Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Thursday, 10 July 2014

French Polish

I wrote a reminder note for myself last night, for something I'd just run out of, which amused me this morning. It says, 'French Polish'.

French polish is lovely, not only for the deep shine it gives to wood – a french polish finish (this phrase gives me particular joy) is second to none – but because it is so rewarding to use, providing a quick-drying lacquer which is compatible with traditional furniture polish. It has now largely been replaced by varnish made from nitrocellulose (the stuff that gun cotton is made from, which has six times the explosive power of gunpowder) which is not. Compatible with traditional polish, that is.

Shellac is exotic stuff, made from a resin secreted on branches by female lac bugs. It is harvested from trees in India and Thailand. India still produces around 18,000 metric tons of it a year, which is remarkable when one learns that up to 300,000 insects are required to produce each kilogram.

Shellac was used for dyeing, to secure the windings in electric motors, provide the blue and green colour in fireworks, and stick the rubber reservoirs to fountain pens. It is still used in the manufacture of such diverse things as top hats, hair spray, lipstick, and ballet shoes, and as a glazing agent on pills, fruit and chocolate-coated raisins.

It also has thermoplastic qualities; before the advent of vinyl thousands of tons – more than half the annual production - were used to make 78 rpm records. Many of these records involved another well known French Polish product, Frédéric Chopin, more of whom later.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Defacing of the Kurt Vile Mural

I had not heard of the Kurt Vile mural until yesterday. To be honest I had not heard of Kurt Vile either. This picture was retweeted by a band I followed, with appropriate 'unchill', 'uncool' twitterings. I looked into it.

It appears that a former graffitti artist named Steve Powers aka ESPO was commissioned to paint the mural by indie musician Kurt Vile. Consisting of track titles and lyrics, it preceded the launch of Vile's 2013 album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. A picture of the mural provided the album's cover art.

This year a local DJ named Lee Mayjahs painted over the lower part of the mural. He thought it was an eyesore, and believed that it had sparked a rash of graffiti around the city that he loved.

A photographer who captured this iconoclastic/public-spirited citizen during the clean up wrote, 'So this is the ignorant piece of shit that took it upon himself to buff the Kurt Ville (sic) mural. When I asked if he knew it was a commissioned piece by a world renown (sic) artist he said he did and he didn't give a shit. He claimed it attracted graffiti to the neighborhood.'

There is irony in the indignant condemnation of the unauthorised destruction of an artwork which draws its credentials from graffiti and pretends to be graffiti – an art form rooted in anarchy and illegality. And frankly, when one looks at images of the original, I have sympathy for the evil/admirable citizen. A Banksy or a Best this is not. In fact, it looked crap. It looks better on the album, but that is because of its context. The artwork alone would be underwhelming; it is the anarchic image of graffiti in an urban context which provides the edge. And in this, it is a masquerade; this was not a vox populi statement, it was the commissioned product of a hard-headed, commercial marketing strategy. Not quite so chill then.

As Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program decries the violation, I wonder too at the principle of institutional support for what is essentially an advertisement. I gather the mural is to be recreated in London, Los Angeles and New York. Wakin on a Pretty Daze reached forty-one in the UK charts and is now available in a de luxe edition. McDonalds should be so lucky.

DJ Lee Mayjahs appears to be mortified by what he has done. He had no idea about the significance and popularity of the mural and was simply seeking to clean up his city. He has offered to pay for the repainting of the mural, and it will indeed be repainted. Graffiti is an ephemeral art form; in believing this mural to be graffiti, Mayjahs was perhaps unconsciously paying it the highest compliment. He has also generated more world-wide publicity in defacing it than Kurt Vile could have dreamed of. A cynic might be forgiven for wondering if the defacing was a planned element of the album marketing strategy.

Maybe DJ Lee Mayjahs, anarchically chill to his own principles, deserves a break from the bile of the Twittersphere.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Kitchen Talk

Before Christmas a new neighbour came to dinner. She enthused about our kitchen, which she described as a bang-up-to-date retro gem. I'm not sure whether she was being kind or whether she really meant that, because I've since seen her kitchen, which is a wonderland of open-planned elegance, with round basins recessed in marble worktops, questing taps like cranes' necks, and discreet utilities concealed behind panelled doors.

Retro ours is. I suppose it was the first generation of fitted kitchen, in that the sink is built into a cupboard unit which matches a similar unit on either side. The cupboards and drawers are a mushroomy cream colour. The sink unit has 'Dairymaid' written on it in cast metal, cursive script, like something on the boot of a 1950s Cadillac. And indeed, inside one of the cupboards, recorded by the sort of office stamp that had rubber belts turned by knurled wheels, is stamped, '23 February 1959'. The sink is stainless steel and the worktops are Formica, patterned, on close inspection, with tiny, ochre leaves.

The shelves and cupboards either side of the chimney breast date from the 1930s, when the house was built. There is a cream-coloured Standard 1941 Model C Aga cooker, a second-hand 1970s electric cooker inherited from neighbours, a scrubbed deal table, upright Victorian windsor chairs, and a bookcase for cookery books made from one of the children's bunk beds.

When we visit other people's houses and admire their newly refurbished kitchens, I have pangs of conscience that the Social Secretary has never had her own new kitchen. But then, none of my family ever had new kitchens. Their kitchens were practical, and cosy, and worked. None aspired to be show-pieces. They were about function, not fashion, and Vermeer would have felt at home in them.

In 2006 The Department of Communities and Local Government published 'A Decent Home: Definition and Guidance for Implementation'. It identified 'a reasonably modern kitchen (20 years old or less)' as one of the criteria defining a decent home. As our kitchen had its last make-over over half a century ago, I guess that officially we don't have a decent home - except that, apparently, 1950s kitchens are back in fashion, and there are people out there stripping out the so-yesterday granite and stainless steel, and putting in Formica just like ours.

I read that kitchens can be expected to last ten years. According to Which the average cost of a new kitchen is £8000. This means that not replacing our kitchen since the 1950s has saved around £40,000. It's also reduced quarrying, deforestation, ore extraction and consumption of petrochemicals. Granite, for example, is one of the most energy-thirsty materials available, and it is currently being mined at an unimaginable rate.

Maybe green is the new granite.