Poetry in a time of data

Brains are amazing things. Far more so than we can yet fathom or understand. In Buddhist theory, the sixth layer of consciousness assimilates all the ‘data’ we receive from the five senses.   Thus, for example, in order to differentiate a strawberry from the white, china bowl on which it sits, or the table that supports the bowl etc we can access this realm of the mind which ‘understands’ the difference. But when we wish to describe what we see – to make textual art out of an emotional response – we have only language available to us. Language, words, pictures, images.

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Language vast and generous, all encompassing. Is it not the soil out of which civilisation grows? Perhaps. But like the soil, language is subject to erosion, both natural and unnatural. Words fall out of use or morph into new words all the time and in itself this is normal and not particularly sinister. However, it becomes sinister when this form of ‘language creep’ is extreme in sidelining an entire and vital aspect of human existence – in this case I am talking of the natural world.

In his superb book _Landmarks_(Penguin, 2016)  (p3) naturalist Robert Macfarlane relates the following story:

“A sharp eyed reader of the new edition to the Oxford Junior Dictionary noted that a considerable number of words used to describe the natural world had been deleted. The deletions included: _acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, mp3 player and voice-mail.

> When Vineeta Gupta, then head of children’s dictionaries at OUP was asked why the decision had been taken to delete those words, she explained that the dictionary needed to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood.”

How tragic this is. That contemporary children have no experience of acorns and buttercups so no point in using the words. This seems to be extraordinary back to front thinking. It is most likely that children will learn the substituted computer-style words by the daily dose of internet to which life is now exposed but if acorn, adder and ash are rarer commodities and not to be found so much in inner cities, it seems to me that is not a reason to delete the words but rather twice the reason to incorporate the words in the dictionary.

Chatrooms and cut-and-paste are now in our DNA. Sadly the OJD Editor was confusing the information function of language with the emotional engagement function of language, with its qualities of poetic inheritance, its assimilation of history.

Certainly there are aspects of human experience that defy articulation whether the vision of a sunrise across wheat fields language is not the be all and end all of communication but a poet will certainly struggle without it! If children are being deprived of language to describe the natural world they will in turn have no terms of reference to become nature poets.

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This decision was apparently not taken on the basis that such phenomena have physically disappeared from the environments – which thankfully they have not (yet) – but based on the fact that many children today live in urban environments which means they are no longer likely to come into contact with cygnet, beech or kingfisher and so don’t need to know about them!

How will tomorrow’s poets describe the natural environment if they have no language to do so? Tomorrow’s environmentalists are todays children – those very ones who the OUP editors don’t feel need to recognize beech, alder and adder. The question of how those concerned with loss of species and habitat destruction will recognise such losses without terminology for the natural world.     We need language for the existence of things, in order to recognise loss. It is not possible to save a buttercup if, linguistically, the little yellow meadow flower no longer exists.

Joni Mitchell famously sang ‘they took all the trees, put ‘em in a tree museum’… . Museum pieces can be overlooked, irrelevant things – perhaps less so post Neil McGregor – but still many are just things until they have a narrative attached to them. For this we need language, history, cultural references, comparative functions, analytical resources.

We hope neither the natural world nor the language we use to describe it will be relegated to the status of museum piece. No-one will knowingly pass a law putting trees in a museum, but the sidelining of the natural world is coming anyway; by urbanisation, by obsession with economic models of society, by addictions to technology, and by ‘language creep’. Or perhaps ‘language loss’ creep.   Did you notice how many hours of airtime, rhetoric, baby-bouncing-on-knee time were given over to discussion of climate change during the recent election campaign?

I believe the problem is not one of political will. Does any well meaning politician actually want the planet to disintegrate? Most will work out that they will naturally vanish along with the rest of us. But politicians are just human beings and the pressures of office must be huge. It is always tempting to think that someone else will deal with it, or somehow the problem will go away.

Young people feel alienated from the existing systems of representation and who can blame them since those systems of representation seem bent on excluding whole groups of our society, especially the young. It is these younger generations that are those most at risk of ‘language loss creep’. In a time of mass ‘data’ and ‘communications’, in a time of NSA surveillance and Edward Snowden when we all suffer from information overload, we actually seem to understand less and less.

The point is that writers are needed more than ever to keep the natural world in focus for potential readers. Prose writers yes, but I believe it will fall to the poets to guard the language of the natural world that is needed to give voice to the history of and need for continued work on preservation, and to fight, if necessary short-termism and vested interests. This is not just complaint about red, blue, yellow or green! It is about a universal spirit. If none of the parties are voting for the planet, the planet will not vote for the parties. It is left to poets to do so.

What other language is being or already has been lost through this form of abandonment? This is not a simple question when the term ‘language’ has many meanings? Even computer code is a magical language. It makes things happen.

But computers  cannot save the human habitat. Only humans can do that and in this poets have a vital role.

I posted this yesterday and this morning awoke to a review of a new book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris called The Lost Words on this very topic.  It seems the author agrees with me on the poetry aspect, as this is a book for young readers with poems and beautiful illustrations.  Although Mr. Macfarlane says they are not poems, they are spells:

 

When wren whirrs from stone to furze the air around her

slows,

 

Mmm! Sounds like poetry to me.  Ok, spells then.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is published by Hamish Hamilton on Thursday, 5th October 2017.

 

 

My Cousin Rachel (2017) Dir. Roger Michell

In appearance the settings for the film – Florence and Cornwall – the interiors of the house etc all seem pitch perfect as do the script and the finely judged acting from Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz.  We do not know what Rachel looked like but she could have looked exactly like this other Rachel. In short, it is beautifully shot with elegant Cornish panoramas, lonely rainswept beaches, impeccably clad gentleman on highly groomed horses, all laced with a liberal quantity of servants and picturesque stable lads.

So far so good. But Daphne du Maurier’s book is a complex work to bring to the screen; much of the ‘plot’ is internalized and much of it hinges on paranoia or suspected paranoia. It would be an achievement to pull off a film version without resorting to one or two little dramatic ‘interventions’ and those can easily upset the delicate ecological balance of the work.

While Rachel certainly has her own voice (unlike du Maurier’s other famous creation Rebecca de Winter) we do not hear much of it. The book is weighed down with the male narrative gaze, with male desire both sexual and for financial control. In so many ways Rachel appears not to have an opportunity to respond; or maybe she has opportunities but deliberately chooses not to take them. Or her responses appear ambiguous. It depends who you believe. Most of what we know about her we know from something a man has said. This is the master craft of the novelist.

This to me is where the film – despite strong central performances – errs. It tries to explain things which the book leaves open to the reader’s conjecture. What is the cause of Ambrose’s death? Brain tumour say the Florentine lot (of which Rachel is one). Poisoning, writes Ambrose in letters found after his death. So where are the instruments of poison? Laburnum seeds? Where is all the money going? Why does Philip mysteriously become ill after Rachel’s arrival. What the heck is she putting in those tissanes? All mysteries aimed at making us think Rachel is potentially wicked (fantastic cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ by sorry not sure who  played over the film trailer on the internet sadly doesn’t seem to have been used in the film).

But if Rachel is potentially wicked she is also a woman alone in the world who found herself ‘married to a stranger’ when Ambrose became ill and had to find her own way. As Sally Beauman points out in her introduction (Virago, 2003) laburnum seeds are a red herring. The real poison being examined by Daphne du Maurier in this novel are how whole lives, whole societies have been and continue to be defined by male authority. Perhaps the temptation to shout this from the rooftops overcame the film Director. Is it not 2017? Are there not thirty years solid of feminist literary interpretation coursing through the bloodstream of the land?

In the film although Philip hunts for Laburnum seeds in Rachel’s bedroom he does not appear to find any. In the book he does. There is no suggestion in the book that Rainaldi (Rachel’s lawyer, adviser and ‘friend’) is homosexual.   The fact that the film insists on this point makes us less inclined to suspect Rachel of an affair.  Was I being asked to consider Rachel a victim of a patriarchal gig? That is not I feel how the author would have seen her.

 

Poetry makes everything happen

A review of Larchfield

by Polly Clark

Not only do we have Terence Davies film of Emily Dickinson as well as a film about Neruda, the excitement of new letters by Plath making headline news and now a young W.H. Auden is brought compassionately to life in the pages of Polly Clark’s novel Larchfield.

The name is taken from a boy’s public school in Helensburgh on the West Coast of Scotland where the young W.H. Auden taught for two years in his twenties, after leaving Oxford. It is not a posting the young poet much relishes.

“It’s not his choice exactly. His trust money is about to run out, and he needs a job. His friend Cecil Day-Lewis has nominated him for this post of schoolmaster at Larchfield, though he has no experience of teaching and a severe mistrust of the school environment.”

The book covers his life during these two years partly on a fictional and partly factual basis, showing how Auden fares in the run up to the second world including visiting his University friend Christopher Isherwood in Berlin where the two have a frightening encounter with blackshirts.

 Christopher Isherwood and Wystan Auden
photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 6 February 1939

Alongside this historical narrative, is a modern story in which the protagonist is a young woman called Dora, whose life so far has consisted of a PhD, a job offer at a University publishing house as a lexicographer and the beginnings of a career in poetry, finds herself married, pregnant and moving to Helensburgh very near the school where Auden taught. As she unpacks her belongings in her new home, a divided house ironically entitled ‘Paradise’, she places her small volume of published poetry on the shelf and prepares to adjust to a very different life.

But that adjustment is hard

Things quickly fall to pieces as they can do when a new baby arrives. To add to her problems the neighbours in the flat upstairs start acting up horribly and Dora becomes isolated, stressed and depressed. Finding solace in Auden’s poems and in tracing details of his life she decides to pay a visit to the site of the old school at Larchfield and so the mystery begins.

The gate was tall and wrought iron, with the name Larchfield looped in gold. Ivy crept along the front of the building, and the tall windows looked out over a Helensburgh that was essentially unchanged in appearance since his time. She could imagine the poet emerging from the stone porch, the sounds of children.

The book is based on the author’s real experience. Indeed it is hard to see how this book could have been written without that experience so genuinely is the suffering of the young female protagonist felt.

The novel treads a high wire act between the real, the  possible and the imaginary; what is imaginary in the mind of an unhappy and isolated young woman with no visible means of support other than a well-meaning but absentee husband may be real.  As real as the feelings of loneliness and otherness which everyone can experience to some degree.  The book also – dare I say it – deals with the redemptive power of poetry.  That one can run and run.  But the only person who is qualified to say if poetry redeems is one who feels him/herself redeemed by it.

The author says:

“Some years ago I moved to Scotland. I seemed to ignite anti-English feeling wherever I went, I couldn’t drive and became very isolated.

“When I had a baby, my ruin was complete. That’s when I first read ‘The Orators’ by Auden — and this poem changed my life.

“It’s a thrilling meditation on paranoia and repression, set in Helensburgh.

“I set about recreating Wystan Auden, from his notebooks, biographies and artistic details in ‘The Orators’, and paired him with Dora, my modern-day woman losing her mind in the suburbs.

“Finding human connection to Auden in our shared place of Helensburgh saved me.

The theme of isolation continues in Auden’s part of the narrative.

“And the future? What of it? He cannot imagine a future where he fits.”

Auden finds himself alone, both as an Englishman and as a new school teacher. When he tries to protect one of the youngsters at the school form the routine and institutionalised abuse that was part of the public school system at that time, he finds that his compassion is easily and wilfully misunderstood.

Auden was a homosexual at a time when to be so was a criminal offence. He was also just another lonely young man. Lonely enough to cast a message into a bottle and toss it into the sea in the hope someone would find it. In the book someone does, but perhaps it is not the someone any of us expect.

As Dora is friendless, most of her story is internalised and the author occasionally makes us doubt her as a reliable narrator.  This acutely reflects how other characters around Dora are doubting of her. If enough people doubt us, then do we not begin to doubt ourselves? Is this kind of mistreatment an all too common form of abuse of women? And is it often perpetrated by other women in positions of power over new mothers?   One of the ideas lying behind the novel is to point up a general failure of society to even recognise let alone deal with the fact that the shock and trauma of childbirth – even a medically ‘normal’ childbirth which Dora’s is not – can last for years. Decades even.

Larchfield is at its most disturbing as a picture of the pressure placed on vulnerable young mothers to conform to some hypocritical health visitor’s idea of happy families, pointing up that the borderland between protection of the child and abuse of the parent is a line which is disastrously ill defined in modern day Britain.

However this is not at all a depressing book – quite the opposite it is a hopeful book – by a writer who thoroughly understands that life can be lonely and difficult, but it can also come liberally laced with snatches of sublime poetry.

 

 

A Quiet Passion. Directed by Terence Davies. Film Review

 

Film Review. A Quiet Passion. Directed by Terence Davies

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the American poet Emily Dickinson appealed as a subject to this particular Director who, like the poet, struggles to get to the truth of the human condition– truth is an idea which Dickinson laboured for in her life and in the poems themselves. The two things were not distinct.  Where and what is this truth? Does it lie in the immortality of words?   If so which words and at what time? It is easy with the wisdom of hindsight to label the immortals – much harder to spot them in the context of their time and place.

Emily Dickinson (1830 to 1886) Photo  Amherst College Library

The film makes the point that Emily Dickinson had 11 poems published during her lifetime. Immortality comes later. But it comes at a price.

This is not a film about a particular artistic career since it cannot be said that Dickinson had one although she produced a considerable body of work with which mankind has spent the last hundred and fifty years trying to catch up. It is a film of ageing, sickness and death, the role of religion, or not, and trying to make art in the middle of it all. Or rather out of it all.  From a devout family, Emily questioned religion openly which led to some antagonistic exchanges both with the Principal of Holyoke Seminary and her father. However the film’s insistence on Emily being the only student in her year to be labelled ‘without hope’ is based on accounts which have since been questioned and which do not accord with Seminary records.

The outdoor scenes of the film take place in the garden of the house at Amherst, Massachusetts (the poet’s home is now a Museum) the beautifully tended garden makes a ravishing backdrop for the scenes of dialogue that take place, especially with the parasol bearing, wide-gowned ladies’ fashions of the mid-19th century. Most of the film’s action takes place indoors, however, quite claustrophobically so for Dickinson herself was reclusive.   The film does not really answer the question why, although there is an implication that grief over her father’s death is a root cause.

For me, the film felt overlong and carried its ‘measured’ tones to extreme. The poet’s sister Lavinia (played by Jennifer Ehle) spends her whole life weeping or involved in damage limitation exercises over the offence that Emily’s rigorous truth seeking sometimes causes amongst their neighbours and friends. Other times the two girls are mopping brows or entertaining the vicar’s wife to tea. But this would be no doubt how their lives were lived. There are conversations about gender that feel too modern for the film’s mid-nineteenth century setting while Emily’s friend Vryling Buffam overdoes the witty repartee – no-one speaks like that all the time. In parts the film is quite gruesome to watch, with lengthy scenes of illness and fitting. (This Director has history on not sparing the viewer the unwatchable, as for example scenes of domestic violence in his previous film, Sunset Song).

The problems of the film lie in trying to create a life lived mostly in the mind, at a time when a literary career for a woman or indeed any creative outlet beyond the realm of the domestic, was unlikely. This is where the great sadness of the film lies. There is a poignant moment when Emily is informed by one of the servants that her bread has won second prize in a competition at a local show. ‘Oh.’ She responds. ‘Second prize.’ As a woman she is destined to come second, not even (in her own mind) sufficiently attractive to gain a husband. There is one affecting scene when the poet sitting alone in her room at night, imagines some traditionally dark handsome man, a Mr. Rochester, coming up the stairs and opening the door to her room.

Was it a conscious choice to seek no husband or family or her own? In the film Emily says she could imagine no life away from her family. She knows that to be a wife would restrict her poetry  even further, commenting that her father permitted her to write during the night hours which no husband would allow. But did she consciously make the  choice beween art and earthly desires or is that an inescapably romantic idea liberally laced with rose-tinted spectacles?

Is 1100 poems a fair exchange for a life lived in seclusion with neither husband nor children? The question cannot be addressed to or answered by a modern feminist. The question can only be addressed to the poet herself.  If Dickinson came back would she have an answer even now? Of would she say if there is only immortality on offer, then immortality will have to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Min Jin Lee. Pachinko, Apollo (2017)

It took me a while to work out what Pachinko was –some kind of gambling involving machines? Of course if I had taken the trouble to look it up I would have found that it’s an arcade game similar to pinball, thus making the book’s title a metaphor both for a means of earning a living (ie running the arcade) and the great pinball machine of life where we all think the chances of winning are as good as the chances of losing. But I was too busy reading to stop and go to Wikipedia so I got right through nearly to the end of the book before I worked it out. It made no difference to my enjoyment of the writing.

The story is of a family from Korea who suddenly find themselves living in Japan – or trying to – just before the outbreak of the second world war.   A cross-generational saga which starts in a poor boardinghouse in Busan, Korea, in 1910 and ends in Tokyo in 1989 in very different circumstances.

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Left alone with her mother after her father’s death, Sunja has to work hard to help her mother run the boarding house but things go wrong (don’t they always) after she meets a man in that most romantic of all arenas, the fishmarket:

Her shopping route didn’t vary from what she had been taught by her mother and father: first, the fresh produce, next, the soup bones from the butcher, then a few items from the market ajummas squatting beside spice filled basins, deep rows of glittering cutlass fish or plump sea bream caught hours earlier – their wares arrayed attractively on turquoise and red waxed cloths spread on the ground.

Sunja of course meets many obstacles on this journey. As well as being Korean, she is (of course) female but yet needs to work. It is a substantial read in all respects, coming in just under 500 pages but I found myself reading quickly, compulsively even, in two days. Min Jin Lee’s great strength as an author is to produce sympathetic characters so that the reader really cares what happens to them.

One of the issues at the heart of the story is how Koreans were viewed at that time by some of the Japanese people with whom they were trying to rub along – which it is fair to say was not always with the greatest sympathy, facing as they did restricted employment opportunities and hostile attitudes. This is a story of overcoming those things or of trying to. It’s a story of sticking to your principles. Of making the best. Of battling on. It is a story which asks whether we can come through anything regardless of the cost, or whether sometimes the accounts just pile up too high.

If I have any criticism at all it is that some of the characters seem almost too upright and stoical – perhaps a little saintly even? The book asks (with great relevance to today’s precarious politics in the West) what it means to belong to one nation or race and whether that sense of belonging comes only from the outside, ie from other people’s perceptions of us. What lengths will we go to in order to fit a preconceived mould, and does it ever wholly work? Can we still lead lives of grace, regardless of how others behave towards us? If these questions on seem to border on the ethos of Christianity perhaps they do. Are the chances of winning as great as the chances of losing. Or has someone fixed the pinball machine?

An altogether engrossing read.

 

 

Just about managing …

 

And on the first day we say:

He who told lies about Europe

shall be raised up, while she

who told the truth about

the cost of one’s trousers

shall be cast down

On the second day we shall

make a third runway; place

another million planes in

a toxic sky.

Minions shall chain themselves

to railings and lie down on

the M4 but we persist.

On the third day we shall

cross the big water to visit

the rooster that crows and crows

…and crows.

On the fourth day we shall not

Once more unto the breach or

close up the wall with our English dead

but take a different approach.

 

The fifth day we reserve

for mental health problems.

 

Now all the ditch’s tiny celebrations …

A Review of Spill Simmer Falter Wither. Sara Baume

I am miles behind everyone else in discovering Sara Baume. I was leafing through the Guardian reviews and came across a review of her latest book. It sounded appealing but still had a couple of weeks to go before publication date. I was so intrigued by this review that deciding I couldn’t wait, so downloaded the debut novel by the same author called Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither a book that had itself previously been longlisted for the Guardian first book award.  Back to ideas of what it is to be alone but this time not in the city.

The surface story of the book is a road trip – man and dog. So far so Steinbeck. But this journey is not just a restless road trip of self discovery – although like any trip it involves that too – but a journey of escape. What is extraordinary about this novel is the voice and how the pace is maintained without any substantial plot.

The protagonist is a man in his late fifties whose father has died leaving him in a pink bungalow in a seaside “village which hums”, the humming being the result of the location of the house near an oil refinery and power plant. The dog arrives after the man sees a picture on a re-homing poster pasted up by a local dog rescue centre.

Throughout this novel, man and beast develop an empathy which is cleverly – and poetically – built up and described that what the dog can see or smell, or feel or lick, seems to travel down to the reader through a reliable intermediary. When the narrator says ‘Come with me through the fields’ it is not the ‘Reader, I married him’ style of address of the omniscient narrator, but a direct address from man to dog.  This continues almost through, quite credibly.   Why would not a lonely man talk to his dog?  When the two are forced on the run:

‘You’re drawn on by your panic worthy scent, I’m drawn on by the sun winking through the scraggled branches…’

it suddenly becomes imperative that both should succeed.  But will they?

The road trip gives the writer a chance to vent her full talent for natural description of the passing seasons and Britain’s half-worshipped, half-abandoned countryside. These writings are poignant and elegant with the occasional intervention of death in the form of roadkill. There is a balance (as always?) between loss and finding and it is evoked beautifully here.

The man fears a world that he does not understand, but when he finds something to care for and love that brings an even greater fear of loss. It is a fear which communicates itself to the reader. What can help allay those fears? Can anything?

“Now all the ditch’s tiny celebrations and devastations proliferate and fill me, buoy me, and in this way, the fear subsides to some degree.”

I am much looking forward to reading the new book (A Line Made by Walking) by this author. From reading reviews of her second book I can see certain themes that are of concern to Baume. Again the impact of loneliness, again the presence of urbanization or more specifically industrialization, since turbines, oil refineries and power plants although urban by nature are often sited in the worst places, in previous beauty spots, sustaining of one form of life, while despoiling another

Can happiness exist in a despoiled environment? Since the bible said the answer was ‘no’ with the fall of Eve, writers and artists have been grappling with the question well, what then since Eden is no more? Buddhism puts a more positive spin on this – the environment changes to reflect an inner change in man’s heart.

 

 

Human rights and ear-tagging

It was reported in this morning’s press that Theresa May’s Government has abandoned, for the moment, the idea of replacing the operation of the European Convention on Human Rights within the UK with a British Bill of Rights. This is good news. The ECHR grew out of the searing experience of two world wars when the UN declared as its objective the building of a world free of war, oppression and discrimination. To redraft the law is a monumental undertaking for which the current administration appears sadly lacking in resources.

In his 2016 Peace Proposal to the United Nations, Daisaku Ikeda offers three ideas that require prompt and coordinated action by governments and civil society These are:

  • Humanitarian aid and human rights protection
  • Ecological integrity and disaster risk reduction
  • disarmament and the prohibition of nuclear weapons.

(Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace (SGI, 2016 p.33)

Leaving aside for the moment the third bullet point, the UK Government’s record in regard to the first and second of these is dire. During the last year there have been increases in intolerances and racial disharmony while the official attitude towards refugees has been shameful.  ‘Security’ is now a buzzword around not having to bother to consider anyone as an individual.   The fact that the Investigatory Powers Act (2016) – the ‘snoopers charter’ – passed through Parliament without a peep is evidence of this.  As Margaret Atwood once commented – our Governments treat as like ear-tagged cattle.

Meanwhile poisonous infrastructure projects such as fracking and a third runway at Heathrow having been – effectively – given the go ahead.  Despite newspaper headlines carrying pleas by headmasters of schools for the government to protect the air that our children breathe, and terrifying statistics of air quality in London being worse than Beijing, the Government staggers ahead blindly with its plan to put another quarter of a million planes in British skies with all the accompanying NOx emissions and dust particulates.

A disdain for the lives and wellbeing of refugee children is reflected in a disdain for the lives and wellbeing of children of this country. It reflects a Society that has lost sight of the idea of a child being a citizen of the future, or indeed of the meaning of the word citizen. There is little point in our teachers arguing over the future of education in this country if no-one can breathe.

No government can solve every problem on its own. But its role is to show leadership and to inspire others to take action for change and improvement. Political solutions alone will not work. In or out of Europe, nothing will change in terms of individual wellbeing of people in the UK until attitudes change – away from the consumer as fodder for the ambitions of giant corporates – towards a respect for the individual and the dignity of life. At the moment sadly there is little sign of that happening at official level.

Riding the plains on a borrowed horse…

I never made it to the end of War and

Peace. I struggled even to watch the TV series – I’m not sure why. It is not so much the tome-sized tome , the style of address or the massive cast of characters.     It is more an oppressive sense of doom – the doomed world of the Russian aristocracy already in self-destruct from Page 1.  The same with Anna Karenina – the train has in a manner of speaking already left the station.

I had none of this difficulty however with the hugely readable trilogy The Writing on the Wall by Miklós Bánffy, despite comparisons with Tolstoy being inevitable. These books too operate within the twilight of an empire – although this time the Austro-Hungarian empire in the decade leading up to the first world war. Like Tolstoy the author is part of the fabric of the vanishing aristocracy.  There is a love story but it is more a love story to a fading landscape and history, than to any particular woman.   The main character, based on Bánffy himself, spends his time riding from baroque castle to baroque castle, attending balls (which never seem to end before 7 in the morning – what did these people do for sleep) parties and race meetings. Duels are fought over comments considerably less offensive than any trawl of twitter would produce on a given day.

Writing the foreword to the English translation of Bánffy’s work, travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor remembers his own travels in this region when in 1934 aged 19, he walked (as you do) from Holland to Turkey writes:

“… nobody likes having a new nationality forced on them, still less, losing estates by expropriation. This of course is what happened to the descendants of the old feudal landowners of Transylvania.”

“…Though enormously reduced, remnants of these old estates did still exist, and at moments is almost seemed as though nothing had changed. Charm and douceur de vivre was still afloat among the faded décor and the still undiminished libraries.”

Traces of great empires are hard to extinguish – we no longer have a great empire and by ‘we’ I mean anyone on the planet – but we do have societies, environments and a lot left to lose. Strange how you can see the impending destruction of a society only with the benefit of hindsight.  Or perhaps it is less a lack of seeing than knowing what to do, pressed as we are to the front of that speeding train , we elect leaders who sometimes mean well and sometimes don’t. Then sit back and wait for something right to happen. Should we be surprised if it doesn’t? Take away the baroque castles and we all ride those plains on borrowed horses.

 

 

The Lonely City

Olivia Laing, Canongate, 2016

“You can be lonely anywhere , but there is a particular flavor that comes from being lonely in a city”

Image result

If this reads as an entrée into an examination of the work of American artist Edward Hopper (1882- 1967) – among other things, it is.    Looking at Hopper’s work it is hard to avoid a sympathetic response to the situation of his characters as people who are alone in their urban environments, with all the ensuing emotional cost that this involves. Although the artist himself did not like to admit to his paintings as studies of loneliness, Laing finds it hard to separate his work from this idea.

Laing also casts her compassionate eye over the life and work of Andy Warhol (1928-1987), David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) and Henry Darger (1892-1973), the last to me completely unknown, but perhaps the most extreme in a literal realization of what it means for the personal of the artist to be physically and emotionally isolated, yet still create. Darger’s work was discovered posthumously writing and paintings of a Faustian world, containing scenes of both torment and paradise.

The essential isolation of the human condition! Considering there are so many of us – why is this?   As Laing points out, mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel these feelings, rather it exacerbates them, containing within itself the potential for voyeuristic opportunities to put the viewer in the situation of unauthorized observer of other lives, a situation which Hopper appears to explore in Night Windows.

Living in the country may sometimes be a lonely experience but surely it is harder to feel that sense of complete isolation when other beings are birds, insects, trees, grass. How do we know the pain of other lives? The difficulty … the joys? We don’t.   Those who are artists, painters, poets, musicians, writers of all ilk spend agonizing hours trying to find out. Or perhaps our lonely little planet spinning in its void is so much a part of us – as each of us is part of it – that it is inevitable we should share in the planetary sense of impending oblivion.  Is this what Plath meant when she wrote :

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God

(The Moon and the Yew Tree)

If the grasses grieve that we must grieve too. Humanity is not god but it has behaved as an irrational god achieving dominion over its environment then destroying it. What, faced with this relentless destruction, can an individual do? The answer lies in re-establishing broken connections – not in a caustic business sense of networking – but in a sense of identifying life as a shared process. Olivia Laing’s book sheds light on the artworks she travelled to the US to examine, but in the process she found out about herself and it is these insights that enable the reader to connect, as much as the lives and times of the artists she writes about.