My friend and Italian translator, Seba Pezzani, whom I first met when I was invited to take part in dal Mississippi al Po, the festival of blues and (crime) writing which he organised annually in Piacenza, Northern Italy, asked me if, for an article he’s writing, I would contribute a short piece about the current Coronavirus situation, in addition to recommending a book to read in these anxious times.
Here’s the former, written in response to last night’s clapping in support of the NHS workers …
At first it was a dull, persistent clanking we were slow to recognise, someone in the street outside striking the base of a saucepan with a metal spoon. Inside the house, we stopped what we were doing and checked the time: sure enough, eight o’clock, and the front door opened to hear, haphazardly at first, then more and more in unison, people at their windows, on their balconies, clapping, clapping – older folk, younger, children – and from more distant houses and busier streets, bells ringing, car horns hooting, all coming together in a raucous, joyous cacophony of sound, of noise, of celebration at still being alive and giving thanks to those who were working full out to make that possible. And, as the sounds finally faltered and faded, I thought about those people trapped, as we are, in lockdown in other countries – Italy, Spain – where this nightly ceremony started – realising, in a way, how this has brought us together, while recognising that applause aside, there’s little most of us can do safe this: hope, wait, perhaps pray; wash our hands.
And here, without apology for drawing attention to this book and this writer again, is my recommendation …
One of the books I go back to from time to time, when I’m wanting to read something that rings true; that, in simple, hard-wrought language, is a believable and moving expression of the straightforward but surprising goodness of ordinary people, holding out a hand to those in extreme need, is “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf, the story of two elderly unmarried brothers, small-scale farmers, who, against all the odds, take in and care for a young woman, pregnant and homeless, and not so very long ago a child herself.
I believe the book piece may appear as part of Seba’s article for Il Giornarle and the piece about clapping on Globalist.it
* Apologies to Shirley Ellis, whose 1965 version of this Lincoln Chase song, is surely the best
The floor is azure blue tile
slick with the residue
of that morning’s watering,
green hose resting
slack between the leaves.
We would come here, safe,
afternoons, and sit, not touching,
humidity in the 90s
and helicopters hovering
a block beyond the Hill.
Though you are here no longer
I reach out to touch your arm,
trace the sweat, the way it beads
around the curve of your skin
From the display of medicinal
herbs, I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand:
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart.
And when we meet, a year
from now, by chance, the
departure lounge at Heathrow,
the platform at Gare du Nord,
that harbour front café, and,
uncertain whether or not to kiss me,
you hold out, instead your hand,
I will slip into it these remedies
I have long carried, in the knowledge
that, nurtured, love flowers in the darkest place.
from ASLANT Poetry / John Harvey – Photography / Molly E. Boiling
(Shoestring Press, 2019)
You can see a selection of Molly’s photographs here …
In We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South, the current exhibition at Turner Contemporary, Margate, curators Hannah Collins and Paul Goodwin have brought together a fascinating collection of assemblages, paintings and quilts made during the 50s & 60s by African American artists from Alabama and surrounding states.
This selection of images gives some sense, I hope, of the vibrancy and invention on display.
The exhibition runs till May 3rd and is recommended in the strongest possible terms.
See it if you can.
There’s a photograph, quite famous in Art circles, known as The Irascibles, or, to give it its full title, the Irascible Group of Advanced Artists, which shows 15 from a group of 28 artists who had signed an open letter to the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, complaining that the exhibition, American Painting Today – 1950 was unrepresentative of what was currently happening in truly advanced contemporary circles.
There they are – Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt prominent amongst them. The guys. As formally dressed as if ready for the office – or a funeral – and looking anything but angry or dangerous, and little resembling the popular image of the bohemian artist. And at the back, the sole woman in the group – imposingly positioned, one assumes, by the photographer – is the artist, Hedda Sterne.
Only two other women had signed the letter, the sculptors Mary Callery and Louise Bourgeois, and one might wonder why so few? Where was Elaine de Kooning when the letter went round? Where, Lee Krasner? Helen Frankenthaler? And how come Hedda Sterne? One explanation is that the gallery owner Betty Parsons, who represented Sterne in addition to a number of the male artists present, had used her influence. What’s certain is that Sterne hadn’t just happened to wander in off the street as the session was in progress – not dressed as smartly as that.
Whatever the reason, from Sterne’s point of view it did her, professionally, little good. As she later said, “In terms of my career (it was) probably the worst thing that happened to me.” … “I am known more for that darn photo than for eighty years of work.” Nor had she felt welcome at the time. The men “were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.”
When Sterne first emigrated from Romania to New York she was befriended by Peggy Guggenheim, who, in turn, introduced her to Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp, and her work was included in the 1942 exhibition First Papers of Surrealism. Exposed to the artistic zeitgeist of the day, her painting became less a product of European surrealism and increasingly influenced by American abstraction, although she never identified herself wholly with the Abstract Expressionist movement and, throughout her working life, would move between abstraction and figuration as her imagination demanded.
I believe … that isms and other classifications are misleading and diminishing. What interests me in art is what cannot be entrapped in words.
This refusal to be pinned down or labelled is perhaps one of the reasons why she is less well known than some of her contemporaries – that together with her dislike of the social scene revolving around such figures as the poet Frank O’Hara, which, to some extent, helped foster the careers of painters like Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan. No O’Hara poems would be written for her with titles like Poem Read at Hedda Sterne’s or For Hedda, After a Party. And there can be no doubting, in retrospect, the low opinion she held of her fellow female artists …
Most women were Uncle Toms and would rather be loved and accepted than admired and feared.
The exhibition of paintings and drawings on display at Victoria Miro, Mayfair until March 21st, represents Hedda Sterne’s first solo show in this country. In addition to seven drawings, there are eight paintings from two series, Horizon and Vertical-Horizontal, all from the early 1960s and the result of eighteen months spent in Venice on a Fulbright fellowship.
As Eleanor Nairne says in her essay in the catalogue …
Hedda Sterne’s paintings feel quietly alive. The bands of subdued colour – cream, grey, ochre. brown – emerge from and dissolve back into one another, with a glint here and there like the last light thrown up one the sun dips below the horizon.
Sky, sea, land; sea, sky; shifts and changes of light, of colour. Time and again looking at these paintings, I was reminded of the quiet minimalist abstractions of Agnes Martin, no longer held in place by the architecture of the grid, but rolling down in loose lines even as they spread across. Sky, sea, water, land.
Let the artist herself have the last words …
“I get enormous pleasure out of very small contrasts. I don’t know to what extent it is an emotional experience or an intellectual pleasure. You know there are knife-edge contrasts in my Vertical-Horizontal pieces. This is what I enjoy – these very, very subtle distinctions in values.”
Victoria Miro have published a beautifully produced catalogue, designed by Joe Hales, with excellent reproductions of both the paintings and drawings, and an essay by Eleanor Nairne.
I had reason this morning to track back through several fat files of contracts and found, buckled and torn along the upper edge and beginning to fade, the first of such documents I ever received and duly signed …
An agreement made the eighteenth day of April, one thousand nine hundred and seventy four BETWEEN John Harvey of 233, Webb Rise, Stevenage, Herts (hereinafter called “the Grantor) of the one part and THE NEW ENGLISH LIBRARY LIMITED of Barnard’s Inn in the City of London (hereinafter called “the Publishers”, which expression shall where the context admits include its successors in title) of the other part, WHEREBY IT IS MUTUALLY AGREED concerning the following work entitled:
by Thom Ryder
(hereinafter called “the Work”)
The Grantor HEREBY GRANTS unto the Publishers and unto their successors in title licensees and assigns the right and licence to print publish and sell the Work in soft cover volume form in the English language throughout the world (hereinafter referred to as “the Open Market)
Did somebody mention ‘English language’? The whole thing, all 18 clauses, of which the above is the first, smacks of Dickens and Bleak House. Obfuscation and legal jargon. But, hey, they were buying my book. Thom Ryder, for a brief period of time – 1974, 75 – that was me. Chronicler of the lives and misadventures of a gang of Hell’s Angels, intent on terrifying the Home Counties. They were buying my first ever book, on the basis of an outline and a couple of sample chapters, for an advance of £200, to be paid half of signature of the agreement and half on delivery of an acceptable manuscript, in addition to which I would be paid a 4% royalty on copies sold.
That any of this happened at all was due to my friend and mentor, the late Laurence James, who had himself written a series of pulp novels about Hells Angels under the name of Mick Norman. We’d met when we were students on a teacher training course at Goldsmiths College; I went into teaching, Laurence diverted into book selling, then publishing, finally writing. If it hadn’t been for his help, encouragement and example, I would never have hacked out – I choose the verb advisably – 50,000 words on the subject of motorbikes, blood and mayhem at the kitchen table of my Stevenage flat during what turned out to be my last year of teaching, the last of twelve. If it hadn’t been for him, it’s doubtful that New English Library would have looked on my endeavours so positively; I think he must have promised them that if my efforts fell apart, he would be around to pick up the pieces.
As it happened, they liked what they read enough to offer me a contract to write a sequel – Angel Alone – for which I would be paid the improved advance of £250, with an increased royalty of 5%. Encouragement enough for me to hand in my resignation at the end of the school year and set out on being a full-time writer of pulp fiction. Well, I thought, I can always go back to teaching if this doesn’t work out – and Laurence and I had been talking about an idea for a series of Westerns he thought a publisher he knew might be interested in …
There followed a period – 1976 to 1983 – in which I wrote just short of 50 Westerns: 10 under my own name, the others in partnership with either Laurence James or Angus Wells, writing alternate books in a series under a joint pseudonym. I was learning to write; I was paying the rent: I was having fun.
What would you say of a man who could play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?
Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boards –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?
Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
found, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?
Would you say he was blind?
Would you say he was missing you?
I wrote this, the nucleus of it, in the early 1990s, when I was a participant in the Community of Writers Poetry Week at Squaw Valley in Northern California; a residential seven days in which we were set the task of writing a new poem every day, said poem to be collected in the early hours of the following morning, so as to be workshopped in the group sessions which began around eleven, eleven thirty, under the guidance of one of the tutors – Sharon Olds or Robert Hass, Lucille Clifton, perhaps, or Brenda Hillman. No lightweights at Squaw.
There was some discussion amongst the participants, I remember, about the fact that most of my poems were quite strongly tied to a narrative [not so surprising, given the day job] and why didn’t I take advantage of the situation and try to write something that, instead, centrally, of telling a story, was driven by language, words and the sounds of words?
I tried. Floundered and tried again. Finally managed, on my second visit to Squaw Valley, a five line poem called Out of Silence, which became the title poem in my New & Selected Poems some twenty years later. And before that, the poem above, which succeeds, I think, in being about sounds, about words; but which is also a kind of story. A mystery. A puzzle. A puzzle to which the answer, as anyone who follows jazz will know, is the blind, multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk.
You can hear me reading the poem here, along with the band Second Nature, and with some marvellous flute playing by Mel Thorpe, giving it his best Roland Kirk.
Yesterday, Thursday January 16th, I was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, “in recognition of my significant achievements and contributions to literature.”
Since the Great Hall at the College is in the process of renovation, the ceremony was held at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, close to Westminster Abbey. Suitably got up in a fine set of robes and a rather fetching tasselled black cap, and to the stirring accompaniment of a five-piece brass ensemble, I processed into the Hall along with the various dignitaries who would make up the platform party. After a stirring introduction by Chair of Council, Dinah Caine, and an address by the College’s new Warden, Professor Frances Corner, hundred and hundreds – or so it seemed – of graduating students passed swiftly up the ramp and across the stage, pausing only for a quick handshake, while excited parents took photograph after photograph and we all clapped enthusiastically.
The last new graduate seated, the College Orator, Professor Alan Downie, stepped to the rostrum and proceeded to make my writing career sound rather more substantial than much of it actually was. The Council Chair presented me with a certificate which I stepped forward to accept, doffing my hat in the accepted fashion before making a a short speech of thanks.
Like a number of my fellow students, when I came to Goldsmiths to begin a Teachers’ Certificate course in English and Drama, I was in my early 20s – the year, 1960 – before the heyday of the Beatles and the Stones, and, if the poet Philip Larkin is to be believed, before sexual intercourse, which didn’t begin until 1963.
True, quite possibly, for Larkin, beavering away at the Brynmore Jones Library at the University of Hull, but not necessarily so at Goldsmiths ….where, as editor of the weekly Smith News, I was hauled up before the VP and admonished for writing an editorial suggesting the College accept that a proprortion, at least, of its students were sexually active and, as a safety precaution, wouldn’t it be a good idea if condom machines were installed in the men’s and women’s toilets?
Surviving that, and one or two other warnings, when I left Goldsmiths, three years later, flourishing my Teachers’ Certificate, second class, it was with a strong belief in the importance of culture and the arts in education – education that was truly comprehensive – and with a number of strong friendships that persist to this day.
After 12 years of teaching English & Drama in secondary schools, however, I was tempted into the writer’s life by a fellow Goldsmiths student who had been asked to leave after failing his teaching practice – I think he turned up for a PE lesson without either his plimsols or an adequate lesson plan. He had gone into publishing, setting himself up later as a writer of pulp fiction, a path I was, initially, to follow with Avenging Angel, a 50,00 word epic following the exploits of a band of Hell’s Angels terrorising the town of Stevenage.
Well, it was a beginning, the beginning of time spent learning a craft, a trade – a trade I’ve been fortunate enough to have practised for some 45 years and which I’m pleased and proud is being recognised here today. Thank you.
The formal proceedings over, there was a champagne reception and some swinging jazz in the mould of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, after which I was unpinned from my robes, made my final farewells and set off with Sarah and Molly in our search for the 88 bus stop somewhere on Whitehall.