Cock of the walk


Oh what a field day for headline writers! Big blue cock erected on fourth plinth at London’s Trafalgar Square. Boris Johnson unveils big blue cock. Sacre bleu! Lord Nelson now looks down on a giant French cock in Trafalgar Square. And it’s true that the artist, Katharina Fritsch, likes a joke, a bit of wordplay (the word for “cock” in German, “hahn”, has the same double meanings as the word in English). In the land of double entendres, Carry On films, ‘very British’ sex scandals (which always makes me think the iconic photograph of Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley), the giant blue cock should feel right at home.

But apart from being a good joke, Hahn is a brilliant piece of public art. Firstly, the colour is an inspiration. I went to see it on an ordinary grey London afternoon (one of the first in an amazing summer of sunshine). London, as much as I love it, is a rather colourless city on an overcast day (which gives it a certain character), but the blue cock fills the air with its blueness. It’s the blue of Yves Klein, of Titian, of the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine (so a bit psychedelic) not the blue of ‘the blues’, but a joyous cry, a proper belly laugh. Getting back to the old double entendres, it’s also the blue of blue movies, something a bit risqué, daring, a middle finger raised in the sedate square.

It’s characteristic of Fritsch. Here’s her giant orange octopus, grasping a doomed diver:


But back to the location, the square itself. Trafalgar Square has in this century become the natural gathering place for protest, as it is a little more than a Molotov cocktail’s throw from Downing Street and Parliament. Many of the Fourth Plinth commissions have made political statements: Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Alison Lapper, or Yinka Shonibare’s piece Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle. The projects that have attempted to bring a subversive force into the square has been the most successful.


You look around at the other statues in the square: pompous generals, preening officials, some on horseback, depicted as Classical heroes. Alll presided over by Lord Nelson, at the top of his ridiculously phallic column. He presides over the whole of central London – I realised he was peeking out at me between buildings the other afternoon when I was sitting on the Level 5 terrace of the Royal Festival Hall. He is a symbol of Britishness, of empire, of battle. So the cockerel, a little preening and pompous himself, has been placed in the middle of this stag party by a woman artist, a self-proclaimed feminist. Who also happens to be German. And she considers her cock to be a very French symbol, placed just so to piss off Nelson – a little nod to Napoleon.


It is public art that makes you laugh, that makes you consider what surrounds it, and gets you to re-evaluate the way the city honours its greats (and who is chosen to honour). And it’s bright. And it’s exuberant. I wish it would stay there forever, because I know as long as it’s there, it will bring a smile to my face.

The voices that will not be drowned

A late posting, after spending the better part of the last two weeks in Suffolk. There is something about that odd bleak coast that gets to you after a while, particularly as autumn shifts to winter, and the trees become ghosts of themselves (some so windbattered they morph into lanky-haired witches turned to wood by some conjurer’s spell). My last post came from that most mysterious and haunted of locations, Orford Ness, and as poems begin to appear in my inbox from the Mendham group, the echoes of that excursion remain.

It was perhaps appropriate then that those echoes were picked up for me at the opening event of the Aldeburgh Poetry festival, which paired the poet Jackie Kay and the artist Maggie Hambling in conversation. Both poet and artist have been influenced extensively by place, Kay by the Glasgow of her childhood, and more recently, by the Nigeria of her birth father. But it’s Hambling’s fascination with the Suffolk coast, which I am just beginning to feel might be my coast too (having traded in the Atlantic coast of my childhood), and what she had to say about her process as an artist that extended the conversation I had with my fellow poets out on the Ness.

Hambling has been working with the wave as an image for some time, and she explained that she begins her working day with a walk by the sea (or by the Thames when she is in London). Although her wave paintings don’t always resonate for me, I think they are part of a larger project, which is about finding continuity. Hambling said that the purpose of art is to make people stop for a moment (she mentioned the poem’s ability to halt us as well). And maybe those wave paintings are her way of trying to halt the sea, to capture it in different moods and seasons, a sequence of waves, all distinct but from the same source. In relation to this, she talked about the limitations of photography: ‘a photograph can only ever be the record of something – a painting is a live thing’. Her waves work best for me in unison, each singing its moment, like a motet.

Hambling talked about the artists she values, who ‘speak in paint’: Rothko, Twombly, Titian, Rembrandt, and why we revisit certain paintings and artists again and again (as we do certain poems), because they are living, because they carry on a dialogue with their viewers, tell us different things at different times. And that’s why we engage with certain places, keep returning. The Suffolk coast has become one of those places for me, familiar enough now, but still new.

Which brings me to the scallop, Hambling’s monument to one of Aldeburgh’s greatest sons, Benjamin Britten. It is a work of public art which has divided opinion vehemently, so its opponents and supporters might be locked in a bitter political election or a religious war. It comes down not so much to Hambling’s sculpture (which is certainly more effective than her ‘sculptural bench’ dedicated to Oscar Wilde outside Charing Cross station) but its position. On the side of the detractors, there is this articulate response (as opposed to some of the other responses) from Humphrey Burton, which was published in the Guardian when the sculpture was first unveiled:


I am on the side of the supporters (and plucked up the courage to say so to the famously-irascible Hambling herself as she was leaving the talk last week). I disagree with Burton about what he describes as ‘casual violation’. The scallop is firstly not ‘casual’, in that it has been very carefully designed to be seen from many angles and distances, to have an impact from afar as well as up-close. It has become well-worn by the countless children who climb on it (and public art that doubles-up as climbing frame can be no bad thing – the fact that it is not cordoned off or prohibited from being touched is the very thing that makes it truly democratic, truly ‘public’). It is neither purely figurative, nor completely abstract, but somewhere in between, which should appeal to many, and also somehow captures Britten himself, whose music occupied the middle of the twentieth century, and brought together the traditional and the experimental. The scallop’s edge is inscribed with a line from the libretto of Britten’s most famous opera, the one which is most situated in Aldeburgh, Peter Grimes: I hear those voices that will not be drowned. In that way, it is also a tribute to that older generation who made their living from the sea, and to Aldeburgh’s other great son, the poet George Crabbe, in whose work The Borough the tragic Grimes first appears.

As to violation, well, this is more of an issue. As one of my fellow poets asked as we approached it, following our trip to the Ness, ‘it comes down to this: who owns the beach?’ A number of long-time residents, including Burton, somehow felt the beach had been ‘spoiled’ by the scallop. Burton suggests the sculpture could be moved inland, which would somehow make both its subject and the inscription invalid. It was designed to face the thing that obsessed Crabbe, and Britten, and Hambling equally: the sea. It could be nowhere else. I can understand that it upsets those true Suffolkers who like their flat surfaces flat and their big skies uninterrupted. Perhaps I am not a good judge, coming from an urban location, where views are changed all the time by what’s erected, what’s torn down. But this is not just a piece of public art, happily freed from the four walls of the gallery, it is a celebration of the sea, those who thought and wrote and sang and captured it in various ways. And so it needs to face its subject, to make us stop for a moment, and really observe the way the sea moves and changes.

I’m very late to this debate, started as it was in 2004. But in my short time in Suffolk, the scallop has become one of my favourite landmarks. That’s what it is, a landmark. Here’s the full quote from Montague Slater’s libretto:

But dreaming builds what dreaming can disown.
Dead fingers stretch themselves to tear it down.
I hear those voices that will not be drowned
Calling, there is no stone
In earth’s thickness to make a home
That you can build with and remain alone.

Burning down the house

This is one of my favourite images, the work of the American photographer, Joel Sternfeld. I’ve known it for a long time, and have even written a poem about it, but the poem never quite lived up to the alchemic magic of the image. To know that the fire was not an accident – part of a training exercise by the local fire department on a house scheduled for demolition to make way for a new development – does not diminish its power (but does explain why the fireman in the foreground is calmly buying a pumpkin from the farm stand while the house goes up in flames).  I’d always secretly wondered if the picture had been staged, but apart from the fire department training exercise, the rest was seemingly a happy coincidence – the photographer driving through McLean, Virginia (as you do …) at just the right moment.

What does it for me is the perfect arrangement of visual elements. Maybe that’s why my poem didn’t work; it’s a poem already, beautifully measured. I like how the eye is made to follow the line of metal fence posts on the right, bisected by a line of small trees that runs alongside a path that divides field from house. This sets up the division of areas – if we’re thinking of poems, I’d say the picture is in tercets – the pumpkins in the field, and further back the farm stand, and further back the house. These areas are marked by a colour – orange, of course: the eye moves from the disarray of pumpkins on the ground, up to the orderly display on the stand (where the fireman almost becomes a pumpkin himself), and up to the flames engulfing the roof.

I always assumed the picture was taken around Halloween, but the date is 4th December, 1978; the trees are not in stunning autumnal display, as they would be in October. These are winter trees – skeletal, bare. The grass is parched to brown. And that feels right – you wouldn’t want any other colours to compete with Sternfeld’s orange (like Titian’s blue). The orange of harvest, of “sweet cider” as the sign proclaims, of all-consuming fire. The whole thing is an allegory for what’s spent (be it passion, or summer, or a happy home), and what you’re left with is smashed pumpkins in a field, a desolate winter day, and a soon-to-be ruined house. The positive spin is the farm stand. I know the expression is “when you have lemons, make lemonade”, but maybe we could apply that to pumpkins and pie, or apples and cider. So I see the image as strangely hopeful; in the midst of winter, in the smoke of destruction, the fireman can still choose a prize pumpkin. There’s a glimmer of hope in the world …

This is in preparation for my online course, Poetry and the Visual, coming up in May: http://bit.ly/hh0z3s