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Essay | ‘Time to Murder and Create’: When Fiction Bleeds into Nonfiction by Mathis Clément

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Pripyat, Chernobyl.

If I were to open by describing my setting  as a desk piled high with old issues of The London Magazine, the wine red May 1960 issue face down on top, rust-brown rimmed teacup marking the narrow No Man’s Land between the pile and my laptop, you would assume I were telling the truth. If I were to add that the red reminded me of blood spilled last week in rage, and the brown rimmed cup of the plughole down which that blood spiralled, you would assume I was either lying or mad. Let us call the first nonfiction and the second fiction. To do so is to say that nonfiction is a form for the quotidian, fiction for the deranged. But our little fiction is built from real details, facts, which can in turn be inhered from fictive obsessions. To segregate them is like trying to separate blood from water.

If dividing truth and fiction in these two sentences proves difficult, what about for a book of thousands of sentences? What about Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn? These books bring the methods of fiction to nonfictional experiences undermining the ostensible truthfulness of criticism, history, memoir, philosophy, and travel guide. In this way they differ from so-called autofiction like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle or Rachel Cusk’s Outline, in that both these books lack a nonfiction parent genre from which they stray; without prior knowledge of the biographical subject, one could mistake both for works of fiction.

This other genre has been called creative nonfiction, and I have to agree with Geoff Dyer on this, who said that if ‘literary’ and ‘fiction’ are the two most depressing words in the English language, then ‘creative’ and ‘nonfiction’ are the ‘two most depressing in the American language’ (Paris Review, Issue 207, Winter 2013). As a disdainer of critical edifices, which risk becoming ‘opaque generalisations’ (Nabokov’s response to George Steiner’s essay on Ada), I prefer to examine these works individually to see how each brings fiction to bear on the particular pressure of its own factfulness.

But Beautiful consists of seven sections, each about a different jazz artist including Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk. These are difficult to categorise: neither short stories, nor biographies, but something in between. Each recounts a moment, sometimes a series of moments, in the musician’s life. Some are imagined, some recreate documented incidents; others fall somewhere in between, building on existing photographs to give movement, words, sounds, and smells, to static images. Dyer’s poetic style changes between each part, striving to embody in words the individualistic sound of each man’s music. Lester Young’s ‘wispy, skating-on-air tone’ produces images like the following: ‘he could see the moon clear through the broken windows at the front of the building. It was framed so perfectly by the window that it seemed as if the moon was actually inside the building: a mottled silver plate trapped in a brick universe.’ Such images seem to float up from a memory of the music and represent an attempt on Dyer’s part to make the writing into what it describes: jazz. But Beautiful is criticism as art, an ideal of George Steiner’s view as quoted by Dyer, that ‘the best readings of art are art.’

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich is history without the historian. Alexievich presents direct testimony from her interviewees, including scientists, locals forced to evacuate their homes, widows of the soldiers who died in agony after the clear-up, and a hobo who has moved to the surrounding area since it has become overgrown with wildlife in the absence of human inhabitants. She has compared her work to the documentary Shoah, but we see Claude Lanzmann onscreen, hear his questions; in Chernobyl Prayer only the answers are there. We do not know what Alexievich asked to elicit such responses, nor to what extent she edits them. They are not structured as building blocks for an argument, but as a kaleidoscope of impressions. The resulting ambiguity is reminiscent of short story collections like Varlam Shalamov’s recently retranslated Kolyma Stories, in which one theme is relayed through multiple perspectives with the reader left to decide their respective fallibility and conclusiveness. Chernobyl Prayer cannot be counted as strict history; it is a palimpsest of memories which creates an atmosphere of surreal horror. The intangibility of radiation produces images which seem to come from technological folk tales: soldiers fell and bury trees, houses, wells, and gardens, all of them possessed by the invisible enemy; a pregnant wife stays by her dying husband, Vasya, in his hospital bed having lied to doctors about being with child, and after Vasya dies, she dreams of him ‘all in white, and he’s calling Natasha’s name. Our little girl, who still hadn’t been born. She is big already, and I am puzzled at how she’s grown so much.’ When Natasha is born she has cirrhosis and congenital heart disease and dies four hours later. The mother believes that her daughter formed a buffer for the radiation, sacrificing herself so she could spend Vasya’s last days by his side. This is history as it happened to ordinary people, before it could be called history, when it was just what was cursed, resisted, suspected, dreamed, imagined, blotted out.

Of the books selected, Bluets is perhaps the furthest from what is usually termed nonfiction. In some bookshops it has been placed in the poetry section, because its form, 240 sections ranging from a sentence to a page in length are elliptical, even gnomic, meditations on Nelson’s obsession with the colour blue. It’s not exactly something you could imagine next to a Churchill biography or Freakonomics. She ranges from melancholy (‘the blues’) to porn (‘blue movies’), through Goethe’s Theory of Colours by way of Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour. Nelson is obsessed with how we perceive people and objects and how these perceptions are emotionally reconfigured in ways that produce love, art, and music, as well as the most damaging self-deceptions, griefs, and hatreds. Her breakup with the mysterious ‘prince of blue’ drives the book and compels her to collect blue objects and begin correspondence with ‘a man who is the primary grower of organic indigo in the world, and another who sings Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” in heartbreaking drag’. At points Bluets is closer to theology than to any other genre. The book is a search for truth and its method is Joseph Joubert’s: ‘Truth. To surround it with figures and colours so that it can be seen.’ Nelson at first attempts to fill the absence at the book’s heart by obsessing over blue things, blue people, but she comes to an uneasy recognition of the necessity of loss, expressing herself in religious terms: is God one who rushes to fill an empty space, or is ‘the emptiness itself God’?

WG Sebald is one of the precursors to the contemporary vogue for books which merge fiction and nonfiction at invisible margins. His Rings of Saturn is probably the closest of his works (excluding literary criticism) to a traditional nonfiction genre: travel writing. It is a first-person account of a walking tour through Suffolk which ranges far in its thinking, encompassing Thomas Middleton’s Garden of Cyrus, Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, the Taiping Rebellion of 1851-64, and the Voyager Golden Record. As a travel guide it is highly eccentric: several of the locations which form significant parts of the book are not even in Suffolk, Amsterdam for instance, or not visitable: the home of the poet Michael Hamburger. But Sebald’s focus is not on what is, but what has disappeared. The eponymous rings are ‘in all likelihood […] fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.’ Everywhere Sebald travels, his mind turns in circles over thoughts of destruction and decline: he meets a gardener at Somerleyton Hall who was a pilot in the RAF during the fire bombings of German cities, he notes how the decline of the herring industry, caused in large part by the dumping of industrial pollutants into the North Sea, has damaged the economies of the towns through which he travels. For the most part Sebald adopts a melancholy tone in these descriptions, but there is also a subtle humour at work, as for instance when he stays in a formerly grand hotel in Lowestoft recommended by a turn of the century guidebook. The food is said to be ‘of superior description’. Not so anymore: ‘The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it’.

Yet inherent in the very existence of this book is the idea that destruction is the basis of creation: ‘Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create.’ This reminds me of the paean to violence by counter-revolutionary thinker Joesph de Maistre: ‘From the lamb [Man] tears his guts and makes his harp resound…from the wolf his most deadly tooth to polish his pretty works of art, from the elephant his tusks to make a toy for his child: his table is covered with corpses’. But Sebald seldom relishes destructiveness. One of the most unsettling moments in the book comes when talking about the Voyager Golden Record, which was sent into space to introduce humanity and its achievements to other lifeforms and contains the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Blind Willie Johnson. The first words aliens will hear from mankind are those of then UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who as Sebald explains, was a war criminal, responsible for the administration of concentration camps in Croatia during World War 2.

The coexistence of destructiveness and creativity in Sebald is akin to the symbiotic relationship between fiction and nonfiction in all of these works. If as I said at the start, fiction is a form of madness, the fictioneer a murderer of truth, then its blood waters the garden in which it spills. Brute facts alone do not always get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes they need also to wield the artist’s scalpel.

Words by Mathis Clément

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Review | Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde at The Barbican

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George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus and Jared French, 1937.

The centrifugal drive behind much of the work featured in the Barbican’s Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is enunciated by Rodin in the first gallery: ‘I express in a loud voice what all artists think. Desire! Desire! What a formidable stimulant.’ By exhibiting the work of artistic couples, including letters, books, music, and visual art, the show aims to demonstrate how desire affects artistic practice, and how artistic practice affects desire; we see how each inflames, distorts, inspires and destroys the other.

Auguste Rodin, Mask of Camille Claudel, 1889.
Frida Kahlo, La Venadita, 1946.

The show begins with two couples, sculptors Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, and composers Gustav and Alma Mahler. Both relationships took place at the end of the 19th century and retained patriarchal inflections which subsequent artist-couples strove to shed. Rodin encouraged Claudel’s work and collaborated with her on some fine clay miniatures of lovers entwined like tree roots. But the bust of her featured here, with the joins of the cast visible, hints at the cracks beneath the surface; in 1905 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and confined by her brother to an asylum for the last 30 years of her life, despite doctors trying to convince her family that she was well enough to leave.

The case of Alma Mahler is probably the only instance in the show of one half of a couple trying to inhibit the work of the other; Gustav felt his wife ought to support him to an extent that would leave no time for her own compositions. However, after consulting with Freud he relented and we have the results here; beautiful and haunting next to the bombastic scores of her husband, Alma’s work is a highlight of what this exhibition does so well: show us the unknown work of the other half.

The majority of the exhibition is dedicated to avant-garde artists of the early 20th century: couples like Salvador Dalí and Federico Garcia Lorca, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch. It is in this period when notions of desire began to open up alongside artistic visions: we have ménages-à-trois or more, polygamy, gay and lesbian relationships, swapping, transsexualism, and interracial affairs running in parallel with Surrealism, Rayonism, Orphism, and the birth of photography as an art form. The exhibition’s strongest and weakest points are to be found as we progress through this period. Its exploration of large networks allows us to make new connections between disparate artists; I came to Romaine Brooks’ portraits of Luisa Casati and Natalie Clifford Barney in the context of a cross-Channel network of lesbian artists including Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein. What drew me to Brooks’ paintings were the backgrounds, indistinct but hinting at underlying structure. We see the features of an English coastline and a Paris street blurred by mist, a technique which aligns these prosaic settings with (in the portrait of Casati) an abstract Erebus in which the subject appears as sorceress or Fury.

Fritz G Walker, Emilie Flöge in Chinese Imperial Costume from the Qing Dynasty in the Gardens of the Villa Paulick in Seewalchen at Attersee 13th or 14th September 1913, 1913.

However, as we expand beyond the well-trodden paths of modernist Paris, London and Vienna, the show loses its focus. That’s not to say there isn’t wonderful work here: the photography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus and Jared French is beautifully composed, and Sonia and Robert Delaunay’s respective textiles and paintings echo one another with ecstatic vibrancy. But as couple after couple is introduced with only enough space to show a few works, the exhibition fails to give a wide enough representation of their respective oeuvres or only includes minor work, and I left feeling overwhelmed with small portions. I understand and encourage the desire to go beyond the familiar, but when introducing lesser known artists like Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt it would have been advantageous to allow their work more time and space. The sheer scope and ambition of the exhibition can make individual pairings feel rushed.

Sonia Delaunay, Stroll, 1923.

That said, though several couples failed to make an impression, there is such a range of work in different mediums and different styles here from so many artists that whatever their background, visitors are bound to be pleasantly surprised by at least one new discovery. I came away with amazement at Delaunay’s textiles, handmade with colourful repeating patterns which pop and fizz like champagne and fireworks, and with an appreciation for Eileen Grey and Jean Badovici’s efforts to create a fluid, interactive architecture against Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for living’. And despite Claude Cajun’s letter to Marcel Moore in which he said ‘I am the work of your life’, the show thankfully resists biographical interpretations of the art. We get the necessary information of who knew whom, for how long and where, but no generalisations such as that art and passion cannot coexist before one destroys the other. In fact on one wall a timeline of each relationship demonstrates the surprising longevity of many of the couples: Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti together from 1918 until 1944, Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko from 1914 to 1956, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov from 1907 to 1962. All three groups remained couples until the death of one of their members.

Modern Couples is a significant show, an extensive survey of modernism that embodies an original viewpoint which genuinely sheds new light on the period, and will hopefully lead to further such explorations. Though somewhat overambitious in its attempt to include so many artists, it nevertheless offers abundant surprises and delights.

Words by Mathis Clément

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde will be at the Barbican Centre until 27th January 2019. More information here.

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Archive | Poetry | The Wiper by Louis MacNeice

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Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) was an Irish poet and playwright, part of WH Auden’s circle, which also included Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis. He didn’t share the ideological commitments of the group’s other members and his poetry is more detached, favouring understatement over hyperbole, with strong rhythms rather than sharp images rendering it memorable. “The Wiper” was published in The London Magazine in May 1960 along with “Restaurant Car” and “Reflections” and as an effort of his later years shows a mastery of the form, combining mystic elements with references to modern life, in this instance a car journey, to give us a moving meditation on past and future.

First published in the May 1960 issue of The London Magazine (Volume 7, No. 5).

Through purblind night the wiper
Reaps a swathe of water
On the screen; we shudder on
And hardly hold the road,
All we can see a segment
Of blackly shining asphalt
With the wiper moving across it
Clearing, blurring, clearing.

But what to say of the road?
The monotony of its hardly
Visible camber, the mystery
Of its invisible margins,
Will these be always with us,
The night being broken only
By lights that pass or meet us
From others in moving boxes?

Boxes of glass and water,
Upholstered, equipped with dials
Professing to tell the distance
We have gone, the speed we are going,
But not a gauge nor needle
To tell us where we are going
Or when day will come, supposing
This road exists in daytime.

For now we cannot remember
Where we were when it was not
Night, when it was not raining,
Before this car moved forward
And the wiper backward and forward
Lighting so little before us
Of a road that, crouching forward,
We watch move always towards us,

Which through the tiny segment
Cleared and blurred by the wiper
Is sucked in under our wheels
To be spewed behind us and lost
While we, dazzled by darkness,
Haul the black future towards us
Peeling the skin from our hands;
And yet we hold the road.

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Essay | Defining my Jewish Identity by Leonard Quart

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I grew up in the 1940s and ’50s when the city’s ethnic groups were more clearly divided and a lingering enmity between them still existed. Intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews was also then a relatively rare occurrence, and although in the schoolyard and workplace there was a great deal of interaction between groups, there were few intimate friendships.

My parents were Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union who came to New York in the 1920s. Both came from rabbinical families. My father’s father had written two books that took a lifetime to complete, but were published by a well-known Hebrew and religious book company. When I was a child I remember them lying untouched in our apartment’s breakfront, and my wondering about the contents of these mysterious books. But in my sixties a learned cousin held a reading of the books, translating the words into English and illuminating their substance.

The most interesting of them consisted of 345 pages of aphorisms, 32 on a page, written in rhyme, and often playing with Cabalistic (medieval and mystical) notions of numerology. My grandfather was a rationalist, who believed that in the “eternal battle” between the heart and the mind, at the end “the heart is the fool.” Although not a mystic he loved punning, playing intellectual games, and displaying his vast reading and learning, and the Cabala was an integral part of his font of knowledge. He concluded the second volume with an affirmation of his Jewish identity – by stating that he wrote “to know the ways of life of a people and its greatness, and learn its history and tradition.”

In New York this grandfather also presided over Sabbath services in a small, claustrophobic, attic synagogue in the then Jewish South Bronx. His congregation consisted of immigrant garment workers, furriers, and shopkeepers, and the pay he received for being their rabbi was minimal. I have only a few fragmented memories of him, for he died when I was three. The most vivid image is of a white-bearded, ruddy-looking man wearing glasses and a black skullcap, chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking tea with jam, while lying in bed mortally ill with lung cancer.

My mother’s father was also a rabbi, but in the Soviet Union he had led a large synagogue in a fair-sized river town, Orsha, where the family lived a comfortable life. He also immigrated to the South Bronx where he headed a much larger, more established synagogue (with stained glass windows) than the one my other grandfather presided over. The synagogue (Tifereth Israel) was largely Yiddish speaking, located in a working class Jewish area that was on the cusp of changing into a black and Hispanic neighbourhood. He presided over it during its last years, before it was sold and became a Pentecostal church.

This same grandfather never learned to speak or write English, so when he moved in with us after my grandmother died and could physically no longer take care of himself (he was suffering from the early symptoms of Lou Gehrig (ALS) disease), our communication was mostly limited to my fulfilling the daily tasks I did for him. Still, I remember him as a serene and sweet man, detached from both the familial and larger world that swirled around him. He continued to pray, study the Talmud and the Commentaries, and read the daily Jewish paper in our small kitchen, while my mother, with utter devotion, attended to all his needs. He was a much less complex man than my writer grandfather, who, according to my mother, could be harsh.  

That I had two rabbis as grandfathers obviously had an impact on my life, and especially on what sort of people my parents became. My parents may not have been genuinely religious but they were traditional and passionately linked to being Jewish. And they still sent me to an old-fashioned, Orthodox yeshiva, as a way of reinforcing my commitment to being a Jew. A grievous mistake on their part, because I found the school stifling and alienating— a great deal of oppressive rote learning and uninspired religious study, topped off by a few incidents of corporal punishment. The experience deeply affected my relation to religion at an impressionable age. From then on I recoiled from anything resembling religious ritual and worship.

I also felt hemmed in by the tribal nature of my parents’ notion of Jewishness, which divided the world into Jews and Gentiles. Their attitude may have been understandable given their experience growing up with anti-Semitism in Russia (pogroms, quota systems) but constricting nevertheless. They were living in New York in the early ’50s, and it was a time when no city offered Jews more. It gave them visibility as individuals and a group. It provided employment and education (though subtle discrimination still existed) and gave them freedom from blatant ant-Semitism that was still common In Europe.  Most New York Jews fell in love with a city that seemed to be their own – a refuge and homeland.

However, like all attempts at generalization this one falls short of defining the complexity of Jewish lives in the city. For though I know my parents felt at home in New York, they didn’t embrace the city and its ethos with great feeling. They rarely spoke about the nature of the city, and their experience of all that it richly offered was very limited. It was their Jewishness that they cleaved to and defined their lives by. They continually maintained it as a fortress against any alien values and beliefs that could disrupt their lives.

Consequently, it was not only religion that I repudiated, but what I felt was my parents’ parochial version of being Jewish. I desired to move in a more cosmopolitan and bohemian, and less tribal, world. Ironically enough, it was the municipal and free City College, that island of Jewish working-class intellectual achievement, which opened up a wider world of intimate relationships with WASPs, blacks, and other ethnic groups. And after that experience it wasn’t difficult to leave the insulated world my parents inhabited. I left New York for graduate school in South-eastern Ohio, and my first experience of American life was an ambivalent one. My feeling of being at odds with dominant American values gained clarity in this college dominated by fraternities and sports. Still I found there a group of people at odds with the Midwestern university milieu and embraced, and was in turn embraced by them; writers, painters, sculptors, activists, intellectuals, even an idiosyncratic professor or two, white and black, who came from a variety of places and backgrounds. My world had expanded far beyond my life in New York.

But given my background, I didn’t become deracinated and deny my Jewish past or the culture that shaped me. I may be totally secular and play little or no role in Jewish organizations, but I continue being acutely conscious of the often painful and sometimes luminous history that has shaped me. I read novelists like Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman, follow Israeli politics by reading Haaretz online, have done a number interviews with Israeli film directors, and have written essays on Holocaust films and about writers like Philip and Henry Roth, and Saul Bellow. That may be only a small part of my writing, but it’s no accident that I still feel deeply about Israel and Jewishness.

However, I continue to be critical towards Israeli policies on the West Bank and Gaza, and repelled by the racism and power of the ultra-Orthodox under the somewhat amoral, cynical Netanyahu—whose commitment to holding and wielding power is seemingly his main reason for being.  In addition, I have never treated the Jewish artists I have written about by suspending critical standards. They were writers who happened to be Jewish, not Jewish writers who I needed to exult.  Finally, my identity as Jew is just one of a number of identities, professional, familial, intellectual, and political among them, and it has never taken precedence over the others. But nevertheless it remains an indelible one.

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Review | Arkady by Patrick Langley

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Patrick Langley’s Arkady is the story of two brothers, Jackson and Frank, who are drifting.

They explore the city, a not-quite-London of abandoned offices, growing tent camps and guarded compounds. Then they take to the water in a reclaimed boat – the titular Arkady – in search of something else: a community, or a way of life.

This is a strange narrative, enriched by a poetic style of prose which gives as much time to observational detail as it does to characters and events. It is set against a backdrop of upheaval and polarisation: families are being moved out of homes, authorities are cracking down on protests, luxury flats in shiny towers are multiplying on the skyline.

At its core are the two brothers. Jackson, the oldest, is wilful, introspective; goes off alone on unknown quests. At times he can prove a less than convincing figure, especially when he is citing Foucault as a teenager. But he works. He is also a balance to Frank, who is straightforward, creative, and always trusting of his big brother’s strange plans.

The narrative comes in snapshots. We see the boys in adolescence living with Leonard, a relative or guardian, then as young adults contriving ways to survive in the city. We follow them all the way to the Red Citadel, a commune of people holding out against what seems to be the systematic removal of the poor.

Each chapter has the tone of a short story. It is deliberately elliptic, never quite giving us enough information about what is going on in the world of Arkady, nor many clues about what exactly has happened to leave the brothers adrift with no parents.

Some readers will be happy enough with this. Others – myself included – will at times find it frustrating. I confess I was too distracted trying to figure out some of the details that I could not fully enjoy the writing.

Nevertheless, Arkady taps into a contemporary taste for the speculative. It seems there has been an explosion of books set in dystopias and disaster zones. The best of these use catastrophised worlds as a mirror for the problems we are facing in our own politics and culture.

Langley achieves this by taking all the ugliness of urban living and cranking them up a notch: homelessness, police brutality, privatisation. You can hear the echoes of real events – the financial crisis, the London riots – haunting the pages.

But Arkady’s politics are not always clear. The brothers at its core are ambiguous, never quite siding with anyone but each other. Their boat sets them apart from the city which no longer welcomes them, but it also allows them to keep their distance from the Citadel. They are frustrated by the commune where everybody has different solutions to the crisis.

This is a bleak assessment of Britain’s ruptured social fabric, yet it is also a controlled, focused look at our closest relationships; the people we would die – or kill – for.

It is worth comparing Arkady to Megan Hunter’s 2017 novel The End We Start From. In both, London is struck by changes which feel cataclysmic without quite reaching full apocalypse. They hover around the edges of disasters we have seen happen in real life, flooding and rioting. But Hunter and Langley both shun the detailed worldbuilding of thriller-style speculative fiction. Instead they adopt a poetic approach which leaves more out than it keeps in.

We also get the sense in these two novels that the protagonists are not fully engaged with what is going on around them. Instead, they revert to a focus on insular relationships. Hunter’s topic is the bond between a mother and child, while Langley paints a careful picture of brotherly companionship. Both also give their characters a sliver of optimism at the end, hinting that life can be rebuilt when we hold on to those who are important to us in the face of disaster.

In a world where the news cycle can make us feel like every day is the end of the world, I think there is plenty of room for hopeful, poetic reckonings with dystopia like these.

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Review | Letters To A First Love From The Future by Andy Armitage

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Andy Armitage’s pamphlet is among a number of new releases from the poetry press Half-Moon Books, which is based in Otley, West Yorkshire, where a local group of poets have developed, and where there are a number of regular events and meetings. Half-Moon Books came into existence to support this diverse and motivated group of writers, and judging on Armitage’s pamphlet, more attention needs to be paid to the Otley writing community.

Armitage’s intriguing debut opens with a nostalgic image of first love: a hazy picture of a teenage couple in school uniform, heads tilted towards each other, and their eyes, although obscured by a blurry filter, locked in youthful infatuation. The photo encapsulates all that this accomplished pamphlet tries to illustrate: the atmosphere of adolescence, the inconstancies of time and the emotional pain brought about by loss of control in a relationship. Armitage’s poetry, for a debut writer, shows an admirable and well-developed understanding of poetic verse, but above all a finely-tuned radar to the trials and tribulations of young love. As someone recently out of university, I personally found his lines veracious and resonant.

The poems in Armitage’s debut publication form a sequence, directed towards his first love. They share a unified strand of loss, constantly supported by the retrospective narration throughout, which has undertones of regret, despair and pain. Yet, before these elements come to the forefront of the reader’s attention, Armitage depicts the familiar routines of life at school with nostalgic detail. In the poem ‘Sally’, we are told that ‘the universe was the size of a village’, which draws to mind teenage naivete, in which there is a general ambivalence and ignorance of other communities. The aesthetic qualities evoked by this poem are captured in that opening photograph. The imagery is so vivid; the ‘candyfloss air’, the ‘confusion of coloured lightbulbs’ and the introduction of Sally (?) herself, ‘dark haired with a gypsy tan, in ripped 501s and Docs’, collectively paint a colourful image. Even as he describes the ‘dread and excitement’ of hearing her, his reaction is typically boyish and juvenile: ‘as though I’d left the shop without paying’. Likewise is his attitude in the poem over the page, ‘Among school children’, when the narrator admits: ‘I made myself famous among classrooms with stunts of disobedience.’ The poet is finely aware of school-boy strategy: playing the class clown, hiding under ‘a practised nonchalance’, and ensnaring the object of his love with laughter and ‘public displays’. Skilfully switching between the narrative voice of youth and, due to retrospective narration, the background voice of present adulthood, Armitage creates a layered impression. In the atmosphere he constructs, we almost forget that he is writing retrospectively, so vividly we are immersed in his world, although we are of course reminded of Armitage’s perspective by the title of the book.

As the collection progresses, the adult voice gets louder, and increasingly pervades the narrative. The poem ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ — which was highly commended in the York Literature Festival Poetry Competition 2018 — marks a significant shift in the collection. With the uneasy final lines: ‘Do not let go my hand just yet’, Armitage begins to explore the darker aspects of his relationship, and the growing anxiety surrounding his loss of control. One of the things I find so effective in Armitage’s pamphlet is the depiction of his protagonist’s inner conflicts. We are first shown both his ideal, and, for a while, his reality: the euphoria of his early relationship, the sentimental head-tilts and the success of winning his love’s laughter. Yet this is in conflict with his older retrospection, which is still desperately seeking a return to his unattainable fantasy. While this can at times bring an unsettling air to the writer’s depiction of past romance, it does bring a depth of emotion and mood that goes beyond the nostalgia that characterises the early poems in the collection.

Although the poems retain their unified strand, this conflict precipitates the protagonist’s lack of control over his relationship, as well as the collection’s loss of control over its poems, which seems to amble in various directions, as their titles demonstrate: ‘Midas’, ‘Eurydice’ and ‘Eucharist’. These clearly contrast with the collection’s earlier, simpler titles: ‘Snapshot’, ‘Among school children’ and ‘The snare’. As infatuation and obsession seizes the collection’s protagonist, causing irreparable damage to the relationship, the language of feeling used in the book reaches a peak of poignancy and originality. This is the collection when it is at its most effective: when its emotions are truly let loose.

Above all, in Letters To A First Love From The Future, the theme of time is Armitage’s principal investment. Throughout, we have a merging of past, present and future, but not in a conventionally linear structure. Time is loose. Although the collection acknowledges the immense power of time, the protagonist largely ignores this sad truth. He maintains that ‘even your own face is only half-remembered’, and yet just a page later he claims that ‘your eyes look back at me from the faces of other women’. This is not to say that Armitage is showing inconsistencies however, rather that the speaker of these poems has been fully transported to the time of young love, and the internal confusion of the emotions that surround this are reflected in the narrator’s voice. A strange but captivating journey.

Letters To A First Love From The Future, Andy Armitage, Half-Moon Books, 2018, £6.00 (paperback).

For more information, visit Half Moon Books.

Words by Ronan Gerrard

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Essay | Peas by Alice Dunn

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Peas

One of the stand-out gardens at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show appeared to replicate the pea in its structure. ‘The Seedlip Garden’ had a circular pool, round stepping stones, and a ‘Peavillion’ housing a collection of articles about peas. This garden got me thinking about, well, peas, and the little-observed role they’ve played in our culture.  

One of the most historic vegetables, the pea probably originated in Asia and was grown as far back as 7000 BC. The Greeks had ‘pisoi’ and the Romans introduced ‘pisum’ to Europe. Peas were widely used in Roman cookery: there are nine dishes which call for peas in Apicius’ fifth-century Roman cookery book.

But it is Catherine de Medici we must thank for rekindling a popular affection for peas in the sixteenth century. When she married Henri II of France in 1533, she is said to have brought her favourite foods from Italy with her to France. These included peas, or ‘piselli novelli’. Dried peas soon fell from favour and everyone began to eat petit pois. Garden peas may also have been introduced to Britain through a royal connection: Charles II would have known petit pois during his exile in France and their appearance in British kitchens post-date the Restoration. Indeed, such was the pea’s continued prevalence in France that King Louis XIV is recorded to have observed that: “The young princes want to eat nothing but peas!” And neither, it seems, did he. Petit pois were his obsession.   

The pea has also played a pivotal role in science. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk, discovered the laws of genetic inheritance by crossing yellow peas with wrinkled peas in his garden in Moravia and experimented on more than 28,000 pea plants over seven years. His results were published in 1866 and laid the foundations for our understanding of genes and the way they are inherited (he coined the terms ‘recessive’ and ‘dominant’).  

Just before that, and on the other side of the world, US President Thomas Jefferson was busy with his own, non-scientific experiment with peas: he regularly competed with his neighbours to grow the first crop. He decided to stagger his planting so that he would be able to enjoy 15 different varieties of fresh peas from May until July. 

Peas scuttle through literature and art. A pea is the focus of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Princess and the Pea’; Edward Lear sent ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ to sea ‘In a beautiful pea-green boat.’ When under the spell of the love potion in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Titania dotes on Bottom (who has the head of a Donkey) and offers him nuts to eat, but he replies, ‘I had rather have a handful or two of dried peas’. In the Brothers Grimm story, Cinderella’s step-sisters ‘did their utmost to torment her – mocking her, and strewing peas and lentils among the ashes, and setting her to pick them up.’ 

Shelling peas, in contrast, is the tender subject of paintings and sketches by Whistler and Van Gogh. The Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo used peas in his famous vegetable portraits of people; his work ‘Rudolf II as Vertumnus’ has peas in a curved pod serving as eyebrows. 

Less beautiful, but no less worthy of discussion, are London’s pea-souper fogs which once swallowed our city. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Herman Melville for first using the term ‘pea-soup’ to describe the weather. He wrote in November 1849 in his ‘Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent’: ‘Upon sallying out this morning encountered pea soup London fog.’ Henry James found the smoke in London particularly depressing and noted that when he looked out at ‘The pea-soup atmosphere of Piccadilly, I feel like taking to my bed.’  

Incidentally, should peas pop up in conversation, a lexicographer will probably tell you that a pea (the use of the word has been recorded from 1666) is an example of a back-formation (‘a word that is formed from an existing word which looks as though it is a derivative, typically by removal of a suffix.’) of the older word ‘pease’ which also meant ‘a pea’ but was understood to be the plural. When John Lyly penned the phrase ‘as lyke as one pease is to an other’ in a novel in 1580 he probably did not predict that it would still be widely used today in the form of of the favourite expression: ‘like two peas in a pod’.  

Chasing the last few peas around the plate is enough to make anyone feel pea-brained, but perhaps reflecting on their history can make the process slightly less maddening.  

By Alice Dunn.

Review | Lee Bul: Crashing at the Hayward Gallery

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Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery, 2018 © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Mark Bower

Lee Bul does not make art that is designed to comfort you.

Her latest collection at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank is a culmination of thirty years work. To step through each room is to follow Bul’s journey as she has explored the pursuit of perfection—and its potential pitfalls—through the last forty years.

Crashing is designed to transport the public into ‘another place, another time’ and succeeds in this instantly. As you step into the first room of the Hayward, soft light is cast from within the corner. Civias Solis II projects reflected and fragmented patterns of light across the pale gallery walls. You are submerged into a dreamlike state wherein Bul has peeled back the shallow surface of our world and revealed what lies beneath, and what could be yet to come.

In this surreal echo of our world, you are immediately brought face to face with Bul’s reflection of the self.

Amorphous shapes hang from the ceiling and sit directly in front of the entrance doors. At first, they are barely recognisable as people, but then you see the arms, and legs, trying to drag themselves free from inside the pieces, which are from the aptly named series: Monster. Despite the grotesque shaping, these soft sculptures are tantric, and their fleshy palette suggests—as Bul intended—that there is a ‘vulnerability’ to being human.

If Monster is Bul’s representation of the natural self, Cyborgs (1998) reflects how people try to build an image of themselves. Reminiscent of ancient Greco-Roman statues and yet also of anime from the early nineties, feminine forms are suspended from the ceiling. Though they are all headless, they watch you and stand guard in their cartoonish, extra-terrestrial armour.

One of Bul’s inspirations is sci-fi, and in this is evident in this room and throughout the exhibition. In the late 20th century and especially after the Cold War, bright utopian ideas of the future captivated the world, which was desperate to forget the horrific past. Despite these glimmering, chrome covered dreams, Bul was sceptical of these notions of the future, and creates art which reflects that.

Though some of Bul’s paintings, sketches and videos of her performance art are displayed on the walls and available to listen and watch, it is through the medium of sculpture that I think Bul creates the biggest impact. Despite the different mediums and subjects, each work is still identifiable as hers. To walk into room three of the Hayward is the greeted by two geode-like structures—they are separate pieces, but both are heavily influenced by the politics of South Korea, during the late 20th century when Bul was growing up.

Black beads spill across the floor, before pooling in a highly reflective puddle. They appear to be flowing out of a block of ‘ice’, which gives the piece it’s quite literal title: Thaw (Takaki Masao). There is a photograph buried beneath the ice from which the beads seep out: it is a portrait of Park Chung-Hee, the former president of South Korea, who was supported by the US but created a very repressive regime. He was eventually assassinated in 1979, and the oozing black from this crystalline sculpture is evocative of blood.

The other piece which welcomes you to room three is Bunker (M. Bahktin).  A cave like structure that is interactive. When inside, visitors to the gallery put on headphones and are encouraged to make a noise—clapping, tapping your foot, clicking— through the headphones we hear the noises we make distorted and amplified. If you were to shut your eyes, it could be easy to trick yourself into thinking that you were in a vast space.

When you are in inside Bunker Bul warps the world around you, and subsequently momentarily alters how we see ourselves. When standing within the bunker, I was very conscious of the noise my clapping and clicking would make, disturbing the other guests. In this sense, the sculpture is aptly named—Mikhail Bahtkin was a literary critic and philosopher who claimed that our identity is directly correlated by our relationship with the world around us.

The exhibition continues upstairs, and as you reach the final two rooms there is a slight change in atmosphere. Downstairs, there are at least five to seven exhibits filling every space. Upstairs, the rooms are sparse.

Stepping into room four, I was immediately anxious— Bul is known for incorporating the gallery space into her exhibitions, and this is one such example. The entire floor was foiled with silver, and while I was stood in the gallery, I felt the strange sensation that I wasn’t supposed to be there.

The gallery attendant smiled at me, and yet, I felt like I was doing something naughty.

At any moment, I was expecting someone to catch me. To tell me to leave.

It is interesting then, that the title of the focal sculpture in the penultimate room is Willing to be Vulnerable.

For this piece, Bul has created a large foil zeppelin. The argent exterior and exposed seams are recognisable as being from Bul’s retro sci-fi field of inspiration. Zeppelins were once a symbol of great scientific progress and were the first ships to be used for commercial flight. The title, Willing to be Vulnerable, references the Hindenburg disaster, where thirty-six people died when an airship caught fire whilst trying to land in New Jersey.  

Willing to be Vulnerable is perhaps the piece which most clearly conveys Lee Bul’s exploration of the dangers of perfection.

Following the foil-covered floor, you are lead towards Via Negativa II. It is through the names of her pieces that you see the influence of philosophy behind her work. The largely introspective pieces—which literally forces the viewer to reflect on themselves and the gallery around them—draws its name from the theory that it is impossible to describe God in finite terminology; the human mind is too limited to say what God is, we can only truly describe what he isn’t.

This is the climax of the exhibition.

After exploring the ideas of utopia, one of Bul’s final piece forces the viewer to look back upon themselves.  A mirror labyrinth which is unsettling to walk through—after all, it constantly feels as though someone is watching you. There is no certainty as you follow the path, as Bul angles the mirrors to feel claustrophobic and bounce their own reflections from each other to give the impression of pathways where there are none.

But when you finally make your way through the maze, a room lies in wait within the centre. The seemingly endless rows of lightbulbs feel as though are a giant standing in between the golden stars of an infinite space—and a comforting warmth radiates through the enclosed space. Unlike the rest of the installations, this is a piece which instils hope.

Lee Bul’s artwork is a reaction to the world around her—especially that of life within South Korea and the experiences she’s faced a woman. As a formal end to the Korean civil war is in sight, and women’s rights are thrown into the spotlight, I am eager to see what Bul creates next.

Lee Bul: Crashing is running at the Hayward Gallery is running 30th May – 19th August 2018.

By Phoebe Hedges.

Contributor’s Picks – June/July 2018

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Introducing Contributor’s Picks! Recommendations for the very best in arts, culture and literature from the writers for The London Magazine June/July 2018 issue. Read their writing in our latest issue, available now

Nicholas Summerfield (Essay: On the Road)
Thinks – David Lodge

This is a light-hearted comedy and, at the same time, a consideration of human consciousness itself.  An overlooked gem.

 

Maggie Butt (Poetry: Cycling the Appian Way)
Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

 

The most extraordinary, original, memorable piece of fiction I’ve read for many years. I have a serious case of writer-envy.

 

Andrew Lambirth (Review: Public & Commercial: Degas and Patterns of Exhibiting)
Cedric Morris: Artist Plantsman – Garden Museum – Until July 22nd

Timely reappraisal of the painter and gardener who ran a private art school in Suffolk and taught Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling, among many others. He’s clearly a forerunner of the School of London, and his beautiful flower paintings look as fresh and beguiling today as when they were painted 80 or 90 years ago.

 

Sharon Black (Poetry: Lucky Penny)
Paterson (2016)

 

A meditative, poetic journey through the streets of New Jersey via a bus driver and William Carlos Williams – I loved this film for its quiet quirkiness and its tentative stepping-into the centre of things.

 

Roisin Tierney (Poetry – Fiesta and Mock Orange)
The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in WWII – Svetlana Alexivich

I was really taken by The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, in which the author interviews Soviet women -captains, tank drivers, snipers, pilots, nurses and doctors – who fought in the second world war.  It is a pitiless read, yet unputdownable and very illuminating. 

 

William Bedford (Fiction: Flying Lessons)
Vivre Sa Vie/My Life to Live 

 

A New Wave masterpiece, as powerful and true today as when I first saw it in 1963.

 

Emily Priest (Essay: Akihabara)
How to Be a Woman – Caitlin Moran 

In the age of #MeToo this book is more relevant than ever. With a sharp wit and laugh-out-loud anecdotes, Moran makes feminist ideology accessible and relatable and makes every female reader cry with laughter. It’s the book I needed whilst growing up!

 

Jeffrey Meyers (Essay: Conrad’s Judgement: Stevenson
vs. Stevie Crane)
Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva – Rosemary Sullivan 

A fascinating account of a disastrous inheritance.

 

Michael Spinks (Poetry: The Question & Silver Birches)
Vilette – Charlotte Bronte and The Royal Wedding (19th May 2018)

A book that haunts me with its beauty and daring, its contrived secrecy and its surgically open-hearted confession, Charlotte Bronte’s last novel, Villette, surely stands on the stocks as possibly the greatest novel written in English. She plays with our sensibilities just as she plays with her own beating heart, and what a dreadful, courageous ending.

 

My second recommendation is The Royal Wedding. People drawn to the intellectual are not supposed to enjoy spectacles like the royal wedding, but the theatre created was both intimate and spectacular. The drama was centred on Harry and Megan but the cast was huge and odd and the charged narrative changed with every minute, and one had glimpses of all sorts of relationships and unexpected contacts. Reading faces and movements was fascinating. And Bishop Michael delighted with bubbling enthusiasm for the occasion, for the two central characters, and for the great source of love, God himself, also present. ‘How important is love?’ he asked. ‘Two people fall in love, and we all turn up.’

 

Peter Robinson (Fiction: A Seaside Funeral)
Girlfriends, Ghosts, And Other Stories – Robert Walser 

 

 

After a visit to Bern in April, I have returned to reading Robert Walsen, and have been enjoying this collection translated by Tom Whalen, Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner.

 

Ian Stone (Essay: The Commune of the City)
Edward the Elder and the Making of England – Harriet Harvey Wood 

 

 

Harriet Harvey Wood’s biography is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the monarchy and the period – and legacy – of Alfred the Great. The author writes with erudition and engagement. A thoroughly rewarding read.

 

Peter Slater (My London)
Us – Zaffar Kunail

Image taken from LondonReviewBookshop

 

I am looking forward to this debut volume out in July. It includes ‘Fielder’, an uncannily evocative poem, which captures the profound significance found in what might have been a small, unremarkable moment.

 

Ella Windsor (Essay: Mexican Treasure)
Testimony – Robbie Robertson 

The compelling story of the front man of The Band, told from his own poignant perspective.

 

Read our contributor’s writing in our June/July 2018 issue: order now!

Poetry | On His Deafness by Damian Grant

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‘No-one has ever written a poem “On His Deafness”’;
(David Lodge, Deaf Sentence).
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I try to get you side of my good ear;
our conversation gains in clarity,
one might say comprehension. But meanwhile,
what is the bad ear doing? Could it be
that ears are angels, and the evil one
is there to sow dissension, to set down
the stops that make our music? Satan squats
(wrote Milton) at the ear of Eve to spoil
our parents’ paradise, and all that is
perverse in us could well find lodging in
the labyrinth of cunning passages
bored in our temples with a stump of wing
to flag the faultline. Or is it the place
set there for love to listen to the things
that Eve and Adam always meant to say?

 

By Damian Grant

Fiction | Beloved by Roger Raynal

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That morning, when Ryoji woke up, fired from sleep by a strident, but usual sound, he refrained from opening his eyes. He wanted to feel, all around him, in the thousand little sounds of the house, in the movements of the air, in the heat of the spots of light dancing on his face, the essence of this morning. It was the day of his fifteen. He felt the hard mat under his back, and the floor of the house, sometimes vibrating when a lost truck was passing in the street.

He heard his elder sister, already busy in the kitchen. He looked around. What he saw was far from luxury. Despite his young age, he was well aware of the fact that his family had become poorer in the recent years, and that, surreptitiously, the loss of unnecessary wealth had slowly given way to the lack of vital needs. But today, it little mattered.

He was going to meet Yoshino.

He had known the young girl for only a few months. He had met her before her high school closed, in a bookshop downtown. She was the sister of a friend of one of his, and he had tried to meet her regularly several times, in the street and in the shops where she got used to go.

At first, they just shared quick smiles until they finally got introduced to each other by respective friends : Yoshino was her name. He remembered this feeling when he had to leave her ; a spirit in turmoil, a particular stare and a long whisper.

Every single step was hardened by Yoshino’s parents. Her father worked at the local hospital as a doctor. Their family had seen their wealth grow over the years. They would not even have considered the possibility that one of their daughters might have some relationship with a boy who, from their view, could only be a disgraceful beggar to their family whatever his virtues.

However, he had managed to get closer to Yoshino. They shared some feigned intimacy by the darkness of the cinema, where the ticket clerc, to whom he sometimes did some favours, let him in freely. In the kabuki theatre, Ryoji had even been able to sit next to the girl ; but his joy had moved on shame when he compared his clothes, carefully prepared by his elder sister, to Yoshino’s.

Today, on his fifteenth birthday, the young girl, half serious, half laughing, had promised him a kiss. Under his shaved hair, Ryoji’s mind was purpled. It would be like in those foreign movies they watched, sometimes laughing to hide their embarrassment in front of the effusions of the stars on the movie screen. They had to meet early in the morning, behind the Shima Hospital, downtown. It was not seven o’clock yet and, on the bay, the rising sun caressed the ocean. He had time.

Smells, forgotten for too long, came to arouse his appetite. He smelt of real rice, not mixed to soya, and grilled fish. He swallowed his breakfast with delight, under the impenetrable glance and the unfailing smile of Yasuko, his elder sister.

Through her face, the joy of seeing her brother eat such an exceptional meal, and the sadness of knowing how far she had been reduced to get it, were conflicting each other. Since the loss of their eldest brother, Toshiro, their mother seemed to be dazed. She had no taste for anything. So, Yasuko had to take care of the daily life of the family. She had no news from her betrothed for several months, so she concentrated all her efforts and found strength to keep on living and offering a few moments of happiness to those she loved.

Ryoji lived north of the city, where the river flows one of its arms, describing a loop to the east. To reach Yoshino, he had to take a bus, then the tram, without paying his ticket. When on the way, he realized he had forgotten to thank Yasuko sufficiently for her attentions, and he felt miserable. He promised to make her understand how much he had appreciated the care she had taken to satisfy him, at his coming back. But for now, all his affection seemed to be directed only to another young woman.

He was waiting for his bus in a crowd which, as time was passing by, was growing on an on. The delay, which had been frequent in the recent years, was becoming unusual. With an increasing attention mixed with anguish, Ryoji was watching the great clock that adorned the shop window of a nearby watchmaker. Suddenly, a rumour, peddled by a travelling salesman, was heard through the small group : the bus had had an accident a few streets farther north and it could not go by any further. The group of adults scattered, some trying to hail some improbable taxi, some going on walking or others settling as comfortably as they could, waiting for the next bus tour.

For Ryoji, the world was crumbling. His feverish thoughts urged him to find a solution as soon as possible to rejoin the city center, and, through the disorder of feelings that began to oppress him, he thought of his comrade Yukio. Yukio had a bike!

Ryoji quickly went straight to his friend’s home, luckily rather close. He wanted to hurry, without running yet, for he feared of sweating over on his first date.

Reaching the threshold of the house, a miserable cube of wood and paper, which could not be distinguishable from those on the suburb of the town. This area could run the risk of being destroyed to prevent the danger of fires. He saw Yukio’s sister, whom he hopefully asked if his friend was in. Yukio was just up. When he told him he could not lend him his bike for the morning because his father needed it a little later, Ryoji felt a pain in his stomach. His distress was certainly so visible that Yukio finally offered him a ride to the beginning of the tram line.

‘— I pedal, hang behind me on the luggage rack, so the lady will not be repelled by your sweaty smell ! ’

Yukio had broken through him so much that Ryoji blushed out. In the small circle of his acquaintances, he was the only one who thought that his interest for Yoshino was not obvious.

Yukio spared no pains and, coming close to the docks, he rode south, where the river divided into three arms before reaching the sea. Gripping his companion, shaken by the jolts, Ryoji was now rushing down the alleys bordered by countless wooden houses added to paper parts. He seemed, as he crossed the powdery air of the dusty roads, that the whole town was nothing but a heap of dry wood and crumpled paper, ready to burst into flames, becoming as burning as his generous heart within his chest. He remembered the heat spreading inside him, in the conniving darkness of the movie theatre, when Yoshino had allowed her hand to linger on somehow with his own. He recalled with amusement an old song his father used to hum which, tirelessly repeated ‘ watch out for the fire, watch out for the fire… ’

Yukio crossed a bridge due east, and the sun dazzled Ryoji, pulling him out of his inner storm. ‘The tram!’ Yukio yelled, pointing, in the distance, to the elegant wooden shape of the castle, which bordered one of the first stations of the line. Yukio, sweating, left his friend with a frank smile. Ryoji did not have enough time to babble his thanks. His comrade, in a hurry, had already left away, shouting at him that he wanted to be the first to know what would happen with the girl, with all the saucy details …

* * * *

Yoshino awoke with an inner smile illuminating her morning. For a few weeks, a feeling had been growing inside for Ryoji. At the beginning, the young man had seemed ordinary and clumsy to her. But, with the time passing by, and their meetings which Ryoji staged with a touching clumsiness, she began to appreciate his company. To notice, his family was not the most shining. He was wearing his school uniform a little too often which made her think he probably did not have any other acceptable clothes. And yet, his love of life and his cheerfulness had been good to her. When she had heard of his approaching birthday, moved by an impromptu impulse of her heart, she had promised him a shameless kiss which she would not have thought possible to offer. What could have led her to such an end? Perhaps, the recent loss of one of her brothers had made her realize that she had to live, quickly. But Ryoji was so hesitant that she had to help him a little!

She carefully chose a very pale blue summer kimono, soberly decorated with darker patterns, reminding of the ocean. In order not to arouse any suspicion from her governess about her appearance, she pretended she wished to visit a nearby shrine. She had not donned her kimono for a long time. Since then, her body had changed, and the young woman draped in the silk with a sensual sweetness she had never tasted before.

It was not a lie for she had really planned to go to the shrine after her date anyway, maybe with Ryoji, who knows, if he had time. It would be a pleasure to walk together in the gardens, under the shade of the leaves, before reaching the hospital where, thanks to the influence of her father, she worked as a nurse’s assistant.

The building was very close so she set off without hurrying. The river reflected the summer sun, reminding of the past seasons, in the mountains near the torrents, with the family once united but who seemed to have torn apart over time. She felt strangely nostalgic, but also beautiful and light-hearted. When looking up at the sky, she imagined, in a prodigious leap, that she might have vanished into the blue.

* * * *

Ryoji was as shaken by the jolts of the tramway as he was exasperated by its slowness. Older highschool student groups crossed the tracks with no rush, as did traders and other vehicles, forcing the tram to continually slow down. Ryoji had crouched down on the platform at the back, hidden from the sight of the ticket inspector by the mass of passengers standing and clinging to the support bars of the wagon. However, a movement from the legs around indicated that the inspector was coming straight to him. So, taking advantage of another slowdown, Ryoji leaped out of the platform and quickly crossed the bridge that would lead him to the peninsula where the hospital was located. A wall clock indicated that it would soon be eight o’clock. He had only a few hundred meters to walk but he could be late if he did not hurry. So, he rushed along.

The sun, already high on that full summer day, sent back shafts of light on every shop window, blinding him regularly. The city was passing around, and he no longer felt the painful muscles of his legs, hardened by the joy inherent to the first pangs of desire. He wanted to laugh. He hurried with all his strength, without running, for he was worried about arriving breathless, whereas was instilling inside the fear of missing his first date. Yoshino would certainly wait for a few minutes. Today, everything had to be beautiful.

As a reward after a long wait, he discerned in the crowd, among so common outfits that they all looked as one, a touch of incongruous blue, like a piece of the sky on the street. It was Yoshino. He slowed down, crossing the last road that separated him from her. He finally came, ill-at-ease overwhelming with respect for the young girl.

* * * *

In the distance, Yoshino had seen Ryoji’s strange gait. He seemed to walk very quickly and yet undecided to run. ‘ Still so hesitant ’, she said to herself, delighted by this character trait she actually appreciated so much.

They both greeted each other in a strange solemnity, and Ryoji, astonished, realized that he had not even thought, for a while, of what he was going to say to Yoshino. Against all odds, it was her who decided to break the silence between them.

‘ — Did you find it easy to come here?

— Not really, everything went wrong. The bus had an accident and was cancelled. I had to run and ask Yukio to help me. Fortunately, he managed to ride me with his own bike to the tram…

— I would have like to see you on the bike ! It must have been funny!’

Ryoji looked down, embarrassed. Yoshino laughed a little. ‘Maybe I should give you your birthday present now,’ the young girl said, heading for the nearby piers.

Ryoji followed her, not forgetting to compliment her for the elegance of her outfit. Despite himself, the slow swaying of Yoshino’s hips in front of his eyes set his adolescent imagination on fire. When they arrived near the river, protected from the intruders by a white wall with its brightness facing the sun and almost hurt the eye, Ryoji offered his cheek to Yoshino. She was facing him. She naturally leaned forward and in a whisper said : ‘You are not a child anymore, you are fifteen now. My brother only lived a few years beyond his. I no longer want to be a child either, we have so little time for love’. Yoshino huddled into Ryoji’s dangling arms. Almost instinctively, he hugged the tender body of the girl. Their lips joined. For them both, the time stopped. They were young, handsome, invaded by a burning heat wave. For the first time, in the awakening of their senses, Ryoji and Yoshino felt the nascent promise of the quest for an absolute. Yoshino thought that the world could now come to an end.

Six hundred meters above the lover’s first kiss, a new sun kindled in the sky of Hiroshima. From their first-time embraced bodies, only remained a single blackish shadow on a whitewashed wall.

Fiction | The Sinners’ Corner by Mark Sadler

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I returned to work on a dismal Tuesday morning, emerging from the main entrance of London, Fenchurch Street, railway station under opaque grey skies. During my extended absence, the shopfronts of the old city had been divested of their brightly-coloured festive decorations. Gone was the red tinsel foil and shiny burgundy-coloured baubles garnishing the window display of Charlie Davies’ Tailory in Leadenhall, where a fortnight before they had rekindled the glare of the spotlights in the warm emulsified tones of a log fire, dimly reflecting in the contents of a wine glass. Absent this brightening influence, the winter streets, and the overcast faces of those who paraded up and down the cold grainy pavements, appeared to have been permeated with the stark greyness of a new year that was yet to form an identity of its own.

I walked the full length of Eastcheap, easily matching my pace with that of a large truck that crawled along beside the curb. Men dressed in florescent jackets were hauling dessicated Christmas trees from the lobbies of office buildings and pitching them into the bin that occupied the back of the lorry, where they piled-up haphazardly, like a small, densely-wooded hill.

The working day was marred by the sounds of a demolition that was underway in the churchyard of St Mary’s, across the road from my place of business. Every so often, a chorus of men’s shouts, emanating from the site, would build to a collective heave, heralding the imminent crashing of one of several large, and already fractured, panels of glass, as they were dropped into the yawning mouth of a skip. The sound grew more jarring on the nerves as the day wore on, and elicited alarmed inquiries from clients on the other end of the phone, who assumed that it had originated in our office.

The object of the ground clearance was a glass-walled building which had briefly occupied a disused corner of the churchyard, before collapsing suddenly during the early hours of Christmas Eve. In the short time that it stood, it had vaguely resembled a small chapel with a sharply-peaked, spired roof that incorporated a slight twist a few feet below the tip. The modernity of the design made it an incongruous neighbour to the medieval place of worship that it shared common ground with, which was a square-towered, 14th century stone church, belted around the midriff with a dark band of knapped flint.

The purpose of the new structure was altogether less sacred. During its fleeting existence it had housed a small shop, the purpose of which was to raise funds for the church. Space had also been made on the premises for three pop-up retail units that were intended for rental. Prior the collapse of the building, these had accommodated a stall selling resin-cast snowman-shaped lamps, another specialising in cushions embroidered with expressions of seasonal goodwill, and a refreshment stand, peddling Christmas cake and a non-alcoholic mulled beverage that was ladled from a large cauldron.

As a further addition, some narrow wooden sheds had been erected temporarily along a new fixed-gravel path, leading from the gate to churchyard, up to the entrance to the chapel. These were occupied by Christmas-themed shops and were liberally decorated with blue fairy lights.

When the weather is good, I will sometimes eat my lunch on a south-facing bench in the churchyard. A few months after the demolition of the glass chapel, I happened to make conversation there with one of the volunteers who help to manage the grounds; a man named Gordon Booth. Before his retirement, he had worked as a stockbroker in the city.

It was early March and I recall that clumps of daffodils had sprung up against the walls of the old church. Booth sat down next to me and made an appreciative remark about a large tree close-by, with a broad spread of branches that were speckled with emerging bright-green foliage.

“William Blake claims to have seen angels roosting in the boughs,” he said. “There is a short walk called the Angel Path that you can take through this part of the city, that visits all of the places where he witnessed the heavenly host watching over London. We have a pamphlet on it in the church foyer if you are interested. Occasionally, on the weekends, one of us will provide a guided tour for small groups. The next one is on the fourteenth. If you would like to come, I could add your name to the list.”

I passed some comment about avoiding London at the weekends. This seemed to ruffle his feathers a bit. I attempted to mollify him by asking whether he had ever laid eyes upon any angels during his comings and goings at the church.

“Ha! It was Dickens, wasn’t it, who described London as a city of devils. But I have seen some strange things,” he said.

I steered the conversation towards the glass chapel. The business around it seemed to be of interest to him and he became a great deal more animated.

“That whole enterprise had the air of money lenders in the temple. It upset a lot of the established congregation, myself included. A handful of people who had worshipped here for years left in protest and haven’t returned.”

He leaned forward and fixed me with a milky blue-eyed stare.

“The problem is that we do need the dosh.”

I asked him whether the cause of the collapse had been identified.

“It was very odd. Nobody knows quite what to make of it.”

After I pressed him for further information, he furnished me with a recent history of the church. The area of the grounds where the glass chapel stood had not been a part of the original churchyard. The plot had been expanded, during the 1860s, to incorporate adjacent land to the south. The additional space was required to accommodate human remains disinterred from nearby churchyards, that had been cleared to make room for the Midland railway.

The newly acquired land had previously been occupied by illegally-constructed dwellings that were in a dilapidated and tumbledown state. After the slum housing was cleared and the ground had been reseeded with grass, all but a small part of it was consecrated by the Bishop of London. The exception was an area in the southern-eastern corner. It seems that, following the removal of the old buildings, an excavation had uncovered elements of an unholy altar; something ancient and pre-Christian. A man from the British Museum examined some carvings on one side of it and passed on his report to the church authorities. Evidently what was written down in this document was sufficient for that part of the site to be deemed an unsuitable spot for Christian burials. It was instead designated as a place of final rest for those who had been executed at Newgate Prison. These unfortunates were buried in unmarked graves and any record of who they had been in life was withheld from the parish ledgers.

“Murderers I suspect. Wicked men,” surmised Booth.

He reached into the pocket of his jacket and removed a package of sandwiches, so tightly-wrapped in cling-film that they had been rendered oddly shapeless. He carefully opened it on his lap.

“When we eventually managed to wrangle planning permission for the new shop, one of the conditions was that it be located a fair distance from the church – I forget the exact figure, but it effectively banished the building to the sinners’ corner.

“Well, all of the marked graves in that part of the yard were cleared after the war so that wasn’t a problem, but nobody had ever investigated the Newgate plot. We hadn’t the faintest idea of what was down there.

“The church commissioned an archaeological survey. They uncovered twelve bodies in total, all adult males, all apparently buried without coffins. Given these circumstances, there was some interest as to how their skeletons had remained intact and had not been scattered throughout the soil.

“We re-interred the bones in a single grave on the north side of the yard and marked the spot with a simple memorial. The reverend Cowcher said a few words over it. Something about restoring long lost souls to the sight of God.”

He took a thoughtful bite from one of his sandwiches.

Construction had commenced on the glass chapel in July. I remember watching from my first-floor window across the street, as small protests assembled on the pavement adjacent to the church railings. Placards bearing bible quotations jostled for prominence, and occasional choruses of My Faith is like an Oaken Staff and Onward Christian Soldiers would rise above the background traffic noise, commencing with great fervour before gradually thinning out, only to recover some of their earlier strength in the final verse, at the behest of whoever was leading the group.

“Things started to go funny after that,” said Booth. “Not ha-ha funny. Just unusual.”

When he was not immediately forthcoming I prompted him:

“What kind of things exactly?”

“It was small at first. One of the ladies who helps to clean the interior of the church tripped on something in the yard and cracked her skull on a headstone. She said, as she fell, she thought she saw something like a blanched tree root protruding from the soil. We had a good look around, but we never found anything.

“Then there was the elderly gentlemen who jogs in the area every morning and used the churchyard as a shortcut between King William Street and Woodengate. On one particularly foggy day he swore blind that something that felt like a set of bony fingers had gained a tight hold on his ankle. He said that it spread a chill up his entire leg. When he reached down to free himself, there was nothing there. He still goes out for his morning run, but he goes around the churchyard now.

“The worst of it was one of the pupils from the convent school. She arrived at the school gates one morning, quite beside herself. Something in the graveyard had absolutely terrified her. They could never get from her exactly what it was. The police were summoned and the entire area was searched without any success. In the aftermath, we held an emergency meeting to discuss whether criminal background checks should be made on the builders who were working on the chapel, and how best to broach the topic with the contractors. In the end there was a lot of dithering and nothing was done.

“While all of this was going on, the churchyard was undergoing subsidence. The first we knew of it was when one of the old stone vaults tilted a full six inches on one corner, apparently overnight. This continued until, after a few weeks, it looked as if some large creature had rampaged across the yard on a diagonal course, starting from the north side and heading towards the chapel, knocking the grave markers askew as it went . We contacted the council and asked them for details of any underground works that were in progress. Of course there were none. We had a man come to survey for foxes or badgers. He found no surface evidence of any animal activity but suspected some form of tunnelling.

“A few days before the glass chapel collapsed, the ground under one of the temporary sheds abruptly sunk down a few inches and the whole thing toppled over. It pulled half of the fairy lights down with it. I suspected that the chapel was listing slightly, the day before it fell, but I didn’t say anything. Thankfully it happened at half past one in the morning when nobody was inside.”

“It seems to me that your resident angels have been remarkably lax in keeping unquiet spirits at bay,” I said.

“Well that’s the thing. In January we had some surveyors visit from the insurance company. With them came a few of the people who had worked on the original survey. They dug down around what remained of the chapel. A few feet beneath the turf they began to uncover the skeletal remains of twelve adult men. If that wasn’t a chilling discovery in and of itself, it was their positioning that was truly strange. They were standing upright, crowded together, with their arms stretched out and raised above their heads. The bones of their hands were pressing under against the underside of the concrete foundation. One of the archaeologists recognised a distinctive in crack in one of the skulls. She swore that it was identical to an injury on one of the skulls that she had helped to exhume the previous Summer, and then witnessed being re-interred on the opposite side of the churchyard. There was some very reluctant talk of unsealing the new vault where we had buried those remains. In the end we called a vote on it. Everyone was in agreement that it was best to leave things as they were.”

In the wake of this revelation a stillness seemed to fall across the churchyard.

“Anyway,” said Booth after a long pause. “It seems that the occupants of the old plot, whoever they may have been, were rather attached to their quite corner of the churchyard away from the sight of god, where the soil was steeped in their own wickedness. They resented their eviction from it and wanted it back. They clawed their way across the graveyard and came up underneath the chapel like sharks intent on capsizing a small boat. Old Cowcher has taken to referring to them as the jury; twelve angry men, unanimous in their judgement.

“I have to visit that part of the yard every so often to clear away the weeds. I always feel distinctly unwelcome there, as if there are multiple presences lurking just outside my field of vision, glowering at me with barely-restrained malice. I do not linger any longer than I have to. There is something very strange about the way the shadows fall there. Some have no physical counterparts while others seem to be portmanteaus of objects that, as far as I can ascertain, do not exist.”

His gaze settled on the stiffly swaying boughs of the large tree ahead of us, where the poet, William Blake, had once borne witness to a gathering of the heavenly host.

St Mary’s church has returned to drawing revenue from more restrained fund-raising activities. No attempt has been made to reinstate the glass chapel. The corner of the yard where it stood is a gloomy, unattended quarter, cast into permanent shadow by the surrounding buildings. Since hearing Booth’s tale I have given the area closer scrutiny and have noticed that very few people set foot there.


By Mark Sadler 

Fiction | Crete by Cameron Stewart

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‘So. What do we want today?’

I’m sitting in my local barbers chair, caped up like a clown – my head bulging through the top like a glob of cream forced through a chefs piping bag. Nobody looks good in a barbers cape. If ‘clothes maketh the man’, then capes maketh the man look like an idiot. A faint smell of cologne, old magazines and tobacco lingers – with an unsettling trace of halitosis. John, my old Greek barber, stands behind me, hands resting on my shoulders. His eyes meet mine in the mirror. When I first met John, I had thick brown hair like Mick Jagger in his prime. Now, there’s more hair on my ass than my head. This rather narrows my style choice.

‘The usual thanks John. Number two on the head, three on the beard.’

It’s passed closing time. The radio is off, and the glass door is locked. Piles of hair and whiskers lie in clumps on the floor like coughed-up fur balls from a giant cat. The two other barbers have gone, lighting cigarettes the moment they exited. It’s just me and John. Out come the clippers, and the clipping begins.

John’s been a barber here for forty eight years. He was hoping to rack up half a century, but next week he’ll be shown the door -kicked out by developers who bought the building last Spring. The barbershop only takes up a thin slice of the Art Deco block, but they want to renovate the lot – increase rent on the shops below, and convert the top level to apartments. Such is the way of the inner city. John often laments that he didn’t buy the whole building when he had the chance in the late 1970’s, before Sydney prices went crazy. Instead, a Turkish woman did – the fact that she was Turkish really sticks in John’s craw. Anyway, she clung on to it until her recent death, her children cleaned up, and the old Greek barber is out on his ear.

John doesn’t want to, but he will probably retire. Too much hassle trying to find new premises, and his son Dimitrios isn’t interested in taking over. Dimitrios worked here for a few years but now he’s a DJ in Ibiza. Not surprisingly, exchanging a life of tapas, cocaine, and sun-kissed Dutch girls, for one of grooming old men and Hipsters, doesn’t appeal. Last month I said to John that when he retires, at least he’ll have more time for fishing. John looked at me as if I had six heads, as if I couldn’t have suggested anything more ludicrous.

‘I hate fishing,’ he told me, eyes locked with mine in the mirror. ‘Waste of my time. You want fish, just go to ‘Polous Brothers.’

He wasn’t keen on my suggestion of a holiday in Greece either.

‘What for? My family’s here. Greece is a mess. Too many relatives wanting money.’

I’ve stopped trying to lighten John’s mood. Now, as I sit in the dimly lit room, the last rays of the Autumn sun sneaking through the top of the glass door, I’m aware that this is the end of an era. I’ve been coming here for over twenty-five years. My son, Joe, had his first haircut here. But this is the last time John will cut my hair. I’ll probably never see him again.

‘How’s the family? Your boy?’ he asks.

‘Bit of a madhouse as always,’ I say. ‘But Joe’s working hard. Saving up to go backpacking.’

I didn’t tell John that I’d recently discovered my nineteen year old son had been fired from his bar job for stealing money, and that it then dawned on me that I wasn’t going mad thinking that cash had been going missing from my wallet on a regular basis for a while now, and that I didn’t have the courage to tell my wife because we’d both know what this behaviour would tell us, and that my faith in my son was very much shaken. So I lied.

‘Ah, good. Good. Where’s he going?’, asked John.

‘Mostly central, southern Europe, I think. I’m not really sure. Originally he was talking about Spain, but the plans seem to change all the time. I think he wants to spend some time Croatia though. A bit cheaper.’

‘Ah, Croatia! Those girls will eat him alive eh?’

I smile. ‘I think that’s what he’s hoping for.’

What I was saying wasn’t all bullshit. Joe had recently talked about wanting to travel to Croatia. I’d suggested that he better fucking well stop stealing, work and save hard like a normal person, and not spend all of his money on getting wasted. Some of my ‘suggestions’ came out angrier than I intended. But I’ve had chats like this with Joe before. He’d be alright for a time but it wouldn’t last. What’s so disappointing about his latest effort is that he has, at least to my knowledge, been going well. He’d been working at the bar for four or five months. He was behaving himself. They liked him.

Usually something will piss Joe off and he’ll hit someone, or do a runner. The first facility Joe went to, he lost it when they tried to give him a blood test. Started swearing at the doctor and throwing things around. They kicked him out. The last time, we’d paid for this expensive place in the mountains, and he’d had a fight with a girl after he asked her for a cigarette. She’d refused and called him a ‘scab’, so Joe decided to flip a table over and walk out. Hitch-hiked back to the city. This happened on the first morning he was there. He arrived home just a few hours after us. Before Joe had lost the bar job, I thought he was on the way up. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know anything.

John changes the clippers to a smaller setting, and begins tidying up around my ears and nape. I glance into the mirror and check out the decor for the five hundredth time, but take it in more closely because it’s the last. The room is narrow. Black and white checked linoleum floor. Beige laminex counter with two chipped pink porcelain sinks. The three barber chairs face the long mirror. Long straight razors sit in tall glass jars of blue disinfectant. Scissors and combs rest on small white towels. Electric clippers hang off hooks, and boxes of tissues and rolls of crepe paper lie within reach. On the wall behind me, old photographs of hair models wearing stone wash denim are pinned slightly out of level. An old poster has illustrations of the essential styles of the period – ‘The Continental’, ‘The Businessman’, ‘The Ivy League’, ‘The Crewcut’, ‘The Caesar’, ‘The Hollywood’. John has a glass display cabinet at the end of the counter containing a few crappy products for sale – a round plastic scalp comb, a couple of green cologne bottles, a tin of moustache wax, some nail clippers. They’ve been for sale since my first visit. A new design element is blue-tacked to the mirror in front of me. It’s a postcard of a voluptuous nude woman kneeling at the waters edge – her wet black hair reaching the small of her back. Her body’s facing away, but she looks alluringly over her shoulder – the promise of heavy breasts obscured. Blue water. Blue sky. Blazing sun. ‘HOLIDAY IN CRETE’ in embossed gold lettering is printed across the skyline. The postcard was as tacky as hell but it looked like heaven.

‘She’s new John’, I say.

‘Ah, yes, a friend sent it. I never saw anyone like that in Crete before – I’m waiting for her to turn around.’ We both share a laugh. John clears his throat. ‘Where’s he working?’ John asks.

‘Who?’

‘Joey, your boy.’

‘Just down the road. At Gus’, the butcher. Do you know him? He’s the father of one of the boys Joe used to play soccer with.’ This is true. I managed to talk Gus into taking Joe on.

‘Gus. Yes. I know him. He’s from Naxos. He’s closing down soon too. Supermarket’s taken his business. Your boy, he wants to be a butcher?’

’No. God no. He’s just helping out. Sweeping up, fetching meat from the fridge, that sort of thing. I’m not sure what he wants to be.’ I pull a hand out from under my cape and wipe my forehead. I feel hot.‘The last couple of years have been pretty tough,’ I add.

John stands upright and pauses. He shakes his head a little and gives me a ‘I-understand-but what-can-you-do?’ shrug, in the mirror. He’s had his own difficulties with his daughter. The old barber shuffles to the front of my chair and motions with his scissors if I want my eyebrows clipped. I decline. Glancing towards the back of the shop, I remind myself not to forget my jacket like last time. Too many things on my mind. Where my jacket hangs, there’s a couple of waiting chairs and a magazine table. Magazines you’d find in any barbershop around the world. Articles about the Royal family, how to jump like Michael Jordan, essential suits for Winter, celebrities who suicide, collectable wrist watches from the 60’s, the allure of the Maldives, and of course, how to get a six pack for Summer.

‘It’s good, he’s working, it’s good’ mutters John as he begins to lather up some shaving cream for my neck and beard-line. ‘You should be proud of your son. The world is full of so many bloody bastards.’

He tells me about his sister, an accountant, who does the books for one of the biggest brothel owners in the city. This fella owns four. ‘High class’, whatever that means. His sister says that eighty percent of the girls are on drugs. And these girls are beautiful. ‘Beautiful!’ He tells me how they take drugs to cope with the work, and how they hobble home exhausted at the end of their shift. But they find it hard to sleep, and have to take sleeping tablets to knock themselves out. Then they have to get back on it again the next day, to get their energy back. Prepare themselves for more men. He tells me many of the girls also sell drugs for the brothel owner – to the businessmen, the politicians, the lawyers, the doctors, the sportsmen of this city – the men who run the place, tell us how to live, laud it over us. And these girls take the drugs with them – dope, coke, ice, whatever – putting their income up their noses, into their lungs, into their arms. And then they’re in a loop. A blur. Only a few are able to save for their future, and get out before their looks fade and their value falls. One Russian girl his sister knew was different. Always in control. Strict. Driven. Never touched the drugs. Narrowed down her clients to those she could control and exploit – no weirdos. Saved like a demon. After eight years she had bought two apartments in the city and left the industry. But she was a unicorn.

John could be very chatty when he got on a roll. I was finding it difficult to keep my eyes open. The feeling of the straight razor scraping down my neck was exquisite, and my head lolled onto my chest. John lapsed into silence as he splashed some cologne onto his hands and rubbed them firmly over my neck and scalp. And that was that. Finished. He whipped off the cape and brushed me down.

‘All done’, he says. I ran my hand through the stubble around my jaw, over my head, and stood up. ‘Thanks John’, I said. I handed him twenty five bucks, and we shook hands. His grip was firm and his eyes were watery. I looked away. Thankfully there was a knock on the door. John broke from me to unlock it. It was Joe, my son, who must have finished his shift down the road at the butchers.

‘Hey Dad, saw you through the door,’ he says.

John hadn’t seen my son for years and was astonished by his six foot three frame. He clasped Joe’s wide shoulders and beamed, looking from me to Joe and back again, as if to locate some resemblance. Joe looked bemused.

‘So handsome! He must look like his mother, no?’ John joked. He turned to Joe. ‘Let me give you a haircut. A little trim.’

‘No, I’m good thanks’, replied Joe, ruffling his unruly thatch.

‘Come on Joey. Sit down, please. My treat,’ protested John.

‘Joe. Take a seat,’ I said, glaring at my son with firm insistence. Joe cottoned on that maybe he should sit.

‘Sure, why not,’ says Joe.

Joe sat down, just as he’d first done over fifteen years before. When he was a little boy. When his little feet dangled above the ground. I wandered over to the waiting chair, sat down and pulled out an old magazine. John fitted the white crepe paper around Joe’s neck, and fastened the cape. He placed his hands on my sons shoulders and locked eyes with him in the mirror.

‘So. What do we want today?’

Review | Rainsongs, by Sue Hubbard

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Sue Hubbard’s Rainsongs has a unique and beautiful emotive quality that shines through its delicately constructed prose in a love-letter to Ireland, memory and parenthood, taking advantage of its mature narrator to speak with resonance and depth. In a contemporary world of instant connections, Rainsongs returns to an age just prior to the boom of social media – 2007 – in an exploration of what it means to be truly alone.

Rainsongs is a book filled with characters who are alone, by circumstance and by choice. Martha Cassidy has lost her husband and only son; twice-divorced Eugene Riordan and farm devotee Paddy O’Connell eschew relationships, finding they are happier living on their own. Accounts of community, large families, childhood friendships, are all recalled, dreamlike, from a distant past. Permanent loneliness haunts the narrative as a threat, but it is from solitude that the most beautifully haunting and thoughtful reflections in the book arise. Whenever Hubbard’s varyingly anthropophobic characters do enter a social setting, such as Eugene’s New Year’s Eve party, Brendan’s funeral, or the various local pubs, bars and restaurants, other people in the crowd are sketched accurately but unflatteringly, reduced to their worst.

However, as the supplies in Martha’s cupboard dwindle at the beginning of each chapter, the unsustainability of hermitage becomes clear. Paddy ends up in hospital by attempting to pull a heifer out of a ditch alone, an impossible task. Martha, despite her disdain for the pity she detects in all her interactions, is forced to ‘stay connected’ by the PhD student who rents her top room, and even out in the country cottage in the middle of nowhere finds herself mobbed by undesired visitors, local families, Eugene. It is impossible to stay alone forever, as the monks who travelled out to the Skelligs found all those centuries ago.

Estranged from and disliking most other people, it is through writing that Hubbard’s narrator first finds community. The intertextuality of Rainsongs is established from its very beginning with opening quotes taken from Woolf, Shakespeare and Irish proverbs, which inspire and in some cases structure and speak through the novel. Martha Cassidy cannot relate to anybody around her but finds a companion in Mrs Ramsay, and notes that despite her childlessness, Virginia Woolf ‘understood’ her loss. Similarly, she finds that Shakespeare ‘understands’ the utopian promise of a desert island in his Tempest. Although this promise of utopia, as of the trip to the Skelligs, is ultimately empty, Martha discovers the possibility of human empathy and companionship through text.

Brendan, perhaps the only extrovert described in the novel and hauntingly absent, is only present through the words of his remaining diaries and letters, which open up a previously closed side of himself to his wife. This allows her to connect with him in a way she never could when he was alive, revealing his secrets, and highlighting her loneliness even when she was with him. Her burgeoning relationship with the young Colm Nolan hinges around the reading of his poetry, again providing an elsewhere non-existent insight into his true feeling. Still grieving, complicatedly, for Bruno, Martha unconsciously seeks out a boy protégé in Colm, much as Brendan did – without her knowledge – in his lifetime. In continuing his mission of getting his poetry published, she is able to complete their foreshortened joint parenthood, relating to Colm as the adult that Bruno never became. Hubbard handles the development of their relationship so sensitively that the questionable circumstances of their intimacy – the age difference, Martha’s recent widowhood and maternal void – do not cast a shadow over their relationship, rather illuminating a pure, emotional connection. It is poetry that acts as the catalyst for this, as the publication of Colm’s work, dedicated to Bruno, effects a change in Martha, allowing her to finally achieve closure. Eventually, she is able to reconsider her future, deciding to build a life teaching English to young refugees, refilling her role as teacher; the element of selfhood that she has been completely without for the first part of the novel, existing only in relation to the deceased men of her life. When she finally returns to the Skelligs, she is not alone but accompanied by her healed memories of Bruno and her newfound human connections, again effected through her language.

The subsequent self-awareness of Hubbard’s own writing as a mode of release lends it an especially powerful emotive quality. Her noted poetic style brings a unique rhythm to her prose, well suited to the romantic descriptions of the Irish countryside, but she is also a gifted storyteller. The combination of endearing details such as Paddy having used the same comb since childhood, together with eye-watering descriptions of the new-money luxury spa that Eugene plans to build and a cutting turn of phrase that sketches a couple as ‘the director of a string of local supermarkets and his heavily Botoxed wife’ bring two very different realities together at once, painting a convincing portrait of pre-recession Ireland. Politics barely surfaces, just existing in the background as Republican flags wave in pubs and children wear orange, white and green T-shirts to watch a football game; Hubbard is more interested in the everyday lives of her characters, and drinking champagne instead of Guinness becomes a motif that is aware of its own ironies. Empathy for refugees past and present targets questions of compassion and connection more than it does government quotas, and the EU is a seemingly independent fluctuating circumstance in the lives of the locals.

Hubbard’s book is about city and country, home and identity, love and loss, but it is in its traversal of the shaky balance between solitude and loneliness that it finds its unique voice, and champions the role of literature in an increasingly disconnected modern world.

Rainsongs is available online and in bookstores now.

Leah Shaya

Extending the Range of Pejoratives: Howard Jacobson’s Pussy

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Written in “a fury of disbelief” during the weeks that followed the unlikely election of Donald Trump, Howard Jacobson’s latest novel Pussy dramatizes the education and rise to power of Prince Fracassus, heir to the Duchy of Origen, until he begins to preside over the Republic of Urbs-Ludus.

The plotline is minimal but engrossing thanks to Jacobson’s spirited, arch tone and the seemingly effortless elegance of his style. Before he becomes the hero-villain-rapscallion of the story, we are given to witness Fracassus as a feisty little brat. It comes as no surprise that his parents have spared the brains and spoiled the child. Fracassus spends his golden childhood guzzling reality TV shows and casting himself in the role of Emperor Nero.

Perceiving finally that their son is growing into a self-centred vulgarian, the Duke and Duchess worry that Fracassus will be unfit for power. To avert this unseemly outcome, they hire Professor Probrius, a former University lecturer who has fallen prey to the rising tide of political correctness in the duchy.

Some of the most delightful satire in Jacobson’s novel is written at the expense of the current trend for PC. During the Great Purge of the Illuminati, Probrius is debarred from teaching at University because he is so eminent in his field that a body of students complains that they are “distressed by the perceived distance between his attainments and their own”. He is found guilty by a Thumb Court of “cognitive condescension” and abruptly fired from tenure. It’s a highly amusing take on the current spread of student revolts against the intellectual challenges of dialectical thinking through debate and disagreement in both America and Britain.

Fracassus’s other appointed tutor is Dr Cobalt, chosen for her icy manners by the Grand Duke himself to rein his son in and prepare him for the dignified and clear-minded exercise of power. The prince’s two mentors attempt to expand his miniscule vocabulary and shepherd him towards more behavioural subtlety, with sometimes baffling results. Fracassus is no easy pupil, having what Probrius calls “Tourette’s, without the Tourette’s”. The syndrome the child Fracassus is afflicted with actually seems closer to coprolalia, the compulsive utterance of inappropriate or obscene words.

Over time, Probrius manages to expand Fracassus’s vocabulary to include words like “classy”, which he begins to use on practically every occasion that pleases him with increasing relish. Jacobson occasionally lets slip some of his own lexical knowledge and rhetoric into Fracassus’s later utterances, almost inadvertently it seems, since he is at pains throughout the novel to underscore Fracassus’s stupidity.

For a writer with so much verbal and intellectual panache, it must have been a strain to depict Fracassus’s impoverished mindscape. Anthony Burgess, another vastly knowledgeable wordsmith, succeeded in limiting his vocabulary to parody the debasement of contemporary culture for the space of an entire novel in One Hand Clapping (1961), a task which Jacobson would no doubt find excruciating, given his unstoppable love of the rhapsodic phrase.

It’s been argued that Trump is so excessive, such a living caricature himself, that he is beyond parody, but Jacobson manages to up the ante with skill and panache. His comic fairy-tale rendering of Trump as a child is hilarious and deeply engaging, providing what Jacobson in interview has called “the comforts of satire”.

Jacobson’s mental and physical caricature of Trump (“His natural movement is a forward projection of a sort I’ve only seen on a bewildered primate”) is entertainingly illustrated by Chris Riddell’s silhouettes of Trump in diapers trailing a Barbie doll or an over-long tie between his legs.

While Jacobson is adept at showing how Trump has managed to appeal to the values of Dumbocracy, it was arguably a little bit of an easy way out to dumb Trump himself down. Dismaying as it is, Trump succeeded in getting to the White House largely through his cynical ability to sense the Zeitgeist and claptrap the ordinary working class man accordingly. The most alarming thing about him is that he is crafty, adaptable and intuitive.

By Erik Martiny


Howard Jacobson, Pussy, Jonathan Cape, £12.38 (208 pages)

 

Bram Bogart at the Saatchi Gallery

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Bram Bogart at the Saatchi Gallery

SALON, Saatchi Gallery’s commercial exhibition space, launched earlier this year with a fascinating show by the post-war Japanese artist, Tsuyoshi Maekawa, and in keeping with its policy of staging museum standard exhibitions by historically important artists, it is now presenting the work of the Dutch-born Belgian artist Bram Bogart (1921 – 2012).

Staged in collaboration with Mayfair’s Vigo Gallery, the show is entitled Witte de Witte,and is made up of nine rare monochrome or near monochrome works executed between 1952 and 2006, which, taken as a group, illustrate the artist’s dramatic and unique contribution to the canon of modernist painting.

Bogart is an artist associated with thickly physical colour – the works for which he is best known are rendered in bright, primary colours, reflecting the enduring influence of both Vincent van Gogh’s painterly idiom and Piet Mondrian’s compositional experimentation on his practice. The nine paintings in Witte de Witte, however, demonstrate a sense of tonal restraint and maturity of practice. Presenting work from the breadth of Bogart’s oeuvre, the exhibition strips back his practice to its elements, and demonstrates Bogart’s technical development and achievement over a more than fifty-year period.

Born in Delft, the Netherlands, Bogart originally trained at a local technical school as a house-painter. After the end of World War Two, he settled in Paris where he became one of the founding members of Art Informel, a group of abstract painters who focused on expression and intuition rather than geometrics. Bogart first worked towards an all-white picture in a series of semi-representational paintings he completed in the South of France in the late 1940s. These works were a response to the light and dust of the Mediterranean, and also the chalkiness of local buildings. Using techniques learnt in his youth, Bogart approximated the walls’ rough matte finish by mixing poster paint to his oils and letting the paint peel off to suggest exposure to the elements.

One of the earliest works in the exhibition, Differentes (1954) demonstrates the ever-increasing weight of material, a tendency toward thicker impasto and a more aggressive facture that would become Bogart’s mature style. Meanwhile, Signes sur Blanc / Witte Tekens (1952), while smaller is scale is no less dramatic.

Bram Bogart, Differentes, 1954, oil on canvas.
Photo Vigo Gallery

This work symbolises the beginning of Bogart’s experiment with monochrome. Made primarily in shades of white and grey, the piece alludes to a hint of muted Parisian blue. Despite the lightness of colour, one can feel the weight of the painting visually, as materials have been layered one on top of the other to create three-dimensional structure. Its surface is dashed and dotted with indentations of knots, crosses and lines, marks that are paradoxically both highly structured and organic in nature.

In 1961, Bogart relocated to Belgium with his wife Leni, coinciding with the development of a new resolution of gesture and material in his painting. Friends with Lucio Fontana – with whom he shared the desire to expand the structural boundaries of modern painting – during this time Bogart also met Willem de Kooning, and his paintings acknowledged the all-over structure and expansive scale associated with American Abstract Expressionism. Like Jackson Pollock, after 1960, Bogart painted on the floor, using a mix of oil, siccative, powdered chalk, varnish, and raw pigment applied to heavy wooden supports to ‘build’ his works. When viewed upright, Bogart’s slab-like pictures hold themselves together in way that actively denies gravity.

Bram Bogart, Sunday Mornings, 2007, mixed media. Photo Vigo Gallery

Bram Bogart, Variété, 1961, mixed media. Photo Vigo Gallery

A painting from this period, Variété (1961), is a bold conflation of sculptural relief and painting, of excessive dripping paint and heavily applied concrete. The work maintains, however, the scale of painting and the restrictions of a square or rectangular support.

A much later work, Sunday Morning (2007), appears comparatively more serene. Its soft peaks of white paint applied in Bogart’s characteristic impasto are juxtaposed with smooth, even layers of the same colour. When asked in an interview to recall the motivation for his monochromatic works, Bogart described them in terms of respite from colour. As he replied: ‘At that time, making a painting in one colour, whether white, black or brown gave me a form of restfulness in relation to the other paintings.’ Vacated of chromatic distraction, Bogart’s monochromes are both indulgent – reveling in the matter of paint – and refined. As a whole, Witte de Witte evidences Bogart’s more nuanced approach to postwar painting, and as such is a welcome contribution to his appreciation.

By Amani Noor Iqbal


 Witte de Witte, Saatchi Gallery, closes September 10th, 2017

 

Book Launch at Enitharmon: Stephen Romer and Alan Jenkins

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The light, bright space of Enitharmon bookshop in Bloomsbury was filled with jostlings and murmurings as more and more people tried to fit into the crowded gallery space. A double book launch was underway. Stephen Romer was here to celebrate his anticipated Set Thy Love In Order: New & Selected Poems, accompanied by Alan Jenkins and his soon-to-be-published White Nights, which will be available in the US.

Alan introduced the evening, calling attention to the ‘beautiful volumes of poetry, and beautiful livres d’artiste’ that surrounded us, his peppering of French a preview into much of the evening’s francophone flavour. He offers thanks to Stephen Stuart-Smith, Enitharmon’s director, for hosting the launch of two books that are not in fact published by the press – although Alan’s earlier Enitharmon collection Marine, written in collaboration with John Kinsella, was on display – and praises the ‘resplendent’ Set Thy Love In Order. Rather than read for a long time, Alan explains, he and Stephen will ‘do two little sets of poems each. I’ll read for a little while, Stephen will read for a little while, I’ll read for an even littler while, so you don’t have the opportunity to start finding either of our voices monotonous’. And afterwards, he promises, there will be ‘more wine!’

White Nights, Alan notes, is a book that has taken ‘more than the usual temerity’ to publish. It centres on translations from French literature, although there are also poems written after Italian and Spanish writers. Some of these are poems that Alan has been ‘working on or thinking about for a great many years’, and when he was invited by the US publisher Stanley Moss to bring out a book, he thought of these translations. ‘I’m not going to start an argument about translation’, Alan declares, before noting simply that the poems he has chosen to work with are not ‘obscure’ and, in many cases, have been much translated in the past. He is, therefore, indebted to these earlier versions. The poems are ‘mostly love poems, or after love poems, or failed love poems, or longing love poems – and they’re all poems that I’ve loved since first reading them’. Some of these first encounters occurred when Alan was a student, aged nineteen, and his translation work often stretches back to this time.

At this point, the reading is interrupted as yet more people attempt to squeeze into the white interior of Enitharmon. There are clatterings of glasses, chatterings, offerings and refusals of chairs, until the room is stilled once more and Alan begins his reading with ‘Christ in the Olive Grove’. The poem is ‘designated after Gérard de Nerval, but it’s actually a much reduced version of his sequence of sonnets – I’ve translated just three of the sonnets’, Alan explains. His reading is slow and deliberate, with an occasional conversational lilt, and he stands with the book resting lightly in his hands, leaning casually against the bookcase behind him. Afterwards, he reads a compact poem based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘La Pipe’, answering requests from the audience for the page number. The mini-reading ends with ‘Classical Walpurgisnacht’, a poem based on a work by Paul Verlaine, but suggestive to Alan of Jules Laforgue. ‘I’m challenged and fascinated by this poem’, he says.

While the audience applauds, Alan deftly changes place with Stephen. Without pause, Stephen launches into a vervy performance of his poem ‘In the Sun’:

In the sun on my bed after swimming
In the sun and in the vast reflection of the sun on the sea
……….Under my window
And in the reflections and the reflection of the reflection
Of the sun and the suns on the sea
………..In the mirrors,
After the swim, the coffee, the ideas,
………..Naked in the sun on my light-flooded bed
………..Naked – alone – mad –
………………….Me!

‘That’s Valéry’, Stephen says with a bashful smile. He moves from images of a ‘light-flooded bed’ to a comment on the ‘flood of warmth I get from seeing all these lovely friends and colleagues here tonight’. Both Stephen and Alan are participating in the T. S. Eliot International Summer School running in Bloomsbury in the same week – many of the school’s students and scholars are in attendance at the reading – and Stephen notes that the title of his book is ‘not innocent’ in regard to Eliot. ‘La relations entre les sexes’, an Eliotic theme, is also of importance to him, he says, echoing Alan’s earlier sprinklings of French language. Stephen then reads ‘Resolve’ from his 1986 collection Idols, calling attention to the poem’s Laforguian references. His reading is dramatic, and it is clear that he enjoys his material. This is followed by ‘Primavera’, a poem that also flirts with French, containing both French and Italian terms as well as a reference to ‘spring in every language’.

After a further chair shuffle, Alan and Stephen once again exchange places. Alan also alludes to the T. S. Eliot School, recalling his opening lecture which addressed Eliot’s debt to Laforgue. The American poet was ‘completely taken over – ravished’ by Laforgue, Alan notes, in what was a ‘tremendous surrendering of his own selfhood’. ‘I felt something akin to that when I first read Laforgue’, he professes, ‘but of course I read Laforgue through Eliot’s eyes, or through Eliot’s sensibility’. Since then, he has worked on translations of Laforgue’s later poems, the Derniers Vers. ‘Winter Coming On’ is a version of the French poet’s ‘L’Hiver qui vient’, and ‘at the more faithful end’ of Alan’s translations:

Feelings under embargo! Freight and Cargo, Middle East!
Oh, the rain falling, and the night falling,
Oh, the wind! Oh, que c’est triste
Hallowe’en, Christmas and New Year –
All my chimneys – factory-chimneys – drizzled on; too drear…

You can’t sit down, all the benches are soaked;
Trust me, it’s over till next year.
The benches are all soaked, the woods mildewed, rust-choked,
And the hunt is calling…

And you, clouds come beetling up from the Channel coast:
You’ve spoiled our last Sunday for us. Toast.

Stephen finishes the evening with further French-inflected poems, including ‘Arbbre de Bhoneur’, written for his son, and ‘Yellow Studio’, which he liltingly interrupts to declare the page number for the keen reader-listeners among the audience. As the reading ends, listeners weave like fish in a crowded sea to the piles of books at the back of the gallery space, energised by their encounter with multiple languages, versions of poems, and ways of performing.

Suzannah V. Evans


Book Launch at Enitharmon: Stephen Romer and Alan Jenkins
Enitharmon Editions, 10 Bury Place, Bloomsbury, 12 July 2017

 

Interview | At the Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet with Michael Joseph

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Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet, The Banquet, 1968 © Michael Joseph

Beggars Banquet is the album that changed everything for the Rolling Stones,’ the band state on their official website, rollingstones.com, ‘the band truly came into their own, and the Rolling Stones’ music of today is a reflection of what happened in the studio in 1968, they reached their musical manhood.’ For such an epochal album it is entirely appropriate that the photographs that the band commissioned to accompany it from the photographer, Michael Joseph, are equally significant, widely considered to be amongst the best photographs taken of them. The images, currently on show at Proud Chelsea, carry an extraordinary, multi-layered power and beauty. They have an arresting and dramatic painterly quality to them, an evocation of the work of Old Masters such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel – whom Joseph cites as particular inspirations – in the interior shots and George Stubbs in the exterior ones whilst also taking inspiration as Joseph explains, from the photographs of the 1960s design and photography partnership, Horn/Griner, and ‘the wackiness of William Klein not least with his use of including 35mm edgings into the image’.

The shoot took place over two days, Friday the 7 and Saturday the 8 June 1968, at two locations, Sarum Chase in Hampstead, north west London, and Swarkestone Hall Pavilion, Derbyshire. At the time the Rolling Stones were in the midst of recording Beggars Banquet‘s opening and perhaps most famous track, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. The recording sessions – which are documented in Jean-Luc Goddard’s film, One Plus One – had begun three days earlier at Olympic Sound Studios in Barnes, south west London, and would continue for three days after the photographic shoot. Of all the tracks on the album it also seems appropriate that it was this that the band were recording concurrent with the photographs as it is as equally multi-layered and unconventional as Joseph’s photographs, with an epic historical sweep and musical a style and diverse inspirations including, as Jagger cites in the 2012 documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, Baudelaire, Bob Dylan, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita, of which Marianne Faithful had given Jagger a copy of the first English translation which had been published the year before.

Sarum Chase, coincidentally adding another layer to the painterliness of the photographs, had been the home and studio of the portraitist and painter of historical and ceremonial events, Frank O. Salisbury. The architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, described the 1930s neo-Tudor mansion as, ‘pure Hollywood Tudor’, and the scene that greeted the band in the mansion’s great hall when they arrived at the location sounds akin to a Cecil B. DeMille Hollywood film set, as Joseph says:

When the Stones arrived punctually at 11am, I was coaching the animals – a goat, a sheep, a cat and three variously sized dogs – with my megaphone, my Sinar 10×8 large format camera was on an impressive monopod and we had very impressive lighting, a giant swimming pool light on a tall stand and a few strobe strips at odd angles, and the table dressed with bizarre stuffed animals, food including a suckling pig and luckily a few bottles of a very good claret that I had from a previous shoot. They were awestruck!

The location had been sourced and dressed by the stylist for the shoot, Jackie Crier, who also dressed the band in their fabulous tatterdemalion attire evoking a striking mix of seventeenth-century Commedia dell’Arte characters and eighteenth-century Dickensian ne’er-do-wells by way of 1960s Swinging London flourishes. Indeed in their review of Beggars Banquet on its release in December 1968 Time magazine no doubt inspired by Joseph’s photographs described the Rolling Stones as, ‘England’s most subversive roisterers since Fagin’s gang in Oliver Twist‘. The band’s roistering reputation may also have informed the conversation Joseph had when he went to recce the location with a representative of the British Council of Churches to whom Salisbury had bequeathed Sarum Chase on his death in 1962. Joseph was concerned that the banquet and animals might leave a mess but the B.C.C.’s only concern, he says, ‘was if there might be “ladies” in it’. When Joseph questioned him further about this he says the reply was, ‘”Well, Mr Joseph, if any of the ladies are naked we charge £10 extra”‘.

Crier and Joseph had been introduced by David Puttnam, now Baron Puttnam, who at that time had a photographic agency and represented them both alongside other photographers including David Bailey and Brian Duffy. Joseph and Puttnam had first met when the latter was working at Collett Dickenson Pearce & Partners (CDP), a glamorous and highly influential advertising agency which played a key role in the cultural shifts of the 1960s and whose alumni include Charles Saatchi, Sir Alan Parker and Sir Ridley Scott. Joseph began photographing high profile advertising campaigns for CDP in the mid-1960s continuing through to the 2000s for clients including Benson and Hedges, Christies, Nivea, Pirelli and Schweppes. One campaign which Joseph cites as bringing to the attention of the Rolling Stones was for White Horse whisky:

My White Horse campaign was so wacky for 1965, one shot featured Paulene Stone in a  white bathtub  in a lavish set with a white horse breathing down her neck, another featured a panelled boardroom scene, which inadvertently had a Mick Jagger lookalike sitting on the table, surrounded by advisors, smoking cigars and a white horse at the head of the table. I don’t think any other photographer had such wacky stuff at the time.

With only two hours to photograph the band on the first day and live animals in the mix as well Joseph decided to utilise the megaphone technique that he had perfected photographing ten different sized dogs for a Lufthansa campaign just prior to the Beggars Banquet shoot. ‘I made all sorts of noises through the megaphone to keep them amused and they obeyed me implicitly,’ he says, ‘luckily the Stones also behaved likewise! They could relax and I’d shoot on “three” and a few odd noises later!’

Mick & Chick, 1968
© Michael Joseph

That the Rolling Stones were enjoying the process of working with Joseph is borne out by Mick Jagger inviting Joseph and his girlfriend at the end of the first day to travel to the next day’s location in his car. ‘He has two jump seats in his Daimler,’ Joseph recalls, ‘and most of the two hour journey up the newly opened M1 was spent racing the rest of the band in a similar Daimler to Swarkestone Hall Pavilion!’ The seventeenth-century pavilion stands in a large field called The Cuttle near the ruins of Swarkestone Hall. The exact purpose of the building is a subject of conjecture but it may have been a grandstand, summerhouse, or appropriately for the shoot a banqueting house. In racing to the location they arrived quite a while before Crier who was travelling in a van with both the Sinar camera and the props for the shoot. The bonhomie continued as Joseph explains that he was, ‘immensely pleased how co-operative everyone was in shooting numerous little cameos with my Hasselblad, which I thought could be useful, but were also to keep the Stones occupied whilst we waited as I felt if given a chance they may scarper to a local pub and never come out!’

The shots that Jospeh had planned for the Swarkestone location were intended to to be for the cover of Beggars Banquet. When Crier arrived they shot the back cover shot first, the band playing cricket in the long grass of the field. In the background she and Joseph place a white, three-legged piano which she had discovered. The piano is both wonderfully incongruous in the rural scene but also adds to the narrative allure of the photographs as though the band have emerged the morning after a decadent banquet. The final shot of the shoot was to have been the front cover and features the Rolling Stones lying in the grass in front of the pavilion with smoke atmospherically pouring from its windows. A little while after he lit the smoke bombs, Joseph says, ‘we heard a police siren wailing and then two jovial coppers came over to say they’d had a fire reported, but they were pleased to see the band posing – sadly they left before I had a chance to ask them to be in the shot!’

Although these photographs were intended to be the cover images a disagreement between the band and the record company meant that not only were neither used but the image that the band put forward instead – a graffitied toilet – was also not used until the album was reissued. When the album was released in December 1968 it appeared in a purely typographic cover styled like an invitation: ‘Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet RSVP’. Joseph’s photograph from Sarum Chase of the band around the banqueting table was used however in the sleeve’s gatefold. Although it was not entirely as Joseph had planned. Overnight, between the two shoot days, he had one of his photographs of the scene, which he had shot on Kodak Kodalith, a super high contrast 35mm black and white film, printed up and whilst having tea after shooting the final shot at Swarkestone he showed the print to Jagger. ‘Did Mick go over the moon!’, Joseph says, ‘He had never seen anything like it. But he felt it was boring in black and white, so he took it away and to my horror he hand-coloured it very garishly…’ Jagger’s hand-coloured version of the photograph is how it appeared on the album sleeve and, as Joseph concludes, ‘the rest is history’.

Historical perspective adds another layer to Joseph’s beautiful and extraordinary photographs. It is fascinating to see the Rolling Stones so relaxed, at play, in many ways in celebratory mood at the tipping point of the tracks and album that became their ‘coming of age’. But there is also a poignancy – perhaps an element of the last summer of youth – compound by the fact that less that a year after the shots were taken Brian Jones had died. That said the photographs are both of the their time, but equally stand out of their times with a transportive quality that immerses one.

By Guy Sangster-Adams


Beggars Banquet: Photographs by Michael Joseph
Proud Chelsea (www.proudonline.co.uk)
Until 30 July 2017

You Must Change Your Life – The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachael Corbett

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You Must Change Your Life is an enthralling exploration of the complex relationship between two creative giants of art and literature, drawn together in Paris at the birth of a new century. Rachel Corbett has successfully melded the natural flair and élan of her own writing with exemplary research into her subject. There is always a danger the ardent biographical explorer may fatally slip into a crevasse of overkill or verbosity, not so Corbett, who sustains the reader’s interest through intellectual rigour, elegance, and above all empathy. Corbett’s work also introduces neglected names such as the important sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel and Theodore Lipps, whose pioneering work on empathy or einfühling, (‘thinking into’) fed into Rilke’s creation of a new form of poetry, articulating that essence which lies beneath the surface, as in a Rodin sculpture.

Although the story concerns the trajectory of the companionable and inspiritive yet sometimes nimbus clouded relations between Rilke and Rodin, the interweaving travails of their wives and friends decisively enrich the book, casting a less gilded light on the pair. But it is Rodin’s deleterious behaviour which proves most unsettling. Corbett focuses on the women in their orbit, in Rilke’s case the gifted painter Paula-Modersohn Becker and sculptor Clara Westhoff, (as friend and wife respectively), their fraught passage to independence alongside Rilke’s painstaking ascendency. Corbett is empathic towards these free spirits labouring to extricate themselves from the thicket of male dominated culture, yet thankfully she does not romanticise.

Corbett sketches Rodin’s advance over the desiccated terrain of reactionary criticism. We see the bullish sculptor organically immersed in his materials and more often his models, the authentic outsider, face pressed against the glass of the salons awaiting admittance. We pass through the Gates of Hell, into the Balzac and Zola intrigues, are borne on the Camille Claudel storm wave and on to his encounter with the melancholy young poet who arrives in Paris bearing the uncomfortable embryo of an impulsively initiated family life. Desperate for creative re-alignment, Rilke loiters at Meudon enduring the sculptor’s domestic maelstrom in order to access the atelier and its secrets. Mesmerised by Rodin’s physicality, ‘Rilke noted the way the sculptor would lunge at his sculptures, the floor creaking and moaning under his heavy feet. He would fix his eyes on a detail and zero in so close that his nose pressed up against the clay…’ Rodin’s proffered panacea to his disciple of ‘travailler, toujours travailler’ becomes mantra to the poet until Rilke gradually awakens to the danger of humanistic petrification if taken verbatim.

Rilke gains most, evolving through the governing prism of Rodin’s presence and Paris. Rodin, immortalised in his undisputed greatness, remains fossilised in human terms, a man who counselled ‘sedating one’s own children, should they prove distracting from the pursuit.’ Rodin’s brutal unjust sacking of Rilke as personal secretary is a watershed moment. Yet ultimately the master and one-time disciple are reconciled, and set to repolishing the now dulled treasure of their friendship when both men share a residence in the intriguing ‘lost domain’ of the legendary Hotel Biron. Rodin withdraws, snubs modernity and clinging defiantly to classicism is brashly rejected by minimalist parvenus like Brancusi. Rilke must now master fame himself, or ‘that collection of misunderstandings that gather around a name.’ Proof of his unswerving attachment to Rodin is laid bare in the acclamatory dedication he chooses, tellingly penned in French not German, for the Neue Gedichte Anderer Teil (1908) ‘À mon grand ami Auguste Rodin’.

By Will Stone


You Must Change Your Life – The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, by Rachel Corbett (Norton New York/London, 2016), $26.95- £20.00

Review | Exhilarating Magus: Myth and Poetics in Stephen Yenser’s Stone Fruit

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Stone Fruit, Stephen Yenser’s highly anticipated third collection published by Waywiser, dazzles, delights, and enchants with its wordplay, predilection for sound effects, and linguistic brilliance. Profound and beautiful, meticulous, bristling with erudition, it sizzles with versatility and sophistication. Both modern and timeless, it resonates into past centuries, at times elliptical, at times mythic, the work of a maestro at the top of his craft.

Yenser’s debut volume, The Fire in All Things, was selected by Richard Howard to receive the 1992 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. Blue Guide, his second, was published in 2006.

The poems in Stone Fruit span wide geographic distances, from the California Joshua Desert to the Cycladic Islands in Greece, from Kansas to Massachusetts, via various locales in Los Angeles, and are to be savored, “Lost as the map, with no directions to follow / Except those of deranged Joshua trees, / And rootless, extravagant as tumbleweed.” We can hear echos of Emily Dickinson’s “Done with the Compass — / Done with the Chart!” Yenser makes for a very unusual travel guide — constantly surprising with unabashed and contagious joie de vivre — whose range is astonishing. Here we encounter personal, lyrical, and meditative, as well as political and ekphrastic poems, along with a couple of exquisite translations from Hölderlin.

The book was written in part in memory to James Merrill, who was a friend. With J. D. McClatchy, Yenser serves as co-literary executor of Merrill’s estate and co-edited Merrill’s Collected Poems, Collected Prose, Collected Novels and Plays, The Changing Light at Sandover, and Selected Poems. He is at work on Merrill’s Selected Letters.

Yenser also pays tribute to Emily Dickinson in the delightful poem “The Relic,” which relates Yenser’s visit to Amherst library, where a lock of Emily Dickinson’s hair has been preserved in box, “a casket / that opens brashly on the lock of hair: a curl of bright auburn / (“bold, like the Chestnut Burr, …”

Yenser is a mesmerizing orator to boot, providing delightful anecdotes. If you have a chance to hear him read, by all means do. He confided impishly that he was dying to touch the hair, and nobody would have known. “An urgent yearning, an awful favor / rises … I’m dying to ask it.” At the reading, he shared that maybe if you touch it, you don’t get the poem. He got the poem instead, lucky for us.

I have to admit that, being half Greek, I am partial to the poems set in the Aegean, on the islands of Sifnos and Santorini. Yenser has an affinity for Greece where he has spent quite some time. The poem “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” is a compendium of reasons why he keeps returning. It starts, tongue in cheek, with an epigraph uttered by his friend William Edinger: “I don’t know why you don’t just go over to Catalina.” The list is vast and lends itself to all sorts of puns and verbal acrobatics, starting with the rhyming opening lines: “I come here for the views. / I come because there is no news.” It keeps building, thanks to Yenser’s particular wit and stylistic precision, and growing in emotional depth to explore history and etymology.

I come to be alone. Because I am alone. Out of season. Like the
______few midges left. Adrift on a stony island no known poet
______hails from. Enisled. Outlandish as that term. (Annihiled
______is different but only by a smidge.)

To remind myself how simple things can be. Simple as the music
______of the marble figures of the harpist—and the unique
______double-reed player.

Not to mention concepts. To remind myself how when it comes
______to things like concepts, Heraclitus and Plato had all we
______would ever need. (Pythagoras I set aside for now.)

“Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” is eleven pages long. The second section — of six — is dedicated to Edward Lear, best known for such works as The Book of Nonsense, including the famous “Owl and the Pussycat”. Lear was also a landscape painter. The Gennadius Library in Athens owns two hundred of his Greek sketches and watercolours.
“…
Because even this delicate, vehicular medium meant fixity, his
______nemesis, so in hopes that glazed and scumbled oils
______could get the shifty shades right, he jotted in light pencil
______across the images descriptions, shot through with nonce
______terms and puns fleeting as pains taken, rubbed and
______faded, sometimes indecipherable, wishful notes written
______on washes disappearing before our eyes, which follow
______them, into sea, cliff, olive stand, distant temple, dovecote,
______asphodel.

‘catch gold grass’ ‘all turquoisy & Byzantine Bluesy’ ‘O
_______poopies!’ ‘very olivish’”

Yenser also pays homage to Walt Whitman: “I come here to sit at length and read some Whitman, who adored / words plain as stones, regardless of those exultant / exaltations of ‘eidolons’.” According to Merriam Webster, an eidolon is a “an unsubstantial image, a phantom.” Wikipedia describes it as “a spirit-image of a living or dead person; a shade or phantom look-alike of the human form.” Yenser’s vocabulary is so rich that I picked up several new words along the way. The book is haunted by the presence of many poets and artists, starting with the cover painting of St. Jerome by Leonardo Da Vinci, as well as by “hard men faceless and various as the stones themselves” who have labored over the years to build stone walls.

Through ingenious repetitions, the poem becomes a celebratory ritual, a prayer, whose lyricism reaches a crescendo in the last stanzas, leaving us breathless:
“…
And I am in over my head again, where it all flows, beginning with
_______the simplest language, where once some tongue-slip led to
            slime then slid along to loam and lime and then oblivion,

While even stone is hardly faster, sea creatures secreting shells
______whose limestone pressed to marble harbors streaming
______linen.

I come back because I cannot stay away. Because I cannot stay.
______Because I must.

I come back to leave. Not to leave a mark, either. To take it,
______rather. Like a vow. A vow of silence, say.

Or just a volta, the evening turn along the littoral that turns
______imaginal beneath my feet. To take it and to leave it, then.
______To leave my take—as pirates and directors have it—and to
______take my leave away.”

To read Stephen Yenser’s audacious poetry is to enter a liminal world, where music and memory mingle, and aesthetic vibrancy pulsates with rhythmic magic. The titular fruits encountered in the book are the date (in “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” and in “Post Avant Pastoral”), the blackberry and the apricot (in “Preserves”), the cherry (in Hija for Emerson’s Birthday), and the olive (in “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” and “Psalm in Sifnos”). “Stones” are a leitmotif throughout the book, present 26 times in different forms in seven of the poems (sometimes they also appear as marble as in “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” and “Old Man in a Waterfront Taverna”), and are referencing “Whitman, who adored words plain as stones,” as well as walls, the fruit of hard labor, and sculptures in graveyards:

“I come here to address not deconstruction but myself.

To address myself to the oregano (a whiff on the breeze nostalgic
______and heady as skunk) cropping up beside the ubiquitous
______retaining walls and boundary walls,

Built of the ubiquitous stone, culled from the fields, or axed
______and levered out of outcrops, sometimes faced or split,
______sometimes filled with scrabbled up rubble, fitted,
______mortarless, tight as puzzle pieces,

Built with what would now be tortuous lifting, hugging, and
_______lugging, done under the long, low sun over decades,
_______decades of decades, the stones settling in subtly, row on row,

Adamant and indistinct as the years themselves, by hard men
_______faceless and various as the stones themselves.
According to lore, the discontented among them come back at
_______night during autumn to fields pitch dark beneath the vast
broadcast of stars

To monitor their work, to make repairs to those boundaries that
_______are their bonds with this world.

Each has many, many headstones, none with a name.

They did not (O, onanistic onomastician!) make names for
______themselves, those men,

But wallstones, and courses of them, since stone by stone makes
_______a wall, and walls make farming, and farming, homes.

Homes they went back to at dusk and maybe beat their women
______in, in the unbeatable heat, and maybe had hard or fearful
______sex in, as the parching meltémi lashed the night and the
______fishermen’s lashed-up boats apart,

And anyway yelled things they sometimes did not think could be
_______set down in words,

Who set these stones they harvested in place for all but ever.”

It is worthwhile noticing that St Jerome appears petrified on the cover painting, “where Leonardo’s oil turns stone / his painstakingly underpainted / saint, face anguish-lit, his man / in the moon reflecting radiance”.

The definition of a stone fruit, or drupe, is a fruit with a stone or pit inside. Inside the stone is the seed. They are named thus because the seeds keep their covering. In such a way the book reveals itself to be an ode to rebirth. “The poetry of the earth is never dead,” wrote Keats. These stones are alive and speak to us through time. “It is poetry that constitutes our deepest memoir,” confides Thomas McCarthy in Merchant Prince. Indeed, Stone Fruit, astounding and revelatory, radiates with Stephen Yenser’s intense genius. This is a mesmerizing opus by a masterful poet.

“Psalm on Sifnos,” the last poem of the collection, encapsulates the spirit of the book and closes with distilled language, also naming the tamarisk, a favorite of the god Apollo and known for hoarding light, water and nutrients (the goddess Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, bathed in a bath of tamarisk before he began his conquest), and the mastic tree, cultivated for its aromatic resin:

“One wants at last
to cede the field
to tamarisk
and mastic tree,
To olive and stone,
Stones in the fruit,
Seeds in the stone.”

Stephen Yenser’s extraordinary scholarship includes three critical books (Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell; The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill; and A Boundless Field: American Poetry at Large. He is distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he was director of Creative Writing. He curates the Hammer Poetry Readings Series at the Hammer Museum.

by Hélène Cardona


Hélène Cardona is a poet, literary translator, and actor, the recipient of numerous awards including a Hemingway Grant and the International Book Award. She is the author of three collections, most recently Life in Suspension and Dreaming My Animal Selves (both from Salmon Poetry); and four translations: Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, White Pine Press), Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux, Editions du Cygne), The Birnam Wood (by José Manuel Cardona), and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for the Iowa International Writing Program’s WhitmanWeb. Cardona’s work has been translated into 14 languages.

She has taught at Hamilton College and Loyola Marymount University. Publications include Washington Square Review, World Literature Today, Poetry International, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Dublin Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, Drunken Boat, Asymptote, The Warwick Review and elsewhere.


Stone Fruit, Stephen Yenser, The Waywiser Press, Oct 2016, 96pp, £9.99 (paperback)

Short Story Competition 2016 | An interview with Max Porter

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With just over a month until our Short Story Competition 2016 closes, we spoke to judge Max Porter and found out about which writer never fails to inspire him, which three books he’d take if he were stranded on a desert island, and what advice he’d give to this year’s competition entrants.

 

What are you currently reading? If it’s not fiction, what fiction have you recently read and enjoyed?

I’m reading Lian Hearn’s Japanese adventure series Shikanoko, Eileen Myles’ I Must Be Living Twice, and some Peter Stamm short stories.

And what specifically did you like about it?

I like the very controlled and worthwhile magic realism in Lian Hearn’s books, and the sex, and the painterly way she has with violence. They’re hugely entertaining and I need that because I ‘literary fiction’ all day every day.

What is your favourite short story, and why is it your favourite?

That’s a horrible question and I refuse to answer it. Oh OK. On Monday it was The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. On Tuesday it was The Swimmer by John Cheever. On Wednesday it is The Country Funeral by John McGahern. Thursday The Early Deaths of.. by Jesse Ball. And so on.

I’d choose The Lottery for a space capsule I suppose. Because it is devastating, exquisitely well designed, witty, political, mythic. It tells vast truths quickly and with poise. It is perfect.

Which writer’s work can you always rely on to inspire your creative process?

Angela Carter.

If you were stuck on a desert island and you could only take three books, which three would you take?

Refuse to answer. Ok, Odyssey, Shakespeare and a massive cheat Poetry anthology.

What advice can you give entrants to the Short Story Competition 2016?

You should let the story do what it needs to do and not corral it harmfully into another shape. Stories are lethal tools, let it be. Consider how many we’ll have to read and show us quickly why we need to pay attention to yours. Do not waste one single word. Finish well, all the greats do.

 


Max PorterMax Porter is an editorial director of Granta and Portobello Books. His authors include Han Kang, Eleanor Catton, Ben Marcus, Sarah Moss and Caroline Lucas. His debut novel Grief is the Thing With Feathers was published in 2015. It won the International Dylan Thomas Prize and will be translated into 23 languages. He lives in South London with his family.

The London Magazine Poetry Prize 2016 | Winners

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Thank you so much to everyone who entered The London Magazine‘s Poetry Prize 2016. The standard of entries was extremely high but our judges, Rebecca Perry and Andrew McMillan, have made their choices and we are delighted to announce the winners:

First place: ‘They Don’t Make Gods for Non-Believers’ by Patrick Errington

Second place: ‘Kira’ by Aaron Fagan

Third place: ‘The Truth About Figs’ by Angela Carr

Each of these poems will be published in the October/November Issue of The London Magazine as well as online. The winners will be awarded their prizes at a ceremony held at the Collyer Bristow gallery in London later this month.

We would also like to extend a special mention to those who were shortlisted, your poetry also impressed our judges and magazine staff:

Shortlist:
an eternal & – Mary Jean Chan
Amber – Rachel Bower
Baton – Theresa Lola
Bridges – Natalie Burdett
Carol (and her wing girl), Summer 1976 – Estelle Goodwin
Delivery – Eleanor Hooker
Divisions, Approximately – Ralf Webb
Drishti – Paul Nemser
From A Table – Craig Bregman
Harmony – Aaron Fagan
Living With Bluebeard – Lesley Sharpe
My Father Shows Me His Knuckles – Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Orbis Alius / Other World – Eadaoin Lynch
Sonnet – Alexander Shaw
Syrian Woman, Berlin 2015 – Joan Michelson
The Last Woman Born On The Island – Sharon Black
Three Other Ways To Look At Venice – Julie Irigaray

Thanks also to our longlist, as selected by Theophilus Kwek, whose poem ‘What Follows’ was chosen for third place in the Poetry Competition 2015.

Longlist:
Natalya Anderson, Elaine Beckett, Kaddy Benyon, Mary Jean Chan, Elaine Cosgrove, Annmarie Drury, Robin Durnford, Mike Harding, Tania Hershman, Jack Houston, Wes Lee, Ali Lewis, Amelia Loulli, Jill Munro, Rachel Piercey, Bethany Pope, Lesley Saunders, Lavinia Singer, Miriam Sully, Sarah Watkinson

 

Two Wives and a Widow by Angela Carter

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From The London Magazine March 1966

Two Wives and a Widow
A modern version from the Middle Scots of William Dunbar

If one night in the year is romantic,
that night is Midsummer’s Eve. Such a night, it was…
about midnight, I went out by myself and came
to a flower garden behind a hawthorn hedge. On a bough,
this crazy bird was splitting its sides,
singing. And such a scent of flowers.
The grass wet with dew, the nightingales shouting.
A night for lovers. Alone as I was,
lonely, I was. Then I heard voices,
loud, laughing voices talking in the garden.
It was a party. Whose party? So I climbed into the hedge
(though the thorns hurt dreadfully) and peered
through the branches.
—————- I saw three women
with flowers in their long, yellow hair, loose hair
hanging over their shoulders. They smoothed their green dresses
with long, white fingers—such beautiful women,
such sweet and gentle faces. Three human flowers
among the roses, the lilies. Two were married, I knew them—
respectable, fashionable. The other a widow.
They had a table in front of them,
with bottles and glasses,
they sat talking and drinking. And the more they drank,
the more they talked.
They talked freely.
—————- Yes, freely.

‘Now,’ said the widow, ‘we’re all girls together.
Let’s play the truth game, nothing
but the truth. About husbands, our husbands,
and marriage.
—————- Both of you
married out of the schoolroom; any regrets?
Or did you put away pleasure
with your wedding dresses, find you’d eaten it up
with the wedding cake and not a crumb left?
What about other men?
Would you choose different if you had the chance?
And how about
the ” ’til death do us part” bit?’

One woman, elegant, she was, refined, said :
`Marriage !’ and she spat.
`They call it blessed but I say it’s hell!
I’d leave him tomorrow, if I had the chance!
A change is as good as a rest, they say;
you certainly need a rest from marriage.
—————- Why should it
last more than a year?
Why should two people stay
tied together when all the time they pull
—————- in different ways?
You know the old story—how the birds
pick a new friend each year.
The birds know the score !
—————- Us girls
would be in clover if we could have
a nice new boyfriend any time we liked
—————- and send the ones
who didn’t come up to scratch packing
wit h a kick in the backside!
Oh, how I’d dress tip
and go alit and about, theatres, concerts, parties,

peacocking about, showing myself off
where all die young men were. I’d shop around
for someone to keep me warm at nights
—————- and then go window-shopping
for next year’s boy. And he could stand in
on the current one’s off-nights, when he couldn’t
make it. I’d go for young boys, pretty boys,
but—you understand—capable. I’d gobble them all up,
bones and all.

I’m tied to a shadow, a worm, a blind old man
so shagged out he can’t do anything but talk. He’s nothing
but a bagful’ of snot.
He can’t even keep his trousers clean. He’s always
scratching himself, scratching everywhere, no shame –
it’s disgusting.
I could burst into tears when he kisses me.
His five o’clock shadow bristles like pig-hide (but its
the only thing about him that can stand up to attention—
if you get my meaning.)
—————- He’s always talking-
oh, he can jabber away all night. But when we get down to it,
it’s a fiasco. When he gets hold of me, it’s as bad
as if some nigger bastard were jumping on me.
But I can’t get away from him.
—————- Christ!
He’s got some horrible habits,
the dirty old devil.
When he starts smirking with the love-light in his eyes
(he’s got big sores all round his eyes,
they weep with pus) I could vomit all over him.
He grins and fidgets away
like a poxed old cart-horse sniffing after the mares.
But when that doddering old fool fancies a bit,
then I really get on my high horse, I do.
He can never get one hand fumbling up between my legs without putting the other in his pocket.
Though he’s never a bit of good to me in bed, I get what satisfaction I can from his cheque-book,
—————- the morning after.
Even if he’s mad for it,
I won’t let him near me until he promises me a present—
a nice silk scarf, or a pretty new dress, or maybe a ring.
Or else he’s got to go and whistle for it.
But in spite of it all, he’s a bad bargain;
he always botches the job.

He’s jealous, too, and spiteful. He’s always on the watch
in case I’m getting up to mischief on the sly.
He’s been randy enough in his time, he knows all the tricks.
And he’s dying to catch me out in one of them.
He knows all right
that youth calls to youth (as they say)—
and I could rub up against him for a year and a day
and never come.

Pray God you girls don’t get a husband like mine!’

How they all laughed when she finished,
and had another round of drinks.
The widow wiped her mouth and said to the other woman,
`How about you? How do you get on? Don’t
spare us the gory details!
And I’ll into the witness box after you
and tell all.’

`Now you just keep quiet about my affairs,’ said the second,
`not a word to a soul ! Thank God, no eavesdroppers.
Right.
Out with all the poison, it’ll do me good.
He’s a drag, a slag, a nothing, my husband.
I hate him. Yes, truly hate him.
Oh, he’s young, yes, and handsome, yes—
and he used to be a great one for women, always
rolling about in some tart’s bed. But that was
before I knew him.
—————- And the consequence was,
he’s sucked dry!
His thing is useless, worn out,
like an old boot that’s been walked to death.
Oh, we’ve been to all the doctors, massage, pills, hormones,
psychoanalysis, even—but no joy.
And would you believe it, he still tries it on!
I’ve even found him trying to screw some pick-up
in my own bed.

Not that he’s got a chance. But he dresses so nicely, he’s
got such a way with him, a real ladies’ man—you’d think
he’d be at it all the time. He’s always bragging
how he can make a girl come ten times without stopping.
Words, all words.
—————- He’s like a dog
who can’t stop sniffing the bushes, cocking
his leg though he doesn’t want a pee.
But, as I said, he’s handsome. Tall, dark and handsome—
dreamy. To look at.
When we got married and me so young, I thought
I’d got a gem, a jewel—but he turned out
just so much shining rubbish.

—————- Yes, I remember
what they say about the birds choosing new mates
every year, on Valentine’s day, isn’t it pretty.
If I could do like them, I wouldn’t wait
until February—I’d have my legs round a new man’s waist
and who cares what the neighbours say?

It was my family pushed me into it, damn them all—
and me so innocent, eager
for my pleasure (who isn’t? that’s
human nature !) I can’t sleep
for brooding. Sometimes I cry.
Then he takes me in his arms (and, oh God, I can’t help but feel
his flabby prick !) and he says: “Poor little love!
Can’t she sleep?” I’m scared he’ll try
something—you know—unnatural if all else fails
so I say, “No, darling, don’t touch,
I’ve got the heartburn.”
—————- Too true.
There’s a fire in my heart.
But I’ve got to grin and bear it although I can’t stand him.

The girl who’d suit him is one of the flinching kind
who’s scared of it, thinks it hurts
like Mummy told her. She’d never have a moment’s worry!
Well, I wish he’d married a girl like that,
who’d fancy no more than a bit of touching up now and then,
and I could climb into bed with some husky brute!’

And when she finished, once more the women laughed,
drowning their sorrows among the green leaves.
‘My turn for true confessions,’ said the widow.
‘Now you girls listen to me
and I’ll tell you how to handle a man.
—————- I must say,
I was always a bit of a one. But I knew how to hide it!
They always thought I was the sort of girl you’d marry,
you know what I mean ! A nice girl, homely.
The fools!
—————- You take my advice.
Keep your noses clean. Play the “little woman”.
Do what you’re told, don’t raise your voice, keep
your thoughts to yourself and you can rule your man
with a rod of iron! You can make his life misery
and he’ll love you all the more.
And keep up appearances, dress well—it doesn’t cost anything,
your husband’ll foot the bill.

I’ve had two husbands and they both loved me.
Though I despised them, they never knew it.

The first had one foot in the grave. Old Father Time I called him.
Senile decay personified. He’d hawk and spit everywhere,
no control. But he never knew what I was thinking.
I was always kissing him, cuddling him, rubbing
ointment into his rheumatics, combing his hair (what was left
of it) and all the time
I’d be taking the piss out of him on the quiet.
I used to have a good laugh about it
behind his back. No fool
like an old fool. He thought I stroked his wrinkles
out of love.

—————- Well, I had my bit of love.
He knew how to keep his mouth shut, too.
And when things got too rough with the old man,
there was always my bit of comfort, on the side.
I was clever. I had my cake and ate it too.
And my husband even thought he’d fathered
—————- my little boy.

After him, I married into trade.
He was middle-aged, middling height—everything middling.
Nothing exceptional about him except his money and I soon got my hands on
that.
I threw myself away on him, really; and never let him
forget it.
—————- I pounced on every dropped ‘h’;
he had a good talking to every time
he said ‘serviette’ or belched in company. Common, he was.
I used to say : “What else can you expect
from a counter-jumper?”

—————- I’d buried my nice ways
with my first husband. I’d talk a lot about my first—
that used to get him down. I told him straight out
what a favour I’d done him by marrying him,
only taken him on
—————- out of the kindness of my heart.
I had a new line, you see, and he fell for it.
He was right under my thumb.
He’d do anything to please me, fetching and carrying—
but he did nothing right.
—————- It’s a funny thing, though,
I’d been quite fond of him when we were courting.
I was the lord and master; I ran the show.
And I despised him for letting me—fancy
being under a woman’s thumb like that!
How could I respect him?
But I never let go at him completely till I’d got my children
named as his heirs, legally, in writing,
and his own kids by his other wife heirs
to damn all.

—————- After that, I ran him a race!
I even made him stay at home and keep house
and I took over his business.
He was a laughing stock.
He thought he’d try and buy me off
with all sorts of presents, Paris frocks,
scent, jewellery—nothing but the best.
I never said no. “Tak’ all, gie nowt” as they say up North;
I’d get geared up like a model in the clothes he paid for
and go out looking for new lovers—
—————- and I found them.

When I was in bed with him, I’d
pretend it was some other man thrusting away inside.
Otherwise
what fun could it have been? with him?
He was never much cop.

Well, he’s dead and rotten now
and I can enjoy myself quietly, in my own way.
—————- The world thinks
I’m grieving, still. All in black, pale but interesting,
men find me . . . disturbing. I’m giving piety a whirl.
I go to church. I hide behind my prayerbook
and peck over the top at all the nice young men
—————- and they get the message
as often as not.
If a friend of my husband’s sees me, I squeeze out a tear or two.
How sorry they are for me! “You can see
how much she feels it.” I like
to keep things looking proper.

That’s the secret—keep things looking proper.
Keep our own council, be circumspect.
Circumspect.

—————- I’ve a boyfriend on the quiet
to cheer up a poor widow, yet all the county
thinks I’m a good woman, isn’t it marvellous?
—————- But the best of all
is at parties.
—————- They come flocking round me,
I’m a prize, a fine catch.
They talk so well, bring me little gifts,
make speeches, flatter me, here a kiss, there—
some of them even have the nerve,
the wicked things,
to shove themselves, stiff as a board, into my hand!
or maybe I feel it pressing against my back …
I’m a merciful woman, I’m kind; I don’t like to cause pain.
I pinch the ones next to me, just in fun,
lean hard on the one behind, play
footsy with another
and smile at the ones too far away for anything else.
—————- A bit of encouragement
doesn’t do any harm.
Take one, take all—why not? I’m my own mistress.
I’d be rude to say no.

So that’s the story of my life and you pay heed to the moral!’

The women said she was such a good teacher; they would
do as she said, in future. Sweetly, prudently,
they’d betray their husbands, Judas-like kissing, caressing,
waiting for widowhood.
Meanwhile, how dry their throats were! So they drank up.

Day dawned after their pleasant night. A lark singing,
a soft, fresh, melting morning, the mist dissolving.
The fields breathed clover, a skyfull of birds chorussing
for joy. The scent of grass, the sound
of the streams running. Clear, lovely morning—
it brings back hope, even to the saddest.

Bedtime for the elegant ladies. Home, they went,
through the flowers, yawning, and I
sat down to report their talking, as you have heard it.
Dear reader, let me put it to you.
Which of these women would you choose for your woman
if you should marry one of them?


41dnTyYnsaL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_

In a burst of creativity between the years of 1963 and 1966, Angela Carter, more usually known as a novelist, essayist and short story writer, composed much of the poetry which appears in the new volume Unicorn. Collected for the first time by Rosemary Hill, these five poems contain the seeds of what would characterise her later work; a subversive use of folk and fairy tale coloured by a wickedly funny sense of humour. The London Magazine originally published ‘Two Wives and a Widow’, which appears in Unicorn, in March 1966, during the most prolific period of Carter’s poetic inspiration.

Unicorn: the poetry of Angel Carter is published on the 5th November by Profile Books

 

Short Story Competition: A word from the Judges

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Yasutaka Tsutsui / Luigi Pirandello

With just a few weeks left till the end of our annual Short Story Competition we spoke to the Judges to find out exactly what the short story means to them.  Today we spoke to Alessandro Gallenzi, writer, publisher and founder of Alma Books about writers, short stories and what to read to be inspired. 

What do you look for in a short story? 

Economy of language, humour, a well-devised structure and, above all, a satisfying ending that makes you laugh, cry or think long after turning the last page.

Which short story writers do you admire? 

My favourite short-story writers from the Western canon are Boccaccio, Chekhov, Fitzgerald, Gogol, Conan Doyle, Poe, Pushkin, Saki, Pirandello and Carver. Among the contemporaries, Ian McEwan and Yasutaka Tsutsui.

What possibilities does the form of short fiction present to a writer that the novel doesn’t offer? 

A short story enables the writer to develop a particular idea or describe a situation or set of circumstances without having to create too much context or dilute the narration with excessive description. A short story is compact and pithy – it is, to the novel, what a sonnet is to a long poem: the shorter form helps to condense the thought and delivers a punch more effectively than the diffused narrative of a novel.

How would you describe yourself as a reader? 

Curious and omnivorous, with a penchant for the sapid.

If you had to recommend one short story for contributors to read what would it be? 

Five, please: ‘The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Fell Out with Ivan Nikiforovich’ by Gogol, ‘The Queen of Spades’ by Pushkin, ‘Berenice’ (or ‘The Tell-tale Heart’) by Poe, ‘Chichibio and the Crane’ (Decameron, VI, 4) by Boccaccio and ‘The Wheelbarrow’ by Pirandello. Hang on, there’s also…

Alessandro-Gallenzi-crop-221x300

Alessandro Gallenzi is the founder of Hesperus Press, Alma Books and Alma Classics, and the successor of John Calder at the helm of Calder Publications. As well as being a literary publisher with almost ten years of experience, he is a translator, a poet, a playwright and a novelist. His collection of poetry Modern Bestiary – Ars Poetastrica was published in 2005 to critical acclaim.

 

 

 

Click here to submit your entry

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