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U3A Writing: Trip To The Tate

A nice watercolour of Bakewell Bridge is better than 'owt in yon Tate Modern.

Derek McQueen tells the tale of a Barnsley couple who take the bus to London to see modern art.

Fred and Matilda Parkin made their way across the Millenium Bridge, heading for Tate Modern at the far side of the Thames. It was February and a cold East wind blew strongly from the direction of Tower Bridge. Fred was excited by the visit in prospect – his first to a gallery of ‘modern’ art. Not so Matilda, who thought it a long journey from Barnsley for a day trip. Matilda had little interest in any art, let alone modern art, and would have much preferred to be in the Oxford Street Marls and Spencer's.

“This is the bridge that started shaking when it was opened love,” Fred said. “Too many people trying it out at the same time you see. They had to close it and dampen it down”

“Well its damp enough now, that’s a fact. Are you sure it wasn’t the cold making it shake? It’s perishing perched up here.”

Matilda had her head down and looked totally fed up.

“Why do they need a chimney that big in a bloody art gallery?” she asked peevishly.

“It’s because it used to be a power station Matilda love. They’ve still got the turbine hall, so I’m told. That shouldn’t be hard to find.”

Fred’s interest in modern art had come about rather curiously. After working as a gas fitter in Barnsley for thirty years, he took early retirement and decided to find a new hobby.

"Learn to paint in watercolour,'' said the small ad’ in the Barnsley Chronicle. "Colour washes and more, in pleasant surroundings. Beginners welcome.''

Fred soon got the hang of it and the room Elsie Tankersley rented at Netherthorpe Home for the Elderly was both warm and convenient. A bit smelly sometimes but you cant win ‘em all Fred thought.

After the colourwashes, the class progressed to still life. Elsie borrowed vases of flowers and fruit, from the old ladies' bedside cupboards, tastefully setting these out each week on a low sideboard where the bedpans were kept.

Fred was so engrossed the two-hour weekly sessions just flew by.
One Tuesday Elsie substituted vases and fruit for a piece of driftwood she’d picked up on the beach in Lytham, together with six fresh mackerel borrowed from the homes's kitchen. Set out on a red and yellow cloth, the effect of these was both different and colourful. The choice of a Willow pattern plate for the fish was nothing short of inspirational.

Fred had produced a truly remarkable interpretation of the still life arrangement. He decided he would call the piece Fish Eye and, for the first time, proudly signed his name at the bottom right of the paper.

At that moment disaster struck. Edna, Fat Edna as Fred called her behind her awesome back, pushed past his rickety card table on her way to the toilet, sending his water jar flying. Rivulets of grey water ran slowly over Fish Eye, changing its character completely. Fred was distraught, his invective totally out of keeping with the gentility of the Netherthorpe Home for the Elderly.


“That’s what they call modern art, that is, Fred lad,” Arthur said, examining the work with great care. “Making good progress you are Fred. No doubt about that.”

Fred had been in the habit of proudly showing his art class output to Arthur Hodge over a few pints in the Fox and Nightgown on Tuesday nights. Arthur was still with British Gas and Fred missed his bonhomie and good humour.

“Do you think so Arthur? I was a bit loathe to bring this piece tonight, tell the truth.”

“Well I’m so glad you did Fred lad,” Arthur said. “It’s reight that is.” He poked his finger at the piece, by way of emphasis. "Reight modern that! I like the name a’nall. Fish Eye, Strong name for a oiece of modern art, that is.''

Fred was bowled over by his friend’s generosity and knowledge of modern art. "Not typical of yer average Barnsley gas fitter," he thought. "Just goes to show."

Fred had quite perked up.

Matilda was less than supportive when he got home and showed her Fish Eye.

“Modern art this is love,” Fred said. “Not that boring old watercolour crap. Arthur Hodge loved it. Knows a thing or two about art does Arthur. Surprised me.”

“Looks like you spilled water all over it to me,” his wife said. “Your other stuff’s better than this, and even that’s usually dreadful. Arthur Hodge wouldn’t know art from a blow-lamp. Says owt when he’s had a few pints of Smiths.”

“We’ll have a day trip to the Tate in London love,” Fred said. “You’ll see. That's where all the really good stuff is, Tate Modern. I’ll book the coach.”


Fred and Matilda were glad to get away from the cold wind when they finally climbed down the last steps of the bridge and found the entrance to the museum.

“Turbine Hall first, then the Turner Prize, a quick pot of tea and then Damien Hirst. I think you’ll really like Damien Hirst love,” Fred said.

He couldn’t quite believe he was there to tell the truth.

“It’s dangerous in here Fred. Have you seen this crack in the floor? It should be fenced off. Yer can’t believe they’d let people in with the floor in this state. I could have got me foot fast in it. Never been touched since they had turbines in here if you ask me.”

Matilda headed for one of the attendants.

“Have yer seen the state of this floor love? It’s lethal.”

“It’s a piece of art dear,” the smart young man explained kindly. “It’s called Shibboleth, after the biblical massacre. A Columbian sculptress, Doris Salcedo, has represented division between races with this crack. It runs the whole length of the Turbine Hall getting wider all the time. Enjoy it, but do be careful.”

“Thank you,” Fred said. "Can you direct us to the Turner Prize rooms please?”

It was time to find Matilda more agreeable modern art.

Martin Creed was the current Turner Prize winner. Besides the prestigious title he had received a cheque for £20,000. His winning exhibit was in Room Four on the top floor.

“Let’s just look have a look in there love,'' said Fred "then we can have a cuppa after that if you like.”

He was going to add "Perhaps the Tate’s not all it’s cracked up to be,'' though just in time he noticed the look on Matilda’s face.

The guide on the top floor was impressive.

“We’re looking for the Turner Prize winner room,” Fred explained. “It’s our first visit you see.”

“That’s Martin Creed. Very nice chap Martin. Just follow me. I think he’s there now if you’d like a word.”

The room was empty save for Mr Creed. There were twin light bars in the ceiling at each side of the room. The unoccupied walls were painted brilliant white.

“Is it next door?” Fred managed to splutter after a long silence.

“Not at all Mr er?” Creed said. “This is it. I’m very proud,” he added.

“Oh sorry! Fred and Matilda Parkin,” Fred said. “It’s our first visit. We’re down from Barnsley for the day. Pleased to meet you.”

Matilda took her usual more direct approach.

“How can this be it Mr Creed? There’s nothing here.” She swivelled around to give the the word "it'' extra emphasis.

“My piece is called The Lights Going On And Off. It is usually dark in here but I was just making a few adjustments. Sorry about that. I’ll just get the piece re-started for you.”

Creed left them to it.

To be fair Fred and Matilda did give it a go but after ten minutes Matilda had had enough.

“He’s taking the whatsit surely Fred. Your bloody Fish Eye is better than this. Twenty thousand quid for turning lights on and off. He’s got to be joking. I turn ours on and off every day for nowt.”

Fred was beginning to feel the pressure. After a pot of tea, he was hoping for better things from Damien Hirst, their last Tate Modern port of call.
But Fred’s luck was out. The featured Hirst piece was his Thousand Years installation.

The first thing Matilda saw in the sealed glass enclosure was a flayed cows head on a white box. Thousands of flies breeding on the rancid meat layed their eggs then flew off to be drawn into a Insectocutor machine.

“It says he bought this back from Charles Saatchi for several million pounds love,” Fred said, reading the caption. "The piece plays out the cycle of birth, death and decay and serves as a metaphor for the tenuousness of existence and drive for pleasure in the face of inevitable death. That’s what it says here.''


Fred was a bit emotional on the coach back to Barnsley.

“Thanks for coming with me Matilda love. I don’t think modern art’s for us.”

By way of a thank you, Fred took Matilda to Derbyshire the following Saturday and did a really nice Bakewell Bridge watercolour. Matilda had it framed and hung it above the cooker.


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