Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

The Principle of Camouflage

April 18, 2011

Cover image: Sea light, painting by Liz Mathews

Hesketh, an artist, is isolated with her daughter Kezia on a remote coast where they came for sanctuary ten years ago.  The effort of trying to retain her powers of creation has driven her half-mad. Their only neighbour, Crambo, is a wild elemental, bereft of speech, who lives on the beach.  An unknown wounded officer arrives to convalesce with Hesketh and Kezia, but far from being the expected eligible stranger, Fitz is an exiled anti-hero whose love is reserved for London, play-making, and Meredith, a poet.

Their strange existence is threatened by the arrival of a three-man machine gun crew who not only pollute the beach, but also awaken Crambo to the new powers of language – and explosives.  As war sweeps closer, a violent sea-change brings all these castaways to their fate.

The Principle of Camouflage is a magical exploration of place, exile and home, the powers and duties of the artist, the restoration of lost things, the discovery of love, and the survival of hope in an apparently doomed world.

Available now from Two Ravens Press 

(also Amazon, or through bookshops)

‘A true work of the imagination transporting Prospero’s island, and us, to wartime Britain on a shining wave of sea images.’

(Maureen Duffy)

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A matter of luck

October 7, 2010

The view from the hill – photograph by Liz Mathews

For National Poetry Day, one of my own poems. I wrote Sicilian Avenue many years ago; it was awarded a York Poetry Prize by Michael Donaghy, in the early 1990’s.  At the ceremony, where all the prize poems were read, and cheques given out to the winners, he was extremely gracious. (He was also very patient when his audience seemed to prefer it when he played traditional Irish music on the tin whistle, rather than read his own work.)  

But although he was encouraging to me, as a young writer, indeed complimentary about the poem and ‘…the simplicity and intimacy of the narrative and great closure of the last line’, I was also aware that sentiment had played a part in all of his selections.  Not that he chose any poems that seemed to me to be unworthy, but they all had a particular reason to appeal to him.  Mine had that extra ingredient because it evoked a place he knew in London, and of which he was fond.  

(And after all, who would want to read a poem without bringing their own associations to the words, or aligning their own experiences to the work?  What an impossible task it would be to try and ‘judge’ between poems impartially, when the very existence of poetry is the opposite of a measurable or quantifiable state.) 

At the time, I felt slightly uncomfortable at this discovery. Now I realise that it’s merely the element of luck that’s always needed in the competitive process, but also makes that process almost meaningless, so far as grading a work of art ‘best’ or ‘unplaced’.  Inevitably, the results are a matter of the reader’s taste; sometimes one sort of writer is in luck, sometimes another.  I was fortunate that this poem appealed to such a poet.

Sicilian Avenue

Enthroned behind his ziggurats of glass

displaying haberdashery embalmed

aeons ago in the prevailing fashion,

the old boy contemplates an aspic realm;

muffled in solid brass, mahogany,

drawers uniformly filled, precisely labelled,

in copperplate by alphabet and size.

His memory’s heraldic, crested, striped

with regimental and collegiate colours;

he doesn’t seem to think that we’re procuring

old school ties for improper purposes

(although we look like just the kind of women

to ridicule continued tribal marking).

‘Old Carthusians pre-1924’

requires a tremulous ascent of steps,

courteously refusing proffered help.

Something about us prompts him to remark

that ‘Amy Johnson came to us, you know,

to get her aviation things.  Oh, yes,

we did Ladies’ Colonial Wear then’.

He recites, in an archive record’s crackle,

the inventory of pith-helmets and veils,

and canvas carrying-skirts, so necessary

to keep one’s distance from the naked shoulders

transporting one across malarial rivers…

Here Amy Johnson, in the changing-room

trying on cashmere combinations (men’s,

designed to conquer an imagined arctic

not keep a woman warm above cloud-level)

broke down and wept, late, after closing time.

Her tears still echo in his anxious voice

condemning ‘all the things they said about her’

despite her triumphs, in the newspapers.

He found the warmest styles, the smaller sizes,

wished her the best of luck for her next flight,

wrapped the heroic underwear she’d usurped,

shook hands in homage to their odd alliance –

and still he flies her unofficial colours,

a favour filed in his anarchic system

above the patronage of baronets.

Truth & Beauty

August 27, 2010

Setts and willow leaves – photograph by Liz Mathews

To tell the truth, or create beauty…’  This is, according to Virginia Woolf’s seminal discussion of language, the business of words.  She imagines a world in which words could be used in such a way that every book or newspaper she picked up would tell the truth or create beauty.

These truths are not only the literal truths of plain fact, but also the more obscure truths – subtle, fictional, nuanced truths which are truer than anything else, indeed nothing less than Rebecca West’s ‘subtler news [that] has to be whispered… the knowledge of reality’.  Picasso’s dictum that ‘Art is a lie that makes us realise truth’ is another attempt to express this mystery.

I think it’s interesting that Virginia Woolf specifically mentions newspapers as possible conduits of the use of words in this unusual way; presumably a mildly satirical comment on the lack of truth and beauty in the contemporary papers. But it’s also a good point as far as factual writing in good faith goes; for the urge to tell the truth, in terms of witnessing how things are and speaking of them, needn’t be in opposition to the creation of beauty – within the writing, at least.

As for creating beauty – so much more difficult than making hideousness – it must follow the telling of truth, it must be an act of creation.  Beyond that, there is no guidance except that beauty is not absolute but diverse; as multi-faceted and wild as the words themselves. 

It’s both challenge and encouragement to present-day writers that, in this little old-fashioned-sounding talk from so long ago, there was the stimulating suggestion that words might one day be put together in this modern way.

Trahison des Clercs

July 9, 2010


Traitors’ Gate – photograph by Liz Mathews

The Treason of the Clerks is one of those book titles (by J. Benda, 1927) that’s become a lasting phrase because it expresses the exact nature of a betrayal; the intentional betrayal of culture by those intellectuals who are supposed to support it. This kind of treason is taking place now, too, though sometimes it seems not so much a result of betraying culture as of being indifferent to it. Some of the many individuals and organisations who are supposed to champion the importance of the arts appear somewhat puzzled as to why it should matter, other than financially. And if the call to arms is still couched in the jargon of such arts administrators and their desperate capitalism, it’s doomed, irrelevant.

Making Value, a recent ‘qualitative research survey’ commissioned by the Crafts Council, seeks to explain that makers ‘contribute to economic growth, within and beyond the cultural and creative industries…[through apparently unexpected means such as]… product innovations featuring strong person-centred orientation…. Enhanced narrative characterisation in film and television and digital environments’. (Imagine!) Among many other important revelations, the study discovers that makers have a ‘Passion for materials and the material world’ and ‘Evidence a deep sense of integrity in relation to their creative identity’, together with an ‘Understanding of how people relate to objects, both emotionally and in a functional sense…’.

This is not news, presumably, even to the Crafts Council, who seem dimly aware that there is some sort of ‘social contribution’ made by artist-makers – those strange creatures of artistic integrity, passion, and even (weird, this), belief in ‘making a contribution through the application of their practice beyond making for exhibition or sale’. But is an industry-speak survey really the best way the CC can think of to emphasise the crucial importance of a living culture? Would the money not have been better spent on commissioning some artwork from actual artists, who could express their own truths for themselves?

Not in the logic of those who don’t expect anyone to want or understand a commodity that they’re condemned to sell without wanting or understanding it themselves. No, the best way is to spend a lot of money trying to persuade other, impressionable people to buy – not art, obviously, but something saleable like ‘uniquely valuable consultancy services’ or ‘entrepreneurial strategies’. Perhaps it’s just the ethos of a parasitical industry, perhaps it’s treason.

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.

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…

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?

Beethoven, Mozart, Cake

April 22, 2010


Basket of Primroses – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘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.’

Although in this passage from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon Rebecca West is making a point about capitalism (she continues ‘we prefer to create than to buy’), the matter of creativity inevitably comes in. The days when ‘shop cake’ seemed grand – because everyone baked – are long gone; it’s probably truer now than it was in 1942 that a homemade cake seems complimentary. What interests me is her assertion that this cake-making is an art, as valid as any great composer’s music, if on a lower note. I think this is, in the context, a feminist stance; also a statement of the importance of intention in making.

In the same book she describes Macedonian peasant women’s embroidery as ‘uncorrupted merchandise’, in contrast to the sort of commercial copy sold elsewhere. There is an integrity of purpose which makes the act of creation genuine, for her, rather than primarily commercial, just as the cakes are only cakes (however good) if they’ve been made for a shop. (Of course, this applies to the sale of her own work; even the hack journalism of her youth is motivated by a passionate belief which is proof enough that she wrote primarily for other reasons.)

The motivation behind the work of art was what couldn’t be bought; the friendly intent of the cake-making would never be replicated by money-making intent. So West was moved by the Macedonian women’s work because artistic expression was a natural part of their life – they might sell the work they made, but that wasn’t why it had come into being. Within her own culture there was already a divide which made the professional artist responsible for this expression, on behalf of society as a whole, but she still considered that those who did it merely for commercial reward were corrupt.

The value that she placed on intention didn’t confuse West into thinking that the results were all the same, or that ‘everyone is an artist’ any more than that she was a professional pastry-cook. Rather, she was valuing a person’s own effort of creation over their powers of buying. Just as she asserted that the cake made for friends is an expression of true creativity for the maker (on a small scale), so she trusted that there were people who would understand the compliment of being offered a created thing.