December 1, 2013
I am struggling to articulate my response to the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy, which ends next Sunday. I’ve visited three times now. It’s a big show. Each time I’ve spent around two hours in there. It definitely has the sense of a journey. There are some interesting echoes or counterpoints as you wander through the exhibition. As you enter, Shaun Gladwell’s hypnotic Approach to Mundi Mundi plays on a loop, a slow, silent video clip following a motorcyclist riding a curving stretch of road in the Australian outback, arms raising to a Christ-like pose as he cruises the central dividing strip, leather-gloved fingers fluttering in the slipstream, arms subsiding as the film’s focus blurs and fades. Landscape, religion, isolation, rebellious outsiders. In the penultimate room of the show, Fiona Foley’s 11 minute film Bliss shows continuously: a vast field of white poppies bobbing and swaying in a rushing wind, a bright blue sky, seed capsules like heavy bulbous heads on tall stems, the lonely sound of the wind, and short stark extracts from The Way We Civilise by Rosalind Kidd superimposed on the lyrical images. Opium as a means of subjugation. Complex troubled histories. Early on in the exhibition, a display case holds three truly repulsive examples of mid 19th century silverwork (an inkwell, a candelabrum and a trophy – more than simply aesthetically offensive); contrasting with the delicate and witty moulded sardine tins of Fiona Hall’s Paradisus Terrestris at the end of the exhibition.
The first time, there’s too much to see, it’s overwhelming and exhausting. By my third visit, I know the rooms that I want to spend most time in. The first main room displays some stunning work by Indigenous artists. A 2007 painting by Doeren Reid Nakamarra, laid horizontally in the middle of the room, ripples and vibrates with energy. Warlugulong (1977) by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri is intricate and layered, a deep red star burst at its centre, tracks, footprints, bone shapes scattered across its surface. Ngayarta Kujarra (2009) by the Martumili Artists sings out from the wall, a sparkling salt-white plain bordered by brightly coloured dotted patterns. Further on in the exhibition, I’m drawn to the two Clarice Beckett paintings Morning Shadows and Passing Trams, Melbourne, early 1930s, foggy suburban desolation. Eric Thrake’s Brownout (1942) has a similar feel, while The Car (1955) by John Brack is angular and jaunty with a manic edge. One of the biggest thrills in the show is to see four of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings (from the series of 26). These are high impact paintings, fiery, subversive and compelling. Big Orange (Sunset) by Brett Whiteley, painted in 1974, and John Olsen’s Sydney Sun (1965) are both vibrant, optimistic explosions of colour. I love Olsen’s in particular, suspended horizontally from the ceiling so you gaze up into its amber and blood-orange squiggles. And then, in the last few rooms, there are pieces by contemporary artists, challenging and engaging with European and Indigenous cultures and histories, such as Robert Campbell Jnr’s hard-hitting 1988 painting Abo History (Facts) and Possession Island (1991) by Gordon Bennett. This, and more, and I leave the exhibition for a third time, still thinking about place, attachment to land, to a landscape, choices and how much we are (or are not) defined by our backgrounds, by where we grew up; and the role of art in helping us to negotiate some of these issues. An on-going cultural conversation.
November 16, 2013
Thursday 14th November. A cold clear night. A three quarters full moon rising above the city of London. We cross from the brutalist Barbican Centre along a raised concrete walkway, down some steps and join the short queue waiting outside St Giles Cripplegate. We’re here for Benjamin Britten‘s chamber opera Curlew River – A Parable for Curch Performance, and already the setting seems fitting. A stone’s throw but a world away from the tall dark Barbican towers; remote, rather windswept, watery sounds from the nearby artificial lake, and rippling images of birds and swaying river grasses projected onto the pale stone of the medieval church. It all speaks Event, and I for one am happy to have to wait a bit before the doors are opened, to take in the surroundings, gaze up at the night sky, huddle closer to my companion, savour the build up.
Before long, we’re let in, into a slowly dispersing fug of incense, and ushered either side of the nave, where there’s a low white catwalk and a canvas sail in front of the alter. Black and white footage of birds and grasses and a full-flowing river will be projected onto these surfaces during the performance. Settled cosily in the second row, we’ve got time to read the synopsis, and then the doors are closed, the lights dimmed, and the small ensemble of musicians from the Britten Sinfonia take their places facing the minimal stage. And for something like an hour and a half we are spellbound. Framed as a mystery parable performed by medieval monks, the opera was inspired by a Noh play Britten saw in Japan in 1956. In tonight’s performance, the all male cast processes into the church singing in plainchant, and dressed in grey monks’ robes appliquéd with Japanese characters. Gwynne Howell, as the Abbot, sets the scene – the banks of the Curlew River, not long before, where a sign was given of God’s grace – and the monks become the players of the parable: pilgrims, a traveller, the ferryman, and a madwoman, searching for the son abducted from her a year ago. The music is sparse and strange, with Eastern inflections, yet unmistakably Britten. Ian Bostridge, as the madwoman, is mesmerising; anguished and Ophelia-like. The chorus is also magnificent, with those muttering-crowd moments Britten excels at; first mocking the madwoman, then as compassion wins through, entreating the ferryman to let her onto the boat. Mid-crossing, we learn from the ferryman that a year to this day a bullying man crossed the Curlew River with a 12 year old boy, who collapsed, ill and badly beaten; was nursed by the river people, but soon died, and was buried by the path to the chapel. The madwoman’s search ends, grief stricken, on the opposite bank, at her son’s grave; but as she struggles to pray the dead boy is heard; his spirit appears to console and release her. It’s a magical and redemptive moment, and Duncan Tarboton, as the Sprirt of the Boy, carries it off beautfully. The opera concludes with the cast donning their monks’ robes and processing out of the chapel as they chant a prayer, leaving the madwoman kneeling, head bowed, at her son’s grave. A stunning production, moving and ultimately uplifting; and after sustained applause, we return to the clear cold night and run across the concrete walkway, run full of energy, and hear scampering behind us – the three boys from the cast, running as well, so we stop to say ‘Well done – that was brilliant’ before they’re chaperoned away, for hot chocolate, I hope, and no school in the morning.
November 5, 2013
Last Saturday I avoided the mayhem of the fireworks display in Battersea Park and instead took in the Mira Schendel exhibition at Tate Modern. And a thoroughly rewarding experience this was. I hadn’t come across Schendel’s work before, and the Tate show is a wonderful introduction to her prolific and varied output. Schendel emigrated to Brazil in 1949 and became an important figure in the South American art scene (you can read more about her life on the Tate website). Walking through the 14 rooms of the exhibition I was excited by and drawn to so much. She engaged with language, typography, philosophy. She innovated with materials and produced beautiful and delicate artworks. Her Little Nothings series consists of soft sculptures made from twists or balls of rice paper woven together into webs or nets. There are early abstract paintings in dark and muted tones, bold geometric shapes, paintings that pull you in and seem to pulse on the canvas; and much later abstracts that had me exclaiming ‘Oh wow!’ over and over; these are extreme and minimal, black on black, or a putty coloured canvas with a thin black slit, or a glowing disc of gold leaf on black. Schendel explored transparency, creating explosions of letters sandwiched in clear acrylic that hang in rows in the middle of the gallery. I need to see this again in daylight! There’s a series of notebooks with perforated pages, another series of typed pages using repeated phases such as ‘yes and no’, ‘oui et non’, ‘ja, nein, jein’. The 1969 installation Still Waves of Probability has thousands of thin nylon fibres suspended from the ceiling, like a block of static rain, and a quotation from the Old Testament in Letraset on the wall, ending ‘and after the fire, a still small voice.’ Schendel doesn’t shout but her work still resonates and quietly asserts her place as an important figure in 20th century art full stop.
October 26, 2013
When I was little I had blonde hair. As I grew older it darkened to what could best be described as ‘dirty blonde’. So for years, every six weeks or so, I have restored my ‘natural’ blondeness with the help of a home hair dye kit. I hope I’m not especially vain, but somehow ‘blonde’ is one of the many jigsaw pieces that makes up my identity, my sense of self. It’s a small jigsaw piece, but occasionally a troubling one. Like now, this past week, with the hysteria around a little blonde girl ‘rescued’ from a Roma community in Greece, another taken from her, as it turns out, biological parents in Ireland. What is it about little blonde-haired blue-eyed girls that attracts the media, that generates such a frenzy? Why is it assumed that such a child could not belong in a Roma family? The sudden taking of children from marginalised communities on the basis of rumour, supposition and paternalistic notions of the child’s ‘best interests’ – for me, as an Australian (another, much more complex and fraught jigsaw piece), there are terrible echoes of the Stolen Generations. I’m shocked, though I probably shouldn’t be, that there is still such deep prejudice against people from the Roma community. And then there is this strange privileging of ‘blonde’ in mainstream society, in the media, so that I start to wonder if I am feeding into that by continuing to dye my hair. This point, of course, is trivial. What is troubling is the fixation with looks/image/the visual, and how so many people don’t seem able to see beyond that to the real people, the real families struggling to get by. As humans, we are more than mere instinct. We can reflect, pause, think about consequences, try to empathise with the other, the outsider. But then, what would I know? I’m just a dumb blonde.
October 19, 2013
it was about sweetcorn.
it was about hidden layers.
it was about changing my name
starting the process
of becoming myself
my own person.
it was a statement
before i knew what a statement was.
i may have used husk
and silky threads.
grade one or grade two.
poem about sweetcorn
with the curly-haired girl
at odds with the world
October 6, 2013
but sometimes I write poems in my lunch hour. Or, to be more accurate, I muse, jot, fiddle with a poem coming-into-being. Most of my poems have a long gestation. They’re a gradual accretion of words, phrases, images, and a honing and chipping away to get the shape, the movement, that I is buried somewhere deep in my brain. Once or twice a week I hurry out of the office at lunchtime, a fugitive writer, ensconce myself in a chain café and, fuelled by a half-decent latte, briefly plug back into my latest poem or story. I write by hand, often transcribing the latest draft of a poem or the last paragraph of a story in progress before chewing over the next line. The physical act of writing, my hand moving the pen across the page, is my route back into the creative part of my mind. Sometimes I make a small breakthrough, a new phrase or a change of tack; but what’s important is simply to engage with the writing, turn a few things over in my mind, toy with words. Come Friday, when I sit at my desk at home, while it’s rare that the writing flows, it does feel as if I have a head start.
And Frank O’Hara? I’ve known of his Lunch Poems for some time, and been attracted to the idea of these poems written during his lunch break or springing out of his midday walks in New York, before returning to his day job; but it’s only recently I’ve been dipping into a volume of O’Hara’s Selected Poems, which, frustratingly, doesn’t indicate where each poem was first published. But I like what I’m reading. It’s fresh, urban, often discursive; pulsing with energy and humour; inventive without being impenetrable. Sometimes in my lunch hour I read poetry. Which is another, essential way of reconnecting with my writing brain.
September 22, 2013
That’s a recipe for a convivial and enriching evening, and that’s exactly what we got last Thursday at the launch of the fourth Loose Muse anthology, downstairs at Cottons on Exmouth Market. Once again, Agnes Meadows and her co-editors have put together a varied and top-class collection of writing by women who have attended one of the monthly Loose Muse events at the Poetry Café or the soon-to-be-regular Manchester offshoot; and Lorraine Clarke has provided another stunning image for the cover.
I was one of the many contributors to read on the night, and it was a pleasure to perform my story Stranded to such an attentive audience. Camilla Reeve read from her commissioned short story, Freeze Frame, very assured and crisp writing, and amazing to hear this is the first short story she’s written. Another first, for Kirstyn Brook, performing her first published poem, Life Test, dealing with self-harm; strong stuff, painful, raw, but feisty and life-affirming too. Mothers featured in several poems: Amy Neilson Smith reading her touching poem Mother Love, while Natasha Morgan’s Mother’s Day aches across the years. Niki Aguirre read powerfully from her short story Puerto Polizo, the narrator a child longing for stability, a ‘normal’ childhood. There was hard-hitting political poetry from Sue Johns with Before the Pussy Riots and a heart-tugger War and Romance from Joolz Sparkes. Anne Cooper’s untitled poem, about a young British-Iraqi woman learning Arabic is tender and thoughtful. Vivienne Vermes contributed two deliciously wicked flash fictions, Jill Abram read her beautifully balanced meditation on tea and friendship, Chado, and Leila Segal impressed me with the cool, restrained prose of her story Everything here is difficult, perfectly matched by her delivery. Agnes began proceedings with her poem Zen: The Process of Translating the Ordinary and finished by performing three magical poems contributed by Balaba-Aseka, who was too shy to take to the stage. Agnes did her proud, just as the anthology does for all us contributors.
September 8, 2013
I spent Saturday morning sitting at my desk, thinking about a new poem, jotting down words and phrases, delving into dictionaries and reference books, nurturing that little knot of something in the back of my brain that I hope will evolve, take shape, emerge slowly onto the page.
So I was already in a rather heightened state of excitement when we headed into town in the afternoon for this year’s Free Verse Poetry Book Fair at Conway Hall. And it was quite overwhelming walking into the hall to see rows of tables displaying hundreds of poetry pamphlets, books and other tantalising material, and milling between and around those tables scores of poetry lovers/fanatics/afficionados (lets not use that dirty word c*ns*mers). More than 50 small poetry presses and poetry supporting organisations had set their stalls out. A couple of deep breaths, and I launched into the throng. Ugly Duckling Presse from Brooklyn was a great find, with their beautifully produced booklets and leftfield content. I snapped up a copy of Nets by Jen Bervin – Shakespeare’s sonnets erased to reveal their essence in a few words – and Chinese Notebook by Demosthenes Agrafiotis, translated by John and Angelos Sakkis, for the Greek connection. From Belgian Miel books I bought the latest issue of 111O magazine, 23 poems paired with 23 artworks and printed as postcards. I may have to send these to myself. On Cigarette Papers by Pam Zinnemann-Hope, from Ward Wood Publishing, looks fascinating – an exploration of family, of the darkest side of the twentieth century, of food and language. And I was very pleased to get hold of a copy of Whitehall Jackals, a collaboration between Jeremy Reed and Chris McCabe, from Nine Arches Press. I was tempted by much more, made notes, tried not to panic, gathered leaflets, catalogues, free bookmarks, a free beermat, and couldn’t resist picking up an ‘Anne Sexton Support Group’ badge from Hazard Press. I seem to be acquiring a small collection of literary badges. Took a breather halfway through the afternoon to listen to readings from poets featured in Bedford Square 6: New Writing from the Royal Holloway Creative Writing Programme, another book from Ward Wood Publishing, and particularly enjoyed Judi Sutherland and Lavinia Singer. Back into the buzzy, friendly hubbub of the main hall, before emerging into daylight, fresh air, and an urgent refuelling stop in a nearby hostelry.
After a thorough debrief with my co-conspirators and comparison of purchases, we were ready for the evening haul. Readings at the Square Pig and Pen, across Red Lion Square from Conway Hall, and more literary conviviality. The basement room was packed for Jeremy Reed and Chris McCabe reading from Whitehall Jackals, introduced by Jane Commane from Nine Arches Press. The poems were written as an email exchange between the two poets, over the first three months of 2011, responding to political events, to London, to each other’s poems, with the river Thames running as another thread through the unschemed narrative. Chris acknowledged London as the third collaborator in their project. The poems we heard last night were urgent, angry, vital, poignant. Two distinctive voices playing off each other, Jeremy flamboyant, scattering sequins, honouring shoplifters and guttersnipes and Kit Marlowe’s ghost; Chris invoking Blake as he waits early mornings at a bus stop in Peckham Rye, or constructing London through statistics – ’11,001 hotel swipe-card in Bloomsbury/34,789 coiled ring-pulls on the Isle of Dogs/27.703 ex-east-enders in Dagenham’ (What the Courier Knows). I’m looking forward to reading the collection.
Other highlights of the evening were Christopher James reading from his Arc Publications collection Farewell to the Earth, cool and beautifully measured poems; and the maverick energy of a mini Bang Said the Gun show to finish proceedings. Overall, a great event, and as well as the books I’d bought, I came away with a lovely sense of being part of a small but vibrant community. No need, then, to panic.
My younger sister asked me this week to help her with a request from a work colleague, who had approached her for suggestions of female writers to read. Her colleague likes Sylvia Plath, apparently, is interested in feminism and existentialism, and is planning to take four months off work to go to France and read and drink wine. I’m happy to label myself a feminist, and I’ve been interested in, and influenced by, existentialism ever since studying philosophy in the first year of my subsequently abandoned BA. So I took up the challenge, though I’m usually reluctant to recommend books to other people, as reading taste is so personal. After wracking my brains and trawling my bookshelves, this is the somewhat eclectic list I’ve come up with.
Virginia Woolf - I love Orlando, the sweep of it and the gender switches. It’s one of the few books I’ve read more than once. Mrs Dalloway also impressed me, with its interior perspective, the time shifts, and the depiction of London shortly after the end of the Great War. And of course A Room of One’s Own should be on every feminist’s, every woman writer’s, reading list.
Colette – not feminist per se but French and a wonderful writer, especially of feisty female characters. An inspiring woman.
Simone de Beauvoir - her early novels She Came to Stay and The Blood of Others are flawed but powerful nonetheless. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is a classic. As is The Second Sex – another must read for budding feminists.
Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea – a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre, taking the point of view of Mr Rochester’s first wife. Brilliant. And also Rhys’s early novels. I’ve read Voyage in the Dark and Quartet, and may have read After Leaving Mr McKenzie and/or Good Morning, Midnight, ages ago, but I’m not sure. Great titles though. Again, not overtly feminist, but Rhys writes beautifully about diffident, awkward, vulnerable women. Gorgeous, limpid writing.
Deborah Levy – Swimming Home. Published last year, I read and loved it before it was on the Booker shortlist (just so’s you know). Short and incredibly powerful. “About” depression, failed or failing relationships, madness. It’s compelling and every detail is spot on. There are strong female characters, and quite a tender portrayal of a teenage girl. And, while its subject matter is dark and difficult, the novel itself isn’t unrelentingly bleak. Every sentence sings.
Françoise Sagan – Bonjour tristesse. I read this when I was in my late teens or early twenties. My New Oxford Companion to Literature in French reminds me that ‘the novel describes adolescent sexuality in a casual yet poignant tone’. She was French, and left-wing, so that gets her onto my list.
Margaret Atwood – Surfacing and Cat’s Eye – themes of jealousy, childhood, the cruelty of children. Apparently Atwood doesn’t describe herself as a feminist writer but her books deal with issues around gender, identity, patriarchy, as well as concern for and deep feeling for the environment and natural world. The Handmaid’s Tail is disturbing and dystopian. I enjoyed Alias Grace, based on a real person, Grace Marks, a servant convicted of murder in the mid 1840s. I like the idea of exploring and giving voice to marginalised characters.
Helen Garner – Monkey Grip. Toxic relationships, children, Melbourne in the 70s. I remember this novel having a big impact on me, finding it quite shocking at times. I think partly this was due to it being set in Melbourne, the mix of familiarity and the very different lives to my own portrayed in the novel. I wonder how it would read now. My memory is that female friendship is one of the central themes of the novel, and Garner is very concerned with emotional truth, and the complexity of relationships. I’ve read some of her other (early) novels too, and my lasting impressions are of her integrity and the clarity and beauty of her prose.
Now, of course, I also want to take four months off, go to France, read and drink wine. Only four months would not be long enough. Still, this has reminded me of some great writers to go back to, so many more books that I want to read, and reread.
August 13, 2013
I’m listening to a blistering performance of Glazunov’s Piano Concerto No.2 live on the radio from the BBC Proms, performed by Daniil Trifonov and the London Symphony Orchestra. As the piece finishes, there’s sustained and rapturous applause until the audience is rewarded with a thrilling encore.
For the last five or so years the BBC Proms have become a bit of a feature of our summers as we discover (or in my case rediscover) classical music. We’ll attend two or three concerts, but mostly it’s a radio soundtrack, not always listened to terribly closely, but sometimes a particular piece will grab my otherwise wandering attention. And then there’s the Proms applause, the roars and cheers, the stamping feet – I’d tune in for this alone. When an encore ensues it’s a special and privileged moment. For all the encores I’ve heard on the radio, until this year I’d never experienced one in the flesh at the Royal Albert Hall.
Then, last Thursday 8th August, we were high up in the circle for the much anticipated return of Mitsuko Uchida, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. This was definitely an Event. I don’t know the piece well, but Uchida’s stage presence was mesmerising, and her playing flawless and impassioned. There was a wonderful diva-esque moment when she shrugged off her diaphanous shawl during the first movement. It was fascinating, too, to watch the orchestra, how expressive all the players are, how focussed, working together to create afresh a piece of music written over 200 years ago. Mitsuko Uchida had barely flung her right hand up from the final phrase when the applause broke out, the bravos and whistles and calls for encore. And we were not disappointed. After several bows and acknowledging the orchestra and conductor, Uchida sat at the piano again and played a quiet, delicate, Bach-like (I thought, without any certainty) piece, which I discovered the following day in an online review was indeed Bach. The most beautiful warm-down after a feat of musical athleticism.
And that was only the first half! Following the interval, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra returned to the stage to tackle Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. If the Beethoven/Uchida was an Event, this was a Journey. The drama built over five movements, with some catchy melodies and nice pastoral touches early on. By the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, I was grinning at the jaunty absurdity, and the great flourishes of off stage percussion. The final movement, Dream of a Sabbath Night, I noted later in my journal as ‘quite demented’, with Jansons leaping in the air as he pulled the orchestra together for the explosive finish. Fittingly thunderous applause from the audience, and we were treated then to an astonishingly bravura piece that almost rivalled the Berlioz in intensity. Driving rhythms and Hungarian or Jewish sounding textures and Gypsy-like fiddle-playing from the first violins. This, I learnt the following day, was Ligeti’s Concert Romanesc. By then, my palms had just about stopped tingling from all the clapping. Bravo, bravo, encore!