Tag Archives: Literature

The Rolands’ quests

 

 

 

Elidor was Alan Garner’s third novel, first published in 1965, and the point where, half a lifetime ago, I became engrossed in the work of this great British writer.

At the start of the novel he quotes a phrase from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came – ”, spoken by Edgar as he pretends to be mad in order to protect himself from his malign brother Edmund. It is only recently that I have appreciated that this reference is one part of a literary chain spread over centuries.

In Elidor, Garner’s Roland, Roland Watson, is one of four siblings who become embroiled in an adventure to save the magical world of Elidor. Although the youngest, he is identified as the strongest by Malebron, the nobleman who seeks their help, and at many points of the story he is the leader. In Elidor at the start, he is able to rescue his siblings from the dungeon of the Mound of Vandwy. Later back home in Manchester, it is he who undertakes the task of recovering the four priceless treasures which they have hidden for protection. He retains a faith in the whole Elidor story when the older ones are becoming sceptical, and continues to take seriously their duty to bring it to a successful resolution.

That original quote from King Lear comes supposedly from a medieval ballad called “Childe Rowland” and when you discover the narrative of this (as, for example, through the collection of Joseph Jacobs) you see how liberally Garner drew from this source for the opening of his own novel. The ballad has Rowland playing with a ball with his brothers near a church and him kicking it away and it getting lost; his sister Ellen tries to find it but she has been captured by supernatural beings in the Dark Tower which appears to be within a small hill. In Elidor Roland kicks a football through the window of a derelict Victorian church which is the gateway to the fantasy world and then rescues his sister Helen and his two brothers from the Mound of Vandwy . The ballad’s hall encrusted with diamonds and rubies and emeralds is similar to a branch of “apple blossom…silver…crystal (and) spun mercury” inside Garner’s location.

 

  

 

The Shakespeare phrase influenced in turn Robert Browning’s 19th century poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. Browning’s autobiographical narrative starts with Roland meeting a “hoary cripple…with his staff”, who is reminiscent of the tramp with the violin who leads the children into Elidor. The landscape this Roland walks through, “starv’d, ignoble nature…(full of ) penury, inertness and grimace” , is comparable to Garner’s desolate inner city landcape which he later specifically dubs “The Wasteland”.

In my youth, as regularly rescanned as my copy of Elidor was Poetry 1900 to 1965, edited by George Macbeth. In his notes on Louis MacNeice, Macbeth said that MacNeice’s 1946 “parable play” The Dark Tower was “the best piece of writing ever done for radio”. I heard it recently for the first time.  It imagines yet another young Roland, training to embark on a quest to visit the Dark Tower and fight an indestructible dragon.

Amanda Wrigley says that MacNeice did not wish his parable to be interpreted too literally and she herself describes it as “morally complicated”, but it seems clear to me that its theme is duty and sacrifice, risking your life for an important cause, even if you didn’t want to regard the dragon which Roland may face as a symbol of fascism.

Benjamin Britten’s music is a significant part of the reputation of The Dark Tower, and a significant part of its impact, notably the strings and percussion section at the end as Roland strides towards to his destination. But I found the text and production impressive too. The fantastical mixed into an atmosphere of political anxiety and idealism recalled Yeats play The Dreaming of the Bones, Brecht and Auden, Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Orwell’s 1984. To my ear its form has been copied by a lot of radio drama in the subsequent decades.

MacNeice’s Roland is, like Garner’s, the youngest of his family, regarded by his mother as “flippant” and someone who “lacks concentration”, described even by himself as “the black sheep”. However, he is trained to follow in the family tradition of travelling across the ocean to challenge the dragon of the Dark Tower. During the play, he faces various voices of persuasion and dissuasion, from his mother, his tutor, girlfriend Sylvie, old Blind Peter, a tavern drunk and the steward on the ship which is taking him towards his destiny.

As you listen, you are struck by the similarities with the other “Roland texts” even though you know they will not be coincidental. Mountains move like the circus of ancient Rome and the Dark Tower grows from the ground, just as Browning described hills as being like living “giants” and Roland Watson felt the standing stones in Elidor were multiplying and moving. The tavern drunk, the Soak, has a dream that Roland’s mission will have an “unhappy” end which undermines his confidence while the Watson children meet the drunk Paddy whose warning about “horses with horns” directs them towards the scene of the climax of the Elidor quest.

 

   

 

 

Whereas in Browning’s poem and in MacNeice’s play a crucial role is played by Roland’s horn or trumpet, in Elidor other musical elements are significant. A violin tune, “thin and pitched high in…sadness”, starts the children’s journey from the abandoned urban landscape and a sinister melody hypnotises them briefly in the Mound of Vandwy. At the end the saving of Elidor is signalled by the dying cry of a unicorn, the song of Findhorn, in Manchester city centre on a frosty New Year’s Eve.

 

 

    

 

All of the Rolands’ quests share some degree of happy resolution. In the ballad, the King of Elfland, the wicked resident of the Dark Tower, is defeated in a duel and Ellen and the two brothers are rescued. In Garner, Elidor is saved by the Watson children despite the challenge of armed warriors and the death of the unicorn. In Browning, Roland, “dauntless”, reaches the tower where stronger people before him had failed. In the same way in MacNeice, Roland pushes himself towards the Dark Tower and sounds his horn as taught by his elders, including the specific command to “hold that note at the end”.

 

 

References:
Macbeth, George (1967) Poetry 1900 to 1965  London: Longman/Faber
Garner, Alan (1974)  Elidor  Glasgow: Collins Armada Lions

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A generation further on

 

In the 1990s, there were endless assessments of the century which was reaching its close. Three years ago, Leaf Collecting recalled one such, a season of the best sound films of the 20th century which BBC television screened during 1995.
Three years after that, in January 1998, BBC Radio 3 launched another grand project entitled Centurions, a two-year survey of 100 of the greatest non-music artistes of the century, one per week, focussing particularly on one of his/her key works.

BBC Genome now provides some supporting evidence for these sparse facts. As with the Cinema Century season, schedulers appeared anxious to control audience expectation and, therefore, the risk of boredom. Centurions was broadcast in the same time slot each week, on Sunday afternoons, but the 100 artistes were not covered in alphabetical order. Likewise, a companion series called The Year, providing musical highlights from a particular year of the century, did not observe exact chronological sequence.

I heard almost nothing of the series when it was broadcast, but, as with Cinema Century, I copied the list of those due to be featured, as part of (don’t laugh) my cultural education. It remains a stimulating list to review and re-assess.

Many of the 100 artistes are still familiar and celebrated. Auden, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, Lawrence, Orwell, Miller, Owen, Plath, Steinbeck and Wells are all writers still widely in print and names whom modern art-lovers might still readily come across at school or at university.

In contrast, the long-term reduction in the opportunity to see the drama of the past (either live or on television or in the cinema) has surely meant a decline in the knowledge of Beckett, Brecht, Chekhov, Lorca, O’Neill, Pinter, Shaw and Stanislavski. Foreign language writers have always been a specialist taste, so I would also assume that Borges, Camus, Grass and Sartre are much less known.

Of the English-speaking practitioners in the cinema category, no surprise today to find Disney, Hitchcock or Welles in the list – but striking to remember how Keaton and the Marx Brothers have become so much less seen during the last one or two generations. Possibly the continuing growth in feature-length film animation has made redundant their distinctive styles of living, physical anarchy. And of course all of the previously famous foreign language film-makers have been largely forgotten, even when individual works like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai are still occasionally watched.

21st century students and aficionados of visual art will surely still know and respect Dali, Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso and Pollock, but how many people who think of themselves as arts lovers recognise the architects, sculptors, potters and dancers on the list? Surely very few.

Solzenitsyn was rated highly enough at one time to win the Nobel Prize, but surely that was a political accolade rather than a literary one, as it had been earlier for Winston Churchill. By the end of the century his celebrity, so powerful in the early 1970s, belonged firmly in the past. Damien Hirst looks now like a rather modish millennial name but the status of Charles Rennie Mackintosh has probably continued to grow. And J.R.R. Tolkien, chosen before the release of all those Hollywood blockbusters, is, rightly or wrongly, probably the single Centurion whom the most people of all ages in 2018 would recognise!

The full list of the 100 Centurions is:
Chinua Achebe – novelist – Anthills of the Savannah.
Guillaume Apollinaire – poet.
Anna Akhamatova – poet – Requiem.
W.H. Auden – poet – “In Memory of W.B.Yeats”.
Francis Bacon – artist – Innocent Screams.
James Baldwin – novelist – Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Samuel Beckett – dramatist – Waiting for Godot.
Saul Bellow – novelist – Herzog.
Ingmar Bergman – film-maker – The Seventh Seal.
Elizabeth Bishop – poet – North and South.
Jorge Luis Borges – novelist – Fictions.
Bertolt Brecht – dramatist – The Good Woman of Szechuan.
Luis Buñuel – film-maker – Belle de Jour.
Albert Camus – novelist – The Outsider.
Henri Cartier Bresson – photographer – The Decisive Moment.
Constantine Cavafy – dramatist – Waiting for the Barbarians.
Raymond Chandler – novelist – The Big Sleep.
Anton Chekhov – playwright – The Cherry Orchard.
Joseph Conrad – novelist – Heart of Darkness.
Salvador Dali – artist – Burning Giraffes.
Walt Disney – film-maker – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Marcel Duchamp – artist – Fountain.
Sergei Eisenstein – film-maker – Alexander Nevsky.
T.S.Eliot – poet – The Waste Land.
Wiliam Faulkner – novelist – The Sound and the Fury.
Federico Fellini – film-maker – La Dolce Vita.
Scott Fitzgerald – novelist – The Great Gatsby.
André Gide – dramatist.
Jean Genet – dramatist – The Balcony.
Jean-Luc Godard – film-maker – À Bout de Souffle.
Le Corbusier – architect – Unité d’Habitation.
Martha Graham – choreographer – Letter to the World.
Gunther Grass – novelist – The Tin Drum.
Graham Greene – novelist – Brighton Rock.
Walter Gropius – architect – The Bauhaus.
Seamus Heaney – poet – North.
Ernest Hemingway – novelist – For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Barbara Hepworth – sculptor – Sculpture Garden St Ives.
Damen Hirst – artist – Sharks.
Alfred Hitchcock – film-maker – Rear Window.
James Joyce – novelist – Ulysses.
Franz Kafka – novelist – Metamorphosis.
Vassily Kandinsky – artist – Composition IV.
Buster Keaton – film-maker – The General.
André Kertész – photographer – A Red Hussar Going to War 1919.
Akira Kurosawa – film-maker – Seven Samurai.
D.H. Lawrence – novelist – The Rainbow.
Bernard Leach – potter.
Doris Lessing – novelist – The Golden Notebook.
Federico Garcia Lorca – poet – Poet in New York.
Robert Lowell – poet – “For the Union Dead”.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh – architect – Glasgow School of Art.
Naguib Mahfouz – novelist – The Cairo Trilogy.
Thomas Mann – novelist – The Magic Mountain.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez – novelist – One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The Marx Brothers – comedians – Duck Soup.
Henri Matisse – artist – Music and Dance.
Arthur Miller – dramatist – The Crucible.
Yukio Mishima – novelist – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
Piet Mondrian – artist – Composition in Grey, Blue and Pink.
Henry Moore – sculptor – Atom Piece.
Toni Morrison – novelist – Beloved.
Iris Murdoch – novelist – Under the Net.
Vladimir Nabokov – novelist – Lolita.
Vaslav Nijinksky – dancer – Rite of Spring.
Eugene O’Neill – dramatist – A Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Laurence Olivier – actor/film-maker – Henry V.
George Orwell – novelist – 1984.
Wilfred Owen – poet – “Strange Meeting”.
Yasujiro Ozu – film-maker – Tokyo Story.
Pablo Picasso – artist – Woman in Blue.
Harold Pinter – dramatist – The Caretaker.
Sylvia Plath – poet – Ariel.
Jackson Pollock – artist – Autumn Rhythm.
Ezra Pound – poet – The Cantos.
Marcel Proust – novelist – A La Recherche du Temps Perdus.
Satyajit Ray – film-maker – Pather Panchali.
Jean Renoir – film-maker – La Grande Illusion.
Lucy Rie – potter.
Rainer Maria Rilke – poet – Duino Elegies.
Richard Rogers – architect – Pompidou Centre.
Mark Rothko – artist – Light Red Over Black.
Jean Paul Sartre – novelist – La Nausée.
George Bernard Shaw – dramatist – Pygmalion and St Joan.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn – novelist – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.
Konstantin Stanislavski – actor – A Month in the Country.
John Steinbeck – novelist – The Grapes of Wrath.
J.M. Synge – dramatist – The Playboy of the Western World.
Wallace Stevens – poet – “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”.
Rabindranath Tagore – poet.
Dylan Thomas – poet – Under Milk Wood.
J.R.R. Tolkien – novelist – The Lord of the Rings.
John Updike – novelist – Couples.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – architect.
Andy Warhol – artist – Campbell Soup Can.
Orson Welles – film-maker – Citizen Kane.
H.G. Wells – novelist – The War of the Worlds.
Virginia Woolf – novelist – The Waves.
Frank Lloyd Wright – architect – Fallingwater.
W.B. Yeats – poet – “Sailing to Byzantium”.

 

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Desire, deception and devilry by candlelight

 

Leslie Megahey is not the best-known UK film director, so it is interesting to find around the internet so much evidence of admiration for one of his films, Schalcken the Painter.

This was first screened by the BBC at Christmas 1979 , both as an edition of the arts programme Omnibus and also the latest in a series of annual Yuletide ghost stories. Its main value is in its photography which brilliantly recreates the look of 17th century Dutch paintings.

Film critic Graham Fuller points out that it is in particular the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen and Pieter de Hooch which provide the template for the film and this is certainly convincing if you look at the artists’ work on the Essential Vermeer website.

Leslie Megahey’s script was based on a 19th century story by the Irishman Joseph Sheridan Lefanu, which constructed a plot around an non-existent (as far as I can find out) painting by a real-life Dutch artist Gottfried Schalcken.

The original story describes how Schalcken loses his betrothed, Rose, niece of the artist to whom he is apprenticed, the real-life Gerrit Dou, to a rich old man. Once married, Rose disappears without trace but later Schalcken has a nightmare in which Rose and her rich husband appear to him. Megahey’s updating provides more detail about Schalcken’s life and more detail of his fictional nightmare.

 

The original story of “Schalcken the Painter” mentions Leyden and Rotterdam, but these pictures of period Dutch architecture were taken in Amsterdam in 2001.

 

 

One reason why the drama remained in my memory, it must be confessed, was because it included a certain amount of exposed female flesh (still rare on television at that time and usually irresistible to the younger male viewer). It ended with a particularly provocative scene where, in Schalcken’s nightmare, he imagines watching his lost love Rose invite him to watch her making love to her monstrously frightening and ugly husband.

 

 

 

Dou and Schalcken are still among the less famous artists of their period, so I remember the different frisson, prompted by strong memories of the drama carried over the years, when I later unexpectedly came across a Dou painting in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille.

Watching Schalcken the Painter again, I was reminded about other interesting works of fiction which imagine the lives and work of forgotten painters. First, Ali Smith’s novel How to be Both which includes the work of the Italian Francesco del Cossa and Leslie Megahey’s own later Cariani and the Courtesans which features his slightly later compatriot Giovanni Cariani.

 

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The songwriter who might have been a Nobel laureate?

 

The wise David Hepworth made another shrewd comment when he said that perhaps it was the recently deceased Leonard Cohen rather than Bob Dylan who was the more deserving Nobel Prize winner for literature from the ranks of pop/rock songwriters.

In my own first flush of musical education, I actually read more articles and reviews about Cohen than heard his songs. At that time, as posted earlier,  Joni Mitchell was for me the most accomplished and most literate songwriter and musician. Not until the 1980s did I get my first sustained listen to Cohen with the compilation album which was released in the UK under the title Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits. By this time Cohen was gaining renewed attention as an influence on some younger artists like Lloyd Cole and Nick Cave.

Coincidentally, I recall a review of Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits in Melody Maker at the time of its original release in 1975. A curious title for a Cohen album, the journalist remarked – his songs had not recently graced the Top 20. Unless, he went on to muse, the title applied to the number of times Cohen “hit” the nail on the head, with his shrewd lyrical analyses and observations? That would make the title highly appropriate.

It is irrefutable that Bob Dylan had a wider and deeper cultural influence during the 1960s and 1970s than did Cohen, so, on that count, he is the more deserving of the Nobel Prize. However, the internet now allows a free and easy listen to all of Cohen’s work, and some of those songs really are brilliant, are they not?

Skilfully and thoughtfully crafted, technically precise and crammed with vivid images. Musical influences from traditional ballads or Jacques Brel or Kurt Weill or others from the earlier 20th century, lyrical influences from the Bible, Bertolt Brecht, Walt Whitman and Federico Garcia Lorca. Imagery which is often not immediately contemporary and therefore timeless. A long list of highlights would come from all periods of Cohen’s career: “Suzanne”, “The Master”, “Hey That’s No Way to say Goodbye”, “Sisters of Mercy”, “The Story of Isaac”, “The Partisan”, “The Old Revolution”, “Last Year’s Man”, “Love Calls You by Your Name”, “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Joan of Arc”, “The Guests”, “The Ballad of the Absent Mare”, “Dance Me to the End of Love”, “Hallelujah”, “First We Take Manhattan”, “Everybody Knows”, “Democracy”.

Although many songs shine brightest in the simple guitar playing style he began with, Cohen was clever enough to work with collaborators who helped him construct sensitive arrangements which drew from traditional or jazz or classical idioms. Even the most glaring exception to that rule – Death of a Ladies’ Man, the 1977 album where music as well as production is credited to the ostentatious and eccentric Phil Spector – probably merits fresh attention for its novelty.

Throughout Cohen’s career listeners often regarded his music as bleak and pessimistic. As a youthful fan of Neil Young I never felt such criticism was fairly applied to him and I certainly felt it was equally unfair to Cohen. His singing voice was always of a narrow range, but that could just as easily be applied to singers of other sub-genres like Robert Plant or Bruce Springsteen or Adele. That narrowness would certainly be a problem if the songs were not sufficiently varied. With Cohen they definitely were varied, and were regularly performed, as suggested earlier, by a sympathetic group of supportive instrumentalists and backing vocalists.

In his performance and public persona, Cohen aged gracefully as he retained his musical popularity. He was fond of classic male tailoring, was well-groomed, softly and thoughtfully spoken and known for asking for high-quality wine in his dressing-room after performances. As a man born into a Jewish family in French-speaking Canada, who had once lived in Greece and later as a Buddhist monk in Tibet, he was respected and celebrated as someone who was part of and comfortable in many different cultural and spiritual traditions.

Perhaps because of Cohen’s Jewishness rather than his North American background, I find when I listen to him that I think of other disparate cultural figures who were part the changing landscape of mid-century and post-war Europe. Film-makers like Buñuel and Wajda and De Sica and Truffaut, writers like Lorca, Havel and Auden.

 

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Our new interest in others’ personal experiences

 

Memoirs, an old-fashioned literary genre, do seem to have come back in vogue in recent years. However, while those of decades past recounted the lives and achievements of people already well-known from the arts, sports, politics and business, now we can read about people we had never before heard of.

One major factor in this growth in the genre has probably been the profusion of weblogs. These often centre on routine and mundane personal experience, like diaries used to. Another factor might be the continued popularity of “reality TV” documentaries where ordinary people’s daily lives are given a singular attention and status. After all, memoirs are relatively easy to write, being a development of the essays on personal experience which everyone had some competence and practice in writing from school.

However, one rather alarming aspect about many of these recent memoirs is that they describe lives of violence, abuse, illness, addiction and suffering, and frequently with a sexual element. It does suggest that modern audiences have developed a particular voracious and gruesome appetite for accounts of other people’s sufferings. As observed by Shirley Showalter, Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It in 1995 seemed to be the progenitor of this trend. Even the less lurid and horrible stories still seem to feature sustained pain and hardship before they lead eventually to some reconciliation and success and happiness, a process which, it goes without saying, will allow a journalist or broadcaster to describe the book as “inspiring” or “life-enhancing”.

Human beings have always loved stories of difficulties overcome and enemies defeated, so I suppose it is not surprising that these elements feature strongly in modern memoirs. Even if, in the lives of successful celebrities, you sometimes feel as if the writer had to work quite hard to find enough of those examples of hardship and challenge to attract the ordinary reader.

While the lives of famous people have always been useful for newspaper and magazine serialisations, now these, joined with the tales of ordinary folk, seem also to fill endless hours of BBC Radio 4, and to allow interview opportunities on any number of other radio and TV programme. Their particular value is for book festivals, fitting in with our endless appetite for all celebrity, or for any secrets. At this point, in case I become too superior or judgemental, I have to recognise and accept the role played in this development by the long-established TV format of chat shows, something I have enjoyed since childhood – at least, as long as they featured interesting writers, actors, film-makers, musicians and artists.

As memoirs have become more popular, another literature and publishing genre that I grew up with, collected letters, has definitely become less so. Understandably perhaps: hardly anybody writes letters nowadays, and people of note have long had plenty of other ways to record their ideas and achievements. Personally, I had never made a habit of reading collections of letters, but I certainly could see they have been an essential primary source in any worthwhile biography or history. It is memoirs which seem to some extent to have replaced collected letters in the publishers’ non-fiction repertoire.

Shirley Showalter also proffers the theory that the increase in writing and reading memoirs may be because many find it a useful therapy in stressful times. That certainly sounds plausible – and is certainly a more attractive notion than the alternative that more of us have become more ghoulishly and sadistically drawn to suffering and violence.

 

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A colourful cast of characters

 

As mentioned in an earlier Leaf Collecting post, a big impact was made on me as a young theatre enthusiast by the book Conference of the Birds by John Heilpern. It describes a journey around 1972 made by the director Peter Brook and a multi-national acting group through the African countries of Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Benin and Mali.

As Heilpern summarises near the start of the book, “Eleven actors and Brook left for Africa and thirty actors returned. Everyone connected with the journey learned how to act, one way or another.” One of the most vivid sections is his brief biographies of the actors at the start, full of colourful detail as if they were characters out of a 19th century novel.

For example, Malik Bagayogo, from Mali. “Bagayogo seems to have a perfect physical build, as powerful as an athlete. Yet he was crippled down his left side as a child. He was kept away from school – he can still scarcely write – until his father took him to a healer in the village who miraculously cured him with herbs and leaves. The treatment took three years…When he was eleven years old, Bagayogo met a blind beggar, a singer who travelled from village to village. He became his guide. The beggar taught him everything he knew, songs and poems about ancient traditions, animals, sorcerers and devils… Sometimes he starts to sing a melody suddenly remembered from his childhood. The actors scramble to write it down before it’s lost for ever.”

And Andreas Katsulas, “the giant American-Greek….The son of a one-time gambler and bootlegger who was imprisoned for a year or two in Illinois…He’s emotional, forthright, explosive – unconcerned, he likes to say, with ‘the mystical shit’. He does a job. His father always said, ‘Work eight hours, play eight hours, sleep eight hours. Don’t do any more or less.’ So he doesn’t. His father also said never trust anyone, not even your mother. And he doesn’t do that either. Also, he watches every penny he spends, which gives him a reputation for meanness. Yet, when one of the actors needed quite a bit of money in a hurry, he was the only one who offered to lend it, counting out the notes in ones from a tin in a secret hiding-place…”

The Englishman Bruce Myers “(had) made history when he was expelled from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for being drunk onstage while playing Napoleon in Man of Destiny”, writes Heilpern. He continues, “Of all the actors who might have been in this group, Brook ended up choosing someone I’ve known all my life. ‘Don’t laugh’, Myers said to me when we were fourteen. ‘I’ve decided to become an actor’ … Myers was to get lost in the Sahara Desert. He could have died. He can be wild and frightened, just frightened of life, I suppose. And he can have moments of such calm and mastery, of wisdom almost, that your eyes would be opened. Before Africa, he took a leading role for a short time in Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was filling in for an actor who’d fallen ill, and he had only a few days to prepare the part. Brook told me that his first performance was one of the finest achievements he’d ever seen on the stage. Then (Myers) lost it…he found himself in a state of terror on stage…He went to the Lake District to teach sailing and climb mountains…”

Miriam Goldschmidt was “German, black, wide-eyed like a child, devious as a cat. She likes to drink, goes over the top from time to time, has a wild surrealist imagination, living close to the edge of craziness maybe. At twenty-five, she’s the youngest member of the group. More than anyone she has a real need for the world of make-believe. Her mother died when she was two. Her father, thought to have been born in Mali, died in a car crash. Her adopted parents both died in a car crash. Her third mother died of cancer, as did her first. Her boyfriend of nine years, an archaeologist, died in a car crash. One time, during an improvisation, Brook asked her to come on last. ‘I don’t want to come on last!’ she snapped. ‘It’s the story of my life…!’ People thought she was joking…”

Lou Zeldis was described as “tall as a windmill, vague as a giraffe. You would notice him in a crowd. He’s a striking bisexual, usually dressed in flowing robes as if taking part in a biblical epic. Perhaps he is. He lives very much in a world of his own, a world of fantasies and dreams, lived out with a little help from his friends. He’s been busted a couple of times…The second time, he was jailed for six months downtown Las Vegas: quite enjoyed it. Very little fazes him. He talks rarely. When Brook has a discussion, he often falls asleep. That is, unless he’s listening with his eyes closed…”

Michele Collison was “a small mountain, or a large hill, height 6 ft 1½ ins, weight 180 lbs before breakfast. Unless you’ve seen her blow her wages on a meal, you’ve missed one of the great theatrical happenings…”

Most of Brook’s group were not well-known at the time of the African trip, and scarcely better known now, 40 years later. However, one who was already established has become more famous as the decades have passed.

“Helen Mirren… a star maybe, outspoken, generous, bright, luscious, lost. Violence is a part of her, part of the strange alchemy that goes into the making of a sex symbol…However she resolutely refuses to appear in the nude except for money… She’s famous for many fine leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company…and some massive publicity usually labelling her as ‘The Sex Queen of the RSC’. This can lead to tears, but you have the feeling she can’t resist playing up to it. It makes life easier sometimes. ‘Oh, don’t let’s talk about serious acting,’ she’s been known to say to earnest journalists, ‘let’s talk about my big tits.’ Part of her dilemma might have been that she couldn’t decide whether to be a straight actress or a great big sexy movie star. You can’t have both, apparently. The Brook experiment was entangled with her search for an answer.”

Heilpern’s comments are particularly apposite since it is quite obvious that, in subsequent years, Mirren did manage to combine serious acting and sexy celebrity.

The primary long-term legacy of the enterprise was Brook’s dramatisation of the Indian epic poem The Mahabarata, first performed in 1985, given its UK premiere in Glasgow in 1988 and later adapted for television.  Bruce Myers and Miriam Goldschmidt featured among its large cast, plus a third member of the African explorers, the Japanese Yoshi Oida. The film is on You Tube – high time to watch it again, I think – as is The Empty Space, a documentary by one Gerald Feil about the Brook group’s residency in New York shortly after the Africa trip.

 

Reference: Heilpern, John (1979)  Conference of the Birds: the Story of Peter Brook in Africa   Harmondsworth: Penguin

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One version of the 20th century

 

 

The drawing of Anthony Burgess by David Levine on the cover of Burgess’ journalism anthology “Homage to QWERTYUIOP“.

 

So finally, after owning a copy of the novel since 1983, I got around to reading Anthony Burgess’  Earthly Powers.

650 pages is a long volume for me nowadays, although it is certainly a readable 650 pages since its structure is largely chronological, as octogenarian writer Kenneth Toomey recounts his life, friendships and travels between World War One and the 1970s.

In many ways the novel is especially characteristic of Burgess both as writer and man, which perhaps explains its celebrity and its Booker Prize nomination. The narrative moves through many locations, and locations which Burgess knew well: Malaysia, North Africa, London; Italy including the Vatican, the USA including Hollywood, France including the Cannes Film Festival. The lead character name-drops many famous artists: James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Havelock Ellis, Peter Warlock, JB Priestley, George Orwell. Literature and music are widely discussed. There are many detailed descriptions of food and drink, of fashions and furnishings.

Many characters and incidents are based on real-life examples which even the less informed reader enjoys identifying. Toomey is related through marriage to Carlo Campanati, the Catholic priest who becomes Pope Gregory XVII at the exact same time as did John XXIII, although his international fame also hints at the Pope at the time of the novel’s publication, John Paul II. The fictitious Nobel laureate Austrian writer Jakob Strehler whom Toomey greatly admires has written a novel sequence Vatertag which seems rather reminiscent of Earthly Powers itself in some ways – and certainly also of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, both rediscovered and fashionable at the time of Earthly Powers. The exploits of religious cult leader God Manning are clearly modelled on those of Jim Jones and Charles Manson. The Poet Laureate Dawson Wignall seems very similar to John Betjeman with his “themes derived from Anglican church services, the Christmas parties of his childhood, his public school pubescence…” A musical The Blooms of Dublin based on Ulysses is almost identical to a play by Burgess himself.

Although, as mentioned, Earthly Powers’ chronological structure makes it easy to follow and to stay with, it does include a few modernist flourishes which show off Toomey’s and Burgess’ Joycean influences. Vocabulary which is unfamiliar and demanding, some which may well be invented, omissions of punctuation, invented onomatopoeia like “at the card table, flicking a new pack of cards skrirr skrirr with powerful gambler’s fingers”, selections of Toomey’s own writing in different genres.

 

Waiting for Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square, Rome on Easter Sunday 2002. “Carlo…told the crowd briefly why he had chosen the name Gregory. It was primarily because of Gregory the Great, who had reformed the Church and spread the gospel.”

 

The entrance to Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollwood, USA in 2010. “My situation in Hollywood was a comfortable one. I was glad to get money out of the industry but I did not really need it. I did not have to bow or yes or cringe…I was Kenneth M. Toomey, distinguished British novelist in distinguished early middle age…”

 

For me, one especially absorbing part of the narrative is the section about the Vatican as Carlo Campanati moves towards the Papacy. Campanati’s plans for the Catholic Church as revealed to Toomey could be seen as similar to John XXIII’s ideas: “the unification of the churches. The vernacularization of the liturgy” and the awareness of “capitalistic enemies, but … Marxist enemies too”. Around the time of the writing of Earthly Powers in 1978 came the drama of the deaths of both Pope Paul VI and John Paul I and the accession of John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years, a period which prompted regular discussion in the Catholic Church about the pontifical legacy of John XXIII. The vivid African image on the cover of my Penguin paperback edition seems out of place at first since it seems to give undue prominence to a tiny incident from a novel which takes place more often in Europe and the USA, until you notice that the figure in the wooden statue is undergoing a Christ-like crucifixion.

 

 

The night-time exterior of Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2006.”I… telephoned La Scala to ensure that a ticket for the gallery was available for me and would be waiting at the box office.”

 

Barcelona in 2002 with Gaudi’s building La Pedrera on the left. “Ralph and I were at this time more or less domiciled in Barcelona… Why Spain, or rather Catalonia, which is not quite Spain? Because mild fascism seemed to me at the time to be better than confiscatory socialism. Because of the architecture of Gaudi…”

 

Another favourite strand throughout the novel is the descriptions of food and drink which showcase Burgess the bon viveur as well as the descriptive writer. For example, the expensive Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo where its restaurant serves “Saumon Fumé de Hollande, Velouté de Homard au Paprika, Tourte de Ris-de-Veau Brillat-Savarin, Selle d’Agneau de Lait Polignac…”, or “the crowded smoky (Paris) restaurant (with) potted shrimps, lobster Mornay, a carafe of house Chablis” followed by all brands of cigarettes such as “Gold Flake, Black Cat, Three Castles, Crumbs of Comfort” or Moneta in Italy with its “thick bean soup, tripe stew with gnocchi, fat sausages from the grill, the black wine that is Moneta’s pride”.

Although I did enjoy the belated company in a writer of whom I used to be such a fervent fan, I did feel just a little sense of anti-climax at the novel’s ending. Perhaps because it is the sort of novel which impresses an eager younger reader rather more than a jaundiced older one, and perhaps because of another stronger sense, that this reader and the world in which he was reading were so very different from what they would have been at the time of the book’s original publication.

Reference: Burgess, Anthony (1982)  Earthly Powers  Harmondsworth: Penguin

 

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A love affair like the French Revolution

 

A really great poem from the first half of the 20th century which I discovered only in the recent past is the sonnet “Well, I have lost you…” written by the American Edna St. Vincent Millay.

As a fan (then and now) of BBC Radio 3’s  Late Junction,  I was readily drawn to something recommended by one of its presenters, Fiona Talkington,  as part of a poetry season the BBC  produced in 2009.

A sonnet is a long-established form, perhaps now old-fashioned, and certainly constraining, so it was striking to see the energy and intensity squashed into and bursting out of this one.

Regret, reflection, resignation, pride and self-confidence, the shrewd analysis of a finished relationship, and a statement of feminist independence which would have been unusual in the 1930s – all crammed into 14 rhyming and rhythmic lines.   

For me the most powerful images are, first, the end of a relationship compared to the way French royalty and aristocracy “went to their deaths…in a tumbrel” during the Revolution, and, second, the use of the phrase “played…slyly”, and the realisation that behaviour which might at first seem grown-up and sophisticated might be dishonest and ultimately self-defeating. 

 

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There was this Catholic boy from Manchester…

 

This year is the centenary of the birth of the writer Anthony Burgess – already noted in the media and surely with further mentions to come.

My admiration of and fondness for Burgess was heavily based on his regularly available journalism in the 1970s and 1980s. Principally the fortnightly Observer book reviews on intimidatingly varied subjects  – as can be judged by a scan through the collection Homage to QWERTYUIOP – from religion to linguistics to Grace Kelly to James Joyce to Adolf Hitler to Russian literature to all types of classical music. Although the regular articles in the Daily Mail about contemporary life reminded you, the star-struck young  fan, that in many ways his experiences and attitudes were rather closer to those of your parents than to yours.

The other part of his appeal was his speaking.  I heard Burgess give a talk in the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow around 1982 or 1983. Shamefully most of the content from that evening is forgotten, but I  do remember one snippet that all of the best writers in the English language of the 20th century  had actually been Celtic rather than English – the best poets being Hugh MacDiarmid and W.B. Yeats, and the best novelist the aforementioned James Joyce. I also recall an attention-grabbing comment that, since he had mostly lived in the Far East and in continental Europe and his wife was Italian, the most memorable of his sexual experiences had been with non-English women – but that was possibly later on television!

His public speaking persona was highly individual. The melodious drawling voice, the way he flaunted his learning while pretending the opposite – “Yes, I’ve read it about 10 or 15 times now..” –  the prickliness he never hid at feeling undervalued compared to some of his contemporaries. All qualities which suited the TV appearances such as the astonishingly erudite Book Game one Christmas with Germaine Greer and Adam Mars-Jones.  His Desert Island Discs broadcast from 1966 is one of the few from that long-running series which are not available to hear currently, but many other TV examples are.

A recent commemorative series on BBC Radio 3 brought the public Burgess back to memory. Simon Rennie, an academic with a suitably Burgessian unconventional route to professorial status, suggested that it was the writer’s working-class Manchester background which gave him the confidence to combine populism with intellectual rigour. In addition, Rennie drew an unlikely but convincing comparison between Burgess and the US musician Frank Zappa:  both intellectual populists and experimental modernists, both political and social conservatives, both careless with their physical health yet prodigiously productive.

Another contributor on the same series, my Scottish contemporary A.L. Kennedy, reminisced about her own youthful experience watching Burgess on TV. It reminds you how he loved to entertain and impress, she said.

Kennedy proposed that it is unusual now to see a literary novelist perform on TV in the way that Burgess did, but you might argue that some current writers, in their alternative guises as commentators and columnists, do appear on discussion programmes like Question Time or on one of those ubiquitous TV slots previewing or reviewing newspapers. I frequently find such appearances annoying rather than stimulating, and so I wonder whether, if I had been older in the 1980s, I might have taken a similar dislike to Burgess and his ability to pontificate on any topic. 

 

           

 

Burgess wrote over 30 novels and many other works in other forms. The only novel I ever read was A Dead Man in Deptford, about Christopher Marlowe, although I also greatly liked Jesus of Nazareth, the TV drama which he co-scripted.  I have also owned a copy of his famous Booker Prize short-list novel Earthly Powers since 1983, so I think this should definitely be the year when I read it, either in an attempt to revive my youthful affections or in honour of its author’s centenary.

 

Reference:  Burgess, Anthony  (1987)  Homage to QWERT YIOUP : Selected Journalism 1978-1985   London:Abacus

 

 

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A welcome to new life

 

Here and below, four scenes of Orkney photographed in 1992.

 

I had never heard Peter Maxwell Davies’ song “Lullaby for Lucy” until six months ago, when I heard it performed by Genesis Sixteen at the Cumnock Tryst. Since then, I keep bumping into it, most recently as the finale of the BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week programmes dedicated to the late composer.

The text of the piece is a poem by George Mackay Brown , only eleven lines long but still resonant with trademark references to nature, food and drink and spirituality.

Maxwell Davies set it to music in 1981, bringing what to my ear are medieval influences into the undulating harmonies.

The back-story of “Lullaby for Lucy” is often repeated. Mackay Brown wrote it in acrostic form to mark the birth of Lucy Rendall, the first child born for 32 years in the parish of Rackwick on the Orkney island of Hoy. The circumstances of her parents’ meeting were suitably unusual.

What happened to Lucy after her birth was marked, exceptionally, by two world-famous creative artists? The internet does have one newspaper article about her forthcoming wedding in 2005.

Maxwell Davies was a prolific composer, working, like Benjamin Britten and James MacMillan, in many forms and for many types of musicians. His style moved from modernist and avant-garde in the 1960s to more conventionally classical later, influenced, it is usually agreed, by his move to Orkney in the 1970s.  

 

 

 

 

“Unite…celebration…new…a pledge and a promise…brightness and light”.  “Lullaby for Lucy” is a fittingly uplifting piece, in both words and music, for spring and for Eastertide. 

 

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