One of the central influences on my life is not a poet in the usual sense of the word, though I happen to think he is one. He is my brother, Martin. Older than him by a mere thirteen months, I cannot remember a time when he wasn’t there.
My earliest memories of Martin are of watching him eat as a child. At Saturday evening supper he would painstakingly assemble multi-layered sandwiches Scooby-Doo would have been proud of. First a bit of cheese. Then a layer of tomatoes. Then some salami. Then some slices of egg, which he sliced, very slowly. Then some lettuce. A final piece of cheese. Just as he would begin to eat, the rest of the family would be clearing their plates. A mere eight years of age, he seemed to have already understood that to achieve anything you have to do the work yourself, ignore everyone else, and trust completely in the pleasures of delayed gratification.
From the mid-Eighties to Nineties we played in a band together. Pre-internet, pre-CD, pre-everything. We called ourselves Sublime. We busked around Europe wearing tie-dye vests with shorts. Someone once described us as a cross between Simon and Garfunkel and the Smiths. We were big in St Albans.
Once, we arrived at a dozy French town whose square we decided to play for no other reason than we both recalled its name from history lessons at school. ‘What if it turns out to be a one horse town?’ I asked him. ‘Well, we’ll just go and look at the horse,’ he said. Once I had cleaned the sandwich I was eating from my shins, I reflected that this may be one of the great tenets of all creative activity. Suburban boys from the sticks singing unpublished songs in unheard-of European backwaters, there was more than a little madness in our methods, an anti-route to stardom, if you will. But playing to one French teenager songs she did not recognise and would never hear again, we quickly learned that it was possible to make connections, albeit very tiny ones, if we were prepared to follow our lights.
‘We’ll just go and look at the horse.’
Martin taught me that you begin with where you are: it doesn’t matter if it is the middle of nowhere. Also, that you need to notice what is around you. Respond. Observe. Then make something out of that response. Above all, commit. The square with no one in it is the one you are going to play because you are in it. Once you have decided to play it, you play it, for all you are worth. Even if no one is watching.
Now working as a designer, Martin continues to make art by taking photographs, in sequence, which, displayed together, spell out sayings, Bible verses, song lyrics and rhymes. In a sense he is still the same eight year-old boy, making sandwiches, patiently fixated on the thing in front of him while the world goes on around him. First you do this. Then that. Then that follows. And on. You do not see the final picture until the end. It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing. Ignore them. You have only the process. Your process. That is all that matters. His methods have barely changed.
He tells the story of being given his first camera by our father, who told us: ‘Make every picture count.’ In an age when teenagers now take an average of eleven different selfies before uploading their desired image to social media his advice sounds archaic, perverse. He is not alone in divining within it the germ of his process:
I’ve arrived at a way of working where I put every frame on display. The entire film is visible. The numbers underneath each frame show that each picture is taken consecutively. Perhaps subconsciously I’m trying to prove to my dad that I haven’t wasted a single shot.
My pictures are painstakingly created frame by frame on 35mm film. I get the whole film developed, scan it, then piece the final image together on the computer, making a large contact sheet. It’s only when the completed film strips are laid out side by side in the contact sheets that the final image appears.
Each work usually takes months to complete, as each frame is obsessively taken in sequence. No pasting together after the event, no cheating in Photoshop! If I make a mistake or take a frame out of place I start the film again from the beginning.
The works are all records of real journeys, the visual remnants of hours walking or cycling round town, bringing to life the unheard voices of the city.
‘Painstaking’ (that word again) isn’t the half of it. He will cycle miles (his other great passion) for a single image, often criss-crossing the city in late night recces, just to be sure he has captured the right one. ‘Oranges and Lemons’ is a word for word rendering of the same nursery rhyme, all in vintage London road signs. In ‘Little Green Men’, his homage to Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Dancing In The Street’, ‘the really dangerous letters are the D from a direction sign to Piccadilly at the bottom of the Haymarket and a G from a sign to Long Acre in Upper St. Martin’s Lane’. His technique for this piece was eccentric, to say the least. Before venturing onto the highway to snap his desired letter he placed an Ikea stool a few meters down the traffic flow advancing towards him. ‘I felt that if it didn’t actually stop the vehicles that were thundering towards me, at least the clatter of plywood on steel and tarmac would give me a few seconds to dive out of the way,’ he mused.
He isn’t just interested in road signage, however. His largest piece, the monumental ‘Modern Art’, comprises 188 tiny photographs of litter, moving through a finely gradated rainbow of colour. I have a strong memory of him chasing a Doritos packet along the river Exe during a visit to Exeter. Eventually coming to rest in a school playground, he needed every ounce of his charm to explain to a passing policeman what he was doing with a camera on County Council property. This also took several months to complete. To my mind his masterpiece, and very favourite of all his work, is ‘A Message From the Bears’. By some distance his least colourful piece, the cracks on thirty-six paving stones are presented in grayscale. Look closely, and you see that they spell the message hinted at in its title: DON’T STEP ON/ THE CRACKS. The pavement crack as capital D. Followed by the diamond of a capital O. A capital N. Then my favourite moment of all. Not only has he found a crack in the shape of a capital T, but one prefaced by a tiny floating dot, that on close scrutiny is actually curled, like the apostrophe it mimics. I asked him once if he has ever made a mistake. He told me he had, then showed me, but I couldn’t see it. I do happen to think he is a genius, but it’s not because his work seems to have arrived perfectly formed. It is because its wit and process combine to reveal themselves so gradually, mirroring the effort of its maker in imagining then working for so long to reveal them, but only to those who can be bothered to gaze for long enough. Once perceived, its humour is like the complex laughter all comedians are said to long for most: that layered, reverberating waterfall of sound that gains energy from being amused at its own creation of delight. That’s what looking at Martin’s photographs is like.
His influence upon me is limitless. The activity I do each day and have learned to name myself by, teaching, has its roots in being on stage, not knowing was coming next, with Martin. He taught me how to stand in front of an audience, the importance of rehearsal, and the absolute necessity of tuning up before singing (even if that meant keeping people waiting). I do not possess a tenth of his perfectionism, not naturally at any rate. But he has taught me the art of playing the (very) long game, the rewards of process, the dogged joy of committing to what is in front of you. As he said to me as we went on stage before our very first gig: ‘It’s your song, you wrote it, so you get to sing it.’
Listen to Sublime here: