Lunch with Mabel

It’s not often that you hear someone in the pub say ‘Well, it turns out my Father is suffering from nappy rash…’
Yesterday I went to a rather grand pub called The Palace for lunch with Mabel; he was breaking his journey back to Coventry, and we chatted about the old times while drinking dandelion and burdock ale. Earlier I had been to the Art Gallery to look at the new exhibition of old works by Terry Frost, one of which was called ‘Terre Verte and White Figure’. Indeed, it showed a vaguely white rectangle which might have been the rear side of a postage stamp, or one of the blossoms from a Handkerchief Plant growing at the lost gardens, or a section cut from the Shroud of Turin. In real life, the terre was indeed green, a dull moss colour; but when I looked in the glossy catalogue for some notes about this work (painted in 1959, apparently), the accompanying photograph showed a white rectangle on a background which was a light beige colour.

Now, you may ask, does it really matter if the printed small-scale reproduction of an abstract painting is faithful to the original? After all, very few people will be able to hold (as I did) the printed copy next to the painting in order to compare them. And, suppose the painting had been entitled ‘Oblique Cadenza No. 6’? or ‘Third Derivative’ or ‘Melancholy’ instead, with no reference to any colour…would we then know if the reproduction was in any way different from the original?

One of my projects at work involves looking at the application problems of a batch of paint, and to check this, we have obtained batches of different material from two different suppliers, and sprayed these side-by-side over a bleak and miserable grey epoxy primer. Although both suppliers have declared that their paint is actually British Standard D825-K6(a) moss green, the two colours are distinctly unlike. And we have no way of knowing which of them is the ‘correct’ shade. And if the client has been happily buying this stuff for the past eight years, with no complaints, how can we then announce that their approved shade is a wrong match and that they must henceforth start using something cleaner or duller or less delta-bee-star?

Mabel and I started discussing a few of the news items in the paper, and we got onto the subject of the BBC, whose funding structure is due for review by the government. I protested that the BBC funding protocol enabled it to carry out tasks which were beyond the scope of any other media organisation. Mabel was scornful; the only things suitable for family viewing now are repeats of ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘Morecambe and Wise’.

But do you remember, said I, that time I came to stay at The Antelope (the Antelope was a pub in Warwick, next to the racecourse)? When Mabel was the manager of this venue I and some friends would occasionally stay overnight and have champagne for breakfast.

In those days I lived in a bedsit in Derby, with no television, and when I arrived in any hotel or stayed with friends, I would be mesmerised by the haunted fishtank in the corner. And I recall staying at the pub in Warwick, and watching TV while lying in bed. The programmes were two Open University lessons, one about Manchester Town Hall, and the other about the physics of rainbow formation. Only the BBC could broadcast programmes like this, I said, because it didn’t have to justify everything to shareholders and advertisers; the BBC has managed to educate millions of people (perhaps slight exaggeration) by making this kind of programme available.

I had no idea that just four years later I would actually find myself living in Manchester and admiring the wonderful building designed by Waterhouse, looking at the fake-medieval knights and the bees and the jewellery exhibition organised by end-of-year students. According to Pevsner, the two-coloured pattern on the Town Hall roof is no longer visible. I wonder if the effect of atmospheric pollution will darken the white and fade the green in Frost’s painting, so that the two items are impossible to distinguish.

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