Friday, 25 April 2008

A Moment with Mark Power, Churchill and A Stork's Nest

I went to an exhibition by the Magnum photographer Mark Power last Sunday afternoon. It was held in Churchill College which is one of those sixties additions to the Cambridge academic arena which sits on the edge of the town on a large site trying to look as if it doesn’t care if it belongs but is going to strive to be radical and deeply itself. This is how it was in the sixties and seventies when it first sprung from the ground but now its architecture makes it appear slightly more dated than the medieval colleges in the town. It does have a number of very interesting sculptures dotted about the grounds that lend it an air of sculpture park meets sixties low rise. 'Four Square Walk' by Barbara Hepworth, 'Mother and Child' by Dhruva Mistry RA, 'Gemini' by Denis Mitchell, 'Flight' by Peter Lyon, and 'Spiral' by Michael Gillespie, amongst others can be found there. They recently exhibited a large sculpture by the late Lynn Chadwick called Beast Alerted 1. Another sculpture by this well known artist was stolen from the grounds of a college in London, a huge bronze called The Watchers…well no one was watching and the bronze that would have needed a small crane to lift it was cut off at the base and spirited away in the course of the night.

No one noticed for a while apparently. I once had a rather decent sized coniasta bush dug up by thieves and I didn’t notice for a week until I wondered what didn’t seem quite right about my front garden (that was before I took to my wildlife garden approach). I suppose in public places the disappearance of a huge bronze set of figures might be passed over because a) they have just merged into the landscape and become lost as so everyday that they become unnoticed or b) no one takes ownership of it and presumes someone else has reported it missing or someone else has moved it for reasons legitimate but unknown.

I once worked as a Probation Officer and a very jolly professional burglar told me that removing household goods such as freezers, cookers, televisions, even once a bed, in plain sight without anyone noticing was simply a matter of confidence, a nod and a smile to neighbours who might spot you, a brown overall and a white van that looked the part. People never question the everyday, the usual and unremarkable because it is just that, not worth marking or flagging up in our memory. So a huge bronze stature by one of the country’s leading artists can be sawn off and transported away to be melted down for scrap as I expect second hand sculptures with a good pedigree are hard to shift other than to mad rich collectors and they only exist in bad thrillers I imagine.

This brings me back neatly to the exhibition by Mark Power. As I walked round I was again impressed by the ability of a good photographer to capture some element of the ordinary and everyday and literally mark it; give it significance that raises it to the level of remarkable. The theorists of the visual arts would of course have a fancy name for this such as ‘a signifier’ in order to ensure the esoteric mystification of the arts; we all like to have a language that keeps us in the private club of short-hand knowingness now and then. Of course the photographic image has the ability to freeze time, capture something that is always held in tension with transience; this moment captured serves to highlight the fact that everything is in some way transient. Mark Power is well known for his images of buildings and objects becoming something else (The Treasury, the Millennium Dome, the mammoth Airbus). In this exhibition, however I was drawn to his images collected over a period of years in Poland. They had something important to say about the nature of change and people caught and held in change. Poland is struggling with enormous unemployment and economic difficulties whilst it is haemorrhaging workers, many of them young, into other countries into the EU. The photographs seem to ooze a sense of how painful change can be, they manage to sidestep the cliché of Eastern European melancholy but at the same time there is what I can only pin down as a wistfulness which allows for feelings about things yearned for in the future but also something lost. The fact that the image suspends us in the now is what gives us something remarkable to observe if we watch carefully enough. Ask anyone to explain how they feel now, at this very second, and even in the act of explaining or writing what they feel the now has moved on and is changed by the act of interior introspection. A photograph is always now; the image of the naked child running towards the camera covered in Napalm is still running towards the camera. The stork nest balanced precariously on top of a naked tree trunk beside an icy pot-holed road through a sparse Polish village, as in this exhibition, will always be balanced there. It may have been swept away by high winds, the tree may have fallen but in that constant instant the home made of sticks is just managing to hold itself together up there; it cannot move beyond it. You can ask yourself questions about what led up to this moment, what will happen after, why is this here now but it will remain what it is anything else it becomes is endowed by the transient observer. I sometimes envy this medium, nothing I write can ever quite top that immediacy of the visual, we are essentially lead by the eye. Words can do other things, have other great virtues but the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words seems a fair rate of exchange but only if the picture is exceptional. A poor photograph and exceptional words might upset that rate; at least I hope it would. The adage also begs the question of how we access worth which is a whole different blog.
This is the link to Mark’s web site. He is doing some interesting work with a poet at present , if you go into his archive you can see the Polish photographs which are well worth a look and are due to be published some time this year. His inaugural speech when installed as Professor of Photography in Brighton is really worth reading if you are interested in photography. Enjoy!

I am off tonight to an artist friend’s private view of her exhibition where we can argue about the merits of photography versus acrylics and canvas and drink wine that she hauled back from her French studio in a local vineyard. She assures me that after the fourth glass of rough but extremely high alcohol content wine someone is bound to buy something!

* For the camera geeks amongst you Mark uses a Horseman FA 5X4. I am told that a photographer is always asked at any talk they give about the kind of camera they use. To date no one has asked me about the kind of pen or computer I use to write with, although one person did once ask me if I had a special chair I sat in.

Friday, 18 April 2008

A Raven, Spoofers, Charles Simic and the Ticking Clock

So today I received over 300 failure to deliver Mailer Daemon notices. (I thought daemons were meant to be animal versions of our soul invented by Phillip Pullman) I contact my email provider who allows me to chat on line, which is nice of them. It appears I am being seriously spoofed, they are emails with failure to deliver notice as the heading and not what they seem to be (in life as on the internet I seem to attract those who are not what they at first appear to be, it is a medium designed for such as they). The spoofers appear to be trying to sell electronic goods in very poor English. I have a quick live chat with the Customer Care person who calls themselves Raven (I immediately imagine someone dressed in Goth clothes trying to earn their way out of student debt). They (I am unsure whether I am chatting to a male or female raven) treated me very efficiently and kindly and explained about spoofing as opposed to spamming. I ask basic question of course such as, can a spoof be passed on , how do I stop this and other spoofs, how have I suddenly become the object of spoofing, when does a jolly jape stop being a jolly jape and tip over into a spoof? I feel myself back in the school playground wondering if the cool but slightly malign group are picking on me because they can, because I have done something wrong, because I was wearing a ladybird vest in PE, because I am stupid enough to let them do it, because I am unable to fathom the deep recesses of their mind to understand why they would want to do this to me. Raven tells me, in what I am beginning to read as a soothing prescribed tone, that spoofing isn’t personal. Every fibre of my being denies this, if when I open my e mail account I have 300 ‘Failure to Deliver’ notices I take it very personally. Someone out there is out to get me.

The internet opens up so many more opportunities to experience paranoia. I used to think that junk mail through the letter box, delivered by the Royal Mail was an affront. Our postal service that had for years ensured that the good people of Great Britain received letters, telegrams, parcels delivered by liveried officers with cheery smiles and bikes was now fast becoming nothing more than a sullied leaflet distributor. I will now digress.

I knew an old man who delivered telegrams when he was a boy. He told me in his day telegrams were always either bad or good news, usually bad. In my father’s effects after he died, I found the original telegram that informed him his mother had died. It was in the original brown envelope, the words on the thin sepia paper bore the impressed weight of one of those very heavy old fashioned typewriters. It was very brief, words cost money in those days. Mother died today. The old man told me he sometimes had to wait for an answer, write it down and take payment for it. In the days when phones were few and far between the telegram was the only means of quick communication. He hated those telegrams that he knew were bad news, he couldn’t just shove them through the door. The Royal Mail in those days demanded telegrams be handed over to a real person and then he would have to wait while they read it, absorbed the contents. Next he had to pipe up with the ‘Any answer?’ question that he dreaded. Almost always it was a blank look and a shake of the head, ‘No, there’s no answer.’ I don’t know if my father sent an answer, probably not he would have written a letter in reply.

I will now return from the slow slightly lavender world of digression. The spoofers and spammers must take the time to generate their mail or at least take time to work out how to circumvent the spam guards; the virtual equivalent of the vicious terriers that wait behind hedges for unsuspecting postmen. Of course my letterbox on my front door is open to anybody; everybody is free to stick something through it that they want me to read. The pile this week alone contains leaflets about; tree lopping, wet fish delivery, a new Tandoori Restaurant, three local election leaflets, a scrap mental dealer visiting the area, savings to be made at the local Co-op supermarket on wines and spirits this week, four charities and a small hand-printed poster about a lost cat. I have not resorted to the ‘NO JUNK MAIL’ sign as I am told by those that have them that everyone just ignores them anyway and besides I may want to know about the new Tandoori, cheap wine and the lost cat. I fill up my blue recycle bin with leaflets that are then re-cycled into more leaflets and so it goes on, it is the wheel of life in text and images of lost cats, children in refugee camps near Dafur, wine and politicians’ promises and a drawing of a Bengal Lancer holding what looks like a dish of rice.

My bulk folder despite resetting the parameters of my spam guard overflows with junk mail, no trees of course were harmed in its making, its carbon footprint is probably very low, it does not require men to take it away once a week and yet today it feels more intrusive and more annoying to get it than all the other hard copy junk I get. Someone out there is out to get me electronically and I suppose our lives are so interwoven with the virtual world these days that trashing that world, littering that, with unwanted stuff feels far more aggressive. Of course three hundred leaflets stuffed through my letterbox about a Tandoori Restaurant opening would no doubt annoy me as much, yet because of costs and economics etc that never happens. For spammers and spoofers the whole virtual world is their playground. I have thought myself back to that playground scenario again…they are getting at me, making my life a misery, simply because they can. Who says we shouldn’t treat it as personal Mr/Ms/Mrs Raven?

If the world seems a tad frightening to me today it is because this incident has underlined to me how bizarre and interconnected our world is becoming for good and ill. How the press of a button in India can flood in-boxes all over the world, the old cliché about America catching a cold and the world sneezing has never been more true both economically and politically and the time lag is diminishing, the clock is ticking faster and faster. How fast can it go before it breaks and the clock stops? You can virtually hear that tick dying out and taste the fear in this poem by Charles Simic

Monday, 14 April 2008

Wyatt, Soft Machine and American Presidents Being Pushed

I was reminded when looking at another blog ( a good one) of the wonderful Robert Wyatt. I heard him play in Matching Mole and Soft Machine before he fell out of that third floor window. I remember all the fuss in the 70’s when the director of Top of the Pops wanted him to sing his bizarre hit cover version of I’m A Believer sitting on a chair rather than in a wheelchair. He apparently felt someone in a wheel chair wasn’t suitable for family viewing. The Roosevelt phenomenon seemed to operate then, disability was not designed for public viewing. The American president was rarely shown in his wheelchair, it would have frightened the voters and diminished respect. If you look at this footage of the Yalta conference during the Second World War, the American President is always carefully placed in an ordinary chair or a jeep. His crutch is cunningly disguised under a long coat when he does stand up (no double entendre here I do mean crutch as in the supportive kind).

The sight of wheelchair handles behind him might have inferred that he was being pushed and a pushed man can not lead, not then. If you couldn’t walk you couldn’t be the head honcho. It is probably still the case, we may soon have the first black president or the first woman president, yet America had their first ‘secret’ disabled president over sixty years ago. I wonder whether a presidential candidate in a wheelchair could be elected now? Somehow I think that would prove difficult.

At least Wyatt can appear on TV now without his disability being disguised He has now become a verb apparently, wyatting, means to play obscure music on a juke box in order to disconcert people in the pub. It must be strange to become a new verb but at least it’s something active, becoming a noun might imply something rather pejorative, ‘a wyatt’, sounds very static and stolid, a slight back hint of plank to it. Although a Wyatter of course is someone who wyatts. It might lend itself to an adjective a wyatt night, a wyatt sea , a wyatt sofa.

I have found myself at times sadly playing the game of making my own surname in to verb, noun and adjective. I can be verbalised in fact my name already exists as a verb and a noun, that’s the trouble with having a solid Anglo Saxon sort of name they tended to base themselves on very prosaic occupations; Smith, Miller, Potter, Farmer, Weaver. They could dispense with the yellow pages in ancient times. I wonder if other musicians would lend themselves to verbs, Costelloing, Presleying, Dylaning, Springsteening. Winehousing has probably already been invented.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Alan Sillitoe,Sara Paretsky and the Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

So having read successfully with colleagues at the Cambridge Wordfest to a packed house of well over 200 and been asked back for an encore I was in my happy place for the rest of the festival and could attend events with a clear mind, divested of worries about getting my small piece of the Festival right.

The crime writer Sara Paretsky gave not only a good reading but a very interesting Q and A session. Strangely in the early days she said publishers initially turned her down, not because she had a female detective but that it was set in Chicago. There was some prevailing sense that people in the all important literary city of New York did not want to read about anything outside their geographical area let alone buy it. I wondered whether that applied to Great Britain. The settings of novels in Great Britain has always been less problematic being such a small country in comparison to the USA, we cannot afford to be so narrow. British writers have always set novels in diverse locations. Austen, Elliot, Dickens, Hardy, Gaskell, Scott, the Brontes, Kingsley, Trollope , Defoe never placed their literary offerings firmly in the London basket. Of course in the 19th and early 20th Century there was a yen for the pastoral to counteract the terrible stench of the cities. Readers liked a little fresh air in their novels or at least the prospect that happiness and resolution usually lay in some residence with a good view of moor, rolling hills, sheep, wood or ploughed field. The gritty urban sections of novels tended to lean heavily on the view of them as just a cut above Dante’s Inferno. Cities did feature but good things tended only to happen in places like Bath, or the genteel side of London where you could leave your carriage or horse parked outside without risk of it being stolen or keyed by some jealous n’er do well.

Of course the working classes were also used as a sort of social setting to either display the idyllic dignity of the labourer worthy of his hire or the terrible fate that awaited you should you end up in poverty. Besides being used to fuel social propaganda for better conditions the workhouse and the grim industrial streets was used as the bogy man to scare children. They were locations to ensure people counted their blessings and were pointed to the benefits of a nice safe job in an insurance company and the necessity of a marriage to someone who knew the price of eggs and could run up her own curtains if needs be, or who could direct the housemaid to do it

My final ticket of the Festival was to go and see Alan Sillitoe, who at eighty is still a force to be reckoned with. He treated us to a display of his morse code skills to underline that he had lost none of his ability to translate the word into sound and back again. This display was not a random act of an elderly man trying to show what he was still capable of but to underline his theme that the writer’s duty was to ensuring the words were given weight.In the way he wrote, drafting and redrafting, nothing happened by accident each word had to challenge others for its right to be there. This ability to be sure of each word lay at the heart of his being a successful radio operator. He waved the flag for good, clear concise language as the bedrock of all literature. This of course does not mean, he pointed out, that it cannot be fresh, new, untrammelled by cliché and beautiful; in fact he indicated that clear and concise ensured that at least you started writing from a point of strength.

Whilst suffering from TB as a young man he had lain in a hospital bed and thanks to a redoubtable lady with a well stocked library trolley he had consumed books from the Greek and Roman Greats to Sartre and Camus. He talked about how important words became to him. I think perhaps the impact of his early novels Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner have perhaps been lost over the past fifty years. Sitting in Majorca in the early fifties in a basic stone cottage he and his wife, the poet and writer Ruth Fainlight, read endlessly to each other. The sounds of the words were as important to him as their presence on the page. I tend to think this may be why his dialogue in his early novels is so good and rings true because he listened to the words that he placed on the page and may show why he also chose to write poetry.His importance in that era was that he found an authentic 'voice' and it is not called voice without reason, its connection to the spoken word underpins it

By the fifties an anti hero like Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night Sunday Morning was possible but it took a Czech Director to perhaps look at the location of the film made from the book and give it something different a real sense of alienation.The story was at the time so different from anything the reading public were used to that is was almost like giving the outsider his voice, the accent alone made it almost like a foreign language on the screen to some.

I attended other events at the festival about the writing business and publication. The usual message was given that writers and poets must believe in themselves, their work and just keep going and not be ground down by what they may perceive to be a publishing industry that denies them access. Strive to write better, listen to people who you think worth listening to about your work and never fall out of love with the sheer joy and privilege of trying to commit something to paper for others to read.

Having just re-watched the film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner that was adapted from one of Sillitoe’s short stories, I thought the ‘toffs’ versus’ the lower classes might be outdated but I still found it uplifting at the end when Courtney chooses not to win and just stands there smiling as he lets others run past him. The small man versus the system is ever present in literature, theatre and film, the story of the person choosing something other than the easy way out. Raising two finger up to ‘the man’, ‘the world’, ‘the gods’, ‘the status quo’ still works as a theme, it has always worked whatever the setting, whatever the era, whatever the genre or medium of expression. Perhaps the writer is forever the lonely long distance runner; in the end only I know why I am even running the race and what, for me, amounts to winning.