Posts Tagged ‘past within present’

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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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.

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!’

A local habitation and a name…

February 3, 2011

Local winter – photograph by Liz Mathews

London may be, as Chesterton said, a collection of submerged villages, but to the inhabitants they are not even fully submerged.  People’s attachment to ‘their’ street may be just as tenacious and appreciative as the attachment of a smallholder to his particular fields… The instinctive allegiance… to a natural habitat, (large trees, hills, streams etc) urban man transfers to man-made landmarks, but the essential nature of that allegiance remains the same.

These words about the local loyalties many people feel for their home ground are from The Fields Beneath, Gillian Tindall’s marvellous ‘history of one London village’.  As the title suggests, she takes a representative urban area and – with a brilliant combination of meticulous research and strong historical imagination – traces its development from grassland to paved street.  This is particularly fascinating to me as the place she maps in such detail (Kentish Town in north London) is local, but the book has a far wider application.

Since it was first published in 1977, many of the ideas Tindall advanced on the importance of their environment for all people (‘places, objects, views – other supports for the human psyche’) have become more accepted.  A revised edition in 2005 expressed relief that much of the demolition threatened at that time didn’t take place, that our ancestors would still feel at home here after all – which must be partly thanks to this book, with its insistence on William Morris’s dictum ‘We are only trustees for those who come after us’.

As befits so eminent an historian, Gillian Tindall differentiates clearly between the verifiable facts, and the myths – of which there are many.  There are unsolved mysteries (where exactly was the Gospel Oak?) and revenant rumours (every damp cellar was once hailed as the lost Fleet River rising), which are explored and explained.  Now, the many inhabitants who have read this much-loved book know exactly where the river runs beneath their feet, feel a pastoral nostalgia  for groves or dairy farms recalled only in street names.  Curves of streets suggest a brook’s meander, abrupt angles mark ancient field-boundaries, old trees in gardens are survivors from orchards, there are even hedgerows remaining from our rural past.

This book has done more than any other to give this community a strong sense of locality and history rooted in the landscape, that common ground which remains so noticeable in these hilly streets.  It has even explained the richness of the soil, which grows such lush shrubs in these city gardens; ‘tough, sticky London clay studded like a currant cake with the fragments of other lives’.  Pevsner’s London 4: North covers the architectural riches, others list the ley lines, Roman roads, Boadicea’s barrow (on Parliament Hill, of course, not platform 10 of King’s Cross Station) and more, but none have quite this taste of the territory.

Famous residents pass through; Mary Shelley watches Byron’s funeral procession make its way through the rain towards Highgate Hill (she thought the place ‘an odious swamp’); Nelson plants apple trees in his uncle’s town garden; Thomas Hardy is distressed by participating in the clearance of a churchyard for the new railway.  But the less well-known, the ordinary residents, are the focus; piano-builders, railway-workers, music-teachers and engravers, many servants. In the fascinating minutiae of their lives are reflected the place’s fluctuating fortunes, from a rural retreat of clean air to a smog-polluted slum, only reprieved late in the 20thC.

For this sort of detailed, local social history the census records are a major source, providing an unrivalled picture of the area’s composition at fixed moments in time.  No-one who has any interest in the past, or values the ability of those who come after us to understand our own time, can ever have felt any doubt about the historical importance of the census.  But things in 2011 aren’t quite as they were; as many people from the Green Party to The Guardian have been saying.  This year the information will be gathered by an American company, Lockheed Martin, the arms and aircraft manufacturer specialising in ‘information gathering’ in the sense of interrogation at Guantanamo.

One of the implications of this is that as an American company, any data they hold can be legally demanded by an agency of the American government, so that the essential concept of the confidentiality of the census is seriously undermined.  Another is that an enormous sum of tax-payers’ money has been paid out to a non-British firm, which seems an odd decision especially now. And, why to a firm deeply incriminated in arms dealing, which many financial organisations – not only ‘ethical’ funds like the Co-op Bank – are expected by their customers to avoid?

This all seems a long way from reading an exemplary local history which typifies the history of many other districts, or the celebrating the research opportunities of the 1911 census. But one of the worst things about this different 2011 census is that it will make all such future exercises in truth-telling and finding far more difficult, since there are obviously going to be many more people than usual who are reluctant to provide answers.  Aside from those communities who have traditionally been hard to persuade to co-operate (because of their suspicions of the use to which their confidential information might be put, and who will have access to it) now there will be many others who feel the same doubts. And the results may not be at all the same in a hundred years.

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.