Sunday, 3 December 2017

Hidden London - The Mithraeum

A month or so ago Bloomberg opened its new billion pound building in the City. It has been carefully built over the remains of a rare piece of Roman London, a temple to Mithraeus. An experience has been created, but this is not a cheesy affair in the slightest.

Some of the 600 finds are artfully displayed. The rest, including the key find - the bust of Mithras -  are in the Museum of London. Ipads are on hand to describe to the exhibits. These are well worth lingering over, especially the wooden tablets, one with first time Londinium was written, and another being the oldest piece of Roman writing in Britain, and funnily enough an IOU between two freemen.

Downstairs there is an interactive display voiced by Joanna Lumley.

Downstairs again, at timed intervals, hence the need to book a ticket, is the temple itself. You enter in the dark. Its slowly revealed clever lighting and subtle smoke effects, along with the soundtrack of voices and chanting, attempts to create something of the cult experience.

It's mysterious and slightly shivery, and was just the perfect thing to explore on a freezing day.

The location specific irony of the men only Mithraeus cult, based as it seems to have been on rather a lot of feasting, should not be lost on anyone.

To get your glimpse, book a litter to Walbrook. No denari required.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Ty Newydd - You wanted outcomes

My car tyres crunch on the slate chips in the car park. I open the door and breathe in some sweet Welsh air. It’s raining, that fine rain that has you soaked in minutes. No matter, no-one comes here for the weather. Any sun and sitting in the garden this week will be a bonus. I lift my case and book bag from the boot and trundle down the path towards the front door of the large stone built Georgian house. There is only bird song to greet me until I swing open the office door and say hello. I am greeted warmly.

I’ve arrived a few hours early, as is my habit to take the early road across half the country, so I am offered my choice of rooms. This week I fancy Lloyd George’s bedroom. I’m not afraid of ghosts and the fact that he died here bothers me not a jot. It’s a huge room and I have it to myself. It affords me a view of the front garden with its herbaceous borders, pebbled path and imposing wrought iron gates beyond which is the wooded drive.

I unpack, wander down to the kitchen to make myself tea, and mug in hand I refresh my memory of the layout of the house, standing and staring at various spots; the library with its weird acoustic, the dining room, and garden, which in the still damp I take a proprietorial tour around to the end gate and its uplifting view over the fields to the sea in one direction, and to Snowdonia in the other. I turn back to look at the white painted rear elevation of the house, picking out the stages of building from the various shiny slate roofs and glass extension. My tea is a drinking temperature now. A true refreshment. I retrieve my notebook and pen, then settled in the back porch wrapped in a throw, I start writing.

I have been attending courses at Ty Newydd for nearly fifteen years. In that time I have had the pleasure of being taught, encouraged, supported and promoted by major poets, Welsh and otherwise – Gillian Clarke, Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott, Daljit Nagra, and Robert Minhinnick to name just a few. It was only after my very first course there with Gillian and Carol Ann that I had the confidence to apply to do an MPhil in Creative Writing at the University of South Wales. As part of that degree we also attended Ty Newydd for a weeklong workshop where I was taught by Sheenagh Pugh, Tony Curtis, Philip Gross, Des Barry, and others. After graduation, I attended the workshop as a fringe member, using the opportunity as a writing retreat.

I have been a long-standing supporter of Ty Newydd. It is my home in Wales. I am 55 now and very far from retirement. My writing is nothing like a hobby. If poetry could give me a living, I would certainly be doing it full time. In the last decade, since Carol Ann wrote “Brilliant!” on one of my poems at Ty Newydd, I have:

·      published over two hundred poems in various magazines,

·      had six collections of poetry published (the next one is out in 2018), one of which was reviewed in the PBS magazine, and all of which have had good reviews,

·      been widely anthologised,

·      read at countless festivals and poetry evenings in the UK and France,

·      won poetry prizes,

·      founded a literary association in Paris that runs workshops, open mic nights and publishes a magazine, Paris Lit Up, for which I edited the poetry,

·      taught writing workshops for Oxford University and the Poetry School,

·      been elected to the Welsh Academy of Letters, and

·      had my website archived by the National Library of Wales.

Would I have had the chutzpah to do all of this without the confidence in my work and path given to me at Ty Newydd? Most probably and resoundingly not.



-->

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Glasgow Girls

It's always rather annoyed me that Mackintosh and the Boys get so much attention, when there were brilliant women artists working in Glasgow at the same time. Margaret MacDonald is probably the most important of these. Her high Art Nouveau interiors are magnificent as in this example from Kelvingrove.

Her gesso panels can also be found in the Glasgow School of Art, which is currently scaffolded and sheeted and undergoing an enormous and accurate restoration after the fire. Other work is in the Mackintosh house at the Hunterian, no doubt amongst other places. Her sweeping lines, stylised roses and delicate portraits especially please me.

The Glasgow Boys

I haven't been to Glasgow in literally decades, but this summer touring myself around the country to friends far flung, I had the chance to visit the boys again. They are in Kelvingrove in a room of their own and the scattered about the Hunterian, shining in all their glory. These are my favourites:

Henry and Hornel's collaboration - The Druids bringing in the Mistltoe - mysterious, huge, shiny and Klimtish. I just love the invention of mythology.

Guthrie - A funeral service in the Highlands - a monumental canvas for the subject matter where the foreground space is hugely important, snow covered echoing the grey sky. Also, no women as was traditional.

Guthrie - Old Willie, the village worthy - just the most wonderful portrait

Henry - Japanese lady with a fan - All things Japanese were especially in vogue at this point and this is a fabulously understated painting in its sombre palette and select use of colour, and the seemingly modest turned away face erotically exposing her neck.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Boating on the River Lea

The Lea (Lee) is a navigable river running from the Chilterns that, as it reaches London, becomes canalised. Largest of the Thames tributaries, it has been written about many times, most notably by Iain Sinclair. It is a liminal river, so if you like your day's boating alternating between flooded gravel pits, woods, meadows, and almost wild camping, and industrial depots, food distribution centres, speed racing tracks and pylons, which indeed have a beauty of their own, this is the one to cruise.

It is packed with canal boats and barges, and towards the River Stort, river boats. The locks, patience required at these, are variously automatic, semi-automatic or manual, but mostly the latter, so expect to develop some serious muscle. Alternatively you can try smiling nicely at watching weight lifters and give them an excuse to show off their hours in the gym to more practical effect.

Urban legend has it that there is a crocodile in the Lea, fond of taking Canada geese and swans, but we saw nothing more exciting than said geese, swans, moorhens and coots. Although, as dusk started to fall, a kingfisher swooped in front of the boat and quickly back into the cover of a willow. That was uplifting.

There are two kinds of boaters - those with permanent moorings that can run to such luxuries as washing machines, barbeque decks, small gardens, club houses and electricity, and those who have to move their boats from the public moorings every two weeks or risk being fined by the Canal and Rivers Trust and its large team of volunteer wardens. Fair enough. Them's the rules, and many young people are living on the water in London in this way. The bearded and tattooed hipster quotient is quite high.

There could not have been a better day than last August bank holiday to chug up the Lea. Twenty eight degrees made the locks hard and thirsty work. Bob Marley on the sound system in celebration of Carnival turned a few appreciative heads as we passed by, or as they passed us by on the cycle path. And we haven't quite got over the sight of a boat with what seemed to be hemp growing in pots on its roof. Ah, London. Ah, summer.



Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Giacometti at Tate Modern

It's been an age since Giacometti had an exhibition in London, but what a disappointingly small one this was. There were too few rooms. I reached the end before I had really started.

Tiny sculptures that my old eyes can barely make out, especially if they are tucked behind poorly lit glass, large works that in all honesty I have seen many times before, and some of which are not actually that interesting, and the dark palette of his paintings, had me scratching my head, again.

Yes, I get it, working and reworking and paring down to the essence, with a limited number of sitters, but perhaps something more cheerful? Easy for me to say, as I did not live through the horrors of war or the immediate post-war reality of Europe.

Still...

Monday, 14 August 2017

Another good reason to go to Birmingham


Wandering recently, I found myself in the church that became a cathedral in the town that became a city, and huge surprise, the stained glass was designed by Burne-Jones and manufactured by William Morris. Who knew?

There are four huge panels, three behind the altar and one at the rear of the cathedral, all in luminous red and blue. Interestingly, and out of the usual chronology, the ascension is directly behind the altar and the crucifixion to the right.

My favourite was the birth of Jesus, especially the shepherds and the heavenly host appearing above a very gothic wood, not bare grassy slopes.

Worth a detour, even if you have to wait a few minutes for a wedding party to vacate the premises.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Soul of a Nation - Tate Modern

Generally excellent, expect it to be absolutely packed out, so be patient and you will have the chance to view the work in the gaps between people. This is a must see show of black art from 1963 to the early 1980s, covering the civil rights movement. It introduced me to artists I have never heard of, let alone seen. That is shameful as some of the paintings are wonderful.

There are films and much printed matter to read, so expect to take it slowly. The only part that lost my attention was as the exhibition moved away from its political focus to art in general. OK abstraction is abstraction is abstraction, but this seemed to be going beyond the brief unnecessarily.

My favourites were the gilded paintings and the remade African art, voodoo altars and the like. I am still astonished that such protest and response has taken place in my lifetime. A reminder as I get on that much has changed and for the better, but that much still needs to change. Ten out of ten.

Poetry submissions

Gosh, it's hard work. Akin to having another job. You write the work and then you have the complicated and time consuming task of sending it out to journals and magazines asking their kind, overworked and underpaid editors to consider it for publication.

You have to keep track of what you've sent to whom, avoid multiple submissions, follow the formatting and other submission guidelines to the letter or be summarily rejected. There's no excuses for not doing as you are asked, but when you are having a marathon session it's enough to drive the poor poet crazy.

Thank goodness, for the most part, for submittable, which certainly cuts down on all that paper, postage and packaging. I don't know why more journals don't switch to it now. On environmental grounds alone, it is surely the way to go, no?

I think the only reason for not using electronic means for submissions and reviewing work must be to maintain a barrier - only the very determined will apply by printing and posting. But equally only the well off will apply - postage is a factor and it's not cheap, and have you seen the price of printer ink these days?

I'm still umming and ahhing as to whether it is worth sending my work to places demanding such an investment on my part when the chances of me knowing quite what was in the editors mind when she started to put the edition together are slim, and bearing in mind that very few publications actually pay their contributors.

It's a thought in progess. I shall think on.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Gillian Ayres at the Museum of Wales

It takes a certain degree of chutzpah to be this bold and huge with your work, but if you like your abstracts eye-wateringly bright and best viewed from as far away as the gallery space will afford, then this is the show for you.

Cardiff plays host to Gillian Ayres this summer. I'm not entirely sure why, but the National Museum decided to hang the show in reverse chronological order. Something of a pointless gesture if you ask me. I resisted being directed in this way and saw them in the order of making, preferring the earlier to the later, as well as her works on paper.

It was a welcome refuge from the more or less constant rain of the last two weeks, but I did feel sorry for all that day's graduands and graduates taking shelter in the museum as a good back drop for their photographs.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Grayson Perry at the Serpentine Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 24 April 2017

David Hockney and Queer Art at Tate Britain


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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 April 2017

Hidden Paris - Fontainebleu

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

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

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

Hidden London - Brixton Windmill

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

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

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

Concrete Poetry - the iconisation of language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Mary Ellen Solt:







Saturday, 8 April 2017

Hidden Paris - Basilica St Denis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden Paris - Opera Garnier

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

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

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

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

Monday, 3 April 2017

English Pen Literarture Festival



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


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


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


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

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