So, where the hell have I been?

Well….on holiday, actually, and (by choice) well way from the internet, English language TV and pretty much anything that might tie me to my usual existence.

The thing is, this has been the only two weeks of the year when I was not surrounded by idiots engaged in a project which is, finally, anti-human (or at the very least the opposite of what a humane endeavour should be). And I made the most of it. Lying about in a shady spot in a sunny place, eating, drinking, sleeping….. day-dreaming…. thinking… and other intensive stuff.

You know, it’s sad when you realise that for the sake of the planet and most of humanity it might be best if the Isle of Man did not exist. Which is a harsh truth.

Before I was forced into finance sector work I was not driven to “do good” outside of work. I just lacked the guilt most liberals get about deciding to “get on in life” while quietly knowing you are stepping on others to do it. Mostly because I chose to live simply when I could rather than step on those others. I might not be achieving much in terms of changing or improving the world, but I did no harm either.

But these days I have little choice, because others depend on me, and I feel very beat up about the effects of that. Yes, I provide for my family, and am no burden on civic society or public parasite, but at what greater expense?

So, for me or anyone else in my situation, rather than continue to beat yourself up about it, the question is: “What are you going to do about it?”

And in answering that I’m drawn back, yet again, to Mark Boyle, an astute artist back in the 1970’s who explained his quite unique work thus: “The greatest change you can make to your environment, short of destroying it, is to change your attitude to it.”

Actually, Mark spent the best part of half a century subtly altering everyday situations so that people were nudged into doing just that.

All of which gets me thinking, “What, then, can you do from the Isle of Man to add to the sum of human joy rather than be the cause of more human misery? How do you balance the scales to compensate for your continued, immediately economically vital but in wider terms destructive life?

Those I love most have practical ways of spreading joy outside of rubbish jobs – music, cooking, baking cakes, or just fixing broken objects.

Me? I’m a contemplative, or as some would say, bone idle. What can I do?

But at the very least, I decided the very worst thing I could do was to write more gloomy missives, confirming what many strongly suspect.

So what do I write instead?

Come back sometime and find out.

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Going for a song

This little item (see http://www.isleofman.com/News/details/82375/new-york-bound-choir-perfoming-this-weekend ) has been the source of some amusement to me and mine in recent weeks. If I was related to Martin Luther King Junior I might also be very embarrassed – even if the rumours that his family aggressively chase a financial percentage in any scheme involving his name did turn out to have substance.

For various reasons I knew of this sad enterprise (for it is little more than a financial enterprise) some time ago, and can safely say that media reports are a little light on the fuller facts. In brief, this isn’t so much an invitation to take part in a world premiere as a bizarre pyramid crowd-funding scheme, and both Jenkins and Manx socialites have form for this kind of thing.

It goes something like this…..

In the traditional arts model, a composer is commissioned to write a work, and in order to maximise impact obviously wants the best venue and performers for the premiere – which can require a lot of upfront funding if that work is ambitious, involves a lot of performers and only works well in a large venue. More recently, it would be quite normal for the composer or performers to get some sort of TV, DVD and CD deal to lay off those costs. But the management behind Jenkins – whose product sells well in the amateur and semi-pro choir world – found a way to take that even further.

Jenkins has built a reputation for producing safe, middle of the road, vaguely religious waffle to order for public authorities, the Beeb and Arts Council. It’s cheesy enough for any small town mayor to sit through – no controversial themes, no postmodern wierdness, just do-goody topics like World Peace with extensive plagiarisation of the words of religious “thinkers”. It has the added attraction that even a beginner can pick up the tunes in about 5 minutes, so the sheet music sales and performing royalties flowing back from small town choirs are humungous.

Then the Jenkins marketing machine had another wizard wheeze. What if, instead of paying professional singers for the world premiere, you “invite” amateur choirs to do it, then charge them an arm and a leg to perform? You can even take it further than that – having milked one lot for the world or national premieres, why not tender for places on the CD recording too?

So somebody at the IOMCS answered the web call for choirs, and oddly enough somebody in New York wrote back to say that a choir from a place known worldwide only for a tax-avoidance industry had made the shortlist.

Crikey, that must have been a surprise. Almost as surprising as the comparative absence of choristers from poorer countries with top quality amateur classical musical groups like, say, Bulgaria.

Having – of necessity – endured numerous performances by the IOMCS and other local choirs over the years, I would have to say bluntly that if the selection for the NY gig was purely on musical ability they would not have a prayer. Because Manx musical groups prefer to overcome technical shortcomings by sheer numbers and volume, rather than diligent practice.

Ten people singing slightly out of time and tune is obviously and painfully wrong. With 140 wrong, but in roughly identical ways at the same places, the audience will tend to think it’s right – especially if they are not too familiar with the music. On that basis Manx national ensembles are falsely judged “better” than smaller groups, and being both “national” and expensive to join attract socialites of minimal ability (who do nothing to drag standards up but do ensure sufficient funding).

What the local reports also neglect to mention is that (1) the real cost for each participant is around £1500, of which about a third is paid direct to the Carnegie organisers and (2) the performers are not allowed to view either rehearsals or performance of any other item on the concert programme.

But presumably the offer also pulls in more than the choirs, because relatives will pay to go and watch it too. Which is where the next sting comes in, because friends and relatives have to pay for their own concert tickets (prices start about $500) and if they want to come along to the post-gig reception with the singers (who have already paid for that as part of the package) that would be about another $500 – possibly far more depending on what Noo Yawk glitterati are prepared to pay to swan about with the likes of the Luther Kings.

So, to sum up, you go to New York at the height of winter, get herded into two long rehearsals, kicked out again and told not to come back before the night. If at any stage in this a connecting airport is closed, New York is snowed in for a week, etc., you are on your own. Nightmare if you actually have to work for a living and a family to worry about. Minor inconvenience in return for some swanky pics when you have money, time on your hands, and nothing better to do.

But something about it this also reminds me of a scam a senior Manx cleric used to run to pay for his (frequent) foreign holidays. In essence, he struck up a deal with a local travel agent to run tours to the Holy Land, or some traditional UK or European pilgrimage site. For every 10 places on the package holiday the cleric flogged, he got one free. So, 20 and he and the Mrs got a free holiday.

Being connected to charitable and government bodies, he soon branched out, to the extent he was taking maybe half a dozen free foreign holidays a year. Oddly enough, his church and various statutory bodies he chaired managed perfectly well without him, which says something else about the way such organisations work on the Isle of Man.

I hear that invitations to perform, at first restricted only to the richest members of IOMCS, are now being thrown about ever more desperately to a wider circle of less and less musically able (or even interested) punters. It is quite possible that the eventual Manx contingent will entirely consist of tone-deaf wealthy retirees.

It is even more amusing to speculate if (on the same basis as their own concerts) their duff notes will be drowned out by more able singers from elsewhere, or if this is a global phenomenon. In which case I hope at least the sound engineer at the Carnegie recording this for posterity will be a professional and get union rates for the job. If he’s as mercenary as the Jenkins machine he could even make a small fortune on the side flogging unedited versions of the master-tape.

A welcome refugee

So, what did you do this morning?

Me? I’m just back from Douglas, where I was speaking to a Syrian refugee.

No, you did not misread that. I was in Douglas, though it isn’t a work day, and I was speaking to a Syrian refugee, even though our infinitely wise government has decided the Isle of Man cannot take Syrian refugees. Can I also add that the refugee did not seem to be having a problem adjusting to Manx culture (though to be fair he is being hosted and helped by some of our most cultured citizenry)?

He was Baraa Essay Kouja, the founder of the charity From Syria With Love (see http://fromsyriawithlove.com/ ), which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. The occasion was a private presentation by Baraa on the work of that charity, which is pretty inspirational – especially given that every official body you can imagine seems to want to hinder it.

Can you believe, for example, that FSWL had the greatest difficulty getting UK charitable status, and that every one of the UK high street banks has refused to give them a bank account, citing money-laundering risks as an excuse? Given the involvement of (oh, let’s take some random examples) HSBC, Barclays, Natwest and Lloyds in ensuring deals by the British arms industry are quietly routed through third countries before their deadly product reaches African and Middle Eastern dictator customers, (then to be used on unarmed civilians – in many cases in the same countries), or HSBC’s selfless work in propping up South American drug cartels then that is a bit of a bad joke.

Anyway, this morning was far more pleasant. Due to another appointment, I squeezed in at the back 10 minutes late and missed the introduction, but still caught most of Manx Gaelic choir Caarjyn Cooidjagh‘s performance (with the former – and last serious – Minister for Overseas Development singing inconspicuously in the back row). Baraa then made his presentation, with some video and photographic material, and we were then all free to look around the exhibition proper.

And that was also when I got a chance of a few words with Baraa. As a trained journalist and NUJ member in good faith, I know every malignant troll and throwback in the British Isles will write this off as “fake news” if I did not ask him, so, no, he is not receiving benefits, and, no, he didn’t actually plan to be in the UK or a refugee, and certainly doesn’t see it as a better, or more economically attractive, life. It’s just that as the Syrian government want to kill him for helping refugees in Lebanon it would be a little unwise for him to go home before the bombing stops, and Western governments have put some kind of muzzle on their psychopathic friend, the Syrian president.

Oh, and I still have my wallet too. All that is missing from it is the money used to buy several copies of a book with pictures by kids from four refugee camps. One copy is now in Ramsey Town Library (and the librarian was very pleased to get it), and a second copy will be in my daughter’s school library on Monday.

Speaking of my daughter – I am also the proud owner of a picture by a girl just one year younger than her, who lives in one of the camps and has ambitions to be a journalist (or at least I will be once the exhibition is over and the pictures taken down).

I cannot deny my daughter her dreams. How could I not help another girl with a dream, currently facing far more obstacles because her government would happily kill her (while ours is just too clueless or idle to ensure mine has adequate teachers, text books and other educational facilities)?

Never mind the government, here’s the refugee aid program

Those who know the “real” me are aware I supported a modest proposal to settle one Syrian refugee family a year to the Isle of Man over a period of five years. The proposal and figure was intended (using the same ratio of refugees to national population) to match David Cameron’s promise to rehouse some Syrian refugees around the UK. The families were to have come from a specific, well supervised and monitored, refugee camp, and would have been subject to exactly the same rigorous checks as those the UK government would take.

Well, the world knows what happened to the UK promise, and recently Manx people also discovered that our own government were even less interested – even though Manx civil society would have done all the work and government was simply asked not to get in the way. Because if you try to do anything to buck the trend for institutional xenophobia on the Isle of Man, you expect such knockbacks.

Oddly enough, our government either sees nothing wrong in (or turns a blind eye to) the way, say, the London property portfolios of Middle Eastern dictators are overseen on the Isle of Man. That, after all, is strictly business. Oh, and it also means, for instance, that Manx government ministers and their staff can travel (at public expense) to the Dubai offices of a frivolous Department for Economic Development PR scheme to attract Middle Eastern investments (without any awkward questions about human rights or industrial scale corruption).

So anyway, as you’d need a ouija board to start a conversation with most Manx politicians or civil servants (assuming they even have souls), those involved in the original proposal have moved on.

Now, there’s a great scheme called From Syria With Love (see http://fromsyriawithlove.com/ ), and one of their projects is http://fromsyriawithlove.com/from-syria-with-love-art-exhibition/ , a collection of paintings by Syrian children living in refugee camps in Lebanon. And it’s coming to the Isle of Man. You can see the whole thing in Noa Bakehouse, Douglas, where it will be for two weeks between 25th March and 8th April.

Baraa Essay Kouja, the founder of the charity , and himself a Syrian refugee, will also be here for four days. You can catch his public presentations on Saturday, 1st April at 2.30 PM and Sunday, 2nd April at 10.30 AM and 7.45 PM. Baraaa will also be visiting secondary schools on Monday 3rd and Tuesday 4th to give talks about the refugee camps, the Syrian crisis and the children behind the pictures.

Framed prints of exhibition pictures will be on sale for £15 and there is also the opportunity to order unframed prints for £10 which will be available to collect one week after the exhibition closes. 100% of the proceeds goes directly to small scale projects in the Lebanon camps and at displacement points on the Syrian border.

You know, it’s almost a shame we can’t get anybody that efficient, hard working or imaginative running Manx government enterprise schemes. Because by my back-of-the-envelope calculations that’s a success rate about 100% higher than the Dubai scheme, which has produced no genuine new Middle Eastern investment. Most of those shady deals have been quietly in place here for two decades or more already, which is why by now they’re so complex and opaque that they rarely show up on the radar.

Anyway, excuse my cynicism. All I really mean to say is, go, see the exhibition, engage with a few local people who actually want to be part of the human race for a change. Maybe you might even want to lend a hand to what they’re doing.

Wasting away the moments that make up a dull day….

Hmm, I see it’s two weeks since I last posted. This blog gets more Bernardian by the day.

Maybe in future, in tongue-in-cheek homage to Saint Jeff, each time I go a week without posting I should enter right onto the spirit of the thing and put a small message up saying “Manx Gent is unwell”.

It wouldn’t be true, but then neither was it the case all those times The Spectator editor gave up trying to get blood from the stoned and just placed the infamous message “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell” where the weekly Low Life column should have gone.

Look, there are just times (far too many) when the creative spirit looks out of the window, back at his or her “tripewriter”, then out the window and back at the tripewriter again and thinks….. “Why bother?”

On the other hand, why not?

Anyway, another week amongst the living dead in what passes for a hive of industry and what do I have to report?

Not a lot.

This week I realised that the combined ages of any of the several pointless management clusters nominally supervising my (equally nominal) work hardly adds up to my actual age. In addition, I doubt if the combined IQ of these myriad ( and I sometimes suspect self-replicating) power groupings would surpass that of, say, someone at the higher end of the special needs spectrum. Other than the fact that they cannot communicate with anyone outside their world, or register anything that does not appear as a “stat” on any of their spread-sheets, I really cannot understand how such idiocy continues.

Watching business management in action is like watching those cartoon figures who pedal air after running off a cliff. You know they should fall, you wait for them to fall, but they just pedal, and pedal, and pedal…..

The crash surely has to come any second now… wait, wait…. Oh, never mind, might as well wander off for another cup of tea.

Bureaucracy, it is becoming increasingly clear to me, seems to spread like plastic detritus on beaches. To someone who comes across it by chance, it is baffling where it all comes from. And neither logic nor imagination can stop the increasing proliferation of either phenomenon.

It may be true, as a research organisation I quietly help from time to time says, that those faceless figures behind the corporations wrecking the world are actual people, and have names and addresses. But just tracking them down is a full time job, never mind tackling the mess they cause. And neither task gets a mortgage paid unless you were born into the right race and class.

On the other hand, a figure I have admired for years, but unfortunately never met in person, died this week.

Gustav Metzger was not an artist the general public knew about. Far more radical than Tracey Emin or Damian Hirst, or Banksy, but because of his own principles never destined for their fame or economic fortune. In fact, outside a tiny, truly experimental and radical art community to whom he was one of the 20th century’s most important figures, hardly anyone within the highly incestuous and private art world did either.

Metzger arrived in Britain courtesy of the kinder-transport, went on to study art almost by accident, and unlike most art world enfant terribles actually lived life like he made art, including a spell in jail for crimes against militarism. For some 75 years – right up until the week before he died in fact – he was at war with capitalism, consumerism and the waste-makers of the world.

Discover him at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/mar/02/gustav-metzger-artist-appreciation , https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/mar/03/gustav-metzger-obituary and https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/mar/03/gustav-metzger-art-revolutionary-human-being-capitalism .

Now THAT is not a wasted life.

The importance of not being earnest

It’s been quite a weekend for anyone interested in the social circle around Jeff Bernard.

Firstly, yesterday morning there was the announcement of John Hurt’s death. It was of particular interest to me because, in addition to being a personal friend of Bernard’s (who nicknamed him “the Naked Elephant Man”), Hurt actually portrayed both Quentin Crisp and Jeff Bernard on screen and stage. His role as Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (and later An Englishman in New York) are key elements in the virtual canonisation of that unique individual. And, as I mentioned here, he took the lead role in a BBC radio production of Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell just a year or so ago. So, great talent, one of the last of the real Soho boho scene, and will be sadly missed.

Then, last night, there were not one but two BBC productions about Francis Bacon. I missed the first, partly because I had other things to do, partly because if an “arts” programme about Bacon sought the opinion of Damien Hirst then that indicates abysmal research, and would never be worth wincing through in case of accidental delights. See Brian Sewell on both and you will soon understand why.

But the second – advertised as a bio-drama about the tragic relationship between Bacon and George Dyer (whose “introduction” to Bacon was falling through his studio ceiling while trying to rob it) – well, that was absolutely different. Even though it only started at 1 AM I was never going to miss it, especially as the director was John Maybury, who really does straddle a border between film and painting with his extraordinary visuals.

I was not disappointed, even though I’m still only waking up as I write. Now I really do understand why Bacon made that flip remark about the only way to get through life being to regard nearly everything and everyone as unimportant. Maybe Quentin Crisp’s ruling that the first rule of being a stylist has to be “Live alone” also applies.

Like both, I’m joking but seriously. It must be absolute hell for someone as driven as Bacon to portray the world in a way not yet accepted or understood yet also find love or just be close to another person.

Maybe this odd relationship between two totally different outsiders was purely symptomatic of the times in which it happened. Maybe now, with gay relationships gone mainstream, and most gays making it clear they just want to be as dull and suburban as everybody else, it would be totally different.

But somehow I don’t think so. For myself, I’ve accepted that I can’t pursue the only things that interest and drive me full time, and by so doing ignore or destroy the lives of people I have responsibilities to. I’ve accepted that I’m stuck in a job which means nothing in order to pay the bills in a venal, nonsensical world, and will have to find the discipline to do the good stuff elsewhere.

The main thing is that, like Bacon, I can regard nearly everyone and everything as totally unimportant. It’s just that the people and stuff that don’t matter are centred on my employment, or political, social and economic inconveniences of the era. I find ways to negotiate them, but will never, ever give them the satisfaction of taking them seriously or letting them get to me.

And the people that do matter are family and some close friends – the only people for whom I consider making time out from my “real work”, which isn’t strictly art, or journalism, and certainly not politics, which can’t be valued in any accounts ledger, and which doesn’t even bring me an income.

Odd and totally impractical as this all is, it is all I can do, and the ludicrous pursuit of it all that makes getting up in the morning worthwhile.

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.