GAME ON (19)

Bill Drummond


About a week ago I was contacted by one Graham Mackenzie who told me he was collecting books and ephemera published by Penkiln Burn, a book imprint that belongs to artist and writer Bill Drummond. I had sent Bill a copy of my own book, Personal Delivery, in 1998 (a full 25 years ago) and after a few months of letters going back and forth between us he had commissioned me to write an essay for a book called Stay Here and Make Art. This was Penkiln Burn book number 5, written almost entirely by Bill Drummond and myself, and was the only Penkiln Burn publication this Graham, a doctor in Edinburgh, hadn't managed to track down and buy.

I wrote back to the collector, telling him what I knew of the Stay Here and Make Art edition (the whole print run had been sent to course leaders at art schools and, in all likelihood, binned without further ado). I attached photos of most of the Penkiln Burn material that Bill had sent me during our correspondence from 1998 to 2003, as Graham had expressed interest in it, and I ended my email with a photo of what was my most recent Date Painting, alongside the sentence: 'I now think it might have been Bill Drummond that wrote those words on the bench itself.'


I said this because Bill Drummond had written all his letters to me in large, no-nonsense capital letters. And because I knew that one of Bill's things was to relentlessly be in the present and occasionally to look forward, not back. Then I found out from Graham that April 29 was Bill Drummond's birthday and that he had just turned 70-years-old. A 1-in-365 coincidence.

Having established that Graham Mackenzie really had built up an excellent collection of Drummond books, I sold him my spare copy of the title he was after for £100 (actually, he got it for free, but was asked to stump up for other things) and told him about another rare 'book' I had: What Is Harmonic? This consists of colour-coded emails between Bill, myself, Gavin Wade and Simon Wood. It was published by Gavin for the 6th Sharjah Biennial in 2003, with Penkiln Burn named as co-publisher. Yes, Graham was interested in that too. And as he lived not that far away from me, I invited him over to view the publication. The fading pages are loosely (tightly) crammed into a specially made box, but the work does have an ISBN number and so it is a book. But the real reason I asked him over was so that he could listen to the associated record. Yes, Bill, myself, Gavin and Simon had formed a band called The Harmonics whose only disc was a 7" single called 'This is Harmonic'. I still had my copy, one of only four pressed by Bill Drummond, and I would gladly play it for him.

So Graham Mackenzie came along and we listened to the single. This is me immediately after we played it:

1r6fd4ctrpchrluhczkt5q_thumb_ef4a Photo courtesy of Graham Mackenzie.

The record is one fourth Sex Pistols tribute, one fourth KLF comeback, one fourth call to prayer and one fourth formal exercise in sustaining a note or two. I was transported back 20 years. The Date Painting should say: 'APRIL 29, 2003', when I was 45 years young and emails were flying around between the four artists. All for one and one for all.

Bill Drummond is 70. That got me thinking. And pretty soon it got me Date Painting.


The Date Painting took place a couple of days after Graham's visit. The day after Graham's visit was spent emailing him, and reading his fact-laden replies, and vice versa. I was building up a picture of what Bill had been doing over the years. I was looking back and I was projecting forward. But today I was focussing on the moment, the creative moment. Which begins with a nod to the Cave Paintings of 30,000 years ago. Sometimes a burnt umber nod and sometimes, as on this occasion, a raw Sienna one.


By early afternoon I was happy with how the day looked in terms of neatness of letters and numbers. The spacing in particular was well up to standard. And so I took the new Date Painting and the one I call 'Bill' up to the bench atop my local hill.


It's a long time since I sat and talked with Bill Drummond. I'm not sure when the last occasion was, but the first time was sitting beside him in his Landrover as we drove from his house in Buckinghamshire to Stranraer, where we caught the ferry to Northern Ireland so that I could do my thing for Stay Here and Make Art.


At the time, I was given six copies of the printed book, if I remember rightly. I immediately gave away three and asked Bill for more. Which is when he told me that he'd sent off the entire surplus to heads of courses at art schools in the hope that their students would fill out the application form re Curfew Tower at the back of the book. I knew from that moment that this book I had contributed time and effort to was destined to be virtually unread.

I still have two copies on my shelf. One is in pristine condition and one has a few annotations that reveal a preoccupation with myself. In this copy, I have underlined and annotated the following lines of Bill's who was writing about Personal Delivery: 'I liked this book. So did some other people including the then editor of the Culture section of 'The Independent on Sunday'. McLaren was given a bi-weekly contemporary art column in the paper. McLaren does not consider himself an art critic but a novelist. In that light, he has written and unpublished six novels.' At some stage, twenty years ago, I had deleted the word 'novelist' and written 'creative writer' in black ink. I have long thought of myself as an artist who uses words. All right then, a writer who uses pictures. Which gets me nowhere, as per usual.

That comment of Bill's was by way of introduction, leading up to my essay. Following my essay, Bill wrote about the two of us driving back home, and said: 'He told me the greatest moment of his life was when Bowie phoned him up at home to tell him he thought 'Personal Delivery' was a great book.' I have highlighted in blue the whole paragraph that this sentence concludes. And I have added in black biro: 'one of the' in front of 'greatest moment in his life' bit. I recall communicating my slight annoyance to Bill about this line. I have had twenty years to think about this irritation. I turn to Bill and I say:

"I'm sorry I was so pernickety." (A word I have taken a liking to since David Sherry made a hilarious video of himself arguing with himself about how to pronounce it.)

"That's all right, Duncan. I should have cleared it with you first."

"No, Bill. What you wrote was absolutely fine. I enjoyed every moment of that commission. And I think the book is a potentially useful object, written with passion and a commitment to the creative life."

"That was the idea."

OK what have we next? We have the box-book that I hadn't opened for twenty years until the previous night. I read it from start to finish in one session. What comes across is four strong voices; four distinct artists.


"Do you remember this?" I ask Bill.

"I remember the hassle I had cutting the record so that Gavin could take both his copy - of the record - and mine to the Middle East."

"Ah yes, the Sharjah Biennial. Only Gavin got to attend that. It kind of split up the Harmonics."

"Duncan, there was no such thing as a band called the Harmonics."

"We were a band of artist-writers. I thought so anyway."

"I suppose so. I found it hard to engage to start with. There was so much going on domestically for me. I had children to look after."

"So did Gavin. While Simon and I were breaking up with partners. In his case, to traumatic effect. Mine too I realised only much later."

"I never met Simon. So I took care not to say anything provocative. As Gavin would put it, 'I checked my privilege'."

"The emails go on for 140 pages. Purple, green, red and blue. It's only the first 50 that are included as part of the boxed set. Either Gavin or I should have the rest of it as a Word document somewhere, possibly on an old computer. I know Graham having paid me another £100 for the published box (correction: the £100 is for other exclusive items) would appreciate having the unpublished pages."

"He should forget about both."

"Have you listened to the record since it was cut?"


"Do you want to listen to it today?"

"Why not?"

"Back to my place then."



"Yes, Bill."

"What's that dot doing after the word 'MAY'?"

"I wondered if you would spot that."

"MAY is not an abbreviated month, like APR dot is short for APRIL."

"It's a mistake, Bill. But I have until midnight to correct it."

"Won't that play havoc with your spacing?"

"I have a feeling it might. I also have a feeling I'll be able to live with it."



Five days later.


I've done a fair bit in the intervening period, though I'm not claiming it to be a 'working week' as Bill Drummond currently defines it. As I mention above, when Graham Mackenzie made a visit to listen to 'This is Harmonic', he came away with What is Harmonic? Feeling guilty about doing Gavin Wade's Eastside Projects out of the sale (I alerted Gavin to Graham's interest, and he has been trying to track down an entire boxful of the boxes), I bought Bill's book The 25 Paintings from Eastside. It has arrived and I've looked at it, I've read it. And I've thought about it overnight.

What you see below is my collection of Bill Drummond books and leaflets. Most of which were sent to me from 1998 to 2003. Though the book 17 was published by Beautiful Books in 2008. That's the outfit that was going to publish my Evelyn Waugh: Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love in 2011, only it went bust that year. This sad event delayed publication of the book by four years. I'm glad I persisted with the effort as its the last book of mine that did manage to find a publisher. The zeitgeist has moved on. I keep looking up zeitgeist but can't get my head round the dictionary definition. My loss, I suppose.


The collection shows how canny Bill Drummond has been in regard to his writing. The first book, about the burning of a million quid by the K Foundation (Bill and his associate, Jimmy Cauty), was published by Ellipsis in London in 1998. Then Bill set up the Penkiln Burn so that everything he wrote would be visible, albeit in small print runs, either as a book or a pamphlet. Then occasionally he would hook up with a mainstream publisher, as he did for 45 (Little Brown). Although the first edition of 'HOW TO BE AN ARTIST was published by Penkiln Burn, a subsequent edition was published by Beautiful Books. In most people's hands, Penkiln Burn would have been a vanity project, pure and simple. Bill Drummond has made it an integral part of his art practice.

For me, the most successful book is the newly viewed and read The 25 Paintings, that was a co-production between Bill Drummond and Gavin Wade. To my surprise, Eastside Projects, the artist-run gallery that Gavin is director of in Birmingham, is not named as the co-publisher. Penkiln Burn is the sole publisher. I've looked through the massive tome and I'm hugely impressed, not least by the alternating chapters of prose and images. It seems to me that the burning of a million quid was a way of Bill Drummond dispensing with aspects of his past, his pop star earnings. How To Be An Artist was another such project, as Bill dug deep down into a Richard Long photograph that he had acquired with some of his pop dosh. But having worked his way through these convoluted projects, having thoroughly written about them, Bill had got them out of his system. He had got himself up to speed. Up to speed? He could write; he could perform; he could get other creatives on board; he could have several interconnected projects on the go at once; and, moreover, he could get through to an audience of fellow human beings. Since embarking on my On Kawara project I've felt a bit like that myself. Potentially, there is no stopping me these days. And, on the evidence of The 25 Paintings, there has been no stopping Bill Drummond since about 2013, though probably a few years before that.


The book explains that The 25 Paintings were going on a World Tour, beginning with Eastside Projects. For three months Bill would base himself in Birmingham. He would bake cakes, shine shoes, clean windows and sweep the streets. He would also bang a drum, blow his horn and present the paintings, but really these paintings were just props. Important props for all the improvisation and engagement with the people of Birmingham, but props nevertheless.


'RAGWORT' that one says in the foreground. There is also a 'BAKE CAKE' and a 'WALK' in the foreground. Others says 'DAFFODIL', 'BLOW HORN' and 'WORLD TOUR'.

The plan was then for Bill to go abroad with the show. The 25 Paintings would go to a different foreign city each year and then end up back in Birmingham in 2025, when Bill would be 72. This reminds me of the world tour that Jonathan Watkins, until recently the director of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, set up for On Kawara. The show began at the Ikon in 2002, then toured the world in a clockwise direction - through France, Switzerland, Germany, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, Mexico, Canada and Peru. All places that On Kawara visited in order to Date Paint. Though On Kawara never attended his own openings.

When the show returned to Birmingham, in addition to including a Date Painting made on a Sunday for each year since the inception of Date Painting (1966) there were four new Date Paintings made while the show had been going round the world: SEPT. 14, 2003; MAY 9, 2004; 2 JAN, 2005 and 19 FEB. 2006. The format tells you that the 2003 and 2004 dates may have been painted in New York, but the 2005 and 2006 dates definitely weren't. They were done when On Kawara was on the road.

Bill tells us in chapter one of The 25 Paintings what the first six cities of his world tour were to be. I have made a note of any day that On Kawara was in each of these places in order to Date Paint, information I've taken from the book, Date Painting(s) in New York and 136 Other Cities.

2014: Birmingham. England. JUNE 12, 2001

2015: Berlin, Germany. Any number of days in 1976 or 1977 and several thereafter. But let's go for the one reproduced in the aforementioned book: 24 MARZ, 1976

2016: Guangzho, China. This is the fifth biggest city in China. On Kawara only painted in the biggest two cities Shanghai (19 FEB. 2008) and Beijing (21 FEB. 2008). Just as when he was in other Asian countries, Kawara resorted to Esperanto as the language in which to set out the date.

2017: Memphis, Tennessee. On Kawara never made a Date painting in Memphis. But he came close in 1973 when he made a road trip across the States with Hiroko, his partner. On the way from New York to California, he Date Painted at Indianapolis, St Louis and Kansas, all to the north of Memphis. Then on the way back to New York he Date Painted at Dallas, Jackson and Atlanta, all to the south of the home of Graceland. I guess On Kawara wasn't as big an Elvis fan as Bill Drummond was.

2018: Kolkata, India. DEC.16, 2004

2019: Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The nearest On Kawara got to the island of Haiti in order to Date Paint was various cities in Panama, Venezuela and Columbia in 1968 and 1969.

This may be a slight tangent, but let me say here that neither On Kawara nor Bill Drummond was an admirer of Andy Warhol. When Bill began art school, he loved Warhol's work, as it dealt with the commonplace, and he greatly enjoyed going to a Warhol retrospective at the Tate in 1971: all those soup cans. But then on realising that Warhol sold his limited edition prints exclusively to rich collectors, Bill became disillusioned with his erstwhile hero, and the title of the history of art essay he embarked on was: Why Andy Warhol is Shite. Jonathan Watkins has told me that On Kawara thought that Warhol's work was morbid. All those prints of car crashes and electric-chair executions and skulls. So I suspect On was no more a fan of Andy's than Bill was.

Also part of the 25 Paintings show were going to be 60 posters. This is one of them.


That poster links back to the potted 'biography' that is contained as an appendix to Bill's book 17. In this we learn that in 1959, when he was six, he saw a kingfisher fly up the Penkiln Burn. Say no more, Bill. I've always thought that the sight of a solitary kingfisher going about its everyday business is one of the most scintillating in nature.

Below is another of the 25 paintings. Shining shoes is one of the things that Bill does. It suggests the dignity of menial labour. It suggests the importance of doing things for our fellow men and women. Though the text in The 25 Paintings undermines this somewhat. The first pair of shoes will be polished for free. The second pair polished for £1. The third pair polished for £2, and so on. That is a good way of making sure that Bill never has to polish more than, say, ten pairs of shoes.


But this links in to something else. There is another book that Bill published called The 100. That consists of 25 interviews consisting of 4 questions each, that Bill has undergone since I'm not sure when. Gavin Wade was given a chance to ask his four questions in advance of The 25 Paintings show. Gavin's fourth question ended by asking: 'Can you raise £1,074,300 for Eastside Projects to ensure our future?' A tricky question this. Bill came up with four possible schemes by which he might raise such a sum of money. First, by knocking on every door in Birmingham and trying to persuade the person who answered to donate a pound. Second, by finding 1075 people in Birmingham that would be willing to pay £100 to have their shoes shined. Third, finding 100 wealthy people who took it into their heads to think it would be a bargain to pay Bill £10,000 (or so) to have their choice of sexual relations with him. Fourthly, mingling with the movers and shakers of Birmingham until someone came up with a better idea - a much better idea - for raising the money.

I have got such a better idea. For the next 1075 days I will make a Date Painting to be sold by Eastside Projects for the sum of £100 a time. There - sorted! True, it would keep me busy at home, painting, for almost three whole years, until MAY 13, 2026 to be precise. Still, I can visualise Gavin in his office, sitting there, his shoulders shaking with contentment as the orders roll in. Hang on a minute, I've walked round to get a different view and Gav's sobbing, sobbing with genuine sadness and frustration. Perhaps my idea is not as gold-plated as I first thought.

Back to the world tour. Why don't I ask Bill how it's going? Via this photo, one of a sequence whereby he painted his head the background colour of each of the 25 paintings. (Sorry about the date. I mustn't mess about with the fabric of time.)


"Not to plan."

"In what way?"

For the first few years there were a few changes of venue. For instance, Berlin became Belgrade. But the real problems came later. Covid put a stop to travel. And three brain seizures put a stop to me."

"Christ, Bill. I'm sorry to hear that."

"It's alright. I've got going again. But I've had to pull back on my travelling. The tour will now conclude in 2027, if I last that long. And I'm confining myself to towns and cities in the Atlantic Archipelago."

"You mean the British Isles?"

"I've shown in Corby in 2022 and I plan to show in the Scottish Lowlands this year, near to where the Penkiln Burn still runs its course. Maybe next year too. And the year after. Check out the Wigtown Book Festival if you're interested."

"I will. Bill, I'm four years younger than you. On the 27th of September I'll be 66. An important day because I'll be collecting my pension. Which means my income goes up by 300 percent."

"Such a pay rise would make even a train driver envious."

"Not really. It means my income goes from £5000 a year to £15000 a year. Still a Flying Scotsman short of what a train driver earns, which I've heard say is £65,000. Not that I know any train drivers."

"Would you rather be driving a train?"

"What do you think? There are 129 days between now and my next birthday. I intend to live them all, one day at a time. Sniffing the roses while gazing at the lupins. Consciousness - you can't beat it."


"There's a bit in your 25 Paintings book that I'd like to quote back to you."

"You'll make me blush, Duncan. You will make me paint my head red."

"It goes something like this. You say that you don't agree with people that say they feel like they're on the outside looking in. You've always liked to be on the outside looking further out."

Bill says nothing. I imagine he's smiling.

Bill is not there when I go out into my garden in the evening. But in the shed, while looking for an early Bill Drummond artwork, an orange laminated sheet, with a dense text on the reverse side, titled EasyJet, I stumble across the placard that Bill sent me in the summer of 2000. I thought it had disintegrated and that I'd thrown the broken plastic away, but it has just crumbled a bit along the top edge. I'd obviously observed that the material was becoming brittle and had written it off. But I hadn't thrown it away.


"So here we are again, Bill. Does it seem like a long time ago since you motored the length of the country with 500 placards?"

"It seems like yesterday. Does it seem like yesterday when you lived in London?"


"Funnily enough it does. When I was reading WHAT IS HARMONIC? I noticed the passing mention of the fact that my mother had just had a small stroke. This was in 2003, when Mum was 78. Later in the same year she had a second stroke, and I left my London digs, the address that comes up dozens of times in Personal Delivery, and moved to Blairgowrie, where I'd been born. I never regretted the move. Mum lived to be 89, by which time she'd had several strokes, and I was around for her long, slow decline. I've always thought that my own most probable cause of death would be by stroke. And I have to accept that the stroke, or brain seizure, assuming that's the same thing, could come at any time, given my alcohol consumption (a bottle of wine most nights). I don't worry about this too much, because otherwise I would seem to be in excellent shape and in fine spirits, both of which I believe to be an aid to longevity."

Bill says nothing. Though I would welcome his thoughts about this longevity business.

I'm thinking about my own words as I wander indoors. As you can see I am still Date Painting. For it is not yet midnight and today's painting is far from being the perfect object that On Kawara was in the regular habit of turning out. But see this…


The composition takes the viewer back from the present day to the time of Van Gogh, in easy steps for a man, and then one huge step for mankind. That on the wall is a McLaren copy of a picture that Vincent Van Gogh painted, the original of which was destroyed by fire in Germany during the Second World War. It was painted in 1887 when Vincent was in Arles for a glorious summer, appreciating every minute of light and loneliness. Usually I understand the picture as Vincent walking to his solitary, visionary day's work, with his palette, canvas and easel. But it could just as easily be Bill Drummond, setting out on his window cleaning round that was part of The 25 Paintings. And it could just as easily be On Kawara with his Date Painting kit and his briefcase in which he kept the rubber stamps that he would use to send two postcards to a rolling list of friends and colleagues every day for eleven years, from May 1968 to September 1979, telling them what time he got up and nothing more. Every day for eleven years. Two postcards. 'I GOT UP AT 11.12 A.M.' Or whatever time it was.

On Kawara died decades later, aged 81, in 2014, just after Bill's The 25 Paintings had finished in Birmingham. I've been told that once On had got his terminal cancer diagnosis, he rented a room in New York not that far from the splendid loft space on Greene Street in SoHo that he and Hiroko shared and in which they'd raised their two children. Nothing could be more obvious than that On Kawara had a deeply rewarding family life. But I was interested to hear that in his last months, On, however often I'm not sure, retreated to his own space, to be alone, and, one suspects, to Date Paint. Though if he did Date towards the end of his life, these canvases have not been allowed to enter the public realm. I think it's not necessarily correct what people often say, that when you're dying you think mostly of the people you've spent your one and only life with. I think that at least as important would have been the simple fact of self-consciousness. Of being alive. And On Kawara wanted to enjoy every last minute of his self-consciousness. What it is to draw oxygen into your lungs, even though those lungs have been destroyed by smoking American cigarettes. Alive, alive-oh!

I step to the other side of the table so as to see the Van Gogh figure more clearly as Bill, rather than On. And this works! That surely is Bill Drummond on his way to paint one or more of the 25 paintings, or to paste a poster to the trunk of a tree. On balance, I'd say Bill was off to paint.


So let's name the 25 paintings:


Bill's gone window-cleaning. Flags are blowing in the wind. I'm not sure about rookery threads. But an artist needs his secrets. We all do.


Bill's gone a soup-makin'. He's also gone shopping for cake. He invites folk to stay and eat soup followed by cake. And people do. They stick around and absorb the art by osmosis.


Bill's making a bed for a stranger. In fact he's making 40 beds for strangers during the length of his world tour. Those folk that are given the beds will dream that they are walking through fields full of ragwort and daffodils, their shoes shining like Vincent's shoes shone and are shining still. Black shoes. Shining still.


Bill's at work. He's a bangin' his drum and blowin' his horn. The man who blew his horn is twinned with the man who banged his drum. Fame? Come off it! The worst two songs on Bowie's Young Americans are 'Fame' and 'Across the Universe', and they are only there because he allowed himself to be seduced by the offer of a collaboration with John Lennon.


Bill's plan was to arrive in Birmingham by a raft made from his own bed and to depart the same way. Dead oak rings are a mystery to me but may be connected with 'The 17', that band of ever-changing individuals who got together with Bill to make sound art early in the 21st Century. I know who the lone sweeper is. He is sometimes called the Lone Ranger. As a basic rule of thumb, if the lone sweeper is on horseback, he's the Lone Ranger: "Hi-ho, Silver…Away!" And if the Lone Ranger is off his horse, he's the lone sweeper: "Hi-ho, Silver…Stay!"

I like to think that's Bill in van Gogh's grey-less, colour-bright, yellow-headed, emotionally moving painting. Bill Drummond: the lone sweeper. Lines from Shakespeare's Cymbeline come to mind.

"Golden lads and lasses must, Like chimney-sweepers, come to dust."

This becomes remarkable when you realise that dandelion clocks were known as chimney sweepers in Tudor times. Dandelions are like ragwort, both are humble weeds with yellow flowers when in bloom. Though Bill Drummond's poster number 516 (one of the 60 posters in The 25 Paintings exhibition) tells us that ragwort didn't reach England until after 1700.


In my opinion, On Kawara (creator of 'I GOT UP', 'I WENT', 'I MET', and who kept those brilliant works up for 11 years, as well as Date Painting until the not-so-bitter end) would have deeply respected Bill Drummond's timeless, time-bound art.

Art: such a short word, such a long and worthwhile commitment.