I carry a notebook. Sometimes I’ll jot down an image, like a photograph. I usually have a camera with me too. Other times, I’ll write down an idea. When I’m, walking sometimes I go into my head and stop registering the world. Other times, as I say, I’m looking at the world, noticing things that can be framed in a short image, a sentence or two. Other times I’ll write down a lot more when I’m out, even a whole story. I find sitting in busy places is good for helping me concentrate. Railway stations, shopping centres, or where I was a few hours ago – sitting on a bench near the junction of a busy junction of main roads called the Maze. Maybe when I am in a place where there’s a lot going on, lots for the ear and eye to take in, and people too, I let an unconscious part of my mind process it all. This leaves the bit that is conscious to concentrate on writing. The act of writing lets me ignore all the chaos of senses that might overwhelm me by putting them all in one box, in the background. Like continual noise where you don’t notice any bit of it individually, but become just vaguely aware of it at low volume. When I look at my notebook I see that I was writing about that, what I’ve just written, and some other related stuff. On the way home I was taking photographs of pavements because they are my current interest. How I used to take them for granted. The word ‘pavement’ just put in a box for me the the whole idea of that stuff you walk on by the side of roads. Then I started looking at the pavement and seeing how each slab or flag was different. And I got to thinking about how if I look hard at something in detail it’s no longer just a fragment of something else, but is unique on its own. It’s amazing what you find if you look at a flagstone as a picture in a frame.
Anyway, I was going down that line of thought, still am, as I walked home along the pavements taking photographs. The pavement thing is a different story, one I’m working on, but I mention it here because while I was taking pictures another part of my mind was thinking about how I think sometimes, put things in boxes, or, more accurately, in sort of abstract rectangles with nice tight edges so that everything fits neatly with everything else. Anyway, I got home. It was Sunday. I loaded the 50 or so pavement photos I’d taken that day onto the computer, and then spent another few hours looking at all of them – I’ve got about 4,000 now – and beginning to put them in various combinations, albums, categories. I’m growing an idea of what I will be producing eventually, some mixture of film and sounds, music, voice. I was getting hundreds of ideas as I worked on the pictures so I sat in the front room with a wad of paper and started scribbling them down, trying to make connections between them and so on, you know, producing loads of sheets of paper with words and lines and diagrams, arrows, boxes. I had the telly on when I was doing this. Television is like the stuff I mentioned earlier, something like being in a railway station so that most of my mental arousal is damped down and the mind’s energy processes the stuff hitting the senses unconsciously so I have this clear bit of consciousness split off which can concentrate very precisely. So the telly humming in the background, I start looking through notebooks from week, scribbling down key words, images and so on.
Pavement from Latin pavere, to pound down….. the beaten track…. Pavement, right angles, frames, uniform, fit together, reflections of bricks, tiles, buildings, straight lines…thee rectangular world, …. the moss growing between paving flags, other things growing from what’s pounded down…. greyness of pavements, like bones…. ignored, all the thousands of ghostly footprints, shadows on pavements, litter, spillages e.g. paint, leaves, other stuff…. pavements in Albert Dock lifted from old streets in city to make it seem olden days…. every paving stone tells a story, some are like works of art…. always being lifted up and relaid for cables etc…. full of cracks, broken edges…. the word normal comes from the word that meant the tool carpenters use to make right angles, pavements so normal, so ordinary…. unseen what’s beneath our feet, we never see what is always there…. whole array of grids and covers in pavement, some very old, their own designs, GPO etc….. stains on pavements like liverspots, pavements are like skin, holding stuff in…. pavement art, pictures on pavements, stencils of dogs and clean it up, the brass cross in town to mark where St Peters Church used to be, poems on pavements, stencilled slogans like have a nice day, the specially commissioned pavement art on the steps outside Lime Street, the weird one saying supported by the North West Regional Development Agency itself history after the government wound them down, workmen’s markings like hieroglyphs, arrows, numbers, letters…. pavements like sheets of text, written upon, a story to tell…. the posh pavements in Liverpool 1 shops, outside the Hilton, how round Calderstones they get special red continuous pavements more like tarmac, the paving stones people put in their gardens or to pave over the front for the car, the immense variety on sale….
And I was jotting all that sort of stuff on big sheets of paper and making lines to join things together so the sheets began to look like crazy paving, and going off on tangents every now and then and jotting down one idea on a clean sheet of paper to come back to later. But kind of before I knew it I realised I was taking notice of the television, The Antiques Road Show…
, …suppressing a shudder of childhood memories of Arthur Negus and Going for a Song and how Sunday television was the device which allowed withered relatives to sit through compulsory visits without having to talk to each other. But I didn’t want to think deep, remember feelings, and I was off again with a new pad.
Outside a country house the experts sat in their clean and smart suits while flocks of acolytes queued clutching their prized artifacts. What is it, I scribbled, with country houses, the fascination with the aristocracy and privileged, so many dreary detective series and similar set in make believe world where an english village represents dear old england (and murder represents every assault upon the mother country) where authority is proper and everyone knows their place in the hierarcy. A place to call one’s own. Certainty, identity. And the experts, almost always white, almost always male, like news readers or quiz show hosts repositories of facts and indisputable knowledge…. gawkish faces of onlookers standing watching the experts delivering their opinions in such a cosy manner, onlookers’ faces with that submissive pose and half wondering smile, half awe to be in the presence of a representative of authority who nevertheless is a reassuring, pleasant and courteous fellow who treats everyone as if everyone is deep down an equal. Then the money shot, the big close up of the expert’s powerfully manicured fingers pointing to itsy bitsy details of an item like a form of desexualised eroticism, the power of pointing and indicating what matters…. snippets of history, fragments of the implied unassailable story of the green and pleasant land, titbits of anecdotes from the punters about how they came to possess their object of wonder. The punters too represent all classes from the plummy voiced aristocrat to the working class made good. One nation under God… set in a silver sea….Best of all, beneath the veneer and the patina of historical relevance or artistic value, is the tension of knowing how much an item is worth. Which means what is it worth in cash. What little thrills of excitement must electrify families collected around the television apparatus each sunday, how unbearable must be tension until the release of being given the figure. Someone has presented a wooden Noah’s Ark complete with little animals. Brightly painted, quite nice I’d think for a kid to have. Unfortunately it’s not worth too much as there are so many of them . I’m thinking now, torn between two things, about whether I’ll ever come across a rare paving stone, or one which I simply must have and what would be about it that made me want it so badly.The expert chuckles that Noah was the first collector. I’m scribbling down Noah was the first to classify the world, name it, map it, make it safe in one place, against all the chaos this ark, this england, surviving the chaos and flood, this museum of everything in its correct place with its right name, in watertight world, in a bureau drawer, a cabinet… Noah put everything into a system, a hierarchy with god at the top…. country houses, top, slums bottom, everything in its place…. king good, peasant bad… how it must be, how god laid out the plan, know your place…
By the time Country File comes on, although I made a few notes about file and how that programme’s about naming things, the making sense of the world by putting it into neat categories, I’m off recollecting about recollecting. Objects worth more than their use value, worth more than their cash value… in any case money is worth more than its use value, people collect money for some other rason, same reason they spend ages and cash getting the just right paving stones for to pave over the front garden… an object has the meaning the person who wants or owns it projects into it… that mad fight I heard going on the other night over an unpaid five quid debt wasn’t about the money’s cash value…. collecting bits of the past, the stuff in a room, the rearranging of objects, throwing some out, always looking for more,…. carboot sales…. accumulating objects….the englishman’s castle is the shape of his being…. homes are hiding places to house museums, shrines…
….the mind thickening itself with knowledge, books, ideas, systems, maps,… making lists, putting things in their place, the right box, the right file… classifying: putting the world, people on his side of the line or that side…. the collective, the group, a collection of people all collecting together the collections they agree to share as their history, their systems, their grids, what should be paved over with ash and cinder, what with gold…. the loneliness of the long distance collector – passion and absorption without having to touch another human being even if you’re surrounded by them…. collecting, classifying, categorising systematising as the most ancient of defences against time and death….
And so on. I’m human, as prone as anyone to collecting bright ideas, making systems putting everything and everyone into neat boxes, categories, mapping the universe, arriving at neat and tidy filing cabinets of truth to keep from having to face the chaos, the turmoil, the terrible things. But I recollect it’s those things that make life full, that in the chaotic and terrible the best things are found too, the eyes open. It occurs to me that it’s language itself that is the tool which makes us collect and categorise, but that’s another story, another orgy of scribbling. For now, I’ll just be happy to have recalled that I use all words with a wink and a grin, and that the best part of collecting them together is in the blowing them all apart. I like the bit in Heat when the Robert de Niro character says, “Never have anything in your life that you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds if you see the heat around the corner.”. But I don’t collect film quotes either. I guess I’d make the world’s worst curator.
Time to get back to the pavement pictures.