This is the George Shaw painting that has taken over from
The Opening as the one that most intrigues me. It’s the painting - along with the two views of the Black Prince pub - that I asked Wilkinson Gallery to provide a high resolution image of and which Chris Jacob has kindly done. Why does the simple, dark composition interest me so much? Well, that’s what I’m going to explore on this final page. But first take a good look at it for yourself:

George Shaw, The Same Old Crap, 2011: Humbrol enamel on board. 56x74.5cm

I suspect it follows on from the painting below. The Next Big Thing is a view of where The Hawthorne Tree used to be, the pub which George knew ‘too well’. The pub where George senior and George junior had a drink shortly before the former died. I can imagine George looking at the metal fencing, the earth, the bare branches, and wondering what would replace the Hawthorne Tree. And deciding in some bitterness that the next big thing would be the same old crap. And that whatever building comes to replace the demolished pub will end up a ruin itself, in the fullness of time.

George Shaw. The Next Big Thing, 2010: Humbrol enamel on board. 147x198cm

Here is the sequence of events as far as The Hawthorne Tree is concerned. From top to bottom, the paintings are dated 2001, 2010, 2010 and 2011. That is, if the fourth painting is of this site, which I can’t be sure of given its level of abstraction.

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George Shaw: The Hawthorne Tree, The Age of Bullshit, The Next Big Thing, The Same Old Crap.

OK, let’s return to the first painting on this page.
The Same Old Crap is even more bleak than The Next Big Thing. No fencing adorns the foreground; no scrub embroiders the background. Just the bank of earth, studded with stones or lumps of concrete or plastic bags. The little light that falls on the surface reveals some of the ‘clods’ to look brown, the colour of congealed blood, while others appear blue. Blue with the cold of the grave, one is tempted to surmise.

As I’ve got such a high quality reproduction of
The Same Old Crap, I can zero-in on what detail there is. The image below is really quite a small proportion of the full thing. Do you see the blue surfaces and the brown, the masses and the curves? If this was a Paul Noble drawing, I’d be thinking I was looking at a pile of discarded Henry Moore sculptures. Yes, the authorities have rounded up all the Henry Moore’s within a hundred-mile radius of Tile Hill and they’ve dumped them on the site of the Hawthorne pub... Sorry. I thought I’d try and lighten the mood before it gets darker. As it must. What I like about The Opening is that there is a path in. That hole in the hedge. What is depressing about The Same Old Crap, is that there is no path out.

George Shaw. The Same Old Crap, 2011 (detail).

What do I mean? Well, it’s obvious what a blow the death of his father was to George Shaw. The anecdote in the Turner Prize film about model-making as a child in the kitchen just brings it home. Let me recap. The actual death of his father seems to have stopped George working for a while. Then, in 2009, he was able to summon up the energy and the vision to pay tribute to his father, exploring the psychological and philosophical impact of his death. After that, instead of bouncing back and enjoying the second half of his own life, George seems to have become all too aware of his own mortality. That’s how it seems to me, anyway. The three downbeat paintings in Days of the Comet, the dozen painted for Void and the four new ones painted for the Turner Prize show: almost all are bleak compositions highlighting decay, destruction and loss. The Devil made him do it again and again. The Devil called Death.

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Still from The Late George Shaw, The Art Show, Channel 4, 2004

Above is a still taken from The Late George Shaw. Made in 2004, when the artist wasn’t yet 40, Shaw jauntily tells the camera that when painting pictures which have large black or near-black fields, to avoid seeing reflections of himself as he paints, he’s taken to wearing a black balaclava. On that basis, he would have worn the balaclava throughout the painting of The Next Big Thing and The Same Old Crap. But if he wasn’t seeing himself in the pile of earth or stone (the bank of garbage), might the artist have been visualising his dead father? And facing the fact that there would be no returns. And facing the fact that there is a path in but there is no path out. And facing the fact that he was painting his own grave.

Which reminds me that in the Paul Noble drawing,
Nobsend, the cemetery of Nobson Newtown, crammed full of fatuous monuments to the dead, contains one freshly dug though currently empty grave. I interpret this to be the artist accepting the inevitability of his own demise. How does the Philip Larkin verse that George Shaw quotes in respect of Ash Wednesday go again? Something like this:

‘The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse...
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon.
Nothing more terrible.
Nothing more true.’

Try the following image for a contrast in mood (and as a talisman). It’s from the series of seascape photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto taken all around the world. Similar to the Shaw image in some respects, but utterly different in others. The sea meets the sky exactly halfway up Sugimoto’s picture, whereas Shaw’s dark foreground takes up more than half of the picture plane. The sea stretches out for miles, one feels, before it succeeds in meeting the sky. Whereas the earth in Shaw’s image is like a wall, blocking off the viewer from what lies beyond. If only there was an opening in the crap. There
is no opening in the crap. There is no path out. Does the Sugimoto image supply a path out? In the end, I don’t think so.

Hiroshi Sugimoto. Seascape: Baltic Sea, near Rügen, 1996. Silver Gelatin Photograph. Dimensions variable by edition.

This is how Paul Noble puts it. It’s a seascape all right, but judging by the raised horizon and - more obviously - by the turds floating in the water, it’s the same old crap.

Paul Noble, The Sea III, 1996. pencil on paper. 150x200cm

Do I have a path out? Yes and no, and - it turns out - yes. In order to help myself come to terms with The Same Old Crap I made a glossy A3 print of it. While I very soon had Scenes from the Passion: The Black Prince and Christmas Eve in position in my study, where I’m writing now, The Same Old Crap - neatly stuck onto a sheet of foam-board - just hung around the house for a few days. Eventually, it came to me where it might go, and I stood the print on top of a bookcase, placing early editions of Evelyn Waugh’s first four novels on either side of it.

©2013 Duncan McLaren

I liked the way the titles, Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust, spoke to both the title and the imagery of The Same Old Crap. I liked the way that, although the fading letters of ‘EVELYN WAUGH’ were beneath the horizon of the dump, the golden titles rose above it. What do I mean? That an artist may die but his work lives on? Even if that were true, I don’t think it’s enough.

Perhaps when looking at
The Same Old Crap one should wear a black balaclava, because I’ve noticed my reflection when regarding the glossy photograph of the painting over this last day or two. In fact, though I didn’t use a flash, in the image below, in the middle of the crap, you can just see the flesh tones of my hands on either side of the camera they’re holding.

©2013 Duncan McLaren/George Shaw

At least partly, I raise Evelyn Waugh in this context because he, like George Shaw, is a creative spirit whose art I greatly admire. In an email to George I asked if he’d come across the author’s work and I mentioned that I felt his work and Waugh’s shared certain traits, namely intellectual discipline and emotional depths, a rare combination. George hasn’t responded to this part of my email, so perhaps he’s not familiar with the author.

Evelyn Waugh wrote
Decline and Fall, his sparkling first novel, while lodging in a pub in Dorset called the Barley Mow. The novel was written in 1928 and the pub is still there now. I’ve been inside and sampled its delicious Badger Ale. Waugh wrote the first half of his second novel, Vile Bodies, while staying at the Abingdon Arms in Beckley, a pub he’d got into the habit of using while living a dissipated life at Oxford. That splendid old pub is still standing and I spent a very pleasant afternoon enjoying its hospitality while researching my Evelyn Waugh biography. Part of Black Mischief and the second half of A Handful of Dust were written while lodging in a pub a couple of miles from Chagford, Devon. That too, a fine country building, is still a thriving bed and breakfast business. Indeed most of the properties in any way associated with Evelyn Waugh, from the Hampstead house he was raised in, his public school on the South Downs, his Oxford College, his London restaurants, his houses in the West Country, are all still very much in existence. Not only did Waugh not have to see his world disappear in front of him, but his great grandchildren can still explore the self-same world. It is, of course, a class thing. George Shaw, coming from a working class background, has had to watch rather too much of his world crumble in front of his eyes. It would be enough to make anyone depressed. Aneurin Bevan must be spinning in his grave.

What I’d like to bring to George Shaw’s attention is the
joie de vivre of Decline and Fall. There is a character in the novel called Grimes. At one level, he is a horrible man, a teacher who preys on the boys in his charge, but he is also a life force and this is how the novel’s protagonist, Paul Pennyfeather, thinks of him:

‘Grimes, Paul at last realised, was of the immortals. Sentenced to death in Flanders, he popped up in Wales; drowned in Wales, he emerged in South America; engulfed in the dark mystery of Egdon Mire, he would rise again somewhere at some time, shaking from his limbs the musty integuments of the tomb.’

Shortly before Waugh wrote Decline and Fall, he was a teacher at a minor public school in North Wales. He found the experience horrendous and would seek refuge in the local pub with one of his fellow teachers, a Dick Young who was the inspiration behind Grimes. The pub was referred to as Mrs Roberts’ pub both in Evelyn Waugh’s diary and in Decline and Fall. That working class pub, the Fair View Inn, still exists today, nearly ninety years after Evelyn Waugh drank in it, and I’ve enjoyed a couple of pints there myself. It gives me hope that the Black Prince will still be around in a hundred years’ time.

At this point we have to take leave of
The Same Old Crap. I mean we have to put our best foot forward and walk from the former site of The Hawthorne Tree to the Black Prince. I’m there already courtesy of the two prints in my study. Most readers will have to follow the blue line on the following Google map. As you’re travelling south and east, be aware of the location of the Shaw household, further south as marked on the aerial view. When the George Shaws, senior and junior, used to leave the house in order to have a pint in the Hawthorne Tree, they were taking on a longer walk than strictly necessary to get a drink for themselves, but quite a pleasant one up the side of Tile Hill Wood. At least that’s what it looks like from this distance.

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Imagery ©2013 DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, The Geoinformation Group, , Map data ©2013 Google

We’re walking along Delius Street. Let’s pause at the spot from where George painted the Black Prince in 1999. Why? Because the site of Ash Wednesday, 7am is just out of sight to the left foreground.

George Shaw. The Black Prince, 1999: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

Well, the large tree is just out of shot, then come the conjoined houses. Standing on the platform between the houses is a man. What is he doing? The red screens obscure part of his figure, but it’s clear enough that he’s reading from a book with a mottled red cover. Listen:

“Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar, sat alone in Mr Sniggs’s room overlooking the garden quad at Scone College. From the rooms of Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington, two staircases away, came a confused roaring and breaking of glass.”

That’s promising. It makes me lick my lips at the prospect of what we’ll find when we actually enter the Black Prince.

Oh, bollocks, The Black Prince is closed! I know it looks open in George’s fabulous paintings from 1998 and 1999, but I have to face the fact that I’ve just found out via Google. In January, 2011, a headline in the

‘A family which has run a Tile Hill pub for 26 years has called time saying they have “had enough” of the trade. The Black Prince pub, in Tile Hill, is the latest city pub to close, while owners Punch Taverns try to find new tenants. Black Prince landlady Michelle Alison has run the pub for 16 years. She took over from her father Roy Morgan, who was at the helm for the previous decade. Michelle, 44, surrendered her licence and owners Punch Taverns are now in discussions to find a new tenant licensee for the venue.’

Any sign that the pub has reopened since? Not on the web there isn’t. Fuck it. The same old crap.

Actually, I’ve just looked a little further down my Google search for ‘Black Prince’ and ‘Tile Hill’. The pub seems to be open again. In May 2011 a ten-second video was posted on
Youtube. Stevegrant123, who uploaded it, writes: ‘This is how we have fun at the Black Prince.’ You can’t see it too clearly in the still below, but just to the right of the flag bearing the cross of St George, Baz is getting ready to spring into action. Cue confused roaring and breaking of glass?

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Stevegrant123. Still from ‘BIG Jump’, 2011

What Baz does is run up and throw himself over the table. Really? Yip.

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Stevegrant123. Still from ‘BIG Jump’, 2011

Below is Baz in full flight. The Devil made him do it! I like to think that’s a jukebox in the background, if so it must surely be playing ‘Bingo Master’s Breakout’.

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Stevegrant123. Still from ‘BIG Jump’, 2011

Although Baz dives head first, he somehow manages to land on his feet (and backside), sliding as far as a corner table. Baz picks himself up, adjusts his wristwatch and saunters over to the bar where Gaz, Shaz and Daz are cheering and laughing their bloody heads off.

‘England, my England’, as DH Lawrence wrote, lamenting the decline of English vitality. Perhaps he got that one wrong.

I sit down at a corner table and open up my copy of
Decline and Fall. I’m determined to read this brilliant book in the Black Prince, Tile Hill, just as I read it in the Barley Mow, Dorset, and in The Fair View Inn, Llanddulas, recently. Just as I read it on the carpeted floor of 1 Bulbourne Close, our family home, when I was sweet seventeen. I flick through the creamy thick pages until I get to a particular illustration, one of half a dozen that Waugh drew for his own book. I know it’s sacrilegious but I cannot help slightly amending the author’s handiwork:

©1928 Chapman and Hall/The Estate of Evelyn Waugh.

There is a paragraph of text that begins before the illustration and ends afterwards. I don’t interfere with that, even though I’m tempted to make Grimes’ words relate to my own recent experience. Anyway, the passage reads:

’Mrs Roberts brought them their beer. Grimes took a long draught and sighed happily. “This looks like being the first end of term I’ve seen for two years.” he said dreamily. “Funny thing, I can always get on all right for about six weeks, and then I land in the soup. I don’t believe I was ever meant by Nature to be a schoolmaster. Temperament,” said Grimes, with a faraway look in his eyes - “that’s been my trouble. Temperament and sex.” “Is it quite easy to get another job after – after you’ve been in the soup?” asked Paul. “Not at first it isn’t, but there‘re ways. Besides, you see, I’m a public school man. That means everything.”’

OK, I’ve done what I can to bring together Evelyn Waugh and George Shaw, whose work first blew me away when I was seventeen and forty-two, respectively. Time to go? Yes, let’s go.

As I walk out, I’m pleased to see that things have settled down in the Black Prince. Baz, Gaz, Shaz and Daz are all sitting at separate tables, reading copies of
Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust, respectively. Not any old copies, it has to be said. But impressions of the first editions, the books published in the late Twenties and early Thirties by Chapman and Hall, whose managing director was Arthur Waugh, Evelyn’s father.

©2013 Duncan McLaren/George Shaw

I’m not long out of the Black Prince, barely out of Tile Hill, when George Shaw gets in touch. He writes:

‘I did mean to say something to you about Evelyn Waugh but it slipped my mind at the time.

As soon as I register these words I know there will have to be this postscript.

Brideshead Revisited was very much in my mind at the time of beginning the work in the late 1990s. I had in mind something of a satire that weaved autobiography, politics and observation into the reality of the only way of looking at the world; comedy. Isn't their something in Brideshead about modern art being all bosh?

There is. From memory, Cordelia Flyte, Sebastian’s younger sister, earnestly asks Charles Ryder to confirm her assumption that all modern art is bosh. “Great bosh,” he replies.

George carries on:
‘I wanted to cast myself as Ryder, unexpectedly coming up against the present tense ruin of his formative years.’

Ryder is first taken by Sebastian to see the magnificent house, Brideshead, on a cloudless day in June, 1923, when they’re both undergraduates at Oxford. Chapter one, which goes back in time from the early Forties to the early Twenties, ends: ‘
That is the full account of my first brief visit to Brideshead; could I have known then that so small a thing, in other days, would be remembered with tears by a middle-aged captain of infantry.’

In George Shaw’s case, he was reduced to nostalgia by the site of Tile Hill, when he saw it again through the eyes of his thirty-year-old self. Cue cloudless skies rendered in - the intended joke element? - Humbrol paints. Only it didn’t turn out to be funny. It turned out to be original and moving.

I wonder if George Shaw also cast himself as Sebastian. I’m thinking of that bit in the first chapter when Charles and he pull off the road on the way to Brideshead. Under a clump of elms, they enjoy strawberries and wine then smoke Turkish cigarettes together.
“Just the place to bury a crock of gold,” said Sebastian. “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I should come back and dig it up and remember.” Ah yes. Tile Hole.

After leaving Oxford - and before joining the army at the start of the Second World War - Charles Ryder becomes a successful painter. How does George put it in his email: ‘
Ryder is an artist, mediocre in the same way that Philip Cary is in Maugham's Of Human Bondage. How does one's mediocrity of vision confront the reality of experience? With comical and tragic consequences in the vein of Hancock.

Of course, Charles Ryder may be a mediocre talent, but Evelyn Waugh isn’t. And it could be argued that Hancock’s onscreen persona, a failure in art and life, was a mere caricature of his creator. But carry on, George:

‘It is the karaoke singer who can't sing but feels every word. I chanced to hear a repeat of an interview that Bowie did with John Wilson a good few years ago and laughed out loud as the conversation descended (or ascended) when Bowie says that he'll have to read what epiphany means in the dictionary before he can say he's had one.’

In a single paragraph, Shaw has gone from carefully referencing Waugh to tantalisingly dropping in the names of Somerset Maugham, Tony Hancock and David Bowie. But he follows this up by returning to Evelyn and simply quoting from the last page of

'Something quite remote from anything the builders intended, has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame - a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart than Acre or Jerusalem'

George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: Christmas Eve (detail), 1998.

The above quote is so close to the end of
Brideshead Revisited that I can’t resist adding the final lines:

‘It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.’

I quickened my pace and reached the hut which served us for our ante-room.

“You’re looking unusually cheerful to-day,” said the second-in-command.

Acknowledgment: The images of George Shaw’s works on this site are copyright the artist. Many of them appear courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, photography by Peter White. In particular, Wilkinson Gallery provided high resolution scans of The Same old Crap, The Black Prince and Christmas Eve.

The lines from Evelyn Waugh are quoted without permission but with respect.