30 March 2009

When in Rome (Don't do as we did)

At the moment I have many reasons to be irritated with Andy, my business partner. I’m not going to go into them, let’s just say he knows what they are. Odd as it sounds, one of the reasons involves ‘crouching’. While not quite as bad as it appears, it is pretty bad. Instead of listing these current gripes, I’ve decided to relay the story of a trip to Rome a couple of years back – which casts him (and the other protagonists of the tale) in an unfavourable light. All except me, who remains the shining light of reason, culture and rationality. In these circumstances at least.

The setting concerns Italy’s capital city of Rome, a cultural hotspot of fine food, art and architecture. I and a good friend of mine, Northie, decided to get away for a weekend there to enjoy just these sorts of highlights. Northie (called Steve, but another Steve is introduced later) is fluent in Italian, and coupled to my conversational knowledge of Italian – we thought a tour of the city away from the bright tourist lights could be achieved and enjoyed. We did not reckon on my business partner Andy and friend Steve booking up a couple of days before our own departure. ‘We’ll meet you over there’, they declared as they set off a full day earlier.

I travelled down by train to London to meet up with Northie before our onward flight to Rome. The flight was largely uneventful, as was our arrival. True, we witnessed a cockney ‘gentleman’ berating an Italian taxi driver with the words ‘Take me to the ‘‘otel ‘fackin ‘Orino’, but that is by the by. Our own taxi driver, who we conversed with in Italian, was extremely friendly so we can bypass the fact he dropped us off a full mile away from our hotel. The first evening, in an unusual November warm spell, consisted of a late meal out on the terrace, followed by the lively bars of Testaccio, a suburb of Rome less travelled by tourists. We resisted the calls from the ‘intruders’, Andy and Steve – and ignored their jibes that Testaccio was ‘the gypsy area of town’. In short, without their presence we had a great night meeting Italian people, speaking their own language and embracing their culture.

We arranged to meet to the two reprobates in Piazza Navona, in the old town, the following afternoon. An omen of what was to come appeared quickly; as we approached their table at a café to see they had ordered us 3-pint glasses of lager. These were consumed and more were ordered. We heard tales of their two previous nights, which had been beyond our wildest dreams it appeared – as they frequented ‘Johnny’s Bar’. All of Rome at your disposal, and the best you can do is Johnny’s bar I ask you. Despite attempts to extol the virtues of our own experience to date, it would appear that you just can’t beat old Johnny’s when you go to Rome.

All of this banter was irritating but could be tolerated, unlike the plans the uncultured twosome had in store for the evening. They had been handed a flyer for a pub crawl, and suggested we join it. One of the earliest major centres of civilisation and these two, er... ‘twats’ had managed to find a pub crawl. To my horror, my friend and formerly best man seemed to embrace the idea. And so, despite my objections and horror, we departed Piazza Navona with instructions to meet on the Spanish Steps at 7pm.

On arrival, it was worse than I feared. A group had assembled and was sharing a crate of a beer called ‘Smeg Lager’. Ok, maybe not that, but some suggestive and unpleasant name. Despite being in our mid to late 20’s we four were the oldest there by at least 7 years. Our companions for this ill judged foray into Rome’s underbelly were largely all around 18, from America, and very excited they could legally drink in Italy while on their gap year. The presence of these nubile, naive and exceptionally annoying youngsters only encouraged the vile lustings of my partners in crime and off we went.

Italian bars aren’t equipped for 75 people descending on them at once, and a series of venues proved completely incapable of hosting us – both in bar and toilet facilities. I found myself unwillingly lumbering from bar to bar either parched or bursting to use a lavatory. My irritation grew and a young South African got both barrels for laughing at me for being married. Being tied down it seemed was the equivalent of a slow painful death in this young girl’s eyes. She left after a verbal volley, quite disheartened and on the end of a lesson that she had no hope of ever finding anyone, given the gravity of her ugliness. She wasn’t that bad but I wasn’t having a good time and wasn’t in the mood to entertain piss-taking from someone so irritating.

The next tiny bar quickly saw a queue form at the lavatory that was longer than Gareth Southgate’s face. Having trekked some distance from the last dive, I couldn’t wait that long and headed outside in the hope of finding a nearby establishment that could deliver me from my pain. I walked for a few minutes, even contemplating fouling the streets of this cradle of civilisation – until a passing policeman forced my zip to hastily retreat upwards once again. At last, a small bar appeared, an espresso was ordered and drunk and I had my blessed release.

On returning to meet the others I was confronted by deathly silence and a bar so empty, you could find more activity in the mind of George Bush. The group of revellers had departed to their next destination, taking along with them my best man, business partner and his friend. No, that is correct, they hadn’t waited for me. I rang Andy, the only other member of the party who had a mobile with reception. There was no answer, and neither was there an answer on the next 15 occasions. Eventually I got through, and was given a precious name, ‘Bar Ternano’.

In my eagerness to find a taxi I embarked on a perilous mission in the middle of a dual carriageway to achieve my aim. My helpful would-be rescuer did all he could to locate my destination, calling other cabbies on his radio when he didn’t know it himself. Sadly, it soon transpired that this Bar did not exist. I should have known it. Andy’s Italian pronunciation is so bad that the one word he knew, ‘hello’, was uttered as ‘Bongonio’. I embarked on a series of further calls, all of which remained unanswered.

This story is already quite long, so I won’t list every last attempted call. But suffice to say it was past midnight and I had tramped the streets of Rome, utterly lost, for an entire four hours before my next contact. I was swiftly passed on to Northie, who explained that he would meet me in a bar at the Trevi fountain immediately. During the course of this conversation I could hear Andy in the background shouting ‘Howay Steve, that call is costing me f-ing money!’. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I could have smashed it to the ground in that timeframe, such was my fury.

I sat, fuming, drinking my coffee and waited for my best man, contemplating what a poorly judged decision that was. When he appeared he broke the ice by describing the scene as he entered a bar across the square and asked for ‘a tall blond Englishman’. He was swiftly ushered away. We returned, grumpily, to our hotel but eventually made our peace.

The following day, perhaps because I was expecting my much deserved apology, I agreed to meet Andy and Steve at their hotel. Their lodgings were surprisingly not as they had described, on a street lined with cheery nymphs handing out free wine – but rather on a dreary, beggar-ridden thoroughfare near the Colosseum. I knocked on the door and was soon confronted by Andy, in only a pair of jeans and a long-untrimmed toenail protruding from a hole in the one sock he was wearing. Shuddering at this vision, Northie and I retired to a nearby restaurant for lunch while Steve and Andy readied themselves for the day ahead.

We had nearly finished our meal when Andy arrived, shuffling along half drunk and half hungover. He ordered some chips (first pub crawl, then fried potatoes... how English) and other foodstuffs. I quickly asked for the bill in order to avoid paying for anything for this revolting vision before me. I learned later that they had added his meal to my bill meaning I paid for it after all. Unable to bear the sight of him scooping French fries into his maw with his clawed hands, we parted. The apology didn’t arise.

Northie soon descended into a virulent man flu, and when the evening approached. I was forced to decide between nursing his snotty head or meeting Andy and Steve at the aforementioned ‘Johnny’s’. Against better judgement I opted for the latter. This haven of paradise was presided over by Johnny, a Ron Jeremy lookalike and colossal egomaniac who had installed an effigy of himself in the toilets. Another excruciated evening passed, albeit with a lower score on the disaster scale. I had to travel back to London the following day, while Andy and Steve were flying back directly to Newcastle. Kindly, in some form of recompense, Steve insisted I change flights and go directly home – with him footing the bill.

At the airport at 8.30 the next morning I paid 130 Euros to transfer my flight and waited the four hours before my homeward flight. Eventually, Andy and Steve arrived and expressed their surprise at my presence. On mentioning the previous night’s offer, I was confronted with nothing but laughter in my face. Murder was only not committed because I preferred to spend my sentence in England, where I could be visited by my family.

So there it is. You may well be bored but I feel a little better. To think that I somehow consented to form a business, espiritoart.com with this person is still somehow beyond me. But getting that off my chest feels a lot better. All that is left is for me to wish you well with a cheerful ‘Bongonio’.

25 March 2009

Thanks a lot, Twitter

As ever, I have been stuck for anything to write on this blog. In this position, I decided (unwisely as it turns out), to ask the community on microblogging social network Twitter for advice. Now, these are a friendly bunch, full of intelligent conversation and not the inane lot that Twitter’s detractors would have you believe in. But, some do have a cruel streak I think – given the variety of strange and near-impossible blog subjects they recommended. The problem I have now, given they took the time to make suggestions, is I feel I have to uphold my end of the bargain.

If you are a twitter user, the usernames of those who recommended a subject are included below, with links to their pages – should you wish to follow them.

The first of many responses to my plea came from ‘Foxiehaha’, who recommended a post on the spring weather currently parking its warm and airy behind on the UK. She asked me to examine the feeling that the end of winter has on the psyche. The onset of spring is a key time for sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder, plus the rest of the population who prefer to say ‘I don’t like being cold’. The prospect of longer days, more sunlight and warmer temperatures fills people with contentment. It never occurs to the majority that often this means cooking in your stuffy office wishing you were outside. For me, the first signs of spring are a puzzling time, when for the first time in months, it occurs to me that it is pleasant to be in the open air. It takes some getting used to, this feeling. As does realising that its fine to relax and enjoy it without feeling guilty.

More difficult subjects were starting to roll in, with ‘RealTamster’ posing a question about how to liven up proceedings in the cafeteria at lunchtime. This is a hard one because I don’t know what it is like, where she works or who she goes with. The one thing I do know is that she holds strongly feminist views, which is one reason my suggestion to perk up those lunches may seem odd. Buy the Sun newspaper.

While never a fan of the Sun, if I recall my days of real work and cafeteria lunches – one of the people I dined with would always have a copy. It would always provide entertainment, although not in the traditional ‘gazing at the naked flesh’ way. A variety of games can be played, including counting how many problems the Sun can lay at the doors of asylum seekers. Did you know these scrounging fellows are responsible for the economic crisis, youth disorder, Legionnaire’s Disease and David Beckham’s metatarsal injury?

The Sun once came in handy as a prop, when a friend of mine and resident of Basingstoke was asked a question about the geographical whereabouts of his home town. Using the newspaper, I pointed at the top right hand corner and gave this as a reference for Newcastle Upon Tyne. In a similar fashion, the bottom right hand corner was used to denote London. I asked, with my prop, where on the page Basingstoke would lie. Studying the paper scrupulously for some time, my friend eventually posed the question ‘so where’s Reading’? Mind you, this is the same friend who after I’d commented I’d had a nice Lamb Bhuna, stated ‘Lamb Bhuna? That’s a bloomin’ girls drink’! Apparently, he was thinking about Lambrini.

Things didn’t get better (for me) from there. My next challenge was to tackle the suggestion from ‘MrGorianDray’, on what the effects of the economic crisis were on insects. His hypothesis concerned bees struggling to cope with storing honey in their hives after a fall in sales of the sweet substance. I could say it could cause serious problems to the world’s flora, given the reduced pollination that would ensue from a cutback in nectar collection flights. But that would be to admit to seeing Jerry Seinfeld’s animated Film, Bee Movie.

While entirely more sensible, my next subject presented some an encompassing theme that I realised I’d struggle to narrow down. A subject that has been covered in many books – the childhood experience in England. This came from ‘josephdalby’, who had given me a real challenge. When I think back I could touch upon many things. British Bulldog, the Roger Red Hat series of books, being on the receiving end of ‘The Slipper’, or the year council staff went on strike and the playing field grass was higher than our young heads. Instead I have only chosen to relay one anecdote which still strikes me as unjust, no matter how distant a memory my schooldays are. Anyone with the surname Warnes will empathise with me here. My dad came into my room one night to investigate why I was sobbing away. ‘People have been teasing me’ I tearfully explained. ‘Oh dear, what have they been calling you’ my dad enquired. ‘Warnesy!’ I sobbed. Oh dear.

I still have about twenty subject suggestions I haven’t touched upon. And I will get round to those later.

23 March 2009

Jade Goody, Telephone Boxes, Cocks and Art

Have wanted to add something to the blog for days but have been stuck with a serious lack of inspiration. Snippets of half interesting ideas kept popping their heads up, but then shrinking back again as I could only ever have strung them out into one paragraph. Then I struck upon the idea of cobbling all these thoughts together into a mixed bag of an article – using the timeframe in which I thought about them as the glue that holds these disparate thoughts together. So, this is some insight into what I thought of this weekend – despite not one the subjects seeming worthy of its own article. I settled on this inglorious introduction in an attempt to cushion your expectations of anything particularly meaningful to come.

There’s been a lot of coverage of the sad death of Jade Goody in the news, with an emphasis on the positive influence she has had on people’s lives. Strangely, the influence she had on my life yesterday was completely unexpected – I was compelled to agree with the Daily Mail. And no, before you ask, not the headline about asylum seekers turning innocent children’s goldfish into lesbians. Instead, during a channel 4 news debate, I found myself totally in sync with Mail columnist Amanda Platell. The debate's other guest, Bishop Jonathan Blake described Jade as ‘a saint, a princess, an exemplar of biblical proportions’. Platell disagreed, pointing out that Jade Goody is an example of the current generation of young British girls who state their life’s aims to be rich and famous. Her tragic death will have a legacy in increased cervical cancer testing, but that is a lot different to being a lifelong campaigner helping others.

The next random thing that entered my head concerned telephone boxes. (What a thrilling young gentleman I am....). Reflecting on Great Britain, there is surely an element of that greatness that has been chipped away by the replacement of old fashioned red cast-iron telephone boxes. Although this is hardly news, they’ve been gone for years and years, I still think an enquiry into who made the decision and / or a public flogging of those people is both a considered and appropriate next step.

During the weekend I had a fine example from Andy, my business partner, on the real need to think very carefully before you insult someone. Not whether you insult them or not, but the manner in which the insult is worded. Failure to get this right can seriously backfire, render your insult irrelevant and leave you with egg on your face. In this instance, Andy was asked a comment on an acquaintance, and said ‘I can think of one word to describe him, and it begins and ends in the letter C’. While his audience puzzled on whether there were any such words, its dawned on me what he was trying to say. He meant to say the man was a cock. But, in attempting to convey that message, it was clearly Andy that came off worse, not being able to spell that simple four letter word.

My next point will at least, I hope, demonstrate that I am capable of thinking beyond the best way to call someone a ‘cock’. I recently visited the Northeast’s flagship centre for contemporary art, Gatehead’s Baltic Arts Centre. One of the exhibits there struck me as typical of the content I have witnessed in a number of visits over the years. Three piles of soil. The fact that these piles were conical in shape didn’t warm me to them. And neither did the fact the three piles had different aggregation – fine soil, slightly lumpy and big clods. I think giving people cultural aspirations and education is a good thing, but particularly in an area that has experienced a lot of (much needed) regeneration, a different approach is needed. If only the exhibits weren’t pitched at such a pretentious level – people’s cultural knowledge could be lifted in stages by gradually increasing the challenging nature of the work on show . This would start with exhibitions that ordinary Newcastle and Gateshead residents can look at and think about, rather than instantly dismiss the gallery as ‘somewhere not for them’.

20 March 2009

Mountain Pass #2 - Two Idiots in Milan

Three pints, three double Jack Daniels and 40 minutes to boarding a Ryanair flight to Milan (Bergamo) - we sipped as quickly as we slipped towards impending doom. The engulfing misplaced drunken bravado propelled us to the bar and to order a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. This was the first of what was to become a catalogue of wrong decisions, dwarfing even that of the good American Bush.

The mix of potent drinks in such a short period spun our heads and force-fed our egos. We turned the laptops back on with the mocked up website emblazoned across the screen, and revelled in the glances it attracted from the two tables to our right. YEAH, IT WAS!!!!!! FANTASTIC WASN'T IT, WASN'T IT?????

The flight flew by in a haze, ending embarrassingly with a rebuff from the strikingly good-looking stewardesses. They politely encouraged us back to our seats after our failed attempts to flirt with them as they set sat chatting in the empty back rows. Cringingly we 'seduced' the girls with the lines 'we've got our own business - its art' and 'are there any good clubs in Bergamo'. We merited the derisory response they provoked. Dear, oh dear!!!!! That we remain single is perhaps unsurprising.

We had learning nothing from our desire to get there early. It was only on the way to pick me up from work the previous day that Matt realised the flight was 'tomorrow' and I stayed at work, cancelling my half day. We abandoned plans to have a couple of hours sleep at Bergamo airport and made an alcohol fuelled decision to taxi it straight to Milan.

Despite being the business hub of Italy, we felt a bleary sense of bewilderment that the gates to the Stazione Centrale were not to be re-opened until 5, a full 4 and a half hours later. What prompted our decision to save on a hotel and kill time until our 5.45 to Firenze was anybody’s guess.

At this point I must confess that on my first trip to FLORENCE in 2003 I was alarmingly even less cultured than four years on. Travelling alone, I puzzled as the train chugged to a halt beneath the large white and blue sign declaring ‘FIRENZE’. ‘Excusi... is this Florence?’ I enquired of the short, balding Italian man across the aisle. A dismissive shake of the head and a furrowed eyebrow somehow unnerved me more than his piercing stare. That I would have settled back down for my on-going journey had it not been for the belated and begrudging 'Ci' is perhaps the most damning indictment of my cultural awareness.

Back in Milan - the biting cold offered no respite from that left behind in Newcastle. The unwelcoming and shadowy characters and rings of street gangs chilled further. Apprehension prevailed over alarm solely because the invincibility derived from our top-up whisky on-flight was yet to fully wear off. With laptop bags draped over our shoulders and the suitcases train-tracking over rickety old pavements behind us - we set off for the sanctuary of a bar to while away the early hours.

Some 40 minutes later, far from refuge and disgruntled, we compromised on yet another beer and for safety in numbers. So, we parked ourselves amongst a throng of people huddled outside a street vendor, just in the shadows of the stazione. Menacingly the cliques encircling us were non-native Italian speaking and seemed to be multiplying as each sip of Heineken ebbed away.

Next time, it will be my sad duty to introduce the girls.

Afterthought - If at this point we had only put down our cans and stopped to assess how close we were to the abyss, we could have stepped back, changed direction and averted the fall.

17 March 2009

Ten top travel destinations (that aren't in France)

In a bout of frivolous self-indulgence I've put together a list of travel destinations I love. While not exactly off the beaten track in an Amazonian mud-hut sense, I've deliberately steered clear of New York, Paris and the like. Fantastic as these places are, I've moved on from talking about places everyone knows. I have strange tastes and can fall in love with a place for all sorts of reasons - the main one being adopting random countries as my 'favourites' without ever having been there. I'm not painting myself in the most rational of lights, in reflection.

I've been fortunate enough to travel quite a lot, although it will never be as much as I'd like. If my business partner and fellow blogger Andy was writing this - you'd be lucky if one of the top ten was outside Vietnam. But sadly my travels haven't led me that far. And as anyone who read my last blog post, 'In defence of the French' will realise, I'd happily confine my selection to France. So much so that it would be difficult for anywhere else on earth to feature. I've deliberately excluded France from the list, hard as this will be for me.

Anyway, enough prevaricating about the bush.

1) Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

I love France, I may have mentioned. And I've excluded it from the list, not mentioning I had an ace up my sleeve. I've always loved Canada, for reasons beyond even me. So I can skew this list in favour of this country too, ha! Halifax is simply the first place I ever touched down in in Canada, and its unremarkable but friendly nature instantly grabbed me. It isn't beautiful, it is pleasant. It isn't backwards but it isn't the most advanced cultural hotspot. But it is an accommodating and welcoming host, an accessible launch-point for whale watching and a haven of interesting history. In particular, the relaxed Point Pleasant park aside, I loved Pier 21, a museum on the site of the quay where immigrants disembarked (a Canadian Ellis Island). Any place where you can sit on a park bench with a sandwich and see an osprey swoop to take an ornamental carp is fine by me.

2) Quebec City, Quebec, Canada

You could probably see this coming, France and Canada all rolled into one like a Mountie with a crêpe. Moving on from simple stereotypes, this small city is delightful in many ways. Its position, perched on a bluff high above the St Lawrence River, is majestic. Its small, cobbled streets and bustling shops and markets are quaint while still being very much alive. Travelling up the river from Montreal by hydrofoil only added to the anticipation, and this European and North American melting pot did not disappoint.

3) Siena, Tuscany, Italy

If you've read Andy's post, Mountain Pass #1, you may have picked up a sense of foreboding about what was about to happen to us in that tale about Italy. Even given what did happen (and he'll cover the capers and calamity in full), I can't put Siena any lower down my list. While less illustrious than its Tuscan cousin Florence, it is a lot more pleasant to walk around at a leisurely pace. Packed with medieval character, its huge central square 'Il Campo' is as atmospheric as any in Italy.

4) Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tyne & Wear, England

I live here so a great deal of travelling is not required to reach this particular destination. Despite more stereotypes than a hi-fi store, Newcastle has moved far beyond it's 'broon ale', coal mining and boozing reputation. At its heart, Grainger town represents some of the best town planning in the world, with its long 1830's classical streets a handsome and impressive sight. If and when the people behind the amazing redevelopment of the city's quayside and Baltic Arts Centre ever get in tune with reality - the region's cultural development will be complete.

5) Argostoli, Kefalonia, Greece

Number five. Did I say ten? If it is hard going for me at this point it must be worse for you - so I apologise! Kefalonia is a stunning Greek island, but it is probable that not too many of its visitors ever visit its capital, Argostoli. Given that the town was levelled by an earthquake in 1953, this may not surprise - but it has been restored with considerable care. It has a lively heart of shops and restaurants, coupled with a relaxed atmosphere and a stunning location. And its touching commemoration of Royal Navy personnel who were amongst the first to arrive and assist after the devastating quake was an added bonus.

6) Stockholm, Sweden

The most mainstream of my selections I imagine, the Swedish capital is a cosmopolitan cultural centre with fascinating history added in. My description of the city will probably add little to the countless guides you can find with a quick google search. I found it to be perfect other than a graffiti problem. Then again, Paul Weller playing an open air concert right next to my hotel may have helped.

7) Calvi, Corsica, France

Corsica is very different from mainland France, with a strongly Italian air and an independent heart. I say this to justify my cheating in including a French destination. My blog, my rules, so there. Calvi, on Corsica's northern coast is a perfectly preserved gem, placed on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Mediterranean.

8) Bamburgh, Northumberland, England

Northumberland's coastline, once you get clear of Blyth heading north, is pristine and quiet, as well as stunningly beautiful. Its coastal route of castles, fishing towns and the historic Lindisfarne monastery is achingly gorgeous, blissfully serene and not far for me to go. I acknowledge that the last point there may well be of little use to you. The pretty village of Bamburgh is dominated by a basalt crag, upon which stands an imposing castle that well..... dominates. I'll work on that description later in case anyone feels I'm obsessed with domination.


I've written off the major tourist destinations in the world. And I've disallowed France. But I can't do it! Chartres, Carcassone, Bourges, Avignon and Biarritz - I can't abandon you. I just haven't been to enough places to leave them all behind.

15 March 2009

Mountain Pass #1 (Setting the scene)

How is the hair..... Anyone ?!?!?!

You'll probably be relieved to know that I am not wrestling with society's collective ills today, or indeed imploding on an introspective rollercoaster. Although perhaps only temporarily - I've stopped but I'm still strapped in. It would seem I've paid more than once.

Having intimated in my last blog that I would begin to regale you with some of the stories since we (I include Matt), started out on the long journey to business launch, I'd better get on with it. I have to confess to enjoying reminiscing. Don't get me wrong, most of the defining memories were tumultuously bad. But there is a burgeoning feeling of comfort that whilst we didn't withstand what was thrown at us, we did at least come again to make it to this point.

And I'm certainly not intending to lay a pretentious golden egg on how to start your own business - we'll leave that to Sir Richard or Sir Alan, someone who's actually achieved. I'm reflecting on what we did wrong, which was quite a lot. Through some of these wacky incidents, there may be something to draw on from anyone who was thinking of starting their own business. Along the lines of what not to do!!!!!

The idea to set up a business was borne on a May bank holiday monday night, although was surprisingly not alcohol induced. Both Matt and myself had experienced our first ‘annus horribulis’ for very different reasons - reasons which remain too raw to put in to print. I can confirm however, that it had nothing to do with a dodgy curry.

On this Bank Holiday night we had a stomach wrenching loathing to go to bed (this is the last time I feel the need to make such a reference - not together). A trip which would only hasten the morning’s loathsome journey to the office. We talked the idea through to the early morning. And the idea was something that stimulated us both.

In the ensuing weeks the business became all consuming, an intrusive titan with a vice-like grip on every minute of our lives. Days and nights merged into one but the rush was mesmerising. From the madness of pre-breakfast chats, through to dinnertime field trips. Then on to brain-storming sessions with scrolls of paper covering every inch of the living room floor. Before finally limping to bed for a while before again crossing early morning to-do list minefield.

The business had already served its purpose to propel ourselves from our enveloping self pity in to an oasis of optimism and self -fulfilment.

Come the November, 6-months on - we had triumphantly baton exchanged the template website to our design team, ahead of a short trip to launch. We charged through the doors of Newcastle airport that very same day for a celebratory sojourn to Italy. Good times of course, can never last forever.

Next time will be back on the pass in Milano (or MilaNOOOO!!!!!!) What happened was monumentally stupid.

Afterthought......... Saturday's Guardian portrayed a taxi drivers harrowing life-long plight. The revelation that many expect to clear £35-£40k a year makes me less inclined to sympathise. Particularly, this Christmas when one conveniently forgot that my friend had paid him £17 at drop off-one - doubling my fare.

13 March 2009

In defence of the french

Another post that has nothing to do with our canvas art business, although the concession of adding the pictures means I can tell myself this is 'work'!

Over the last few days I've heard a few utterances of that common English statement, 'I hate the French'. On a national radio programme, there was also a reference to 'Cheese eating surrender monkeys', and that wasn't even Jeremy Clarkson this time. This is a time when (thankfully), xenophobia in the UK is if not decreasing, then at least being driven out of our everyday consciousness. But it appears that one of the few socially acceptable bastions of the ignorant is to dismiss the population of France with such a sweeping statement.

If I challenge these statements when I hear them in person, I am met with several factors which come together to convince English people to hold these views. The first of these is rendered no less stupid by my typing it, as when it is spoken by these people. They stink. Or they stink of garlic. Seriously, sometimes this is repeated by people who have jobs, seem quite intelligent and contribute to society in some way or another. Is garlic not commonly used in the UK's most common cuisine - Indian food? Or on pizzas, pasta, Chinese food or in many English dishes?

Let's take another one, they are arrogant. OK, there are some arrogant people in France, but using such an arrogant statement to criticise people for being arrogant makes little sense. And people should contrast the average level of customer service these days in Paris compared to London. Their capital city, famed for rudeness, is streets ahead of its English counterpart. Like England, the majority of French people are pleasant and welcoming, in some cases more so.

Another one is a further classic. They hate us so we hate them. Well, there's an ideology that is going to sort out the world's problems.

Some of this negativity stems from the Second World War, with a cavalier mindset that in this period in history all Frenchmen were cowards. It is historically correct that France did surrender following the invasion by Nazi Germany. But people who make these allegations rarely have any concept of what occured. The defeat owed much to the defensive strategy of French military command, insufficient preparedness, the declaration of war by Italy and the absence of any allies with the military power to resist the superior German war machine. These factors, coupled with superior air power, led to the end result more than any inherent lack of bravery.

Such a dismissive attitude is a poor tribute to 100,000 French soldiers who were killed, or the 1 million who spent the rest of the war help captive in camps. It should not be forgotten either, that 30 years earlier, a war fought bitterly on French soil led to the deaths of 1.7 million of the nation's inhabitants. With such a horrendous toll in living memory, there was inevitably going to be an effect on the nation's psyche.

France is a beautiful country, with fantastic wine and food, an enviable transport infrastructure, countryside, culture and cities. Just like the UK, with the exception of the wine and the transport links. I would listen if these statements were backed up with arguments based on the concerning rise of odious right wing politics in France. Or the treatment of former colonial subjects or the casual attitude to animal cruelty. But not because they stink.

And as for the cheese eating. There are more varieties of cheese in Britain than there are in France. We love the stuff too.

9 March 2009

Straight (?) out of left field

Well, I’ve made it at last. So I’ll start with a big hello and an equally big thank you to my fellow espiritoart blogger Mr Warnes. My dear business partner, friend, collaborative artist (erm!) and of course flatmate - thank you for the splendid introduction to me - for building such an anti-climactic sense of anticipation ahead of my first appearance.

Now let’s see. So far, you’ve showed my first and last attempt at a fine art painting (perhaps the removal of the letters 'i', 'n' and 'e' would be more appropriate) and promised our loyal band of followers (!!!!) a forthcoming foray in to the world of 'Andy's hair styling tips'!!!!!!!!!!!!

You’ve driven me off road from my original journey - to begin a ‘retrospective on the mountain pass’ to launching espiritoart. And to shed some light (and hopefully some laughs) on the tribulations of trying to dream up and launch a business. Not to mention a debacle in Milan which ripped up our embryonic enterprise, threatened to implode our friendship and in our subsequent self analysis and loathing- caused us to question our very sanity as 30 year old human beings.

All that can wait until next time. Instead I feel compelled to change tack and consider society’s perceptions of our very own relationship. You see it was the ‘hair tips’ that finished me off…..

That we decided to start a business together, naturally required us to spend a lot of time together. The business happens to be art and we happen to live together some of the time (oh, and we also have high-pitched voices). As a result, society unforgivingly tends to pass immediate judgement on our sexuality. Why?

Admittedly, those who know us well, will also be aware of our shared love for red wine (although not on nights out drinking - a social faux pas), for eating out together, visiting art exhibitions, going for walks and playing tennis together. Our friends derive only gleeful piss-taking pleasure from these extra-curricular activites and in fairness - if all this is not gay what is?

Well you see, perhaps our collective mindset as a society - and I include us - has not progressed as much as you might think. Pigeon-holing people by their likes and dislikes still has a profound impact on all of our lives, even though we are the very people who allow these social barriers to flourish.

Perhaps its a northern thing, but we too don’t drink red wine in a bar because ‘it’s gay’. Why? We like the taste, it’s not more expensive than a beer or a Johnnie Walkers and we don’t have a prejudiced bone in our fattening bodies. Differences in creed, colour or sexuality don’t even emit the faintest signal on either of our radars - we’ve both had friends with sexual leanings different to our own and I’ve had Black and Asian girlfriends.

Yet albeit only very occasionally, we still alter our behaviour, whether consciously or subconsciously. Perhaps because the ‘gay’ jibe can still be irksome due to the backward dogma it radiates. We, despite our liberal views, can still fall into an abyss just short of the moral high ground we aspire to.

Anyway before I sign-off. Trevor Sorbie moulding mud is just perfect for a spiked firm hold. Apply just a spot to the palm, rub gently and then firmly in to the hair. Repeat small applications (less is always more) and alternate between using the palm and the fingertips on the hair . It will provide a non-greasy, dry, natural look and will stay upright for as long as any teenage boy eating Viagra off Beyonce’s boobs.

Seeing as this my first blog entry.… a bonus. Forget the expensive designer moisturisers - and get yourself a great big tub of aqueous cream for £1.99 at the local chemists. Wash your face with it and then apply after drying. And the good news - not only will you have nice smooth skin, the tub will last you a month!

Till the next time - when we get back on the ’pass’.

6 March 2009

Why do retailers proliferate the credit crunch mentality?

Credit crunch, credit crunch, credit crunch. The popularity of this term must have it rocketing to the top of the Oxford Dictionary's list of terms to add to their next edition. It is clear that economic times are difficult, but is it necessary for people who sell products to join in with building such a bleak picture? Increasingly, advertisers are referring to the downturn in an attempt to win new business. Search the phrase "Beat the Credit Crunch" on google and you'll see adverts for discounts on newspapers, travel and even credit cards. How a credit card with 39.9% APR is going to help anyone beat the credit crunch is something I'll have to think about some more.

Is it really the best policy to try and ask someone to part with their cash while at the same time, reminding them of the credit crunch? This term has gone beyond its original meaning of the reduction in credit availability. Nowadays it is used by all major media organisations to encompass all aspects of an economic downturn, including job losses and falling currency values. Reminding a potential customer of all of this as you try and clinch as sale seems as likely to make them do without as to take advantage of a discount.

Taking some rough analogies, would the tobacco industry launch a new brand of low-tar cigarettes and proclaim them 'less likely to cause you to die'? Or a whisky brand saying 'beat the hangover from last night by drinking the rest of the bottle’? Although extreme examples, effectively they are the same as saying 'spend your cash here because you might not have any in the near future'.

Subliminal messages have long been used in advertising to generate a preference for a brand. But the message given out by the proliferation of credit crunch language seems at odds with the end result desired from an advert. Clearly, as a retailer of canvas art, a luxury item, the credit crunch is a relevant to me as every other business. But there won't be any adverts asking you to beat the credit crunch by buying a sale item from me any time soon.

4 March 2009

Twitter and the future for followers of @stephenfry

I recently joined Twitter, the microblogging platform where users share 140 character messages called ‘tweets’ with each other. I was joining millions of others who have been flooding to this rapidly growing social networking utility. One of my first actions, as it is for many new users, was to follow the Stephen Fry. The comedian and author is amongst the most popular Twitter users with over a quarter of a million subscribers to his acerbic and humourously irreverent tweets.

I'll happily admit it was perfectly entertaining to read about his celebrity dining experiences and whale watching. But what is more interesting is the star’s struggle to control his army of fans and prevent the experience he describes as ‘wonderful’ being ruined by his very popularity. Perhaps it was always going to be so. That a system allowing instant messaging would before long leave a celebrity swamped and struggling to enjoy the more personal interaction they had previously.

The signs were there right from the beginning, when just a few hours after his first tweet in October 2008 he was already warning ‘I wish I could answer you all individually, but I'm afraid that isn't possible’. This was just a brief forerunner to recent blog articles he has written expressly to request that followers adjust their behaviour in order to avoid him becoming swamped. The longest, written while out at sea off the coast of Baja California, asks followers not to send questions until they’d checked his previous tweets for the answers. Or in his other words ‘to use your own initiative’. This plea to lift the siege of his followers weighed in at over 6,000 more characters than a tweet would allow – suggesting that micro-blogging can only get you so far.

Fry also points to people using Twitter as a sales opportunity, distancing himself from such activity. But, while the stream of tweets he has written are informative and certainly not centred on self-promotion, his profile advertises t-shirts carrying the slogan ‘I tweeted Stephen Fry and all I got was this luxurious T-shirt’. Whether this is post-modern irony or just bad is open to interpretation. What is certainly the case is that most people, those who use Twitter for sales included, have to work a lot harder than that for their money.

In a recent appearance on Jonathan Ross’s chat show, Fry tried a couple of times to change the subject when Twitter was raised - perhaps already realising that his volume of fans was becoming unmanageable. If the intention was to limit the tidal wave of new Fry followers in the hope of saving any sense of intimacy, the 150,000 new members since the interview would suggest that it has failed.

Probably, one of the options left to Stephen Fry would be to employ someone to manage his account, something one senses would be too ostentatious for him. He could just provide tweets and ignore the replies and messages that come his way (as other celebrities do), or to stop tweeting altogether. I suspect the latter is unlikely, as where else could he revel in messages such as one posted under his recent photograph of a Mexican Burger King – ‘Mayonnaise repulses me as it is the devil’s seaman’. (sic) Ahoy there Lucifer!

3 March 2009

Original Abstracts & Photography

Thankfully, we have found what we are best at - designing and printing canvas art via espiritoart.com. But we have also tried a few other techniques in the past, with varying degrees of success. Having viewed an uninspiring exhibition at the Baltic Arts Center, we decided that it couldn't be too hard to produce attractive, original abstract art on canvas - rather than use the digital art packages we were used to.

This prompted purchase of canvases, brushes and paint, and a day was set aside to quickly achieve artistic perfection by our own hands. What followed gave us a greater respect for painters, no matter how simplistic their abstract creations appear. The sum total of two people over a period of 5 hours each was this, untitled masterpiece: -

Although it may be tempting to think so, we can promise than no teabags or bodily fluids were used in the creation of this... this.... well, whatever it is. Thankfully, we never repeated this experiment so the world's worst painters can rest easy at their easels that nobody is about to take their crown. We're going to stick with canvas art.

We have had greater success with photography, using many of the shots we have taken for the basis of our Global Scenes collection, which features different takes on some of the world's famous places and most beautiful cities. True, the great Milan robbery of 2007 did set this back a little as along with stolen laptops, the camera too was passed in the possession of Milanese street villians.

Freshly furnished with a new camera, we've been concentrating on building up stock photography for use in the canvas art commissions we receive.

One such trip was made just yesterday, for some closeups of beaches, pebbles and rockpools. These are useful either when clients want a specific request (and you'd be surprised what is asked for!), or just as textures to use as the basis of our canvas art prints. Occasionally a shot will come out realy well and be transferred to our Contemporary World collection for customers to purchase as a canvas print.

Yesterday's trip was a little problematic as despite being a matter of five miles away, I managed to miss the coast, and ended up on a road going inland. By the I got the car pointed in the right direction, I'd gone too far north and was just south of Amble. Given the approaching night, I took advantage of the deserted stretch of Northumberland coastline to lie on the beach pretending to be a professional photographer taking unusual angles.

This quickly progressed to a very relaxing and theraputic activity, stacking pebbles up like prehistoric man. Looking at the results, well, at least the original objective of stock photos and textures was achieved, coupled to lots of fresh air courtesy of an artic wind! Now perhaps a little more work is needed, but you have to agree - the photography is better than the original art!

2 March 2009

New addition to fine art canvas collection coming soon

Unusually for a site printing and selling canvas art, we already offer fine art giclée prints on canvas. Although digital art is available through us, the same printing processes can be applied to fine art - once it has been scanned on a large format scanner. We have fine art prints available from prominent UK artist Stephen Warnes, and will shortly add another - 'Deep in the Night', to our collection. This depends on a visit to a specialist scanning company with a machine big enough to scan this extremely large painting (over 1m square): -

We also have a number of new landscapes from Stephen Warnes hot off the press from a company in Scotland that handles smaller pictures, so we're just running colour tests on canvas to check the scan quality and then we'll have these ready too.

1 March 2009

Top Seven Free Artist Profiling Sites

In the process of setting up, launching and promoting canvas art site espiritoart.com, we have used a number of art profiling / art networking sites, with varying degrees of success. What follows is by no means a definitive list based on extensive research - but is a reflection of what we have found to be useful in gaining web traffic, contacts and enquiries.

As with all social and business networking, the more you put into it the more you get out, and when using these sites, we have focussed more attention on some than others. However, first impressions count, and we've put more into those networking sites that proved easy to use, and started generating interest in our canvas art early on.

1) DeviantArt - Very large online community with great opportunities to interact and get your artwork seen. Friendly, young audience that has generated over 15,000 visits to our artworks in less than 3 months. Useful statistics are available on your artworks and main artist's page.

2) FineArtAmerica - Not exlusively for America, and appears to attract more visitors intent on looking for art to buy, as opposed to artists looking to display their portfolios. Good weekly update on your visitors, together with their location.

3) ArtWanted - Easy to use site, with lively online community always ready to provide useful (or useless but very complimentary!) comments on your artwork.

4) RedBubble - Nice looking site and lots of opportunity to enter your work into contents or to feature your art on group pages. Only let down a little by endless updates from the groups you enter (e.g. x artwork by y artist has been featured in z group), which can be annoying if you're in several groups.

5) Saatchi - If the statistics on the main page are correct (sorry, but who does that now!), this is an exceptionally well visited site, and certainly profiles an incredible number of artists. Although serious enquiries have come from this portal, it is really let down by very poor web design making navigation a real pain. Art 'showdowns', where visitors rate work and winners are exhibited in Saatchi galleries are a highlight.

6) PaintingsILove - A relatively small networking site for artists, with a very friendly community. Not the most stunning of web designs but easy to use with a 5 star rating system for visitors which can give you some interesting feedback on your work if you have a large porfolio.

7) ArtSlant - In our experience, relatively quiet on the interaction front, but a nicely programmed slideshow featuring prominently on your page.

An important factor in all of these sites is of course, the fact that they are all free to use, making the ability to link back to your site and promote your artwork only dependent on the time you can spend doing it.