Whitworth Gallery

Cultural Capital

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. 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.


Industrial Landscapes

Each morning I walk to work past a huge manufacturing plant; the horizon is completely filled with soaring chimneys, immense concrete silos and elaborate metal gantries. Perhaps there are rules about how to fully appreciate this scenery, much as William Gilpin (back in 1772) explained the picturesque delights of the English countryside.

He suggested ideal vantage points from which a viewer could enjoy a landscape containing a mixture of elements; the smooth and rugged (lakes, trees, fields) the natural and man-made (valleys, ruined abbeys), the bare hills and busy fields at harvest-time.

Sometimes the manufacturing site looks crisp and clear, for instance on a spring morning when the early sunshine picks out one side of every structure and makes the steelwork gleam. On autumn evenings, vast plumes of steam catch the setting sun, and at times it looks as though the whole world is ablaze. And now, as we change from British Summer Time, the sky is dark by six o’clock, and the factory is completely lit by small harsh spotlights.

When this factory was first designed and built, there were no laptop computers or cellphones. Copiers and printers were expensive and found only in the workplace, never in the home. The people who created this manufacturing plant had to predict future demand for their products; every pipe, and tank, and valve represents an intersection of choice. Numerous possibilities – material, capacity, location – had to be considered, balanced and rejected before finally arriving at the present functioning design. And when looking at the factory – through the mist, or on a summer night (the sky becomes a bronze-and-turquoise fantasy) our knowledge of these technical aspects can only enhance the splendid view ahead.

After this galling experience (dismissed after 3 months) I sent a number of e-mails to friends, including the following to Andy and Robbie:

This message is being sent as a kind of insurance policy in case I end
up taking my boss to court for unfair dismissal. Can you print it off
and send it to me at my Manchester address? There’s an automatic
redirection order, so it should be sealed and dated when it gets to me
down here. (Don’t use any funny comments on the envelope or it won’t be
recognised) No hurry – next two weeks will do.
Anyway –
On Monday afternoon (29 March) my boss Craig called me into the office
and said ‘we’re halfway through your trial period and I thought it
would be an idea to take stock of how things are going’. He then said
that they weren’t sure that I was really happy (‘you seem to get the
work done but with a heavy heart’) and was I having problems?
Other remarks involved the idea that I was supposed to be gearing up
to take over from one of the senior chemists when he retires next year,
and that I hadn’t shown any aptitude to do this.
Did I have any suggestions on how to improve the situation? (Craig’s
family owned the firm – when he says ‘any questions?’ it actually means
‘now get out there and do some work’). So I said no. And the rest you
Anyway, today I had a call from one of my colleagues: “What’s going
on?” he asked.
Me: “I’ve no idea….why, what have they told you?”
Colleague: “We were told that you felt that you couldn’t really cope
and you decided to leave since your three months trial period was up.”
(I didn’t point out that it was actually six months)
Me: “Weeellll, that sort of came out during the discussion…”
Colleague: “And there were some comments made that you had been rude
to the sales department and refused to take a sample of material for
them to inspect”.
Well – actually that’s sort of true. I had prepared a silver-coloured
coating called alu-back, as requested by James G, our sales director.
It was good stuff – hard, glossy, scratch resistant, didn’t turn to
jelly on storage, and you could laser print on it. I’d done a couple of
colour laser prints on this stuff – double-sided, no less – and when
the boss was in the lab, I said ‘Do you want to give these to James
when he comes in?’ and handed them over.
Don’t you want to? asked he; I thought that if I held onto them, then
JG would come in, meet the boss, then disappear again without even
seeing them. By handing them to Craig, it was fairly certain that they
would at least be discussed. And also there’s an element of vanity
here…the stuff is so good that I don’t need to hold its hand, or be
there to make excuses for poor performance.
If he’d come into the lab and said ‘Wow, Tim, these coatings are
really good’ I like to think I would have shrugged and said “Yeah,
that’s what I’m here for.” Like ten-pin bowling: when you let go of the
ball, just turn and walk away….if it’s a strike, you don’t need to
stand and watch it.
Among the other personal flaws that made me such a liability to the
department are the fact that I went for a 10-minute tea break before
we’d finished cleaning one of the coating machines (which no-one else
was due to use for at least two weeks anyway).
And today I had a letter from the MD, with my P45 and a cheque for one
month’s wages….but the letter gives no reason for my dismissal, nor
does it mention my trial period. The DHSS (or whatever they call
themselves these days) might look on this as me making myself
voluntarily redundant.
Never mind…at least the firm doesn’t have to look far for my
replacement. They have a young man called Steph working in QC, who
started work on the same day as me. He lives about three miles down the
road in Falmouth and his family are close personal friends of the chief
chemist. Handy, that, innit? At a guess, I think the firm will invite
about five candidates for interview before saying that none of them is
really suitable, but we could always try young Steph.
As far as I’m concerned I was doing a first-rate job in the lab,
solving problems that had defeated the other workers. (I even got told
off by LT for using the internet to look up data sheet info for acrylic
emulsions; ‘Don’t look online, said he…you should ask me first’.
But anyway, at no time had anybody said to me that they were unhappy
with my performance at work, or that I wasn’t meeting targets. Indeed,
Craig seemed to avoid talking to me a lot of the time.

Here’s to the next 20 years in paint!
And this to various former colleagues:

Well, as I mentioned I had finally landed on my feet in a pretty little town called Lentorn, doing a job which seemed to have great prospects. Anyway, last Friday we had a department meeting where we all briefly explained to the boss what we’d been working on. At the end of the session he said ‘Right, I need to tell you that we’ve got a full order book and a bit of a backlog, so I can’t accept any holiday requests for April…it’s going to be seriously busy.’
Fine, I thought…I’m living over the road from work; I can easily put in extra hours when needed.
Yesterday afternoon, I was called into his office and told that the team wasn’t making the right sort of progress, and that “…we’re not sure if you’re the right person for us, or whether we’re the right firm for you…” so I’m now back on the dole (good title for my memoirs, methinks) with all my goods in a Safestore warehouse in Trafford Park while I rent a single room (believe me, it’s very single) in Lentorn.

My Agony Columns

I’d like to watch the geese tonight
Descend in graceful silhouette against
A bank of flame-edged clouds.
But no, instead
Two pillars of titanic steel

Hold up the sky. Let us dismiss them
As Phobos and Deimos
Or Castor and Pollux

These twin erections, so casual as they
Desecrate the vault of tender blue
That would bring joy
In any other place.