Tuesday, 21 February 2017

THE DIG by John Preston

One of those rare short books I think I'll one day read again, like J.L. Carr's 'A Month in the Country' (for my money one of the best novels in English of the 20th century).  Quiet, quietly humorous, wistful, about something real, slow, page-turning, mysterious (though you know what happens).  It has that quality in a drawing that we prefer over the finished oil.  A series of unfinished stories we haven't even seen begun, within one straightforward unearthing. Like the boat itself - oh, sorry, it is 'about' the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasures - the stories remain forever beyond whole knowledge.  Just as a King once ruled and was buried with all honour, so we know that people once dug him up. The lives of all remain a mystery.

Contains one of the most tender and beautiful love scenes in modern literature.

My thanks to Jody Tresidder for the recommendation.


Saturday, 18 February 2017

HOCKNEY at the Tate

First response to the Hockney. It is no good pretending that part of oneself does not tend to go to art exhibitions out of a sense of piety, of 'ought'. But Hockney is different. Hockney is a pleasure. It is impossible not to smile at the Tate. Here is an artist who, for all the personality in the pictures, for all the scenes of his life and friends, seems somehow without ego. Nothing is being angstfully expressed. Instead we have an explosion of seeing. The generosity is overwhelming. Even without colour, in the charcoal drawings, we are being invited in not to the artist's soul but into a way of looking and seeing. Shall be going again and again. Worth joining the Tate just for this.

PARTY ANIMALS by David Aaronovitch

Just finished David Aaronovitch's engrossing 'Party Animal: My Family and other Communists'. Hardly a happy moment in it, yet Aaronovitch's generosity, good humour and understanding make it compelling.A book, I suppose, about fidelity. Very much recommended.
Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists

Monday, 13 February 2017

LAPSTRAKE by Wendy Pratt

My review of Wendy Pratt's pamphlet 'Lapstrake'. Originally written for publication in Lunar Poetry, which I believe is now defunct.  Please feel free to share this.

by Wendy Pratt
ISBN 9781906480417

‘Lapstrake’ is a kind of planking used in the building of boats, whereby the planks ‘lap’ one over the other.  A perhaps marginally more familiar term for this technique is ‘clinker-built’.  The title then suggests the building of something seaworthy. We should expect craft and salt in what follows.  And we get it.
         What is it to have lived?
         Wendy Pratt’s daughter, Matilda, was stillborn (a gentle euphemism), but we know, from these poems, that she lived, for they would not have been written otherwise.  In some sense what this marvellous pamphlet attempts to do is to explain to its readers that paradox.
         Wendy Pratt’s way of making poems is to strand together myth or legend and place (element, perhaps) and person.  In earlier poems, particularly in her collection Museum Pieces, earth was the place: the bones of the dead brought to life through archaeology.  Here it is the sea, whence we all came originally.  In her first pamphlet, Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, Pratt used folk tales of the witch Nan Hardwicke to make sense of her daughter’s death.  As for person, it has almost always been that daughter, Matilda, who is the chief agent.
         The collection begins with the title poem, which employs a sort of rhyming diluted sestina form which seems to me technically very accomplished, the rhymes and repeated words lapping over one another (perhaps Pratt has invented a new form we might call ‘lapstraking’). It acts both as a kind of declaration of poetic authority, and, in its content, sounds a cautionary note: “The world / is pouring through to Helheim” (’Helheim’ being the Viking version of Hell – Pratt is a poet of the North East).  We must “nest up / as fishermen must do”, as the planks in lapstrake do. (And that word “nest” is the first note of the motherhood that sings through the collection, often, as here, and understandably, in the minor key).
         There follows a set of eight poems under the title ‘And Her Great Gift of Sleep’.  This is a line from W.E. Henley’s ‘Margaritae Sorori’, a poem that asks that the poet be “gather'd to the quiet west, / The sundown splendid and serene, / Death.”  Pratt’s sequence is chronological, a kind of diary of response to the tragedy. The first poem opens with an immediately attention-grabbing multi-image.

The seagulls are static
and strange in the night sky.
Roped to a moon that slips
the bones from their wings,
they hang over the edge,
like a cot mobile.

This could be the description of a picture, but it is not the painting that takes its title from the line preceding ‘And her great gift of sleep’, which is ‘Night with her train of stars’.   That painting, by Edward Robert Hughes, a late pre-Raphaelitish sort of painter, portrays night in the form of a blue winged angel, carrying a babe in her arms; the 'train of stars' are also babies. It crops up later in the set.
This complicated image starts in the “night sky” and ends over a child’s cot, and it is impossible not to think of the preparations parents make for the arrival of their new born – the “nest”. The lines that follow violently oppose this stillness.  The wind “bites like a dog in a fight”.  We learn that “the sea is sick”.  The sea, in just two short poems, has already become a very complicated place.
         We find out in the poem that follows what the consequence of that sickness of the sea is: “She is drowning”.  The ocean is amniotic.

I dream the sea
goes out
and the tide line
is scattered with her clothes.

This veers thrillingly close to sentimentality; it almost teases the reader into that safe, unthoughtful place, but preceding this is a “wet-sand-heavy” body, a “stretched belly” and a listening for the sea.  The child has been taken by the water, and her memory is brought back as surely as each high tide.  The dream image is earned. 
         The poet is never far from water – she crawls from her hospital bath, like an evolutionary creature, to hold her daughter’s body: “I want / to be a siren and sing her back”. Sirens, mermaids – this world of myth and legend is never far away from Pratt’s mind. So often these are easy shortcuts; here their invocation gives them life, they become real.  The poet and the partner are next discovered in a car park in the rain “where the Holbeck Hotel / once stood, before it collapsed / over the cliff edge”.  That too has been taken by the sea, has disappeared over the edge (a recurring motif, this edge, which marks the line between life and death). Then, while walking the dog, a sea mist comes in suddenly and sound takes over from sight:

The sea is scraping the bottom
of a bucket, or dragging a corpse
or tickling or kissing the sand

‘Dover Beach’ comes to mind. The poet listens for the sound of the stones she throws into the water, “but the water / moves on and on and offers / only sea glass and fossils”.  The poet, I think, is listening for the cry of her lost child, or “the underwater / tap-tap”, perhaps, of the second poem.
         Pratt’s poetry is full of fossils, bones, the evidence of lives lived and gone. It marks a kind of refusal to admit to history, to linear time.  All those that have lived still live.  The past inhabits the present: “and yesterday is tomorrow and tomorrow is today, yesterday / is now and past and future” sings a dead Minke whale in the last poem in the pamphlet. This refusal of course has added piquancy in the light of Pratt’s own experience of her daughter’s death. 
The final poem of the sequence demands that the poet “stop trailing her along behind me”.  It is a brave poem, an attempt to release her child:

I think of her atoms climbing
out of her body, out through the earth,
into the water, into the rain,
into the sea

The tide that in a previous poem drags her “back / and forth for years” is now “the sound of the waves / coming home to the shore”.  The sadness is not diminished, but there is a sense that the poet is recognizing her daughter’s self-agency, that Matilda is being allowed separation, has – and I hope this is not a morbid or offensive or sentimental idea - been born.

         I’ve lingered on this sequence, as I think it represents the major achievement of Lapstrake, but this is not to suggest that the rest of the poems are not rich and thematically coherent with ‘And Her Great Gift of Sleep’.  The sea dominates, whether in the form of Ran – a sea goddess in Norse mythology, who lures and then cares for the drowning and drowned – or her husband Aegir, often in lapstraking poems (‘Coming Aground’, ‘Weaving’).  Seagulls, mermaids, dragons, shells, sand, edges abound.  By the end – the last poem, ‘Dead Whale Dreams of God’ (very Hughesian, no?) is an actual bona fide sestina – the reader will taste salt on his or her tongue and might well hear “an eternal note of sadness”.

Night with Her Train of Stars by Edward Robert Hughes
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Friday, 27 January 2017

Tuesday, 17 January 2017


Although it plays on the tropes of golden age musicals, La La Land isn't really a musical in that sense. The leads are not great dancers - to have been so would simply have been cheesy. Their modest hoofing is approachable, which seems right for what is, in effect, a two hander. It is a very clever thing to have made so intimate and ordinary a story on such a cinescopic scale. The hilltop dance scene (six minutes - one shot - the one in the posters) was done on location. The artifice is the artifice of reality (that sounds a bit pseudy, I am aware, but it rather sums up the movie's appeal). The story itself is rigorously anti-sentimental, which plays brilliantly against all the expectations we bring to the genre. No, it isn't Singin' in the Rain, nor meant to be (and anyway, Singin' in the Rain is more or less the greatest of all movies in the history of the universe, including all parallel universes). As for the performances - dancing aside - Ryan Gosling's is wonderfully generous and understated, while Emma Stone's first audition is alone worth studying - for once a movie audition that isn't played cod - her character can really act. We are transfixed by Stone's brilliant acting until we become aware that behind her, blurred, a minion is knocking at the glass office door with a sandwich for the casting director, and we are ourselves torn, distracted. The film's cameras linger; there are shots that last minutes on end, so that all the action is in the performance It seems like a film put imagined beforehand and not put together in the cutting room. It also continues a theme that impels 'Whiplash' - that to be your best self, sacrifice must be made. La La Land is not simply a floaty floaty pastiche; it is a proper tale beautifully told.

Friday, 6 January 2017

St David's Day Pageant, 1953

HPW and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas broadcasting from the Royal Albert Hall,
St David's Day Pageant, March 1953
© National Library of Wales

Monday, 2 January 2017


John Berger, I understand, has died, at 90. He was one of the larger characters of my childhood, with that wonderful voice, and serious motorbike. He made several films for my father, and had a deep friendship and intense correspondence with my mother. John asked her to write the original blurb for his Booker prize-winning novel, 'G', and she did so. I reproduce it here, because I think it does the novel justice and might bring it new readers.

"G. is pre-eminently, monumentally, the sexual man: an embodiment, perhaps, of the life-force itself. In him, the claims of sexuality are total, leaving no part of his life and fate untouched. They push their unimpeded way through riot, sudden death, the onset of world war, the fabric of social forms and sexual conventions, until that last moment when under the weight of the world 'desire is indistinguishable from despair'.
G.'s ineluctable preoccupation with women and the life of sex gives unexpected foundation for an astonishing new vision of the physical world and its inner life. Although set at the turn of the century, the action of the novel is not 'condemned to living the present in the past', which in G. himself signifies the beginning of his death. From G.'s birth to the Anglo-American mistress of a wealthy Livornese merchant, every described moment is made a present one with hallucinating precision. Many of these moments relate to the affairs of the world - Garibaldi entering Naples, the first flight over the Alps, riots in Milan, the outbreak of the 1914 war; others to the timeless being of the countryside and its fruits, houses, the play of light and shade; yet others to acts of personal human kindness, rage, desire - the most central of all to the acts of sex. Those moments are so originally and truly observed that they have a rare, persistent, mind-moving effect on the reader.
The book is impressive throughout: in its slow, mesmerising rhythms and frequent startling poetic leaps of thought; in its perceptions at once precisely and sensuously physical and speaking always to the mind's eye; in the strong appearance of the author as storyteller and essayist and philosopher - the only reasonable comparison here would be with Musil; above all perhaps in the head-on collision between a modern writer and the intractable stuff of reality. 'Whatever I perceive or imagine amazes me with its particularity'.
At this collision, John Berger shows us how reality, upon the utterance of a word, disappears: to reassemble, both time and silence are necessary to it. As a result of the author's dedication, patience and highest art both these elusive elements are present in this very remarkable work. Fore this reason alone, G. cannot but help raise critical questions of the utmost importance."

Jacqueline Wheldon, September 1971


 Last day. Preposterous crowds. The trick is to skip around until you spot a picture not being looked at. The problem with this approach is that although it is a big show there aren't that many paintings, on account of their being so damn large. However, you'd have to be deeply misanthropic not to enjoy being surrounded by this stuff, even in the press of head-phoned humanity. So - a few notes: Willem de Kooning was a bit of a turn up. Although I don't much like his pastellly palate, I do like the kind of tease in his pictures: what precisely am I looking at? (There is that odd moment in art history - brought home in the recent Nash exhibition - when Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism shared a similar space; there's a Rothko gouache and w/c here from 1944 that occupies the same place). I enjoyed a Motherwell or two, especially the big 'Elegy to the Spanish Republic' (unspoiled by a son's insistence that it was an illustration of Imperial fighters from Star Wars). The Rothko room is too full of people - It is hard to get that weird otherworldly hum that Rothko's paintings give off in a room of his paintings, as though speaking to one another. He and Pollock - yin and yan, energy and meditation - so perfectly complement one another, and they are head and shoulders, in my opinion, above the rest. I think 'Blue Poles' alone was worth the price of entry. An absolutely fabulous thing. In reproduction it is almost impossible to understand the sheer scale, and the work, the ferocity of it; it has depth but it also sits on the surface. It can be looked at in so many ways. Might be worth a trip to Australia to see it again. A real privilege. Finally, a word about David Smith, whose sculptures make you smile, seasoning the austere seriousness of the painters' ambitions. I saw a show of his at the Tate Modern a few years ago, and because he is not a galactico, it was possible to actually see each piece in relative peace and quiet. They are invariably engaging - again on that nexus which includes surreal and abstract - and often beautiful. Fab show. Catalogue sold out. Here are a couple of badly photographed de Koonings and a David Smith.

Sunday, 1 January 2017


ADVENTURES IN MODERN MARRIAGE by William Nicholson (review here)
MOONGLOW by Michael Chabon
GOLDEN HILL by Francis Spufford
SWING TIME by Zadie Smith
THE DIG by John Preston

Tuesday, 13 December 2016


To the Tate for Paul Nash.  A biggish exhibition, perhaps a little too big, but fascinating.  I've had a soft spot for Nash ever since an exhibition of his photos at my school in the early 1970s.  I feel possessive.

Among the very first pictures is one which features a moon and pyramids.  It is a geometric theme than runs through almost all his work, giving it its distinctiveness and tension: the war between curve and straight.  That early picture also has a mysteriousness which is present in almost all his subsequent work, and provides the seasoning that brings the paintings their liveliness.

Nash's trees and hills and suns and moons are given a mythic identity; I was reminded of Samuel Palmer.  Nash is a romamtic: the world is not as it seems; nature contains meanings.

By later landscapes I was reminded of Ivon Hitchens, who surely learned from Nash, who by this time seems more interested in the paint on the canvas, so to speak.  There is more than a hint of abstraction.

The absence of Nash's most famous painting, the wonderful 'Battle of Britain' was a disappointment.  Is there a war going on between the Tate at the Imperial War Museum?  I wanted to use it in my biography of my Dad, as it seemed brilliantly to illustrate the strange beauty of a scene he witnessed, of German dive bombers being scared off by Spitfires, over the Channel in 1940.  But I wasn't allowed colour pics, so...

My favourite picture was probably this one:

Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917
painted 1918

A very worthwhile exhibition.  Nash was not a great painter, I think, but he was a very good one.  Top of the second division.  This is a great oversimplification, but I think, in the end, the paintings say more about Nash himself than they do about the world.  Having said that, I was at Seatown recently, below Golden Cap, and the moon  had risen as the sun was setting over the channel, behind me.  There was a clump of trees on the rise of a hill, and it was mysterious, and it made me think of Nash, and Nash made me feel this little landscape's power, so maybe I'm wrong, and he has helped me see the world.


A Paul Nash scene, Seatown, Dorset - the rise towards Golden Cap.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016


Doddery Dad manages to make Wise Son smile.

Nice scrolling on that 'O'

Eugene Grasset's rather startling 'Morphinomane', 1897

Wise son preparing to take on world / life etc
(circa some time ago now)

Wise son (right) promoting a good idea.

Wise and beautiful wife preparing to take on Scotland.