Monthly Archives: October 2011

Other voices, other rooms…..

Another busy week. A couple of days ago I finally found time to visit the recently renovated – or should I say reinvented? – ceramics galleries at the V&A. I adore the V&A. As a child it would inevitably be the Natural History Museum that formed the first priority of any trip up to town, but while I still love it dearly its ‘reformatting’ (away from the maze-like galleries of mysterious glass cases and towards a sparser, more interactive ethos) and the rumbustious presence of billions of excited small children (ha ha) on their interminable quest for dinosaurs now makes me tend to veer towards the V&A.

It’s a treasure house for the imagination. It overwhelms me with the possibilities for story it contains, and a meander through its galleries can bring tears to my eyes at the pleasure of it. That was especially the case on this last visit, when I discovered that at the heart of the light-strewn labyrinth that now forms the ceramics section (on the top floor, which brings to the galleries a rapturous sense of privacy and quiet) the curators had seen fit to reconstruct a corner of Lucie Rie’s Albion Mews studio, complete with Lucie’s own furniture and equipment as well as a generous selection of her ceramics.

I have long loved Rie’s work, which in its deceptive simplicity is so emblematic of the quiet determination and steely courage she showed in reconstructing her own life after her flight and exile from the cultured heart of Europe, where she rightfully belonged. Seeing her things made me weep. The imagination and cultural insight that has been demonstrated in the refurbishment of the V&A’s ceramics galleries is something the museum’s architects and curators and the city of London itself can justly be proud of.

On my way downstairs I stumbled across another reconstruction of a private space, albeit of a metaphorical rather than replicative nature. The temporary installation entitled ‘The House of Annie Lennox,’ containing as its centrepiece a wendy-house-like simulacrum of a lighted study and created under close collaboration with the performer and songwriter herself, is an unusual and rather beautiful conceit and I found it delightful. Unlike so much conceptual art – which while it might be intellectually stimulating is so emotionally barren it undermines, for me at least, its own purpose – ‘The House of Annie Lennox’ made me smile, and without a trace of irony in the gesture. I loved seeing Annie’s hand-written lyrics. I enjoyed opening the desk drawers to see what was in them, looking at the iconic stills of the mercurial, metamorphic Lennox in her extravagant stage outfits, listening once again to the anthemic ‘Why’. It was satisfying also to see other people enjoying themselves in the same way that I was. A maze within a maze, if you like.

Yesterday brought an end-of-season visit to Charleston, the sixteenth-century farmhouse that was the home of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell and the ‘country headquarters’ of Bloomsbury for more than fifty years. It’s twenty-five years since I was last there and the sense of pathos and ‘temps perdu’ I found caught me off guard. The place – in spite of the telling and retelling of the same tired anecdotes, the reproduction souvenir pottery, the fusty unfashionableness of the whole Bloomsbury experiment – still resonates, and with more than just nostalgia. A portrait of the young Vanessa asleep by Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant’s later portrait, ‘Vanessa Bell Painting at La Souco’, were especially moving. Vanessa’s own portrait of her sister Virginia Woolf, shown seated in an armchair at her home in Tavistock Square, was an inspiring sight.

The view towards the house from the walled garden, the faint scents of the last roses hanging in the damp dusk as autumn crept up to envelop the whole of Sussex, was most moving of all.

I’m currently reading Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. I discovered this book via a recommendation by Ruth Padel in The Guardian, and I am just jealous, jealous, jealous! The wit, intelligence and beauty in this ‘novel in verse’ is, as Padel suggests, mind blowing. In its seamless fusion of influence and inspiration, its knowing overthrow of old forms even as it pays homage to them, the book it brings most swiftly to mind for me is Lawrence Norfolk’s superlative In the Shape of a Boar. Perhaps the fact that I can even find myself comparing a dense, 300-page novel with a perfectly spare, perfectly fashioned volume of half its length, a guerilla attack on the notion of classical poetic convention, gives some measure of how original and how brilliant both books are.

The Greek myths, the way they come down to us inseparably linked with the great lyric and philosophic literature of their day, have excited and inspired me from the age of nine. In January of this year I began writing a pair of novellas that draw on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Due to the various upheavals this year has presented and the necessity of completing other projects first, these stories are currently languishing in first draft. They nag at me constantly though, demanding attention. Anne Carson has made me both fearful and furiously excited at the prospect of getting back to them.

Intelligent, thought-provoking and much appreciated comment on The Silver Wind from Niall Harrison and Sofia Samatar at Strange Horizons here and here. Working on something new, a story that is helping me to think about the novel I’m planning.

The House of Annie Lennox, V&A Museum, October 2011

Charleston House, Firle, East Sussex

We Need to Talk About…. Chicken

On Monday I took the train across to Rye, where I visited an exhibition at the Rye Art Gallery of the works of Jane Lewis, a marvellous painter working in the tradition of British surrealism. She was a new discovery for me, and made the trip worthwhile all on her own, but then you don’t really need a specific reason to visit Rye. I’m enchanted and exhilarated by my almost daily discoveries about the literary and artistic heritage of East Sussex, a wild and roguish county and so different from the more manicured West Sussex, where I grew up. I already knew that Henry James lived in Rye for some years, but it wasn’t until last week that I found out that Joan Aiken, John Christopher and Rumer Godden lived there too.  The Tripods was filmed in Rye! Sheer delight.

So I was wandering the cobbled streets, poking around the irresistible antique shops and taking photos of Lamb House, the beautiful eighteenth-century building that was home to both Henry James and Rumer Godden, and thinking for a lot of the time about Lionel Shriver.  I’ve often enjoyed Shriver’s journalism for its decisive voice, but never got drawn into the debate surrounding We Need to Talk About Kevin for the simple reason that I hadn’t read it.  I tend to mistrust books that become overnight bestsellers. My fear, I suppose, is that there will be something lacking about them, something too easy. Indeed, my main reason for wanting to catch up with Kevin now was that Lynne Ramsey had made a film of it. Both her Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar are important films for me, and any film with Tilda Swinton in it goes straight on my ‘to see’ list in any case.

The first fifty pages of Kevin impressed me a great deal. A recent article compared Lionel Shriver, with her strict Christian upbringing and her deep interest in social morality, with George Eliot. I wouldn’t disagree for a moment, but with her elegant, circumlocutory sentences, her clear fascination not only for what is said but how it is phrased, it was Henry James I thought of first, and so perhaps it’s no surprise that Lionel Shriver and Rye became bundled together in my thoughts.

And the writing was brave! Early on, when Eva is still trying to decide whether to take the plunge and start a family, there were pages that knocked me sideways with the truth in them:

I disappointed myself by finding our perfectly pleasant lunch with perfectly pleasant people inadequate. Why would I have preferred a fight? Weren’t those two girls captivating as could be, so what did it matter that they were eternally interrupting and I had not for the whole afternoon been able to finish a thought? Wasn’t I married to a man I loved, so why did something wicked in me wish that Brian had slipped his hand up my skirt when I helped him bring in bowls of Haagen-Daas from the kitchen?

I held my tongue. You would have had no time for my nit-picking about how wasn’t the luncheon a little bland, didn’t you have the feeling like, what’s the point, isn’t there something flat and plain and doughy about the whole Father-Knows-Best routine when Brian was once such a hellraiser? They were good people and they had been good to us and we had therefore had a good time. To conclude otherwise was frightening, raising the spectre of some unnamable quantity without which we could not abide, but which we could not summon on demand, least of all by pretending in virtuous accordance with an established formula.

I was so happy to think I’d been proved wrong, to have found a bestselling mainstream novel that was also an elegant work of literature and with a radical message. Over the following 350 pages I was slowly to have that pleasure eroded. Kevin caused a lot of controversy when it first came out. First of all, Shriver’s long-time agent refused to handle it, saying she hated the book so much she couldn’t take it on. Then, thirty publishers rejected it outright, leaving it to a small American indie to take the risk with a book the more established firms seemed to regard as the Satanic Verses of rampant feminism. Readers seemed equally divided. Some called Shriver a childless child-hater, others hailed her as the mothers’ true champion. But controversy as so often bred huge success. The book won the Orange Prize and was the book of book group choice for many months and years following publication.

I see it as an opportunity lost. It’s funny, sharp and well written, and where so many books this popular are bland and trite that has to be a wonderful thing. It also raises hugely important questions about women and family and the creative life. For me, it’s a tragedy that it raises these questions only to chicken out of the debate by presenting the reader with a portrait of motherhood and family life that is so monstrous, so exaggerated, so unbelievable that in the end that reader is reassured rather than radicalized. There’s no way it’s going to be like this, so why should I worry?

Kevin as a character is unbelievable on so many levels. Even if you take into account the idea that there are children born who are ‘bad to the bone,’ whose socio- and psychopathic behaviour is not the result of familial abuse but of some innate wrongness, he’s unbelievable. There’s plenty of documentary evidence to show that even such  ‘junior psychos’ are conflicted in and confused by their own behaviours; Kevin is far more Damien Omen 2 than he is John Venables.

The kind of existential denial that Shriver suggests Kevin Khatchadourian suffers from was brilliantly portrayed by Dostoevsky in the person of Nicolai Stavrogin, the ice-hearted anti-hero of his novel The Devils. Yet even Stavrogin is conflicted – that’s what makes him interesting as a character. Are we meant to believe that Kevin is supernaturally bad? If so, then isn’t this the ultimate get-out clause? There are plenty of risks involved in starting a family, but giving birth to the son of Satan must rank pretty low on the list of considerations.

Had Shriver chosen to stick with the less easily definable, more insidiously pervasive issues of the first part of this novel, then I believe Kevin would be what it clearly set out to become: a modern classic. As it is, it’s a cop-out and a huge disappointment, a betrayal even. On p347 I was smashed in the face by the following:

From a young age there was only one thing I had always wanted, along with getting out of Racine, Wisconsin. And that was a good man who loved me and would stay true. Anything else was ancillary, a bonus, like frequent-flier miles. I could have lived without children. I couldn’t live without you.

OMG! Words fail me. And this – more Jane Austen than Dostoevsky – was supposed to be a feminist text???

I’m still looking forward to Lynne Ramsey’s film. I just wish people would start asking better questions about the book it was based on.

Lamb House, West Street, Rye

One More Chance

Just as I am convinced that being born in E1 mystically bound me to the city of London forever, so I feel certain that the music of Sandy Denny, playing in the background of my life throughout my formative years, must have secretly sewn itself into the fabric of my being.

It’s hard for me to sum up what Denny means to me and why. The truth is that I don’t have any conscious memories of her music from when I was a child, but on first discovering her songs a decade or so ago I felt an instant kinship with them, a painful surge of recognition that said these were treasures I had somehow lost and had been searching for ever since. On a recent trip to Dorset, the landscape that informs not only A Dream of Wessex but also Keith Roberts’s incomparable Pavane, I timed Gold Dust, the CD of Sandy Denny’s final live concert at the Royalty Theatre in 1977, so that it would start playing the track ‘One More Chance’ just as we rolled off the Sandbanks ferry and into the tussocky, wind-toughened landscape of the Isle of Purbeck. If this action sounds premeditated then I’m forced to admit that it was. It was something I had dreamed of doing. The music arose from that landscape as a gusting breath of its own wind, and I knew that it would.

I think I might have mentioned before that I’m a bit of a list junkie, so you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a compulsive player of the Desert Island Discs game. My final eight-disc line-up changes constantly, but ‘One More Chance’ is unfailingly a part of it. How can you make a choice between Schnittke’s brutally blessed third cello concerto, the zenith of Mahler’s art in Das Lied von der Erde, and the live cut of ‘One More Chance’? You can’t – or at least I can’t. But if I had to name just one track that sums up how I feel about the soil I grew out of and the atmosphere I inhabit it would be that one. The impassioned and slightly enigmatic lyrics, the wilful ecstacy of the long instrumental passage that follows (Jerry Donahue’s sublime guitar) – these are the epitome of the maverick strength that characterises a brand of creative iconoclasm I see as peculiarly and indefinably English.

Denny’s songs, built around the natural rather than the harmonic minor and possessing that sound you might loosely characterise as ‘mediaeval,’ draw on the English folk tradition and are usually labelled ‘folk rock’; like all the greatest art though they trascend the form they spring out of, subverting it at the same time they play homage, evolving triumphantly into a mode of expression that is new, steadfastly original, timeless in its message and its appeal.

Like Dylan, like Cave, Denny is a poet who wrote music, a composer who saw her music as being inextricably linked with the voices in her head.

For me, the songs and the music she left us with are a source of artistic renewal and a constant inspiration. I only wish she had lived long enough to leave us with more. How thrilling then to learn that the contents of her last notebooks, songs and lyrics she was immersed in writing during the final months of her too-short life, have been released by the Denny estate and turned into an album?

If anyone had asked me who would be the right person to translate these ‘lost’ lyrics into songs for performance I would probably have said no one. That it would be better not to tamper with what was sacred and to simply publish the fragments in their written form so that those who cared might read for themselves and enjoy them. When I heard that the artist who had been chosen to realise Sandy’s material was Thea Gilmore I immediately changed my mind.

I’ve seen Gilmore live, own three of her albums, and she’s an amazing presence. Her lyrics rattle and rage, and when I think of her I think of protest, of political defiance, with Thea herself as a kind of female English Victor Jara. And yet there’s great tenderness in her too, a poetic sensibility that is clearly and definably….. Sandy.

Thea Gilmore’s album Don’t Stop Singing will be released on November 7th. I’ve already ordered my copy and can’t wait to hear it.

Working on a new and rather nasty little story called ‘The Elephant Girl’ and listening to Sandy throughout in the hope that she might bring some measure of redemption to my troubled protagonist.

Walking at dusk as I love to, I find the whole town is filled with Michaelmas daisies and the scent of autumn.

Chaconne

Just to say that ‘Chaconne’ is now available to read at the Featured Story page.

This story was written in the week between Christmas and New Year 2009, and was published earlier this year in The Master in Cafe Morphine, an anthology of tales inspired by the life and writing of Mikhail Bulgakov.

Breeze

Brighton wasn’t just home to FantasyCon this weekend. Taking an early morning walk along the beach on the Saturday we discovered that the city was also playing host to the 2011 ‘Brighton Breeze,’ an annual rally of Volkswagen camper vans. There really was something fantastical in the sight of literally hundreds of these vehicles lined up along the front. In fact the entire three days felt vaguely unreal. Looking back at the city from the pier I was struck by the dangerous vividness of everything, the knife-edge clarity, as if the whole scene had been cut and assembled from coloured paper. Everything was in technicolour, the buildings along the seafront so white-hot they hurt your eyes.

There were thousands of people on the beach and in the water. It was like a scene from Ballard, or Rene Clement’s Plein Soleil.  It was difficult to believe this was still England.

The Royal Albion was horrendously noisy – the night-long festivities on the beach and along the promenade made it feel as if we were inhabiting an airport terminal rather than a hotel – but that rather fitted in with the restless weirdness of everything. The company of so many other writers made this weekend, as always, a unique experience.

Brighton and FCon go together so well it’s supernatural…..

Brighton Breeze 2011