The gallery inhales vast amounts of light from the three windows that give out onto the park; I walked around, sharp echoes dripping from my cheap Italian shoes. I turn from the window back to an abstract painting – bland shapes in grey and brown, a masterpiece of Neo-modern Post-Ironic Brutalism. Outside, the Autumn leaves drop in a regulated fashion and isolated shoppers make their way along the path; a couple dressed in black are walking by, their figures just like those in Lowry’s world.
Drifting through the varied rooms, I find myself admiring paintings and projections; a table piled with figures made of glass is guarded by a slow-revolving lamp; their gauzy shadows sail around the watching eyes.
Outside, again, the path is wet and leaves are smeared with light. ‘The rain has washed out the numbers’ she said, ‘The trees don’t care what happens.’ Gradually, the paintings acquire more and more significance, and the park becomes a gathering of shapes.
“Don’t you wonder sometimes?”
As a teenager, I lived with my grandmother in a small terraced house in Smethwick. It was customary to avoid using the front door, so we would walk through the covered entry, dodging the loose bricks that would squirt water when you trod on them.
We had a single three-pin electric socket in the house, which supplied power to a black-and-white (although since the phosphor tube was a sort of light grey colour it couldn’t represent a real black, not a proper Malevich or Reinhardt or Kapoor or Rothko or Idris Khan black) TV set. If we needed to plug in an iron, there was a two-way adaptor available. We had no fridge, or washing machine, or stereo music system, or shower.
We had no telephone, and I don’t know whether my mother (who died when I was ten years old) ever made a phone call. Who would we call? What would we say?
The television had a large circular knob which turned to the left for radio (247 AM) or to the right for TV: there were three channels which showed Play for Today, Appointment with Fear, Crossroads and Love Thy Neighbour. And of course The South Bank Show, which I enjoyed while having no idea what ‘South Bank’ referred to. The only things I remember hearing on the radio were three pop songs: ‘Sound and Vision’, ‘Horse with No Name’ and ‘The Floral Dance’.
My possessions amounted to a small collection of paperback books which lived in a cardboard box along with a Dixons electronic calculator and a technical drawing set. My books included some HP Lovecraft short stories, Orwell’s 1984 and The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali; I also had a copy of ‘A Passage to India’, given to me by one of my teachers. In her letter she advised me to read the best authors, which I suppose was my first unwitting step towards acquiring cultural capital.
It would have been helpful to know what was expected in terms of ‘cultural capital’. But I was blissfully unaware of how things were done in the big bad world out there.
I did not know that some people went abroad on holiday, flying in aircraft to warm countries where the natives didn’t speak English. Nor did I have any idea that some people went to a school chosen by their parents, rather than by the local authority. I had a little experience of music (playing recorder and violin at school) but was never expected to show any interest in the subject.
I knew that many people owned cars, but we hadn’t got one and it never occurred to me that I would ever learn (or need) to drive.
I knew what ‘O’ Level examinations were, but I had never heard of ‘A’ levels and our school had no sixth form. I didn’t know anyone who had ever been to university, and when I eventually ended up going to sixth form I received no proper guidance on higher education – everyone at sixth form had already been coached for several years on the process of applying to university, so there was no need to discuss the basic procedure. So I was surrounded by people who shared a common absorbed understanding of the education system.
I had heard some classical music, in the form of a ten-inch album supplied with a glossy magazine (Beethoven 6) and a compact cassette of ‘Your Best Tunes:’ based on the radio show hosted by Alan Keith. But if you’d asked me anything about Wagner or Schubert or Brahms or Haydn I would not have been able to list or describe any of their works, or place them in context.
Although we studied the play ‘Pygmalion’ in the classroom, I knew very little about Shaw and had never been to see any theatre productions, except for JCS during a school trip to London.
(Many years later, one of my young work colleagues told me that she had been puzzled by an advertising poster which said ‘Those who can, teach.’ What does it all mean? She asked me. I told her that it was a deliberate misquote from George Bernard Shaw, who had originally said that ‘Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach.’
She looked thoughtful for a moment; and then looked up and said ‘Who’s George Bernard Shaw?’
Each morning we would clean the fireplace; the shovel scraped on the cinders letting out a harsh grating noise. I would sit at the cheap Formica table in the living-room with a cup of tea (a spoon of leaves with boiled water poured over them in the cup and left to brew) gazing at the reflection of the lampshade on the surface of the drink.
Sometimes I would browse through library books: ‘Troika – Three Modern Poets’, ‘How to Use the Slide-Rule’, or ‘Interview with a Vampire’. Or, for some reason, a textbook all about liquid helium, whose presence on the shelves of the Blue Gates library I could never fully understand.
Nobody ever took me to Birmingham Art Gallery to stand in front of the painting of St Mark’s in Venice and ask me ‘Do you remember going there?’ although I enjoyed visiting the Gallery and being entranced by Carlevaris’ immense picture. My favourite work, however, was ‘February Fill Dyke’.
I suppose that to even acknowledge the concept of Cultural Capital is an admission that you don’t have access to it. If you have grown up in a world where everybody has wealthy grandparents and a tennis court in the back garden, you won’t realise that these things are in any way significant. If you are surrounded by people who have never met anyone who has met anyone who has tried reading any newspaper other than the Daily Star, you might not know that the same news items are given alternative priorities by different people.
“I never dreamt that I would get to be the creature that I always meant to be.”
I am gradually coming to terms with the language of the world.
I recall at one time living in a shared house in Oxford with some other jobless graduates; we travelled everywhere by pushbike. One night I came out of the pub and discovered that my cycle had been stolen and a near-identical replacement had been chained to the lamppost in its place. Of course, what had really happened was that I had parked up during daylight, and during the evening the mercury street-light had turned on, giving my cycle frame a completely different appearance due to the metameric finish of the blue paintwork.
I suppose that Cultural Capital is a bit like coaching someone to be aware of the different forms of illumination which are used to observe objects in the world of ideas. Millions of people will see the Castrol GTX advert on their black-and-white TV set, but only a small number will recognise the tune as being from Mahler seven. And another small number will be aware that ‘Castrol Green’ is a dedicated colour used to coat the oil drums used to store that company’s products. And some people will be aware that these two separate groups of observers exist and that there may be a small intersecting subset who understand both the concept of colour metamerism and the significance of Mahler in twentieth-century music.
If I was going to recreate my ‘O’ Level Art project, I would make a point of using metameric shades; there would be six identical panels, each with a crowd of faces, over-daubed with a sweep of tormented blue and purple acrylic, with the structural formulae for the agent blue and agent purple herbicides, stencilled faintly across the garish curves. And as the light in the gallery changed – deliberately modulated using a series of polarising filters – new intriguing details would emerge from the apparently featureless drift of purple haze.