Category Archives: The Golden Country

Whistle And I’ll Come To You

I thought Hallowe’en had come early last week, due to the ghastly media coverage of the mysterious disappearance of Renee Zellweger. The net and press were plastered with images and commentary. The words were downright vulgar and toxic, with one article featuring a microscopic facial autopsy of the plastic surgery supposedly undertaken. It seemed almost barbaric the way people critiqued this individual’s action. It led me to think that perhaps this Hallowe’en there is a new type of mask, that of celebrity.

It used to be the case that theatre held the mirror up to society, to highlight its hypocrisies, double standards and faults. Now it is apparent that the very representative of celebrity, the star him/herself is the mirror to society’s horrors. Essentially the contemporary world, with its fixation on the body and how we look, is the Dr. Frankenstein creating the fame monster. We are, it seems, one step away from the beauty enhancement explored in the dark comedy film, Death Becomes Her, although if Lucifer offered me the elixir of life in guise of Isabella Rossellini, I’d take it.

Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. JamesSo this Hallowe’en, there is no need to wear a zombie/demon/mask of horror, because the so-called ‘natural’ ones that people are choosing to don all year around – paying a surgeon to craft their ideal self – now, that is the real stuff of terror. However, being a traditionalist, on 31st October my choice to scare the bejeepers out of me will undoubtedly be to pick up a book, particularly the short story Whistle and I’ll Come to You by the master frightener, M. R. James.

He was a prolific academic who redefined the ghost story for the 20th Century by scrapping many of the formal gothic cliché’s of his literary predecessors and setting his tales in more realistic contemporary locations. ‘Whistle’ is set in Barnstow, a seaside town on the east coast of England. Published in 1904, this tale focuses on an introverted academic on a golfing holiday, who explores a Knights Templar cemetery on the East Anglian coast. He happens upon an object, a whistle with a mysterious engraving etched on it, Quis est iste qui venit (who is this, who is coming?). Blowing the whistle brings a windstorm and an unwelcome guest.

James is an enigmatic master of the supernatural story. He stated his ambition,

If any of [my stories] succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.

There is a fantastic black and white adaptation by Jonathan Miller.  Michael Horden plays the character with grimaces and mutterings. The whole ‘less is more’ approach to the drama creates a chill that strikes up the spinal cord.

James’ writing provides scares that do not just shock, but leave the reader with an aftertaste. Failing that, if his tales do not satisfy your horror fix, another suggestion would be to pick up a tabloid rag, like The National Enquirer and take a peep at the Celebrity Monsters gracing those pages. Fame, oh I would not wish it on my worst enemy!

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‘Cheeky bum cheeks’

That was the first thing I remember about the John Moores Painting Prize. It was also the first time I saw Hockney’s portrait of a man emerging from a poolside, Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, in the collection of previous winners. The rush of the blue flooded over my retina imprinting its memory on the canvas of my cranium. In my years of teenage wildlife, I’ve been visiting ever since.

David-Hockney-Peter-Getting-Out-of-Nicks-Pool-1966-Acrylic-on-Canvas-84-x-84-c-David-HockneyRecently, an early Sunday morning in October 2014. Town was littered from the previous night’s disorder. A carton of mushy peas and a blonde discarded fascinator lay on the pebbled courtyard, debris from a battle in a nightclub. I thought perhaps Saatchi may purchase it for his next happening.

88 CaloriesI love the Walker Gallery; it is a source of inspiration, William Roscoe’s collection of Medieval Paintings, Stubbs classics and one of my ultimate Pre-Raphaelite favourites, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. This year’s selection for the John Moores Painting Prize is an impressive batch of real painters. From the meticulously crafted 88 Calories by Conor Nial Rogers – painted on a minute crisp packet – to the texture rich, 18.45 April 7th, 2011 by David Dawson that up close looks like cake, paint is layered on as thick as a Scouse girl’s make up on a Saturday night.

18.45 APRIL 7TH. 2011My favourite piece is The King of Infinite Space/Don’t Let Life Pass You by David O’Malley, I think as I have a passion for the work of David Bowie. I see the displaced astronaut as a Major Tom-like figure. Instead of swimming in a tin can, the space cadet is floating in a most peculiar way in front of garish bad taste wallpaper.

THE KING OF INFINITE SPACEDONÔÇÖT LET LIFE PASS YOUI also love the massive Vinculum by Juliette Losq, which looks like it has come straight out of a Victorian penny dreadful. This piece covers the span of an entire wall and the detail is stunning. I have often believed that an artist needs to refocus the viewer into seeing the beauty in the everyday and that is apparent in this collection of diverse work.

Juliette Losq VinculumThere are a few pieces in here though that I feel suffer from the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome, but this is an impressive gathering of creative souls. I’d also advocate for seeing the exhibition with a kid. For a child has that Huckleberry Finn quality of telling it how it is. I took my niece, the ginger minx, for I have always valued her perspective, sometimes over the experts. I took her to see a Sarah Lucas exhibition several years ago at the Tate and one piece was just a massive photograph of a spotty male bottom. Two art groupies stood in front of the piece pontificating with syntax laden with terminology and pomp. Not really sure what they themselves were saying.  The kid was three at the time and she looked up at the piece, looked at me, gazed at the two adults drooling over the masterpiece in front of them, she looked back at me and then pointed at the art and growled, ‘EEEEE!’ In one word she summed up the fact that this naked image was in fact gross.

The exhibition encourages people to vote on their favourite and submit it in a ballot box. She chose Homeland by Covadonga Valdes and on the card when asked why, wrote simply, ‘It is unusual.’

HomelandThe exhibition is on till the end of November, I have made several visits back in my lunch hour, it beats sitting at a desk, with a stale sandwich and internet glaze. Go and vote for your personal favourite and if you can, take your own little mini art critic. Remember those artists need you!

Details of the winners can be found here. The ‘Visitors’ Choice’ award will be presented towards the end of the exhibition. Visitors can vote for their favourite painting when they visit the gallery. The winner will receive a prize of £2014.

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Tales of the Unexpected with Roald Dahl

As the autumn nights drain the colour from the day, I find that dipping into Roald Dahl’s short stories makes for a suspenseful evening read. Dark, disturbing, direct, Dahl’s tales take the reader into everyday normal scenarios, a familiar world of daily occurrences, tea, nicely turned-down beds, cosy fireplaces, friendly policemen and then he twists up the macabre volume to full. The everyday becomes the horrific, fear filled flights of fancy.

His writing reminds me of the great Alfred Hitchcock, particularly Psycho. Take the infamous shower scene; you never actually see a knife penetrate the victim’s skin. It’s all in the clever editing, the final cut (pardon the pun). This is precisely what Dahl does with his short stories; it’s what is not said that is most disturbing. It leaves the reader to fill in the cognitive gaps.

tales of the unexpected

I remember being disturbed by the beginning of Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected when I was a boy. The title sequence consisted of silhouettes of dancing-girls with a backdrop of flames, followed by Dahl’s personal welcome. The tall, skeletal man perched in his armchair, his gaze piercing and speaking like a quintessential English Aristocrat.

dahl skeleton

He reminds me of my friend Hogarth, who I have in my study. Frida Kahlo used to have a full skeleton above her bed, to remind her of the fact that we never know when we are going to die, so must live for the moment. I liked this idea. For there is a danger that with all the pre-disposition with technology, worries about work, politics and balancing lives on an ever-increasing treadmill, we can actually forget to look around at what we have, take stock, appreciate and enjoy. After all, tomorrow is a long way off.

But please note, I do not wish to offend the respected author in any way, I am describing him through the eyes of a child. In fact, given some of his descriptions of adults in his works, I think he would find it rather complimentary.

I recently viewed the television series again as a 36-year old man; with a little bit more experience of this insane place we call earth. My particular favourite is A Lamb to the Slaughter, involving infidelity, murder and a frozen leg of lamb. Oh, and Brian Blessed, roaring the role of an investigative policeman. I am not going to announce ‘spoiler alert’ or even tell you what happens, I would instead encourage you to have a look at this episode and read the tale, you will not be disappointed!

Dahl is still making the headlines as a figure of controversy even now after his death; with the recent re-publication of his iconic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, re-issued with a cover specifically for adults.

roald-dahl-charlie-chocolate-factory-2014

I’d say that if an adult feels that to be seen reading a tale that happens to have been written for children as a problem, they need to have a word with themselves and grow up. Besides with the amount of trees that are sacrificed to publish some of the mindless tripe these days, Fifty Shades of Clever Marketing for example, you are best grappling with great works, children’s lit and all.

It disturbs me how Waterstones has to label whole tables of books, chick lit, potential cult classics etc. Let people decide themselves! You might even stumble accidentally upon something you like. That is how I found Iris Murdoch, who in my head I’d thought was like Catherine Cookson, how wrong was I? It is fortunate that there are contemporary writers like Donna Tartt, releasing books only when she sees fit that they are ready, not to a marketing schedule.

the gold finch

A literary Kate Bush! When you read a tome like The Goldfinch, how you are reminded that sometimes things are worth waiting for, particularly when they are richly textured and poignant as this piece of literary genius is. Sentences that need to be savoured and a plot that engulfs. One lady of Liverpool letters Madam Le Smith, summed the book up in three words, “What a ride!”

And I can guarantee that Dahl’s short stories will also provide a ride, a tempestuous ride into the dark recesses of your soul.

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How not to write a book in 30 days

This week my eye was caught by an informative and amusing interview in the Paris Review with Geoff Dyer, ‘The Art of Nonfiction No. 6′.

Paris_Review_Issue_207_160

Closer examination reveals it to be taken from the Winter 2013 issue, which goes to show how well I keep up with the literary times. But, still! It is immensely worth reading as it pretty much covers all the writing advice a person might need, without the bother and expense of a Masters in Creative Writing.

Why not begin with this gem:

Beyond the effort and hours one puts in at the desk, I’m also aware that when I’ve written travel pieces. I’m out there wherever it happens to be, looking around, having to notice stuff, and I find that tiring, rather dread it, actually… I love not having to notice stuff—and, even more than not noticing, I love not having to articulate what I’ve not noticed. Whereas somebody like Updike seemed to live every day at an amazing level of noticingness.

Like a group of people watching a live event through the screen of their recording smartphones, to be constantly required to notice things seems to me to keep the writer at one remove. That can be handy at times, but it is also preferable to float along without worrying about taking notes, word counts and how events will be interpreted later.

Mr Dyer is also refreshingly honest about his own writing process:

There’s no way of getting around the fact that the first however many months are going to be no fun at all, and not much of that material is going to end up in print. In an ideal world you would skip those first three months and just start at month four or whatever, but you can’t.

Oh, if only. I have also found myself thinking similar thoughts to these recently:

I’m so revolted by writers taking themselves seriously that, as a kind of protest. I’ve deprioritized the role of writing in my life. I do it when I’ve not got anything better to do—and even then I often do nothing instead.

In amongst all the online forums, constant #amwriting updates and courses offering to sell the secrets of literary success, this comes as a breath of fresh air. In our interconnected world, we can all probably relate to part of this:

I find it incredibly difficult to settle and I have very limited powers—if we can dignify it with that word—of concentration, so at first I’m up and out of my chair every few minutes. Later on I can stay at the desk for longer periods until eventually I don’t even have to force myself to stay there. The general process is just to splurge stuff out, without being particularly worried about the spelling or anything. Just splurging to make sure there’s something there. And then I begin knocking it into shape both at the level of the sentence and the overarching structure. But that initial phase is the one I increasingly hate, so I try to get it done as quickly as possible, in the five-minute bursts that I’m capable of putting in at the desk before I get up to do something else.

Given that Geoff Dyer is no slouch at getting books finished and into bookshops, one suspects a little exaggeration here.  However, it is comforting to learn that – among the practitioners of 1,000 words per day targets and the approaching NaNoNiNu, where writers are encouraged to bang something out in 30 days – there is room for some ‘faffing around’. Any decent writing or research process should require an amount of faffing around, one feels. While it is not good to linger in the quagmires of faff for too long, singularity of purpose can so often lead us headlong into a brick wall.

There is more of the same good stuff in the interview, on the processes involved in writing individual books and how he got started as a writer. Overlook the fact that it isn’t from the PR’s latest issue, more smouldering than hot off the press, as it does contain an awful lot of great writing advice, all for a few thousand quid less than a university creative writing course.

 

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Whistler at The Bluecoat

The Bluecoat’s offering for this year’s Biennial is an exhibition celebrating one of the most influential figures in the arts of the 19th century, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). A crammed collection of paintings, sketches, letters and notes. It’s like entering the head space of this outspoken, argumentative and maverick creator.

James McNeill Whistler

Whistler dressed in his black patent shoes and with a white plume of hair coiffured against black waves, cultivated a charismatic public persona who challenged the art community and elicited the mocking attention of the popular press. He had famous spats with Oscar Wilde and his one-time friend and benefactor F.R. Leyland.

His work was hung well-spaced out – on the line – marking a radical change from conventional salon style, which saw pictures cover the walls. He described his works as symphonies, arrangements, harmonies, nocturnes. The deathly marks of industrialisation are captured in his watercolour paintings Nocturne in Grey and Gold, Piccadilly (1881-83). The thick fog – or pea soupers, as they were known – seeps off the canvas.

nocturne

His Venice etchings were presented in 1883 at an exhibition at the Society of British Artists, titled Arrangement in White and Yellow. Whistler wanted the event to be more than just an exhibition; he wanted to give his guests an experience. The walls were decorated in different shades of white with the skirting boards, yellow. The attendants wore yellow clothes to match. A final detail for favoured guests, he designed yellow butterflies to wear at the launch. The press cruelly labelled the spectacle, The Poached Egg. One critic commented on the etchings The Piazetta, The Palaces and The Two Doorways,

He has been content to show us what his eyes can see, and not what his hand can do.

Etchings on paper, fabulous depictions of Speke Hall in Number 1 (1870) and the billiard room indicate his connection to Liverpool. A notable piece in this exhibition is his caricature of F.R. Leyland, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Filthy Lucre (The Creditor) (1879), crafted at the time of his bankruptcy.

The Gold Scab

It is one of three paintings intended as a prank for his creditors to discover when they arrived to make an inventory of his possessions. It depicts Leyland as a rich peacock wearing a favourite frilled shirt sitting on a piano stool that is the White House (the artist’s Chelsea home) which was on the verge of repossession.

It is interesting to see the evolution of his Butterfly trademark. Proof of Six Butterflies is printed on proof paper (1890), loosely based on the initials JW, a butterfly signature often had a sting in its tail, the point directed at his enemies.

Whistler’s involvement with the Aesthetic movement is illustrated throughout this expansive collection. The movement consisted of Rossetti, William Morris and Wilde, a bohemian group of artists, writers and designers who favoured beauty and form over sociopolitical content: art for art’s sake.

The press (like that of today with celebrity culture) were fascinated by the group’s ostentatious style, dress and lavish lifestyles. This exhibition is one of the highlights of the Biennial and I feel that the setting (the historical Bluecoat) really adds to the whole essence of the experience. Whistler would indeed approve!

Recently, the Merseyside Civic Society celebrated the fact that the Heaps Rice Mill, in the Baltic Triangle, has been categorised as a Grade II listed building by the government following an inspection by English Heritage.
Not to be developed into yet another series of apartment blocks to remain empty, owned by an off shore property conglomerate in the Seychelles! We need to see the old buildings re-claimed and used for the people of Liverpool by the people of Liverpool. Projects like Opera for Chinatown by THE SOUND AGENTS and the recent use of the Old Blind School as part of this year’s Biennial are exemplary. Let’s pimp up the old architecture lying barren in this city with similar innovative offerings!

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This is not a bookstore review

On a recent trip to Roma, I’d planned to visit an English bookstore to pen a review for this site, the Open Door Bookstore in Via della Lungaretta. However, I was caught up in the history of the Eternal City. I managed to conquer all the major sights, but ran completely out of time.

Fortunately, I came across a hidden find on a pilgrimage to the Spanish Steps. I headed to this area to re-trace the steps of the fictional character Mrs. Stone in the magnificent short story by Tennessee Williams, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone.

The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone

The Steps are atmospheric and full of tourists and singing troupes of European school children. Think a punk version of the Von Trapps from The Sound of Music. It is here that the poet John Keats died of consumption in 1821, at the age of just 26, in a tiny room overlooking the steps.

spanish-steps

But alas, I digress. I stumbled into Caffe Greco for an espresso fix impressed by the charms of its shop front. I was indeed pleasantly surprised to find a cove of autographed portraits, busts and statues. For the café has been a favourable haunt of writers and artists since 1760. It boasts a customer list that has included Goethe, Baudelaire, Casanova, Gogol and Hans Christian Anderson. The Piazza di Spagna has been a magnet for artistic souls, with Byron, Balzac, Wagner and Liszt also exploring this rich area.

Caffe Greco

I did need a literary fix during the holiday though, as I quickly got through Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove, a kind of twist on the Lolita myth with a Mum having a complete infatuation on her stepdaughter’s 17 year-old boyfriend. Shades of Anais Nin and lush descriptions of the Mediterranean setting. So I visited the international book store at Termini, close to my hotel, where I picked up a copy of a Philip Roth that I had not read, Deception. (Had to pay a striking 15 Euros, but when in Rome and all that).

termini book store

A clever dialogue between two adulterers before and after their meetings, sheer debauched, intelligent and humane. I can always rely on Roth to challenge and entertain at the same time. The cashier, who served me without making eye contact, appeared to be engrossed in a book under the counter, hence her lack of acknowledgement.  Sadly she was busy texting. Damon Albarn sings it quite rightly in his latest offering,

We are everyday robots on our phones.

I found myself wandering around open book stalls that sold volumes of Italian novels. I recognised authors translated into Italian by their cover artwork. The little market-like emporium also sold vinyl LPs (long player records) and grossly explicit pornographic DVDs with front covers on full display. Bizarre indeed!

book stalls

I did chuckle to myself thinking, I may not have made it to the book store I had planned to, but I had managed to experience a literary café, a literary supermarket and fall upon an alternative type of entertainment centre.

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Etymology geekery

I am reading The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth and it is so fantastic in so many ways that I can’t wait until I reach the end to write about it.

the _wake_paul_kingsnorth

Set in the aftermath of the Norman invasion, told in an ‘edited version’ of 11th Century English, these first few pages have been a daunting read. Reading a book like this on a tablet really lets the technology come in to its own, allowing for frequent looking up of the bits that have had me truly stumped.

To give you an idea:

of angland he saes i can tell thu naht. i colde tell thu of hams in wessex in the land of the golden wyrm and of the hwit clifs in the south where they locs ofer the sea in fear and i colde tell thu of the holtmen of the andredesweald who belyfs they is safe beneath the great ac treows… but i colde not tell thu of angland for this word is too lytel for all the folc of this land to lif within.

When I first began reading the book, I found that speaking the lines aloud helped, whereupon words like ac, treows, lytel, lif and the ever-present thu soon give up their meaning*. I could pat myself on the back for remembering from school that ham meant home, as it lives on today in many place names, Buckingham for instance.

Wyrm is obviously worm, or so you would think, but that is a false friend because really it means dragon or snake. The golden dragon of Wessex came from legend and appeared on their flag. Yet if some words are easy to guess, what is a reader to make of things like fugol – this was a bird – with the word having links to Proto-German (which could have been a rejected Kraftwerk song title), Old Frisian and Saxon. The word bird was used in Old English, but Kingsnorth’s storyteller is a Lincolnshire man, a well-bred and wealthy farmer and freeman, or socman, descended from a previous generation of invaders and so likely to use more Germanic words.

What we call ‘Old English’ was a blend of other languages, influenced by Latin, Norse and Celtic, with an array of local dialects depending on which tribe was doing the colonising. Cornish, Welsh, Cumbric and Norse would all have been spoken around the edges of the nominal boundaries of Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria and the Viking-ruled lands of the North.

Some of these old place names are still in use or, as with the white cliffs in the south, can be guessed at. Only an internet search enlightened me that andredesweald is Kent and the holtmen the people who lived near the woods that covered that area before the Normans arrived. Following the 1066 invasion, England’s geography as well as her language would be irrevocably altered.

There are many ideas of England that are peddled around by those with agendas and ambitions of their own. And while I wouldn’t like to second guess where this remarkably crafted tale is going to end, this history, to me anyway, has a lot to tell me about my country today. Rather than multiculturalism being some recently introduced change that could or should be reversed, we have always been a mixed up group of people, ruled by ‘cyngs’ of other nations, with our language adaptable and fluid in the face of outside influences.

Perhaps a longer post for another day. For now, it’s back to my reading.

* Did you spot all of them? The words were oak, trees, little, life and you.

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