Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Without Prejudice

On my way to school just a few days ago I witnessed a smash and grab raid on a jewellers in Norwich.

There were four lads, looking between 19 and 25 in the uniform of the eponymous ‘Hoodie’ bashing at the windows of a dealer in expensive timepieces with ball-peen hammers. In my outrage I thought: stupid gits, any half-assed criminal knows you need nothing less than a Hilti gun to crack armoured glass. Maybe they hadn’t been able to nick one.

They took much too long over the job. Long enough for people to come out of shops to see what was happening. Long enough for many to get out their phones and cameras and take photos and for a crowd to swell waiting in anticipation for the dénouement coming soon on YouTube.

It was all quite surreal. When the first smack on the glass got my attention, I looked up and thought I was seeing a glazier or some workmen up the road using the lazy way to remove a window. How odd that it was a shop with brightly lit displays and people nearby were screaming and shouting. When I realised it wasn’t some kind of theatrical intervention (which I’m always rather expectant of) I was dumbfounded for a moment. I was carrying a parcel of my photos and a rolled poster which I put down while I fumbled for the phone in my case.

By the time I’d got it out and powered the phone up and navigated to the camera, the gang seemed to have realised their task was futile. The staff inside the shop was taking out the trays of trinkets quicker than the glass was giving way. The crazed glass had begun to sag down like a plastic belly but it held its strength like chainmail cloth. One, two, three, in turn each lad tried to walk away but were held back at the boundary of the stage they had created in their common purposelessness. When at last a small hole opened up in a window, the most determined lad reached in his hand and grasped at the last remaining bauble. That was their cue to run away.

The imperative to make a decision crossed my mind; let them go or follow them, bearing in mind they might be armed with knives or even guns. I didn’t want to die from an infected gut shot. I knew they’d get away but as they turned the corner, I and some other people found ourselves taken up and running after them.

Being over 40 and overweight, I had no illusions about who was going to win this foot race. We ran down a cobbled alley that over the centuries must have echoed countless times with shouts to apprehend thieves. Their car was parked outside a cinema. They all piled in and drove off at speed.

The car came at me. It was frozen in a high-definition, slow-motion film of the potentially intersecting trajectories of a pedestrian and automobile.

I crossed the road. Something hit the panic synapse off. Now the car was beside me. I thought - slowing the car down again - as I turned around; at this moment I could do something heroic like lob my case into the windscreen but reason said it would be futile or cause a crash. So far nobody had been threatened or hurt. I chose to be the grass they could pass through rather than a tree they would have to cut down. Released from my synaptic hold, the car shot across the pedestrian crossing and merged into the traffic.

I had the car registration and a glimpse of their faces in my mind so I rang the police. Pacing with the adrenalin now, their switchboard was lighting up like street decorations hung at Christmas. I was put on hold and then cut off. Thirty seconds later a patrol car drove by the other way (having passed by them) and I and the other witnesses released our dam of information gathered in the last two minutes. Then I went to school. I had an appointment with a professor and I was five minutes late.

Around noon I had go to the stationers and it took me past the shop again. The shutters were down, the crime scene tape was up and the radio and press were there so I felt it was a professional courtesy to give my story to the radio reporter and then, as much I could remember, give exactly the same account to the press.

A detective rang me and came with another officer to my study in the school. There I related as much detail as I could. The script of the movie in my head ran to pages and pages. Faced with blank paper my memory of specific things was actually fragmentary. The visual narrative was disjointed, time-shifted. Where their shirts blue or grey? Which one had the one with the logos? The stripes on one, were they thick or thin? Were there four men or five? I’m not really sure. Reason wanted to spread logic filler into the gaps but integrity insisted that the story was told incomplete. Maybe the other people knew the rest but the detective said other people hadn't seen what I had. When I signed the statement, over two hours had passed and the narrative computer ran in my brain into the future. I can see where barristers might try to disassemble it to discredit my story and how conversely, the evidence for a magnitude of charges must lie with me. Truth is subjective I am afraid.

A photo has been published. As evidence it is fuzzy, furtive and indistinct. It makes a lie of the value of constant surveillance. Most of the witnesses' photos were seized as evidence. I doubt there's something outstanding amongst them to interest the media after the trial, if they catch them. On seeing one published I’m glad that was after I gave my statement as it validated the accuracy of my memory. I expect whomever gave their photo to the local paper felt pretty good about seeing it in print and they probably got £50 for it whereas I know a good set of a crime in progress can net ten grand from the red tops.

I had no energy left for a dissection of Pope and his definitions of creativity. I reflected on was I a witness to a crime or perhaps it was just my cue in the theatre of Karma? I was presented with a context framed by societal constructs on; violence, property, race and gender (amongst others) and I had realized today several artifacts in textural and spoken narrative media and improvised a kind of performance. These are small gestures perhaps as a artist but HM Govt. is likely to commission their exhibition at a Crown Court soon.


After being caught two months later in a random stop and found without insurance and a number of hammers in the boot of the car, three of the five men who had taken part were sentenced to between two years and three years for a long series of jewellery shop robberies.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Park & Ride Norwich

I've been heading into Norwich two days a week for a while now and using the Park & Ride after the Anglia Coaches 588 let me down one too many times. I find there's a significant difference between the satellite car parks of Thickthorn and Harford the journey makes on your impression of Norwich. If you go to Thickthorn, which for me is 4 miles further away than Harford, your bus goes into town on a dual carriageway past the great Victorian houses of the Newmarket Road. The Harford bus winds way around council estates and grim retail sheds. It seems to take longer to get to the bus station because of it. I think there's a potential narrative in this.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

beer, coffee and novels

The writer Tessa West answered my appeal on the college intranet so after the core module lecture we hooked up for a coffee at La Parisienne as it's nearby and a latte is only £1.20 there!

With a full time student ID the coffee stall opposite the school will do you a latte to go for £1 which must be the cheapest anywhere. La Parisenne's service can be slow but then we weren't in a rush. With the place being empty, I wasn't going to be self-conscious about talking about me.

Tessa is quick and lively and is very clear about her purpose and ambition with her art, craft, call it what you will. She's got an interesting CV from her work in prisons and sounds like she's into thorough histories on obscure subjects. Something she's working on right now seems a lot more 'nerdy' than water towers.

She gave me her second novel 'The Reed Flute' to read. I gave her one of the last copies of the water tower guide. Her work has themes I can relate to; the power of landscape, grief and longing (and that's the first chapter) and she gets what I'm on about with towers. We shared mad ideas to subvert the publishing system and so who knows what will come of it.

I read it waiting for the bus for the Park and Ride (which turned out to be quite an appropriate setting) and I detected a cadence in the structure. I don't know if that's deliberate and related to music or just a facet of her 'voice' as a writer. Of the writers I know, none of them speak in any way recognisable from what they write. (Although Alan Bennett has about the most perfect voice for his own words). It might be possible with a writer you know well to identify anonymous extracts and you might identify their voices blind but I doubt anyone could match any quantity of anonymous text to a writer's speaking voice

We had to break it off after one cup because we both had things to do: I had to this critical mission to get my laptop power cord PAT tested. To plug a laptop into the college's networt you have to go to the IT help desk in one building for a form where they log your MAC numbers and you sign it saying you won't look at porn. Then you go to the main building to find the caretaker to PAT test your power supply . That done, you then go another building to find another bod in IT tech services to run a virus check. Only then you can go back to IT help desk for your log in password.

This is why I didn't go to the real ale festival being held in the old church-now-venue next to the college at lunchtime. It was hugely popular; by 2 PM the queue snaked down the street for 100 yards. When I went home the church was being evacuated. Two fire tenders and a TV crew were already there and about five thousand blokes standing around a wondering WTF was going on. As everyone was in a jocular mood and no doubt full of a few pints, if there had been a fire, they could have probably put it out themselves.

I might submit this blog as the course requirement to keep a learning journal.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Career Loan Fiasco?

In July I applied for a Career Development Loan to take up my MA in October but come the day of enrolment a week ago, I hadn't heard anything. I rang the lender and was told that my loan application has been stalled because of problems at the Learning and Skills Council.

According to the CDL lender, several thousand applicants for CDLs are having difficulties securing finance for their courses because the Learning and Skills Council arbitrarily de-registered hundreds of reputable colleges from the register of accepted learning providers. All the learning providers were told in February 2007 they had to re-register by April.

The lender say there is now an enormous backlog, at their busiest time, of applications for loans that they cannot approve because the LSC have not yet processed the providers' re-registrations. Processing the CDL application depends entirely on the computer system set up by the LSC and they cannot log on to it without the learning provider being registered. In my case, the college sent their re-registration in time.

The lender also said that only 70 or so of formerly over 800 institutions have been re-registered for CDL processing so far and they too are experiencing extreme frustration at the progress of the LSC. They advised me to take this matter to the highest level. In their words, it would be appropriate to take this up with a government minister as there are thousands of other prospective students in the same situation as me.

It was interesting that in the speech given by the registrar on commencement, she said this situation has still not been resolved but that students in this position could begin their courses.

Artists wanted

I put this appeal out on my school intranet this morning:

Dear All,

I am looking for artists in any media who have considered the subject of water towers.

The second annual exhibition by a group of East Anglian artists (see below) devoted to water towers has just been held. I hope the third one in August 2008 will be bigger, wider in scope and in a more accessible location.

Why water towers? Plainly obvious but usually mysterious - and amongst mankind’s oldest structures - water towers have always inspired artists, poets, photographers and filmmakers but the extent of their cultural influence is hardly known. The influence of water availability on our society cannot be overstated yet hardly any information survives about who built or designed British water towers, even the modern ones. Their stimulus on the development of other technology is surprising. With so many towers now redundant from their original purpose, I believe great benefits can be derived from their reuse. The encouragement of research, preservation and provision of information on water towers is a project that I began with a Millennium Lottery grant in 2003.

I am working with several tower owners to develop public access for tours and I have lately facilitated TV programmes and radio documentaries. I am also seeking contributors and funding for the expanded print and web version of the water tower guide I published in 2005.

If you'd like to get involved, please contact me here.

Back to school

Today was the first proper day of my MA course and although I am fired up with the possibilities of new learning, I was annoyed by some tiny but significant failures of planning and delivery of the learning. Some things, like losing the key to the binocular locker on the Titanic, can have unforseen consequences. I see there's a gulf between the academic and the real world (sorry; that's "applied practise" in academic jargon).

My first lecture in the campus's new theatre today was really just more orientation. The live walkthrough the library's website was abandoned because the network in the lecture theatre appears to be 2400 baud and the server is offsite. I couldn't hear a word of the lecture anyway over the sound of a grinder cutting pipes on the building site next door where they are finishing the lobby to the library (sorry, that's "Learning Resource Centre"). I have learned a bit about controlling sound from the practical experience of film sets. You can do a lot with a few old blankets. If the workmen had put some under the cutting bench and some over the connecting door, that should knock off 60 db or so. But someone thought a sheet of plywood over the door to the corridor would do the job. Fine; for demonstration of a resonator.

Today 45 of us were given the book list for the first module and told to read pages XXX to XXX by Friday. But the library only has one copy of each of the books in stock to begin with and someone had checked them out so no one could copy them.

The one extract we were given was copied on pink paper. It has low contrast, is impossible to read unless the lighting is 100% optimum and you cannot mark it with a highlighter. Half the text runs into the gutter so I'm missing 10% of the words. It's doing my head in to fill in the blanks.

I did manage to track down the student - on another course - who had checked out the books to ask to borrow them to make a copy. I knew the copy machine in the library takes swipe cards only. Said swipe card can only be charged up with pound coins, which I knew, and yet there is nowhere in the library to get these coins or charge with a card if you only have paper money. I gave the books back and bought them on Amazon as I won't be going back there till next week.

When you both work full-time and study part-time, your time becomes the most precious commodity. Anything that wastes time or energy is especially punishing. I just hope it gets easier from here.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Water Tower Project

One of my main projects at the moment which I have been doing for some years is raising awareness of the wonderful diversity of water towers in Britain.

In 2002 I hit upon the idea of writing 'A guide to the water towers of East Anglia'. This came about because I had been photographing them as landscape studies but I could not find any information about them. I eventually learned from a former water board employee how the archives of the once public water companies had been chucked in skips and that commercial sensitivity and security concerns prevented the release of further information. However, this did not make sense as most of the towers I was interested in were now redundant. Sensing a gap in a market, I spent far too much time on research and a great deal of my own money on travelling but I finally found a source of funds to pay for 2200 copies of the guide to be printed. By September 2005 it was ready and this handy leaflet was a best seller (except that I didn't sell it but gave it away). In a few short months, all the copies were taken from the museums and TICs I could get to in Suffolk and Norfolk. This leaflet led to my appearance on local TV and radio and BBC Radio 4 and eventually so many people contacted me about water towers who wanted to form a water tower society, we said we have to do it. So in May 2006 the British Water Tower Appreciation Society was formed. The initial membership was made up of myself, a group of artists living in the Wenhaston area who painted water towers and a campaigner to preserve public use of 'Jumbo' the magnificent water tower in Colchester to form the committee. BWTAS is independent, democratic and hopefully will live on well after I cease to be involved.

As of writing the membership stands over 90+ and it includes civil engineers, several water industry people, some historians, many artists and a wide mixture of water tower (WT) enthusisasts. BWTAS has staged several events and water tower tours and gathered a fair bit of media attention which I will find and post here soon. For now there is a very basic website.