttons, beautifully evoking a child’s delight at the mysterious unfathomable magic always just beneath the surface of everyday life.

I don’t really have a button-memory like Julia’s, but I certainly found her tale powerfully evocative. There’s something about a whimsical collection of disparate and slightly absurd things that can’t fail to tug the imagination and draw up real or fanciful stories.

My own memory took me back nearly forty years to my grandfather’s wooden toolshed, in the middle of a seemingly immense garden teeming with exotic plants (such as runner beans and rhubarb), behind my grandparents’ council house in Garden Road, Dunstable.

The shed was potently perfumed with a mixture of wood, metal, rust, oil, and probably tobacco too. It was filled to the brim with incomprehensible apparatus utterly otherworldly in the context of my tidy home life. I remember trays of screws and nails of every size and all sorts of miscellaneous workmanlike detritus. Perhaps there were things for his famous scooter. Or football memorabilia. I’m not sure if anything was ever used, or it was just some kind of den … and of course, most of this is probably the product of my imagination.Household button stash

But as an adult, as things have turned out, I’m much more a buttons person than a screws and nails person … so I decided to take Julia’s memory as a starting point and, knowing that in my household we have assiduously kept spare buttons, often years beyond their use-by date, see if I could come up with a project.

My idea was that an interesting texture could be created by combining real buttons with cut-out photos of buttons and oil-painted buttons. Combining these in relatively equal proportions against a black background on canvas should make a fun and colourful new object.Photographing the buttons

I got a 40x40cm canvas and, counting out a sample from the button box, I determined it would need about 600 to fill the space (i.e. 200 buttons, 200 photos, 200 painted). One of those moments when it hits you how much work is going to be involved with a  project! Fortunately one of my strengths is carrying ideas through to completion … especially when utterly silly.

The household  saved button stash was inadequate, so I bought some bagfuls from Blooming Felt and topped up with a few expensive specials from John Lewis and Liberty. Laying them all out, sorting and counting was of course the best part. I took the photos at that stage and applied various distortions to the colour and lighting, so that the cut-outs would have a range of visual interest to balance the textures of the real buttons. The hardest part for me was the painting, as I have no particular skill with oils. Once it was all put together I waited a fortnight before painting on the dots, and then another fortnight before placing it on the wall.Finished buttons texture

Looking at the finished object now, the texture has worked out just about as I hoped, and so far the glues I used are holding up. I enjoy the contrast between real textures and faux-textures, and the correspondences between the real buttons and the distorted versions seen in the photos. I’ve since made a second smaller version as a gift (30×30 cm – which means half the surface area and half the effort).Buttons on the wall

Even though there wasn’t much of personal significance in the materials used, I’m sure someone will occasionally spot a button and remember clothes, places and people. Scouring the surface I realise there are at least three brands visible: Ted Baker, PS (Paul Smith) and Nico Didonna. Everyone knows the first two, but Nico has had much more personal significance for me over the past decade. A superb designer-tailor and irresistible salesman, he’s responsible for many of my favourite things, including my three-piece purple velvet wedding suit. Nico undoubtedly deserves a blogpost of his own. And I’m very happy to have recylced a chunky metal Nico-branded stud-button that fell off my favourite dance trousers one night in 2009.