The Diary

May 23, 2014 7:09 pm

The Diary: Jim Pickard

The FT’s UK chief political correspondent on staging an illusions-with-music exhibition at Sunderland University
An illustration by Luke Waller depicting the different tunes representing the UK's political parties©Luke Waller

US band The Postal Service didn’t record their tracks together. Producer Jimmy Tamborello created instrumental tracks and then sent them to singer Ben Gibbard to finish off. So it was with Portishead. The trip-hop band would lay down a soundtrack and Beth Gibbons added her haunting voice afterwards.

Likewise, my artistic collaborator lives on the Yorkshire moors, a five-hour drive from my London home. He creates visual illusions on his computer and sends them to me by email. I then record music to enhance each piece. This week an exhibition of 25 of our illusions-with-music opens at Sunderland University, where he lectures in multimedia and design graphics.

My creative partner, who is also my father, is a poster boy for life after retirement. Michael Pickard walked out of AstraZeneca’s head office in Mayfair for the last time more than a decade ago. Since then he has done a degree, a Masters and a PhD in his new field. He is 73.

He has judged the international Best Illusion of the Year contest in Sarasota, Florida, which attracts academics from around the world. His research into a Da Vinci painting made headlines last year. He had deduced that the obscure “La Bella Principessa” – which predates the Mona Lisa – also has a smile that changes according to the onlooker’s viewpoint.

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My involvement began last summer after I stumbled across the Garageband app. I’ve been in orchestras, choirs and bands – but never in a recording studio. Garageband allows users to record music with around 100 virtual instruments including lots of synthesiser keyboards.

My father dislikes any music made after 1979, but to my surprise he liked my avant-garde laptop tunes and the collaboration has worked well. Making the music for the exhibition has taken about a year. I squeeze it in at weekends when my young daughters are asleep or distracted. For each illustration, I create a track, ranging from 16 seconds to three minutes long.

In “Pinball Wizard”, for example, floating balls appear to rotate as they pass over a bright backdrop. For that I used Garageband’s “Exoplanet” bassline with background “Chill Pad”, spliced with the sound of my (real) electric guitar.

Someone asks what it all sounds like. Each tune is distinct, I reply. But think Blade Runner theme, by Vangelis. (Albeit less good.) I have no idea what to expect when I get to Sunderland for the opening night.

It’s also a busy work for me at work as a political reporter in the run-up to the local and European elections. While David Cameron is braced for negative headlines if the Tories come third in the European vote, he is, by all accounts, not desperately concerned about Ukip’s prospects in the general election next year. “It’s like a pub quiz and he [Nigel Farage] is playing his joker on his specialist round,” the prime minister tells friends. Cameron is famously thick-skinned. His official Twitter feed has become a magnet for trolls determined to outdo each other with inventive profanity. “I’d rather vote for a pile of rancid horse sick” is one of the printable comments. I am told that at one of Cameron’s birthday parties in Downing Street, an aide read out a selection of insulting Twitter comments as the cake was passed around. The prime minister laughed uproariously. (It is hard to imagine anyone trying that with his predecessor, Gordon Brown.)

It is, though, a tad awkward for Cameron that some Ukip candidates caught up in recent scandals are former members of his own party. These include David Silvester, who claimed that same-sex marriage caused Britain’s winter storms, and Mujeeb ur Rehman Bhutto, jailed in 2005 for leading a kidnapping gang in Pakistan.

Gawain Towler, a Ukip MEP candidate, once revealed over a pint that he was poised to go on holiday with Bhutto just as news of the latter’s past conviction broke. They were planning to go to Baluchistan. Would that be lawless Baluchistan, I ask? When I lived in Karachi it was a no-go zone. “We were planning to shoot quail,” says Towler.

. . .

Lobby journalists like to think most voters are at least half-interested in politics. After all, our own working lives revolve around the hourly twists and turns of the Westminster soap opera. A walk around the Pennywell housing estate in Sunderland suggests otherwise.

“I don’t vote.” “I’ve never voted.” One after another, people tell me they are not voting. “I don’t trust any of the c***s,” says a giant in a football shirt. One young man says he would not know how to vote. At least people stop to talk, though, supporting my theory that northerners are more friendly to strangers.

It seems that Ukip, with its anti-immigration message, is sweeping up votes from those who do plan to turn out. “I’m voting Ukip to get the darkies out,” says one local. I tell him I’ve only seen white faces in the last hour. “You haven’t been looking hard enough,” he replies. “We all used to vote Labour but we got nowt from it.”

A few miles down the road is Sunderland University, whose international body of students typifies the cultural melting pot feared by many Ukip voters. I can hear my music playing as I approach the university’s design centre. The illusions are playing on a loop on a large plasma screen in the centre of the hall and there is a wall display explaining how each of them works. It all looks far more professional than I had dared hope. There are lots of people coming and going; academics, students, the curious. There is warm white wine to drink and there are crisps. My father gives a brief speech. I feel a wave of satisfaction and filial affection.

The artwork is on display at Sunderland University’s Design Centre Gallery until June 13. Watch more illusion videos on Jim Pickard’s YouTube page

Jim Pickard is the FT’s UK chief political correspondent

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