26 January 2012


I've been getting in too deep again. I wrote about them for a little project, and I thought it would be OK this time. I thought I'd move on quick, pretty well unscathed. But Ted and Sylvia always get me. Before I know it I'm listening to him read Lovesong over and over on youtube. I have a compulsion. It's the spider bite smiles, the promises that take off the top of his skull which the lover makes into a brooch, the heads like halves of lopped melons. It's Ted's voice free from any finalising tone, just stopping in the air, at the last line: In the morning they wore each other's face. I had to find the antidote to this heart-wrench.

So from lopped melons to moon-whales. I went to the children's section of the Poetry Library and took out a copy of Ted's Moon-Whales to pull myself out of the myth and just be a kid who likes words and weird things. I also wanted to look at some pictures. I picked out the version that is illustrated by Chris Riddell. His artwork is so distinctive and immediately takes me back to me being the dorkiest of kids, nicking The Edge Chronicles that were ostensibly bought for my brothers, my favourite being the Twig trilogy. His full-page Moon-Whales illustrations that spread out and into Ted's poems are rather moon-magnificent.

Who couldn't escape from an overwrought Ted rut reading about a Moon-Haggis with its 'crazy/Cruel hiccup'? Precisely. There is a moon counterpart to everything. Moon-flowers, moon-weather, moon-illnesses, moon-witches. Everything a kid can see and hear and feel and imagine. The Moon-Hyena shrieks 'laughter of dark hell,/Mad laughter of a skull'; it is wild and a little scary 'yet it is so full of love and joy that sing it must, or bust'. Interestingly, John Burnside wrote that his totem animal is the hyena only this week. Ted's totem has come to be the fox, though I think he has much more of the badger about him.

Moon-Whales is all about horrors. Perhaps not quite the antidote I foresaw. But Ted forces these horrors into rhymes, into songs. They don't all have happy endings but they are undauntedly, unwaveringly curious and quick, celebrating the odd and fantastical. The world is seen through a moon-mirror. It is dark and mad and funny and peculiar. It is not just for children. 

21 January 2012

'I'm in the photograph'

My housemate left sweet treats on my bed in exchange for reading his essay on the use of pronouns as spatial metaphors in Italian postmodern literature. I had scribbled exclamatory remarks and circled commas in purple ink, and for this I received a French Pepsi Max and a snickers. My absolute favourite things to eat and drink. I was pleased as punch.

While he studies European languages, literature and films, I am both loving and loathing being without classes, reading lists, essays and writing about the minutiae of some poem or other that lies on the sidelines of most sane, normal and levelheaded people's realities. So I develop little obsessions, consciously or otherwise. My current obsession is Francesca Woodman. She was an American photographic artist, creating works thirty years ago. Her black and white images are often described as surreal, which I can understand, but they are also hyper-real and raw. They appeal to me because they are so so seventies, romantic, with shades of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Woodman was the daughter of two artists, had a spell at a boarding school, often stayed in her family's second home in Italy, studied in Rome for a time (where she made several sequences of images), and then lived in New York. Covetable life aesthetics right there. Her photographs are all forests, graveyards, tombstones and long hair. Gothic and ghostly. More often than not they feature female nudes, like spectres or corpses, sometimes cropped, frequently Francesca herself. Real bodies, feminine and frank.

She was a dedicated journal writer, and she would often incorporate her images into the notes of her life. Spiky writing scratches the surrounding margins of stuck-down photographs. 'Bunny bun I'm in the photograph come fetch me if the mood or a rock should strike you'. A message to her boyfriend Benjamin.

from the Tate Collections website
Naturally I would not be so obsessed if there was no darkness or tragedy involved. A suicide attempt in 1980 was followed by a period of psychotherapy and medication and recovery. Then she was refused a grant she was hoping for, her bicycle was stolen, and her romance with Benjamin continued to sour. She jumped from a roof in New York, aged 22. Her body remained unclaimed at the morgue until someone identified her clothes, as the fall had rendered her face unrecognisable. Her body had been used in so many of her photographs as something interesting and beautiful, captured forever in light. Yet she destroyed it, made herself unidentifiable. One of her early images features a Victorian tombstone bearing the words 'To Die is Gain'. Hmmm.

I am currently watching a documentary about Francesca and her family, made in 2010, on youtube. Stuff of obsession.

14 January 2012

'I can be cruel'

Eating Chinese takeout and watching Labyrinth with housemates in my bedroom is the greatest thing anybody can do mid-week. Cotes du Rhone, prawn crackers and fairy tales set in the 80s: a holy trinity. Labyrinth is an all-time favourite film of mine, and mostly stars Jennifer Connelly's covetable waistcoat/billowing white shirt combo and David Bowie's crotch. The ball scene is such fantasy, and is my fancy-dress theme of choice, and a black and white still of Sarah in her Princess dress among the masked guests is my desktop background. Jareth the Goblin King has an absurd mullet, indecently revealing leggings, a beautifully painted face with wicked eyebrows, and is oh so seductive. Classic villain material. 'I have been generous until now and I can be cruel' he tells the wide-eyed, desperate Sarah as he teases and dominates. Yet he is ultimately weakened by her. 'I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave'. David Bowie as one's slave, imagine that.

I have a thing for fairy tales. A somewhat unbridled thing. I grew up with so many old and dusty, embellished and illustrated compendiums, filled with stories from all traditions, folklores and far-flung lands. Tom Tit Tot and Mossycoat and endless old crones. Tomes of dark, dark imaginings. Of course there have been whole libraries written on the histories and psychological meanings of fairy tales, not to mention the many variations of the many tales, so I won't blather on like a wild bore. Suffice to say that Angela Carter is the Mistress of the genre. I reckon she probably loved Labyrinth too. Though that film does have a sense of the ridiculous, and for all that Angela can be over the top and grabbing of the juggernaut, she is never ridiculous. All is carnal and pure guts with Angela. Her stories are blood and moons and wolves and whole histories of storytelling.

'A dozen husbands impaled a dozen birds while the mewing of gulls swung on invisible trapezes in the empty air outside'

The Bloody Chamber, the title story of my favourite Carter collection, is set on Mont St Michel, that fated fateful place. My family and I would visit nigh on every year when I was younger. Castles and cobbled streets. It became mythic as the years went on and I was for a time less blood and guts, more disappearing flesh. Like something Angela would have conjured, vampiric appetites were sucking away happiness and histories so I was skinny and sad wandering along cobbles in a straw hat. [Angela was anorexic as a teenager, leaving a legacy of appetites and hungers and, especially in her novels, most excellent descriptions of foodstuffs. At one point in a short story she describes a vision of 'anorexic trees', which is a beautiful evocation of winter I think.] My brother bought a t-shirt bearing the island's image the last time we were in Mont St Michel. It is one of the few t-shirts I didn't steal. Mont St Michel was a little too close to the bone, so I felt weird about having it close to my actual bones.

I have been loaned a book entitled The Uses of Enchantment: The Meanings and Importance of Fairy Tales by the fairytale-named Bruno Bettelheim. I am looking forward to sinking my teeth into it.

10 January 2012

O Gerhard, I am rather taken by these. Photographs of your life in the late 90s squigeed with oil paint. And your first wife as a spectre on the stairs. You can keep your enormous abstractions. I'll carry these as postcards.

9. Nov. 1999

Ema (Nude on a Staircase)
 [Gerhard Richter postcards. £1.18 well spent]

3 January 2012

Mr Martin

I managed to catch the John Martin exhibition at Tate Britain JUST IN TIME. Not because the whole world is going to end in an apocalyptic inferno, swallowing us sinners once and for all, but because the exhibition finishes in a matter of days. And thank goodness I did make it. I bloody love his drama.

I was reading about how his paintings have inspired the atmospheres, set designs and landscapes of films such as Ben Hur, Blade Runner, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. (Interesting that Martin is one of my mother's favourite artists in all the world, and not my father's...) I would actually go so far as to say that gazing at The Last Judgement triptych is just as engrossing and awesome as watching the original Star Wars trilogy back-to-back. There, I said it.

It was very odd to see this blockbuster exhibition taking in the big bucks down here in London. Martin was born just along the road from me in a small town in Northumberland, and much of the vast, craggy, damned apocalyptic vistas of his paintings come from my homeland.

[As a side note, when a very young man in Newcastle, Martin was placed under an Italian artist who went by the brilliant name Boniface Musso. As another side note, he also had what the exhibition described as 'tragically insane' brother named Jonathan who set fire to York Minster when in a fit of madness. It was a bit of a scandal...]

I noticed as I hugged the walls that the majority of paintings and etchings were on loan from archives in Newcastle and the Laing Art Gallery. We used to go on outings to this little art gallery all the time as children; it was a frequent treat. I remember seeing The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in those kindly surroundings for the first time when very small, so the painting seemed even more monstrous. Not being a good Sunday school scholar, I first experienced tales like Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt as she dared to look back at the burning ruins through his compositions. I love that the paintings have such ambitious and ridiculous titles as Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon. But there is a sense of the ridiculous to all these enormous canvases. Biblical, Miltonic, epic in scale and colour and narrative. The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum is so, so red, brooding with ash clouds and glowing with hot lava, and Balthazar's Feast is probably the most lavishly over-the-top painting in existence.

The Last Judgement triptych hilariously went on a money-making tour from 1854 (Martin's death) until 1870. The paintings were sensationally put on show in galleries, music halls, and commercial and civic spaces, with accompanying lectures, evening viewings by gaslight, and breathless advertising campaigns. They even travelled to New York and Australia.

The Tate attempted to emulate the spirit of these tours by creating their own atmospheric light show of the triptych. In a dark showroom the audience stared as spotlights, blurrings, and lightning bolts hit the paintings, illuminating figures such as the whore of Babylon. A deluge of voices told the terrible tales and described the vivid scenes, all resonating from different directions and seemingly thickening the paint and stirring it up with their words...lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became as blood/And even the stars of heaven fell into the earth...For the great day of his wrath has come; and who shall be able to stand? (Revelation 6:12, 13, 17). Just a gentle accompaniment to a little picture we all know by the name of The Great Day of His Wrath. Not for the fainthearted. It will one day hang on my bedroom wall in the crimson-swathed castle I will own and reign over satanically. The castle will of course be a castle in Northumberland. And it will not fall to ruin like all of those palaces, cities and structures in Martin's works. It will be red-hot and strengthened with canvas and oil and the odd Biblical quote to keep it in check.