THE LOST OF ENGLAND:


THE BUILDINGS OF ENGLAND





It's Thursday, August 29, 2019. Yesterday, Boris Johnson announced that Parliament would be shut down for five weeks this autumn. His fellow old-Etonian, Jacob Rees Mogg, travelled to Balmoral to ask the Queen for permission to prorogue Parliament. I think this painting by George Shaw captures the constitutional crisis obliquely, and I'll attempt to say why further into this essay. The painting is called The Buildings of England.

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George Shaw. The Buildings of England, 2017. Enamel on canvas, 92 x 121cm

It goes without saying that this is a scene in Tile Hill, Coventry. It didn't take me long to find the exact location of the painting, with the aid of the Google Earth camera, systematically moving out from Shaw's childhood home on Roosevelt Drive.

Can you see the garages in this next shot? (Slightly left of middle and at the far side of Aldrich Avenue.) The garages in question are close to a row of five or more smaller garages. All the garages look as if they were after thoughts and not part of the original post-War housing plan. Bear with me as I put the painting in a bit more of its socio-geographical context.

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It's a western facing view, with Tile Hill Wood running from south (left edge) to north (right edge) along the top of the image. And that's Pepys Corner, a site of several Shaw paintings, in the middle of the right edge of the photo, where the four-storey block is.

Zooming in, you can see that the right hand of what I had taken to be three garages is just a facade, the red gate or door leading into a back yard where a caravan is parked. But the blue and white doors are the fronts to solid English garages. Surely, these are the true buildings of England.

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Moving to the Street Level camera, one learns that the blue door on the left of the painting was light blue, and that there was a brown fence/gate where the red 'garage' door is in the painting, in both 2008 and in 2012, which is when the following photo was taken:

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This suggests that Shaw was using a more recent photo for The Buildings of England. Though it's not clear from the aerial view that the current state of the right hand door is as in the painting. And, short of paying an actual site visit to Coventry, I can't get a better sighting of it.

Back to the painting. Red, white and blue 'garage' doors, with suburban houses behind and the woods of Tile Hill forming an ominous backdrop to it all. And what colour is the sky? Puce, I'd say. Pronounced with a k, let's face it.

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George Shaw. The Buildings of England, 2017. Enamel on canvas, 92 x 121cm

I wonder if it was this picture that inspired me to watch a Sex Pistols reunion concert on Youtube earlier in the month. In any case, immediately after, I Googled 'John Lydon' (aka Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the Pistols) and came across the next image. Lydon telling ITV in a Post-Brexit vote interview that when he wrote the lyrics to 'God save the Queen'…

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…he wasn't just thinking of the colours of the Union Jack, but the red-white-blue that used to edge envelopes used for airmail. In other words, he was referencing personal associations as well as collective ones. As artists continually do.

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Jamie Reid. Cover of God Save the Queen single.

I referred to the Sex Pistols in an email to George Shaw. He'd told me on August 10 that he had been 'away with the fairies' but that he would read the new pages on my site and get back to me. But the days passed in radio silence, and so on August 22 I wrote to him as follows:

Hi George, Have you been away with the fairies again? I ask because I was taken off by them last night and made to watch the film Julien Temple made of a Sex Pistols revival concert in 2007. I think I watched it in one of the garages featured in your 'The Buildings of England'. Anyway, it was a vision of hell. The posey, jokey anarchy of 1977 turned into a Breughel painting of grotesquery. Everyone being 30 years older, for a start. Though John Lydon, give him his due, came across as an honest, masochistic, charming, ruin of a working class Christ. Or do I mean anti-Christ? Listening to the ’No Future’ chant at the end of 'God save the Queen', that and Brexit came to mind. Glad to be safely back home and at my computer this morning. But for how long will that safe feeling last? How about you?

As I hoped, this drew a response from George. From his reply, I gathered the reason for the long delay in responding to my work this summer, but I will leave that revelation for a more appropriate time, and for the moment stick to the point. To be going on with, here is what needs to be quoted from his reply:

Yes, these damn fairies are often leading us astray. I try to never indulge my fancy for the band reunion. It often pisses all over what you had. But then again I think it's more for those who never had anything to piss on in the first place. Having said all that I was led off the path to see The Specials at Coventry Cathedral ruins. I went because I liked the title and though it wasn’t bad I didn’t really feel much about it one way or another. Nice to spot Graham Sutherland’s Jesus watching the show. And it wasn’t really The Specials more like two-thirds of The Funboy Three. And they did 'Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum', so there you have it!

The Specials being a Coventry band of his era, George Shaw has always had a soft spot for them. And Graham Sutherland is an artist whose paintings of war sites in particular have long influenced Shaw. He curated a show of Sutherland's work at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 2011-12 and wrote the catalogue essay for that show. But it's the next paragraph of George's reply that I really need to engage with:

As for Brexit, it's only really a poultice that's brought the infection to the surface. There’s nothing new as anyone with the merest trace of common sense, a decent pair of NHS glasses and the ability to smell shit on their own shoe could tell you. I’m not sure I’ve made a painting about Brexit Britain, its simply the way it always was ... just Britain. I think Brexit has given a decent enough reason for those that don’t like the whiff of the future - or the present - to wave their hands in the air and distance themselves.

A poultice that's brought the infection to the surface? Is that what the Sex Pistols were back in 1977? Has the wound in the side of Britain been festering for that long? Or even longer?

Anarchy for the U.K.
It's coming sometime and maybe
I give a wrong time, stop a traffic line
Your future dream has sure been seen through.

That lyric doesn't really work when printed out on its own. It works just great when snarled into a microphone by the young class-warrior known as Johnny Rotten.

So the Sex Pistols were singing about 'anarchy in the UK' back in 1977. And their lead singer - as was - is on record as being in favour of Brexit now, forty years on. Why? According to him, because he's loyal to the working class that he comes from. Though having said that, he's now
a US citizen. Maybe he would argue that his fame allowed him to jump-ship from Tory Britain earlier than most.

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George Shaw. The Buildings of England, 2017. Enamel on canvas, 92 x 121cm

You should know by now what's going to happen next, dear reader. (That is if you've been reading the earlier pages in this section.) I'm introducing two-thirds of the Funboy Three.

Boris and Nigel are standing on the pavement at the other side of Aldrich Lane from the garages. They are waiting for Jacob.

Boris: "What do you think is in the garages?"

Nigel: "I don't care to think."

Boris: "Let's say the blue one."

Nigel: "No idea. A caravan."

Boris: "I'm thinking dog shit."

Nigel: "What?… Why?"

Boris: "The guy walks the streets of Coventry each day. And then when he gets back to base he scrapes the excrement off his shoes and carefully places it upside down on a pint pot he's stolen from The Black Prince on the previous evening. A pot-plinth for each day of the year."

Nigel: "A sort of Brexit diary?"

Boris: "Indeed, a sort of Brexit diary. Ah, here he is now."

Nigel: "The loony?"

Boris: "Hail fellow, well met."

Jacob: "Good-day to you, Boris. Nigel."

Nigel: "Thank God you've come at last. Did the Queen keep you?"

Jacob: "The Queen did not, as you say, 'keep me.'"

Boris: "Did you do the business with her?"

Jacob: "The appropriate response issued from her majesty's mouth at the appropriate time, if that's what you're asking."

Nigel: "That word being?"

Jacob: "'Approved'."

Boris: "The Queen approves of Parliament's prorogation. Excellent."

Nigel: "A new word to me."

Jacob: "A lovely word, isn't it? As is the verb that it's derived from."

Boris: "Prorogue."

Nigel: "Prorogue?"

Jacob: "Prorogue."

Boris: "Prorogue."

Nigel: "Prorogue."

Jacob: "Prorogue."

Boris: "Prorogue."

Nigel: "Prorogue."

Jacob: "Prorogue."

God save the queen
The fascist regime
They made you a moron
A potential H-Bomb

God save the queen
She's not a human being
And There's no future
In England's dreaming…

Don't be told what you want
Don't be told what you need
There's no future
No future
No future for you

God save the queen
We mean it man
We love our queen
God saves

God save the queen
'Cause tourists are money
And our figurehead
Is not what she seems

Oh God save history
God save your mad parade
Oh Lord God have mercy
All crimes are paid

Oh when there's no future
How can there be sin
We're the flowers
In the dustbin
We're the poison
In your human machine
We're the future
Your future

God save the queen
We mean it man
We love our queen
God saves

God save the queen
We mean it man
There's no future
In England's dreaming

No future
No future
No future for you…

No future
No future
No future for me…

No future
No future
No future for you

No future
No future
No future for you

Before they go, Boris asks Jacob to speculate on what might be in the red garage. 


"I really couldn't say, but Jeffrey Epstein's diaries perhaps? Or the company records of Cambridge Analytica? Or boxes of Private Eye covering the pre-Brexit years?"

"You're still high from your visit to Balmoral, Jacob, admit it!"

"Well, Boris, it's not every day one has the pleasure of kissing the ring of one's monarch."

"Better than sex?"

"Ah, well, for an authoritative answer to that, Nigel, we should really open the garage and go through those hypothetical diaries of Epstein in so far as they refer to Prince Andrew. And none of us want to do that, now do we?"



The Lost of England continues here.




Acknowledgements
The images of George Shaw’s works on this site are copyright the artist. The artist is represented by Anthony Wilkinson.
'The Lost of England' was an exhibition of George Shaw paintings at Maruani Mercier in autumn, 2017.
Lyrics to 'God Save the Queen' are by Glen Matlock / John Lydon / Paul Thomas Cook / Stephen Philip Jones and are © Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group.