Tag Archives: Literature

Men, fathers and grandfathers

 

It is not unusual that writers share similar biographies and write about similar topics. Nevertheless, Andrew O’Hagan and William McIlvanney  are two particularly interesting examples.

They both grew up in Ayrshire although 30 years apart, and each has written fiction which draws heavily on their national and regional backgrounds and which also deals with families and politics.

McIlvanney began his career as a teacher until early book successes allowed him to write full-time. He appeared regularly in newspapers and on TV but through most of his life he might fairly have been regarded as a big fish in the small cultural pool of Scotland. In contrast, O’Hagan became a full-time writer soon after university and established himself promptly within the London literati. His brief biography to my paperback edition of his novel Our Fathers (published in 1999 when he was 31) says, “He is on the editorial board of the London Review of Books and is a contributing editor to Granta”. While his name appears on the website of neither publication now, he still enjoys sufficient prestige to have been allocated a full issue of the LRB for a long article about the Grenfell Tower fire.

O’Hagan’s Our Fathers and McIlvanney’s 1975 novel Docherty each share at their centre an older powerful male character who exerts strong influence on the younger members of his family.

In Our Fathers, he is Hugh Bawn, a long-serving Labour councillor in Glasgow with a personal devotion to housing, influenced explicitly by two great real-life socialists John McLean and John Wheatley and by one fictional one, his mother Effie Bawn, supposedly a comrade activist of Mary Barbour.

 

The centre of Ayr where the New Bridge crosses the River Ayr. “Hugh (Bawn) was born in Ayr in the winter of 1913…”

 

O’Hagan seems to have based Bawn at least partly on Robert Bruce of Glasgow Corporation who produced the Bruce Report of 1945, with its wartime fondness for grand plans, tower blocks and architectural brutalism. Hugh’s powerful personality and political dedication alienates his son Robert, who shares none of his father’s ideas, suffers from alcoholism and moves away to England. However Hugh and his wife Margaret have positively influenced their grandson James who goes to live with them when his parents’ marriage break up. Much of Our Fathers deals with the adult James’ return to Ayrshire to his grandparents and to his family roots.

 

Govan Old Parish Church in 2013, looking north towards the River Clyde. “(The Bawns) moved to Govan with a bundle of blankets and the map of Cork…(They) were only in Govan a month when Britain went to war.”

 

Similar to the relationship between Hugh and Robert Bawn is the stormy relationship which William McIlvanney portrays between Tam Docherty and his three sons, especially with Angus, who believes much less than his father in community and much more on self-improvement and financial independence.

Reading Our Fathers brought back memories not just of Docherty but also of Just a Boy’s Game, the TV film written by Peter McDougall and screened by the BBC in 1979. Where O’Hagan and McIlvanney come from Ayrshire, McDougall grew up in Greenock and Just a Boy’s Game is set in the town. Here the patriarch is McQuillan: like Hugh Bawn at the end of his life, but, unlike him, a veteran gangland street fighter. McQuillan also has an adult grandson who is influenced by him. Jake McQuillan, a restless surly taciturn young man with a taste for street violence, seems to have grown up with his grandparents, estranged from his mother and with his father dead when young apparently in a street brawl. The relationship between the McQuillans is much less close than that between the Bawns: Jake’s grandfather’s dying message to him is that he has never liked him and considers himself a better fighter than Jake is.

All three of these older men are portrayed as physically strong and brave and tough. Tam Docherty and Hugh Bawn have had respectable working lives, and Hugh Bawn has often been loved, we are told, by those who have benefitted from his reforming zeal. But all three are also selfish and frightening, of fixed beliefs, men who have become addicted to the power they exert over others and who have resisted disagreement and challenge.

 

The ruined Alloway Kirk outside Ayr. ”Hugh wanted to see Auld Alloway Kirk before the light went out…The stones of the kirkyard looked bent and grey…”

 

The short road leading to the old Brig o’Doon in Alloway. The hotel on the right of the picture, formerly the Burns Monument Hotel, now the Brig O’Doon Hotel, is named the Cottars’ Arms in “Our Fathers”. “We got off near the Brig o’Doon. Hugh wanted to pee. We went into a hotel, the Cottars’ Arms, and I stood at the bar whilst the old man disappeared…”

 

McIlvanney was always regarded as a major Scottish writer from the 1970s until his death in 2015. O’Hagan, although successful, does not perhaps exert the wider cultural influence within Scotland as did McIlvanney – although that is quite probably O’Hagan’s preference, since he has usually lived and worked outside Scotland. Despite similarities between the two writers, it is intriguing to note the differences in their writing styles. As already mentioned in an earlier post, McIlvanney’s writing is heavy with description and imagery and a didactic narrative voice; O’Hagan is more light and deft, more nuanced, more musical – showing more readily associations with Joyce or Lawrence or Philip Larkin. To complete the trio, McDougall is closer in age to McIlvanney and is also much more similar to him, and, as a TV writer, aims for quotable epithets and one-liners and for imagery and scenes which draw from Hollywood western and crime genres.

I am sure my characterisations of these three Scottish writers is not fanciful. When James Bawn defends his grandfather’s political record against the angry reporter in the Ayrshire pub, O’Hagan has the latter insult James as “English” and “middle-class”. In the same pub on the same evening, he describes James’ mother’s second husband as being “civilised” and showing “a feminine manner of patience”. O’Hagan seems to have a strong awareness of the way masculinity and masculine values have changed in Scotland during his lifetime and that he may be quite different from McIlvanney and his characters and his style of writing.

But, despite growing up in a later period and having absorbed many social changes, O’Hagan is clearly still fascinated by some of the classic elements of west of Scotland life. Our Fathers draws its title from the well-known Christian prayer and also deals with Catholicism and the writing of Robert Burns. The subject and style of Our Fathers shows O’Hagan as writer and man being pulled simultaneously in two different directions, back to the past and forwards to the future. As we all always are.

 

Reference:  O’Hagan, Andrew (2000) Our Fathers   London: Faber and Faber

 

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Exotic blooms

 

The most interesting thing in Vanessa Thorpe’s report in The Observer about the growth of independent magazines was her conclusion, “ Since many readers of these niche titles are young, the boom must be fed by a feel for the exotic nature of print, rather than by nostalgia.”

I recognise the term “exotic”. My own purchase of many magazine titles during the 1980s was prompted by new adventures both intellectual and physical. An increasing interest in all the arts, in liberal/left wing political ideas and campaigns, plus the discovery of alluring shops in Glasgow and Edinburgh, like the Third Eye Centre  and the Fifth of May Bookshop, different to those available in my home town of Greenock.

A large part of my reading during that time was of Granta. The literary quarterly was a paperback book 250 pages long – as I reminded myself when seeking an excuse for the fact that another year had passed and certain essential classic writers remained unread. Granta gave me an acquaintance of many of the fashionable contemporary writers like Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Nadine Gordimer, Primo Levi, Raymond Carver and Hanif Kureishi. It was also playing a key role in the coverage of the shifting boundaries of central Europe in those years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 

A couple of “Granta” issues from the distant past.

 

The now-defunct Scottish publications Cencrastus and Radical Scotland drew my attention to the idea that (left-wing) internationalism might be compatible with Scottish nationalism, a programme being offered from a different direction by the musician Dick Gaughan.

There were regular magazines of the two political organisations of which I was then an active member, Amnesty International’s Amnesty and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Sanity. In addition, New Statesman, New Internationalist and Marxism Today were other recommended reading for a lefty and arty type at that time.

Many of those 1980s titles have disappeared but it would wrong to feel that such sources of education and culture no longer exist. Reporting and analysis of the wilfully ignored Israel/Palestine conflict is provided by +972 magazine and Mondoweiss. Commonspace covers some of the ground once covered by Radical Scotland. The Quietus and The Skinny both cover music and culture and Gal-Dem writes from a black feminist viewpoint.

The Al-Jazeera website gives detailed news and analysis on the Middle East and other under-reported places. Dissent is a long-established American magazine. And New Statesman and New Internationalist continue to publish.

So sources are still available, which provide alternative and particular views of the modern world and apply old-fashioned values of independent thinking and decent quality journalism. The only possible cause for regret is that they are now accessed usually only via a computer screen rather than by a stapled collection of A4 pages. A bit inconvenient for an old man on a train although not really a convincing argument for doom and gloom.

You might also get around to reading some more of those essential books.

 

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Some causes and consequences of gambling

 

D.H. Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner, first published in 1925, is an intriguing short story, not least because it has elements of form and content which might not be expected from the celebrated analyst of social class and sexual and emotional intimacy.

For instance, Lawrence used several of the tropes of fairy-tale, or perhaps parable, in his narrative. He opens with, “There was a woman who was beautiful” and continues “there was a boy and two little girls”. The boy appears to have magical, or supernatural powers, which allow him to gain great financial riches, albeit not through classic devices of physical combat or exploration, but through the more prosaic 20th century practice of betting on the results of horse races. The family lives in a house which itself seems to be alive, frequently whispering to all its residents for more money. More personal details about his characters are revealed only slowly.

A story by D.H. Lawrence seems an unlikely source for a horror film, but Anthony Pelissier’s 1949 film version does bear similarities with a couple of classics from the genre of that period. First, with the Ealing Studios compendium Dead of Night, where one story features rooms in a family home which are haunted by a dead child, another where a malevolent mirror transfers the evils of its previous home to its new modern sophisticated owner, and, more peripherally, two others have sports backgrounds! Second, with Victor Fleming’s version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where some of its rather Freudian scenes representing Hyde’s animal appetites seem to have influenced Pelissier in his depictions of Paul’s adolescent physical efforts to bring to mind the name of a money-winning horse.

Lawrence is critical of the materialism of Paul’s middle-class parents and, in general, of people living beyond their means. This couple “lived in style” but “there was never enough money”. The desire for wealth and possessions and status saturates the home – so that “the children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud”. The mother’s greed psychologically damages her young son who is determined to gain money (through luck, not work) in order to help his parents.

Paul makes an astonishing amount of money by predicting successfully the winners of horse races. Half-way through the story Lawrence mentions winnings of £10,000, the equivalent of half a million pounds in today’s money. Where does Paul’s success come from? Perhaps he has inherited it: his Uncle Oscar is clearly very interested in horse racing and bets frequently, his mother says hers was “a gambling family” which suggests the habit goes back at least to her own father. Paul says only that God has told him he is lucky.

So Lawrence seems to hint that Paul’s success in gambling is some kind of spiritual gift. Possibly to underline how the selfish materialism of parents like his leads them to fail to notice or understand their children’s qualities and interests and talents. Religious imagery is frequently used. When Paul’s ally, the young gardener Bassett, talks about the boy’s betting practice, he “was serious as a church…as if he were speaking of religious matters” and explains that Paul gets his betting tips “as if he had it from heaven”. When Paul dies prematurely, Uncle Oscar seems to acknowledge he has gifts from God which have been abused: “a poor devil… (who’s) best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”

Paul introduces the idea of money and luck to his mother “vaguely” and “timidly”, but his behaviour in putting his vision into practice is, in contrast, intense and driven and disturbing. He is described as “in agony” when trying to identify the winner of the Lincoln Handicap, presumably akin to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. He rides his wooden rocking-horse “madly” and “wildly” and in “a frenzy”; his eyes show a “strange glare” as he slashes at it with a whip, a gesture which hints at capacity for violence and an incipient sexual energy. His mother observes the incongruity anxiously: “You’re not a very little boy any longer, you know”.

Other sexual undertones could be interpreted in a description like “his sturdy long legs straddling apart” or in Paul’s statement “I got there…where I wanted to go”. Pelissier’s film certainly follows this line, through close ups, sweeping camera, low angle shots, dark shadows, staring eyes and clashing music. In Paul’s final night-time encounter with the rocking-horse which helps him identify the winner of the Derby, his hair is damp against his forehead, his pyjama jacket is open and his chest is bare.

Pelissier characterises Uncle Oscar, as played by Ronald Squire, as pleasant and supportive but roguish, and inherently as selfish as his sister and brother-in-law. Lawrence’s minor character of Bassett is aged and expanded in the film to exploit the casting of John Mills. Mills usually played characters of integrity and he does so here, as a disabled working-class war veteran who looks after Paul’s winnings and is never tempted to steal any. However, at the end, he shares guilt and regret for Paul’s death. Paul’s mother wants Bassett to burn the banknotes which she sees as “blood money” but Bassett determines to take it to the family solicitor so that the money which “cost (a life) …might (now) be able to save a few lives”.

Although Lawrence’s narrative method is spare, he does include some period domestic details. The father’s workplace is described dismissively as “some office” (probably the character’s view of his work rather than Lawrence’s). The mother does show enterprise and initiative on occasions, such as her venture as a commercial artist. Each parent earns or has inherited some money “but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up”, which is perhaps why the employment of servants has to be “discreet”, since they might have to be dismissed prematurely. The film adds some additional scenes: a debt collector visits unexpectedly so Paul’s mother has to rush off to a pawn broker in a shabby part of the nearest town to raise some money by selling her things.

The film’s closing image of the “funeral pyre” of the burning rocking horse seems to want to leave the audience with the idea that the toy has been the primary cause of the disruption in the family, rather like the haunted mirror in Dead of Night. Lawrence’s story makes clear that “the shining modern rocking-horse” is just one of “the expensive and splendid toys” which has absorbed the parents’ money and distracted them from their obligation to care properly for their children. It has been a device to ignite energy and ideas which were already building just below the surface in Paul’s personality. He is aware of the flaws in his parents’ marriage and therefore in the instability of his family life; he is reaching out to make things better and find his mother’s love through her aloof selfish materialism.

Most online analyses of Lawrence’s story seem to concentrate on the mother’s greed and its consequences for her son. Both the story and Pelissier’s film could also be seen as highly relevant to our present-day concern about the reasons for gambling and the psychological damage it can cause.

 

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Ensemble reading

 

It’s hard to be sure whether the fashion of book/reading groups has passed. Some evidence that it has: it was 15 years ago that the Glasgow-set comedy series The Book Group screened on Channel 4 and then for only a year, the much-publicised book strands of the TV programmes of each of Oprah Winfrey and Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan have long gone and BBC Radio 2 has just ended the book club element of Simon Mayo’s programme. On the other hand, the Richard and Judy Book Club continues as a commercial website, the BBC Radio 4 monthly programme Bookclub presented by James Naughtie is still broadcasting after 20 years, and the Reading Agency charity feels that it is a strategy which is still worth supporting.

I too was once part of the book group phenomenon, for eight years between 2003 and 2010, based at my local library. My initial motivation was that it would give me the opportunity to become acquainted with some less known contemporary writers. In the event, I found myself reading only a small minority of the group’s choices, although I was never disappointed by the monthly discussions.

Book groups were sometimes ridiculed because the novels which were read were perceived to fit a stereotype. Their choices were often set in the past, not too literary in style, perhaps linked to a distinct social/political theme, certainly not too long – all of these features thus providing a sense of the books being educational as well as entertaining. My own experience was that there was some truth to this stereotype.

In addition, certain titles seemed to be recurringly popular, such as Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian; books by Ian McEwan, Tracy Chevalier, Nick Hornby, Margaret Atwood. Publishers sometimes included book group questions in their editions, appearing to see ensemble discussion as more important than individual discovery.

In addition to the enjoyable social interactions, did I gain any literary satisfaction? Well, our group’s very first read was one of my most memorable: Under the Skin by Michel Faber about the extra-terrestrial visitor to Scotland was much more chilling and engrossing than the subsequent film. The other best one was Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, set in a hillbilly poor community in the USA – the meatiness of the dialogue recalled that the same person had written the source novel for Ang Lee’s film Ride with the Devil.

A few other memories? The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón successfully wove its romantic spell partly because I had recently visited Barcelona; The Road Home by Rose Tremain gave a convincing picture of a refugee experience in modern London and Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room an equally believable one of a Glasgow demi-monde; Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama provided more insight about the newly-arrived global cultural superstar. A more established book was Guiseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard whose complexities about 19th century Italian society I would definitely like to explore again one day.

One professional author visited us: Jonathan Falla, after we had read his Blue Poppies, set in Tibet. He talked engagingly about his work in progress, which drew on his experiences with the charity sector working in Africa, and which became Poor Mercy.

Popular books have been adapted into films since the early days of Hollywood. But it is noticeable how many book group favourites go on to be filmed, such as, from our group’s list, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky, The Ghost by Robert Harris, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows. (And there have even been films about fictional reading groups such as The Jane Austen Book Club and the current Book Club!) Are those aforementioned book club characteristics (set in the past, not too literary etc) especially alluring to movie producers? Or are these films just the latest examples of a long tradition?

Of course, with willing participants, interest groups of any sort will thrive. The book group in the aforementioned TV comedy included several members who were not native Scots. By coincidence, the Gramnet research network into migration, asylum and refugees, based at Glasgow University, has a book group which regularly reads and discusses relevant novels on their areas of interest.

 

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Wain’s reading and writing world

 

Any bookshop and any newspaper book review section includes many titles by people you have never heard of, and a recent editorial by Alan Taylor in the Scottish Review of Books brought home the startling issue about the huge number of books which are getting written and published but not read.

Like many bookish children, I once harboured an ambition to be a writer (Leaf Collecting is about as far as I have got) and I once read a stimulating book of advice on the topic, written in the 1960s or early 1970s, specifically on how to write a novel which would definitely be published. I am sure the author was the now deceased novelist and critic John Wain – although infuriatingly I can find no conclusive corroboration on this from the supposedly encyclopedic internet.

Let’s assume the author was Wain. He did not share the axiom that everyone has a book in them. On the contrary, he suggested, an aspiring novelist is an eccentric, a misfit, who shouldn’t expect to find many kindred spirits who will share or understand their dedication or obsession. Writing groups already existed then, but I recall that his opinion was these were merely social distractions which would not help the determined writer to actually write and complete a novel. That dogmatic view certainly helped the literary teenager to see himself as part of an old noble tradition, stuck in his garret, suffering for his art.

Wain was very keen that the serious writer should just sit down and write, regularly, every day. This is advice which might still be offered and followed today. Another tip which seemed however to contradict that one was that you should not attempt to write your complete novel much earlier than the age of 30. This is in a way also perfectly sensible – just out of school or university you’ve got a lot of other things to do – but still exasperating to read when you are ambitious, have a high opinion of your talent and are many years yet away from 30. Later, Martin Amis and Zadie Smith each published their first novels at 24 and Bidisha did at the age of 18.

The classic wisdom that you should always write from your own experience was something Wain shared. I remember his pithy form of expression: “Even if you haven’t had such basic experiences as making love or watching someone close to you die, you still have enough experiences for a thousand novels…” He also insisted that in characterisations you should treat all human beings fairly. To which he added wryly that at one time it would have been necessary to say that even poor tramps are human beings – but now it was probably equally necessary to say that even rich aristocrats are human beings.

At the end of the book was the chapter which is the most relevant to me now. He listed some writers whom all aspiring writers should read. He drew a distinction between writers who were serious and others who were trivial, emphasising that serious writers need not be pompous or turgid or dull. Shakespeare, he said, was one writer who was always serious. Unfortunately I did not copy Wain’s full list of recommended reading and I remember only one title, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. When you have read this novel, he said, you actually won’t be any better equipped to write your own novel. But if you don’t read it, he went on (a bit didactic and sententious this, but when you are young you can take very clear directions) you’ll have devalued yourself as a writer and a human being.

Alan Taylor’s article also helpfully calculates how many books people might read in a year, and therefore how many (or few) you might expect to read before you die. My reading speed these days is pitifully slow so my target should be low, and principally works which I’ve been planning to read for three or four decades and never yet got around to. Such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, copies of which sit nearby waiting.

Ulysses was a lot of fun 27 years ago in preparation for my first visit to Dublin, and I feel confident that it would repay a second reading. Actually, I have already managed The Brothers Karamazov, long ago, but I think I still have that copy, so maybe I should give it another chance to provide the value which John Wain promised…

 

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Where the journey is more important than the destination

 

One Holy Saturday morning some years ago, I was struck by a photograph on the Herald newspaper’s front page, showing a group of people from Northern Cross, carrying a wooden cross along the sands of the tidal island of Lindisfarne. (From memory, the picture was similar to this in the Newcastle Chronicle from another year.)

Northern Cross is an ecumenical Christian group which walks several pilgrim routes in Scotland and England every Holy Week, to arrive together at the ancient Christian site of Lindisfarne on Good Friday. To my mind, an inspiring and thrilling adventure.

 

One of the Christian pilgrimage sites featured in “Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve”. Lindisfarne Castle, seen from the church of St Mary the Virgin.

 

Advent and Lent are the Christian seasons of preparation. Appropriate therefore that BBC TV should have screened the travel documentary series Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve during Advent (in 2013) and repeated it during Lent (this year).

I am actually not a great fan of the modern style of television documentary, invariably built around a photogenic presenter endlessly on-screen, with a predictable template of short snippets of commentary mixed with ostentatious pictures, frequent introductions and summaries, aerial camera shots, and rousing music. I was attracted to Pilgrimage more than to Simon Reeve’s other series because of its more substantial and more stimulating narrative thread – as well as because it would feature some places I had visited.

Pilgrimage, making a journey to a place of religious history in order to gain personal spiritual benefit, has been part of all major religious faiths since their earliest days. For his three programmes, Reeve visited famous places of Christian pilgrimage in the UK, in continental Europe and in the Middle East: Lindisfarne, Walsingham, Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, Bethlehem, Jerusalem.

One of Reeve’s repeated points was the different reasons for going on pilgrimage in past centuries. Many people were indeed motivated by Christian devotion, eager to visit places which held sacred relics, and many believed they could thus make amends for past sins. However, some were just looking for adventure (even sinful adventure!), an opportunity to break a monotonous routine, to explore beyond their own town or parish. This meant that a pilgrimage group might bring together people of widely different backgrounds, as shown in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

 

The shrine to St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

 

The growth in pilgrimage in medieval times provided economic benefits to the destinations and to inns and shops and merchants en route, even while pilgrims were sometimes exploited by the sale of false relics. Other secular cultural changes developed over the longer term, suggested Reeve: it was travels to the Holy Land which led Europeans to return to the habit of washing and bathing more regularly at home, and later to British support for Zionism and the Balfour Declaration.

The “golden age” of true pilgrimage ended with the Reformation and Reeve suggested that modern pilgrims are more often “well-off adventure hikers”, interested in the physical challenge as much as the opportunity for contemplation and solitude. However, he also made the thought-provoking point about how many of those medieval pilgrims would have been sick and dying – and therefore how fortunate we are that modern medicine has removed the sound of those desperate prayers for healing and recovery from cathedrals and shrines.

 

In St Peter’s Church in Rome, a plaque listing all of the popes of the Catholic church who are buried there.

 

Another modern pilgrim I am familiar with is Gerard Hughes, who walked from the south of England to Rome in 1975 and described the experience in his book In Search of a Way. Whereas Simon Reeve showed respect for fellow travellers but agnosticism about the Christianity which empowered them, Gerard Hughes, now deceased, was a Catholic Jesuit priest who was definitely making an inner spiritual journey as well as a physical one. Hughes repeated Robert Louis Stevenson’s quote, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”, and added that, for the true pilgrim, “direction is much more important than destination” and that “searching for God is already to have found him.” Reeves extolled the “rhythm” of long-distance walking and one comparable comment by Hughes was appreciation of the Catholic prayer of the rosary, which is similarly rhythmic and repetitive and therefore particularly suited to pilgrims’ walking.

 

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Pilgrims at the Stone of Anointing, where, according to tradition, Jesus was brought down from the cross before being buried.

 

Although many of Reeve’s scenes and observations were unsurprising, his concluding observation made a strong impression. At the place of Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, he said that it was “the holiest site in the holiest shrine in the whole of Christianity… this is (the place where) Christianity was born …the birth of a culture, of a civilisation, so many paintings, so much music, so much joy, so much suffering, so many wars, so much of human history comes from here…”

Reeve’s series had started in Lindisfarne. The Northern Cross 2018 walks to Lindisfarne begin during the Palm Sunday weekend of 23-24 March. As their web-site says, their purpose is to “re-trace old pilgrim pathways…meet and be greeted by people on the way…(and) on Good Friday experience walking across the ancient causeway…”

 

Reference:  Hughes, Gerard W. (1986)  In Search of a Way (2nd ed)   London : Darton, Longman and Todd

 

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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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