As I write, I suspect this painting is up for sale, as it is shown as such on
Maruani Mercier's website. One of only two of the fourteen new paintings commissioned for the 2017 exhibition that remains unsold. Does that mean its merits are not obvious to the discerning eyes of collectors?

George Shaw. Coming Up For Air, 2017. Enamel on canvas, 92 x 121cm

It's a theme that Shaw has treated before. Coming back to the council estate that he left when he was 18, and feeling that the place has moved on without him. That he no longer recognises the place or can interpret it.

That's a theme of the George Orwell novel that gives the painting its title. In the book, poor George Bowling returns in 1938 to the traditional village he left as a teenager, a place which he best knew when he was sixteen in 1909. He can't at first find the village, which has expanded in all directions and become an industrial town. And when he does trace his parents' former home and his first girlfriend, they are changed almost beyond recognition. Chillingly so. Worst of all, the pond where large carp swam - fish that still swum in the depths of his imagination - had been drained and was now a rubbish pit, half-full of tin cans.

Towards the end of the novel, the Georges (Bowling and Orwell) get steamed up about this:
'Fat men of forty-five can't go fishing.' Might that be what it says on the left side of the Tile Hill gable end? If so, the right tag may be translated as: 'The old life's finished, and to go about looking for it is just a waste of time.' No, scrub that, the following quote's better: 'What's the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don't exist. Coming up for air! But there isn't any air. The dustbin that we're in reaches up to the stratosphere.'

The dustbin that we're in reaches up to the stratosphere. Now there's a depressing thought to go with a downbeat picture. To cheer myself up a bit, I'll have a go at locating the precise scene of Shaw's painting.

I realise it should be easy to find. Surely, all I need do is - with the help of Google Maps - scan Tile Hill from above, looking for a gable end without windows (most of them have a window or two), in a certain conjunction with another gable end, this one featuring a distinctive little porch in the middle. I need to scan systematically from the south, east, north and west. So let's get on with it…

After drawing a blank from the south, it's in the middle of the scan from the east that I spot something.
Zooming in a notch, things still look good.


See the white gable-end bottom right of the above aerial photo? And the porch just right-of-middle on the top edge of the photo?

This is very close to the centre of George Shaw's Tile Hill, so that in itself is promising. Let's get down to street level.


It's the porch in the middle of the gable end in the distance that makes me feel confident that this is the place.

But it's flipping from the most recent, 2015 view, to the 2012 view, that confirms things.


For one can see the traces of where the two tags have been rubbed out. Though when I say rubbed out, the tags only disappeared completely when the houses were painted white between 2012 and 2015. They look so much more modern as a result.

The only other archive pic is from 2008. The same traces of graffiti are still visible then, as you can see from the next photo.


All of which means Shaw was dipping into his vast collection of old photos when he painted Coming Up For Air in 2017.

Let me return to the actual tags to see if anything can be made of them. Here is the one of the left.

George Shaw. Coming Up For Air, 2017. Enamel on canvas, detail.

That could almost be saying 'George', in double quotes! Or is it 63 and then something? But hang on, the wall has been cleaned prior to this tag being graffitied. So it isn't necessarily pre-2008. Though it's certainly pre 2015 given the colour of the wall. Let's try the other:

George Shaw. Coming Up For Air, 2017. Enamel on canvas, detail.

Does it end with an exclamation mark? That could be 32 at the beginning. Or is it a 5 rather than a 3? Shaw has tried to reproduce the tag exactly as it appeared, despite not knowing what it means. So although there are a lot of crossing lines at certain points, he's worked out the way the spray can has been moving and tried to reproduce that. It's oddly respectful of the unknown artist. Close scrutiny of the painting suggests that's not a 3 to begin with, as the cap on the '3' is part of another symbol. A symbol that is neither letter nor number. Perhaps it's an arrow.

That kind of analysis only takes us so far, then. Let's take in the whole thing again:

George Shaw. Coming Up For Air, 2017. Enamel on canvas, 92 x 121cm

Was this applied by one person or two? Are the two tags supposed to be read together? Could it be a statement followed by a signature? Is humour involved, or is this in deadly earnest? Christ, I think I need some help here. Luckily I know who to call on. Let's track them on their journey from Boris's digs on Jardine Crescent to the corner of Roosevelt Drive. No need to do that. It's a ten-minute walk, let's leave it at that. OK, they're here.

Boris: "What does that say?"

Nigel: "Brexit means Brexit."

Boris: "You mean the bit on the left means Brexit?"

Nigel: "What else could it mean?"

Boris: "And the bit on the right means Brexit too?"

Nigel: "Well, strictly speaking the tag on the right is racist, and I distance myself from that. But there is no doubt in my mind that the Coventry lad or lass who sprayed this is a leaver."

Boris: "Do you know what I'm seeing?"

Nigel: "Another of your visions?"

Boris: "Japanese writing… Which is conjuring up that Japanese painter, Hiroshige."

Nigel: "Who?"

Boris: "He painted 'One Hundred Famous Views of Edo'. A bit like Hokusai and his multiple views of Mount Fuji. Same period. First half of the Nineteenth Century."

Nigel: "Ah, Mount Fuji."

Boris: "Look I've found the perfect Hiroshige on my phone. What do you think?"

Nigel: "Christ!"

Hiroshige. Suido Bridge and Surugadai, 1857. Woodblock print.

Boris: "Ignore the paper fish for the moment. See Mount Fuji in the background? Looking like a Tile Hill gable end?"

Nigel: "If you say so."

Boris: "Now look at the giant fish, Nigel. See Britain, free of Europe, doing what Japan did in the seventies and eighties. Japan is a relatively small island, as Britain is, with a dense population, as we have, separated by the sea from the slumbering giant that was late 20th Century China, the equivalent to our lumbering, slumbering Europe these days. And what did Japan do? It traded the hell out of the rest of the world. On its own."

Nigel: "Japan sold high tech products. TVs, calculators, cassette players. Made by Sony, Hitachi, Casio… I'd like to believe you, Boris, but is the UK work force in a position to replicate that role? And to deliver on that scale?"

"We'll never sell pure tech to the world, Nigel. America is doing that now as computer science has taken over from electronics leaving the Japs as yesterday's men. Apple and Google and Netflix are taking English all around the globe and that suits us just fine. It's because of that we can and will sell CULTURE. The Beatles, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, the latest Booker Prize winner,
Four Weddings and a Funeral…"

Nigel: "Haven't we already sold the Beatles to the world?"

Boris: "Yes, yes, we did! We sold cricket, football, the Stones, David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis,
Absolutely Fabulous, The Avengers, Doctor Who. And our culture industries have never been healthier. We have new groups, new writers, new artists, new TV. Gentleman Jack, for God's sake. Fleabag. Killing Eve. And our artists, our wonderful artists! They are killing it too. Take George Shaw. He is fast becoming our Hokusai and Hiroshige rolled into one. Soon - if not already - he will have 'Two-Hundred Famous Views of Tile Hill' to offer the world. Those will be made into prints - cheap ones for North Korea, expensive ones for the South - and every household in America, China, Russia, India, Brazil and Japan will have one or two or even 14 on its walls. Japan especially, because the twinning of Edo and Tile Hill, Tokyo and Coventry, will be a no-brainer."

Nigel: "Big in Japan. Wasn't that the name of a '70s punk band?"

Boris: "Do you know what, Nigel? This downtrodden little country of ours is coming up for air. I see the signs everywhere I look."

George Shaw. Coming Up For Air, 2017. Enamel on canvas, 92 x 121cm

'The Lost of England' is continued 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.