Archive for February, 2010

Renegade Saints

February 26, 2010

Sacred space – photograph by Liz Mathews

Although I invoked Virginia Woolf as one of my literary patrons, writers aren’t usually portrayed as saints, nor in general anxious to be regarded as such. (Was it Yeats who declined to be a genius at breakfast – presumably a saint would be even harder?) Yet Gertrude Stein was, by her own definition, a saint, merely because she was an artist. As Judy Grahn explains in Really Reading Gertrude Stein, she meant by this strange claim that ‘artists bear the same focus of leadership and shamanistic interpretation of the cosmos to human perceptions, in our age, as saints did for their societies in the Middle Ages’.

Suddenly, this canonises a whole ragged company of interpreters, map-makers, path-finders and outsiders; writers, artists, makers of all kinds. Just as the ancient saints could be recognised in the whole spectrum from smelly eccentrics or hermits enskied on columns, lion-taming monks or inspired scribes, to female knights, child crusaders, cross-dressing princesses or healing cadavers – so the contemporary saints would be a motley lot. The only attribute required to be one of Stein’s community of saints is a passionate belief in the practice of art, a faith in its power to interpret all that we need to know of the human place in the universe. (This brings to mind Virginia Woolf’s strange assertion that ‘good writers, even if they show every variety of human depravity, are still good human beings’.)

For a moment, it’s irresistable to imagine this multi-cult world, where saints of diverse kinds perform their everyday miracles. The artist-shamans are dedicated to their work, their magical access to other dimensions, which is both privilege and hardship, is only one element of their holy craft, together with the inspiration which may descend on them, and the unique way of seeing which each one separately cultivates and seeks to communicate. There’s no heresy, no dogma, no hierarchy, no inquisition…

Strangely, the artist’s special status – if not exactly saintly, at least other-worldly – is often recognised, still, though sometimes in strange ways. The rage which some people feel (especially artists’ families) at their effrontery in trying to ‘set themselves up’ is a back-handed recognition that they are attempting something different, better. The alternative life which is always expected of artists is a version of the hermit’s or knight’s vocation, just as the clichés of ‘starving in a garret’ refer to the artist’s dedication to integrity rather than money. All these unsophisticated pictures may stem from a 19thC literary myth of Bohemian life on the margins, but they still have a currency which isn’t entirely daft; there are many of us who don’t put money first, who do feel a commitment to our work which would seem religious in another context. And many of us have lives which are far from conventional.

These vague sketches of what artists are probably like have now been joined by the concept of the other kind of artist, who is not on the margins at all but a celebrity and very very rich. There is, in theory, no reason why such a figure should not be a ‘saint’, any more than there is any guarantee that the bohemian in the garret will be one. It’s just much more difficult.

We latter-day saints face constant temptations of a kind our earlier patrons barely glimpsed, as they eschewed publicity which didn’t relate directly to their work, or finally agreed to give a radio talk, only on their own subject. We have the demon-whisperings to pursue celebrity (‘Get your fifteen minutes here!’), compromise true work with currently fashionable alterations, abandon our craft as too obscure, squander or prostitute our gift for gain or publication or recognition. Often these vast betrayals are disguised as unusual career opportunities, necessary evils, normal practice nowadays.

There’s a danger for every artist – in whatever medium, of whatever fame – of the Fall, of becoming a pseudo-artist producing bogus art – a renegade saint. For the artist’s special and necessary function within society (call it sainthood, for poetry’s sake) can only be performed passionately, with utter conviction and absolute dedication, whatever form the resulting work may take. It’s essential that we shouldn’t be mocked or pressured into accepting something less as inevitable, or fail to resist corruption by parasites or seduction by false idols. To undertake this, we must also decode the confused messages of despair in creation and reject them as futile, unfruitful. For if the interpreters loose their vision, what hope is there for those who look to them for illumination?

How not?

February 17, 2010

The particular made sublime; a portrait of a society both utterly recognisable yet intensely Mandarin, its unique atmosphere created by one writer. The apparently limited palette produces not a merely personal memoir, but an unavoidable critique of contemporary morés, a profound meditation on the writer’s world, on the nature of life itself. This could be a description of Proust, of course, but here I’m thinking of Sybille Bedford.

It takes a moment to get the measure of her first published book, A Visit to Don Otavio, the most bizarre of travelogues, with its idiosyncratically elegant prose, the wild occurrences recounted with such deadpan hysteria. She can always startle the reader; abandoned in a broken down car in the South American rainforest she is ‘frantically bored’. Resignation is her usual traveller’s response to brigandage, murder, train delays of days, loss of manuscript – all tend to be greeted with ‘How not?’. The only thing that really annoys her is when the restaurant won’t bring the courses in the right order (in fact, bring everything all at once…).

Bedford’s own life gave her the raw material for the books that followed; A Legacy, Children of the Gods, A Compass Error, Jigsaw, are all versions of her own or her families’ stories. But her real subject was not autobiography as such, but the human condition, the paradox of life’s extremes of pleasure and pain, the perceived obligation to live it well. She was a great exemplar of the transformation of experience into art. Her last book, Quicksands, a memoir written in old age, was published just before her death in 2006; she was born in 1911.

A voice from a vanished world, telling of an immensely old Europe of a subtlety and sophistication which makes this century seem crass indeed – if this were all, it would still be worth reading. But in fact Bedford’s achievement is far greater. Her worldliness, courtliness, cosmopolitan knowledge of wines and foods, literatures and languages, her pose of almost exaggerated urbanity and bone-dry wit, are all combined with a strong political awareness of her own position (as a woman, a lesbian, an anti-Fascist, with a complex inheritance of intellectual Jewish, Italian Catholic and Alsatian aristocratic blood) in the maelstrom of mid-20thC Europe.

There’s no self-pity here. Bedford’s books celebrate the pleasures of life, while observing its horrors and ironies unblinking. Her brother-in-law was executed by the Nazis, she was disinherited by them and then, when she sought asylum in England as a dispossessed refugee, very nearly deported as an undesirable alien. (It is very bitter, as she observed, to be mistaken for the thing you are fighting.) To gain citizenship, she made a marriage of convenience with a gay bouncer or chorus boy – Mr Bedford – which perhaps explains the ineradicable outsider mentality which seems to have co-existed with her later extreme respectability as OBE, President of PEN etc.

Certain images remain, apart from memorable descriptions of food, wine, reading, physical pleasures. It’s hard to forget the description of her in Rome in the 1950’s, dropping out of her lover’s window onto the pavement below and strolling home in the dawn with all the other returning night-stayers, or driving, as a learner, her 1920’s car helter-skelter down a mountain track in the gathering dark while her drug-addicted mother beside her screamed ever-louder for morphia. But, of course, the famous exhilaration and perception is all in the writing; it’s the way she tells ’em.

The much-praised ‘radiant prose’ of a ‘consummate stylist’ seems to move, amuse or enlighten the reader effortlessly, through sheer force of personality. (How not?) But this highly-wrought medium was, of course, the result of a painstaking and slow work process. Using this supreme stylistic vehicle, she ‘confronts dispossession, displacement and loss’ with great panache, meditates on time and memory with unforced profundity, faces her own mortality with gallantry and undiminished wit.

The last sentence of Quicksands (a work of art to the end) sums up the writer’s only regrets about the approach of death, poignantly yet without self-pity. ‘Wish I could tell the half of it… But, I repeat, there seems to be no time.’

Ancestral Voices

February 8, 2010

Rather like the Public Lending Right, the BBC is an anachronism, a great British institution which – despite all attempts at reconstruction, modernisation and fumigation – still retains a distinct whiff of Reithian atmosphere. (This refers to BBC radio, of course. What may go on in the alien universe of television is another matter.) Even now, on Radio 3 and 4, the virtues of cultural inclusiveness, palatable education and campaigning journalism, so distrusted by Mrs Thatcher, survive against the odds.

Within this vaguely socialist ethos, literature is still supported, both through official book programmes, and more sporadically. It turns up in unexpected places; poetry creeps onto Woman’s Hour, writers are interviewed on music programmes. Turned on at random, the radio is suddenly loud with Chekhovian women longing for Moscow, or the rhythmic wood-pigeon cooing which turns out to be Yeats reading Innisfree.

Last week, Radio 3’s Composer of the Week was William Walton, so Edith Sitwell intoned Façade, as she quite frequently does. The maniac delights of this must have sent many people, like me, to look again at her work, and marvel.

This week on Radio 4, there will be Vita Sackville-West talking about herself as Orlando; a treasure not so rare as Virginia Woolf on words, but nevertheless a glittering moment. It’s on the repeated From the Ban to the Booker, a two part series on books from Radclyffe Hall’s banned The Well of Loneliness to the multiple Booker nominations of Ali Smith and Sarah Waters. (As well as Ali, Sarah, Jeanette Winterson, Diana Souhami et al, it includes a contribution from me about Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner.)

Contemporary writers have a perhaps surprisingly strong presence on the radio. In the remote future, if the BBC excavates these literary dialogues from the archives, presumably they’ll seem as other-worldly as the period pieces from the mid-twentieth century do now – ancestral voices echoing across the airwaves.

From the Ban to the Booker, BBC Radio 4, Thursday 11th and Friday 12th February 23.30. (Or listen again on

Spilt Ink

February 4, 2010

At about this time of year, in early February, authors in Britain receive their Public Lending Right payments. Any actual money paid to a writer, for their books, must be a cause for celebration (if not amazement); an annual salute is due to this peculiar institution. For, extraordinarily enough, writers are still paid a miniscule fee from government funds every time one of their books is borrowed from a public library.

This remarkable Right was gained after a long struggle, notably in the 1970’s by Maureen Duffy and her fellow campaigners. An Act of Parliament established PLR in 1979; rather discouragingly, some of its main opponents were librarians who thought it might increase their workloads. Readers were also concerned that they might be made to pay the fee directly – of course, they already paid for library services indirectly via rates and taxes. University or specialist libraries, and private institutions, were not included in the scheme, or might presumably have objected too.

The new PLR was widely seen as a triumph for the socialist principle of the writer as worker-hero, rewarded by the state in proportion to their service to the masses – although it could also be represented as a legal concept relating to the free use of a copyrighted product. But, whatever the socio-political implications, the outcome for the writer was good. The PLR payment, whether it’s just enough for a bottle of wine or makes a noticeable contribution to the writer’s finances, is some recognition that a writer’s work is worth something to our not very literary society. Despite its drawbacks – the sample system’s hiccups, the lack of many ‘alternative’ books, the rewarding of the authors who need it least – it is a rare example of idealism in action.

Apocryphal stories soon circulated of penurious writers repeatedly taking out their own books in order to increase their pay-out; and perhaps then there might have been enough libraries and books for even such a daft tactic to have some minimal impact. Nowadays, it would be difficult to find enough libraries open, with the books in them. The closure of libraries, reduction of their opening hours, and lack of funds to replace books (or buy all but the most obvious new ones), inevitably cuts down borrowing.

Not that the PLR itself is in decline. According to the organisation’s own statistics, funding for the current year has been fixed at around seven and a half million pounds; the fee per loan increased to 6.29p (from 5.98p). This tiny amount of funding means that a writer whose books were borrowed 50,000 times might make over £3,000. Very few do. There is a maximum payment of £6,600, which just over two hundred authors reach – otherwise another million pounds would be divided between them. Of the 35,000 registered authors, almost a third get nothing, either because their pay-out would be less than one pound, or because their books have not been borrowed (most likely because the libraries no longer hold them).

This decline of libraries is painfully illustrated by the statements which show the number of times each title has been borrowed during the year. (The system uses sample libraries for this calculation, so there are sometimes demographic variations, especially if books are of local interest.) There’s a pang to see that a once-popular book has received zero borrowings; this means that the copies have been read until they literally fell apart, and not been replaced. Otherwise, the libraries have been closed or amalgamated, and sold off books – thus the number of ex-library copies available from second hand booksellers.

From the remaining libraries also come statistics which can encourage the writer. I receive the PLR statement for the works of my mother, the Scots historian and biographer Caroline Bingham, and it’s inspiring to realise just how many people – despite the obstacles put in their way – have had the pleasure of reading her books on Robert the Bruce or Darnley, or Royal Holloway College. The history of the Highlands is slightly more dependent on the sample location; the anthology of Scots historical verse has vanished. The two volumes of James the Sixth and First are perennially much-borrowed, and were obviously well-made books.

This statement conjures up, to me, an image of readers in a whole range of libraries; the mobile van crammed with bookshelves whose arrival in a village is a cause of excitement and running out of houses as delightful as the ice-cream or chip van’s; the small local whose rare opening is attended with the punctuality of a church service by an army of regulars; the great civic building endowed by Victorian educational philanthropists to house a vast collection. But this may be whistling in the dark. If public libraries fade away, become overheated day-centres with a few detective stories or outdated reference books for decoration, with one out-of-order computer stuck in the corner, the great idea of PLR will become irrelevant too. So much spilt ink.