Music Time: Picture Box

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Holiday Book Haul

So, Christmas is over once again and I got some lovely presents, notably two great books.

22The first is ‘Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun‘ by Jennifer L Shaw – a delightfully thoughtful gift from my other half.

During my summer holiday I read a novel about the life of Claude Cahun and her partner Marcel Moore, the beautiful ‘Never Anyone but You’ by Rupert Thomson and this sparked my interest in Claude Cahun, a gender fluid, sexually diverse artist who mingled with the great and the g25ood of the Paris art world between the wars and then spent a number of years carrying out resistance against the Nazi occupation of Jersey. A fascination person and a great, great story. Shaw’s book is big and beautiful and will, hopefully shed more light on the story and illustrate it with the work 24of the Cahun/ Moore partnership.

Another gift was ‘Lost Futures: The Disappearing Architecture of Post-War Britain‘ by Owen Hopkins.

I have a terribly soft spot for post-war modernist and concrete architecture which, when done well, is a beautiful thing to behold, full of the optimism for the future, a future which now seems to have died a pitiful and strangely un-mourned death. This book is an obituary for those dreams. I shall read it and try not to weep.

Finally, the new year brought with it 23the sales which, this year, yielded just one goody: ‘Portrait of the Writer: Literary Lives in Focus’ by Goffredo Fofi. Another delightful publication from Thames and Hudson, this features briefs outlines of the work of 250 worldwide writers, alongside portraits by renowned photographers. There are, of course, many writers inlcuded here who I am unfamiliar with, but that makes it all the more interesting.


I’ll leave you with a few of my favourite portraits…

Clockwise from top right: Muriel Spark, Marguerite Duras, Simone De Beauvoir; Iris Murdoch, Jacques Prevert; Truman Capote.


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Joan Eardley

For the past few weeks I have been dipping in and out of Carolyn Trant‘s majestic ‘Voyaging Out: British Women Artists from Suffrage to the Sixties’, a beautifully illustrated history194 which, page after page, knocks the reader out with example after example of wonderful artists, all too often neglected.

One illustration which instantly leapt out at me was ‘Children and Chalked Wall 3, 1962 – 63’ by Joan Eardley. On first viewing the painting chimed with my love of Puffin books, especially those beautifully illustrated volumes from the 1950s and 1960s which frequently surge with modernist & expressionist beauty. ‘Children and Chalked Wall’ could sit happily on many of those delightful books.

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Children and Chalked Wall 3

Joan Eardley (18 May 1921 – 16 August 1963) was born in Warnham, Sussex to dairy farmers. By 1939 her family moved to Glasgow where she enrolled in the Glasgow School of Art. Following a stint as a joiners apprentice (while taking night classes in art) Eardley was awarded a Carnegie Scholarship which enabled her to travel and pain in post war Italy.

On her return to Britain she settled in Townhead, a deprived area of Glasgow, where she painted her neighbours, especially children, paintings characterized by the bold textured layers of paint alongside snippets of graffiti and shop signs, often from abandoned shopfronts. A well known figure to her neighbours, Eardley was often seen26 carrying her paints and easel around the city in an older pram.

During this time she worked alongside the photographer Audrey Walker with whom Eardley had a lifelong love affair.

By the late 1950s, Eardley had begun occasional work in Catterline, a fishing village near Stonehaven, south of Aberdeen, and her paintings changed to reflect the landscape of the area. She also developed an interest in the seascapes, working outdoors in gale-force winds and torrential rain to capture the full force of the roaring seas. It is said that before she made her permanent move to Catterline, when she heard of a storm approaching the coast,she would travel by train from Glasgow to Stonehaven and then ride her Lambretta to Catterline.

She was elected to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1963, the year in which she died from breast cancer, aged 42.

While Eardley is hailed as one of the great Scottish artists, she doesn’t seem particularly well known south of the border: since her death there has only been one exhibition in England. This seems so unfair: her beautiful work should be seen far and wide.

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While looking at her work, I wondered just what it was about her pictures of children and landscapes which resonated with me? Sure, the pictures of children reminded me of Puffins books, but what else? Perhaps a sniff of David Hockney?  The early Hockney, which is my favourite period (although Eardley’s work does pre-date this):


But then, following a Christmas visit to my parents it became obvious: these are representations of places, people and times in my life. Consider the evidence:

The photo on the left is of myself and my sister with my sister’s friends in the backstreet of our house in Hartlepool, around 1969.

Or look at these landscapes and consider the postcards below:


The first is of Brighouse Bay, near Kirkcudbright in Scotland, where my family spent many happy holidays. The second is of the dunes outside of Seaton Carew, close to where I was born in Hartlepool.

Great art resonates and informs and stimulates and the work of Joan Eardley stands amongst the best.

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Mr Know It All – John Waters

‘Somehow I became respectable. I don’t know how, the last film I directed got some terrible reviews and was rated NC-17. Six people in my personal phone book have been sentenced to life in prison. I did an art piece called Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot, which is composed of close-up from pond films, yet a museum now has it in their permanent collection and nobody got mad. What the hell has happened?’

John Waters had a long career making films, often cheap but all vulgar and very, very funny and starring his gang of misfit friends from Baltimore. An early film, ‘Pink Flamingos’, being the story of ‘the filthiest person alive’, became a success de scandale as the star of the film, Divine,  literally ate dog poo for one scene, setting Waters on course for a life in films.

Waters would eventually write and direct the original, non-music version of ‘Hairspray’ as well as classics (well, at least to me) ‘Female Trouble’, ‘Serial Mom’ and his final film, ‘A Dirty Shame’. That came out in 2004 and since then Waters has produced books, had exhibitions of his art works and toured extensively with his one man show, ‘This Filthy World’.

179‘Mr Know It All’ is a sort-of-sequel to his book ‘Shock Value’ which detailed his life and films up to the point where he made his first foray into a ‘studio’ film (as opposed to cheap, independent films), ‘Polyester’ (which, fact fans has just been reissued by Criterion and includes a ‘scratch and sniff’ card for added viewing pleasure!?). It also has a number of others essays on, amongst other subjects Andy Warhol, his ideal Brutalism home, his one-man show, death and gay activism.

‘All I know is I was born with a screw loose. I realize now how hard it must have been for my parents to understand my early eccentricities. As a child in kindergarten I used to come home form school and tell my mother about the twisted little boy in my class who’d only draw with black crayons and ever talked to other kids. I yakked about this unmade friend so much that my mother eventually mentioned his to my teacher, who looked confused and then blurted. ‘But that’s your son!’

Waters has always pitched himself as an outsider and, in his early days he and his films were just that: low budget monstrosities which starred his drop-out friends with a determination to not just upset the applecart but lace the fruit with poison and watch the consumers vomit up the results. These were films which wanted to say the unsayable and do the wrong thing and, to his credit, Waters work has always had a strain of subversion about them – even ‘Hairspray’, while now seen as American as apple pie, is described by Waters as a ‘trojan horse’ with ‘the power to sneak into middle-class home and espouse gay marriage and teenage race mixing without anybody noticing…Even racists loved Hairspray! But what truly makes Waters is how he is refreshingly honest about his success, and certainly is non-too precious about it: in noting the numerous versions of ‘Hairspray’ since the original he wonders about the time when the only version still to be made is the porn version: ‘Pubic Hairspray’

In essence, Waters is the acceptable face of political correctness. His early films reflected the lifestyle of his Baltimore milieu: students and drop out who hung around in the cheapest parts of town, the roughest hotels, the most accepting (usually gay) bars, all of which extended his regular cast members to include gays, lesbians, black men and women, trans people with scripts – bonkers, silly, scripts – informed by current affairs and Waters’ infatuations. Those early films of the late 1960s include references to Charles Manson, drugs, attacking the nuclear family, ‘Black Power’ and as he moved though the 1970s, these themes remained and became central to his plots but they came with a huge dose of humour and self awareness. Waters knows the power of humour to recruit. And so, while the essays in this book are very funny, they also reveal an anger about the state of the world, often with Water’s unique methods of putting it right:

‘It’s illegal to be gay in seventy-six countries around the world. Isn’t it time for us to borrow a slogan from that new ‘black bloc’ militant faction of protestors, Disrupt J20? ‘We will go to war and you will lose!’. That’s right. Don’t we need a comic armed conflict over sexual preference? Our guns may shot blacks but out tongues are lethal. We will kill you with humor… our vindictive and volatile gay army would, in a surprise air raid, plunder the Middle Eastern capitals of homophobia (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria) by dropping tens of thousands of pamphlets explaining in their native language the bear community, gay marriage, Walt Whitman followed by Bruce Benderson novels, Mommie Dearest DVDs and the complete recording of Judy Garland.’

Waters films and work places the underdog, the reviled, the unwanted at their heart. In Water’s inverted world, the villains are the beautiful, the middle-class, the princesses and the jocks. The mainstream is a living hell and only the freaks will inherit the earth.

Take, for example, a scene from my favourite Water’s film, ‘Female Trouble’:

Edith Massey as Aunt Ida

Aunt Edie lives with her hairdresser nephew Gator, next door to  ex-teenage jezebel, go-go dancer and cat burgler, Dawn Davenport (played with gusto by the wonderful Divine). Gator is heterosexual and has the hots for his neighbour, much to Aunt Edie’s disgust:

Aunt Ida: Have you met any nice boys in the salon?
Gator: They’re all pretty nice.
Aunt Ida: I mean any nice queer boys. Do you fool with any of them?
Gator: Aunt Ida, you know I dig women.
Aunt Ida: Come on, don’t tell me that.
Gator: Christ! Don’t go into this again
Aunt Ida: All those beauticians and you don’t have any boy dates?
Gator: I don’t want any boy dates.
Aunt Ida: Oh honey, I’d be so happy if you turned nellie.
Gator: There’s no way. I’m straight. I mean, I like a lot of queers but I don’t dig their equipment, you know? I like women.
Aunt Ida: But you could change. Queers are just better. I’d be so proud if you was a fag and had a nice beautician boyfriend. I’d never have to worry.
Gator: There ain’t nothing to worry about.
Aunt Ida: I’d worry that you’d work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life!

(And bear in mind that Dawn Davenport was, of course, played by a gay man, as was Gator)

But back to the book.

‘Mr. Know-it-all’ is a great read for the Waters’ fan, but learning that ‘Serial Mom’ and ‘A Dirty Shame’ sank at the box office is just too depressing. Who wouldn’t want to watch a film in which Kathleen Turner plays a regular American middle-class ‘Mom’ who just happens to be a low down serial killer, prompted by petty grudges (wearing white shoes after Labor day) and played with manic energy by Kathleen Turner? (‘Serial Mom’) Or soak up the travails of Sylvia Stickles (Tracy Ullman), a prudish Baltimore who recieves a bang to the head and becomes a sex addict, discovering along the way a sex cult led by sex messiah Ray Ray who leads Sylvia to finding the new sexual high? The world truly is a dull and tasteless place.

But Mr. Waters is here to help and he’s still at it at 73, as described in the essay ‘Flashback’ in which he and a couple of friends (including film stalwart Mink Stole) decide its time to take LSD again:

‘My Mom always used to be horrified when she’d read interviews with me in the seventies where I’d say, ‘LSD gave me the confidence to be who I am today.’ ‘Don’t tell young people that!’ she’d beg. I’m not. If you didn’t take LSD back then, you’re probably not brave or insane enough to take it today. Why would you? You’re busy with your new designer drugs, virtual reality headsets and DJ-ing your way into becoming a billionaire. But senior citizens? Yes! You’re stuck, Do what Mr. Know-It-All tells you to do and take LSD now. Be placid on acid. Turn on, don’t yawn! Tune in and win! Drop out and shout out, ‘I’m proud to take LSD at seventy!’ Would my mom from beyond the grave now update her plea? Will I hear her spookily scolding voice whispering in the wind like in a James Purdy novel? Am I having a flashback or did I just hear her plead, ‘Don’t tell old people that!’ with a concerned urgency? It’s too late, Mom, I just did.’

The world needs John Waters, and this book is the perfect introduction, followed by a screening of ‘Female Trouble’.  Before long you’ll be mainlining liquid mascara and tea-bagging like you life depended on it!

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This week’s book haul

Just one book this week (Christmas is coming!) – ‘Flaxen Braids’ by Annette Turngren.

One of my favourite obsessions is original Puffin books and I have amassed a sizable collection over the years. (I have a slightly neglected blog focussing on my collection at ‘Flaxen Braids’ is my latest addition, being number 20 in the Puffin list and published by Puffin in 1945. Isn’t it beautiful for something 74 years old?

‘This is a happy story of life in Sweden not so many years ago. Kristin was nine when her father hurt his hand woodcutting, and he family set out to look for work, taking with them all their worldly goods, including the spinning wheel and he three-legged copper kettle, all packed  on to a home-made car, with Tacka, the cow, pacing contentedly alongside.’

This week I also found a lovely Christmas Tree decoration in a charity shop with a cheery literary theme:97

Have a very merry Christmas – and hopefully Santa will bring you some delicious books for the new year!

(and, if you are in Britain over Christmas, I can recommend a lovely film for Christmas night: ‘The Amazing Mr Blunden’ is on the ‘Talking Pictures’ channel at 7pm. Based on Antonia Barber’s novel ‘The Ghosts’ it features children travelling back in time to rescue orphans from a plot to kill them in order to releave them of their inheritance. Directed by Lionel Jeffries (‘The Railway Children’) and with a great cast including Diana Dors, this is a lovely, slightly spooky film and one to treasure.)


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Pant-wetting excitements for 2020


A the year draws full circle, I can’t help but look forward to see what pant-wetting excitements we have lined up for next year162

Ali Smith – Summer Of course, in July we have the final volume of Ali Smith’s ‘seasons’ quartet and as with the earlier volumes, it won’t be written until close to publication, we know little about it, apart from the lovely cover with another variation on David Hockney’s ‘tunnel’ series of paintings (Due 2 July 2020)

Anne Enright – Actress I loved Enright’s last novel, ‘ The Green Road’ and her next one looks to be a move away from Irish concerns to a broader download.jpeg-1canvass: ‘This is the story of Irish theatre legend Katherine O’Dell, as told by her daughter Norah. It tells of early stardom in Hollywood, of highs and lows on the stages of Dublin and London’s West End. Katherine’s life is a grand performance, with young Norah watching from the wings. But this romance between mother and daughter cannot survive Katherine’s past, or the world’s damage. As Norah uncovers her mother’s secrets, she acquires a few of her own. Then, fame turns to infamy when Katherine decides to commit a bizarre crime.’ (Due 20 February 2020)

Philip Hensher – A Small Revolution in Germany Hensher is a great favourite of mine, with ‘The Northern Clemency’ the toppermost of the poppermost, so a new novel is always cause for celebration. ‘Spike is brought into a small, clever group of friends,download.jpeg-2 bursting with a passion for ideas, and the wish to change the world. They smash up political meetings; they paint slogans on walls; they long for armed revolution; they argue, exuberantly, until dawn. In the years to follow, they all change their minds, and go into the world. They become writers, politicians, public figures. One of them becomes famous when she dies. They all change their minds, and make sensible compromises. Only Spike stays exactly as he is, going on with the burning desire for change, in the safe embrace of unconditional love. Alone from the old group, he is the only one who has achieved nothing, and who has never deviated from the impractical shining path of revolution he saw as a teenager. Thirty years on, photographs of the teenage group look like a bunch of celebrated individuals, with only one unknown face in it – Spike.’ (Due 6 February 2020)

Evie Wyld  – The Bass Rock Evie Wyld’s previous novels, ‘After the Fire, a Still Small Voice’ and ‘All the Birds, Singing’ were beautiful, mysterious books about outsiders, loneliness, fear and loss. For her third, Wyld continues in this mould: ‘In 1720s Scotland, download.jpega priest and his son get lost in the forest, transporting a witch to the coast to stop her from being killed by the village. In the sad, slow years after the Second World War, Ruth finds herself the replacement wife to a recent widower and stepmother to his two young boys, installed in a huge house by the sea and haunted by those who have come before.

Fifty years later, Viv is cataloguing the valuables left in her dead grandmother’s seaside home, when she uncovers long-held secrets of the great house. Three women, hundreds of years apart, slip into each other’s lives in a novel of darkness, violence and madness.’ (Due 26 March 2020)

Hilary Mantel – The Mirror and the Light Another literary ending as Mantel finally MirrorTheLight_78669-0_78741-3_93741-2_196832-3_196840-8__16372.1567599282delivers the final volume on the trilogy which began with ‘Wolf Hall’. I have to admit that I have never been able to get to grips with ‘Wolf Hall’ or its sequel, ‘Bring up the Bodies’, much preferring Mantel’s contemporary novels. However, it will be interesting to see the reception this book gets and, of course, the question of whether it wins the Booker Prize, bringing it in line with the previous volumes. (Due 5 March 2020)

Ottessa Moshfegh Death in Her Hands Moshfegh is a scream, and I can’t wait for her this latest novel, a murder mystery! ‘While on her normal daily walk with her dog in the forest woods, our protagonist comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground with a frame of stones. “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body”. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea 9781984879356.jpegwhat to make of this. She is new to area, having moved her from her longtime home after the death of her husband, and she knows very few people. And she’s a little shaky even on best days. Her brooding about this note quickly grows into a full-blown obsession, and she begins to devote herself to exploring the possibilities of her conjectures about who this woman was and how she met her fate. Her suppositions begin to find echoes in the real world, and with mounting excitement and dread, the fog of mystery starts to form into a concrete and menacing shape. But as we follow her in her investigation, strange dissonances start to accrue, and our faith in her grip on reality weakens, until finally, just as she seems be facing some of the darkness in her own past with her late husband, we are forced to face the prospect that there is either a more innocent explanation for all this or a much more sinister one – one that strikes closer to home. (Due 23 April 2020)

(As am aside, a couple of years ago I was hoping to hear and meet Moshfegh when she visited Manchester to promote her novella, ‘McGlue’. Unfortunately, the event was cancelled as the Manchester Arena bombing had taken place the night before – almost a scene from one of her own novels)

Emily St. John Mandel – The Glass Hotel St John Mandel’s last novel, ‘Station Eleven’ was a strange, sci-fi hybrid which I wasn’t would be me, but which I loved. ‘Vincent is the51iWpdwsccL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_ beautiful bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star glass-and-cedar palace on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. New York financier Jonathan Alkaitis owns the hotel. When he passes Vincent his card with a tip, it’s the beginning of their life together. That same day, a hooded figure scrawls a note on the windowed wall of the hotel: ‘Why don’t you swallow broken glass.’ Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for a company called Neptune-Avramidis, sees the note from the hotel bar and is shaken to his core. Thirteen years later Vincent mysteriously disappears from the deck of a Neptune-Avramidis ship.’ (Due 30 April 2020)

Garth Greenwell – Cleanness I had some grave reservations about Greenwell’s ‘What Belongs to You’, but as I was in a tin minority I’m going to give him another go with his 9781509874637new novel ‘Sofia, Bulgaria, a landlocked city in southern Europe, stirs with hope and impending upheaval. Soviet buildings crumble, wind scatters sand from the far south, and political protesters flood the streets with song. In this atmosphere of disquiet, an American teacher navigates a life transformed by the discovery and loss of love. As he prepares to leave the place he’s come to call home, he grapples with the intimate encounters that have marked his years abroad, each bearing uncanny reminders of his past. A queer student’s confession recalls his own first love, a stranger’s seduction devolves into paternal sadism, and a romance with another foreigner opens, and heals, old wounds. Each echo reveals startling insights about what it means to seek connection: with those we love, with the places we inhabit, and with our own fugitive selves.’ (Due 30 April 2020)

Plus! Another favourite making a return is Andrew O’Hagan with ‘The Caledonian Road’. No idea what it’s about (apart from murmurings about it being a ‘state-of-the-nation’ address) but anything new from O’Hagan is always something to look forward to. (Due 3 September 2020)

…and last but not least, will 2020 finally see publication of Shena Mackay‘s memoir? It was announced in 2015, when Virago acquired the rights to her back catalogue (and, in my opinion, squandered the chance to bring this glorious writer out of the shadows). Please, please, please…


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Beautiful Books 8

or, You can (sometimes!) judge a book by its cover…150

Is this the most beautiful book cover of 2019?

‘Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing’ by John Boughton is certainly important bringing, as it does, a reminder of just how vital council (or ‘social’ as it is now called) housing has been in supporting people since the late nineteenth century and in helping to create post-war British society. He goes on to show how those dreams of a fairer society were ripped apart by Margaret Thatcher’s governments, starting the inexorable decline of this once cherished resource into something to be demonised, neglected and, ultimately leading to such terrible events as the fire at Grenfell Tower in London which killed, injured and made homeless hundreds of people.

I love how the cover of the hardback – designed by Daniel Benneworth-Grey, below – used the font designed by Philip Boydell for the 1951 Festival of Britain, an event which allowed a war-weary Britain to look to the future with optimism, an optimism helped by the huge 151house-building programme set up by the Labour government, of which ‘Council Housing’ was part.

For the paperback, the publishers turned to ‘No Ideas’ to design a cover which harkens back to those early days of council housing which replaced many slum areas with bright, open, modern buildings with space and air. The design mimics the covers of many ‘Ladybird’ books, small books for children (again from the post WW2 period, but still published today, albeit redesigned) which aimed to help with reading and provide a peep into history, the world and other cultures through bright, positive imagery and clear prose. For many British people of a certain age, the frisson of childhood optimism and security summed up by Ladybird cannot be far way when they first see this book.

This is a fascinating book whose contents move away from the wraparound optimism as the story is brought up to date. Thankfully however, Boughton tries to bring a return to those early visions of hope (despite the current climate and our dreadful, self-serving Conservative government) as he draws his conclusions:

‘The form and nature of council houisng has been unfairly blamed for problems entrenched in our unequal society and exacerbated by the politics which reflect it. There are indications that public opinion is changing; that, as the failure of the free market to provide goods and affordable homes to all those who need them becomes increasingly obvious (the very reason why council housing emerged in the late nineteenth century), many people are revisiting both the past contribution of public housing and its current necessity.

I hope a fuller and more nuanced understanding of both past achievements and current follies may yet shift this politics and allow our municipal dreams to flourish once more.’

This is a book which is both beautiful AND important.

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