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Thursday 31 December 2009

Not a Haiku : Not a New Year Resolution,

- definitely not. But I have been struck with the thought to write (or to try to write), as often  as possible, a not-quite-Haiku on an item from the news. Not necessarily from the breaking news from that day, but one that is still current. The ideal would be a daily haiku, but this being a not quite ideal world, it will be a not-quite-haiku not quite daily. Here then, is my first attempted NQH - quite possibly, my last.

What comes from heaven changes earth.
Bodies wrapped in shrouds of snow
a white tsunami
with its human load

Wednesday 30 December 2009

The New Year : Symbols and Traditions

Actually, its symbols and traditions are legion, so what follows is a quick look at a few that I find particularly appealing.

The Tray of Togetherness is one that seems to recommend itself at this moment in time. (Recent news items would suggest that it is particularly need at this hour.) It is Chinese (you might well think me to be on some sort of Chinese kick, but it has just happen ed this way) and consists of a tray with eight compartments, each one of which is filled with a special item of food. The trays are offered to guests who visit during the New Year (Geng Yin) festivities. For the Chinese, our year of 2010 (their year of the tiger) begins on he 14th of February.

Janus The two-faced Roman God had January 1st dedicated to him by the Romans, as with his two faces he could simultaneously look back into the past and on into the future. He was also known as The God of Beginnings and Endings.

Candles Very familiar symbols, almost omnipresent at Christmas and The New Year, symbolising the spreading of light and warmth, but also it was understood that the smoke would rise into heaven, thereby ensuring that God would answer prayers.

The Yule Log Symbolises the return of the light to conquer darkness. It should be burnt for one whole night, then smoulder for twelve days (one day for each month of the year) and then extinguished imperially. Nowhere can I find any guidance as to what would constitute an imperial extinguishing!

Plum Blossom. Chinese again! Symbolising courage and hope. The blossom bursts forth at the end of winter on what appear to be lifeless branches.

First Footing As a boy I always associated the new year with Scotland. We had Christmas as our big occasion and they had the New Year - and what was more, they knew what to do with it, unlike us. My dad was stationed at Morpeth, Northumberland, during the war and made friends with a Scottish family. At times he managed to spend New Year (Hogmanay - Hog-mah-nay - with them, and would tell me of their celebrations). First Footing involved visiting friends and neighbours carrying a lump of coal for their fire or - intriguing this, I always thought - some shortbread, in return for the traditional hospitality they would show to the visitor. It was considered lucky if the first visitor over your threshold was tall and dark.

Auld Lang Syne Really belongs in the above paragraph. An evergreen part of the Scottish Celebrations. Literal translation: Old Long Since. It has been dubbed the most popular song whose lyrics are known by nobody. Not popularised by Robbie Burns as most folk believe, but by the band leader Guy Lombardo.

I finish with three from abroad that have particularly endeared themselves to me.

Spain The tradition is to eat twelve grapes at midnight, one for each month of the new year - don't know why that specially appeals, but it does.

The Netherlands People here, burn their Christmas trees and let off fireworks - it's the burning of the trees that appeals.

Japan Oshogatsu Their New Year parties (Bonenkai) are in fact forget-the-old-year-parties. From a family dimension we have had a particularly forgettable year, so this one seems the one for us for this year at least.

A Very Happy New Year to You All

Saturday 26 December 2009

Poems of the Masters:

China's Classic Anthology of T'ang and Sung Dynasty Verse

A Christmas-post-Christmas enthuse.

Let me first risk putting you off this book and then, assuming that the unintended has come to pass, let me try to reverse that unfortunate consequence. Here we go then, one short sentence should do it: It is an anthology of Classical Chinese poetry, some of which dates from before the early eighth century. There you are, then. What did that do for you? Have I lost you? Hopefully, not too many of you, but both eighth century and Classical can be slightly off-putting, as can the word anthology. Anthologies are for some anathemas, and for most not books to make the pulses race. So now, to reassure you, let me suggest that this book and these poems have more than enough on the plus side to outweigh those disadvantages. First up is the fact that the T'ang and Sung dynasties are regarded by the Chinese as their Golden Age of Poetry, something akin to our own Elizabethan age, when after a long period of development, the language gelled with new concepts in writing to produce a richness never seen before - or, some would argue, since. Indeed, it was Ezra Pound's discovery of these ancient verses that set him on the road to his invention of Imagism.

This anthology was first compiled (in Chinese) towards the end of the eleventh century (though this is the first - and still the only - complete English translation), and was the basis of of all Chinese Classical poetry and Education from that time until it was replaced by political propaganda when China made its more recent foray into Communism. The book's English translator, an American who goes under the pen name of Red Pine, has written an insightful introduction. The Chinese ideogram for the word poetry, he tells us, actually means language of the heart. That is to say, it is more an expression of the poet's internal landscape than an attempt to convey the external or physical world.

There are 475 pages to this book, 224 poems in all, each set out on facing pages, the Chinese original on the left and the English translation to the right. Additionally, at the bottom of the pages, Red Pine includes notes on the poem and the poet. But in all that there are only four distinct poetic structures, a fact easy to appreciate as the book is divided into four parts, each part being dedicated to one of the four forms. There are:-

39 poems of four lines with five characters per line,
45 eight-line poems with five characters per line,
94 poems of four lines with seven characters per line,
and 46 eight-line poems with seven characters per line.

Obviously they will not work out like that in English. The Chinese characters do not correspond to a fixed number of English words or syllables, but the originals are there to give an idea of their Chinese forms. Something of this can be absorbed even by those who do not read Chinese.

By structure, however, more is meant than simply the line or character count. Each poem-type follows complex rules as to rhyme scheme, tonal pattern and parallelism. Such considerations will not interest every English reader of course, nor need they, for there is much to savour without having to wrestle with such complexities.

The first poem in the book, Spring Dawn, is one of the great favourites with the Chinese people, and it is not difficult to see why. It is seventh century and by Meng Hao-Jan. The form is 4 lines of 5 characters per line - known as wu-jue.

Sleeping in spring oblivious of dawn
everywhere I hear birds
after the wind and rain last night
I wonder how many petals fell

An interesting point here is that in the original Chinese version no pronouns were used. Red Pine has inserted them: I hear... and I wonder... but the poet Meng Hao-Jan avoided them. It is as though he wanted to leave his readers with the feeling that the phenomena being described were witnessed by some impersonal being or manifestation - perhaps of nature itself. As such it would be a stunning example of the power of Chinese poetry to express abstract ideas in concrete images.

In his notes, Red Pine also highlights the wonderful piece of characterisation that is going on here: the poet being able to conceive the possibility of lying there wondering about the scene outside - without at all feeling any compulsion to get up and go outside to see at first hand.

One of the downsides to anthologies, I always think - certainly of Western poetry - lies in the fact that you miss the threads of meaning, the nuances of influence and concern, the development of ideas that poems in a one-poet collection give to the works around them. Reading poems in isolation is not at all the same as reading them as part of the collection, as part of that in which they were conceived. Now that which follows may stem from a misunderstanding on my part, but it does seem to me that these considerations do not apply to the same degree when we come to Chinese poetry. Here the rules governing their composition and limiting the development of each poem are so strict that continuities bind them together in an anthology almost as tightly as in our culture the poems in a one-poet collection are bound. In both form and content there is much continuity. Indeed, there is something of a family feeling.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the two eight-line forms. Here the rules have the sort of force that is normally reserved for laws. You infringe them at your peril. They are numerous, extreme and inflexible. They extend beyond the verbal into visual and musical elements. For example, they lay down that the third and fourth lines must be mirror images of each other, as must the fifth and sixth. And by "mirror images" we mean that nouns must face nouns (you need to look at the Chinese versions to see how this might work out), verbs must face verbs, adjectives, adjectives and adverbs, adverbs, and so on. But the rules are more extensive even than that: they say that numbers (if used) must face numbers, colours, colours etc.

You would think, maybe, that poets would be using their ingenuity to circumvent these rules - or maybe just ignoring them or avoiding those verse-forms altogether. Far from it. Many of the best poets, Tu Fu for example, have taken them even further, constructing the eight-line versions from four matched pairs - and in doing so increasing exponentially the problems facing translators!

For me one of the joys of this book has been the notes which accompany each double page spread. Here is an example:

The Chungnan Mountains
by Wang Wei

Taiyi isn't far from the Heart of Heaven
its ridges extend to the edge of the sea
white clouds form before your eyes
blue vapours vanish in plain sight
around its peaks the whole realm turns
in every valley the light looks different
in need of a place to spend the night
I yell to a woodcutter across the stream

The notes explain that Wang Wei (701 - 761) was an influential official who rose to be deputy prime minister, but much preferred to be at home in his beloved mountains and spent as much time there as he did at court. Taiyi (The Great One) was another name for the Tao. It was also another name for The Chungnan Mountains and for their highest peak. The Heart of Heaven refers to the Taoist paradise as well as to the Son of Heaven's residence. White clouds represent a life of detachment and blue vapours worldly aspiration. The Chinese at one time laid out the empire into twenty-eight realms corresponding to the constellations of the Chinese Zodiac, all radiating from these mountains. Upon meeting a woodcutter, a herb gatherer or a hermit in the mountains of China, even a stranger soon feels at home.

One of the big differences between Chinese and Western poetry lies in the fact that the former does not describe an event (as Western poetry often does), but a situation. This is sensed, I believe, at the time of one's first encounter with the Chinese art-form - as, for example, in the case of the following poem. Red Pine gives the narrative background to the work, but the poem itself represents a moment... I was going to say a moment in time, but in fact time, in the sense of time passing, does not exist. The reason for this is quite simple:

Chinese verbs have no tense - though Red Pine does introduce tense in some of his translations. Nevertheless, if we are to believe those versed in both languages, the original feel remains.. One of Ezra Pound's most perceptive pronouncements was that images can create insights in a second. It was the mainspring of his inspiration and, more than any other fact, led him to the creation of Imagism.

Here then is first one of the four-line verse-forms:

The Peach Blossoms of Chingchuan Hermitage
by Hsieh Fang-Te (1226 - 1289)

In Peach Blossom Valley they escaped the Ch'in
peach blossom red means spring is here again
don't let flying petals fall into the stream
some fishermen I fear might try to find their source

Red Pine explains that when the Mongols brought the Southern Sung dynasty to an end Hsieh had formed an army of resistance, but he was defeated, captured and imprisoned. He starved himself rather than serve his new masters. Here he visits a hermitage and describes how a fisherman followed peach blossoms that were drifting down a stream until he reached their source in a cleft in the rocks. Squeezing through the crevice, he came out in an idyllic valley, where he met people whose ancestors had come there several hundred years earlier to escape the brutal rule of the Ch'in dynasty (221 - 217 B.C.). After returning to tell others of his discovery, the fisherman was unable to relocate the valley, as the refugees had obscured the trail and the crevice. Hsieh uses the Ch'in here to represent the Yuan (1280 - 1368), from whose encroaching dominion he hoped to find refuge.

And now another eight-liner:-

Commiserating with Gentleman-in-Waiting Wang on Tungting Lake
By Chang Wei (720 - 770)

Through Tungting Lake in the middle of fall
the waters of the Hsiao and Hsiang flow north
but home is a thousand-mile dream away
and a guest greets dawn with sorrow
there's no need to open a book
far better to visit an inn
Ch'ang-an and Loyang are full of old friends
but when will we join them again

The author was a minor official who had been rusticated to Changsha, in the province south of the Tungting Lake. The title Gentleman -in-Waiting, Red Pine explains, was an honorary epithet for someone who had been sponsored as an official but had no formal position. He was thus exempt from the civil service exam (< i>No need to open a book) Chang watches the waters of the two rivers flow north through the lake, into The Yangtze, and towards Loyang, while he and his friend wait to be recalled to the capital.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Party Time : amuse - or lose - your friends this XMAS

It all depends, you see, how you go about it. And that I cannot tell you, for that will be dictated by you and by you knowing your friends as well as you do. Get me? Okay, in essence this is what you do: you give them all a sheet of paper and some pens, crayons, paints, body fluids - whatever turns you (and them) on - and you ask them to draw or paint a picture of Father Christmas to the very best of their ability. Not artistic ability, mind. Not drawing ability, no that is not what we are drawing on at all. They just need to summon up to the very best of their ability an image of Father Christmas in all his detailed glory and get as much of that as they can down on the paper.

Then you n eed to mark it - or they mark their own or each others or whatever. For which there is a marking key, viz:- One point is awarded for each of the following details included in the drawing:
1. Head present
2. Legs present
3. Arms present
4. trunk present
5. The length of the trunk is greater than its breadth
6. Shoulders are indicated
7. Both arms and legs are attached to the trunk
8. As above, all attached at the correct points.
9. N eck present
10 Neck continuous with head and/or trunk
11 Eyes present
12 Nose present
13 Mouth present
14 Nose and mouth in 2 dimensions and 2 lips indicated
15 Nostrils indicated
16 Hair shown (For hair, you might decide to read "whiskers"!
17 The hair is non-transparent over more than the circumference of the head.
18 Clothing present
19 Two items of clothing non-transparent
20 Both sleeves and both troser legs shown non-transparently.
21 4 or more items of clothing definitely indicated.
22 Costume complete - no inconsistencies
23 Fingers shown
24 Correct number of fingers shown
25 Fingers shown in 2 dimensions - ie their length greater than their breadth and at an angle of less than 180
26 Opposition of thumb shown
27 Hand shown distinct from fingers and arms
28 Arm joint shown - elbow and/or shoulder
29 Leg joint shown - knee and/or hip
30 Head in proportion
31 Arms in proportion
32 Legs in proportion
33 Feet in proportion
34 Both arms and legs in 2 dimensions
35 Heel shown
36 The lines are firm and do not overlap at junctions (unlike the drawin gs of many famous artists!)
37 Firm lines with correct joining
38 The head's outline is "shaped" - i.e. is not just shown as a circle.
39 Trunk outline ditto
40 There is no narrowing of the limbs at their jun ctions with the body
41 The features are symmetrical and in their correct positions
42 Ears present
43 Ears correctly positioned and proportioned
44 Eyebrows and eye lashes shown
45 Pupil(sL of eye(s) shown
46 The length of the eye(s) greater than the height
47 Eye glance directed to front in profile
48 Chin and forehead both shown
49 Projection of chin shown
50 Profile has less than two errors
51 Correct profile

You have given your friend(s) The Goodenough Draw a Man Test. This used to be administered to young children (3 - 10 years) to establish their mental age and/or I.Q. (Oh, God, it's not still being used is it? Tell me it's not!) It's up to you whether or not you tell them that they have just betrayed their mental age/ I.Q . If you go that far, it's up to you whether you also impart the information that the test is incapable of producing a mental age greater than 15 3/4 years.
It might depend on whether or not you were planning a cull of your friends this year or wanted to see which of them were the best sports or... well, you know what you're doing! To proceed: You give everyone a base age of 3. You then add 1/4 year for each point scored. Thus 9 points would equal 3 + 9/4 = 5 1/4 years.

More seriously, may I wish 


Saturday 19 December 2009

Here Be Dragons

My childhood turf: four roads and one dark path
we called a twittern. Half its length it ran
between the big house, Glebelands, and our six-
foot fence, then turned its back on us, dog-legged
away, but kept its tight embrace on all
the mysteries the shrubs and railings hid.
In there were demons, types unspecified.
Lights blazed at night and blinds were drawn, but no
one came or went, the gate was always locked.
"Beware the dog!" it said. There was no dog,
the whole gang knew, just dragons in the grounds.
The dog-leg was the only doggie thing
in sight. And standing in its corner, tight
against our fence from where its flickering light
fell softly on the path in both directions
for a yard or two at least, among blown
leaves and litter, my own lamp, my gas light,
lit each evening by an old man with a
ladder. As punctual as sun and moon,
he'd come at dusk and I would wait - but with
this prayer: "Please God, this one night, make the lamp
man late - and very late!" (His coming was
my time for bed - at least when winter came.)

The twittern took you to another road:
Love Lane. More mystery, more need to know
of things the adults talked about in code.
Love Lane had one enormous pearl of such great
interest that all else paled beside it:
I loved the evil-smelling smoke and fumes
discharged by its satanic Gas Works - all
the more because the grown-ups hated them.
That black hulk cast its shadow far and wide - and
well within its ambit lived my friend Paul Death.
(De' ath, it should have been, to be precise -
though no one ever had been that precise.
Death, he was meant to be, and death he was.)

My house was number one. Big deal? Had that
been it, the whole of it, there would have been
few bragging rights, but there was more, much more:
the road was Queen Anne's Gardens - which, the way
I'd say it, had a touch of gravitas.
The inference was meant: "Beat that!" Few could,
of course. Now add my regal-sounding name,
my David, Alexander, King... how would
they not have been impressed? The house that thought
itself a palace looked straight down Glebe Path
towards a green, Church Road, the Town Hall and
the fire brigade (these last two out of sight).
Firemen were housed in our road and Glebe Path.
Heroes we had as neighbours! Comics too. Star
turns, for we would see them, jackets flapping,
half on, half streaming out behind, caught, twisted
and misshapen like so many broken
wings on injured birds, their owners fluttering,
in half-flight, hopping, stumbling from our sight
the moment that the bells went down, their wives in
close pursuit, arms stretched towards them, helmets in
their hands, but losing ground. We'd laugh and cheer.

The Green possessed an air raid shelter, built
of brick, above ground, famed residence
of our own Parish Belle. She had a corner
dedicated to her bits and pieces.
The grown-ups that we knew all spoke of her
as "rank". The "rank", it seemed was "higher" than
the gas works boasted. Some confusion. Some
thought her a princess or a queen. Whatever,
no one would bother her. She came and went.
Just once she had a sack of "rank" manure
as a bed. Too much! She'd have to go - she
or it. At which the penny dropped for us.

In Church Road, close to where it joined Glebe Path,
a corner shop, Sunshine and Bombs, the name
a soubriquet, of course, conferred upon it
and the lady owner, by my father
when she'd told him how she hated sunshine
and how she much preferred the German bombs!

A short way further on was where a plane
machine-gunned Paul and I as we walked home
from school. Or maybe not. A German plane
and very low - we saw the crosses on
its wings. And damaged too: thin trails of smoke,
and both the engines stuttering. And that,
perhaps, is what we heard, though at the time
we had no doubts - and dropped down flat and lay
there in the gutter 'till its sound had gone.

Much further on, a bend, another dog-leg,
knobby at the knee this one, the knobbies
being three: my school, The Parish Church - where
I would soon become an altar boy - and,
most protuberant of all, The Star, a pub
whose name alas the locals lent the school.
Beyond this point I did not venture - ever.
Had I done so, Merton Abbey might have
hove in view, as might Lord Nelson's home, where
waited patiently - or not - his Josephine.

First day at school, the teacher telling us
to wrap up - scarves, gloves, coats and hats, the lot.
Home time. What else could it have been? I went.
My mother hoovering. Dismay that I
had walked so far and crossed a busy road
alone. The head all smiles and pats on back.
Next time to wear my thinking cap. Bafflement.
And then again, by socks that needed to
be pulled. Why do the grown-ups use such codes?

More dragons roamed the graveyard round the church.
One grave, its stone lid lifted quite enough
for braver souls to put their hands inside,
was known by all to be their lair.
My father said the only dragon was
the priest. Officiating at the war
memorial, he'd walked away, left all
the people and their planned observance high
and dry at its most solemn point - and all
because he had detected in the crowd
a body of dissenters. Methodists!
A memory of adult stuff - my first.

Thursday 17 December 2009

OK, I'm going soon - and when I do...

I am sure that those, whoever they are, who run the universe have a policy that says should ever any mortal soul be tempted to blog about synchronicity, then we, said rulers of said universe, shall rise up as one and hit them with a startling example or two.

About six months ago a young friend of ours died of cancer, having previously made it known that when the time came he would like to have his ashes fired into space in a rocket. (By space I do not think he meant deep inter-stellar space, just up there.)

At the funeral directors' his parents were shown two albums, one of the various ways in which the deceased can be remembered - and one of the many methods of disposing of the ashes. And yes, being shot up into space in a rocket was one of them. (I actually heard the other day of a chap who thought he would like to become an egg-timer.) One option is to be made into a diamond. The ashes are subjected to great heat and pressure, replicating (as near as) the natural process. His parents are still waiting for it to be arranged - with air traffic control, perhaps. It has to be done at the coast, it seems, the rocket fired over the sea.

We happened to be talking about these things (as you do!) when, low and behold, in the readers' letters of Saturday's Guardian (I think in connection with Seamus Heaney's campaign to have Ted Hughes remembered in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey - it didn't seem to relate to any other article) six cartoon-type drawings with captions under the following heading:
In the event of my death I would like to be memorialised with (tick one box):

The six boxes were:

1 Small plaque
2 Heroic statue
3 Spooky tree
4 Colossal ziggurat
5 Haunted fruit machine (why haunted... anyone?)
6 Network of secret tunnels.

Some of you will know from a past post or two of my childhood obsession with secret tunnels, so I was rather tempted by that, but then I thought, well if they were really secret no one would know where I was or be able to visit me. So, no... and none of the others appeal in the slightest. So what to do? - and time is running out, no?

I have this obsession that funerals, burials and cremations, the scattering - or not - of the ashes, all that is for the mourners. It is all a part of the grieving process. I do not believe that the about-to-be-deceased should stick his - or her - nose in. But, they say, it's part of the grieving process for the family to feel that they are carrying out the deceased's wishes.

No one's pressing me, you understand. I've not been given a deadline... thing is, I've just had this one moment of inspiration: an artist to be commissioned to paint a landscape, an artist who works with a thick impasto of paint. My ashes to be mixed in with the paint. My version of scattering them across The South Downs... even better, a seascape!

Still, I'd be grateful for any other bright ideas, just in case the guy with the scythe says all of a sudden, "Hey, fella' me lad, it's make yer mind up time!"

Sunday 13 December 2009

Trees like us.

Like fingers flicking over books with eczema
(ancient books with leather bindings, in the main),
the car lights seem to hesitate on each
erect or leaning London plane -
the odd one leaning, reeling maybe, from the weight
of all that learning locked inside.
The spines, so smudged with soot
and halogen, betray no titles. Patched
and scaly sages, they remind us
of the boundaries that nature draws
round vision, they and those
frail sapling paperbacks,
who here and there have found a home
in what were narrow spaces, they
and the odd weighty tome
that squeezed in horizontally,
too tall to stand upright.

Behind them, sealed in pathless darkness,
a great wood stretches to infinity,
but these sad London planes,
each one an interface between the unknown
and ourselves, our world
and that opacity - the border guards,
as we might like to think of them,
denying or permitting access to
that darkling world of learning
to their rear. Could we but take one down
and open it like those at home,
a world might open in its turn:
horizons we could not have guessed,
bright looms of morning light.

They draw up wisdom from the soil,
absorb it from the air.
They store it in the grain.
and feed it to the millipedes
that live beneath the bark.
The spiders spin it in their webs;
you hear it in the groans
and creaks, the timbre of each voice. It speaks
a thousand languages, and scribes the wood
with arcane signs like charged Rosetta Stones.

If we could prise the boards apart
and cut the uncut leaves,
achieve for them what still eludes...
Unqualified transparency - would not that form
the perfect attribute for any London plane?
A tree entirely open to the gaze,
complete with soundtrack, growth and rending,
a universe once worlds away, at home in ours,
a world with all its life and lives intact,
decay and growth and mini beasts;
the struggle for survival and the end in death,
tides that rise, turn, fall and vanish out of sight,
the laughter and the tears of life that wills to live.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Catching my Eye

One of the first things to catch my eye last week was an article in The Guardian about the signs that burglars leave for potential burglars outside your house. Chalk marks on the ground, usually. I had known of this practice before, but seeing the examples given and their meaning brought it home afresh - pun not intended. In case you missed it, here are the examples given.

Now here is the key - just in case you need to know some day!

1: A good target.
2: Occupant, nervous and afraid.
3. Nothing worth stealing.
4. This house is alarmed.
5. Vulnerable female: easily conned.
6. Too risky.
7. Wealthy owner.
8. Has already been robbed.

Further comment is, I think, superfluous.

Except... gelling with so much talk of climate change and the parlous condition of the earth, it set my mind fancifully thinking what if aliens, robbers say, the extraterrestrial equivalent of Viking raiders, were to chance upon earth, recce it and leave the fruits of their reconnaissance in orbit. What would their signs say? Here, I have managed just two suggestions:-

Any more from any more?

Then there was the Andy Warhol Red Portrait affair. You may have seen this, too. Andy Warhol made ten identical red self-portraits. Excuse me while I rephrase that: there are ten identical red silk-screen portraits of Andy Warhol. David Mearns, a Sussex business man has one of them. It was to have been offered to the Tate, but has now been withdrawn. There exists a New York Foundation that pronounces on the authenticity or otherwise of works by, or said to be by, Andy Warhol. It offered to authenticate the work. The offer was turned down flat by David Mearns, who has accused it of making such offers in the past with the sole intention of stamping Denied on the back so as to destroy the value of the silk screen prints. From time to time the Foundations sells works that it owns, and so has a vested interest in the scarcity value of its own works.

And so the battle was joined: is the red portrait a fake or a valuable Warhol? The case for its authenticity is its provenance. Andy Warhol gave a photograph of himself to a friend. It was an automatic image produced by a bog-standard photo-booth. The friend passed it on to an outside firm. They produced the silk screens from it - and presumably ran off the prints. The finished prints were looked at and approved by Andy Warhol... and that's the case for the defence? Yes, my lord, there the case rests. What thinkest thou, O juror?

Good to see a painting taking the top Turner prize. Good, too, to see that beauty is the new ugly and to know that paint is okay again. I would not wish to exclude ugly, you understand, but it takes all sorts to make a world - even a fragile, fleeting world that is tied to a moment , a situation or an environment.

Richard Wright was asked - only natural, I suppose - if he had any plans for the prize money. His reply was that, like everyone else, he has bills. Since he has covered a rather large wall with the gold leaf that is destined to painted over at the exhibition's close, I just wonder if his bills really are like every one else's.

Sunday 6 December 2009

A Glimpse of Darkness

He spoke to me of darkness, and his speech
became a psychic force. A boy, untroubled still
by any hormone rush,
I could not, not for him, not for the gifts he gave,
nor yet for threats of greater darkness,
embrace his.

His was a world of great malevolence;
unspeakable diseases, hell-hags, ogresses
and nightmares. But the evil was
the devil was all women - and even as he'd speak
they would be plotting for my downfall.
He had seen it all,

had witnessed it in war-torn Italy:
the blistered flesh of conscripts following the path
of natural desire.
He too was victim, brought his own light: introduced
me to great music, bought my first
L.P.. Beethoven.

The Appassionata. Images there are,
agendas, propositions that sit awkwardly
with art - and even art
not fully understood, draws boundaries.
The music flooded me
and set me free.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Here's one I made earlier

The discovery of one of my Mondrians at the bottom of a pile of magazines when turning out a cupboard took my mind back to those pioneering days of steam computing. And that is the reason I am posting it; not because it is important or interesting in itself, but for the back story, which you might enjoy.

In the very early 80's the government, in its infinite wisdom, decreed that every school in the land should receive a computer. Ours duly arrived, a pristine, cutting-edge BBC computer produced by Acorn to a BBC-determined, government backed specification as part of a much vaunted literacy project. Along with all the others in the land, our (Special Needs)pupils were to be whisked into the computer age. The aim was not just literacy, but computer literacy as well. All this with one computer between 130 children. And it might have happened - up to a point - had they thought to include some software in their generous package. Alas, suitable software was not available. It was in the pipeline - a rather long pipeline as it turned out. A few of us decided that we would learn a computer language and have a shot at producing some software for ourselves. (After all, computer languages couldn't be harder to learn than French or Spanish - could they?) Whatever. A combination of in-service training courses, self-help from books etc and weekend courses run by companies trying to get in on a government hand-out, resulted in a few of us becoming half-way proficient with Basic - BBC Basic to be exact.

One of the exercises I gave myself in an attempt to get to grips with graphics was to write a program that would produce Mondrians. It was primed with the few basic rules that Piet Mondrian had at one point set for himself (periodically he would modify his ules to extend what was allowed)and would either choose random values within those rules or could be controlled by the user. The rather sad, faded specimen that emerged from under that pile of magazines is probably the only original extant King-Mondrian. As a result of our efforts, we did manage to produce some programs with which to introduce our youngsters to the delights of computing whilst actually teaching them something at the same time. Very amateur they were, of course. Laughable by the standards that even very young children would come to expect in just a year or two's time, but it was - we kidded ourselves - a start. And then one wet playtime a teacher thought it a good idea to set up the computer with one of the - not very educational - games which by then had come our way. By mistake she loaded in the Mondrian. Surprisingly, they took to it, and even became very competitive in comparing their efforts. Even so, it took a new lease of life after it had been explained to them what the pattern things were. They immediately saw themselves as counterfeiters and enjoyed the feelings of doing something that could be seen as both adult and illegal. In no time at all there were Mondrians hanging on all the school walls.

Below, in fairness to Mondrian, I give you one of his.

And some of his thoughts:
Everything is composed by relation and reciprocity. Colour exists only through another colour, dimension is defined by another dimension, there is no position except in opposition to another position. Form and colour have found their proper use: From now on they will be nothing but plastic means of expression and will no longer dominate in the work as they did in the past.
Neutral line, colour and form, in other words, elements that have the appearance of something familiar, are established as a means of general expression. As these means represent the highest degree of simplification, young people are the ones who must preserve them, determine their composition, and establish them according to their nature.

In order to approach the spiritual in art, we will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. Hence, there is a logical explanation for elementary forms. As these forms are abstract, we find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art.

The universal can be expressed in pure manner only when the particular does not obstruct our path.