Saturday, 28 January 2012

Hockney at the RA: An Experience

Mark Rothko said: “I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however – I think it applies to other painters I know – is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human.”

There are several very large pictures in this exhibition (generally made up of lots of smaller pictures, it is to be admitted) and they are neither pompous nor grandiose.  But where Rothko was concerned with expressing “tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on” (I love that “and so on”), Hockney is more concerned to express mutability, immutability and the simple pleasure of looking and seeing.

Lots of the pictures in this exhibition are of modest landscapes, given a kind of integrity by Hockney’s worrying of them. There are three trees he paints or draws over and over again, sometimes they are nude in winter, sometimes fully clothed in high summer; there is a tree stump that turns up in the middle, to the side, in the background of pictures, in a variety of hues.

In starkest of contrasts there is an enormous horizontal painting of the Grand Canyon, which glows.  You can feel the heat coming off it, relieved by a tiny strip of cool blue sky at the upper edge.

I found it hard not to smile at the sheer pleasure some these pictures afford.  It is impossible not to feel the joy Hockney has felt in making them.

Some of the stuff doesn’t work.  There were rooms I didn’t like, and individual efforts that fell short, but there was, invariably, something around the next corner to delight.  And there is a sneaking suspicion that while the paintings are not great, the art is.  Hockney is clearly fascinated by the changes that come over things that stay the same.  The mesmerising films of identical roads in different seasons testify to this; they also have a kind of didactic power.  “Look!” they are saying, “See!”

Some of my favourite landscapes are those that are painted as with one eye, so that perspective becomes unimportant, and the flat plane of the picture becomes a more honest place than in purely representative painting. 

The really great paintings here, though, are those of Woldgate Wood. When surroundeded by them you know that the experience is not aesthetic but sensual.  You need bring no art historical baggage to this.  Mark Rothko also said: “A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.”

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Song of Wandering Aengus

      I went out to the hazel wood,
      Because a fire was in my head,
      And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
      And hooked a berry to a thread;
      And when white moths were on the wing,
      And moth-like stars were flickering out,
      I dropped the berry in a stream
      And caught a little silver trout.
      When I had laid it on the floor
      I went to blow the fire a-flame,
      But something rustled on the floor,
      And some one called me by my name:
      It had become a glimmering girl
      With apple blossom in her hair
      Who called me by my name and ran
      And faded through the brightening air.
      Though I am old with wandering
      Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
      I will find out where she has gone,
      And kiss her lips and take her hands;
      And walk among long dappled grass,
      And pluck till time and times are done
      The silver apples of the moon,
      The golden apples of the sun. 
      W.B. Yeats

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Joshua Bell Live in the Subway

Old story, new to me, brought to my attention by Mr Aaron Wolff by way of my son.

This is merely the boring old soundtrack.  The full story, from the Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its author is here.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Joy of Books

Hypnotic, charming, fun and, I reckon, rather beautiful.

Etta James

Plus ca change

Salman Rushdie under threat again (why isn't this on the BBC? - it is now, here.)
'Jesus & Mo' satirical cartoons deemed offensive at college (UCL) founded in part to counter religious intolerance...
Ho hum.

Note to God: Now he knows you exist, can you give us back Christopher Hitchens please.

Here's a blog by a young man of whom the Hitch would have been proud.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Giant that Built Stonehenge

Grayson Perry's Head of a Fallen Giant is accompanied by the following text: "There has been much debate about what exactly is Englishness.  We struggle to define it.  I wanted to make something that looked like an ethnographic artefact that was about England.  At once mystical and banal, this is the skull of a decaying maritime superpower..."  Mystical and banal - does this not closely resemble what one might make of Jez Butterworth's play 'Jerusalem'? The play premiered in July 2009.  The giant's head is from 2008.  For me, it is now the giant in Rooster Byron's story (BYRON: I once met a giant that built Stonehenge.  GINGER: Oh, really.  And where was that? BYRON: Just off the A14 outside Upavon, about half a mile from the Little Chef.)

Wales Six Nations Squad

Backs: Mike Phillips (Bayonne), Lloyd Williams (Cardiff Blues), Rhys Webb (Ospreys), Rhys Preistland (Scarlets), James Hook (Perpignan), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Gavin Henson (Cardiff Blues), Ashley Beck (Ospreys), George North (Scarlets), Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), Harry Robinson (Cardiff Blues), Liam Williams (Scarlets), Lee Bryne (Clermont Auvergne)
Forwards: Craig Mitchell (Exeter Chiefs), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Ryan Bevington (Ospreys), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Paul James (Ospreys), Rhys Gill (Saracens), Rhodri Jones (Scarlets), Matthew Rees (Scarlets), Huw Bennett (Ospreys), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Bradley Davies (Cardiff Blues), Ian Evans (Ospreys), Lou Reed (Scarlets), Ryan Jones (Ospreys), Dan Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons), Sam Warburton (capt, Cardiff Blues), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Toby Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons), Andy Powell (Sale Sharks)

Dickens, Sherlock & Grayson Perry

Dickens, even in the ‘dark’ later novels is funny, as well as being earnest and moving.  In two recent TV adaptations, Great Expectations and Edwin Drood, the funny has been filleted out, and it is no coincidence that with the removal of funny has come the removal of moving and we have been left with earnest.  I watched the whole of GE in the hope of being moved, but the truth is I didn’t give a damn about anyone in it; and I gave up on Drood after Episode One, so dismally unDickensian – indeed, how Gradgrindian – it seemed.

Sherlock, however, was both funny and moving and even ever so slightly earnest.  How Sherlock managed his escape remains to be seen, but Watson (Martin Freeman seems to have an uncanny ability to marry comedy and emotion – remember The Office?) demanding of his friend “don’t be dead” certainly had me going.  We have had Sherlock’s Sexuality, Reason and Identity all questioned in this latest series, and yet not for a moment has the earnestness been anything other than worn lightly.  How Moffat and co have managed to transform Sherlock Holmes is little short of miraculous – for, however modern he seems to be there is absolutely never any doubt that this is the same Sherlock Holmes that so many of us know and love.  Truly great television, and in its appearing at the same time as the entertaining movie with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, it demonstrates how very much intellectually superior TV can be.

Grayson Perry’s show at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, is stupendous.  I went because, well, as Perry himself articulates on the first vase we encounter, “there’s just such a buzz”.  But I had not expected to be so entertained, so instructed, so engaged.  Like Dickens, Perry is funny and earnest and even ever so slightly moving.  He has the authority of an intellectual coherence that is fundamentally undogmatic.  Indeed this show is a kind of celebration of the non-dogmatic.  Perry seems to invite the whole world in, in tiny little increments.  The works he has chosen from the British Museum collection (and he clearly adores the British Museum) are all by unknown hands; they are generally delicate, usually full of detail, even messy.  The throwing together of disparate elements excites him.  In the enormous tapestry, Map of Truth and Beliefs, the word ‘Flanders’ sits under a picture of Stonehenge, and ‘Venice’ beneath a power station.

Grayson Perry’s work ought to be the epitome of kitsch, but actually it is the opposite.  May Alan Measles live another fifty years – at least.  And may adapters of Dickens recognize that without the funny the moving is lost, and one is left merely with earnest, which is dull.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Ken Russell

I don't know how long this will stay on iPlayer, but it is worth a watch.  And here is Humphrey Burton's eulogy, delivered at Russell's funeral in December:

Ken Russell – an appreciation for his Funeral

I met Ken in 1959. He joined the Monitor team during its second season. His first film was with John Betjeman, then unknown to the big public; it was  a visualization of poems he’d written about  London and the home counties: I remember I had to find a suitably leggy young lady to en-act  Miss J Hunter Dunn playing tennis, “furnished and burnished by Aldershot sun”.

Ken was thirty-two when Huw Wheldon signed him up, on the strength of a short amateur film of great charm called Amelia and the Angel. He wrote, directed and filmed it  himself on a borrowed 16 mil Paillard Bolex. He was born in Southampton and fell in love with the movies when still only a small child thanks to weekly cinema visits with his mother. For his tenth birthday he was given a hand-cranked home projector on which he ran rented movies over and over again. His first film goddess was Shirley Temple. He soon graduated to Dorothy Lamour and Betty Grable. Later, his creative mentors were Fritz Lang and Charlie Chaplin. Dragons and slapstick!

At thirteen, during the worst days of the Blitz, Ken was sent to Pangbourne College,  graduating after  a stormy adolescence to a sea-going posting as a very junior  fourth officer on a merchant ship. Under the blazing Pacific sun his eccentric captain ordered him to scan the horizon hour after hour  for  Japanese midget submarines – this despite the war having ended some weeks earlier.  He soon realized that the sailor’s life was not for him and at 19 he presented himself at the gates of Ealing Film Studios asking for a tea-boy’s  job in order to learn about directing. The commissionaire turned him away. It was thirteen years before he returned.

 Instead he studied ballet dancing for four years on  a   scholarship but the world of  classical ballet eventually  decided Ken was physically the wrong shape to be a dancer and  after a brief season touring as a “hoofer”  with a touring company in    Annie get your Gun -  he gave  up show dancing, too, though his experience was useful  for his Monitor films about Isadora Duncan and Marie Rambert and the feature films of  The Boy Friend and Valentino.

Ken  also had  a brief spell in the RAF,  spent very unglamourously -   charging batteries for Spitfire engines. He even tried straight acting but to no avail:  it was forty years before he got a speaking role. However a real career opened in his late twenties when he started making  a name for himself  as a stills photographer working for the fashion world and Illustrated.

 I dwell on these early days because it’s surprising, looking back,  how long Ken took to  find his m├ętier. Film had  remained his passion, however, and at last, when he joined Monitor,  he was able to get going as a film-maker. He was a lovely person to work with, very demanding, of course, and famous for his tantrums, but full of respect for his colleagues – cameramen such as Ken Westbury and Ken Higgins; the legendary  film editors Allan Tyrer and Mike Bradsell; his devoted  PAs among them  Anne James, whose production stills of Elgar are so valuable. And once he broke into the feature world (in which BBC “documentaries” such as  the Delius film, A Song of Summer, must be included he built solid and artistically fruitful friendships with actors as Oliver Reed, Wladek Sheybal, Murray Melvin, Vivan Pickles, Glenda Jackson and Christopher Gable. 

Ken didn’t treat television work  as merely a stepping stone to the feature world. In eleven years he made thirty-five films for the BBC. Some were quite short, such as the Guitar Craze  and Mechanical Instruments,   some, like his composer  portrait,  Prokofiev, Soviet Artist,  were half an hour long;  after the success of the  Elgar  film, in which  actors were first admitted,  there was a steady flow of hour-long  “specials” such as  Pop Goes the Easel and Douanier Rousseau. A new recruit to the Monitor team,  Melvyn Bragg, stimulated Ken’s imagination with a brilliant script for The Debussy Film, the first of their many collaborations –  the two of them flourished again  from the late seventies onwards when Melvyn planted the Monitor flag on ITV’s South Bank and nourished Ken with film commissions year after year.

Ken’s energy, his industry, the fecundity of his ideas and the richness of his imagination combined to make a potent magician’s brew. The long list of his feature films, made over a period of thirty years,    defy categorization: science fiction and gothic horror jostle for pride of place  with  adaptations of  D.H.Lawrence (Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow and Lady Chatterly’s Lover)  and vivid biographies (“frenzied carnivals” was his own description)  of Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Mahler, not to mention the fictional  Tommy. He filmed a Puccini aria for Don Boyd’s Diva and  even strayed into opera direction once in a while.

In his television days he said he was hopeless with words, preferring to leave  commentary-writing  for others to deal with, the film’s story for him being primarily in the images. Yet in his 60s and 70s Ken wrote two hilarious books about his time as an independent spirit  in the British cinema, as well as half a dozen novels and a regular column for The Times. He was never at rest. Lisi tells me that on the day he died he was planning to work on his next project, Alice in Wonderland: The Musical. He was at home, by the way, not in hospital as was widely reported: he died peacefully in his sleep – an afternoon nap.

I realize now that Ken was my first true genius. I’d met  composers and poets in my radio days but nobody to compare with this man’s imagination and creative drive. It really struck home when I saw what he had done with Elgar and the Malvern Hills.  The boy on the white pony, the young man on the bicycle, the old man in the car -  all following the same hillside track   to the same glorious music. Or think  how he used  Land of Hope and Glory, cutting it to shocking images of gassed and maimed soldiers on the Western Front. For his climax Ken filmed row upon row of white crosses in the military cemeteries of Picardy, panning over them in dizzying camera sweeps, faster and faster, to match the rushing finale of Elgar’s pre-war  march, now so hideously mis-used as propaganda.

But arguably  the most powerful image of all  was of the three  wooden crosses which Ken arranged to have constructed and erected  before dawn at the summit  of the Worcestershire Beacon -  they were to be  the Catholic Elgar’s ecstatic vision of the crucifixion, the climax of The Dream of Gerontius. (The crosses were hastily dismantled before an irate park warden could remonstrate; the crew then went down to Malvern for breakfast.) 

For the last ten years of his life, Ken and I  did an occasional double act on the lecture circuit, talking about  Monitor and our music films to cinema clubs and arts festivals. We took loads of film clips to illustrate our points but one day we were told the talk would have to be cancelled because the cinema staff had gone on strike. “Don’t be daft!”, cried Ken, “the show must go on :  we’ll do the illustrations ourselves.’ And we did. He had an astonishing musical memory: we described the pony charging over the hills and scattering the sheep  to the vaulting melody of the Introduction and Allegro (sing). We evoked  the courtship scenes  which were cut to Salut d’Amour (sing). Then there was the cello concerto (which Ken could sing and I won’t); we used that melancholy music  for the poignant moment when the camera pans down from a double row of poplars and steadies at ground level on an empty road where earlier in the film we’ve seen Elgar and his future bride disappearing into small dots as at the end of a Chaplin film. Another example of Ken’s unique gift of getting to the heart of the  music.

Today it’s as if that camera has once again  panned down through the line of waving poplars to an empty avenue and found… a gaping hole  in our minds and memories where Ken Russell used to be.  Our hearts  go out  to his dear wife  Lisi    and to  his family in their loss - as we say farewell to a “life-force”; I can’t find a better word to describe him.

Ken Russell was a great Englishman. Fearless, independent, original, visionary. He achieved an unmatched body of work as a film-maker which we must  now ensure is accessible to film-lovers the world over to admire and enjoy. Thank-you, Ken. Good-bye.    

Humphrey Burton    Bournemouth Crematorium,     December 12th, 2011

See also Making 'Elgar' in Pages

Marlon Roudette

Be nice if all rap was as good as this. Lovely song.  Great video. Music as it's meant to be...

Friday, 13 January 2012

Tottenham Hotspur

OK, a little indulgent autobiography.  I have always supported Spurs.  This was because when I was a kid Jimmy Greaves was king.  This in itself perhaps was not enough to justify my fanaticism; it was when i learned that he had been an apprentice butcher in Dagenham that passion replaced mere hero-worship.  When it came to joys of the flesh, there was nothing this seven year old liked more than watching the local butcher treating meat on his slab.  It was like watching a Seamus Heaney poem, all gut and flub and bone and rib and rump.

Where was I?  Oh yes - so my first Spurs team was that of Greaves and Gilzean, England and Kinnear and Jennings, and a little later Chivers, who I always thought would look more at home on a cavalry charger.  I remember getting my Shoot! card (or was it bubblegum?) for little Stevie Perryman.  My favourite player of those years (Bill Nicholson years) was Alan Mullery, a tank of player who could run for ever.  I liked the shape of his nose.

then came Keith Burkenshaw and Ossie and Ville and the Divine Hoddle.  He's not much cop as a pundit and as England manager he should have known not leave Gazza out of his team, given how often he himself was cold shouldered as an international.  The fact is, had he been French Platini probably would never have got a cap.  The England team should have been built around him.

And now this team!  So the Tottenham Team of My Time (1958-2012): Jennings, Kinnear, England, King, Knowles, Bale, Hoddle, Gascoigne, Jones, Greaves, Lineker

No Mackay!  No Modric!  No Klinsman!  No Campbell! No Ossie!  No MULLERY!!!!

Danny Blanchflower was just too early for me.

Three Welshman!

Glory Days...

MONTAGE Number One

Always carry an emergency kit!
(Home of the Whopper located inside).

Wynn Wheldon


Two striking pieces of intelligence came my way today:
  1. David Hasselhof's girlfriend Hayley Roberts works in a Greggs in Cardiff
  2. It is possible for bilingual people to experience mental illness in one language and not the other.
Sources: BBC (I think)
New Scientist review of Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners by Michael Erard

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

JONAH JONES: An Artist's Life by Peter Jones

Jonah Jones, who was friend of my mother and father (and me), might with characteristic modesty have described himself as a jack of all trades, but he was in fact a master of all those he plied, which included adminstrator, sculptor and novelist - not forgetting poet, memoirist, essayist, mason, watercolour painter, letter-carver, educationalist, chairman, bread-maker, walker, dog-owner, lake-lover, soldier, pacifist, Catholic, Quaker, father and husband.  This book, by his son Peter (a figure I remember from my childhood as a young man of dark complexion, an ever-ready smile and endless enthusiasm) is exemplary in its handling of all these facets of a complicated (and hence fascinating) character. He remains faultlessly objective while at the same time somehow rendering fully the love and respect and tenderness he felt for his father.  It is a very good book about a very good man.  I had thought to say that 'An Artist's Life', the subtitle, was somehow reductive, but actually, if we think of David Jones - the artist Jonah possibly most revered - and his emphasis on art as a sacrament - in short if we make art what it once was, indissolubly central to how a life is to be lived - then the subtitle becomes not merely descriptive but an act of filial duty.  Jonah, for all his emphasis on craft and the need to bring art to the people was, above all, an Artist, and decidedly, as this book emphatically shows, "not negligible".

Thierry Henry

It was galling, as a Spurs fan, to see Arsenal in those glory years of Bergkamp and Henry and Viera, but it was equally clear that if you were an Arsenal supporter at that time, then you were immensely privileged.  It was a great team. I personally think that Bergkamp and Henry are the finest foreign players this country has seen (and I do not forget Ronaldo or Cantona or Schmeichel, who weren't bad themselves).  There was no gall in seeing Thierry Henry come back and score for Arsenal last night, and so damn characteristically - all svelte timing and grace. A really terrific moment in the season. Merci.  Hope he's gone back to the States before the North London derby...

Monday, 9 January 2012


Mick Jones as Good King Richard in this year's Portobello Panto written, produced and directed by my old friends Piers Thompson and Matt Burton.  You can keep your Hoffs and your Vanilla Ices, this is the real deal.

Saturday, 7 January 2012


Gideon Koppel, the director of this remarkable film, has used locked off cameras (ie they don't move) to portray the village of Trefeurig in mid-Wales, east of Aberystwyth.  The photography then is something between still and film: moving photographs perhaps.  The effect is to seem to remove the photographer from proceedings, making the viewer a witness.  The experience of watching the film s therefore more active than is usual, and I think this is why it's so very engaging.  It is melancholy, certainly, but not sad. There is, perhaps, the tiniest hint of pretension in the words at the end, and the music by Aphex Twin is occasionally obtrusive.  And the title is never explained, which is an unnecessary obfuscation.  The connecting image is of a yellow library van, and 'The Library Van' would have done much better as a title.  We do not need any of the words thrown onto the screen to understand what we are being shown.  Still, this is a mere cavil; this is a beautiful film and highly recommended.

Friday, 6 January 2012


This is an immaculately made book culled by his son David from the journal Jonah Jones kept during his year as artist-in-residence at the Gregynog Press 1981-82.  It contains not only the words that Jonah wrote, but also watercolours, drawings, lettering, and reproductions of his own beautiful written script.  If you are interested in flowers, lakes, hills, stone, calligraphy, Wales, the early 1980s, Eng.Lit, BBC producers, exhibiting, weather, the Falklands, plaques, sculpture, art, friendship or life, this is the book for you.  You can find more details here.  I must confess an interest: I was greatly honored to be asked to write the introduction, which you will find reproduced among my 'pages'.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

BOOKS 2012

SIXKILL by Robert B. Parker
EDWIN DROOD by Charles Dickens (unfinished - chortle)
BAD TRAFFIC by Simon Lewis
A SHORTER LIFE by Alan Jenkins
HARM by Alan Jenkins
THE DRIFT by Alan Jenkins
SOME HOPE (The Patrick Melrose Trilogy) by Edward St Aubyn
YOU TALKIN' TO ME? by Sam Leith
WE HAD IT SO GOOD by Linda Grant
GOD SAVE THE CHILD by Robert B. Parker
(Find my review in The Spectator here)
BILLY'S RAIN by Hugo Williams
A DIVISION OF THE LIGHT by Christopher Burns
BANKSY by Will Elsworth-Jones
(Find my review in The Spectator here)
OF MICE AND MEN by John Steinbeck
POET AND CRITIC The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar, edited by Keith Sagar
(Find my review in the Ham and High, 14/6/12)
LIONEL ASBO by Martin Amis
MORTAL STAKES by Robert B. Parker
IN PURSUIT OF SPENSER edited by Otto Penzler
(Review in Spectator, 28 July, or here).
(Review in Spectator, 11 August, or here.)
(Review in Spectator, 25 August, or here)
(find my Spectator review here)
A WANTED MAN by Lee Child
A CHANGED MAN by Francine Prose
BACK TO BLOOD by Tom Wolfe
(see my review in The Spectator, here.)
ON WHEELS by Michael Holroyd
(review here)
GREATER LONDON by Nick Barratt
(review here)
BRUCE by Peter Ames Carlin
(review here)
E STREET SHUFFLE by Clinton Heylin
WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel
I REMEMBER by  Joe Brainard


Last night in London Airport
I saw a wooden bin
So I wrote a poem
and popped it in.

by Christopher Logue RIP