Will Self's hand axe

Will Self’s hand axe

 Will Self, novelist and journalist, on a prehistoric hand axe.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

WS I’d wanted to get hold of a hand axe for some time; I put out a few feelers and discovered that such artefacts are very easily faked, and that to be sure of obtaining the real thing I would need to be sure of its provenance. Out of the blue I was contacted by an authority on paleoanthropology who told me she had a hand axe for me, one that had been dug up near London. It was apparently a ‘blank’ which means they found two exactly the same at the same site, and she said she could let me have it, although I should never tell anyone exactly where it came from. The axe is dated to approximately 400,000 BCE, which is far older than any human artefact I ever imagined possessing – the age alone is a source of wondrousness for me, as if the fact that when you hold the axe properly, you can feel that the individual grips of fingers and thumb were incorporated into its design by the Homo Heidelbergensis (a close relative of the Neanderthals) who knapped it into being.

GB Do you own it? Does that attachment contribute to its beauty?

WS So yes: I own it – and owning it is important to me. It is my favourite object and I would be unhappy to lose it – yet it’s still simply an artefact, albeit one that connects contemporary smart phone users (these are about the same size as the axe) directly with their forbears, to produce a sense of humans-as-toolmakers stretching across the millennia.

GB There’s a great deal of mystery around these tools. Does that give the object a degree of difficulty that appeals to you?

WS I don’t know about mystery or difficulty – once you give the thing a heft and try to use it, it becomes blindingly obvious how it was wielded and you can easily extrapolate what it was probably used for; it’s this practicality that beams out of the thing, travelling up your arm as you raise and lower it, a current of vitality-as-praxis.

GB Has Modernism made you more comfortable with the idea of liking something even though can never fully grasp the meaning?

WS Well, I can’t really grasp the meaning of this question (and I feel perfectly comfortable with that); certainly I can never be certain of what the context the axe was in was like, but I don’t think that makes the object itself particularly incomprehensible.

GB Your hand axe is from near London. Does the fact that it’s local make you like it more?

WS Yes, the localness of the axe is pleasing to me. Like most tedious middle aged people I’ve become more interested in my forbears as I’ve grown older. I discovered a few years ago that the first Self ancestor to live in London was staying only a mile away from where I live now when he completed the 1841 census – and this connection through place and time feels to me sustained (almost to the point of infinity) by this near half-million-year-old artefact

GB Do you subscribe to the “killer Frisbee” theory – that these were thrown at birds and animals?

WS No. It’s not a killer Frisbee – it’s a hand axe, it was designed to knap other stones, carve wood, and particularly to break bones so the marrow could be extracted.

GB Do you think that the person who created this was concerned with the aesthetic of the tool? Could the extent of the carving and attention to symmetry go beyond mere function, making this an early form of art as well as a useful object?

WS Well, art can be inadvertent as well as consciously arrived at. It isn’t the sort of speculation I’ve indulged in – the connection for me is physical: I touch this other hand or hands when I hold the axe; labelling as ‘art’ would seem to me a solecism on a par with the spurious twaddle that passes for art criticism nowadays.

GB Your own work is very much concerned with truth. How do you see the relationship between truth and beauty? (E.g. what do you make of Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”)

WS I believe things are true inasmuch as they cohere with one another; correspondence or correlation with an assumed world separate from the aesthetic formulation is nonsensical for me, so I resile from Keats’s statement.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

WS That it be pleasing, proportionate, interesting, involving and… succulent. My hand axe conforms to this paradigm – and I’m sucking it right now as I type.



Finella, a house in Cambridge

Finella, a house in Cambridge

Ruth Scurr, writer, historian and literary critic, on Finella, a house in Cambridge.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

RS Finella is where I write and teach. It is a house on the Backs in Cambridge that Gonville and Caius College has owned since the nineteenth century. Every morning I see it and feel grateful for the beauty it brings into my life and the lives of my colleagues and students.

GB Do you prefer the inside or the outside of the house? With the plants growing over it and the meadow flowers in the garden it looks like, The Yews, the traditional English house it was before the 1929 refurbishment – yet the inside of the house is an Expressionist masterpiece.

RS Originally Finella was a sombre Victorian villa called “The Yews”, the house was renovated by Mansfield “Manny” Forbes (a Scottish Cambridge don) and Roger McGrath (an Australian architect) in the 1920s. They renamed it Finella after the mythical queen of Scotland, “a woman ahead of her times”. The house tells her story. She is reputed to have been Queen of the Cairngorms and to have discovered glass. This explains the use made of glass in the interior design.

According to legend, Finella died by throwing herself into a fountain of glass. There used to be a fountain in the garden that linked the outside with the interior expressionist design and iconography. The fountain has been covered up for decades. If I could change one thing about Finella today, I would bring back the fountain.

Looking out of the window from my desk I see the old yew trees and sometimes the muntjac deer that hide among them. I like the shadows the trees throw across the lawn in all seasons, but best of all when there is snow on the ground. I love the birds in the branches, especially the owls. The inside of Finella is dark and playful. There are plastic fish suspended on the stairs and walls of black laminated glass. There is a serpent pattern in the floor and beaten brass doors.

I find it impossible to imagine Finella as The Yews – to me it seems a triumph of transformation – a rejection of Victorian values as definitive as Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians.

GB Does it feel English to you as it’s such a part of Cambridge culture – in spite of being renovated by a Scot and an Australian?

RS No, it feels feminist and free. In the midst of Cambridge culture and male dominated tradition, Finella is a house that celebrates a radical, pioneering woman. Manny Forbes invited Jacob Epstein to exhibit his massive marble sculpture of a heavily pregnant woman in Finella after it had been ridiculed and judged obscene by the press. Genesis arrived in Finella in May 1939 and promptly fell through the floor. Lady Ottoline Morell came to see Genesis and was taken with the house. Finella has long been a progressive place.

GB It was renovated at a time of great change and said to be ahead of its time. The Grade I Listing text says it has “a significant interior for the history of the Modern Movement.” Do you sense this when you’re inside it? The best part of a century has passed since it was created. Does it look like a museum now?

RS Finella looks nothing like a museum. It is still a place of creative work. The composer Robin Holloway lives in part of the house and fills it with music. Art students visit from time to time and many people teach or are taught in Finella’s various rooms. Some of the interior decoration is scuffed or broken and in need of conservation; some of it, sadly, has been dismantled. But none of this detracts from the spirit of the house.

GB Was Mansfield Forbes also ahead of his time with his English teaching? Is he of interest to you intellectually?

RS Forbes was important in the establishment of the English Faculty at Cambridge. He was a revered teacher but he did not publish academic books. He made four recommendations: read the originals and stay with the best critics; read slowly; aloud; tolerantly. I try to follow these recommendations, especially the last. F.R. Leavis said Forbes was a man “to whom the world owes more than it knows”. I.A. Richards wrote that Forbes made many people realise “what the greater saints were like”. Those remarks make me smile: elegant and evasive, form without content. I think Forbes must have been more direct and to the point than his colleagues.

GB Do you think that surroundings like these have an influence on your work?

RS Undoubtedly.

GB Do you think that there are contemporary equivalents of this house? Not only was it a strikingly original design, it was meant to be a centre for people to discuss aesthetics and ideas.

RS Finella is unique so there are no equivalents, but there are some parallels with Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Originally four cottages, Kettle’s Yard was created by Jim Ede and his wife Helen in the late 1950s: a beautiful place “in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.” I find the idea of houses transformed into places of beauty and education very compelling.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

RS I am attracted to calm, order and symmetry. Finella would be less beautiful for me if the windows and trellises were unevenly positioned. I find it hard to find beauty in chaos or untidiness or un-neatness. In an article for The Architectural Review in 1929, A.C. Frost described Finella as “half ‘Wuthering Heights’ and half ‘Sense and Sensibility’”. When I was an adolescent, Wuthering Heights appealed to me much more than Sense and Sensibility, but now the reverse is true.


Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014. Photographer:David Cripps

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014. Photographer:David Cripps

Anthony Gottlieb, writer and historian of ideas, on Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House

GB Tell me why you chose this.

AG Not only does the sight of it produce awe and delight, but the idea of it invites questions about beauty. Why, for example, does an object that has been shrunk to a twelfth of its size have charm, while a twelvefold magnification of the same thing would not? How is it that scores of its household objects and features—wineglasses, mother-of-pearl, ivory and marble bathrooms, damask wall-coverings, a motorcycle and sidecar, a knife-cleaning machine—are at least as beautiful to behold as the paintings on its walls and ceilings, indeed, usually more so?

Much of the awe that it inspires derives from the industry and ingenuity of the 1,500 or so artists and craftsmen who made it. It is only five feet high, but has working plumbing, electricity and lifts, a garage of cars with engines that run (and would allegedly give 20,000 miles to the gallon), and a level of detail that stops just short of the microscopic. The monograms on the linen took a seamstress 1,500 hours to sew; the buttons on the servants’ pillowcases are almost invisible; the Purdey shotguns break and load (sources differ as to whether they would fire); the bottles and jars contain what their labels say they do—such as Ch. Margaux 1899, Oxford marmalade or sticks of barley sugar. There are even mice in the kitchen mousetraps. It’s no Pyramid of Giza, but it works for me.

GB Can you remember the first time you ever saw it? Has the aesthetic experience of it become more complicated for you since then?

AG I first came across it in an illustrated book, published in 1988, by Mary Stewart-Wilson, and one of the first things to enchant me was the ingenuity of using hairs from a goat’s ear to serve as toothbrush bristles. Unless you already know about the tiny detailing of what is in it, you probably wouldn’t get so much out of being in the presence of the house itself. I was disappointed that you couldn’t get closer to it when I first saw it in Windsor Castle a few years later. There is now, naturally, an online tour, which is a useful supplement to photographs, because you can enjoy the illusion of moving around inside it. As far as I know, though, there has been no attempt to digitise the contents of the library, which contain many works composed for the dolls’ house, often handwritten by the authors into the tiny books—by Chesterton, Robert Graves, Yeats, Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley, Hardy, Somerset Maugham, and many others, most of whom are now forgotten. It may well be that some of its treasures will stay out of sight forever.

I suppose my first response to it was childish, in the sense that part of the pleasure lay in the fantasy of playing with it. That has not changed; my attitude has not matured in that respect. It is meant to have a strong whimsical aspect, after all. Displaying the technologies and crafts of the 1920s, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous, was in part an earnest historical project; yet the library contains a tome by an eminent surgeon on doll surgery, and it is no accident that the stage is set in the nursery’s toy theatre for “Peter Pan”—the boy who never grew up. (Actually the theatre is one of many toy toys. There is an aspect of Russian nested dolls to the house. With nanotechnology, I suppose you could now make toy toy toys.)

GB It’s so extravagant. Is part of the appeal camp? Do you think that something can be camp and genuinely beautiful at the same time?

AG Camp has become a concept of such aesthetic sophistication that it is now largely beyond me. In the senses that the term had when the house was built (that is, 1921-24), I don’t think it is camp. First, and easiest, it is not even really effeminate; indeed, in terms of gender stereotypes, I’d put it in the male camp (no pun intended), because it evokes and required a nerdish devotion to the accumulation of equipment. The other main connotation of “camp” at the time was exaggeration to the point of affectation: something camp is overblown, and thereby fails to be anything except laughable or coarsely entertaining. Now, miniaturisation and detailing have in this house indeed been taken to the greatest extremes that were possible in the 1920s. And it is plush and luxurious, again to an extreme, because it is a house for a king and queen. But are we to suppose that if only it had been less ingenious, less complete, or to have represented something less royal, it would have scored higher on some scale of beauty? That is hard to swallow, so I’m going to say that it is not overblown, and therefore not camp. It is a little over-decorated for my taste—there’s too much on the ceilings, and sometimes too much gilt—but that would be true if it were a full-size house.

GB Are there any individual elements you find particularly beautiful?

AG For some reason, the bathrooms work best for me, perhaps because of the light and materials. They are also less fussy than some other rooms. The marble chimney piece in the saloon works well: it is one of the things that is, in photographs, indistinguishable from a full-size object—I’m not sure exactly which visual cues give away some of the others. There’s also a table in the saloon with an inlaid marble top which is a particular pleasure. It’s one of the few objects that was not made for the house, and is believed to be an 18th century miniature.

GB Do you think that this was a trivial thing for such a great architect as Lutyens to work on?

AG There must have been a danger that it would turn out to be. But the effect achieved has justified his decision to do it. When it was first shown, the Times called it “a dangerous sight for half-believers in magic,” and wrote that it appeared to have been built by the “cleverest human brains in the body of ants.” I agree, and those are not trivial effects.

GB Does it represent a way of life or a ‘great age’ that appeals to you?

AG Yes, English style of the period does appeal to me greatly, and I would happily live in such a house—after clearing out some of the stuff, and getting a better sound-system than the wind-up gramophone. But not in the servants’ quarters, of course, and one has to remember that a house like this can work only as part of an abhorrent social system. This doesn’t make the Dolls’ House as pernicious a creation as Downton Abbey, because it is not engineered to make you believe a lie about the relation between masters and servants. Downton misrepresents the period in order to make you feel it wasn’t so bad, but it was.

GB This was made at the same time as the art world was reacting against traditional forms of beauty, in the wake of the horrors of WWI. New art movements had been springing up all over the world from Vorticists, Constructivist, Futurists, etc. Do you think that in some ways this represents everything that they were reacting against?

AG I think there was indeed a sense at the time that it was a monument to a passing age, though this had more to do with the society it miniaturised rather than that society’s taste in art. And, yes, new movements in the arts and decoration were indeed in part reacting to just this sort of style. I rather think that many people—and not just in Britain, where the cult of the pre-WW1 house has always been strong—hanker nostalgically for it.

The house was built as a gift for Mary of Teck, who was not exactly avant garde in her taste, so it’s not surprising that its contents are uniformly conservative. It would be intriguing to know if any of the minority of artists who refused to contribute did so because they were unsympathetic to its aesthetic. George Bernard Shaw and John Masefield refused to provide books, and Elgar (unlike Delius, Holst, Bliss and many others) wouldn’t contribute musical scores for the library; but I don’t know why.

GB Lucinda Lambton (in her book on the dolls’ house), describes it as “a flagship of endeavour to ease the nation’s woes.” Do you think that we should build more of these dolls’ houses in that case?

AG National rebirth through a comprehensive programme of dolls’-house construction is not a plan with much political promise. It would, though, be fascinating and worthwhile to make a new one in ten years’ time for the centenary of the Dolls’ House. And it would have even more documentary value if the project included several simpler and more ordinary houses—as it should have done back in 1924.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

AG There are so many ways of being beautiful, some of which involve no action by any creature—not even combing your hair—that I rather despair of assembling any exhaustive set of qualifying attributes. I suppose one important necessary condition for beauty in an object is that it should delight some conscious being, or be capable of doing so. It does not even have to be the senses that it delights, since it seems fitting sometimes to call a person a beautiful one regardless of his or her appearance.

For me, natural beauty comes in through the eyes, but artistic beauty mainly comes in through the ears. Music means much more to me than painting, sculpture or architecture, and I would rather go blind and be unable to visualise than be unable to hear or imagine sound. Maybe this is a defect of education: perhaps some people never learn to see a picture properly, just as many people never learn to appreciate classical music. Either way, I regard my aesthetic appreciation of sights as compromised or incomplete. Perhaps some people will see my choice of a dolls’ house as a sign of that.


Photograph by Mosa'ab Elshamy

Photograph by Mosa’ab Elshamy

Ken Loach, film and television director, on the ‘terrible beauty’ of faces of resistance.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

KL I think beauty is a difficult word because it has connotations of happiness and well being and pleasure and I think that’s not the sense in which I’d use the word. At the time of the 1916 Easter rising in Ireland, the poet Yeats had a phrase “a terrible beauty is born”  and I guess I’m thinking of beauty in those terms where it’s an image of people struggling for something noble, whether it’s justice or freedom from oppression, freedom from imperialism, freedom from hunger – but it’s the struggle for something that is important to attain, something that recognizes the dignity of them as people.  It’s the people engaged in that struggle that can be beautiful, but inevitably, their struggle is met with oppression so their faces are maybe full of pain and anguish as well as full of hope. If we can detach the idea of beauty from a jolly feeling of happiness I would say that the faces of people in struggle can be very beautiful.

GB Hope is something that really comes across in your work. Is that a big part of  beauty for you?

KL That’s what we try for in our work. I’ve met it on many occasions. We did a film in Nicaragua that was set in the 1980s when the Nicaraguans, led by the Sandinistas, were building a new society based on common ownership. They were building hospitals and schools and had literacy programmes – so it was a terrific project. And of course it was destroyed by the Americans and their terrorist accomplices, the Contra, which the States had supplied with weapons and training. We met a lot of people who were resisting the Contra when we were filming. We made the film a few years later but they had been there and took part in the film. We met many beautiful people whose lives had been tempered by that struggle, women and men whose faces were lit by that struggle. They took us around and showed us what they’d done and what the Americans had destroyed and in a way they embodied the beauty of that struggle. I met a woman called Anne Milburn during the miners’ strike. She was from the North-east. We filmed her making a speech at a meeting where there was a lot of music and comedy and she made a speech that just made you weep. Her use of language was beautiful, her whole presence was beautiful and what she stood for was beautiful. There are so many pictures of children from Gaza now, where despite the terrible slaughter, there are images of resistance, that break your heart. There is the one illustrated above. There’s a terrible, tragic beauty about them. There was a picture in the last few days, a wide picture of a middle aged woman with her arms out, standing in ruins and the pain in her face strikes your heart. If we see beauty then we have to see the ugliness, the cruelty that has inflicted that., the ugliness of the minds that have sent those shells into Gaza and the ugliness of the Americans who have just today sent them more ammunition to carry on doing it. I think it’s important to record ugliness as well as beauty.

GB Do you get angry about people’s indifference to this ugliness and this beauty?

KL People are demonstrating their opposition but they’re not reported. There’s a conscious effort, particularly on the part of the BBC, to exclude Palestinian voices and to exclude the rage that so many people feel. I’ve been on demonstrations and there are many more taking place but there is no reporting of them. There’s an ugliness and a brutality in colluding with the oppressor which is what the BBC is doing.  Of course you rage at the violence of that collusion.

GB Do you think we’re so bombarded by images that the meaning gets drowned out.

KL You can get immune to the number of images that come in but if you have any humanity you have to respond to them.

GB Is beauty something you think about a lot in your work?

KL It has to be aesthetically pleasing but I want images that are satisfying. Beauty is such a praising word, I tend not to think in those terms but rather something that gets to the quintessence of whatever it is you’re doing. I think hope is very important. The tragedy is the betrayal of that hope and the betrayal of innocence.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

KL I find beauty in old used furniture or household goods where you can see the use and the human interaction over the generations. Something beautiful has to capture the essence of experience in a very precise way where all the elements complement each other in capturing that essence, whether it’s light on the face, whether it’s the pain in the eyes, the sweat in their hair – something that captures the essence in the most economical, simple way.

GB Does beauty always have an ethical side to you?

KL Yes, I think so. That’s why something that perfectly captures the essence of cruelty has an ugliness about it. But beauty that captures the spirit of resistance, the hope that enables people to keep struggling, that is a beauty to celebrate and – more importantly – to support with practical solidarity.


RAF log books that were owned by George Hencken's father

RAF log books that were owned by George Hencken’s father

George Hencken, film producer and director, on her father’s flying log books

GB Tell me why you chose this.

GH These are my father’s log books, he was an RAF pilot and they span his entire career, almost 40 years. He kept them in his study, and though I knew they existed I’d never really seen them. After he died a couple of years ago, I came across this stack. They are square, hardback, cloth-bound RAF issue books. There is something immensely pleasing about the books themselves, the size and shape and weight & colour, and the fact that there were lots of them. Page after page full of coded stories. They are also beautifully ordered and calming to look at.There’s something Gohonzon-like about them.

GB Is the beauty primarily sentimental? (Would you find flying log books beautiful ordinarily?)

GH They do fire my sentiment synapses, but the physical attributes of the books go straight to my beauty receptors. I respond to the texture of the covers, and the typeface both inside and out. The design, the clarity of the books. The aesthetic is deeply satisfying to me. My father’s handwriting adds enormously to what pleases me about the books once I open them up. I find his handwriting very beautiful, especially within the framework of these books. Something in his handwriting reminds me of Japanese calligraphy. If the books were full of messy or ugly or boring-looking handwriting they wouldn’t delight me as much as they do – but I would still love their dimensions & the feel of them, and the typeface, and the weight of the paper,and how the effect of that is amplified when you get a load of them together. By nature I am the opposite of ordered and tidy. My notebooks are chaos. Maybe I find beauty in an order I aspire to, but that I know is unobtainable for me.

GB Does your father’s handwriting say a lot about him?

GH My relationship with my father was difficult. I found him unreachable and unknowable. I think he felt the same about me. His handwriting always fascinated me, though when I was a kid, I couldn’t decipher it at all. It seemed there was something ritualistic for him in the act of writing. He always wrote in black ink, using a big fat blue fountain pen which had a gold nib and a gold cap, and he used a half-moon blotter that he would roll carefully back and forth over the wet ink. There are no blots at all in any of the log books. No mistakes or crossings out, until you get to the very last entry. That one is written in pencil, and there’s a scribble on it.

GB He often flew Avro Shackletons which are held in great affection by aviation enthusiasts. Did you ever fly in one? Do you find these planes beautiful?

GH My father flew Shacks for the greater part of his career. He clocked up over 7000 hours. He may well have clocked up more hours on that aircraft than almost anyone else. I never flew in one, but I’ve been on board many many times. The smell of the inside of a Shackleton is unforgettable; a unique combination of hydraulic fluid and very old, high-quality leather, with hints of cooking and chemical toilet underneath. Dyptique should make a candle! And the sound of the engines is something else. We’re talking 4 Rolls Royce 36 litre V12 engines, something like 19,000 hp each. All the pilots wound up deaf. I adore them, and they are remarkable aircraft with a remarkable history, But beautiful? No. They have friendly, silly faces, big eyes, big nose and a funny smiley mouth. They’re like a big smelly old St Bernard.  

GB Tell me about some of the specific entries. Do you have a favourite story associated with them. What does Frilly Knickers mean? Why are some entries in red?

GH I love how the entries tell stories, or fill in details of stories that have been part of the fabric of the family all my life. Or they create questions. For instance there are entries that just say “Engine Failure”. The first pages in the photos you have are from 1969-1970 when we were stationed in Singapore. The entries for October 21st 1969 record a flight from Changi in Singapore to Butterworth, Malaysia, Butterworth to Gan in the Maldives, and then Gan to Majunga, Madagascar. The Beira Patrol listed in the next entry was the British blockade to prevent oil getting to what was then Rhodesia. So there he was, my 27 year old father, on these wonderful odysseys across the Indian Ocean. He brought me cowrie shells back from those trips, and told stories of seeing vast Manta rays in the ocean below, and of ball lighting rolling along the wing of the aeroplane, into the inside of the plane and then rolling down the centre of the aircraft before exiting through the tail end. Flying this ancient old aircraft, (it was designed in the 40s, became operational in the 50s, so it was 20 years into what would be a 40 year service life even then) was undoubtedly a romantic and adventurous thing for him. We found each other extremely difficult, and hurt each other deeply, but his stories of flying across the Indian Ocean, or the North Atlantic, brought out the poet in him, and that’s when I felt connected to him. He planted a sense of the bigness of the world in my mind.That said, ‘Operation Frilly Knickers’ was a sore point for me. That meant taking all the squadron wives for a flight, which pissed me off because I really wanted to experience flying in a Shackleton & it never happened.

The final entry, the one in pencil, really gets me. Shackleton 963 now lives at Coventry Airport where the Shackleton Preservation Trust are trying to restore it in the hopes of getting it flying again one day. My father was invited there in 2008, to test out the engines by taxying the aircraft. 963 is not airworthy, not allowed to fly, but my Dad just couldn’t resist getting some air between the wheels and the ground for just a few seconds.

GB Is beauty linked to a sense of adventure or excitement for you? These planes made round world trips and were named after one of our greatest explorers. Is that spirit something you look for in other areas of life?

GH Yes, absolutely. Adventure and excitement make my eyes keener and my ears sharper and my sense of smell more acute – and in that state one is intensely present to even the tiniest or most fleeting experience of beauty. I do seek adventure and excitement, although what I find adventurous and exciting may not be the classic idea. I don’t need to go to the moon or climb a huge mountain, or sail round the world to experience adventure or excitement. I can find it in some pretty prosaic places. Canvey Island, for instance!

GB Did he make a lot of search and rescue missions? Is there an element of heroism in this beauty? Or an element of sadness because he was doing something dangerous and probably away a lot?

GH Search and Rescue wasn’t actually what the Shackleton was for. The Search and Rescue element was an off-shoot of the main job, which was AEW – Airborne Early Warning. Shackletons were built for long-range ocean patrolling. They were flying radar stations, patrolling airspace and coastal waters to sniff out incursions by enemy submarines and aircraft. During the Cold War this meant the Russians. The Russian aircraft – I think they were Tupelovs? – were known as ‘Bears’ and so my Father and the squadron he commanded, 8 Squadron, were ‘The Bear Hunters.’ He’d be called out in the middle of the night & go flying out over the sea to tell the Russians to sling their hook. I don’t know about heroic, but I did see it weirdly as quite glamorous. It was the late 70s – 80s. Everyone was obsessed with the Russians, they were the enemy du jour, and my father was on the front line of UK air defence in this remote part of Northern Scotland. I felt it was all very filmic, but then I was a child living in the middle of nowhere and bored out of my brain – I imagined everything as a film in order not to go loopy.

GB There is so much time and such an incredible story condensed into a few pages here. This condensing is also important in your documentary work – you can see how to store a whole world of meaning in particularly concise ways.

GH At the beginning of a project I can never imagine how I’m going to be able to condense all the information I want communicate and make it concise or coherent. I get chronic insomnia every time due to the apparent impossibility of the task. I have tried in the past to organise information in an ordered, precise way. I like the idea of spreadsheets, with columns and headings – a log book! – so that all the information is there at a glance, but actually that doesn’t work for me at all. It’s better to simply immerse myself and then leave it to my subconscious. The thing I am good at is finding clues, and allowing myself to be open and be led by those clues, especially if it’s in an unexpected or risky direction.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

GH Anything that dissolves the illusion of separateness is beautiful to me. Reading my father’s log books dissolved the sense of polarity that had existed for so long between us. I would have liked to have read them with him, talked to him about them, and found that connection before.



Richard Wentworth’s photograph, ‘Manchester, June 2014′

Richard Wentworth, artist, on his picture, “Manchester, June 2014”

GB Tell me why you chose this.

RW I think the picture is emblematic. That’s a nice word anyway. One forgets the word emblem. Now I shall look up its etymology. What that picture is about is a conversational space that’s shared by quite a considerable group of people I’m friendly with. We relate through pictures but not in an Instagrammy way – this is not even so much an image, it’s more of an anecdote. And in fact anecdotes are images if they’re any good. It’s almost like trading in cowry shells. A lot of people I’m friendly with are interested in this space, ultimately because its contingent and it’s the result of a performance. It’s obviously a small act, which has been performed and you see the evidence of it and the person who did it probably doesn’t realise that they’ve made an image.

Humans are reading the world constantly and part of surviving in it is to make sense of the world. Most of the time we’re scanning the world and we’re checking for conformity. We don’t even realize that we see conformity and that’s how we judge that something is coming to attack us, or a house is on fire or a car is about to crash into a child. That’s pretty much the kit that you get and it’s fundamentally notated in some experience: most people have burned themselves or cut themselves or learned from witnessing other people doing it. So this has something to do with our ability to play detective.

A photograph is already a terrible lie. The eye doesn’t make a 35 millimetre frame around things. It’s an eye. The world doesn’t have edges. So it’s already a pretend painting because it’s been chopped by the action of the camera. And it’s a modern camera so you can pretend to be near something you’re not. I even use my camera to read something I can’t read.

GB I used mine to look into a nest yesterday to see if the eggs had hatched.

RW Yes, that’s the modernity of it – that curiosity has joined up with the technologies of the time. Once upon a time it would have involved standing on the shoulders of the tallest boy in the class.

The particular quality of this picture is that I was being the child, being led by a knowing adult and I had surrendered my own sense of control. One of my ways of surrendering my control is to be a bit of an ambler. I enjoy the accident of turning left and not knowing where I’m going. I do that quite purposefully but on this occasion I was with someone who said he wanted to show me something, so we went down a side street and we were talking. Then he said, “Oh look at that.” It’s so fast, the chemistry of looking and sharing and exchanging. I don’t think he’d even quite realised what he’d pointed to. Most of looking involves not saying what something is, but what it isn’t. So you’ve probably already understood that it’s not a private house, you know more or less which part of the world you’re in, there’s a sense that it’s an institutional space, possibly a social space, maybe a student hall. So here there’s some invisible part of the sash, a weight or counter-weight, which obviously isn’t working. The point is that the act of seeing it is way ahead of comprehending what the concept or intention was. So now I’m looking at it I can see a really elaborate calibration here to do with the body and the height of chairs, the strength and portability of the chair. For all one knows it might have become standard practice in that building. I once knew a building in Brighton where they always kept the window open with a saucer. It was a canteen. The saucer would always be, as it were, ready to commit suicide. The weight of the window was the perfect reassurance to the saucer.

It’s important to me that it’s anonymous, but when you start thinking about it you have a powerful sense of the person’s own purposefulness when they did it. And the fact that it’s a leftover. Most of what we see is a leftover of other people’s actions. And I suppose with this building in the picture you can start to read the 1978 – 1985 architectural intentions and then you go “oops!”  – it makes the place feel intimate. You feel strangely engaged in it once you’ve inhabited this leftover. I suppose I like the fact that this is how we survive, that it’s all desperately imperfect. We throw in a few more imperfections and two imperfections can make a perfect.

GB It’s quite a small world where you have this conversational space. Would you say that within that world you have your own unique definition of beauty?

RW It’s funny because the word ‘beautiful’ is so interesting anyway. It’s a word that’s attached to sexual desire and perceptions of other humans and even recognizing that things have been put into the world with a purpose, which one doesn’t quite like. How presumptuous of me to assume that I have to like something or not like something. The energy with which it was put into the world, the complexity with which it’s been achieved is beautiful. September 11th was beautiful. A lot of artists talked about it. The way that profoundly theatrical act happened was because it understood it own mediation, and was consequently very politically effective. We don’t often discuss the sublime. So it’s the way one uses the word. For me it’s often quite exclamatory: “God that’s beautiful!” I’m really interested in everything having its context and the ultimate context is the encounter with you, so you have to meet it in some way or it has to meet you. And that little epiphany even has some kind of orgasmic metaphor. It’s a moment of incredibly powerful experience.

But there’s another kind of beauty, which is something to do with a very long pretty-much fetishized value passed from one human to another – things that create wonder, particularly the unaccountable. And maybe that’s the point. What I’ve just said is like a detective trying to write a report about something which is actually unaccountable. Look at Stonehenge. How long have they been standing upright? Have they ever fallen over? Did somebody put them back up?

GB I think what’s unusual about you is that you find beauty in these found scenarios that have a certain level of meaning that you can’t quite figure out. You’re not really concerned with the truth. In fact you like the fact that you can’t quite get to it.

RW I think the fact that it runs away from you is very important. Ultimately, the world is not made of much. It’s made of minerals, chemicals, organic material – and humans give meaning to things. The cat doesn’t do that. The most interesting thing my cat does is to still go to a cat door that has been shut for a year. I understand quite a lot about psychology and the strangeness of bodily behaviour. It’s odd that I don’t know how my fingers know where the letters are on a typewriter and I don’t know how I drive. Driving is one of the best extensions of the body where you don’t really know what’s going on all the time but you certainly know if it’s going wrong.

GB Once you start noticing the endless variety of these strange scenarios, does that put you off going to a museum to look at a Michelangelo?

RW No! It’s not to the exclusion of that. I’m not the lord of misrule. I think it comes from a genuine pleasure in the haptic, some modest talent that used to be called “good-with-his-hands’, for reading the world. I know how thick the paving slabs are just by walking on them. I’m reading weight, thickness, dimension and the proposal of things all the time. I grew up in a household that was very judgmental and full of admonition and opprobrium. I now understand that the mean-spirited atmosphere of post-war Britain that I grew up in is a part of it.

GB What was the opprobrium aimed at?

RW There was a right way to do everything, there was a code. I’ve just been reading the book about the Profumo affair and the first chapter is absolutely brilliant on that. You really feel the sequences of values and codes -and that was my childhood. There was nothing very special about my childhood but there’s an element in it, which I have perhaps contorted and redirected. Maybe I am a non-conformist and I see the crack before I see the pane.

GB So if you already know that there’s a huge consensus of opinion about something being beautiful and acceptable, does that make you less interested in seeing it?

RW I’m wary. I think I’m quite wary of received codes. That’s exactly the point. I love being with somebody who really knows a subject and will drill right below it. I remember getting in on the edge of a guided tour in Venice and hearing somebody hold forth and they said that a huge amount of what we go to look at in Venice, was Venice reacting to the fact that America got discovered and that fucked up all the trade routes because, basically, Venice was over. So as America was starting to become the force of new energy, new materials and all the historic lines of trade to do with silks and spices and trade were being questioned, Venice started to get a bit hubristic and make bigger and bigger paintings and buildings. The thing about history is that we weren’t there so we’re always in danger of over-teaching it. No one ever told me as a child that the brick is an invention. Then somebody told me that the brick was the beginning of cheapness. That’s brilliant. It’s the beginning of standardising something and it’s not stone. It’s a wonderful invention but it isn’t masonry. It wants to be masonry. A brick is the size of a hand. If it’s bigger it doesn’t really work. And it’s really just a filler. It can’t even be a supportive structure. The brick is a gap-maker and the web of the mortar is the miraculous strength-giver.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

RW I would say something like intake/out-take. It’s like breathing. Beauty can come to me through reverie, where I slowly realise (and I like the word realise because it means to make real) – so that’s what you might call a deductive process, like understanding the brick. That can have quite a long arc of recognition. But the one that is a little bit sexy, that makes you actually take in breath because you’re completely taken with something – that’s where some of the great standards come from, like the sunset. Sunset is somehow more beautiful than dawn. Is that because it’s death? A petit mort? I know a few places where people habitually go and watch the sun go down because the landscape works that way. I think anything that reminds you that you’re alive is beautiful. It’s pretty extraordinary to be alive and it only happens once. Human experiences aren’t that different. We prattle along, recognizing other humans. That’s why I’m so disappointed with the cat. Humans desperately want to communicate with people because they’re so lonely. It’s really very sad.


Simon Periton's Buzzcocks EP

Simon Periton’s Buzzcocks EP

Simon Periton, artist, on the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

SP In some ways I chose it just because a seven-inch single could be the beautiful object in itself. But then I started thinking about which particular seven inch it could be. I think it fits with something I like about the idea of beauty, which I’ve talked about before in connection with my work. Part of starting to cut paper doily pieces was a kind of disillusionment with leaving college and no longer having anywhere to work. I liked the idea of making something that was invested with a lot of time and effort but was essentially just useless and beautiful. And out of that grew the idea of the doily as being quintessentially English and all the notions of Englishness and rebellion. People talk about champagne socialists but actually, most of the revolutionaries I’ve ever come across drink tea all the time. Punk was always a bit like that for me. Now it’s all corporate nostalgic nonsense but from my humble input it was quite under the radar, quick and easy and simple. There was an urgency and a cheapness to the way it got out there. If I think back to that time now, we weren’t wearing luxurious things like Seditionaries and Boy, we were wearing things we’d made ourselves because we didn’t have any money. It was about getting on four buses to go to a village in the middle of nowhere to see some band in a village hall if you wanted to be involved. So in a way, Spiral Scratch is the epitome of that. It’s the first self-produced indie EP. It’s fast and packed full of Devoto’s interesting literary witticisms. It’s black and white and looks as though it were photocopied together.

GB So you find it beautiful because it’s quaint and English?

SP It’s definitely quaint and English. I think a lot of punk was. I dyed my hair pink when I was about 16, which was quite late, and where we came from in Kent, the only people who loved it and were obsessed with me were the old ladies who had blue rinses. I used to tell them about Crazy Color and one particular old lady was really keen on Pinkissimo. It was all so careful and polite. It’s hard to explain how weird and odd Crazy Color looked at that time. Even straight trousers made you look different. Coloured hair made you a total freak.

GB It’s strange that punk seemed so threatening in those days.

SP I remember going to visit my grandmother in Kent. She lived in an Oast house. We went on several buses. I’d made myself an Anarchy armband. My grandmother said, “What’s that A on your arm?” I said, “It means anarchy.” And she just said, “That’s nice dear. Would you like some tea?

I was fuming with pent-up aggression at that time but the Englishness of her response was so politely rebellious in itself.

GB So is it possible for something beautiful to also be subversive?

SP There are so many things that are naturally beautiful but generally the things that appeal to me have a shock of the new. So they are aggressive but then they get subsumed into the culture and homogenised. Punk isn’t aggressive at all any more. You’re more rebellious now if you don’t have a tattoo.

GB So when you were making pretty doilies after you left art school, that was rebellious?

SP Yes, when I started showing the doilies, the whole aesthetic was very minimal, with lots of MDF – and I entertained some of that as a student. But I suddenly saw a tunnel of repetition, farming out smooth MDF shapes and I wanted to do something different. There was a gang of German artists like Kippenberger and Georg Herold that I really liked and they had a kind of humour and playfulness I admired, a kind of punk directness that I respected. When the YBA thing started there was a lot of press about how it was similar in feel to punk and I didn’t think it was. I found it quite conservative and staid. It referenced punk but it didn’t have that spirit and the energy. The doily-making thing was a slightly conceptual move to make something so decorative in that ‘cool’ period.

GB But you do really like fussy baroque things?

SP Yes I like flowery ornate things and I like quite hard things too. I suppose I found decorative and quaint things subversive and that was confirmed for me when I told people I’d started working on cutting out doilies and people would have this look of horror on their faces.

GB Tell me about the journey of having the aesthetic response to something that’s new and shocking like Spiral Scratch, to still finding it beautiful 30 years later.

SP It has a poetic simplicity. It’s beautiful in a really obvious way with just the right amount of notes, not too much, not too little. The first 500 copies were in Manchester and I was in Kent, so it was already nostalgic by the time I first got it. Things had changed a lot. But it was so perfectly brilliant, it could fight through that. Of course all these years later it pleases a part of my mind in a different way. But when I first heard it I was struck by the sneery, camp lyric delivery and the two-note guitar solo – and it has these northern phrases I’d never heard before. It was never shocking to me. I’d heard other punk records. I can’t separate the whole thing from my adolescence and the opening up of a whole new world.

GB And when you listen to it now, are still filled with a sense of all those possibilities?

SP Yes, I’m an eternal optimist in that respect. I get disillusioned with things that aren’t as interesting. There’s a beauty in that feeling of optimism that’s so simple and wonderful so I try to feed that into everything I do.

GB Is that more important than ever, looking at how the music business and the art business have evolved?

SP Maybe it’s my perception but things seemed to be more simple then. There was as dominant culture and then a few other things going on. I think this record was only intended to be a minor blip. A small route to doing something else, in the way that my doilies were when I first started doing them.

GB Do you worry about other peoples’ reactions to your work? If people are no longer horrified, do you still want to do it?

SP It doesn’t bother me at all. I think of my audience as my mates and sometimes other artists, but I never think about people like hedge-fund art collectors.

GB What makes something worthy of the word beauty to you?

SP There are many forms of beauty. There’s an aesthetic dimension to it, so pleasing to my senses. It would have some kind of simplicity and directness to it even though it might still be fussy and baroque in its look. I think it should have something slightly subversive in it, something slightly odd or wrong. There has to be a kind of absurdity to it that’s hard to define. Maybe beauty is a carrier for something else. Something seduces you into wanting to engage with it. If it can subvert your experience somehow after that, then I call it beautiful.