Posts Tagged ‘London Calling’

Come to the Feast

May 21, 2012

The Prospect of Happiness – paperwork by Liz Mathews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Welcome young poet, in here you are free

to follow your star to where you should be.

The door of the library was the door into me

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

Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.’

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

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

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

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The word is given a body…

May 2, 2011

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

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

[…]

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

Virginia Woolf, Craftsmanship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

To the North

April 1, 2011

The view from the hill – photograph by Liz Mathews

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

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

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

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

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

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

No temple but the wood

March 14, 2011

Magnolia – photograph by Liz Mathews

London is a green city. Indeed, parts of it are now classified as an ‘urban forest’.  The combination of parks, street trees and many gardens (including roof-gardens) makes it one of the greenest of all ancient cities.  Most Londoners meet a tree or two every day, many of us are lucky enough to see dozens of them out of the windows.  As David Constantine puts it in his poem Birdsong:

We think our common road a choir of trees.

There are tree-cultish books, not aimed at much-derided tree-huggers, directing people to the remarkable trees of various areas.  Everyone has their own favourites; the giant planes of Brunswick Square, which survived the wartime destruction of most of the surrounding buildings (perhaps protected by the charm of Handel’s aria composed in their praise); the magnolias on St. Mary-le-Strand’s precarious island mid-Aldwych; the parade of blossom on one ordinary residential street or the elegant chestnut avenue along another.

Trees don’t live forever, and they need some looking after.  Councils also have to protect them from the philistines who are afraid of trees and see them only as nuisances that make shade, block gutters, shelter birds – which are also perceived as nuisances – raise their roots and have a sinister urge to crush or poison people unless they are felled or poisoned first.  (Perhaps this is the last remnant of an early anti-pagan representation of sacred trees as harbouring malign deities?)

Pro-tree neighbours periodically have to link hands around a threatened tree to protect it from illegal destruction, but this support is sometimes taken to extremes; our local tree-surgeon told me that he’s often abused as a ‘murderer’ by wrathful passers-by if he has to fell a rotten or dangerous tree.  But the worst threat is still building.  Eighty years ago, Charlotte Mew wrote her searing lament The Trees are Down – so not much changes.

They are cutting down the great plane trees at the end of the gardens…

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade today;

These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:

When the men with the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas’ have carted the whole of the whispering loveliness away

Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;

Half of my life has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,

In the March wind, the May breeze,

In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.

There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;

They must have heard the sparrows flying,

And the small creeping creatures in the earth when they were lying –

But I, all day I heard an angel crying:

‘Hurt not the trees.’

As this poem makes so clear, trees are free, for everyone; their beauty makes a place which people feel is home.

The pastoral ideal of a sylvan grove has a long pedigree in English, and its transfer to the urban environment seems an essential element of its 21stC survival. (These trees shall be my books…) In this romantic spirit, I was pleased to encounter our local ‘urban forester’, an Ent-like tree-keeper, I imagined, a contemporary wood-warden.  But, having been in contact with him, I’m less thrilled to discover that in Islington, hitherto one of the greenest boroughs, tree-planting – like everything else – will be cut in future. So, although the two missing trees from our street-corner spinney may yet be replaced, because residents have asked for them, such re-planting won’t happen again.

Just as government-owned rural ancient woodland will vanish when it’s sold off, so the urban forest will inevitably shrink, if the trees are not cared for or re-planted.  According to the Ents, the benefits of city trees include (but are not limited to) the fact that they: filter airborne dust and pollution, increase air quality, absorb traffic noise, reduce temperature extremes, generate breezes, provide shade, increase privacy, give food and nesting sites for birds and insects, improve quality of life, reduce stress, give proven psychological and health benefits, increase local property values [!], help prevent flooding.

So, if we want to continue being able to live in a green city, we must protect our trees even more carefully than we do already.  This piecemeal destruction of ‘forests’ close to home is yet another unnecessary imposition, presented as inevitable among far worse cuts, just a very minor item on the agenda.  But, as Philip Pullman made clear in his superb lyrical speech against library closures, these false dichotomies and competitions for funds are merely a tactic of ‘divide and rule’; there is no need to choose between such extremes.  It’s just another small, important, thing to add to the list of unacceptable losses against which we will be protesting at the demonstration on March 26th.

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.