Archive for May, 2010

Island Stories

May 26, 2010


Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews

A sense of the past is a combination of empathy and knowledge, imagination and history. It’s often built up of a familiarity with the literature and art of a particular era, combined with the later re-interpretations and critiques of that period, which stimulate our own creative engagement with it. For lucky readers, this process begins in childhood, with books which may be simple histories, but are still an imaginative exploration of the past, that strange other country.

Our Island Story, that classic imperialist text, was recently reissued with all its propagandist sentimentality robustly intact. It remains a compendium of all the legends – Alfred burning the cakes, Gloriana riding to defy the Armada – which are part of English national identity. Other, later, children’s books attempted a more subtle process of presenting the past – often in great, authentic detail – not always in the authorised version.

Some of the classics of the mid-20thC, by Rosemary Sutcliffe, Violet Needham, Bryher, Naomi Mitchison (Travel Light), to mention only a few, questioned the accuracy of the accepted histories children were taught, raised questions about gender roles, the status of women, the ethics of war, slavery, capital punishment, even the tensions between tradition and development. Also, they made important connections between how things were at the time of which they were writing, and the time in which they wrote.

In this revealing of the past within the present, contemporary art has a crucial role, whether it’s in the form of a children’s historical novel, or a satirical poem. Of course, every kind of art gives a far better understanding of its own period (to a later audience) than any amount of factual information could. A film that is a work of art, such as Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, is the perfect example of such revelatory time-travel. But, if the art of the past reveals its own moment to us, our contemporary art has to re-interpret those eras in order to present our own fully – and so the process goes on.

After those wonderful books had cast illumination on some parts of the past for me, I moved on to Mary Renault, Robert Graves (I, Claudius was confiscated at school as unsuitable for a nine year old), Paul Gallico’s weepy The Snow Goose. Since my mother was a historian and also an excellent storyteller, I also heard stories of the past, in the form of poetry and contemporary quotation, as well as anecdote. This was a lucky extension of the great tradition of spoken story which transmitted events within living memory, as well as those of the more distant past, in a line of direct descent. (Both John Aubrey and John Clare mention seeking out the older women to tell them historical details which are not otherwise on record.) Such personal storytelling still forms an extension of public history, and often presents an alternative version, as many spoken history projects demonstrate surprisingly.

It’s one of the (many) functions of art to both commemorate and question the events of the past which have taken on a mythic significance, become part of that patchwork background which is – for better or worse – our sense of historical identity. Legends, folktales, fables, or even popular history clichés, are fascinating to the artist/writer as the focus of so much collective imagination, such national passion. What we read as children first, or heard recounted, is inevitably part of what Kathleen Raine called the ‘imaginative transformation of a historic into an archetypal event’; a fertile site for excavation.

I’m taking part in a contemporary art event, The Dunkirk Project, one element of which is the River of Stories, an online interactive installation which invites participants to contribute their own story to the collective memory or re-imagining of the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, one of our great national myths. All the accounts, anecdotes, poems, comments, or stories, will combine not into a literal history, but a strong current of imagination, memory and re-enactment – into a work of art, indeed.

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Making the sun rise

May 18, 2010


Beech Cathedral – photograph by Liz Mathews

The human experience is controlled by vision – as expressed in poetry or in painting – without these the human experience lapses into dark – They are like the rising sun which changes human experience – and old poems of yesterday however wonderful are the poems of yesterday and one must magic to-day’s sun to rise and be the sun, and staunch your death.

(Winifred Nicholson to Kathleen Raine, quoted in Winifred Nicholson by Christopher Andreae).

Winifred Nicholson wrote many profound texts about art, some of which can be read on the website of her work (where I like to Have a Picture in my Room is particularly beautiful). The passage quoted above seems to contain a manifesto about the uses of art which is universal, despite its evident origins as a personal plea to a poet friend to write on, even in difficult circumstances.

The biographer of Winifred Nicholson records that her grandfather (also an artist) told her, perhaps in joke, that since there was already such a daunting quantity of ‘pictures’ in the world, it was her duty to paint ‘good and small’. This much later fragment of letter touches on the same issue for a writer or artist; why – since so much transcendent art already exists – create more? (Sometimes the weight of the past can seem smothering…)

Her statement about the need for art – without it human existence ‘lapses into dark’ – contains both an acknowledgement of the crucial importance of old art, which has illuminated the past and remains necessary to our understanding of the present, and the belief that new art is also essential to bring contemporary human experience into the world of light, not darkness.

The poetic truth stated here, that the artist must ‘magic today’s sun’ not only to rise, but also to be itself, expresses with extraordinary exactitude the mysterious necessity of creating new light, contemporary day, which will help to keep the darkness away, banish the long night. As for the staunching of death; art performed that strange task for many with miraculous success in the past, so it may work for us, too. Worth a try?

Talismans and spells

May 11, 2010


Grace and remembrance – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Books are not seldom talismans and spells…’
(William Cowper)

This magical line expresses an idea familiar to every reader; the book as talisman. This evocative word becomes even more appropriate on close acquaintance. It’s defined by various dictionaries as ‘an object supposed to be imbued with magical powers, an amulet, charm, hence any object held to be endowed with magic virtue… derived from the Greek rite, consecrated object… anything that acts as a charm, or by which extraordinary results are achieved.’ These attractive descriptions are outdone by an encyclopedia which adds ‘esp. an inscribed ring or stone capable of averting evil or bringing good luck’.

It doesn’t take any great leap of the imagination to acknowledge that there are times when a book can be a certain averter of evil, bringer of health or good luck, means whereby extraordinary results are achieved. The intense concentration of imagination, thought, intellectual communication, creativity and responsiveness which goes to create the miracle-working thing results in an object consecrated by both the writer’s and reader’s act – the rite of reading. It blesseth her that gives and her that takes.

As for a ‘spell’ – here the dictionary again breaks into poetry; ‘a form of words used as a magical charm or incantation, from OE tale or narrative… a set of words, a formula or verse, supposed to possess occult or magic powers, a charm or incantation… an occult or mysterious power or influence’. The shortest entry merely reads ‘enchantment’.

That the physical book is an object which carries within it metaphysical powers seems a truth universally acknowledged; the only question is, which book? At different times of life, in different circumstances, various books fulfil the talismanic purpose, though perhaps some remain constant always. What seemed essential when in the VIth Form (for me, Brideshead Revisited), is probably a rare read later, when it’s The Waves (or whatever) which seems to confer a blessing merely by existing. But Emma casts her spell always.

But beyond that, which copy? For some the battered paperback long-carried in the pocket is imbued with power by the number of times it’s been read; others prefer the letterpress edition carefully preserved in its slipcase, rarely read but much admired. Beloved old books read to rags, or new issues in fresh-printed mint condition, they fulfil the talismanic purpose – so long as they are not (in the words of Cowper’s younger admirer Charles Lamb) ‘Things in books’ clothing’.

Impossible to resist quoting Virginia Woolf’s finale from How Should One Read a Book?:

‘I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards – their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’