Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Mr Pooter comes to Scotland

“We settle down in our new home, and I resolve to keep a diary.” Not since these Charles Pooter’s opening words in Diary of A Nobody, has the journal of an ordinary bloke gone on to cause such a sensation. Yesterday, scarcely 18 months after Sir Peter Housden moved from London to take up his post as permanent secretary to the Scottish Government, his collected business bulletins were published. And, to the astonishment of critics, a sheaf of on-line documents revealed – unintentionally or otherwise – a comic masterpiece.

Written every week for the benefit of thousands of civil staff, Sir Peter’s letters to his subordinates might be expected to show the cares of state weighing heavily on such a powerful mandarin. Not a bit of it. From the adventures of his cat, to his domestic struggles with a damp proof course, this author gives his domestic life equal billing with government business.

Many of his most painful agonies are felt, not in the concrete corridors of Holyrood, but out on the golf course, thumping balls around in the rough. "I won’t tell you about my quite disastrous 106 in the Spring Competition,” he writes. “Suffice it to say that I lost four balls in the first four holes, and a fifth later on. I wish I could blame the wind.”

But whatever the trials of his own life, Sir Peter — who earns £175,000 — appears to know how to fire up his colleagues with enthusiasm. Every letter is signed off: “Have a great week.”

This first collection of the permanent secretary’s writings appeared in response to a freedom of Information request, but earlier this year, some teasing extracts were released. Those seemed to show that Sir Peter had “gone native” and actively supported Alex Salmond’s drive for independence. He criticised the Coalition Government’s plans to devolve more powers to Holyrood as “lost in the mists of time” and, responding to the SNP’s election victory in May, urged his staff to recognise the “new political trajectory”.

The unexpurgated text however reveals the man in full, in all his humdrum glory: his love of vinyl records, the shopping trips down Rose Street, the afternoon teas in the modern art gallery (“don’t they do a good soup?”). 

On an Away Day with the Culture Division he falls - “inevitably” into a discussion about music. “When pressed,” writes Sir Peter, “I did ask Culture colleagues to reflect on the absolute perfection of ‘Echo Beach’ by Martha & the Muffins. Lots of people nodded. Well, a few anyway.”

Throw away paragraphs are deliberately comical. When Sir Peter turns up on “Wear Your Trainers to Work Day” he is devastated to find he is the only one who has joined in the fun, and scours the building looking for any besuited civil servant shod in Nike.

“Finally, I saw a woman zipping across the forecourt in trainers and stopped to congratulate her,” he writes. “She shouted back over her shoulder that she didn’ae work here, and was just dropping off her husband.”

Over one weekend he’s delighted to visit the public rubbish tip three times and by his purchase of “one of the those pressure washers”, a reflection that immediately puts him in mind of his wife. He adds: “Thursday was the 38th anniversary of the first time that Maureen and I went out with each other. I am the one who remembers these things in our house.”

The letters bear witness to the rapid tartanising of Sir Peter’s cultural reference points. In the early bulletins, from June last year, he remains solidly metropolitan, musing of the failings of the English football team, watching cricket at Lords and walking from St John’s Wood to Holland Park “to see a beautifully sung Fidelio.”

By the turn of the year, Scotland has entered his veins. His cultural highlights of 2010, he writes, are And the Land Lay Still, a pro-nationalist novel by James Robertson, Caledonia, a play about the Darien adventure – a key moment in the history of political union – and a performance of the Marriage of Figaro, by Scottish Opera.

Then, suddenly, after months of writing, Sir Peter’s tone changes. Her patience eroded by the weekly maunderings of her boss, one of the cabinet secretary’s minions has finally snapped, and fired in a letter of complaint.

It is a chastened Sir Peter who returns to his keyboard on September 12 this year. “Last week,” he says, “I was very nicely taken to task by a correspondent for not giving enough information in this column on the work I am doing.” Finally, he is ready to tackle the question, “What do I actually do?”

For the next 800 words he picks over his duties, including a hospital visit, the approving of a paper on Corporation Tax, a forthcoming cabinet meeting, and a date with some Hong Kong dignitaries - but the poor man cannot help himself, at the end looking forward “hopefully, (to) a trip to the range over the weekend to do something about my short game.”

Sir Peter’s diary ends last month, with a comment on David Croft, whose death is a cause for reflection on the scriptwriter’s TV comedy creation, Are You Being Served?

“I was struck,” writes Sir Peter, “by the character of Captain Peacock. Lower-middle class England of my youth was somehow full of lost souls like him, using their military titles and not quite finding their place in Civvy Street... I wondered whether it is just in fictional representations that such characters are so prevalent, and this has fed back into memory. Appearance and reality, eh?”

Too right. Who would have thought that in real life, a comic book Pepys from the English shires could rise so effortlessly up the greasy pole in Scotland?

Have a great week.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Written on the body

The artist Alison Watt could hardly have found a more apt title for  her latest exhibition, opening today in Edinburgh. Hiding in Full View is  a portrait of humanity, in all its tender beauty and sadness, and yet not a single painted image of the human face can be seen on the walls of the Ingleby Gallery. 

The show  is a collaboration between Watt  and  the poet Don Paterson, and has grown out their joint meditation on the life and work of Francesca Woodman, whose elusive self-portrait, taken as a 13-year-old, is one of the first pictures  in the exhibtion. 

It is, as Watts says, an extraordinary and mysterious photograph. It shows Woodman sitting on a bench, her face obscured by her hair, as she reaches out to pull a chord and close the shutter of the camera.  The image was the first of hundreds of works  made by the American, in which she often pictured herself, nude or semi-clothed, in strangely distressed settings. Then, in 1981, aged 22, suffering horribly from depression, Woodman threw herself to her death from a high rise building in New York.   

Against that stark biography, Self Portrait at Thirteen seems a portentous work and it had, admitted Watt, a mesmeric effect on the painter. 

“It was produced by someone just out of childhood, but it is such a fluent, sophisticated image,” she said.

“It seemed from the moment of that photograph  her whole life was set. Everything she did afterwards was camouflaging, concealing, hiding herself and yet she had done  that from the very beginning. To have consistency of vision is a very difficult to achieve.” 

Watt, 45, is one of Scotland’s finest contemporary artists. Born in Greenock, she excelled at Glasgow School of Art and won the John Player Portrait Award in 1987 while still a student. More recently her prodigious talent was recognised by a two-year residency at London’s National Gallery. It speaks volumes for her international reputation  that Hiding in Full View follows perhaps her most prestigious commission, earlier  this year, from the Uffizi gallery in Florence. 

The new  show comprises six works, all of them pattered by  rich swirls of cloth that evoke the female form, with varying degrees of sexual charge.

She has not painted figures for years. Instead each of these works takes its contours from some aspect of a Woodman work, though Watt cannot pin down a precise reference point in any one photograph. 
“It’s not as linear as that," she said. "It’s hard to tell me exactly. I don’t think painting is necessarily about conscious thinking.  You have these long periods in the studio where you are unaware of time passing. That’s the way it happens for me - when you stop and look back, that's when you being to think about where the painting might go." 

Two of the new  works, Shoal and Fount, have a power that still baffles the artist herself though she has lived with them for months. “There is a darkness in that work that I can’t really explain,” said Watt, a “gothic quality” which believes shares with the photographer. 

There is a  something in these paintings that's defined by one of Watt’s friends as  “concupiscence” —  ardour or lustfulness —   but which might be better described as a deep and dark eroticism.  Complemented by six of Paterson’s 14  single-line poems  they form an unsettling  sonnet to the frailty of human life and love.   One of the monostichs reads: “We don’t exist; we only dream we're here.  This means we never die. We disappear.” 

The  artistic  collaboration between poet and painter was born when Watt first encountered Paterson after she had attended on of his   reading  at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few years ago. He had stalked off to meet his public  in the book signing tent, when she joined the queue of admirers. 

“I thought I’d love to talk to him about his work, but it’s a difficult thing to do,” she says. “I was clutching a book of his poetry, and I spoke to him very briefly, but there was a massive line of people behind me. I  said, ‘If you are in London, do you want to come into the National Gallery? I’ll take you round.”

A great friendship was born, along with the a creative partnership,  which progressed from email converstaions, to regular meetings, as the Woodman project grew. 

The two found they shared an extraordinary attention to detail. Painting for Watt is a lonely and labourious, which begins with her notion of the simple geometry of a canvas, and ends, some three months, in a beautifully proportioned work. Paterson  approaches poetry, indeed the very arrangement of words on a page, with same obsessive verve. 

That much is apparent from the book published to accompany the show.  Watt is inordinately   proud of it, not least because so admires Paterson’s attitude in its composition.

“Don was very particular about the typeface his poems were going to be in - his letters have to be round,” she said. “He didn’t want his Os to be flattened. I love that. 

I’m obsessed with particular things in my painting,  Don is obsessed with typeface. Its like Concrete Poetry. They are like artforms, the way they are placed on the page.”  

Paterson, Professor of English at the University of St Andrews, is regarded by some critics as the best Scottish contemporary poet, but he can be a bleakly opague and difficult writer. Watt concedes that she does not understand all of his verse; sometimes though, “you just look at someone’s work  and  just get it”.

She went on:   “I’ve always thought painting  was analogous to poetry. It is a way of paring things down and editing, as a painter you are constantly editing what you see. Poets do the same thing.” 

“Don’s poems are  like looking at a truly great painting, because you keep going back to them. They can be awfully painful, but every time you go back, there is more to give.” 

This is why they both like Woodman’s work so much concludes Watt. 

 “Some of her work is so raw, it hurts,” she said. “ You have to look away you actually can’ look at some of the images. I think when work affects you that way, you have to pay attention.”  The same could said of Hiding  in Full View. 

* Alison Watt: Hiding in Full View. Ingleby Gallery 5 November - 28 January 2012

Alison's father, Jimmy, is a artist, whose work has chronicled the long, slow decline of the Clyde estuary. You can read about him here.

Photograph of Alison Watt by James Glossop