Chunky chairs and the phantom burger

 

I was in India recently and did some travelling in the south. We spent a lot of time in the car, crossing the Western Ghats twice, on different routes. I was surprised by the beauty of the tea plantations, like vast green quilts covering the hills. And I loved the bustle of Kochi, famous for its ancient system of Chinese fishing nets, although, sadly, I never saw anyone actually catch a fish.

So not many chairs to report on. And yet … You can hardly see the chair in the main picture but I like its resilience and sense of purpose – totally suited to helping the sitter enjoy a breakfast of ghee dosa, vada, and chutney. In fact, the chair well represented the ethic of this particular hotel, up in the mountains near Munnar. It wasn’t frilly or fancy but was busy and efficient with friendly staff – a good sign!

I took the second photo (different location) because I found the chairs so utterly repulsive! They were uncomfortable as well. I suppose the idea was to make use of tree stumps (probably trees they’d chopped down to build the hotel), but the way they are joined on to ‘normal’ chair parts and then varnished with gloss is totally unsympathetic to the setting. They are too big, too heavy, and very impractical.

I much preferred the ‘chairs’ I found in a museum in Stockholm, back in 2014. They don’t look terribly comfortable either, but I love the way the chair follows the form of the wood. They are natural and movable and unique. I imagine they were crafted with care and affection, in a spirit of discovery.

Lastly some chair fabric found in a hotel where we stopped for lunch on the road. The chairs were pretty smart, too, in a modern style of pale wood with a light wash over them. But I didn’t take a photo of the actual chairs, probably so as not to embarrass my offspring. The pattern, colour, and texture of the fabric are unusual for India.

By the way, in this restaurant I made another of my Indian food-ordering errors. Everyone else had curry and biryani but I felt like something simple and non-spicy so I ordered a veggie burger with fries. I was utterly disappointed to get a few fries and a bread bun with salad poking out – but nothing else! The restaurant manager did concede that as a chicken burger is a chicken patty, then a veggie burger should be a vegetable patty. The others shared their lunch with me once they’d stopped laughing.

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Guilty pleasures

Chairs are something of a guilty pleasure for me as an Alexander Technique teacher. The most exciting-looking chair can be terrible to sit on; designers rarely consider the welfare of the person who does the sitting. They’re usually far more concerned with the chair’s appearance or durability, and it’s often produced to test a material or structure. No wonder people end up slouching and getting backache. However, FM Alexander, who introduced his technique of psychophysical reeducation to the world, said: ‘It is not the furniture, it is how you are using yourself’.

This gets me off the hook! Don’t blame the chair, blame the user. So my chairs turn out to be less of a guilty pleasure than I’d thought.

The suspended chairs in the photo on the left are in a Lewes antiques shop, hanging off chains to save space, I guess. The trouble is, though, that you can’t sit on them to see if they’re comfortable. The ones on the right look like copies of Hans J Wegner’s Wishbone chair. (If they were the real thing surely they’d not be dangling off a chain and certainly they wouldn’t have been written on.) Copies or not, it’s clear what a wonderful design the Wishbone chair is. Since it came on the scene in 1949 it has never been out of production and has frequently been imitated.

The rusty chairs in the other photo were spotted in Hastings. Hastings is an arty sort of town, and I found this behind the fishing boats near the Jerwood Gallery. They don’t look like fishermen’s chairs – far too fancy. Hastings isn’t as smart as it used to be, so perhaps they came from a café that ended up as a takeaway. Curiously, three of the chairs match, but the fourth is an interloper. And without a seat, it isn’t functional any more. But these chairs haven’t given up hope; they’re out there in the sun, having taken on a new lease of life. You’re never too old to try something new …

I have another guilty pleasure: crime fiction. I particularly love Nordic stories, especially on TV, because I like listening to the spoken languages. (I never got into the British version of Wallander; it just didn’t sound right.) To be honest, I don’t enjoy violence or exciting chases or complicated stories of revenge, all of which tend to predominate in The Killing and The Bridge, but that is more than compensated for by the domestic interiors. I remember one episode set in a prison where the chairs were amazingly stylish.

The original Martin Beck novels, written by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo in the 60s, emphasized the drudgery of police work and highlighted the social background to crime. Similarly, the stories of Icelander Arnaldur Indridason tend to examine the far-reaching consequences of some character flaw or error of judgement. As yet these haven’t been televised in the UK, although there is a film of Jar City. However, in Iceland, chairs are often folksy and not to my taste.

Latterly there’s been a dearth of Nordic crime on TV and so last night I watched an Australian drama called Deep Water. (At times I missed having subtitles because some of the Aussie accents were strong.) How authentic the set was I don’t know, but the furniture in the police station was bizarre: tub chairs upholstered in shiny, patterned blue fabric. Apart from being unstylish, it doesn’t seem the most practical choice for a police station. The story is based on true (and terrible) events from the 70s and 80s and the prejudice amongst the police staff is a far cry from Nordic egalitarianism. I’ll watch next week, despite the dodgy chairs.

 

Remembering-chairs

Walking round a reservoir this morning I noticed several benches overlooking the water, but only when I spotted flowers on one of them, did I realize they were all dedicated to the memory of the dear departed. An elderly lady in red was heading away from the bench. Perhaps it was she who had left the flowers: in memory of her best friend, or a sister …

I didn’t need to sit down for a rest, but I wouldn’t have chosen that bench today. It needed to display its flowers for the brief time they were going to last. I wouldn’t have chosen the next bench, either, as it commemorated the life of somebody who was exactly the same age as I am now!

Presumably all those remembered in this way had enjoyed visiting the reservoir, drinking in the view, listening to the birds, and feeling the breeze on their faces. But of course they didn’t ever sit on ‘their’ benches.

I came across an unusual seat near Brighton Racecourse, specially made to celebrate the life of a man called Tony, who loved planes but died when a plane crashed at Shoreham Air Show in 2015. It’s a Skywatch seat, carved (by Luke Chapman in Norfolk) from a great redwood tree. Tony’s friends invite you to sit for a while and enjoy the sky by day or night. (I can imagine being snuggled in a blanket, watching the stars.) So although Tony never sat on the seat himself, it’s the sort of place he would surely have loved.

After my parents died, I kept my father’s desk chair, bought for him by my mother in the early days of their marriage. I don’t find it a particularly beautiful chair, but my father used it nearly every day. When I was a small child, he used to write his reports and correspondence on a Friday, and would get me to sit on the envelopes to make sure the glue had stuck! The wood of the chair-arms has been patinated by his hands, and so when I sit in that chair it’s like being back with my family. This is a different kind of remembering-chair.

The public chairs serve a secondary purpose. They ask you to stop a while: reflect, enjoy, think, notice, be alive. The curvy benches in the third photo are in the Peace Garden in Seaford. ‘Make time to listen’, exhorts a stone carving. It’s good advice.

Historical functionality in Germany

My younger son turned 20 this week and inevitably I thought back to the day of his birth. Both my boys were born in the Netherlands, a very good country in which to have children because it is safe for mother and baby while being as non-medicalized as possible. My first son was born in hospital and my second at home and for both of them I requested a birthing stool. (If you are of a squeamish nature, don’t be afraid – I am not going to go into the details of childbirth.)

Now I’m not quite sure what I had in mind, but it certainly wasn’t such a tiny little thing resembling half a plastic potty: functional and hygienic certainly, but not a thing of style or beauty.

I was probably imagining a version of the 18th century birthing chair (photo top left) I came across in a museum in Esslingen, a medieval town in southern Germany. Clearly this was used by a well-off woman. The frame is hardwood and it was upholstered in leather to make it as comfortable as possible. Even the footrests are padded. Upright posture could be maintained while giving support to the head and somewhere for the hands to grip.

Anyone using this chair would have sought the best care available in an era when pregnancy and childbirth were highly dangerous. (It is estimated that in the early 18th century 1,000 women died per 100,000 births in the UK. And the death rate amongst the babies was even higher. Nowadays, of course, death rates are still unacceptably high in certain countries.) In fact, the wealthy were often exposed to higher risk because they could afford a doctor rather than the local midwife. Doctors would go from patient to patient without realising that by not washing their hands they were transmitting disease, whereas a midwife was more likely to stay with one mother throughout the process.

Also in Esslingen I came across these very functional choir stalls in (I think) the Stadtturme church (photo top right). (I am ashamed to say that I didn’t note down which church I was in! That comes of happily following friends around …) I mentioned this type of arrangement back in August 2015 (‘Galen Cranz’s book’). In medieval times, church services could be extremely long and to be a member of the choir could be tough, especially if you were fasting. So with these seats you had the option of sitting, or of flipping them up when you needed to stand to sing, and of perching on the little ledge sticking out from under the seat (photo top centre) to give your legs and back a rest but allowing lots of space for your lungs while singing.

I did test this ledge (although I didn’t actually do the singing bit) and realized the people using them must have been shorter than me, and it wouldn’t have worked with a fat backside.

The reason I went to Esslingen was to attend a retirement party. EH and I flew to Stuttgart with EasyJet and were not happy to find that a large group of young Englishmen were heading off to Stuttgart for a stag weekend. They were loudly drunk, rude, bothersome, and kept getting up and down. Unfortunately they were also on the return journey, but at least some of them were more subdued by then. Maybe they had headaches? I guess I’m not the only person who isn’t quite sure where they went during that weekend! I only mention them because the cheapest plane seat they could find on that weekend was from Gatwick to Stuttgart and so that’s why they went. Otherwise they had no reason to visit Stuttgart. The crazy thing is that it was probably cheaper for them to take a plane to another country than a train to somewhere else in England.

Sunday afternoon

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This is where I plan to be this afternoon. (But it already is ‘this afternoon’.) Lots of jobs are already done: dropping number two son at work, swimming, going to the tip, washing up, mopping the floor, and ironing. A few remain: lesson planning, correspondence, mending … But it is a fine, warm, sunny day and I shall be there.

Time is running out. First the cat takes up residence, then she is ejected by number one son (visiting). I continue to add to my list as fast as I tick things off.

On the last fine Sunday I managed half an hour, dozing in the warmth over my book, after a too-short night of sleep. I felt rejuvenated and so resolved to do the same every remaining afternoon of my half-term holiday. But the weather did not agree and the following Monday saw me shivering inside the house. On the Tuesday I cracked and lit the woodburner. It was throwing out heat on the next three days, even though by then I’d turned the calendar page to June.

Then we had the rain.

But today I’ll make sure I spend time in that chair, so perfect for idling with my feet up and my head laid back on the slim pillow. OK, I may end up lesson-planning in the chair, but it’ll still be good. If I need a blanket, it’ll be even cosier. And if the cat sleeps on my shins it’ll be soothing. I’ll savour the breeze brushing my face and the busy chirping of the birds and, best of all, the rustling of leaves in the trees.

I shall be reclining in that chair because although the sun is shining today, tomorrow it may be gone.

Jessica Zoob’s Open Studio

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ARMCHAIR: I can’t believe Jessica’s invited people round when I’ve got nothing to wear.

HARD CHAIR: They haven’t come to see you, idiot, they’ve come to look at her paintings. Lots of them aren’t finished yet, so it’s really brave of her to open the studio.

ARMCHAIR: Well I’m not finished either but she didn’t ask if I was feeling brave.

HARD CHAIR: Oh stop complaining! You’ll end up looking fabulous.

ARMCHAIR: Will I really?

HARD CHAIR: You will for sure. There was another one like you, but flabbier. He’s in The House now. Covered in Breathe Velvet. Romoblack …

ARMCHAIR: Black doesn’t sound –

HARD CHAIR: For God’s sake, you don’t know how lucky you are! There you were, sitting in a state of disarray at a country fair. Nobody wanted you until Jessica the Famous Artist came along and took you home. She’s thinking about you, deciding what to do with you.

ARMCHAIR: But I don’t want to be black. It makes me look… conventional.

HARD CHAIR: Oh you certainly won’t look conventional when Jessica’s finished with you! She did a painting called ‘Breathe’ and Romoblack turned it into a gorgeous, strokable velvet fabric. Then they covered the great big fat armchair with it and now he sits there, all smug and self-satisfied, because every time a new person walks into the house they go ‘wow’ and ask if they can sit on him. What he ever did to deserve that treatment I simply don’t know.

ARMCHAIR: Ooh, I hope people will want to sit on me. I hate it that nobody wants to sit on me any more.

HARD CHAIR: Keep calm, your time will come. She wouldn’t have bought you unless she had an idea for you.

ARMCHAIR: Um, I don’t want to sound rude, but it doesn’t seem as though she looks after you very well, I mean …

HARD CHAIR: And I don’t want to sound rude, but you’re not the sharpest pencil in the box, are you? You’re what they used to call an easy chair. You receive but you don’t give back. They sit on you and all the energy drains out of them until they go into a sort of torpor and can’t move and don’t want to get up again.

ARMCHAIR: That’s what chairs are for, isn’t it? For people to sit on?

HARD CHAIR: Task chairs do more. I’m a task chair and I help her work. In fact, I’m more of a co-artist. I’ve been with Jessica for years, supporting her through thick and thin. Look at all the paint marks on me! They’re not mere decoration, they’re Jessica’s blood, sweat, and tears! You can see her actually sitting on me in the Romoblack video. Yes, she sits on me because I’m an essential part of her creative process. I know it’s hard for you to understand, but task chairs like me, well, we may not look like much, but we’re rich with experience and memories and emotion and –

ARMCHAIR: Ssh, it’s that weird woman again, the one who keeps looking at us instead of the paintings.

HARD CHAIR: …..

ARMCHAIR: !!!!! Oh no, she took a photo of me, looking like this, I feel so ashamed …

HARD CHAIR: Don’t worry, nobody’ll see it. Unless … Maybe she’s from Romoblack! Maybe she’s doing a before and after thing on you.

ARMCHAIR: I wonder which one I’ll get. I’d look pretty damn cool in that pink and green one over there …

Jessica Zoob’s Open Studio, 7-8 May 2016 , Upper Clayhill, East Sussex, http://www.jessicazoob.com

 

Chairs as a symbol of social breakdown

I’ll come to the social breakdown presently. I had expected to spend this afternoon sitting on a chair writing my blog but instead I’ve been squished into very strange positions under the kitchen sink, trying and trying to fix the u-bend that mysteriously sprang apart yesterday. I wanted to have a third hand – although there was no space for it – but in the end I think I won. I found it mentally challenging having two hands tightening up clockwise in different directions because one pipe goes up and another goes down. It’s like the taps in India and probably other places too.

I was prepared to have a little rant about the horrors of the hairdresser’s chair, following a long-postponed visit on Friday. But to my amazement I came home and thought, ‘I like how my hair looks’, and had no urge whatsoever to wash it immediately. This was a new hairdresser in a new (to me) salon and I shall be writing nice things on their website. The chair was rather big, though.

Yesterday I went to Chichester to see Henrik Ibsen’s play ‘An Enemy of the People’, written in 1882 and starring Hugh Bonneville. I went alone and sat in my seat about 15 minutes before the start of the play. I was puzzled by the number of people who sat in the wrong places and had to move when the legitimate ticket holders appeared. There is an enormous letter on the end of each row and every seat is clearly numbered, but the people to my left, behind, and in front were all in the wrong seats …

One advantage of being alone is that, because you are not talking, you can listen to what other people are saying.

Man behind me: ‘What are you doing? Sending a text?’

Woman behind me: ‘Honestly, do you have to know everything I’m doing?’

Man: ‘Well, you were being so secretive …’

Woman: ‘I’m in the theatre! I don’t want to text in full view of everyone.’

They got on fine after that. It had never occurred to me that there was anything shameful about texting.

The play opens in the comfortable drawing room belonging to Dr Stockmann, the main character. His family and friends sit on armchairs and a sofa. In the next act we are in the newspaper office with a variety of chairs, including an early version of a swivel desk chair, made of wood. Tim Hatley designed the set; I was impressed. At the public meeting, solid wooden chairs are used – noisily – to show the allegiances of the participants. In the final act, back in Dr Stockmann’s house, chairs are topsy-turvy, echoing the end of the family’s secure, middle-class existence. The play raises some interesting issues and it would have been nice to discuss them with somebody. According to Wikipedia, the play was the indirect inspiration for the movie ‘Jaws’. I have never seen ‘Jaws’, but obviously I know what it is about, and I think ‘indirect’ must be the key word here.

I returned to the station, where I encountered visitors from Opening Saturday at Goodwood. I was startled to notice what must be a new fashion among young men. They wear very fitted suits nowadays with pointy shoes. But several of them had suits with slip-on shoes and NO SOCKS! I may be old-fashioned but a suit says ‘dressing up’ and no socks say ‘dressing down’. Still, this has no connection whatsoever with chairs so I shall go and run more water into the sink and hope that my initiation into plumbing has been a success.