I ‘won’ a chance to strand on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London for 1 hour from 3am on Monday 12 October as part of Antony Gormley’s One & Other.
On 12 October in 1797 a famous Mackem nailed the Union Flag to the broken mast of the HMS Venerable. At the time Britain was at war with France, Holland and Spain. 212 years ago British and Dutch navies met in battle off the coast of Norway, near Camperdown, close to Bergen.
During the fierce fighting, HMS Venerable was badly damaged and the main mast was broken. Jack Crawford climbed the broken mast and nailed the flag to it, whilst under heavy fire. The Union Flag was the command flag of Admiral of the Fleet. In a time without electronic communication systems this flag was a very important identifier, and a proud symbol of British power. The loss of the flag could be a great blow to morale and could affect a battle. The phrases to “nail your colours to the mast” and “show your true colours” refer back to the original use and meaning of these flags.
After the battle there was a victory procession in London. Jack’s action was said to have helped win the battle. In 1890 a bronze statue commemorating Jacks deed was erected in Mowbray Park, Sunderland and unveiled by the Earl of Camperdown, the grandson of Admiral Duncan.
I applied to be involved in Gormley’s latest art attack as I thought it would be a good excuse to stand on the plinth and see things in the square from a new perspective. Its a silly thing to do and I love a bit of nonsense now and again. Since being selected the One & Other team have asked me what am I going to do on the plinth? Like I am supposed to attempt some sort of performance for the Sky Arts Endemolesque reality show.
Friends have suggested things, which in there own right would be quite fun to do anywhere – a Punch and Judy show, Nude Karaoke or something else to get a reaction.
Plinths in Trafalgar Square are reserved for monuments of monarchs or military heroes. Places where dead heroes disappear in to the landscape of myth, legend and bird shit. People like Jack Crawford.
So i’m nailing my colours to the mast: I’ve decided to boycott my slot at One & Other. The fourth plinth should not be hi-jacked. It denigrates the value of the real plinthers.
Real ‘plinthers’ make their actions on the ground (or in the air) and the lone and level sands stretch far away.
As the plane levels off at 7000 feet it feels like we’re slowing down. They open the transparent roller door and a guy in a blue suit turns his head to the right, looks at me but through me then he’s gone. If you blink you missed him. The girl with the purple malformed helmet for the built-in camera holds the bar above her head and peers out for a few seconds. The whiteness and windy exterior silhouettes her as she looks down and leans forward slightly, is she jumping after him? No. She pulls the shutter closed, my ears equalize and I can hear more.
“How was he?” My instructor yells.
She shakes her head.
“He spun out of control”, she smiles. I sense my instructor shake his head knowingly. She sits down.
I ask a couple of questions above the rumble. Everyone is nervous but acting cool. I hold my hand up in front of my face – it’s shaking. I breath deeply, aware of the physical sensations and press my other hand against the shaking palm. Looking round I see my instructor has his eyes closed meditating on his fate. I can sense his breathing is shallow and more rapid than mine. We are all bunched together sitting between the other mans thighs. The plane climbs higher above the clouds and the green squares of land fade behind them. Snaking in spirals. The flying dragon is waiting for us to ride it down.
Plane slows again. Things are in motion. There is not even time to think forwards or backwards. ‘Now’ is all there is. My heart thumping, drawing atttention to itself. I remind it that this is what it desires. Trepidation is not fear, just not knowing. I literally have to sit on the instructors lap. and he buckles us together. My flying cap is fixed on. Minor details, it is too tight. He notices and asks me then adjusts it. Details. “Are you wearing contact lenses?”, yes. “Okay, we’ll make your goggles a little tighter than normal.”
He shuffles forward. Others are also shuffling towards the open door and instantly vaporizing in to the whiteness. We are at the door, its quick. Good. Arms crossed, hands on shoulders. Knees back. Feet back more. Look left. Smile for the camera. Flash. The moment. The moment.
The moment. Cold thin air ploughs through my face. My arms are crossed, hands on my shoulders. Legs arching back like the videos. Two hands slap my shoulders. Look fowards forwards the camera. Smile. Its cold. There is a man 10 feet away waving at me and smiling at a hundred miles an hour – hands flapping happy dancer. The freefall is counterpointed by the clouds. We are falling through clouds. Grab two for Ella and Rosa. The plane gone.
We were always falling.
The earth appears again. Hello you. We spin counter clockwise. My instructor is gaming. He gets paid to do this! My 50 seconds at 55 meters per second is over now. The camera guy zips out of sight. The shoot is open and we slow. Fast. But we’re still falling. Only that’s under control. I feel elongated. Going over a hill and down. The rippling flapping of the £10,000 parachute comforts me. The wind snake hisses through the silk in awe. I can fill my lungs more easily, more full than ever before.
“Well done” my instructor says, “how was that”.
“Just brilliant” I say. We can talk. I equalise my ears, they crunch-pop like I used to do as a kid.
The Earth growing in my eyes. Looming like Google Earth on super-steroids. I say as much.
“I love Google Earth” he says.
“My favourite video game” I say.
He twists the shute, we arch around in a spiral, I can see straight down. The air is very cold, like the ocean. But thin. It is Air. Stupid. I look up and marvel at the technology and fleetingly, DaVinci’s genius. The view is crystal. The horizon connects all around, 360 degrees. I can see behind my head.
“How did you like that spin?” he says, rascal.
“Not really.” My organs aware of their freedom for the first time. Its falling but more.
“No thank you”, I say.
I can see other people falling. Small.
“Where’s our guy?” the camera man.
I look down. Maybe 2000 feet, racing ahead.
“He’ll be on the ground to film us landing”, he says.
Up higher we rehearse the landing. As you do. Knees up, palms behind calfs. “Good”.
The air is very cold still but not as difficult to take Oxygen from. My lungs and face and spaces in my head fill like never before. Inflating with effort, they yearn for more oxygen. No worries. I’m enjoying this moment. Everything else is not there. My mind is only filling with the total moment. A field of microscopic cows. The green patchwork quilt growing. I wave. My instructor is manouvering us left and right. More spins.
“Where are we aiming for?” I say.
“See that patch of lightened grass over there?”. A secret message is scorched in to the earth with weed killer for us by some other rapscallion.
“How high are we now?”
“About 600 feet.” Its nearly over but it is enough.
Knees up. All procedure now. Danger time but i’m safe.
Down down down.
“Okay, put your feet down Dan”.
I take my weight fully, its over.
Remember that guy from Police Academy who could produce all those crazy noises from his mouth? His name is Michael Winslow, he’s one of my heroes. Check him out in this crazy video of him being Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. More serious posts coming soon, in the meantime enjoy this.
But of course there is a serious message behind this post. You can make any noise you want. You can achieve anything you want, the only person standing in your way is you.
Those who don’t write down their thoughts are condemned to rethink them.
Last week I travelled to London to attend the London Book Fair with the main intention of seeing my friend Drew Anderson’s sketchbook that he’s been laboring over for almost a year. I’ve been watching Drew fill the book on the Buy My Sketchbook website where I’ve also been known to show a few pages off.
If you search the internet you will see thousands of artists catching their ideas and creations, scanning and photographing and sharing them with their clustered groups of other users for commentry, feedback, praise, promotion and a little friendly competition.
With their popular exhibit at the London Book Fair Moleskine quite accidently stumbled on a new way of opening up this new form to the masses, each book tethered by a thin wire of indestructible adamantium thread to a central spire and an etched chrome name tag adorned the books so the creator could be identified. Visitors had to wear white cloth gloves to handle the books otherwise a guard from the stand would hit you with 9000 volt a cattle prod.
I loitered around the exhibit for almost an hour pouring over the books and taking the odd photo of a favourite page. Like the effect of a street hawkers mate, what started as a quiet stall magnetised almost 15 people who all relished the awesome work on display.
In addition the the multitude of flickr groups and satellite websites I can see a new path to expose these wonderous books off in full-on human dpi to the world. Moleskine themselves are shining the light in the direction we need to take.
I’ve always been a bit cynical about awards. From my days working at !K7 records I learned that just to be considered for the nominations cost thousands of pounds and once you got through that stage the label signed up to more expense. When I saw Michael Rosen on teachers.tv ranting about book awards my ears twitched and the hairs on my neck stood up. Rosen wasn’t ranting about there being too many awards, the opposite – that there weren’t enough! They should have them in Community Centres, Libraries and Schools. Its the schools bit that piqued my attention. Rosen ended his rant by saying ‘if there was a book awards ceremony at your school, i know i’d be there…’. Well. What can i say. To me that was an open invitation, and I decided to put Michael to the test.
I’m a Governor at Ella’s school in Newark and I approached the Head Teacher and tabled the idea of a book awards ceremony as a good opportunity to talk about books and have an assembly some time in the future – a mock ‘Oscars’ type ceremony with envelopes and speeches. It was a pretty vague idea but he liked it and asked me to come up with a proposal. Which I did and he got enthusiastic about the idea. Then it was the summer holiday. So I had a phone and made a few calls.
Over the next few weeks the idea evolved in to something that excited me more and more. I grew more cynical about other so-called book awards that were ‘substantially’ selected by children. I spoke to children’s librarians who indicated to me that an award winner did not necessaerily mean a popular book. The idea evolved. What about an award selected by school children. Shortlisted by school children. From ANY book ever published. Not just ones a publisher wants to push – there’s enough of those already. I wanted to get 3 authors or illustrators at the school but they are very busy people and Newark not a great destination to get to for these metrocentric artisans. A plan. How about a video. A video that I could share with other local schools. Quentin Blake liked that and I was invited to his studio in London on August 7th at 2pm.
I met the alchemist and he created a magic picture for the school and recorded a wonderful video. This picture really did have magical properties – it opened doors. Its not quite so simple but over the next four weeks I got another two videos from Nick Sharratt and Michael Rosen(which was infinately more difficult since he was made the Children’s Laureate)! Yes. All incredibly warm and generous people
I asked WHSmiths to give 10% of childrens books in Newark – which they did and the independent book shop Strays gave 10% of the nominated books and a further 50% off an additional purchase by a nominated author.
Equipment was all favours from friends and editing facilities from a wonderful company I met in Manchester two days before the ceremony. The strange coincidence there was that on the delayed train home that night some lovely people sat opposite me – it turned out they were from teachers.tv – I showed them the video and the camera man I met will help me collect future videos. Its fate.
The Friday assembly came around and everyone at the school was dressed as their favourite book characters. One as a Wally and we played real life ‘Where’s Wally’! I had to give a 10 minute talk about how I got the videos (simply persistence and a little experimentation). I’ve never spoken to 400 people before. But dressed as Cat in the Hat it was a lot of fun. The children saw the video and gasped at the giants from their stories, and I squeezed in some Mozart in to the soundtrack for good measure.
Children cheered for their favourite books.
So after so much excitement what happens next? Well. We intend to run a pilot School Children’s Book Awards with 50 schools in March 2008 with a website that shares video content, guideline lesson plans for a themed week of events preceeding the big day – put together by a leading educationalist. The website will also be used as a hub for children to review books, upload video reviews and enter their votes. Teachers can also use the sites admin centre to process votes and produce ready formated certificates and there will be resources for parents to help the with exiting their children about reading and books. And its all free.
I believe the whole awards thing ticks a few curriculum boxes but really I hope it can all help to ignite and nourish a passion for books. There are so many ideas. And all it costs is a few phonecalls, a bit of time and some train tickets.
I’m asking Jacqueline Wilson and other luminaries of Childnren’s Literature to give half an hour to record a video. And in October 2008 or March 2009 we can have a national awards ceremony that collates all the votes from all the schools around the country!
We did it in Newark, the authors loved it, the kids loved it, the teachers loved it and the shops loved it. Rosen was right, let’s do something about it. www.schoolchildrensbookawards.org