Archive for April, 2013

Booty and the BeastsFor Your Eyes Only, Ian Fleming (1960)

Flowering on FumesCollecting Cigarette & Trade Cards, Gordon Howsden (New Cavendish Books, 1995)

Passion for PartsDear Popsy: Collected Postcards of a Private Schoolboy to His Father, E. Bishop-Potter, illustrated by Paul Cox (Penguin, 1985)

Yes, We Can ShitWhy Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained, Susie Hodge (Thames and Hudson, 2012)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming
For Your Eyes Only, Ian Fleming (1960)

The best first novel I know is Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928). But Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953), the first James Bond novel, is highly impressive too. Genetically speaking, I don’t think this is a coincidence: Waugh and Fleming both had Scottish ancestry. This may explain their literary talent or their will-to-fame or both or neither, but there is definitely something to explain about the disproportionate Scottish influence on English-speaking culture. Alastair MacLean is another example in literature and, as another best-selling thriller-writer, is a useful point of comparison with Fleming. As I described in my review of The Satan Bug (1962), MacLean is interested in the elements in their harsher forms: he writes a lot about cold and wet. The Satan Bug is a bleak book and it’s appropriate that one of the few diversions from the bleakness is a reference to astronomy and the moons of Jupiter. MacLean doesn’t seem to have been very interested in human beings or in life in any of its senses.

Fleming was quite different: he liked sun, sex and sybaritism. You can find all three in his Bond books, but I think my favourite is this overlooked short-story collection, For Your Eyes Only. I like it partly because it’s overlooked, but mostly because it’s so full of life in all its senses. MacLean noticed the harsher elements: wind, rain, hail, snow. Fleming noticed all kinds of animals: sting-rays, squirrels, wood pigeons, bees, deer, fiddler-crabs, moray eels and a “chorus line of six small squids” appear in For Your Eyes Only. Male writers like dispensing expert knowledge, and male readers like absorbing it, but I can’t think of anyone else who would start a murder-mission story like this:

The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird. The cock bird is about nine inches long, but seven inches of it are tail — two long black feathers that curve and cross each other and whose inner edges are in a form of scalloped design. The head and crest are black, the wings dark green, the long bill is scarlet, and the eyes, bright and confiding, are black. The body is emerald green, so dazzling that when the sun is on the breast you see the brightest green thing in nature. In Jamaica, birds that are loved are given nicknames. Trochilus polytmus is called ‘doctor bird’ because his two black streamers remind people of the black tail-coat of the old-time physician. (“For Your Eyes Only”)

That’s from the title story and Fleming uses it to heighten the effect of the violence committed later. He was obviously a bird-watcher, but then he named his hero after an ornithologist with what was, back then, the very ordinary name of James Bond. Fleming gave the name glamour, though he didn’t give his own Bond much of an interest in ornithology. Bond is less complex than his creator and the books have a life and interest beyond Bond. It’s not just animals: roses, blue-bells, hibiscus, bougainvillea, lilies, hyacinths all appear here too. One of the stories, “The Hildebrand Rarity”, is actually named after a small fish, and the plot of another hinges – literally – on a rose-bush. MacLean’s writing is bleak with repression. Fleming’s writing is bursting with richness. Here’s a good example later in the title story:

The girl looked like a beautiful unkempt dryad in ragged shirt and trousers. The shirt and trousers were olive green, crumpled and splashed with mud and stains and torn in places, and she had bound her pale blonde hair with golden-rod to conceal its brightness for her crawl through the meadow. The beauty of her face was wild and rather animal, with a wide sensuous mouth, high cheekbones and silvery grey, disdainful eyes. There was the blood of scratches on her forearms and down one cheek, and a bruise had puffed and slightly blackened the same cheekbone. The metal feathers of a quiver full of arrows showed above her left shoulder. Apart from the bow, she carried nothing but a hunting knife at her belt and, at her other hip, a small brown canvas bag that presumably carried her food. She looked like a beautiful, dangerous customer who knew wild country and forests and was not afraid of them. She would walk alone through life and have little use for civilisation. (“For Your Eyes Only”)

Bond meets the girl while he’s preparing to assassinate an ex-Nazi in his forest hideaway near the Canadian border. He thinks she looks “wonderful”. Fleming liked beauties as well as beasts. There are hints of his sado-masochistic tastes in the bruise and scratches, and in the spanking Bond threatens the girl with for interfering with his mission, but S&M is another way of getting more out of life. Pain reminds us that we are alive and gets the blood flowing. So does danger. This is a thriller and Fleming is good at writing about dangerous situations. One of the stories is actually called “Risico”, Italian for “risk”. It’s about Bond both facing death and witnessing it:

Bond was planning to slow down to a walk and keep enough breath to try and shoot it out with the three men, when two things happened in quick succession. First he saw through the haze ahead a group of spear-fishermen. There were about half a dozen of them, some in the water and some sunning themselves on the seawall. Then, from the sand-dunes came the deep roar of an explosion. Earth and scrub and what might have been bits of a man fountained briefly into the air, and a small shock-wave hit him. Bond slowed. The other man in the dunes had stopped. He was standing stock-still. His mouth was open and a frightened jabber came from it. Suddenly he collapsed on the ground with his arms wrapped round his head. Bond knew the signs. He would not move again until someone came and carried him away from there.

The man is in an uncleared mine-field near Venice, because the Second World War wasn’t long finished when these stories were written. Accordingly, the Cold War wasn’t long started. “From a View to a Kill”, the opening story, is about how Bond manages to “wipe the eye of the whole security machine of SHAPE”, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe. He solves a murder-mystery involving a hidden team of Soviet spies and the theft of “top secret booty” from motorbike dispatch-riders. He also meets another beautiful blonde. Like the bow-toting dryad in “For Your Eyes Only”, she’s a sex-object but not a passive one, and Fleming can bring her to life in a way MacLean couldn’t:

The battered Peugeot, commandeered by Rattray, smelled of her. There were bits of her in the glove compartment — half a packet of Suchard milk chocolate, a twist of paper containing bobby pins, a paperback John O’Hara, a single black suede glove.

But all the stories have beautiful blondes in them. It’s implied more or less directly that Bond beds them all, except Rhoda Masters in “Quantum of Solace”, which supplied the title but not the plot for a recent Bond movie. This story is an odd addition to the collection, because it isn’t about Bond, who merely sits and listens as the British governor to the Bahamas narrates a story about a failed marriage in the then colony. It reminded me of Somerset Maugham and of “Octopussy” (1966), another short-story by Fleming in which Bond is a bit-player. “Octopussy” is a better story, with a proper thriller plot, and Maugham would have made a better job of “Quantum of Solace”, but I like the way it breaks the action, slows the pace, and makes Bond a spectator, not an actor. He’s in the Bahamas for adventurous reasons, but they’re out of the way within a paragraph:

Arms were getting to the Castro rebels in Cuba from all the neighbouring territories. They had been coming principally from Miami and the Gulf of Mexico, but when the US Coastguards had seized two big shipments, the Castro supporters had turned to Jamaica and the Bahamas as possible bases, and Bond had been sent out from London to put a stop to it. He hadn’t wanted to do the job. If anything, his sympathies were with the rebels, but the Government had a big export programme with Cuba in exchange for taking more Cuban sugar than they wanted, and a minor condition of the deal was that Britain should not give aid or comfort to the Cuban rebels. Bond had found out about the two big cabin cruisers that were being fitted out for the job, and rather than make arrests when they were about to sail, thus causing an incident, he had chosen a very dark night and crept up on the boats in a police launch. From the deck of the unlighted launch he had tossed a thermite bomb through an open port of each of them. He had then made off at high speed and watched the bonfire from a distance. Bad luck on the insurance companies, of course, but there were no casualties and he had achieved quickly and neatly what M had told him to do.

By not describing the adventure in detail, Fleming makes Bond more realistic: he has a life beyond the page and there are things about him that readers don’t know. It reminds me of the briefly mentioned “extra episodes” in the Sherlock Holmes stories, which were, of course, written by yet another highly successful and talented Scot, Arthur Conan Doyle. Scots have been disproportionately successful in all branches of science too, including the genetics that will one day tell us why this is so. Doyle mixed science into his literature in a way Fleming didn’t, but Fleming had some of the traits that make for a good scientist: he was interested in the world for its own sake, not simply as an adjunct to himself or to humanity. And so he observed and recorded the world and brought it to life for his readers. He packs a lot of detail into the 63,000 words of For Your Eyes Only and I’m sure his books are harder to translate than MacLean’s. They would certainly need much more commentary for alien visitors, even though Fleming and MacLean were writing thrillers about the same civilization. MacLean was influenced by Fleming, but he didn’t base his plots on rose-bushes or describe the glove compartments of beautiful blondes. His best villain is a virus, not a human being.

Fleming created lots of memorable human villains and the beasts in For Your Eyes Only aren’t confined to the animal kingdom:

Bond examined the man minutely [through the telescopic sight]. He was about five feet four with a boxer’s shoulders and hips, but a stomach that was going to fat. A mat of black hair covered his breasts and shoulder-blades, and his arms and legs were thick with it. By contrast, there was not a hair on his face or head and his skull was a glittering whitish yellow with a deep dent at the back that might have been a wound or the scar of a trepanning. The bone structure of the face was that of the conventional Prussian officer — square, hard and thrusting — but the eyes under the naked brows were close-set and piggish, and the large mouth had hideous lips — thick and wet and crimson. (“For Your Eyes Only”)

That’s a description of von Hammerstein, an ex-Nazi who has been working for the Cuban dictator Batista and decided to get out as Castro nears power. Seeking to diversify his property portfolio, he’s murdered two British subjects in Jamaica. “Subject” is the mot juste: Fleming believed in Queen and country and so does Bond, who’s sent by M to assassinate von Hammerstein in northern Vermont. It has to be an unofficial job, so Bond flies to Canada and slips across the border to do rough justice on his country’s behalf. If Bond had ever existed, his drinking and smoking would have killed him long ago, as they killed his creator. But it’s interesting to wonder what Fleming or his creation would have made of queen and country now. It’s the same queen as it was in the 1950s, but it can’t be called the same country. That’s something else that makes this book interesting. It’s full of life, but a lot of that life has vanished. Or been poisoned. In “Risico”, Bond has to break up a heroin-smuggling gang operating in Italy. He allies himself with one of the “greedy, boisterous pirates” he meets often in the Bond books and gets on well with. They’re on the wrong side of the law, but they’re not evil. This Italian pirate’s booty is clean and he won’t deal in drugs. He tells Bond how the raw ingredients of the heroin are

a gift from Russia. The gift of a massive and deadly projectile to be fired into the bowels of England. The Russians can supply unlimited quantities of the charge for the projectile. It comes from their poppy fields in the Caucasus, and Albania is a convenient entrepôt… No doubt it is some psychological warfare section of their Intelligence apparatus.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union undoubtedly used heroin as a weapon against the West. Its Marxist allies in the West didn’t openly support heroin-smuggling, but they did openly support another Marxism-friendly import: mass immigration, which is far more harmful. Hard drugs can kill individuals, but they can’t kill civilizations. Immigration can do both and the Marxists responsible for it were climbing into position while Fleming was contributing to the civilization they hated with his Bond books. I don’t think his contributions are as good as Evelyn Waugh’s, and they’re certainly not as witty, but they are probably much healthier. Europe needs James Bond’s chivalry and sense of duty, not Basil Seal’s misogyny and anarchism. You don’t have to find important geo-political themes in For Your Eyes Only, let alone genetic ones, but I think they’re there to be found all the same. Also here are more insights into an interesting creator, Ian Fleming, and an interesting creation, James Bond. I’ve owned two or three paperbacks of this book and now I’ve read it as an e-text. It’s been highly enjoyable every time and it only gets more interesting.

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Front cover of Collecting Cigarette & Trade Cards by Gordon Howsden
Collecting Cigarette & Trade Cards, Gordon Howsden (New Cavendish Books, 1995)

Cigarette-cards remind me of roses. Roses can flourish on dung and decay. Cigarette-cards flourished on death and dirt. Their association with smoking gives them a deadly edge that, like the thorniness of roses, makes them seem more interesting and powerful. This book also covers cards that came with tea or chocolate, but they don’t have the glamour of cigarette-cards. Nor do stamps, partly because stamps aren’t associated with a dangerous habit and partly because stamps are smaller. Stamps look at the world through a peep-hole; cards look at the world through a small window. Some of the cards here aren’t devoted to individual footballers but to entire teams, like those in the “Association Cup Winners” series of 1930: “Tottenham Hotspur 1921” and “Newcastle United 1924”, for example. Headshots and names are all included and there will be extra information on the back of each card. Another card, from Ogden’s “Champions of 1936”, is something a stamp couldn’t be: a full-length study of the golfer A.H. Padgham as he completes a drive against a backdrop of grass and sky. You can see the small details of his clothes, shoes and hair and easily identify the club he’s using.

Well, you might be able to identify the club easily, but I can’t. Is it a niblick or a mashie or something else? I’ve no idea, but it would have had one of the old evocative names, as used by P.G. Wodehouse in his golfing stories from the same era. Names like Ogden and Padgham are evocative too: cigarette-cards can open a window on vanished worlds, like the long-lost England before the war. All the faces looking out from the “Association Cup Winners” series are white, because the cards come from pre-enrichment days and London, the home of the national football stadium, wasn’t then vibrant with stabbings, shootings and gang-rape.

Which isn’t to say the cards are xenophobic or insular: Wills’ “Soldiers of the World” from 1895 is an attractive series showing not just Norwegian and Roumanian soldiers, but Japanese and Moroccan ones too. Yes, the book is written for British collectors and concentrates on British cards, but it also looks at cards produced overseas, including the Americas, Australasia, South Africa and Europe. And “Middle East and Asia”: it reproduces an interesting series of “Siamese Horoscopes” of c. 1916, which features Hindu-esque deities riding on leopards, goats and buffaloes and labelled in the odd but attractive Thai/Siamese script.

On the previous page, there’s a series devoted to whaling, with harpoons and butchery tools; on the following page, there’s a series devoted to “Wonders of the World”, including Venice, St Peter’s, and the Colossi of Memnon at Luxor in Egypt. Almost every conceivable topic must have appeared on cigarette-cards at some time somewhere in the world, so long as it was interesting to one or another group of men and boys.

And you can’t exclude something interesting to most men and boys, because many of the cards must have been near-pornographic in their day, like “Fancy Bathers” of c. 1889, “Beauties – Water Girls” of c. 1903, and “Sporting Girls” of c. 1910. The series are excuses to show nubile young women with bare arms and legs and even a hint of cleavage. I suppose you could call them fume-born Aphrodites. Sex has been selling for a long time, and so has celebrity in its many forms. There are cards devoted to stars of stage and screen, stars of sports and speedway, and literal stars, like the one condensing from a spinning cloud of gas in the “Romance of the Heavens” series of 1928.

Everything stamps can cover, cigarette-cards covered too, but in more detail. Stamps have featured famous mountains and so did cards. But cards went further: one card here features a Japanese stamp featuring Mt Fuji (ch. 9, “Thematic Collecting”, pg. 129). It’s in the Duke “Postage Stamps” series of 1889 and the stamp is actually real. Each card in the series has a picture “in superb colour”, usually “relating to the mail”, and a space for a real franked stamp to be attached. So you could collect stamps by collecting cards. But the series goes even further in its post-weird/weird-post meta-textuality: one of the scenes is of a group of boys comparing cigarette-cards and asking “Got any Duke’s Stamp Cards?”

Siamese deities and proto-stars seem almost mundane after that, but mundanity can become the focus of collecting. What’s more mundane than a mistake? But because manufacturers try to eliminate mistakes, they can acquire rarity or novelty value. I already knew that applied to stamps, where small misprints can add great value, and I learnt here that it applies to cigarette-cards too. With more room for detail, the artists working on cards also had more room for interesting errors:

Possibly the most famous error concerns card no. 43 in the Player’s series of DANDIES. This depicted Benjamin Disraeli in 1826, standing in front of Westminster Bridge, with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben behind him. Unfortunately, the artist had overlooked the fact that Big Ben had not been built at that date so a second printing was made with the clock tower erased. This, however, left a smudge in the background and eventually the card had to be completely redrawn. (ch. 10, “Novelties and Related Ephemera”, pg. 139)

Big Ben seems such an essential part of London that it’s easy to forget it hasn’t been there very long. I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s anachronistic “as constant as the northern star”. He puts the phrase into the mouth of someone in Roman times, when the northern star, Polaris, wasn’t at the pole, because it isn’t constant. You can find both Shakespeare and his characters on cards in this book and no doubt Polaris appears on one or more cards somewhere else. The card might note its wandering nature too, because cards didn’t differ from stamps just by having more detail on the front. They had room for short texts on the back, like this one from “Fishes of the World” of 1903:





(Trigla lineata.)

About forty species of “Gurnard” are known from tropical and temperate seas. The three finger-like appendages under the pectoral fins, are used by the fish for walking on the bottom, as well as for organs of touch. Its fins are beautifully ornamented, especially the long pectorals, which, when the fish is floating on the water, are spread out like wings. The grunting noise made by the Gurnard when taken out of the water, is caused by the escape of gas from the air-bladder. Length 12 to 14 inches.





(ch. 4, “The ITC [Imperial Tobacco Company] Giants”, pg. 50)

That’s natural history, but cigarette-cards didn’t just draw on or depict real history, they became part of it. The Carreras company named its Black Cat cigarettes after a cat “apparently famous for making his home in the Carreras shop window in the 1880s” (pg. 77). But the packets didn’t offer cards until 1916:

The first card series to appear was the dramatic and controversial RAEMAEKERS WAR CARTOONS. This long series of cards can be collected with either Black Cat or Carreras Cigarettes printed on the front. These vitriolic sketches on the barbarity of the enemy so infuriated the Germans that they put a price on the Belgian artist’s head. (ch. 6, “The Independents”, pg. 77)

Carreras went on to produce less controversial “Figures of Fiction” and “Highwaymen” series, but they were issued in shorter runs and are probably cheaper to collect. The “War Cartoons” series is labelled “J, set of 140”, which meant, when the book was published in 1995, it cost “£100 to £150” to acquire the full set. Prices will have increased since then and I wonder what the record price for a cigarette-card is now. Back then, the record was held by “the ‘Honus Wagner’ baseball card, being one of a set of 524 issued by the American Tobacco Company in the USA between 1909 and 1911” (“Introduction”, pg. 9). The player is said to have objected to being featured, so the card was withdrawn. Although there are rarer cards, “in 1991” a Wagner card “sold at auction for $451,000”. On this side of the Atlantic, the most sought-after cards are in the “Clowns and Circus Artistes” series, which was issued by James Taddy & Co. in 1920. Or rather, wasn’t issued: proofs of the series had been printed when the company suddenly closed down on the point of principle involving a strike (ch. 6, pg. 90).

A card from this series, which isn’t Taddy’s most attractive or best-printed, is labelled “K, per card”, which means each card was selling for “more than £150” in 1995. So were they worth forging back then? Have they become so since? This book is an interesting and detailed introduction to collecting cigarette-cards, but there must be much more to tell. I’d like to know about the psychology of cigarette-card collecting, for example, though I already know, without being told, that it must be overwhelmingly male. But how does card-collecting differ, psychologically speaking, from the overwhelmingly male hobby of stamp-collecting? I’m sure there’s a lot of overlap, but what snobberies and rivalries are there? Do people start with stamps and then move onto cigarette-cards? Are card-collectors more extrovert, less obsessive? Does the association with tobacco make it a more macho hobby?

You can ask related questions about all forms of collecting, but cigarette-cards aren’t functional like stamps or tram-tickets, and aren’t complete in themselves, like watches or walking-sticks. They were a gift with another item and they referred to the wider world. But, like stamps, they didn’t start as art. Stamps were originally utilitarian and not very decorative. They began to use proper images of the world later, from butterflies to moon-landings. Cigarette-cards began even less promisingly:

The companies that first put brand names on their cigarettes originally sold them loose or in flimsy paper packets. To stop the cigarettes from getting crushed a small piece of blank card was inserted in the packet and before long someone had the idea to use the card to advertise the company’s products. This card was known as a stiffener and is still so referred to by the tobacco industry even today. (ch. 1, “Tobacco and the Cigarette Card”, pg. 15)

But “Who issued the first picture card will never be known for sure.” It was an ephemeral item and nobody could have guessed the riches of illustration and education that would come later. You can glimpse a few of those riches here: roses, ostriches, chess champions, sun-dials, sea-planes, fudge wheels, clan tartans, Palissy vases, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Turkish sabre-hilts, Tom Brown, palmistry, optical illusions, herons, Gulliver’s Travels, shrubby magnolias, running forehand drives, Glamis Castle, Eastern Proverbs (“Look the other way when a girl in the tea-house smiles”), the Victoria Cross, preparation of geranium cuttings, Harold Lloyd, pumas, Alice in Wonderland, and “Il Tabacco di Virginia” on an Italian series of 1909.

“Il Tabacco” is where it all began: without tobacco, no cigarette-cards, with all their fascination and beauty. And much less lung-cancer too, with all its foulness and horror. But, as I said, that association with tobacco adds extra interest to cigarette-cards. I’m not going to begin collecting them, but I’m glad to have seen so many and learnt more about their history here, from Carreras’ black window-cat to Taddy’s point of principle.

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Front cover of Dear Popsy by E. Bishop Potter
Dear Popsy: Collected Postcards of a Private Schoolboy to His Father, E. Bishop-Potter, illustrated by Paul Cox (Penguin, 1985)

This book is a little like a cross between the Captain Grimes chapters of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928) and a manual of sexual pathology, with Saki’s Clovis Sangrail as fairy godmother. It might even have been suggested by a passage in Decline and Fall in which a boy in his early teens sits up well past his mother’s lover’s bedtime:

Downstairs Peter Beste-Chetwynde mixed himself another brandy and soda and turned a page in Havelock Ellis, which, next to Wind in the Willows, was his favourite book. (pt 2, ch. III, “Pervigilium Veneris”)

Waugh is not reporting that maternal neglect with approval, but Basil, the protagonist of Dear Popsy, might well have thrived on it, mutatis mutandis. He’d simply prefer chartreuse to B&S and Firbank to Havelock Ellis, being catamitic rather than heterosexual. Not that he would ever confess so crudely to his status: his postcards flirt and tease, hinting at what’s going on rather than ripping the lid orf. Firbank is definitely another influence: one can recognize his technique in the way the postcards build up a series of private jokes. They make glancing reference to some naughtiness, glide away, glide back:

P.S. Yesterday Bletchworth killed a stray cat with his bullwhip! That boy!

Bletchworth will be in Harley Street on Thursday to see a specialist. Can you put him up for the night? I have told him that you will. Be sure to keep the cats away from him.

This evening the Brides collected Mrs Durham from the nursing home, then went to the Last Faerie for a coming out party. Bletchworth was there in his leather and looked quite crocodilean. How he creaked! Mrs D gave a little whimper when she saw him.

In a novel it would sometimes be difficult to know what was going on, but here every message could literally fit on the back of a postcard: the plot has to be conveyed in parts, so each part has to be easy to understand. Some postcards need smaller writing than others, that’s all: Basil is charming and affectionate, but also selfish, self-centred, and dedicated to his own pleasure, and he doesn’t want to waste time writing full letters to his father. He doesn’t want to write anything at all to his mother, but she has an important role in the highly improbable plot, losing a leg to gangrene after a failed operation for varicose veins. She is given an artificial leg by a “Dr Oosterthing” and adds another entry to Dear Popsy’s burgeoning catalogue of paraphilias. She has come to “loathe” Basil’s father, blaming him for her son’s effeminacy, but when Popsy has his ear bitten off in prison, her cooled affections are fanned back to life by his artificial ear:

Popsy, Mother’s affection is not for you, it is for your ear. HER PASSION IS SURGICAL PARTS! It’s all too scary. When I was having lunch with her on Saturday, a man with one arm sat down at the table next to us. Mother stopped eating, looked at him for at least 10 seconds, then turned to me and said, “What I couldn’t do with that fellow!” Macabre wasn’t the word!

But macabre is the word for Basil’s later encounters with tripe-fetishists and hanging-fetishists, and also for the sex-slaying by the crocodilean Bletchworth:

Courtney Durham’s mother has been found dead in a ditch two miles from the school. Police say she was murdered! Isn’t it ghastly? The head has told that detectives will be here tomorrow to speak to us… P.S. Courtney Durham had to identify the body and took his crochet along! He said it was in shreds — the body that is.

Vice escalates, you see, and Bletchworth, soon condemned as criminally insane, isn’t the only example. In real life, Basil might have ended up in a lunatic asylum too. In print, he and his best friend Gemini Tarqqogan (“yes, two q’s, though he spells it with three!”) can work in a child brothel and then disappear overseas with rich paederasts as the scandal they’ve caused threatens to bring the government down. The book climbs skilfully to that crescendo, first striking delicate notes on traditional decadent themes:

Just back from Mass; too yawnsome for words. (Why is the Elevation of the Host always such a let-down?)

Gemini lost an eyelash in a bowl of lobster soup and was in a ghastly mood all day.

Last night Gemini slept with two orchids in his armpits!

Then the naughtiness begins to escalate, as Basil and Gemini get ever more inventive in their pursuit of pleasure and amusement. Paul Cox’s line-drawings capture the book’s inventions well, from the artificial leg adapted as a hanging basket for “dreamy blue lobelia” to Basil scribbling a postcard in the bath he takes after an itchy fortnight preparing for a “customer” with a “passion for urchins”. I just wish the full text had been printed in the cursive font used on the back cover of my Penguin edition. It would capture Basil’s light, gliding, frivolous spirit better than ordinary type. And the spirit of Gemini too, who believes that “there is only one lesson to learn in one’s youth and that is never to yawn in profile.”

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Front cover of Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained by Susie HodgeWhy Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained, Susie Hodge (Thames and Hudson, 2012)

A few – a very few – of the big names in this book don’t belong here. Dalí and Magritte, for example. They don’t belong because they had skill, imagination and a sense of humour. And nobody is going to suggest that a five-year-old could match their art. This is not true of almost all the other big names. They have no skill, imagination or sense of humour, but compensate for that by having lots and lots of pretension. And despite the title of the book, Susie Hodge can’t live up to it. Again and again, confronted with yet another crudely daubed canvas or hastily assembled heap on a gallery floor, she has to admit the truth: “Well, yes, your five-year-old could have done that – but not to interrogate key issues around notions of being a talentless charlatan. And thereby make lots of money!”

Me, I don’t so much mind modern art being a racket. I mind it being a boring, repetitive racket slathered with pretentious jargon:

A large canvas, painted black with pin-width parallel lines of the canvas showing through in a geometrical pattern, may seem simple enough to create. Even though a five-year-old would have trouble keeping the fine lines regular, this piece could be replicated by a child. However, Stella was making a topical and philosophical statement, challenging Abstract Expressionism’s gestural domination and rejecting metaphorical associations, symbolism or suggestions of spirituality that so many other artists sought to express. He wanted viewers to appreciate the canvas as an object in itself. As he said, he wanted to “eliminate illusionistic space”. (ch. 2, “Expressions/Scribbles”, pg. 75)

That was Hodge on Frank Stella and his Marriage of Reason and Squalor II (1959), which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. I won’t elaborate any theories about that particular city and the way its critics and art-dealers have worked together to make junk worth much more than its weight in gold. But I will say this for Stella: his art, while worthless, isn’t actively, obtrusively ugly or jeeringly, sneeringly slapdash. He might have been a pickpocket, but he didn’t blow Bronx cheers while he was at work. I can’t say the same of Willem de Kooning and Keith Haring, who were both also active in New York. Haring was a bit too active, in fact. He was homosexual and died of AIDS, because he applied the same thinking to his sex-life as he did to his art: “I make the rules!” and “If it feels good, do it!” Unlike art critics, Mother Nature wasn’t taken in.

"Untitled" (USA Today) (1990) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

“Untitled” (USA Today) (click for larger image)

Also active in New York, also gay and also dead of AIDS, there’s Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who was “featured posthumously as the United States’ chosen artist at the 52nd Venice Biennale”. Hispanic, homosexual and inhumed – what better representative of America’s future could there be? His “Untitled” (USA Today) (1990) consists of “sweets [candies], individually wrapped in red, silver and blue cellophane, 136 kg (300 lb) ideal weight” and is piled in one corner of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Keeping a perfectly straight face, Hodge interrogates its gesturalities like this:

Although the work comprises items traditionally loved by children, there is nothing childish about the ideas behind “Untitled” (USA Today). Focusing on personal and political beliefs, Gonzalez-Torres was expressing his feelings about gay rights and AIDS, as well as highlighting political volatility. Children could collect and pile up sweets, but they would not be questioning viewers’ acceptance of them as art objects nor creating metaphors for sharing, the spread of a virus, instability and inequality. (ch. 1, “Objects/Toys”, pg. 37)

Agreed, children wouldn’t, but adolescents might. They have the required self-righteous and simplistic ideas about the world. However, slashing a canvas and calling it art, as Lucio Fontana did with Spatial Concept “Waiting” (1960), might be beyond an adolescent, because it’s a more mature and considered act of pretension than piling up candy in a corner. Hodge’s face is as straight as ever as she interrogates issues around the work:

The slash of a knife across a canvas looks easily achievable, and Fontana never said it was a difficult technique. However, a child would not do it for the same reasons as Fontana. With one decisive slash, he aimed to explore underlying notions of space and infinity, as well as the limitations of art and its ultimately perishable nature. (“Provocations/Tantrums”, pg. 115)

Overleaf, the bottom doesn’t so much drop out of modern art as modern art drop out of a bottom. Allegedly. Yes, it’s Piero Manzoni’s infamous Merda d’artista (1961), the ninety cans he filled with his own excrement, labelled in four languages, then sold for their own weight in gold. It’s a disarming work, I have to say. The comment applicable almost everywhere else suddenly becomes superfluous or acquires a new resonance. For once, Hodge is talking shit about real shit:

No technical skill was necessary to produce this work – any five-year-old could have deposited their own excrement in a tin, or pretended to. Manzoni was, however, making several points that few children would be able to appreciate. The work parodies inflated values of art and also exploits consumerism, particularly the developing preoccupation with packaging and posessions. Meanwhile, the contents of the tin represent the ultimate use of waste as an art material. (ch. 3, “Provocations/Tantrums”, pg. 116)

That last line is a good way of summing up modern art, modern art criticism and almost everything in this book.

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