Posts Tagged ‘imagination’

In Times Like These

October 10, 2013

Snowtree photo by Liz Mathews

Snowtree – photo by Liz Mathews

When a writer as historically aware and politically astute as Maureen Duffy subtitles a new novel ‘A Fable’, something interesting is in store.  In Times Like These doesn’t disappoint such expectations; it’s provocative, funny, unsettling, and twists to an unexpected conclusion.  There’s a lot to discuss, a lot to (re)consider, a lot of entertainment on the way.  One gets the feeling that the author enjoyed writing this one.

In many ways it’s a playwright’s novel – short scenes carry the action forward with dialogue, there are jump-cuts and close-ups, newsflashes as well as big set pieces; the story moves fast and doesn’t pause for pedestrian explanations.  This works particularly well for the central characters, Terry and Paul, a couple (historian-politician and artist) whose lesbian relationship is a given.

The premiss is that in the near future an independent Scotland comes to head a powerful Celtic Alliance while an ever-smaller England becomes more and more fractured and isolated.  Tribalism and neo-fascist ideologies gain ground, civil liberties start to erode. There are some brilliant evocations of a future London, deserted by world finance, disintegrating yet still just about functioning for tourists.

Against this convincing scenario of a nation unravelling, some time in the not too distant future, is set a narrative of the remote past in the Celtic world of the monk Colm Cille, mapping the slow growth of alliances between little warring kingdoms, and the growing possiblities of art, books, civilization, in times of peace.  The two apparently distant strands create a mutually-revealing commentary on the contrasting yet not dissimilar situations.

There are some wry funny scenes of the art world (too many artists will know just how Paul feels when the wealthy client/patron thinks she’s selling herself, not her work), academe and political life; almost satire but – unfortunately – all too recognisable.  Then the royals are given some hilarious conversations. There are some genuinely scary moments as well; tribal terrorists’ bombing and burnings which threaten the characters the reader has come to care about.

Without giving the plot away too much, it’s not without hope at the end; a heartening suggestion that art is what may save civilization.  But the portrayal of political extremism, bigotry and xenophobic nationalism is depressingly recognisable, as is the chaos involved in re-negotiations of nationhood. Maureen Duffy has let her richly-stocked imagination go to work on all this, but the result is a fable – from which lessons can be learnt – not necessarily a prophecy.

As a Londoner with Scots connections, I’m still hoping that there will be independence for Scotland soon.  (The Union of 1707 is comparatively recent history, although James VI & I hoped to unite the separate kingdoms a hundred years or so before.)  Since then, Scotland has maintained a dignified and convincing separate nationhood which deserves recognition, symbolised for me by the taxi-driver – in a tartan taxi advertising whisky – who drove two lost Sassenachs from Leith to Waverley Station just in time for the train, then refused to be paid, explaining he’d done it ‘for the honour of Scotland.’

But I certainly hope no country goes through the convulsions Maureen Duffy describes so convincingly, before finding equilibrium.

This is a novel to read now, in times like these, and then revisit with hindsight, after time has told…

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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!’

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.

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.

Pastoral no more

April 28, 2010


Clear skies – photograph by Liz Mathews

Writing about the romance of finding the natural world in unexpected places, Kathleen Raine speculated that:

‘Paradise perhaps always retains the aspect of whatever images first reflected it back to us… a dispossessed unheeded beauty – the quarry, the urban park, London trees at night – an image of lost paradise, on the outskirts of the human and urban world.’

This poignant sense that she can only see the little that remains after the Fall, the remnants of some imagined paradise, sounds a strong echo now, when the loss of natural world seems no remote myth but a contemporary happening. The human condition, before, was always to feel a nostalgia for a pre-lapsarian lost Eden, a better place we once knew. Now, that loss lies in the future, literally, as well as the imagined past; as though a new enactment of the old story is taking place before an unwilling or indifferent audience.

Of course it’s still possible to find places where the heavenly beauty of the natural world survives; in the great happiness of those moments the rose seems without a thorn, mortality can be forgotten. (Though perhaps it’s always been closer to our human state to weep that the daffodils must haste away so soon, to stand in the showers of white blossom already blowing down, to feel part of that natural order of change.)

So much art, for so long, has mapped that ‘Garden’ of our inner landscape, or lamented the exile from it, as well as celebrating nature, or protesting against the various forms of devastation which have always threatened it. But now the pastoral is a protest against more urgent loss.

In a poem about the destruction of the environment, Raine couldn’t resist expressing an unquenchable optimism in the powers of the natural world:

And on this doomed decaying city rise
on the last days as on the first,
these marvels inexhaustible and boundless.

Accidentally discovered ‘dispossessed unheeded beauty’ is made all the more precious by its fragility. So we still snatch beauty where we can find it, not waiting only for the rare moments of absolute perfection. Often, the reward is a mixed blessing, rather like the images Raine observed; the magnolia tree flowering alone in a valley of tower blocks; the goldfinch perched on barbed wire. They express our contemporary situation with a strange exactitude.

In the exhilarating moment when the sky was empty of planes, silenced by the volcano, it was possible to imagine, briefly, what the world could be like if paradise wasn’t paved for a parking-lot, if we could once again think of its imperfections as only just less than heaven, rather than an impending loss of earth.

A Shrine more numinous

April 12, 2010


City Spring – photograph by Liz Mathews

Kathleen Raine’s wonderfully-titled collection of essays Defending Ancient Springs is opinionated, idiosyncratic and brings the author to some strange alchemical conclusions. It’s also fascinating, inspiring, the work of a true poet – and perhaps out of print. (Certain aspects of it do seem very dated, particularly her failure to even mention a single other poet who’s a woman. Her violent sense of the lack of magic or mystery in contemporary poetry – because it isn’t sufficiently traditional – has been overtaken by new and different kinds of writing.) I bought it second-hand as a great admirer of Raine’s poetry, mainly to read her revealing commentary On the Mythological.

I wasn’t expecting her essay on the poet David Gascoyne, which also considers Humphrey Jennings’ poetic film-making in the British documentary movement of the 1940s. Raine was married to Charles Madge, another poet deeply involved in fact-finding as one of the founders of Mass Observation; her comments on this group of artists are those of an insider. She describes Mass Observation as an exploration of the national imagination, a voyage into the psyche, rather than a quasi-scientific venture of the opinion poll type. (This perfectly describes their weird collection of rumours, home-truths, wild stories and gossipy reactions to news stories – far stranger than fiction, but nowhere near science.)

Since I saw Listen to Britain again – as an extra on the DVD of Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City – with its luminous black and white photography and extraordinarily poignant images, these films and poems have become a source of intense interest to me. (There’s currently a resurgent fascination in this period, of course, and all things British and documentary, so it’s a convenient moment to extend one’s knowledge.) Sometimes it seems as though the BFI have reissued almost every black and white non-fiction short ever made, and all the people – like me – who’ve bought Night Mail go on to get all the rest. They really don’t make ’em like that any more.

Among the many discussions of the films’ propagandist or political messages, artistic or national qualities, historical or nostalgic appeal, what distinguishes Raine’s essay is her emphasis on the surrealist background of her poet/film-maker friends of the 1930’s and 40’s, which she considers far more important than the pro-Communist leanings with which these artists are often associated. Thus, the films are true to the idea of the ‘surrealist object’; the images had to be ‘discovered’, not ‘invented’. She describes the experience of going for a walk with Jennings as seeing ‘the world come to life as he discerned and discovered everywhere expressions of the imagination, past and present, of the English race’.

The films depict this same view of the ordinary environment as one ‘in which the imagination is mirrored and embodied, and where it everywhere may discover images of its own interior order…’ Whether their surreal juxtapositions are found among urban architecture or industrial machinery, pastoral scenes or seascapes, they convey the same vision of human imaginative involvement in the external world. (And Jennings’ ‘ordinary people’ are all heroes, archetypes of the kind Raine argues are essential to literature – though his overtly left-wing glorification of the worker-hero might have earned her censure.)

This connects directly with the work of Kathleen Raine. Her nature poetry celebrates a mythic landscape, a pastoral of the heart, with a sense of wonder at the everyday extraordinariness of things which these film-poems share. In On the Mythological she writes ‘The Lake District is for many a shrine more numinous than St. Paul’s… not nature so much as nature transformed by poetry and painting… which is the environment imagination inhabits.’ Without the action of the imagination, enabled by art, the ‘wet and birdless hills’, she observes, may remain ‘uncommunicative’.

As one of the most sensitive English poets of place, Raine is obviously not suggesting that the Lake District is dull, but rather establishing the inter-dependence of art, imagination and natural landscape. She continues: ‘If a natural environment can reflect back to us imaginative forms, and evoke these in us, the city is the embodiment of those forms; what imagination creates is the city… A city, symbolically understood, is the environment which imagination creates for itself, a work of all the arts…’

The cities she invokes are Blake’s Jerusalem, Yeats’ Byzantium, the heavenly cities of Plato or St. Augustine – with a side-swipe at London’s failure to become Blake’s visionary place. ‘In the profane and quantitative modern world,’ she remarks, ‘we live like exiles from the realities of our own imagination; to enter a beautiful building, a city of art, is like a homecoming.’

This conjures up, among so many other vivid pictures, some of Jennings’ ‘discovered’ images of unlikely urban beauty. Common to Raine and the poet/film-makers is the sense that there is in the environment – whether landscape or city view – the map of the imagination, which they can unroll suddenly before us to show numinous shrines in unlikely places.