Art Chronicles : Mohamed Bourouissa at Goldsmiths CCA

When I was a student at Goldsmiths in the early 60s, Laurie Grove Baths, almost adjacent to the college was, well, Laurie Grove Baths … destination for those families and individuals lacking home facilities and for regular crocodiles of children from nearby schools, looking forward to splashing around and maybe even learning to swim. The baths – more properly designated Swimming Baths, Slipper Baths and Laundries – were opened in 1898 as part of attempts to improve local health and sanitation. At roughly that time, some 1,000 families in the Deptford area were living in single rooms, with shared outside toilets, and disease was rife.

Come the early years of this century, the baths were no longer seen to fulfil a necessary function and were acquired by Goldsmiths with a view to turning them into a showcase for contemporary art. The architecture collective, Assemble, winners of the Turner Prize, were commissioned to redesign the buildings, while maintaining much of their original structure and protecting the Grade II listed water tanks and plant-works. The new gallery – Goldsmiths CCA – opened in 2018.

The current show, which my daughter Molly and I visited recently, features the work of the Algerian born artist, Mohamed Bourouissa, who uses photography, film and installation to examine and portray – to celebrate wherever possible – the lives and culture of communities who are living on what might be termed the edges of society, drawing attention to the ways in which they have been victimised by the twin forces of colonialism and capitalism.

Although, as I’ve said, Bourouissa was born in Algeria, he grew up in the banlieue of Paris, which, as the Exhibition Guide suggests, enables him to bring a specific view of the street and hip-hop culture to his work. As a counter-balance to the negative images that were shown in the media after the Paris riots in 2005, for Périphéries (2005-08) Bourouissa orchestrated a series of photographs showing a broader set of circumstances, some making reference to classical paintings such as Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (right, below) with the flag being lowered rather than raised.

Particularly effective in a not dissimilar urban context is the sound installation in the Roden Courtyard Gallery, which has reinforced iron along one wall and is open to the air, the abstracted voices rising and falling before echoing off into the sky – all the more effective on the day we visited for the two buzzards – yes, buzzards in New Cross – that were circling overhead.

Bourouissa’s usual method of working, when he chooses to focus on a group or area of society with which he is unfamiliar, is to immerse himself within their culture by living with them for a period of time, as he did with the Australian Aboriginal Yuin people from the South Coast of New South Wales, resulting in the installation, Brutal Family Roots (2020). This was also the case for Bourouissa in the Strawberry Mansion area of North Philadelphia, where the black members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club challenge the predominant image of the white cowboy, as shown in the film, Horse Day (2015).

Whoa! There are four more pieces in the exhibition that I haven’t touched upon, including a beautifully made film, All-In (2012), which shows coins being engraved inside the Paris Mint to the accompaniment of the French hip-hop artist, Booba, singing of his efforts to extricate himself from life on the streets.

This is vibrant, challenging art that is varied in its means and consistent in its concerns. It’s a long time since I felt such an almost visceral excitement walking around an exhibition – I know, it’s a long while, a pair of small but tasty Rauschenberg shows aside, since I walked round any exhibitions – but this show at CCA makes it all too vividly clear why art can be exciting and important. It’s open until August 1st – see it if you can.

Molly and I were still buzzing as we stepped out onto the busy thoroughfare that is New Cross Road, and which doesn’t seem to have changed a great deal in almost sixty years. What we were in need of, the CCA café being closed, was somewhere calming to relax with good coffee and good grub and we found them just across the street at the rather wonderfully named Wakey Wakey. [Older readers – much older readers – will remember this as the opening cry that signalled the beginning of the Billy Cotton Band Show.] New Cross, it’s closer than you think.

June is Jumpin’

… mostly in a laid back, sometimes bluesy kind of way. These CDs, for instance, propped up close to the stereo and playing in a kind of rotation … Yes, that’s right, the stereo …

And these are the first tracks to leap into my headphones from my MP3 player as I walked from pond to pond, hill to hill, bench to bench …

  1. Shiny Toys : Joni Mitchell
  2. Cottontail : Ben Webster w. Oscar Peterson Quartet
  3. Make Me Down a Pallet : J. D.Short
  4. Drive-in Movies & Dashboard Lights : Nanci Griffith
  5. Late for the Sky : Joan Osborne
  6. Freedom for the Stallion : Elvis Costello w. Allen Toussaint
  7. If I Were a Carpenter : Ramblin’ Jack Elliot
  8. Never Not You (Remember to Breath) : GirlBoy
  9. Poor Side of Town : Eels
  10. String Reprise/Treaty : Leonard Cohen
  11. Sister Mercy : John Stewart
  12. These Foolish Things : Thelonious Monk (solo)
  13. Chelsea Hotel : Me’Shell Ndegéocello
  14. Cajun Woman : Fairport Convention
  15. Blue Suede Shoes : Elvis Presley
  16. Love & Happiness : Al Green
  17. Wild Wild Life : Talking Heads
  18. Jumpin’ At The Woodside : Count Basie Orchestra
  19. It’s a Mean Old World : Otis Spann
  20. When My Left Eye Jumps : Buddy Guy

Adventure Playgrounds

Unsurprisingly, these long lockout days have led to some considerable discussion of the importance of children’s play and the accessibility of outdoor spaces; time that could be spent, largely free from intrusive adult supervision, with others of a similar age.

It was my good fortune in the early 60s, when I was in my final year at Goldsmiths, to join several of my fellow students as a play leader in one of the adventure playgrounds that had been set up by Camden under the influence and leadership of Joe Benjamin, one of the founders of the adventure playground movement in this country.

Just recently, I came across a cache of photographs from that time …

Robert Rauschenberg and Me: My Big Day Out

You must be finding it especially frustrating, a friend of mine said recently, living in London surrounded by all those galleries you would normally visit and they’re closed. Well, no longer. Not all of them. By some curious sleight of hand, while Tate, the Royal Academy and other major public galleries remain locked down, smaller commercial galleries of the kind that populate Mayfair have been allowed to open. Masks. Hand sanitiser. No more than half a dozen visitors at any one time.

When I set out, the morning was sunny but cold; the wind biting enough to make me reconsider, not the whole enterprise, but the wisdom of leaving the house without a scarf. The bus, the trusty 88 from Parliament Hill to Clapham Common, was almost empty and would remain so for most of the journey; three, myself included, on the upper deck, some half a dozen below, all of us masked. Roadworks aside, progress was uninterrupted; even the usually busy crossroads where Oxford Street meets Regent Street failed to slow us down. A few moments more and I was ringing the bell, heading for the stairs and off out onto the pavement, turning west towards Mayfair.

It was a long time since I’d ventured into the heart of London for anything other than a hospital appointment and, even though I’ve now had both my jabs, an awareness that it’s possible for me, nevertheless, to transmit the virus to others, has made me cautious. But how often were there two exhibitions of Robert Rauschenberg’s work in London at the same time?

It was the Rauschenberg show at the Whitechapel Gallery back in 1964 that confronted me for the first time with art that was contemporary and exciting – and American – and which challenged so gloriously my conception of what art should be. No longer something statuesque upon a plinth or neatly in a frame, but a collage of images splattered and smeared with paint, an unmade bed hanging from the wall, the taxidermied head of an Angora goat!

The Bastian gallery – small, smart and cool – is on Davies Street, which – conveniently – runs along the western side of Berkeley Square; convenient, as I could sit on one of the many benches, eating my lunch – an egg & cress sandwich from the Pret a Manger opposite – before entering.

There are ten pieces on display on two floors [plus an eleventh by Cy Twombly], all coming from a time when Rauschenberg was living on the island of Captiva, off the coast of Florida. Three are assemblages of various metals – Gluts, as he called them – two lithographs, the others collages of images transferred by various means onto paper or polylaminate.

Robert Rauschenberg: Pimiento Late Summer Glut, 1987. Riveted metal parts
Robert Rauschenberg: Flue, 1980. Solvent transfer, acrylic & collage on paper.

Where Bastian is cool and minimal, allowing the work to be the immediate focus of attention, Thaddeus Ropac – at Ely House on Dover Street, near the Royal Academy – is opulent and grand, its black and white tiles, nevertheless, a near-perfect setting for the work on display. A selection of the artist’s photographs aside, this comes from two series of Rauschenberg’s metal paintings [silk-screened photographic images plus paint on aluminium]- the dark, noir tones of Night Shades and the lighter, reflective Phantoms.

Robert Rauschenberg: from Night Shades
Robert Rauschenberg: from Phantoms
Robert Rauschenberg: from Phantoms
Robert Rauschenberg: from Phantoms (detail)

Oh, and one other thing … the first room at Ely House features three abstract paintings by the Canadian artist/writer Megan Rooney – luminous, rich in colour – think, maybe, Sam Francis merged with Helen Frankenthaler – which act as a nice contrast to what is to come. Rumour has it, Rooney will have a show of her own here later in the year …

Joy Spring : current playlists

JAZZ

Joy Spring : Clifford Brown & Max Roach Quintet
I Remember Clifford : John Lewis
You Go To My Head : Lennie Tristano & Lee Konitz
Rhythm-a-Ning : Thelonious Monk
[Part of the unused soundtrack for “Les Liaisons Dangereuses“]
Blues For a Reason : Chet Baker & Warne Marsh
South Street Exit : Eric Dolphy
[From The Illinois Concert with Herbie Hancock, piano]
Diga Diga Do : Chris Barber Band
[From the Ellington-flavoured “Echoes of Harlem” – one of the late Henning Mankel’s favourite records]
Getting Sentimental Over You : Charles Mingus [solo piano]
Festival Junction : Acker Bilk w. Stan Tracey Big Band
Hackensack : The Pee Wee Russell Quartet
Groover Wailin’ : Al Fairweather & Sandy Brown’s All Stars
Going Out the Back Way : Johnny Hodges

Singers/Songs

Inside : Bill Morrissey
You All Over Me : Taylor Swift
Tried to Tell You : The Weather Station
If Not I’ll Just Die : Lambchop
Face : Tracey Thorn
Wichita : Gretchen Peters
New Orleans : John Stewart
Highway 61 Revisited : Dave Alvin
Gimme An Inch Girl : Iain Mathews
Flowers on Valentine’s Day : Liz Simcock
Down To The Station : Nicola Hitchcock
Last to Leave : Arlo Guthrie

Duke 5-Ways

Classical

Van Gogh At Last!

In a recent post dealing with school drama productions I’d been involved in while teaching in Stevenage, I made passing reference to an earlier piece about the life of Vincent Van Gogh from my time at Harrow Way County Secondary School in Andover. Like the Stevenage work, this was a co-operative effort involving as many students and staff as possible, although, as the production evolved, one student in particular, Stephen Lewis, had a fuller involvement as actor, writer and composer. As was the case with Van Gogh himself, no matter the circumstances, you can’t keep good man down!

Knowing a little of Steve’s later involvement with drama, I thought it would be interesting to ask him for his memories of the production and its significance. This is what he wrote …

Drama was my favourite subject at Harrow Way School and thanks to our enthusiastic and inventive teacher, John Harvey, it became a core part of my life. For the first twenty-five years of my career, I was involved in drama teaching, culminating in running the MA in Drama in Education course at what is now Birmingham City University. The strongest memory I have of the work John did at Harrow Way was the collaborative nature of it and the way that it engaged pupils and staff from right across the school.

As a 14 year old I was cast as Vincent in a show called At Last the Vincent van Gogh Show. The “At Last” was added because opening night was delayed owing to an industrial dispute and teachers having to work to rule; this meant that out of school hours rehearsals were postponed for a term. Because John wanted to involve as many pupils as possible, the only way of getting the whole cast together was after school and at the weekends. This was probably why I had a go at writing some of the script and enjoyed researching the life of Van Gogh in such detail.

The set for the show consisted of two 16 x 8 feet screens made by the woodwork department that were fixed at the front stage-right half of the traditional school platform stage and used to back-project images of Van Gogh’s paintings put together by the art department. The performance took place in front of the screens on the hall floor and a raised, tiered area built out from the stage-left half of the stage. This early practice of getting as much of a performance off the stage and thrust out into the audience space must have had a real impact on me, since very few of the hundred or so productions I directed subsequently were set on a proscenium arch with curtains.

I am sure that my attempt at scripting the show was very conventional and limited by an experience of plays that did not extend beyond what we had studied at school or I had seen on television. John had an overall concept for the show that included dance-drama numbers so that more people could be involved beyond the smaller group of characters surrounding Van Gogh’s life. Looking back, I can see now that this was a creative device to make scenes where Van Gogh was painting at his easel more theatrical and of interest to the audience. 

While Van Gogh was painting sunflowers, for example, George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun was playing and a group of dancers performed around the artist at work in one of his more happier moments. In contrast to this I remember the scene in the cornfield where I was surrounded by staccato-moving dancers dressed all in black enacting the movement of crows to the music of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain. It was an expressive way of representing Van Gogh’s deep-seated depression and made the moment where he shoots himself in the groin seem more plausible. There was also a dance to a piece called Urizen from a jazz album by David Axelrod which is a fusion of orchestral sound and rock band. It has these rising glissandi on strings and listening to it again after all these years I can visualise the dancers rising up dressed in yellow and swirling ribbons of fabric around me. 

John has written about the infamous ear-cutting scene which was portrayed by my holding up a 2 x 1 foot piece of ear-shaped polystyrene to the side of my head. I had to cut across the top of the polystyrene with a handsaw and I can still recall the squeaking sound it made as I sawed a lump of it away. The fragment of polystyrene ear fell to the floor and then a character dressed as a policeman walked up to me, picked it up and said to the audience, “’ello, ‘ello, ‘ello: what’s this ‘ear then?”. It got a laugh every night.

The fact that I can still recall this so vividly fifty years later shows what a lasting impression this production made on me. That the structure of the show was an example of Total Theatre or that using an oversized prop and a music hall gag at a serious moment was a Brechtian technique were unknowns to me at the time. But thank you Mr Harvey for creating the circumstances and providing the experience that helped me find my element in life

Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf and the triple-decker egg-and-bacon sandwich.

Funny the ways in which school students remember their teachers, aeons on; funny if they remember them at all. I was buying a pair of jeans in one of those boutiquey men’s clothing stores in the centre of Nottingham, when one of the salesmen said he knew me from school – Heanor-Aldercar Secondary School in Langley Mill.
“One thing I’ve always remembered – you coming into our English lesson with the record player and an LP, saying, ‘Right now. You’ve all got to listen to this.’ And you played Sergeant Pepper all the way through.”
Worst things to be remembered for.

Four or five years ago, quite by chance, I bumped into someone I’d taught at Stevenage Girls’ School when she would have been twelve or thirteen: getting on for 45 years before. I didn’t recognise her, but she knew me right off.
“Triple-decker egg-and-bacon sandwich!” she said and laughed.
I’d used it in some way I can’t exactly recall as a metaphoric way of explaining a complex sentence; I think the middle slice, between the bacon and the egg, might have been a semi-colon.

Following my recent post about teaching at the Girls’ School in Stevenage, Pam Smith, one of the sixth form students taking the Modern paper in A Level English – Beckett, Virginia Woolf and, I think, Eliot – got in touch via a friend. What it seems she remembers most clearly was the lesson in which, reading from Malone Dies, I laughed so helplessly that I slid under the desk and onto the floor. [Whatever it takes … ]

A quick search along the shelves at home soon came up with my teaching copies of both Malone Dies and To The Lighthouse.



Pam went on to take a degree at the University of Nottingham and it was her enthusiasm for the Department of American Studies that led directly to my applying there to do an MA, making many new friends and renewing my acquaintanceship with what is surely the queen of cities.

Stevenage Days, Stevenage Plays

Circumstances have got me thinking again about the years I spent teaching in Stevenage – four years in the English Department at Stevenage Girls’ School, 1971 – 75; the same four years that I was studying, part time, for a BA in English at Hatfield Polytechnic, now the University of Hertfordshire. A course of study made easier by the generosity of Hertfordshire County Council, who allowed me one afternoon off a week, with pay, to attend lectures, together with four weeks – four whole weeks – off to revise for my finals. Outstanding.

Stevenage Town Centre

Stevenage was the first of the New Towns to arrive in the wake of the Second World War, a brutalist cousin of two nearby towns that were products of the earlier Garden City movement – Welwyn to the south and Letchworth to the north. Up until 1969, there were two grammar schools, the long-established Alleyne’s School for boys in Stevenage Old Town, and the rather peripatetic Stevenage Girls’ Grammar School, which dropped the word ‘grammar’ from its title when it arrived at new buildings on Valley Way in 1968, in readiness for joining the comprehensive revolution.

It was my experience teaching young people in secondary modern schools – those who, in pre-comprehensive days, would have taken and failed their 11 Plus – that made me an attractive proposition for the head teacher, Miss Osborne – though to what extent Mrs Crewe, the Head of English, agreed, I was never certain. And it wasn’t just English I was teaching; I was also teaching drama. Lots of small group improvisation, probably rather too much wafting around to the likes of Britten’s Sea Interludes – and, on a couple of occasions, a full-scale production. The school play.

In my earlier post at Harrow Way County Secondary School in Andover I’d warmed up with an abridged version of Shaw’s St. Joan [called, of course, St. Jo – what else?] followed by the (almost) all-dancing, all singing At Last, The Vincent Van Gogh Show! – the highpoint of which was the actor playing Van Gogh coming out wearing a huge polystyrene ear and proceeding, slowly, and squeakily, to saw it off with a fretsaw. Well, it was the 60s! And something I might well return to in more detail in a later blog – but for now, back to Stevenage.

At the Girls’ School, the first production was Alice, based, of course, on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and very much under the influence of the Jefferson Airplane song, White Rabbit.

One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all, go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.

You can imagine the scene: Alice, red hair, blue dress, and the first of several white pills and, pretty soon, the first sighting of the white rabbit itself.

Half-buried amongst a pile of miscellaneous papers, I found a copy of the programme …

It’s noticeable how strictly I was sticking to the protocols laid down by the Drama Department at Goldsmiths, where I’d done my teacher training, and followed through by my great friend and mentor, Tom Wild, whose productions of Brecht and Shakespeare with ‘secondary modern kids’ in Yorkshire were an inspiration. So, rule one, involve as many of the school as you can, and two, list them all equally and alphabetically . Everyone counts.

Having suggested ideas of madness in Alice – see the Cheshire Cat’s riposte to Alice above – the following year’s production, Split, was based on a case-study of a girl suffering from schizophrenia that was written about in R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self. [The 60s continued to loom large.]

The majority of the scenes were built up through improvisation during many rehearsals, improvisation that continued in performance, save for opening and closing lines, which acted as cues for the people doing music and lighting.

It was a recent exchange of emails with Moya Cove, one of the musicians listed above, that got me harking back to Stevenage days – and plays – and I was very interested to read Moya’s thoughts about growing up and going to school in Stevenage – thoughts she is happy for me to share …

The more I look back and think about it the more I realise what a unique ‘brave new world’ social and economic project we were all involved in. Personally, I feel we had the very best of Stevenage new town in those forward looking post-war days before the shine wore off. And it was successful – for an all too brief moment in time – in facilitating real social mobility, along with optimism, hope and a feeling for social justice. As a group of girls I would say we all came out of Stevenage -in those days of rising feminism – and were utterly determined to have careers and be economically independent. Our generation were incredibly fortunate to experience Stevenage at that time. 

For proof of what Moya says about social mobility, a feeling for social justice, and the rise of feminism amongst Stevenage’s young women, I would point to the life of Sherma Batson (whose name appears in the Alice programme).

A community activist with a wide variety of interests, Sherma was one of the founders of the Stevenage World Forum for Ethnic Communities, and largely responsible for setting up Celebrate!!!, a multi-cultural showcase held annually at the Gordon Craig Theatre during Black History Month. A stalwart member of the Labour Party, Sherma was elected to Hertfordshire County Council in 2001 and in 2008 she was made an MBE for services to the county. In 2014/15, she was elected by the Stevenage Borough Council to be Mayor of Stevenage, the first black woman to hold that role. All too sadly, with so much more work to do, so much more life to live, Sherma died suddenly in January 2017, following a subarachnoid haemorrhage, at the age of only 59. In February of that year, Stevenage Borough Council posthumously conferred on Sherma the title of Honorary Freeman.

Sherma Batson

Frank Elder Through French Eyes

During the years since Payot Rivages published the first Resnick novel – Coeurs Solitaires – Lonely Hearts – in France, I’ve been fortunate in both the depth and breadth of reviews that have appeared there, both in print and on radio. With the publication of Le Corps et l’ame – Body & Soul – in early January, I’ve been well served again. What follows are extracts from three reviews, rendered into English through a shaky combination of Google Translate and my ancient schoolboy French [Advanced level, Failed].

TELERAMA 
Christine Ferniiot

Thriller writer John Harvey says goodbye to his heroes …

In 2014, in Darkness, Darkness, British writer John Harvey decided to abandon his famous hero, Chief Inspector Charles Resnick. He did not kill him off, preferring to watch his figure blend into the landscape; leaving him on a bench, a cup of coffee in hand, outside Nottingham Town Hall, daydreaming of a recording by Thelonious Monk – an ending suited to his image: melancholy, poetic and discreet. At that time, John Harvey explained that he wanted to devote himself, in a personal capacity, to poetry and jazz. We believed this to be the case, but luckily writers can change their minds. Here he is again, with Le Corps et l’Ame, a new thriller, one last lap in the company of Frank Elder, a retired police officer. This time, the book does sound like a farewell from this major author who began his career in 1976 under several pseudonyms, writing detective novels and westerns. 

It was François Guérif, then editor of Rivages/Noir, who enabled French readers to discover John Harvey in 1993 and to follow him for almost thirty years. “Another British writer, the formidable Robin Cook, spoke to me one day about John Harvey, telling me to read Lonely Hearts, the first investigation by his hero Charles Resnick. I immediately loved this character, full of humanity and compassion, but also the elegant writing of John Harvey, very inspired by the jazz he loves.”

https://www.telerama.fr/livre/le-maitre-du-polar-john-harvey-dit-adieux-a-ses-heros- et-puis-sen-va-6795950.php

MEDIAPART
17 JAN. 2021- BY W CASSIOPÉE / ANNIE

…. Consider the title of this novel in its original edition : it is called “Body and Soul”, like the title of a song by Billie Holiday which dates from 1957. ** One of those jazz tunes imbued with melancholy, blues, both sad and beautiful, oscillating between different emotions, leaving you alone facing the sea (as on the front cover), as if, finally, to better understand life, you sometimes had to let it rock you with nostalgia. .

The intimate, beautiful, poetic, musical writing (with many and magnificent references) won me over. It has a “je ne sais quoi” that is sublime. Suffering is faintly present between the lines: it inhabits the novel but is not painful because of the way Elder carries it, certainly like a burden, but it is not allowed to dominate the story, because it is mentioned with discretion, finesse and intelligence. The style is sober, calm, each word (especially in the dialogue) carries meaning.

The author talks about art, the complex links between models and artists; about the difficulties of family relationships when a person has mental health problems; the role of parents, of friends. The whole book is imbued with a bittersweet vibe that charmed me. Like jazz, it captivates you, captivates you, and stays with you for a long time … 

** Billie Holiday first recorded “Body & Soul” in 1940. The 1957 recording, with Ben Webster on tenor saxophone, was one of her last.

https://blogs.mediapart.fr/edition/le-coin-des-polars/article/170121/le-corps-et-lame-de-john- harvey-body-and-soul 

http://unpolar.hautetfort.com/archive/2021/01/17/le-corps-et-l-ame-de-john-harvey-body-and- soul-6291473.html 

https://wcassiopee.blogspot.com/2021/01/le-corps-et-lame-de-john-harvey-body.html

https://www.partagelecture.com/t27240-harvey-john-frank-elder-tome-4-le-corps-et-l- ame?highlight=harvey 

LIVRESSE DU NOIR
LE CORPS ET L’ÂME – NADIA DI PASQUALE – 5 JANVIER 2021 

A dark novel, full of atmosphere where the contrast between the rural landscapes of Cornwall and the urban settings of London is striking. Family relationships are at the heart of this story, the author explores the father-daughter relationship … A father assailed by doubts, devoured by guilt, plagued by demons from the past; a very touching father who tries to reconnect with his vulnerable daughter, a father ready to do anything to defend and protect her. 

A very realistic plot, tightly wound in 300 pages, which advances at its own pace and captivates us from start to finish. The construction is rigorous, we oscillate between the meticulous investigation, the procedures, a few well-placed twists and small touches of decor and atmosphere. The characters occupy a central place; John Harvey has the art of searching their souls and complexes with great depth and a beautiful humanity. His pen is very elegant, the style classic while leaving a lot of room for darkness; the dialogue is sharp and subtle. 

And then, an unexpected finale, tinged with a certain sadness. Goodbye! I’m happy to have discovered Frank Elder. An excellent reading moment!

The Road to Oradea

For quite a while now, it’s been my habit to begin the year – my reading year – with either Katherine Mansfield or Virginia Woolf, occasionally both: one of Woolf’s novels, most often To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway; two or three of Mansfield’s short stories – ‘The Garden Party’, say, or ‘Prelude’; ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’ or ‘At the Bay’. This time around, everything else being different, I felt like a change. Though nothing radical. Something from roughly the same period, the early 20th century.

England, My England, a collection of ten short stories by D. H. Lawrence, was first published in 1922; the copy that I have – one of Penguin’s uniform edition with tastefully rural photographs by Harri Peccinootti – I bought at Hatchard’s in Piccadilly in 1974. Still a long way from Oradea, which, if you were uncertain, is a university town in the north west of Romania, close to the Hungarian border. But I urge patience. No sooner had I finished reading the second story – ‘Tickets, Please’, which begins with a bravura description of the journey made by a Midlands tram into the industrial countryside and back again: two jostling, skittering 11-line sentences with a pair of shorter sentences applying the brake in between – than I thought the perfect companion for my reprise of Lawrence would be Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, in which he does everything possible not to follow his alleged purpose of writing about Lawrence and ends up writing about him with perception and a great deal of humour. A quote from Lawrence himself, at the beginning of the book, gives us the idea …

“Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.”
D. H. Lawrence, 5 September, 1914

The title page of my copy was signed by Geoff – in green ink – matching the cover – with a sprawling dedication which refers to the “many memories … of our Romanian quest … especially of your drumming.” Drumming? Okay, take a step or so back. Try to explain.

In the spring of 1997, I was one of a group of writers setting out on a British Council sponsored visit to the University of Oradea to take part in a three day seminar, an exchange of work and views with Romanian (and, as it turned out, Moldovan) colleagues. Myself and Geoff Dyer aside, our group included the poet George Szirtes, the short story writer, Helen Simpson, and the academic and critic, Valentine Cunningham, who had recently written a very positive review of one of the Resnick novels for the Times Literary Supplement and, I suspect, was behind my inclusion. It was Cunningham, also, who had the trumpet. Have horn, will travel. In this case, aboard BA2894 from Gatwick to Bucharest and hence by well-appointed coach across country to Oradea. If he had known there would be a band on hand at our welcoming dinner, I don’t know – perhaps he took his trumpet with him everywhere on the off chance – but once he had discovered that George Szirtes could play the piano – admittedly only 12 bar blues in the key of, I think, C – and that way back in the early 60s I had played drums in a ‘trad’ jazz band at Goldsmiths College, he had no hesitation in leading us up onto the stage the moment the band announced the interval. What occurred for the next thirty minutes or so is something of a blur – much as it was at the time. All I know is that I performed my basic function of keeping time, with only the occasional cymbal flourish or snare drum paradiddle, and Valentine played some decidedly tasty trumpet.

Could our visit get any better? It could, and did, and one of the highlights was listening to Geoff Dyer read from Out of Sheer Rage, which had me – at the appropriate moments – helpless with laughter.

Amongst the writers whose work I enjoyed discovering were the Romanian poet, Romulus Bucur, and a young Moldovan poet, Julian Fruntasu, and thanks to some financial help from the British Council, I was able, through Slow Dancer Press, to publish their poetry in Britain for the first time. Typeset, of course, in Romanian Bookman Light.

The following year, together with a different group of writers, including the poet and novelist, John Burnside, I was pleased to return to Oradea with copies of the two pamphlets, present them to the poets, and listen to their inaugural reading. My only small sadness on this occasion, no welcoming band, no trumpet, no last chance behind the drums.

In a snowy Oradea with Iulian Fruntasu and his friend, whose name, I’m embarrassed to say, I have forgotten.