The media last week was dominated by the sad death of David Bowie. Television specials and special printed tributes were ubiquitous, packed with quotations from figures from all walks of life — not only musicians and artists but the most un-Bowie-like people, such as politicians like David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon (ironic, given that one of the very few public comments Bowie made during his final illness was to urge Scots to vote ‘no’ to independence).
The release of his last album only two days before his death heightened the shock many felt at the news. This was perhaps all the more profound because of his influence on the tail end of the baby-boomers. This is the generation that’s slightly younger than Bowie, in their mid to late fifties and early sixties — and hence likely to be at the high point of their careers. These include people likely to be in positions of power in the arts and media establishments and to thank Bowie for . They’re likely to thank Bowie for bringing a sense of subversion and his message of individuality to their formative years.
Now he’s gone — and by natural causes too — everyone who remembers him in his prime has a reminder of their own mortality.
I’m too young to remember much of Bowie in the 70s — just a few catchy singles but definitely nothing of Ziggy Stardust.
It was Ashes to Ashes that made the first significant impression on me. I can still listen to the song over and over again. I love its its uniquely strange sound (especially the grunting monster yells on the album version) but listening to it again, it’s amazing how much of a template the rhythmic elements in the backing track became a template for so much eighties music (listen to the funk bass and the choppy guitar sound).
I did think the video (with all the nascent New Romantics as extras) was mostly a load of pretentious bollocks it was still quite a moving experience to see the famous Pierrot clown costume in the David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A in 2013. I wrote about my thoughts on Bowie and the exhibition at the time in this post especially his influence countering homogeneity.
In retrospect the fact that the exhibition was staged while Bowie was still alive showed how indisputable his influence had been — even before the inevitable posthumous reassessment.
While Bowie has been mourned and celebrated worldwide, he emerged from London at the turn of the sixties as a completely original talent — typical of the eccentric and unconventional type that England has the indisputable knack of creating.
It’s been plausibly argued, for example in a recent London Evening Standard article, that the creative arts industry is the UK’s biggest industry sector (if you deduct the taxpayers’ bailout of the financial industry which is officially first). And while Bowie was a product of this uniquely British creative culture, he’s certainly done a lot to perpetuate its continuity, (Although it’s been pointed out that Bowie and Alan Rickman, who sadly died a week after Bowie, were both products of a socially upwardly mobile culture that may have already begun to recede).
On a similar theme of post-war British upward mobility, I read that Major Tom, Bowie’s persona in Space Oddity, was inspired by a poster he saw as a child in Bromley for a music hall performance by a Major Tom. This turned out to be Tom Major-Ball, the father of another high-achiever from Brixton, future Prime-Minister John Major.
With its themes of isolation, disconnection and remotely observing the world while also being the centre of its attention, Space Oddity can be seen as more than a topical song that was cleverly timed to coincide with the Apollo moon landings. It can be interpreted a prophetic analogy of the journey into the orbit of celebrity stardom that Bowie had been set on trying to achieve for several years while working packing boxes and in other dead-end jobs in 60’s Soho.
David Bowie’s wider influence on modern culture was so significant that he must have the rare distinction of special tributes in the likes of OK! and Hello magazines as well as the very rare honour of a two page (rather than the standard one page) obituary in this week’s Economist(note the respectful reference to Mr Bowie.
The proof was in the playing. Mr Bowie grew up as David Jones, a sharp-toothed kid from dull suburban Bromley whose parents held no aspirations for him. Through a talent born of yearning he had transformed himself into Ziggy Stardust: extravagant, flawed and sexually polymorphous, tottering on platform shoes and hiding behind a mask of paint…Mr Bowie had taken a while to attract attention. Stuck in 1960s London, he picked up a saxophone and considered jazz, then flitted between bands; he moved from mod to Buddhist, from rocker to folk artist, hanging around London’s Soho with its sex shops and music clubs, exploring sexual ambiguity. Despite the success of “Space Oddity” his early albums drew little attention. It was only with the fifth, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, (1972) that millions of teenagers in semi-detached houses just like the one back in Bromley took him to their hearts and turntables.
As the article points out, what’s not been emphasised in most of the coverage of Bowie’s profound impact on 70’s culture (in music, fashion and, as it’s being argued in defining attitudes towards gender and sexuality), is that Bowie was far from an overnight success.
Ironically, for an artist who’s credited with revolutionising many genres, David Bowie (or at first David Jones) attempted to break into the music business for over five years before achieving a breakthrough.
His first single was released in 1964 and an album (which failed to chart at all) in 1967. The first chapter of the David Bowie Is book (which must be the definitive publication for Bowie fans with its vast range of photographs) relates how David Jones (and then Bowie) relentlessly tried to break through into the entertainment industry, following trends from Mods to psychedelia, and not just as a musician. He had a manager, Ken Pitt, from 1966 onwards who advertised Bowie as an actor in casting publications. Of course Bowie did follow an acting career later but it’s doubtful if he’d have diversified into a successful musical from an acting background (Kylie Minogue is probably the exception that proves the rule).
The first section of the David Bowie Is exhibition curated many exhibits from this long period of failure – and it’s telling that David Bowie preserved these artefacts as carefully as he kept the items from his more successful eras. They were placed at the start of the exhibition, perhaps to emphasise the huge but thankless efforts he was making while many other artists achieved instant success.
So the artist elevated by the cultural establishment now as a figure who is said to have changed the world with his innovative genius was almost completely ignored by the music and other creative industries of the 1960s. It’s only due to Bowie’s tenacity and belief in himself that he persisted and was very belatedly given the stage and exposure for his talent.
And although it could be argued, at least retrospectively, that Bowie was a product of the disruptions in social conventions of the time, there was no-one in the music business on the lookout for looking for a flamboyant, gender-blurring singer who’d constantly reinvent an image as soon as it became popular. Even a couple of years after its release in 1969 Space Oddity could have been viewed as a one-hit wonder. Life on Mars, Starman and Ziggy Stardust didn’t appear until the early seventies.
In some ways, Bowie’s career is great testament to the value of self-belief and perseverance. However, during this period he was disillusioned enough to announce in The Ship on Wardour Street, that he was taking a sabbatical from the London music scene.
He said his intention was to become a Buddhist monk. Fortunately he didn’t and he eventually worked on mime, dance and experimental art, such as the Beckenham Arts Lab. Such influences may have given him a more interesting image as an artist when he eventually became established as a singer but he could equally followed a non-musical direction.
Bowie had countless rejections over many years and the only person who can really take credit for David Bowie’s body of work and artistic legacy is David Bowie himself. No record company or manager was looking someone to fill a Bowie-shaped gap in their roster of artists.
Bowie is another example of an immensely talented artist who went from being virtually the only person who believed in himself at the outset to an undisputed, global cultural figure. And there are many examples of similar artists, famously The Beatles, and writers, most notably J.K.Rowling who were passed over by record companies or editors because they didn’t offer what was currently popular in the market.
Such examples are often used of how endless persistence pays off. This is true in the case of those who eventually break through, but it’s impossible to know how many potential Bowies fail to achieve recognition, no matter how hard they try.
It’s easy to tell creative people to be persistent because it’s easier to rationalise a lack of success due to an according lack of perseverance rather than lack of talent or (perhaps worse) a lack of appetite for risk or ambitions or just plain lack of insight by the cultural gatekeepers.
Perhaps this long period of toiling in the shadows is why Bowie was always regarded by those who knew him as polite, down-to-earth and very humble. Those who’ve lavishly praised him need to thank his persistence for the enormous influence that stemmed from it. As is said in a paragraph from the book of the V&A exhibition:
‘David Jones grew up in 1950s London dreaming of being a successful entertainer. As David Bowie he tried, tried very hard, and became a world-famous performer. In the process he helped establish a key part of Western twenty-first century liberal belief: that anybody should be allowed to be they want to be. Self before duty, with duty a choice. He did not invent the idea, but he did promote it to a huge audience. The marketing worked and the London of today, ethnically diverse, culturally open and relatively tolerant, is an ongoing testament to that belief. In the remaining years of this century there are plenty of groups for whom such a culture in anathema. It will be interesting to see how this journey, which started in Brixton, London SW9, continues to unfold’
Geoffrey Marsh, Exhibition Curator in David Bowie Is catalogue.
It’s been a long, wet, miserably dull December and now Christmas is over, here’s something bright and colourful to illuminate the darkness.
It’s an art installation called …—… SOS (the name will make sense if you watch the video) which is the third, and final, year of artist Bruce Monro’s installations at Waddesdon Manor. I’ve been impressed by the first two (and I think probably posted about them on this blog) but I absolutely loved this one (note the video contains flashing lights).
It’s a circuit of 167 tents set in the gardens, all lit in synchronised, changing colors to a soundtrack that was apparently inspired by the artist’s memories of listening to a transistor radio on camping holidays.
The soundtrack is fantastic — there’s three minutes of it in my YouTube clip. It’s mainly snippets of popular music from the last 40 years (Fleetwood Mac to Loose Fit), although there’s some classical and random bits of what sounds like Radio 4 (there’s certainly the shipping the forecast and the Today programme’s infamous racing selections).
I could have crawled into a tent and listened to it all night.
It’s a real serendipitous mix and exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to Kim in my novel — the bold, primary colours, the repurposing of clips of well-know songs and the esoteric weirdness of the spoken sections.
Sadly the exhibition has finished now but enjoy the video. Happy New Year.
Shoreditch was in the news last weekend when the organisers of the ‘Fuck Parade’ pelted the Cereal Killer Café at the hipster end of Brick Lane with ‘paint and cereal’. This must be one of the first times that Cornflakes and Rice Krispies have been drafted in as ammunition in a class war protest against gentrification and the reach of global capitalism!
For those who don’t know, Cereal Killer Café attracted notoriety in the media when it opened at the end of last year. Its unique selling proposition is simple: choose a cereal, put milk (or alternative on it) and an optional ‘topping’. Then hand over a fiver. (To be fair it’s not quite that expensive and there are some imported American cereals along with the Weetabix and Krave.)
The concept was seized upon as an example of the hubris of ironic artiness (quite possibly, even meta-irony where those responsible are making an ironic response to an ironic concept — otherwise known as ‘who’s actually taking the piss out of whom?’). ‘A bowl of Weetos? You’re havin’ a larf mate?’
It didn’t help that the two twin brothers who set up the café had the Shoreditch hipster image nailed: with their bushy beards and tattoos they looked like the archetypical ‘Shoreditch twat’ squared.
The protest’s organisers (if indeed, the protest is organised — this was Shoreditch) have been widely condemned for attacking an independent business that is, at worst, a gimmicky tourist-trap for those with more money than nutritional sense.
The real irony is that, for those who say they want to rally against gentrification and the change in the area’s character, there’s something to properly protest about within fifty yards of Cereal Killer’s doors.
I took the photograph above last week on Sclater Street, which leads from Shoreditch High Street station to Brick Lane — Cereal Killer is in the block behind the mechanical digger. Despite the street art on the hoardings, this space is being turned into a development called The Fusion. The cheapest apartment in The Fusion is a mere £757,500 (you get all of one bedroom for that plus a fitted Smeg fridge). The hipsters in Cereal Killer would need to sell a lot of Frosties to afford to move into one of those.
Not that the developers are targeting the Shoreditch arty set who have created the ‘buzz’ that makes these new apartment blocks so lucrative — if the flats are inhabited at all (rather than kept as empty investments by overseas buyers) their occupants will no doubt be making the 10 minute commute to the heart of the City rather than to some loft studio. (See previous post for more details of developments in the pipeline.)
The very deep excavations that can be viewed through the security fence show the scale of the development — is this for a garage or maybe an underground gym or swimming pool?
It’s this development and the many others like it that represent the threat to the character of the area. As soon as they’re completed, they will radically change Shoreditch in ways that go way beyond gentrification. The developers’ marketing material even contains the following: ‘Shoreditch is becoming more and more affluent and even being labelled as the ‘New Bond Street,’ plus it is a great location for City commuters’.
I took the photo below in May last year on a street art tour. We’re standing on the old car park that has been excavated in the image above — the London Clay that has been the foundation of the area dug up and dumped somewhere else, replaced with an empty void.
The walls of the adjoining building were a popular site for street artists — they’re just about visible now through the security fences but will soon be obscured by steel and concrete. The Shoreditch of my novel is fast becoming history.
The last post loosely took the E.M.Forster quotation ‘only connect’ and asked if this might be at the basis of some of the creative process — can originality be fostered by stuffing your subconscious full of stimulating ideas and experiences which could stew away unsupervised like a warming winter casserole or, alternatively, blast into each other like a psychological Hadron collider.
Bearing this out, I’ve realised there’s a loosely recurring theme of odd and unusual connections in many of the experiences I’ve enjoyed or places I’ve visited over the past few months — locations which are on the margins between conflicted forces or genres where conventionally opposing styles or materials have been placed in opposition.
Shoreditch is the classic example of an area that has been transformed by the influence of artists, with the Village Underground tube train carriages providing a landmark juxtaposition.
It’s arguable that Shoreditch has become so ironically commercialised that it’s developing into a caricature of itself. For several years, artists have been priced out of the area (as is Kim in my novel), not just by the geek-cool spillover from David Cameron’s beloved ‘Tech City’ in Old Street but by speculative apartment-buying business types (even more beloved of Cameron).
The warehouse-squatting, loft-dwelling artists have been dispersed to Peckham (mentioned in Time Out virtually every week), Hackney Wick (whose artists ‘took over’ the V&A at the end of February) and rather bizarrely, as I discovered a few weeks ago, to suburbs like High Barnet.
I climbed four storeys up an external fire-escape with my friends from Love Art London way out in the hipster-there-be-dragons territory of zone 6 to visit the artist, David Shillinglaw. He was a thoroughly generous and entertaining host, welcoming us into his loft studio which was located in an old false-teeth making factory (if it was in a novel this detail would seem way too far-fetched!). The studio was an amazing jumble of finished artworks, pieces in progress, plants (the tree apparently belonged once to Bob Hoskins!), huge rubber balls, artists materials and cats plus everyday objects (I think he lived there too — David Shillinglaw, not Bob Hoskins).
While the artists move to the likes of Stoke Newington, Deptford and, er, High Barnet, property developers haven’t been slow to make the connection between exploiting the lingering aura of edgy cool and the large plots of under-exploited land in Shoreditch. Schemes that have been approved are in the pipeline that will transform the area irreparably: a 40 storey tower is to be built almost opposite Village Underground with a new shopping centre on the other side.
I may have written a partially historical novel by accident as I have scenes in my novel set in Holywell Street, which will be completely transformed within the next couple of years. (The scene is set in the road between the Village Underground tube trains and the new high rise building in the centre left in the developer’s projected image below.)
Speaking of developers trying to muscle-in (and, in so doing, destroy) on ‘cool’, ‘gritty’ urban locations, I took the photograph below just before Christmas of one of the most bizarre connections in London — the South Bank’s Bavarian Christmas market set opposite the graffiti-plastered undercroft of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, adopted as London’s skateboarders’ spiritual home.
Drinking steaming glühwein while watching skateboard jumps in a reclaimed space of brutalist architecture is the type of accidentally cosmopolitan experience only London can offer. Unlike some of the most favoured spots for Shoreditch street artists, the undercroft has been reprieved from development into shops.
There are a quite a few posts on this blog that mention street art: in the novel Kim brings her graffiti artist skills to places that haven’t traditionally welcomed them. Perhaps its appeal is partly because of another unusual combination — the traditionally reverential and formal world of fine art and the constantly changing, chaotic, almost anarchic urban spaces that foster street art culture.
My friend Sabina Andron, who runs the I Know What I Like Meetup Group in London, is studying street art for a PhD at University College, London. Over a period of 100 days last year she conducted an intriguing initiative, photographing the same stretches of wall on Leake Street (a virtual tunnel underneath Waterloo station) every day over a month and recording the organic, rapid changes in the artwork.
Writing, art and geography are, of course, not the only areas in which ‘only connect’ produces exciting and unusual innovations. Musicians often cross-fertilise, with many whole new genres created from the fusion of apparently unrelated styles. In my local pub the recent English graduate cellarman often exposes the village regulars to his eclectic musical tastes, gained from working at music festivals across Europe. It’s a bizarre experience to walk into a rural English pub and hear dub reggae by the likes of King Tubby flowing from the speakers.
I was having a drink in the pub recently and began to recognise a song I knew very well but was also simultaneously unfamiliar. I worked out it was a track from Dark Side of the Moon. The skanky,offbeat rhythms meant it definitely wasn’t Pink Floyd but it was surprisingly good — like any good, radical cover version, making the song sound written as if it was specifically for the other genre.
The track was Time and the album was the brilliant Dub Side of the Moon (see above) by the Easy All Stars. I bought it straight away and now listen to it interchangeably with the Pink Floyd original.
And foodies can give musicians a run for their money in terms of matching up bizarre combinations. Food is a major feature of the novel (including the odd matches inspired by the likes of Heston Blumenthal — liquorice ice-cream, snail porridge, mango and douglas-fir puree and the rest). So, wanting to see something of the cutting edge for myself, at the end of last year I visited the Experimental Food Society Spectacular at the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane.
This was an event run by people who like to do weird things with food. Some exhibits were immersive experiences — exploring how story-telling could influence flavours or how different senses interacted with each other. Some were just a bit, well, bonkers. Let’s connect Italian food with an Italian evocation of place by building a model of Rialto Bridge in Venice purely out of dried pasta and crackers (it can be done — see below — although I’m not sure whether an arrabbiata or puttanesca sauce would go best with the balustrades or portico).
The flasks in the photo above left are of different types of tea but you don’t drink it. You inhale it (with a straw) after the people from Camellia’s Tea House put the brew through some clever vaporisation process. The vapour actually condenses on the back of your tongue, which gives a different taste sensation but one I doubt will be replacing the English cuppa very soon. (The breathable tea was so odd the story even made it into the New York Post.)
I’m not sure my fictional pub will go as far as serving its drinks in gaseous form, however intriguing the idea. But with an artist on the premises it could offer something for breakfast similar to the work of another Experimental Food Spectacular exhibitor — Dermot Flynn — Toast Artist.
A little like a street artist, Dermot Flynn, connects art with unusual surfaces — in his case toast (a look at his website shows that he works by no means exclusively in toast but it’s one of the more unusual way he earns a crust). Love it or hate it, the genre of edible art means it’s unpalatable to use conventional paint, so he uses Marmite instead.
Apparently if the Marmite is applied to white bread (presumably the more manufactured and sterile the better) to create an image which is subsequently put into a toaster, the desiccation process means the picture (or toast) will last for an indefinite period. If you can resist eating your artwork, Dermot told me that it’s perfectly possible to frame it.
For £10, I couldn’t resist the offer of having my portrait created in this unusual medium but I’ve taken the precaution of photographing it in case of unexpected nibbling.
The photo above is not, as my friends at Love Art London tweeted, me doing a ‘flying squirrel impression’ but me being a serious, living artwork in Amy Sharrocks’ studio in Chelsea — and she’s a real artist! To my mind it the pose somewhat resembles a rather unenthusiastic induction into some alien giant lizard-worshipping cult crossed with a pathetic attempt to obtain the worst Olympic gymnastic score of all time.
But despite making me look rather odd, the photo — taken by one of Amy’s friends and passed on to me by Love Art London — is effective in illustrating the concept behind the performance art that Amy is currently working on. It’s all about falling. And in the photo I’m just on the cusp of falling — that point when I’ve leant so far forward I’ve breached the point of no return where I know the what’s coming is inevitable but mostly out of my control.
I’d been curious, not to say suspicious, that anyone could produce art about people falling over and that’s why I signed up for the Love Art London studio visit — and the prospect of leaping around on crash mats also appealed (an invigorating change from the usual standing respectfully in front of an artwork to muse upon its qualities).
The studio in which Amy is based for her On Falling residency is a piece of history in its own right — having been used by the renowned sculptor, Elisabeth Frink — apparently she appeared on a commemorative stamp as a woman of achievement in 1996 and is responsible for the curious Shepherd and Sheep sculpture that’s displayed prominently in Paternoster Square.
The studio is part of a block that was purpose-built in the nineteenth century for artists in Chelsea and is still leased out for limited periods to contemporary artists.
Amy started by showing us a wall of ‘falling words’ (to the right of the photo) that she’d arranged thematically — so negative words like, say, stumble or drop were clustered in one corner and more positive words like dive or cascade would be elsewhere — similarly with other interpretations. It was quite thought-provoking but not exactly what I’d call art.
In fact, it didn’t dissuade me from thinking that the whole thing was a bit, well, bonkers.
Then Amy took us through a photographic falling wall of about a hundred or so images of falling — some were of Amy herself — impressive profile silhouettes of her in the ‘about-to-topple’ position that I’m captured in above, although her images are far more graceful. There were other photos from the work Amy has been doing in the community about falling (and some of her previous works) plus more general images — some quite well-known and, in cases, harrowing, like people falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Amy also mentioned some of the other work she’s done around London and I was pleasantly surprised that she’s the artist behind the Museum of Water — another slightly bizarre but strangely thoughtful initiative that I’d read about this in (probably) the Evening Standard (although it may also have been in Time Out or on Londonist). I’d been really interested in going along to the Soho installation when I’d read about it (but all is not lost, apparently it’s touring the country with it from the autumn onwards).
The water that’s preserved in the museum is water in the loosest sense — one exhibit is a six-year old girl’s phial of tears, others are donated urine in its various appearances. (At this point I shall resist the temptation to pun about taking the proverbial.)
I didn’t realise when I booked with Love Art London to come on the Falling event that Amy was behind both initiatives — but maybe there was something a bit subconscious going on? Perhaps Amy’s imaginative selection of subjects aligns with my own interests?
Mind you, I doubt I’ll be participating in an event she’s hoping to organise in 2015 — a mass swim across the Thames at the point where it’s crossed by Tower Bridge. Amy’s hopeful of getting Boris Johnson onboard — or maybe overboard — for this extension of her Swim London event. (Like the Museum of Water, this Thames-swimming project has had a fair bit of coverage in the press.)
Captivating as all Amy’s pictures and past work was, I was itching to start bouncing around on the crash mat — it was originally located in the garden but had to be dragged into the studio itself as it began to rain. And stepping off a ramp that’s possibly slippy and falling on to a crash mat that’s been rained on would no doubt set health and safety alarm bells ringing somewhere. (Coincidentally, despite the apparent minimal risk involved in falling from a few feet on to a mat that seems to be adequate for pole valuting, there has been some serious head-scratching by powers that be about Amy’s plans to involve the public in her Falling performance art.)
When I thought it was about time that we all started falling over in earnest, Amy turned the tables on us would-be art connoisseurs and asked for us to share our ‘falling experiences’. This was surprisingly interesting — people talked about the experience of falling asleep (where one of our number said there’s a scientific name for the feeling you sometimes get of suddenly dropping when you’re on the cusp of falling asleep).
This discussion was very interesting, covering many different types of falling, and made me understand, for the first time, that perhaps Amy had found a subject that was both profoundly universal and open to many different interpretations.
And then, eventually, we were able to put the theory into practice. I was second up after our Love Art London host, who’d done it before. Falling face first, from a height of less than a metre into a crash mat seems simple –it’s nothing like as scary on paper as some of the highwire and zipwire course I’ve done — I fastened myself in the Trossachs (sounds like a Les Dawson joke) to a Go Ape! zipwire that was 400m long and 150ft above a valley.
But in those instances there’s something that will support you (the fear of falling is of anything going wrong) whereas to fall voluntarily, even from a small height, with no support is a peculiarly unsettling experience. There is definitely a split-second when you realise there’s no going back and a bit of panic sets until until you’ve worked out the best way to break the fall. (I think I bottled it a little by bending my legs to decrease the momentum).
One of the most interesting observations Amy makes about watching many people falling in this way is how quickly people get up. Being prone on your front, especially with others gathered around, is arguably an instinctively vulnerable position and while in this type of environment participants don’t feel physically threatened, they have no control or knowledge of the way that the spectators are viewing them — a situation with which, it was suggested, women were particularly uncomfortable in public.
About half-a-dozen of us had a go at falling — it certainly wasn’t obligatory — and a couple decided to fall backwards, which must be more nerve-wracking to do at the start but does avoid the face-down indignity afterwards. We all had a really interesting and open sharing of our experiences once we’d fallen. And we’d had so much fun talking and falling that we overran and had to head home (or to the pub).
But was it art? Well, officially, it definitely is as Amy is supported by the Royal British Society of Sculptors, amongst others. However, I’d come away from the event having been made to view something as apparently obvious and familiar in a much different and thought-provoking way — and surely that’s the very purpose of all good art in its widest sense?
It’s been so long since the last post I’ve taken inspiration from the chiller at the end of the aisle in my local Tesco and have produced three posts for the price of one.
Last Saturday night, primed after a few pints from the local pub, I joined the annual British tradition of watching the Eurovision Song Contest.
Nowadays this appears to be a ‘game of two halves’ affair. When the performers gamely take the stage, we indulge in the finest British tradition of thoroughly taking the piss, especially of the self-deluded countries that appear to take the competition seriously. But we’re often dumbstruck when some of the acts are so bizarre they rise above irony.
Among the general cheesiness this year was an apparent theme of giants — including a towering vampire giant from Romania — and a bizarre song from Greece called Alcohol is Free –if true then then it sounds great place for a couple of weeks in the summer. (Perhaps it’s to try and convince the Germans of the merits of their economic model?)
The second half of the show is like a hangover. All our European friends get their own back on all our withering sarcasm by apparently voting in concerted geo-political alliances which have the ultimate aim of making sure the Royaume Uni comes last – although this year, reflecting Euro tensions maybe, the Germans received the same kicking.
Like most parties, it’s a good idea to leave well before the end.
And we’re not just limited to using our own sparkling wit to complement Graham Norton’s (who maintains the peculiarly British Eurovision tradition of having an Irishman to cheer-lead the devastating put-downs). In the age of social media we can exchange our banter real-time in cyberspace in real time in a national Twitter bitchathon. Some academic could probably establish a correlation between retweeting and favouriting and the flow of booze as the night wears on.
Once, like some of the newer European countries, we seemed take the Eurovision Song Contest seriously – or maybe it’s just that I was child (just about) when the likes of Bucks Fizz and, earlier, the Brotherhood of Man actually won the thing.
Could it be that the Tory party’s neurosis over Europe can be directly traced to when the foreign Johnnies spurned Cliff Richard’s Congratulations — and, even worse, when we gave them a chance of atonement when he tried again with Power to All Our Friends?
And suspicions over our continental cousins would have been kindled when they failed to be seduced by the charms of our own Olivia Newton John. So what if she actually came from Australia? Before her fall from grace as Sandy in Grease and her raunchy Physical phase Olivia was very much the kind of girl next door beloved by the swivel-eyed loon community, albeit from 10,000 miles away.
For a period its popularity seemed to be waning – you can’t imagine the Britpop types of the 90s giving Eurovision more than a post-ironic ‘f*** off’ – but Eurovision has undergone the same renaissance as many other re-invented guilty pleasures. Who’d have ever thought ELO would become über cool?
Is it because, to the annoyance of some, that we’re far more integrated into Europe and the British lifestyle has become more comfortably continental?
Or, does the Eurovision Song Contest, amongst the uncool crooners and ubiquitous camp dancing, offer rare nuggets of unbridled eccentricity and uninhibited spontaneity – exactly the type of entertainment that’s normally lacking from prime-time Saturday night schedules?
I don’t watch vast amounts of the likes of the X-Factor, The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent (the novel-writing takes care of that) but I’ve seen enough to know that ‘success’ (at least in the first two of those programmes) is dependent on conformance to rigid stereotypes.
Simon Cowell and his ilk have condensed the music market into reliably marketable categories: the soul diva; the guy next door with that twinkle in his eye; the sassy girl-power group or the boy band with cheeky/smouldering/six-packing members (clichéd descriptions, I know, but that’s the point).
While it’s true that most music is marketed using less overt but equally cynically derivative formula, these stereotypes are particularly fail-safe. The distinction between successive years’ talent show winners are often of a similar magnitude to the great technological innovations that are emblazoned on the packaging of toothpaste or dishwasher tablets – a load of powerballs.
Nor do The X-Factor’s less manufactured rivals provide a feast of musical originality. The likes of Emili Sandé or Adele produce very competent and well-crafted albums and the bands like Coldplay can work a stadium along with the best of them (who are probably still the ancient Rolling Stones). But none of their work is likely to confound the expectations of their fans.
(This isn’t to say I dislike any of these above artists as I’ve bought CDs by all of them – yes, CDs show I’m old-fashioned enough to actually still buy music).
What tends not to succeed with these formulae are the qualities of imagination, eccentricity inventiveness and experimentation, the lack of which may explain the phenomenal popularity of the current David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A Museum. Bowie’s even on the cover of next week’s Radio Times. (There’s a programme about Bowie’s most significant five years on BBC2 tonight (25th May) – which I’ll probably watch after exchanging messages with my German friend Thomas about the all-German Champions League final at Wembley.)
I’m not a mega Bowie fan but I learned my lesson from failing to get a ticket to the V&A’s recent Hollywood exhibition so booked early (tickets went very quickly) and managed to spend a lunchtime there last month.
It wasn’t nearly long enough – it would be easy to spend an hour or so just watching the concert footage. I compensated by buying the big, heavy show catalogue – for which my groaning bookshelves won’t forgive me.
From the point of view of plugging away for years at my own creative endeavour, it was reassuring that the exhibition started with the efforts of Bowie and his record companies to persist in trying to breakthrough commercially in the late 60s – something often forgotten in career retrospectives.
Bowie spent around five years on the fringes of Swinging London (from the famous 1964 BBC Tonight long-hair interview) until Space Oddity established his reputation, commercially timed to coincide with the Apollo moon landings. (Oddly, I didn’t see any references whatsoever to The Laughing Gnome throughout the exhibition.)
That so much of the material came from his personal archive also showed how assiduously Bowie has curated his own artistic legacy.
The V&A show displays many Bowie stage costumes. Viewed close up, some of the outfits look less like iconic images than home-made fancy dress costumes. But these were an essential part of Bowie’s distinctive appeal as he underwent style makeovers at a dizzying pace, especially in the early 70s, changing from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane and so on. That’s one era that I’m fortunately too young to remember properly, although I do recall my uncle, a student at the time, showing my dad the cover of Diamond Dogs – to which the response was something like ‘What the bloody hell is that?’
Worth the entrance fee alone, particularly as a piece of social history in the week when a gay marriage bill has gone through the Commons, is the hilariously caustic Bernard Falk film for BBC Nationwide which is played on a loop in the exhibition. Dating back to 1973 it spits studied disgust at Bowie’s androgynous gender role-play. It’s well worth clicking the link to watch it on YouTube.
‘David Bowie spends two hours before his show caressing his body with paint…a bizarre, self-constructed freak…it is a sign of our times that a man with a painted face and carefully adjusted lipstick should inspire adoration from an audience of girls aged between fourteen and twenty…he will earn around half-a-million pounds this year [so] he can afford a personal make-up artist to cover his nails in silver.’
Being too young to follow Bowie’s reinventions at the time and his withdrawal (literally from drugs — his cocaine spoon is in the exhibition) and renewal in his Low period and the Berlin years, I found this an interesting section of the exhibition, especially as I like the city myself.
The first Bowie record I bought was, I think, Ashes to Ashes (that video is very peculiar), followed by Catpeople (both versions are brilliant), the weird Baal EP and the commercial Let’s Dance (I love Nile Rogers’ work from the late 70s to the mid 80s).
The videos for some of Bowie’s greatest tracks can be viewed alongside the original costumes and his own handwritten lyrics. These fascinate me. It’s an amazing experience to read lines like ‘Sailors fighting on the dancefloor, Oh man, look at those cavemen go,’ in the writer’s own hand, hearing the words sung simultaneously. Maybe it’s because I have the mind-set of a writer but I venerate these pieces of handwriting like religious artefacts (as I did viewing handwritten drafts by the likes of Jane Austen, Hardy, Eliot and J.G. Ballard at the British Library last year).
Reading Bowie’s own handwriting I realised this was the first time I’d actually fully understood many of his lyrics – especially lines like ‘strung out on heaven’s high’.
The strange juxtapositions that are a feature of Bowie’s lyrics were partially explained by an exhibit about the ‘Verbasizer’: a computer program he commissioned to randomly assemble fragments of sentences that had been fed into it . Bowie trawled the output for interesting combinations that he could develop further – maybe a useful tool for a poet or fiction writer?
I can’t agree with those who say Bowie was the most significant popular musician of the late twentieth century. However, his creation of enough artefacts to sustain a show at the V&A demonstrates, perhaps, his approach of constant re-invention and challenging of the audience through playing with the persona of the pop star meant that he was uniquely pivotal in developing the interaction between popular music and visual art.
In doing so, he created some beautiful music – I always think the ending of Ashes to Ashes is one of the most exquisite passages of popular music. Bowie was also shrewd in working with some great collaborators. They contributed hugely to the sound of the Zeitgeist of the time– for example Rick Wakeman’s haunting piano on Life On Mars and the work of Mick Ronson (who worked as a council gardener in Hull immediately prior to being one of the Spiders from Mars), Iggy Pop, Tony Visconti and many others.
The contrast between the Bowie’s rip-it-up-and-start-again approach and the industrialisation of the X Factor wannabees is also perhaps applicable to the experience of the aspiring writer. The goal is similar – to impress the judges – agents, publishers, booksellers – who can metaphorically allow their work to proceed to the next round, etc.
While some are happy to write for themselves and a limited audience, the majority of writers seek their work to be read by as widely as possible. The motivation might be very similar, in a quiet bookish way, to the attention-seekers on TV talent shows – having your name on the cover of a book on sale in a shop must be immensely gratifying, even more so after the long, lonely slog of writing a novel. On a more personal level, I’m sure most writers get an ego buzz when someone says they’ve enjoyed reading their work – why workshopping writing can be stressful – will you get a high of approbation or a low of ‘this didn’t really work for me’?
It’s likely there are more people who aspire to be novelists than join the next One Direction. While it probably wouldn’t be very televisual to film a show with hopeful writers auditioning their prose, which would probably vary between execrable or surprisingly good, it would still be compelling, competitive drama.
In the meantime, there’s no shortage of writing competitions or other forums in which writers can offer up their work for the judgement of others (writing groups, creative writing courses, etc.). Having taken many writing courses and kept in touch with quite a wide network of writer friends, both physically and online, I’ve had plenty of experience of having my own writing critiqued. I’ve also critiqued a lot of other people’s writing in return.
I like to think that I try to offer feedback by suspending, as much as possible, my own preferences and to assess whether the writing achieves the objectives with which its author set out (as far as these can be discerned). But I had an experience last week that made me wonder if I’d been swallowed up by the great ‘rules of creative writing’ homogenising machine.
A new friend who’s a writer sent me the opening of a book she was working on. It was very compelling, although I’d annotated the manuscript with quite a few notes for feedback. She’d also read the work to a writers’ group she’d recently joined and had sought the opinions of other writing friends.
We met up for a chat and when I mentioned various points that had occurred to me about the writing – like the narrative arc, scene-setting/chronology, point-of-view, intertwining of detail and back story – she invariably said ‘That’s really useful as the writers’ group said that too’ or ‘That’s exactly what my friend said’.
This was quite reassuring for her – and in some ways for me – because if my suggestions were similar to those of other people I’ve never met then my comments weren’t the ramblings of a lone, self-opinionated eccentric.
It’s likely that these other reviewers were influenced by the same courses, books/magazines on writing, conferences, agent talks, blogs, Twitter, etc. And this means that our collective perspective probably largely coincides with the general views of the professional ‘judges’ of writing: agents, publishers, editors and so on.
But, to return to the previous musical comparisons, do these universal truths mean that following these collectively-held writing axioms is more likely to shape a literary Joe McElderry than a David Bowie?
While conscientiously workshopping one’s writing is likely to purge the equivalent of cheesy, lame Eurovision entries, the tendency for writing groups to search for consensus might also dismiss the mad, off-the-wall eccentricities that are comparable to what makes the song contest’s unique appeal.
My Twitter friend, Pete Domican, makes some good points on his recent update to his blog entry about his decision to avoid buying from Amazon, which is well worth a read.
One of the points he makes in favour of using specialist bookshops is the serendipity of finding the unexpected: ‘I want to find books on a shelf that I’d have never discovered otherwise… I want to have conversations with writers who write ‘weird’ stuff…’
There’s so much advice aimed at making writers’ work stand out in the slush pile that its truisms are almost ubiquitous – and the focus is usually on trying to reduce the risk of making mistakes. It’s tempting to think that this might encourage a general shift towards the formulaic although there are certainly plenty of books published that don’t follow The Rules (probably by writers lucky enough to attract attention who have either avoided the traditional sources of advice (or deliberately contradicted them). And established writers potentially may feel freer to experiment.
Given last Saturday’s reaction from my ex-City university writing group friends to the latest section of my novel, I probably don’t have to worry too much about my own writing being over-homogenised. I was asked ‘Do you put these things in to deliberately get a reaction out of us?’ The answer is that I don’t (although I did slip in one line for that purpose in last week’s extract). It appears my novel is quite capable of setting off lively debates and reaction without any pre-meditated intervention – which I think is probably a good thing, on balance.
While I read a great deal and try to do more if possible, the necessity of grabbing bits of spare time to write my own novel means I don’t get time to get through nearly as many contemporary novels as I’d like – I’d love to get through a fraction of the number of new novels as does another Twitter writer friend, Isabel Costello.
Isabel’s blog, On the Literary Sofa, features many of her reviews of recent and forthcoming novels. The latest post lists her top ‘10’ summer reads (worth visiting, not least for the chance of winning one of the books). I noted that the majority of the titles, which on first impression seem to sit around the ‘sweet spot’ between genre and literary fiction, were set overseas, particularly in North America and South Africa.
The interesting location of the novels reflects the importance of setting to a reader – using a novel to imagine oneself transported into another world is a fundamental attraction of fiction. What Isabel’s list doesn’t appear to feature heavily is the ‘high concept’ novel.
‘High concept’ is about trying to make a novel sound completely unique – particularly when reduced to a one or two sentence ‘elevator pitch’ – and according to a lot of advice I’ve read or heard, the more quirky or intriguing the concept the better – they often involve devices like memory loss, manipulation of time, improbable challenges and so on. But, paradoxically, when an increasing number of successful novels are evidently constructed around some kind of attention-grabbing concept then the need for a similar hook starts to become another essential item on the how-to-get-published checklist.
I’m currently reading a novel in which the prose is wonderful, the main character is sympathetic and credible and the author is adept at using difficult technical skills, such as dropping in backstory that anticipates readers’ questions that have been subtly raised. It’s also constructed around an obviously whimsical, quirky concept. While the concept works as a device in giving momentum to the narrative arc, I’m already becoming quite exasperated because it also seems to stretch the plot’s credibility past breaking point. It also requires the author to address otherwise unnecessary details that result from trying to sustain the central premise.
The book has clearly worked commercially and I’m sure I’m particularly curious about the techniques used to structure a narrative. However, I wondered if it had started as a ‘quiet’ book, concentrating on character-related development, and had the concept reverse-engineered into it. I may be completely wrong – the hook may have sprung into the writer’s mind before the rest of the novel but I it will be interesting to see the approach the author takes with her next book.
Like most such fashions, hopefully the primacy of high concept ideas will pass as, while it helps make a great pitch to a Waterstones buyer, ultimately the reader will suffer if writers of sympathetic and intelligent books feel the incorporation of some over-arching novelty is a pre-requisite for publication.
Having cited David Bowie as an example of rule-breaking and diversity, some might argue his approach to showmanship is in the spirit of high concept. In the case of Bowie as an individual artist, this is probably true. However, a truer analogy with writing advice would have resulted in every aspiring singer in the mid-70s to be told the way to success was to ape Bowie and re-invent elaborate personas for each album. To some extent this happened with prog-rock (remember Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower?) but what swiftly followed was a huge two-fingers being given to this prevailing orthodoxy: punk.
I recently read John Lanchester’s Capital, partly because it has some genre similarities with my own writing. I had high expectations for the novel. These weren’t wholly fulfilled but I admired the book’s ambition and the way it contradicted much of the received writing wisdom.
The ‘ultimate question’ asked in courses and workshops about a novel is usually ‘whose story is it?’. Capital can’t answer this – there are well over half-a-dozen characters who share equal prominence. And it’s not the story of Pepys Road (in south London, nominally where it’s set) either because there’s no real connection between the characters apart from vague demographics – some don’t even live there. There are also many sudden POV shifts, a large amount of exposition by ‘telling’ and there isn’t much of a narrative ‘chain of causality’.
Some of Capital’s characters work better than others but, as a reader, I’d rather Lanchester attempted the diversity of writing from the perspective of a female Zimbabwean parking attendant or a character innocently caught on the fringes of religious extremism than to stick with what seems the safer, more comedic territory of the disillusioned banker or football club fixer.
The book similarly varies in tone – ranging from terminal illness through the sexual motivation of Polish builders to the topical humour of an irredeemably consumerist banker’s wife. But I can imagine a writer being given advice on pitching a similar novel ‘but what is it – a romance, a comedy, social commentary’?
Like Eurovision and Bowie, Capital defies easy categorisation, and should be admired for that because if a ‘rules of the X-Factor’ approach is over-rigorously applied then we’re in danger of losing the serendipity and variety of the eccentric and individual that provide genuine surprise and delight.
One of the questions that recurs in my novel is the importance of location — especially for artists.In my novel Kim is a German artist who has arrived to London from Berlin in the expectation that it’s the place to be to make her name in the world of modern art. During the novel she also experiences the bucolic joys of the rural England that can still can be found, surprisingly, less than forty miles from grungy Shoreditch.
While it could be argued that Dalston, Stoke Newington, Hackney Wick or further flung places are where the artistic action is now happening, the spiritual homeland of contemporary urban art in London (if not the world) is still the Shoreditch/Hoxton/Brick Lane area. It’s been deserted by the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the late 90s (the group that included Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst and the subject of the interestingly titled Lucky Kunsts by Gregor Muir (although there’s a big Hirst formaldehyde thing apparently in the new Tramshed restaurant on Rivington Street). However, the place is becoming more corporatised with the arrival of the likes of Google in ‘Tech City’ at Old Street Roundabout — and endorsements by the likes of Boris Johnson and David Cameron.
As an aside, I met Mat Collishaw (apparently Emin’s ex) in person at a Love Art London event a few weeks ago at Blaine Southern in Hanover Square at his most recent exhibition — where his painting were going for £110,000 a piece.
Nevertheless, the locality still attracts the most infamous graffiti artists and is stuffed with galleries. I recently followed a walk from Hoxton Overground station via Shoreditch to Old Street in Stephen Millar’s London’s Hidden Walks 2 and found plenty of urban grittiness only a street or two away from where the hipsters hang out — at the top of Hoxton Street, for example.
The association of artists with the Shoreditch area suggests that location is an important factor for artists to attract attention from dealers, critics and buyers. It has a long historical precedent: some of the best known painters often made long journeys to their best markets. In Beak Street in Soho a plaque marks the location where Canaletto stayed for two years in the eighteenth century. He came to London to sell his pictures to patrons who liked reminders of the Grand Tour. Appropriately enough, the building now houses the Venetian-inspired restaurant, Polpo.
So having written about an artist who comes from Shoreditch and spends time in the Chilterns, I was fascinated to read a story on my local newspaper’s website about an artist who was was, in a way, doing the opposite.
Alexis Cole is an artist who works from home in Thame (which is a picturesque Oxfordshire market town with a huge main street with many good pubs about 45 miles out of London). Co-incidentally, like Kim, she comes from Europe — Croatia in Alexis’s case, although, when you meet her, it’s obvious she’s lived in this country for a while (she went to university here).
This was the first time Alexis had exhibited her work at a gallery and she chose to do so not in rural Thame but in the heart of the London contemporary art scene — at the Brick Lane Gallery Annexe (on Sclater Street, which connects Brick Lane with Shoreditch High Street Overground station). It’s a location that’s bang in the middle of the arty fringes of the City — close to Redchurch Street.
Alexis exhibited work in three broad genres: papier mache flowers (which were very popular); pastel pictures, generally of animals or geographical destinations; and abstract acrylic paintings that often had objects embedded in the surface. The last style reminded me of a cross between the abstract squares of colour of Mark Rothko and the collages of Kurt Schwitters — the German artist whose work can currently be seen in an an exhibition at Tate Britain (and mentioned previously in this blog post).
I got in touch with Alexis, explaining my interest, and visited her show, Transcendence, at the gallery the day after it opened in March. (It’s probably not giving away any spoilers about the novel to say that it wouldn’t be much of a story involving an artist if she didn’t put on any exhibitions.)
And I was impressed by Alexis’s artwork — as were other visitors. I’ve included a few photos of my favourite examples of Alexis’s artwork with this blog post, along with a photo of the artist herself, although as they were taken with a phone camera, they don’t do justice to the exhibition.
Alexis’s website (click here for the link) has much better photographs of the paintings and I’d recommend visiting it, although the three-dimensional works, like the collages and flowers need to be seen properly in person.
As this blog shows, I’ve tried to learn over the past couple of year more about how book publishing operates and I’m also interested how it compares with the market for art — an issue that’s close to the heart of my character, Kim.
As far as I can tell, the art market appears to work in a less structured way because artworks are individual entities (or scarce copies in the case of numbered prints). This means they’re far more expensive to buy than books. For example the Battersea Affordable Art Fair which I attended recently with Love Art London defines ‘affordable’ as anything under £4,000.
By contrast, the written word is, in essence, intangible: like recorded music, once the work has been created it can be copied an infinite number of times. However, in the physical world, the fixed costs of printing a book are high. Aside from editing and marketing a book, publishers provide the large amounts of capital that funds book printing and distribution — a formidable barrier to entry for new writers.
On the other hand, an artist has to spend money on materials, whereas all a novelist needs is, arguably, paper and ink. (A Windows 95 spec computer with a prehistoric version of Word is good enough to write a manuscript — and, as for a fast internet connection, the likes of Twitter probably erodes any of potential productivity gain.)
Yet the artist creates an object that can immediately be sold (unless it’s performance or conceptual art) whereas the writer’s work results in a file on the computer or, without efficient printing technology, a heavy wad of A4 paper wrapped with an elastic band.
Given that, in all but the most extreme cases, a book takes longer to create than a piece of art, the writer needs to sell a substantial number of copies of a work just to cover the cost of its production (let alone make any income from the time spent writing it). Conversely an artist will sell a lesser number of works but they’ll usually be individually created (hence the controversy over the value of works that are very similar, like Damien Hirst’s spot paintings).
To market their work, an artist needs an exhibition space and then a means of attracting potential customers to it. Commercial galleries will often provide these functions in exchange for a substantial cut of the selling price of an artwork (many represent artists exclusively).
However, there are many other ways for artists to engage directly with their customers — it could be as simple as hiring a gallery space, hanging the art on the wall with a price tag and creating as much publicity as possible or maybe just hope for word of mouth to take off. There are also plenty of routes to market outside the traditional gallery channels for artists — for example, I know of a number of pubs that have dedicated art gallery spaces or are keen to showcase local artists’ work for sale.
No one opens a pop-up bookshop to sell their self-published novel — books have tended to be sold through a relatively limited number of outlets. Because of the small absolute profit made on books, they need to be sold in quantity — and in a place where they’re in competition with many other alternative titles.
Amazon is arguably even more dominant of the ebook market than Waterstones or the supermarkets are over the printed book. However, the marginal cost of reproducing ebooks is tiny and it is easy to list an ebook for sale on their site (albeit along with millions of anonymous titles) — and these factors may start to make the book market start to take on more similarities with the art market. For example, intermediaries (publishers, agents, booksellers) might be circumvented by those who can raise their visibility in the market by other means.
How artists measure their own success?
Certainly, as with writers, one substantial achievement would be to make a living from their artwork. Surprisingly few writers are able to survive on income from book royalties alone but there is a fairly well-defined progression of levels through which writers progress — a bit like a computer game. For example, being represented by an agent, getting a publishing deal are daunting hurdles to clear. And once published there are many stark metrics by which publishing is analysed — Nielsen Bookscan figures, Amazon ratings, etc.
It’s true that the art world has many prizes that are keenly contested, as does the literary world. However, there’s no equivalent of the Sunday Times Top Bestseller list for artists — which raises fundamental issues about how much of a commodity books are, as opposed to examples of creative art that can’t be ranked by sales figures.
Alexis was very happy with the exhibition — e-mailing me afterwards to say she was thrilled about how it had gone. She received some useful feedback from viewers of her work, sold several paintings and received some commissions. With a steady stream of inquisitive visitors to the gallery, the Brick Lane location seems to have worked well for Alexis.
I was walking to the station a few days ago — the long way round because the footpath over the fields is too muddy (see the melting snow in the photo) and noticed a wonderful sunrise emerging over the tops of the Chiltern Hills, specifically Beacon Hill and Pulpit Hill (to the left and right respectively). I took a quick couple of photos with my phone and thought no more about them until I came to download some other photos to my laptop — and then was blown away by the way the camera had captured the moment. (The photo above hasn’t been altered in colour by any photo-editing software).
The beaming, beacon-like sun means I like this photo in a slightly superstitious, borderline-karmic way too because in my mind, the imaginary village where much of the novel is located approximately under where the sun is breaking through the clouds — just on over the scarp of Chilterns. In reality, there is already a steaming hot-bed of scandal and highly-secret political intrigue nestling on the other side of those hills. It’s called Chequers — and while what goes on in there is no doubt stranger than fiction, its stories are subject to the hundred years rule.
There’s something also a little Turner-like about the yellow blast of light spilling over so much of the sky between the hills, which also ties in with the novel. One of the reasons Kim considers leaving London for the countryside is that she wants to paint landscapes — something there’s limited scope to do in Shoreditch and Hackney. A German artist coming to Britain also draws on a strong tradition for landscape painting common to both countries — and a subject I’ve been learning about as I’ve been writing the novel.
Caspar David Friedrich is a dominant figure in early nineteenth century German art and his landscape paintings depict a romantic melancholy that, it could be argued, reflects a strand of the German character – certainly a phlegmatic love of the open-air. I recently went to a lunchtime lecture at the National Gallery titled Caspar David Friedrich and the Tragedy of the Landscape, which rattled through slides of dozens of his paintings, accompanied by an illuminating commentary. Kim will know Friedrich inside out.
Friedrich was a contemporary of the great British Romantic landscape artists, notably Constable and Turner, whose most famous paintings, such as The Hay Wainor The Fighting Temeraire, hang in the likes of the National Gallery. I went to the last weekend of the current Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday and saw a few of the lesser known paintings by the famous three in the exhibition’s title, as well as examples by many of their lesser known predecessors. Turner’s fishing rod was also exhibited!
However, the National Gallery’s Room 34, in which those two painting hang either side of the entrance door, always awes me. Unlike writers, whose physical works are interesting curiosities but lose nothing in reproduction, painters’ original works are fascinating in person because of their physicality. It’s fascinating to stand close to the Turners, in particular, and see the brush strokes and the varying thicknesses of paint on the canvas — there’s a direct connection between artist and viewer that’s unique in painting.
I had the chance at the Tate Britain’s newLooking at the View landscape exhibition to see the original of a print that hangs on the wall above my computer at home — John Nash’s wonderful The Cornfield(sadly the Tate’s website doesn’t show an image of the painting but instead suggests his The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble, which is of a landscape less half a mile away from where I’m currently typing).
I’d looked before for The Cornfield in the Tate and found it not on display so was very pleased to see it hung in the exhibition. I spent several minutes looking carefully at the way Nash had created the authentic, yet modernist, representation of wheatsheaves and summer foliage in the original. It was also fascinating to stand back from the painting in the gallery and observe the way Nash had cast the low sunlight and lengthening shadows across the painting. Painted in the last summer of the First World War in 1918 in the Chilterns near Chalfont St. Giles, it’s such a beautifully understated painting that both nods back to the Romantic tradition and anticipates the disruptions of the early twentieth century that it features on the cover of the book of the David Dimbleby A Picture of Britainseries of a few years ago.
The Looking at the View exhibition displays many classic works but chooses to display these alongside more modern works — often photographic — and so seeks to show that landscape painting is a vibrant part of the contemporary art scene — and not just about haystacks and water mills. For example, there’s a series of 56 photos called Concorde Gridby Wolfgang Tillman. They’re all taken around Heathrow Airport’s perimeter, in Hatton Cross, Cranford and Hounslow West in 1997 and, in addition to Concorde passing over , they feature things like the BA maintenance base (inside which I worked for four years and close by for an additional eight), the road sign on the A30 and what seems like a scrapyard on Hatton Road.
As the Tate exhibition shows (it runs until June), landscape is something that still holds a fascination for both artist and viewer and there’s plenty of scope for Kim to move to the landscape of the photo above and start to paint her own unique synthesis of Germanic melancholy, English pastoral, Berlin reinvention and Shoreditch cool.
And, in doing so, she’s almost retracing the journey of another famous (real) German artist — Kurt Schwitters — co-incidentally also the subject of a major current exhibition at Tate Britain, Schwitters in Britain, which I’ve also seen. Schwitters is most known for his collages, the lasting effect of which can be seen even now in most graphic art (e.g. magazines), inspired by his concept of Merz.
Like Kim, Schwitters came from Hanover, where much of his work is now curated in the Sprengel Museum. I used to go to Hanover at least a dozen times a year over a period of eight or nine years so I may have picked up Schwitters’s story without realising it. (I certainly remember the Sprengel Museum itself — it was near the Machsee, location for a wonderful beer and bratwurst festival in the summer.) But Schwitters being an entartete Kunst, he sensibly fled to Norway and then to Britain. He was interned for a while in the Isle of Man and the Tate exhibition has his original application, made whilst interned, to remain in the UK. It is typed in faltering English, describing himself being ‘called by the Nazis’ for being ‘a degenerated artist’.
The form is humbling and heartbreaking to read but also hugely uplifting, because the application was eventually successful and Schwitters was released to live freely in London. He subsequently moved to Ambleside in the Lake District, where he made a living by painting portraits and also made many paintings of the dramatic local landscapes. In 1948 Schwitters learned he’d been granted British citizenship — on the day before he died .
Last week I ventured into deepest Stoke Newington for another fascinating Love Art London event. I wasn’t sure what to expect in advance of visit to Rana Begum‘s studio.
The Love Art London website promised that ‘tightly controlled compositions, hard-edge lines coated in thick glossy resin, impeccably applied colour and seductively tactile reflective surfaces are all very powerful features of this extraordinary artist’s work. Rana’s paintings are each an exercise in rhythm, symmetry & repetition which satisfy the eye’s appreciation of order and beauty in its simplest form.’
Indeed. And this is an accurate description of the finished works — but we discovered that behind the discipline and order of Rana’s art there were also some fascinating stories, involving some chance and almost haphazard events, which are as fascinating as the geometry of the work.
Rana’s studio is hidden down the end of a mews just off Stoke Newington Church Street. On entering, it seems more like an engineering workshop than anywhere an artist might be at work, as you walk past metal cutting and sanding machines, propane bottles and stockpiles of aluminium. It’s a paradox when you meet Rana, who’s physically quite petite, that these industrial tools and materials are those with which she (and her team) create her artworks.
Although she is known to her team, uncompromisingly, as ‘the boss’, Rana was an informative, generous and charming host. As the Love Art London party trooped around her studio, she took us through the lifecycle of a typical piece of her work, a good example of which is in the photo above, taken in the studio.
For one of these pieces, using parallel metal bars, square sectioned pieces of aluminium are inspected and then cleaned, cut and sanded and prepared for powder-coating at a specialist supplier — usually in black or a neutral colour. Rana then carefully paints the surface of the material of the component parts as part of an overall pattern. These pieces of metal are precision engineered — to thousands of a millimetre — to ensure that they hang exactly in place.
As can be seen in the photograph above, the colour works in its own right, visibly applied to the metal surface. However, given a blank background and enough light, the colour casts a diffuse reflection on to the space in between the bars. If two facing bars are finished in different colours opposing each other, the reflection of each interferes with its opposite to form a third colour, which often subtly changes in proportion to the quantity of its ‘parent’ colours (often the patterns taper along the inside metal surfaces).
When the piece is viewed as a whole, these interactions form a fascinating overall pattern within the bars. The photograph above is an example of this effect. It’s very clever – almost as if these industrial, inanimate objects have created their own artwork independently. Add the changing quality of natural light and these inanimate sculptures constantly evolve.
Rana has produced these large scale works for public spaces — one is on Regent Street — and other can be found in places such as health centres, probably a good choice as the pieces can be contemplated for a long time.
She also produces similarly geometrically orientated artworks in other materials — folding sheets of metal like origami and some amazing folding wood benches.
But Rana’s own story is also enthralling — and echoes some of the themes in the last blog post. She was born in rural Bangladesh but moved with her family to this country when she was eight, not being able to speak a word of English. She described how she may have expressed herself primarily through art in the period where she tried to catch up with the language — a skill she extremely modestly said she hadn’t yet fully mastered — don’t believe her, she has — I had a lovely, long conversation with her in the pub after the visit (which was so unpretentious that it ended with Rana pointing me in the right direction for the number 73 bus).
While Rana’s patterns are stark and geometrical, her studio had much human warmth, even eccentricity. There’s the evidence of her two young children’s about the place but it’s additionally home to two team members. One is Pierre, her French (I think) assistant who shares much of the donkey work of sanding and cutting metal. The other is Bob — a thoroughly down-to-earth, somewhat grizzled, East End bloke who, amongst other things, drills the keyholes in the metal so the works can be hung precisely.
It turned out Bob played another role in the Rana’s story – she’d actually bought the studio from him. They’d become acquainted while Rana was working in an artists’ co-operative studio in the building next door. Bob was looking to retire from his engineering business when, serendipitously, Rana was also looking for her own premises.
In a mutually beneficial arrangement, Bob sold his workshop to Rana but, realising that her artwork employed the use of some of his skills, he began to help out with the preparation. Some of Bob’s metal-working machines remain in the studio and he still pops in to help out a few days a week. He told me he has no idea about the artistic side of Rana’s work but perhaps a trace of his non-nonsense stoicism comes through in the minimalist designs, regardless?
As a result, the studio is an idiosyncratic combination of corners full of Bob’s tools, with the accretion of the detritus of years of use, and Rana’s bright, clean minimalist office and exhibition space. There are also areas of the studio where Rana gets thoroughly messy – I looked in the spraying room where the painting is done and I noticed shelves full of the Montana Gold spraycans I used in my own street art experiment.
Rana is a now a very successful artist, exhibiting at Bischoff/Weiss plus a gallery in Germany and in India, as well as the major art fairs, such as Frieze and the London Art Fair. I can’t help thinking her story, especially that of her studio, is something of a metaphor for how London has changed – and is changing – with artists moving into previously industrial areas of the capital. But in the case of Rana, she’s not displaced what existed before, but adapted it and worked with such an unlikely artist’s assistant as Bob, to create art that’s both new and inventive and also very reflective of its time.
I’ve recently been writing a new scene for the novel involving street art. As readers of the blog will know,Â I’ve spent plenty of time recently learning about street art and observing it around Shoreditch (on Thursday this week I was looking at some recent street art in the car park opposite Village Underground, under the new Overground viaduct, with Jamie and Sabina fromÂ I Know What I Like).
What I didn’t know that much about was how the artists actually created their work — I’d seen artists at work, like Amanda Marie (seeÂ previous posting) but I wasn’t aware of basic information like where they got their materials, how much they cost and the fundamental experience of what it was like to press your finger on the nozzle of a spraycan and to try and do something creative, especially in an outdoor environment and possibly looking over your shoulder to avoid being arrested.
So I decided to try for myself. Last weekend I became ‘macnovel’ the street artist.
First of all, I had to buy the paint — and I wanted the proper stuff that serious artists use, not Halford’s car bodywork cans. An online search produced plenty of websites that would supply aerosol paint cans for delivery but I couldn’t find many bricks and mortar outlets, even in central London. Â The best place I could find wasÂ Chrome and BlackÂ on Bethnal Green Road in Shoreditch, located, perhaps notÂ coincidentally, just round the corner from Redchurch Street.
Chrome and Black is a supplier (I’dÂ hesitateÂ to call it a shop) dedicated toÂ graffitiÂ and street art. It reminded me vaguely of one of those old Swedish government owned liquor stores or the hardware shop in the famous Two Ronnies’ Four Candles sketch, as all the merchandise was locked away behind metal screens or glass cases — and the spraycans and markers came in a bewildering variety of colours. It’s not the sort of place where customers go to casually browse.
Dressed for work and carrying myÂ Evening Standard, there was no way I was going to pretend I was some kind of coolÂ graffitiÂ artist (although from what I overheard I think there may have been a genuine street artist ‘name’ in the place at the time). So I asked the bloke behind the counter for something I could play around and experiment with. He recommended me the Montana Gold range and I took a red and black can of each (they were about Â£3.99 each, by the way).
Having a couple of cans of graffiti paint stuffed in my work rucksack made the journey back on Chiltern Railways feel faintly subversive. I’d guess a fair number of my fellow passengers would like to bring back hanging for anyone caught inÂ possessionÂ of spraycans.
I had the cans but where the hell was I going to use them? Even if I was inclined to do my experimentation in public places there are hardly the post-industrial walls of Brick Lane near where I live. The most readily available blank canvasses would probably be sheep in the fields.
But I remembered the materials used byÂ Adam NeateÂ when he was unknown — he’sÂ now one of the world’s most famous street artists. (The story goes, which is a little romanticised, that heÂ literallyÂ left his works in the street for anyone to keep who found them.)
Neate painted his early work — and still sometimes does — on cardboard. He’s now an exceptionally collectible artist which is ironic as the base material for his work is potentially the potentially the contents of a typical recycling bin (he got his cardboard from charity shops I believe). His spray painting has an effect almost like alchemy on this otherwise base material,Â transformingÂ it into something that art collectors will pay tens of thousands of pounds for.
Having a backlog of cardboard waiting to go to the tip, I decided to use it as my artist’s medium –Â as it happens,Â mainly packaging from a John Lewis fold-up bed. But I didn’t want to be ‘just’ an aerosol artist. I wanted to have a go at stencilling too. So I found what I thought was suitable — a thin piece of Amazon card packaging — and cutÂ outÂ a few shapes Â with a Stanley knife.
I went out into the garden with a willing helper, my spraycans, stencils and cardboard and had a go. And some of my efforts can be seen in the photos here.
Any thoughts on the artwork? I’m actually quite attached to it. I thought I’d throw it away instantly but I’ve hung on to it as I quite like it. Anyone who reads my manuscript will be able to spot exactly which part of the novel I was writing at the time by the stencilling I’ve attempted to do in the picture below.
Clearly they’re just practice efforts but I really enjoyed it –and it was valuable for the writing. There are aspects of the experience that can’t be imagined that easily — or gleaned from a Google search — like the way it’s easy to over-apply the paint so that it starts to dribble and the way the paint coats your fingers. And then there’s the smell — it reeks of solvent. My novel’s graffiti painting scene takes place in an enclosed space and there’s no way that, having had a go at this myself, I could write the piece in the novel without mentioning the smell.
Becoming a temporary street artist might be the most extreme example of how I may have become a ‘method writer’. I don’t know whether there is such a thing but, if there is, I’d imagine it to be a little like the method school of acting which, to simplify greatly, means the actor prepares for the performance by trying to experience the world of the character.
According to theÂ Lee Strasberg Institute websiteÂ (he’s credited with inventing the technique) it uses ‘the creative play of the affective memory in the actorâ€™s imagination’ to Â ‘[create] performances grounded in the human truth of the moment’ — which I take to mean the actor tries to do the same stuff as the character — so these may be drawn upon in performance. So if the character is a dustman, perhaps the actor goes out on a dustcart a few mornings. I’m not sure how it works if a character is something like a serial killer, though.
Even so, method actingÂ reinforces Aristotle’s belief that ‘the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself’ — and this must also be true with writing. If the writer doesn’t care about a character, why should the reader? If the writer wants a scene to evoke emotions that create physical reactions in the reader, maybe of danger, peril, grief, anticipation or anger in the reader, then these ought to be more vivid or genuine if the writer also experienced these feelings at the time of putting the words on the page.
The same must also be true for the physical reactions triggered by effective sex scenes. If you’re writing about two characters who are so attracted to each other then it must be a mark of effective writing to engender a sympathetic reaction in the reader — which is probably why they’re so difficult to write that many writers avoid them altogether. Â And if they’re difficult to write then it’s a step further to workshop the stuff with your writing course friends, although that’s a pretty good deterrent against going too far along the path of purple prose.
I suspect most of the candidates for the Literary Review’sÂ Bad Sex Awards, due to be announced fairly soon, ended up on the list by obfuscating the fundamental, but discomforting, truths of writing about sex behind over-elaborate prose or strained metaphors.
My MMU Creative Writing tutor last year had the good grace to admit to our class that he won this dubious prize for a passage in novel of his in the 1990s, which used a sewing machine analogy. I have actually read the passage in question and I don’t think it’s particularly cringeworthy, more taken out of context. He must have been unlucky — or lucky, if you think that sort of publicity is the good sort.
Sadly, my method writing hasn’t involved sex and sewing machines but the experience of writing the novel has influenced my life in plenty of other ways. Ironically I’m finding the normal advice of ‘write what you know’ could be better phrased in my case,Â as ‘know what you write’.
The novel’s themes include business, food and pubs (of which I have a fair amount of practical experience, particularly of the latter) and also art, which is something I’ve learned a lot about while writing the novel. As well as a number of viewings I’ve been to with I Know What I Like, I’ve also taken advantage of working in London to visit many of the high profile art exhibitions and events this summer.
Most recently, I’ve been to see the Turner Prize show and the Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain, Richard Hamilton and the Titian exhibition at the National, British Design at the V&A, the Bauhaus Exhibition (and another I can’t remember) at the Barbican, Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern, the Invisible Art show at the Hayward Gallery, the Lazaridis Bedlam exhibition at the Old Vic Tunnels (used as MI6’s bunker in Skyfall),Â theÂ Moniker Art Fair at Village Underground and various others.
I doubt I’d have gone to a single event had I not started writing the novel — although going to so many events reduces the time I have available to complete the novel. I sometimes beat myself up about this but, on the other hand, I started writing the novel when working in the cultural wasteland that was an office park on the wrong side of Luton Airport, where the most exciting way of spending a lunchtime was to browse the aisles of the local Asda (although it’s an ambition of mine to write a novel that’s successful and mainstream enough to be put on the shelves there).
ButÂ bingingÂ on art and cultural events begs the fascinating question of which came first — did I start to write a novel about an artist because I wanted to discover more about art — or is it purely secondary?
And then there’s the access I’ve had to artists via the brilliant Love Art London — about whom I’veÂ blogged before. How did I know that Adam Neate painted on cardboard? Because I heard him tell me himself at the Love Art London viewing of his show atÂ Elms Lester’s Painting RoomsÂ in St. Giles. I asked the gallery owner how much Adam Neate’s work was priced (as there were no figures on display next to the works on display). I was told they were in the region of Â£25-30k per piece (and one of his works was recently sold for Â£80k at auction). The bloke seriously thought I might buy one. Well, maybe, but probably only if this novel gets to the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list one day.
When the artist is able to sell work to serious collectors for so much money, it’s great credit to both Adam Neate and Love Art London that he attended our viewing to talk about the work — and even more impressive that he came to the pub with us afterwards — the appropriately namedÂ Angel.
Adam Neate was an incredibly nice, modest bloke — and I know because I ended up chatting to him for about fifteen minutes — even bought him a pint of Sam Smith’s. We talked about Berlin, as he was going there the next day for a weekend break. I told him a bit about the novel — as Berlin is where Kim was trained in the novel — and I’d guess that Berlin and London are the two main centres of urban art, certainly in Europe.
Not a bad journey in terms of method writing — starting by conceiving a character who’s aÂ street artist, then trying to have a practical go at what she does and then talking about the fictional character with someone who’s achieved in reality what my character is striving for in the novel.
I could have spent the time revising the novel rather than going out and validating my portrayal of the artist. Instead I might have a finished novel by now but would it be genuine and informed enough to move readers, particularly those who are interested in art?
It’s worth making a note about the fascinating space at Elms Lesters. The gallery was originally built for huge scale painting for West End theatres. It still has an incredible space about forty feet high and much less wide that was constructed for painting theatrical backdrops — and is now used for filming things like music videos as much as for anything else. It’s quite an extraordinary building.
It’s a slightly cheesy caption for the above photo but those in the know will also recognise it as the name of a pub near Old Street, on the edge of Shoreditch and the place I ended up with the Love Art London group after the graffiti tour.
And even though I took it myself, I have to say I love the above photograph. It perfectly sums up the sense of place and the spirit of Shoreditch that I try to capture in part of the novel.
Itâ€™s not the most brilliant quality photograph (I took it with my phone), neither is it as well composed as it could be â€“ but the spontaneity of the moment is what makes it.
Theyâ€™re a little hard to spot at first but itâ€™s a bride and groom on the right of the picture, being posed by their wedding photographer. And rather than a verdant churchyard theyâ€™ve chosen to use Ben Eineâ€™s colourful mural on Ebor Street in Shoreditch. (Thereâ€™s a more sombre grey and black Eine work on the opposite side of the street on the Londonewcastle building that hosted the Catlin prize â€“ see previous post.)
Iâ€™d come across the wedding party by chance on a Saturday afternoon. Iâ€™d been to visit Boxpark â€“ the container mall shopping centre by Shoreditch High Street overground station. I was on my way back from a very pleasant Vietnamese meal (recommended by Bren Gosling) at a place at the end of the Kingsland Road with some of our ex-City writers after weâ€™d had a Saturday morning workshopping session. Afterwards Iâ€™d decided to have another wander around Shoreditch and see if any of the graffiti Iâ€™d seen a week previously had changed
As I was crossing Bethnal Green Road and heading for Redchurch Street, some wedding cars pulled up and all these smartly dressed people got out and headed for this remarkable area of street art. I wandered past while they shot a few photos and, while keeping a respectful distance,Â I realised I could get a photograph myself which principally featured one of Stikâ€™s figures on the Londonewcastle building and Eineâ€™s mural but also captured the incongruity of the smart, formal wedding party. The brideâ€™s stunningly white dress is such a contrast to the chaos of the street â€“ the bike, the bollards, the leaning traffic sign and the rubbish. But the bride and groom (Iâ€™ve no idea who they were) seemed to be loving the setting, although the Stik man appears to be anxiously casting his watchful gaze over the couple.
If I can manage to capture in my writing even a small amount of the sense of place and the exuberance and optimism in that picture then Iâ€™ll be very happy
Thereâ€™s another picture below from the Boxpark end of Ebor Street.
I guess she’d quite admire the scale and audacity of the work as I did — and the vivid colours. Yet work like Twombly’s certainly encourages those who see modern, abstract art of displaying as much technical skill as a child’s painting and of suggesting those who proclaim themselves the arbiters of its undoubted quality are those who would insist that the emperor was fully clothed — as this blog entry on the Telegraph website by Harry Mount makes clear.
Kim will produce mainly abstract works — partly because it will be amusing to see James struggle to make head or tail of what they mean — but she’s be technically trained to a very high standard, something which will hold James in awe of her talent and provide a reason for his attraction to her — which is an engine of the plot. James won’t ‘get’ the likes of Cy Twombly but Kim will try and explain to him why Twomby’s work sells for millions — but perhaps she’ll question why it is that his does but her own doesn’t.
Speaking of silly money paid for art, BBC1 on Sunday featured a programme called‘The World’s Most Expensive Paintings’ in which Alistair Sooke, an art critic, did an Alan Freeman style reverse countdown of the Top Ten. As all were in the tens of millions of dollars bracket and the most expensive — one of the Picassos (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust) — was $135m then it was no surprise that super-rich collectors were the owners of these amazingly valuable artefacts. Sooke’s analysis of the painting, pointing out subtle expressions of eroticism, sadism and the painter’s own hidden initials, was persuasive in asserting its value as a work of art — but $135m?
The painting is currently on display in Tate Modern, having been loaned by its Georgian owner — perhaps I’ve walked past it? The gallery would no doubt try to avoid the vulgarity of drawing attention to the value of the work. However, many of the top ten are hidden in private collections or, according to rumour, may even have been burnt.
The programme raised many of the questions about the relationship between art and money that crop up in The Angel — almost all the art works were produced when the artists were relatively penniless — although the likes of Picasso made money later on his reputation. The artworks are valuable because they are scarce and in demand as much as anything intrinsic about their artistic quality. Often a painting is purchased because it had been part of the previous famous collection — its value being acquired through provenance. There’s an interesting paradox that art, which by definition is created for the intellect or to pleasure the senses, has such a close relationship with money to the extent that at the very high end, art is potentially only appreciated because it’s expensive.
While Kim’s art work doesn’t sell for very much, she’s still chasing the moneyed-rich for what income she does get: the proximity of Shoreditch to the City underlines the symbiotic relationship between the two. James, unlike most City types, actually tries to look at art for its aesthetic, rather than monetary value — and this will be a welcome change for Kim.
The BBC1 programme had a real-life story worthy of any novel about a Picasso, La RÃªve, about to be sold for an eight figure sum in dollars by its Las Vegas casino owner, Steve Wynn, who then accidentally stuck his elbow through the canvas, reducing its value by many millions. He said the good thing about the damage was that he did it himself, not anyone else — one wonders what might have happened if it had been a cleaner or security guard.
A couple of weekends ago I decided, purely in the name of research for the novel, to research the area where Kim lives — what has been to me for many years the infamous borough of Hackney.
I organised a modest pub crawl (five pubs — a proper one for me goes into double figures) and was joined by my old drinking chums Andy, Jon and Simon (and later Antony) and Guy from the City course also joined in impromptu.
In my experience Hackney isn’t part of the ‘maggot-ridden cess pit that is London’s East End’ (as Alan Patridge described the land of jellied eels and rhyming slang). It seems less threatening than many areas of south-west London that I lived in or near in the late 80s and 90s (I had two Crimewatch murders within a couple of hundred yards of where I lived in Hounslow).
We started off at the Pembury Tavern — a cavernous beer hall of a place just outside the centre near Hackney Downs station. We then walked through the town itself to the Globe at Mornington Lane — a modern boozer opposite Tesco’s about whose staff the phrase ‘salt of the earth’ could have been invented. We went on to a couple more pubs before ending up in the marvellous Charles Lamb in Islington — something of a post-workshop regular now for Guy and myself.
Crossing the road towards the pub we got a glimpse of the Hackney that will have attracted Kim. An old bike had been painted and adorned with flowers and was apparently attached to a lamppost just over the pelican crossing. Guy was very taken with this piece of improvised street art — exactly the sort of object the artists in his novel would have created. Not a utilitarian street bike of the sort promoted by Boris Johnson but one that has no practical value whatsoever — it’s just mysteriously ‘there’ to make a statement.
And so it seemed to confirm to me that this is Kim’s domain in London — shuttling between Hackney and Shoreditch on the 55 bus — the one Guy and I took there from Mike B’s place after the Saturday morning workshop.
Having been thwarted twice by the incompetence of the Olympic ticketing system and having failed to buy any tickets for events at the nearby Olympic Park for 2012, I may go back to the area and have a look around at the changes associated with the games. Fish Island looks well worth a look.
I’ve been writing a part of the novel where Kim is painting and she uses the concept of colour association to both tell James what she’s thinking and also to send him a coded message and ultimatum, should he be perceptive enough to pick it up.
It’s something of a Rothko-inspired meditation on colour and I’ve tried to come up with a rough approximation of what it might be like. Click on the picture to find how the character’s thoughts might be represented in another way. I won’t say what she titles the painting.
One of our course (see the links to Bren Gosling’s blog on the sidebar) prompted an interesting e-mail exchange between several of us when he asked if anyone else had crises of confidence, particularly once they’d read a passage from a great novel which they’d compared with their own work.
I guess this is pretty universal. Almost everyone agreed that they had similar bouts of self-doubt. Rick made some good points: don’t compare your early drafts of your novel with the polished final draft of a master; anyone who thinks they’re a pretty cool writer when they’re only at an early draft stage is almost certainly not.
My own contributions to the debate were:
‘Paranoia, self-doubt and angst’ — sounds like the sort of job description that’s written for me. I must be aspiring to do the right thing — I’ve yet to experience that much despair yet but I’m sure I will. Â I agree with everyone else’s comments about the ups and downs and the difficulties of the writing process. One paradox that several writers that I’ve read have commented upon, and that I also find myself, is that while you know the actual process of writing can be very stimulating and rewarding once you’ve started, that there’s a massive reluctance to begin and almost any other activity is used to displace starting it. In the end, once I make myself do it, I enjoy it to the extent that I often completely lose track of time and get completely drawn in to the process.Â I was flicking through the Carole Blake book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ that’s on the reading list and she makes a point about the importance of positive feedback. She’s a literary agent and she says she’s full of admiration for writers who plug away in a fairly anti-social job for completely unpredictable rewards — something she says she could never do. She then admits to occasionally feeling hugely guilty, mainly due to time pressure, for giving her authors feedback that sums up the positives in a couple of sentences and then goes on to list several pages of corrections or suggestions for improvement (this is for established authors with books that are very likely to be published).Â She recognises that good writers are self-critical to the extent that the deficiencies in their own work leap out far more than the positives. However, often people (maybe this is a British thing in particular) tend to hold back on positive feedback, which they may feel is self-evident, when in fact the writer, suffering from self-doubt, would greatly benefit from the encouragement it gives. After all, what most writers are aiming for is to engage with and entertain people and any validation that this is being achieved must be welcomed. We can’t expect that sort of encouragement from literary agents but, as Nick mentioned last week, it’s good to try and find readers for what we’re doing, such as writing groups, etc and I’ve certainly found motivation from the comments that I’ve had back on the readings I’ve done so far.’
I would guess all writers get the up and down feelings you describe. I’ve just written another 3,000 words (see future post) and it was a real uphill slog — and without the prospect of reading it out on Saturday to get feedback then I’m wondering whether it’s any good or not.
I remember reading the time before last and thinking while I was reading that parts of it were rubbish — then I was pleasantly surprised when I got favourable feedback.
I tend to be of the opinion that I’m self-critical enough about my own work to be able to correct a lot of things given time so positive feedback is probably much more important than critical readers realise. I guess being self-critical is an important thing for being a writer and you tend to see the deficiencies more clearly in your own work than the strengths — which is why it’s nice to have a supportive group of readers to remind you about the good things when they give feedback.
Overall, however, I think when I read something good — or quite often experience some other art form that’s outstanding — then I feel it more inspiring than intimidating and it spurs me on to try and improve what I’m doing myself.
There were some curious comments made in the debate which were in the vein of Â ‘artist be true to thineself’ and probably contradicted my comments about searching out an audience. The importance of plugging away in something you believe in — that you feel compelled to write — was mentioned and I guess that this is almost a given when you start to put in a lot of time to your writing before receiving any professional recognition — the position that this novel writing course assumes us to be in Â Someone said that all art was subjective and there was no measure of what’s good and bad. I think there’s a lot in this viewpoint and its associated comments that you can put anything in front of a group of people and some people will like it and some won’t — regardless of what it is. I’ve had plenty of experience of Open University courses where people are graded in percentage terms for their creative writing and I still feel aggrieved that I lost possibly five percent on one assignment, missing out on a distinction, purely because the rather prim female tutor refused to believe my urban female character in her twenties would say the word ‘twat’ — even though I got feedback from a woman in the same age group telling me that line was ‘great’. I tend to think that that sort of marking should have a margin of error of around 20%. I remember another OU course member striking a rich seam of ironic eco-comedy (a little bit like Guy’s although this was a radio play) that the tutor loved and gave her 85% for. While this was well-deserved as it was well-written and observant, the writer unsurprisingly then repeated the same formula for every assignment possible thereafter and didn’t develop writing in any other forms.
However, I do think there’s a general assumption that if someone will publish something then that’s an affirmation of its quality and that courses like ours aim to equip us with the skills and knowledge to get to that fairly arbitrary level of quality. Of course it all depends whether the writer’s main objective is primarily internal (to express him or herself) or external (to engage with an audience). In my case I definitely tend to the latter but certainly have aspects of the former. For others it may be more extreme.