Sunday, 18 March 2018

Molloy Again

Having just finished reading Beckett's Molloy again, I realise that it's now 50 years since I first read it. In 1968, when I was just finishing school, I was aware of Waiting for Godot – I could hardly not be – but knew nothing of Beckett's other writings. Then, one fateful day, I was browsing the shelves of my local branch library when I spotted a muddy blue library-bound volume the spine of which was lettered 'Molloy. S. Beckett'. I took it home and was instantly drawn in, reading through it enthralled, from that famous opening –
'I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now. I don't know how I got there...'
to the equally famous ending –
'Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.'
  From then on, I read every Beckett text I could get my hands on, and, 50 years on, my admiration for Beckett has never dwindled (unlike my admiration for many others I was reading at this time). I guess I must have read Molloy five or six times now, and every time something new comes to the surface. A passage that brought me up short this time was this, in Part I:

'I who had loved the image of old Geulincx, dead young, who left me free, on the black boat of Ulysses, to crawl towards the East, along the deck. That is a great measure of freedom, for him who has not the pioneering spirit. And from the poop, poring upon the wave, a sadly rejoicing slave, I follow with my eyes the proud and futile wake. Which, as it bears me from no fatherland away, bears me onward to no shipwreck.'

Geulincx rang a faint bell. He was, I (re?)discovered, a 17th-century philosopher much influenced by Descartes, and Beckett's imagery here derives partly from Dante's account of the doomed second voyage of Ulysses, and partly from an image in which Geulincx delineates the extent of human freedom. In Beckett's annotations to Geulincx's Ethics he paraphrased it thus:

'Just as a ship carrying a passenger with all speed towards the West in no way prevents the passenger from walking towards the East, so the will of God, carrying all things, impelling all things with inexorable force, in no way prevents us from resisting his will (as much as is in our power) with complete freedom.'

It's easy enough to see why this idea of freedom-in-slavery should have appealed to Beckett and fed into his fiction, populated as it is with sadly rejoicing slaves, all too aware that their freedom is simply that of walking the short walk from prow to stern of the boat that is bearing them inexorably onward in the opposite direction. It is indeed 'a great measure of freedom, for him who has not the pioneering spirit'. It might even be taken for a reasonable image of life itself, or rather living itself, carried on in the face of the certainty that we will all die. It feels like freedom, and that seems good enough.

Friday, 16 March 2018


My butterfly year began among the Monarchs, Coppers and Yellow Admirals of Wellington – but that doesn't really count. Back in Blighty, it has felt like a long, long wait – it always does – but at last it's begun, the butterfly year proper: today I saw my first. Two bright male Brimstones were roving the ivy-clad railway embankment. Spring is on its way at last – though not before the Beast from the East comes roaring in again at the weekend...
March 16th is quite late for my first butterfly: last year my first sighting was a month earlier, and by this date I'd seen four species. In 2016 it was much the same as this year (March 14th) and in 2014 a week earlier, but 2015 began with the glorious surprise of a Red Admiral in Kensington on February 18th. Now that the 2018 season is under way, I'm hoping for the best year ever. I always am.

Clegg Oozes Passion in Tate Britain

I've just remembered something else from my recent visit to Tate Britain. On sale in the bookshop were copies of Nick Clegg's How to Stop Brexit ('oozes passion on every page' – Politics). What on earth was this doing in an art gallery bookshop? Presumably it was stocked on the assumption that everyone who is interested in the arts and likely to visit a gallery is anti-Brexit and would feel that little bit better just to see such a title on display.
  On Desert Island Discs this week, John Gray – yes, John Gray! On Desert Island Discs! – talked briefly about the consensus view in Academe that Brexiteers are (at best) nostalgic for a lost imperial past. 'For me,' Gray declared, 'the past is the European Project.'
  For me too, which was one of the reasons I was pro-Brexit, and one of the reasons I remain totally astonished that such a clapped-out relic of postwar thinking as the EU should be embraced so fervently by Young People. And indeed by the kind of trendies who visit Tate Britain.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

All Too Freudian, All Too Baconian

The other day I dropped in on the All Too Human exhibition at Tate Britain, an exhibition subtitled Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life. It certainly lives up to the first part of the subtitle, treating us to Bacon and Freud in quantity. As I take little pleasure in the works of either – so ugly, so grotesque, whatever their technical merits or 'importance' – this was for me the weak point of the exhibition (though I did enjoy Freud's uncharacteristically tender little portrait of his mother, and I rather like Bacon's Dog). So I was hoping for better things from the 'Century of Painting Life' (whatever that means).
 It turned out to be an odd selection of pictures and artists linked, for the most part, by nothing very much apart from being broadly figurative. As if in recognition of this incoherence, the curators make strenuous efforts to construct a connective thesis where it might have been more useful to provide a little more basic information about the artists and works concerned.
 The first room contains a few works by Sickert, Spencer, Bomberg (including a fine self-portrait) and, for some reason, Soutine. The second plunges us into Bacon (with a link to Giacometti), and the third is devoted to F.N. Souza, whose works look to me uncomfortably like the kind of garish Sixties kitsch that turns up in charity shops. The next room brings in William Coldstream and the Slade, and includes a couple of paintings I wouldn't have minded taking home: an early still life (with Delft jar) by Euan Uglow [right], and an orange tree (in a pot) by Coldstream himself.
After this, Bomberg reappears, along with some of his pupils, including Auerbach, Kossoff and Dorothy Mead (of whom I'd have liked to see more). A room full of glutinously impasted paintings of London scenes by Kossoff and Auerbach is followed by more Freud, including several of his huge and revolting nudes – and then comes another room of Bacons, but which time I was wondering if I was going to find anything in this exhibition to lift my spirits.
 The answer came in the following room, which contained just three paintings by Michael Andrews and three by R.B. Kitaj, each of which gave me more aesthetic pleasure than the whole of the rest of the exhibition. Andrews is represented by two large group portraits (more evocations than representations) taken from Soho life – The Colony Room and The Deer Park – and by Melanie and Me Swimming [below], a painting that transforms a holiday snap into a potent and touching image of human frailty, of the preciousness and precariousness of life and love.  Of the Kitajs, it was a joy to see To Live In Peace (The Singers) [above], especially on a cold grey March day, and to let the eye wander over the densely packed, richly coloured surfaces of The Wedding and Cecil Court (The Refugees), the centre of London's second-hand book trade viewed through the prism of Jewish history and yiddish theatre. Both Andrews and Kitaj are artists whose work is due a proper reappraisal – a joint retrospective would be a good thing. I'd certainly go and see it.
 All Too Human is rounded off by a room full of Paula Rego – easy to admire, hard to enjoy, impossible to live with – and a room of works by younger artists in the figurative tradition, as if to demonstrate that, despite everything, it's still going strong.

Monday, 12 March 2018

The Monarch of Mirth

Sad news today that Ken Dodd, our greatest comedian, has died. He reached a good age, was active till very near the end, and even got round to making an honest woman of his partner of 40 years just before he died (let's hope she doesn't inherit any tax bills).
 Dodd was perhaps the last of the comedians who honed their craft in the music halls, and he was always first and foremost a stage comedian, with a quite astonishing gift for working an audience. I saw him in action once and I've never experienced anything like it. You might start with all kinds of reservations, you might even wonder what you're doing there – but within minutes you and everybody else in the audience will be eating out of his hand, and within not many more minutes you will be laughing as you've never laughed before at a stage comedian. Dodd could reduce any audience to helpless, weeping laughter – and it was a mystery how he did it. He didn't tell many jokes as such, and much of his material was on the corny side – it was, emphatically, the way he told them, and the extraordinary atmosphere of happiness and mirth he generated. His shows went on for hours, with bizarre musical interludes and singalongs, but you didn't care; for the time he was on the stage, all was well with the world. His comedy was a classic case of 'You had to be there', and I'm very glad that, on one occasion, I was. We'll certainly never see his like again.
 This link should take you to Dodd doing his vent act...

Sunday, 11 March 2018

A Canine Shocker

'I don't know when I read anything so indecent, disgusting, touching, beautiful and stylish; I do fervently recommend it,' writes Julia Strachey to Frances Partridge in 1956. What is this indecent, disgusting  etc. book, this 'veritable marvel of brilliance and shockingness'? It is My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley, a slim volume that I'd always assumed was just another charming memoir of life with a much-loved dog. Having now read it, I can confirm that it is no such thing, and that Julia Strachey was quite right about it. It's an extraordinary book, by turns jaw-dropping, hair-raising and laugh-aloud funny, with odd moments that are indeed touching and even beautiful.
  Ackerley is a now nearly forgotten figure who was from 1935 to 1959 the hugely influential literary editor of The Listener, from which position he championed many younger writers, including Auden, Spender and Isherwood, Larkin and Francis King – often in the teeth of opposition from the obdurate BBC. He was openly gay, at a time when it was dangerous to be so, and was such a ruthless self-editor that he only brought to completion in his lifetime a memoir (Hindoo Holiday), a stage play, a novel (We Think the World of You) – and the sui generis My Dog Tulip.
  The real-life original of Tulip was an Alsatian bitch called Queenie, but the publishers understandably thought it wiser to change the name. Ackerley states matter-of-factly that he and 'Tulip' fell in love with each other at first sight; he has no qualms about using such anthropomorphic language, and even talks of finding a 'husband' for Tulip, by whom she will have 'children'. These twee usages are, however, totally at odds with Ackerley's all too vivid descriptions of Tulip's inflamed condition when she is in heat, and the exertions of her various sex-crazed suitors and carefully selected 'husbands' (selected in vain; a grubby mongrel eventually impregnates her, giving her eight 'babies').
  It becomes clear to the reader very early on that Tulip is a nightmare dog, so fixated on her equally besotted master that she won't let anyone near him and can't bear to be out of his sight. And Ackerley is a nightmare dog owner, the very model of arrogant irresponsibility, as is made unblushingly apparent in the extremely graphic chapter titled 'Liquids and Solids'. Surely no other dog memoir has gone into these matters – or the gynaecological ones – with such relish. The jaw drops, the hair is raised, and so it goes on, until the action reaches a kind of climax with Ackerley sharing his tiny Putney flat (the terrace of which is Tulip's outside lavatory) with his beloved bitch and her eight puppies – a situation that gets so out of hand that the author is threatened with immediate eviction if he doesn't get rid of the puppies (half of whom he had been calmly preparing to drown, before he had a change of heart).
  So what are the redeeming features of this often disgusting book? For one, it is extremely well written: Ackerley knows exactly what he is doing, every episode is expertly related, and the book has a crispness and sharpness that is surely the product of much paring down. Then, amid all the unsparingly anatomical stuff, there are passages of quiet lyrical beauty – especially in the descriptions of idyllic interludes on Wimbledon Common – and there are even times when you can see, or at least glimpse, why the author is in love with his nightmare bitch. The emotional restraint of this unblinkingly realistic book keeps it well this side of sentimentality, making its moments of tenderness all the more effective and believable. And unlike most dog memoirs, this one doesn't include the beloved's death. Ackerley merely notes that 'Whatever blunders I may have committed in my management of this animal's life, she lived on to the great age of sixteen-and-a-half'.
  Ackerley described that day of Queenie's death as 'the saddest day of my life' and declared that 'I would have immolated myself as a suttee when Queenie died. For no human would I ever have done such a thing, but by my love for Queenie I would have been irresistibly compelled'. After her death, he carried on writing and kept himself afloat on a sea of alcohol until his death in 1967.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

To Firle

Yesterday I ventured into Bloomsbury country – not (you'll be unsurprised to learn) to pay my respects to Virginia, Vanessa, Duncan and co. at Charleston – but to visit St Peter's church in Firle village, which nestles, as they say, under the South Downs. This church is in the care of TV's Peter Owen-Jones, England's grooviest Rev., but I was not there to see him either. My destination was the Gage chapel of St Peter's, where I admired and photographed the fine alabaster effigies of Sir John Gage, a Tudor courtier, and his wife Philippa, which lie atop a plain chest tomb of elegant design.
 They lie with eyes open and hands pressed together in prayer (his rather crudely carved – perhaps repaired?). He, lying on a part-unrolled mat, wears his Garter insignia and the usual plate armour, she is in a relatively plain dress with an extraordinary, crisply geometric head-dress. Neither figure is quite in repose, nor quite 'alive'. Lady Philippa's face, however, is very sensitively modelled, as if from life, even though she and her husband were long dead when their monument was made in 1595. His handsomely bearded face is well modelled, but of a stock type. The coloration of the alabaster is lovely – these figures were surely never painted (as most were at the time).
 This beautiful monument is the work of one of the many Dutch monumental sculptors who came over in Elizabethan times to show us how it's done. Garret Jansen arrived from Amsterdam in 1567, set up a workshop in Southwark and anglicised his name to Gerard Johnson. By the 1590s he was getting commissions from some very grand families, who knew they were more likely to get quality work from the Dutch incomers than from native craftsmen. Two of Johnson's sons were also sculptors, and sadly one of them, Gerard junior, perpetrated the dire Shakespeare monument in Holy Trinity, Stratford-on-Avon.
 The Gage chapel at Firle is lit by a vibrantly colourful John Piper window (below) depicting the Tree of Life, and there's some good Victorian glass in the church. Happily nothing by Duncan Grant or Vanessa Bell.