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A Metaphor Backed By Law (Brittle Star #40, June 2017)

14 Jun

 

Brittle Star (Issue 40)

Since the middle of last year, I’ve been writing a column for Brittle Star magazine, mainly using it as a space for thinking aloud about writing in general. Full Spectrum Poetry (issue #38) argued for a definition of poetry that doesn’t bind it solely to a specialist sub-category of writing called ‘poems’ while The Lyric Mode (issue #39) picked up on the arguments about the exact relationship between poetry and songwriting triggered by Bob Dylan’s Nobel laureateship: might it be Dylan’s very literariness that made his award problematic as a recognition of songwriting on its own terms?

Both these issues are still available.

The latest issue, #40, features a consideration of the fictional, highly poetic nature of money – or at least, the fictional, poetic and ultimately irrational belief systems required to sustain a sense of reality around this chimeric substance we grant so much sway over our own and others’ lives. Tracing a line from an off-hand remark by Robert Graves through Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market to “The Magic Money Tree” of recent election debate notoriety, A Metaphor Backed By Law appears in issue #40, which launches at Barbican Library on June 28.

Brittle Star – launch for Issue 40
Wednesday 28 June, 6.30 for 7pm
Barbican Music Library, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS.
Nearest tube: Barbican or Old Street.
FREE event but space is limited: book on 020 7638 0569

Brittle Star (Issue 38)
“Even so, [Philip Larkin’s] way of looking at finance still fits neatly into our standard idea of money as a practical tool, something that exists in the world, even if we do fail to use it well or acquire its promised blessing. The actual relationship between poetry and money turns out to lie in stranger, much deeper territory. In Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, for example, money is glimpsed in its true, chimeric and phantasmagorical forms. Rossetti’s poem shows us money’s seductive evanescence and changeability, its connections to our wishes and desires made literal flesh in the goblins’ fruit:

“I have no copper in my purse,
I have no silver either,
And all my gold is on the furze
That shakes in windy weather
Above the rusty heather.”
“You have much gold upon your head,”
[The goblins] answer’d all together
“Buy from us with a golden curl.”

She clipp’d a precious golden lock,
She dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl,
Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock…

Christina Rossetti (1859)

As Christina Rossetti’s heroine soon discovers, the cost of her transaction is paid in more than money – and if a golden curl can be used as a coin, it’s because the coin itself is only an arbitrary token. Yet we do still insist on thinking of money as a solid and practical thing, almost the opposite of poetry. When Amber Rudd and Theresa May invoke the undoubtedly poetic image of ‘The Magic Money Tree’ during an election debate, the phrase is plainly meant to be dismissive, derisive and wounding – who could be so naive as to imagine such a thing exists? – even as it turns out to offer a perfectly accurate image of what money is and how it has been produced…”

[Extract from: A Metaphor Backed By Law (Brittle Star #40)]

*

“Planet Claire has pink air.
All the trees are red.
No-one ever dies there.
No-one has a head…

The B52s: Planet Claire, 1979

Memorable and effective as they are, songs like these aren’t operating by the rules we expect when approaching the canons that define our sense of how contemporary poetry might be written. Their antecedents lie in those traditions represented by Mother Goose and Lewis Carroll, by the nursery rhyme, nonsense poem and anonymously authored folk air. Modernism’s antipathy to its own late-Victorian lyrical inheritance may partly explain why this approach is undervalued in the poetry of our own time, but remains a live concern in the popular song. A good deal of nonsense verse can be found in the catalogue of The Residents, for example, whose 1978 Duck Stab/Buster & Glen recordings amount to a fairly direct, if musically unsettling, reinvention of Edward Lear:

Skinny was born in a bathtub
and grew so incredibly thin
that even the end of an eye-dropper sucked him in.

Skinny never knew any questions,
Skinny never looked at lights
but Skinny sold something every single night…

The Residents: Hello Skinny, 1978

Eighteenth century literary fashions for ballads, children’s rhymes and commonplace verses of the kind collected in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) stirred disputes not unlike those seen since the Nobel committee made its announcement a few weeks ago. They were deeply concerned with questions about what was true and authentic art, what merely artifice and kitsch, in ways that are evidently still with us. Breaches of literary decorum, like the apparently superfluous but musical phrase, can be disapproved of but may also be where much of the song’s appeal lies: “We can refute Hegel, but not the Saint or The Song of Sixpence” as Yeats once put it.”

[Extract from: The Lyric Mode (Brittle Star #39)]

*

Brittle Star also has a Patreon if you do that sort of thing.

 

Two Excerpts from ‘Shrapnel’ (c.1998 – 2007)

17 Nov

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(xxxii)

“The genius of the free market idea is to have us blame ourselves for the inequalities built into the system. Imagine a hundred-meter sprint where some had to do a marathon or 10,000 meters before anyone started the stopwatch, some started six inches from the finish, and all the medals were already, anyway, sent to the same guys who won them every year without even needing to turn up at the track. It wouldn’t be credible as athletics, but it’s pretty much exactly how the economy works…”

William Sterling Everett: Signs of the Times (1997)

Careless Talk Costs Lives, the old wartime propaganda posters used to insist, a cartoon Nazi spy gleefully eavesdropping on Mavis and Hilda – or at least, on two ladies in hair-rollers and spotted headscarves who might as well have been named Mavis and Hilda – as they blithely gossip about their husbands’ postings and other matters of use to any passing Nazi spies who may have been lurking on the street-corners where they passed the time in their utility coats. They hold baskets amply but modestly furnished with rationed eggs, cheese and milk and, according to the poster, anyway, threaten to lose the war as surely as any active enemy saboteur.

Perhaps this was some early premonition of Chaos Theory, intimating the vast potential consequences of minute actions as their barely perceptible resonances multiplied in the world: the low hum of insect wings building in the air, slowly unfastening the stitches that hold some wind-current to its known course and changing the entire weather system. Or maybe it’s the appearance of a dropped penny on a pavement that magnetises itself to a hundred other orphan pennies and builds slowly towards a one pound coin, a ten pound note, perhaps the full multi-million pound jackpot of a lottery win on a £1 ticket.

Isn’t this how markets are assumed to function, as the unfathomable result of millions of barely perceptible individual purchase decisions as they generate vast sprawling factories and refineries in the desert sands, plant crops inside glistening perspex Savannah greenhouses, lay down entire networks of roads and red-brick housing estates with pocket gardens and tarmac cul-de-sacs and parking spaces to meet all the millions of freely-chosen individual desires that spawned them? As we desire it, so things shall be.

Except, desire as we may, nothing much seems to change. We throw out one government and acquire another that will at best pursue much the same policies with minor tweaks to the packaging and presentation, at worst do something it hardly bears thinking about that wasn’t even in the manifesto. We’d prefer to live our lives without being defined and shaped by money; we’d like to disentangle ourselves from the nine-to-five and the long-distance commute but find we need to spend ever more of our lives chasing money to achieve this goal in any meaningful way, to stack up enough to get out of the rat race, or at least, we do if we haven’t got the money to start with. We seek equilibrium while the prospect of achieving it recedes ever further into the realms of fantasy: even a moderately secure paid job and a place to live becomes the stuff of daydreams and fairy tales.

If this is the case, it must be because we lacked the necessary talent and drive. The thickets of mystique that grow around social connections and blind chance, like thorns around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or the endless inflation that lifts entry-level doors beyond the reach of those who used to do the jobs, like the windows in Rapunzel’s tower. Besides, give someone the place and the role itself, the confidence inspired by acceptance, will tend to produce an approxiation of competence, enough to confirm the initial choice as right and justified, at least. Once the investment is made, and you’re on the inside, it might take years to expose your shortcomings even when this doesn’t apply.

Turn someone down, and maybe they’ll find themselves in debt, confidence shattered, slide from that crucial lost chance into apathy or worse. This is confirmation bias as a social and economic system, a lottery with delusions of meaningful decision-making. Every interview with someone successful you’ve ever read mentions the moment when something clicked: the job that led to everything that followed, the support that made the rest easy, the random draw that raised this one individual from the aspirant horde and planted those particular feet firmly on the sprung rubber surface of the fast track, where white lines curved on their clear path to the finish line. The rest remain outside, groping in the darkness for even the semblance of an entrance to the stadium.

Those who make it are the ones worthy of the rewards; the rest have fallen short. Anyone can see the natural justice at work in this.

Time passes. Small change turns up in the street from time to time. There is another story to be told, where we might glimpse details otherwise deemed insignificant: moments of clarity, peculiar unravellings of the fabrics we live by as the mind turns in on itself between one distraction and the next, each small paid job only tenuously connected to the last. Here’s one of those stories now, the beginnings of a prose elegy sketched out among the slogans and images that pierce the rain-soaked urban fabric with the fantastic promises of a dozen billboards along the route I’m walking:

It’s been eighty years since the armistice of the Great War, more or less. Vast posters appear in the streets showing the dark centres of scarlet poppies, as though Georgia O’Keefe has become confused with More O’Ferrall, the content stolen for the pasted image seamlessly merged with the interests profiting from the billboard itself. Lime green posters, possibly florescent, are slapped on top, unofficial fly posters showing a large disembodied phallus in black marker-pen. A train is beating over the iron railway-bridge, its wheels and carriages throbbing through the brickwork and girders above us with a close approximation of the rhythm in a migraine headache, right behind the eyes. A car takes a tight corner on a mountain road while the sun rises, or sets, it isn’t clear. Love and acceptance is promised to all by the mascaras and lipsticks worn by women so exceptional in appearance they are paid in multiples of your annual salary for a handful of photographs, a few seconds of film footage. There are four landscapes, sited at angles to one another above a junction, each one dramatic, beautiful and entirely free of advertising, all trying to entice us to travel into them by luxury car, cruise-liner or air…

This might be important. It’s just unedited notes, a few scraps of evidence, but you’ll probably have guessed already where it’s going, what the point will be. This isn’t subtle. There are some kinds of knowledge that we all share but somehow never quite rise into full consciousness for long enough to come into focus, mirages we aren’t sure are really there at all: am I seeing my mind work from a long way off or am I going mad? We know, instinctively, that the only place we’ll ever see a landscape entirely free of advertising is in the landscape depicted in an advertisement. It’s one of these things we know and witness continually but that no longer seems unnatural. Of course there are adverts everywhere, except in adverts. How else could things be?

Perhaps one day our shared observations will magnetize to one-another, gather weight and form, their collective gravity suddenly become sufficient to jolt entire fixed weather systems from their default courses. Would what ensued be chaos or liberation? Until then, I can indulge the dream of travelling among landscapes free of advertising while walking through a half-mile long canyon of shops and offices flanked by billboards, all the way from the Holloway Road to the gates of Finsbury Park. Perhaps if I can prove I’m worthy, start earning and save some money now, it might even happen. If I can just put my head down against all this rain and keep going…

p1240680

(lxiii)

“We work to maintain our chains of our own free will. We keep them safe with the clocks and the coins inside our own homes and fret ourselves ceaselessly about losing even a single link.”

Henry Sutton (1886)

The sun strains through the clouds like weak tea through muslin. Neon signs flicker high on the walls as I pass the Ethiopian crafts and clothes shop with its white door and window-frames, the grocer and halal  butcher, the steel shutters unrolled for an afternoon trade that seems to barely exist. On the pavement gangs of youths in leather jackets with gelled hair and strong after-shave hang around, maybe Greek, Cypriot or Turkish, maybe Albanian or Italian, but wherever they’re from I think I don’t recognise the language until I do, suddenly, finally catching a slangy, heavily accented English spoken at three times normal speed. A group of Somali women thread between them, while two elderly Jamaican men with grey hair and beards stand aside to let them pass, one doffing his tweed hat with a smile then moving on.

At the bus-stop a line of people moves forward to board a red Routemaster whose conductor hangs from the back step, one arm outstretched to signal that only the first four can get on, the rest must wait. There are murmurs and shufflings, but the line quickly falls back and returns to its paperbacks, newspapers and magazines. I am behind them, pausing by a litter-bin to pick up the shiny bronze penny that leans at a forty-five degree angle in the space between two paving-stones. As I stand, I notice the sky darkening, a large cloud moving through the light like a shadow over water. I can hear the distant rumbling of thunder, feel a vague electric charge hanging on the air like a veil.

The shadow throws the neon lights and office windows into sharper relief, and a blue and red sign shaped like a telephone flashes over a painted board that reads: Cheap Rate International Phone Calls and Travel Specialists. A man sits behind a wooden desk inside, a computer in front of him as he turns a ball-point pen over and over between his fingers, tapping it on the desk and staring into space. On the walls around him are posters in full colour showing scenes from Guyana, Jamaica, Cyprus, places where lurid pink and orange sunsets spread themselves behind silhouetted palm trees, where improbably blue skies luxuriate above sapphire oceans and white sand beaches, while natives in colourful clothes hold out baskets of fruit that seem to ripen in the warmth of exaggeratedly contented smiles, wide as the clean horizons that surround them.

He continues to stare into space, his gaze following a fly as it batters itself against a flickering florescent tube spotted with dust. He has the flight details and dialling codes of every point on the globe at his fingertips, but he is going nowhere and talking to no-one.

p1240390

‘Kumulipo Variations’ & Otobong Nkanga’s ‘Taste of a Stone’ (Oct – Dec 2016)

15 Oct

otobong-nkanga-taste-of-a-stone

As part of Otobong Nkanga’s exhibition The Encounter That Took a Part of Me at Nottingham Contemporary (Oct 15 – Jan 15) I’ll be performing a series of readings from the Kumulipo Variations, as featured in both the book and audio versions of Exotica Suite in 2015. The performances are scheduled on October 16 and October 23 at 3pm, on November 2 at 5pm, and on December 14 at 5pm. They take place in Gallery 1 at Nottingham Contemporary, where Nkanga’s Taste of a Stone is installed. (A programme of other responses to Nkanga’s work, from artists including Rebecca Lee, Panya Banjoko, Michael Pinchbeck and Nathaniel Mann, is set to thread through the full run of the exhibition).

Kumulipo Variations is grounded in the folklore of a parallel history where Hawaiians established a settlement in London during the 1780s and many Britons converted to Polynesian religious beliefs. Within this fictional context, the text suggests a hypothetical English translation of The Kumulipo made at some point during the first half of the 1800s. The Kumulipo itself is an epic Hawaiian creation myth, an oral account of the formation and history of both the natural and human worlds. The text as we know it today is usually credited to a figure named Keaulumoku, a near-contemporary of Kamehameha I. This known version is also dated to the few decades immediately preceding first European contact, when James Cook’s ships arrived in Hawaii during a festival dedicated to the god Lono in 1777, but much of the content is almost certainly older.

The Kumulipo‘s actual first full translation into English was made several decades after the entirely fictional one included in Exotica Suite. It has a very particular importance in the history of Hawaii’s colonisation, having been made by Queen Liliuokalani during the 1890s while under house arrest for her opposition to the coup that imposed a new constitution, disenfranchised native Hawaiians and annexed the islands into a territory of the United States under the control of an oligarchy of American landowners and merchants. Liliuokalani’s translation appeared in 1897, around a year before this formal annexation was finalised, and her intention was to reassert Hawaii’s political autonomy by presenting The Kumulipo, an account of her culture’s origins, to the wider world. Another, more scholarly, English edition was published by Martha Warren Beckwith in 1951.

While the 23 paragraphs of the Kumulipo Variations exist in an entirely fictional parallel history, then, and are also both partial (focusing on the earliest sections of the oral text) and at times divergent from their source, they are purposefully grounded in these earlier real translations, and hopefully draw some additional layers of potential meaning from their oblique relationship to the actual historical record. Not the least point of interest in writing these variations, for me, lay in the weaving of a potentially rich new perspective through the fabric of British folklore at a time when historically illiterate propaganda against immigration and cultural exchange was (and remains) dangerously influential.

The ecological vision found in the Hawaiian Kumulipo, with its proposal that all life begins in the sea and is interdependent, strikingly pre-dates and anticipates modern scientific and evolutionary perspectives, placing the wider issues the text hopefully raises into a useful dialogue with the botanical, geological and colonial themes explored by Otobong Nkanga‘s work. It’s also good to have this opportunity to perform the complete 20 – 30 minute cycle of Kumulipo Variations, as it is a text designed to be heard as well as read. The form adopted for this fictional translation merges Biblical cadences, the assonance and repetitions of Hawaiian chant, and perhaps the occasional hint of some particularly idiosyncratic David Attenborough nature documentary voice-over.

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions

Notes From A Hospital (19 – 23 June, 2016)

8 Aug

IMG_8878

This place asserts itself first as a very ordinary space, as though it’s been purposefully designed to seem mundane, to take the edge off its real function with a veneer of domesticity, something between a dated suburban show-home and a school dining hall lined with beds. I try to pinpoint where the dread I’m feeling comes from. Perhaps it’s the incongruity of this mustard yellow stripe crossing the grey linoleum floor tiles, or the slightly discoloured white panels of this suspended ceiling, where small swarms of black pin-holes prick through to varied depths, each taking its arbitrary place in the beige constellation. A cobweb strains and slackens like a parachute canopy, a delicate diaphragm of white glowing thread where a steel window-frame opens to the blue sky outside. A cloud the shape of a gigantic wolf’s head drifts over the low-rise rooftops of the hospital buildings across the visible courtyard. Florescent tube lights glare inside glazed plastic boxes, blue marble-patterned curtains trembling against the partly opened windows… Mainly, the dread lies in the medical machinery that returns repeatedly to the ward, measuring blood pressure, squeezing the upper arm like a velcro python. The machines attached to these needles and drips flood us with antibiotics, painkillers and saline solutions, extract blood samples. These machines test us, seek dark shadows in our lungs, root out the signs and patterns of destruction in our own cells.

*

Inside A&E I see my own blood collect inside syringes, glimpse scans of my own ribs, examine the stock market graphs of EEGs and pulse readings as I’m assessed and reassessed then run through further tests, just to be sure. I’m given painkillers and injections, laid on a trolley and wheeled out into the cavernous bay where our ailments align like vehicles taking spaces in a supermarket car park. It’s the early hours of Sunday morning. An elderly man with the visible bruising and dried blood traces of a head injury is asking for food with an incongruously posh accent, as though making announcements on the BBC in 1966. A youth, who it seems had collapsed in the street, is surrounded by a retinue of drunk friends whose red eyes startle in the stark florescent light. There is the intimacy of an elderly husband and wife acting as though they are in a private space, as though this might be almost routine, as though they might switch places on the gurneys night after night. A wall-mounted TV scrolls adverts and a scarlet ticker-tape of rolling bad news. There is a coffee machine somewhere, though it’s not clear where. And where else would one stranger approach another with the words “I need to take some of your blood” so regularly and with such bluntly pragmatic intent to see the action through? Extraction might be coded into this space. Does the PFI that rebuilt it once now draw rents from these aluminum and white plastic fittings, these oxygen canisters and uniforms, leased-back strip-lights and polished concrete floors, wooden desks and blue curtains?

*

In this refrigerated room the machine hums quietly among the pipes and platforms, the windows of the observation chambers. Always seems strange when the operators of a system clear the space before it operates, leaving you alone inside it. This is the CT-scanner with its turquoise floored, aquatic waiting room, its looped TV channel discussing accidents – a man trapped under a car ploughed into him by a double decker bus, a surfer in collision with a jet-ski on a rolling wave, collusions of random chance and sheer misfortune followed by miraculous recoveries. When I’m wheeled along the corridor with its peculiar scent into the presence of the monolith – like the central pierced stone of Men-an-Tol – I’m conscious of the solstice, of the fact that I’d planned to be elsewhere, at a solstice celebration, and instead lie here, my back pressed in its thin gown against a cold metal slide, my arms stretched back above my head as I listen for the voice that emerges from the white machine telling me to breathe in, hold breath, breathe normally, its magnets whirring inside the white casing like the drum of a washing machine, circling my upper body, scanning everything, from chin to groin, slice by slice, till somewhere, on a screen behind those black glass windows, I’m reconstituted, replicated in a three dimensional matrix. This might be the altar of some alien pagan cult, exploring the limitless recesses of the body’s interior.

*

Everything tastes of this one solution but I don’t know what this taste is, how to begin to describe it. Everything smells of it but I don’t know exactly how I’m taking in the scent, what the components of this fragrance are, only that in the combination of taste and scent it blends a sickly sweetness with a metallic edge – is something complex, alien and impossible to place on any previous axis of sensory experience. Mercury and over-sweetened rhubarb? Silicone in custard? A compound of artificial sweeteners and metal shavings? Copper coins sucked through a soft cloth steeped in pine fragranced shampoo? The contrast – for this is what they call that weird solution here – is intravenously administered. I’m told that I’ll experience the illusion of wetting myself, that a soft warmth will seem to spread from my groin to my knees and waist. The woman beside the machine is reassuring, has told me already that this isn’t real, but it will, she insists, feel very real in the moment it happens. This is standard procedure, to be expected, she says, and it will pass once the moment does, be entirely gone and half forgotten even by the time I leave this room. It is not, she insists, anything to be concerned about.

*

I understand that this machine reads my body better than I, who inhabit it, can. The machine is driven by electromagnetics and x-rays, sending its resonant frequencies through my cells and fibres, my soft organs and hard bones, slice by slice as I pass through its open circle. The body inside the machine, my body, is kept at the refrigerated temperature the machine requires. My nostrils and the back of my throat are filled with that indefinably synthetic alien substance, still to be properly named or described: silicone and rhubarb with saccharine, uncooked pastry in cleansed sump-oil, white truffle in volcanic sulphur, spinach steeped in phosphorus and copper sulphate. How do I even begin to describe this after-taste? I’m conscious that this is primal machinery, machinery geared to extract a fully illuminated body’s interior, an imprint or double lifted from my own flesh for remote examination. This is a revelation of the inner self: not those hypothetical coloured lights, the auras and chakras beloved of the New Age, but the true inner being of flesh and fluids, nerves and ribs, veins and arteries, alveoli and heart-muscles, in all of which life flows, a low-level electric charge like the static thickening in the warm air that precedes a thunderstorm. Where clouds gather inside any image produced, wherever new cells or growths appear, fear must always follow, to clot and accumulate among the relentlessly shortening hours and days…

*

When I return to the ward, when I’m pushed in a wheelchair towards the empty bed by an open window overlooking a small lawn where pigeons and blackbirds peck among the freshly-trimmed grass in a late evening sunshine I’d half forgotten was out there, I’m approached by a tall Jamaican-Nottingham girl with Nefertiti features and a crown of lilac-dyed braids tied up in a tight sphere on her head, like an Egyptian sun-disk. She wraps my arm in a velcro pressure gauge, takes a blood sample and pulse: unlike every other nurse I’ve so far encountered she follows the electronic reading with an old-school press of her fingers to my wrist, silently counting while looking at the small dial of a watch. She seems in charge right now, but tomorrow I’ll be chatting to her and discover she’s still two months from qualifying, and she’ll laugh when I tell her she seemed to be the authority on the ward in the first half-hour I spent on it. “I was just trying not to seem nervous”, she says. “Didn’t figure I was doing any kind of good job at it”. And there it is, our disconnection, me oblivious to her nerves, her oblivious to whatever I was feeling just then, swept into her presence on the medical process that had already led from ambulance to A&E, from there to a holding ward, and had now landed me here, on a specialist male respiratory ward in another hospital, her long fingers taking the pulse of the one wrist still unmarked by cannula needles. It’s 7pm already and she’ll soon disappear as the night shift drifts in, as new ranks of nurses, new cleaners and carriers, wipers, bathers, sometime wound-dressers and carers arrive, one after another: all those who’ll see us through till morning, one way or another.

*

He was a big man once, a hard man, most likely, judging by his talk at times, the kind of man who carried his own name – M.I.C.K – inked on the four finger-knuckles of his right hand, where it remains visible among the bruises and needle-punctures, the dressings and swellings. He’s lost 25 kilos these last 8 weeks, he’s said, and the medical staff have confirmed it – 25 kilos gone from his bruiser’s bulk while his features soften into vulnerability and panic under the brute force of whatever illness has its hold on him. When he’s angry, he verbalises his feelings in terms set by a physical aggression of which he’s no longer capable: “a crack on the nose”, “a punch in the mouth”, “a kick in the balls”. Right now, you can only imagine what he might have looked like ten or twelve weeks back, the big fella and hard-man he remains in his own head despite this new reality where he’s bent double, depleted, fighting for breath over a white plastic bed-table while his grey skin hangs, exposed and flabby, in the folds of his unbuttoned pyjamas. When noises come from him, gasps and wheezes and cries, nurses from Spain and Trinidad, Guyana, Sri Lanka and Slovakia surround him, hook up the nebuliser or IV drip, ameliorate his pain for a few more hours, but it’s clear that he resents this dependence, is reduced and rendered weak, yet knows there’s nothing to be done with this need but to accept the help and rail against how disgusted he feels with himself at needing it. The women, the nurses, too pragmatic and pressed to be fazed, get on with it and keep going, as the world always does in the face of our humiliations.

*

Then there is the beauty of this woman with her attentive expressions, working to understand the post-stroke broken language of a 64 year old man with close-cropped ginger hair, a man returned to a kind of meta-childhood, whose wife and sole carer died a year or two ago, clearly aware of the chasms constantly opening between his movements, words and the thoughts behind both. He gets up often, paces, performs a kind of dance to re-learn the co-ordination of his limbs and extremities, placing his feet in a grid pattern that he repeats, over and over, on the chessboard of grey and mustard coloured linoleum tiles on the ward floor. In conversation, when he can’t find a word, knows but can’t retrieve it from his blighted vocabulary, there’s a laminated book of prompts he shuffles through in his big hands until something clicks and the conversation continues, like a car being repeatedly jump-started on a driveway. This woman, her features falcon-sharp, her fringe cut on a ruler’s edge across a forehead framed by tousled brunette and blond-highlighted hair, is listening to him. On her wrist is a playing card tattoo: the six of clubs, a grid of clenched black fists, its significance to her entirely unknown to me, perhaps anyone. She has the air of someone who’s been through more than one life, that who she is now is only the latest draft of a work in progress, which seems to be all she has in common with the man she’s talking to. Whatever he was before this, before the stroke hit him and his wife’s death cut him adrift, neither of us can know.

*

It is my final day here, though I don’t know this quite yet. Right now, I am viewing a range of potential futures, measuring my current difficulties against the struggles of others – who have no reliable address, whose health is free-falling far beyond any depth reached by mine, touch wood and so far. Men whose lives are in some sense already mostly lived, what highlights there were securely fixed in the territory of the past. Who, then, is more or less fortunate here, and is this, or anything, even measurable or, at least, measurable in these terms? Let us imagine that the dividing line between this world of hospitals and medical procedures, this world where control is relinquished, half in terror, half in relief, this world of quietly dealt-with deaths behind curtains, of being woken from restless sleep at 3am to be plugged into an antibiotic drip, to wake and sleep among all the humiliations a body can inflict on the spirit inhabiting it…the line between that world and another, a world that is none of these things, a world where the illusion of control is granted…that division seems fragile as the tissue in an exposed lung. One here is well enough to leave but waits on the availability of sheltered housing; another aged 87, reads the Daily Mail in bed, having fallen through a table a few days ago to end up here, immobilised. Yet another is tethered to his bed by a plastic oxygen tube, alternately pacing out the limits of his leash and flipping through the sports pages of The Sun. For a few hours more we are all here, on this respiratory ward, distracting ourselves with the thought that there might be more years ahead, or some purpose to those that have gone already, taking all our breaths and heartbeats, our best efforts and worst errors, and dragging them all out to sea with us, as a tide gathers stones on its long withdrawal from a pebble beach.

Men an Tol

‘Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History!’ (Nottingham Contemporary documentation by Andy Keate, 2016)

5 May
Salome (1953)

Robert Holcombe: Salome (1953)

Вот! Свободный рынок ликвидирует нашу!, 1973, is a book of collages by Robert Holcombe, a fictional British artist. Presenting evidence from a range of hidden, fabricated and authentic Cold War histories, the exhibition documented here takes its overall title from this work. The specific copy of the book used has its provenance in the library of Sir Frederick William (‘Bill’) Deakin (1913 – 2005), a former literary adviser to Churchill and active British liason officer with the Partisans of Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia between May and December 1943. While the image captions of Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! remain legible, allowing ghosts of the source material’s original purpose to show through, the historical content of the photographs themselves is cancelled by layers of advertising, technological and erotic imagery. The display, commissioned for the Small Collections Room at Nottingham Contemporary between January 16 and April 17 2016, was made in response to both Pablo Bronstein’s room design, featuring four antique cabinets, and themes suggested by Monuments Should Not Be Trusted, an exhibition of artworks and objects from Communist Yugoslavia curated by Lina Džuverović in the main galleries.

Cabinet 1: Works from the Robert Holcombe Archive

This cabinet presents a selection of works by Robert Holcombe (1923 – 2003). The display includes a selection from his series Krakow: pour Alina Szapocznikow, 1964, and The Holcombe Family Bible, 1967, alongside Study for Performing the Curtain Ritual, 1966, and the book work Вот! Свободный рынок ликвидирует нашу!. The cabinet also includes a number of undated photographic studies, such as Triceratops and Skegness Comet. Although undated, these studies were probably made at various times between 1951-63.

Cabinet 2: Works, Ephemera and Archive Materials

This cabinet includes source materials and other ephemera from the Holcombe archive alongside smaller works by Holcombe: Mask, c. 1952; The Lawn, 1966; and Argentina, 1976. A deck of Holcombe designed Tarot cards and their 1953 precursor, A Summary Of Contemporary Knowledge About Life And Its Possibilities, also feature. Archive materials include publications such as Youth in the GDR, scientific book club editions of The Drama of the Atom and LSD in Action, a set of 1940s film-star cigarette cards, a 1960 book of speculations by eminent Soviet Scientists on Life in the Twenty-First Century, and an eccentric hand-coloured photograph of a nuclear family.

Cabinet 3: 723 Variations on the Same Theme

The 723 found texts layered inside the drawers of this cabinet are cut from a wide range of consumer, technical and other publications from the 1940s to early 1980s. These cut outs are intended as both a typographic survey and an exploration of the everyday presence of propaganda in Western printed media during the Cold War period. They focus particularly on texts revealing prevailing insecurities and aspirations. The arbitrary number 723, which determines the size of the collection, was originally fixed by the addition to the series of a 1964 strap-line advertising a range of Hasselblad cameras.

Cabinet 4: Eastern Bloc Songs

This cabinet gathers a selection of 7” and 10” record sleeves produced between 1964 and 1981 by official state labels in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary to give a brief visual introduction to the prolific and politically complex popular music cultures of European communist states during the Cold War period. The display is accompanied by a looped audio soundtrack featuring 11 songs by some of the artists featured, including Filipinki, Klan, Marta Kubišová, Czesław Niemen, Hana Zagorová, Sarolta Zalatnay, Olympic, Petr Ulrych, Josipa Lisac, Tadeusz Woźniak and Izabela Trojanowska. A small sampler publication introducing loose English translations of these 11 songs is also available.

Wall: Other Works by Robert Holcombe

Above Cabinet 1: Salome, 1953
Above Cabinet 2: Triptych (Marine Geology, The Sandstorm, The Brocken Spectre), 1955
Above Cabinets 3 & 4: The Modern Interior I & II, 1967

Ten Poems About Nottingham (Candlestick Press, 2015)

20 Nov

Ten Poems about Nottingham (Candlestick Press)

‘The Second Time As Farce’, first published in March 2015 among the uncollected poems gathered in Black Glass: New & Selected Poems, has now taken its (arguably unlikely) place among pieces by Henry Kirke White, D.H. Lawrence, Joan Downar and others as one of the Ten Poems About Nottingham featured in the latest Candlestick Press ‘instead of a card’ anthology.

More details on the publication and its availability can be found on the Candlestick Press website.

 

Robert Holcombe as Fiction at Nottingham Writers’ Studio (October 6th, 2014)

11 Oct

Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

On October 6th 2014 I was invited by NWS director Pippa Hennessy to deliver a short talk about the origins of the fictional artist Robert Holcombe, and the shift in my general approach to writing since around 2010, as part of the regular ‘social’ event held every month at Nottingham Writers’ Studio. As I’d got the notes already written down and the images gathered for the slides used on the night, it seemed worth preserving an outline of the talk here, if only because it might help to explain what it is I think I’m doing and how I ended up doing it…

Wood & Ink (Shoestring Press) (545x800)

At the start, writing poetry for the most part, I worked in the generally accepted way. That is, I mostly did things other than writing for a living (in my case, working in retail, picture framing and other similar trades) and sometimes got to write things in my spare time. I sent these things out to the magazines I knew about, who would sometimes publish them. At a certain point I had gathered a book’s worth of poetry that seemed both OK in itself, and gave an impression of coherence, so this was sent out to publishers. Marginalia appeared from Peterloo in 2001, and after several years focused on a day job in freelance journalism, compiling a fragmentary book about money called Shrapnel and developing projects like a sequence about genetics written for a dance company in 2005, a second short poetry collection, Emblems, emerged in 2009.

The Apple Sequence (Orchard Editions, 2011)

It’s worth noting that I still work this way, though I’ll admit that I’ve been negligent about sending things to magazines since 2010, perhaps because I edited one, called Staple, between 2007 and 2011, and needed a very long break from the endless round of envelopes, stamps and emails by the time its natural life-span expired. Even so, a series of poems written in response to woodcuts by Alan Dixon were included in the anthology Wood & Ink last year, and a body of new work, including the sequence A Cycle Of Songs From The Body’s Interior, will feature in Black Glass: New & Selected Poems, which is forthcoming from Shoestring in March 2015. But there was also a turning point, where a new way of working became possible, and this was probably a 2010 commission to work with Neville Gabie on a project built around the redevelopment of Sneinton Square, a historic fruit and vegetable market on the Eastside of Nottingham.

Sneinton Square by Patel Taylor Architects

This project became known as Orchard  and my contribution to it was a book-length series of poems called The Apple Sequence, a 64 page publication distributed free to an audience not usually engaged with the arts, but with a stake in the future of the site: market traders and their customers, activists involved in urban food production on the many allotments and city farm nearby, tenants and residents of the Sneinton and St Ann’s areas more widely. The commission included money to cover production of an artwork, so I used this to create a book from scratch – designing, typesetting and writing it simultaneously, to a tight deadline and with a definite public purpose. This seemed a more interesting way of working than the standard literary and publishing industry model. More to the point, it seemed to work, with The Apple Sequence widely read by those we’d hoped to reach.

Robert Holcombe: Marine (1955)

Yet the fact that this book was directed not at the poetry world in the standard way, but addressed to a very different readership, seemed to mean that as far as conventional literary acknowledgement went The Apple Sequence barely existed. Perhaps this was partly delayed response: no reviews, for example, but one of the few literary events the Apple Sequence poems were presented at was a Nine Arches Press reading in Leicester soon after publication – so the apple-themed anthology that appeared from Nine Arches this year may not be entirely unrelated to the 2011 project. At any rate, The Apple Sequence proved liberating in terms of the control it allowed over the design, format and speed at which the book could appear, and for the readership it was able to find while by-passing the usual literary channels. It is probably not insignificant, either, that the work of writing poems was, for once, reasonably well paid upfront.

WayneBurrows_Robert_Holcombe_The_Modernists_Diptych_I_(Primal)_[1972]_(2014)

I’ve been exploring the possibilities of this way of working ever since, in poetry and various kinds of non-mainstream fiction, the resulting work mostly distributed outside the channels of traditional publishing. A couple of these later projects might include Spirit Wrappings (2012), which was produced as a short, beautifully designed fiction chapbook by Nottingham Contemporary, commissioned in response to an exhibition about a collector named Rashleigh Jackson by visual artist Simon Withers and curator Abi Spinks, and The Disappearances/The Peel Street Codex, commissioned by Jo Dacombe and Laura Jade Klee of Sidelong to be performed in caves, then made into booklets for A Box Of Things (2014), a limited edition publication documenting a project based on the myths and legends of Nottingham’s cave network.

Robert Holcombe: Biological Camouflage (Les Chateaux de la Loire I) [1977]

The creation of Robert Holcombe, an alter-ego who could be put to many different uses, was almost accidental. He first appeared in a novel I’d been writing, Albany 6, which traced an alternative history of the late 20th century, where he was the author of a handful of pulp science-fiction stories that had shaped the obsessions of the book’s main protagonist, a Chicago musician named Thomas Satz, and grew from there. His public debut was as the subject of a fictional lecture during 2010, expanding on one of those pulp stories, Not smoking can seriously damage your health (1976). More fake lectures have been delivered since, among them a fabricated paper exploring the invented connections between Holcombe and the post-war Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow, presented at a Nottingham Contemporary symposium on the meaning of disgust in November 2013.

The Modernists: Portal (1967)

So who is Robert Holcombe? An exhibition hand-out written in early 2014 gives the basic facts of his fictional biography:

“Robert Holcombe is an entirely fictional British artist (b. Leeds 1923 – d. Exeter 2003) whose fascination with collage was first discovered when he began cutting up magazines and rearranging the parts whilst convalescing from injuries sustained in 1944, during active service in Malaya. He was a radio engineer, a contemporary of Richard Hamilton at the Slade School of Art  and, from 1955 until 1988, a planning officer in Leeds. He maintained a long correspondence with Eduardo Paolozzi, whose interest in elaborate fictions and alternate realities he shared. Although Holcombe did not exhibit publicly during his lifetime, he made most of his work under two pseudonyms – Gene and Michael Harrison. It’s also notable that many of his images, particularly those featuring material rooted in fashion, advertising and technology, show a more ambiguous enthusiasm for the world of the Post-War era than was usual at the time. His works are marked by a fascination with consumerist excess, inscrutable apparitions of surgical, sexual and folkloric symbols inside modernist interiors, and unsettling disturbances of ordinary space”.

From The Holcombe Family Bible [Apocrypha - The Appearing of Three Angels to Abraham] (1967)

Another lecture on Holcombe’s work was improvised at a closing event for the fictional retrospective exhibitionThe Family Bible & Other Fables: Works From The Holcombe Collection 1948 – 1978, staged at Syson Gallery in January 2014. This outlined links between the fabricated collages on the gallery walls and their literary sources, some fictional, like Holcombe’s own pulp SF writings and letters, others, like Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines Of Dr Hoffmann and JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, very real. A quote from Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition perhaps gives a flavour of the literary origins of Robert Holcombe: “These mental polaroids form a large part of our library of affections”, writes Ballard. “Carried around in our heads, they touch our memories like albums of family photographs. Turning their pages, we see what seems to be a ghostly and alternative version of our own past, filled with shadowy figures as formalized as Egyptian tomb-reliefs.”  

Marine - A Story in Eight Objects (Nottingham Castle, 2013) Cover design by Joff + Ollie.

The first time all of these literary, historical and visual threads had come together in a single place was in Marine: A Story in Eight Objects, commissioned by Nottingham Castle and Fermynwoods Contemporary Art to be part of Make Believe, a series of interventions in the collections and grounds of Nottingham Castle during 2013. The exhibition explored the blurring of fact and fiction in the site’s real and legendary histories and Marine combined a 30-page print publication, tracing the actual and imaginary resonances of a sea voyage from England to Hawaii aboard HMS Blonde in 1824; a film remix setting fragments of that published text to 1950s ‘exotica’ music and sequences of still visual images; and an installation featuring a Holcombe work inside a high security case (another collage appeared as the book’s frontispiece and the opening image of the film).

Make believe -7560

The Marine film and publication were also presented at two venues during the inaugural Pilot Festival in Brightlingsea, suggesting that they did not depend on the site specific context they were devised for. Site specificity could also arise by accident: with Holcombe having been at least partly inspired by JG Ballard, it seemed a good omen that the second fictional retrospective – Folklore, Ritual and The Modern Interior: 1955 – 1975 – was shown at a London gallery named (by the curators, Pil & Galia Kollectiv) after three ‘psychic projections’, Xero, Kline & Coma, who appear in several of Ballard’s books. Even more pertinently, the exhibition accidentally coincided with a major Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern and Hannah Hoch’s work just down the road at the Whitechapel, both of which added a certain additional resonance to the work on display.

XeroKline&Coma

Holcombe’s Performing The Curtain Rituals series, supposedly made in 1966, directly referenced work by both these neighbouring artists, a fact that earned the show a small place in a dissertation on the politics of parafictional art published by Keren Goldberg at the RCA in summer 2014. This seems apt, as chance meanings were the subject of The Holcombe Tarot, a series of 78 collages made between 2011 and 2014 in which a few classic Tarot symbols, like Death, The Tower, The Lovers and The Priestess, were vastly outnumbered by such oblique images as The Mirage (some banknotes hovering above a glacier), The Source (a gigantic chrome tap standing in a ruined abbey), The Purge (a burning rice field, suggestive of the late Vietnam War context in which the cards were made) and The Nest (a classical column protruding from a birds’ nest). Devised to appear meaningful, while remaining open-ended, the curious thing is how the drawing of one of these cards can still feel significant.

Tarot Series (The Mirage)

These cards were first shown (as a selection of 12 collages) at Xero, Kline & Coma and have since been prototyped as a working Tarot pack and launched on Kickstarter, so a limited edition of 100 packs of The Holcombe Tarot will be produced in November 2014. The Holcombe Tarot also, I suppose, works as a kind of mutated poetry collection: a gathering of images that seem to relate to one another, can be ‘read’ in sequence or dipped into at will, each card freestanding but dependent on the others. Perhaps this is the thread connecting these bodies of written and visual work. Collage and poetry, after all, both operate through the selection and recombination of images and details from multiple sources. In a poem it might be a written recollection or voicing where a view of an apple orchard merges with a memory of factory machinery; in a collage it might be some photographic combination or overlay of the two things. The effect, either way, is similar.

GBX020 CD 800

A project currently in its early stages of development is Exotica Suite, a collaboration with the musician Paul Isherwood (look up The Soundcarriers’ back catalogue for some examples of his work). At this point Exotica Suite is not planned as a Holcombe project but a sequence of new texts exploring identity as something constructed, both for us, socially, and by us, in response to assumptions made by others. Inspirations are figures like Sun Ra, Yma Sumac and Jack Bilbo, who each in some way refused or complicated authenticity and rebuilt reality around themselves (as Holcombe notes in a 1984 letter: “We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves.”). Where all this will lead is not yet known, but the results will be released as a vinyl LP and download and a print publication. There will be events at New Art Exchange to introduce the ideas and influences behind the project and discuss the issues it raises. I think it is going to be interesting.

Vicious British Bullshit: A Few Known Antidotes (2014)

4 Oct

Sleaford Mods

The other week, Pieter Last from Rammel Club sent me a message to see if I’d be up for playing some Eastern Bloc vinyl records early doors and between the first couple of band changeovers at the two sold-out homecoming gigs by Sleaford Mods in Nottingham, a question to which there was only ever going to be one answer. I’d seen them play at least twice before, once in the days before Jason Williamson’s hook-up with Andrew Fearn, once after it, and the change between 2010 and 2012 had been remarkable. In 2010, Williamson’s persona, observations and potential were all there, but with Fearn on board, things had become very different. However great a joke it seems that Fearn just pushes the ‘play’ button on his laptop and stands back when they’re onstage, it’s clear that offstage, making the loops, something miraculous is at work – one after another, Fearn’s loops are so brutally memorable that it’s as though he’s hit on the dance music equivalent of The Ramones’ early catalogue of primal guitar riffs.

More recently there’s been something else, too, and that’s the energy that comes with being heard. Put bluntly, it’s hard to sustain things when your focus is chopped up by other commitments, one gig every few months, or weeks, between office jobs and the usual kinds of everyday shit the world at large dishes out. Even when that’s your subject – as it is very much Williamson’s – the energy of those two gigs in Nottingham were the product of that long struggle plus the sharpening of tools that has come from playing more gigs, getting the records out and heard – the purpose that comes with a sense that someone out there, after all the hard slog, is listening. The attention won by Austerity Dogs in 2012 has been consolidated in spades with this year’s Divide & Exit, both records full of on-point take-downs of three decades of political and pop-cultural bullshit. Songs like Tiswas and Jobseeker will make this clear to anyone who isn’t too invested in the present mess to acknowledge it.

Datblygu

One of the joys of witnessing Sleaford Mods in a packed small venue, in front of a home crowd, and not once but twice, was being reminded of other things I hadn’t thought about for awhile. The Welsh language post-punk of Datblygu came to mind, and if you haven’t heard Datblygu before, their 1988 masterpiece Gwlad Ar Fy Nghefn (‘Land On My Back’) is a good starting point, well worth a listen almost 30 years on from the band’s inception in Cardigan. Even if you don’t speak Welsh, the message will communicate itself loud and clear, much, I suppose, as some in the US and Germany struggle with following Williamson’s East Midlands streams of consciousness and UK specific references, even as they respond to the sheer force of what he and Fearn are doing. Looking up Datblygu last month I was pleased to discover that their mid-nineties vanishing act appears to have ended: an interview by Sarah King with core members David R Edwards and Patricia Morgan covers the band’s history, while a new documentary (in Welsh, but with English subtitles) emerged in 2012.

Datblygu

If the attitude and way with words of Sleaford Mods appeals, then there will be much to delight you in Datblygu’s extensive back catalogue and uncompromising stance, not least David R Edwards’ thoughts on being considered a poet. As King notes, “when I ask him if he sees himself as a poet the answer is an emphatic No. I fucking hate poets.’’ His full elaboration on the theme strikes a definite chord:

‘The Welsh national anthem says land of poets and singers. Well I’m neither. I’m not willing to put myself in one camp or the other. I like poems, I just don’t like the label poet…Creative Writing courses just keep the stupid universities open, making themselves and their professors rich and their students poor. Personally I write by observing the world, and by thinking aloud my own thoughts, via a pen, on to a piece of paper. This then reaches the recording studio which is simply a modern cave for modern cave people. I draw on the walls using modern technology. The music Datblygu create then makes a connection with other people. Large amounts of tobacco, and small amounts of alcohol, help oil the creative machinery. If I was gainfully employed, married with a mortgage, car and children, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. But I would rather be a writer than have any of that…’ It’s good to have them back.

Sarah Curtis (Snub TV, 1989)

Hearing Sleaford Mods run through Tied Up In Nottz brought another sound I’d not thought about for years back into focus, this time triggered by the loose resemblance between Fearn’s bassline and the one used on Manchester based King Of The Slums’ Vicious British Boyfriend (1989). Any resemblance is probably coincidental – it’s a pretty standard post-punk bassline, after all – and KOTS’s distinctive feature was always, anyway, the play between the distorted viola of Sarah Curtis and the tabloid-skewering lyrics of Charley Keigher. Like many late eighties bands, their recorded output is often patchy, the production doing their live impact a disservice, but there are tracks that still hint at what they were capable of. Bear With Me ventures into a strange territory somewhere between abrasive psychedelia, hypnotic rave and blunt realism: “Bear with me,/my best is yet to come,/and I am a liar/with a lot of material…/la, la, la…I got loads/la, la, la…I got loads”, sings Keigher, over and over, while Curtis merges the spirit of the Velvet Underground’s Black Angel’s Death Song with a feeling of having lived through one lost decade, just as another throws its shadow over the near horizon.

King Of The Slums (Early 90s)

How that next decade turned out has been the subject of predictably anodyne media reminiscences, a fake nostalgia neatly deflated in Sleaford Mods’ A Little Ditty, but it’s worth remembering that much has already been half lost to that reductive Britpop story of 90s UK music. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Tricky’s 1995 debut LP Maxinquaye, a record that managed the peculiar feat of being sufficiently avant-garde to feel like something we’re still trying to catch up with (if you doubt this, watch the video he and Martina Topley-Bird made to accompany Hell Is Round the Corner and consider how far ahead of the curve it looks and sounds even now) while also finding itself adopted as a dinner party soundtrack staple. “As I grow, I grow collective…till then you have to live with yourself”, drawls Tricky, aka Adrian Thaws, perfectly articulating the movements of a mind caught between political consciousness and outright paranoia: “We’re hungry, beware of our appetite…My brain thinks bomb-like, bomb-like”. All the while, Topley-Bird’s voice underscores the presiding mood of psychic fragility and potentially explosive threat.

Tricky - Hell Is Round The Corner (Video Still)

If Tricky’s Maxinquaye built its unsettling, alienated atmospherics from seductive harmonies, and found itself too often misread as a kind of hip easy listening as a result, Vent, the opening track on Pre-Millenium Tension (1996) made it clear that he wasn’t planning on letting that particular misunderstanding happen twice. Raw, abrasive, claustrophobic, like a panic attack in sound, Vent is an unequivocal nineties update of one of the founding statements of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s The Message. Its ‘don’t push me’ refrain is transformed from the socially-conscious statement of 1983 to a cog inside an internal monologue, a phrase circling a mind that’s coming apart under pressure. Just as Williamson and Fearn articulate the internal monologues of that post-crash underclass created by a fabricated (and entirely misnamed) ‘austerity’, so Tricky articulates the psychic chaos of the years that laid the foundations for this post-crash world, with its discredited institutions, corruption and increasingly dangerous demagoguery.

Tricky with Martina Topley Bird (mid-90s)

Perhaps it felt relevant to play tracks from 1970s Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland at those Sleaford Mods gigs in September precisely because what their music describes is life, as lived at the fag end of a discredited ideology whose adherents still cling to power despite barely believing their own words, let alone expecting anyone else to. The reigning assumptions of the 2014 political conference season must feel not unlike those imposed by Party bureaucracies in the former Eastern Bloc: badly scripted rituals, determined to miss the point at any cost. The substance of a dissident essay like Vaclav Havel’s The Power Of The Powerless seems as applicable to the here and now of the UK as it did to its original context of Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, as all this plays itself out, we will be subject to increasing quantities of bullshit to defer the inevitable reckoning. Luckily, wherever there is bullshit there are antidotes to bullshit, ready to be heard if we only care enough to seek them out and listen.

Footnote: Jason Williamson played Arthur Seaton in a voice-over recorded for James Walker’s Slap and Sickle, a film essay about Alan Sillitoe’s links to Russian dissidents in the 1970s, screened as part of a link up between Nottingham Writers’ Studio and English PEN, designed to promote the national Catechism campaign on behalf of Pussy Riot on November 12 2012.

Questions of Identity: Donelle Woolford, E.A. Markham and Robert Holcombe (2014)

7 Jun

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

I came across a link today to the news that the Yams collective  had withdrawn from the Whitney Biennale over the inclusion of work by a fabricated black female artist, Donelle Woolford, whose life and work are purportedly the creation of a white, male academic, Joe Scanlan, working with actresses. A polemic by Eunsong Kim and Maya Isabella Mackrandial, implicitly endorsed by the collective, and explicitly endorsed by other exhibiting artists, makes a powerful case. As with many fabricated artists currently in circulation (whose numbers, since 2010, have included Robert Holcombe himself) I’d been following the fictive career of Donelle Woolford mostly out of a straightforward curiosity about how (and why) others pursue the making of work under fictional identities. One point of interest was that in this instance, while the fabrication itself didn’t seem particularly compelling, the possibility that Woolford was not, in fact, Scanlan’s creation, fronted by actresses, but potentially the fabrication and creation of those actresses, Abigail Ramsay and Jennifer Kidwell – both involved with the project for many years – who were in fact using Scanlan as a front to manufacture Donelle’s physical artworks while they handled the performative elements…well, that possibility was compelling. Thinking parafictionally, this not only seemed possible but pretty much essential if the project were to mean very much at all beyond the banal points about authorship, race and gender it makes when taken at face value.*

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Since November, these questions about Woolford and her highly ambiguous play on identity have became of somewhat more particular interest. After exhibiting at the Nottingham Castle Open in 2013, Robert Holcombe received the accolade of a new commission from New Art Exchange, which meant he’d be making a new work in the context of a venue where the questions of identity already implicit in the project (indeed, the very ability to choose an identity) required deeper consideration. Mainly focused on issues of class and post-war British history – what Fabricated Archives had defined as his ability to bring about “a distancing from the present and an estrangement of the recent past” –  Holcombe’s is a parallel history, grounded in the actual but unrealised potential of the real one, then deployed as a means of countering claims that ‘there are no alternatives’ to our present state. This construct is now entering a context where willed suspensions of reality and, by implication, re-writings of the very real struggles factored into the construction of identity, are likely to be questioned.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul's From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul’s From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

For that reason, I’ve been grateful to my colleague at Primary, Kashif Nadim Chaudry, not only for his bemused comment on hearing about the commission (“What colour is Robert Holcombe?”) but for several conversations since, in which questions about how we might be responsible for a real identity, while challenging those identities imposed on us from outside,  might all be navigated and addressed. I’d very deliberately conceived Holcombe to be of a similar profile to myself (white, male, raised in Midlands/Northern factory and mining towns, Methodist upbringing, working class) but displaced in time: he’s of my grandfather’s generation rather than mine, though my grandparents imagined as having had some of the opportunities my own never did. The decision to keep his profile close was pragmatic (I knew this world well enough not to need research to make it convincing) but perhaps also unconsciously linked to some felt responsibility to an actual identity.

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

Within that, however, are other threads and influences that I’m fairly sure I hadn’t been conscious of at the time, including the fact that I spent several years studying in Sheffield with E.A. Markham whose own career was marked by the adoption of a series of fabricated identities. Markham spent much of the 1970s and 1980s Living in Disguise (his collection owning up to these ‘other persona’ works used this title in 1986) most notably as a younger generation Black British poet, Paul St Vincent, and as a feminist poet, Sally Goodman (“She is Welsh, is young, is white, is blue-eyed, is blonde; is very much, in a way, like me”, he wrote of her). His personae appear to be responses to a feeling that voices and identities are malleable, and extending them extends our own understanding of others. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the licence to be other than oneself granted by Markham (the responsibility, even) had one source in Sheffield, though the link made by James Proctor between Markham’s use of “play and personae with his interest in Anancy, the trickster Spider-god of African and Caribbean mythology” just complicates things further.

That said, another thread leads back to that mythology, by way of a very formative work (a work that will, I think, be a touchstone for anything produced at New Art Exchange). This is the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952). I first stumbled on a copy (for ten pence) in a sale in the unlikely setting of Heanor library at the age of nine or ten and still regularly re-read it today. To those who know Heanor, this area of South East Derbyshire, and their reputations, the place where I spent much of my first decade has long been notorious as a stronghold for the National Front, the BNP and (currently) the likes of UKIP. That Tutuola’s book turned up there, and opened these other possibilities – the kind of possibilities that led, ultimately, and in very indirect and tangled ways, to working with E.A. Markham, making the work of Robert Holcombe, and thinking about the issues raised by the fabrication of Donelle Woolford – is almost too neatly poetic.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr's Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr’s Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Today, I don’t remember how I visualised the characters in The Palm Wine Drinkard in my head that first time I read it: did I even know the book was Nigerian or understand what that meant? What I do know is that I fully immersed myself in its story, and identified with its characters, even as I almost certainly failed to understand any of the book’s real context or meaning. In the same way, whatever my own take on Holcombe’s work might be, and whatever framework I construct around it to facilitate that meaning, there is a near inevitability that it will, eventually, escape that context and be seen as it is, just as ‘real’ works invariably lose the cultural and temporal contexts that define them and find themselves read against the grain of their makers’ specific intentions. Any parafictional project is ultimately founded on the belief that shifting the context changes and extends the work’s meaning and such work aims, however briefly, to make itself appear real, to conjure a mirage or hallucination even as its fabricated nature remains explicit. What happens when our fictions escape those framing contexts might be largely out of our control, but remains our responsibility.

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Note: *I have no idea if this is the case or not: it’s entirely possible (and wouldn’t be the first time) that a project had been oblivious to its own potential, or had been made for banal or spurious reasons.

Writing Objects Part III: Masks and Masking (Primary, June 4, 2014)

5 Jun
Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington

For the third and final Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s Multiple points in this crude landscape, we looked at the various forms that masks can take and the even more various ways in which masks can be deployed in the creation of texts. Strictly speaking, a mask is a physical object that covers all or part of the face, from behind which the wearer looks out. Technically, this means no text can truly be a mask. But in a more expanded sense it’s clear that in the different personas we project in our choices of clothes or accessories, our movements between behaviour at work and in private, our editing of images and interests to represent ourselves on social media, we all, in practical terms, use masks.

To give a sense of how this kind of masking can operate, we watched an excerpt from Forced Entertainment’s recent re-staging of 12am: Awake and Looking Down (1993), a durational piece in which, as the company themselves explain: “five silent performers endlessly reinvent their identities using stacks of cardboard signs with which they name themselves, and a store of jumble-sale clothing (coats, dresses, suits, anoraks, trousers, pyjamas) from which they dress and re-dress…”. The minimal resources and suggestive capsule descriptions on the cardboard signs bring to life a range of archetypal characters in their wider imaginative contexts and suggest multiple potential narratives.

The tones of voice, degrees of intimacy and formality we adopt for different email correspondences (personal and professional, with close friends or casual acquaintances) serve a similar function to Forced Entertainment’s cardboard signs in presenting a shorthand for different aspects of ourselves in different contexts and situations – some close to our real selves, others almost entirely fictional. Even in supposedly pure self-expression, we tend to highlight insecurities to win sympathy or strengths to seem more capable and attractive. Paradoxically, an actual mask might distance us from this kind of everyday self-consciousness and liberate us to explore other possibilities.

Leonora Carrngton: Self-Portrait (1937)

Leonora Carrington: Self-Portrait (1937)

In Leonora Carrington‘s short story, The Debutante (1939), a mask plays a role in the narrative but the text itself masks autobiographical content behind the appearance of a darkly surreal fairy-tale. The characters, a young girl and a hyena, represent the constrained and liberated sides of Carrington herself, who wrote it at the age of 22. A raw 16mm film version of The Debutante by Ric Warren, made in 1994, illustrates Carrington’s point that the human face acquired for the hyena is little more than a skin, a civilised veneer covering the hyena’s true face. This is – visibly and significantly – a mask. Only when the hyena gleefully reverts to her authentic mask is the girl’s own potential revealed.

In the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola‘s novel The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), there is an early scene in which the narrator follows a handsome gentleman at the market. At first, he is consumed by feelings of inferiority: why can he not be as handsome as this gentleman? Yet time passes, the market winds down, and he sees the gentleman leaving another piece of his own body at each stall he passes, until he is finally exposed as a floating skull with no body, no arms or legs, no skin or skeleton, not even a face of his own. His substance is borrowed, rented by the hour on the market. As a metaphor for consumerism, the sale of identity and appearances, it’s a remarkably prescient passage.

Perhaps the unsettling quality of masks, exploited in many films, including Georges Franju’s Judex (1963), relates to this sense that appearance and reality can no longer be matched or trusted. A mask can erase or expose us, free us from responsibility for our actions or to express what is forbidden. A mask can also break habitual frames of reference. The Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa used his various literary personas in this way. We concluded the session with an excerpt from Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky (1971). This neatly drew together threads from all three sessions: everyday objects are performed, Lewis Carroll’s incantatory poem is recited, and the film’s political meanings are both blatant and ingeniously masked.

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

 

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Notes from session two, looking at incantation and ritual, are here.