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Symbolic Forest

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Cultural Appropriation

On stories set firmly in a particular place

There are quite a few ideas for blog posts lining up on my pinboard at the moment, and most of them are the sort that require work to write: long, in-depth pieces that need some sort of study or concentration. With the state of things right now, both in the world outside, here at home, and in the office, the space for that level of study and concentration has been a bit hard to come by. However, there’s one thing that has been in my head, on and off, for years, and it’s been sitting in my head for so long that it’s about time I tried to put it into words. It’s about a book which (unlike these) I have read, a much-loved book, one I love myself, in fact, at least at some level. It’s a classic of 1960s YA fiction, particularly in Britain. The Owl Service, by Alan Garner.

If you haven’t read it: it’s a retelling of one of the most famous stories of Welsh mythology, the story of Blodeuwedd, an episode in Math fab Mathonwy, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. I realise, typing that out, that if you’re not already a fan of Welsh mythology all those words in the previous sentence might be so much noise to you. The Mabinogi is a collection of four linked stories, written down in the Middle Ages but presumably somewhat older, which survived in two known manuscript copies;* in the 19th century they were translated into English by the aristocratic philologist Charlotte Guest. Math son of Mathonwy starts with a war between Gwynedd and Dyfed started by a magical pig-theft as a grand distraction from a rather more sordid plan, and traces the threads that follow on from that plan and the destruction and havoc that follows as a result. If it can be said to have a single theme, it’s probably that magic always makes things worse. Blodeuwedd is a woman conjured from flowers to provide a wife for the cursed hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes; she is not particularly a fan of the idea herself, and goes off with another man instead. I won’t tell you the whole story here, but you can probably gather that it isn’t going to end well.

One reason I’m not going to retell the whole story here is that if you haven’t read The Owl Service then you should do; as I’ve said, it’s a modern retelling, bringing the story forward to 1960s Wales and turning it into a triangular relationship between three teenagers: an English girl who has inherited a Welsh country house, her step-brother, and the Welsh son of their housekeeper. The country house is located in an oppressive, narrow valley and the house seems haunted by sounds: motorbikes powering along the road up-valley, and invisible vermin scratching in the roof. As the book progresses there are dark family secrets, mysterious paintings, ghostly reflections, and of course the crockery set of the title. As stories go it is short but dense: there is a lot of information packed into its pages. Garner is very good at offhand description whose significance is not signalled, letting you make the connections yourself later. In the telly adaptation, made by Granada shortly after publication, quite a bit of further exposition had to be added, notably a “story so far” narration at the start of each episode which sometimes describes explicitly events which weren’t really explained or shown at the point they happened.

I must have first read The Owl Service when I was in my early teens, and I know that when I first read it I was already aware that it was an Important Book. I knew this because most children’s novels I recall reading included a few pages of blurb for other novels at the back of the book, and I’d read the blurb for The Owl Service several times in this way before eventually getting a copy of it.** Certainly, much of it went over my head, but I was taken with its description of 1960s Wales; of the valley, lush and green, that almost disappears when you hike uphill to look down from the surrounding mountains; and the combination of kitchen-sink realism and deep mythology, of the idea that all myths did happen, somewhere, in the real world, and that their ghosts still haunt those places. That, though—I came to realise many years later—is where the problem is.

Nowadays I have two translations of the Mabinogi on my bookshelf, although I carefully keep them apart so that we avoid a critical mass of mythology in one place (or more likely, questions on why exactly I need two different translations). If you pick either of them up, and turn to Math fab Mathonwy, you’ll see the story tells you exactly where everything happened. I said earlier there was a war between Gwynedd and Dyfed: it ended when King Pryderi of Dyfed was killed and buried near Maentwrog, just off the A496. The other man that Blodeuwedd went off with was from around Bala; and the key events in the Blodeuwedd story all occurred close to the Afon Cynfal, one of the rivers that flows down into the Vale of Ffestiniog. I know the area well.

What makes me uncomfortable about The Owl Service is that it’s not set there. It’s not set in some generic imaginary fictional Welsh valley that only exists in Garner’s (and his reader’s) imaginations, either. It’s inspired by a specific place that Garner had visited, Llanymawddwy on the upper Dyfi. If you read the book alongside the Ordnance Survey map of the area, you can track a lot of the walks that the characters take in the book. Garner describes, for example, the walk up to the Ravenstone on the county boundary; and there it is on the map, Carreg y Frân. This is a real place, a real village. But in Garner’s retelling, this is the place the story of Blodeuwedd originally happened, and keeps happening, reoccurring in every generation; when the myth itself is anchored in another real place, an entirely different stretch of the countryside.

The hills above Llanymawddwy

Is this cultural appropriation? I’m really not sure; in any case, that’s hardly a well-defined term. Garner certainly tried to put a lot of effort into trying to make his story both realistic and respectful. He learned Welsh to write The Owl Service, but not for vocabulary or to read the myth in the original; rather, he learned it so that he could make the English speech of his Welsh-speaking characters follow Welsh syntax, because he felt that this would be a more respectful way to make them sound Welsh than the superficial technique of dropping random Welsh vocabulary into their statements. In general this works really well, with just one spot where he shows off his erudition to the reader in a slightly clunky way. The feeling I am left with, though, is that he did just come along to Wales and immediately feel as if he had found some deep, spiritual, mythological meaning to the landscape that wasn’t actually there, a meaning that was his own romanticised interpretation of that landscape as filtered through one of the most famous of all the Welsh myths. In a sense this is no different to if he’d travelled half way around the world and felt he had discovered something deep and exciting and mystical there; the only difference is that he’d only travelled a hundred miles or so over the border from Cheshire. The village and the valley in The Owl Service are haunted by the sound of motorbikes, because the road through Llanymawddwy leads to Bwlch y Groes, a steep, high pass that has for many years been well-known in the biking world. I have no doubt the reason motorbikes are important in the plot of The Owl Service is that Garner, visiting Llanymawddwy and exploring the valley, will have frequently seen and heard bikers driving through the village and up the valley towards the pass; will have sat up at Carreg y Frân and heard them roaring in the distance.

Am I the right person to point this out? I’m not Welsh either, after all, and although I’ve spent a lot of time there for one reason and another, I’ve never lived there. I don’t speak the language beyond a few simple phrases like “mae hi’n bwrw glaw” or “dw i wedi yfed cwrw gormod”, although I probably speak no less than most people who live in Wales do. As an English person living in England, are my own attempts to learn Welsh and read Welsh mythology just as appropriative as Garner? Some would probably say so. As someone who spends a fair amount of time in Wales—albeit not as much as I did a few years ago when I commuted over the border every day—it feels like the right thing to do.

The Owl Service is still a fantastic book, despite its flaws, and despite the niggling impression I have that it represents one Englishman’s superficial interpretation of a myth more than it represents the myth itself. In some ways I suspect my biggest disappointment is, as always, that the Good is the enemy of the Perfect. The Owl Service is so embedded in the imagination as the reimagining of the Blodeuwedd story, it seems difficult to believe that any other, potentially better, potentially more Welsh reimagining of it would ever take its place in th canon. Am I just being too much of a perfectionist critic? Maybe so. And the story of Blodeuwedd still exists, and is never going to disappear.

* The bound manuscripts are known as the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch. This naming pattern clearly chimed with JRR Tolkien, as in his fantasy mythology, The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings were the translations of a set of manuscripts known as the Red Book of Westmarch.

** Incidentally there are still a few classic children’s and YA novels that I only know in this way, from the blurbs in the back of other novels. The Silver Sword is one that springs to mind; or Smith by Leon Garfield.

Feet

In more ways than one

Tonight, we watched Simon Armitage’s documentary on Gawain And The Green Knight, and it gave me the irrational urge to go trekking up into the Marches until I find a cottage in a small valley with thick woods. It reminded me that, a while ago, I was sorely tempted to walk the Severn Way, the long-distance path that starts in the centre of Bristol, running through the back of dodgy estates, past the chemical plants of Hallen and the nuclear power station at Oldbury, and follows the river north and west right up to its source on the flanks of Plynlimon. It’s 224 miles long with a net climb of about 600 metres, just under 2000 feet, which sounds like a relatively gentle 1:600 slope on average. Somehow though I doubt it would be a sensible idea for me to just set off walking until I get up into the mountains; I would barely get past Lawrence Weston before I started complaining of blisters or something.

Local news: today, incidentally, was the day that somebody found a severed human foot in a park in Bath. We are waiting on tenterhooks to find out where it came from.

Witchcraft and magic; film and academia

In which we ponder why both serious historians and the entertainment industry were dealing with the same subject at the same time

There’s a lot of pressure on the Symbolic Towers bookshelves at the moment, stacked several deep with books falling off the ends. The pile of books-to-be-read is growing, too, with books arriving on it faster than I can read them. Frankly, the cause is obvious – apart from me not spending enough time reading, I mean. The cause is: shopping trips to Whiteladies Road and Cotham Hill, and to the charity shops thereon. Several are specialist charity bookshops, and all seem to have a better quality of book stock than charity shops elsewhere in Bristol, presumably because of the university being close by. Recent selections have included God’s Architect, a biography of Pugin by Rosemary Hill; 25 Jahre Deutsche Einheitslokomotive*; and a classic historical work from 40 years ago: Religion and the Decline of Magic by Sir Keith Thomas. I’ve just started making my way into the latter, and it has started a few thoughts going round in my head. Not because of the book itself, interesting though it is, but because of other things that have coincidentally come together alongside it.

Last Friday, by contrast, we went along to The Cube for the monthly Hellfire Video Club horror night. This month’s theme was Folk Horror, with a British cinema double bill: Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (also 1970).** The latter has rather higher production values; the former, although a British-made film, was part of American International Pictures’ series of Edgar Allan Poe films. It’s one of the later, lesser-known entries in the sequence: directed by Gordon Hessler rather than Roger Corman, but still with Vincent Price as the top-billed star.

What struck me straight away was the similarity of content: which, obviously, was why they were put together on the same bill. Cry of the Banshee is set around the start of the 17th century; Blood on Satan’s Claw is set around its end. Both deal with witchcraft, beliefs about witchcraft, and intra-community conflict; in very different styles, and with different levels of seriousness, but still at heart the same subject. It was not, moreover, a particularly unusual subject for British film at the time: a couple of years earlier Vincent Price had starred in Witchfinder General, covering similar subject matter and with slightly more claim to historicity. Not coincidentally, it was a co-production between American International and the producers of Blood on Satan’s Claw, Tigon. Recently, in his BBC series A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss put forward a claim for this group of films to be considered as a “folk horror” subgenre,*** together with The Wicker Man (1973): another look at essentially the same themes, updated to a modern-day setting.**** In that film the side of witchcraft is represented by a modern pagan revival; Cry of the Banshee shows the mythical pagan witchcraft of Charles Leland and Margaret Murray, and Blood on Satan’s Claw shows the Satanic witchcraft which the real-life witchfinders of the 17th century believed they were hunting down.

The point of this post, though, came when I realised that the subject of these films — the period ones, at least — is in effect the same subject as their contemporary Religion and the Decline of Magic. That book covers the same period: roughly, 1500 to 1700. It covers the intersection between religion and folk magic, and how folk belief in magic and witchcraft changed due to the political-religious upheavals which occurred in the period under study — following the anthropological distinction between magic and witchcraft.

Being an academic history, it is slightly easier to see how Sir Keith came to write the book when he did. His interest in the period came from studying under Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian of 17th century England; and at the time he was writing magic and witchcraft were being seen in a new light as a subject of historical enquiry. Thomas received input from Alan Macfarlane, whose research on witchcraft prosecutions in East Anglia is another work that is very much still on the historical and anthropological syllabus. The significance of Dr Macfarlane is that, as a historical anthropologist, he married anthropological frameworks and theories to historical primary sources. This level of academic interest in historical witchcraft beliefs is also what led to the complete discrediting of the previously-accepted idea that early modern witchcraft was a fully-fledged ancient and pagan religion, in works such as Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, published in 1975. In general, it is fair to say that Religion and the Decline of Magic is a major work within a subject that was getting a great deal of interest in academia at the time, and for the first time was getting serious interest paid to it which involved deep analysis of primary source material.

What intrigues me about all this, however, is the confluence here between academia and entertainment. What was going on, what underlying forces were at work, which led to the production of both horror films and weighty academic histories on the same topics at the same times? It is worth saying that Blood on Satan’s Claw, at least, does appear to present an underlying thesis which is not unrelated to that of Keith Thomas. Thomas points out that the Reformation led to the Church in England abandoning a large number of practices which can be described as magical; or which, at least, are barely distinguishably from magic both in an anthropological analysis and in the minds of the ordinary population expected to take part. In Blood on Satan’s Claw the village priest, apparently a Low Anglican, is ineffectual against the forces of witchcraft, and knows it; the heroes are the scientifically-minded local physician and the Jacobite judge, presumably still secretly following the old religion just as he secretly follows the Old Pretender. To defeat Satan, only a Catholic will do; but nowhere is this spelled out explicitly for the audience, and you will only realise it if you have some awareness of the film’s historical setting.

I’m not, of course, trying to posit a direct connection between the two things: for one thing, both of the films shown at Hellfire Video Club were released the year before the book was. Rather, there seems to have been an undercurrent of some sort, forty years ago, which made this sort of subject a popular one in several ages. I have a feeling it was important in music, too. Also on the squeezed bookshelves is a work which for once I didn’t get second-hand: Electric Eden by Rob Young. It is a history of the folk themas which pervaded English music in the 20th century – which makes it sound also very academic. It isn’t, and its writer is a very approachable sort of chap, but it doesn’t exactly answer the question I’m posing, because it tends to follow a linear path of musical trends, parallel to the rest of culture.

There is possibly an answer in the growth of modern paganism. Modern Wicca emerged in the 1950s; by the time we are talking about, it was well known in mainstream culture and in the popular press. Moreover, as historian Ronald Hutton has shown, not only can the view of spirituality expressed in Wicca can be shown to have strong antecedents in British culture from the Romantic poets onwards; but even though the view of pagan witchcraft expounded by Margaret Murray can be shown to be false, modern witchcraft can nevertheless be seen to be descended from the types of magical beliefs and activities described by scholars such as Thomas.***** In other words, as a religion, it is a concrete expression of a number of strands of British philosophical thought and folk belief which have been rooted at some level in the national psyche since the medieval period.

* published in 1950 by Miba, in case you were wondering.

** you can see the event’s poster on Flickr.

*** Of course, other people might have said it before him, but I’m not well-versed enough in film history to know.

**** Incidentally, both The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw have fantastic soundtracks, although each very different in form.

***** Also incidentally, given that I bought my copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic on Cotham Hill, and that most of it has been marked up by a studious reader, the chances are it used to belong to someone studying on one of Professor Hutton’s courses.

The Writer's Voice

In which FP reads, and learns more about writing as a result

Writing this post from the other week, with its long rant about the poor quality of the worldbuilding in BBC3’s Being Human, has made me think more in general about the quality of writing, and the quality of my own writing. After all, am I in a position to excoriate other people’s ability to write and worldbuild, when I don’t exactly have much to demonstrate on my own behalf there?

It set my brain off on a tangent, though. Not so much about worldbuilding, but about the authorial voice. Because that’s something I used to worry about, years back: I would never be any good at writing because I didn’t have my own voice. If you read any of my prose, there would be nothing at all distinctive about it. Whether that was true back then, back when I used to worry about such things, I don’t know, and I have no real desire to go back and read anything that old. It probably isn’t true any more, though. Certainly, one of the things K likes about my blog posts is that, she says, in my writing I sound just as I do when I speak.

I’ve been a reader since I was small: I’ve been able to read since before memory, since before virtually all of my memories, so I have no conception of what it feels like to see words and not understand them. Ever since I started reading for myself, though, I’ve been a silent reader, a very quick reader, and I also tend to be a very poor reader. Because I’m a quick reader I skim too much. I miss things. I miss things out, have to go back, don’t notice Important Plot Points and don’t take in any of the craft involved in the work. However, I think I’ve found a solution to this. I’ve started reading things aloud, and it has turned around the way I look at writing.

What started all this was: I’d just started reading a book I’ve had sitting around unread for a couple of years almost, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.* Only on the second or third chapter, we had to take a plane journey, and K didn’t have anything interesting herself to read. “Read to me?” she asked. So, since, I’ve been reading a passage of Wolf Hall to her in bed every evening. It’s been a couple of months now; reading aloud is much slower than reading silently, and we’re not awake enough for a chapter** every single night. In doing it, I’ve learned a lot about syntax, prosody, and prosody’s representation. Hilary Mantel has been one of my favourite novelists for many years now,*** and Wolf Hall, award-winning and all, is very readable, but it’s not always the easiest novel to read aloud. Its long sentences are just slightly too long for comfort in the voice: lists of things, and there are many lists of things, always have one term too many to easily read aloud. Her authorial voice is very readable, very concise and very accessible, but her sentences are sometimes a little too long to know automatically where the stresses are intended to fall. Which isn’t to deny that it is, absolutely, an excellent novel; it just isn’t perfect for me to read aloud, at least not without a rehearsal.

Wolf Hall‘s sequel will be coming out before too long, and no doubt will be something I will read to K at some point. In the meantime, we are assembling a list of books to be read: The Third Policeman after last week’s opera;**** some Peter Ackroyd, such as Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem; maybe Lanark, although that will be a mammoth adventure. In the meantime, I am taking a lot from reading aloud. It makes me confident that I do have a voice when I write, a voice I can manipulate if I want to. It makes me confident, too, that I have a readable voice, a voice that might be publishable. Most importantly, it has helped an awful lot to reconnect the craft of writing with the act of reading. The two, obviously, are very closely linked; but I think I’d forgotten just how closely linked they are. I think I’d forgotten to write for the reader.

* I can tell you where I started reading it, too: waiting for a train in Frankfurt an der Oder.

** Strictly speaking, it would be very hard to read a chapter every night, because Wolf Hall has very uneven chapter lengths. Some are getting on for a hundred pages of the book; others are no more than two or three.

*** At root, her earlier historical novel about the lives of Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins is one of the things to blame for the time I got myself on the telly the other year.

**** Tricky, with all its footnotes.

Is it about a bicycle?

In which I hasve been to see an operatic adaptation of that classic 20th century Irish novel The Third Policeman, so write a review filled with in-jokes

Thursday night: to the Cube Cinema. Not for a film, but for an opera: The Third Policeman, adapted and produced by a chap called Ergo Phizmiz. Having read the novel, I was intrigued as to how a stage adaptation would work: of all the books I have read, it is…

The Plain People Of The Internet: By, there’s no footnotes yet. What are you doing there getting forty words or more into a blog post already and not writing any footnotes?

I was wondering when you people might turn up. Somehow, I thought you might. The footnotes were something I was wondering about, because they do rather alter the structure and format of the novel.* How would they be presented, in operatic form?

The Plain People of the Internet: So did they put signs up on the stage then? Cards with the footnote text on? Or a simultaneous narration chap type of thing?

Well, no. The works of de Selby*** were integrated into the main part of the libretto. But now, you’re getting me ahead of myself. I meant to say how faithful an adaptation it was, but you people there have led me down the line of criticism much quicker than I had intended. Everything is getting turned and turned about, and we’re getting to the wrong parts of the review first. Which is ironic, really. The Third Policeman is sometimes said to be a classic surrealist novel, or a classic postmodernist novel, but at heart it really has a quite straightforward start-to-finish plot. No fiddling around with flashbacks or more complicated temporal structures: it starts at the start, ends at the end, and gets there directly.**** Nice and straightforward to translate into a stage production, so long as you manage to replicate the mood. The mood, indeed, is the important thing.

The Plain People of the Internet: The key to the whole lock, stock and breadbasket!

Indeed, if you want to put it that way. There have been innumerable…

The Plain People of the Internet: We counted them.

You don’t know what I’m going to say!

The Plain People of the Internet: Ah, but we counted them. Five hundred and twenty-seven.

Don’t be silly. Nobody has counted them, and there aren’t five hundred and twenty seven. There have been innumerable…

The Plain People of the Internet: Well then, how would you know?

Shush now. There have been innumerable dream…

The Plain People of the Internet: Fünfhundert, sieben und zwanzig.

…dream sequences committed to literature, but none of them, to my ears, quite ring true. The Third Policeman is the only book I have read that does have the feel of a real, genuine dream. It has dream logic, hallucinatory dream logic, buildings with impossible perspectives or images that are two contradictory things simultaneously.***** It has dream-logic in the plot: the mechanics of Eternity or the machinations of the eponymous Policeman Fox.** And this is something that came across very well in the opera. The combination of live actors, Phizmiz’s music, projected video, shadow-puppetry and all, had a wonderfully dreamlike atmosphere to it, wonderful at capturing the tone of the book itself, both surreal and slightly frightening. Moreover, clearly the company had some finely-honed stagecraft skills: the projected video seemed to be a single stream, and the music was essentially continuous, so there was no space at all for the cast to miss any marks, whether acting on their own, as a group, or with partly-prerecorded dialogue. With several costume changes for two of the three actors, things offstage must have been hectic.

I would go back and see The Third Policeman again, but Thursday’s performance was the last one in Bristol. If you’d like to see it yourself, then it is coming up in the next few weeks in Rotterdam, Dartington and Bridport, according to Mr Phizmiz’s website. If you’re going to be around any of those places, I’d recommend it. Having read the novel, I was intrigued as to how a stage adaptation would work: of all the books I have read, it is…

The Plain People of the Internet: By, there it is: if you saw us coming, then we’re sure we saw that. And you never even told us: Is it about a bicycle?

* Someone once said, about this site, that the profusion of footnotes meant I wasn’t a very good writer. I see their point,****** but disagree. A heavily-footnoted work such as The Third Policeman is possibly as close as you can come to a hypertext narrative in book form, and reading it leads to one skipping up and down and flipping between two separate trains of thought, main text and footnote, as one goes. Rather, in other words, like browsing the Web with a dozen tabs all open at once, flipping to another whilst one waits for the first to load.

** Or, at least, the dreams I have have that sort of plot. Maybe not everyone’s dreams are the same.

*** A most distinguished and unique philosopher who is generally only to be found within the pages of O’Brien’s work.

**** It’s certainly not a postmodern novel when compared with Lanark, one of my favourite novels; although it did influence Lanark greatly — or apparently, at least. It says as much in the pages of Lanark, in a section where the book’s author lists all his various sources and inspirations, including some sources and inspirations which allegedly inspired passages which, if you look them up, don’t exist anywhere else in the novel. Now that’s postmodernism.

***** One of these — a cracked ceiling that is at the same time both just a pattern of cracks in plaster and a detailed map of the local area — was one of the few things in the book that didn’t seem to get mentioned at all in the opera.

The Plain People of the Footnote Internet: No Plain People either, but to be fair Mr O’Brien kept them to badger in his newspapery work. Now, here’s a thing. You know those horror films where your man thinks it’s all a dream, but then he wakes up and the evil axe-wiggler nightmare is still around and about the place? Is this the same here? You, reading or writing on the outside of that screen there, thought that you had escaped into a footnote and had gotten yourself away from us, only for Plain People to jump in and interrupt your footnotes too? And does that mean we are about to tap you yourself there on your shoulder?

****** ie, that I can’t edit properly.

Collodion

In which we go to London for the photography

Back in the mists of time, I used to think it would be a nice idea to move to London. There’s always something going on, of course. Always plenty to do, and always plenty to keep me entertained.

When I lived in a remoter part of the country, with not much to fill my spare time, this seemed like a Good Plan. Now that we live in a reasonably-civilised city, though, we have far too much to do as it is. And I just know that, if we did live in London, it would go one of two ways. Either we would spend all our time feeling sad about the events that we just didn’t get chance to make it to, or we’d retreat into a bubble and never do much at all. When we do visit, we can easily manage to fill a day and have plenty of things left over that we could have done.

Yesterday, for example: we almost managed to avoid the day’s main event and tourist attraction, the Pride March.* We did have to scoot around a few barriers, though, and avoid a few crowds of pre-march spectators, because the main reason we wanted to go to London was for the current exhibition at The Photographers Gallery: *The Family And The Land, a retrospective on the American photographer Sally Mann. Mann became well-known\* for a series of photos she took of her children, growing up, twenty-five years ago. From there, as the exhibition title suggests, she moved on to the past of her homeland, taking landscapes of American Civil War locations, before, more recently, producing a series on death and decay, literally: decaying bodies, outdoors, at a forensics research lab. Much of her work has been produced using 19th-century techniques: the wet-plate process, which requires its own portable darkroom. The photographer dips a glass plate firstly in a solution of nitrocellulose, then in one of the usual photographic silver salt solutions; then it is exposed, quickly, before it dries.

When we look at a photograph, we respond to subconscious cues as much as we do to our conscious view of the image. That’s why photos taken with tilt-shift lenses, or fiddled to look like they have been, look like photos of tiny models. Moreover, wet-plate photographs have a very particular look to them: a sharpness of grain but a softness from the antique lens; a time-exposure blur and a particular tonal range. So, if you know a little photography and you look at a Sally Mann photograph, it looks like something that has jumped out of the past. A valley whose river is time-blurred to mercury smoothness looks like something produced by a 19th-century war reporter; and a decaying corpse could have died decade after decade ago.

After visiting the Photographers Gallery, we wandered across London to the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, to see the Free Range graduation art show, collecting new art graduates from all over the country. It is an utterly massive show, its displays changing weekly, and each display enormous in itself. We were amused to see places we recognised in a handful of the works: line-drawings of buildings in Bristol, and photos of UFOs over Inverkeithing.*** Being a graduation show, it did seem slightly discordant and mixed-together; possibly even patchy in parts. I found myself wondering, at one point, what art students do when their ideas don’t match their budget, and if any of them ever felt constrained by the limits of their budget and their courses’ deadlines. I wondered what the photography graduates would have done with a wet-plate camera, and whether modern photography is the better for being less of a craft.

By the time we left Free Range, we were, I have to say, almost entirely arted out. We did manage to fit in another couple of smaller shows; but the amount of art we’d seen had filled our heads up to the brim. We filled the rest of our evening by ambling around on London buses; again, avoiding the crowds. London might be a nice place to visit; but if we lived there, we’d end up always finding too much to do. Best to keep it at a distance: we can always pop over for a day, when we want to be inspired

* although we did spot one butch lesbian in bondage gear and rubber hotpants having her photo taken by a passing tourist.

** indeed, infamous.

*** The UFOs over Inverkeithing were by an Edinburgh College of Art graduate called Andrew Jay Harvey; and we think the Bristol buildings were by Emily Ejderos.

The art of walking

In which we look around other people's houses and other people's art

As I said last week, I’ve been planning to write something about this year’s Southbank Bristol Arts Trail. Because, well, it’s a local event, a local grassroots event, and the sort of thing that more people should know about.

The idea, if you’ve not come across it before, is: local artists either open up their homes, or exhibit in local community spaces, studios, workshops and so on. The rest of the local community spend the weekend rambling around the area, getting slightly lost, hunting down these little artistic spaces and finding out what’s inside. I’m not entirely sure I’d want to open my house up, because if we did, we wouldn’t get any chance to go and investigate anyone else’s place. That’s half the fun of it. That, and poking around strange, unexpected corners of the neighbourhood. I’d never thought that the back of North Street can be so rural: but turning the corner of Sydney St mid-afternoon, we surprised a startled-looking fox, who had been trying to quietly plot a route into a henhouse.

There are so many places on the trail – 54 venues, most of which we managed to reach over the course of the weekend – that it is tricky just to summarise all of the ones we saw. But I’ll try: there was stained glass at the Southville Glass Studio, photography at the Spanish bar just by it; a First Crush Wall on Ashton Gate Terrace; pottery and photography in a B&B on Green Bank Road;* various artists and furniture at the ambulance station on Raleigh Road;** seascapes painted by someone called Shirley Gosling who has an impressively-decorated house; a set of prints by a group of designers, and a DJ in their kitchen; Terry Williams, who I’ve already mentioned; bedroom music in Rachael Dadd’s house on Birch Road; decorated china on Hamilton Road; interesting bird prints on Leighton Road; tiles and various other things further along the street; some pretty handmade jewellery on Beauley Road; an intriguing and bloody installation piece above the reclamation yard on Park Road;*** some excellent screen prints on Howard Road; too much to mention at the Southville Centre; a variety of art and sculpture in a flat on Stackpool Road; typographical artwork on Greville Road; free happiness to take home on Mount Pleasant Terrace; pottery and photography in a garage further along the street; are you still reading?; close-up abstract photography in a flat on North Street; a variety of things including photography, live pottery and well-known printmaker Lucie Sheridan at the old pickle factory that’s now a bed factory on Braunton Road; drawings on South Street; illustration on Agate Street; a delightful little sculpture garden tucked away on North Street; live printmaking of seascapes on Chessel Street; landscape paintings all the way down on Thanet Road; stuffed toys on Aubrey Road; an illustrator whose work I’m sure I recognised on the opposite side of the street; an empty house with “NO ART THIS YEAR, MAYBE NEXT YEAR” in the window on Balfour Road; and a variety of art and things on Truro Road. And breathe. If you read all the way through that, well done. Personally, I recommend spacing it out over a weekend.

At some point I will go back over all that and fill it out with links. It demonstrates, though, what a variety of creativity and artwork there is in a relatively small part of this city, not to mention what a variety of homes people have.**** And, too, it makes me think: “why aren’t we doing more of that?” I’m sure we could, if we were willing to stay in and show other people our home, instead of going out and looking at everyone else’s.

* Confusing geography moment: I discovered Bristol has a Greenbank Road and a Green Bank Road, nowhere near each other.

** Including some nature photography, an artist who had published a book about his leukaemia, and some rather homoerotic studies of men in showers. None of whose names I can remember: this is why I should write my blog posts straight away.

*** Not just in the attic space above the reclamation yard, either; it continued down the stairs and out into the street.

**** I was particularly impressed with one artist who had a copy of McDermott & Clinker’s classic History Of The Great Western Railway on their bookshelves.

You can tell you're British when...

In which we clear up odds and ends

… you start talking about the weather.

Some springtime might be nice. Instead, it’s been getting colder and damper and colder and damper. We’d turned the heating off to save a bit of gas; and were very reluctant to turn it back on, especially given the capricious nature of British Gas’s billing system.* It had to be done, though, otherwise the house probably would have started to sag into a mineshaft, or something along those lines. At least today things seem a bit brighter.

A web search that came in yesterday – terry williams artist bristol birch road – reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about another recent event we attended, the Southbank Bristol Arts Trail, tramping the streets of Bedminster and Southville – in the damp, of course – visiting artists’ houses and viewing their art. As we did last year, in fact; and, like last year, we went to look at Terry Williams’ art in his home on Birch Road. His paintings aren’t the sort of artwork we’d want to buy for our own walls, but he’s clearly an accomplished artist; my favourite painting by him was a large canvas titled “Birnbeck Pier By Night”. Largely black, the spidery lines of the semi-disused pier-bridge** were marked out more by texture than by colour. I will write more about the arts trail, as soon as I go through the list of venues and can recall which one in my head matches up with which description.

* It will trundle along for a while before saying “ooh, you’re hugely in credit, we’d better cut your monthly payments.” Then, a few months later, it will change to “ooh, you’re hugely in debt, better treble your monthly payments.” You’d think they’d realise that gas usage is bound to drift up and down seasonally, and compensate for that; instead, the seasonal change in the payments seems to magnify rather than even out the changes in usage.

** It’s called a pier but I’d say it’s technically a bridge, because it goes out to an island.

Art And Sex

In which art gets commercial and sells out

We jaunted off to London the other day, for the “Pop Life” exhibition at Tate Modern. I would link to details; but, well, it closed on Sunday, so you can’t go and see it now. The subtitle was “Art In A Material World” and the concept was to review artists who have embraced commerciality over the past 40 years or so, starting with Warhol and taking things on from there. It followed two strands that Warhol pioneered: on the one hand, the commercialisation of art; on the other, the objectification of the artist. From there it moves on through, on the one hand, Keith Haring, Emin & Lucas, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami; on the other, Martin Kippenberger, Jeff Koons, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Andrea Fraser.

Put like that, these sound like rather disparate threads; but they’re two sides of the celebrity artist. After all, when an artist’s name becomes bigger than their work, then their life is their biggest work of all. In the show, though, they did seem rather disparate, moving on from artist to artist between rooms with no firm connections between them. It took a few day’s reflection for me to tease together the themes. Arguably, of course, this is a Good Thing: an art show that doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to be seeing but lets you work the themes out for yourself. You might, after all, always spot something the curators didn’t.

We were expecting the Big Famous Art Names like Warhol and Hirst, as advertised, and we were expecting their most reproduced and commercialised images. What we weren’t expecting was for the show to be so, well, pornographic. Particularly, the Jeff Koons room: essentially, floor-to-ceiling pornography in an almost-empty, behind-closed-doors space. Most of the visitors seemed to not even notice it was there: in a busy exhibition, it was the one room we had to ourselves. From Jeff Koons’ porn stills repackaged as art, the show moved on to Throbbing Gristle member Cosey Fanni Tutti, and the scandal that her pornography-as-art shows caused in the 1970s. That artwork was, as far as I could tell, far, far tamer than Koons’ hardcore sex: it shows just how much society has changed in 35 years or so. And neither Koons nor C-F-T were disturbing, in the way that Andrea Turner’s prostitution-as-video-art piece was disturbing: a bare room housing a barely-styled video, showing Turner having sex with the art collector she had sold the piece to. Shot by a single fixed camera, it was cold, clinical, unemotional, the business relationship removing any passion.

That work of art was, you could argue, a culmination. As far as an artist can go in their own self-objectification.* It was followed by a room devoted to Takashi Murakami, at the extreme end of art commercialisation, two separated strands starting out from Warhol. Interesting to see how far they had diverged; and was Warhol really a clear starting point, or just a place where two trends intersected? For some artists, art can be a business; for others, it can be life. It can be martyrdom. It left me thinking, secondly, that maybe money and devotion don’t have to be that far apart.

The first thing it leaves me thinking of, though, is the genitals of Mr and Mrs Koons, blown up to wall size whilst hard at work. And the thought: “I’m glad I didn’t invite The Mother.”

* Going back to Jeff Koons, the show’s notes deliberately stressed that Koons had been objectifying his own body, and not just his wife’s; not having the porn-star physique early in his career, he had to buff his muscles up a bit.

Books I Haven't Read (part the tenth, maybe)

In which we criticise a Great Writer, at least by volume

With such a big pile of books each for Christmas, there was bound to be something that I wouldn’t be able to make it through. The ironic thing, though, is that this Book I Haven’t Read is probably, in one sense, the easiest read on the pile. Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett.

Back when I was a teenager, I read an awful lot of Pratchett. I must have read every Discworld book at some point by now, and I’ve got copies still of most. The Parents, being unusually observant, picked up on this: and at some stage they started buying me a copy of his latest book every Christmas. As he’s kept on producing books, this kept on happening.

Now, at one time, I did enjoy Pratchett’s books. Back when I was a teenager. He’d published about ten, fifteen or so; so there were plenty to get through without it seeming too daunting. Moreover, he hadn’t run out of ideas, and the Discworld series hadn’t started to reach critical mass. Back then, Pratchett didn’t worry too much about making his world consistant, and presumably his readers didn’t worry about it too much either.

It’s something to do with that sort of fan, though, the sort that tends to be a fan of Pratchett, that they crave consistancy and reliability. They want the world to be as solidly-built as our own, even when the fraying at the edges is fairly obvious; even when its development over time is extremely obvious.* Even if the author doesn’t worry about tying up loose edges and gluing bits of geography together, assiduous and energetic readers will start doing it for him. And they did. A lot of effort started to be put into making the whole thing “make sense” in some way, to the extent that Pratchett ended up writing entire books apparently just to make incoherency a coherent part of his universe.** That should, really, be the point where you realise that a good idea’s been taken too far.***

All of that, though, is by-the-by compared to why I didn’t manage to read this specific book. I gave up on Unseen Academicals because, well, it generally isn’t very good. It’s not a book that gave me any sort of urge to keep reading at all. The characters are rather flat and lifeless, and the Deliberate Air Of Mystery surrounding the Mysterious Characters seems, well, all too deliberate, as if someone had written it all according to the How To Write A Discworld Novel manual. If I was a fan, I might have managed to finish it. Not being, I didn’t.

All novels, as you know, like to have review quotes in their blurb. For writers starting out, it may well be from a better-known writer who has taken a shine to this novel. For better-known writers, it will be an impressive quote from a review in a Top Newspaper. You can tell a writer who’s gone too far, though. They have what Unseen Academicals has: a quote from the writer themselves, about how great their own book is.**** It’s not a good sign, when you think you’re your own biggest fan.

* Note for non-Discworld readers: the Discworld started off as a parody of swords-and-sorcery fantasy. With the sixth book it started to expand to cover parodies of other literature, and by now has covered just about every aspect of Real Life of the past 200 years or so. As a result, it’s not actually a “fantasy” world any more, apart from magic used for comedic effect.

** Well, at least one. I’ve read it, and it does read like it’s largely filler./p>

*** And, yes, I know I complain about consistancy in Doctor Who. But the annoyance there is more the selective consistancy; the have-your-cake-and-eat-it grab-stuff-from-anywhere approach that Russell T Davies tended to take with the programme’s backstory.

**** Douglas Adams, I have to admit, did manage to get away with this once, by not sounding serious about it.