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Accounting for myself - Part I, A tale of two toilets

Summer is coming to end and I feel I need to give an account of myself. I've written nothing for some time, nor have I produced any tangible work since the Verdant show in July. I remember starting a blog, in fact I got quite far with it, but then the Wix editor lost it and I did not have the enthusiasm to retype the couple of pages that I'd come up with. I think I just settled for an Instagram post, but not even sure if this happened. So how do I account for almost two long summer months which in my current malaise seem to have been entirely unproductive.


I'll have a go at a chronology which is, as much as anything, a reminder to myself of the sequence of the summer, and will perhaps help me to piece together the experiences as something from which I can learn.


Verdant the Middlesex University Arts and Creative Industries combined postgraduate show was the fourth exhibition in which I've been able to show work during my MA. I had three works in the show: A print, Disassemble; an audio installation which was me reading my blog Jacob Rees-Mogg stole my sketchbook: William Morris, and how I became a conceptual artist; and a performance, No Coercion. The performance involved me walking between the Gallery and Tower Hamlets Cemetery dressed in a business suit and dragging behind me a suitcase from which was playing some choral music recorded by the choir that I sing with for the walk.


Disassemble, 5 layer screenprint

In planning the performance I had not allowed for the exhibition to coincide with one of the three heatwaves experienced in London this summer. The temperatures on each day of the exhibition were in excess of 30 degrees centigrade and even on the evening of the private view the temperature was not much lower than that. I had planned to make the walk each day, but in the end only managed to complete it three times. It would have been more, but on the 5th day of the exhibition, the day when our work would be presented to our tutors, I tested positive for Covid and that was me out of action for the next week. The period of idleness did give me an opportunity to pull together the film clips from my performance into something coherent.


By the time I had recovered from Covid and after a brief respite of slightly less heat, the temperatures had risen to an unbearable 40 degrees. I had to go into the university on one of those days as it was the only opportunity I had to return some equipment to the university kit stores. The studio was just too hot to sit in even just to attend a seminar by zoom, but I managed to find some air conditioned space in one of the other studios to listen in to Luke Anthony Rooney's fabulous account of his research trip to Mississippi and Louisiana and his time at a Gees Bend quilt makers workshop.


Following this was something of a summer holiday. With no car and the cost of car hire being prohibitively expensive at the moment, and no desire to fly anywhere we (my partner and I) had decided to make a couple of trips by public transport. The first was by train, bus and perseverance to Kelmscott Manor, former home of William Morris, and the second was by train to Cardiff. The perseverance component of the trip to Kelmscott was that we had been depending on being able to get taxis to and from Farringdon where the bus stopped and Kelmscott village. Despite there appearing to be a number of taxi services available in Farringdon and surrounding towns, it proved impossible to reliably book one. In the end the landlady of the guest house we were booked to stay in had to come and collect us on arrival at Farringdon, and to return to Farringdon my wife had to go and ask in the pub where we were waiting for a non-doing taxi if anybody would be willing to drive us to Farringdon for a small payment.


Or second trip, which was to Cardiff, was no more straightforward as a train strike meant that we had to attempt to travel back a day earlier than planned. However, our rebooked earlier train, along with all others that evening were cancelled due to a signal failure, leaving us seemingly stranded in Cardiff. Fortunately we were able to book the last couple of seats on the early morning bus back to London.


We had warmed up for our trip to Kelmscott by stopping off in Oxford to visit a Pre-Raphaelite drawings exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum. The Dante Gabriel Rossetti drawings of Jane Morris set the scene for the relationships at play while the Morris family and Rossetti lived together at Kelmscott Manor. Kelmscott village was beautiful and it was easy to see how William Morris felt such love for the place. I had taken with me the music used in previous works and played this in both the church yard where William Morris is buried and the grounds of Kelmscott Manor. I enjoyed the visit to Kelmscott Manor, though it was rather too busy to move freely through the house. We had thought an early start would be a good thing, but had not considered that all the eager beavers of our age and older who happened to find themselves in the Oxfordshire countryside would have exactly the same idea. When we were passing the manor again after a short walk to the river Thames, there seemed to be far fewer afternoon visitors.


It is probably reflective of the amount of time WIlliam Morris spent at the house - more of a weekend retreat and holiday home - that the stories it tells are more about Jane Morris, Rossetti and May Morris, but no less interesting for this. William's activism is alluded to early in the house tour, but you have to access the furthest recess, a cupboard space off one of the attic bedrooms, to have his socialism spelled out.


I had never visited Cardiff before going there a few weeks ago. Probably something to do with the bridges. I would never approach Wales from the south by car as that would mean driving across one of the Severn Bridges and that's not something I can do easily. When I was younger and driving for the first time, it was not a problem... I'm not sure there were many high bridges I was driving across, but I'm sure they would have included the Erskine Bridge and the Forth road bridge, and for quite a few months I was regularly driving over the Thelwall viaduct over the river Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal on the M6 at Warrington between where I lived during the week in Lymm and the business park where I was working. Shortly after that the viaduct was rebuilt, widening it, but effectively creating two bridges, one for southbound traffic and one for northbound traffic, which were each narrower than the original bridge and somehow I just could not drive over it anymore, nor can I now face any other high bridge. This can often lead to elaborate detours and could be why I have never before visited Cardiff.


We unexpectedly, for me anyway, spent quite a bit of time at Cardiff Castle. It was a handy place to step away from the bustle of the main thoroughfares and never seemed that busy. Much of what can be seen today is a result of the works carried out by the Marquesses of Bute throughout the 19th century when the Butes made a huge fortune from the coal that was on their land. The lavish apartments were brimful of excellent craftmanship of the workshops set up by the 3rd Marquess that William Morris have appreciated. But he would have been appalled at the source of the wealth - the exploitation of the natural resources and labour that were theirs by right of land ownership - and that the craftmanship was employed for sole benefit of the Butes. Kelmscott Manor was also brimful of excellent craft, but this was the work of the houses occupants, friends and colleagues. Little compromise was made on the basis of what we may call luxury or even just comfort. The most startling difference in the interiors, well not really interior in the case of Kelmscott Manor, were the toilets. I'll let the images speak for themselves.

A tale of two toilets, the Marquess of Bute's lavish loo, and the Morris family's more modest closet

Other cultural highlights of the visit to Cardiff were John Akomfrah's Vertigo Sea, 3 channel film installation at the National Museum; a small gallery Cardiff M.A.D.E. and Elli Young's exhibition, I Want to Believe; and a visit to the Senedd which was completely unplanned, we happened to be passing and just walked in (past lots of security obviously), had a bit of a tour and left feeling there was a real commitment to modern, open democracy in Wales.


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