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Well, there’s no denying it; this blog has been sorely neglected. There’s lots of excuses for that – they all boil down to “I’ve been horrifically busy” - but rather than bore you with the exact details, I thought I’d give you a short news update.
The first is very nice news indeed. I was fortunate enough to to win the New Talent Category Award for Research and Knowledge Communication in the 2013 Illustration Awards. Run by the Association of Illustrators, the awards cover all of the UK, with a significant number of international entries. Apparently the number of entrants this year was very high, the shortlists were evidently long, so I’m very gratified that The Showman’s Yard in the East End of Glasgow met the judges’ approval.
Myself and Mrs Dialectographer will be heading down to the awards ceremony in early October to get as glam as doodlers generally get. As well as picking up my new mantelpiece ornament, I will be eligible for the overall New Talent award across all the categories. To be honest though, I’m just delighted to get this one!
There’s a lot of updates to give you on my current projects, but I have exciting plans for how that will be done, so I’m going to hold off just a tad longer. I’ve been working with the artist Chris Leslie to completely redesign and structure this site. This will bring better support for visuals, zoomable dialectograms and webcomics, as well as dedicated pages for my current projects.
The new site will be up in late August/early September. In the meantime, please keep up with me on twitter @Dialectographer and enjoy the rest of your summer.
best wishes and thanks for following,
1st December. 7 days to go. That is all…
Many of the regular followers will probably have seen the latest two dialectograms, of the Mecca Bingo and Social Club and of The Brig Bar on the Red Road Underground website. But you will have noticed the absence of the usual whingeing, griping and picking fault with myself that customarily accompanies each post.
So, now that Red Road Underground is launched, and the exhibition is open I felt it was the right time to go into more depth on these latest two drawings (probably the last two significant Red Road drawings I shall produce, save one – I’ll tell you more about that some other time…) and how they came about. We’ll start at the start, with…
THE MECCA BINGO AND SOCIAL CLUB (Red Road Dialectogram No 3)
Those of you who are familiar with Red Road Underground know the bingo’s cardinal claim to fame. It was underground, and it was massive, reportedly holding 1,000 seats . When drawing these seats, it became impossible, from the photographs, to keep track of exactly where they all were and how they were placed, not to mention keeping the right scale so in the eventuality I had to go with what I felt was right. As a result, I haven’t had the heart to count how many seats I placed in the drawing. All I know is I certainly got it wrong, so those of you so-inclined can count them and tell me just how wrong I got it, by looking at the pic below, or checking out the zoom file here
I’d recommend having one of these open (they open into another window) so that you can refer to it as you read).
No drawing – no dialectogram – can capture everything about a place, there are always mysteries, but with both the Bingo and the Brig the mysteries left something of a gaping hold. Working with Chris Leslie we tracked down a number of ex bingo punters and recorded a series of very useful interviews. But the Bingo, like theatres, cinemas, fairgrounds and so forth, consists of two communities of interest – the audience, and the ‘acts’, the backstage, the people who make it all work. Staff.
Sadly, we were unable to get in touch with any staff members, despite a few promising leads, so this element is missing. What the bingo was like to work in, what the workers called certain rooms, was unavailable – as a result, I have had to use the ‘official’ names from the architect’s plans (kindly supplied by Jonny Howes via the Mitchell Library Archives) but have no ideas what the Mecca workers themselves called the storeroom, or the plant rooms. Or the punters themselves! These things matter to me, and they were missing from the drawing.
The Mecca Bingo drawing still brings me out in a bit of a sweat, to be honest. It was such a big space, with so much happening in it I felt all I could do was skim the surface of what was there. Bingo is a mystery to me; I don’t see the thrill and, it is (don’t shout at me!) primarily a female pursuit, and the Bingo hall itself therefore a very feminine place. I wasn’t sure I had the data, or the feel for the place. What I did have was a sense of atmosphere. When our group (which consisted of GHA officials, Iseult Timmermans of Streetlevel, Crawford McGugan and colleagues, from museums, Chris Leslie and myself) entered there was a strange mixture of feelings. It felt very much desolate, abandoned, decaying. and yet, in the better-preserved places, there was a sense that time really had just stopped, been hermetically sealed up and time had shifted. Romantic tomfoolery, perhaps, but feelings are like that. In the manager’s office, (see below) for example, we found all these glimpses and hints of what the bingo was – the yellow cheques given to winners (still in good condition, many feeling rather glossy and new), a bus schedule that detailed where people came into the bingo from, and when they caught the actual buses themselves. I turned the latter into a rather convoluted diagram along the bottom of the drawing (people came from a very wide radius in north Glasgow and Lanarkshire – the bingo hall was important to a lot of people), and, in a departure from previous work, used ‘mixed media’, which is a fancy way of saying I stuck one of the cheques I recovered from the bingo on the drawing. It started to deteriorate once I started handling it afterwards, so the freshness was something of an illusion. Speaking of illusions, here’s a ghost apparently haunting a corner of the main hall -
This feeling, of switching back and forth in time, was something I decided to put in the drawing, which is why the main hall has massive lochs and puddles, piles of debris and various mysteries in some parts, but is reconstructed (see the stage) in others to fit more closely with the bingo’s initial design. This often reflected the quality of information I had. The ladies who gave us the information for the drawing were very kind, and extremely helpful, but details such as where things happened, exactly what things felt like and where, are generally casualties of memory and become vague. This is why, I think, it is essential for me to actually see a place, and ideally, see it while it is still ‘alive’. The depiction of derelict parts of the bingo are therefore an attempt to give the drawing a firmer basis on my own experience of being there, and the occasionally creepy feeling the old bingo gave me. Hopefully, you get the same sense I did – one minute you are looking at something that pretty much looks on first glance, as fresh as a daisy and well preserved. Then, you turn your head and suddenly we wind forward again, to the wrecked and ruined bingo. If the upshot is an occasionally confusing, overly dense drawing then, I apologise, but it is pretty close to what being in the place can actually feel like, with the various layers of artefacts, different types of room, facilities, functions and memories all becoming apparent.
So what’s worth point out here? This involved a much bigger group of people than earlier dialectograms. Helen McDermott, June Aird (whose Aunty Molly was a regular), Mary MacDonald, Ruth Wright and some of the folk at Alive and Kicking all gave information for this. Helen, a real Mecca bingo pilgrim, gave a lot of crucial information that can be seen mostly on the right side of the dialectogram, about the details of playing bingo, her reasons for going, and her favourite seat (I was not sure we got the correct identification from our interview, but had a stab at identifying it in any case).
Ruth Wright went to the Bingo much more casually, and tended to remember events and incidents, rather than the detailed workings of the place. One of these took place in the ladies toilets, which seemed to double as a dodgy market stall for stolen goods – I’ve tried to recreate it in the top left of the drawing
Another thing that piqued my interest was the style of the Mecca – echoes of Art Deco (Mecca-Deco) here and there, with lots of shiny surfaces – as June remembered it, ‘sparkly’. I saw lots of things that reminded me of my uncle’s travelling amusement arcade –bright colours, plastic and fibreglass moulding. The bingo would have been a noisy place.
And then…the lights and the stalactites. The bingo closed because of a fire in the shop above aroundabout 98-99. The firefighter’s hoses flooded down into the bingo, pretty much drowning it. Damp and sodden, Mecca abandoned what had always been a leaky facility, and the water gradually did its work. The combined effects of melting plastics and seeping water turned the ceiling into a mess of ragged, stalactite like shapes as the tiles fell off and left the innards of the roof exposed. And then the lights – we all thought the lights that hung from the ceiling represented a style of lampshade (similar to the sweeping curves of the doors in the bingo) but actually, it’s a pure accident. The lights were originally sunk into the ceiling tiles. As the bingo decayed, the light fixture pushed through and fell down to swing on its wires. The tile that was left attached then drooped down, creating an accidental interior design flourish.
In the end, the bingo drawing represents a lot of missed opportunities for me. There were lots of things I never found out about, and could not resolve – how did the bingo-caller work? What was the real setup on the stage? And what was the closed off area where the mini-bingo used to be? Had I known these things, I could have used layering to show changes over time, and generally been better informed. But, with time at a premium and information sketchy, I eventually just had to stop the drawing, rather than finish it. So I look at it now with rather a lot of dissatisfaction (Just like every other dialectogram I do…)
THE BRIG BAR
This drawing was completed about a week and a bit before Red Road Underground opened. Chris, a man of infinite patience, got used to my reassurances that the Brig would be finished ‘any day now’ meaning absolutely nothing (I mean, after four months of saying the exact same thing you tend to lose credibility…). Like the Bingo, the Brig was offered subterranean leisure (for your pleasure) but was rather more distinctive in style, taking the theme of the interior of a boat or galleon. This in a location that is about as far north from the Clyde you can get without leaving Glasgow. Here’s the pic, and a zoom version can be found here.
The Brig was in some ways easier to do than the bingo, but presented difficulties all of its own. Being on safely masculine territory, I found I had more personal terms of reference with which to reconstruct the pub and its workings than with the Mecca.
What was particularly nice was the chance to reunite with Bob Niven (see Dialectogram No 2) and Finlay MacKay who helped me piece together the earlier days of The Brig and their experience of growing up with a nautically themed subterranean modernist pub as their yardstick for all other bars. They provided lots of useful pointers to both myself and Chris (although one of the meet-ups I arranged with Bob and Finlay ended up taking place in a pub, which resulted in some very scrawled notes (even for me) and a level of drinking which certainly separated the men from the boy (I’ll let you guess who the boy was)).
I also got in touch with Azam Khan, whose experiences at the Brig are captured in Alison Irvine’s novel, and he had me over to his place one teatime to fill me in on his experiences. As someone coming into the scheme in their rough and ready 90s, his experience of the Brig was somewhat different. Not negative, necessarily, but rather more hair raising and risky. It was an important perspective to have, giving a range from Bob (a real regular, stalwart of the darts team), to Finlay (who went there after football, and found ‘the talent’ in the Broomfield tavern more alluring) and then Azam, who came to the Red Road alone, went to the Brig alone, and eventually switched allegiance to the Broomfield as his first stop on a night out.
Nevertheless, it was hard to get folk to talk about the Brig. An ex-manager of the bar is known to all who work at Red Road, but has a policy of refusing to go on record about his times there. Other staff were unreachable or unwilling – in short, The Brig suffers from the same basic problem of the Bingo – it’s a one-sided view.
The other problem was more serious, and is the reason for many of the gaps and lacunae in the final piece. No plans of the bar survive, and I initially, only had a couple of hours to gain access to the bar and work out how the bar was shaped. I literally had to do a reconstructive sketch on site, with limited lighting and limited time. This sketch has – appallingly – gone missing, but I have kept other sketches, based on the minigrams I drew to help me get a feel for how the place was stuck together. On site it was very confusing! There were nooks and crannies that didn’t seem to belong there at all, whole sections that seemed to defy the laws of physics, and rooms that I was unable to place. The floor plan as it stands here then, is in good part imaginary, or to be more positive, an educated guess.
These problems aside, the Brig represents a more self-contained, manageable universe than its counterpart. As Bob, a regular from aged 15 noted, ‘not many people from outwith the flats went to the Brig’. The bar, or at least parts of it, was much better preserved. Though there is fire damage in places, this was from later vandalism – the bar closed, with the intention of reopening much the same time as the Bingo, so while many fixtures were taken away, a lot remained, including the distinctive compass tables.
However, there were two phases of usage that complicates depicting the Brig somewhat; the well-preserved, almost pristine bar we walked into was not the original ‘bar’. It was actually the lounge
For those of you accustomed to pubs being relatively liberal places designed for a bit of a dance, a chance to try (and fail) to pick up women/men and so forth, it should be pointed out that the traditional Scottish boozer operates according to strict rules, social protocols and hierarchies. There is ‘the bar’ and there is ‘the lounge’. The bar is primarily, a place for men, to do those manly things we men like to do, largely out of the sight of women, who are generally only seen in such places with their husband. If at all. Then there are the rules about seating, playing dominoes…too many to go into just now. Generally, a husband who takes his wife to the pub takes her to the lounge (which is where many Red Road couples reunited after the bingo closed). The lounge is also the correct place for students, visitors and any others who might not have an entirely nuanced sense of the correct behaviour and deportment traditional to the bar area.
So it was with the Brig. In fact, bar and lounge were so separate, there was no way of easily getting from one to the other. To meet your wife after an afternoon in the main bar, you would have to walk all the way round the side (very dark, as Azam Khan remembers) , turn the corner into the plaza to get to the lounge entrance, strategically placed next to the bingo. However, because (I think) parts of the underground plaza at Red Road were closed off in the early 90s, the main bar was closed off and decommissioned, leading to the lounge becoming the only bar. This meant the old bar (are we keeping track of all these bars ok?) lacked many of its features and fixtures, not least the actual bar itself, which was taken out. It took some detective work, looking at the holes on the wall and gaps in the flooring as shown on Chris’ photographs, to retrace what seems to have been its shape. I have no doubt I got it wrong, so if you remember it differently, feel free to tell me.
I had to look on the photographs for details of the bar, because at the time we entered the Brig in March 2011, I did not know this aspect of the Brig’s history and thought it was probably a function room of some sort, not noticing the tell tale marks that there had been something installed in there.. Luckily, Bob Niven has a terrifyingly accurate memory and I got a sense of what should be there, but I still got a lot wrong.
Still, I did get some pretty rich material for this one – I feel I got a better handle on the Brig than the Mecca. The distinctive style of the bar was a real attraction – drawing the compass tables (I rescued one, which now sits in my front room) really exercised my drawing muscles but was very satisfying and really anchors the drawing. I also like how the Brig links to the other Red Road drawings, as you will see noted here and there (Stuart MacMillan, who photographs bars around Glasgow and has been very helpful and supportive, suggested using hyperlinks to connect web-versions of the drawings. I might just give it a try).
There was more experimentation with mixed media here too (a fancy way of saying I stuck a beermat on the drawing) and I took a conscious decision, given the sheer bulk of testimony garnered about The Brig, to make this more ‘wordy’ than other dialectograms – it’s really one of the most dense I’ve done so far, at the cost of visualisations and explanatory diagrams. I’m not sure what I think of the effect overall, but I’m quite pleased at how I’ve used the people in this one – I’m getting better at drawing people from above, but also, I think the addition adds something important to the drawing and tells you something about the place.
When collecting artefacts for our show at New Glasgow Society we briefly returned to the Brig to find some useful objects. Of course, I had a chance to check for mistakes – and discovered more than a few! The storeroom is too large, the keg room is in the wrong place, and I have the doors to the main bar entirely wrong – there should be a double set of double doors leading in! As you can imagine, this has tortured me ever since – all I could do was make some notes on the drawing and berate myself at length
Overall then, while the Brig hangs together more as a drawing, again, I can’t help but feel all the missed opportunities. A little more time spent on the drawing could have brought out more of the relationships between different groups in the bar (though there is definitely more of that in this drawing than some of the previous Red Road Dialectograms) and shown more of the workings of the bar itself. But that actually would have meant a LOT more time in fact, and it would require actually drinking there. And that’s impossible now. I would have liked to have gotten more detail on the various bands who played at Red Road, and had the chance to show more of the drawing to the guys at various times. But, schedules being what they are, it just wasn’t possible. The drawing did confirm how complex pubs are; a whole social structure is represented within, and created within the pub, a whole way of life tied closely, irrevocably to that place, so that when the bar closes for business and last orders are called, a great deal of knowledge and understanding goes with it. The more of these types of traditional pubs close, the more we lose touch with this aspect of our past – sexist, insular, destructive and daunting as it can sometimes be, at others it can be life-affirming, fraternal, supportive, as shown on the old photographs Chris found behind the bar and noted on the drawing.
Maybe that’s why when we did go in, and saw that the Brig had deteriorated further, I felt very sad. I’d never visited The Brig in its prime, but having thought about the place, and soaked up as many stories about it as I could, I felt almost as if I had some kind of stake in it. I suppose that’s a by-product of looking so long, and hard at places. You fall into something like love with them. And that, the graphic novelist Dave Sim (Cerebus) warns us is a bad idea, as he put it ‘never fall in love with a bar.’
AND IN OTHER NEWS…
…we’ve been on the news. Red Road Underground has been on the news a lot*. First off there was a feature in the Scotsman – rather nice. Dialectograms were referred to as ‘charming sketches’. Dialectograms are charming? Well, yes, perhaps…but ‘sketches’?
I shouldn’t quibble I suppose – the press was very helpful. We also appeared on STV news.
Just a shame they didn’t mention where the show was! Incidentally, we are having another event for Red Road Underground this Saturday (18th) at 2pm – artists talks with Chris Leslie, Alison Irvine (This Road is Red), Crawford McGugan of Glasgow museums, and me.
Lastly (no, really) thanks to all of you who came along to the private view and opening of the exhibition – both nights were jumping and great fun. Neil Scott, a blogger and podcaster, made this record of the event. Shows a bit of the exhibition (you can see Finlay and Bob in the very first few frames, nearest the camera), gives you a flavour of how busy it was, and certainly tells you more than you ever needed to know about short women.
* thanks are due to Stuart Darroch, GHA for making a lot of the press contacts.
I aim to make each Dialectogram as widely accessible as possible, whether people want to appreciate the odd shapes and textures of line created from the arrangement of the information, or to scrutinise and take in every scrap of information. If all people take away is some interesting information, or pleasure at the look of it, I am happy. But reading and thinking does go into the creation of these drawings, from a range of different sources. For those who are interested, ‘Behind the Dialectogram’ will be an occasional series of posts that give some insight into the ideas I have been experimenting with. It starts with Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.
Readings from Bachelard: The Introduction (Part one)
The French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard gave considerable thought – more than arguably anyone before, or since – to how people conceive of and imagine the spaces they inhabit. His masterwork, The Poetics of Space is a dense, closely argued work of philosophy that sets out to show how space is conceived as images that hold particular significance and meaning for us, and in so doing, he draws on the work of poets such as Baudelaire to state his case . The book is almost stereotypically ‘French’ in the way it complicates and exhaustively explores the everyday, apparently straightforward and unremarkable, but I think – beyond ruminating on how certain corners of nineteenth century French living rooms inspired Baudelaire – his work retains real relevance and power. The scope of Dialectograms is by circumstance and inclination, more proletarian, but I would maintain that is not just 19th century French poetasters who turn their domestic surroundings into a mesh of symbols and meanings. I have found Bachelard’s understanding of how the imaginative process is shaped by our immediate surroundings present in both the spaces I am currently trying to draw, and in subtext to the many interviews I have been conducting.
This is why, while I have dipped in and out of Bachelard in the past, I am at present reading The Poetics of Space right through, page-by-page, beginning to end. So, as an aid to thought and intellectual digestion, I am going to post up my ‘readings’ of his book on an ongoing basis. These readings will, inevitably, be heavily influenced by my own interests and purposes, aided and abetted by – what else – some drawings that have helped me to understand and apply the ideas better. Not everyone knows, or cares about theory, some are even hostile to it so, you may choose to skip these posts in favour of those more directly related to the subjects I am drawing. That’s fine; if this whole project works as it’s meant to, it should be accessible on a number of levels. Liking them because it reminds you of something, teaches you something, or just looks strange and gnarly are perfectly fine, valid responses. But if you do want to get into the workings of the ‘brain’ behind the scribblings, then these posts should give some indication as to how I relate those ideas that percolate in my head, to the actual practice. So, let’s keep it linear and begin at the beginning.
Bachelard begins his Introduction to the book with a long discussion of the nature of ‘poetic imagination’ or a ‘philosophy of poetry’ and its relationship to how we inhabit our ‘vital space.
We should therefore have to say how we inhabit our vital space, in accord with all the dialectics of lide, how we take root, day after day, in a “corner of the world”.
To Bachelard, poetry is a process of creating/evoking images in the mind from this ‘vital space’ (put more simply, where we live, grow and develop) and to appreciate it, we must be ‘receptive to the image the moment it appears’ and, more importantly, not seek to distance ourself too much from this process – the ‘ecstasy’ of the ‘newness’ of the image. Poetry, he seems to say, makes us see familiar things and aspects of our life differently; they become new again. Whatever they were to us before that is gone – ‘they have no past’.
This is why Bachelard does not believe the philosophy of science, in its rationalising, dissecting fervour really cuts it as a means of understanding poetry and the effect it has upon us. He also criticises philosophers who fail to develop their ideas in ignorance of the position most people develop their own understanding of the world around them, saying that too many ‘know the universe before they know the house’.
He does suggest an alternative system, but not before he makes us run ahead of this train of thought by trying to break down the processes that take place during the ‘onset of the image’ – the moment when a human being sees or hears something and makes a poetic or imaginative association with it. I have tried to draw it for you, below.
Ok, so what does this show? For Bachelard a human being can be anatomised into a heart, a soul and a sense of being. All three of these are called into play when this human being sees a ‘poetic image’ – they affect and are affected by the process of this image suddenly coming into the human being’s consciousness.
None of this is too hard to understand, I think – you see an object, or phenomenon that is meaningful to you, and you, as a thinking, feeling and complex human being respond to it, infuse it with a meaning and significance that changes it from being just a simple place, or object, to something much more powerful. That something, Bachelard would suggest, is nothing less than the defining point of our humanity. To Bachelard, the soul exists, at least in operational terms – there is something in us that innately orders and remembers our experiences, feelings and perceptions, and is acted on by these. This soul underpins our humanity and experiencing the poetic image is part of what makes us human.
Now, this may already be going a little far for some of you – does this mean that to be human is to be a poet? That depends on whether you define the poet as a narrow professional term. Dialectograms give us some clues here as to what Bachelard means. At their simplest, the drawings give particular attention to the idea that everyday spaces are important, are significant and have meaning to the people who inhabit them. An example would be a small part of a flat I am currently working out how to reconstruct the Niven family’s flat at 7/4 Red Road, and in particular a box room that I would say had a poetic significance to them, so much that their memory of it remains very vivid a few years after they left the scheme. This room was the repository for objects from their past that defined their history as a family; a sideboard they took from their old tenement, the last Robert Niven snr used when he worked as a cobbler, or the children’s toys. They called it the ‘lumber room’ and it seemed to encompass and accommodate almost all of the family’s keepsakes and large valuables in a jumbled up, tightly packed space. The memory of this seemingly impossibly sized room was clearly still very strong, given how many of their stories and accounts inevitably led us back to the box room, and in particular, an image of their mind of how concentrated all of the items in it were – almost a museum of their life in Red Road. Put simply, the clutter of the room has come to symbolise for them, the length of time they spent in the scheme (40 years) and the richness of their own family history.
To go back to my drawing above, you will notice there is more happening here than just a process of identification and imagination – there is also the reference to an archetype that fully renders the poetic image. As any fule know, archetypes are ideas and images that others have already formed and are part of our culture (and if you believe the Greek philosopher Plato even exist in another, perfect dimension of which everything in this world is a feeble copy). Bachelard points out that the images we create often refer to, or attach themselves to some kind of archetype – a rose, for example, will almost inevitably conjure up archetypes of what the rose is meant to be, and what it represents – the perfect rose, with its fanned out petals, its associations with love (thanks to Burns), its sweet smell, its luxury (check out interflora for the going rate on a bunch of roses and you’ll see what I mean), feminity, a feeling of transcendent beauty, of nature at work, balance, harmony or even War (thanks to the houses of York and Lancaster). While some of these are corny and each person will attach different weights to them, we almost can’t help interpret the rose, and do so in reference to past interpretations stored up in our cultural memory. Bachelard calls this reverberation or ‘retentir’ – the moment when a human being intervenes in the world to give meaning to it and detects in it, some sort of sign or symbol. In forming these poetic images we inevitably ‘reverberate’ to a store of archetypes and prior understandings we have been exposed to or somehow know– in that instant we compare, contrast and evaluate. And yet, this image feels very new and unique to us.
It may be simpler to go back to the example of the Nivens and their lumber-room; in searching for a way to characterise the lumber-room and its qualities the family almost inevitably alighted upon a recent, but powerful archetype of a small space that unaccountably contains more inside it than the outside would suggest (much like your average human being…) and of course, called it ‘The TARDIS’. Naming it in this way, a special way, immediately tells us this place has more meaning and associations to the family than almost anywhere else in the flat; that they named it intimates they have a fixed image of the place that stays with them, even when it is not in front of them – we can imagine the jumble of probably very different objects crammed in next to each other, and the confusion of the uninitiated as to exactly how all this stuff fits in here. I already know that a couple of the objects – a big table and a sideboard, came from their old tenement flat in Maryhill and thus, has a further symbolic continuity that connects Mr and Mrs Niven to their old life, through objects that they could feel and touch – a hook for their memory and understanding.
For their children though, who were young, or not even born before moving to the Red Road scheme, these objects from the tenement are probably historical, museum pieces – much more abstract than other objects that were found in the living room, veranda or kitchen. This was shown in the way Bob, who was born in Red Road, throughout showed the greatest attachment, and sense of significance to their flat, while their father seemed to have a much less visceral connection to this place. By attaching their lumber room to The Doctor’s time travel machine, the archetypal ‘big thing in a small package’ that travels in time, they expand that meaning even more. It achieves a deeper resonance as one set of images – the furniture, toys, etc., crammed into a few square feet merges with those we have of the interior of the Tardis and its impossible blue painted exterior. It makes it larger – and almost instantly, at least in the Anglophone world, more universally understood and recognised. People can thus come at the poetic image from two directions; the Nivens, from the grounded, experience-based knowledge of the lumber-room, and the rest of us, through the archetype of the TARDIS, and ‘get’ the poetry of the moment. This is because, somewhere in the meeting between the two, the authentic image, the poetic association itself, is formed and appreciated. The central concern of Burns’ poem about the Red Red Rose is the moment where his feelings suddenly find a resonance, or association in the flower; from the other side, his readers (or listeners – it is actually a song of course) recall and remember the shape, form and exquisite complexity of roses and can come to understand how this might relate to the feelings the poet is experiencing. They are drawn in and, in the meeting point, acknowledge that what Burns is telling us about love is that it is, in this case, seemingly perfect, harmonious, complex, delicate blossoming etc etc ad infinitum. We don’t and can’t share exactly the same feelings and notions Burns has about his direct experience, but can come to an authentic understanding of it, if we are willing to look deeply into the poetic image he offers up to us. By referring to their lumber room as the TARDIS, the Nivens were doing exactly the same thing to me, except generations of schoolchildren are highly unlikely to study their particular poetic image in school. This is why Bachelard’s book is important – it argues that poetry is an essential, active branch of human communication.
It is for this reason that I would disagree, slightly, with the filmmaker Humphrey Jennings whose book, Pandaemonium and the coming of the machine collaged a huge range of written documentary material as part of his ongoing project to critique culture through artistic expression;
Unless we are prepared to claim special attributes for the poet – the attribute of vision – and unless we are prepared to admit the work of the artist (that is to say, the function of the imagination) as an essential part of the modern world there is no real reason for our continuing to bother with any of the arts any more, or with any imaginary activity.
But according to Bachelard, vision is not a special attribute of the poet – it is the poet’s feel for it, his or her craft that is their ‘special attribute’. What makes the poet important is that they have the means to not just form the visions we all see, in some way, but communicate these, that makes their work important. It resonates, because this vision is a widespread, common experience in trying to make sense of the world.
I should perhaps clarify what is meant by ‘poetry’ here – I don’t just mean lines of verse – though it is Bachelard’s starting point – but the ‘poetry’ found in paintings, films, photographs and other associative, representative materials. I’m therefore fully with Jennings when he argues that;
…to the real poet the front of the Bank of England may be as excellent a site for the appearance of poetry as the depths of the sea.
I would humbly submit that Concierge stations are market stalls are just as excellent. Jennings goes on to explain why he thinks this process of envisioning and poetising is so important;
The Imagination is a function of man whose traces are more delicate to handle than the facts and events and ideas of which history is usually constructed…they contain in little a whole world – they are the knots in a great net of tangled time and space – the moments at which the situation of humanity is clear…
But is evident that these delicate traces nevertheless, interact with facts, events, ideas and, I would, submit, places. The imagination can float far and wide, but it is impressed from concrete beginnings. One of Jennings’ great influences was Mass Observation (more about it). In a frequently quoted episode, a researcher noted a moment in a working class pub when a patron suddenly pulled a tortoise out of his pocket and puts it on the bar. The report is cut and dried, but the effect is immediately surreal. Why? Because even though we don’t know it, tortoises have a string of associations attached to them that do not slot in neatly with a working class milieu. The ‘out of placeness’ of the incident immediately makes it an image in our minds – we can imagine this odd scene, rebel against it and cannot help but wonder and reflect as to how this situation came about – what does it mean? And Bachelard – and I – would argue that looking deeply at the everyday in a search for its greater meaning is a poetic undertaking. For his part, Jennings sees this imaginative process as fundamental to the human condition, and any hope of its improvement.
Let’s relate it again, to matters dialectographical and my work in the showman’s yards of Dalmarnock; when you see a fibreglass reindeer sitting amid the greys and sandstone pinks of industrial Glasgow, you are immediately struck by its dissonance; your brain immediately commences on a train of thought and feeling that takes you, like it or not, into poetic territory. If, says Bachelard, that sounds like daydreaming then it’s largely because that is precisely what it is. In such ‘idle’ moments we see the poetry in the oddly placed object, the withered carnation or the tear in the wallpaper, almost despite yourself.
If you think that’s daft, fine; but consider that the most accepted building block of poetry – words – are arguably, the most commonplace aspect of our waking lives, yet we have no trouble in accepting that we can take them, turn them inside out and wrest a string of meanings from them.
As a phenomenologist, Bachelard sees the poetic process as a system in its own right. This sets apart from the main thrust of literary theory at the time which was heavily influenced by psychoanalysis. For Bachelard, poetry was not just a by-product of anxieties, neuroses and sexual desires (although they all play their part) but are an end to themselves – an autonomous system of thought and feeling that is integral to our humanity. In Bachelard’s scheme Vases, ornaments or items of clothing become associated with a person, or a time, a feeling, or a series of conclusions about our common situation. Bachelard frequently refers us to Baudelaire to make his point, and I shall be no different –
The clock! a sinister, impassive god
Whose threatening finger says to us, ‘Remember!’
Soon in your anguished heart, as in a target
Quivering shafts of grief will plant themselves
Note the interplay of new images – the clock, its ‘threatening finger’ and old archetypes – the anguished heart, the idea of pagan gods, graven images and the ‘quivering shafts of grief’ (arrows) that are marshalled in to support, enhance and expand this new imaginative turn. But it is not just symbolist poets, or hoary metaphors that can be used this way. In the novel The Busconductor Hines, James Kelman gives us the titular working class character who is prone to protracted, deep, tangential reflections on his surroundings. This segment comes from a moment where Hines contemplates the shapes formed by the backcourt of his Glasgow tenement, and uses apparently abstract geometry as a means of universalising his experience;
The rectangle is formed by the backsides of the buildings – in fact it’s maybe even a square. A square: 4 sides of equal length and each 2 lines being angled into each other at 90˚. Okay now: this backcourt a square and for each unit of dwellers up each tenement there exists the 1/3 midden containing six dustbins. For every 3 closes you have the 1 midden containing 6 dustbins. But then you’ve got the prowlers coming around when every cunt’s asleep. They go exchanging holey dustbins for nice new yins. Holey dustbins: the bottom only portionally there so the rubbish remains on the ground when said dustbins are being uplifted. What a bastard.
From a simple observation, Hines’ thoughts drift into ever more complex situations, associations and understandings of where he lives, including some that seem very fanciful, such as the archetype of the sneaky and underhanded ‘prowler’, as well as the play on words in the ‘Holey Dustbin’. Hines conceives of his surroundings in more than just prosaic, physical terms; there is meaning, significance, history and narrative all at play. Although Hines knows this back court very well, letting his mind work upon the place almost renders it as something exotic, murky, even sinister. Similar things start to happen when I draw dialectograms.
Working at Red Road gave me lots of examples of this, and my primary task as I continue my work here, and elsewhere, will be to honour the complexity of the imaginations that inhabit such places. Bachelard describes the process Hines goes through as reverie, which I shall go into in more detail in the next part, as it crucial to his ideas as to how we form our own ideas of what ‘home’ is.
I post this – the first dialectogram from Red Road – with a sense of genuine relief. I feel like I have been gnawing at the edges of the project for weeks, but now I’ve been able to take some roughs and realise just a portion of what will be the drawing for the Concierge’s station at 10 Red Road Court.
This is somewhere between an initial sketch and the final drawing – a rehearsal, if you like, concentrating on just one part of the whole concierge station. This drawing shows the reception and CCTV scanning area of the station as it was just before Christmas. The reception is where the duty concierges answer public queries through the counter, and keep an eye on the CCTV screens. Here are some pictures I took during the visit.
The popular notion of jobsworth voyeurs in uniform robotically scrutinising every aspect of what a citizen says and does is something of a received wisdom, but Jacky and Grant (misrepresented as ‘Graham’ on the diagram) gave no such impression; they glanced at the screens here and there during the interview but clearly maintained a sense of discretion and tact in what they did. The station had the relaxed, easy feel of a mail-room or workshop; tomato soup was cooking on the stove in the kitchen and copies of The Daily Record were yellowing in an in-tray. It felt cosy, and human. The concierges I met that day were impressive in their knowledge, tact and understanding of their job, and the very diverse group of people they serve. They knew every inch of Red Road and could speak at length about the buildings, what they had been used for, and the many tenants who had passed through. Both Grant and Jacky had worked there for about 20 years and could recall many of its past tenants by name – and even knew where many of them had subsequently gone since. Not very far, as it turned out; many old tenants had shifted to the new GHA flats and houses across the road, out of a desire to stay in the area their families had lived in before Red Road was built; the concierges, and many of these tenants are North Glasgow people who clearly retain a strong sense of place and belonging.
This set me wondering; would it be possible to draw where, and when a selection of past tenants had gone since they left Red Road – and perhaps where they or their ancestors had been before?
An interesting idea, but there is still the small matter of actually drawing spaces such as the concierge station, which proved to be a rather difficult task. Missing from the above image is a good chunk of the station itself; no waiting room, side offices, locker room, storage areas showers, toilets or corridor is found in this representation of flat 1/04. I had attempted to do full drawing of the flats but soon found myself running into difficulties. I’d taken loads of photos, but when I got back home, I found it very hard to piece them together into a coherent structure; rooms were in the wrong places and the scale was shot to hell. When I can renegotiate access to this and other flats, a small camcorder will be essential, so I can join all the different points together in my head.
I had looked at the plans drawn by Bunton architects in 1962, which can be found in the Mitchell Library, and attempted to use my sketches from here as the basis of a floorplan. However, it was evident from the very beginning, that matching up the original drawings to the present would be difficult, given that renovations and even the process of making the plans (excuse the pun) concrete would change the layout. The ‘orientation’ capsule in the right of the image was taken from one such drawing from Bunton’s original plans, but I think that I would like in future drawings, to work from the blocks as they actually are, as they have no doubt changed even more since then.
What I wanted to do with this drawing was try out some techniques and ways of presenting information, narratives and ideas. I’ve tried using some comic strip elements and cutaways to open up the view of the station and use, as much as possible, visual cues to explain what is here and why. I think some of them work, and some of them NEED work, but I would be interested to hear any comments or ideas on progress so far.
A true dialectogram should always list its mistakes and I had no space on the drawing proper, so shall catalogue my errors here! I am not at all happy that I got the names of two of the concierges mixed up, and I think the CCTV cutaways are pretty dull and awkward looking. I also need to work on drawing people from a bird’s eye view. My first instinct was to be quite abstract and ‘symbolic’ as is evident with Jacky, but by the time I was drawing Grant, I was dissatisfied and trying for a more organic approach. None of the three figures look entirely right at the moment, and look out of scale to me. I know that nothing on the balcony is entirely in the right place either, and referring to pictures after the fact showed a whole raft of mistakes around the counter area – the clipboard with tenant’s details was placed INSIDE the reception, not outside as my drawing has it. Also, none of the men ever smoked inside the office, staying outside to do so, which is why I have noted it on the comic strip to the left – I would not want anyone to get in trouble as a result of a doodle! More important though are the questions and ‘to-do’s’ I am left with. Getting bird’s eye right is one important task for the next drawing, but there is still so much to find out; what exactly are all the keys for? What do the consoles do? What is shown on the CCTV? What other stories do the concierges have to tell (and what is on and off the record)? Why are there Beano stickers stuck to each of the lockers (not shown in the drawing)? And should I attempt to do a ‘key’ for everything you might find in one of these interiors? How long will that take? The answers will, I hope, be forthcoming…
Excerpt from a great essay by Paul Gravett on ligne claire, a style of drawing I someday, aspire to…
Hergé & The Clear Line:
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE LINE
Even in today’s computer age, the genesis, and the final revelation, of so much comic art remains the line. “It’s only lines on paper, folks!!” as Robert Crumb once put it. Ah, but which lines, how many lines, and what graphic qualities of lines will an artist choose, and why?
By learning from his precursors and his contemporaries in Europe and America, the Belgian creator Hergé, pseudonym of Georges Remi (1907-83), distilled his personal approach to these questions in his masterwork, the twenty-three Adventures of Tintin, begun in January 1929 and published as albums between 1930 and 1976 (he left a twenty-fourth unfinished). Over the years, he came to see that “the biggest difficulty with comics is to show exactly what is necessary and sufficient to understand the story; nothing more, nothing less.” To do this, Hergé arrived in successive forms at what later, after all of his Tintin albums had been published, became known as the Clear Line.
This is a clarity of line that defined figures, objects, backgrounds, everything, in the same precise outline, stripped of superfluous rendering or shading, and, equally important, a clarity of readability in his panel-to-panel narrations and stories. A clarity so clear that many a child has followed the story long before they can read the words. Independent Hergé biographer Huib van Opstal wrote: “In the Clear Line label, Hergé saw too much attention for the outside aspect of his work. In strip making, he considered his narrative technique and compositional hierarchy equally important to his style of drawing. ‘It took me twenty years to understand that the story is more important than the art.’”
If you want to impress someone with an idea (and deflect any difficult questions) there is no better idea than to agglutinate and make up a word. Exhibit A: the Dialectogram!
Glasgow Dialectograms explore the use of illustration as record. Superficially a pastiche of scientific, anthropological and architectural illustrations, dialectograms comment upon contemporary city spaces, public, private and personal, through creating an extremely detailed schematic of a place that condenses and includes both subjective and objective information into a single piece. They show facts, thoughts and feelings. They use a deliberately loose and organic ‘anti-architectural’ drawing style to describe not just what it is there, but who uses it, what a particular space means to someone, and how relationships between people shape their environment. The term ‘Psycho-Geography’ applies, but put simply, they are made by talking to people, sharing ideas and processing them into visual forms – a diagram, a dialogue, a dialectic, but also a dialect of technical drawing – hence, Dialectogram.
Over the next few weeks and months I will be documenting the progress of the project as I attempt to draw three ‘damned’ urban spaces in Glasgow:
Glasgow’s Showland: My home turf. This will pick up where my first drawing (featured in How’S the Ghost? at Market Gallery and in An Tobar in March 2010 – you can see a segment in the header) left off. There are around 54 such places in the Dalmarnock, Bridgeton, Carntyne and Shettleston areas of the city. I will draw another two yards and redraw Backcauseway to depict changes over periods of time (as caravans move on and off, according to the needs of work, or changing family relationships) and use the medium to shed light on a hidden, and at times much misunderstood community. As I belong to it, this will also be the aspect of the project where I am most subjective, and will struggle to ‘universalise’ certain experiences and feelings about these places.
Red Road: I have already been invited by the Red Road project (subject to securing appropriate funding) to visit the scheme and meet with its workers and tenants. They would like me to produce 4 drawings of individual flats, floors and offices in the block using the basic technique piloted before. As this deals with a municipal space, one bounded by much more rigid architecture, this will require an adaptation of the basic approach first used in drawing the yards. I’ll be posting updates and sketches as I go.
The Barras: I have long been a fan of the legendary market and would like to produce 4 drawings showing floor plans of the markets and highly detailed compositions of individual stalls, with the full cooperation of the market traders.
I will try to update this blog on a rolling basis with news, views and sketches, so please do keep checking back.