Poets Day (2005/06), George Shaw, Humbrol enamel on board, 92 x 121 cm, copyright the artist, courtesy Wilkinson Gallery, London
I didn't make up the phrase POETS DAY. Pissing off early on a Friday was as good an end to the working week as anyone could wish for. In the film of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning we see Arthur Seaton race home from work, stuff his face, put on his new suit and head for the pub. The week has been peeled back, and Arthur emerges and flutters out to live for the brief span of a weekend. He is elated and free and unstoppable. This is the legacy of Poets Day, and you would have to have done a week's work to feel or earn its rewards.
In my painting, 'Poets Day' (see above), a red substance runs down the wall of a building that has seen better days. It is paint, I suppose. Well, it is in the painting - as is everything else in the painting - but how it came to be on the side of the building in the real world I have no idea. At one time this was the entrance to the library. A few years before it was eventually demolished, the entrance was moved and this became the back. And like all backsides it slid gently into a world of waste paper and wasted time, hours measured out in broken glass, gob and the little monuments to hanging around fucking things up.
So (to re-cap) Poets Day itself is neither a national holiday nor a day of street parties and special programmes on BBC2. The voices of Coleridge or Wordsworth go unheard, for what it's worth, on this day. It is a Friday and the close of the working week, and the whisper of Poets Day can be heard from office to building site, from Reggie Perrin to Jesus Christ on the first Good Friday: PISS OFF EARLY TOMORROW'S SATURDAY.
The red splodges in my painting could be spongs, that is, wet paper thrown so that it adheres to a wall or even a ceiling. Spongs were mostly made up of spit, but in this instance it's red paint. It would have been paint nicked from the youth club next door or maybe some left over by a worker after painting a post box or something. It's just the kind of thing that happens when nothing is happening. I've known kids to be tortured because there's nothing else to do. I remember once being encouraged to wag Mass one Sunday morning. As the congregation prayed and sang hymns and ate the body of Christ, I sat around the back throwing gravel at an old chair and scraping paint off a railing with a two pence piece. In this picture I wanted the dripping red paint and framework of the building to bring to mind the crucifixion and the tiny agonies of Chinese burns and sticks and stones.
Christ, He told his Mother
Christ, He told her not to bother
'Cause he's alright in the City
He's high above the ground
He's just hanging around1
In a sitcom written by David Nobbs called The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin we laugh as Reggie goes slowly insane sandwiched between his domestic banality and his job at Sunshine Desserts. Each morning he walks down Coleridge Close, Wordsworth Drive and Tennyson Avenue as though the epic poets were taunting him from his small world into a greater madness.
James Joyce, in his essay Drama and Life2, wrote prophetically some seventy-six years before David Nobbs' sitcom: Still I think out of the dreary sameness of existence, a measure of dramatic life may be drawn. Even the most commonplace, the deadest among the living, may play a part in a great drama.
It's a full time job thinking about what to do when you've stolen back your life from a day at work or school or even the home. The day, the afternoon, the evening or an hour of your own is unwritten, unsigned and uneasy like the stolen jars of sweets that I thought I longed for, but simply made me sick and eager to get rid of them. What I wanted just became a shameful waste.
My own trips to the library took me through streets named after English composers, Delius Street, Berners Close, Bantock Road, though they meant little to me on Dammers Drive or Weller Walk or Morrissey and Marr Avenue. One of the things I did in my spare time was to hang out inside the library. On a Wednesday it was open until eight in the evening to allow those with jobs to go I suppose, and that was when my dad would go. Even when he was made redundant, he would still go on that day despite having all the time in the world. In retrospect I think redundancy saved my dad's life. I know that for many men it marked their decline into illness and depression, but dad eventually took it as an opportunity, and as with Reggie Perrin who staged his own death to return as the mysterious Martin Wellborn, he began a new life as a scholar on benefits.
A Painter's Day
I get up in the morning and start work around 7.30 or 8 o'clock. I finish for the day somewhere between 6 and 7 o'clock. I've worked like this for the past 16 years or so, and before that when I was a schoolteacher. When I worked as a photographer in a medical school, my day was pretty much the same.
It's boring and dull, and every hour is watched until the day is done, and I can go to the pub or watch the telly. More often than not I listen to the radio like a giant clock ticking away. Every hour the pips sound and the news comes on.
Last week I was speaking to this bloke who was repairing the pavement outside my house. He knew what I did for a living and asked me how I do it, that is, get up and motivate myself when I don't really have to. I said I didn't know, but suggested maybe I was like himself, as I assumed he wasn't that excited about mending streets. No, he wasn't, but it was his job.
Exactly, I said. I've always thought about art as a job. I've found it amusing when some people I know have assumed that I sit wistfully about the studio waiting for the muse to perch upon my shoulder and whisper words of gentle inspiration into my tender shell-likes. The paintings would then no doubt trickle out of me like tears or blood while I carry on with feeling and being.
Chuck Close was right when he said that inspiration is for amateurs, and that it is absolutely unnecessary and deceptive. The only thing worth doing is the doing itself, and the doing - like the failing and the getting it wrong is the thinking - is in some way the revealing of ourselves. I've always believed that art comes out of our lives, the residue of our passing through. It comes out of the day being spent, and lies somewhere between allowing time to do it's work and defying the inevitable grassing down and being forgotten.
Anxiety is what wakes me and gets me going. My pint and my sit- down must be earned. And an epiphany, unlike dog shit, does not lie hidden on the side of the road waiting for a bumbling step. We carve a space out of our day for the whatness of the universe to slip into. Like a pint it too must be earned. What can seem like an act of inspiration or revelation is in fact fear. Like all clock-watchers the end defines the present tense. I am unable to forget that which has not even happened.
Growing up I was asked plenty of times what I wanted to be. I wanted to be an artist, but our Career Lessons did not list it as a subject, let alone a possible future. The nearest job for me was an Industrial Designer, and I suppose my interest in art was something I was supposed to pursue in my spare time, like stamp collecting. Perhaps for this reason I've always been interested in what people do in their spare time, in the time left over from earning a living. There is a case for looking at what we do in this space as defining who we are. But the sad thing is that I know quite a lot of people who seem to do fuck all in their spare time. Avoiding spare time is an art in itself for in those hours we might confront the full horror of what we are.
1Hanging Around, The Stranglers, 1977
2Drama and Life, James Joyce, Occasional, Critical and Political Writing, Oxford University Press, 2000