Archive for the 'A good word' Category

The Blue Hour

November 3, 2017

The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney | Arcola TheatreMy play The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney was commissioned by Amanda Boxer (Mosquitoes, National Theatre, Medea, Almeida Theatre) and it played at the Arcola Theatre in London, 7-11 November 2017.  Full details here.

There’s an interview about it with me, Amanda and the director Kenneth Hoyt on YouTube –  or on Facebook – and a Facebook event (whatever that may be).  The playscript is published as a Pottery Press pamphlet.

The Arcola kindly asked me to write a guest blog for their website about it, which I’ve added in below:

Natalie Barney’s life seems made for the stage. A Parisian-American who lived through Decadence and Modernism, two world wars and the social revolution of the 1960’s, her salon was famous for the writers she entertained there, and she was infamous for her seductions of beautiful women.  Hugely influential at the time – both as a patron of the arts and as a pioneer of openly gay living – she was condemned by some as an amoral wrecker of lives and probable fascist sympathiser, celebrated by others as a generous life-enhancer and supporter of writers, especially women. She certainly possessed a reckless determination to live as she chose and create a world in her own flamboyant image.

Amanda Boxer has wanted to play the part of Natalie ever since she first read about the Amazon. She decided to make this happen by commissioning a one-woman play, and I was delighted when she asked me to write it for her. The era is one I’ve written about before (both in non-fiction, especially about the poet Valentine Ackland, and in my wartime novel The Principle of Camouflage).  Researching this cultural moment, I’ve often come across Natalie Barney mentioned in memoirs and letters, satirised or idealised in contemporary novels, or as the love-object in poems – but always at a tangent.  This was a wonderful opportunity to write about her directly.

Research ranged from the frankly gossipy journalism of Janet Flanner’s New Yorker pieces in Paris was Yesterday or Hemingway’s autobigraphical A Moveable Feast to the many versions of Natalie’s own memoirs and scholarly biographies such as Judith Thurman’s Colette.  There’s a lot of contemporary writing referenced in the play: Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood and Ladies’ Almanack, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince, Proust, Gertrude Stein (and of course Colette) as well as later 20thC writers like Truman Capote and Sybille Bedford.  Reading all that was pure pleasure for me; the best part of a writer’s job, being able to call it work…  And I also enjoyed talking to people who’d known Natalie Barney, remembered her in age, and were able to tell me something about her style, her charisma, and her outrageous wit.

Communicating a real life within the context of a play has particular challenges; I think that the most successful don’t try to cram everything in – it’s a play, not a doorstop biography – but do suggest the complex texture of experience, the contradictions and strangeness of life, the character’s voice and the colour of their thoughts.  W.H. Auden wrote ‘Art is the way we break bread with the dead’ and in the potent medium of theatre it can really seem possible to meet a person across decades or centuries, and hear them speak.

I decided we’d meet Natalie in the particular setting of a 1950’s hotel room, in an hour of real time – waiting to see whether a street pick-up will follow through, having a shattering quarrel with her on/off partner –  while weaving in memories of a whole lifetime’s experience: from her childhood meeting with Oscar Wilde to her premonition of death, ‘that unavoidable last visitor.’ I aimed to create the illusion of her presence by evoking her style, without reproducing (or translating) her exact words. This Natalie is an unreliable narrator, re-telling stories from a flamboyant life and asserting her wild creed, taking the audience into her confidence yet never quite revealing her mystery.

Working on this project with Amanda Boxer and the brilliant director Kenneth Hoyt has been an amazing experience, as I’ve seen the words move from page to stage, and the character of Natalie take on a reality that’s almost eerie at times.

It’s important to map the landscape of the past, to understand how we reached the place we are now, and discover a way into the future. Natalie Barney’s story is a crucial piece of that past – not just because her salon was a place which influenced the greatest writers of 20thC culture; it was also a feminist space where women writers claimed equality with men, and gay people could be themselves without fear. This uncompromising woman took enormous risks to live as she did. Her self-belief inspired many people to imagine the possibility of a different future; where women’s creativity would be taken as seriously as men’s; where gender wouldn’t define or limit anyone; where gay love would be accepted or even celebrated.

Are we nearly there yet?


















True Remembering

May 26, 2015
Lucky Weather (paperwork by Liz Mathews, text by Frances Bingham)

Lucky Weather (paperwork by Liz Mathews, text by Frances Bingham)

This year of grace 2015 is almost confusingly crowded with war anniversaries: Waterloo, Gallipoli, Dunkirk, VE Day, and more.  One famous victory with its commemorative station, a notorious and costly disaster, a ‘glorious retreat’ which became a matter of national pride, peace at last.  One hundred years between the great battles of 1815 and 1915 compares with the relatively brief timespan separating ’15 from ’40 – a mere twenty-five years.

The problem with these anniversaries is that they can be the opportunity for essential human rememberings, dredgings of collective memory which come up with treasure, deep contemplations of history – or crass appeals to nationalism, in the worst sense, and the glorification of war.

In 2014, at the centenary of the outbreak of WW1, No Glory – the group of artists, actors and writers including Carol Ann Duffy – expressed their concern that memorial events would be exploited to promote militarism and celebrate the powers of destruction, rather than to honour the dead and acknowledge the personal sacrifices of all involved in such conflicts (which, in terms of WW2, we’re still living with, in a long aftermath).  They hoped to encourage cultural events which would ‘mark the courage’ of those involved but also remember ‘the almost unimaginable devastation’ and ‘ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.’

It’s important for us to find ways in which to make an act of remembrance which fully acknowledges courage and honour, suffering and endurance, the many different modes of resistance to the forces of darkness – and yet doesn’t degenerate into a festival of militarism, or an unquestioning acceptance of war as a ‘necessary evil’.

The way in which the First World War is perceived has been drastically influenced by its portrayal in art – in the work of war poets, especially those like Wilfrid Owen who wanted to ‘make it stop’, the wartime art of Paul Nash or Stanley Spencer, haunting memoirs like Vera Brittain’s filmed and re-filmed Testament of Youth, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End or Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (both also filmed), the elegaic music of Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries (and later, Britten’s War Requiem), and of course Joan Littlewood’s subversive classic Oh What a Lovely War – to name merely a few of the best known.  All these are powerful memorials, in diverse ways, but it would be difficult to interpret any of them as pro-war.

Such works of art make it possible for us to commemorate, protest, explore, lament, re-examine, imagine, narrate, compare, question, and above all perceive such events in all their diverse complexity, light and shade, humour and drama, tragedy and unexpectedness.  The development of narrative history projects also creates a complementary mosaic of remembered fragments which change and enrich our understanding of the past, and many artists work with these sources to make new kinds of art.

The anniversaries of WWII are even more complex; the armies march nearer to us in time, there are still many survivors, eye-witnesses, close relations involved.  The motives for war were so different that even pacifists of the previous war accepted the need to arm.  But that makes the need still greater for memorials which ‘ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.’

I believe that one such is The Dunkirk Project, set up by Liz Mathews five years ago on the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk, which developed from research for her monumental artist’s book, Thames to Dunkirk.  The project combines art and poetry about that extraordinary moment with individual stories of the event from many different contributors.  For 2015 the project is being relaunched, with live coverage of the evacuation as it takes place day-by-day, from 26th May to 6th June, and new additional material.

There’s now a page of Dunkirk Phossils by Charlie Bonallack (grandson of BG Bonallack whose poem Retreat from Dunkirk was lettered by Liz Mathews on Thames to Dunkirk, with Virginia Woolf’s words), updated and revised contributions, new stories, more poems, more images – to make an even more vivid panorama of the Dunkirk story.

As the poet Jeremy Hooker wrote in response to it: ‘This is a wonderful project.  True remembering is essential to our humanity.’

Flying over Bloomsbury

September 23, 2014

Paper Wings installation at Enitharmon Press (detail)

Paper Wings (detail) artist’s book installation by Liz Mathews at Enitharmon Press in Bloomsbury (photo Liz Mathews)

Maureen Duffy has recently written Songs for Sappho, a cycle of love-poems charting the changing seasons and weathers of a passionate love between two women, from longing in absence to delight in the joys of being together – ‘the myriad faces of love’. These intensely personal texts explore many themes: her own gay identity (Can you love the both of me/ the yearning boy, the woman who’d wipe your tears?), desire (That moment when you open/ your arms and I come in…), pain and uncertainty (I booze on love, on pain, on wine…), and hope for the future (So maybe after all/ a summer of honey and petals/ will break at last…).

On first reading the Songs, lettering artist Liz Mathews was inspired to make a major work: a flying installation that would become an unending artist’s book. She envisaged the poems as flying messages like smoke signals or paper darts, or slung high from an unbreakable line connecting two points and mapping the distance between them, as the words are lifted into the breeze like the beneficent mantras of prayer-flags.

She set each of the 55 poems on a large page of handmade paper, lettering the text in her trademark style, and using unconventional tools – driftwood sticks from the Thames, a goosefeather quill, a reed pen, and wooden clothespegs. She mixed her paint with blood, honey, snowmelt, earth or wine as the text demanded, to make an artwork that reflects both the grit and the eroticism of the song cycle and inhabits the poems rather than illustrates them.

This joint project is Paper Wings, an installation at Enitharmon Press’s gallery in Bloomsbury, which opened yesterday, with the pages slung fluttering overhead like washing on a line with a touch of fairground bunting. The effect of colour, image, and word in fluent combination has transformed the cool gallery space, giving the sensation of walking within the poems themselves.

Paper Wings installation at Enitharmon Press (detail)  Artwork and photo Liz Mathews

Paper Wings (detail) artist’s book installation by Liz Mathews at Enitharmon Press in Bloomsbury (photo Liz Mathews)

Wall-hung artist’s books and paperworks continue the airy theme, with texts by other writers associated with Enitharmon Press and Bloomsbury, including Jeremy Hooker, William Blake and Virginia Woolf. (All these works are also exhibited on Enitharmon’s website.)

After the exhibition, the individual pages will be constructed into an artist’s book in concertina form. There’s also a limited edition of 100 digitally printed half-size facsimile reproductions, signed by poet and artist, showing each poem/page in full colour, and including elements of both installation and artist’s book.  This is the first publication of these poems.

Paper Wings limited edition book and DVD

The printmaker David Mitchell, one of the guests at the private view, wrote to me afterwards ‘It was a very impressive occasion; Maureen Duffy read beautifully, with such directness and modesty, and the walls and ceiling were echoing and accompanying so sensitively…’  And in the artist’s film Paper Wings the poet speaks the words while the camera explores the pages. Duffy reads her powerful poems with utter honesty and conviction; her lived-in voice moves between weariness and laughter, vulnerability and power, making for a deeply moving reading. The one-take live vocal recording is layered into a textured soundscape of wind and weather, blackbirds and buses, London streets and gardens, aeroplanes and seagulls, evoking the physical context of the poems.

Visually, the camera focuses closely on each page, revelling in the rich palette of colour, the exuberance of the handling of paint, and the freehand flow of the lettering. It takes time to explore the physical qualities of the paper – its textures, weight, light-bearing transparency or opacity. And it reveals the vivid detail of the images that contain the poems in all their dazzling diversity, with the jewel-like intimacy of an illuminated manuscript.

The camera’s close engagement involves the viewer as a reader following the movement of the text, accompanying Duffy on the voyage through the cycle. As the pages turn, their cumulative effect draws the viewer into a personal odyssey in collaboration with poet and artist. The apparently simple film-making (with shifting sequences of ‘still’ images animated by the reader’s moving eye) paradoxically results in a genuinely cinematic experience – moving pictures with sound.

Both the book and the dvd are available from Enitharmon Press, and the exhibition continues there until 15th October.

Maureen Duffy, Liz Mathews & Frances Bingham (photo by Peter Target)

Maureen Duffy, Liz Mathews, Frances Bingham at the launch of Paper Wings at Enitharmon Press (photo by Peter Target)






The Cook’s Tale

September 7, 2013

Exchange cup - photo Liz Mathews

Exchange cup – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘There is altogether too much fuss made nowadays about the Art of Cooking,’ the Mad King of Chichiboo used to say.  ‘Everything is good to eat so long as it’s hot enough and has grated cheese on top.’   (John Verney, The Mad King of Chichiboo, 1963)

In exchange for a china teacup (number 85 of Clare Twomey’s installation Exchange at the Foundling Museum)  I’ve undertaken to ‘Teach someone to cook’.  It says this underneath the cup.  I can cook, fortunately, so one vital qualification is in place at least. (Or maybe I just think I can, and my partner does it all really?)  Like Algernon Worthing’s piano-playing, my cooking may not be accurate – anybody can cook accurately – but I cook with wonderful expression.

In my initial enthusiasm, I imagined that there’d be plenty of people who’d find this ‘good deed’ genuinely helpful, but in fact the how-to’s of cooking are so ubiquitously available – to those who want to know – that it’s only quite small children who aren’t accomplished chefs already.  And they all have long waiting-lists of adults who want to make cup-cakes, when the children are prepared to humour them.  So, rather than just give some obliging victim literal instructions on how to boil the proverbial egg, I’ve decided to interpret the good deed less literally.

Since I’m quite apt to burn things because I’m thinking about writing my book, and I like reading cookery books but not cooking from them, my cooking is rather idiosyncratic. (It’s most often done in tandem with my partner anyway; a dance in a small kitchen.)  I’ve tried to analyse something about its particularity that’s communicable, that might pass for ‘teach’.  The result is The Cook’s Tale – these impractical suggestions about to how to be a cook, both in the imagination and in the kitchen.

It’s an enormous subject. ‘Everyone knows it takes ten years to make a cook,’ according to Edouard de Pomiane, who nevertheless wrote Cooking in Six Lessons and then, emboldened, Cooking in Ten Minutes, or the Adaptation to the Rhythm of our Time, a 1948 book:

‘for the midinette [young Parisian milliner], for the clerk, for the artist, for lazy people, poets, men [sic] of action, dreamers… for everyone who has only half an hour for lunch or dinner and yet wants half an hour of peace…’

But, on an even smaller scale, in hommage to Edouard de P., here are Six Ways to be a Cook:

1)  Be a Storyteller

All cooking tells stories; of journeys, of homecomings, of seasons and weather, feastdays or festivals, of places and relationships.  There are the stories of who we are and where we come from or want to go; history and homeland, tradition and travel. Or, there are stories of how we might imagine ourselves or our lives; fantasy and re-invention, experimentation with other possible ways of being and thinking.  There are entire autobiographies; the ‘signature dish’ which is a statement of self – often fictional.

The question is, what sort of story do you want to tell?

A simple narrative of harvesting or gathering, making fire and drawing water; basic human survival stories?  Or a festival tale, giving thanks or remembering some old fable of deliverance, some gunpowder plot?  Or is it to be a celebration of place and people, with the local specialities of home, telling what grew or got traded there, how it could be cooked?  Or does it mark the passage of time, the turn of the year bringing the first asparagus or the last russets? Or will it be a more individual story, your own mythology in a pan?

Some famous recipes arrive with their myths ready attached; references to the provenance of the recipe or its special message.  The imam fainted with aubergine-induced delight, Napoleon’s chef improvised the odd combination of sauce Marengo on the battlefield, King Alfred burnt the hearth-cakes while he was reading…

So, to cook as a storyteller is to celebrate the art of life, of pleasure, of discovery; make statements of place or expressions of self.  Your stories can be simply told, subtly revealed, or merely suggested – raw, charcoal-grilled or steamed – in the preferred style of the moment, and they will add imagination to the flavour.

2)  Be a Traveller

Travel (armchair is fine), sail off on culinary voyages of discovery, return with new spices, new ideas of possible tastes, enlarged horizons.  Go Round the World in Eighty Dishes, as Lesley Blanch’s charming cookery book says, without leaving the kitchen.  Many of the best cookery books are travelogues, like Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food, full of stories about food (lowering baskets out of the windows to be filled with falafel in the street); the experiences of eating and cooking, colours and textures and city sounds, which evoke a whole culture.

One of the most evocative trips away, and certainly the bossiest, is Greek Monastery Cookery by Archimandrite Dositheos, who quotes St Gregory the Theologian on ‘the magic and wizardry of the cooks’ and reassures the under-appreciated that ‘cook saints are known to God’.  By contrast calmer, Elizabeth Romer’s The Tuscan Year follows the seasonal cycle of life and food-harvesting on Silvana and Orlando’s Italian farm, a place where the style of cooking is fundamental to the spirit of place.

As a travelling cook, or cooking traveller, you can conjure up an experience of otherness through eating; a brief visit to a strange land in its essence.  By recreating this once-foreign food, whether from an evocative book or from memories of travel, you take another voyage in the imagination.

On your way, any simple picnic (or cold collation of genius) can be a poem of travel; pilgrimage, lovers’ meeting, harvest rest, journey break.

3)  Be a Rememberer

Proust’s moment of intense recall, prompted by the taste of the madeleine dipped in tea, is referenced so often because it expresses such a common human experience so profoundly.  Proust invokes the shared language of food, whether it’s a dunked cake or a certain kind of strawberry, describing its extraordinary power to summon up the past.  Tastes and scents can instantly restore a time apparently forgotten (or lovingly remembered); this is one of the cook’s alchemical powers.

Often, the memory is of childhood, but goes beyond mere nostalgia for childhood foods or the security of the familiar, comforting though that might be.  It’s closer to the mystery of goût de terroir, the indefinable taste of the land, which can’t be mistaken for anywhere else.  There’s a strong element of ancestral reminiscence, as well as wishful-thinking folk-memory, in our individual recollections.

My grandmother cooked an old-fashioned egg custard: as a child early in the 20thC she’d been taught to make it by someone older (who was inevitably a Victorian, probably born mid-19thC).  It was a Dickensian, if not a Jane Austen, taste – delicious but not usual, now lost. I don’t know how she did it, though it included nutmeg, and all the ingredients had to be ‘very pure’.

Time travel to that other country of the past is a cliché, jam-making grandmothers or baking aunts shamelessly exploited on the labels of mass-produced stuff. But it works, sometimes. You can’t always conjure up epiphanic moments of revelation, but remember their possible immanence.

4) Be an Inventor 

Interesting cooking – expressive rather than accurate – tends to be the result of interpretative straying from strict recipes, of improvisation with unlikely ingredients, or even of downright eccentricity.  It’s an expression of personality, or personal style; a translation into your own language.  Originality, flair, individuality, are the hallmarks of the inventor cook.

In Recipes from Scotland (by F. Marian McNeill, also author of The Scots Kitchen), there’s a fine recipe for Kingdom of Fife Pie.  It bears little resemblance (in my memory) to the magnificent, mythic edifice my mother sometimes made, with whole eggs – can they really have been in their shells? – twiggy sprigs of herbs, succulent chunks of roast game, saucer-sized mushrooms, haggis sausages, heels of smoked cheese, fennel roots or whatever took her fancy, all concealed within the enveloping pie-crust.  This utter transformation into a flamboyant renaissance dish, which contained kingdoms indeed, was very characteristic.

To be an inventor in the kitchen, you don’t need to be quite so wild. Chacun and all that.  But you can avoid by-rote, measured-out, recipe-following joyless uninventive food-preparation – forgetful of story, memory, travel or anything else – which leads eventually to the dire routine of left-overs which Davey describes in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love: ‘Monday, poison pie, Tuesday, poisonburger steak, Wednesday, Cornish poison…’ and so on.

5) Be a Friend

‘When one goes into a shop to buy a cake, one gets nothing but a cake, which may be very good but is only a cake; whereas if one goes into the kitchen and makes a cake because some people one respects and probably likes are coming to eat at one’s table, one is striking a low note on a scale that is struck higher up by Beethoven and Mozart.’  (Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)  

This is the perfect statement of the cook’s artistry, a high claim.  It also celebrates the loving cook, the friend who understands food-making as a language of hospitality, with all the symbolism of breaking bread and sharing salt, the friendly obligations of host and guest.  Even if you’re hastily buying a meal ready-made from the deli, however much Rebecca West might think ‘it may be very good but it’s only a meal’, you can improvise it hospitably or impatiently, with evident results.

If you do make the cake or whatever it is, and make your friends welcome, you also create the possibility of a happy occasion which is a work of art in itself, when all the pleasures of wine and food and talk add up to something more than the sum of the parts,  perhaps like the friends’ supper together in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves: ‘Now is our festival, now we are together.’

(On the subject of loving cooks, ‘Be a romantic’ probably doesn’t need to be said. ‘A dinner of herbs where love is’ – whether it’s a sandwich banquet, cold collation, fry-up at midnight or surprise fridge-feast – this is the cook as romantic.  A  carefully-prepared dinner might be seductive, or an emergency meal erotic; the loving cook will create what the occasion demands without difficulty, only perhaps recalling Edouard de Pomiane’s invaluable advice about garlic soup:  ‘if there are two of you, consume this fragrant soup in unison or the one who refrained would find it hard to bear the other’s proximity during the evening.’)

As a loving cook you can also be a healer, a provider of comfort and sustenance, with a whole life-enhancing art of tempting the appetite and maintaining the pleasure in food for someone who’s not well.  All you need is empathy, inventiveness, and maybe most of all the happy idea that food cooked with love can be almost magically restorative.

Food as love can be burdensome for the force-fed guest, there can be confusion about elaborate or expensive cooking being more giving.  As a friend, you need to be able to make food that’s possible to accept and genuinely offered, which leads inexorably to…

6) Don’t be a Monster 

‘Unquiet meals make ill digestions’ (Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors)

The monster cook uses food as a weapon or instrument of torture; a source of unholy power for social blackmail or manipulation, a travesty of hospitality.  The monster cook is a show-off who perceives food as a status symbol, and offers it over-elaborate, fiddled-with, too rich and designed to impress rather than please. (This sort of cook just won’t accept it if you’d prefer your food field-harvested, not abattoir-slaughtered.)  The monster cook might not be above spitting in the sauce.

The monster cook indulges in mind-games; obliges people to eat what they don’t want or stops them having what they’d like, trades on their guests’ anxieties about eating, and finds it entertaining to cook or eat living creatures, or those that have been cruelly treated by being stuffed, starved, boiled alive or whatever.  (Let’s not forget all those legends of unobservant people eating their relations served up to them in pies.)

The monster cook, in fact, isn’t a cook at all, but a sinister example of how not to be one.


If there’s no set rule for how to be a cook, there are these various possibilities to keep in mind.  If you cook as a storyteller, traveller, rememberer, inventor, healer, friend or lover (but preferably not monster), you know how to be a cook.

My final excuse – I mean reason – for not giving more literal instructions; it’s futile, as this last exchange between the Mad King of Chichiboo and his temperamental cook, Cullenda, demonstrates:

‘But how can you tell when it is hot enough, unless you have had proper lessons?’ she asked.

‘When you can smell the cheese burning of course SILLY,’ said the King.

Come to the Feast

May 21, 2012

The Prospect of Happiness – paperwork by Liz Mathews

This beautiful work (with text from my book The Principle of Camouflage) is on show at Liz Mathews’ current solo exhibition light wells in Kentish Town, north London. (It’s also the banner image for the Thames Festival facebook page…)

There’s another large work in the show, Spring, which also sets text from my book, and I’m very proud that my words have contributed to a truly inspiring show.

Spring (detail)  – artist’s book by Liz Mathews

The Thames is the motif for us in London this summer; Liz Mathews’ monumental artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk is on show in Writing Britain, the British Library’s major exhibition for the London 2012 Festival.  It is wonderful opportunity to see this very large work opened up to almost its full 17 metre length, and it is an impressive sight.

We went to the opening last week, a glamorous occasion ably described by the curator Jamie Andrews on his blog, of which I will merely say that we enjoyed everything among the great and glorious of the literary world – the folk rendition of Jerusalem, the cider, the idea of the smoked eel canapes…

The exhibition itself is a real joy to any writer or reader with a love of literature which invokes the spirit of place.  It avoids the pitfalls of concentrating too exclusively on pastoral or urban by having a variety of themes, as the subtitle puts it, from Wastelands to Wonderlands, and a combination of elements that couldn’t be missed out – John Clare, Virginia Woolf – with unexpected treasures like Kathleen Raine’s diary.

One of my favourite discoveries was Bernard Kops’ poem about a now-defunct library, Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.  He reads it in a video at the show which has visitors in pleasurable tears (whereas I saw at least one person laughing at Ezra Pound’s rendition of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, accompanied on kettledrum…):

‘Welcome young poet, in here you are free

to follow your star to where you should be.

The door of the library was the door into me

And Lorca and Shelley said “Come to the feast.”

Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.’

Even in a big exhibition like this, there isn’t room for everything everyone would like to see; the land-, city- and seascapes of Britain have been so crucial to the sense of ourselves as indivduals in a place defined by our literature. The writing represented here, in all its diversity, has a common ground in the way it maps the inner landscapes of the psyche even as it explores the human place in the physical terrain.

The importance for us of word linked to place is acknowledged by the Pin-a-Tale on the literary map feature, where people can nominate their own ur-texts for specific areas; the map already bristles with red flags.  A champion of my work has contributed The Principle of Camouflage, together with this beautiful photograph of Crambo’s beach.

Sea from the dunes – photograph by Liz Mathews (1993)

Trespassers W.

June 24, 2011

Riverwood – photograph by Liz Mathews

Let us trespass at once.  Literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground.  It is not cut up into nations; there are no wars there.  Let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.  It is thus that English literature will survive… if commoners and outsiders like ourselves make that country our own country.

(Virginia Woolf, The Leaning Tower.)

This advice should seem more dated than it is.  When it was written, in 1940, Virginia Woolf envisaged a future (if there was a cultural future) in which ‘commoners’ would have such free access to library books and education that nothing but their own diffidence could keep them from trespassing on the hallowed ground of Eng.Lit. and claiming it as common land for the republic of readers.

In this mass trespass she imagined the canonical greats, Shakespeare et al, (‘if they could speak – and after all they can’) encouraging the rabble with cries of ‘Read me, read me for yourselves.’  ‘They do not mind if we get our accents wrong, or have to read with a crib in front of us’, she reassured the hitherto-excluded.  ‘We shall trample many flowers and bruise much ancient grass.’

It’s a kind of bashfulness, a feeling that it’s not for them, that still keeps some people – even those who are able to read and have access to reading materials – off the imagined grass.  Yet a voice like Woolf’s, a lawless encourager of the outsider, can lead us waltzing onto those forbidden lawns, picnicing, admiring the view, swimming in the lake. Fortunately, there are now – still – many writers and thinkers and fellow-readers who can help each other to travel this pleasant path.

The advice that we should ‘find our own way for ourselves’ is, in its context, perhaps a rebuttal of the elitist education which created a divide between in- and outsiders; a reassurance that we can do it independently. But it also serves as a warning against false maps; repetitive directions along the same old routes with unnecessary guides always asking for money. (The  financial exploitation of even the literature market contrasts sharply with Woolf’s hopeful prophecy of the future; ‘Money is no longer going to do our thinking for us’.)

To set against the excesses of commercialism are the many literary enterprises – small presses, independent publishers, book festivals, poems on the tube, radio programmes, blogs, local bookshops – that are latterday encouragers of reading without boundaries.  They exist perforce within the capitalist world, but not primarily to serve it;  in fact, they have a completely different priority, which is to spread the word.

This summer, I’m participating in one of the world’s biggest literary events, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which is very exciting.  As well as reading from my own book, I’ll also be reading as part of the Amnesty Imprisoned Writers series; both events on Monday 15th August.  The festival takes place in the Charlotte Square Gardens in Edinburgh, and somehow the idea of all those writers and readers celebrating literature on the grass of a garden square reminds me irresistably of Virginia Woolf’s ‘trespass at once’, even if the trespassers are – on this occasion – welcome.

The word is given a body…

May 2, 2011

The river’s mercy  – artist’s book by Liz Mathews (detail, text by Frances Bingham) – photograph by Liz Mathews

Let us then take for our starting point the statement that words are not useful.  This happily needs little proving, for we are all aware of it.  When we travel on the Tube, for example, when we wait on the platform for a train, there, hung up in front of us, on an illuminated signboard, are the words ‘Passing Russell Square’.  We look at those words; we repeat them; we try to impress that useful fact upon our minds; the next train will pass Russell Square.  We say over and over again as we pace, ‘Passing Russell Square, passing Russell Square’.  And then as we say them, the words shuffle and change, and we find ourselves saying ‘Passing away, saith the world, passing away… The leaves decay and fall, the vapours weep their burthen to the ground.  Man comes….’  And then we wake up and find ourselves at King’s Cross.


And it is the nature of words to mean many things… The word ‘passing’ suggested the transciency of things, the passing of time and changes of human life.  Then the word ‘Russell’ suggested the rustling of leaves and the skirt on the polished floor; also the ducal house of Bedford and half the history of England.  Finally the word ‘Square’ brings in the sight, the shape, of an actual square combined with some visual suggestion of the stark angularity of stucco.  Thus one sentence of the simplest kind rouses the imagination, the memory, the eye and the ear – all combine in reading it.

Virginia Woolf, Craftsmanship

(reprinted in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5, ed. Stuart. N. Clarke)

This response to words – their associations, the freight they carry, their powers of suggestion – is that of a very great reader, to whom words themselves are possessed of the strongest magic.  As a writer, Virginia Woolf was sometimes able to recreate this almost hallucinatory experience of the completed possibility of all words, in a far more subtle but even more intense fusion of imagination, memory and the senses.  As a traveller on the tube, her response to these ‘very rudimentary words’ evidently gave her a complexity of lived experience that few fellow-travellers can have enjoyed (or been inconvenienced by).

The act of reading had already become everyday; the rune, hieroglyph, alphabet – whatever form of letter transubstantiates into the word – no longer a mystery.  This was the inevitable side-effect of universal literacy (or the still-unachieved ideal of it), but Virgina Woolf did not expect this familiarity to bring with it a loss of wonder for other passengers, a lessening of the ‘diabolical power that words possess when… they come fresh from a human brain’.

(Nowadays, it is perhaps more difficult to retain this openness, in the  face of what Kathleen Raine decried as ‘a daily flood of words put to mean uses… words are worn thin with trivial use, emptied of meanings unknown to our materialist society…’  But the words themselves remain in their essential state, to be claimed by the determined reader, used by the imaginative writer.)

Virginia Woolf once wrote, of the speaking of Shakespeare, ‘the word is given a body as well as a soul’, and the making of words visible – written, in print, illuminated manuscript,  ancient calligraphy, contemporary artist’s book, or whatever strange mark-making process by which words are formed – is another re-creation, a kind of embodiment of the process wherein the word reaches from one to another mind, and transforms it, awakening memory, imagination, and the senses.

Every writer knows that their work can be enhanced by its presentation, or marred by it; emphasised by the open space around it, or lost in a babel of misprint and bad type.  Just occasionally we are lucky enough to see our words transfigured, not changed but released into their fullest potential, made visible in a work of art which is both a visual and intellectual reading, given bodies to match their souls.  When the words are reinvested with their original power in this way, it’s impossible not to read them with that creative intensity which carries one on to King’s Cross and far beyond.

Some of my work has, over the years, been honoured like this by Liz Mathews, whose artist’s books and other forms of lettered artwork give the words body and expose their soul.  Her forthcoming exhibition Watermark is at the Ice House Gallery in Holland Park, Kensington, from 7th-22nd May, 11am-7pm daily; it has some works in it based on my texts, as well as those of Virginia Woolf and other writers.

To the North

April 1, 2011

The view from the hill – photograph by Liz Mathews

Recently I wrote about Gillian Tindall’s classic The Fields Beneath.  Then last week I heard by chance a programme on Radio 3, A walk round Camden, the interval talk during a concert from the Roundhouse.  It’s always a slightly weird experience to hear a radio presenter describing a place one knows very well, for the benefit of those who are presumed not to.  It reminded me of the one of the pro-Revolution Russians in Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down, who describes

‘a wide railway-cutting, a positive chasm, with many tracks running along the bottom.  The aspect was not unpicturesque, for on the opposite cliff of the chasm stood a line of tall houses, neo-classical in design, which were reflecting an orange sunset from their stucco façades.  London is very exotic.  All these places like Camden Town and Pimlico and Notting Hill have a wild majesty.’

Rebecca West wasn’t mentioned as one of Camden’s writers, and nor was Virginia Woolf  (who mentions it often, if only en route to Hampstead Heath).  This lack was compensated by the inclusion of Gillian Tindall, the local genius of the place, who spoke about Camden Town’s past inhabitants so vividly and knowledgeably that I wished the entire programme – or series – could be hers.  Dickensian characters such as the Cratchits, who ‘tried to live nicely’, were as present in her sketch of the past as Sickert, painting the turns at the Bedford Music Hall, where Crippen’s unfortunate wife Belle Elmore performed (sometimes as a very unconvincing male impersonator).

The Roundhouse, which was the excuse for this perambulation, is a great local institution.  As a child in the 1970’s I lived with a view of its leaky curved roof; it was in a bad state then, not quite semi-derelict but a ‘fringe venue’ in the original sense of the word.  The audience, isolated on groups of benches scattered about the draughty, dripping auditorium, might have been prisoners within a deep black well in some sinister Piranesi architectural fantasy.  Nowadays, after much restoration, it can host the RSC’s winter London season, among many other events.  The old turntable-shaped engine-shed makes a brilliant theatre-in-the-round; there’s only a hint of local nostalgia for its previous incarnation.

Gillian Tindall mentioned that she was born close by this relic of ‘railway mania’, opposite Camden Lock.  I was interested to see that her book about Kentish Town, this ‘one London village’, has been reissued by Eland in a new edition, with an extra chapter.  She will be talking about The Fields Beneath at the Owl Bookshop on Kentish Town Road, on the 5th April at 7pm; an event which I’m sure will be a great local celebration of place and northernness within the inner city.

I’m particularly pleased, not only because I look forward to the event, but also because I’m going to be the next author on the Owl’s programme.  I’ll be reading from my just-published novel, The Principle of Camouflage, which has its celebrations and elegies for London, too, at the Owl Bookshop on the 14th April at 7pm.

A message from Shelley

February 24, 2011

River of chains – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Vessels of heavenly medicine’ and ‘balloons of knowledge’ are a poet’s prescription for a nation in need of enlightenment, and a description of the eccentric means by which Shelley sent out his Declaration of Rights two hundred years ago. The ‘vessels’ were messages in bottles, or boats made out of waxed boxes, floated out into the sea or along a river. The ‘balloons’ were miniature Montgolfiers, hot air balloons to fly the revolutionary tracts inland.

(There were the inevitable practical problems to these unorthodox methods of political dissent; the home-made hot air balloons sometimes caught fire, the vessels were washed back in again, or sank.  However, it was all successful enough to cause some local alarm to the repressive Hanoverian regime.)

This imaginative, indeed poetic, approach to communication, conjures up irresistable images.  Imagine, if you were a milkmaid strolling along a dusky lane, or a shepherd sheltering under a tree, and a flaming beacon appeared in the sky, glowing orange like a Hallowe’en pumpkin, or a Chinese paper lantern hung in a garden tree.  As it comes closer, you realise it’s a hot air balloon, lit up by its own flame – but below the wick, where the basket should be, a scroll dangles instead.  As it slowly descends – the light dim now, spluttering – you chase it, catch it, pluck it out of a maybush or fish it from a cowpond.  The paper, this celestial greeting, roughly printed, all smudged and singed, is (so long as you could read) an invitation to think differently.

Of course, some of the declarations would have drifted down into the sea, or on empty land miles from anywhere, or in a place where no one was literate, and the meaning remained a mystery forever.  But others might have landed where someone would find them inspiring, a message from another world.  I like to think of the commonsense pleas for freedom and equality striking a chord among random readers; in a workhouse or debtors’ prison, a religious board-school, a gypsy encampment or a remote farmhouse.

No man has a right to monopolize more than he can enjoy… No law has a right to discourage the practice of truth… The present generation cannot bind their posterity. The few cannot promise for the many… No man has a right to do an evil thing that good may come.

One night earlier this year, dozens of lantern-balloons appeared in a royal blue sky, flying over London from the northern hills in a constellation of golden spheres, like physalis’ origami-paper blossoms.  The higher ones winked as distant beacons, the lowest drifted close by like floating footlights in a surreal flight; perhaps they crossed the river, reflected in its dark water, plunged down into parks or caught on chimneytops.  Everyone in the street stopped to stare up at the magical sight, and then someone exclaimed ‘Look, it’s a message from Shelley!’

Secular cathedrals

January 19, 2011

London transport – photograph by Liz Mathews

Introducing the building, the architect of the British Library invokes the lost library of Alexandria, that potent symbol of the treasure house of knowledge destroyed by the Barbarians.  He describes the library as a secular cathedral, an almost sacred space.  (I only query the ‘almost’.)  By presenting this library as the antithesis of the Nazi book-burnings, he also identifies it as a champion of ‘the freedom and diversity of the human spirit’, which the books that it houses both embody and protect.

(The Nazis, of course, weren’t the only burners of books.  Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, which now seems so innocuous, was burnt in the cellars of Scotland Yard, the fate of banned British books.  However, there are now several first editions, which somehow escaped the flames, perpetually preserved in the British Library, which is some compensation.)

Although the Round Reading Room at the British Museum was much-beloved by the scholars who used it and mourned its passing, there’s a grandeur about the scale and scope of the ‘new’ Library that makes it – especially now – a contemporary wonder of the world.  (I went on one of the early reader’s induction courses, when the whole puzzling system was carefully explained to bemused researchers who were used to filling in request-cards to order books they’d looked up in a physical catalogue.  I’m not sure if they even do those tours now, since the technology is more familiar, but the ethos is similarly serious and helpful.)

There’s a persistent urban myth that the British Library is nuclear-proof, and that many people sought shelter there in the confusion after the London tube bombs.  Its enormous storage basements are fire- and flood-proof, and would certainly serve as a deep shelter just as well as the tube stations that were used during the Blitz.  But since a nuclear strike doesn’t leave anything to emerge to, whether the cellars would stand up to it seems like an academic point for any human shelterers.

The books might well survive, though.  Since the collection is of virtually everything ever published, it would give a strangely complete picture of our civilisation to later visitors from another planet; from the ‘things in books’ clothing’ that still get an ISBN to the most obscure specialist monograph, it’s all there.  Not to mention the treasures; the Lindisfarne Gospels, Magna Carta, original manuscripts by Jane Austen, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, et al. The impression given to the theoretical aliens would be of a wonderful civilisation, a breadth of culture and expertise beyond imagining, an artistic achievement that indeed expresses the intense beauty of the world, as well as its darker aspects.

In this anti-intellectual country, so distrustful of the arts, so resistant to education, it seems extraordinary that such a magnificently unapologetic, vast library was ever created.  Now it’s there, it would be difficult to abolish it completely, but like all our other monuments of learning, its funds have already been cut.  There may be fees for some of the services in future, or entrance charges for exhibitions. But for now, it’s all free – reading rooms, permanent collection, temporary exhibitions.

The current exhibition there, Evolving English, is huge, diverse and fascinating.  My own favourite exhibit is the Elizabethan phrasebook for adventurers to the New World, complete with advice on behaviour to the local inhabitants, as well as pronunciation of their language. But the signage is also a highlight, from over yonder to down the apples and pears; somebody enjoyed doing that, and the visitors like it too.