Time to step up

The funeral of my last 1980’s good friend and Manx mentor was on Monday. Sadly, I only found out about his death on Sunday, so could not even get time off from work to go.

Reg Quayle was a local sculptor, art activist and campaigner for the preservation of early 20th century architecture. I first met him back in 1984 when he was curating one of his two Strategy: Get Art shows by contemporary Manx artists. The venue was an empty unit in Onchan shopping centre (now itself almost defunct), and the artist was Kevin Atherton.

These days Atherton is middle-of-the-road famous for public sector commissions, such as Platform Piece, his figures at Brixton railway station which marked the first time black British people had featured in a public sculpture. The piece Reg showed was In Two Minds – a cutting edge 1981 piece of video art in which Atherton argued with a video recording of himself made three years earlier. Having just “retired” here from some pretty cutting edge art activity myself, I was pretty excited to find it. Reg admitted that, actually, the Manx Arts Council weren’t interested and Kevin had lent him the piece as a personal favour.

It was the same story with Chris Killip, then being praised by no less a figure than John Berger for his photos of a Manx traveller family but similarly unable to raise interest in his own country.

As far as I could tell, it wasn’t just disinterest in contemporary art, it was also reluctance to admit that the island had any travellers. Following the UK pattern of local authorities harassing travellers and moving them on from traditional sites (which were inevitably then redeveloped as housing estates or industrial parks) the Isle of Man introduced a law making it illegal to bring a caravan over on the ferry or use it here. Killip not only lent Reg the exhibition, he came over, stayed with Reg, and I met him – a very modest man who within a year or two was getting national exhibitions in the US, but remained unrecognised by the Manx government or art bureaucracy for at least a further 20 years.

Reg’s other passion was local Victorian and Modernist architecture. In between commissions he often worked in the building trade, for example on the redevelopment of local shops and other buildings. He kept photographs of unique craftwork before it vanished and sometimes managed to salvage bits and pieces. For example, I recall part of a beautiful feature in his house was salvaged from an art deco stairway in a long gone Douglas shop, which the redevelopers just wanted to smash up and burn.

Similarly, he was absolutely apoplectic about the way original features in Villa Marina Arcade first went unrepaired and finally vanished. He believed that items like handrails, doorways, and bronze lamp fittings were gradually vanishing in the backs of vans, either to scrapyards or for the growing restoration trade in the UK, and he was probably right.

One of the legacies of talking to Reg about such things is that I not only look round shops or buildings and see the “product”, but look up and notice the decorations. My appreciation of even the simplest 20th century shop, arcade or public building has increased immeasurably.

It got to the stage where, on returning from the UK or Europe, the first thing I did was run round to show Reg photos of some facade, doorway or light fitting I’d seen that echoed a Manx one. It all added to his ongoing case for preserving or at least cataloguing such things, which was inevitably ignored year in and year out as “redevelopment” of “out-of-date” or “unwanted” buildings proceeded – especially around Douglas. As a result, Douglas, supposedly saved from 1980’s decay, now resembles a pre-Glasnost city centre in any out-of-the-way Soviet statelet. All that is missing is the bread queues, and the way things are going even that could happen.

So, anyway, another bright star and literate friend gone. And with Trump, Brexit and any number of other depressing developments this year, 2017 looks like being a year in which common decency and an appreciation of beauty will be rarer than ever.

What also strikes me is that I’m now at the same stage in life as my Manx mentors were when I first knew them. As they’re no longer around, guess I have to try and put that knowledge to work.

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