The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham

the summing upWe love to read writers when they write about writing. Whether it is George Orwell’s Why I Write, Stephen King On Writing, or Scarlett Thomas’s Monkeys with Typewriters, there is an enduring need to peep behind the curtain. These blends of memoir and ‘how to’ guide fascinate us either because we want to see how our favourite stories were created, or if we are trying to follow their path we are keen to see if the authors have pointed out any shortcuts. Therefore the thoughts of W. Somerset Maugham – prolific novelist, travel writer and playwright – cannot fail to be instructive.

He writes authoritatively about his own work, covering the process, his aims and its reception by readers and critics. He is also knowledgable about the classics as well as contemporaries such as Colette, but is unafraid to turn his wry glance towards those who favour literary pretensions and his own place in the history of literature. As a dramatist he is master of the concise yet withering put-down (a technique he apparently honed against school bullies):

There is no more merit in having read a thousand books than in having ploughed a thousand fields,

before turning his gaze to the wider world of philosophical and religious theory, so that the book moves from memoir and writing guide to consider the eternal topic of how best to live.

For all his apparent candour, Mr Maugham does gloss over one area: that of his own personal life. Although he talks of love and beauty it is in such general terms that the reader may be forgiven for thinking he died (in his 90s) as a confirmed bachelor. He is at times dismissive of love and his behaviour while under its influence. It is only by checking other sources that his firm adherence to his own words becomes clear:

I demanded freedom for myself and I was prepared to give freedom to others.

Yet the nature of this freedom is only briefly alluded to in a passage concerning his travel writing:

I am shy of making acquaintance with strangers, but I was fortunate enough to have on my journeys a companion who had such an inestimable social gift. He had an amiability of disposition that enabled him in a very short time to make friends with people in ships, clubs, bar-rooms, and hotels, so that through him I was able to get into easy contact with an immense number of persons whom otherwise I should have known only from a distance.

This is a very subtle and low-key tribute to the man who shared his life for 30 years – a relationship which survived and outlasted Maugham’s marriage. Yet, given the legal status of such relationships at the time he was writing, it is undoubtably a sensible one.

No doubt this gift for remaining just outside the spotlights also served Maugham well during his brief intelligence career. Operating in Switzerland and Russia, the man who wrote:

Some of us are so made that there is nothing else we can do… we write because we must

couldn’t resist turning his experiences into stories, crafting a series of adventures for a gentlemanly spy by the name of Ashenden. Ian Fleming, a friend and admirer of Maugham’s, seems to have been inspired by these tales. Enough that in Quantum of Solace – which lent its name if not its plot to the second Daniel Craig Bond film – Fleming has his agent share Ashenden’s disillusionment with the supposedly glamorous life of the fictional spy.

If there is a negative point to this book, it is that so many other interesting works are discussed so engagingly that my ‘to read’ list has seen a large number of new additions. Although he would live a good many years after its publication, there is an air of a man settling his accounts and looking back on a career that has given him much pleasure. The book is enjoyable and illuminating, a fitting testament to a wide-ranging man of letters.

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The Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome

The architecture impressed even before I’d seen the artwork at the Group Show, part of this year’s Biennial, at the Old Blind School, 24 Hardman Street L1 9AX. I was intrigued to wander around the former Blind School, which was founded in 1791 by Edward Rushton and was the first school of its kind in the country.

I found dis-used rooms textured with peeling paint, rotted walls and cast iron fireplaces. Echoes of its former use as a Trades Union Centre in 1983 are illustrated in a mural on a dome ceiling. A Scouse Diego Rivera creation, perhaps? The building immediately charms in all of its sumptuous decay.

Liverpool Old Blind School mural

One of the walls is entirely taken over. Showing three miners in the atmospheric Quarry (1907) by Marc Bauer.You can practically taste the sooty atmosphere with the effective use of charcoal.

Quarry Marc Bauer

Marc Bauer Quarry detail

Bonnie Camplin’s pencil on paper – Sparkle – is an illustration you will not find in the windows of a Bond Street Jeweller’s. A vacuous face in amongst the items for sale, a metaphor for the shallowness of materialism.

Bonnie Camplin Sparkle

Throughout the show basic mediums of pencil, charcoal and watercolours are displayed and this simple skills-based approach is effective. Peter Wächtler’s two paintings reminded me of work by Hogarth. One particularly looked like an updated version of a snapshot from Nan Goldin’s erotically charged body of work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

Nan Goldin

Other highlights include:

  • Amelie Von Wulffen’s zany caricatures that poke fun at modern attitudes. A banana having stage fright, two glasses of wine lounging on comfy chairs watching television.
  • Nicola L’s room full of white objects, including an inflatable couch in the shape of a hand, looked like the kind of décor that would not be out of place in the Notting Hill apartment of Patsy and Edwina from Absolutely Fabulous.

With all modern art, there are always bound to be pieces that suffer from what I call the emperor’s new clothes syndrome. All pomp and no substance! One such piece is by Norma Jeane (the artist was born the day Marilyn Monroe died and decided to label herself with the legend’s name). A simple ice machine is plonked in the middle of a room, powered by solar energy, with its door open. The ice is made and then spills out onto the floor to dissolve.

Transforming heat into cold, and liquid into solid. The machine keeps working relentlessly, even though its product continually melts away into the wet floor.

I found myself perplexed by this piece. Bamboozled, even! After reading the description, a little sarcastic Scouse internal voice, (like Margie Clarke’s) said to me, ‘No shit, Sherlock!’ One of the highlights of experiencing this ‘objet’ had to be seeing people trying to manoeuvre themselves around the wet floor, in case they accidentally walked onto the art. Taking a little droplet of a souvenir home with them. Art crime! You really could not make it up.

What is fantastic about this group show is to see a robust piece of architectural splendour, the building that is The Old Blind School, being totally re-energised with the lifeblood of new creatives. This aspect of the Biennial is marked by a building as impressive – part Berlin crack den, part faded decadence – as some of the content on display.

The Old Blind School Liverpool staircase

Next stop on the Biennial review will be The Bluecoat!

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Rear Window

The sizzling summer heat forces people to open up their windows and extend their living space outdoors. From my study window, a tapestry of real life drama plays out amongst my neighbours. Debbie Harry claims that the apartment block where she lives in New York City was the building that the writer of Rear Window – Cornell Woolrich – lived. The view from his residence worked his imagination into drafting a short story that went on to become one of Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic classics.

The rotund master of film had a deep understanding of human behaviour. He stated,

Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

I recently had the pleasure of watching Rear Window on the big screen at Fact Liverpool and I was once again captivated.

RearWindow Movie poster

A wheelchair-bound photographer, L. B. Jefferies played by James Stewart, spies on his neighbours from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder. It is a treat for the eye to watch Grace Kelly, in all of her sensual elegance as Lisa Carol Fremont, on the big screen.

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Jefferies finds himself in a conundrum. He is frightened of committing to Lisa. As he works through this problem, he sees a variety of his neighbours at different stages in their relationship, the newlyweds, the bickering couple and the one that kills his wife. The human trait of voyeurism is explored in the film and is still as rampant as it was then, today. Perhaps the windows have just changed?

Take the television for example, Big Brother, which is essentially a room of people interacting, clashing and, in some cases, screwing. Is watching this no different to peeping out of a window? The obsession with watching others is intrinsic to our society, whereas once there were known curtain twitchers in a street, now it’s a little bit more advanced. Facebook and other social media allow people to look without the other person really knowing. I often hear things like,’Oh, I haven’t seen her in ages but I am friends with her on Facebook.’ This translates as, ‘I am watching what she gets up to, looking at her photographs and reading her status updates.’ A socially acceptable type of stalking, perhaps?

We all know what curiosity did to the cat.

As I sat watching Rear Window, I was struck by the cinematic cleverness; as the bamboo blinds go up to reveal the view from the window, the audience immediately made the voyeurs. The watcher watching.

We’ve become a nation of peeping Toms,

complains Nurse, Thelma Ritter, condemning James Stewart’s character, before merrily joining in.

rear_window grace

A very telling comment!

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Hot Reads Part Deux!

I haven’t been away this year, but I have found John Maguire’s mantra of ‘Read, Reflect, Recharge’ to be a sound one, even if applied at home. I have tried to cram in as much quality reading time as possible, made easier as it has almost been too hot to move. Here are a few of the books that found their way into my hands this summer.

kurt vonnegut a man without a country

A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut

This could be the perfect holiday read as it is a very slender volume. Although that does mean you will read it quickly, there is so much of interest that you will find yourself leafing back through the pages. Part memoir, part ‘state of the world’ treatise, this is Mr Vonnegut at his finest.

I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society.

road home

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

There was so much to enjoy in this tale of Lev’s journey from an undefined part of Eastern Europe via homelessness and a celebrity chef’s kitchen in London, to the asparagus fields of Lincolnshire and back again. He is also moving from heartbreak over his wife’s death and the subsequent parting from his small daughter, we hope to something better. The tale was absorbing and the writing beautiful at times.

However, this is let down by the clichés of some of the characters Lev meets – the Irish landlord who’s a drunk with a heart of gold, a terribly represented gay couple – along with the situations that he easily swerves which must surely sink the precarious finances of most economic migrants. I was also stunned by a glossed-over incident between Lev and his estranged girlfriend. It is left ambiguous as to whether it is rape, but it is horribly uncomfortable to read. Despite this, Lev retains his status as a character we are meant to root for. While I wouldn’t regret taking this with me, I would probably leave it behind in the hotel.

our game

Our Game by John le Carré

It is always a dangerous endeavour to begin reading John le Carré before bed as ‘just one more chapter’ soon turns into 1:00 a.m. But it is the holidays, so why not stay up late reading? Twists and turns abound as the Soviet Empire unravels and with it the relationship of two Cold War warriors. There are also some choice views on the futures of ‘The Office’ and the KGB, which le Carré must have been aiming at any critics preparing to cast him as a dinosaur in this new era. Recent events have made this story seem even more prescient, as the author once more leaves the rest of the airport bookshop looking pale by comparison.

under fire

Under Fire by Henri Barbusse

The anniversary of World War I prompted me to pick up this account of a French soldier’s experience of the trenches. Published in 1916, it had the distinction of being one of the first war books and the only one to appear while the conflict remained unresolved. Barbusse was a student of literature before he signed up and it shows in the wildly abstract opening and a scene where his scribbling of notes during a lull attracts the attention of his fellows.

Beset by the constant horrors of attacks, shelling and deaths, the French perspective adds extra weight as many of the men are fighting close to home. A search by the author and a friend of the ruins of the friend’s former village is particularly poignant. There is no better way to mark this dark anniversary than with the words of those who fought and who recognised its futility even as they did.

Don’t forget to tell us about your favourite holiday reads in the comments below!

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Hot Reads!

As the holiday season looms, I find a simple mantra helps me focus on what I am going to do during my two weeks away: Read, Reflect, Recharge. My suitcase is packed for a trip to Rome and now all I need to do is choose the books to read while I am there. Here are four titles that may keep you entertained wherever you are spending your vacation.

& sons

& Sons by David Gilbert

An autopsy of rivalry and emotional pride between a father and son, as well as the son’s relationships with his siblings. You can taste the atmosphere of New York City, the poisons and fluidity of the electric jungle. Gilbert’s tale has been marinated in Philip Roth and Paul Auster, but this is no copycat of the greats. Gilbert’s version of New York City is contemporary and insightful. The American novel continues to evolve!

Dr. Sleep

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Imagine an ice-cube being placed at the top of your back and melting down, a chill right along your spine, that is the overall effect that King has managed to achieve with this crafted tale of horror. This impressive sequel to The Shining ties up lots of loose ends left in the iconic classic.

I fell out of love with Stephen King’s writing at the end of my teenage years. I felt the excellent writing that had petrified me (The Dark Half, Carrie, Salem’s Lot and Misery) had become somewhat diluted, with throwaway novels like The Tommyknockers. Unbeknown to me, King was battling with his own demons, the white worm of cocaine and alcohol addiction.

I was suitably impressed with his pure honesty in the book/biography, On Writing. I was unsure about this sequel, but a testimonial by acclaimed writer Margaret Atwood on the cover prompted me to buy the book. I was not let down. His writing in this story is punchy, superbly edited and so terrifying that the only safe place to read it is on a beach or a sun lounger. Don’t have daymares!

revenge

Revenge by Martina Cole

A symphony of violent gangland shenanigans. I was keen to read this author as her books are bestsellers, but then again McDonald’s is also extremely popular. I did enjoy the book, but I think like McDonald’s, it is best enjoyed every now and then. An ideal easy read with a good pace. There is a lot of repetition of metaphors, but it is a great peep into criminal activity. Although I am so glad I am not a gangster…

Maggie-and-Me-

Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

This is the biography of a gay boy growing up in Scotland in the 1980s. Barr had a tempestuous childhood, which he details in this memoir with a dry sardonic wit.

Anyone in their mid-thirties will instantaneously feel nostalgic throughout, remembering the references to popular culture. (He-man, Dynasty, Artex wall decoration) It also chronicles what life was like in the industrial areas of Britain enduring the changes wrought by Thatcherism. This book was so entertaining and emotionally charged that I read it in one sitting!

Tell us about your favourite beach-side reads in the comments below. And do be careful not to get sunscreen on the pages!

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The Museum of The Little Prince in Hakone, Japan

Finding myself with time to spare and a copy of The Little Prince at hand, resting on the shelf more for decoration than for anyone to read, presented an opportunity. So I settled down, opened the pages and drifted off on adventures with my friend from Asteroid B-612.

Later, the realisation dawned that I had been meaning for a long time to write about my visit to The Museum of The Little Prince in Hakone but the endless concerns of pretending to be a grown-up had intruded. The photographs remained tucked away and with them my memories of walking down a French street without having ever left Japan.

A street in Provence, in Japan

This is not so much a museum as its own world: dedicated to The Little Prince and the life of the pilot he meets in the desert, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The buildings that house the museum, along with the gardens that surround them, could have been transported here from Europe.

Museum entrance with gardens

Museum gardens

Little Prince Museum grounds

While the attraction may be owned by a Japanese broadcaster and have been created in the midst of a literary theme park boom, it has clearly been put together by those who love the author and his most famous work. There is much joy to discover in the small details. This window exhibit in one of the shops on the French street features contemporary adverts from airlines and destinations that were popular during Saint-Exupéry’s flying career.

Suitcases on display

Here is the entrance to the exhibition hall where, once admitted, you are required to put the camera away.

Theatre du Petit Prince

That is a shame as far as this photo series goes, however it does allow the visitor to focus on the detailed recreations of scenes from the author’s life, including his childhood bedroom, office from the early days of postal aviation and apartment during his exile in New York, among others.

The exhibits’ descriptions are mainly written in French and Japanese, although there is an audio guide available in English. Having made the decision to go without, I coped pretty well while giving the last vestiges of my French abilities a workout. It doesn’t really matter which language you are most comfortable in though, as the final exhibit shows, The Little Prince now appears in almost every language found on our planet.

There is, as you would expect, a well-stocked gift shop, café and restaurant. Yet even on a grey day such as the one of my visit, with rain never very far away, the gardens are not to be rushed through. To do so may mean missing one of the many scattered sculptures.

Here is our hero with the characters of the sheep and the fox:

Little Prince, sheep and fox

Little Prince detail

And here he is on his small home, with his rose:

Little Prince and Asteroid with rose

The details of Saint-Exupéry’s life are worthy of a hundred adventure tales and, whether you are familiar with his works or not, a stroll around this beautifully crafted museum is an excellent way to discover more about the man and his creations.

Model of Saint-Exupery's plane

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Japan, the museum is about an hour away from Tokyo. A visit will delight all who are children, or were once children or who wish they still were children.

What better guide could you ask for?

Le Petit Prince, Hakone

For you it’ll be as if all the stars are laughing. You’ll have stars that can laugh!

 

 

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Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’

Have a look around your current living space. Open up a few of the drawers and cupboards. Are they crammed with things, crammed with stuff? We all manage to accumulate things and, even if you de-clutter, if left for a few months the stuff accumulates again. What we accumulate is all a matter of taste.

The current exhibition at The Walker Art Gallery by Grayson Perry,
‘The Vanity of Small Differences’, presents a series of tapestries that are littered with things. A body of work that displays an impressive attention to detail and telling commentary on society today. The exhibition was created during the filming of the artist’s Channel 4 documentary, All in the Best Possible Taste (2012).

Perry was inspired by Hogarth’s 1733 work, A Rake’s Progress, which tells the tale of a young man who inherits a fortune, tries to integrate himself into high society – with all its pompous airs and graces – squanders his wealth and ends up dying in a madhouse. Perry’s tapestries chart the life and ‘class journey’ made by the fictional Tim Rakewell from working-class origins to fame and fortune.

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The pieces are bold tableaus, woven Polaroids. Perry has put the mirror up to society and reproduced what he has seen. This exploration of British taste is impressive. ‘It is all part of life’s rich tapestry’, words that I often cite when explaining the insanity of life and the varied things that can occur. It is all here: from the politics of consumerism, mobile technology, to celebrity culture. At the core is Perry’s belief that

Class is something bred into us like a religious faith.

Each tapestry is littered with objects that can evoke memories, a 70s horse ornament, fake fire and industrial portraiture. The action that takes place is subtly thought-provoking, tattooed and toned cage fighters presenting gifts to a new-born baby, while in another, a suburbanite is rapidly vacuuming the Astroturf lawn.

the-adoration-of-the-cage-fighters

As Hogarth captured the Britain of his day, so Perry has ‘gone on a safari’ around the country to identify its ‘taste tribes’. His findings resonate through his work. The gym now as one of the last strands of community, replacing the pride of working industry. The business of football as a tribal industry, where winning a trophy is like bringing a stag back from the hunt and club shirts are like a talisman, a marked indication of the tribe you belong to. Females use makeup to create a persona, a tribal mask that is constructed to indicate a degree of artifice. This alter ego comes out to play at the weekend, but who is it for?

The Guardian reader, cultivating an organic life of sustainability, filled with chickens, vegetables and cupcakes. The old aristocracy, an endangered species. In contemporary society, the aristocratic family coat of arms is now made up with corporate logos. Idols are now more I.T.ols, with the Gods of I.T. being worshipped. Bow down to Steve Jobs, genuflect to Bill Gates, please. Or salute the god of social mobility, Jamie Oliver, and his quest to feed us properly.

Perry’s work is both parody and celebration. What I like is the way he looks at his subject matter with an accurate critical eye, but never ridicules or patronises them. This is in complete contrast to the work of photographer Martin Parr. I find Parr’s work has a lack of humility or compassion towards the people he shoots.

My favourite image was the final tapestry that illustrates a horrific car crash. Once again the detail is symbolic, a shattered mobile phone, a shredded cover of a Hello-style magazine that has the protagonist’s wedding snaps on the cover. An onlooker takes pictures on a mobile phone to send out to the net, to make the tragedy go viral. The retail logos that shine in the background give off a subliminal message, Dreams/To Let/ Toys’R’ Us.

favourite Grayson Perry

We are all but toys, perhaps with dreams to rent.

The exhibition is on at The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool until 10 August.

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