Wednesday, 17 September 2014


From a distance it looks like a golf course in Brobdingnag:
tee-green places marked by blue flags and red flags
ten to twelve feet high, cracking in squalls
like plastic shopping bags
snagged on hawthorn hedges.
But these are not fairways for lost golf balls:
the flags denote the places where Charles Stuart's ploy
was scotched by Redcoat grapeshot and musket balls.
Rocks lodged among heather and sedge
on Drummossie Moor
mark the bunkers of the dead.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Rake and Pilgrim: Hockney's Progress...

The palette knives are out for David Hockney. Judging by the bitchy comments posted in response to reviews in The Guardian and The Independent of Christopher Simon Sykes’ second volume of biography of the Hockney, A Pilgrim’s Progress, blokes with an artistic bent less rich and famous don’t like Hockney. Or should that be less rich, famous and not gay? Oh he’s a great draughtsman – or draftsman if you’re American – but really, they say, he’s just a stylist in search of content.

Hockney, of course, has heard or read all this many times since graduating from the Royal College of art, the gold medal for painting in the pocket of his gold lame jacket. Artists were supposed to be scraggy, bearded and poor. Hockney was smart, young, successful and evidently gay. Pop goes the easel. He was tagged a Pop Artist along with others of his generation. It was his popularity that got up some people’s noses. Even in his hometown, Bradford, there have always been those who seem to bear a grudge. Anything Hockney can do they know seven-year-olds who can do better. J B Priestley ran into this problem - "a great place for discouragement,” he once remarked about his home town. Priestley wasn’t gay, though. We’re not prejudiced in Bradford: gay, straight or slightly wobbly, everybody thought to be a bit above himself gets the Dirty Harry treatment. That self-congratulatory song New York, New York, has the line that if you can make it in the Big Apple you can make it anywhere. Pah. Try swanking here, pilgrim.

I’m old enough to understand the value of unfavourable comments. “Write less, mean more,” a critic once said in a review of one of my books. That remark curdled in my guts for years; but I came to accept that the man who wrote it had a point. I write less now but wish I could write more. Prolific Hockney leaves himself open to a similar criticism because the quantity and variety of his work – the prints, paintings, drawings, photographs, opera sets, electronic drawings and lately films – defy easy categorisation; and ungenerous people are suspicious of gifted all-rounders, jealous perhaps. Slog away at one thing for 48 years and you might glean some grudging respect. Go from one thing to another as Hockney has done all his working life and you leave yourself open to the accusation of ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’.

Now while not everything Hockney has done is excellent – I never got on with all those dog paintings of Stanley and Boodge, nor the Very New paintings inspired by his theatre work – he cannot be faulted for being casual or slapdash. Not only does he see more than most, he understands the symbiosis of things – colour, light and space, for example – better than most. Flip through this volume and the one that preceded it two years ago, A Rake’s Progress, and you get a glimpse into the trouble he takes to bring into reality the things in his mind. From all that I have read about him and by him since 1985, when I first met him, I would say that Hockney is most himself when he’s working.  Yeats said artists had a choice: perfection of the life or perfection of the art. Peter Schlesinger, who features in the late 1960s, early 1970s in the first volume, thought Hockney put his work above his relationships. Others make the same complaint in the second volume. Sykes himself found that if Hockney wasn’t in a receptive mood he risked being told to “bugger off”.

Sykes’ book gives a graphic picture of Hockney when his normal Protestant work ethic was disrupted either by illness or distress. Physiologically he wasn’t himself – wrapped up in a dressing gown in front of the fire, falling asleep at dinner parties, rendered almost comatose by narcotics – Sykes doesn’t say which ones. The Yorkshireman capable of sustained bursts of creative energy wasn’t there, wasn’t his-self. The death of friends, many from AIDS, the death of his mother, the death of his two dogs, the loss of hearing in the late 1990s (he seemed to have two miniature hair-dryers lodged in the inner coils of each ear), the occasional bouts of depression that followed, are in sharp contrast to most of the 38 years recounted in A Rake’s Progress.       

I read through most of the book two years ago. I've only had time to read chunks of the second volume. Though compiled and written with respect and admiration, I wouldn't say these books are sycophantic. Hockney temperamentally blowing a gasket in the desert on a drive from Chicago back to LA, Hockney rather cravenly getting somebody else to remove a bothersome acquaintence from his guest house, Hockney disrupting the sleep of guests to lecture them about Picasso or one-point perspective - all this, and doubtless more in chapters I have yet to read, are included.    

Other things don't appear to be. The extent of Hockney's riches, for example - the properties in London, Bridlington, Los Angeles and elsewhere for all I know, the people who depend on him for a livelihood, the cars, the paintings. The man who was raised in Steadman Terrace, off Leeds Road, and Hutton Terrace, Eccleshill, has done very well for himself and for his family and friends. What he's got he has earned. His mother and father didn't have the brass, as they say in Yorkshire, to pay for their artistic son's progress. Nor is there any mention that I could find of the circumstances that led to the death of 22-year-old Dominic Elliott in Hockney's Bridlington house last year. I thought there would be and believe the omission of this, for whatever reason, merely draws attention to the incident which Hockney would prefer to forget, leaving Yorkshire to return to his home in the Hollywood Hills where he spends his days between waking and sleeping painting.

What both books do have, however, is the presence of Hockney's late mother Laura - and they are the better for it. Unlike any other book about Hockney or by Hockney, Sykes' biography is illuminated by extracts from Mrs Hockney's diaries and letters. At the end of one letter she wrote in the early 1980s, a letter in which she referred to Hockney's sexuality for the first time, she says this: "There are many things I shall never know in this life. The world changes every day - but I'll be modern where I can - God bless you my own dear boy." That is touching and gives the reader a different way of looking at Hockney. He was throughout his mother's life a dutiful son. He has always been modern, meaning in the moment.

But it's a credit to Sykes that the happy families light is not always rosy-red. He says Mrs Hockney was irritated by the time and attention her son gave to his friend Jonathan Silver, the owner of Salts Mill in Bradford who was dying of pancreatic cancer in the summer of 1997. Yet it was this relationship which prompted Hockney to return to Yorkshire for seven or eight years and paint the seasonal landscapes of the Wolds.

Hockney the landscape artist, the painter of dachshunds, the flower water-colourist, the optical investigator: all these manifestations of himself appear to have upset a lot of people including art critic Brian Sewell - a man who annunciates his words with the precision of a Guardsman ironing creases in his trousers. Sewell likened the Yorkshire Wolds paintings in The Bigger Picture exhibition at London's Royal Academy to be made to sit under the loudspeakers at Glastonbury. Hockney's life has certainly been colourful and loud. The Sunday Times once profiled him: 'Portrait of the Artist as a Naughty Boy' - but he's never been afraid to risk public ridicule or outright hostility by standing up for what he believes. That's something he got from his parents, especially his father Kenneth. Like everybody else, he is the sum of his contradictions. The man who fills a 70-ft long wall of his LA studio with pictures from several hundred years of Western art also has a penchent for corny jokes and listening to tapes of 1960s BBC radio drama series such as Paul Temple. After lunch in Bridlington three years ago Hockney, who was wont to sign off emails 'Love life', wondered whether it was too early to break out the After Eights. The cigarettes he smoked that day were stubbed after three or four puffs.

Sykes' first book gives the impression of vivacity, intelligence and eagerness for experience - a man with a talent for life who never thought he would fail. Though the pictures get brighter in the second volume, there is more chiaroscuro in the life. At the finale, however, Hockney laughs off mortality by saying in his seventies that he is coming to the end of his middle period. Well, his mother nearly made it to 100 which could mean that, if Hockney's heart holds out and he doesn't have another stroke, he'll be around for at least another 22 years. Is Sykes contemplating a title for a third volume, I wonder?

I'm sure Hockney doesn't give a thought to whether he'll be here in 2036. In Jack Hazan's film docu-drama A Bigger Splash, he tells Cecila Birtwell that though he hasn't much time for nostalgia he keeps going back to the same places, perhaps the same faces. Don't we all? But he leaves all that behind when he's busy picture-making. Tough as that is for those who want his time and attention on a daily basis, those beyond the magic circle can derive great pleasure and not a little happiness from the pictures and the books - as I have over the years. Art saves lives.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Günter Grass: 'What Must Be Said'

Günter Grass: 'What Must Be Said'
Poem published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, created a heated debate in both Germany and Israel

"Why have I kept silent, held back so long,
on something openly practised in
war games, at the end of which those of us
who survive will at best be footnotes?

It's the alleged right to a first strike
that could destroy an Iranian people
subjugated by a loudmouth
and gathered in organized rallies,
because an atom bomb may be being
developed within his arc of power.

Yet why do I hesitate to name
that other land in which
for years – although kept secret –
a growing nuclear power has existed
beyond supervision or verification,
subject to no inspection of any kind?

This general silence on the facts,
before which my own silence has bowed,
seems to me a troubling, enforced lie,
leading to a likely punishment
the moment it's broken:
the verdict "Anti-semitism" falls easily.

But now that my own country,
brought in time after time
for questioning about its own crimes,
profound and beyond compare,
has delivered yet another submarine to Israel,
(in what is purely a business transaction,
though glibly declared an act of reparation)
whose speciality consists in its ability
to direct nuclear warheads toward
an area in which not a single atom bomb
has yet been proved to exist, its feared
existence proof enough, I'll say what must be said.

But why have I kept silent till now?
Because I thought my own origins,
tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Why only now, grown old,
and with what ink remains, do I say:
Israel's atomic power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what must be said
may be too late tomorrow;
and because – burdened enough as Germans –
we may be providing material for a crime
that is foreseeable, so that our complicity
will not be expunged by any
of the usual excuses.

And granted: I've broken my silence
because I'm sick of the West's hypocrisy;
and I hope too that many may be freed
from their silence, may demand
that those responsible for the open danger
we face renounce the use of force,
may insist that the governments of
both Iran and Israel allow an international authority
free and open inspection of
the nuclear potential and capability of both.

No other course offers help
to Israelis and Palestinians alike,
to all those living side by side in enmity
in this region occupied by illusions,
and ultimately, to all of us."

Translated by Breon Mitchell. You can read the poem in the original German here.
• This poem was amended on 10 and 11 April 2012 after it was revised by the translator. This was further amended on 13 April 2012 to include a link to the original poem in German.

Before anyone tells me that the author of this poem joined the Waffen SS when he was 18, I know. Hence the line "Because I thought my own origins/ tarnished by a stain that can never be removed..."

I copied Grass's poem on to my blog because yesterday the television news showed a picture of a block of flats in Gaza imploding, having been struck by a projectile or bomb fired by Israel.

I didn't think of 9/ll and the World Trade Center. I thought of all the years I have taken Israel's side, its right to exist, its right to live behind the defensive shield not of Iron Dome, but the Holocaust - the conversation stopper, the dialogue killer. The Holocaust does not give Israel the right to do to Gaza and its people what the Nazis did to Warsaw and its people, not in my book. As Grass says in the poem, "the verdict Anti-semitism falls easily."

I'm not surprised that Grass's poem resulted in Israel declaring the old boy persona non grata, though the poem, calling for an independent inspection of both Iran and Israel's nuclear capabilities, seems fair enough to me. It's better balanced than Respect MP George Galloway's recent pronouncement, for example, that Bradford was an "Israel free zone". While that's not an anti-Jewish statement it doesn't acknowledge the Israelis critical of the Likud Government's military policies and its borderland strategy.

George Orwell wrote - what did he write, exactly? Something about true freedom meaning listening to something, an opinion, an idea, you don't want to hear. Have I become so accustomed to the censorship that now abounds in this age of scheissdrek - even fictional dramas on television have an obligatory warning about scenes of violence (imagine that, a drama about World War 1or the Holocaust warning of scenes of violence) that I can no longer instantly bring to mind Orwell's words?

Establishment Israel choosing to be offended by a poem as sane as Grass's, with its reasonable questioning propositions, but offending the world's sight by unreasonably blowing up a civilian apartment block in Gaza doesn't surprise me either.    

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Call of the Toad...Revisited

Is the name of the novel by Gunter Grass that I've just started reading. Ostensibly it's a story about two elderly people, a West German art historian and a Polish widow who meet in Gdansk, formerly Danzig in Germany, who set up a business repatriating dead Poles and Germans in the former Warsaw Pact bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If that storyline seemed droll in 1992, shortly after Helmuth Kohl's expensive reunification of West Germany and the German Democratic Republic, how does it strike you now in post-Maastricht, post-Lisbon Europe, where borders are an issue once again and with Sikhs from Afghanistan turning up in the back of a container in London and claiming asylum?

I'm not sure how it strikes me. I have read 17 pages and apart from enjoying the way Grass builds up the details of the two people and their story through a third person, the narrator, I have one other clear feeling about this book. Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck should write and direct a movie version of it.

Why have a film when you have the book? A film is not needed, but we live in the age of film and are just as liable to come to a book through a film version of it, even a bad or indifferent film version, as we are to a film through a book, out of curiosity if nothing else.

Two weeks ago I watched the film version of A S Byatt's novel Possession. I watched it in the company of Lesley who loves the book, re-reading it once or twice a year. I used to feel the same way about Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. The following day I started reading Byatt's 500-page book, which cleverly weaves together several storylines from Victorian London and the London of the 1980s just past the midpoint.

The protagonists in the present are literary scholars, English and American, male and female, heterosexual and bi-sexual - one of them is Professor Blackadder. Their targets are two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. He's married, she is not. They write letters, exchange poems, fall in love and have an affair which they both know cannot survive its consummation.

The film reflects this reasonably well, certainly well enough for me to pick up the book and read it over the course of a fortnight (on buses, trains, in coffee houses). What it did not set out to do was explore the conflicting existential dramas of Imperial Victorian England post-Charles Darwin but pre-Sigmund Freud, the conflict between religious belief and doubt, reason and faith, the fascinating outer world of empirical science and the inner world of the spiritualism; strong material convictions and other worldly superstitions.

The book, in part a wonderfully observed comic novel about academia, includes a short but vivid sketch of leanly leoline F R Leavis making Cambridge University literature undergraduates feel inadequate. The plot is gradually expanded by extracts of letters, journals and poems invented by A S Byatt to reflect the inner life of her drama's dead dears. I skipped most of the pastiche poetry but read the letters and journals avidly.

The robbery of Ash's grave is the penultimate climax. In the book it occurs on the night of the big storm in 1987 when trees were blown down. The film omits the storm but replaces it with a punch up. In the book the various protagonists come out of the storm and, over a drink, talk about how their desire to possess the truth about Ash and Lamotte led them to do what they did. 

The very end of the book is the point at which the film starts. I thought A S Byatt placed it just right; but then after two weeks of following the evolving story, the weight and tone of the last scene felt absolutely right to me. There was redemption of a kind - but not quite; just like the final scene in Middlemarch which concludes with something of a valedictory by George Eliot for the sensibility of all the Dorothea Brookes of the world.

Possession evidently stirred something because one late afternoon at work I found myself Googling up the theme music of The Lives of Others, the film that Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck wrote and directed eight or nine years ago. The title refers to the lives of two star-crossed lovers in the East Berlin of the early 1980s - before Glasnost and Perestroika blew in from the East.

The lovers are a playwright and an actress, both of whom fall foul of the Stasi through no fault of their own. The life of one Stasi man, who arranges the couple's round-the-clock surveillance, changes as he comes to see and understand more of the world the couple represent and how his world, the world that he thought was driven by principle and moral purpose, is corrupt and driven by lust, jealousy and malevolence. I love this film. It's a rare example of a film with a meticulously appropriate soundtrack - themed music and East German pop songs - all the way through.

In both Byatt's novel and Von Donnersmarck's film the past shapes the present. The drama, the comedy, the pathos, are bodied forth in how this happens. The same applies to Grass's The Call of the Toad in which the narrator quizzically inspects the pieces of the puzzle as he lays out the shape of the story. Von Donnersmarck, who found himself in his story of the past in East Berlin, would do a good job with this book and bring it to the attention of a wider audience...

...Two weeks after turning over the last page of Grass's The Call of the Toad, I have just discovered that a 94-minute film version of the story was made in 2005 by Polish director Robert Glinski. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

Up to a Point Lord Copper...

As to all those hundreds of thousands of refugees on the hills of northern Iraq who apparently do not require rescuing, and the Russian convoy reportedly blitzed by Ukrainian forces, I am reminded of a little rhyme:-

As I was going up the stair
I saw a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish that he would go away.

I am also reminded of Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop in which hapless nature-lover William Boot is sent abroad by Lord Copper, owner of the Daily Beast, to shape events according to the editorial policy of the Beast.

News is another kind of fiction. Reality it isn't. It never was.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Goya and the Horrors of War...

Yesterday I came across a newspaper article I wrote thirteen years ago, seemingly at a less fraught time in world affairs. In July, 2001 a touring exhibition of Goya's etchings from the series Capriches (Caprices) and Disparates (Follies) reached Leeds before moving on to Halifax.

These postcard-sized grotesques from the dark realm of horror and farce - the "sleep of reason" was his expression for them, if I remember rightly - evidently made an impact on me because I described three of the Disparates without recourse to the notes that accompanied the show - at least I think I did.

In the etching called Giant, a giant grinning Hannibal Lecter figure, flanked by spectral ghoulish faces, looms out of a dark horizon and lurches towards a terrified woman and a man for whom there is no retreat.

In front of a crumbling wall, a captive looks over his shoulder at the approach of a raging man carrying a lance: this is the moment before the slaughter.

A third picture called Man Being Mocked shows a foolish-looking moon-faced monk, hands churched in pious prayer, surrounded by ugly leering figures clownishly ridiculing him.

These pictures depict a world in which there is no asylum from the lunatics who rule it; a world in which the rational is constantly under threat from dark irrationality  and passion driven to madness.

This is not merely the world of post-Napoleon Bonaparte Europe: it is the world as it is and as it always will be.

A little sententious perhaps; but it was another way of saying that Goya's carnival of mental nightmares was not just of its time but for all time.

A few months later I had cause to write another article, the day after the world watched the World Trade Center towers implode, filling the canyons of Manhattan rolling thunder clouds of masonry dust and shrapnel.

If any of these images bring to mind the pictures you're seeing in Gaza and the hills of northern Iraq you might wonder if the sleep of reason depicted by Goya - troubled by deafness - in the last 15 years of his life haunts us still.

For myself, halfway through Robert Fisk's monumental historical memoir The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, I wonder what Palestinians in Gaza, bombarded by Israel's American weapons, make of America galloping to the aid of non-Muslim religious minorities on the hills of northerrn Iraq.

I'm not entirely sure what I, an unwilling spectator rather than a conscientious witness, make of it other than to say, in the shadow of Robert Fisk, that the morass of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East is one legacy of World War 1 - not that you'd know it from the tendentious cant that bombarded the nation earlier this week, on the anniversary of Britain's declaration of war in August, 1914.

I'm ready, I'm ready for the laughing gas...

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

August 4, 1914 - August 4, 2014...


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work -
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Carl Sandburg