Sunday 31 March 2013

On Yves Klein

Here, for Easter Sunday, a favourite image by a favourite artist. Look it up on Google.

It's called Le Saut dans le vide (Leap into the Void) and is (of course) a brilliantly simple photomontage, by Shunk Kender, made in 1960, capturing the artist Yves Klein in mid-air one damp afternoon in October 1960. The location was Rue Gentil-Bernard in Fontenay-aux-Roses, a quiet suburb south of Paris. I like the earthbound cyclist on the right, entirely unaware of the Icarus moment taking place behind him. He would have seen the four assistants holding a tarpaulin sheet to capture the falling man, who have been airbrushed out of the final image.

I visited the place one correspondingly damp Easter Sunday afternoon about twenty years ago. Nothing much remains of the site, which is now occupied by an ugly modern church and a student hall of residence, although the railway line still runs along the end of the street and the station building remains intact. Oddly enough an identically-banded brick pillar to the one Klein is leaping from can be found still in place in the same street, about a quarter of a mile south. The place where he would theoretically have crashed to earth is now a zebra crossing, but (unlike the one in London's Abbey Road) not a world-class tourist attraction.

Klein included the image in his book Dimanche, apparently to prove that he had mastered the art of lunar travel and a snub to the boys at NASA. If serious conceptual art is your bag then Klein's the man.

He died young, aged 34, in 1962. He was a terrific innovator - as a painter, performance artist, provocateur and karate champion. The real deal.

Images © The Estate of Yves Klein

Saturday 30 March 2013

Richard Griffiths

He wasn't simply a great actor - he was also invariably the right actor, cast in roles that nobody else could get away with. He was especially good at eloquent queers - Hector in The History Boys and (of course) the immortal Uncle Monty in Withnail & I.

I saw him last on stage at the National Theatre in the role of Fitz, an irascible old ham who is in turn portraying W H Auden in Caliban's Day, the play-within-a-play in Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art. He was the best thing in it, and had reportedly taken the role on at the last moment, when Michael Gambon was indisposed. I remember this exchange between Griffiths as Fitz as Auden and Auden's biographer Humphrey Carpenter (Adrian Scarborough):

CARPENTER:    I'm not a rent boy. I was at Keble.
AUDEN:             That can't be helped.

It's not much of a line but Griffiths freighted it beautifully with lust and impatience and camp condescension - and he brought the house down. At the end of the play he delivered, beautifully and very movingly Auden's elegy In Memory of W. B. Yeats ('He disappeared in the dead of winter: The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted'). 

His unusual shape was caused by an elaborate and untreatable hernia. It would be untrue to say that one didn't notice his extraordinary bulk, but his wonderful voice and toothy grin are what one chiefly remembers, and his incredibly light and elegant movements, more Ariel than Falstaff. He lumbered daintily. I learn from an obituary that his working-class parents were both deaf and mute, that he had to support them in many ways from the age of four. and that his childhood was very unhappy. Yet he seemed neither bitter nor scarred by what sounds like a dreadfully loveless upbringing, and is fondly remembered by everyone he worked with or who saw him perform.

Griffiths was only 65 when he died yesterday, which means he was (incredibly) under forty when he appeared as Withnail's fabulously strange Uncle Monty. I was unable to find a clip of him delivering my favourite line in the film: 'We live in a kingdom of rains, where the royalty comes in gangs'. So this will have to do: his scene-stealing first appearance in the film.

If you've never seen Withnail & I you'll have to take my word for it that Bruce Robinson's script is the most brilliant for any British film since Kind Hearts and Coronets. Here (from memory) is another bit of Uncle Monty, recalling an undergraduate passion:

'I sometimes wonder where Norman is now. Probably wintering with his mother in Guildford. A cat, rain, Vim under the sink, and both bars on. But old now, old. There is no beauty without decay.'

If you have seen Withnail the chances are you've seen it many times. It's very good, very funny and very rude. Griffiths apparently didn't mind strangers yelling 'Monty you terrible cunt!' at him in public. It was a catch phrase of sorts. He will be much missed.

Auden extract © The Estate of W. H. Auden

Thursday 28 March 2013

On playful interventions

I know a lot about art, and I know what I don't like. What I particularly don't like is lazy, clumsy, cocksure public art. I've had it up to here with playful interventions.

You'll know what I mean. Some artist you've never heard of has made (or more likely caused to be made) some kind of thing (not, in all likelihood, a painting, but a public thing: performance, film, 10,000 dirty jamjars stuffed with condoms, street art.) Usually its intentions are expressed in this kind of slack prose:

Finial Response is a permanent public artwork in the bustling heart of Soho in London. It is an interactive and light-based piece that blurs the boundaries between architecture installation and art [.] It consists of 109 individually shaped black steel profiles sandwiching illuminated acrylic which responds to the movements of passers-by. Each profile shape echoes ornamental finials found around Westminster, connecting Soho’s decorated past with its new incarnation as a media hub.

'Blurs the boundaries' my aunt fanny. Soho has been dedicated for decades to doing just that, using such time-honoured strategies as booze, sex, drugs and patisseries - we don't need any well-intentioned intervention to add to that mix because there are no boundaries left to blur. Finial Response is, we are later assured ' a constantly changing artwork that will engage and delight for many years to come.'

Finial Response (Image © Google images)

This is optimistic. Last time I looked it wasn't working, or perhaps not switched on. It is in any case a one-look-and-you've-got-it object. Who'd want to see the damn thing on their way to and from work every day?

Typically an artist involved in this sort of thing is aiming through such 'playful interventions' to (in another threadbare phrase) 'challenge the viewer's preconceptions'.  This is how they tend to put it:

Through playful interventions these artists create a ‘non place’, a meeting ground between the fictional and what actually exists. There is a notion that we are being presented with a glimpse or fragment of reality, veiled only by the finest gauze of illusion. Viewers are invited to cultivate and engage with their own narratives, therefore entering into a dialogue within this dichotomy. 

It's typical of the meaningless guff that surrounds and seeks to justify humdrum sophomoric site-specific 'gestures' and (in this case) is written to accompany an exhibition in a recently-established space in what I remember as an elegant Victorian waterworks, a few minutes' walk from my parents' house. These neat public buildings used to be surrounded by carefully-tended gardens and a small car-park accommodating a fleet of neatly-liveried vehicles, the modest plant serving local residents quietly and efficiently. It was adjacent to a home for young people with learning difficulties (now closed) and a Methodist chapel (now derelict).

I don't for a moment agree with the prevailing view, now virtually a given, that modern art can only earn its place in the world by challenging our beliefs, rather than illuminating, instructing, enriching our lives and adding to our knowledge of ourselves and others. I particularly loathe the word 'playful', which becomes, in the hands of witless, artless prankster-practitioners, no more than a synonym for trivial. In fact, replace the former word with the latter whenever you see it in an artist's statement or exhibition catalogue and a simple truth is revealed. I loathe even more the kind of art and artist that aim to 'challenge our preconceptions'.

As it happens I have plenty of preconceptions, most of which are hard-won, the result of thoughtful reflection and a lifetime's reading and listening and looking and thinking. I'm annoyed - and who would't be - when these preconceptions of mine are regarded as mere prejudices to be overcome by the diligent application of conceptual art as a kind of ethical poultice. It would take a spectacularly persuasive artwork (and I can't even begin to imagine what form it would take) to challenge my existing preconceptions about slavery, for instance, or to convince me that Jimmy Savile was a Good Egg, or that Terry Pratchett is a better writer than V. S. Pritchett, or that the satanic abuse of children might be (despite our misgivings) a cultural cloud with a silver lining, or that I've up to now been quite wrong about the Holocaust (which  I strongly believe was a Bad Thing) and misinformed about global warming. Picture an artwork that dared to challenge the widely-held preconception that Allah is the only true god and Mohamed is his prophet. Then picture the reaction. It wouldn't be playful.

Of course all art is an intervention, and an incongruity, although that has nothing to do with destabilising the viewer's expectations (whatever they are) or subverting the status quo (whatever that is, or was). Art is incongruous because it has no utility, and it is the non-utile nature of art that is the real challenge - inviting if not always eliciting a range of responses from the philistine ('A child of five could do it') to the informed ('That's awful').

Why, one wonders, do so many artists suppose in any case that the sort of people who come to look at their work (or 'intervention') arrive with a set of unreflecting prejudices which, thanks to the eloquent powers of their creation will be destabilised or even overturned? Anyone with deeply-held prejudices is never going to be won over by any post-Duchampian sub-Dada footling. Proper racists, for instance, don't spout their nasty bullshit simply in order to shock and provoke and to challenge the rest of society's (anti-racist) preconceptions. They spout their nasty bullshit because it's what they believe in, perhaps all they believe in, and they have nothing else to say. It wouldn't occur to them that what they say is shocking, because they see it as a self-evident truth. Artists, bless them, routinely confuse preconceptions (which are unstable and therefore negotiable) with convictions (which are irrational and unyielding). You can't challenge convictions with reason because convictions are seldom based on reason. And preconceptions, let's agree, are not necessarily shallow or thoughtless or wrong, and may be bang on the money. But that's not to forgive the pompous self-belief of the artist who believes his work somehow incarnates a coherent assault on the established and self-deluding order, whatever that order might be. 

Since Duchamp's urinal the stakes have got higher, the noises more cacophonous, but the bar has been lowered - and what we have to settle for now is Dame Tracey's unmade bed, which is shocking only in its banality and feebleness. Wouldn't you in any case swap her entire gurning portfolio for just one piece by Yves Klein? Better to have both than neither, say the cultural relativists. Balls, I reply.

Marcel Duchamp's urinal

As craft declines and intelligence is ousted by sincerity the shouting match becomes a free-for-all. In the past year we've seen a number of playful interventions which failed, emphatically failed, to make their mark. Remember Wlodzimierz Umaniec? Almost certainly not. He's the gormless arse who defaced a Rothko with black ink in the Tate Modern last year, attempting to promote his feeble one-man Yellowist movement. He got two years in jail and a few minutes of Warholian fame, on which I expect the disorganised pillock imagines he can build. We can expect more of this as times get harsher, as action replaces reflection, loquacity trumps eloquence and noisy self-reflexive sarcastic artlessness drives out the quietly thoughtful, the serious, the unironic.

Yeah right whatever
Oddly it's those game old pranksters Gilbert & George who continue to deliver the odd beneficial shock, with their ambiguously fascistic homoerotica and their right-wing pronunciamentos, although I suspect they only do it to annoy, because they know it teases.

Gilbert (right) and George (right)

But what, these days, would really shock? What would a serious artistic equivalent be to a moment once memorably described by Woody Allen, a moment 'when you kiss your grandmother goodnight and she puts her tongue in your mouth'?

Wednesday 27 March 2013


As Britain grinds to a halt during an unseasonal cold spell, here's a dazzling seven-minute film directed and edited by Geoffrey Jones, shot in the harsh winter of 1962/3. Jones was working for British Transport Films, and travelled around with his cameraman (Wolfgang Suschitzky, perhaps best known today for shooting Get Carter), filming whatever he saw and then spent a year editing the footage. The result is sensationally good. Martin Scorsese is a big fan, apparently.

Sunday 24 March 2013

On cliché

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nam blandit iaculis mattis. Integer suscipit eros ut velit volutpat sed ullamcorper est euismod. 

And so on. Recognise it?

Lorem Ipsum is still used a lot in the printing and typesetting industry. It's been the industry's standard dummy text since the 1500s, when an unknown printer scrambled a galley of type to produce a sample book and more than five hundred years later it's still with us. I suppose most of us came across it first in a Letraset format (remember Letraset?), which used passages of Lorem Ipsum in its catalogues and sample sheets from the 1960s until quite recently. Later on desktop publishing software like Aldus PageMaker used versions, and you can come across it in all kinds of contexts.

As Latin it's quite meaningless - designed to deflect the eye from any lexical significance and make the reader appreciate the arrangement of the text. It's the typesetter's equivalent of Finnegans Wake and, as it happens, an early example of a cliché. 

The word (as I expect you know but I didn't) 'cliché'' derives originally from typesetting, and referred to a printing plate cast from moveable type (also known as a stereotype, another expression that's gone down in the world). It may have onomatopoeic origins, coming from the sound made when the molten stereotyping metal is poured onto the matrix to make a printing plate, which presumably involved some kind of clicking noise (as in French cliquer). Setting type one letter at a time was a slow and painstaking process and so, if a phrase was likely to recur, the type would not be broken up but kept for future use. The term cliché soon came to refer to any ready-made, high frequency phrase likely to be repeated without variation (as might, for instance, be used repeatedly in contracts and other legal documents). In its original usage, cliché had no negative associations but now, and usually as a plural noun or as an adjective, it has come to mean hackneyed, derivative, unoriginal and as such, a Bad Thing. But perhaps that's because we're exposed to so many forms of the written and spoken word, and to so much in the way of films and television and gormless journalism in all media that we're bound sooner or later to come across something  that (with a feeling that might be called déjà lu) seems to us to be clichéd.

Children have no concept of cliché and seem, in fact, to thrive on the repetitive and familiar. At what age does this change? And what exactly is our adult objection to a writer who employs cliché? Perhaps it's a sense that she is wasting our valuable time, that verbal cliché is usually accompanied by plenty of dullness in plot, character and the other things that make for good writing. Evelyn Waugh once paid Christopher Isherwood the most wonderful compliment when he wrote in a review that 'Mr Isherwood is not a writer who struggles to avoid cliché because a cliché would never occur to him'.  

I recently came across a phrase used by anthropologists that seems to me to be more useful than 'stereotype' or 'cliché'. The term is 'a perfect specific' and applies to any unambiguous signifier (verbal or visual) that an audience will agree stands legitimately and neutrally for something in particular. Examples might be the Chancellor's battered despatch box on Budget day, or the flashing blue light of an emergency vehicle, or the white smoking emerging from a stovepipe chimney to announce the appointment (if that's the right word), or the Mona Lisa as a perfect specific not only or high art but of enigmatic genius, ineffability and (depending on your point of view) a certain naffness. Of course the appeal of a perfect specific is in many cases is not to a sophisticated audience, but that's neither here nor there. My point is that 'perfect specifics' are useful, legible signs that need little or no mediation between the source and reception. They do their job in a quiet and effective and unfussy way. We need more of these, surely? Society builds a consensus around them.

Friday 22 March 2013

My home town

Evan Davies, prompted by some educational pundit on Radio 4's Today programme the other day, asked peevishly: "Since when did schools get strap lines instead of mottos?" I suppose it all started about the same time that free market management newspeak came to dominate public discourse and public services were sold off to private companies. Change and decay in all around I see.

My school motto was FORTI NIHIL DIFFICILE and although I never knew what it meant at the time I suppose it translates as To the brave nothing is difficult. Or perhaps 'It's easy when you know how'.

The Borough Council in the town where I grew up and went to school had its own motto: PER MARE PER ECCLESIAM (By the sea, by the church), a literal topographical description of the original settlement and, perhaps, a nod to the dominant forces in the community. I remember the smart blue and cream liveried buses in my home town, each of which carried this coat of arms complete with the Latin motto:

Southend Borough Council

These days what's left of the local administration operates under an illiterately punctuated tadpole logo, and without, of course, the Latin tag:

I shan't bang on about this but it's quite horrible, what's happened to my old town, although hardly unique. The elegant Edwardian and Victorian centre, with its shady iron arcades and handsome technical college, was swept away and replaced in the 1980s by the vast and lumpen Hammerson Development, a shopping centre that was never popular and is now semi-derelict. The heart of the town was ripped out, the High Street pedestrianised. The corporation bus services were privatised, to be run by the ghastly Stagecoach. Now I learn that there are plans to close and demolish the only good modern building in Southend, the fine Central Library in Victoria Avenue (below). It's one of the best brutalist buildings in Essex - and perhaps the best brutalist library in the country. It was designed by the borough architect R. Horswell, completed in 1974 and features a wall clad in ceramic tiles, an abstract design by the little-known Fritz Steller.

Between 1969 and 1975, Steller produced some of the most dramatic and innovative postwar architectural ceramics seen in Britain, including ten enormous stoneware panels decorating Huddersfield's Queensgate Market (see below). His work is seriously undervalued and much of what little remains is under threat. I can't find an image of his work in Southend, but it's worth a look if you're passing. The only reference I can find to his work on the internet is here:

Fritz Steller: Huddersfield panels

I spent long hours in the Central Library reference section as a teenager. The building was spacious, airy and calm, and there was a small theatre and a sculpture court, a cafeteria and an exhibition hall. It was a popular place to study and an asset to the community. The very expensive replacement will be something called The Forum, housed in the plug-ugly university at the other end of the town - you know the kind of thing: some brightly clad shed with no books. I hope the old library (which I shall always think of as the new library) is saved. It would make a brilliant gallery/studio space, or what these days is called an arts hub, less than an hour from Liverpool Street (and two hours from Barcelona via the local airport). In fact it's halfway to being just that already, because in recent years the building has been host to the Focal Point Gallery - the most serious (some might say only) cultural achievement in the town's collective memory. It's very hip indeed, an the website is worth a look:

Central Library

One artist who has exhibited at Focal Point happens to be a friend of ours - Milly Thompson. She designed the poster below as a part of an imaginary campaign to save the building. Is there a real campaign? 

Image © Milly Thompson / Focal Point Gallery

There's another good piece of 1970s town planning a few hundred yards to the north - the Civic Centre, complete with a fountain sculpture based on the two figures in the Borough Council's coat of arms. I have no idea who the artist was, and the thing is usually covered in slimy green mould, but it's a reminder of the town when it had some kind of identity which occasionally presented itself through real architecture. 

Thursday 21 March 2013

Birthday boys

Today  is the birthday of Slavoj Žižek, the prolific Slovenian sociologist, philosopher, film-maker and cultural critic, who was born in 1949 and seems to publish a weighty volume at least once a fortnight. My theory is that his name is actually Slovene for Ljubljana University Department of Philosophy, a collective enterprise. My wish is that they'd all take a two-year sabbatical to allow us to catch up.

Today is also the birthday of Vivian Stanshall, whose life overlaps with mine in some unsettling ways. We went to the same school (although not at the same time), from which he was expelled, reportedly for shaving his eyebrows off one lunchtime and therefore, in some way, breaking the rules. I now live in the same steep North London street where he spent his final ramshackle years (at number 23), and where he died in bed in a blaze caused by a cigarette. On my birthday, as it happens.

He shares this violent incendiary end with Dame Barbara Hepworth and the French music-hall star Julien Carette, who featured in Renoir films including La Règle du Jeu, La Bête Humaine and La Grande Illusion. But I am rambling.

Stanshall was an erratic genius much admired by chaps of my age but perhaps less well known today than he should be. He had a beautiful voice. Here are some scenes from his wildly original film Sir Henry at Rawlinson End:

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Photograph of Jesus

A dazzling six-minute short by director Laurie Hill, who digs inventively into the vast Hulton-Getty picture archive.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

On Mick Philpott

On 11 May 2012 a fire broke out in Victory Road in Allenton, Derby, England. Five children died in the fire, and one later died in hospital. The parents of the dead children, Mick Philpott (56) and his wife Mairead (31), as well as a third man described as a 'family friend', are currently on trial for their manslaughter. The motive appears to be a desire to get a bigger council house. It's a horrible case, and extensively reported.

Philpott, who has eleven other children, is quite worthless, the kind of man who bursts into dry-eyed sobs whenever he feels cornered (which is often, during the lengthy cross-questioning) and regularly collapses in the dock. He sees himself as put-upon, tragically misunderstood, fundamentally decent and essentially loveable, a bit of a character. He's none of these things, of course. His language is histrionic and entirely unconvincing - he'd stand a better chance of winning the jury's sympathy, if not an acquittal, if he sat down quietly and said nothing. He has pleaded not guilty, although the evidence against him is so overwhelming that his plea is practically a contempt of court. He has an oddly coquettish way of dabbing his eyes with a folded tissue, a daytime telly simulacrum of grief.

Courtroom portraits are aesthetically negligible - a hangover from the days of The Illustrated Police News - but they are instantly recognisable for what they are. For legal reasons they are not made in the court but done from memory outside, presumably using photographs of the protagonists sourced elsewhere. They have a curious function, between the documentary and the didactic. In this case Elizabeth Cook, the official artist covering the Philpott trial, has produced some images that capture something of the man and his behaviour in court. Her vivid backgrounds are interesting.

Her images are emphatically democratic, just as likely to feature in the broadsheets as the red top tabloids. Although Philpott has deployed every strategy within his gormless repertoire ("Look into these eyes and tell me that I'm guilty!") the one thing he has so far failed to say is that in the face of his terrible loss he's 'contemplated suicide'. This is odd, because in these dire times, when every celebrity is obliged at some point to undertake their own version of the Stations of the Cross, it is this lowest of ebbs that invariably comes before salvation and re-birth. This is the direction in which Mick Philpott's concocted narrative leads.

It's a phrase that's too easily used, and has become a glib shorthand in public life. Contemplated? Contemplated? Being in extremis, at the deepest pitch of misery, at the very limits of what one can bear; it's not a contemplative state, is it? Contemplation suggests a degree of spiritual resource and self-knowledge that Philpott entirely lacks. Saying that one has 'contemplated' suicide really means 'feel sorry for me'. Of course nobody ever says 'I considered suicide', which strikes a false note somehow, as if suicide is but one of a range of varyingly-attractive options at one's disposal.

If I am harsh I suppose it's because Philpott's manner is so swaggeringly cocksure, so transparently manipulative and his crime so entirely lacking in mitigation, that I want to feel good about feeling bad. The court-room artist captures something of the nature of the accused. It's a missed opportunity that the courts do not commission prison artists to record the punishment.

Image © Elizabeth Cook

Sunday 17 March 2013

On 'edge'

Listening to a 1950s episode of The Goon Show on Radio 4 Extra with Eddie, who is 12. This takes me back to my own childhood and listening to recordings of the programme on crackling 33rpm vinyl discs, wondering at Spike Milligan's wayward genius and the unvarying roster of mad, instantly unforgettable characters - Bluebottle, Eccles, Gritpype-Thynne, the Cruns and so on.

We were listening to an episode called 'Dishonored Again', and after a few minutes something struck me as very wrong.  This wan't the show I knew. The edits were rough and clunky and there were odd losses of continuity making some gags quite baffling. For instance:

Ned Seagoon: I disguised myself as a Zulu warrior of the Matibile rising. Even my own mother wouldn't recognise me!

(A deep throaty masculine voice says "Hello Neddy!" To which he replies brightly "Hello mother!")

I hardly need to spell out the joke here - that Ned (played by Harry Secombe) is a short fat Welshman, a patriotic simpleton and the butt of most of the gags in the show, and would make an utterly unconvincing Zulu warrior, because Zulu warriors are noble, athletic, courageous and warlike. But the line was cut to become simply: "I disguised myself".

Later in the show, as the culmination of an increasingly hysterical running gag in which person A asks person B whether he would care to join the River Police, then hurls his victim into the nearest stretch of deep water with a tremendous splash, the following punchline was cut:

Moriarty: Welcome to the Indian River Police little boy

Why? The setting now is India so the variant on the earlier geographically-specific punchlines (which omit 'Indian') has a point and, in the context, is essential.

There are many other instances in this show alone. What's being cut is - well what, exactly, and why? These are not offensive words, neither are they inoffensive words used offensively. They do not disparage, demean or provoke our scorn. They are words merely, and prompted by the episode's setting which, as was often the case in The Goon Show, is a far-flung backwater of a derelict British Empire, a place where only the magnificently corrupt, cowardly and flatulent Major Denis Blodnock is able to forge a living, where crooks and thugs and idiots are subject to dramatic sudden reversals marked by huge explosions, where British prestige is mocked and colonial pretensions subverted.

I suppose my real concern is this - that current thinking at the BBC (and not only the BBC) is predisposed to find offence in the perceived shortcomings of the past but keen  to endorse deliberately offensive material  as 'edgy' and 'ironic'.  You know the kind of course-grained crap I mean - the 'edgy' late night comedians, who do 'dark' material to the shrieking approval of their fans. They dare to swear too, the radical scamps. But they lack wit, originality, charm or intelligence. They lack humour. They lack heart.

This is all very hateful, this straining at politically-incorrect gnats and swallowing boorish camels - an example of what E. P. Thompson called 'the massive condescension of posterity'. There is, finally, a terrible and hypocritical intolerance in an approach that cuts, willy-nilly, lines from archive programmes on the assumption that they may offend some hypothetical and hypersensitive listener, yet is still prepared to broadcast the crudely mutilated versions. There's neither respect nor professionalism in that. No respect for the writer. No integrity. No love.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Kongō Gumi

Kongō Gumi was a Japanese construction business and was, until 2006, the world's oldest continuously trading independent company.

The family-owned firm was founded in Osaka in 578 and, astonishingly, remained in business for over 1,400 years, specialising throughout its existence in the construction of Buddhist temples. At the time of the company's liquidation in 2006 it had around 100 employees and the president, Masakazu Kongō, was the 40th Kongō to head the company.

How about that?

Friday 15 March 2013

David (Hulme)

I lived for three years in one of the now-demolished Hulme crescents in Manchester. There were four of them, colossal jerry-built follies designed by Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley and named after 18th century architects, John Nash, Charles Barry, Robert Adam and William Kent. They were built to house 13,000 Mancunians but by the time I moved in few families remained and it was a student ghetto. I lived in Robert Adam Crescent in a large second floor flat I shared with three other undergraduates - Sam, Dahyu and Dom. The place was crumbling.

In A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain  (Verso, 2010), the formidably gifted topographical writer Owen Hatherley interviews Liz Naylor, a fanzine editor, screenwriter and former Hulme resident, who recalls:

A 'Hulme look' developed when the whole male population of Hulme seemed to be wearing the clothes of dead men and everyone looked as if they had stepped out of the 1930s with baggy suits and shirtless ties.

I can vouch for the dead men's clobber, although 'shirtless ties' may have been after my time. When Warren Beatty came to the area to shoot Reds in 1981 hundreds of student extras were recruited for the crowd scenes and didn't need much in the way of make up, haircuts or costume.

That the flats were infested with cockroaches and hazy with asbestos dust was beside the point. That the balconies were sure-fire death traps for small children, and that the underfloor heating didn't work was also beside the point. They were rent-free, that was the point, and within walking distance of the university, the then-grimy and untenanted city centre, the now legendary Factory Club (known to us as the PSV) and the wonderful Aaben cinema (see below). The barman in our local, the Grant's Arms, later became a world-famous pop star. There were very few cars around, all the pubs were rough, there was just one horrible supermarket, and a godsend chippie. There was also, one hot summer, a rooftop sniper. His (or perhaps her) troubling presence is seldom mentioned in accounts of the estate.

Was I happy there? Not at all. But I was young, which involved a different kind of unhappiness, and the prevailing register was one of self-conscious miserabilism. Young and intense, in a dead man's suit and long overcoat, always damp and musty smelling. The coat and its owner, that is. I was glumly in love, hard up (though never broke), drinking in sour smoke-filled pubs and unaware that the grotty estate would thirty years on become a celebrated dystopian bohemia, or bohemian dystopia. But that is what it is, at least for writers like Hatherley, born in 1981. It's a sign of our dire times that a writer of his generation (which means for me the next generation) can see in the vanished Hulme estate a land of lost content.

Dead men's clothes

But I should mention what really was special about the Crescents (for me at least) - the Aaben cinema, a few yards away from our rotting and cockroach-infested and stone-cold, rent-free student shit-hole. There were four screens, and you paid once to get in and could stay in the warm until closing time for programmes of - well everything. I sometimes saw a dozen films a week. The walls between the studios were so thin that any given film was accompanied by at least one other audible soundtrack from next door. It was a flea-pit that smelled like a waterlogged fairground but warmer and cosier than our flat, and I gorged myself on Whale, Welles and Wiene, Fassbender and Fellini, and Godard, and Truffaut. Tarkovsky! Kurosawa! And my first encounter with Renoir one cold Spring afternoon: Le Crime de Monsieur Lange. The programming had no rhyme or reason - mixing blockbusters (Raiders of the Lost Ark) with Polish masterpieces (Closely Observed Trains), so (as Henri Langlois did at the Cinematheque in Paris) we solitary groovers created our own montage in the dark. You could smoke in the auditorium, and the movies were projected above our heads through a blue-grey haze only slightly less toxic than the asbestos mist in the kitchen at home. I still have my old membership card:

Picture palace

Black and white images © Ian Robinson,

Sunday 10 March 2013

Mongoose Civique

It was the Scottish poet Norman Cameron (Oxford contemporary of Auden, best friend of Dylan Thomas and aide to Robert Graves and Laura Riding in Majorca), who, obliged to earn a living as an advertising copywriter at J. Walter Thompson, came up with an entirely fictitious malady called 'Night Starvation', the only cure for which was a bedtime mug of Horlicks. Cameron was never a big name, wrote only seventy-odd poems and died young. He is largely forgotten today, but he wrote some very good stuff - and contributed at least one indispensable phrase to the language:

          I, who should command a regiment,
          Do amble amiably here, O God,
          One of the neat ones in your awkward squad.

Or so I thought. But (if Wikipedia is a reliable guide) 'the awkward squad' has been around since the 18th century. Shortly before his death in 1796 Robert Burns said: 'Don't let the awkward squad fire over me', suggesting an established slang term for untrained, undisciplined troops. The phrase has more recently been applied to left-wing trades union leaders like Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka, opposed to New Labour policies. Was Cameron merely the first to use the phrase in a poem? No mean accomplishment.

Other poets have dabbled in commerce. In 1955 the American poet Marianne Moore was briefly employed as a consultant by the Ford Motor Company. David Wallace, manager of marketing research, invited her to submit 'inspirational names' for the company's exciting E-car project. After a month's work she came up with nineteen, including the following:




Resilient Bullet

Ford Silver Sword

Mongoose Civique

Varsity Stroke


Andante con Moto

A month later she had another flash of inspiration and submitted Utopian Turtletop. 

I like and admire all of these, of course. They're altogether more swaggering and upbeat than Martin Amis's sourly satirical Ford Fiasco.

The E-car was eventually launched - a disastrously unpopular model named after Henry Ford's only son. The Ford Edsel was named after Edsel Ford. Perhaps it would have fared better as the Mongoose Civique. Some cultural pundits have speculated that the car's remarkable lack of success was down to the 'vaginal' radiator design. I don't suppose Marianne Moore had a hand in that.

Saturday 9 March 2013

On Berthold Wolpe

Let us now praise Berthold Wolpe (1905 - 1989).

There have never been better-looking dust wrappers (or jackets, as collectors apparently call them), than those he designed for the publishers Faber and Faber - over 1,500 covers between 1941 and 1975. Bold and simple, they stand out a mile. Wolpe wasn't alone - Faber employed a wonderful cohort of artists including Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, David Jones, Charles Mozley and Rex Whistler. But it is Wolpe's designs that dazzled, and which did most to establish the distinctive look of Faber's books for over thirty years.

We'll start with a favourite writer, a remarkable book and an absolutely perfect design:

Wolpe's Alexandria Quartet designs are among his best. I get the impression that Durrell isn't much read these days. I've yet to meet anyone who has read the excellent two-volume novel sequence Tunc and Numquam.

Two very different poets from the mighty Faber list get the Wolpe treatment:

This cover - for Robert Lowell's best collection - uses Wolpe's elegant Albertus typeface (which can be seen on street signs throughout the City of London).

The rippling waves and marine colouring of Pincher Martin reflect the Icarus myth of the content. We seem no longer to employ 'by' or 'a novel by' on book covers. I expect in this case it was to disambiguate the novel's title and the author's name.

The first grown-up poetry book I bought was Ted Hughes's Wodwo (above) and ever since then the acquisition of a complete set of Wolpe-designed Faber poetry volumes has been one of my 'thin continuous dreams' (as Larkin put it). Here's his under-rated novel, and another striking Wolpe design:

Not all authors admired the Faber style. Lawrence Durrell wrote to Wolpe in 1961 to complain about the cover for his 1947 novel The Dark Labyrinth:

Dear Mr Wolpe,

It was good of you to send the cover mock-up. But what am I to tell you honestly? It seems to me
beyond words horrible; and yet this is offensive to say to an artist of experience like yourself. This
dreadful puce! And I really think that two drunken snails dipped in permanganate could have produced more aesthetically pleasing shapes…

Judge for yourself:

Here's a good article about Wolpe:

All images © Faber and Faber and the Estate of Berthold Wolpe

Friday 8 March 2013


I have a review in this week's Times Literary Supplement of a fine new book about the American photographer Maynard L. Parker. His Kodachrome images of stylish mid-century interiors appeared in 'shelter magazines', and most influentially in House Beautiful, edited by Elizabeth Gordon and used by her as a bully pulpit to promote an American alternative to the austerity of international modernism.

Here's a paragraph from the TLS review (which I extract as a preamble to what follows):

[A] useful starting point for newcomers is the Stephens residence at 1164 Morning Glory Circle, Westport, Connecticut. This was the fictional address of the mortal advertising executive Darren Stephens and his sorceress wife Samantha in the popular 1960s television show Bewitched. Their open-plan house featured the kind of decor approved by the editor of House Beautiful - bare brick fireplaces, acres of pale unpatterned carpets, large lamps, hefty glass-topped tables, low-backed sofas, splashy abstract artworks and shelves of fat books and pre-Columbian knick knacks, with lots of textures and colours and casually square good taste. Their world, supernatural mayhem aside, seemed stable and secure and contented.

Remember Bewitched? It was one of a string of imported American sit coms with a suburban setting and a supernatural slant. I Dream of Jeannie was another, in which a Chuck Yeager-style astronaut (played, I suddenly remember, by the late Larry Hagman) had his own glamorous djinn (Barbara Eden, in a sexy candy-coloured harem outfit). Mix-ups ensued, with (as we used to say) "hilarious results".

There's an undertow of occult mayhem in Cold War American television sitcoms - spectral allies and adversaries, sudden transformations and anarchic inversions, with time frozen, accelerated and even reversed. We mortals were at the sharp end of random spiritual antics, our destinies prone to arbitrary unseen interventions. It's almost as if . . .  but enough already. I need hardly add that I had a teenage crush on the glamorous Elizabeth Montgomery, who played Samantha Stephens - a fine comic actress who perfected the rarely-seen triple-take when at odds with her gormless spouse Darren, played by Dick York.

I also recall Sam's eccentric relations - her snapdragon mother Endora (played by Agnes Moorhead, a long way from Citizen Kane), her groovy mini-skirted dark-haired cousin (played in split-screen by Montgomery) and above all her outrageously camp uncle Arthur who had a wonderfully sardonic nasal whine. He was played by Paul Lynde (1926-82) who clearly relished the role and delivered every line with a rich cackle, a roll of the eyes and the threat of supernatural anarchy. 

He and the epicene Dr Zachary Smith (of Lost in Space fame) were my generation's earliest exposure to theatrical camp acting (although neither of them appeared to be acting so much as simply being themselves, only more so.) Smith, played with feline ambiguity by the excellent Jonathan Harris, was a dazzlingly elaborate monster - vain, cowardly, and amoral. He constantly aspired to better things, European things - fine wines, haute cuisine, the life of the mind - and had a wonderfully antagonistic relationship with the butch, barrel-chested robot ("Danger! Danger!") and a freckle-faced boy named Will, a Sissy Spacek lookalike.

I suppose Dr Smith and Sam's uncle Arthur had their British counterparts in Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams in the hard-to-admire Carry On film series, the real difference being the regular weekly exposure of the two Americans to younger, tea-time audiences.

Was camp witchcraft a creative response to Cold War paranoia? Susan Sontag doesn't say anything about this in her celebrated essay. The academics contributing to the Maynard L. Parker book are united in seeing the once-desirable suburban ranch houses he photographed, and in which the Stephens lived so eventfully, as essentially flawed - not aesthetically but as models for living.

Attractive to parents with young families who could afford them, they soon became suffocatingly isolated environments for housewives and teenagers, and today seem to represent everything that's wrong with the American Dream. The end of the Cold War and its associated anxieties rendered these plush retreats unappealing, but the entirely fictional Stephens' residence is still my dream home.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Grand illusion

Now this is really something special. An optical illusion (new to me, but apparently well-established). Give it a couple of minutes.

Tomorrow's blog is all about arranged marriages between the dead . . . so form an orderly queue.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Narcissus is an oldie

'Narcissus lean and slippered' in Samuel Beckett's translation of Ernst Moerman's poem about Louis Armstrong (see last Saturday's blog) got me thinking. Narcissus is usually portrayed as a handsome youth, as that's what the myth insists upon. But the name Narkissos (Greek: Νάρκισσος), possibly comes from ναρκη (narke) meaning 'sleep' or 'numbness' and has nothing to do with beauty. It is all to with self-absorption.

Auden had his own take on the story:

Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it is beautiful, but because it is his. If it were his beauty that enthralled him, he would be set free in a few years by its fading.

Daumier had a similar thought, portraying the enraptured twit as a spindly, big-nosed, middle-aged creature:

I'm not sure whether this 1842 lithograph of le beau Narcisse is some kind of political satire or aimed at a particular individual, although the figure reminds me of the potty French writer Michel Houellebecq. It puts me in mind of a witty thing the actress Joan Collins once said: 'to be born beautiful like being  born rich and growing a little poorer every day'.

Daumier was an artist Auden particularly admired: ('All Cezanne's apples I would give away / For one small Goya or a Daumier' he wrote, in Letter to Lord Byron.) Every man, said Auden elsewhere, secretly loves his own pot belly because it incorporates the feminine, allowing him freedom from the fretful and time-consuming pursuit of sex. Well, it's a theory. Auden's 1973 poem A Lullaby is one of the last he wrote, and has a nod to the Narcissus myth. Not his best, perhaps, but a favourite of mine, and here it is:

The din of work is subdued,
another day has westered
and mantling darkness arrived.
Peace! Peace! Devoid your portrait
of its vexations and rest.
Your daily round is done with,
you've gotten the garbage out,
answered some tiresome letters
and paid a bill by return,
all frettolosamente.
Now you have licence to lie,
naked, curled like a shrimplet,
jacent in bed, and enjoy
its cosy micro-climate:
Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

The old Greeks got it all wrong:
Narcissus is an oldie,
tamed by time, released at last
from lust for other bodies,
rational and reconciled.
For many years you envied
the hirsute, the he-man type.
No longer: now you fondle
your almost feminine flesh
with mettled satisfaction,
imagining that you are
sinless and all-sufficient,
snug in the den of yourself,
Madonna and Bambino:
Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

Let your last thinks all be thanks:
praise your parents who gave you
a Super-Ego of strength
that saves you so much bother,
digit friends and dear them all,
then pay fair attribution
to your age, to having been
born when you were. In boyhood
you were permitted to meet
beautiful old contraptions,
soon to be banished from earth,
saddle-tank loks, beam-engines
and over-shot waterwheels.
Yes, love, you have been lucky:
Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

Now for oblivion: let
the belly-mind take over
down below the diaphragm,
the domain of the Mothers,
They who guard the Sacred Gates,
without whose wordless warnings
soon the verbalising I
becomes a vicious despot,
lewd, incapable of love,
disdainful, status-hungry.
Should dreams haunt you, heed them not,
for all, both sweet and horrid,
are jokes in dubious taste,
too jejune to have truck with.
Sleep, Big Baby, sleep your fill.

© the Estate of W. H. Auden

Saturday 2 March 2013

Translating Beckett's poetry

Samuel Beckett's poetry in French and English doesn't attract much attention. It amounts to a handful of individual volumes starting with Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (1935).

In 1978 he published Poèmes, suivi de Mirlitonnades, the latter being around forty very short verses (vers de mirliton is French for doggerel, from mirliton, a penny whistle). They are all deceptively simple, like this one:

imagine si ceci
un jour ceci
un beau jour 
si un jour
un beau jour ceci
si ceci

A metaphysical epic of 21 words in nine lines (or 7 words, carefully repeated). The dying fall of si ceci/cessait is wonderful, with its background English exhalation of 'cease' (upon the midnight with no pain?) and we'll return to it in a moment.

Much of Beckett's French poetry has never been translated. I recently bought the Collected Poems, edited by Sean Lawlor and John Pilling for Faber. Astonishingly this runs to 500 pages, although around half of that is the editors' exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) Commentary. It certainly earns its bulky place next to the 1977 John Calder edition (147 pages) and the notoriously slipshod Poems 1930 - 1989 (Calder again, but expanded to 226 pages, with one of the 'newly discovered' poems attributed to Beckett actually by Robert Browning). This edition was brilliantly demolished in a Guardian review* by Christopher Ricks, who compared two translations of the mirlitonnade appearing above. The first, by Kevin Perryman,  appeared in Babel magazine in 1990:

just think if all this
one day all this
one fine day
just think
if one day
one fine day all this
just think

'The hinge', says Ricks, 'is the turn "ceci / cessait", and Perryman's "all this / stopped" is abrupt and jagged where the original is shady stealth.'  The second version, by the American poet and translator Marcia Karp, comes closer to the original, but not very close:

imagine yes this this

one day this this
one fine day
yes one day
one fine day this this

I'm not sure about that 'this this' though. Try saying it aloud. I'm sure I couldn't do any better but prompted by the Ricks review I decided to have a go. I think it's best to replace 'imagine' in English with the more diffident and idiomatic 'say'. This keeps the sense if not the sound or rhythm, but allows something approximating the euphony of si ceci/cessait admired by Ricks.

say all this
one day all this
one fine day
if one day
one fine day
if all this

Mneh. Not quite there. 'Ceased' is better than 'dissolved' in the second version, I think, because it conveys an abruptly temporal meaning. Dissolution suggests space as much as time, and I don't like the tongue-twister sibilance between 'this' and 'ceased'. So what if, instead of 'this' in the first line, we use 'lot', as in 'A policeman's lot is not a happy one'? 'Lot', in other words, in the rather fatalistic sense of one's allocated span or condition, one's fate or destiny, with a faint echo to the Old Testament figure fleeing the ruins of Sodom, a place where things 'ceased' abruptly. This works if we adopt the Perryman approach and substitute 'stopped' for 'ceased'. Here's my final version, or at least my latest draft:

          say this lot
one day this lot
one fine day
if one day
one fine day
all this lot

Does lot/stopped work? The past tense verb has a /t/ end sound, so it's a good approximate rhyme. All the words are monosyllables, which have a pared-down quality true to the original. Nine lines still, although using eight different words, not seven as in the original. Twenty-two words in total. Perhaps I should cut the 'all' in line 7? I'm tempted to render that last word ('imagine' in the original, 'say' in my draft version), as 'as it were', echoing an earlier Beckett novel title: Comment c'est / How it is (1961).

The Lawlor/Pilling Collected Poems tells us that 'imagine si ceci' was first published in Hand and Eye, a limited edition hommage to Sacheverell Sitwell (Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1977). The original line 7 ('si ceci') appears in three manuscript versions in Beckett's hand but was omitted in the version he produced for Editions de Minuit, which has perpetuated this omission ever since. Was the omission an error? In the penultimate version, written by Beckett for Josette Hayden on the back of a cigarette packet, the lines admired by Ricks (si ceci / cessait) are replaced by 'pouvait / s'atténnuer'. That's problematic. 'Atténnuer' can mean to lessen, or to palliate (both very Beckettian words), to mitigate and so on, and on. Any suggestions?  

Another Beckett translation tomorrow - and a surprising one.

Poem © The Estate of Samuel Beckett / Les Editions de Minuit