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Archive for February, 2013

Latest Reviews (21/ii/2013)

Camus Up for BlairGeorge Orwell: A Life in Letters, selected and annotated by Peter Davison, (Penguin 2011)

God-FingerThe Satan Bug (1962) / The Way to Dusty Death (1973), Alistair MacLean

Mum, Bum and CaravaggioOutsider: Always Almost, Never Quite: An Autobiography, Brian Sewell (2011)

Eyes Wide OpiumHow to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers, Ian Jeffrey (2008)

Beard TalesThe Devotee of Ennui #1: Hymn to Hermaphrodite, Alan Moore with Kegsey Keegan (Polypogonic Press, 2013)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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George Orwell: A Life in Letters, selected and annotated by Peter Davison, (Penguin 2011)

Christopher Hitchens was influenced by George Orwell rather in the way Leon Trotsky was influenced by the Buddha. That is, Hitch no more followed Orwell’s literary example than Trotsky followed the Buddha’s ethical example. Hitch was a highly pretentious and verbose writer, not a master of clarity and concision like Orwell. But the former did make a good point about the latter in his book Why Orwell Matters (2002): Orwell was not extraordinary in intellect or learning, but he managed to write two extraordinary books, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). That is part of why these letters are valuable and interesting, because we can see those books in gestation, in production, and in publication. Here is Orwell explaining his motives for writing Animal Farm:

I don’t think I could fairly be described as Russophobe. I am against all dictatorships and I think the Russian myth has done frightful harm to the leftwing movement in Britain and elsewhere, and that it is above all necessary to make people see the Russian regime for what it is (ie. what I think it is). But I thought all this as early as 1932 or thereabouts and always said so fairly freely. I have no wish to interfere with the Soviet regime even if I could. I merely don’t want its methods and habits of thought imitated here, and that involves fighting against Russianizers in this country… The danger is that some native form of totalitarianism will be developed here, and people like Laski, Pritt, Zilliacus, the News Chronicle and all the rest of them seem to me to be simply preparing the way for this. (letter of 11th December, 1945 to Michael Sayers)

Orwell described in “Why I Write” (1946) his “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” He also said that what he had “most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.” In Animal Farm, he achieved that art. But just as no book can be entirely free of political bias, so no work of fiction can be purely political. Peter Davison, the editor of this book, notes that “one of the origins of Animal Farm was Beatrix Potter’s Pigling Bland, a favourite of Orwell’s” in his childhood (“1946 and 1947”, pg. 281). Davison is a good editor, setting the context of the letters and explaining even minor references as the obscure Eric Blair becomes the world-famous George Orwell. There are also a “biographical list” of important figures in Orwell’s life, a chronology of that life, and a comprehensive index. Finally, Davison introduces some “New Textual Discoveries” from Orwell’s novels A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). These discoveries, about changes to the novels in proof, will disturb and even shock some readers, because the “most significant” in A Clergyman’s Daughter are to “the character of Mr Blifil-Gordon, the Conservative Candidate, so as to remove any trace that he is a Jew who had converted to Catholicism.” Davison then lists the changes, with the original text in bold. These will be the most disturbing to some devotees of Orwell:

Even more Jewish in appearance than his father ] Given to the writing of sub-Eliot vers libre poems… And to think that that scum of the ghetto ] And to think that that low-born hound… For the beastliest type the world has yet produced give me the Roman Catholic Jew. ] And that suit he is wearing is an offence in itself. (pg. 491)

Moreover, some of the final letters are to or by Celia Kirwan (1916-2002), who was Arthur Koestler’s sister-in-law and worked for the Information Research Department, a government organization that tried to counter communist propaganda. Orwell passed recommendations to her about those he felt should or should not be allowed to participate in this work. And in his now famous, or infamous, list of unreliable people, he sometimes noted the ethnicity of a suspected or probable communist sympathizer or agent. Yes, the secular saint George Orwell was saintly in more ways than one, because there is, of course, a long tradition of anti-semitism in Christianity and among Christian saints.

Your reaction to these parts of the book will be a test of your goodthinkfulness and of whether or not you need to be watched by Big Brother. I must confess that I wasn’t disturbed by them. Orwell’s prejudice against Catholicism and Catholics is a much stronger motif in any case:

Mrs Carr [a friend of Orwell’s from Southwald] sent me two books of Catholic apologetics, & I had great pleasure in reviewing one of them for a new paper called the New English Weekly. It was the first time I had been able to lay the bastinado on a professional R.C. at any length. (letter of 14th June, 1932 to Eleanor Jaques)

That sort of thing doesn’t disturb me either, but this did, in a letter to an editor who had enquired about Orwell’s life:

After leaving school I served five years in the Imperial Police in Burma, but the job was totally unsuited to me and I resigned when I came home on leave in 1927. I wanted to be a writer, and I lived most of the next two years in Paris, on my savings, writing novels which no one would publish and which I subsequently destroyed. (letter of 26th August, 1947 to Richard Usbourne)

I was sorry to read about the destruction of those novels. They would certainly be published now and would shed more light on the development of Orwell’s writing. His pre-war fiction was not special and Orwell himself disowns A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying here, not wanting them to be re-published with Burmese Days (1934) and Coming Up for Air (1939). But each novel is powerful in some way and I’ve read all of them several times. Coming Up for Air, for example, contains what seems to me an accurate and moving re-creation of a semi-rural, part-Victorian life Orwell himself had never led. None of his pre-war fiction does more than hint at the excellences of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it all helps explain how Orwell came to write those classics. So do these letters. I haven’t yet given them the attention they deserve, because the book is more than five hundred pages long, but anyone who wants to understand Orwell better should start here. There’s even food for biological thought, because Orwell was part French on his mother’s side and that heredity, which you can see in his face, may be relevant here:

It has been a few years since I lived in France and although I tend to read French books I am not able to write your language very accurately. When I was in Paris people always said to me “You don’t talk too badly for an Englishman but your accent is fantastic.” Unfortunately I have only kept the accent. (letter of 9th October, 1934 to R.N. Raimbault)

In a much later letter, Orwell describes a lunch-appointment with Camus at the Deux Magots in Paris: “but he was ill and didn’t come” (20th January, 1948). He then analyses another of France’s literary giants: “I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot” (22nd October, 1948). These letters illuminate his literary tastes, his linguistic skills, his love-life, his gardening, cooking, and DIY, and reveal his interest in everything from nursery rhymes, political pamphlets and ethnology to newts, boots and fungi. And milking goats. Orwell didn’t have an extraordinary intellect, but he wasn’t an ordinary man and his letters prove it.

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The Satan Bug (1962) / The Way to Dusty Death (1973), Alistair MacLean

MacLean isn’t the best thriller-writer I know, because I think Ian Fleming is better, broader and more entertaining. But The Satan Bug, originally published under the name Ian Stuart, is probably the best of his many books. Or rather, the best version of his book, because he wrote variants on a single theme: hierarchy-hating hero defeats super-cerebral sado-villain(s) whilst wet, wounded and whiskey-soaked. The hero isn’t usually described in detail, because that would have got in the way of the wish-fulfilment fantasy for the heterosexual males who formed MacLean’s main audience. The nondescript hero here is called Pierre Cavell, a highly intelligent, highly skilled Anglo-French secret agent who has turned down six decorations – “three British, two French and one Belgian” (ch. 1) – at the end of the war before joining British intelligence and trying to stop minor but dangerous thefts from a high-security germ-warfare laboratory in Wiltshire called Mordon.

Then the thefts turn major: the laboratory has brewed a super-virus called the Satan Bug and someone makes off with two flasks of it, despite the high security. Cavell endures cold, kicks and cracks on the cranium as he unravels the crook’s cunning and literally saves the world in the final chapter, high over the rain-soaked streets of London. The ending is reminiscent of Fleming’s Goldfinger, which was published in 1959, but MacLean’s villain is more of a God-finger: he could destroy the world with one hand tied behind his back. The botulinum toxin he has also stolen, a gramme of which could wipe millions of people, is much less dangerous than the infernal infection he was really after. Following the theft, an Italian bacteriologist at Mordon describes what it can do:

In its final form, the Satan Bug is an extremely refined powder. I take a salt-spoon of this powder, go outside in the grounds of Mordon and turn the salt-spoon upside down. What happens? Every person in Mordon would be dead within an hour, the whole of Wiltshire would be an open tomb by dawn. In a week, ten days, all life would have ceased to exist in Britain. I mean all life. The Plague, the Black Death – was nothing compared with this. Long before the last man died in agony ships or planes or birds or just the waters of the North Sea would have carried the Satan Bug to Europe. We can conceive of no obstacle that can stop its eventual world-wide spread… The Lapp trapping in the far north of Sweden. The Chinese peasant tilling his rice-fields in the Yangtse valley. The cattle rancher on his station in the Australian outback, the shopper in Fifth Avenue, the primitive in Tierra del Fuego. Dead. All dead. Because I turned a salt-spoon upside down. Nothing, nothing, nothing can stop the Satan Bug. (ch. 3)

MacLean could write compelling prose about the biggest and baddest of themes, but he was also capable of touches like this, when the police are issuing a description of a get-away car:

“Alfringham. Then the London road. Cancel the call for the Fiat. It’s now a turquoise Vanden Plas Princess 3-litre. All stations. Locate, follow, but don’t close in.”

“Blue-green,” the general murmured. “Blue-green, not turquoise. Don’t call it turquoise. It’s policemen you’re talking to, not their wives. Half of them would think you’re talking about their Christmas dinner.” (ch. 11)

The general is Cavell’s spy-chief and the father of Cavell’s beautiful blonde wife, who gets kidnapped by the villain and his psychopathic deaf-mute assistant in chapter ten. That sort of thing was a bit dated even in 1962, but MacLean also bases a plot detour on an amateur astronomer taking photos of Jupiter’s “satellite Io occulting its own shadow” (ch. 5), so he obviously had a well-stocked brain. It was a well-soaked brain too and his alcoholism isn’t hard to guess from the constant references to hard liquor, though they aren’t as obtrusive and gratuitous as they are in some of his other books. The source of his obsession with cold, wet and injury won’t be so easy to guess, but the obsession is all over The Satan Bug. The book is set in a very wet October and Mordon is “grim, grey and gaunt… under darkly lowering skies” (ch. 2). Because of his war-service, Cavell is almost blind in one eye and has a crippled foot. He also spends the closing half of the book with cracked ribs after the villain tries to dispose of him. Why all the wet and wounding? Well, MacLean served on the Arctic convoys supplying the Soviet Union during the Second World War and his experiences there never left him or lifted from his writing. I also wonder about an earlier part of his life: his mother-tongue was actually Gaelic, not English, and perhaps that helps explain the drive and directness of his prose. He also has a verbal tic of describing people or things as “very X indeed”. It’s part of his hyperbole, but is it also an echo of some characteristic Gaelicism?

Perhaps, but I wonder about genetics as well as Gaelic. Scots have been disproportionally successful in all areas of Anglophone culture and MacLean, one of the best-selling authors in history, is a good literary example. And if I look at my favourite authors, I find that Scots are disproportionately represented there, one way or another. Ian Fleming had Scottish ancestry, for example, and so did Swinburne and Evelyn Waugh, though Waugh’s surname is actually a form of “Welsh”, from Anglo-Saxon walh, meaning “foreign” (as in walnut, because the tree isn’t native to Britain). And Waugh looked, and drank, remarkably like the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Thomas isn’t one of my favourite writers, though I do recognize his talent. All the same, he may be another example of the link between literary greatness and Celtic genes.

I wouldn’t call MacLean a literary great, but he definitely had talent and could write up a storm. It’s rain-storms in this book; elsewhere, in Night Without End (1959) or Ice Station Zebra (1963), it’s snow-storms. If you want to understand why he sold so many millions, The Satan Bug may be the best place to start. The copy you read may also be older than you are, but my tattered, age-stained, pre-post-code paperback – stamped “At Your Service | 7 Warren Road | Cheadle Hume | Books and Bric-a-Brac | Bought and Sold” – is more enjoyable to read than a modern paperback would be. Black marks on whitish paper create and populate a world: writing is a strange and magical thing. There are two stills from the film-of-the-book on the back cover of my copy, but film is a less strange and less wonderful thing. It still hasn’t caught up with what writing can do and in some ways it never will.

Nor will computer games, but I can see similarities between computer games and The Satan Bug – and also MacLean’s formula-one thriller The Way to Dusty Death, which I’ve re-read at the same time. The Way to Dusty Death has another good title and is another entertaining read, but it’s on the downward slope of Mount MacLean, heading towards the foothills of rubbish like River of Death (1981) and San Andreas (1984). Like The Satan Bug, it’s a wish-fulfilment fantasy for heterosexual males, though it’s not as complete a fantasy as the James Bond books. MacLean’s books are clean books, without sex or lechery, though the glugging of whiskey is often accompanied by the slugging of villains. The Way to Dusty Death isn’t unusual in its slugging, but is in one of its sluggees:

She spat at him. “Fix it yourself.”

Harlow gave no warning. There was a blur of movement and the silencer of the pistol smashed against the blonde’s face. She screamed, staggered and fell to a sitting position, blood welling from gashes on both cheek and mouth.

“Jesus!” Rory was appalled. “Mr Harlow!” (ch. 10)

Like the pistol-whipped blonde, Rory is an unusual character for MacLean. He’s a teenager and was perhaps meant to allow the sons of MacLean’s older fans to think themselves into the story too. It’s good that he didn’t like that pistol-whipping, but the hero Johnny Harlow has a justification for it: the blonde is beautiful, true, but she’s also a cold-blooded murderess, because she’s recently disguised herself as a nurse and fed a sugar-coated cyanide pill to an inconvenient prisoner. Unlike some of the old writers described by George Orwell in his classic essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (1944), MacLean needs to give his heroes good excuses for their brutality and bullying. Cavell is trying to save the world in The Satan Bug and Harlow is trying to defeat a heroin-gang in The Road to Dusty to Death.

And get his employer’s kidnapped wife back. He does both, of course, but the book is curiously empty and dream-like by comparison with The Satan Bug. At one point Harlow exchanges idiomatic banter with two French policemen, but MacLean doesn’t bother to say what language they’re talking in. Is Harlow unusually skilled at French or are the policemen unusually skilled at English? No clue is offered: the European setting of the book seems little more than an excuse to include some exotic surnames and places and every character is a walking, talking cliché, from Harlow himself, the world’s greatest racing-driver, to Harlow’s love-interest, the beautiful, black-haired Mary MacAlpine, twenty-year-old daughter of the millionaire owner of the Coronado racing team. But clichés can be compelling, or they wouldn’t be clichés, and the book starts well. This is the opening paragraph:

Harlow sat by the side of the race-track on that hot and cloudless afternoon, his long hair blowing about in the fresh breeze and partially obscuring his face, his golden helmet clutched so tightly in his gauntleted hands that he appeared to be trying to crush it: the hands were shaking uncontrollably and occasional violent tremors racked his entire body.

He has just survived a bad crash. His friend Isaac Jethou hasn’t and is “being cremated in the white-flamed funeral pyre of what had once been his Grand Prix Formula One racing car”. Harlow stares at the flames with “the eyes of an eagle gone blind” and then pours himself brandy in the pits with a “castanet rattle” of bottle on glass. But one difference between him and MacLean’s other heroes is that they drink because they like it. He drinks because he’s pretending to like it, part of a deception to make both his friends and his foes think he’s lost his nerve. This is the scene that greets his boss MacAlpine and a journalist called Dunnett in Harlow’s hotel bedroom after the crash:

Harlow, clad only in shirt and trousers and still wearing his shoes, was stretched out in bed, apparently in an almost coma-like condition. His arm dangled over the side of the bed, his right hand clutching the neck of the whiskey bottle. MacAlpine, grim-faced and almost incredulous, approached the bed, bent over Harlow, sniffed in disgust and removed the bottle from Harlow’s nerveless hand… Both men turned and left the room, closing the broken door behind them. Harlow opened his eyes, rubbed his chin thoughtfully. His hand stopped moving and he sniffed his palm. His wrinkled his nose in distaste. (end of ch. 2)

This book was a wish-fulfilment fantasy for its alcoholic author too, but the theme of deception is everywhere in MacLean’s writing. It’s related to paranoia and sleeplessness, which are two more important themes. Paranoia and sleeplessness go together, in fact, as MacLean must have learnt on the Arctic convoys and Harlow gets little sleep at the end of the book, though he doesn’t get wet. That happens to one of the villains instead, but MacLean doesn’t alter much else and the hero triumphs fully and finally in the end.

This is one way the book differs from a computer-game. Like The Satan Bug, it could supply plot-and-hero for one, but it follows a “linear narrative” and MacLean decides what happens next. Not that I’m knocking linear narratives: DNA follows one too and DNA is responsible for both language and computer-games. The era of language is millennia-old now; the era of computer-games began a few decades ago. The males who once read MacLean books are much more likely to be watching pixels now, but it’s reassuring that my copy of The Way to Dusty Death was published in 2009, part of HarperCollins’ reissue of all MacLean’s novels. I prefer to read MacLean’s novels in editions published before he died in 1987, but I’d be happy to re-read some of them again in any format. And when I say “re-read again”, that’s exactly what I mean: the ones I like I’ve read several times. Others I’ve read once and will not be reading again. The Satan Bug and The Way to Dusty Death are among those I will re-read again. They’re fun, as intended, and thought-provoking, as not always intended. If you’re looking to try MacLean for the first time, I’d recommend The Satan Bug. It’s better-written, better-plotted, and its bio-terror theme hasn’t dated.

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Front cover of Outsider Always Almost Never Quite I by Brian SewellOutsider: Always Almost, Never Quite: An Autobiography, Brian Sewell (2011)

Brian Sewell is an English art-critic who discusses works of art using another work of art: his own voice. His articles for The Evening Standard in London can be entertaining too, but Sewell is rather like Cary Grant or Orson Welles: his voice is the most memorable thing about him. Fluting, melodious and absurdly posh, an instrument of both waspishness and wit, it was acquired, he says, from his unmarried Catholic mother during a childhood in which he had little contact with other children. His real father, the composer Peter Warlock, died, possibly by suicide, before he was born in 1931 and he didn’t acquire a stepfather until much later. His mother refused to give him up for adoption, but she found life difficult with an illegitimate child. Sewell also found life difficult with an unmarried mother, which is perhaps part of why he suggests that she supplemented her meagre income by genteel prostitution.

After that isolated childhood and difficult relationship, he went to a semi-private school in London called Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hampstead School, which was, he says, less exotic than it sounds. He discovered his talent for English and art there, learnt that he could not understand science or mathematics, and experimented with homosexuality. Then he did National Service in the army, where he learnt to drive, grew mentally and physically tougher, and was raped by a corporal on his own bed, his “yelps, if any, muffled by the pillow” (ch. 6, “National Service as a Squaddie”, pg. 83). He then re-entered civilian life to study art history and work under the Gormenghastly roof of the London art-dealer Christie’s, where he participated in traditions like

…Ridley Leadbeater’s circus at the Front Counter, the distribution of Christmas birds to every member of staff. Ridley had a stake in a smallholding or poultry farm near Nether Basildon and had a contract with Christie’s for the delivery of perhaps a hundred geese and turkeys labelled with our names, but in no discernible order, alphabetical or departmental. This disorder led to bad temper, even panic… and the performance, thoroughly Victorian, perfectly encapsulated the hierarchy of the firm, the lordly directors on the stair looking down on the scramble as though the staff were terriers rat-catching in a barn. I wonder if any of them ever noticed Ridley snatching opportunities to grope the upturned bums presented on these occasions? He was an inveterate… groper of both boys and girls behind the counter, his favourite trick the vicious jabbing of a pencil at the anus of a boy leaning forward to attend a visitor… (ch. 11, “Christie’s in 1958”, pg. 221-2)

It sounds an interesting, if occasionally painful, life, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, I didn’t find this an interesting book. There are memorable paragraphs and boring chapters. And a lot of grammatical mistakes. Sewell rambles, spends too long on trivia and says little about what was, after his relationship with his mother, the most important relationship in his life: that with the art-historian Anthony Blunt (1907-83), Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and dedicated Soviet agent. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood after he was exposed, but he never lost Sewell’s love and respect. Perhaps that’s why Sewell writes relatively little about Blunt and why he himself has never received a knighthood. But there are other explanations for the lack of honours: Sewell has been a gleeful gadfly to the art establishment for decades, mocking the pretensions of the Turner Prize and deriding the work of “Young British Artists” like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. That’s why I was disappointed by this book: I admire Sewell’s championing of classical art and his old-fashioned disdain for women’s contribution to it. He is indeed an outsider, but I don’t think he’s a misogynist: he’s simply objective and honest. Nor has he been exclusively homosexual. This is from one of the memorable paragraphs amid the longueurs, when he is seduced by a middle-aged American woman in Paris:

I had no wish to tell her I was queer and it says something about the weakness of a young man’s will and the overwhelming strength of his sexual triggers, that she so easily had her way with me. I remember more clearly than all else the interruption of pleasure as her diamanté spectacle frames occasionally plucked a pubic hair… (ch. 9, “Student Life”, pg. 161)

But his sexual will was strong enough to keep him celibate for years after the army, he says, while he considered training for the Catholic priesthood and began his career in art-dealing and art-history. Then he chucked over the Church and plunged into promiscuity, clocking up what he estimates “might amount to a thousand fucks a year” (ch. 13, “Abandoning God”, pg. 263). This candour explains why he writes a warning at the beginning of the book:

I have no doubt that many who admire me – my “doting elderlies” as an old woman friend once dubbed them – will be disgusted. So be it – truth is nothing if not whole. (“Prelude”, pg. xiii)

But Sewell should have remembered another aphorism too: le secret d’ennuyer est celui de tout dire – “the key to being a bore is to say everything”. He writes too much of the truth and doesn’t, in any case, tell the whole truth about his relationship with Blunt. Not that I was very disappointed about that: I would have preferred more about art and artists and less about art critics and art-dealers. But Sewell does convey the genuineness of his scholarship and dedication. Here are two more memorable passages:

In two glass-fronted cupboards flanking the fireplace [at the Courtauld Institute] were his [Roger Fry’s] examples of ancient and ethnic pottery that, for reasons traditional but never understood, the students’ President and Secretary were required once a year to wash. I shall never forget the horror of feeling an unglazed pot of Assyrian antiquity dissolve into a muddy sludge slipping from the fingers of my left hand. (ch. 8, “The Courtauld Institute”, pg. 112)

[The German art-restorer Helmuth Ruheman] believed that cleaning should be thorough and thrust small swabs of solvent into our hands, bidding us swab and swab until we were through the accumulated dirt and varnish and the bright nakedness of the paint layer was revealed. If our swabs were eventually tinged with colour – as they were from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (the tondo version NG. 1033) – he was not in the least perturbed, for his view was that what came off could as easily be put on again. (ch. 10, “A Second Intermezzo: 1957-1958”, pg. 161)

If you wince reading things like that, you will understand why I was disappointed by this book. Sewell himself is interesting and has done and experienced interesting things, but he crowds all that out with trivia and excessive detail. He’s in his eighties now, in poor health, and expresses doubts that he will live to write a second volume of autobiography. I hope he does but if so, I also hope he says more about the encounter with Salvador Dalí I can remember hearing him discuss once on the radio. I had a recording of it, now lost, alas, though apparently he made a TV programme about it for Channel 4 called Dirty Dalí: A Private View (2007). Television has made Sewell nationally famous since I first encountered him in print and on the radio and that is why he has so many “doting elderlies”. I don’t watch TV if I can avoid it, but without his late fame he might never have written this book. Disappointing as it was, I’m glad to have sampled it. The whole truth about Brian Sewell is that he isn’t always entertaining or amusing, but the diamanté pubic plucking, the dissolving Assyrian pot, and the untinctured Botticelli are flashes of his anecdotal skill and help explain why he’s famous. And why people want to read about him.


Proviously post-posted:

Art-BanditOutsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)

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How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers, Ian Jeffrey (2008)

I’ve looked at this book to ask myself an important question again. Is photography art? My answer is still: No, it’s a skill, not an art. Art should be ex nihilo or ex parvo: creation out of nothing or little. I don’t think there’s enough choice and possibility in photography for photographers to be called “great” in the same sense that painters or sculptors or novelists are great. There’s less genuine art in even the best photograph than in even the worst painting. Or the worst painting that aims at some kind of realism, that is. But then good photography has been responsible for a lot of very bad art. Photographs mirror reality very quickly and cheaply and artists began to stop competing with them in the nineteenth century. Ars est celare artem, runs the old Latin saying: “the art is to conceal the art”. You aren’t supposed to see the brush-strokes in pre-photographic art or its modern heirs. But some artists asked: if you don’t see the brush-strokes, how do you know it’s Art-with-a-capital-A? And how do you know that we’re Artists? Yes, the rot that started with Impressionism and quickened with abstract art has reached high putrefaction in conceptual art and mountebanks like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Colour photography only made the flight from realism faster, but almost all the photographs in this book are monochrome, sometimes by necessity, like the ones from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, sometimes by artistic choice, like the more modern ones. There’s often more power in a monochrome photograph: colour is more exciting and eye-catching, but also more distracting. The viewer isn’t presented simply with shapes and outlines, with light and shade. That’s why some photographers choose to eschew colour, even in the twenty-first century. All photographers choose to eschew another distraction: motion. Unless, like Tomatsu Shomei from Japan, they represent it in a blurred photograph, like the B-52 he captured on Okinawa in 1969. Colour or monochrome? Still or blurred? Yes, there is a lot of choice in photography, but it’s the choice of the right moment, the right light, the right angle, the right combination of images, not the much longer and more difficult choices made in painting and sculpture. That’s why I call photography a skill rather than an art. True, photographs can be more memorable and thought-provoking than some traditional art, but they’re memorable and thought-provoking in a different way. A painting is rather like a cooked meal; photographs are more like raw ingredients that you cook for yourself.

One of the things you can cook from them is a sense of ephemerality-in-permanence. On page 46 there’s a photograph of two young German cadets taken by an unknown photographer in the springtime of 1914, “just” before “the outbreak of the Great War”. One of them is grinning with his hands in his pockets. It’s a happy moment in a life that may have ended a few weeks later. Or a few decades later – who knows? What we do know is that the young cadet is certainly dead now and certainly did not stay young if he survived the war. The photograph has frozen him permanently in that happy, carefree moment: ephemerality-in-permanence, as I said. But photographs can be ephemeral too, if they exist in single copies. In his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God (1987), the Mancunian writer Anthony Burgess describes another early photograph:

My mother left the stage and became a shopping housewife on those thoroughfares [in Harpurhey]. Just before the War of 1914-18 began, she gave birth to my sister Muriel. I had a photograph of the two of them, long since eaten up by Malayan humidity and termites, and it showed a firm-featured woman of considerable blonde beauty and a promise of similar beauty in the daughter. (Op. cit., pg. 16)

Burgess’s mother and sister both died in the influenza epidemic at the end of the war, so the photograph was one of the few things he had to remember them by. A drawing or painting, unless he had made it himself, would not have been an emotional loss in the same way: it would have been a meal cooked by someone else, not raw ingredients to cook for himself. Unless you know some of the people or scenes in this book personally, you aren’t likely to be affected by the photographs in the way Burgess must have been when he looked at his lost mother and sister. But some of the photos are affecting precisely because you don’t know their subjects and couldn’t ever have known them. The photograph called “The Mountain Nymph” on page 22 was taken in 1866 by Julia Margaret Cameron, for example, and Cameron herself died in 1879. The girl in the photograph is attractive, but sad for an unknown reason. She’s also long dead, so the reason will remain unknown. Overleaf is another powerful photo by Cameron: “Iago. Study from an Italian” of 1867, which shows a stubbly, unattractive young man whose face is nevertheless full of character and interesting lines and curves. He’s also long dead. So, apparently, are the luminosity and richness of these nineteenth-century photographs and the almost sacramental care with which they were created.

The chemicals got much cheaper and easier to use later, so photographs lost the aura of Cameron’s work or of “The Broken Wave, Sète”, taken by the Frenchman Gustav le Gray in 1857. It shows a shore, a ship and some sea, with a wave breaking on rocks in the foreground. It’s simple, but it casts a spell. As photography got easier, it got more informal, but informality has a power of its own, like the unposed street-scenes captured by Louis Vert and Paul Géniaux in Paris at the turn of the century. Second-long slices of vanished life and vanished lives: the children are gone just as the adults are. The trees captured by Gustav le Gray in his “Study of Tree Trunks, Fontainebleau” (c.1855-7) may be still be there, but the sand-patterns and bird-tracks of Edward Weston’s “Dunes, Oceano” (1936) may not even have lasted out the day on which he photographed them. The mathematics behind the patterns is still at work, though, and so is the male gaze that will feast on the female “Nude” lying on the same dunes and photographed by Weston in the same year. It’s an interesting study in contrast: firm flesh and shifting sand; dark hair and white skin. It’s not a pornographic photo, but the girl is naked and her breasts, thighs and pubic hair do supply some of the “Opium of the Peephole” so widely available in our ever-more voyeuristic culture.

The girl on page 301 made her living from supplying that opium: she’s a “Topless Dancer in Her Dressing Room, San Francisco, California, 1968”. Wearing a blonde wig and sparkly, cut-away dress, she has, in the immortal words of the Finnish stoner-rockers Erotic Support, “Tits to Die For”: large, shapely and firm, as one delicate index finger held against the left breast subtly indicates. She’s touching her chin with her other hand and looks both attractive and slightly bored or melancholic. Did the photographer Diane Arbus ask her to adopt that pose? Yes, I think so, because her index finger echoes the raised index finger of St Thomas in a Leonardo print propped unobtrusively on the dressing-table behind her. Ian Jeffrey, who wrote the text for this book, calls this “a curious reference” and you could speculate for a long time about its meaning. I don’t think you need to speculate about the opium of the peephole in this photo or the male gaze that absorbs the opium. The photo’s subject is a topless dancer after all and her breasts, slightly above the centre of the square photograph, dominate the scene, partly because they’re breasts, partly because they’re spectacular, and partly because they’re paler than the sun-tanned skin above them.

If the photograph were in colour, it would be nearer pornography, but it’s monochrome, so it’s a study in shape and shade, not in biological reality. It’s an interesting study too: the dancer’s glamorous clothes and breasts, at the height of their natural perfection and beauty, contrast with the back-stage drabness and clutter of the dressing-room. But in a wider sense, all the photographs here are about contrast. Why choose that moment rather than another? Why photograph that face rather than another? Sometimes it’s hard to see why, sometimes it’s easy. Memorable or mediocre, contrived or compelling, photography altered culture for ever with its chemical chiaroscuro – and chromaticism – but I’d still claim it’s a skill rather than an art. Even the most skilful photography doesn’t match the art of a painting like The Roses of Heliogabalus, but what it couldn’t match it could undermine. Photography and moving pictures haven’t been as destructive as automobiles, modernity’s “mechanical Jacobins”, but their importance in history is partly or even largely negative, in my opinion. Now that they’re here, few of us would want to be without them, but that’s because the opium of the peephole is nearly as addictive as real opium. But it isn’t as inspirational to art or artists.

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The Devotee of Ennui #1: Hymn to Hermaphrodite, Alan Moore with Kegsey Keegan (Polypogonic Press, 2013)

He has arguably done more than any other living writer to prove to the world that comix are not just for adults. Now Northampton’s non-pareil neo-gnostic normativism-nihilating neuro-naut Alan Moore has a new project and a new passion: boredom. Yes, you read that right: boredom. The thing is, boredom is actually interesting, see? That is the paradox at the heart of Moore’s latest work, the first instalment of which has just been issued through his private publishing company, Polypogonic Press. But be warned: this is not going to be the most immediately accessible exemplar of his œuvre, because it’s based partly on a transcription of DNA from a follicle mite in Moore’s own beard. Nevertheless, my first of what doubtless will be many, many reads of Hymn to Hermaphrodite suggests to me that the completed serial will take its place among Moore’s best work. One day it may even be seen as better than Watchmen or 23-gNosis – yes, it really is that good.

How does it raise such high expectations? Well, thanks, inter alia, to that follicle-mite DNA, things aren’t as clear in the actual text as they might be, but Moore has written a comprehensive introduction in which he explains what he intends to do with the serial and where he intends to go. He begins by discussing a phrase commonly used to describe boring things: “as dull as ditch-water.” He points out that the simile doesn’t actually work:

Ditch-water is positively pullulating with wonder and weirdness, at a microscopic level: protozoa, algae, microbes, viruses, the works. I’m going to try – with no guarantee of success, I freely admit – to teach people to see boredom as they should see ditch-water: as something that is bloody interesting! When you look at it right, boredom is not boring at all. Among a lot else, it’s frightening. Hell as eternal torment is one thing, but what about hell as eternal boredom, boys and girls?

Moore then describes how, as a teenager, he first read about tiny sub-atomic particles called neutrinos, which are so small and so ghostly that they barely interact with ordinary matter. For example, they can breeze unaffected through light-years of lead. That image stayed with him – light-years of lead. He asks us to ignore the physics and imagine, per impossibile, being trapped in a small, cubical cell for all eternity in the middle of light-years of lead. You don’t suffer any pain or physical discomfort, but there’s nothing to do and no way to get out, either. “After a few hours of that,” he concludes, “you’d be begging for the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched!”

He then goes on to posit that an up-to-date Satan would be experimenting with sensory deprivation, because that seriously messes with your head. And he explains how his meditation on these themes led him to devise a new academic discipline: ennuology – the scientific study of boredom. Antonia Baccio, the protagonist of the serial that he has now begun, is a hermaphroditic physicist whose mother was the Canadian ambassador to Belgium and whose father was the Belgian ambassador to Canada. It’s a kind of seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son thing – s/he gains all the ennuo-potence of both parents and both nationalities. S/he’s also a self-proclaimed “Devotee of Ennui”, consciously dedicated to celebrating and exploring the world of boredom. Fans of Weird Fiction will recognize a tip-o’-the-hat to Clark Ashton Smith’s short-story “The Devotee of Evil” (1933) and Smith looks as though he’s going to play a central role in the serial. Anyway, in this first instalment, Antonia, who’s obviously as crazy as a box of frogs, is trying to create a critical mass of ennui with these particles (s/he thinks) s/he’s discovered called “ennuons”, which are responsible for creating boredom and for making people and things boring. Canada and Belgium have an unusually high b.e.c. (background ennuon count) and Antonia begins work on two machines to collect and concentrate these particles and their sinister psycho-activity, one machine based in Brussels, the other in Ottawa.

S/he’s calculated that, if s/he collects enough ennuons, s/he can achieve a critical mass and a giant ennuonic explosion will ensue, bathing the entire earth in hyper-powerful boredom radiation. Moore doesn’t say what effects this will have, but he hints that they’ll be pretty nasty! The full horror of what Antonia’s up to will no doubt be explored in later instalments. In a (possible) tip-o’-the-hat to himself, Moore also (maybe) hints at some kind of alien race lurking in the background, either overseeing Antonia as s/he conducts her experiments or assisting her with them. And he hints that Antonia may even be alien herself, or maybe a new species of human. Readers will be left lots of other conundra to contemplate and puzzles to ponder. One of those puzzles will be Kegsey Keegan, Moore’s new artistic collaborator. He – or she – is a new name both to me and to the internet, which makes me suspicious. Why? Quite simply, because the talent and maturity on display in the art are worthy of a veteran of the comix scene. I suggest, for what it’s worth, that the name may be a disguise for Moore himself, working with graphics software to distort and develop his own drawings.

Whatever turns out to be the truth, Keegan perfectly realizes Moore’s ennuological visions, working with a lot of gray and a lot of detail to capture both the dedication and the lunacy of Antonia Baccio, the Devotee of Ennui who isn’t ennuyeux/se at all. In fact, s/he is one of the most disturbing comix characters I’ve ever come across. I’ve already had nightmares – literally – about being trapped in her/his “Cell-o’-Hell”, where s/he focuses ennuonic rays on unsuspecting experimental subjects and bores them out of their skulls. As all members of his fan-community will recognize, Moore has always been sui generis. Other celebrities issue their own perfumes or aftershaves: he’s issued his own psychedelic drug (now banned in all E.U. countries and large parts of Asia). But I think he’s surpassed himself here. In my opinion, no other comix writer in the world, living or dead, could do what Moore is doing with the most (apparently) unpromising of subjects. And after episode one, I’m both dreading and drooling over what will appear in episode two. It’s about boredom, but it’s interesting, see? So be there AND be square, futility fans.

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The Conan Doyle Stories, Arthur Conan Doyle (Blitz Editions, 1990)

Mary Shelley wrote about a monster that broke free of its creator. It then broke free of its creatrix too: Frankenstein’s monster became far more famous than Mary Shelley ever was. Dracula and James Bond outgrew Bram Stoker and Ian Fleming in the same way, but Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle are a little different. It isn’t just Doyle who stands in his character’s shadow now but a host of Doyle’s other characters too. That’s what made it so galling for Doyle, because he didn’t think the Sherlock Holmes stories were his best work.

If you read this marvellous collection, a modern facsimile of a book published before the Second World War, you might begin to agree with him. Doyle wasn’t so much an author as an industry, and the range of his invention and subjects is startling. There’s everything from realism to the supernatural by way of science fiction, from “The Croxley Master”, the story of a prize-fight in a tough Yorkshire mining district, to “Lot No. 249”, the story of a murderous Egyptian relic, by way of “The Horror of the Heights”, a proto-Lovecraftian story of early aviation. But perhaps my favourites are the pirate stories about the wicked Captain Sharkey, whose sail, believe me, you would not have liked to see appear on your horizon all those years ago. There’s a Brigadier Gerard story too, as light and playful as the Sharkey stories are dark and sadistic, and reminding me that I ought to re-read the full set of Gerard stories again.

Everything else has its interesting points, but some stories were re-printed because Doyle became famous, not because they’re any good, and two are throw-aways turning on what were, when they were written, the startling inventions of recorded sound and moving pictures (Holmes aficionados will recall that Doyle used the idea elsewhere). Like those two, many stories have political or social preoccupations that make them interesting in ways never intended. In other ways, however, Doyle’s writing may be becoming less rather than more dated as the years pass: his shameless racial and sexual stereotyping — opposing the phlegmatic Saxon to the highly-strung Celt, for example — was once taken for granted, then dismissed, but is now being vindicated by genetics. Doyle trained and practised as a doctor, after all, and brought a trained eye and wide experience of human variety to his writing. There are medical stories here too, but Doyle says in his introduction that his “Tales of Long Ago” are the ones he would choose to preserve if he could save only one section.

I don’t think they’re the best in the book myself, but they are among the most powerful and they have a breadth of knowledge and minuteness of observation worthy of the great Victorian artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who specialized in classical scenes. Like Alma-Tadema, Doyle was knighted for bringing so much pleasure to the general public, but his reputation and fame have survived much better than the painter’s, thanks to Sherlock Holmes. Read this collection to discover why there is much more to Doyle than his detective.

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Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories to be Read with the Lights On, ed. Harold Q. Masur (1973)

A rather illogical title, a rather uninspired collection of crime and detective stories, with the notable exceptions of Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady”, still worth re-reading however often you’ve read it before, and John Keefauver’s “The Pile of Sand”, which creates mystery from the mundane and isn’t about crime or detectives. The police do make an appearance in it, though, part of the ordinariness of an American seaside town touched by something strange involving what it says on the tin: a pile of sand. Where the other stories, even Dahl’s, have endings-that-explain, this has an ending-that-doesn’t. Partly surreal, partly existential, it has a Twilight Zone-ish quality without being about something big enough to make it onto the program, I’d guess.

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Ukridge, P.G. Wodehouse (Everyman, 2000)

Ukridge (pronounced YOO-kridge) is my favorite of Wodehouse’s characters and the only things that disappointed me about this Everyman collection were the unexciting woodblock-ish cover and the fact that it doesn’t contain all the stories of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, “that man of wrath” and “animated blob of mustard” (because of the yellow mackintosh he always wears). He’s a confidence trickster who always has confidence in his own tricks, until they fail and land him in the soup yet again, before, after, or with the friend he’s persuaded to help him. That friend is the narrator here and their friendship is explained in part by the fact that he is the same height and build as Ukridge: “As always when he looted my wardrobe, he exuded wealth and respectability” (“No Wedding Bells for Him”). I’m smiling just thinking about which quote to use in illustration of the way Wodehouse mixes the sublime with the ridiculous, the high-falutin’ with the homely. It’s hard to choose, but this one stood out in my memory:

Ukridge drew the mackintosh which he wore indoors and out of doors in all weathers more closely around him. There was in the action something suggestive of a member of the Roman senate about to denounce an enemy of the state. In just such a manner must Cicero have swished his toga as he took a deep breath preparatory to denouncing Clodius. He toyed for a moment with the ginger-beer wire which held his pince-nez in place, and endeavoured without success to button his collar at the back. In moments of emotion Ukridge’s collar always took on a sort of temperamental jumpiness which no stud could restrain. (“Ukridge’s Accident Syndicate”)

One thing that is always sublime about Wodehouse is his prose, seamed with the gold of Shakespeare, the Bible and the classics. If you can mine that gold (I can’t always), you’ll get much more out of Wodehouse, but he’s great in his own right and he’s at his best in Ukridge, where Stanley battles the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as represented by his aunt Julia and the boxer Battling Billson, before he rounds a nasty corner in the final story and marries the girl of his dreams. Parrots, Peppo, and peculation at the Pen and Ink Club’s annual dance — it’s all here.

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