Communism was a disaster, capitalism is a disaster. Let’s listen to a couple of old Victorian gents and give socialism a go.
Here’s an amusing diversion: “I Write Like” a ‘statistical analysis tool’ which you can drop any example of your, or someone else’s writing into, and it will then tell you which classic author your prose most resembles. Fortnights of fun.
Sticking some of my old stuff from Spike into it there is one “James Joyce”, one “George Orwell”, one “Mario Puzo”, two “David Foster Wallace” (who I’ve never read)….but about 80% come out as “H P Lovecraft”! Hmm, a certaint over-verbosity perhaps? Heavens forfend.
Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it. Excerpts from George Bernard Shaw also come out as “H P Lovecraft”, and the front page of tomorrow’s Manchester Evening News is “Charles Dickens”.
Once upon a time, the term ‘indie’ described a philosophy rather than a genre and an indie label meant a way of doing things, not an identifiable sound. Xanthi Barker meets the people behind Safety First Records, a passionate attempt to live up to the ideals that come with independence
The night before Guy Fawkes’, as 2011 drew to a close, a hundred or so people gathered in a scaffold-built amphitheatre in a converted warehouse in Hackney Wick for the launch of Safety First Records. The obscure location, the cold, damp night, the autumn leaves scattered across the stage, all added up to something unusual, eery, spiritual. And the musicians did not disappoint. For two hours the audience sat in silence as each act wove another strand into a beautifully composed tapestry of authentic musical expression.
Born of the need for artistic independence and a feeling of being musical misfits, Safety First provides a base for artists who by essence may go undetected by major labels. Three of Safety First form the core members of Klak Tik, a band whose debut album Must We Find a Winner, was released on Safety First in 2010, to critical acclaim. Subsequently, they have released the five-star second album, Copenhagen from singer-songwriter Jack Cheshire, Swedish duo Polly Tones’, second EP The Toast, and the debut album, Ethereo by Danish group, Hanuman 5.
Currently, Safety First are nearing the end of their three-month residency at The Gladstone Arms in Borough. The final concert will be on Sunday 1st April, with Klak Tik and Felix Holt.
When and why did you start Safety First Records?
John Beyer: Safety First Records was started in early 2010. Søren, Matt and myself were at the tail end of the process of creating Klak Tik’s debut album and were starting to think a little about how it was going to be released. The album was made as independently as possible. The idea of recording when we wished, with no constraints from others, was an absolute must to create the album that we did. The idea of spending time searching for a label and trashing out a contract seemed so contradictory to the recording process that we decided to do that ourselves as well. Using the knowledge we’d gleaned releasing records for previous musical venues, the core members of Klak Tik took our first step into the unknown world of business and created Safety First Records. All in all, this first release was a success and just about a bearable workload.
Things then progressed very organically. We’d come to realise London isn’t the answer to all a musician’s dreams, and could be, in fact, a slight hindrance. There is no real sense of community and musicians fight for survival rather than help each other out. So we decided to turn Safety First Records into a platform for our friends and kindred musical spirits to release their work and hopefully all benefit from any success.
So is there a common thread running through all the acts you have signed?
Matt Mitchinson: In essence, it is just music that we love to listen to. Through playing in Klak Tik, we get to see and play alongside a lot of great artists, but every now and then you chance upon someone whose music is so good that it takes you to that place you almost stopped believing existed, and satisfies, elevates, or wounds you in a way that only music can. So far that’s how the relationships have started.
On top of that I think all of our artists have something in common stylistically. This probably has a lot to do with personal taste, but it’s also to do with their music not necessarily fitting precisely into any established ‘scene’. It’s part of our aim to build up a community and make sure we don’t just slip through the genre cracks.
You said that the artists take you to a place you almost stopped believing existed – does this imply that you are disillusioned with many successful (or unsuccessful) bands and artists that are around today?
Matt: To be honest, yes, although I’m always loath to say so as it can come across a bit negative, or worse, superior. The musical and commercial structures these days mean that to be a successful artist, or to be supported or promoted to a given level, you have to represent a calculable and pretty much guaranteed return on investment, which is never a good environment for artistic evolution. This idea is mirrored in the film industry with the fourteenth remake of Spiderman 8 or what have you.
The internet and the advent of social media does go a long way to diluting the power of major labels. It’s a much-touted axiom that these days someone’s music can be heard by anyone, anywhere, regardless of their budget or connections, and this is for the most part true. But this has also led to a saturation, and to people’s dependency on computers as a primary method of listening to and discovering music (myself included). Consequently, people’s attention spans have shortened and the internet has become a breeding ground for gimmicks. This is at a cost to music that requires a bit more effort on behalf of the listener, but also offers proportionate rewards.
In relation to being taken to that special place by the Safety First artists, that comes from a love of their music, not a disappointment with everything else. Even with an absolute abundance of great music around, there’s still room for those rare moments when you find something particularly special.
Do you think it is harder for artists who don’t fit into a specific genre?
Matt: It just makes it harder to locate your audience really – for instance with Klak Tik, we’ve found we’re not folk enough for most folk circles, but are definitely not appropriate for a loud indie night. So satisfying gigs, and I guess also publicity, are harder to come by.
Your artists could be described as folk/alternative folk, how do you think they fit into the current folk landscape in London (or not at all…)?
Matt: As above, I think all the artists share our dilemma, hence why we’re trying to establish something ourselves. I’m not sure whether this is an accurate observation, or it’s just my awareness that has increased, but it seems that the number and range of ‘folk’ promoters and gigs has been increasing, especially around East London, where we’re based. But again because the musical spectrum for that term is so large, you’re never quite sure what it entails. Whatever you label it though, I think music of a quieter nature is getting more of a showing these days, which is something we’re very keen to be involved in.
Can you tell me a bit about the artists you’ve signed?
Matt: I think listening to their music will offer the best insight into that. I fear my descriptions wouldn’t do them justice. On a personal level though they’re all, strangely, really lovely people, which I suppose is pretty important for the way things work.
Maybe you can tell me about their Safety First releases instead?
Matt: Our first release after our initial Klak Tik album was Jack Cheshire’s sophomore full-length Copenhagen. It’s an absolutely fantastic album. One of our first experiences of Jack’s music was when he opened for us at our Must We Find A Winner album launch and I can still remember the frustration at being stuck in the green room warming up whilst hearing these gorgeous songs wafting through. We feel honoured that we could be involved in releasing those songs to a wider audience. He has another album in the works right now, a few songs of which we heard at the Safety First label launch night, so we’re very, very excited to hear that in it’s entirety.
We released Polly Tones’ EP The Toast in November last year, as part of the label launch night, but they also have their debut album in the pipeline. Viktor and Mal are currently going through the puzzling and oft-times painful process of mixing the album themselves but we have heard one of the mastered tracks already and it sounds fucking great so I’m sure they, and anyone who gets to hear the result, will be duly rewarded.
A couple of weeks ago was our first release for Hanuman 5. The album is called Ethereo. It keeps getting better and better every time I listen to it, and I liked it a lot the first time! It has been described as ‘weirdfolk’ and ‘freakfolk’, but whatever the style it’s a really, really great record (if more than mildly alarming at times, on first listen, which I won’t spoil by explaining why).
As for Felix, we just can’t wait to release some of his music, and I think we’d collectively give up our firstborns to do so. A Felix Holt record is something my stereo and ears are eagerly anticipating and it looks like we might be getting closer with some of the recordings he’s just made.
We also have the much anticipated (by us and our mums at least) second Klak Tik album coming out, before summer hopefully. So far we’ve got about five of the tracks back from Mark, the poor man in charge of mixing the album, and after a long period of slight disillusionment with the process it is extremely exciting to hear the nearly finished product. We have (almost) settled on an album title now, which, although it took eight months and a few too many counselling sessions to decide on, helps to make everything that bit more concrete.
How does the actuality of starting a record label compare to how you imagined it would be?
Søren Bonke: Starting a record label is the easiest thing in the world – particularly whilst enjoying a nice, cold pint (and not the first one) in the company of good friends. Later it gets a bit more involved. If there is one thing we are constantly having to re-learn, it is that stuff doesn’t tend to get itself done. We meet roughly once a week and set tons of tasks, most of which get completed the next morning, some of which become glowing symbols that procrastination can be shared between people.
Most things involved in running a record label seem fairly straight forward, though I think we benefit hugely from the previous business experience each of us brings to the table.
Previous business experience is unusual amongst musicians, no? What kind of experience do you mean?
Søren: Previous business experience among musicians is probably not as unusual as you would think. It is, however, probably not something most musicians would want to stick on their band bios – ‘Søren Bonke: guitarist, singer, dentist’.
We all still work our day-jobs, and nothing suggests that this will change any time soon. John works for a live music organiser/promoter, which has its benefits for the label, although not as many as you would imagine. John is, disappointingly, very careful not to give us any unfair ‘advantages’. I say – the first rule of nepotism: just don’t mention the word nepotism. His cotton-coated heart will be sucked dry by the industry in time, oh yes.
Matthew works for Cancer Research UK and his righteous heart pounds tirelessly for good causes, even if he sometimes has to nip off early to come play a gig. That makes me feel bad, come to think of it.
I work as a music composer for film, TV and advertising and also as a film title designer and animator. I have good experience with general design, web and video things, which is helpful for the label and the band.
Do you think it is unwise to believe you can make a living as a musician?
Søren: I think it is good to believe you can make a living as a musician. We all need to do it to an extent. Expecting to make a living as a musician would be an altogether more frustrating experience for the majority of people.
Most of us are not going to make a living off music, but we should all aim to do so. I mean, you can’t really put in the kind of effort that it takes to push a band forward without the powerful petrol of faith. A belief that the next album will be the one that changed everything is essential, perhaps even for the song writing in some cases.
Conversely it is important to be happy with the stage you are at, as well. Sometimes the dreams of the US tour bus cruising down the All-American Road, or European summer festivals with mountains of chorizo on the rider, can make the bus journey on a packed 149 down to London Bridge a little sour. Then it is important to remember to focus on the music. The music is what will make you happy, not those other things. It is too hot in Spain anyway. And America – don’t even get me started.
Given the current financial black-hole we are in, do you think it is a difficult time to start up a label?
Søren: Yes. Arguably it is a terrible time to start up a label. Unless, like us, you choose to largely ignore the financial aspects and focus on the musical ones. Then it is a wonderful time. There is endless good music yet to be created and heard by the world. We would like to help.
At the risk of causing a minor earthquake when all the business-heads cringe their feet at the same time, I will say that our ‘philosophy’ of just plunging in head first, seeing what happens, worrying about the finance later, is just right for us.
Spot the artists making business. If I was a mayoral candidate I would campaign against me. Probably quite successfully, as well. I know a story or two.
What difficulties do artists face with record deals from major labels?
John: When an artist releases through a major record label they have to work within a major label framework. These systems are still a little old fashioned and rely, in part, on lots of money being thrown at an artist to help boost their chance of success. Alas, this means sales figures necessary to break even (let alone make money) tend to be massive. With record sales declining by fifty percent in the last ten years, hitting this level of sales can prove difficult. So this leads to a scenario where bands are signed up, then swiftly dropped if they don’t sell enough, or if it looks like they won’t sell enough. This is especially frustrating when we are talking about 10,000 sales being viewed as a failure.
Did you have any dealings with major labels for Klak Tik before the birth of Safety First?
John: We’ve not even had as much as a sniff from a major label with Klak Tik. In a previous band we did have some interest and it was an extremely frustrating situation. A&R love a long courtship and have a wonderful way of not being committal in any form whatsoever. I think it’s because many are actually too afraid to take a risk and sign somebody, so what else can they do with their time? To be fair I’ve never been past that stage of the game, it could get easier… but I doubt it.
How good a measure of artistic merit do you think commercial success actually is?
John: I don’t. Nowadays, commercial success is a good measure of clever marketing and efficient project management. Madonna, for example, keeps having to reinvent herself to stay “current” and maintain success. In my opinion, there is no artistic merit in that, just a lot of focus groups.
If it was a good measure, then the recording industry as it stands would be redundant and we could just enjoy making music without the need for all this nonsense.
How do bigger labels view the artists and releases of smaller labels? Do you think it can be a stepping stone? Or a completely different route?
John: Once upon a time (the ’80s) I’m sure major labels didn’t care about smaller labels. They had mountains of cocaine and Phil Collins to occupy them. However, when some of the record buying public turned their back on them in favour of independent music, the big boys began to take note. Major labels then started buying up or starting smaller labels as subsidiaries to release music through, to give artists that independent smell and hopefully to ‘fool’ some of the disgruntled listeners back into purchasing (such as Sony did with Creation Records). They are now fully aware of the importance of smaller labels and still will swoop in and pinch a little act that starts making medium-sized waves.
How do you think a start-up label compares to more established independent labels in terms of attracting attention and bringing the music to a wider audience?
John: We all begin small and grow up. A label in its infancy cannot usually offer the same level of attention as a more established one. I suppose that the internet has helped level the playing field when it comes to distribution of music. An independent artist can get their music up on all the major online music retailers easily. To an extent though, it’s also just a numbers game. The more money you can afford to spend on a release, the more ground you can cover, simple as that.
How much say do you have in what the artists release?
Søren: None. That’s the idea, anyway. We have ideas. If an artist is signed to us it means that we are into their music and so will always be able to offer an opinion if asked. Generally, we like to think of our label as a music collective, rather than a label label.
Where does the music you release get sold?
Søren: Safety First releases are mainly marketed and targeted to the UK, and are available digitally in most countries, but with myself being Danish, we also have strong ties to Denmark, where Klak Tik are signed to a Danish label. Having just signed our first non-UK act, the Danish group Hanuman 5, these ties should strengthen in the future.
Can I buy Safety First releases in the shops?
Søren: We focus on digital distribution, generally, although it depends on the release. Less and less physical CD’s are flung over the counter these days. The vinyl industry, on the other hand, seems to be thriving.
What are the differences between here and Denmark in terms of musical prospects?
Søren: Being a musician in Denmark is probably not too different in terms of prospects from the UK. And this is saying a lot about Scandinavia, as London has previously been the absolute Mecca for musicians. Copenhagen has an unusually thriving music scene with more Danish bands doing well internationally than ever before. A fact, I believe, that can be largely attributed to a very healthy community of musicians, where it is more common to play in two, three or even four bands, than just the one. This causes the lines of genres to be warped and merged, broken and reconstituted, with incredible results. I am genuinely excited about the Scandinavian music scene and am almost sad to say that most of my favourite bands are not from London, but from Copenhagen.
To return to your question, I think it is also a little easier to live off your music in Scandinavia, as government subsidies, and a perhaps more general appreciation of the craft of music, means you get paid (quite well) for every gig you play, no matter how small. In London the small bands music scene is so backward. It seems the bands are almost expected to pay for playing at a venue. Or at least bring four hundred of their thirstiest friends. This is a problem which is compounded by lazy ‘gig promoters’ who just don’t really seem to care about music (or know anything about it), and will put together foul tasting cocktails of genres on the same nights and charge people way too much money for the pleasure.
How much has the download culture made it harder for musicians to make a living?
John: Making a living as a musician has always been notoriously tough and with downloads having an adverse effect on sales it now looks even tougher. However all is not lost as independent musicians seem to be constantly coming up with new ways to adapt in this changing climate.
The real damage is in the changing way we listen to music. The download culture has generally stopped us from listening to albums as a whole and hence has an effect on our musical attention span. Being given access to music instantaneously takes a lot of the magic away from the discovery of new artists and therefore has led to a perceived devaluation of recorded music.
From listening to the Safety First musicians, it seems they are all artists that require focused attention in order to get the most from listening. Is this something you guys look for?
John: I don’t think we look for this intentionally. It must just be to do with our music tastes. I’ve always been into slightly more progressive styles of music, which has definitely shaped the way I listen to songs. However it could also be a complete coincidence.
Do you think people should work harder when listening to music? Do you think they’re able to?
John: People should work harder finding music. I am honestly sick to death with the way we are spoon fed new music. I have a family member who only discovers new music through the X-Factor. It’s shocking. I don’t mean that we should all become music super-geeks, but that people should try to scratch the surface a bit. Dig deeper and take a chance. If you put a little effort into finding something, you’ll probably put some more effort into listening to it.
I don’t really think you can combat people’s snap judgements. Some will give an album a few listens whilst others won’t. I have had classic albums that I abandoned after the first spin and then picked up again a year later and loved (Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde for example – seriously).
Another thing I noticed at the launch night was that everyone was sat down, focused, listening. Is it harder for artists who require this kind of attention in a musical landscape that often entails alcohol and shouted conversations?
John: It’s really hard, especially if you are trying to win a new audience over. Sometimes the stars align and everybody shuts up to listen but most of the time it just doesn’t happen. You cannot blame audiences for it. When mob mentality (plus booze) kicks in, all our IQs get dragged down to the level where we feel an overwhelming desire to talk about the newest episode of The Apprentice at the least opportune moments.
With our Safety First Records launch night we tried to gear the whole evening towards considerate listening and it worked really well. Maybe more venues and promoters should aim to achieve this.
Do you think people are getting tired of the alcohol and shouted conversations? Do you think this focused attention is something people are craving?
John: They are craving it but as yet don’t know it. By the time they do, we’ll probably be into shouting again.
Do you organise Safety First shows?
Matt: Shows, plural, is a bit generous so far, but we put on the inaugural Safety First label night in November last year at The Yard in Hackney Wick. In spite of entailing a lot of hard work and some unexpected obstacles, it turned out to be a magical night. It was a lovely venue and, in front of a full house of 120 or so attentive and appreciative listeners, everyone played amazingly. It felt good to provide an opportunity for the music to be heard in an environment it’s worthy of, and hopefully we’ll be able to do more of the same in the future. Though I have to say, London doesn’t exactly make it easy for such occasions to be regularly viable, at least for a small label like ours.
We’ve also just completed the second of three monthly shows at The Gladstone Arms in Borough. Each night has been Klak Tik joined by one of the other London-based Safety First artists. In February it was Polly Tones, in March, Jack Cheshire. The last will be with Felix Holt on Sunday April 1st.
Rory, who runs the nights there, understands exactly how our music should be given and received in a live setting, so the pub has a truly lovely atmosphere. Everyone has really enjoyed the experience and it’s inspired us to continue this kind of set-up, so hopefully there’ll be more to come.
Do you have any future plans for Safety First?
Søren: No, not really. We are no masters of visualisation. To us the future is an ocean size play-pit of multi-coloured balls that we are splashing through. We don’t really set goals or expect anything particularly, but we get huge enjoyment from seeing our project grow noticeably all the time – slower than Google but faster than a tree.
What is the biggest safety hazard of being a musician and what is your advice to counteract this?
John: Late nights. I like to operate a one-night-on/one-night-off philosophy. Remember an hour’s sleep before midnight is worth two after.
Matt: Empathy and Gout. Adopting a less regal lifestyle can decrease the chances of gout, but with empathy, once the first symptoms are there, it is probably already too late.
Many of the greatest ideas are the simplest, those you can’t believe no-one has come up with before, and that definitely applies to the fascinating website Letters of Note. The site simply reproduces the private and personal letters (in most cases showing the paper original) of a wildly diverse array of famous individuals, from Kafka to Hitler, from Beethoven to Bertand Russell, Jimi Hendrix to Edgar Allen Poe. A few are not from the famous but to them, such as the heartrending letter from Winnie Johnson to Myra Hindley. In many others an extra side is shown to people who you thought you knew, or those you didn’t know at all. Hours, weeks of absorption are here. A few stray favourites:
As I have noted before, I am not usually a fan of our near namesakes smuggoes at the pretendy-Marxist, ultra-libertarian Spiked. Every once in while they do come up with the goods though, as with this review of Román Gubern and Paul Hammond’s new biography of Bunuel. The book sounds a fascinating view of a fascinating scene, and the review brings it out well. Sad and horrible to think of Bunuel shaking hands with Ramon Mercarder (Ernesto Guevara did too by the way.) As ever though, horribly warped politics can still make for great art.
Its impossible to capture the disturbing beauty of David Lynch’s films in words, but Nicolas Lezard’s article in The Guardian has a decent go. As Nicholas says “If ever there was a director who put dreams on to the screen….. without trying to impose a coherent, readily graspable narrative order on them, it is David Lynch.” A-mey-an.
I’m very glad Mr Lynch is happy making music at the moment, and I swear I’ll even get round to listening to it sometime…..but I do wish he’d make another film.
“Dickens is good” shocker. He is though you know. And it’s his birthday, you may have noticed.
I was never interested in Dickens at all during my teens, and school did nothing to counter this. I only bothered to properly explore him after reading George Orwell’s magnificent essay on him, which made the world Dickens had created infinitely more inviting. And I’m very glad I did.
If you like one of these writers but not the other, this essay is bound to inspire at least a kindling of an interest in the unfavoured. If you like both, it’s sublime. If you like neither – sod ya.
It’s great to see there is now an award for the Best Hatchet Job of the Year when it comes to book reviewing. Reading a good literary demolition job is often hugely enjoyable experience, even if it’s just catty score settling (ie. Julie Burchill’s amusing assault on Nick Kent’s NME memoir). Just occasionally though, it can reach a form of high art in itself, the review vastly eclipsing its sorry and hapless target. The funniest review I ever read was Dorothy Parker’s magnificent evisceration of a study of “Happiness” by William Lyon Phelps from 1927 (who sounds a bit like the Alain de Botton of his day). Bite-sizes don’t do it justice: read it in full ( you can do it here on the New Yorker’s website if you pay their subscription, or better still get the works.)
Rooted in the history and traditions of the Pacific Northwest, Jonathan Evison’s West of Here rethinks the epic American novel for the 21st century. Dan Coxon talks to the author about the difficulties of selling his American vision overseas. Portrait by Keith Brofsky
For a New York Times bestselling author, Jonathan Evison has remained remarkably true to his origins. Those who are familiar with the literary scene in the Pacific Northwest – and particularly in Seattle and nearby Bainbridge Island, where Evison has made his home – will undoubtedly have crossed paths with him at some point. At times he seems to be the connective tissue that holds Seattle’s growing literary culture together, and it’s not unusual for Evison to appear unannounced at readings and events around the city. Speak to any author in the region, and you’ll almost certainly find that they know ‘Johnny’.
When it came to selling his novel West of Here overseas, however, Evison has encountered more resistance. The market for a sweeping, widescreen novel about the Pacific Northwest wasn’t immediately apparent, and publishers repeatedly shied away from committing to such a locally-rooted epic. Luckily Evison’s bold, energetic style of storytelling was enough to win them over, and West of Here is now – finally – heading east across the Atlantic.
You’ve just had a pretty incredible year, including the release of West of Here in the US and your first appearance on the New York Times bestseller lists. Has this brought any major changes with it, or is life pretty much the same as before?
This year was a dream come true. Life is the same but even better. In spite of all the touring and other public stuff, I’m dealing with less financial anxiety, so I have more time and energy to focus on my art, which is bliss. Also more time to chase my boy around. And a cabin in the mountains to inspire me.
But really, I’ve been living the dream all along. I’m simply grateful to have the work, the focus, the sense of purpose writing provides me. As odd as it sounds, I get a little wistful when I think of all those late nights in Kinko’s collating stories and packing them in envelopes, and sending them off like little packages of hope – even though they invariably came back as form rejections. I was perfectly happy living off pot pies and cheap beer. I just like being in the game, you know? Not that I wouldn’t be stoked to be so rich that I could finally buy that thirty foot inflatable duck in sunglasses I’ve always wanted. That would look badass in my yard.
You’ve been in a variety of ‘games’ over the years… radio host, comedian, punk rocker. Do you consider these to all be part of the same progression? Or is your career as a novelist totally different to what came before?
I’ll be honest, all the other stuff, besides the punk bands, was just stuff I did because nobody was publishing my novels. All I ever wanted to do was write novels. I wrote my first novel when I was 18 years old. Nobody published me until I was 40. And I’m still considered a “young” writer – ha! I learned a lot writing screenplays, writing comedy, doing talk radio – stuff that has informed and instructed my writing in various ways, but it was all vaguely dissatisfying. If it weren’t for my career in radio, I’d probably have a couple more unpublished novels sitting around.
West of Here has been a huge success in the US, but it’s taken a while for it to be accepted overseas. Why do you think this is? Did you always intend to write such a region-specific novel?
I’m perversely proud of the fact that every single non-English speaking European country dismissed West of Here as “too big and too American.” After all, I did set out to write a big American novel. If I would have written a big Chinese novel, I doubt this would be the case. America literature just isn’t considered as relevant as it used to be. Fine. Whatever. Neither is Bordeaux wine or German engineering. Or clogs. That said, the themes in West of Here are universal – personal destiny, national identity, reinvention. I’m a believer that if the themes are universal and the characters live and breathe, nationality shouldn’t get in the way.
Do you think American literature will have to change to remain relevant? Or is this, in fact, the time to turn back to the classics?
America is in the throes of a massive re-invention, and I think it will make for fascinating literature, and if the rest of the world is smart, they’ll pay attention. What is our national identity now that we’re no longer the world’s producer, that we’re no longer at the head of the world order? What is our new idealism? How will we adjust to a new standard of living? Politically, how will we restructure and reform from within? These are huge questions!
Whitman and Emerson used to talk about the “American Experiment” – and guess what? It’s still a big experiment! I think American Literature is poised for a big comeback, and I think the west, particularly the northwest, is going to be the nerve center. Between myself and Patrick DeWitt and Vanessa Veselka and Benjamin Percy and Jess Walter and Jim Lynch and Joshua Mohr and Jenny Shank, etc, etc, I think over the next decade the world is going to see an incredibly rich and dynamic body of work coming from the American west.
Did you purposefully set out to write a big Pacific Northwestern novel with West of Here? What was the original inspiration?
Oh yeah, I totally set out to write a northwest epic. The Olympic peninsula is a fascinating and rugged place. I wanted to write a story about how the land shaped the people, and how the people shaped the land. My goal was to write a sprawling egalitarian novel which would subvert many of our accepted notions about history, and to frustrate readers expectations about what we expect from “historical” fiction. I didn’t want to write historical fiction – I wanted to write a story about history and how it works.
And do you feel that you succeeded in achieving that? I know that I loved the book, and it dealt with many of those ideas – but I also know that the writing process is a complex one, and the end result isn’t always what you originally set out to achieve.
To be honest, I feel like I accomplished more than I set out achieve. That said, not everybody gets it – including some critics. Readers who lose sight of the big picture run the risk of getting lost in this novel. The first 175 pages might feel like one character introduction after another. But if you keep your eye on the big picture, you’ll begin to see all these characters and story lines converge and coalesce. In order to create the effect I was going for, I had to have 70 characters and 40-odd points-of-view – that was the whole point! History is not some linear progression peopled by a few great men, history is the sum of all the small vividly realized moments in each of our lives, and how they interact and relate to one another. History is connections and convergences and shared themes.
Can you talk us through your writing routine? Where do you write, when, how many drafts… and has this changed much as you’ve progressed and changed as a writer?
For me, discipline is the key. I approach writing like an athlete. Some mornings I don’t feel up to the task, but I strap on my trainers nonetheless and do my workout rain or shine. My optimum writing day begins at about 5am., that quiet hour when most of the world is still asleep and I don’t have any distractions. I’ll write until about noon. That time literally seems to pass in an instant. If I can write a page a day I’m feeling pretty good. I like to spend an hour in the evening going over the day’s work with a red pen – making notes in the margins and whatnot. I begin the next day by addressing these notes. That way I’m never stuck, I always have a starting point. I’m an obsessive revisionist. I must write 20 drafts of stuff. It’s never finished. At some point somebody just has to pry the manuscript out of my hands.
I know you’ve been working on edits of your next novel over the past few weeks. Has that process changed for you at all, now that you’re with a bigger publisher? Have you found that your approach towards edits and rewrites has changed over the years?
Nah, my approach is pretty much the same as always. I’ve been lucky to work with amazing editors, and also with an agent who gives great editorial. The key is to work with people who want to help you make the book that you want to write the best book it can be. I’ve heard horror stories from writers whose editors try to make the novel their own. I was fortunate enough with West of Here and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving to work with the editor of my choice, Chuck Adams. When I was entertaining offers, I talked with each of the editors at great length about WoH, and Chuck was the guy who best understood my vision for the novel and how to make it better.
You’ve used the places you’ve lived in as the settings for your two novels to date: the Pacific Northwest (West of Here) and California (All About Lulu). How important do you think it is for authors to draw upon the environments that have influenced them? Do you think you’ll stick with these settings, or do you have plans to write further afield?
I’m going to Alaska for research on my next novel, but part of the novel will still be set here in Washington. I’ve got a bunch of notes for a novel that takes place in Montana, too. I also want to write a novel that takes place in Baja. Mostly because I want to live down there for a year and get fat on fish and tequila.
Is it too early to ask about The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving? What was the inspiration for it, and when can we expect to see it on shelves?
Galleys for The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving are going to print any day, and the novel will be released in October 2012 in the States – not sure about UK. It’s a very different book than West of Here. While West of Here represented a huge technical challenge for me, TRFoCG was a huge emotional challenge. It’s a coming-of-middle-age about a male nurse in crisis. Without talking too much about the subject matter, I’ll just say that the novel really took a lot out of me emotionally. In the end, it’s probably my funniest book because it had to be. I’m really excited to get the novel in people’s hands because I feel like it’s one of those novels that’s going to be cathartic for a lot of readers.
Not that you asked, but I’m almost finished with another novel now called The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales, which is another departure in that it actually employs something of a thriller apparatus to frame 16 different limited points of view. I’m really excited about this one, too. I thrive on pushing myself into new and uncomfortable places as a artist.
Do you think it’s necessary for a writer (or any artist) to keep pushing the boundaries of their craft in that way? Or is that more of a personal decision to keep things fresh and interesting?
I don’t think it’s fair to make it some kind of general edict, but as an artist, that’s certainly what I’m after. I want to be developing tools as I go along, surprising myself, frustrating my own intentions, learning, facing new problems all the time. Otherwise I feel like I’m just going through the motions. Sometimes this can make novel-writing an excruciating exercise that leaves me totally exhausted, but I feel like it’s always worth the effort in the end. Especially for the reader. They say hard writing makes for easy reading and I believe that on every level. I do think there is a danger of alienating your readership at times, or at least those readers who have certain expectations for a specific artist. But I can’t worry about that. I just need to keep pushing myself.
I know that you’re constantly reading new writers, and you’re noticeably active in the writing community. Whose books have you particularly enjoyed over the last year?
I read two Ron Rash books this year which really impressed me: Serena, and the forthcoming The Cove. I also read two by Stewart O’Nan this year: Emily Alone, and the forthcoming The Odds. These two guys are among the best American novelists working in my mind. I’m also a big fan of Dan Chaon, along with Adam Ross.
And finally… you’ve interviewed a lot of authors yourself over the years, so what’s your favorite question to ask? And what would be your own answer?
Hmmm. I guess I don’t have a favorite question. I suppose if there was one question I’d ask every writer it would be: Why do you do it? Why do you endure all the heartache and frustration and financial duress and existential discomfort that comprises devoting your life to writing novels (which people may or may not ever read)? And I guess my answer would be that it makes me a bigger person – a more expansive person, a more understanding, thoughtful, empathetic person. A better problem solver, a better husband, a better dad, a better son, and a better friend.
Reviewed by Eric Saeger
Texas rapper Gauge knows how to compact syllables, but that won’t separate anyone from the current pack, especially given all the dried-up roto-tom-filled beats on this docket, the worst of which is Beat It Up, an Usher-blingy makeout number with a feat. by Miss Myke. Chicago-house (and tenuously Tupac-connected) producer Mr. Lee handled this stuff, and he adds a few phoned-in lines to two tracks Slim Thug got roped into as well, but despite any ambivalence he made sure his name was all over Shake It (Make It Bounce), being that its rumbly EBM sound has the strongest pulse of anything here. Basically it’s what you’d expect from a hiphop assembly line, which has resulted in little more than Gauge having to explain away scumbaggish booty-bagger lines, things of that sort; if you live and die for this kind of stuff there’s no reason at all to stay away from it, but pardon my snoring. Lots of B-list guests – in the widest clash of speeds, fellow Houstonian Scarface adds his mouf-fulla-hamburgers drawl to Gauge’s full-auto flame-spitting for the ballroom-twinkletoe soul of Hot Love.
Reviewed by Eric Saeger
Interesting little vanity release here in that it stars a Japanese-American chick from New Yawk doing an unintentional Forrest Gump routine. I’d expected jazz, but this is straight piano pop, open-hearted, almost like something you’d hear during lovey-dovey scenes in an anime cartoon, ie, believe it or not, there’s a market for it. Her voice is like Aimee Mann after taking a few Pat Benatar lessons, unadorned, doing it for the heck of it. The melodies are church-social in their limited but adamant joy, and overall, as a songwriter, she’s not bad at all, really – she kicks Rebecca Black’s ass if that helps any.
Reviewed by Eric Saeger
Take a bunch of Cleveland-burb kids who wish they were in either Airborne Toxic Event, Unsane or Thursday, let them yell, holler and flog themselves in a studio and it’d sound like this. If I’m reading their blurb sheet right they’re moving away from the indie-punk that was their original formative glue and fumbling for their inner pop stars, and that approach works for the first song (Bell Book & Candle). But this maturity gets quickly lost, as they gradually and visibly become possessed by their favorite Seether videos, and by the sixth song it’s a contest to see how ragged the singer can sound – okay, whatever, “ragged and powerful simultaneously.” It’s an admirable attempt, really; I suppose if I were in the miserable position of being 21 again and trying to add a little hard-ass credibility to my emo-pop I’d be sold on this angle (To Dig A Hole is particularly cool). And there you’d have it, integrity maintained, rock-star dreams invariably crushed.
Jacob Knowles-Smith on homophobia in elitist liberal comedy and nationalism in polymath documentaries
After the inconvenience of creator Tina Fey’s pregnancy, the new season of 30 Rock (NBC) has finally aired. If there was one impact of her pregnancy on the show it was Fey’s slightly fuller face – which, I should say, was only noticeable when compared to Alec Baldwin’s now deflated head and less-substantial figure. At first I feared a slimmer model Jack Donaghy might lessen his comic presence, but, after watching the first episode twice and the second episode, I was too busy listening out for the rapid-fire dialogue which makes a second viewing a must when it comes to 30 Rock. One question, however, still remains, who now will spearhead the campaign for weightier, middle-aged men to be considered as sex symbols?
Gay fans of 30 Rock who haven’t already switched off because of Tracy Morgan’s homophobic comments last summer, might well be dissuaded by Jack – though he’s still very much a ‘daddy’ – no longer being so much of a ‘bear’. Furthermore, I’m not sure Tracy Morgan’s character, Tracy Jordan, having his own homophobic controversy will draw back the LGBT audience, but I’m sure he regrets his comments and it’s a pretty good stab at a public apology.
As ever, the show’s subplots remain inventive and anarchic – from hayseed zealot Kenneth’s disappointment over the Rapture failing to transpire, to Kelsey Grammer reprising his role as conman-extraordinaire. There’s also an ever-welcome slap in the face to Simon Cowell in the form of Jack’s new reality TV vehicle: America’s Kids Got Singing. I leave the only comment that needs to be said about such ‘talent contests’ to panel judge D’Fwan: “You need to remember reality television is formulaic.”
When the Republican candidates vituperate their inflamed rhetoric against the ‘elitist liberal media’, one can only assume that 30 Rock is high on their lists of targets. Of course, in reality (somewhere far from the primaries), those targets are a pretty narrow field – the vast majority of America media products – from TV to newspapers – do have an underlying message of the primacy of family values, patriotism and Christianity. 30 Rock, however, is heretical because it dares to suggest that all America is equally, well, American. There is no bucolic heartland that remains sheltered from tendrils of the east and west coasts, and New York and Los Angeles are not completely peopled by cosmopolitan hipsters and pro-choice heathens. But there is a reason the presidential hopefuls are required to expound on this cultural divide – to distract people from remembering that that the Gingriches and Romneys are also part of the elite.
Another oft-presumed elitist, Jonathan Meades, returned to BBC4 this week with Jonathan Meades on France. Not that you’d really know about it because, though his previous documentary series about Scotland, Off-Kilter, was widely reviewed and praised in the press, a wordy-overachiever talking about France is clearly a step too far. Susan Sontag described a polymath as someone who is interested in everything and nothing else. This might be a fair description of Meades, but, as Jonathan Miller once pointed out, ‘polymath’ is more usually a slur in Britain, as if being interested in more than one thing is catholic indulgence.
Nevertheless, BBC4 is the welcoming home of people who are interested in things – even multiple things – and Meades’s first-of-three films about France was as diverse in content as a week’s schedule for that channel. All the subjects were things beginning with V; Valise, Vedette, Voltaire; and if there was a loose thread running throughout – but not all of them – it was the OAS, the far-right nationalist terrorist group that tried to prevent Algerian independence in the 60s. Meades seems to have mixed-feelings about the group and, if not sympathy, understanding of their aims. He has, however, no understanding – certainly no sympathy – with nationalism, and this is a theme throughout many of his earlier films. Illustrated overtly in documentaries about Nazi and Stalinist architecture and more subtly in ones about British culture, the message Meades tries to convey, and rightly so, is that identifying too closely with where one comes from stymies progression of culture and diminishes us as individuals. Modernism, for example, has no ‘nationalist etiquette’ attached to it and was thusly despised by the far right; fascism allows its subjects no identity other than homogeneity. This might sound unpatriotic, but people (those Republican candidates especially) should consider whether they’d rather be defined by their background or by their talents and individuality.
On France has a much more personal perspective than Meades’s other documentaries; the country – where he now lives – became his, he says, in 1962, when the OAS declared their war. At that time, the architecture of France also inspired ‘wonder and delight’ in his fifteen-year old self – he didn’t make the connections then that he describes for us now, but he has tried to make a career out of making us wonder about things, and, for me at least, that is a constant delight.
Reviewed by Declan Tan
John Warner’s debut novel, about the rise and fall of an unnamed American comedian known only as “the funny man”, is a mulchy broth of satire, cultural commentary and La-Z-Boy philosophy that simmers away on lukewarm, only ever threatening to come to the boil, though not without ambition, before bubbling back into quiet soup, despite a satisfying crouton rising to the surface now and again.
By switching between courtroom scenes, where the funny man is on trial for murder, and flashbacks, where we learn of said funny man’s trawl through the dehumanising backstages of ‘the comedy world’, Warner, in his quintessential American voice, attempts to blend one too many disparate elements in fashioning an over-elaborate whole, without quite succeeding.
There are, however, moments of literary revving, a story that builds as shearing layers, but ultimately there is too much slippage, and the story’s foundations turn out to be a little uneven and cracked, perhaps even hurriedly laid.
It sounds simple enough: The funny man is happily married; he and his wife share a wry humour that feels warm and true. They also have a young son, of whom they are most proud. And in his work, the funny man is reasonably successful on the stand-up club circuit. But he wants more and more, to be a world-beater, worshipped as one of the greats (Bruce, Carlin and Pryor, in the funny man’s opinion).
After a gig he meets a talent agent who tells him he needs a “gimmick”, a thing recognisably his, to take him to the next level. His son unwittingly provides this gimmick – a most moronic one – yet the funny man becomes a runaway success, earning millions with his act. He is roped into making studio movies, then a sequel, all while having to do “the thing” that of course he comes to hate. Meanwhile, he becomes unassailably detached from reality. When his celebrity reaches unmanageable levels he begins to rely heavily on medication, which in turn leads to the breakdown of his marriage, an incident with his son that is hugely played up (but sags when revealed), and eventually, a secretive long-distance relationship with a female tennis star.
Warner provides some readable if often familiar asides throughout these aspects of the plot; on what happens away from camera; the anatomy of a cynically made Hollywood comedy; and the demands made on a touring comedian. His commentary sends up both the executives that fund the big-budget idiocy, and those people who pay to watch it. Though his message is often delivered with an over-inflated belief in the veracity and humour of his words, it does flow quite smoothly on the whole.
But too often it seems routes that could have been taken, to explore more dangerous or original ideas, were instead avoided. The novel reverts to platitudes (1. Be careful what you wish for, 2. Fame ain’t all that), along with the employ of some dry narrative devices (1. The unreliable narrator, 2. Observational stand-up bits disguised as conversation) which occasionally grind to a halt the reader’s enjoyment.
The social media aspect of the trial for example, is played for a couple of laughs. A theory from his lawyer, Barry, about “not guilty by reason of celebrity” is toyed with. Then there is the other musing, also from Barry, on there being no such thing as ‘emergencies’, only ‘eventualities’, and how the funny man believes this theory to “reconcile both free will and predestination” (an idea perhaps inspired by the later works of St. Augustine). Is it the occasionally patronising tone of some of its delivery that makes it unconvincing? Perhaps, because there is something that dims the message. Making it all sound a little beige. Like a book review based on ill-conceived soup and construction similes. Which brings us back to those courtroom scenes, unfortunately reading like those parts of a novel where one plot strain is indeed a strain to get through. Whole passages you want to skip over to get to the riper elements of the plot.
The second half further mixes in the possibility of the funny man’s delusions, taking the form of a classic reality/fantasy conundrum, as he is mysteriously blinked away to a celebrity retreat (or “advance”, as it is explained); a place recalling Patrick McGoohan’s surreal 1960s TV series The Prisoner, crossed with the titular utopia from Huxley’s parting gift, Island. There the funny man meets the love of his “second life,” Bunny, the tennis star, with Warner attempting to leave some mystery as to the fate of his protagonist.
Yet what Warner really is good at, turns out to be played down. The relationships and interactions between the husband and wife, and their child, are touching, full of feeling and honesty, transcribed as if straight from real-life. But the novel’s efforts to instead excoriate the minor components of a rotten corporate system, rather than explore the possible source of American society’s slide toward post-cultural obsessing, is a choice that eclipses the inherent humanity of this everyman journey.
Warner’s point seems to be that this fame thing happens to once-grounded individuals, but the impact of that message fizzles when the wayward nature of its plot must be elucidated. While doing little to explore the true cause of that delusional state of mind.
This is only Warner’s first novel-length fiction, and a misfiring run-out first time round is by no means disaster (look at HST’s The Rum Diary). There is space to develop, and potential to fulfil, demonstrated fully in this story’s ability to have you hooked, at times, be it not even necessarily the ‘style’ that does it.
And if there is a kind of moral here, in this more nibbling than biting satire, then at least efforts have been made to avoid it becoming a preachy one, which is admirable. (But now I’m the one being condescending.) Nevertheless I’ll still be trying out Warner’s follow-up. There are just enough tasty croutons here to warrant that.
Reviewed by Eric Saeger
New York-bred Brazil-o-phile Kaplan provides a sort of life-travelogue here, soloing nonchalantly throughout the entire album on his nylon-stringed unplugged guitar. It’s so relaxed and unhurried that it can come off as improv, and reading some of the blurbage here I believe that’s the case with some of it. No matter, of course, if you’re lazing in a hammock trying to visualize your last time on an uncrowded beach or whatever; this record’s perfect for that, asking nothing of its listenership other than to put its brains on screensaver. Slow purposeful strumming ending in speedy fractal flourishes is the core formula, little deviation to be found aside from the bouncy up-and-down Baiao rhythm in Baiao For Gershwin, the title of which hints at what Kaplan would like to be thought of, a sort of oldschool-jazz-meister with advanced knowledge of world music, but it’s perhaps best viewed as an exotic form of baroque.
Reviewed by Eric Saeger
A vanity release in more than one sense. Colorado kid Ian Garrett Fellerman is a lonely geek with a score to settle with jocks, chicks who read Dostoevsky, pretty much everyone of his generation, so he’s attached his own Hoobastank emo bleating to his own Postal Service-like cheese, beat it with his own out-of-place stun-guitar lines and now hopes for the best, which would be me saying that I feel his pain but kindly either take out the whiny/cheesy guitars or fix their mix levels. Obviously a bedroom project, but that doesn’t mean anything negative nowadays with bands like Salem and whatnot around; we pause to honor Fellerman’s reckoning of his place in the world (there isn’t one, nor is there one for anybody else who blindly questions the world’s constant roiling tide of BS) and hope that next time he’ll replace the Flying V with more subtle ProTools or whatever he’s using to make his Atari-techno.
Reviewed by Declan Tan
Steve McQueen’s second feature is a visually arresting, thematically dense piece of cinema, that may, and probably will, prove to be an important film in years to come. That is, if enough people get to see it. Having been cursed with a NC-17 rating in the US and a limited release in the UK, it seems those it may have been intended for will be largely unaware of its arrival.
From the opening frames it becomes clear there is again, after Hunger (2008), a meticulous method at work, both in front and behind the camera; McQueen’s fine arts training fixes every image immaculately, as if leafing through a glossy (yet depraved) coffee table book, a look which works as irony for its subject matter, and the extension of McQueen’s intention to interrogate his audience.
Then there is Fassbender as Brandon, a long-time sex-addicted New Yorker running the hamster wheel of untameable urges and the subsequent self-loathing, his demeanour and quiet menace recalling fellow-pointy-face Christian Bale in American Psycho, only less cartoonish and more sinister.
Brandon’s condition worsens when his younger, ever-vulnerable and needy lounge-singing sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to visit. The pressure of her presence and her constant encroachments on his territory adds to the strain he already feels. Her re-appearance twists him in new ways, not helped by her dalliances with his boss, Dave (James Badge Dale). Brandon gradually crumbles into himself.
And there is much to admire in its telling. Shame is something of an orchestral symphony, all of the components coming together to form a cohesive and remarkable whole, made from the music, and the visuals, and (most of) the acting. One notable sore spot, however, is the mildly irritating dinner scene, in which Sissy performs a heart-wrenching number in front of her brother and Dave. The camera trained on Mulligan’s quivering face, the film’s flow is interrupted. A long long shot of just too much supplicatory ‘acting’. We are made fully aware that what we are witnessing is an actor’s attempt to state her claim as being ‘the brightest young thing’, the scene far too drawn-out to leave any sympathy remaining in this particular instance. That is not to say Mulligan won’t be praised. She surely will be; it is the kind of thing that critics go for, this false attempt at intensity behind a look of painful worldliness.
Despite this, what co-screenwriters McQueen and Abi Morgan have managed is to make real, living, breathing humans of Brandon and Sissy. You may not like them; one is an arrogant bully, the other a needy liberty-taker, but somehow you reach some state of empathy.
Of course, as you may have heard, a lot of the film is sex. That almost goes without saying. (It is like the filmed memoirs of Dan Fante.) But the way McQueen has worked it disconnects the viewer from the sex, even from the sex in other films, this sex for gratification, the cold relief sold as ‘love’. It is the same with Brandon, and we arrive again at empathy. He cannot resist his urges to abominate himself, using hookers, masturbating at work, spending the in-between watching internet pornography, sat with a beer as if looking at a football game, completely on automatic. While, at work, his computer is confiscated as a result of the material found on it.
As he goes on, Brandon has more and more emotionally numbing sex, his pursuit leading him eventually to physical injury and homosexuality (with an odd and subtle implication that homosexuality is rock bottom, if we are to go by the music and intended drama. But it is little trips like these* that make you realise this film was actually ‘made’, that it didn’t just fabricate to teach our society a lesson.)
Shame seems not only about sex addiction as a distancing affliction, but also about alienation in general, though it does too hint at familial problems, sexual or otherwise, as the root cause of the siblings’ troubles. But McQueen is less interested in working the psychological aspects, opting instead to document, not explain: Here is a man who is of no value to himself. He has lost touch with any sense of worthiness, any purpose, other than fleeting and momentary gratification. What is he worth, if he is nothing even to himself? This is why it seems as if this is an “important” film (in quotation marks as how important a film can get has its obvious limitations), and completely of this era of commodified sex. An issue of the times.
Quickly the glossy sex becomes abhorrent to watch, because we are with Brandon, and it’s as equally degrading to the viewer as the participant, made most obvious in the clips of porn flickering on Brandon’s screen. McQueen merely shows this to the audience, does not tell it, by taking us from our awareness of his commercial-like images, which open the story, to the grimy opposite, but filmed in the same style, while simultaneously the world that Brandon inhabits becomes as glossed over and false as the sex and pornography that clouds him.
“These days it is not realistic to limit yourself to one partner”, Brandon says at one point during a date with a girl from work in which he also expresses his pessimistic view of long-term relationships, that one becomes bored with the other. It is clear that he is constantly reaching for the now, the instant gratification. This is what makes this film of our time. It sounds like social commentary, and it probably is. Fassbender’s Brandon is an icon of modern man, a symbol, while the final effect of Shame has some kind of reverb with Tarkovsky’s (disappearing) idea of having a film hopefully make the viewer turn to ‘good’. Shame is the sound and sight of an artist speaking and moving, yet without didacticism or lame solutions. And by the end, we are given a sense of hope, of man resisting himself, gaining control. Shame that a lot of people probably won’t even get a chance to experience it.
[*How many times can the distorted reflection of a protagonist be used as a metaphor in film, without someone piping up and saying something?]
Reviewed by Eric Saeger
Specializing in the wispy, sparse and non-commital zen that defined 70s chill-folk-rock, this Cincy band makes elevator music for bongpackers old and young. They rarely deviate from a formula that nestles Blind Melon between Mountain and Belle & Sebastian – wait, I’m lying, there’s some Warlocks fuzz-rock in there too. What I’m trying to say, and failing miserably, is that the band is perfectly named: it’s strong and lithe, a little too sweet, blocky and chunky but simultaneously graceful. One thing you’ll walk away knowing for sure is that this is historically accurate acid folk-rock; there’s no way you won’t think things along the lines of “Jesus, did they have to chase the singer around with a butterfly net to get him to show up in the studio or what?” Reason for that is singer Jason Snell’s half-there-ness; it’s like early 70s Ozzy in ballad mode jamming with Canned Heat in endless variations on Going Up the Country, in other words about 70% of your basic Bonnaroo crowd would take to it like magpies to a roll of Reynolds Wrap.
Reviewed by Eric Saeger
Their seventh full-length finds these anti-Wiggles Aussie punks floating an endless supply of quite listenable joke tunes powered by (very appropriate) bones to pick. All Fake Everything is just awesome, singer Quan Yeomans taking aim at modern rap with a grenade launcher, the first half a poetic apology from an interchangeable Jay-Z sung over a cheese version of Whiter Shade of Pale, after which Yeomans’ character boasts his uselessness from the rooftop (“you’d be bored if you were me!”) over a guitar line that’s a thinly disguised (what else) 99 Problems. Punk Mum is straight-edger stuff about sandwiches and things, which is always important, let’s face it; Be Still My Noisy Mind puts Duran Duran in a leglock for a skewering of Rio. Like an aural Mad magazine with swears, the way you fricking kids are supposed to be doing it.
Reviewed by Eric Saeger
The rate at which Chicago indie WTII has been wailing on Metropolis Records in the fight for the goth dollar has been noticeable lately, and now it’s even happening in the 80s-pop sideshow that’s becoming more and more a part of the action. The third album from this Swedish band is short on volume but long on content, featuring some super-catchy ideas in the vein of Depeche Mode and New Order (the hypnotic, mission-critical bass lines are handled by the son of ABBA’s old bassplayer), the perfect amount of subterranean noise loopage – I dunno, it’s what I’d do if I were in band like this, thus your own mileage may vary. The one downside is that the sound itself is derivative, but that’s the least of people’s worries when they’re hunting for good neo-80s vampire music. But song-wise, where things are made or broken, it’s a flawless victory, most notably Adorable and Half the Double Speed, which allude to Sisters of Mercy without being at all clone-like.
The final photo-essay by Dr Nick Maroudas on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here
Epstein lived at no. 18 Hyde Park Gate, and it says much for the civic pride of this ultra-respectable neighbourhood that he was twice commissioned to make a sculpture for the Park. Both of them have a “green” theme. But here I must confess, they often tempted me to an ecological peccadillo: on a drive between north and south London, I would cut through the park solely to get out and admire them on the way.
In a little bird sanctuary one can see the memorial to W.H. Hudson, author of Green Mansions and a founder of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In the 60s Notting Hill was still the unfashionable side of Hyde Park, tainted by genteel prejudice against the Irish navvies who had built Paddington station. “No Irish” was a familiar notice on rooms to let in London. But time has fulfilled Peter Rachman’s prophetic vision of a Notting Hill with real estate value added: it has proved entirely feasible to drive out the poor and bring in a better class of tenant to the north side of the park. Coming back from the past on a visit to London in the 21st century and walking down from Paddington, I was startled by the apparition of a well dressed lady leading two very clean infants toward the park in fresh cotton frocks – all magically transported from Kensington. But recalling that I had read about a movie starring a new and fashionable “Notting Hill”, I hastily collected my wits and asked directions; because the bird sanctuary is rather small and easily missed among the surrounding trees . Mention of a bird sanctuary drew blank looks, so I explained that I was looking for: “a small statue of a bird lady with a puffin on her shoulder”. I used this childish language because I was beginning to suspect that I might get more out of the children than out of the adult. The lady seemed pained, and the little girl began to tug urgently at the grownup’s skirt so, not wishing to embarrass them further (“To the Irish every stranger is a potential conversation, to the English every stranger is a potential bore”). I crossed the Bayswater Road as soon as the lights changed (but no sooner, lest the children be set a bad example). Hardly were we inside the park when the lady kindly came up to me and said, with that stiff embarrassed expression which the English well-bred assume when obliged to address somebody to whom they have not been properly introduced, “My daughter tells me it is near the Lido”. I thanked them and went on with joy in my heart; because that little girl had not been taught about W.H. Hudson and the founding of the RSPB: she had been taken to the Serpentine by her nanny, or in a school crocodile – and the wild bird lady had become part of her consciousness.
Which is as it should be.
I would have liked to tell the child that the bird lady’s name was Rima, and that she comes from a book called Green Mansions because birds live in green mansions – but I was too shy.
Here is the Hudson memorial “the size of a postage stamp” inside its fenced sanctuary (figure 48). And here is Rima in a flurry of wing and beak (figure 49). They are wild birds and, according to an ornithologist friend, symbolic rather than exact. The larger are two species of typical hooked-beak raptor; the eagle is well worked-out, with feathers finely chiselled and massive wings folded to power dive “like a thunder-bolt”. The softer raptor is more hawk like. The small birds may be a species (or two) of crow with general-purpose Swiss-army-knife slightly-curved beaks. There is no puffin, ignoramus that I am.
As a boy, I read Green Mansions in the same week with Pride and Prejudice. These books, swallowed together and too soon, left a vague impression of two remote exotic lands at opposite poles, equally distant from my urban working-class world. But however vague my recollection of those heroines, long joined with ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘The Princess on the Pea’ in the swirling mists of fable, I am absolute that Rima in her green mansions was closer to Epstein than Miss Bennet in her entailed estate. No Jane Austen Society followed the RSPB to commission Epstein. Rima probably scared them off because she “ain’t got no panties”. Rima is a wild thing among the wild birds; and Epstein created her stark naked like Botticelli’s Venus because, as Botticelli remarked (in the play Poor Little Nelly Machiavelli) “it increases her pathos, poor dear”.
Epstein’s sculpture for Bowater House (figure 50) was entitled The Rush of Green. Fluid bronze depicts a family and their dog rushing forward towards the park to enjoy clean air and green spaces (figures 50 to 56). “Pan charms them and nature pulls them away from the offices, shops, and dwellings behind”. It stands as Epstein’s last testament, and a cheerful one. Like Beethoven in his final phase, “he had more to carry, and he carried it more lightly” (J.W.N. Sullivan).
I like the boy with the dog. Epstein sculpted his own dog Frisky as an adorable little spaniel; but the Green’s dog is a large hound of indeterminate breed with a long clumsy muzzle, half wild, half comical as it looks back toward the family in its bounding dogginess. The father appears resolute, long suffering – a typical Epstein look (figure 54); perhaps he is worrying how to pay the rent yet spend time with his family. Behind him comes Pan, keeping a wary eye open for a change in the weather. The active bodies of husband and wife express a good contrast between rugged maleness and smooth femininity (figure 52). But the woman with a beseeching gesture leads them all onward (figures 52, 55 and 56) – her body elongated into a strong fluid line of bronze, like the barrel of a big gun, like the keel of a ship, like a rocket:
Das ewig-weibliche zieht uns hinan.
In this last work, Epstein found yet another solution to the problem that he had long pondered: how to reconcile the big public statement with the joys and sorrows of ordinary life. In size and finesse of architectural setting, this is very much in his grand manner; but in depiction of personality it is very much in the manner of his portrait busts. And in gaiety it joins with other cheerful statues of London’s open space: Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Girl with Dolphin at Tower Bridge.
The old Bowater House was built in Mies van der Rohe style; one of those neat modular boxes in which most of the work of the world gets done. It has since been demolished. The sculpture and its gate have been displaced to make way for the most expensive apartments in the world: four fussy concrete-and-glass blocks, twice the volume of Bowater House.
I liked Bowater House. It ought to have been listed Grade I for preservation, because its dark-suit-white-shirt office anonymity provided a perfect foil to Rush of Green (figure 50). Alas, that is only my opinion. Here is an authoritative voice:
The one piece of enlightened thinking [by Bowater] was the later (1959-61) inclusion of an Epstein sculpture of a family group with the god Pan, facing the park. Had it been at the Knightsbridge side, this sculpture might have provided some sort of sense of a public realm at the buildings base. As it was, it was largely ignored.
Against which, I present photographic evidence, figures 50 to 56. To at least one former Londoner, Bowater House provided a definite “sense of public realm at the building’s base”; and this magnificent piece of sculpture was by no means “largely ignored”; quite the contrary, I used drive in from Knightsbridge through Bowater’s ample portal over the old Edinburgh gate, just so that I could spend a few moments drinking in that glorious rush of green. You can see them now as I saw them then (figure 56) bathed in early sunlight and rushing to green in “the joy of the morning”.
As with a previous Epstein setting (see TUC House), one can only hope that colour photos of the Rush-Greens at their original address survive, so that another piece of official vandalism might stand a slight chance of being corrected in some remote enlightened future.
On August 19th, 1959, Epstein completed The Bowater House Group. He died later that day in his home at 18 Hyde Park Gate, of heart failure. A quick, clean death at a good age and on a good occasion, attended by people who loved him; I should like to go like that.
In Loughton, where he lived for many years and where his second house, at no. 50 Baldwin Hill, bears a blue plaque:
… he was remembered by many local residents who saw and chatted to him, as a man of kindly and compassionate disposition though impatient of anyone lacking humility…
He possessed a gracious and courteous manner. His conversation was cultivated and, on the subject of art, very learned.
He never lost his Brooklyn accent.
Googling from abroad I learn that Rush of Green, coyly renamed the Pan Statue, now stands in a displaced Edinburgh Gate, “much narrower than the one lost in 2007” (Evening Standard) and “with slightly meagre pavements” (The Guardian) – not surprising on a site where any square metre clawed from public space into private hands might gain the seller £50,000. At their new address the bronze group remain mercifully intact, albeit more cramped and perched on a zippy new plinth against the intrusive buzz of visual distraction from 1HP. Here is the opinion of Oliver Wainwright; I think his words apply equally well to Epstein’s bronze family. Wainwright is preferring some plain buildings from the 60s: [which are] “to be hugged like the family’s big woolly dog. In comparison to their rugged confidence, One Hyde Park seems more like a prissy Siamese cat: all grilles, flaps and mannered articulation. It would probably scratch you if you tried to hug it.”
As far as I can judge from the web, where they stand on South Carriage Drive new “street furniture” in aggressively safe Elfin fluorescent yellow, adds to the uneasy feeling of edginess and scratchiness. All that jazz diminishes Epstein’s carefully planned contrast with a plain neutral office building, and hence diminishes the original impetus of Rush of Green. But, being a resilient family, the Rush-Greens will no doubt adapt to their straitened circumstances and their pushy new neighbour, and continue to work some of their old magic on unsuspecting passers-by.
Money trickles upward, population increases, people grow taller yet ceilings grow lower, especially in your multi-million pound apartment on Hyde Park. Green space and public space get eaten away: there in a big gulp, here only a little nibble. Hyde Park still has 350 acres. Rush to the Green!
The great god Pan pipes them on, but keeps a weather-eye open on his tough old face.
Debaters use words and make generalizations. A developer promises “good design” and “high-quality public space”, leading to “vibrant” cities”. Pericles probably talked like that. So, what is the difference between the Parthenon and 1HP? Look and see, don’t rely on words. There are lavish words of praise for 1HP; there are even a few words of dispraise for the Parthenon: “misuse of public funds” and “filling Athens with buildings when they ought to have been filling it with justice and temperance” – the latter from high-minded Plato. There were even some words of denunciation for the Elgin Marbles, from the English Press in heavy italics: “The people need bread and you give them stones. We cannot eat stones!”.
But visual artists do not use words; they open your eyes.
Art survives words of praise or blame, can survive surprisingly long, be surprisingly resilient. Great art is like the Sybilline books: the complete set, worth all the public coffers of Rome; half destroyed, the remaining half still worth all the coffers; and so on, down to the last page. Art is like a hologram: break it and each piece will contain the image of the whole, though in lower resolution. Random spores of great art sleep for centuries, get picked up and inoculate susceptible people far away, to start a culture – like the yeast in the sourdough.
Having nearly completed this essay, I happened to re-read C.M. Bowra’s account of ancient Greek art: its love of the physical as a sign of truth beyond appearance, its deification of the human and its humanisation of the gods; its vigor; its respect for architectural and environmental setting. I think Bowra’s words and concepts equally applicable to the Epstein sculptures of modern London. (C.M. Bowra, The Greek Experience, chapter on ‘The Plastic Vision’; part of the series, History of Civilisation).
The most interesting fact that turned up from my googling for background to this essay was, that Jacob Epstein and Thomas Stearns Eliot were on friendly terms. The two avant garde Yanks lived near one another in respectable Kensington, sowing artistic revolt, and Epstein lit the candles on Eliot’s 70th birthday cake. Personal affinity is a strange chemistry, beyond classification by religion or politics: a right-wing intense Christian can share his world-view with a left-wing intense Jew. There is much of Epstein in these lines of Eliot:
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle,
Infinitely suffering thing.
I think Epstein is a great artist because he helped open my eyes to something that mathematical physics cannot explain and the currency cannot control: “flesh touched by God.”
Migrating here and there, along some dying eddies of the far flung British Empire, I remain grateful for the traces of culture that I picked up from London – its Epstein sculptures among other wonderful things in that great and grotty city.
Jacob Knowles-Smith tries to make sense of this season’s viewing
With the Christmas schedule now safely out of the way, viewers can settle into shows designed to ward off the effects ‘the lull’ and winter blues that come without an enforced sense of Christmas cheer. This year Charles Dickens, the codifier of our Christmas traditions, was more prominent in our minds than ever. Several documentaries and a sleek adaptation of Great Expectations (BBC One) are all very well, but none of this can really compete with The Muppet Christmas Carol. All we can hope from any adaptation of Dickens’s work is that people deduce from what they are watching on the screen that this might actually be a good book worth reading – rather than just a Great Book, gathering dust on a shelf.
The festive line up wasn’t, by any stretch, all bad but the sound of sleigh bells in the background eventually takes a Pavlovian toll that renders one unable to resist shoving a fifth mince pie into a mouth already aching from over-use. The standout Christmas special for me was ITV’s annual adventure with Poirot: The Clocks had a slightly audacious plot, stuffed full of red herrings but it wouldn’t be Christmas without David Suchet with a waxed moustache.
As we passed into the New Year, thoughts of Poirot turned to another detective, Sherlock Holmes. BBC One’s modern adaptation, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, doesn’t need more praise heaped on it than necessary here but I did find it interesting that the charge of sexism was levied against it. It was questioned whether – to say nothing of the nudity – the portrayal of the episode’s female antagonist was sexist because her plot was based on sexuality rather than intellect. We can reasonably assert that no woman should try to use her sexuality to get ahead in everyday life, but surely it’s perfectly natural for a villain to use any method to confound their adversary, especially as one would assume that in order to qualify as a villain at all they must have at least one variety of antisocial personality disorder. All sociopaths and narcissists use their sexuality as readily as any other attribute to achieve their goals, so this is really an effort to create needless controversy.
The Story of Musicals (BBC Four), innocuous as that title sounds, showed how sometimes controversy is very much necessary. This documentary series describes how British musicals took hold of global of the theatre industry. Putting aside for now the question of whether that was a good thing or not, it also portrayed how they challenged censorship, conventions and the establishment. Musicals seem to have supported the anti-war movement, through shows such Oh, What a Lovely War!, more than many of the rock and roll musicians who came to prominence subsequently. This latter group clearly influenced productions such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar – the first rock opera – but it was musicals that resulted in the Lord Chamberlain having his powers of censorship revoked and even predated The Beatles in leading the ‘British Invasion’ in the United States.
Leading the charge Stateside, and putting us at the mercy of Dickens’s once again, was Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s response to the sensational West Side Story. Oliver!, though, however much of a good knees-up it is, is a poor Dickens adaptation which strips all of the danger away from the real pivot of the story, Fagin. For commercial reasons, this is forgivable. Had they portrayed Fagin as the true bastard he is, the show would never have played well in New York and inevitable charges of anti-Semitism would have followed. (Indeed, Dickens himself fell short of describing all of the acts an actual Fagin character would’ve had his urchins engage in.)
When one does think of the musicals that started the British response; Oklahoma!, South Pacific, West Side Story, etc; and when one compares them to shows, which will presumably be discussed in the next episode, like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, it seems that British musicals ultimately had a pernicious effect on the genre, sapping the vitality from Broadway and the West End until all we’re left with is Wicked. At the very least, it confirms that people like Tim Rice or Andrew Lloyd Webber are no Sondheim or Bernstein.
The Rattigan Enigma (BBC Four), another theatrical documentary, neatly bookended British theatre at the other side of the war years. Benedict Cumberbatch was on hand– in rather lacklustre style, it must be said – to take us through the life of playwright Terence Rattigan from his days at Harrow through his struggles with repressed homosexuality and becoming acknowledged as a serious artist. I struggled to figure out what the ‘enigma’ of the title actually was; Rattigan’s life as an artist never quite coming to terms with his sexuality is no unique tale, and I suspect that ‘enigma’ was employed specifically due to Cumberbatch’s presence as presenter. Rattigan, though, deserved his own documentary even if was only to hear lines like “I’m glad we never made the mistake of falling in love with each other.” Few writers came closer to capturing the cold relationships between endured by faded Bright Young Things in the post-20s world.
Those same Bright Young Things came to age in what was, according to Timeshift: The Smoking Years, the golden age of ‘the smoker’. If that was true, then we smokers – there’s no point in hiding bias here – must now be in a stone age. Harried out into the cold streets, smokers of my generation may still remember when old cinemas, though they had banned smoking years since, still had ashtrays fitted in the backs of seats – relicts of a once great smoking civilisation. I’m being glib here, and that’s not entirely intentional, I would never encourage anyone to smoke, but it’s something of a response against militant anti-smokers who suffer from being far too serious. There was a leading anti-smoking campaigner in the documentary, and she managed to summon fond and humorous memories of the years when she did smoke.
One wonders what, now that smokers are banned from polite society, these people who must interfere in other’s lives are actually against. Instead of imposing moral superiority against the individual smoker, surely the bigger targets are the tobacco companies themselves, of course, but also the television and film companies. Where do you draw the line between realism and responsibility? An adolescent watching Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy or Mad Men is bound to find these depictions of smoking more attractive than the crumpled office workers, huddling against the wind, in their local city centre. I don’t mind smoking outside and I don’t think it’s an invasion of civil liberties but everyone minds being harangued because of their peccadilloes – where are the warnings against people who provide dull lectures?
The sixth of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here
These little works are scattered round the world, but I happened to snap them on exhibition in the West End. The Epstein centenary exhibition of 1980 was not your modern blockbuster, with a glossy colour catalogue and punters who plod their weary way through crowded time-slots. The Ben Uri Gallery in Dean Street was small and friendly; nobody told you not to photograph and not to view too close. I have their catalogue still: only 24 pages of plain paper, folded and stapled in the middle like a school exercise book; black-and-white photographs. But the devoted presenters were a powerhouse of British art.
Henry Moore wrote: “Jacob Epstein was a great sculptor … particularly in England. It was through him that sculpture became important to a large number of people who otherwise never thought of it. … he took the brickbats and made things easier for people like me, coming after him.”
Lord Clark: “He started as a master of style, he ended as a master of truth.”
Anthony Caro: “The bronze portrait heads he made, particularly of the men, have been unsurpassed since his death. They have life and generosity of spirit, and these are indeed great gifts in the making of art.”
Figure 26 shows the front rank of the company, with Epstein himself leading the charge in wedge formation. Under a cavalry-style sturm-cap his eagle eye scours the field ahead, his bladed nose cleaves the air (figure 27). On his left flank rides Einstein, with Vaughan Williams covering the rear “like an eighteenth century admiral whose word was law”. Epstein’s back line looks strong, with Chaim Weizmann and Sunita, “a big woman who liked pepper in her whiskey.”
Figure 28 sounds a gentler note, unexpectedly delicate and refined – almost decadent. On the wall are Epstein’s illustrations for Les Fleurs du Mal. Little Piccaninny gazes with a knowing innocence, like the negro page in a rococo boudoir. Someone has thoughtfully brought two bunches of marguerites in a wicker basket to soften the stark environment of a modern art gallery. In front of the flowers, Esther wears a single bloom on her corsage. Her left breast is bare, her shoulders are delicate (figure 29). I would have liked to add more, but googling to identity the sitter, found that Esther Garman was Epstein’s daughter who committed suicide. Enough.
The head of Paul Robeson (figure 30) was reconstructed in bronze from sketches of the sitter. Epstein has assembled a complex personality into an equilibrium that looks both powerful and fragile. Robeson was a college graduate, a renowned US football player from 1917 to the early 1920s, an All-American athlete and the singer-actor who immortalized ‘Old Man River’. He played Othello to Peggy Ashcroft’s Desdemona at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon – one of the high points of my years in England. And yet there is a look of “The Insulted and Injured” in Robeson’s face, like that of a child on the verge of tears. The head is strangely poised on a V shaped neck, with a Λ shaped tuft of hair at the top, slightly off balance with the base. The humble aspiration in his uplifted eyes and the determination in his powerful jaw are unforgettable. Epstein recognized a συμμαχον , a fellow fighter. In that period – the 20s and 30s – when fascism was fashionable and ethnic prejudice was the social norm, a Jew or a Negro often needed to struggle for the simple right to be regarded as human; moreover for a creative or a performing artist there is also the perpetual struggle to achieve αρετε : the best from one’s potential.
Areté is evident in Epstein’s iconic bust of Einstein (figure 32). I have included a view from Einstein’s right (figure 31) and from his left (figure 33); because my sainted-mother-in-law of-blessed-memory, when we took her round the Tate, remarked that the right side of the face was racked with cloud compelling thought while the left was … and here she used an Austrian word which I do not remember but which sounded very gemuetlich vaeterlich. Epstein described him thus: “His glance contained a mixture of the humane, the humorous and the profound. This was a combination that delighted me. He resembled the ageing Rembrandt.”
Chaim Weizmann (figure 34) recruited Einstein for a fund-raising trip to the USA; the dynamic duo raised a couple of million dollars for the Hebrew University. However, in Epstein’s busts one can see the difference between these two very eminent Jewish scientists: the one a seeker after knowledge as the way to wisdom (figure 32), the other a seeker after knowledge as the path to power (figure 34).
The Weizmann bust (figure 34) always reminds me of Lenin (figure 35). At first I thought it was because both men were Russians of similar phenotype (Tartar cheekbones, rounded skull) and both of them chose to sport their beards in the Imperial style; but seeing the two of them side-by-side by Einstein, I feel sure that Epstein’s Weizmann (figure 34) resembles Andreev’s Lenin (figure 35) in psychology as well as in physiognomy. They confront the world with the same domineering attitude: the cocky stance, the “sneer of cold command” (that is, when such people are not trying their winning ways by being utterly charming).
Andreev has skilfully caught a likeness in Lenin; Epstein has caught Weizmann with equal skill – but Epstein’s modeling digs beneath the skin. Somehow, all those wrinkles on the bronze surface mount up to expose unbearable inner tension. Weizmann complained that he was “the Prisoner of Rehovot”: sidelined on the political chessboard, restricted to building the finest research institute in the Middle East – a mere bagatelle for his powerful intellect. Verbally equivalent (to what Epstein is telling me in bronze) would be Solzhenitsyn’s opinion on this type of world betterer: his short story about Lenin, “the brain which could take the world apart and put it together again”, seething with frustration in peaceful Zurich.
Sunita (figure 36) was the model for Madonna and Child in Cavendish Square; so was her son. Having rashly described the son as Hindu-looking without knowing who the models were (figure 15) I was relieved to find a Hindu phenotype confirmed in this portrait of his mother (figure 36). (The Madonna of course is not only Hindu: Sunita said that Epstein had made Her far more beautiful than Sunita looked). The next three figures show how subtly Epstein could morph Sunita’s features, playing theme-and-variations on the phenotype. In figure 37 he has shifted Sunita to the European side of Indo-European, keeping her big straight nose (“bignose” the Chinese called their first Dutch sailors) and her big chin; but toning down her high cheekbones, slightly receding her forehead and softening the firm delineation around her own heavy-lidded eyes (figure 36).
In figure 38 he composes a really busty bust, drawing attention to the bosom by elongating her neck, throwing back her head and further receding her forehead. In Sunita’s final morph (figure 39) only the catalogue told me this was still the same model. Sunita has morphed into Israfel – who in turn will morph into Lucifer. In preparation for her eventual metamorphosis into a male angel, her breasts have been suppressed by tight banding (figure 39). The face has become more oval, and her hair has curled away from cold-climate Indo-Euro-Sino straight hair with relatively shallow waves (figure 36; hair that lies flat and keeps you warm) towards a hot-climate springy Afro-Arabian bush (figure 39; hair that spreads out and lets the breeze through). This is in step with her/his name-change, from the Indo-European sounding Sunita to the Semitic sounding Israfel.
“Great is Diana of Ephesus”. Huntress and protectress of wild creatures, protectress of women in childbirth, Diana Artemis Cybele, the Great Mother, Mother of the Gods, plays theme-and-variations on all her creatures. She creates a chimpanzee and, with a few deft touches of DNA, composes an Einstein. People and other animals, adults and children, cats and dogs and wild birds; Epstein showed great skill in depicting the nature of many different creatures, but behind all his variations lay one underlying theme. In his own words: “Man touched by God”.
Annabel Freud (figure 40) is wearing her baby bonnet, the youngest grandchild of Jacob Epstein and Kathleen Garman. This is another example of Epstein’s superb skill in portraying children.
I cannot identify the woman in figure 41; she does not look famous nor spiritual nor exotic nor tormented (although there is a touch of ancient grief bravely borne in the ringed eye-sockets and the upturned corners of a mouth fixed halfway between smile and sob). A remarkably plain Jane with a lumpy hairdo, parted down the middle, pulled back in a bunch and cut straight across the nape at a safe length: neither sophisticatedly short nor glamourously long. A very unusual face for Epstein; so ordinary and dumpy, he must have liked her quite a lot.
Mrs Godfrey Phillips (figure 42) was the wife of an industrialist. She was a great patron of the arts. Epstein has paid tribute to a delicate-featured woman of great sensitivity, modesty and attentiveness, with fine eyes ever-open in their search for areté.
The Elemental Carvings
I snapped these two carvings (both of them originally named Elemental) while they were on show in the Anthony d’Offay gallery before being shipped out to the South Pacific (figures 43 to 47). The attendant courteously allowed me to photograph these works, rarely seen in London, and I gave him my best slides as a token of thanks. The one is a female (figures 43) arching her back, perhaps in sexual ecstasy (figures 44 and 45).
Woman Possessed (figure 44) is now in the National Gallery of Australia, and this description is from their website:
The woman, who seems to be consummating her union with a god, lies back clenching her fists, with body arched upward in pose reminiscent of Lydia Sokolova at the climax of Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps … Sokolova [who in middle age coached Margot Fonteyn] described the final moments of her dance… “I dropped to the ground and lay backwards, raising my body in a taut arch…” Epstein attended the London performance of this ballet and made sketches…
Woman Possessed (originally called Elemental) is carved from Hoptonwood stone, a marble introduced by the young Henry Moore, who said he liked it because it was an English stone and he was English.
The title Elemental was transferred to a carving in alabaster (figure 46). According to the sculptor, it was the product of his “primitive woodland surroundings” (number 49 Baldwins Hill on the edge of Epping forest, 250 yards from Loughton bus stop opposite Homebase; good info from this Loughton website).
An apelike creature, squatting and hugging its knees (figure 46). What is it – hominid or hominoid?
Despite its 30s-style perfection of ovoid form, this translucent lump of stone brings to mind Darwin’s unforgettable account of some living conditions that really were elemental: “Tierra del Fuegans … naked and uncovered from the wind, rain and snow … sleep on the ground coiled up like animals … I can scarcely imagine that there is any spectacle more interesting and worthy of reflection, than one of these unbroken savages” (Voyage of the Beagle).
To my mind Elemental resembles a squatting baboon even though it does not have the doglike muzzle of a baboon. So my last photograph of an Epstein sculpture in London was this elemental creature curved into itself, squatting in a far corner of a Mayfair art gallery (figure 47) self-sufficient and self-contained like a real baboon keeping watch on some lonely krantz in the Karroo.
Read the last of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in and around Hyde Park
The fifth of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here
“The finest body of mounted riflemen in the world”. Generous tribute to a former foe of the British Empire, from Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples – a history of the greatest body of armed robbers the world has yet seen, and written by its great Imperialist leader (“I have set three kings upon their throne”). Churchill was admiring the Afrikaner guerilla resistance to British occupation of the Free Afrikaner Republics, a resistance formidably led by the same Afrikaner general whom Parliament now honours. Well, Parliament has a sensible tradition of putting up statues to those who improved it by opposing it. And Parliament also has a profitable tradition of pirating the wealth of a small country after demonising its people as fanatical and its leader as corrupt. (Profitable for a handful of leading wolves; but their woolly flock of lobby fodder must remain content with salary, pension and what they can wangle from expenses).
The fate of the Afrikaner Free Republics and their President Kruger was sealed as soon as they began to mine gold and diamonds, and build modern cities with electric vehicles running on broad streets. Said my Afrikaner brother-in-law: “The British don’t bring progress; they just wait till they see something is working, and take over”. The smaller the better. Says the Afrikaans popular song DelaRey: “a handful of us ‘gainst a whole great might”.
Africa is crucified North to South, East to West. At its suffering centre writhes the Congo – the heart of darkness. Behind the armies sit politicians scheming how to deploy the army and “become filthy rich”; behind the politicians sit financiers scheming how to deploy Parliament and “control the currency”. It was not by chance that Joseph Conrad had the narrator of the Heart of Darkness begin and end his story on the shining Thames where Parliament sits and The City squats. And at the darkest centre of the Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s narrator needed only a brief glance to tell us: “the flabby devil was running that show … in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, weak-eyed, pretending devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly”.
So what is the most famous Afrikaner resistance leader doing on a plinth next the most famous British prime minister? There they stand (figure 21): the shambling romantic genius Churchill, “two hundred percent fit” on his regime of cigars, brandy and pudding; and the abstemious philosopher Field Marshall Jan Christiaan Smuts, striding with upright head and body leaning forward, just as he used to walk on top of windy Table Mountain when I was a boy. In those days, Smuts was recruiting my young uncles (hardly more than boys themselves) to go “up north” and fight for the British Empire against the German Reich. But neither the Irish nor the Afrikaners wanted any part in that war:
The English occupied our country, starved us, shot us, dispossessed us – and then laughed at us. What harm have the Germans ever done to us?
A Resistance leader who sides with the Occupying Power is a quisling, and Smuts lost the support of his Afrikaners. But Slim Jannie (Smart Johnny) although a warrior by necessity was a conciliator by nature, and his philosophy was Holistic. Here is a more objective assessment, from Encyc.Britt 1967:
His greatness lay in his continuous pursuit of Anglo-Afrikaner unity, his contribution to international order and his vigorous leadership in World Wars 1 and 2.
At Christ’s College Cambridge, Smuts stood out as a student of great ability, with a mind that was both broad and deep. He wrote a psychological study on Walt Whitman, and he was the top first in both parts of the law tripos. He later published a book on Holism and Evolution.
But Joseph Chamberlain [Liberal businessman] and Sir Alfred Milner [of Midland Bank, trustee of Cecil Rhodes backed by Lord Rothschild of many banks] were impatient to assert British supremacy over the whole of Southern Africa. Smuts became a guerilla fighter. The experience demonstrated his leadership ability and won him the lifelong allegiance of those that served under him. After the fall of Pretoria, Smuts’s conciliatory work for political union and his draft constitution became the basis for the Union of South Africa.
In World War 1 Smuts became a member of the British war cabinet performing many valuable services for the British government and the allies. In 1918 he wrote a project for a League of Nations, which was a major contribution to the origin of that body. He opposed the imposition of severe reparations on Germany, and was extremely reluctant to sign the treaty of Versailles.
In 1921 he persuaded Irish leaders to enter into negotiations that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State.
In World War 2 Smuts, sensitive to the broader implications of Nazi expansion overcame political neutralism, and under his leadership the South African war effort was impressive. Winston Churchill set a high value on his judgment. In 1945 Smuts played a major part in drafting the United Nations charter.
I quote Smuts’s objective qualifications at length, because none of them are written on his plinth. All you see is an old soldier in a sam-brown. His face is careworn but his gaze is keen (figure 23). He is not your usual pompous person on a plinth. “Sit we never so high”, says Montaigne, “we can only sit on our own rear end”.
Epstein has preserved for posterity not his honours but the man himself. What we see today is exactly what future onlookers would admire, if that statue were to be dug up after a decay of civilization in which all records had been lost: the lively portrait of a man who walks firmly but lightly on his own two feet.
Hitler’s thousand year Reich lasted 12 years. As for Churchill’s British Empire (“…if the British Empire were to survive for a thousand years…”) it collapsed within ten years of Churchill’s greatest speech. However, the same Anglo-American finance that bankrolled Rhodes and Milner continues to pull the strings in post-imperial Britain and post-colonial Africa: “I care not who rules a country, so long as I can control its currency”. The United Nations has followed the League of Nations by subsiding slowly into the same slough of ineffectual infamy: “I help the stronger nations reduce weaker nations to impotence”. The Union of South Africa survives, but it is a predominantly Bantu republic now, and not part of a White Commonwealth with the British monarch at its head as envisaged by Smuts and Churchill. Little is left today from Smuts’s holistic philosophy of unity, and his politics of reconciliation.
What will be left for the remote future? Perhaps only the image on this plinth: a man of action and a thinker, who looks upward and looks ahead, who near the end of a long life is still walking briskly. A man who does the best he can, who tries to stay upright and master the devils in himself, as well as the flabby devil who is “running that show” over there in Parliament (figures 21 and 24). The flabby devil is very strong: it is made up of millions of people, and it will never be exorcised until all those millions learn to think for themselves – which is very hard work.
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors…
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.”
As regards style: for this official portrait Epstein reverted to the classical realism of his academic training; but it was the Realism of a master who had tried many things and held on to what proved good. He learned the Modernist trick of letting the forms speak for themselves: the sharp cusps of the lapels and the pocket-flap (figure 23), the flapping skirts of the riding jacket (figure 24), the intricate lacing on the puttees (figure 25), the exaggeratedly squared-off heel on the right boot; and its curved sole which is unrealistic but adds an impression of lift to the heel. However, Epstein was not “modern”: he respected the individuality of his sitters; his portraits caught a likeness and often expressed their soul – what neurologists used to call “their psyche” and nowadays call “their bundle of qualities” (says neurologist Oliver Sacks).
Once, in the 70s or 80s, I opened a book called Modern British Sculpture, and sought in vain for the name Epstein. Those days have passed, along with Modernism. The Smuts statue is timeless. However, it looks different from the timeless ideal that Michelangelo aimed at in his tomb for Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici: “A thousand years from now, who will care what those two really looked like?” Epstein cared deeply what people really looked like, insofar as he tried to show an outward reality that expressed the sitter’s inward reality: our timelessness lies within ourselves.
Smuts died in 1950, so the sculptor was obliged to work from photographs, aided by recent memory of the man. However, compared with El Greco’s portrait of cardinal Juan de Tavera 30 years dead, Epstein was in a much better position than Greco – and it shows. El Greco, with only the death mask to go by, portrays a pallid cadaver with its eyes propped open. Epstein’s statue strides with life abounding; all the more lively (without losing dignity) because of its tilt against the stiff verticality of Big Ben.
As usual Epstein carefully (and cunningly and craftily – German: kenning, knowledge; kraft, force) placed the work in its setting. By the time he conceived the Smuts statue Epstein had finally reconciled two hitherto disparate elements of his art: the large impersonal monument and the small personal portrait. He made good his early criticism of Rodin; it is not enough to create a monument that is beautiful or striking, as Rodin undoubtedly did: but the work must also harmonise with its surroundings. Epstein has daringly harmonised his work by setting it “against the beat” in Parliament Square.
So there they stand, Churchill with Smuts, both of them “leaning at a slight angle to the universe”; especially leaning at a slight angle to Parliament – as anybody must, who wants to get something done. They stand together because they pushed their respective Parliaments to resist a great force for evil at a crucial time. In the lost decades before Hitler’s war, a visitor to Britain remarked that he could not decide which was the greater wonder: a Parliament that possessed so great a man as Churchill, or a Parliament that could find no use for him. In the second world war Churchill, with sober Attlee at his side to turn inspiration into workable reality, gave British democracy its finest hour. And although modern South Africa is not the white commonwealth that Smuts represented, his holistic spirit can be seen in its extraordinary bloodless revolution which formed the present “rainbow nation”. Both men overcame appeasement at home and defeatism abroad, at a time when their countries stood alone against the fascist menace. They gave the “irresistible armed might” of fascism its first bloody nose, so that the beast backed off to turn on the Russian bear instead – and got its back broken. The holistic spirit of Smuts pervaded the postwar era (except for US paranoia over Communism), and gave a united Europe 50 years of peace and prosperity.
Now Blair and Clinton have unchained the flabby devil again, getting NATO to dismember Serbia to clear the way for a pipeline for an oil consortium and a base for the US Army: the first bombs to be dropped on a European country since Hitler. That is where we are now; the NATO devil is still rampaging, and I do not see anybody on the political horizon who can be even remotely described as “having a mind both broad and deep” or “devoted to reconciliation”.
If the Smuts portrait were to survive a couple of thousand years (a few old bronze sculptures, equally fine, have already survived that long) will historical record still identify the man? All I know is that I have lived to enjoy most of the unity and reconciliation that Smuts worked and fought for, both in wartime South Africa and in postwar Europe. And, as a South African born Britisher, I am grateful to Epstein for presenting “the bundle of good qualities” of the man, and leaving the rest to history.
Read the sixth of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s portrait busts and Elemental carvings
Reviewed by Eric Saeger
Okay, okay, about four songs in I get where this is going, basic Weatherscan background jazz à la Kenny G, born from Freddy’s artistic turpitude developed during hack stints with Average White Band, Michael McDonald, need I say more. The ideas, though lovingly rendered by Freddy and co-producer Mo Pleasure (am I supposed to know who that is?) are budgeted for Vegas soul outings, like demos for Anita Baker’s backup band, that sort of thing. Klyde Jones’s singing on Let’s Go Round Again reads like a male Vonda Shepard – the squeaky-cleanliness is as devout as you’d ever want if this is your bag, up to and including the pensively amused glamor shots that fill the CD cover, the artist reposing in facial expressions that tell you someone just told him a polite joke they recently printed in Huffington Post or somesuch.