Thomas has Cooked his goose

The collapse of Thomas Cook is the culmination of a long running series of events. Many hard working and well-meaning individuals have lost their jobs and their clients have lost money and well deserved holidays. It was predicted many years ago by travel industry luminaries, yet nobody had the will or expertise to deal with it.

Over the years, people have invested in the heritage of Thomas Cook without efficiently examining its present and/or future performances. Thomas Cook’s investors bought into it not because of its attributes but because of its reputation and vast (deluded?) client database. ‘The collapse of Thomas Cook’ will become the topic for many business studies’ dissertations. The kaleidoscope of errors covers all areas of management and for students looking for examples of ‘bad this and disastrous that’, it is truly fertile ground. I have been in the travel industry for over 40 years and have had occasional dealings with the company. The random observations that follow are simply personal, truthful reflections. I’m neither mourning nor gloating, just sharing what I saw.

Wax your feathers keep away from the Sun, he might give energy but he’s the one who’ll melt your dreams should you fly too close and bread in your hand will end up as toast

In 2011, a senior TUI manager told me that they could ‘finish Cooks off’ whenever they wanted. Some three years later and after another massive bail out, the same person told me they no longer needed to wield the sword of Damocles because Cooks were still on the same suicidal path and the new money was not going towards changing their business, just juggling debts and lining pockets. They took the money and stood still. Of course, cash was spent on a new logo and no doubt some wonderful think tank weekends for their executives in glamorous places but it would have been the same under performers that had always sought comfort by thinking well and truly inside the box.

Throughout 2015 and 2016 I was on a travel industry education committee tasked with developing vocational training. Cooks was represented by three managers. During a coffee break, I was talking to a director of a major Cooks’ rival whom I also knew through my work in education. They told me that Cooks’ presence was somewhat arbitrary because their influence on the group was now so weak and their attitude so inward looking that the other delegates conversed with them only out of politeness.

This drastically contrasts with my interactions with Cooks in the 1980s and 90s. During this period they were a wonderful client of mine. My business is a specialist hotel finder, particularly of Italian hotels. Italy was such a key destination that the Cooks’ Piccadilly office had a dedicated Italy desk and happily they gave us a lot of business. This meant that at least once a week I would stroll from our HQ in Regents Street to Piccadilly to deliver the clients’ travel documents. I remember there was always a feeling of arriving somewhere special and it was a privilege to go through their doors. The interior was modern (for the time) with banks of booking agents behind their airport style desks. Yet the Italy area was away from this functional zone and comprised two large dark mahogany desks. The visitor could sit in a green leather Chesterfield and with a true travel expert, go through their travel arrangements as if they were planning a 19th Centuryesque Grand Tour. Style and substance coexisted and it was still impressive.

This genteel corner of tradition however was on the wane. Even by the mid 80s IT had taken a firm, claws-first grip into the under SPF protected skin of the travel industry. Mr Cook had brought discovery to the kind of people who wanted adventure with comfort. The attraction in early tourism was cerebral and cultural with a safe pioneering feel. Cooks the company had every opportunity to maintain this niche but the myopic management opted to go big and inevitably bad. I am sure that many of their latter day clients that went on cultural tours still enjoyed them but the reality is that there are so many excellent specialists in this field, Cooks won’t be missed. Equally the bucket and spade end of things won’t really miss them either. Cooks was among those that helped regular people discover the thrill of leisure travel and to create a kind of travellers’ democracy. However, the IT mobsters have made it oh so easy for people to fly to the sun that they no longer need Cooks to be their Icarus.

An originator has melted its wings and finally crashed. The short term outcome is repatriation and chaos, the long term outcome will be less choice for consumers and a hike in prices. Book direct by all means, but remember you’re one step nearer the flame and there’s nobody there to shield you.

Photo; Jacob Peter Gowy (c 1615-1661), The Fall of Icarus (1635-7), oil on canvas, 195 x 180 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons

Rivoli Part 1: Cobbles, balconies and Aperol Spritz.

Rivoli has intrigued me for over 25 years. Having frequently travelled the westbound road from Torino in North Western Italy to the French border at Montgenèvre, I had always noted the castle on the hill to the left and wondered why nobody had ever suggested a detour there.

I was watching a TV programme about contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson (Miracles of Rare Device https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00077pm) and my ears pricked up when they showed a brief interview with Marcella Beccaria, the Chief Curator and Curator of Collections at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea. At once I knew that the castle was not another rural location trying to trap a few tourists, but in fact an internationally known and credible centre of present day art. The lot was cast; I was going there no matter what.

My plane landed in the early August heat. As the passengers walked across the baked 16.30 tarmac, the involuntary inhalation of fuel and tar assaulted my nostrils. I half expected to see some form of vapour but the fumes remained invisible and I stepped with relief through the automatic doors towards the air conditioned indoors and passport control.

Reunited with my luggage, I drove the hire car towards the tangenziale (ring road) and the zone where the sun would eventually be setting.

The first opportunity to tick a longstanding box presented itself in the form of a road sign; ‘Juventus Stadium’. Although I had long since lost interest in the antics of a football club that cheated by doping its players and dodgy financial dealings, I was so enjoying my free time that I knew a detour could be worthwhile. It was entirely on route and as I was only driving 26 Km that evening, I had no obligations to fear being late for. Time, precious time was my own and I was free.

After veering off the main road I followed a winding supermarket style car park track to the stadium and parked in a side road by J Medical, the club’s health centre. The area was easily accessed and the largeness of the low white and wide structure was counterbalanced by the lack of people and traffic around it. Perfection; no cars and no people. I locked the car, ensuring nothing of value was on view, and walked to the stadium entrance. At this point about 20 people reappeared from the main door. Dressed in a variety of soccer jerseys (mainly the 2 big Spanish teams) they spilled onto the concourse having completed the last stadium tour of the day. As the tours were over, I opted to look around the club store instead. I’m not averse to collecting football shirts but €100+ for the 2019-2020 home team shirt with ‘Ronaldo’ across the shoulders caused me to sound my derision aloud with an uncontrolled snort. Rolling my eyes and tutting, I returned to my car.

I arrived at the Hotel Rivoli soon after. The property was easy to find as it is between the motorway and the historic town. It’s a large red brick structure set within an impressive car and coach park. I’ve worked in tourism all my career and do not have a problem with big utilitarian places so long as they function properly. This property was fine. The receptionist knew my name before I told him who I was. This impressed me because it showed he had invested time in looking at the arrivals list. He even spoke to me in English which was not something I particularly wanted (I like to assume a full Italian identity when I’m there) but again this showed he was interested in the guests and keen to communicate. My room was simple but fine. The window offered a long view of the Alps and the Piemontese countryside. Nearer the hotel I could see the gardens were tidy and surprisingly green. To the side, a small water park with its bold red, blue and yellow slides demonstrated that greater Rivoli offers more than just a convenient stop-off place but family activities too.

Armed with a map (Millennials NB, it’s a paper version of Google Maps and paper is what people used to write on before we had screens). I walked out of the hotel’s rear gate and ambled for 2 km to Rivoli’s centre. The route was quiet and safe. I passed playgrounds, a closed-for-summer school and an imposing Jehova’s witness centre. As I approached the central zone I found myself walking past very normal Italian post-war apartment blocks. The street level was occupied by all the usual suspects; bakers, butchers, green grocers and more than enough hairdressers and a barber’s shop. The buildings may have been standard fair, but their balconies intrigued me. Some of the wrought metal looked like 1960’s pin people doing a square dance while others curled where they could in an effort to add baroque to the utilitarian structure.

Much of the town was closed or closing for the mid-summer week and as I arrived in Piazza Martiri Della Libertà, I could see that it was a lively community focal point at any other time during the year but this. Having worked up a thirst, I knew beyond doubt that I had earned a drink. The Caffè Consueto (https://www.facebook.com/pg/Caff%C3%A8-Consueto-1397695793595899/about/?ref=page_internal)

occupies the corner of the square. Its glass front and side allowed internal movements to be seen from the exterior. From across the square I could see pastries, triple layered tramezzini (sandwiches) and an array of coloured bottles upright on the tiered glass shelving. I sat at a small table on the outside without a firm idea of what I wanted until the server suggested an Aperol Spritz. I accepted immediately. Now I know it has become a bit too popular in recent years and does not make the imbiber look particularly sophisticated, but the A.S. is a marvellous aperitivo designed to be taken BEFORE dining. Its flavours blend to stimulate appetite. It is culturally and morally wrong to consume it after dinner. The kind of thing a tourist would do. This rather large drink was certainly ‘pre’, my as yet unplanned dinner and therefore acceptable and besides, the three middle aged women on the next table were sipping Aperol too so I drank mine knowing I didn’t appear to be a foreigner. What did make me look like an out-of-towner however, was the surprise on my face when the waitress brought me a platter of food. I had expected some crisps or bread sticks, but the selection of meats, cheese and pizza brought about a childlike delight. When the €8 bill came, I was just sober enough (I’m not a big drinker) to calculate that I could comfortably and economically live in this bar. I left a €10 note on the table and swanned off feeling magnanimous albeit slightly wobbly.

I was sated and relaxed and ready for my Castle adventure the next day.

Seasons of Summary

It’s that opposite time of the year again. For most people going about their daily lives the longer days and expected sunlight create a natural momentum and a flow of movement. If people are going to exercise at all, this is certainly the time. Just look at the available number of cycling, running and walking events and you’ll see that spring into summer is flex time.

For many students however, the opposite applies. It’s a case of heads down over the laptop, writing out index cards, slurp a warm drink, procrastinate a little, sip a little more, realign the pencils and hunch again back over the laptop.

As an examiner it’s an odd summer for me because for the first time in 6 years I’m not on the cusp of marking any papers at all because this time around; I’m the student!

I’m finishing off a 10 month course in educational assessment and although I do not have to sit exams, I do have a long report to research and write up and from a seasonal perspective; it feels wrong. I wrote an essay over December and January and found it much easier to lock myself away, pull the curtains and do what was required. The winter months feel like a much more appropriate time to spend indoors and think.

I suppose it has to be this way because the academic year runs from September to June (and nobody’s rushing to change that in a hurry) and we in the system have constructed a necessity for assessments, tests and all other Systems Of Summary to come along now, like a pan national swarm of full stops.

I’m not offering any change or amendment, but I am saying to students and parents do remember that teachers, moderators, invigilators and examiners know what you’re going through. We live through it ourselves each year and remember our own time at the sharp end. We are in fact still there because your success it ours. Educators do it for the vocation and the desire to help. If things go wrong the Sunday Mail will be quick to point and blame and quite frankly, even when things go well, they’ll do the same.

Take it from an insider, your teachers are better than ours were. What you learn is useful and of great value and a secret that others may not like to share; there’s no immediate rush. There’s always tomorrow. See a poor result not as a sign that you’re not up to it but that you’re travelling at a slower pace than the system wants, but you’re still travelling. If you can extract some enjoyment from the subject, you can definitely make it and even if you don’t like it that much, with time you can still arrive.  

YOU MAKE AN OLD MAN VERY HAPPY

Walking Football 3 years on.

Readers will know that in 2016 I started playing walking football (WF). Three years later I’m still playing. It began as an activity for people aged 50+ and has expanded so much that there are 1000’s of WF teams throughout the UK and Europe.

https://www.imagekind.com/Soccer_art?IMID=9b45c8da-3bc5-4386-acf6-4de08ca15392

At Barnet Football Club we have 2 weekly sessions and there is plenty of opportunity to take part in competitions too. I, however, do not get involved in these. A practical reason is that as I have not yet retired, I do not have spare time during the week.  The second reason is that I do not like the way that competitive games make me behave. I took part in a tournament last June and I played quite well. My team got to the semi-finals and among my team mates, developed a reputation for being a pragmatic, no-nonsense player. This is code for saying that I kicked opponents and demonstrated toughness and gamesmanship. My colleagues liked it and to be honest, I enjoyed their plaudits. However, aggression is a bad, if unapparent trait in me and considering I once ruptured my ACL trying to foul somebody, I do not wish to tap into it again. Also, it is not how a middle aged person should behave. Absolutely. Not.

I took up football again because I wanted to get fit doing a sport I love and to make new friends. Whenever we play I spend much of the time laughing out loud and enjoying the fact that the many errors we make are funny. I know I look foolish trying to do something I couldn’t even execute properly in my teens but I’m amused that my brain still imagines me doing a back-heel, even though my chocolate knee crumbles each time I pivot on it. Last year, two teenage footballers were watching our slow clumsy efforts through the fence. As I trotted towards them to collect the ball, one of them called out ‘’Scuse me, are you playing Walking Football?’ After I confirmed her suspicion, she turned to her conspirator and gleefully told her; ‘You see, they’re meant to be slow. Dummy!’

This filled me with joy. The idea that two people were mesmerized not by our prowess or rugged mature looks (yes, somebody did suggest this) but by the fact that we reminded them of their parents or quite probably; their grandparents but doing things parents and grandparents simply do not do.

Our football group is diverse. We have a men with new hips and knees, a female (although once upon a time we had more), a typical ‘London’ racial mix and some younger men that contribute towards the evening with passion and energy. The group, however, has changed. As recently as last summer we had four or five other, much better players all of whom have moved on, I understand, to higher planes of walking football. On one level I prefer this because as one of the better Mediocres, I look better by their absence but I am also disappointed to have learned that these people, all of whom I like, have rejected the pleasures of playing among mixed ‘talents’ and are aiming towards excellence.  

1973; our knees could bend without snapping

Walking Football has done a strange thing; it has brought back dreams to some ageing men. When we began I was enchanted by the notion that I could once again play the sport until I die. Something that abandoned me in the 1990’s had returned and I had my chances again. I love buying boots and other bits of kit and feel a real sense of recreational purpose. I did not however dream of being a champion. When I sat down to write this piece I was minded to be critical of those who have moved on but in writing this I realise it would be churlish to deny them their fantasy. After all, why should their dream be less valid than my non-dream?

So I say ‘go for it boys, just don’t get hurt’.

Me, me, me.

Some thirty odd years ago I wanted to be an actor. I spent much of my spare time during my 20’s in theatre groups taking improvisation workshops and actually became quite good at it. I even ran some groups myself and for the most part, enjoyed being in a creative setting where we would conjure up something deep and meaningful or and this was my preference, something funny. Observers and other actors would clap and/or cheer and I’d feel that warm glow of validation.

My romance for the stage began to wane when I visited an actor friend who was working in The National Theatre. My friend was a very talented performer and was in a play with some very well-known players including one who was already very famous and is now, some 30 years later (and here’s your clue), is known as a national treasure (NT). When I went backstage after the performance I was shocked at how small my friend’s dressing corner was in comparison to the established star’s room. We went to the actors’ bar and I spotted NT. I said to my friend I would like to meet NT. ‘No’ my friend said, ‘we’re not allowed to cavort with the ‘grown ups’. Apparently the hierarchy was so strict that unless one of the stars invited a young actor for a drink, they couldn’t mix. This is not a ‘Me Too’ story, but you can see how that whole thing happened. The star summons a junior over only if they ‘want’ something from them.

My stage ambitions were finally killed off when I was in a restaurant with some friends and we could hardly hear ourselves because a group of noisy young theatricals was behaving badly and loudly. I knew the type instantly and when they refused to quieten down I told them that singing aloud and throwing food was no substitute for talent. A few bitchy comments were exchanged but considering the people involved (me included) were more at home with vicious (you hit me with a flower) put-downs than fists, the whole thing calmed down.

What struck me was how the most annoying thing about some actors is self-aggrandisement. I stress ‘some’ because I have known others that are not in it purely to patch up their own emotional failings and are professional.

Which brings me to the so-called ‘Awards Season’ which this week culminated in the Oscars. What a steaming pile of …! This event and the others that lead up to it are simply a way of converting weak egos into big money for the industry. What is equally annoying is how the media willingly fan these peacock plumed flames, presumably to obtain exclusives to sell their own load of rubbish.

I know these awards can be seen as a harmless break from politics and the misery of daily grinding life, but it is ridiculous that true talent and creativity becomes secondary to fame and showing off.

Peacock credit; https://kitcheninterviews.com/14322/peacock-pictures-to-print/

Duck Billed Platitudes

For my sins I was scanning my Facebook page and was found by a video of an Australian male offering unique advice on how to expand ones consultancy and coaching business. Like any sucker that momentarily forgets that an advertiser is only promoting for his own benefit, I watched 2 minutes of his pitch. Idiot me. This now means that Facebook have told this person I am interested and now I’m sure to get all sorts of unsolicited messages.

The video was captivating to start but as soon as I heard him saying that people like me adopt a marketing plan based on hope rather than strategy I realised that this youthful wide boy was making wild assumptions as well as being patronising and incorrect. His one astute comment; that freelancers are deeply interested in doing what they do was nullified by the claim that freelancers do not want to invest in building their passion into a proper business because they just want to do their work. His whippersnapper error was thinking that we come at it without experience or market knowledge. I turned off realising that nothing is new.

Over the last year I have faced several challenges in business but have come through them. My colleagues and I have achieved this by being dogged, persistent, flexible and above all, client centred. We have also reminded ourselves that rules are there to be adhered to only as far as the letter is concerned and that their spirit is not so important. Like the Video Boy above who pretends he is in it to help others, rules are only really there to benefit the rule makers. We cannot break rules, especially moral ones and those that are bound by law, but with experience we can learn to manipulate them. Having just Googled ‘How to get more coaching and consultancy clients’ I have found several organisations that offer the same as Video Boy and at a glance (I refused the cookie assault option) most appear to be fronted by young sales people of the same ilk that used to sell double glazing, used cars and Encyclopaedias. Not only is nothing new, but it is clear that selling services and products is still being done in the same old pushy style as ever before. Tap into peoples’ frailties and convince them that as it was you that guessed their weaknesses, you can fix them.

Some years ago I asked a psychologist friend what she thought of Neuro Linguistic Programming (a.k.a. NLP) and she replied ‘same old wine, new bottles.’ Nowadays you’re more likely to hear people discussing CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and believe me, it is once again that same soured vinegar but now it’s in biodegradable bottles.

Last night we dined in a very pleasant Indian restaurant in a London suburb that served delicious subcontinental dishes in small portions and labelled them ‘tapas’.  It reminded me of Cuisine Nouvelle from the 1980’s and more recently, Balti style Indian food which still exists but has, I am reliably informed, retreated to Birmingham.

My point dear reader is that as we creep over the calendar border into a new Anno Domini, you should eschew resolutions and avoid pressurising yourself just because other people are telling you to. By all means pick a new name for what you are selling and begin a new health regime but do it when it suits you, not when the media and pushy sales people from Slimming World or WW decide you should.

Change and improvement is always possible and even when it seems improbable, it is worth trying but to give yourself the best chance; do it when you want to.

Remember; a carrot is worth more than a stick because it helps you see in the dark.

carrot-stick-article

CREDITS

This is not the video I saw, but it is similar: https://milliondollarcoach.com/events-aus/

image; https://medium.com/@Bravado/on-closing-week-quotas-and-pushy-salespeople-8204164b3ee

image: http://www.mcpheeandrewartha.com.au/motivating-employees-carrot-stick/

Evaluation across the Nation (thin end of a fat wedge)

I am an exam marker.

A question I am currently marking asks students to describe how a department store’s customer service standards should be set to ensure that they are maintained. The learners are meant to answer that the standards have to be measureable so that ups and downs can be monitored. E.g. if the store consistently opens its doors at the scheduled time or if all phone calls are answered within, say, 5 rings, a standard has been met.

Newton-WilliamBlake
No Apples!  Isaac Newton by William Blake

Of the 120 plus answers I have seen so far, I’d say that no more than 30% have been correct. Some of the wrong answers could have been construed as right in other contexts e.g. some students wrote that a customer survey, mystery shopper or a Trust Pilot review could reveal the truth about the quality of service but the question has to be answered in relation to the taught criteria and as the  examiner, I have no latitude. Whether the teachers taught the students badly (it can happen) or the candidates forget and come up with creative alternatives, nothing can be done. Wrong is wrong.

My gripe is not specifically about the example above (which has been doctored anyway to avoid me getting a detention from the Assessment Organisation) but it’s about the fact that it exemplifies a societal shift towards evaluating everything as yes/no or right/wrong. Whereas some topics like mental health and gender orientation are being considered in non-binary and more spectrum way, it seems that in other areas there is a move towards facts being correct and everything else being ‘fake news’. You might think it is this way to make it is easier for people like me to mark papers but this really is not the case. Examination setters do not prioritise assessors having an easy time and are dedicated to the task of testing various combinations of students’ knowledge, exam competence and memory. The problem in my view is that there is pressure from above to tie everything up quickly and neatly and in this process variations, nuance and out-of-the box thinking are being dismissed.

It feels that in the shadows of Brexit and Donald Trump there is now tacit permission in hard reaction to fluidity and spectrum and the power brokers are kicking back at the ‘thinking classes’;  ‘We’re fed up with your liberal open minds. By all means carry on talking among yourselves but in the meanwhile just do what we say or we either won’t pay your wages or we’ll pulp you.’

Art Science
Science currently rules over art as a way of avoiding the unanswerable questions.

Scientists do not lack creativity and artistic people aren’t illogical. Intelligent people can be any combination of scientific and artistic but annoyingly the employer classes pick and choose systems that are expedient for their own means and currently this means that reducing costs and/or making high profit trumps (LOL, as they say) gut reaction, thin slicing and provocative thinking.

It’s easier to think that data provides the answer because it means we can look away from the scary internal infinity that swirls around inside every person.

Why not read:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/mar/07/first-impressions-snap-decisions-impulse

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/aug/19/thomas-kuhn-structure-scientific-revolutions

Run to and run from but don’t run there.

I have been running for almost a year now and like most people that have taken up the activity, I find the arrival of the winter evenings with their wind and rain rather off putting.  Although I successfully ran through last winter, it still looms like a rude giant that places his pock-marked face right up to mine and dares me to ‘have a go’. LA BAGNAIA

Of the various winter running strategies I have come across, the one that currently appeals comes from a conversation I had with a friend. He told me that he has taken to thinking about blue skies. This is not a re-hash of noughties’ blue sky thinking or any other management school hyperbole but is something literal.

He confided that each day he thinks of a simple and good thing to get an appreciation of life and a blue sky, when it’s here is wonderful. I have invested much time over the years in seeking out deep meaningful clues (to life). I’ve had temporary successes like when I began my ‘silence project’ two years ago, but little has endured and I think the reason is that I sought out obscure ideas because they felt clever rather than simple ones. The idea of ‘think of something good’ now appeals because it is just so straightforward.

A few weeks ago I went to Tuscany (see my previous blog) to attend a UNESCO tourism event. I have been to many exhibitions over the years but due to the fact that the invitations have become fewer, I now value them much more when I get the chance to attend.

As I checked into the hotel (Hilton’s La Bagnaia Resort near Siena)

scenic view of the field from the road
Photo by bruce mars on Pexels.com

I was told both good and bad news. The good news was that the resort had a gym and the bad news was that it is 1.5 km along the road. I had brought my sports gear and wanted to run but was put off by the fact that the gym was a five minute drive away. I realised however that I could run to the gymnasium, do more running there and then run back.

It was Friday evening in early October. As I left my room and stepped onto the cobbled yard I was struck by how temperate the weather was. There was a pleasant caress of warmth accompanied by a hay like aroma that reminded me of somewhere I had never been. I walked downhill through a stone arch and began to run. It was easy to begin as the descent continued and the scenery was ancient and calm. To one side was a manicured golf course which although pretty and green is a manufactured construct that bends nature to reinventing itself in the name of a rather pompous pastime. The other side was more natural and rough and the high hedge along the route obscured me seeing over it. I had to be careful with the running as the country road had a grass margin that was as bumpy as the pot-holed road and I am always aware of the risk of twisting an ankle. I managed however to grab a few upward skyward glances and noted the friendly deep blue above.

After 9 or so minutes I approached the building that housed the gym and realised I did not have enough time to run in the gym here and then get back so I eschewed the indoor facilities and completed my 3km by running back to the resort. I found it amusing that because I had run to and from the gym I had rendered its existence rather pointless.

 

I can remember standing by the wall

SIENA Ren Photo

…which was some 20 metres in front of me. As I had been in front of hundreds of  other Renaissance walls over the last 30+ years, the tour guide’s explanation was rather easy to switch off to. She knew her stuff and dispatched her lines with passion but the fact that I had been travelling for a whole day and it was now late evening meant I was not open to learning new material.

That was until I heard her comment that this mural was created almost 700 years ago. The sheer old age of the massive painted wall struck me much more than the work itself. That is not to say that the painting lacked impact but it was the realisation of its ancientness that really impressed me. I stared at the expanse and imagined a team of committed young artists (presumably all men) perched high up on wobbly ladders and wielding heavy brushes in cold damp winters and hot sweaty summers. Each one would have had the mind set of an intern doing his best to impress the maestro and would have been exuding a deep concentration. And like an intern, the artists probably suffered from the nagging fear that this was the proverbial ’it’, their career apex and that the next gig was not guaranteed because other hopeful apprentices were coming through the ranks and would be the next in line to be underpaid.

Another realisation was the absolute attention to detail that the artist and his team would have invested in creating and interpreting the picture. Being a very large piece, the translation from say an A3 sketch to something around 10 meters tall would have been a labour of complex (what we now call) logistics. The artists were clearly technically adept at drawing and painting on ‘normal’ sized canvases, but to magnify the effort to around 30 times the regular size must have been a serious challenge.

I found myself wondering what motivated artists to take on such colossal and difficult projects? I suppose the main creator would have enjoyed a decent pay out from his client which would have been the city council (as in this case), a wealthy benefactor or the church, but I don’t think people became artists to make big money. The motivation would I suspect have been from faith, both religious as in most Renaissance paintings and in their own artistic journey.

It’s hard for me to relate to religious faith because I have no compelling beliefs of my own, but when I consider that the artists of the period could not express themselves other than through formal topics I am rather envious that they could conjure up inspiration, even if it was based on what I consider to be a stifling and obligatory (religious) premise.

In this, the 21st Century we see ourselves, in the west at any rate, as having a free access to expression. I can write this blog and although some people may criticise it (not that I allow any comments) I won’t be imprisoned for it. I wonder though how helpful this liberal backdrop actually is. If people created valid works of art under the constraints of religion and politics how valid is freedom of expression in the creative context? The present seems to throw up so many mercenary artists that go for the money that I wonder if freedom is the bed fellow of cynicism.

damien-hirst
A modern day so called artist channelling his inner Jackson Pollock in a literal way. 

 

 

 

 

 

Top picture: Il Guidoriccio da Fogliano, rifacimento quattrocentesco di un originale di Simone Martini (1330) Siena, Italy

Damien Hirst photo: https://www.designboom.com/art/damien-hirst-winning-caption-first-instagram-competition-veil-paintings-08-18-2018/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shift of a glance (Eagle’s view)

 

August lies beyond the middle of the year but somehow affords a better position to see the span of the months than the end of June. I envy the Eagle that swoops where she wishes and appears to be able to look backwards and forwards in the shift of a glance and a tilt of her span.

Aigle
‘Fly it all out like an eagle in a sunbeam. Ride it on out like you were a bird.’

Future gazing offers a sense of hope which wafts in on the cooler air. I don’t buy into that concept that autumn is a season of decay and I greatly prefer nature’s ‘turn to red’ hues to the pressing heat of the summer dog days which as a non-sun worshipper have, especially this year, been burning for too long.

 

I was recently in our family home in the French Alps. We are located half way up (and so too, halfway down) a mountain. The daytime temperature in August is hot and brings along bees, butterflies and less glamorous bugs. The night time, heralded by the quick sinking of the sun behind the western ranges brings a sharp coolness that dovetails into cold at which point the moths break out and flap towards the lights when the stillness of the evening gets too complacent.

Looking to the south one can see the continuing summer of Italy and when I turn west-by-north-west, the snow/glacier peaks remind me, without much subtlety that winter approaches.

The passing of time was a topic of this brief sojourn. It came about because I was helping my brother Dan to tidy the house in an attempt to make it ready to be rented out. We have as a family been going there for 26 years and although most people have over this time only stayed for holiday length periods, there was still a considerable amount of clutter that needed moving to the figurative ‘deleted’ file.

The clutter itself was interesting and tells not only its own story but also that of whoever left it there. My mother, in whose image the house essentially is, was highly organised. We found her neatly folded bed linen in plastic bags with labels detailing the sizes and bed types they matched; ‘long single duvet’ and ‘ plain pillowslips’.

Sheets LabelMR SHeet

 

A pristine double white sheet bears the red sewn initials MR.  Its provenance being my mum’s haberdasher Aunt; Millie Rom and it must be nearly 100 years old. Crockery and kitchen aids date back to the 1990’s and being unused since before my mum passed away in 2001, sit in a cupboard. Despite Daniel trying to move them around to occupy more accessible spots they remain again in the exact same and most logical and reachable position as before our ‘big clean.’ We discussed why our mother had labelled and organised to such detail but didn’t really conclude much as it was just what she had always done. We got the feeling that she wanted to facilitate all our lives through planning and her system definitely cut through the years and made their passing less violent than in the wake of the sort of mess I shall probably bequeath.

Some 4 or so years after my mum died my father began living with Ruth. Her tale is for another day but what I found of hers tells a story too and can be seen succinctly in a small pot of her L’Oreal face cream. Ruth was of small stature and intelligent. She loved art and reading books. These interests aside what really came across in the 12 years I knew her was that she really hated getting old. The small pot of cream is to this day barely used and I can imagine her taking a tiny dab, as per instructions, in order to defy the passing time. Her death, the result of pancreatic cancer was rapid and unrelenting. It was very nasty but ironically and despite her being in her 80’s the speed of the disease helped her defy time and her period as a poorly person was brief.Ruth's Cream

My father, now in his 90’s fights time by looking to the future. One of his preoccupations was how he was going to transport a shoot from one of his mountain plants back to London without it suffocating in his suitcase from the fumes from his other contraband; salami and cheese.

Looking at the bees harvesting pollen from the lavender bush it amused me to think that they and he just carry on planting for the future with only a vague guarantee of inclusion within it.

lavender
Bees to lavender