ON POETRY, WRITING AND RANDOM CULTURAL MATTERS

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Grayson Perry at the Serpentine Gallery

 The tongue in cheek Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! is indeed proving so, given that I made the school girl error of trying to get in on the first Saturday afternoon after it opened. But the 40 minute queue was worth it.

I love Grayson Perry, and so it seems does everyone else. Who would have thunk it that a transvestite potter, as he describes himself, would become a living national treasure, yet he and his alter-ego, Claire, have.

Yes, he makes some obvious points, but they are ones worth making and his affectionate portrait of the nation is one we need to look at in these troubled times.

Thinking about the great inequalities in our country, whilst celebrating all its eccentricities is the order of the day in everything from the pair of Brexit pots, one of which is ever so slightly bigger than the other, to the wall sized tapestries, such as the stereotype map of Britain and the even larger one portraying our urban landscape complete with a traffic jam, burning car in a scrubby field, and grafittied skate park, to the personalised motorbike and cycle, to his sketch books.

The Serpentine has packed its three rooms with much to consider and the irony of buying a The Liberal Elite fridge magnet was not lost on me.

Monday, 24 April 2017

David Hockney and Queer Art at Tate Britain


So, OK, David Hockney is the fastest selling show, the longest opening, etc. and he seems the most popular living British artist. And yes, I do enjoy his work from the earliest through the swimming pools, to the Californian and East Yorkshire landscapes to the latest ipad work, the colours, the confidence with shape, all well exemplified in this major retrospective.

But at this point I am thinking it is all a bit over-hyped. Go in your thousands if you must, but I think I have seen rather too much of his work. I am jaded and cynical.

Queer Art was something else. It is a melange of homoerotic art, hidden messages and work by queer artists to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary this year of the decriminalization of homosexual acts. All very laudable and some of my favourite paintings were there, especially Vita Sackville-West in her red hat.

But, it was too much of a mishmash for me: a wide swathe of chronological time, a disparate collection of images and objects. I spent far too much time reading things in order to be told their significance. That is not the mark of a successful art exhibition. I am meant to be swept up in the work, not having a lengthy history lesson in order to appreciate it. Still, worth a peek if you are passing.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Hidden Paris - Fontainebleu

Hidden in the sense that it is not in Paris at all, the Chateau taking up the central part of the genteel town of Fontainebleu is a 40 minute train ride from Gare de Lyon, but it was a fabulously sunny day and definitely time to get into the green after winter's grey.

Smaller and older than Versailles, this palace of the French monarchs is undergoing some building restoration work at present so the Pope's rooms, so called, were closed, but the rest was open; room after room of gorgeousness, a veritable feast and a study in royal interior design over the centuries, including throne rooms, a ball room, library, reception rooms, Marie Antionette's bed chamber (another one), and many of Napoleon's personal effects, dinner services, campaign tent, jewels.

The gardens are extensive for strolling, picnicking, boating, and the like. A great day out when you want to escape the traffic fumes and Tom Cruise filming helicopter chases for Mission Impossible 6 in the skies of Paris.

Hidden London - Brixton Windmill

Not to be confused with the famous music pub of the same name, the windmill stands in a little park just a stone's throw away. Ashby's Mill, as it is more correctly called, is a little remnant oasis of the countryside before it became built over and turned into South London.

By the end of the nineteenth century, with the wind blocked by buildings it fell into disuse to be resurrected for another thirty years until 1934 by the installation of a steam  and later gas engine.

Open inside occasionally, but viewable all year round, it's one of those quirky things we flaneurs rather enjoy finding on a sunny day.

Concrete Poetry - the iconisation of language

There's a new exhibition in LA at present, not that I shall be seeing it as I am nowhere near. The last in London to my recollection was Poor Old Tired Horse at the ICA in 2009. Worth a rethink? Perhaps.

So, what exactly is it? Is it art? Is it poetry? Is it neither? Is it the bridge between the two? Are any of these definitions useful?

Firstly a very brief potted history - people have been making words look attractive on the page for hundreds of years before the Concrete Poetry movement of the 1950s-1970s. For example, all of those beautiful illuminated mediaeval manuscripts; the Books of Kells, books of hours and so on, through to Elizabethan Labyrinth poems, to elements of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Lewis Carroll's Mousetail from Alice in Wonderland, and the work of Pound and cummings. What are these all about?

In the simplest terms the words are turned into a picture or representation beyond just their letters, the purpose of which is to enhance the effect of the poem for the reader.

This seems to be one kind of possible extension to any poetic practice of considering the way the words look on the page either through formal poetry, or choosing the lineation in free verse, such as more recently Philip Gross' Amphora.

If all forms of poetry try to do this, then all poetry is concrete in this sense. However, much of what we consider to be concrete poetry lacks something: read it out loud and the effect is lost, as it is essentially a visual form, lacking sound and often meaning.

But what might make it art? Its visual nature, certainly, and the fact that it uses words and typographical elements rather than colours or images, does not reduce its status, even if no pictorial representation is produced.

Thus we might conclude that it is neither poetry nor art, or both as some kind of hybrid, which for me points to the rather otiose nature of such definitions. As an entertainment for the eyes, a provocation of ideas and a demonstration of wit, let's just enjoy it, shall we? Here are just some of my personal favourites (more to follow, so check back soon):

 Ian Hamilton-Finlay (very hard to choose just a couple!)



Mary Ellen Solt:







Saturday, 8 April 2017

Hidden Paris - Basilica St Denis

It's difficult to hide the world's first Gothic building, but if you put it in a northern suburb of Paris with a certain reputation, then it's hardly surprising it has taken me five years to get around to visiting it.

Joking aside, this is a magnificence that everyone should see at least once: huge vaulted ceilings, beautiful rose window, and the main draw: the fabulous, mostly marble, tombs and mortuary effigies of the Kings and Queens of France.

Word of warning. It may be 20 degrees outside, but the church is absolutely freezing, especially the crypt, so wrap up unless you like you want to catch you death, so to speak.

Fascinating to see and a real test of my memory as I didn't take the rather time consuming tour and had to drag up my rather shaky knowledge of French history. Noses and staffs broken during the Revolution, the grim tale of Henry IV's head, and the real mummified heart of Louis LVII await you.

I was particularly taken with the lions and dogs on which the monarchs and their spouses rested their feet. Some were comical, such as dogs pulling on their mistresses cloaks, and some were down right odd, as if the sculptor had never even seen a real lion, which indeed, he may not have. One was even a ferret.

Coffee in the sunny square afterwards before heading back to line 13 was not only welcome, but essential.

Hidden Paris - Opera Garnier

 Sumptuous in the kind of golden glory that the French excel in, the Garnier Opera House is a must see for so many reasons, even if you don't like opera that much. It is a veritable eye-dazzle.

Although the entry for an unguided tour is a little steep at 11 Euros a person, it is well worth an hour of your time, if like me, you still point your toes and fancy yourself dancing the ballet. One sweep down the highly polished marble stair case should do your performing princess ego no end of good.

Principal among reasons to come here are the art works: Rodin's statues at the foot of the grand staircase, their feet turned gold by so many passing and reverent hands, and Chagall's magnificent ceiling in the auditorium.

It surprised me how may of my fellow visitors completely missed it, busy as they were taking selfies. I stared up at it for ages, studying each element of angel, goat, violin, and all the Paris landmarks cunningly included in his trademark palette. Super!

Monday, 3 April 2017

English Pen Literarture Festival



Last Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the English Pen Literature Festival in London, a day long series of performances and readings in support of imprisoned and suppressed writers from oppressive countries around the world. We heard of those silenced as a result of their writings, mistranslations of their work, their mere existence and the supposed threat their words represent in regimes afraid of criticism and free speech. The participating writers responded with new work of their own, variously explaining the situation of the writers with whom they were in dialogue. 


One comment that came up more than once was how difficult and uncomfortable it was to make work based on the plight of another writer. One person even called such efforts obscene. I have been considering this for the rest of the weekend and I am not sure I agree. The brief after all was to do just that, and, as we are writers, we ought to be able to write about anything, no? If what was meant was that it is an intrusion to put oneself in the precise shoes or, more likely, bare feet of another writer, then granted, trying to describe torture and deprivation by hi-jacking another person’s experience and emotions, could be seen as distasteful. How, after all, could one know, exactly? 


But there is more to consider in these ethical ambiguities, surely? If a writer has been silenced, is it not another writer’s role, or even duty, to help them have a voice? We are writers and have imagination, and should not too readily censor ourselves. That would be to perpetuate the wrongs. I think what would be obscene would be to try to pass off someone else’s experience and emotions as one’s own, so, yes, the I is I first person should probably be abandoned, if not at least carefully considered in this project. Yet, writing in the third person may seem too distant, or the second, again too knowingly dictatorial, but these are what we have and it is our job to make the best of them.


The work shared on Saturday took many approaches; the most successful in my view were those who tried to use the silenced writer’s words and work directly, either as mash up or, sample, woven into letters and diary extracts, or forming parts of poems, or using the numbers of years or months of a person’s incarceration as the number of elements in the piece of writing, i.e. to control its structure. More traditional ways of tackling a response included using classic/historical depictions of violence and martyrdom, and poems in response to one of the writer’s poems.

It was a marathon of listening and, if this is not the wrong word, enjoyment, appropriate given the sheer number of people deprived of their freedom and voices; things we take too lightly for granted.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Brexit and triggering article 50

So here we are, the dreaded day when an unelected Prime Minister actions the results of an advisory referendum and signs a letter to the EU giving notice that we are leaving. This is supposed to be a democracy, but I see no signs of it. Hard Brexit was not on the ballot paper.

I am sad beyond belief that a campaign waged on the basis of xenophobia and a great big fat lie on the side of a bus about the cost of the EU and how it could all be spent on the NHS has put us in this spot.

What other country is mad enough to have voted for the coming recession, to take away people's birthrights, and our children's future? The turkeys wanted Christmas and, to mix metaphors completely, here comes the chopper to chop off our heads.

The choice was what we know and can manage versus jumping off a cliff into the complete unknown without anything that could remotely be described as a plan. The foolish, old and ignorant have hung our country, and most especially our young people, out to dry.

I'm not just saddened. I'm extremely bloody angry. For myself. And for my daughters.

And I don't live in Scotland with a chance of independence and remaining European. London can't very well declare UDI and leave the UK now, can it ?

Monday, 27 March 2017

Hidden Paris - MK2 Grand Palais

I shouldn't really be telling you this, but the cinema in the Grand Palais is the very best and most comfortable in the whole city. It's located on the corner of the building nearest the quai and is so easily missed, even by people who have lived in Paris for decades. It generally shows three different films a day and is the classiest place to sit back and enjoy that I know of. Just keep that to yourself.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Westminster - We are not afraid

I was sitting in Paris yesterday watching events unfold at home. It was hard to concentrate on the work I was supposed to be doing. I called my daughter to check she was nowhere near. Thankfully she was safely at home studying and not trying to change trains at Westminster, as she usually does twice daily.

I am deeply saddened that my city has been attacked yet again by a crazy person intent on causing chaos and mayhem. What is the point? Really? It is incomprehensible.

I am immensely proud of our security and emergency services, swift in response and ultra efficient. That should make us all feel as safe as it is possible to be.

My thoughts are with those who have been injured, and the families and friends of those killed.

If a blog post can be a minute's silence, consider this my mark of respect.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Vermeer at the Louvre

Small and perfectly formed, this is a truly lovely exhibition of umpteen Vermeers and contemporaries, thoughtfully hung by subject matter to facilitate comparisons.

Save yourself trips to London, the Netherlands and Germany etc., buy tickets and queue up for ages even though you have a ticket. Take a friend to talk to, or a good book.

Patience is certainly rewarded, but please be tall to see over everyone's head, or be prepared to wait for those gaps in the crowd and tour groups when you will have the Lacemaker and Milkmaid et al to yourself.

Enjoy these jewels while they shine in Paris and ask yourself why all the windows are on the left.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Hidden Paris - Musee Bourdelle

If you are sloping around Montparnasse looking for a peaceful spot, go no further. This small museum, built around Bourdelle's atelier and adjoining buildings, has beautiful courtyard gardens packed with his sculptures, as well as large exhibition halls with the same, including plaster casts.

Bourdelle was a student of Rodin and there are some influences to be spotted, but mostly his work is massive, muscular, even the women, and substantial. If you like your bronzes this bold, you will enjoy this hugely.

It was encouraging to see students sketching on a sunny day. Oh, and it's free to visit, plus you may be greeted by the smiliest  and most welcoming museum staff in Paris.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Wolfgang Tillmans at the Tate

If you only know Tillmans as the guy who made those eye-catching anti-Brexit posters last year, then this newly opened show till be a revelation of beautiful work.

He is a art photographer of some renown and his panoramic print have a lot in common with massive old master canvases. The African market scene is totally stunning. I was especially impressed by the abstracts made without the use of a camera.

The arrangement of the show is interesting, taking the eye up down and around the walls, but also annoying, as there are several places where small prints in the corner of rooms are practically unviewable due to the numbers of people in attendance, at least when we went, and similarly one huge abstract is hung in a corridor.

I can live without the sound piece and the rather unexciting film, but the reportage arrangements of printed material, his politics, and books are well worth your time. There is a lot to read. Patience rewarded.


Monday, 23 January 2017

Still I rise - London

Saturday, in my pussy hat, I marched with five women friends and more than a hundred thousand other women, men and children. From cities around the world our numbers were in their millions. 

Out from the social media echo chamber we came. Out onto the streets. The cry? There were many, but at their core: justice and equality. It was a celebration of diversity and the first mass resistance to the normalisation of the new world order, the new Nazism. Embarrassed Americans marched with us. We embraced them.

There are still so many issues, still so much to do as a second waver reminded us with her placard: I can't believe I am still protesting this fucking shit, and the same from the period dressed Suffragettes: same shit, different century.

Let me focus on just one issue that affects my country women in Northern Ireland and our sisters in the south. The whole island of Ireland is still an abortion free zone. The rosaries are still on their ovaries.

For me the most moving moment of the day was the vociferous reminder of this inequity. The Irish women shouting my body, my choice stopped the march. There was applause. There were tears and cheers.

If you want to do something real, practical and effective, go here. Help them have one thing we take for granted.

Then back to the streets. We are not going away anytime soon, and certainly not for the next four years.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Black Friday - Amercia loses the plot

Today in the winter light of Washington D.C. a billionaire septuagenarian woefully ill-equipped and ignorant is being inaugurated into the most important political office in the world.

This is not a joke.

This man, who claims to be successful in business and a great deal maker, yet has had many companies in bankruptcy and been sued for defrauding clients, thinks he knows what's best for America and thus the rest of us.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

He is dismantling healthcare from the most needy, denying climate change is even a thing, let alone the most pressing issue facing our planet, thinks NATO and the arts irrelevant, Brexit a good idea, and is rattling his sabres at China. He thinks he's smarter than the intelligence agencies, ignores security clearance processes, and is building a wall against Mexico.

Now he has the nuclear codes.

This man, who makes policy by tweet, knows not how to govern, the behaviours and protocols, nor the gravity of the role expected of him.

He is a self-confessed and accused sexual predator, and is on the record denigrating women, immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community, gold star families, and the disabled. He is a sexist and a racist.

And, let's not pull our punches, he is a fascist, busy cozying up to Russia and trying to silence and control the free press. America is blessing its first dictator and that cannot bode well for the world.

The only ray of hope on this sad January day is that Congress moves to impeach him immediately. In the meantime we need to continue to call him out - this is not normal - and poke fun at him. He has such a thin skin and short temper that one Saturday night, perhaps tomorrow, he might actually explode.






Poem for 20 January 2017

The fake beetle

always flounders and, limbs akimbo
falls from his ball of dung.


At night he tries navigation by the stars
but, fixed in their firmament, they do not
stoop, or aid, or grace his stage.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Women's March - Planning ahead

I am not American, so why am I bothering to go on the London sister march to the Washington one planned for 21 January? Good question. The answer is incredibly simple.

In the first place, solidarity and sorority. Shocking though this is in 2017, I find myself once again in my life needing to make my voice heard for women's rights in an apparently developed country, the USA.

Let that sink in for a moment. 2017. The USA. Incredible isn't it?

And I do so from a sense of unity, and more, because what happens in America, tends to find its way to Europe sooner or later.

I have been surprised and truly dismayed by the creeping sexism that I have observed on these shores in recent years. Let me give just one example for now. My daughter regularly comes home in shock, upset from random street harassment. She is in her late teens and quietly going about her lawful business. Why is she subjected to gross vulgarity, propositions and threats to her person by men of all ages?

I witnessed and was subjected to it myself one evening as we were making our way home from the theatre. A car pulled over and its occupants leaned out, banged on the car doors and shouted "You slags!" at us before driving off laughing. We had done precisely nothing, yet these young men felt entitled to abuse and frighten us for their perverse entertainment.

In this context it is not unreasonable for me to wonder how long it is before a British politician and his supporters think it is entirely acceptable to denigrate women, our bodies, and our rights. How long before our contraception and sexual health are curtailed, hidden in an NHS budget cut? How long before some man decides to tinker with the abortion laws?

It's been a while since I got off my sofa and took to the street to protest about anything. That's shameful, but this is the one. When the soon-to-be leader of the free world holds such odious and dangerous views about half the human race and is brazenly espousing them, how can any of us keep quiet?

I am doing what I am able to do: lending my voice, making it heard, using my pen, making art and above all standing with everyone of good conscience to say NO to bigotry of all kinds. NO to turning the clock back to the 1950s. NO. NO. NO.

I have knitted my pussy hat and will be wearing it with pride. And before anyone says its name is ironic, it isn't. Using the word pussy is to reclaim it from the mouths of those who seek to reduce us to our genitalia. Just ask those musicians in Russia. They'll tell you.

Seeing animals at the Wellcome Collection

An eclectic little show this one that tries to group things by theme, but ends up with too much of nothing particularly connected, although packed with plenty of curiosities. Perhaps that was its meta intention.

I was interested in the craziness of teaching birds to sing human compositions, and various scary bio-engineering experiments like the alcoholic rat and the living film. It certainly provoked a conversation on bio-ethics, again, perhaps the point, although not explicitly pedagogic in that sense.

Still, and for all, that I'd rather stay with the plumage of birds of paradise and the coloured soil paintings for their simplicity and wonder at the extant world.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Gavin Turk at Newport Street Gallery


 The commendable raison d'etre of Damien Hirst's beautifully designed and appointed Newport Street Gallery is to show his own collections of work, currently Gavin Turk.

Before the art, a word on the gallery: it's quite a pain to get to at present as Lambeth North tube is out of action, so we jumped off at Waterloo and then took a bus to Lambeth Palace, where I noted, en passant, that the Garden Museum is closed for renovation, mores the pity.

The gallery is spacious, totally fit for purpose and free. Just as well, as I can't imagine folk wanting to enrich Mr. Hirst any further. So, thanks then to philanthropy and his willingness to open his doors on a collection that would no doubt otherwise be sitting in a warehouse somewhere awaiting the inevitable fire.

The works on show are themed by room: the first two on Turk's all important signature in a variety of guises, including Klein dipped sponges, which I loved for their resemblance to basalt, and au Pollock in huge canvases. Then it's the Warhol homages; various screen prints of himself, and as Sid as Elvis, and the car crashes, followed by the waxworks. Finally there is the skip, and bronze cast rubbish bags and rubbish. Cave, the plaque he made for his unsuccessful MA show, is afforded a room of its own, which is a gloriously witty hanging. It made us both smile and giggle.

Pharmacy 2 for a very strong and reasonably priced flat white at the end of a morning's highly enjoyable and seemingly private viewing. Hardly anyone was there except us given that it required determination and that the rest of London was probably at the Oxford Street sales. A bus ride to Piccadilly took us home over Lambeth bridge and through a city wrapped in fog, which the watery sun tried to illumine. Joy.

Paul Nash at Tate Britain

This is a major retrospective of Nash's work covering early to late pieces; war to surrealism to the English countryside. Whilst, yes, there are some stunning and groundbreaking, if you will pardon the pun, paintings of the First World War, and some of the stylised trees and landscapes are particularly appealing, I left underwhelmed.

The war subjects apart, I think this is a question of originality. Nash was trying too hard and unsuccesfully, mid-career, to be a surrealist. It is also one of colour palette. There was just too much brown, grey, and sludgy green in this period of work. I like subtle. I like Fallow and Ball. But, I'd rather see paintings with more technicolour. The dreariness started to make me feel depressed and it was already a doldrum day at the slow turning of the year.

His poems are not up to much either, I'm afraid, and I quickly gave up bothering to read them, nicely calligraphied though they were.

Also, and this is not the first time I have noticed this, could someone in the Tate's maintenance department please oil the squeaky door that sounds like a spitfire going overhead every time it is opened?

Go if you are a fan, perhaps not otherwise. Disappointing.