I lost an hour somewhere
But it’s that time of year
I once wrote a song in half an hour it was called Clocks.* I remember trying to write down everything I was thinking from quarter to until quarter past 12 on the night winter officially turned into spring. That was in 1981, upstairs in the small middle bedroom of my family home in Glenrothes, Scotland and 30 years on I have just gained an hour as I begin typing this text in the front room of a 4th floor flat in Mitte, Berlin.
The Clocks went back last night and I know at 5.30pm today it will be dark outside and shortly after I will have given up work for the day. I used to be really good at working through the night but over the past decade that has become increasingly rare for me. I can’t claim it has something to do with a technical or artistic need for daylight, it feels more like my head has filled up at a much earlier point in the day, too cluttered to try and build or say anything of use. Better to do something else and then see what I can offer the next stretch of daylight.
One of the last late night studio sessions I can remember was just before I moved to London in 2001. I was sorting through drawings and paintings to chuck out or store and keep, in a large attic studio in Stockbridge Edinburgh that I shared with 6 other painters. Around 1.30am I was stirred by the creaking sound of the heavy side door being opened and while trying to convince myself that there was nothing to be afraid of Graham suddenly appeared, standing between the plasterboard partitions to my space. Graham had had a studio in the building long before I had moved in, over the years there had been lengthy periods where he would not come in and when he did he would be argumentative, temperamental and erratic for a few weeks and then disappear again. We had always been on friendly terms though, maybe due to a mutual liking of German Lieder, particularly Schubert’s Winterreise. I had not seen him in the studio for months and entering my space he said how surprised he was to see me and then told about the singing he was doing at the time and how he had some free time coming up to get back into the studio. I told him what I was up to and he was genuinely thrilled. He then went into his own space and several hours passed with us both pushing paper and stuff around, now and again punctuating the night time with raised-voice, snippets of small-talk and songs thrown back and forth. I can’t fully remember how we parted. I know we wished each other success with future plans and I left first around 5am. Working through the night more or less stopped for me around then, the final clearing and moving out of the studio was done during the day and once in London my work and hours changed completely. Ten months after the move and just a few months before I began an MA at the Slade school of Art I received an email from a friend at the Edinburgh Studios. Graham was dead in broad day light he had run and vaulted from the Waverly Bridge.
A loud splash jolts me awake in the bath, for the umpteenth time the book I’m reading has slipped from my hands. I experienced two firsts this summer, listening to Test Match Special in Berlin and reading Marcel Proust.
I hardly ever read fiction and the decision to read a Marcel Proust book came from the countless references to him in the non-fiction I have read in recent years. I struggled through the first 60 pages of Swann’s way that are without a single chapter break but following that I felt myself simply travelling through the words as the pages continued to turn. I began to suspect that the drowsy wanderings, common to my reading, had been somehow anticipated by the author and carefully tailored into the pages; I am not sure how many others have experienced this with the book but on beginning to read a section I would slowly and progressively drift off while still being engaged with the text. After a while, I would never know how long, I would receive a jolt, the book falling from my hands, a bang or car screech, always at that point I would suddenly soar, all faculties flying back into the book at a crucial point of the narrative. I know that this sounds like a normal reaction whenever one reads a boring or difficult book but unlike the times I have dropped off and finally given up trying to read a book I have found dull, the drowsiness and distance I experienced reading Swan’s way always served to enrich and deepen my understanding of the book and I would argue, possibly more than if I had read it without the wanderings. I also noted an odd equation that would reckon with the number of pages read to the length of each session of reading, whether in the bath, lying on the Sofa or sitting at the bar on the corner. Although I would have consumed a dense sod of information and although I would have been reading for 2 or 3 hours I would have only moved on 3 to 5 pages.
Via the internet the late summer Test Match between England and India entered my summer and the peculiar time zone already set up by Marcel Proust. Since moving to Berlin I have tried to limit my listening of English speaking Radio, apart from not wishing to become a little Britain ex-pat I find it detrimental to learning German when I hear to too much English being spoken. This makes the audio monster that is Test Match special; 8 hours of air time per day, 5 days per match, 5 matches per summer, an obvious beast to avoid. I managed not to listen to it in my first two years in Berlin and I am not sure what changed this year, whether I relaxed, feeling I was hearing German a lot better or whether I just felt demoralised by it.
My relationship to cricket goes back to growing up in Lancashire. In summer everyone played cricket at a wicket chalked on a dustbin or wall. I could see a cricket ball well and had reasonably good timing to bat it and my mother showed me how to ball using the seam of the leather cricket ball. Sunday League cricket commentary droned from the telly once a week accompanied by the crowds late afternoon Thwaites’s slur version of the Chicory tip song, Son of my father. Oh Lanky Lanky LankyLankyLankyLanky Lankyshire.
When I moved to Scotland I moved away from cricket and it was almost 20 years later that I first heard test match special. My friend, fellow artist and at that time flat mate, Keith Grant had the broadcast mulching out of an old valve Roberts Radio in his room as he worked. That summer I was engulfed in a rich mix of oil paint and good coffee smells and entranced by Brian Johnston’s radio commentary and Keith’s enthusiasm for a young 5 foot 5 Indian batsman called Sachin Tendulkar. Over that summer I observed that every day of a test match a long wave audio hum would begin sounding at mid morning and suddenly stop around one o’clock, followed by Keith hurriedly leaving the flat still putting his jacket on. Returning shortly after he would hastily prepare his lunch and a fresh pot of coffee and take it directly to his room, seconds later the Radio hum would return and continue until early evening. I learned from this how Test match special provided an entertaining yet strict framework for an artist’s working day and some years on I would also use it as the perfect studio companion. On test match days I would do all the talking, reading and phoning I had to do that morning before 10.45am and then from start of play at 11 o’clock I would work while fixed at the radio in the studio until close of play at 6.30pm. Practically the match commentary allows for lunch and a couple of drink breaks but equally important it provides a conceptual echo to the visual job of the painter through the daily 8 hours of audio that works with and shapes time. Of course it keeps you informed of the match score but It would be no exaggeration to say that the game of cricket often becomes secondary to the TMS commentary particularly in the sections of play where nothing appears to be happening. This point was highlighted a few years back when they received an email from someone in New York who had been addicted to the programme for years but had no idea or interest of what sport was being played. Commentary of the winter tests can often take the notion of time to ever stranger heights as it links continents, Australia, India, Asia and the West Indies. Listening through a dark December night in northern Europe to the live buzz and business of a summer’s day’s play in Melbourne or Adelaide draws you magically into the warmth and light before having to re-live the same hours later that day in your cold dark land. On occasions I have longed for a test match to not just last for five days but to go on forever, I could see myself up there focussed and working, supported by the batsman Michael Atherton, stubbornly protecting his wicket day in and day out.
At the height of my test match special listening Michael Atherton was the England captain and opening batsman he was a great occupier of the crease and a big hero of mine, I loved the way he would diligently stick to the job in hand however boring that may have appeared to some TV viewers. At the tail end of his Test career England plummeted to be ranked as the lowest rated test nation. This summer things had turned full circle as 12 years on the voices of Jonathan Agnew, Phil Tufnell, Sunil Gavaskar and others filled the Berlin flat with news of consecutive English Test wins, which now ranked them number one. My summer listening slowly faded out with a 38 year old, 5 foot 5 Indian Batsman called Sachen Tandulka leaving the field in England probably for the last time.
I began writing this text as summer officially ended on Sunday 6th November 2011 so it is now taken a month to complete, a far cry from the days of my half hour ditty. Last weekend I visited my mother in hospital in Accrington. To do this and get back to Manchester Airport for a Sunday evening flight I travelled a loop of my childhood Lancashire towns, Blackburn, Rishton, Oswaldtwistle, Preston and Bolton. As the plane touched down in Berlin the passengers were informed of the local time prompting me and several others to put our watches forward an hour even though this is not meant to officially happen until Sunday the 11th of March 2012.
* recorded by Good and Gone in 1987. Click here to listen (track 3).