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Sunday 29 March 2009

Lines of Stress

(another from Lessons of the Life Class)

The centre line is not a line of stress,
would come to be his mantra in the months ahead,
but way back then it had an after-thought:
unless your subject is a pile of sand.

First time I heard it, it was growled at me.
I thought I'd drawn the loveliest of arabesques,
not centre line nor yet a line of force -

a worthy rival to Matisse's curves.
Think: line of least resistance, lad, a river's course;
or be a surgeon, mark her for the cut!

There, there and there!
The loaded camel hair
delivered cobalt blue as though a dam had burst.
She's lumps of living jelly, lad, a mass

of underlying forms. What holds her up?
Two armatures... steel girders... call them what you will.
One from the shoulder, crosswise through her cleft,

then down (as tangent to the large globe of
her abdomen) to this audacious hip - a hook
from which the world might hang. The other line

of stress is perpendicular - it thrusts
its way through that fine leg to her enormous toe.

And all the while he almost danced to splash

his cobalt blue, and all the while as well
there came a screech like chalk across a greasy board.
Ill-famed graffitist of our student daubs...

But not that day. That day he'd demonstrate,
directly on the model's skin, exactly where
the scalpel should go in. Surprised she screeched?
My big surprise was that she held the pose!

Friday 27 March 2009

The world will end on Wednesday.

Between this life and the afterlife the borders will be closed and the queues for them enormous, likely violent and almost certainly infiltrated by the vigilantes.

One crumb of comfort: those with righteousness behind them will be fast-tracked out of darkness into light that is the light of the soul's eyes.

However, before Armageddon, why not pop over to Andrew Shields's place and have a go at his Daily Poem Project. More than worth a look - and who knows, you might get hooked!

Tuesday 24 March 2009

from Lessons from the Life Class.


A doctor's widow rang the school:
Could we make use of his old skeleton?
Perhaps we could collect? (His name

is Marcus, by the way.) Fog had
gripped the common, stopping all the buses.
The long box rubbed against my leg,

yet all the weight of him was on
my shoulders as I felt the soberness
pall bearers must feel, humping him.

Quite suddenly, a face, as if
from a dark window looking out at me.
Good evening sir, what have we here?

His smiling features rearranged
themselves, faced by my whispered confidence.
Cold decency would not allow

his wish to look inside, not in
a public place... but in the privacy
of, say, his station (half way home

for me), that would be different.
We struggled with the box in his small car.
His sergeant took a different view.

No corpse this, constable, not what
you might call genuine remains... Look here,
his joints is wired together, see?

Saturday 21 March 2009

Brushes with Fame.

I suppose this could be seen as an example of that most mind-shunning habit, name dropping. So instead, look upon it, if you will, as my three unsuccessful bids for those fifteen minutes of fame to which, according to Andy Warhol, we are all entitled. My three near-brushes with fame. I shall take them in chronological order.

The first, I have blogged about before, so if it's old hat for you, my apologies. It is the one most indelibly engraved upon my memory for all the wrong reasons and goes back to those far off times when I was an art student. Again, for all the wrong reasons (you may feel) I shall give it the lion's share of the post. The school's sculpture studio, which doubled as the pottery studio, was located in the basement and was reached by a steep flight of plaster-encrusted stairs which Health and Safety would condemn out of hand these days. I had signed up for sculpture periods on two weekday evenings. These were shared with part-time students that we ego-inflated souls dismissed as amateurs. They came, as often as not, in lounge suits or decent frocks (we used the word in those remote days)! They chatted (gossiped) more than they sculpted or potted, and they generally contrived to look and sound like people who were not interested in what was supposed to be the point of the exercise. They, for their part, regarded us as Bohemian. That, I need hardly say, was meant as a term of abuse. It meant that we operated outside the normal social parameters when it came to the decencies of life: washing, dressing, sexual behaviour and morality generally. Their one justification for this that I could see was that we dressed (on the whole) in ways generally regarded as Bohemian. (I, for example, would typically wear blue corduroy trousers, green suede shoes, red shirt, orange tie and green pork pie hat. (Well, I had a position to keep up, didn't I?) We (the two sides) would be friendly enough towards each other if we met in the street or the restaurant, for example, but down in the basement we treated each other with disdain.

On the evening I now describe I had arrived early, being anxious to get in as much work as possible on my latest project, a plaster construction freely based on the skeletons of two cocks fighting. For half an hour or so I was alone in the room. Then came the sound of footsteps descending the stairs and the appearance of a man I did not recognise. Obviously an evening school student - damn it all, he was wearing an expensive suit. (Expensive in terms of an art student's budget, that would be.) I ignored him. The unfinished models and pots were all on turntables, which in turn were mounted on tripods. Some works were covered by damp cloths to keep the clay moist. He went up to one and removed the cloth. The hairs on the back of my neck began to rise. His attitude was nonchalant in the extreme; one foot on the bottom rail of the tripod, leaning back to examine the model, spinning it with one hand. Eventually he looked in my direction:


Absolutely not!

You know the person who's doing this? (This was an elaborate design of shapes derived from sea shells and marine animals.) Wally (not his real name) had been working on it for weeks, building it up by the gradual addition of small pellets of clay until it was by that stage, several feet from b base to apex.)

Absolutely, he's a friend.

Does he do much of this?

Cor, does he? He's always at it! Knocking them off so you wouldn't believe! Two or three an evening when he's in full swing!

The conversation continued in this vein for a short while longer, he asking his questions and me giving him my inane answers. Then:

That yours, then?

Well, I ask you. I had been working on it! Yup! Guess so!

Do you normally work that way? (Presumably meaning modelling as opposed to carving.)

Whatever comes! I'm not too fussy. Just as the mood takes me, I guess.

You don't have a preference?

No, it's all the same to me.

Just then a shadow appeared at the top of the stairs, darkening them appreciably. A voice called down them, the voice of Mr Henke, the lecturer.

Are you down there, My Epstein?

Coming! called out the visitor - and disappeared up the steps at a rate of knots.

Later, with the session now formally under way, Henke asked me:
What the hell did you say to Mr Epstein?
and before I could answer:
He wanted to know who the bloody idiot was who had been irritating him .

But no, it wasn't the Mr Epstein, but his brother. Some relief... but even so, he was a well respected sculptor of some significance who had come specifically to gave a second opinion on the work being done.

My next brush with fame occurred not long after the first. I and a friend were having a day in London, doing the exhibitions and museums. Quite out of the blue he took me along to see Feliks Topolski in his studio under one of the arches of Hungerford Bridge almost opposite the (then) recently built Festival Hall. This actually is another example of synchronicity at work, for I had got to about this point in my post when I read in the newspaper that the trustees of Topolski's estate are archiving as much of his work as possible and creating a museum to his memory in the studio which he made so famous. A retrospective exhibition is also planned. They are, therefore, anxious to trace as many of his works as possible and are appealing for anyone with information to come forward. The former studio is n ow open to the public, so I may well soon be retracing my footsteps to make a somewhat nostalgic visit. Details can be found on the official websitehere

My friend, I discovered, knew Topolski in some connection. How closely, I never did discover, but at any rate it was close enough to get us an entry and to see the great man at work for a short while. I was bowled over by the energy of the man and the energy emitting from his works. His drawings sizzled as though a powerful electric current was crackling through them. Below is a charcoal drawing of looters at work in Germany.

He was a one-off. I can think of no other artist even remotely like him.

If my first encounter is the one most indelibly engraved in memory, this third one is the one most fondly remembered. It was another day out with a friend. Not the same friend. By then I was at college and my fellow pilgrim - for that is what it was - took the day off to travel to Cookham on the banks of the Thames, the home of Stanley Spencer. I'm not sure what we were hoping for; perhaps just to get the atmosphere of the place that had been his domain for pretty much the whole of his life, with just the exception of his days at The Slade School of Art and a few years as a war artist.

We made (I think first of all) for the church and entered the church yard. And there he was, sitting beside his famous pram loaded with canvases, paints and all the paraphernalia of his work. The scene might well have come straight from one of his paintings. I expected Christ to appear in some guise at any moment, perhaps with his disciples (all villagers, of course).

Below is Spencer's work: Shipbuilders Christ's Entry into Jerusalem.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Two Dead Heats

I was awoken one morning, a week or so ago, by the radio alarm. To be precise, by a man's voice talking on the Pause for Thought spot. He was asking What is the most spiritually uplifting piece of music for you? He than confessed that for him it was This must be the place by the Talking Heads. I can feel the change in me when I hear it, he said, cannot resist the urge to dance. He then mentioned that the setting to Psalm 51, the Miserere was regarded as so spiritually uplifting by the Vatican that they limited its use so as not to dilute its effect. The result of all this was that I got to wondering what for me was the most uplifting art work that I know.

It was poetry I turned to first, thinking that whichever poem has been the most spiritually uplifting for me over the years, it was going to be one that I had come back to time and time again and still came back to, and that not just for its aesthetic delights, its music, its word play or its assonance, but at times in some sort of extremity, the way religious people have always turned to their particular faith at such times. I very much stand with Wallace Stevens in believing that the old gods have dissolved, that for most people the god they knew is dead, the old heaven is empty, and most urgent now is the task to construct some new, sustaining fiction, something to convince us of its truth even while we know it not to be true. (The way that many believers in the old religion still seem to believe?) In his poetry Stevens is searching for a fiction that is more than fiction. And because I stand alongside Stevens in this, it was probably inevitable that the first poem to make it to my short list would be his Sunday Morning.

Sunday Morning (read here) is almost certainly Stevens's most anthologised poem. It is also one of his more traditional in form, and one that he proved quite unwilling to talk about too much - perhaps because he thought it straight-forward and not in need of explanation. It was also his first sustained attempt to offer a natural ( Pagan) replacement for the old supernatural religions which he believed had had their day. The poem's main argument emphasises the consolations of nature and natural religion. They are sufficient. They are also all that is on offer. In this connection, though, he introduces a caveat: we can only enjoy the beauties of nature and the love of those around us as we come to a realisation of their - and our - transience. The artist whose brush applies such beauty to the world is death. It is as we attain the knowledge that we are on the very cusp of forfeiting all that we love and cherish the most, that its beauty becomes most available to us.

What in essence Stevens gives us is a dialogue. On the one hand we have the thoughts of a woman enjoying the complacencies of the peignoir, which he represents as late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair. Since the dissolution of the gods she lives in a world of superb but disconnected pleasures. Furthermore, the natural beauty of the world is marred by feelings of guilt natural to her as a lapsed church-goer. The answering voice reassures her that the pleasures of the world are sufficient. After all, Why should she give her bounty to the dead? And again: The world should pay her compensation for her lost Heaven.

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

So the poem is also considering the question of surfaces and what might lie beneath them, a wide water flows beneath the surface things, a water representing the unconscious and carrying the truth of blood. The world as recorded by our senses is nothing but a phantasmagoria, a confused play of surfaces. The image of the cockatoo on the woman's rug and the reality of the swallows and pigeons outside, together with the trees and the fruit, are all part of the same deception, passing like things in some procession of the dead.

A later section of the poem gives us a potted history of divinity and the godhead from Jove, who was wholly inhuman, through Jesus who was partly human, to the fully human godhead being proposed by the poem: the natural man. Thus earth becomes paradise and the sky which had been merely a boundary, a separation between heaven and earth, belongs entirely to the earth. The skies are suddenly friendlier.

In the poems fourth section the woman becomes dissatisfied with the suggested alternative, pointing out that it too is impermanent. Stevens counteracts this objection by pointing out that nature has its own in-built permanence represented by the cycle of birth, death and regeneration, but the woman demands an individual permanence., in response to which Stevens points out what would be the shortcomings of a static heaven that would last for ever: the boredom of a world in which the fruit would never fall from the trees.

She says, "I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?"

It is in part the in-built permanence of nature that seems important to me now, though it has been other aspects in the past - an important attribute of great art I think. Not only has the Godhead lost its sway with most people, so too has nature. I have blogged on this before, I know: the fact that nature, like religion - and like art, too, for that matter - is not what it was. We have only to think of pollution, genetic modification, climate change, the destruction of the rain forests - and that of our own countryside - and much else. Art, for its part, is not concerned with beauty as it once was. Okay, some of it is, and there is still countryside to be enjoyed, but both seem to be shrinking, neither is representative of the whole as it once would have been, we are talking of islands where once we spoke of continents. So it is good to have any reminder of the self-healing powers of nature. It just happens to be that Stevens's reminder speaks lucidly to me, even if, at the death (so to speak) he is aware that problems remain.

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

My second choice was T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets (read here). I toyed with the idea of proposing all four, but decided that would be cheating, so finally selected the third of the four, Dry Salvages.

Eliot wrote these four poems over a period of eight years, between 1935 and 1942, in other words, during the years of W.W.II. (He wrote Dry Salvages in 1941) and there is much of war time pessimism in them. Dry Salvages, though is the most optimistic of them all - possibly the only one you could properly term optimistic. Other things were happening in Eliot's life at this time though: it was the period of his conversion to The Church of England and the period in which he took British Nationality.

The quartets mark something of a break with the work he had produced until then: he had turned away from the fragmentary forms that had characterised his writing in The Waste Land, for example. He is much less experimental. All four poems have place names for titles. He has himself pointed out that Salvages is to be pronounced to rhyme with assuages. The Dry Salvages is the name of a group of rocky islands off the coast of Massachusetts. He has applied it to quartet dealing with humanity as a unified organism with its own subconscious and memory creating its own mythic structures., It has its own history and its own cycles of birth, death and regeneration. It is on a par with Nature seen as a single entity.

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

This first section of the poem compares the sea with a river as metaphor for what cannot be known. The river can be tamed, diverted, bridged, but the sea is endless in mystery and conflict and there is no mastering of it.

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobster pot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

The second section deals with time and establishes that time can destroy, but it can also preserve. And just as the allows no mastery, so time allows no escape.

The third section bids us desist from our determination to do well, get on, and to be content with mere existence. Not for the first time in The Four Quartets Eliot employs a ghost or a ghostly figure, a voice high up in a ship's rigging, to present an awareness of what is beyond that which is available to the sailors and passengers below.

When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
To fruit, periodicals and business letters
(And those who saw them off have left the platform)
Their faces relax from grief into relief,
To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think 'the past is finished'
Or 'the future is before us'.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
'Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.

In the penultimate section he gives us a prayer to The Virgin Mary, asking her to keep safe the sailors and their loved ones at home - his model for the whole of humanity.

Finally we achieve the possibility of hope. Mankind forever tries to understand the dilemma of time and the timeless, but the attempt is all in vain. however, within the everyday there are moments in which we are the music, while the music lasts and, though it may sound trite to say so, the truth is that the only way to subvert the demonic forces within us is by right action. it will not always be successful, but it is all we have to work with.

The poem's thrust is interrupted a couple of times by the ringing of bells, by human intervention in other words, by man's puny attempts to control things, perhaps by appeal to a higher being, in which connection it may represent prayer. The fist bell is attached to a buoy. It is meant to warn the sailors of rocks, but it cannot be heard above the storms that sweep the seas until it is too late. The second bell is for the dead - and how are they to hear it? So only the living can profit from it.

Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.

It will come as perhaps only a small surprise to learn that I was unable to separate these two poems and so I offer them as my joint choices and move on to consider which painting or art work I regard as most uplifting. In this connection my first thought was Giovanni Bellini's Agony in the Garden. The version known to me is in The National Gallery. It is one of the most powerful images I know. The human frailty of the sleeping disciples is almost overlooked as an irrelevance to the drama which is centred in the figure of Christ and of which we are given heightened awareness by the dramatic backcloth of landscape and sky. He was very much influenced in this by the work of Mantegna, his brother-in-law. Indeed this work was done in emulation of Mantegna's painting of the same subject, but to my mind it far exceeds it. Bellini combined an acute observation of nature with rare feeling for poetry.

Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire was next on to my short list. It is an image which appears over and over again throughout his work. He plays with pattern, with the geometry of the buildings, with the inclining and angling of the planes representing the fields, and with the grouping and shaping of the clumps of trees. The mountain itself rises gently, but rather regally from all this. Again, I have chosen a subject poetically rendered, this time by the rhythms he conjures from the array of elements.

And then I thought I had to consider Edvard Munch's, The Sun. Munch is best known for his dark side, I suppose, but he had a positive, even joyous side as well, and here is a simple, unadorned life-affirming statement. It is a mural in Oslo University. I think it speaks for itself.

And - sorry to be so boring - I made these three a dead-heat, too. Well, you can't show favouritism among your favourites, can you now? They have one thing in common which is personal to me: I can see them in my mind's eye without recourse to any form of external image, and even so I find them uplifting.

Thinks: might be interesting to hear which works of art (any of the arts) others find uplifting.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Where are we now?

(With regard to my most recent post, Title Anyone? of course.)

Thanks, first of all, to everyone for your many great suggestions.
My thinking so far is that there are two suggestions I am tempted tp take up. Unfortunately they are incompatable. Mistlethrush at From the Field Book suggested taking the first line and letting it stand in as the title also. This seemed to me to be the winner at that stage. But then Frances at Volatile Ruin suggested binning the first verse completely, which I agree does make the poem much stronger, but there is no way of doing both. It's a bit like being a team manager with two world class players for the same position: it's a nice postition to be in.

Monday 16 March 2009

Title, anyone?

Below is the third - and, so far as I can tell at present, the final - draft of a poem for which I have been quite unable to find a title to satisfy me. I wondered if any of you good, kind and talented souls out there might have any suggestions...

Perfect concordance:
tunnels recalled from childhood, tunnels
extant beneath the garden. Visited
of late in star-bright darkness,
most recently last night,
then twice the week before,
and four more nights that month.

Still there, the hidden door
beneath the tree stump's
ivy skirt. Enough to roughly shake
the child awake to free the man -
an old, discarded corner
of my inner landscape, lighting up.
A sat nav for my visiting.

Steered by it unerringly,
each crossing known,
each excavation harking back
to when I'd peopled them
with supermen and supreme
heroes, warriors with special powers
to save the world.

The population change
unnerved me for a while.
Is it because I'm old
the soldiers have moved on,
left children to waft smoke
from air-polluting torches?
I leave it now to them to save the world.

Friday 13 March 2009

Jack and Jake

Something of a new venture for me: a (very) short story.

Jake had worked for the firm for as long as anyone on the present work force could recall. Most of them, had you asked around, would have spoken warmly of him, maybe said they had a soft spot for him. To say he was popular, though, would be grossly overstating the situation. Dissent went with him the way flies go with cattle. There were those who called the bosses bloody angels for giving him a job at all, believing that in any practical sense of the word, he was unemployable. The firm was doing him a massive favour. Others thought them to be taking an unfair advantage, both overworking and underpaying him. Certainly it is true that any other worker doing what Jake did would have been paid more. (This was in the days before the minimum wage, you understand.)

Jake, you see, had mental problems. Mild ones, to be sure, nothing that would ever rock the boat (they all thought), but of the sort that might be inconvenient at times, could make life just that little bit more difficult than it might otherwise have been. For example, he didn't speak. He could speak, but mute was his preferred mode. He rarely even said Hello to folk; just nodded - and occasionally smiled. If he did acknowledge someone verbally, it would be because protocol demanded it. He would make it very formal. Sir or Ma'am if they were bosses; otherwise it would be Mr Curtis, Mr Hills and so on. No one had ever heard him address anyone by their first name.

Jake signed on in the factory at half past eight each morning and, but for breaks, odd jobbed his way through to the five o'clock whistle. Then he walked the quarter of a mile or so to the firm's offices. At half-past five the office staff began to leave, and Jake would make a start on his cleaning duties. (Hence the overworking charge: two jobs, one salary.)

Then there was Jack, a recent replacement for George who had been as garrulous and chirpy as Jack was dour and retiring. Jack had moved south from Bolton some months earlier at the death of his sister, Ruth. He appeared to have no further relatives or significant others, as the saying is, a fact which had made him something of a target for the motherly types in the office, who rather vied to take him under their various wings. The opportunities for doing so were sparse, however, and Jack was having none of it. Then again, no one could quite get over the extraordinary fact of having two such characters on the staff. Except for the fact that Jack wasn't actually on the staff... still, that's how they thought of him: as one of them. In truth, he worked, as had George before him, for Lunch Box, an outfit which, as its name implies, supplied the local workers with the necessary sustenance to last them through the day. Somewhere around mid-morning, Jack would appear, pushing his trolley from office to office (For some reason he didn't cater to the factory), tempting the workers with his different coffees, sticky buns and doughnuts. At lunchtime he would be back with sandwiches, sausage rolls, pies, yogurts, fruit and soft drinks and in the afternoon with biscuits, soft drinks, tea and cake. It will come as no surprise, perhaps, to hear that, by any way of reckoning it, the majority regarded Jack with a degree of warmth and even affection that was not accorded Jake. The popular wisdom was that Jake was buttoned up, surly even, whilst Jack was shy. He, too, was mildly afflicted, but whereas his contribution to the working day was looked forward to and thoroughly enjoyed by all, they tended not to appreciate the way Jake cleaned (or didn't clean) the toilets.

It follows from what I have told you of their duties and their timetables, that Jack, a relative newcomer, and Jake, had never actually met. That, however, was to change. They were to meet on the occasion of the firm's Christmas party. Jack, of course, was not eligible to attend the party, not in his own right, but he had been invited by Maggie from R and D to be her escort. Jake didn't do parties, but was asked if he would stay on after his cleaning stint to help prepare the boardroom for the coming fun and frolics. Which is how it came about that he happened to be leaving by the front door as Jake entered. They met just inside - and greeted each other: a cheery Hello Jake! eliciting a nod of the head and a grunt that sounded a bit like Jack! Now, whoever it is in the universe who organises such things, must have organised it so that there was, standing nearby, mere yards away, outside the ladies' loos, well within earshot, Stan from accounts, who was married to Rose, one of the office gossips. A few moments later, Rose made her reappearance. Stan greeted her with:
You get a surprise a day here, don't you?
What's happened now? asked Rose with that peculiar mix of tiredness and enthusiasm which is the trait of a gossip on the trail of what she hopes will be a tale worth telling.
Did you know that Jack and Jake know each other? he asked.
No - and I don't believe it either! How could they?
There came a moment's silence. Then:
I dunno how, but I know they do. They've just greeted each other very warmly and by their Christian names, said Stan, exaggerating a tad and stressing the last two words.

By the time Jack arrived with his trolley the following morning, Frank, another newcomer, but the one deemed to have the closest relationship with him, had been detailed to investigate the mystery. His brief was to discover how two people, neither of whom seemed to know anyone, who certainly would not be expected to acknowledge anyone, and never by first names; one of which pair had worked at the firm since forever, while the other was a recent import from the north; two people who had had no opportunity to meet at work until the previous evening; and who lived miles from each other at opposite ends of the county... he was to discover how these two had come to know each other well enough to greet one another by first names. He plunged straight in:

Hey, you're a darken and no mistake, you are!

How's that?

Some little bird or other tells us you and Jake know each other!

Might do.

So how come…

We don't talk 'bout it. Private.

Well, fair enough, but you know what some of these bloodhounds are like. Just give me a snippet or so to satisfy them. Like where you met, or when. Just that. That'll be enough to do the trick.

No more?

Definitely, no more!


There came a slight but audible intake of breath as the eavesdroppers took in the information.

Yeah? Well that could have been in the war then, I s'pose?


So then, that solves their tiny mystery for them, don't it? All sorts of people who never would have buddied up in peace time, got together in the war. Had to. That must've been it?

Jack didn't reply, so Frank adjusted his approach:

That was right in the dirt, that was - the dark days of the war, and no mistake... 'ere, wait a minute though... just a tick, hold on... 1940? Wasn't that Dunkirk? I wonder, now... were you... by any chance... at Dunkirk, you and Jake?

Again no reply. So Frank went on:-

You were, weren't you? That's it! You were, the two of you! You only went and got yourself a bloody gong for bravery, one of you? That it?

Jack shook his head

Both of you then?

Another shake of the head.

So where did you meet - Oh, I know Dunkirk, but how at Dunkirk? Whereabouts?

There's only one possibility if they met at Dunkirk, said Joe, coming out of concealment: they met on the bloody beach!

That it? asked Frank, but Jack had clammed up. It was quite clear he had said more than he had ever meant to, and he was saying no more.

Frank, however, had not finished. He, too, could now sense there was a mystery to be unravelled. He waited for the appearance of Jake at the end of the afternoon.

Jack's been telling us 'bout you and him at Dunkirk! said Frank.

Shouldn't 'ave! growled Jake.

Oh, come on, no harm done, we're all mates here.

Shouldn't 'ave! Promised! Both promised!

So why all the secrecy?

Now it was Jake clamming-up.

Must 'ave been bloody hell! said Frank. And then, still with no response from Jake, but at least you both got back to Blighty in one piece - well, in two pieces, I s'pose, said Frank, laughing at his own weak joke.

So it seems. said Jake

What you mean, "so it seems"?

Well, didn't know, not 'till last night, did I...


Not 'till last night, no.

You didn't come back together?

No, didn't Jack say? They carries him off. Time they gets back for me, his boat's gone, ain' it?


'Sright. Stretcher cases, us. Three days on 'em with all that shit flying overhead.

Cripes, so when did you next see each other, then?

Last night acourse.

Wow, let's get this straight: you're side by side on stretchers... I s'pose you were side by side - that right?


We'll say side by side then, on the beach for three days, then you gets separated and you don't get to see each other from that day 'till last night, forty-odd years is that, and yet you recognise each other straight away, in spite of how much you must both have changed? That it?

'Bout it!

Well, I think that's bloody marvellous!

Well it weren't, 'coz I'd seen his ugly mug every night from then on - and I'm still seein' it! Be seeing it for a long time to come, I shouldn't wonder. Course I recognised 'im!

That's incredible!

No 'taint, if e'd tried to kill you, you'd recognise 'im ok, wouldn't you?


Yes. Tried to kill me! Woke up with 'is 'ands round me bleeding neck, didn't I? Day bloody one, that was. Gawd alone knew 'ow many more we'd got to go.

So what happened?

Weak, see, so couldn't fight 'im off...

So what happened?

Couldn't do it, could e? Nearly did an' all, but 'e was weak too, and couldn't finish me off.

So why? What made 'im?

Dunno. Worse thing there that was, him being one of us, like. Never asked him why. Never said anything 'bout it. We just spent the next two days pretending he'd had a bad dream. But we both knew it was no bad dream, he was wide awake and he meant it, right enough. Never tried it again, though. So that's it, that's the end of the matter!

Only it wasn't, no one in the office could ever see Jack in quite the same light again. The arrangement with Lunch Box was quietly discontinued.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

A Word of Apology

to those who I might have neglected a bit of late. I have not got round to all the blogs as I would normally wish to do, and certainly have not commented on them all, the reason being problems with my browser. Indeed it seemed for a while that my computer was being hijacked. It worked perfectly until 11.30 each day. On the dot of 11.30 the cursor would change to the hourglass form and I could do nothing with it until mid afternoon some time, when it reverted to normal functioning, as though there never had been anything amiss. Then my security software alerted me to the fact that the browser was picking up infections. I junked it, tried the other (I had two) and the problem disappeared. It seems okay now, but I am keeping my fingers crossed.

For the same reason I have not been answering emails. Again, my apologies.

I shall try to catch up, but am facing something of a backlog. If anyone has any advice to give on the basis of similar experiences, it would be most welcome. Thank you all for your continued interest and support.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Writer's Block

Recently I visited a couple of blogs new to me on which the owners had posted thoughts about writer's block. The thing is I have never been able to make up my mind whether I believe in the existence of it or not. It goes without saying that there are times when, for one reason or another, writers find themselves unable to write, or unable to write to their usual standard. It must happen to most folk who are engaged in work that comes from the firing of neurons in the brain - or, indeed, the body - and that covers just about all of us. After my visits, it so happened that I then sat down with The Guardian, and there was my favourite (equal-favourite!) columnist, Hilary Mantel, pointing out that the advice from the old writing hand to the somewhat greener version has always been to just get writing, write anything, simply to get the flow going again. (You can always knock it into shape later!) The old hand, though, often finds it difficult, if not impossible , to take his own advice. The reason, she thinks, lies in the nature of the beast, in his characteristic desire to have his cake and to eat it, in his inability to commit to a line of development because once you do that you are throwing out so many other potentialities. Once you sketch in a line of thought and begin to develop it, you are already committing yourself to it, if only partially. It begins to assume the weight of something that is predestined.

I have typed the above from memory, but think (hope) I have stated her case fairly. It sounds a likely explanation to me. Select your plot, your standpoint, whatever it is, from those buzzing, jostling, or just ghosting around inside your head, and the rest become also-rans, in theory they could still be there at the finish, but it is unlikely. In practice they will not get a look-in. And - dreadful thought - among them maybe the one with most potential, even the top ten may have been binned in the process! And the artist is as fearful of confronting the virginally white canvas as is the writer his sheet of paper. I can see all that. I can see how it might happen that way, though not for me. I'm slipping away from novels and paintings now, to poetry, you see. Does that make the difference? I think it might. It was consistently drummed in to us at art school that if you can see an object, really SEE it, you can draw it. That is in part what the Picasso bulls were about in my recent post Picasso Stuff. Really see the line of stress and you will be able to convey the character of the bull. Similarly, for me there is no chance of throwing down some words and then sorting them out later. For me, if you can see your hoped-for subject in poetic terms you have the possibility of a poem developing. If not, you might as well write something other than a poem. Many better poets than I would disagree, though Seamus Heaney for one might not. I am currently reading Stepping Stones. Thus far (I am only on Chapter 2 it is bio/autobiographic, but told in an interview format. In answer to one question, Heaney speaks of there having been great rivalry between Mahon, Longley, himself and others to come up with a worthy poem for MacNiece's grave. He quotes MacNiece's saying that there are poems you are given to write and poems you would like to write. That was a poem Heaney would have liked to write.

I have several volumes of those. The question is: are they all victims of my writer's block? or are they that only if and when I try to write them down and fail? Or maybe (and Mantel mentions this herself), maybe there are no thought lines, no ideas, no potential plots or images buzzing or ghosting around in the would-be author's head. Maybe he has written himself out, temporarily or permanently, maybe the well is dry. If so, is that a form of writer's block? It doesn't sound like one to me. Block sounds like an obstruction, an impediment of some kind barring the egress of something that is struggling to get through. But if there is no something... Mantel mentions that it would be cruel to suggest that, and she may well be right, though that may depend on whether the problem is a passing one or a permanent condition.

Sunday 8 March 2009

An Experiment

I am hoping with your help, O good and faithful friends of the blogosphere, to test a pet theory of mine. It was revived for me when I recounted in my previous post the odd anecdote of Kandinsky finding in his studio what he at first took to be an unknown masterpiece.

You may, alas, not qualify to be a participant in my experiment. To do so you must be UNfamiliar with Marcel Duchamp's painting of a A Nude Descending a Staircase. If you are at all familiar with it, I would still appreciate knowing what you think of the experiment.

I will make the theory apparent after the experiment. For now It is enough to know that below are tow versions of Nude Descending a Staircase, only one of which is as Picasso painted it.
I would like you to say which you think is the true version. Simple as that. The ideal would be to make the decision at the instinctual level. Not to puzzle it out, but to respond in that way would really require the images to be larger yet to see them together. I will leave you to make the necessary accomodations. Depending upon your browser, the ideal may not be possible.

Please do not scroll further than the bottom of the second picture until you have decided.

The correct version is to be found HERE

The pet theory I was hoping to test is that the way we "read" pictures is very much influenced by the way we read - i.e. from left to right in the case of western traditions.

(It would perhaps be too much to hope that some visitors might stray on to the blog who were brought up reading other than left to right.)

The theory here was that a slant thus / would be taken as ascending, whilst \ would indicate descending - as per our "steep hill" road signs.

Saturday 7 March 2009

Kandinsky did it first...

... unless you know better, of course. I didn't. In fact, I had no thought of posting on Wassili Kandinsky until a few days ago, researching Chagall in a somewhat hefty tome of over a 1000 large pages (Art of the 20th Century - part of a retirement present from my former colleagues) I came across an article entitled With Closed Eyes. I almost couldn't believe mine. As those of you who know my post with almost the same title, With Eyes Shut Tight, might well understand. As you will have surmised, the article in question was not about Victor Pasmore, one of the twin subjects of my post back then, but Wassili Kandinsky. Reading the text I became even more engrossed, for it seemed to throw some light on the phenomenon that had formed the other half of my post, those images we see after closing our eyes. I do not recall ever having looked at the page in question before, and it is quite possible I had not. It is a book I dip into, and being of the size it is, there are probably other pages I have missed. I was also intrigued by two reproductions accompanying the text. The year (each of the book's pages deals with a specific year, the number of pages devoted to each year varying in accord with its significance) was 1944. Kandinsky had died on December 3rd of that year after coping with failing health since early March. By the summer his eyes had become almost permanently half-closed. After his death his widow Nina explained that He possessed the rare talent of being able to represent in his mind the world of his paintings with their colours and their forms, exactly as he later set them down on canvas. It has been suggested that these forms, their myriads of rings swimming across the surface of the work, were the effects of phosphenes that can be impressed on the eyeball when the eyes are closed. Towards the end of his life Kandinsky would have been painting what he was seeing with his eyes closed.

That might suggest that he lost his grip on reality to some extent, but Nina says not. What may not be generally known is that Kandinsky is credited with producing the first pure abstract painting, a watercolour. There is a story that goes with the event. It is that he had returned to his studio after a day painting in the countryside, to discover that someone had left a canvas propped against the wall at the far end of the studio. He was amazed at the painting, which he immediately recognised as a masterpiece, and amazed that anyone should have left it there while he was out. He approached it excitedly, only to be confronted with the fact that it was but one of his own, though on it side. The way he told it was that in that moment he realised the harm that had been done to his art by figurative painting.

Until the age of about forty (somewhere around 1906) he produced some of the most superb landscapes. For a while after that there came a period of equally superb watercolours. A few quotes of his I think worth passing on:

Of all the arts abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have heightened sensitivity for composition and for colours, and that you be a true poet.

I applied streaks and blobs of colours onto the canvas with a palette knife and I made them sing with all the intensity I could...

Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.

There is no must in art because art is free.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

The final? frontier

I can believe I'm going
home to ash. I've seen
the Saviour in a crystal ball,
crucified, embedded in the glass,
consumed by clouds of dust
as if by locusts in a swarm.

Earth voracious -
as it always was. But earth
can tumble worlds out
of a speck of grit - or
pack them back
where time and space
or lack of either
seal our fate.

I can believe
I'm going home to ash
that might reform itself,
that might become
a grander substance
structured into some
God-like perspectives,
some essence of;
a sperm of; seedling of;
a blue-print for; instinct
towards; or imprint of;
mind, flesh or spirit of.

The question mark
remains, but does not
freight or frighten as
with faith's more
stressful narratives.

Here I give (below)what is possibly Stanley Spencer's most famous painting, that of the Resurrection. The venue for it was, as it nearly always was, his beloved home village of Cookham, which is on the River Thames. His vision was of Cookham as host to the events recorded in the Gospels. Most critics and commentaters have put it the other way around: the vision is of the Gospels taking place in Cookham, but to me it makes more sense to see the vision as first and foremost focussed on his home town and the inhabitants, known personally to him and faithfully recorded by him. Either way, it is a personal, some would say quirky, vision in which sex plays an important role. We see Christ throned in majesty in the church porch - beneath a bridal arch; we see Spencer himself, naked by the ivy-covered bed on which his lover lies, we see the inhabitants of Cookham rising, slightly bemused and only half with it, as though the alarm clock has just gone off; and we see the pleasure boats waiting to whisk the good ones to Paradise.

The other painting is a medieval one of the same subject. There is, I think, a lot of affinity.