The17
TOURS / COAST-TO-COAST / SHERWOOD FOREST, England & VENICE, Italy / Venice

Part One

BEFORE

2 June 2011

Back in ’63, early June sometime, the day and date slip my mind, but the place was Grand Central Station, New York.  I was ten years old and we, the Drummond family, were about to board a night train to North Carolina.

New York, over the previous couple of days, had already fuelled my fertile boyhood imagination with enough inspiration to last a lifetime.  But it seems there was room for a little bit more.  As we entered the station, it was not the famous ceiling of the ticket hall that caught my eye, but a man sitting on a huge chair.  In fact more a throne than a chair, but instead of gold it was painted a sky blue.  This man sat there gazing out over the heads of the throng that we were part of, surging into the station.  At his feet was a kneeling man polishing his shoes. This struck me as a very curious activity to be going on in a public place.

In the Drummond household we all had our chores to be done before breakfast.  My chore of choice, above making the beds, filling the log basket or coal scuttle, was always polishing the shoes, and they were polished every day.  To me that was not a chore.  I always loved polishing shoes, the whole ritual, the smell of the polish, and of course the final satisfying shine. A by-product of this daily polishing of shoes was an interest and appreciation of how shoes were made – how the leather was stitched together, how the soles were tacked or glued on.

So why in New York would a grown man choose to have someone else shine his shoes and make some sort of public performance of it?  But the flip of this was – what a great job to have, polishing shoes all day long, and getting paid for it.

Within twelve months of this experience in Grand Central Station, the Drummond family were living in Northamptonshire in the English East Midlands. Our town, Corby was a steel town, but for the rest of the county the traditional industry was the boot and shoe trade. All of the towns and most of the villages had shoe factories of various sizes. The only school trip I ever remember going on was around the Timpson’s shoe factory in Kettering. I loved the place.

At the age of 13 I was bought my first pair of walking boots. This introduced me to the world of dubbin and the art of applying it.

At the age of 14 and it being late 1967 I was in the thrall of post-Sergeant Pepper, English psychedelic sounds and looks. I was not that bothered by the paisley patterned shirts or the double-breasted herring bone tweed suits that were all the rage, or even the kipper ties. Although it has to be said all of these could be found in my wardrobe and I wore them at the end of term school discothèque. What I was bothered about were the shoes being worn by my heroes, or at least some of the more discerning of them. I would never fail to notice the shoes worn by Ray Davies or Steve Marriott if they were appearing on Top of the Pops with their respective bands. And the particular style of shoes that caught my eye I learnt were called brogues. I had never actually seen a pair of brogues in real life. There was no one to tell me where these shoes came from or what period the look had been borrowed from. All I knew was they were not sold in our local shoe shop. So I got the train down to London and went to Carnaby Street. I mean it was 1967 and if a boutique in Carnaby Street did not have them, they were not worth having. After searching a few of the boutiques I found a black pair of brogues, perfect in every detail. This was in the newly opened Carnaby Street branch of I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet.

On the train back home my love affair with brogues was well and truly underway. Everything about this pair of brogues made me tingle inside - the tissue paper they were wrapped in; the box they came in; their smooth pale leather bottomed soles but most of all it was the pattern of all the little holes in their toecaps. It was these holes that defined them as brogues. I didn’t wear them for almost three weeks. It was enough to lovingly polish them at least once a day. I would sit in bed before switching off the light stroking and admiring them. But sadly once I did start wearing them they fell apart within three months, this I hasten to say was not down to a lack of care for them, but down to the shoddy craftsmanship from the unnamed cobbler who made them. Thus ended the Dedicated Follower of Fashionperiod in my life.

But I did not give up on brogues. With a little investigation I discovered that two of the local boot and shoemakers – Church’s and Tricker’s – made what were regarded as the greatest brogues in the world. And their factories were only a bus ride away in Northampton. The only trouble was, they were way out of my price range.

By the age of 17 I was at the Northampton Art School. At lunchtime I could pop down to the Church’s or Tricker’s factories and sneak in to watch their brogues being made.

Doctor Martens were also made locally. Their factory was in the village of Wollaston, where I used to go regularly to watch bands play at the Nags Head. Back then in the late 60s and early 70s, Doc Martens were only worn by skinheads and postmen. For a brief period at art school, I affected the dress sense of the friendly bovver boy. This I guess was some sort of sartorial protest aimed at my fellow art students of the time, but I don’t think they noticed. This sartorial protest included the wearing of Ben Sherman button down shirts, Sta-Pres trousers, black Harrington jacket (with tartan lining) and of course the Doc Martens. But as soon as rolly smoking art students started wearing Doc Martens I stopped and denied that I ever had. I should also add that the skinhead look that I was aping was that of the Moon Stomping reggae listening skinheads, a million miles away from the racist skinheads of future generations, with their Nazi salutes and Oi! music.

My vanity and stickler for detail would like to point out that the Doc Martens back when I was wearing them were the eight eyelet Ox Blood Smooth originals. These were stylistically a far cry from the black 18 eyelet Doc Martens, favoured by latter day skinheads. And even a further cry from all the myriad of colours and styles Doc Martens manufactured and were embraced by nearly every passing youth movement over the next thirty years. It was the ox-blood colour of the original Doc Martens that got me into ox-blood being my preferred colour for brogues.

All through these young man years my personal fetish for shoe-shining did not diminish. But it did peak between the ’83 and ’86 when I was working as an A&R consultant for a big record company in London.  It was a time when my other creative outlets were being frustrated.  I read somewhere one should ideally only wear an individual pair of shoes for one day of the week. The other six days gave time for that pair to breathe and recover. Meaning that anyone who truly cared for their shoes should have at least seven pairs. On this advice I managed to have four pairs of Church’s and one pair of Tricker’s brogues to see me through the working week. At the weekend it was either my walking boots or sandals, depending on the time of year. Two of my pairs of Church’s brogues were ox-blood, the other two were black. The Tricker’s were brown.

Maybe not Imelda Marcos territory, but even then I was aware, this was not a pastime to boast about. I mean I was indulging in all of this while Bob Geldof was haranguing me to give him my money. “Let them wear brogues, Bob” was not a phrase that passed my lips.

25 years on, I still have all four pairs of the Church’s and the one pair of Tricker’s.  But the thing is, since mid 1986 when I quit the A&R consultancy, I’ve only ever worn those brogues on special occasions – weddings, funerals etc. And I have never bought a new pair. 

Walking boots for eight months of the year and sandals for the other four have suited my needs.  Each pair of walking boots last me about a year. The sandals hold out for a few summer seasons.

So now I have admitted, all I feel the need to admit, about my relationship with shoes, I will get back to the main strand of this story – shoe shining.

In the early 80s I was having to make regular trips to the USA. It was on these trips I became aware that the public shining of shoes was far from dead and was not only going on in New York but all over the States. There was something else I learnt; there was nearly always a racial divide with this public shoe shining.  The man having his shoes shined would be wearing a suit and he would be white, the man shining the shoes would be in work clothes and he would be black. Every time I saw it going on it would trigger something in me. I felt uncomfortable, in the same way as I would feel uncomfortable with letting a bellhop carry my bags up to my room. I would want to intervene. Hadn’t the civil rights movement put a stop to all of this? But this was how they made their living, who was I to get on my high horse and tell them what jobs they should or should not be doing. If the white man was mug enough to pay someone else to polish his shoes, what was the harm in it?

Fast forward another twenty odd years and me and various members of my family are having a package holiday on the Greek island of Kos.  We got a ferry a short distance across to Bodrum on the Turkish mainland.  On disembarking from the ferry, with all the other holidaymakers, we were confronted with all sorts of hawkers attempting to sell us tat we didn’t need.  Included in those peddling their wares was a lad with a box of brushes and polish offering to shine our shoes.  But who amongst the ferry load of tourists was sporting a pair of leather shoes needing a polish?  The footwear being worn was flip-flops, sandals and trainers.  And I was sure the feet on every ferry unloading holidaymakers into Bodrum over the last few decades had been similarly attired.  The brushes and the box the lad kept them in were comparatively ancient.  He had obviously inherited them – a trade handed down in the family.

Since the Bodrum incident, I’ve been party to similar situations in various parts of the world where I’ve witnessed similar young men offering their craft to an ignoring world.  How do they face each day when all they see coming towards them, in even the busiest of locations, is a sea of trainers, sandals and flip-flops? Surely it is a trade now surplus to the appetite of the market place? Like all trades - they have their time and then the world moves on. In my lifetime I have been witness to many once secure and respected trades completely lose their value. But for some reason the trade of the shoe-shine boy affects me in some strange and illogical way like none of the others have. One part of me thinks it is a degrading way to earn a living; the sooner it is gone the better. But on the other hand I am drawn to it, and will be sad to see it become another of the many extinct trades from previous times.

Last week, when I was in Beirut, a young man not more than 16 years old, approached me with his box of brushes and polishes in hand.  He had spied I was wearing a pair of leather walking boots that in his eyes could do with his services.  But I ignored his advances and scuttled on down the road.  My mind was struggling with a weightier topic.  The weightier topic in question was what should I do about Venice? 

Some months previous I’d been invited by the Art Historian and Curator, Jonas Stampe to take part in his event at this year’s Venice Biennale.  I was flattered to be asked.  Jonas Stampe was of the opinion that performance art as a genre, was not given the dues by the contemporary art establishment, as represented by all that the Venice Biennale symbolises.  Jonas wanted to address this by staging a number of live art performances by artists whom he judged to be the leading practitioners in this genre.   He was going to do this under his own brand Infr’Action. A brand name that he has used for various live art festivals that he has directed or curated around the globe.

Although I do not think of myself as either a live, performance or action artist, I know that parts of what I do fit into this broad and ill-defined genre.  Thus I responded positively to his invitation.  Me making a bed out of wood in the street was what I thought I would do.  I had done it as part of a live art festival in China last September and it had worked well there. Well enough for me to want to repeat it in numerous cities around the world.

But then I was copied in on an open email to Jonas Stampe.  The email was from Black Market International. They are a loose affiliation of the more senior and well-respected performance artists. As their name implies they include members from all over the world.  They had also been in existence since 1985, so no Johnny-come-latelies. Reading between the lines I guessed they viewed Jonas as an upstart wanting to jump on their bandwagon, or at least a cause they had been promoting for decades, and undoubtedly since Jonas Stampe had been a mere school boy.

I guess we all feel threatened by young upstarts whatever line of business we are in. That said I understood and even empathised with some of the criticisms they were levelling at Jonas.  But I did not know if this was the way to address their concerns.  Jonas Stampe is a driven man.  A man who makes things happen. A man with an agenda.  We all have our agendas, and no two agendas are ever exactly the same.  Anybody that has ever been in a relationship knows that.  It doesn’t matter how much you love each other, your agendas will be different. I also think Jonas is a good bloke.

I procrastinated.  It was on my website’s events page that I was going to the Venice Biennale but I did nothing about booking a flight or sorting out accommodation. Would me going to Venice be like crossing a picket line? Would I be a scab? Which side was I on? What were the implications to my career? Does anyone care? Reading and re-reading the email from Black Market International and the public reply from Jonas Stampe, was like reading the statements and counterstatements made by André Breton from the Surrealist movement back in the late 1920s. Or even Guy Debord’s Situationist International rants and declamations. I could not believe how people could become so vehement about something as trivial as art. Or is that part of the British disease – we do not take things as seriously as our European brothers and sisters. It is not in our nature to write manifestos. Or is it just the decadent times that we have been living though? But then again maybe all this was nothing more than conflicting male egos. Who wants to be seen as the king of performance art, when the history books on these times get written?

But something about all of this and me ignoring the shoe-shine boy in Beirut started a course of action.  On my return from Beirut, I got all my brogues out and polished them like I had not done in years.  And while I was polishing them, I kept thinking about the recent death of Poly Styrene, the lead singer and driving force of X- Ray Spex.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, more than Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer, Poly Styrene was my hero of the heady days of ’77.  Rotten and Strummer for all their positive points were your usual classroom trouble makers with not much more than the teacher to rebel against.  Poly Styrene being a fat mixed race girl with no marketable sex appeal on her side seemed to have a lot more issues in her armoury than either Johnny or Joe and definitely more than her female contemporaries Siouxsie Sioux and Ari Up.

Poly Styrene’s opening line to X-Ray Spex’s debut single captured far more than “get pissed, destroy” or “I wanna riot, a riot of my own” could ever do for me.  That opening line was “some say little girls should be seen and not heard, I say oh bondage up yours.” Depending on my mood, this is the most political statement ever brandished in a pop record. 

And of course Poly Styrene’s pop career went the way all great pop careers should go – nowhere.  There was no flag waving, packed stadium career waiting for her.  No welcome to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.  No shaking the blood stained hands of American presidents. No lucrative deals promoting a popular brand of British butter. And she certainly will have no more time to ride after only spending 60 seconds getting her car insurance quote.

So as my ox-blood Churches brogues got polished a certain line went around and around inside my head - “some say grown men should be seen and not heard.  I say oh bondage up yours.” 

To try and stop the endless internal loop, I switched on the radio.  The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 - John Humphries was interviewing Tracey Emin.  It was not the usual combative and probing Humphries. Emin was openly flirting with him and Humphries was taking great delight in this.  I respect and appreciate the work of both Humphries and Emin.  The cultural life of Britain over the past twenty years would be much the lesser if either of them did not exist.  I was enjoying their banter.  But then Humphries said something about how Tracey and her YBA chums back in the mid-1990s, were standing on the outside looking in but now in 2011, they were truly on the inside.  Tracey Emin not only agreed but stated clearly, that inside was the only place she ever wanted to be.  It was these aspirational urges that motivated her.  I was not surprised.  I’ve always claimed that any self-proclaimed rebel is just another wannabe member of the establishment. 

So while numerous unfocused and half-baked thoughts flitted around my head, I found the following words coming out of my mouth: “you can stand on the outside looking in.  But I prefer to stand on the outside looking further out.” 

Once the words were out of my mouth, I put down the second pair of ox-blood Church’s brogues to get their first polishing for over 20 years, and went downstairs to put the kettle on.  Then I got my pencil and a piece of paper and wrote the first draft of a score that I knew I wanted to perform at the Venice Biennale.  But I would perform it not on the outside longing to be on the inside, but perform it on the outside looking further out.  But even I knew this to be an impossibility as I am driven by my ego as much as the next artist. I too want validation that only some future art establishment can bestow. 

After my morning tea and toast (with marmalade), I booked an EasyJet flight to Bologna.  Direct to Venice would be way too expensive.  I would get the train from Bologna into Venice; it should not take much more than an hour or so.  As for my performance, that would be done unannounced in some part of Venice untouched by the self-congratulating jamboree that my prejudices imagined the Venice Biennale to be. At the age of 58, I was to become a shoe-shine boy.

And into this melting pot of conflicting emotions, that I’ve tried to distil on these last few pages, I’ve failed to investigate some of the other things that have churned around my head these last few days.  Things like Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet with her hair, and of course Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. And how in the Arab world the showing of the soles of your shoes to someone is the ultimate insult – something I did not know about until the fall of Saddam Hussein.

As of right now, as in when I am writing this, I am sitting on the EasyJet flight. We have just started our descent into Bologna. In the overhead locker is my rucksack and inside that are the tools of my new trade - tins of black, brown and ox-blood polish and six brushes, one for rubbing on each of the polishes, and one for brushing each of them off. I have also brought with me four of my five pairs of faithful brogues.

Wish me luck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part Two

AFTER

4 June 2011

I set up my pitch in the back streets of Mestre - Mestre being the rather grim looking industrial town on the mainland opposite Venice.  It is everything Venice isn’t.  It is why I liked it and felt at home.  My would-be clients were immigrants and working Italians. 

Before I set up and got into the flow, even if I felt at home with the location, I was more nervous than I had been since doing Top of the Pops live with The Timelords back in 1988 – it was our dance routine that I thought I was going to fuck up. It was definitely a good decision to bring my four pairs of brogues with me to Venice.  They gave me something to be polishing before I attracted my first customer. The act of polishing them seemed to calm my nerves. 

The Polizia pulled up in their patrol car and for a brief moment I had a vision of me in an Italian police cell attempting to explain myself.  But they read my placard, laughed, waved at me and drove on.  There was a sparrow in the bushes behind me chirruping away.  I felt at one with the world.  As for the placard the police found amusing: early this morning as I lay awake in my bunk in the Chinese youth hostel, I made a decision that for my first day I would do my shoe-shining for free.  The reasoning was that it gave me time to learn the trade without customers feeling they had paid good money for less than top-notch service. 

I had borrowed a chair from the hostel. This was for would-be clients to sit on and I bought a small mat for them to put their feet on. 

As for how to attract customers; while standing and methodically polishing the brogues, I kept an eye out for any man wearing leather shoes walking past.  And if there were, I would say with a cheery smile “free shoe-shine”.  Some would just scuttle past with their heads down.  Others would laugh and smile, but move on nonetheless.  One African gentleman, sadly sporting a pair of trainers, seemed to find the whole spectacle highly amusing.  He wanted to engage me in conversation but the language barrier prevented it. 

And as I polished and waited for my first client, I kept whistling and thinking about being on the outside looking further out while wanting those on the inside to appreciate my stance. 

And while I was whistling, I kept modifying and hopefully improving the tune that I was whistling.  Should I simplify it? Or should I attempt to add little flourishes? Should I try to teach it to the audience at the talk I had agreed with Jonas Stampe, that I would give at the Infr’Action event that evening?  I tried to imagine what the tune I had now made up and refined would sound like whistled en masse.  I like massed whistling.  But as soon as I started thinking about massed whistling I began to whistle the tune of Colonel Bogey,as in the tune to Hitler having only one ball.  The reason for this is a scene in the film The Bridge Over the River Kwai where the troop of plucky Brits march into their Japanese prisoner of war camp whistling Colonel Bogeyin unison! Should I get the audience tonight to all whistle Colonel Bogey? But maybe it’s only a tune that British folk know - part of our cultural heritage or something.

But then my mind started to drift to an article that I had read in yesterday’s Guardian while on the flight over.  It was called the Shock of the Old, a play on the title of Robert Hughes’ book The Shock of the New.  The article was by the former Pop Journalist, now Pop Academic, Simon Reynolds.  The article was written to promote a new book of his called Retromania- I guess for the article he had tried to distil the essence of the book into a couple of thousand words.  Simon Reynolds writes well, or at least I think he does.  And I enjoyed reading this article of his. And if I am to take the liberty to distil what he had already distilled even further, as in down to one sentence, that sentence would read: Pop music more than any other popular cultural form is now all about raiding the attic of its own past, rather than attempting to find virgin lands yet to be explored. 

This is a subject that has interested me almost as long as I have been thinking about pop music. 

Reynolds tells us how the present day hipster – that is the hipster as modern music maker - the one we would have relied on in the past to discover or invent new styles and genres of music - is far more interested in re-discovering un-revived genres of recorded music than doing anything completely new. In fact attempting to do something completely new is a very old fashioned aspiration. Maybe this is the truth I feared to be confronted with.  There I was thinking I was ahead of the pack.  Wondering why so many people were being inspired by analogue recording equipment, 1980s synths, cassette playing ghetto blasters et al., when they could be like me, exploring those far horizons that the post recorded music era had on offer. 

The trouble is, seeing as I have lived through and consumed or even been a part of every popular musical genre that has engaged the hipsters of this nation since Skiffle rang its clarion call across the land, the past holds little romance for me. 

By the late sixties, the Rock ‘n’ Roll and Doo-Wop of the pre-Beatle era was already being celebrated and revived.  There were bands like Sha Na Na in the USA and The Wild Angels in the UK doing the rounds.  By the time I got to art school, all the hipsters were cutting their hair, slicking it back and listening to Eddie Cochran.  Our prejudices believed that near enough everything that was recorded post 1963 at the very latest was truly un-hip.

At some distance from the prejudices of the art school common room, the mainstream world of pop was rediscovering or re-inventing that same music from the pre Beatles era. The likes of Showaddywaddy, Mud and Shakin’ Stevens were all storming the hit parade with their ersatz version of Rock ‘n’ Roll. On TV was the Fonz and at the pictures there was Grease, all celebrating and mining out a skew-wiffed idea of what the late 50s were.  Even John Lennon released his album of Rock ‘n’ Roll covers and Chuck Berry was back in the charts.

But by the time all this was happening us hipsters had moved on, we were now celebrating the year of 1966 as the high water mark of Pop music. The bands of our early teen years were the only truly great ones, but only what they had recorded in ’66; all their later work was considered limp and washed out. You know the roll call - The Kinks, The Who, The Animals, The Troggs, The Small Faces and even The Monkees.  By the late ’70s you had a whole slue of bands from the The Jam to Blondie exploiting that circa ’66 look and sound.  It was a moment in Pop when the skinny tie once again reigned supreme.  And you probably know all this as well.  It hardly needs me to remind you. 

And then of course there was the obsession that a couple of generations of hipsters had with mining the rich seam that was the Velvet Underground.  But I used to feel that was as much down to the fact that the two-chord chug of the Velvets was a pretty easy thing to make a passable facsimile of within a month of getting your first guitar, as it was to the actual undeniable depth and content of the Velvet Underground. 

And I could go on, and if I was to, I would make a passing mention of the late Jeremy J. Beadle’s book Pop Will Eat Itself which was published in 1993 and in some ways explored this theme but within the context of the then perceived revolution that the sampler had on the making of pop music.

From Skiffle on, borrowing from or referencing the past has been a constant in Pop music. But with any form of borrowing music from the past, to make the music of the now, is that the context of the now is always totally different, to the context of whenever the era was, that is being pilfered from.  The context that any music appears in is up to 80% of what we experience when consuming the music. The 80% being my highly subjective guess, but I’m sticking with it. 

Me listening to old Miles Davis, Bo Diddley or Prince Buster’s records in the art school common room in 1971 was a totally different experience to anybody listening to those records when they first came out.  The only thing that was in common was the actual recordings, but even the physical sound of the recordings was different, as we would be listening to them through a different generation of amplification.

Nothing is ever the same.

To quote Katrina Crear, a colleague of mine and someone who is currently doing a PhD on a similar subject:

The immediate context in which we experience a work of art makes it what it is.   When we encounter works of art that were first made in the 1960s, I think they shouldn’t be thought of as artworks FROM the 1960s (even though this is what museums try to get us to think), but we can’t separate them from that time either (we can’t isolate the present moment).  Like people, artworks have lives, and a life is a continuum.  People are not FROM certain times, but we live through times and it all creates what we are in the present; the past, present and future is connected.  I think that material artworks lead lives in similar ways – maybe records do the same thing. 

For me the context has always been more interesting than the actual notes being played.  It is the context we buy into.  It is the context that can give the meaning. A rave record without ever having the context of a rave would be a meaningless record. But context can exist in so many different ways.  Some former colleagues of mine - Echo & The Bunnymen played the Albert Hall in 1994 when their then new album Ocean Raincame out.  24 years later, the two remaining members of the band and some hired hands, played the same songs in the same venue to many of the same paying customers.  But those 24 years meant the context in every sense was different.  Listening to something that triggers nostalgia for your youth is totally different to listening to something in your youth when it has just been released.

I like messing with context.  Someone could challenge a score like Whistle While You Work, and say it has very little to do with music.  They could point out that it would be pretty much the same thing if I had not included the bit about whistling. In a sense of course they are correct, but for me the shoe-shining bit may just be me setting the context for the whistling to exist.

Whistling, as a form of music always existed at the edges. It was rarely a form of music making performed for the entertainment of others. Hardly ever celebrated or exploited. It primarily existed to be done while you get on with something else – walking, washing, polishing shoes.  The advent of the portable radio and now the MP3 player have almost done away with the need or at least the inclination to whistle while you are getting on with something.

Since The17 began to evolve, I’ve found myself becoming interested in forms of music making that exist at these edges - music that is hardly considered, music that can never be consumed as a product. Although The17, which is a choir, has been a huge part of my life for the past few years, you may know nothing about it. So in case you don’t, and why should you, I will add an appendix to this story explaining in as succinct a way as I can what The17 are all about.

But I guess by me writing this I am turning the idea of whistling into a product and you by reading it are consuming it in some way. I must be interested in attempting to create a context for this mere whisper of what can be considered music, to exist within. So not the mop tops and collarless collars of the “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” Beatles or the snarling sneer of Johnny Rotten or the video for Telephone by Gaga or any of the other fantastic things that have given so much to the context of the music we have embraced through the decades. Instead with The17, I’m interested in creating context as far from the norms of what I’ve grown up and almost old with.

And just as I’m getting so far up my own arse that even I’m feeling lost, somebody pulls me back and requests to have their shoes polished.  It’s a woman.  She is already sitting in the chair before I had a chance to check out her shoes to see if they needed a polish.  She was wearing a pair of brown women’s brogues.  She is kind of arty looking, mid-thirties I guess.  I get down on my knees, open the brown tin of polish and get to work.  I’ve never brushed a pair of shoes with the feet still in them.  This is what I feared. What if I were to get some of the polish onto her socks?  But I loved it and it was going well.

She was with her partner, a slightly older man.  They were laughing and joking about me.  They were snapping away with their camera as I got on with the job. I didn’t look up once.  I knew my place and I remembered to whistle while I worked, not Colonel Bogeybut the one I had made up.

You see this is what is missing from the career of Lady Gaga.  She has never gone through her shoe-shine girl period.  And in turn this is exactly where I am going right by entering it as of now.  She will be so jealous.

Anyway, after I finished her off by buffing up her shoes with my duster, she insisted on paying me.  I try to argue the case by pointing to the sign and repeating “Gratis, gratis,” but no she pressed a two-euro coin into my hand.  I instantly turned to her partner; he too was sporting a pair of brogues.  They were in a bad state.  Looked like not a smear of polish had touched them since whenever he bought them.  He was soon on the seat and I am down on my knees.  He had got a pair of cream socks, so I have to be even more careful with making slip-ups with the polish this time.  They continued to laugh and take photos as I got on with my work. 

They were no sooner done and there was someone else wanting to indulge themselves in my obvious talents. Then in quick succession I had three more clients.  I like the word client rather than customer.  Client sounds somewhat seedy as in how the word gentlemen, is now synonymous with pole dancing clubs.

I was getting such a rush from doing this and there is no way I can explain the reason for the rush.  And of course, I know if I really had to do this for a living to prevent my family from starving, I would not be getting this rush.  But I was and I definitely wanted to be doing this shoe-shining again and somewhere else in the world. I made the decision that this performance was officially part of The17’s Coast-to-Coast world tour.  And if it was on the world tour I also needed to get an imagine waking tomorrow & all music has disappearedgraffiti done on a bridge and in Italian. And it had to be done before my train left for Bologna at 6am the following day. I will also add a section to the appendix explaining what the Coast-to-Coast tour is and why it has to involve making a graffiti on a bridge.

But back to the shoe-shining - each of my clients insisted on paying me.  Not one of them questioned why an obviously Northern European man in his late middle age is down on his knees shining shoes in their non-descript town. 

After polishing the sixth pair of shoes there was a lull in business.  I counted my takings – nine Euros.  This felt like the first honest money I had earned since I was in my early 20s doing a proper job.

I decided to quit while I was ahead.  The afternoon could be used to find a bridge, find a paint shop and get the graffiti done.  I made the mistake when in New York a few weeks ago leading a performance by The17, thinking I should do my graffiti on the Brooklyn Bridge because it was the most iconic of the New York bridges, the one we all know.  The equivalent here would be to do it on the Rialto Bridge that straddles the Grand Canal in Venice.  Along with London’s Tower Bridge, the aforementioned Brooklyn Bridge, the Rialto Bridge must be the most photographed bridge in the world.  For this very reason I decided not to do the Rialto.

Also, the thing is, when I got the bus to Venice the previous night to do a reconnoitre of the place; we passed some fantastic looking blue pillars holding up a flyover.  These blue pillars had already attracted some engaging graffiti by local vandals.  It would be the perfect place for mine.

So I packed up my brushes and tins and the stool and the other bits of tackle of my new trade and headed back to the Chinese youth hostel jangling my hard-earned change in my pocket.

Just as I was dumping all the tools of my trade on my bunk, my mobile rang.  It was Marie Wennersten wanting to ask me questions about how it was going for her planned documentary on The17 for Swedish Radio.  The questions and answers given were low key and straightforward.  I told her this performance was now part of The17’s Coast-to-Coast world tour.

“So where in the UK is Venice to be twinned with?” she asked. 

I had not thought about this, but without hesitation I replied, “Birmingham.”

“Why?”

“Because once, I learnt that Birmingham had more miles of canals than Venice.”

“But I was in Birmingham last month visiting a friend and I saw no canals.”

“That is because they are all industrial canals, all hidden away.”

 “Bill, Why do you think your graffiti work is not as famous as Banksy’s?”

I didn’t know if she was being facetious or not, but I tried to answer the question head on.

“Banksy’s graffiti is the work of a genius.  It’s also very well considered and carried out with great panache.  He also makes work that connects with people.  What I do is so oblique that I am sure that 90% of the people passing it do not notice it.  What I do is not crafted and to the vast majority of people the sentiment of my statement will not engage them.  What I do just looks like the half-thought unfocused statement of a local nutter.  What Banksy does is made to appeal.  He uses symbols and icons from popular culture that people already have a relationship with.  He also appeals to a broad sweep of the public as he offers them an easy way to get their vicarious, rebellious kicks.  It works in the same way as people for decades have bought into bad boy Rock ’n’ Roll or Rap music without having to do anything bad or rebellious themselves.  There is an obvious business plan that lies at the heart of Banksy’s work.  Even if Banksy’s conscious self did not know anything about this business plan when he started it was there. Sometimes we are the last people to notice these things about ourselves.

Over the past few years Banksy’s work has appeared on walls and sites guaranteed to generate media interest.  It’s as if the whole lot had been planned by art world insiders to give Banksy the ultimate outsider chic to build up his selling potential to the mainstream art collectors.  What I was doing has none of that.

Banksy was originally making art that was on the outside looking in.  My graffiti was being made on the outside looking further out.  Maybe if Banksy were here he would choose to do his graffiti on the Rialto Bridge and within 24 hours it would be worldwide news.  I, on the other hand, am choosing to do it on some anonymous pillar of a flyover.”

The above is an approximation of the answers I gave to Marie Wennersten.  Somewhere in my head I could hear the voice, “Methinks the boy doth protest too much.”  The thing is, I had watched Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shoplast week for the first time and my mind was still in the process of assimilating it all.

The interview was rounded up and she told me it was the last that she was going to do and that it was now time for her to edit the hours of interviews she had done with me and to try and turn it into a radio programme.

You may be wondering what all this staying in a Chinese youth hostel in Italy is about. If so, I’m afraid it would take too long to explain now. But if you are ever in Mestre and you want a cheap place to stay while writing that novel you thought you had in you, stay there. It is opposite the Best Western, across the road from the train station. The only thing is you have to put up with the constant racket of Chinese TV and the smell of Chinese cooking.

 

*     *     *     *

 

Leaving my shoe shining stuff behind I left the hostel and started to head out along the highway toward Venice proper where I had seen the possible site for the graffiti.  The trouble was, it was a lot further than it had seemed to be when I had been on the bus the previous evening.  For most of the walk there was no pavement and I had to put up with cars speeding by me honking their horns.

It took over an hour to walk there.  With my mobile phone I took photos of the various possible blue concrete pillars that I might choose to do my graffiti on.  My two favourites already had graffiti, one of was of a German sausage dog, the other proclaimed that all cops are bastards. Why would some Italian choose to write this statement in English?  Was he hoping his statement would reach a wider audience this way?  Or did it just seem sexier to do it in English? And why did he think all cops were bastards anyway?  Had he experienced at first hand some brutality of the police?  Or was it just one of those shallow statements that teenagers are prone to make in an attempt to be rebellious?

I thought my graffiti would go perfect above the sausage dog. 

Time was marching on. The presentation I had agreed to give that evening as part of Jonas’s Infr’Action Venice 2011 event was to be in the Venice Academy of Fine Arts.  There was now no way for me to make the time to go back to Mestre, find a paint shop, buy the materials, walk back again, get the graffiti done, get cleaned up and be out at the Academy in Venice by 7pm in time to do my presentation.  I would have to fly back some time soon to do the graffiti - in and out on the same day - a day that I can get a real cheap EasyJet ticket. 

As for the presentation, I had planned to give some sort of a talk, where I would start with me at the age of ten at Grand Central Station, New York and through to me in Beirut a few weeks ago.  But as I strode along the side of the motorway back to the Chinese hostel, a different idea presented itself to me.  Instead of talking, I would do a more traditional live art performance.  I would do it all in silence.  Just turn up, do it and disappear.  I felt so good about this idea, it seemed as if the wild pink Mallow flowers that were growing in the verge, were all smiling back at me.

When I got back to the hostel, I noticed a barber’s shop next door, so I went in to celebrate a successful day by squandering all of my takings on a haircut and shave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part Three

LATER

4 June 2011

And now on the EasyJet from Bologna back to Gatwick, I need to fall asleep, but before I allow myself to, I will get the last bit of this story written before it all starts to be forgotten. 

The performance at the Academy of Fine Arts started out as planned.  Jonas Stampe announced me; I strode out, with all my bits.  Then I went about setting up my pitch.  I theatrically displayed the white board with the words Lustrascarpe Gratison it, then I turned the board around and with a felt-tip pen wrote on the virgin side of it Free Shoe Shine.  This I brandished to the audience.  Almost immediately there was a client in the seat.  I got down on my knees and got to work. When the first pair of shoes were done, I took out the felt-tip pen, crossed out the word FREE on the placard and replaced it with 1 Euro.  This I then showed to the audience.  And again, I immediately got a taker.  As soon as the job was done, I crossed out 1 Euro and replaced it with 2 Euro.  And again, a taker.  But by this time, I began to hear people mumbling and shuffling their feet. 

My plan had been that I would spend my 30-minute presentation just silently shining shoes.  But with each pair shined, the price would go up one Euro.  When I first had the idea, when the wild pink Mallows were smiling at me, I thought it to be fantastic and foolproof.  I imagined the price would just keep going up.  And when I did this shoe-shining within an art context again, I would start the price at one Euro higher again than the last shoe-shine of this evening.  And on and on it would go, getting higher and higher with each passing performance in each gallery or art institution. I mean how high could the price go? Would people pay 100 Euro to have their shoes shined as an art piece? 1000 Euro?  10,000 Euro?

But right there and then in the courtyard of the Venice Academy of Fine Art, I sensed the audience’s attention wandering.  They had sussed the concept and they were wondering what next was going to entertain them.  So after the third pair of shoes had been polished, I stood up and went into my shoe-shine story, from me as the ten-year-old going into Grand Central Station in New York, to me in Beirut a couple of weeks ago.

My 30-minute slot was finished with one last shoe-shine for 3 Euro. 

Afterwards while I was clearing up my bits and making ready to head off before someone attempted to engage me in conversation, I was approached by one of the people whose shoes I had polished.  He was a North American and he had a story to tell me.  It was about how one night on one of the major American chat shows, they had this old black guy who was famed for being the fastest shoe-shiner in the world.  But the day after the show, he had died of a heart attack.  His appearance on the show and his subsequent death inspired some folk to celebrate his life with a six-hour non-stop shoe-shine as part of a major performance art festival somewhere in the States. 

As I headed back to the Chinese hostel in Mestre with all my bits, I mulled over this information about the six-hour non-stop shoe-shine at a performance art festival and wondered if I should be concerned. There will be those that think if someone, somewhere else had explored the idea of shoe-shining within the context of contemporary art it makes redundant what I am doing.

But this morning as the EasyJet flight is high over the Alps and I’m planning what to be doing with my three younger children this evening, I decide not to give a shit. If I want to shine shoes and whistle while I am doing it that is exactly what I am going to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part Four

LATER STILL

6 June 2011

But I do give a shit.  Back in my flat, going through everything I’ve written going to and back from Venice, but before I type it up, I decide to try to use Google to find out more about this fastest shoe-shiner in the world who died and thus inspired a performance art event.  I do not discover what I am looking for.  But I do discover that James Brown had started his professional career as a shoe-shine boy, as had Lula da Silva the former president of Brazil. My guess is that I am the only one who has done things this way around. I mean how many people do you think have had an international number one then go on to become a shoe-shine boy?  As far as I am concerned I’m in a league of my own. To celebrate this I go to YouTube where I discover clips of my brothers plying their trade in various cities and countries around the world. Put any of the following titles into YouTube and you will not be disappointed - Shoe-shiners in Bolivia; Shoe-shine boys in Urumchi, Xinjiang; Mexican style shoe-shine; Chinese shoe-shine boys; Young shoe-cleaner, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia; and just to prove it is not a sex discriminating trade put in - Shoe-shine Girl.

Most of the morning has been invested in watching these clips. In doing so I’ve learned numerous tips, not only in methods that I might use to improve my shoe-shining techniques, but on the design of the box I will make for myself to both carry my polish and brushes in, and for my clients to lift their feet upon.  I cannot wait to get back out there again on some city street, plying my trade and whistling while I work.

Just before taking my lunch break I click on Send & Receive to see if there are any pressing emails that I should be attending to. There are none, but there was one from my friend Astrid Bin. All there was in her email was a link to YouTube. I clicked on it and soon was watching a youthful Johnny Cash on an American TV show sometime in the mid ’50s. The song he was singing was called Get Rhythm– the stand out line from the song is:

It only costs a dime, just a nickel a shoe, but does a million dollars worth of good for you.

Now I am not going to start arguing with Johnny Cash at this late time in life.