Do books impart a magic of their own? Some might call it ‘psychometry’, or the ability to make connections with an object’s history through physical contact. Of course, logic tells me this is nonsense, but part of me always succumbs…
On Tuesday it was my birthday and, being in town, I popped into Waterstones to see if they had a copy of the new Ali Smith, ‘Autumn’. Yes, there is was: autumnal brown swaithed in a bright, brisk David Hockney (‘Tunnel Early November 2006). Unable to resist I had a quick flick and there, shimmering and incandescent on the end pages, was Pauline Boty’s painting of Marilyn Monroe from ‘The Only Blonde in the World’ (1963).
A long time ago I read an article about Boty; how she was one of the few women involved in the British ‘Pop Art’ scene of the early 1960s but, unlike many of her contemporaries – David Hockney, Richard Hamilton ; Brigid Riley; Peter Blake – her work was largely forgotten until the 1990s when some of her paintings were discovered in her brother’s barn.
One thing I share with Ali Smith is a love of Nell Dunn. Her 1965 book, ‘Talking to Women’ was, for the time, a ground breaking set of conversations which allowed women to talk about their lives, their roles and especially their attitude to sex. One of the women was ‘Pauline, Twenty Five’. In a post-script to the conversation, dated June 1965, they discuss Boty’s recently discovered pregnancy:
‘…And although it was an accident I’m secretly more pleased about it than I could ever admit.’
One startling fact detailed in that article from long ago was that during this very pregnancy, Boty discovered she had cancer. To avoid risking the baby’s health Boty eschewed chemotherapy, giving birth a healthy baby before succumbing to the disease in 1966, aged 28. That article was accompanied by a photo of Boty which has haunted me and still sits on my wall to this day…
The following day I found myself in ‘Tate Liverpool’, hoping to clap eyes on Tracey Emin’s bed, or ‘My Bed’ to give its’ correct title. Unfortunately when I arrived it was being submerged in the rhetorical mulch of a guide’s studied ignorance so I settled upon her sensuous pen and ink drawings instead. Outside, the wind churned the murky Mersey and, unable to settle, I meandered into another room and there, teetering with fragility, luminous, radiant, alluring…
As if by magic, a page in a book had actually come to life before my eyes, bringing me almost full circle.
‘There are people who stand for their times and oh my God, Boty stands for her time’
This is Ali Smith, herself a fan of Nell Dunn, quoted in the Observer on 16/10/16. Boty features heavily in, ‘Autumn‘, which collides the Profumo Affair of 1963 (Boty painted a portrait of one of the main characters in that affair, Christine Keeler, above) with the Brexit of 2016 to question ‘a mass culture of lies…it’s a question of what happens culturally when something is built on a lie.’
We may be going through confusing, frightening times but sometimes it is nice to believe there is a little magic left in the world.