Monday, 30 September 2013

Friends in the north

As has always seemed to have been the way in my life, plans carefully constructed after much thought and deliberation, are frequently subject to late and radical change. Prompted by the need to ensure the safe delivery of two pictures to the far north of Scotland, an intricate programme of business - and just a wee bit of pleasure - was on the cards for these last few days of September,

Just as everything was more or less in place, a single phonecall resulted in a fairly fundamental change of plans. We still headed north, but stopped short at Newcastle to have dinner with author, academic and probably my oldest friend, Professor Andrew Ballantyne. Not having been into the city for many years it was great to get a feel for how it now is, eating and sleeping in Jesmond, just north of the city centre. By all appearances this is where cool people - and wealthy students - hang out. Great houses in very attractive streets, sprinkled with an ample supply of bistro's, cafes and cool shops. Having been watered and fed by Andrew in some considerable style, it was back to earth with a bit of a bump the following morning with a brief visit to the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the Baltic Contemporary Arts Centre, neither of which were in existence when I last visited!

The bridge is simply stunning, but I have to say the Baltic and its surroundings - or lack of them - didn't really do it for me. These waterside venues really do need people and activity, both of which were sadly lacking on this occasion. Couldn't help feeling I would become very withdrawn very quickly if I was one of the gallery attendants there - but maybe it was just a bad day.

Having no need to head for Edinburgh and beyond, two hours later we were in the soft south or West Yorkshire as it likes to be known. Filling another gap in my cultural experience, Salts Mill in Shipley couldn't have provided a greater contrast with the Baltic. Another conversion and also housing contemporary art - in this case the Hockney collection.

This one was buzzing with life. Art, colour, activity, food, drink - just fantastic and on the same day that not much more than a hundred miles away it all felt just a bit sad. Not just the Hockneys and not just hanging on the walls but percolating into the life of the place.

Whoever masterminds this should be very, very pleased with what they have achieved.

The sun was shining and Yorkshire was looking as good as it ever gets, and it really was quite easy to get carried away.  And it's not simply populist. On the top floor - or rather above the top floor - there is currently a fascinating exhibition 'Cloth and Memory' - which is normally the kind of thing I avoid. In what was once the largest industrial space in the world is a collection of intriguing and fascinating installations inspired by the activity that this building used to house. Anywhere else it might not have worked; here it most definitely does.

Heading on into the deep south - Sheffield - culture was replaced by more food with, this time, family. Overnight in the slightly unreal if very comfortable world of a city-centre Premier Inn and away again, this time to the cloistered world of Repton School, not for educational reasons but to collect a few pieces by one of my favourite potters, John Wheeldon. As with a number of others who show with us, I first became aware of John's raku work through the good offices of Richard Godfrey. John is currently developing a new range of domestic work so, of course, we had to test this in use, with a coffee while we talked. It was fantastic to hear from John that Richard is making real progress in his recovery and is not only making again but has been out on his travels. On John's advice we took one further small diversion into the crypt of Repton Church to view the Saxon columns in the crypt. Extraordinary where gallery life takes one.

To round off this social whirlwind, we headed first to Northamptonshire for more food and friends and finally back to my roots in Warwickshire. Walking along the canal and then the banks of the Avon into the heart of Warwick was a timely reminder of just how good England can be at this time of year.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The days grow short when you reach September

The natural shortening of the daylight hours seems to have come suddenly this year. Of course this can't be so, but the noticeable fall in temperature has reinforced the feeling that autumn is upon us. Haven't seen any geese flying in yet but I imagine they're not far away.

Down at the Staithe this sense of change has been reinforced by the grass cutting on the banks. Gone are the long grasses and dead heads of late summer, to be replaced by a rather austere shorn look.  Coupled with chilly winds and some rain it all feels very different to those balmy late summer days - all of two weeks ago.

However, back in the garden, whilst summer is not quite hanging on, autumn has an altogether warmer look with probably more late colour and growth than in the last few years. Whether  this is a consequence of the extended and cold spring, I'm not quite sure - but it looks good.

Whichever way you view these things, good, bad, happy or sad, there's no denying most of us quite like getting back into our routine, whatever that may be.  In the gallery as ever the number of visitors remains much as the summer months. This comes as a surprise to many when you tell them, but the difference is who they are and the very noticeable difference in style and demeanour.  In the holiday months of July and August most of us are focussed on our families and visiting galleries is probably not top of the agenda.  Come September that all changes and most visitors have got time to stand and stare and really look, free of family pressures and distractions. 

And of course, Norfolk is emptier, calmer and back to normal.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Discretion in all things

My comment at the end of Food for thought sparked (inevitably) further speculation as to who and what? As it's not happening it's irrelevant but by strange coincidence a similar situation where discretion again won the day occurred this week.

A visit – not by me – to one of the current hot spots of the eating world of North Norfolk had not come up to expectations and there was a flurry of understandable curiousity to know more.  As I have remarked before, in the food game you are at the mercy of your last customer. When – as many local places do – venues enjoy favourable reviews in the national press, there are plenty out there who it seems are very happy to indulge in a feeding frenzy on any failing, perceived or genuine.

When you look back at how both choice and standards have improved here over the last 10 years, we really have little to complain about. Yes there is the odd one who gets carried away and gets greedy or takes their eye off what they are about, but these are very few and far between, and in all cases this can easily be picked up, not through review sites, but by just looking.  If local customers have abandoned ship maybe it's time to look around – but don't give up on anywhere simply because you've had a less than perfect experience.

Coming back to where we started, the justifiably disappointed customer commendably stuck to his guns and declined to identify the venue.  They in their turn were I am sure aware of what had gone on and unless I'm much mistaken will be focussing anew on what they're about.

On a personal note, I made a purchase at a local market earlier this year which back at home I realised was past the date indicated on it. Needless to say it was delicious and I decided there was no call to make any fuss about this.  Some weeks later at another venue I made another purchase from, I thought, the same supplier and at that point mentioned what had happened. They were suitably aghast - and so was I when I later realised I was talking to the wrong person.