Human Flower Project

How We Used to Be

Talking back to the past, John Levett owns up to an inner Constance Spry. Let’s continue, John, whenever, however. For what’s gone before, all thanks.


Bench at Letchworth Garden City

“Toward the Smell of Progress” (8/14/07)

Essay and photos by John Levett

There was a long-serving picture editor at Time-Life whose name I can’t recall. He wrote well and remembered every picture he came across. One of his best pieces was about the numbers who regularly sent him their snaps and, almost as a matter of course, expected an off-the-cuff portfolio review. He was politeness itself in responding briefly to the submissions whilst wishing that he could bring to these responses words along the lines of: ‘You have a fine photograph of the Washington Monument but I would venture that it lacks two essential components. The first is Martin Luther King and the other is half a million people.’

imageApple Day, Cambridge

“Apple Day” (11/11/07)

It’s one of those quotes of which you’d almost die to have been the author. The obituary of the photographer Willy Ronis in 2009 noted that he was a member of the ‘Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires.’ ‘What do you want to be when you grow up, sonny?‘ ‘Un artiste révolutionnaire!’ To be that bold; to be that certain. In current times, of course, we can be anyone and anything we want to be. (Strange how many people want to be poor.)

The Wish List often morphs into the Done List. Woodstock has grown into a gathering now greater than the population of New York; Wembley Stadium took in Europe’s teeming masses at Live Aid and an audience the size of Sao Paulo watched Dylan go electric.

Mentioning Ramblin’ Bob, I recall a story once told many times by a former friend who was present at the electric moment. We lost touch frequently but would occasionally catch up and talk the talk. Each occasion always contained the electric moment but always with added detail: a small touch that authenticated and footnoted the seminal hour. And so it went, culminating in what one might call a rally, so centered was it upon the elaboration of the urtext of the electric genesis—the occasion of a Bruce Springsteen convert at Wembley. A group of us (many strangers but by then his groupies) listened as on he went and on, some of us knowing that on that tumultuous ‘60s evening he had passed out on the floor of a flat in New Cross in south London as a result of an excess of booze. We never told him that we knew; the continuously Byzantine yarn that he fashioned was a Library of Alexandria of the wished-for.


Cambridge tree control

“Someone Has to Pay” (2/8/09)

Sometimes we don’t go back within ourselves because of the new ‘me’ reconstruction who no longer does that stuff, like mentally hiding your Olivia Newton John albums under the sacks in the cellar before creating your fresh punk history. Sometimes going back tells us how far we’ve come.

A few months ago I was reading an interview with Jaron Lanier in which he lamented the loss of the liberation that the Internet could have been and the consequences of what it has become. In brief, in the beginning we were the owners of our own intellectual property and from this ownership we could have fashioned an alternative economic model to that which has emerged: a distributive model rather than a centripetal one. Essentially, we have given away that ownership to the likes of, directly, Google, Facebook and other social-networking enterprises and, indirectly, to Amazon, Walmart, Tesco and any retailer who adopts the technology to centralise our preferences — an ethereal extraction of surplus labour.


Thames at Runnymede

“Hand-in-Hand with a Passing” (8/11/11)

In the early ‘90s I began writing a blog, largely to give myself a forum for writing and fashioning a style free of editorial demands and to make contact with other minds in music, reading, photography, current art practice. It worked, too well in some cases. The blog was called Joseph Beuys Hat and shifted up the search rankings of sources on Joseph Beuys; requests for help with college essays followed.

imageAt Cambridge Botanical Gardens

“Garden Going since Before Gardens For” (9/13/07)

It was also how I came to be writing a monthly newsletter for Human Flower Project. On 4th October 2004 I blogged this:

“Currently at The Design Museum, London, an exhibition of the work of Constance Spry is on view. For the happy few who have yet to come across this seminal figure of twentieth century design, she was a flower arranger. Yep…that sort of cutting edge arena.

“I’ll quote from the museum’s web site blurb (don’t laugh too loud): ‘Even as a society florist, Spry remained a social reformer and encouraged her readers to arrange weeds, twigs and vegetable leaves in impromptu vases such as baking trays and gravy boats as beautifully as expensive cut flowers in crystal. Drawn from Constance Spry’s archive, this exhibition explores her role in democratising design in mid-20th century Britain and her enduring influence.’

“‘Social reformer’, ‘democratising design’...the word ‘bollocks’ fits in there too (or am I too harsh on those housewives of London’s East End who just didn’t know what to do with those gravy boats). Constance Spry was a representative of the patronising, condescending, Home Counties, middle-class, bourgeois legions whose cotton-wool ideas of home life were enjoyed at the cost of low wages, high unemployment, malnutrition, social disease & colonial exploitation for the first fifty years of the last century & dumped on the upwardly mobile nouveau riche for the next fifty. These people were everywhere in the ‘50s…in banks, in libraries, in doctor’s surgeries, in department stores, in the street next door, in your own family, on radio, on TV (not that we had one but Mrs. Pratt over the road did & I swear she was one of the body-snatchers). And that’s from a totally unprejudiced viewpoint!

“The idea of sticking this sort of shite in a design museum stinks. I’m going & will let it be known that it stinks. Go there before 28th. November & stink it up too.”

imageDoll on a door below London’s Westway thoroughfare

“Westway—What Emerges” (11/11/09)

There is always a good case against editing your past life. The above is a fine example. “What a pompous arse!” comes to mind but so too does “How things have changed!”

If Constance Spry were alive today I’d be going to one of her courses. In a couple of weeks time I’ll be running a session on photographic printing on found materials; I’m currently engaged in a collaboration my part of which is comprised of stuff dug out of local rubbish skips and I’m working with a colleague in exploring building a group of artists and writers working within a gift economy. This beginning of looking at new ways of engaging in making and developing fresh platforms for collaborative and distributed working has been revitalizing for me. Mao Zedong’s aphorism of a thousand mile journey beginning with a single step always holds true; starting has power.

The post on Constance Spry from Joseph Beuys Hat also had the consequence of a comment from a lady in Austin suggesting that I lighten up. The lady also asked me if I’d like to contribute an article to a new online magazine that she’d started called The Human Flower Project. Six days later I did and so began this regular newsletter in October 2004.


Albertine in the author’s garden

“My Garden and the Dismal Failure of the English Football Team” (6/10/07)

And so began my shooting of gardens. I recently started looking back through my archive (analogue and digital) as a result of thinking it would be a good idea to tidy up my clutter so that I could make space for more clutter. I fail every time and just get to remembrances and placing the circumstances of this long forgotten stuff. After I’d put everything back exactly where it came from I reflected on the absence of any early photography of what we’d broadly call ecology and more loosely gardens-and-stuff. It was from the writing of this newsletter that I took to regular recording of ‘gardens and stuff’ but it was also more. I regularly found myself noticing things in the natural environment around which I could weave a piece of writing as well as making a detour specifically to create an article.



“Shooting an Elephant” (7/3/11)

All of this melds into an appreciation of change. The early part of my life was constrained — constrained by home circumstance, by insecurity, by territory, by a world view that change was to be avoided and other people were too. My life collapsed in the early nineties and the one that emerged from that was of a different fashion; one that is collaborative and co-operative.

My ‘Constance Spry’ mode of reaction surfaces occasionally. I initially took a Marxist approach to the dynamics of the recent eruptions of the Occupy movement before recognizing the potential and possibilities inherent within it and recognizing how much it spoke to and acknowledged approaches that I’m trying to foster in my personal practice of making.


Dungeness Beach

“Imagining Derek Jarman’s Garden” (4/14/11)

In facing hegemonic economic systems and the social relations that they engender and encourage it’s worthwhile taking steps, any step, towards something that approaches how you’d choose to work, in what circumstances, with whom, where, with what result. Writing is still the medium that pushes towards reflection, pausing, stopping, starting again, making new leaps, finding what you didn’t know of yourself, finding what you’ve never done. Constance would raise a glass to that.

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