Posts Tagged ‘art & life’

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.

Stop our ears

December 1, 2010

Pine cones – photograph by Liz Mathews

Will truth be quicker found because we stop our ears to music and drink no wine, and sleep instead of talking through the long winter night?

(Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader)

A question suggesting the answer ‘no’.  (A rhetorical question only relevant to anyone who might consider truth-seeking important.)  But the negative image it conjures – of a sleeping people, deaf to music, disinclined to celebration or inspiration, without conversation – seems an uneasy vision of the possible alternative.  It’s not so much a puritanical refusal of pleasure and sociability which is sketched in, as a lethargic denial of vivid existence, a preference for hibernation and insensibility.  In that opiate state there is no possibility of seeking truth, or of living brightly; during the centuries of enforced sleep, thorn-forests grow up, castle walls crumble, stories are forgotten.  Then it takes a heroic effort to awaken the sleepers.

Resistance to this dark oblivion is possible; or possible at least for those fortunate ones who are still able to hear music and talk, who have wine and warmth for those long winter nights, who can make common cause in their waking.  Gathering darkness is the time to make seasonal preparations, both for the chill winter and the turn of the year, the returning sun. Far from sleeping through the long winter nights, stopping our ears to music, drinking no wine, avoiding speech about what concerns us so deeply, we will remain inconveniently awake both as artists and audiences; truth-seeking, talkative, ears open.

Freedom to sing

November 12, 2010

Autumn light – photograph by Liz Mathews

From Radio 3’s bold attempt to promote ‘free thinking’ in its eponymous festival, I heard Fiona Shaw’s talk on Nightwaves (by chance, as it followed on from a concert), and I’m glad that I did.    The theme of the discussions this year has been ‘happiness’, but this programme was called ‘What acting can teach you about life’. Perhaps inevitably, Shaw concentrated more on what the great plays themselves – literature rather than acting – had taught her about life, and how life had illuminated her work. Despite the not very encouraging title, I’d recommend it as well worth listening to again.

Much of this talk was about the way in which words act on the imagination, and the art of the actor in communicating that inner vision. Shaw’s demonstrations of the way different meanings can be drawn out of words, depending on how they are spoken, were funny but also revealing.  Her story of the great RSC voice coach Cicely Berry telling her to ‘walk on the commas’ when speaking Shakespeare’s verse was demonstrated brilliantly.

(Although she’s not an actor I’ve seen often onstage, I did see her brain scan in the Identity exhibition at the Wellcome Institute, with the fascinating display of the areas of the brain which light up when she’s reading poetry – the arms that move in the imagination also seem to the brain to be moving, even when they are physically still…)

Also refreshing was Shaw’s vehement denunciation of the lies of politicians, and their devaluing of our language by misuse and disrespect.    (The audience’s reaction made clear how unusual such plain-speaking seemed to them in such a context.)  This contrasted strongly with the actor’s description of the Elizabethan dramatists, Shakespeare particularly, as writers who were trying to speak the truth.

Best of all was her concluding affirmation of the importance of ‘the nightingale of art’ and the hope that it will go on singing.

Sublime encouragement

September 17, 2010

Thames mosaic – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Every human being is of sublime value because [her or] his experience, which must be in some measure unique,  gives [her/] him a unique view of reality… Therefore every human being must be encouraged to cultivate [her/] his consciousness to the fullest degree.’  

This is Rebecca West again.  Her recipe for such human development  – the encouragement of the individual view – is, of course, art, education, good environments.  In the context, it’s a throw-away remark, a statement she considers absolutely self-evident, within a discussion of nationalism (‘the desire of a people to be itself’) as opposed to imperialism (‘the desire…to prevent other peoples from being themselves’).

Just as imperialism, in West’s analysis, is an attempt to prevent ‘peoples’ or nations from being themselves, so – on an individual level – if human beings are prevented from the cultivation of consciousness, their supreme value as individuals is denied, their unique view of reality is ignored, or even suppressed.

To Rebecca West, writing in the early 1940’s, this loss wasn’t merely of individual potential; she believed that ‘the sum of such views should go far to giving us the complete picture of reality, which the human race must attain if it is ever to comprehend its destiny’.  So to deny humankind the opportunity to cultivate our consciousness ‘to the fullest degree’ is a retrograde step, away from the possible evolution of humanity.

Such idealism, during such times, seems almost wilful – yet what time could be better?  Only the closed consciousness can be indifferent to social injustice, the loss of civil liberties, the destruction of the environment, and the growth of imperialist attitudes, all of which created the background for fascism and war.  West took it as axiomatic that greater understanding of the human condition, through encouraging each sublimely valuable individual consciousness, must inevitably lead towards enlightenment.

But nobody wants to be fully conscious if they have to live in a vile environment, without natural beauty or architectural beauty or preferably both, let alone if they’re in poverty, with all the sufferings and fears of that condition.  In many situations, it’s merely a survival mechanism to close down the aperture of the consciousness to its smallest opening, and let as little light in as possible.  Then who knows what goes on outside?

Without access to the arts, or real education (both powerful awakeners of the consciousness), in a fragile natural environment under constant threat, no human being can hope to cultivate anything but a survival mentality.  This situation, in current political terms, is still brought about by the ‘desire to prevent other peoples from being themselves’, or in other words an ideological preference for a semi-conscious electorate, who won’t notice as their inheritance is dismantled.  It’s sabotage of the most destructive kind, not just of individual lives, but of the future.  

All those enlightened ones, Rebecca West et al, with their visions of the fullest degree of developed consciousness for all humanity, must be spinning in their graves.  But at least their writings remain, a source of sublime encouragement – and resistance.

Nightingales in Berkeley Square

September 6, 2010

Bees in the lavender – photograph by Liz Mathews

With the odd synchronicity that so often happens after encountering something new, when that same scrap of life reappears everywhere, this week has been plagued by the nightingale.  I was reading Scrapbook for the 1920’s by Leslie Baily (background research, and an entertaining picture of the period).  There I came across the story of Beatrice Harrison, the cellist who played duets with the nightingale in her garden, broadcast for the first time in 1924 in one of the great success stories of early radio.  She recalled that although the bird didn’t join in until nearly midnight, ‘I don’t think he ever sang more gloriously’.  Over fifty thousand of those who listened in wrote to thank her.

(In these early days of ‘outside broadcasting’, it was a bold move to try and catch something as unpredictable as birdsong live, but it was possible to break in to the late night dance music programme – also live, The Savoy Orpheans – whenever the bird began to sing.  This encapsulates the odd mixture of stiff formality and lax lawlessness which seems to characterise the Twenties.)

The experiment was repeated for the next twelve years, and there’s a marvellous picture of her and an excerpt of the musical nightingale on the BBC website.

The day after reading this, I happened to hear a programme in the Proms interval all about nightingales, where Beatrice Harrison made her appearance, and we heard her nightingale again.  Then, there was an even more extraordinary recording.  In 1942, the nightingale was due to be broadcast, and sang as ever, but the programme didn’t go out live because there was an unexpected element in the mix – the steady rumble of bomber planes going overhead in wave after wave.  Instead, the sound engineer recorded it, as a potent evocation of that surreal moment.  Listening to it, as Richard Mabey said, it was impossible not to hear the bird’s voice singing ‘Choose life!’.  (Just as Virginia Woolf’s birds sing ‘Vita!’)

This was a reading from Richard Mabey’s new book The Barley Bird, which I haven’t yet read but certainly will, on the basis of this extract – although on the page it will be a shame to miss his brilliant reading of John Clare’s phonetic notation of the nightingale’s song, a weird poem in itself.  The observation that John Clare saw the nightingale as a fellow-poet is true, too.  Much bleaker is Mabey’s analysis that the bird is rapidly losing numbers in England (it only visits the south), probably because of fewer insects – a result of climate change.  Here was a resonance with the new commission in the Prom, Dark Pastoral by David Matthews, based on a theme by Vaughan Williams, beautiful but elegaic.

The loss of the nightingale is like the vanishing bees; something many people care about not only for practical reasons but because of its poetic, mythic status, the essence of everyday magic.  It’s rather moving what a cross-section of different kinds of people are trying to help the bees – links to some of them here.  One of the happy results of urban beekeeping is that we can now get such local honey in London – ours is made by a beekeeper a few streets away, proudly labelled ‘Tufnell Park honey’.

Earlier this year, among the bumble bees that still visit our lavender, I saw an unfamiliar sort, with black and white stripes on its body.  I was puzzled, until I discovered from the poet Alison Brackenbury’s blog (on a recent post called Bumbling along), that it’s a new bee here, Bombus hyphorum, its range recently expanded by global warming. She has a poem about the bees, too.

We may have no choice but to adapt to this shift in what we’ve known, but before we mourn the absolute loss of our particular bees or birds, we can try to support them, both by practical measures and by invoking their particular magic. In literature, the nightingales will sing forever in Berkeley Square, or Hampstead Heath, or John Clare’s Helpston; on the radio we can hear Beatrice Harrison’s cello partner, Vita Sackville-West’s chorus serenading Ethel Smythe, the bird outsinging the bombers. But we also need to hear them now, in our own time and place, birds alive as well as immortal.

A soldier without a name

June 24, 2010

Mightier than the sword – photograph by Liz Mathews ( detail from her artist’s book ‘Boon, blessing’, text FB)

In the ‘Identity’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection recently, one of the identities on display was Claude Cahun, the surrealist photographer whose self-portraits express gender ambiguity, masks and disguises, performative selves and personal mythologies, like a demented lesbian Cecil Beaton crossed with Cocteau. Cahun and her partner Marcel Moore were good examples of self-invention, (if not mythomania), and also – in an exhibition probing the sources of creativity – of artists who made their lives into their art. Cahun’s life and work has been rediscovered, and her association with the surrealist groups in Paris during the 1920’s and 30’s acknowledged in various exhibitions, but this one also showed some of the work she and Moore made during the Occupation of the Channel Islands, as warriors of art.

The work of the surrealists was condemned as decadent by the Nazis, so the women’s previous work wouldn’t have endeared them to the occupying forces, any more than their sexuality and Jewish backgrounds. But rather than keep a low profile, they embarked on a personal resistance campaign against the Nazis. Although possession of a camera was punishable by death, they took clandestine photographs of the occupation in action, and also spread anti-war propaganda among the German soldiers. (Their acts of resistance are detailed in Barbara Hammer’s film about Cahun, Lover Other, which shows some of the forbidden photographs of Nazi soldiery on parade on the beach outside Cahun’s house, or on the streets of the once-British island.)

When they were eventually caught, both women were condemned to death and six years in prison, for the propaganda and the photography. On hearing the sentence Cahun asked which would come first, the execution or the jail term? The severity of the sentence, and the deadly seriousness of the prosecution, gives an idea of propaganda on a large scale; sabotage of morale by means of printed leaflets, subversive photographs, a big security breach.

Instead, the exhibition cabinets displayed little scraps of paper, offcuts almost, shakily inscribed with faint pencil-words; lines from Goethe or Schiller about peace and universal love. There were one or two more conventional ‘our leaders have betrayed us’ type messages from ‘a soldier without a name’, a few child-like cartoons of war or quotes from the BBC, but most of the documents were just little snippets of German poetry. These flimsy, improvised statements of resistance seemed intensely moving, within the context, rather like being condemned to death for doodling a peace symbol on the back of an old envelope. What courage, yet at the same time what a tiny gesture!

Cahun and Moore didn’t die for their acts; they spent the remainder of the war in prison under sentence of death, but the liberation came in time to save them from execution. After the war, they continued to work with photographs, making some strange images to mark their private victory, such as Cahun celebrating over Nazi war graves. These later images, as well as the subversive surrealist fantasias, are a reminder of why totalitarian regimes always fear art, just as they fear laughter.

The death sentence was a kind of recognition of the unquantifiable results that a scrap of poetry might have on a free mind, of the way in which even the idea of a dissident soldier without a name might work on the imagination of the others. It seems that the act of defiance hadn’t been so small after all, that far from being an over-reaction death was the only possible way to silence these artists who were naive enough to believe that the pen was mightier than the sword, and might change everything.

The Revolution is Eternal

June 18, 2010

Early light – photograph by Liz Mathews

Just as the proletariat makes its own use of the heritage of the past, so women must take over the tools forged by men and use them for their own interests… In the wealth that we take over from them we must very carefully distinguish between those things which have a universal nature and those which are marked with their masculinity… a revision, not a repudiation, of knowledge.

(Simone de Beauvoir, All Said and Done, trans. Patrick O’Brien)

Simone de Beauvoir did not intend to jettison the cultural past, even if women were virtually invisible in it; her approach was rather to reclaim her inheritance. The revolutionary way of thinking she recommends is not so extreme, after all; a ‘universal nature’ is what she seeks in the culture of the past, not an anti-masculine one. This desire for universality seems reasonable enough for those of any gender, especially as perceptions of gender have changed so radically in the forty years since Beauvoir wrote. The ‘masculinity’ of which she speaks is maleness of a particular kind; patriarchal, militaristic, industrial capitalist (or feudal), implicitly misogynist.

The comparison with the role of the proletariat is telling; in 1972, when the philosopher made it, perhaps there was still a lingering vision of worker-intellectuals listening to Shostakovich while they wrote avant-garde poetry about their lives in the factory, before going to the Bolshoi in their boiler-suits. But – although she might have liked to imagine these fabled creatures admiring Fabergé eggs for the workmanship, not the diamonds – perhaps her point was that it would be even more difficult for women to revise the knowledge of the past in their own image than it had been for the proletariat, who were once almost as culturally invisible.

This is a philosopher’s answer to a problem which has many variants; if knowledge is contaminated, rethink it. Of course, many people in the past have existed within an alien culture, and perforce become adept at extracting their own interests from it; for outsiders by reason of race or class, politics or religion or sexuality, for dissenters and independents of every sort, reading between the lines has been second nature. So there have always been subtexts, messages in code, infiltration of the mainstream, secret communications, as well as the blossoming of sub-cultures and alternative literatures. But in the revolutionary future, Beauvoir advocates moving beyond this, into the mental fight of revising what already exists, as an accepted cultural heritage, which she presents as a take-over of wealth.

Theoretically, the action she describes is entirely possible. In practice, even the whisper of it has often resulted in the entire heritage of knowledge (some of it unequivocably ‘marked with masculinity’ of the worst kind) being resolutely presented as absolutely universal – how not? Any further discussion has been confined, as much as possible, within the alternative academic disciplines of Women’s, Queer, or Gender Studies, where such stalwart efforts have been made to rethink so much of the past.

But what Simone de Beauvoir had in mind was, I think, something rather more drastic. When I re-read this calmly provocative challenge, I believe she intended it to be taken personally, not as part of a feminism which is merely one possible critical school, but as a complete way of perceiving knowledge for the individual. I remind myself of it frequently, as a way of reading, of considering history and culture, of discovering surprising areas of universality in the past, and of misogyny in the present. (It can be quite exhausting.)

Fortunately, Simone de Beauvoir isn’t the only such inspiration; there are other intellectual revolutionaries of a fervour we can only emulate as best we can. Although so different as a writer, in many ways Virginia Woolf’s view of the past – and indeed present – as unacceptably ‘marked by masculinity’ pre-visioned Beauvoir’s, and much of her critical writing could be interpreted as exactly the ‘revision, not repudiation’ which the philosopher hoped would become commonplace. Woolf’s unforgettable image of joyous destruction of the dead past (in the context of women’s education) is another such call to revolutionary thinking:

Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters… dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze!’

Whisper subtle news

June 4, 2010

Waymark – photograph by Liz Mathews

One can shout at the top of one’s voice the information that the 11.15 for Brighton leaves from platform 6, but subtler news has to be whispered, for the reason that to drag the knowledge of reality over the threshold of consciousness is an exhausting task, whether it is performed by art or experience.

This is just one of the throw-away remarks which makes Rebecca West so redoubtable a writer, her intellect applied so unfailingly to her personal experience. When writers talk about ‘working hard’ or being ‘busy’, many people have no idea what they can possibly mean. Some even remark on the ease of a life in which there are no timetables (other than self-imposed ones) when coffee-breaks can presumably be taken at will, early rising isn’t essential, indeed the occupation is so sedentary that it can be taken outside, weather permitting. Sometimes writing looks remarkably like sunbathing…

Against this, must be set the still small voice of writers who – while not as monstrous as Ford Madox Ford, who couldn’t be upset in any way, so that his not-wife had to conceal all news of a financially depressing nature – do find that concentration can be elusive. Magda Szabo, in The Door, writes of the need to be ‘in a state of grace’ in order to write, which is the perfect description. Unfortunately, this state can be dispelled by events less traumatic than those her protagonist experiences – even if we are trying to avoid Ford-like sensitivity.

Wendy Cope wrote a funny poem mocking Ted Hughes’ poet’s angst about every act of creation having to outwit the writer’s internal censors, the secret police who patrol the unconscious. But there are many curious mechanisms which stop even utterly professional writers from just getting on with it; sudden urges to clean the house, write long-neglected letters, do far from essential shopping. Sometimes these delaying-tactics conceal some essential creative mechanism, sometimes they may stem from a sort of guilt at doing it at all.

Thus the only thing to do is sit in the sun, neglecting all other duties, immune to Fordesque worries or other mere sabotages and just write. An exhausting task…

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.

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?