Monday, 6 November 2017

Gathering Swallows Twitter in the Skies

Autumn by Ali Smith
(Penguin), Pp. 260

Shortlisted for The Booker Prize and hailed as the first post Brexit novel, Ali Smith’s Autumn shoulders a weight of expectation for a slim novel. While it stands steady on its exquisite legs, it is also part of a series of novels due to represent all four seasons. It recalls the ode to autumn with its mists and mellow fruitfulness; there is a sense of melancholy but it is also suffused with hope, colour and a love of all things bright and beautiful.

Elisabeth Demand befriends her elderly neighbour, Daniel Gluck, and slowly learns his stories, while he challenges her imagination and perceptions of society. Her mother is horrified that she chooses to spend time with an adult male and cannot conceive that it is entirely innocent. Is it? The novel flicks back and forwards through time but with helpful explanations such as ‘It was a Tuesday evening in April in 1993. Elisabeth was eight years old.’ Daniel described artworks and paintings to her, including the works of the first female pop-artist, Pauline Boty.

Elisabeth later becomes a lecturer in art history, two topics which are intrinsically intertwined. She was told by a lecturer that there were no female pop artists and she is determined to champion Pauline Boty, who refused to fit the boxes created for female artists and died prematurely in 1966. With her witty collages and subversive paintings, Boty becomes a symbol of all those who are “Ignored. Lost. Rediscovered years later. Then ignored. Lost. Rediscovered again years later. Then ignored. Lost. Rediscovered ad infinitum.” Time is fluid; it is linear but cyclical; very messy and frequently repetitive. Now Daniel is in a nursing-home coma and Elisabeth visits him, pretending to be family: he has erotic fantasies about which she will never know. He had experiences of the Holocaust, and there are clear parallels drawn between the treatment of foreigners then and now.

It is self-consciously literary and also aware of the cyclical nature of history. From the opening line – “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” – it is clear that everyone is feeling unsettled as the country tears itself apart.

“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing… All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.”
Britain has just voted to leave the EU. Half of the village isn’t talking to the other half. A mysterious barbed-wired compound has sprung up nearby complete with security cameras and patrolling guards. Elisabeth’s mother, who is obsessed with antiques, decides to get herself arrested by throwing items of historic significance at the enclosure, “bombarding that fence with people’s histories and with the artefacts of less cruel and more philanthropic times”. A house in which immigrants live has the words GO HOME spray-painted on the wall. But later, the words, WE ALREADY ARE HOME, THANK YOU have been added, and bouquets of flowers left by supporters and well-wishers. There are seeds of hope and humanity scattered in this forlorn and morally bereft landscape.

Ali Smith acknowledges the pain of division and the beauty of inclusion. From nature with its seemingly haphazard approach to procreation and fertility, to the apparent clinical approach to grammar and semantics, she suggests that organic development will always triumph over control. Daniel dreams of becoming imprisoned in a tree and returning to the earth. Smith admires the polyglot of languages with words coming from all over the world (such as an intriguing section on a book young Elisabeth reads about a gymkhana).

This is a time of fear and certainty based on lies and fabrications. Daniel explains that the power of the lie is “Always seductive to the powerless.” We make sense of our world through the stories we tell and the ones we hear, whether they are presented as anecdotes or news. “Whoever makes up the story makes up the world, Daniel said. So always try to welcome people into the home of your story. That’s my suggestion.” We need more inclusion; we need more acceptance; we need more open-mindedness; and we need more books by Ali Smith.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Friday Five: Double Bills

Scene from Dunkirk
Often films mirror each other in unintended ways. Sometimes it is due to the ubiquity of an actor or the anniversary of an event; sometimes it is mere coincidence that certain themes resonate more strongly. Having taken a few long-haul flights recently, I've seen several films which remind me of others, so I shall compare them here.

5 Cinematic Double Bills:
  1. Dunkirk and Their Finest - both films deal with reporting WWI and the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk in 1940. While the former is a triptych war film (deliberately sectioning the action into land, sea and air), the latter is a more light-hearted comedy drama. This much is clear from the choice of actors: Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance v Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy and the reliance of set piece action shots as opposed to witty dialogue. They are both of a high calibre and present well-known facts in a fresh and involving way; stirring and memorable but without being mawkish.
  2. The Beguiled and Get Out - Having watched both of these films on the same day, I am persuaded that the states in southern America are decidedly dodgy, and grandiose-seeming houses occupied by close companions are to be avoided at all costs. Whether one is an injured Yankee soldier hiding from the Confederates or a black boyfriend at an all-white family gathering, it is very dangerous to be 'the other'. Murky motives assume nightmarish proportions through drugs, pain and hallucinations. 
  3. Captain Underpants and Wonder Woman - One of these films is about a super-hero invented by a society which feels a need to be saved from tyranny and oppression, by foisting all its anguish and suffering onto the broad shoulders of a crusading scapegoat with supernatural powers. The other is a shambles of tedious backstory, uninspiring action sequences and sketchy motives, although it does have one galvanising moment on a battlefield.
  4. Lady Macbeth and My Cousin Rachel - Featuring atmospheric tension and knowing the value of silence, these films work a good pause. Both hint at trauma and temptation without committing to a definitive version of events, with gothic overtones and mysterious motives. The leading ladies (Florence Pugh and Rachel Weisz) are mesmerising and calculating, teaching audiences never to underestimate the passion of the mid-nineteenth century wife. 
  5. The Lost City of Z and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword - What could have been interesting films (solid plot; establishment of reputation; appeal to the imagination) are let down by flabby story-telling and monochromatic acting. The beginning of both films is turgid and ridiculous (whether it's an adventurer trying to obtain military promotion, or giant elephant monsters in some identikit fantasy battle) and once the narratives do get going they are plagued with frequent pointless interruptions. The Lost City of Z is pedestrian in pace, which suits the upriver journey, while King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is directed by Guy Ritchie so therefore aimed at the ADHD generation on caffeine, but the acting by Charlie Humdrum, sorry Hunnam, hits the same one-dimensional note in both.
'Tra la la!' - Captain Underpants

Monday, 9 October 2017

And Why Not?

Mustn't Grumble by Joe Bennett
(Simon & Schuster), Pp. 280

Joe Bennett lives in Christchurch, New Zealand where he writes columns for syndicated newspapers and books of witticisms and comment. In the introduction to this book he writes, “I am English, but I have spent most of my adult life abroad. When a publisher asked me if I would like to come back, travel around England for a bit and write a book about it, I said yes.” Well, who wouldn’t? Inspired by the 1927 work of H.V. Morton, In Search of England, he decides to follow his footsteps, but by hitch-hiking his away around the country. He soon falls out of love with both Morton and the attempt to hitch-hike as he finds no one stops.

Although he has lived abroad for nearly 25 years, Joe Bennett still identifies with his home country. “I remain English and will die English. And I am happy with that. In a primal way over which I have no control, I still love the place.” He relishes peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, from the way accents indicate class as much as regions, to the courtesy of motorway driving (he borrows a friend’s Audi to tour the country) or “the remarkable ability of the English to eat ice cream in chilly weather.” He even enjoys the climate, the delight in bemoaning which lends his book its self-deprecating title.

Most of his daily excursions finish at the pub. “I am often asked if there is anything I miss about England. There isn’t. I have lived so long abroad that I don’t yearn. If I did, I’d come back. But there are some things that I relish when I do come back and one of those is pubs.” He is definitive about what constitutes a good pub. “People come in to talk to whoever happens to be there… They laugh a lot. There is nothing that cannot be discussed... It’s a coincidence of paths, a random intersection of lives that will never come again. We meet, we laugh, we go away again. I like that.” As anyone who has left England and returned, he notices the lack of space and the sense of history and culture, “There are few parts of this cramped country that have not been written about. It’s going to be hard to escape literature on this trip. I don’t think I’ll bother to try.”

His attitude is generally affectionate, but he doesn’t love everything. He dislikes the council buildings of the 1950s, thrown up in haste and unfortunately permanent. Like many before him, he bemoans the utilitarian modernity and there is a hint of axe grinding in his scathing assessment, “Cathedrals strive so hard to deny that they’ve become theme parks.”

He is a good writer, able to make the commonplace interesting. Squirrels “ripple across the grass, their spines undulating like waves along a skipping rope…” While mainly direct, he occasionally becomes verbose when he warms to a theme, such as when he writes of the lack of response received at the breakfast table.

Joe Bennett has asked many people (usually in his pub conversations) what it means to them to be English. While many are proud to be so, they have struggled to define it. Some can only express their identity by knowing what it is not, and what it is not is European. (This book was published in 2006; ten years before Brexit). The image of Englishness perplexes him, as he notes that Morton was harking back to an England he expected his readers to want and so he delivered it to them. 

Bennett is frequently told that the old way of life has changed due to progress and immigration. He concedes he is in no position to judge whether England is overrun by migrants, as he has mostly seen the England of the shires. “Yet I have heard any number of middle-class, middle-aged whites, most of them living in towns that are ninety-eight per cent white, telling me that immigration is ruining the country.”

He soon grows weary of H.V. Morton and his elegiac prose, which he feels is calculating and was propagandist even when written. Bennett begins to deliberately stray from Morton and his beaten track because he feels he is being manipulated. “I don’t want stuff packaged. I don’t want my way to be eased...” He would rather drop in unexpectedly on places and take them as they are. 

He is a curmudgeon who won’t be patronised. He thinks of himself as a free spirit, wandering the countryside at will, while most at home propping up the bar and chatting to strangers without commitments or consequences. He finds humour in adversity and fascination in mundanity. If H.V. Morton went in search of England, then Joe Bennett probably found it.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Kelmscott Manor: Useful and Beautiful

Kelmscott Manor
William Morris once wrote, 'Have nothing in your house that you do know know to be useful or believe to beautiful'. If one thinks of one's house as one's life, then I believe this is a statement by which to live. When I wrote copy for a real estate company, I tried to use the maxim in the marketing, but the editor scrapped it saying, 'that's too high-brow for our readership'. Sigh.

It should have come as no surprise then, that William Morris's Cotswold retreat at Kelmscott Manor was perfect. Everything is just so and nothing seems out of place or contrived. It is the equivalent of those people who spend hours on their look to give the impression that they have just got out of bed, and yet are designed to within an inch of their life. And I loved it.

When William Morris first saw Kelmscott Manor in 1871, he was apparently delighted by this 'loveliest haunt of ancient peace'. He signed a joint lease for the property with his friend and colleague Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who was deeply in love with his wife, Jane Morris nee Jane Burden) and it became a haven for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. What could possibly go wrong?

Blue Silk Dress - Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Jane Burden - Dante Gabrielle Rossetti
The Manor is open from April to October on Wednesdays and Saturdays - one might say it was incredibly fortuitous that these opening times coincided with our Thames Path Walk schedule (which was exceptionally tight). Or, one might say that there were two things I planned around which to fit the walk - this being one of them. 

The staff are all volunteers and they are helpful and knowledgeable; welcoming and friendly - I couldn't recommend them highly enough. When we first arrived with our rucksacks, we were apologetically informed that we would have to leave them at the entrance, and I think we quite startled the lovely lady on reception with our great sighs of relief!

The house is furnished with an outstanding collection of the possessions and works of Morris as well as of his family and associates (Benson, Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Webb among them) that includes furniture, original textiles, pictures and paintings, carpets, ceramics and metalwork.


Penelope was designed as one of a series of wall hangings depicting heroines from literature and myth, adapted from one of Morris's favourite books - Chaucer's Legends of Good Women - written in the 1380s. It was designed by William Morris for the drawing room at Red House and worked by Bessie Burden (Jane Morris's sister).

Guinevere is another of the Red House wall hangings. This one, for which Jane Morris was the model, was never completed. Neither was the room's ambitious decorative scheme ever completed but eight of the panels survive - three of them at Kelmscott Manor.

Designs for the Signs of the Zodiac by Edward Burne Jones (1865)
Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.'s second major commission was for the Green Dining Room at South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum. Philip Webb designed the overall scheme with the decorative plasterwork and wooden panelling; the Zodiac designs were for the small painted and gilded wall panels. 

Even William Morris' overcoat is superb in its simplicity and detail. Unfortunately, I spent the rest of the day humming 'in my William Morris overcoat' to the 'tune' of Joy Division Oven Gloves

All the rooms are exquisite, with everything immaculately spaced and curated to give a sense of calm and satisfaction when walking around the house. Every object draws you to it, inviting you to touch it, pick it up, sit on it... you can't: one woman did and she was severely reprimanded in the most Society of Antiquaries of London manner - she was asked to 'please don't touch, madam'.

"Everywhere there was but little furniture, and that only the most necessary, and of the simplest forms. The extravagant love of ornament which I had noted in this people elsewhere seemed here to have given place to the feeling that the house itself and its associations was the ornament of the country life amidst which it had been left stranded from old times, and that to re-ornament it would but take away its use as a piece of natural beauty." - William Morris, News from Nowhere
Possibly the only thing that looks as though it is 'displayed' is deliberate. In the closet the shelves were designed specifically (by Philip Webb) to house the Morris's superb collection of blue and white patterned china.

The staircase is sensational - the wooden stairs themselves; the mirror; the tapestry on the wall; the curtains... Sublime.


Morris's bedroom is dominated by the early-seventeenth century carved oak four-poster bed. This beauty with its multiple adjectives would be glorious enough, and yet it is made even more so by the soft furnishings. The valance and bed-hangings were designed in 1891 by May Morris (his daughter) and worked by her with the help of Lily Yeats and Ellen Wright (two Morris & Co. embroiderers).

The bed moved Morris to poetry and he composed Inscription for an Old Bed, the words of which surround the pelmet. The bedcover with its elegant and intricate depictions of plants of flowers was designed by May and embroidered by Jane. It's clearly a magnificent and inspirational piece of furniture.


Jane's bedroom also manages to be both a comfortable space and a thing of great beauty. The bed is, once again, utterly magnificent featuring the Homestead and the Forest cot quilt designed by May Morris and embroidered by her mother, Jane. It depicts a child-like representation of the Manor surrounded by the Thames and amidst a delightful miscellany of wild and domestic animals, birds and fishes - including foxes, a giraffe, elephant, tiger, crocodile and bear. Of course the lions are my favourite - those paws!

The borders of the piece are decorated with proverbs and quotations, which show how closely May was aligned with the socialist ideals of her father. Everyone should have a quilt like this. It has only recently been returned to Kelmscott Manor after having been held in private hands for 70 years. It's wonderful that it is back where it belongs.

Homestead and the Forest

Naturally, even the towels and fire screens are elaborately embroidered, but nothing feels excessive and is all done with impeccable good taste. The late seventeenth-century inlaid marquetry chest is intricate and eye-catching, but while the small jewel case is equally well-crafted, it leaves me cold. This is probably because, while it belonged to Jane, it was decorated by Rossetti and his wife, Elizabeth (aka Lizzie Siddal). The central panel depicts lovers, which is not exactly subtle as Rossetti was conducting an affair with Jane at this time under the nose (and roof) of her husband and his wife. 


The Tapestry Room was used by Rossetti as a studio. When he left Kelmscott, William and May both used it as a working space. It is lined with tapestries which were in situ when Morris found the house. Depicting the life and death of Samson, many of them are wickedly violent but the naivete of style, rich decorative detail and faded colours make them attractive and fascinating. Rossetti didn't like these images, finding them creepy and disturbing - Morris did like them, however, so they stayed.


The late seventeenth-century Portuguese desk has small drawers inlaid with paler olive wood and ivory. The fireplace has blue and yellow or grey patterned tiles. But the focal point of the room is the long oak table specifically designed by Philip Webb. It is currently used to display a facsimile of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer designed and printed by The Kelmscott Press. 

The Kelmscott Press was one of Morris's attempts to preserve the old relationships between the artist and his art and his society. In 1891 he rented a cottage near Kelmscott House and set up three printing presses, intent on printing and binding fine books, influenced by Mediaeval illuminated manuscripts and the work of early printers such as Caxton. The books issued by the Kelmscott Press were expensive - Morris designed his own typefaces, made his own paper, and printed by hand - but they were beautiful. They were designed to be read slowly; to be appreciated; to be treasured. 

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is considered to be the finest achievement of the Kelmscott Press. Designed by Morris and illustrated by his old friend, Edward Burne Jones, it occupied much of the last six years of Morris's life and appeared shortly before his death. It was arguably the most beautiful book of its day.


The attic rooms are breathtakingly simple and sparse and ultimately beautiful. I know I sound besotted and, in truth, I am. The angles; the light; the beams; the wood; the nooks and crannies that seem to echo with children's laughter - almost unbearable nostalgia. William Morris wrote in News from Nowhere about,
"the strange and quaint garrets amongst the great timbers of the roof, where of old time the tillers and herdsmen of the manor slept, but which a-nights seemed now, by the small size of the beds, and the litter of useless and disregarded matters - bunches of drying flowers, feathers of birds, shells of starlings' eggs, caddis worms in mugs, and the like - seemed to be inhabited for the time by children."
Easier on the body than on the mind

The attic rooms also contain a couple of printed screens and books of swatches of Morris & Co. designs that are still available for purchase.


William Morris certainly never dismissed tapestry as 'women's work' or thought of it as inferior. Indeed, when he first took the lease on Kelmscott Manor he wanted to design and create his own tapestry. Although he didn't really have a clue what he was doing, he was inspired by the embroidery and weaving that he had seen at The South Kensington Museum, and he decided to have a go himself, resulting in the tapestry, If I Can.


Having mastered the art of illuminating manuscripts, designing for stained glass, wallpaper and textiles, weaving, poetry and Icelandic, Morris decided to branch out into tapestry production. The Acanthus and Vine tapestry was his very first effort. He designed the loom himself, working at it in his bedroom at Kelmscott House (Hammersmith, London) whenever he found a spare moment. His diary tells us that it took him 516 hours to complete. 

His ruminations on the art-form, however, can't have been too popular with the honest folk down the pub who must have taken issue with his grandiloquent designs.
'If a chap can't compose an epic poem while he's weaving tapestry, he had better shut up; he'll never do any good at all.' 

Morris felt that tapestries made the walls look more warm and welcoming. The Daisy wall hangings (1860) was the first project William and Jane worked on together after their marriage and their move to the Red House. Jane later recalled how she had purchased
'a piece of indigo-dyed blue serge I found by chance in a London shop... I took it home and he was delighted with it and set to work at once designing flowers. These we worked in bright colour in a simple rough way. The work went quickly and when finished we covered the walls of the bedroom... to our great joy.' 
Daisy wall hangings designed by William Morris and worked by William and Jane Morris
The Strawberry Thief design reflects how William Morris found inspiration everywhere at Kelmscott Manor, which he called 'very stimulating to the imagination'. His daughter May later recalled how the design came about.
'You can picture my father going out in the early morning and watching the rascally thrushes at work on the fruit beds and telling the gardener who growls, 'I'd like to wring their necks!' that no bird in the garden must be touched.' 
The Strawberry Thief
Having fully explored the house, we emerged into the gardens, which are as perfect as the interior. Again, each path beckons; each lawn comforts; each bower soothes. On first laying eyes on the place, William Morris claimed that it looked as though it had 'grown up out of the soil'. It still does. 

Naturally, Him Outdoors was fascinated by the brewery, which is housed in one of the outbuildings. It also served as a kitchen, and I was instructed in the ways of the copper kettles and the old mash paddles.


I was inspired by the plethora of prints on show to get creative with the camera in the garden. I reckon these quince fruit, fig leaves and redcurrants against a lichen-spotted stone wall would make excellent designs.


NB: Fittingly on the last day of our Thames Path Walkway, we encountered The William Morris Society building in Hammersmith, which is open to the public as a museum at limited hours. In a way it was fortunate that it was closed the day we passed it or we would have run out of time on our walk. We'll just have to come back.