Friday, 17 February 2017

Joan Eardley in Edinburgh

This week I made a special trip up to Edinburgh to see the Joan Eardley exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.  I've loved Eardley's work ever since I saw her painting of 'Catterline in Winter' at an exhibition about 25 years ago.  It mesmerises me;  the snow, the tilted line of houses on the cliff top, the winter sun just glimpsed through grey cloud.  As a writer it suggests a backstory - people's lives, struggle, living with the elements.  There's nothing easy about this painting. It has a dramatic tension made visible by the gully that bisects the canvas and where, in reality, a tortuous path staggers down from the fishermen's cottages to the beach where their boats are pulled up and their nets are drying.

'Catterline in Winter'

So I welcomed the chance to see more of Joan Eardley's work and find out about her life.  I knew that she had died in 1963, from breast cancer, at the age of 42, just as she had been accepted into the Royal Scottish Academy and was regarded by everyone as one of the contemporary painters with the most potential.  And, in 1963, this was remarkable for a woman and a northerner.  Sexism was alive and well in the art world, which had its centre in London.

Joan Eardley painting at Catterline

Joan was born in 1921 on a dairy farm in the south of England to a mother used to quite a comfortable life and a father who had suffered in the First World War.  His mental collapse meant that the farm had to be sold in 1926 and Joan's mother and sister moved to Blackheath on the southern fringe of London, to live with their grandmother. Joan's father committed suicide in 1929.  Ten years later the women moved north to Scotland, where they had relatives, to avoid the London bombings. They settled on the outskirts of Glasgow, where Joan attended the School of Art.  She had a studio in the Townhead area of the city, fascinated by the tenements and the people who lived there. 'I like the friendliness of the backstreets.  Life is at its most uninhibited here.  Dilapidation is often more interesting to a painter as is anything that has been used and lived with - whether it be an ivy covered cottage, a broken farm-cart or an old tenement'. 

Joan's studio - which was freezing cold in winter

In 1950, Joan Eardley had an exhibition in Aberdeen and it was while staying up there that she discovered the village of Catterline, on the east coast, further south towards Dundee.  The area made a big impression on Joan.  'It is really very lovely country, I have quite fallen for it, both the sea and the country behind . . .  where there are lovely moors, and new forests and rushing burns, quite different from the west, more rolling and lovely reddish earth.'   Catterline was a fishing village in post-war decline. The cottages were primitive, two rooms, no sanitation, and only a fireplace for cooking and heating.  But Joan loved it, describing it in a letter to a friend.   'Catterline has such a terrific clarity and terrific light, whereas Glasgow feels as though it has a sort of lid on the top of it.' But it was also very similar to Glasgow in that it was a small community, ' ... a little backstreet, where everybody knows everybody else.  . . It's the sort of intimate thing I like, and I think you've got to know something before you paint it.'   From then on she divided her time between Catterline and Glasgow, renting one of the cottages as a studio and later on buying another to live in.  It offered her, she said, 'vast wastes, vast seas, vast areas of cliff'.

Flood Tide at Catterline

Joan Eardley's comment that you 'have to know something' before you can paint it was a statement of her method.  She observed even the small details, explaining in an Arts Council interview:  'When I'm painting . . . I hardly ever move out of the village, I hardly ever move from one spot;  I find that the more I know of the place, or of one particular spot, the more I find to paint in that particular spot.'   Among my favourite paintings are her landscapes, particularly the fields, where seed heads and flowers are pressed onto the canvas and sculpted there with paint, creating a fantastic texture.  the detail in the different layers of colour is incredible.

In Glasgow her focus was not on the landscape, but on the people, particularly children.  Her portraits of the street children are never sentimental - in fact I found them rather scary.

Glasgow Children

They grimace;  they have dark eyes.  These are children who know things.  Children who have dangerous lives.

Three children at a tenement window
This is a fabulous exhibition - 5 rooms packed with paintings as well as cases of letters and notebooks and sketchbooks and press cuttings detailing the painter's life.  I would love to go again. Towards the end of her life her work was veering much more towards abstraction, revealing her fascination with colour.  It is tragic that her life was cut short at the age of 42.

'Summer Sea', one of the last paintings from Catterline, 1962

Joan Eardley:  A Sense of Place, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Tuesday Poem: Penguin Modern Poets

In the sixties and seventies I was reading these.

They were stylishly monochrome, in-your-face contemporary, the poets they featured white-skinned, and very, very masculine.  Penguin Modern Poets were overwhelmingly male. Only a couple of women made it - Elizabeth Jennings being one of them. This was quite a difficult role model for a young teenage girl who wanted to be a poet.  But recently Penguin have decided to re-visit the brand and this time things are very different.

Not only are the new Penguin Modern Poets very colourful, but they are also ethnically diverse.  And they are as female as their predecessors were male dominated.  In the twenty-tens, this is what contemporary poetry looks like.

I'm thoroughly enjoying the little snapshots of a poet's work, particularly poets I hadn't read much before.  Malika Booker (of Grenadian and Guayanese descent) was new to me.  I loved her poem 'How Our Bodies Did This Unfamiliar Thing', which gives a voice to all those women who took the places of men in the war and were subsequently sent back to the kitchen sink. My mother became a land-girl, and one of her relatives became a welder in the shipyard.

"We women stand in our men shoes, our bodies
doing this unfamiliar thing.  Hands that scrubbed
clothes in wash basins, wrung pillowcases, hung white
flannel sheets on long clothes lines, pinning and clipping,
how now those hands have become cranes, each hand
a link in a chain, joining steel feathers, building birds
of prey.  It was the world turned inside out. . . ."

My 15 year old step-granddaughter picked up the collection while she was staying with me and laughed aloud at Sharon Olds' poem 'The Pope's Penis'.

'It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate
clapper at the center of a bell.'

Was it even possible to write about this stuff, she wanted to know?  But why not?  Men have written odes to women's breasts, in or out of their clothes, for hundreds of years.

Warsan Shire, of Somali-British descent, was a poet I had only read in snippets on the internet, aware that she was being ignored by the 'establishment' publications (most of them still edited by men) and that her words were used by high profile figures like Beyonce.  Her poem 'Home', about refugees, is one of the most powerful I've ever read. The Penguin collection contains a prose-poetry sequence that pre-figures 'Home'. This is an excerpt:-

'I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants,
fucking refugees.  Are they really this arrogant?  Do they not
know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon
your body one second and the next you are a tremor lying on
the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its
return.  All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity,
the ungrateful placement, and now my home is the mouth of a
shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun.  I'll see you on the
other side."

At a poetry reading recently a very well-published male poet suggested that it was not legitimate for people, particularly women, to write about personal experience.  I simply couldn't believe what I was hearing, or the academic argument that supported his statement.  If we can't write about personal experience, what can we write about? It is the closest, most powerful, truth we own.  If you don't want to hear women's voices, then don't buy this series!  But if, like me, it is as welcome as clean, fresh water, then please do - you won't be disappointed.  Oh, and there are men in some of them!

Penguin New Modern Poets 1. Michael Robbins, Patricia Lockwood, Timothy Thornton
Penguin New Modern Poets 2. Emily Berry, Anne Carson, Sophie Collins
Penguin New Modern Poets 3. Malika Booker, Sharon Olds, Warsan Shire


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Revisiting the scene of a disaster - Catherine Cookson and after . . .

I've been blogging over on Authors Electric about the experience of being a best-selling biographer who suddenly finds herself black-listed for no other reason than that of telling an inconvenient truth. Corporate publishing is all about marketing, and sometimes the truth gets in the way. Bankrupting your publisher with an unexpected best-seller and revealing that a literary saint was actually a human being are sins unlikely to be forgiven!  Read the whole sorry story here.

"I have known what it was like to be on the front pages of newspapers, or the subject of a double-page spread inside the Independent.  Television interviews, radio shows – my 15 minutes of fame.  It was fantastic being chauffeur driven across London, with a huge bouquet of lilies and roses on my lap, to a champagne reception. The reviews were glowing and I’ll never forget the experience of walking into WH Smith and seeing my book, in hardback, at number 8 in the best-seller lists.  The six figure sums of money being bandied about were head-turning. ‘You’ll never have to worry about money again in your life,’ my agent said.  I should have known! . . ."  Read on 'When a Best-seller Becomes a Disaster".    

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Tuesday Poem: Words by Edward Thomas

Out of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
Sometimes –
As the winds use
A crack in a wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through –
Choose me,
You English words?

I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak:
Sweet as our birds
To the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Of Midsummer:

Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
And familiar,
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew –
As our hills are, old –
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.

Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales,
Whose nightingales
Have no wings –
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire,
And the villages there –
From the names, and the things
No less.
Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb,
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.

From 101 Poems for Children, chosen by Carol Ann Duffy and illustrated by Emily Gravett published by Picador. 

As light as dreams/ As tough as oak  - yes, I'd like to write words like that.  A very belated Tuesday Poem, but I've been involved in setting up web pages and links and all the publicity connected with a new project.  A few of us, who belong to the Poetry Society's 'North Cumbria Stanza Group', have just launched an anthology project 'Write to be Counted', intended to be an antidote to all the turmoil and gloom of the world at the moment.  And intended to be a defence of free speech and the right to write.    You can read all about it here

And if you're a poet, why not send us a couple of poems for consideration?  Poems to

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Returning to Chaos and Alternative Facts

Returning from a journey is never easy.  There's a damp, cold house, a pile of mail in the hall, a mountain of washing and the thud of everyday life demanding attention.

This time it was even harder because it was compounded by a newsfeed that destroyed any peace of mind or feelings of optimism.  A fascist takeover in America that pays no regard to democracy, freedom of speech and the Rule of Law. An increasingly racist policy that will cause anguish to millions of people.  The denial of Climate Change, the most dangerous threat to human existence on the planet since the Black Death. Then, in the UK, I have to watch our own (unelected) representative cosying up to dictators and rulers whose human rights record is atrocious, and I think, 'Are these going to be our new allies?'

My anger and shame have kept me awake for several nights. What can be done?  I've always tried to keep my blog and Facebook page fairly neutral, in recognition that not everyone shares my personal political beliefs.  But this has gone beyond the political to a place where basic human values are at stake.  Integrity and Truth have been replaced by Expediency and Alternative Facts. And I can't stay silent.  I have a feeling that we are at some kind of international crossroads and that things could descend into chaos very quickly unless the majority of us take a stand.

To begin with, I'm joining the National Write Out - a protest movement for writers. Its slogan is 'What's worth fighting for is worth writing for' and it explains what's involved here on its website. 

 "Writers and non-writers alike recognize the election of Donald Trump as an unprecedented threat, one that demands we deploy our craft and words in the service of justice. Recognizing that we cannot and will not defeat the forces behind Trump without stopping to think, without first imagining what truly matters, we call on writers-poets, playwrights, essayists, short storyistas of the world to unite by joining all those already committed to the National Write-Out.

Who: You. Everyone who writes, draws, thinks, dares, creates…

What: Write or share a poem, a piece of flash fiction, short story, essay, inspired long tweet, handwritten ars poetica or other literary creation responding to this prompt:

'What’s worth fighting for is worth writing for' accompanied by the hashtag  #fightandwrite

If you have any doubts, read 'Poetry in a Time of Protest' by Edwidge Danticat, whose 81 year old uncle died in immigration custody despite having a valid visa and family waiting for him at the airport.  She quotes the poet Audre Lorde:-

Poetry is how we name the nameless. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.

A group of us (Poetry Society members) are currently talking about the idea of publishing an anthology, the proceeds for an appropriate charity.  Watch this space!

Monday, 23 January 2017

Tuesday Poem: Swinging in a Hammock on Koh Seh

(After James Wright)

A white egret picks its way through rocks along the shore.
Over my head, the tamarind leaves spread their green fingers.
A black butterfly, the span of my hand, flaps through the canopy.
The sea laps, cat-like, at the shingle, pummelling the hull
of the wrecked boat with a dull percussion.
Pair trawlers and squid boats punctuate the horizon
drawing a grey line between sea and sky
where the new moon is lifting Venus towards
the evening thunderstorm, piling itself in pink, ice-cream cloud.
The long-tail boats are chugging in for the night
their noisy out-boards shattering the silence.
The jetty stretches seaward in a single line of lights.

Time to evaluate; thoughts like the silver flying fish
lifting from the water, bright, elusive.

It's cold here!  But the frosty terrain is very beautiful in the winter sunlight, so I don't mind (much!).
The journey back seemed longer than usual.  We stayed in the small Khmer hotel the previous night so that we could get to the airport on time the following morning - where boats are concerned you never know whether you'll make it punctually.  There's the weather and the whole mechanical engine business. In Cambodia, anything mechanical needs a lot of tinkering!

The hotel gave us time to pack properly and shake out any small hitchhikers from the luggage (I found a stowaway baby cockroach anxious for a change of scene).  These are all the hazards of 'real' travel.  But now I'm home and back to work and the delights of swinging in a hammock with nothing on your mind are long gone.  The poem is a response to James Wright's wonderful 'Lying in a hammock on William Duffy's farm', particularly that ambiguous last line 'I have wasted my life'.  Swinging in a hammock was very definitely not wasted time for me, it was essential unwinding at the end of a terrible, stressful year.  But neither would I want to live like that all the time. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Cambodian Notebook 6 - 'The Isle is full of noises'

‘The Isle is full of noises,’ Prospero told his guests in The Tempest.  Here, during the night, all sound is drowned out by the throbbing roar of the generator that charges up the equipment for the following day, as well as running the safety lights and the water pumps. The big rainwater tanks need to be aerated to keep mosquitoes from breeding.

But last night the generator broke down and all we had was the silence and the night noises of the island.  There was a full moon riding out to sea, so we could see everything clearly.
Nightfall on the island, with a big thundercloud
The night was full of life.  There were geckos talking to each other – “geck-oh, geck-oh” – and whistling bugs in the palm thatch.  Occasionally a cricket chirped.  A bird we call the ‘whoop-whoop’ bird (an owl?) sat on a tree on the beach whooping in various registers and sliding up and down the scale.  This was all very pleasant against the slap, slap of the sea on the shingle.  But then we heard the ‘heavy breathing monster’ on the other side of the bamboo wall.  It sounded ferocious and ominous, but whether it was animal or lizard we lacked the courage to find out!

It was too hot and sticky (29C and 78 degrees of humidity) to sleep without a fan.  Some of the volunteers were playing Khmer music in the communal hut and chatting by torch light.  We walked down to the end of the pier to catch what little breeze there was, and sat and looked at the moon and the winking lights of fishing boats, dangling our legs over the water.

This is our last day.  Tomorrow we begin the long haul back to the cold north and a culture so different in character it’s almost impossible to imagine from here.