Posts Tagged ‘consolations of art’

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.

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.

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.

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.

Interesting Times

July 3, 2010


Light in the valley – photograph by Liz Mathews

Art flourishes in difficult circumstances; in bad times people turn to it. This rather obvious statement is convenient for funding bodies, who can be assured that artists, like other vocational workers, need never be paid properly because they will carry on anyway, starving in their proverbial garrets. Whatever else is cut, there’s a vague belief that the arts won’t go away, entirely, just as learning will be maintained by independent scholars if the humanities vanish from our universities. This paradox means that the arts will always fare badly in the unseemly struggle for cash, and that any expression of optimism about their survival seems like an acceptance that, in times like these, the arts are a long way down the list.

A more sinister unspoken desire comes from those who’d like the arts to go away entirely, who feel that hard times are the perfect excuse for a philistine field-day. It’s easy to see why the powerful-but-inept might be frightened of the arts. It’s also easy to see why the false dichotomy is set up between (for example) health and arts funding, in order to represent the arts as non-essentials that must be sacrificed now. Rather like measuring the worth of humanities departments by monetary values which may be relevant to (some of) the sciences but can’t be applied to other fields, so to justify the arts in merely monetary terms leaves out some fundamental element. What is immeasurably important can’t be quantified – another convenient truism.

So, we’re all in an uproar. Following the university financial disaster, the arts will be next to go; execution has merely been postponed by the Arts Council’s use of the reserve fund. There is wailing and gnashing of teeth among the great and the good, even, about the lack of publishing contracts, the dearth of commissions. Even in my own (less elevated) circle, there is lamentation about the future of culture. All the old arguments are rehearsed, then it’s objected that everyone knows that already, then it’s vehemently upheld that it must still be said, again, often.

Well then: art has always been a means of protest and resistance, an expression of forbidden identities (national or individual), a measure of civilized existence in continuity. It provides spiritual sustenance in extreme circumstances, courage to endure loss, consolation and healing, even hope. It tells truths which cannot be expressed in other ways, opens doors to places within which are otherwise inaccessible, interprets our world and creates imaginary worlds beyond, helps us travel towards understanding.

Since none of these matters can be measured or given a monetary value, it’s easy to dismiss them with a cheery assurance that only when people are financially comfortable will they be interested in ‘the arts’ (as one of many possible ‘leisure pursuits’). But the enormous popularity of the cinema during the Depression of the 1930’s is often explained as a distraction from hardship, a necessary escapism. And that cinema (to say nothing of the other arts) also expressed discontent, criticism, a wish for change. This, of course, is the role of art which is so feared by all governments. Totalitarian regimes of all political colours always censor the arts, in fear of what they may express, yet also attempt to use them, because of their enormous power of communication. The puppet theatre which defied the Nazi occupation in Poland, or the music which gave solace to people in the extermination camps, are both human proofs that such regimes are right to be afraid.

For myself, I think accursed Trident should be a lot further down the funding list than money for the arts. But nevertheless, I do feel a certain optimism about our cultural survival, but not optimism as any form of acceptance or collaboration. It does seem that the arts and humanities are under attack specifically, not merely as part of a package of inevitable/neccessary/etc cuts. But – just as the open country that is in the planned route of a motorway is suddenly revealed, not as a quiet valley belonging to nobody much, but a fiercely beloved landscape, a place of beauty deeply valued by a vociferous people who will fight body to bulldozer to protect it – so our cultural life, when it’s really threatened, is recognised anew as precious and vital. Interesting times.

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?

Comrade Artist

March 23, 2010


Walking on the edge – photograph by Liz Mathews

Rather strangely, both my most recent publication, and my partner’s most recent exhibition, carried the Arts Council logo. Although we are personally remote from such kinds of funding, both Carcanet Press and the Southbank Centre receive grants which must be acknowledged as they trickle down to the actual artists. In the past, some individual artists were eligible to apply for various funds, but apparently this has now been entirely abolished. Arts money is only available to arts organisations.

The title of a recent show at the (funded) Whitechapel Gallery, I shake your hand, Comrade Bacon, is apparently taken from a visitors book entry saluting Francis Bacon at a British Council exhibition in Moscow during the days of the USSR. There were certainly many problems for the artist who was a direct servant of that state, if not always the agonies suffered by Shostakovich working for Stalin (though these wouldn’t be so frequently expounded on Radio 3 if he hadn’t managed to outwit his terrifying patrons and make his own music). But even so, there is a joyful idealism in the vision of the comrade artist whose work is recognised as an intrinsic part of the collective effort – and how daft it seems in a British cultural context!

During the Spanish Civil War, the writers who were British delegates to an anti-fascist cultural conference were amazed when field-workers greeted them with cries of ‘Viva los Intellectuales!’ (‘A strange sentiment to English ears’, as Sylvia Townsend Warner tartly remarked.) The delegates’ experience of the cultural deprivation of the workers in their own country had left them completely unprepared for this comradely salute. The expected reply was probably something like ‘Viva los Labradores!’, which, with its implication of class, they’d perhaps have been embarrassed to make. But they did recognise that in this new social order, everyone worked according to their capacity, one task was not glorified over another, and every contribution was recognised. Artists had a job too; those who said (like Virginia Woolf) ‘Thinking is my fighting’ had better think well, then.

Idealism is easy to mock, deflate, prove unworkable. But the establishment of the Arts Council after the war was an idealistic act of almost early Soviet proportion. As Maynard Keynes observed in a 1945 radio talk ‘A very important thing has happened; state patronage of the arts has crept in… at last, at last, they have recognised the support of the civilising arts of life as part of their duty…’ He traces the acceptance, during the war, of the need for ‘all sources of comfort and support to our spirits’, and the power of art to ‘stimulate, comfort and support’. Then, he adumbrates the then-extraordinary idea that there is a large, eager audience for the arts; people have been educated by listening to classical music on the BBC, and will now go to concerts, if such things are available. There’s even a suggestion, almost hidden by his patrician tones and mild language, that artforms which were once the preserve of the few will become available to the many. And the artists themselves will benefit too; ‘new work will spring up more abundantly in unforeseen quarters and unforeseen shapes, when there is universal opportunity’.

Universal opportunity isn’t exactly how most of us think of the Arts Council these days. Keynes’ claim that it would be free of red tape produces a hollow laugh. Yet we two artists – most definitely ‘outsider’, not promisingly ‘emerging’ nor reassuringly ‘well-established’ but slogging along ‘mid-career’ – both had recent opportunities from Arts Council funded bodies to do our actual work (however poorly paid). This will be increasingly unlikely. The funding cuts which have already taken place seriously reduce its capacity to support even the major arts bodies, and must inevitably make funding decisions tend towards the safe bet. After the recent attack on the Universities, the financial future of any cultural organisation must seem unsure.

As far as individual artists are concerned, of course we’ll carry on doing it anyway, even if opportunities in the public sphere dwindle, even if it becomes too easy for potential commissioners to use the excuse of the ‘current financial climate’. We can comfort ourselves with the oft-repeated reassurance that art always flourishes in adversity, that much great work has been produced in circumstances of constraint – sometimes far beyond the merely financial – and so on. But this is a very different future from the one Keynes imagined. Like the embattled NHS, the Arts Council is a last vestige of socialist idealism still hanging on while some residual sense of civilised obligations yet remains.

Our bright natures

March 13, 2010

Rebecca West’s best-loved book is probably The Fountain Overflows, with its extraordinarily vivid authorial voice and remarkable characterisations, quite unlike anything else. Yet West’s supreme achievement is usually designated as Black Lamb, Grey Falcon (1942), the Yugoslav travelogue/ artist’s statement/ philosophy doorstop, invariably hailed as a masterpiece. This is a long (1,150 pp) book, discursive and complex, so highly-wrought that its correspondences take several readings to appreciate fully. It’s superbly written, with West’s muscular and versatile prose soaring over every curtain-wall she sets herself on triumphant if idiosyncratic wings. Most of all, it is a work of consolation. In a time of war and horror, it was a heroic celebration of the possibility of hope.

The central paradox is that the book is full of darkness; West records that the bloody history she had to write sometimes seemed so ‘unendurably horrible’ that she could hardly go on. Yet she did, in order to condemn wherever she found it cruelty, inhumanity and the death-wish, while celebrating the ‘poetical achievement of the soul’. In the course of her digressive journey through Yugoslavia (both the literal landscape and the country of the mind), she finds this poetry in surprising places.

The work resembles the writer; many interests run concurrently, inform one another, unite surprisingly, reach unexpected conclusions, set off again. Deep convictions develop gradually, preconceptions are re-examined and perhaps modified or jettisoned, suddenly-reached opinions are confirmed by experience, but become more complex. There are certain problems for the contemporary reader. I find her personally-affronted attitude towards homosexual men distasteful; some people think her dislike of a pro-Nazi German woman too merciless. (These are small toe-stubs in a cataract of pleasures.) West’s political statements are sweeping, opinionated, and no doubt inexpert, in that they treat the political world as one in which the values of other human activities are still relevant, so that her leaders should be ‘of that company loving honour, freedom and harmony…’

The immensity of the book, its vast scope in terms of themes, defies any over-view. It would be worth considering just her treatment of the ‘female tragedy’ – the strength men derive from the subjugation of women – or her extraordinary meditations on this culture’s urge towards self-destruction and death, which she calls the myth of the rock:

‘Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness…’

The solution West offers, which makes her book so important to me, is her belief in the role of art. While she holds that profound works of literature such as King Lear express the central paradoxes of existence, beyond that she believes that art has a supreme function ‘for of course art gives us hope’. Typically, this hope isn’t a vague though encouraging emotional prop; it is quite practical. West perceives that art has a use. When she meets an old woman who has endured terrible sufferings and demands ‘Let me know what my life means’, this is presented as ‘making the true demand of art’. West derives this from the cave-dwellers’ urge to draw the aurochs they hunted in order ‘to better understand the aurochs and have fuller fortune in hunting’, as ‘the ancestor of all artists’. (She adds, characteristically, that art is complex enough to ‘regard the more stupendous aurochs that range within the mind’, that eventually ‘we shall read the riddle of our universe’.) Her conclusion about art is that ‘it is a force which could destroy the myth of the rock itself, and will, no doubt, a thousand years hence’.

This is some credo, embedded with great subtlety in a huge volume; art has the power to conquer war, evil, guilt, hatred, self-destruction – darkness itself. There are, she admits, many problems. Art is an ‘uncertain instrument’, which ‘cannot talk plain sense, it must sometimes talk what sounds like nonsense, but is actually supersense’. The nonsense must be discerned, as must ‘counterfeit’ artistic activity, then West implacably reminds her reader of the renegade saints;‘the few guides’ sent to help us out of the darkness have come ‘surrounded by traitors, dressed in their guise, indistinguishable’. Yet, despite all this, within the text there is a concrete example of the ultimate usefulness of art.

On p.509, West hears the music of a Mozart concerto by chance on a café radio; she is enormously comforted, but then considers – since the music needs a certain education and cultural background to be understood, since it requires so much of the listener – that ‘art covers not even a corner of life’. (In the context, this conclusion seems not only depressing, but a denial of her own perceptions which the reader wants to refute.) But by p.1127, West has returned to Mozart as one of the ultimate expressions of what is ‘correct, important, permanent’. As she listens to The Marriage of Figaro during an air raid on London, the music seems more real to her than the danger of death; it transforms everything.

It takes enormous courage to write like this, from the heart, with passionate sincerity and an utter conviction that the reader will understand. The absolute commitment it demonstrates is exhausting to contemplate, as is the writer’s emotional energy and engagement. But the reader who can respond with the necessary perseverance and enthusiasm will find that this rough journey undertaken in Rebecca West’s company leads to a vision of harsh salvation, ultimately consoling.