Category Archives: Art

Things I See On My Way To Work 1: The People of Walsall Wood

I commute. I commute for the best part of twelve hours a week. And as any commuter knows, you have to find a way to keep your sanity on these epic trips, to hold on to your senses before you go completely postal and drive through a Tesco Express just for the hell of it. I normally distract myself with podcasts, but I’ve recently noticed that my journey is actually interesting. This is the first in a series about the hidden world of my commute.

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As you head out of Walsall, along the A461, look to your left. Standing on the bank of the Daw End branch canal is a fisherman. He’s there every day, every night, and while rumours persist he once caught a fish or a boot or even an Olympic Torch, today his line hangs empty. He’s a lonely figure, lost in his memories; spare him a smile as you drive over the bridge into Walsall Wood.

The Fisherman is part of the Walsall Wood sculpture trail commissioned by the local council in 2009 to commemorate the area’s industrial history. He stands at the canal to draw attention to how this waterway was once a thriving artery, transporting resources between the various mining communities along its route, reminding us how this settlement and the wider Black Country grew up around pits and nail making and steel working. It’s in our DNA, and even those of us who ended up desk jockeys can probably trace our lineage back to a miner or two.

Because this is where the Industrial Revolution was born, the whole Black Country maintaining traces of this history in a landscape scarred by overgrown subsidence and criss-crossed by canals. You can see this as you walk away from the Fisherman towards town; first you’ll come across a miner and his whippet, standing some way away from the other ‘people’. He’s a steel and copper image of an image, a metal interpretation of a stained glass window in the nearby St. John’s church.

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It’s a reminder of the centrality of local churches in those days, where the iconography of religion existed alongside that of industry. Apparently the church contains a miner’s lantern inscribed with the names of those killed in a local pit disaster; more on that in a future post.

The whole sculpture trail is about memories – memories of an industrial past now long gone, memories of the families who relied on that industry for survival, whose fathers endured brutal work down the mine to feed their kids. Their stories are told among another group of people, just opposite the church. Now we’re talking about micro-history, stories of children dressing as scarecrows and of a monkey that lived in the local pet shop.

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This is the stuff of family history, the stories passed down by grandparents, the stories that would eventually have faded had artist Luke Perry not frozen these memories in metal, preserving the past of the area in the very steel that was so important in creating that past in the first place. In that sense it’s appropriate that the sculpture trail ends with a giant replica of the Walsall Wood colliery: everything is leading to the mine, coal and bricks and workers and memory and legend. Everything begins and ends with the pit.

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And yet the Coppy Pit mined for less than a hundred years, from 1874 to 1964. Now the site is a trading estate; the railway line that serviced it a children’s play park. From the point of view of a commuter, the sculpture trail is the only obvious reminder of what this town used to be, a town built around industry, where the community opened soup kitchens to feed each other during the General Strike of the twenties. I have vague memories of the miners’ strike, the outpouring of rage and despair at the collapse of communities built around industry. Is that what happened here? Or did mining in Walsall Wood slowly die, locals finding employment elsewhere, in different towns, different industries?

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Because while the sculpture trail is hyperlocal, the town is still moulded by wider, global concerns. While I was taking these pictures, I stumbled on a stark reminder of that: a small cross with a poppy on it, weathered and stuck in a plant pot. I don’t know if it was a leftover from Remembrance Day celebrations or if it was just left there by mistake, but in it’s own way it’s another act of memory; of the men who worked the pit and the canal who found themselves fighting and dying a long way from home.

Memory is a powerful thing, and so is art. Maybe we need more steel sculptures and small wooden crosses to embed these memories in the streets we walk, on the roads we drive.

Detective Chimp and the Importance of Random Creativity

So last night my friend Sudge and I were talking about the DC Comics reboot/relaunch that has caused a lot of excitement and consternation amongst geekdom. We got on to books that would never get published, one of which was our idea for the greatest story ever to feature Detective Chimp.

(If you can’t be bothered to follow that link, Detective Chimp is one of DC’s more obscure characters, basically a talking chimp who is also, well, a detective. He has a drink problem. He also wears a deerstalker. Detective Chimp is awesome.)

Anyway, I won’t go into detail about the plot we came up with, as it may yet materialise as a fanfic project or something, suffice to say it’s film noir meets Indiana Jones with added monkeys. And heck, as this is a comic character we’re talking about, I’ve even done some art:

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And yes, I know you’re thinking we must be completely mad, but we had fun and it was a nice moment of creativity. I guess it was also an object lesson – we’re gifted with imagination, creativity, all sorts of talents that I’ve mentioned before, and it’s a shame not to use them. Someone even used used those talents to invent Detective Chimp.

So if you’ve got an idea, voice it. Write it, draw it, discuss it. Just get it out there. There’s no point keeping ut locked up inside when it has the potential to bless an audience, even if that’s just one person.

And all that’s true, even if it does involve too many monkeys.

Bezalel’s Legacy: The link between my Granddad and an obscure figure from the Bible

That’s a model of my church made by my Granddad. I can’t state this with any great certainty, but I believe he used scrap wood; I have childhood memories of him working on it, and upon its completion he was justifiably proud. Life takes its inevitable course, and now the model has passed into my possession; a memory of my grandparents, of course, but it’s also coming to mean something more.

Both my father and grandfather were carpenters by trade; in contrast I’m an office dweller. I don’t carry on the family tradition of being able to turn pieces of wood into miniture churches, and there’s a part of me that almost regrets breaking that continuity. It’s not a huge regret – I’m the person I am, and that means I work with words and numbers and computers instead – but all the same, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I’d inherited those skills.

There’s a guy in the Bible, Bezalel. From what I can tell (and please correct me if I’m wrong), he’s the first person directly said to have been blessed and annointed by the Spirit of God, and here’s the thing: he’s not a prophet or a priest, he’s a craftsman, an artisan. He’s the guy responsible for building and furnishing the Tabernacle, a hugely important job as this was to be the house of God on Earth. It’s a slightly obscure but significant bit of the Bible: God the Creator gives Bezalel the gift of creativity. Like my Dad and Granddad this was a practical, tactile creativity, expressed through wood and stone and metal and fabrics. In a sense Bezalel’s legacy extends to all those craftsmen who came after him, and even to those whose creativity is expressed in less tangible forms – poetry, song, music, story, dance.

I’d like to be able to claim this legacy of creativity, but it can be frustrating sometimes; I’ve been blogging for a long time now and it’s depressing to read my stats page at times, and let’s face it, creativity is one of the first qualities to get buried under the stresses and busyness of day-to-day life.

But looking at that model church reminds me that creativity is important, even if it’s a different creativity to that practiced by your forefathers. Heck, I’ve just remembered that, during his childhood, my Dad was a decent artist, sitting down to draw intricate pictures of birds. I don’t remember him doing that as an adult, and that’s a shame; I guess I don’t want to get to a point in my life where I look back and realise I didn’t write as much as I could. I’m not saying I’m particularly good at it, but it’s something I love.

I guess the last word on this could go to Florence Foster Jenkins, who had a good attitude towards this sort of thing:

“People may say I can’t sing, but no-one can ever say I didn’t sing…”

Font Rage

It’s only recently that I’ve become aware that people get very agitated about fonts. This surprises me. It’s not that I can’t imagine people getting worked up about seemingly trivial aspects of day-to-day life; heck, I’ve experienced Nerd Rage in the past (mainly to do with what DC Comics did to the JLI). That said, I never thought people would become furious over something as simple as typeface. I get why people might be passionate about the subject – it’s got a long history dating back to the birth of printing, and creatives have a right to get excited about graphic design. But font rage?

The most visible example of this is the fury aimed at Comic Sans, which seems to be a bit over the top. I can see why people wouldn’t want it on their gravestones, but it’s fairly inoffensive, surely? Or maybe I’m artistically illiterate, which is entirely possible. After all, when Ikea changed its official typeface from Futura to Verdana, it caused outrage among people who can tell the difference. Verdanagate, they called it.

And then there are anachronistoc fonts in films, a whole sub-section of movie mistakes that can spoil the filmgoing experience for people with an eye for that sort of thing.

But here’s the thing – getting excited and passionate and angry and enthused by something that is (to me, at least) commonplace and invisible is a very human thing to do. I suspect all the font enthusiasts out there think me being able to quote in-jokes from Doctor Who Magazine is sad, but it’s all part of the same thing. It’s good to be a fan of something; to my mind at least that’s way better than postmodern irony or carefully cultivated ‘cool’. Geeking out is far more fun…