Back online after a hiatus of a week and a day off after a cowboy contractor working for BT managed to cut through a cable and then concrete and tarmac over it again, so disconnecting half our side of the street in the process of progress. It’s been interesting, not having the opportunity to waste time with FaceBook, print off the Guardian cryptic crossword (how can anyone do it online?) and other such pursuits. Anyway, it’s good to be back.
I’ve had the exhibition guide to Ellen Altfest‘s survey exhibition at MK Gallery staring accusingly at me from a pile of stuff to be dealt with for a while now. It’s now well over a month since I went. I had an absorbing time there – I might well go again before it closes – but I’m at a bit of a loss what to say. That picture on the cover – The hand (2011) – I keep seeing as a landscape (that’s my red wine stain, that semi-circle, I hasten to add). I think that’s probably OK, given the Guardian’s short preview mentioning ‘mind-altering drugs’ – the paintings’ intensity, that is, not the artist’s life style – and the guide mentions ‘wordplay, innuendo and psychological impact‘. Anyway, 22 life-size oil paintings, 15 years, painstakingly incredible life-size detail in the realist tradition, yet, to quote the guide again, pushing ‘realism to the edge of abstraction‘; I can’t say anything meaningful about its relation to the photographic, except that it’s interesting.
The paintings are presented roughly chronologically, diminishing in canvas size if not fascination, with the subject shifting from the natural world towards intimate male body parts. If it is reasonable to expect of a gallery show that you come out – at least temporarily – with new eyes, then Ellen Altfest’s show certainly passed that test for me; my walks in the local nature reserve were refreshed by her early work like Log (2001). I’ll say nothing further about studying my body parts anew, though, but I would venture it’s a sign of the times in a good way that her The penis (2006) did not – as far as I’m aware, anyway – give cause for any shock horror scandal in the local free sheets.
All that I am
I recall a time when the phrase ‘Heavy, man’ actually meant something, before it was hi-jacked by certain forms of rock music, and then dealt a death-blow by Neil in The Young Ones. Anna Funder‘s All that I am: a novel (Viking, 2011) is heavy, man. I think it’s that the bravery (and ultimate betrayal) of a small group of friends is set so vividly in the context of their ordinary existence; I was living in that Bloomsbury attic with Dora, Ruth and Hans. Ruth’s deceptively light opening words of the novel set the tone: “When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.”
All that I am – the latest book group book – is a fictional reconstruction of real events – not quite a faction. It tells the tale of a small group of friends exiled from Germany for their opposition to the rise of Hitler, and their continued endangered resistance from abroad. Two alternating voices do the telling: Ruth, the survivor, a feisty old woman in her 80s, reminiscing in her home, and then from her hospital bed, in Australia, where Funder, who was brought up there, knew her, about her exile in London in the 1930s; and the playwright Ernst Toller, dictating material for a new expanded edition of his autobiography, in New York, in 1939. Toller had been the reluctant President of the short-lived Communist Republic of Bavaria, at the end of the First World War, a position that was immediately rewarded with 5 years in prison; he also spent time in London with the others before crossing the Atlantic. Both narrators are in awe of the charismatic, committed and free-spirited Dora (Dora Fabian in real life).
It’s a staggeringly good novel. The historical situation is vividly spelt out – no mere box-ticking background is rolled out here: “Reality was becoming so silly, we thought, that intelligent people could no longer tell the difference between a report and a satire,” says Ruth, and her husband, Hans, a satirist, is all at sea in London. What appalls – what I never realised – is the level of appeasement maintained by the British government during Hitler’s first years in power: if these exiles were found to be politically active they risked the British – us – sending them back to Nazi Germany and certain death.
Anna Funder takes you there, to the midst of the group, how it felt. “Half our energy came from the cause, the other half from each other,” says Ruth. It’s bracing. But the human cost, particularly on Teller, the international figure: “After a time I learned to be the person they thought I was. I was needed everywhere … I knew there were two parts of me, the public man and the private being, and they would not, ever, quite fit back together.” All he can do in New York is write letters to the papers and important people. “Do you think letters can make a difference?” his secretary asks. “I pull as much power as I can from somewhere inside me, from the actor, the orator, the hope-pedlar and the charlatan. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, I do.’“ His friend Auden is not much help either: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” It’s a matter of record what Toller does but I’ll not say what here.
There is so much going on in All that I am: friendship, political commitment, philosophy, literature, perseverance, espionage, betrayal, food, the English, love, sex. It is exciting, emotional and profoundly satisfying. For all its despair … here’s Ruth, run into by a boy on roller skates in Paris: “ ‘Pardon, Madame, je suis desolée. Desolée.’ We are all desolated here.” And poor old faithful-to-his wife Toller: “Sometimes your life feels like a pile of wrong decisions.” For all that, Ruth in Oz at 80, remains life affirming.
I had hoped good things of a book kicking off with quotations from W.H.Auden and Nick Cave. That’s setting the bar high, I thought. I was not disappointed.
A brief word about the book covers. From left to right: the UK hardback tastefully saying nothing, the pathetically misleading UK paperback (was there any snow? – even so, so what? – and what sort of a pose is that anyway?), and the tasty evocative American hardback with the red flag flying on a German strasse (which is a big deal in the book). As my sons used to say, I don’t know what to tell you.
A day in Worcester (whisper it, an Age UK coach trip; we were not the youngest there). The weather held. A fine cathedral, the spectacular The Hive (an innovatory central library, shared with the university, and so much more), the rather special Karmic Café and a stroll by the river. Reminders too of just how awful ’60s architecture is in historic town centres. Click and click again to enlarge the photos, all mine own).
In the cathedral a grand memorial “Sacred to the memory to Mary [d.1794], the truly regretted wife of WILLIAM HALL Esq of the island of Jamaica …” making you wonder if here was the origins of the story of Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre. Elsewhere a poetical tribute to Bishop Nicholas Wighorn (d.1576) as “ a painful preacher” (albeit, it must be added, “of the truthe”). Every hour a voice comes over the PA reminding us that we’re in a place of quiet and prayer and inviting us to join with them by stopping what we’re doing to be still for a minute. About half the visitors do, including atheist me, and it was moving to be urged to think of … well, pretty much a full litany of “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe,” with specific mention being made of the Mediterranean boat refugees. Powerful stuff, communal stillness.
And in the very wonderful Karmic Café – a smart but unpretentious and eminently reasonable tasty vegetarian caff (every town should have one) – a poster of a package tour I went to in the Slough Adelphi over half a century ago.
I can’t remember much about the Beatles‘ performance (I suppose there was screaming) but bizarrely what has stuck was the Pacemakers’ drummer (Gerry’s brother, I seem to recall) doing that thing whereby he hits his cymbal and looks up and moves his head from left to right then down again, so as to appear to be following the arc of the cymbal’s tshhh with his eyes. And Roy Orbison, so impressive, standing there immaculately dressed – is that bootlace tie a false memory? – with guitar and dark glasses, sounding – hitting all those high notes – just like the records.