John Ashbery, Jane Freilicher and “In a True Light”

Waiting to meet my friend, the writer Woody Haut, for coffee the other week, I passed the time (though more than that) browsing through this neat little David Zwirner Books edition of the poet John Ashbery’s later writings about art, interleaved with a selection of his poems and some intriguing lists of the music he would have been listening to during the same period, roughly 1998 – 2004. Music that would mostly come under the broad term,  modernism, I suppose – John Cage, Morton Feldman, Gavin Bryars – with some Brian Eno and Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Vertigo’ for good measure.]

Growing up, Ashbery had wanted to be a painter, only changing direction when he went to Harvard, though his early interest in surrealism and collage would underpin much of his poetry. That he started to write art criticism was, apparently, an economic decision. “I felt I was never really qualified to be an art critic.The only reason I did it is because I needed to earn some money … It was obviously pretty easy to write about abstract expressionist painting, since it was brand new and nobody knew anything about it, so what you had to say was as valid as what anyone else might. Also, it’s not unlike the poetic process in its being a record of its own coming into being.” That last sentence pretty interesting, I think, not to say crucial.

But be that as it may, art criticsim remained an intergral part of Ashbery’s life. Along with fellow poets, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, he wrote for ARTnews in New York; living in Paris between 1960 and 1965, he was art crtic for the New York Herald Tribune (just typing those words brings vividly to mind Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle), and, back in New York, he was an executive editor of ARTnews and a critic for New York magazine and  Newsweek.

Perhaps it’s the sense that he wasn’t ‘really qualified’ to be an art critic that makes him such a good one – it helps him to eschew what might be termed ‘art speak’ and permits an openness of approach. Important also, I think, was the proximity he felt between his own practice and that of the artists whose work he wrote about (see 2 paras above) – artists who in many cases he knew personally and who were an integral part of the New York scene – Joan Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Joe Brainard, Jane Freilicher. 

I first became aware of Jane Freilicher through the poems of Frank O’Hara, in which she appears again and again as muse and companion – ‘Interior (with Jane)’; ‘A Sonnet for Jane Freilicher’; ‘Jane Awake’; ‘Chez Jane’; ‘To Jane; and in Imitation of Coleridge’ – after which she seems to have been usurped by Grace Hartigan and, to a lesser exent, Joan Mitchell.

Once I got to know Freilicher’s work a little, I began to marvel at her persistence of vision; her determination to continue following her chosen course – a personal version of realism that she adhered to as if the explosion of abstract expressionism wasn’t happening all around her. Her subject matter scarcely varied – the views from her studio windows in Greenwich Village and Water Mill, Long Island, and many many still lives, most often a simple portrait, decepetively simple – yet without a glimmer of trickery – of beautiful flowers in equally beautiful vases.  

‘Marigolds II’ Jane Freilicher, 2000, oil on linen

 Why doesn’t this sameness result in a dulling over-familiararity? Boredom even? Not another bloody bunch of marigolds!

This, in part, is Ashbery’s answer  …

The same fields, bouquets, slants of light, views out over water or streets and buildings seem to recur, but it is the tremendous difference in them from picture to picture that entraps and enthralls the viewer. This is because she is able to half-forget the subject at hand and concentrate on the sheer pleasure of moving paint around.” 

And as she said herself in an interview with James Schuyler …

“I’m interested in landscape, but there’s a paradox: it’s depressing to get that realistic look: ‘Why, that’s just the way it looks!’ or ‘I know that time of day’  … Of course a landscape goes on forever but a picture doesn’t. So very soon it has a composition or a form of its own.”  

‘September Moment’ Jane Freilicher, 1998/99 oil on linen

This is Ashbery writing about a small pastel, Flowers on a Table

“The colours are low-keyed and matte, the surface dry and scumbled. The flowers look tangled with burrs like the coat of an old sheepdog.” 

‘Flowers on a Table’ Jane Freilicher 1998 pastel on linen

I was thinking of her use of colour, her use of light when I was preparing my novel, In a True Light, partly set in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s, Monk at the Five Spot and Frank O’Hara and company in the audience. 

Through an intermediary – the poet William Corbett – I asked Jane Freilicher if I could use a statement she’d once made about her work as an epigraph to the novel …  “I suppose I think more in terms of colour than of line.”

I was hoping, I think, that it might in some respects be appicable to the writing, the organisation of the book. Heavy on atmosphere, with a story line that shifted, sometimes surprisingly between place and time.  A scumbled narrative, you might say.

You might. In the event, I think I lacked the courage of my convictions: added a less than necessary secondary crime plot to the basic story of a British painter in search of the daughter he had previously never known existed, the result of his brief and heady relationship with an American abstract expressionist painter decades earlier. 

Even so, it’s a novel I’m fond of – fond in the way, perhaps, one might be fond of errant children. There are scenes, moments, I can still go back to with pleasure rather than embarasment or regret. And there are readers who, amongst my books, place it as one of their favourites. Readers with the abiity to see what I could never quite see myself.

Films, Books, Music of 2022

FILMS OF 2022

FAVOURITES IN ORDER OF VIEWING

The Lost Daughter : Maggie Gyllenhaal
Belfast : Kenneth Branagh
Parallel Mothers : Pedro Almodovar
The Quiet Girl : Colm Bairéad
Hit the Road : Panah Panahi
Emily : Frances O’Connor
Decision to Leave : Park Chan-wook
She Said : Maria Schrader

MOST OVERRATED

Aftersun : Charlotte Wells

BOOKS OF 2022

For whatever reasons, I’ve done a lot of re-reading this year – Liz Moore, Jamie Harrison, Maile Meloy, Joan Didion – but the one big find for me, spurred on by an interview in the Summer 2022 issue of The Paris Review, was the American writer, Sigrid Nunez. I’ve read and greatly enjoyed four books so far …

What Are You Going Through
The Last of Her Kind
The Friend
A Feather on the Breath of God

And am eagerly awaiting delivery of Sempre Susan, her book about Susan Sontag.

Also outstanding were two novels by Claire Keegan …

Foster
Small Things Like These

and Ruth and Pen by Emilie Pine

POETRY

As I get back into writing poetry, I find – surprise, surprise – that I’m reading it more. (Works both ways).

Collections I’ve especially enjoyed include …

Wasn’t That a Time? : Jim Burns
A Reader’s Guide to Time : Rebecca Cullen
Notes on Water : Amanda Dalton
American Sonnets for My Past & Future Assassins : Terrance Hayes
Larder : Rhona McAdam

and, the one I’ve returned to most …

Lanyard : Peter Sansom

MUSIC

Randall Goosby playing the Bruch Violin Concerto with the LPO under Alpesh Chauhan – and encoring with a Louisiana Blues Strut. Royal Festival Hall.

Celebrating Mingus: Guy Barker Big Band & the BBC Concert Orchestra : Queen Elizabeth Hall.

LPO/Jurowski : Mahler 9th Symphony – Final Rehearsal, Royal Festival Hall.

LSO/Noseda : Shostakovich 11th Symphony, the Barbican.

Joanna MacGregor: Jazz Inflections : LSO St. Luke’s

Two Pianos, Eight Hands : Fitkin, Hammond, Stott, Wall : Queen Elizabeth Hall

Jo Harrop singing Fine & Mellow with the Paul Edis Trio : Peggy’s Skylight, Nottingham.

Paul Edis Trio : Jazz at the Oxford, Kentish Town

Perville Bévort & Bévort 3 : Pizza Express, Soho

London Jazz Orchestra : The Vortex

A Few Days in Nottingham, Part 2

Early – not too early – the following morning, Saturday, we made our way back towards the city centre, in search of coffee and something tasty but not overwhelmingly substantial to eat. During Covid we frequently ordered coffee from Cartwheel Coffee Roasters, partly to help keep them afloat during hard times and partly because their beans – roasted in Sneinton – are pretty damned good. So it was that we found our way to their café on Upper Parliament Street (there’s another in Beeston), found a table, browsed the menu, mushrooms on toast. And not any old mushrooms on toast. Delicious. And quite enough for Sarah and I to share.

Not being people to look gift kitchens in the mouth, or however the laboured saying goes, we returned the next morning. Result … Vegetarian special … again shared.

But back to Saturday. After breakfast, Sarah went off to Hopkinson’s – Nottingham’s treasure trove of second hand finery, while I stepped along the alley to the Five Leaves Bookshop, where I was lucky enough to encounter it’s manager and owner, the redoubtable Ross Bradshaw.

The bulk of the afternoon, from lunch onwards, was pleasantly spent in West Bridgford, in the company of friends first encountered when I was studying for an MA in American Studies at the University – the old one- and from there we returned to our room in the Premier Inn close to the University – the new one – and readied ourselves for watching the World Cup, England versus France. Comment would be superfluous.

Mid-morning on Sunday, after the excellent breakfast described above, we visited the current exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary – ‘Hollow Earth: Art, Caves & The Subterranean Imaginary’. An hour and perhaps a little more were never going to be enough to do it justice, but most of what we did see was fascinating.

Caragh Thuring : Inferno, 2018
Goshka Macuga : Cave, 1999/2022
Chioma Ebinama, 2022

Just time after this for dim sum at The Mandarin Restaurant in Hockley and thence to the station: despite having to change trains at Grantham, we were back at London, Kings Cross in just two hours. Exceptional in these troubled railway times.

Riding the Wide Country …

All those Westerns, people sometimes comment, after browsing through my web site for the first time – the ones you wrote in the 70s & 80s – churning them out the way you must have done – what are they like? Which partly means, unsaid, are they any good?

I can’t – or won’t – answer the second, unasked, question – everyone to their own taste, after all – other than to say they had their readers at the time and, for a smaller, perhaps more selective number, thanks to Piccadilly Publishing, they still do.

But what are they like … ?

It’s easiest perhaps to answer that in relation to the 10 book Hart the Regulator series, the only one not co-written with either Laurence James or Angus Wells. Co-written in this context meaning that after fairly brief but enjoyable discussions, remembering old movies and listening to the likes of John Stewart and Guy Clark, we went off and wrote alternate books in whatever series we were currently working on. Generally, more than one series at a time.

The Hart books tend to begin with a detailed description of landscape, vast and wide, cinematic- an establishing shot – the camera, as it were, pulled back before focussing down, offering a sense of place into which the central character rides and, hopefully, the reader is drawn. This is the opening to the sixth novel, ‘Ride the Wide Country’.

The endings, the final page or pages, are most likely to move in close, the action bloody and abrupt, the mood closer to that of film noir – a kind of emptiness, a sickness almost, that the central character must carry with him from book to book, from one episode to another. These are the closing paragraphs of ‘Ride the Wide Country.’

The Hart the Regulator series is available in ebook format from Piccadilly Publishing along with the other western series in which I was involved.

Angus Wells : 1943 – 2006

My friend and fellow writer, Angus Wells, died sixteen years ago on the 11th April. He would have been 79. 

I first met Angus through Laurence James, with whom I’d shared a student house in New Cross, S .E. London when we were students at Goldsmiths College. While I went into teaching, Laurence began a career that revolved around books and writing: initially a book seller, he moved into publishing, becoming a commissioning editor at New English Library, where he built up a notable list of science fiction and fantasy titles, before opiting to stay home and write – a highly successful decision, with more than a hundred and fifty mostly paperback titles to his credit before ill health forced him to retire.

It was Laurence who, aware that I was becoming restless with my role as teacher, talked me into trying my hand as a paperback writer, and who, several years later, persuaded Angus to follow the same course – although not, thankfully, before he had commissioned me to write for Sphere Books the first of four crime novels featuring Scott Mitchell – the toughest private eye – and the best. Simpler times.

It was clear from my first meetings with Angus that we shared a number of things in common – the most prominent being a love of western movies, ranging from early John Ford to Sam Peckinpah, as well as the European ‘classics;, and of music with an American country feel by the likes of Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and John Stewart. We worked together on several series of paperback westerns – two of which, Peacemaker and Gringos, are now in the process of being reissued as e-books by Piccadilly Publishing.

When we were both living in London, Angus and I frequented the original Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, seeing, amongst others, Van Morrison, Maria Muldaur, John Hiatt and the aforementioned Jerry Jeff; a habit that, after we found ourselves in Nottingham, would continue at the sadly departed Old Vic – on one memorable occasion finding ourselves just about the only two males in the packed audience for visiting Americans Tret Fure and Chris Williamson, who were clearly bemused but not unpleased to hear us singing along heartedly to the chorus of Tret’s “Tight Black Jeans”.

When the market for westerns faded, Angus had considerable success in the worlds of epic fantasy – notably the Raven series, which he co-wrote with Rob Holdstock and his own Books of the Kingdoms. When this market, too, began to fade, his writing lost direction and, accordingly, he lost confidence, and, although we would meet for the occasional meal or to see a movie at the Broadway Cinema, he become something of a recluse. On the occasion of his death I was pleased to dedicate a seat to him in the cinema’s main auditorium – adjacent to that of a certain Charlie Resnick. There they are – Screen One, C5 & C6.

From school yard to Junkyard: early days in pulp fiction

Over the last month or so, a small flurry of people (more than two, less that five) have asked about the influences, if any, of my early reading – that’s somewhere between Alison Uttley’s Hare Joins the Home Guard and the cadet edition of The Cruel Sea – on my early writing. Always supposing there to have been some early writing, essays on the pessimism of Thomas Hardy and humour in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers aside.

Well, yes, there were all those westerns, of course, their inspiration – aside from various volumes of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual – coming from the cinema – everything from Saturday Morning Pictures to a John Ford Season at the National Film Theatre. And there is a brief series of four crime novels featuring Scott Mitchell, the toughest private eye – and the best – originally published by Sphere Books between 1976 and 77, and republished in print and as Ebooks by Mysterious Press/Open Road Media in 2016.

Here follows an extract from the introduction written for these new editions, providing, in part, an answer to those questions about early influences …

Growing up in England in the immediate postwar years and into the 1950s was, in some respects, a drab experience. Conformity ruled. It was an atmosphere of “be polite and know your place.” To a restless teenager, anything American seemed automatically exciting. Movies, music—everything. We didn’t even know enough to tell the real thing from the fake. 

The first hard-boiled crime novels I read were written by an Englishman pretending to be American: Stephen Daniel Frances, using the pseudonym Hank Janson, which was also the name of his hero. With titles like Smart Girls Don’t Talk and Sweetheart, Here’s Your Grave, the Janson books, dolled up in suitably tantalizing covers, made their way, hand to hand, around the school playground, falling open at any passage that, to our young minds, seemed sexy and daring. This was a Catholic boys’ grammar school, after all, and any reference to parts of the body below the waist, other than foot or knee, was thought to merit, if not excommunication, at least three Our Fathers and a dozen Hail Marys.

From those heady beginnings, I moved on, via the public library, to another English writer, Peter Cheyney, and books like Dames Don’t Care and Dangerous Curves—which, whether featuring FBI agent Lemmy Caution or British private eye Slim Callaghan, were written in the same borrowed faux American pulp style. But it was Cheyney who prepared me for the real deal. 

I can’t remember exactly when I read my first Raymond Chandler, but it would have been in my late teens, still at the same school. Immediately, almost instinctively, I knew it was something special. Starting with The Big Sleep—we’d seen the movie with Bogart and Bacall—I read them all, found time to regret the fact there were no more, then started again. My friends did the same. When we weren’t kicking a ball around, listening to jazz, or hopelessly chasing girls, we’d do our best to come up with first lines for the Philip Marlowe sequel we would someday write. The only one I can remember now is “He was thirty-five and needed a shave.”

I would have to do better. The Scott Mitchell series was my attempt to do exactly that.

Best of 2021

FILMS

After Love : Aleem Khan
Copilot : Anne Zohra Berrached
Limbo : Ben Sharrock
Never Gonna Snow Again : Małgorzata Szumowska
Nomadland : Chloe Zhao
Petite Maman : Celine Sciamma
Power of the Dog : Jane Campion

BOOKS :

A Ghost in the Throat : Doireann Ni Ghriofa
Fidelity : Susan Glaspell (First published, 1915)
Jack : Marilynne Robinson
Lean. Fall. Stand. : Jon McGregor
That Old Country Music : Kevin Barry
The Night Always Comes : Willy Vlautin
The Night Watchman : Louise Erdrich
Real Estate : Deborah Levy
Scratched – A Memoir of Perfectionism : Elizabeth Tallent
The Vanishing Half : Brit Bennett

POETRY :

Magnetic Field – The Marsden Poems : Simon Armitage
Country Music : Will Burns
Learning to Sleep : John Burnside
New Hunger : Ella Duffy
If You Want Thunder : Ruth Valentine
The Last Dinosaur in Doncaster : Sarah Wimbush

ART :

Mohamed Bourouissa : Goldsmiths CCA
Helen FrankenthalerImagining Landscapes : Gagosian Grosvenor Hill
Helen FrankenthalerRadical Beauty : Dulwich Picture Gallery
Margaret Mellis Modernist Constructs : Towner Eastbourne
John Nash : The Landscape of Love & Solace : Towner Eastbourne
Ben NicholsonFrom the Studio : Pallant House
Wim WendersPhotographing Ground Zero : IWM
Breaking the MouldSculpture by Women since 1945 : Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham


Two Takes on Lester Young … 2. Lester in Paris

It used to be there under Birthdays, some years at least. The daily listing in the paper, the Guardian, occasionally the Times. September 18th. Valentine Collins, jazz musician. And then his age: 27, 35, 39. Not 40. Val never reached 40.

So begins one of my short stories, Minor Key, concerning a British saxophonist hoping to keep his life – and his playing – together by accepting a residency in a Paris jazz club, at the same time that one his idols, Lester Young, is in Paris trying to do the self-same thing. Though to an outsider – or to anyone who cares, such as Val’s long-time friend Anna – it might not seem as if either man is trying very hard. Rather, the opposite.

Here’s a taste, involving both men …

“Minor Key”: First published in Paris Noir, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2007. Reprinted in Minor Key, Five Leaves, Nottingham, 2009. Reprinted in A Darker Shade of Blue, William Heinemann, London, 2010.

Two Takes on Lester Young … 1. Lester, Resnick & the cats …

Listening to a selection of recordings by Lester Young the other day reminded me of several occasions on which he crops up in my writing – quite frequently, in fact, in the Charlie Resnick novels – if not as frequently as Thelonius Monk.

Here’s one occasion, from the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment

Lester Young photographed by Herman Leonard

“The Maltese Falcon” 80 Years On

It seems not just unlikely but a little crazy that after 80 years [Yes, 80. Count ‘em] John Huston’s film version of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, re-released by the BFI, should be as absorbing and, in its portrayal of characters caught up in a maelstrom of sex, violence and betrayal, recognisable today. Only the stakes and the levels of betrayal have changed.

Huston wrote the script, sticking very closely to the original, so that much of the dialogue is more or less straight from the novel; one thing that is different, of course, what the film adds, is the fleshing out of the supporting characters – and in Sydney Greenstreet’s Kaspar Gutman, often filmed from below to emphasise his impressive girth, fleshing out is the appropriate term. He and his co-conspirator, Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, seem never to have quite decided if they are playing comedy or something altogether more dangerous and sinister, and its greatly to the benefit of the film that they manage both, simultaneously. 

Sydney Greenstreet & Peter Lorre

Their other function is to offset the stubborn seriousness of Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, who, through it all and despite the temptations of Mary Astor’s femme fatale and a share of the wealth the Falcon represents, stays true to his code. 

“When a man’s partner gets killed you’re supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when of your organisation gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organisation, bad for detectives everywhere.”

And Hammett should know: he worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency before turning to writing.

The lines above are delivered to Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whom Spade is convinced was responsible for murdering his partner, Miles Archer, whose body was found in an alley after being shot at close range.

“Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years experience as a detective to be caught like that by the man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was as dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb. …. But he’d have gone up there with you angel … He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”

Mary Astor & Humphrey Bogart

When, with increasing desperation, Mary Astor/Brigid attempts to use his feelings for her, his attraction to her, as the means for letting her, literally, get away with murder, he is adamant that whatever those feelings might be, he is neither going to be taken for granted, nor made a fool of.  “I won’t play the sap for you,” he says. “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it.” And, with macabre humour, “I hope they don’t hang you, angel, by that sweet neck.”

In the film’s final scenes, Brigid is taken into the lift by the police and we move to a close-up of her face behind the bars of the lift’s inner door, before the outer door closes, shutting her deeper inside and as the lift begins to descend – she’s, literally, going down, Bogart/Spade walks past towards the stairs with the Falcon in his arms.

If I do have a problem with the film, it’s quite believing in the Bogart/Astor relationship. David Thomson [no less] says “it’s the love story that is riveting” and refers to a “lovely crisscross of screwball and noir”, whereas it seems to me that description is far more accurate if applied to the other famous Bogart private eye film from the forties, Howard Hawk’s 1946 version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, built as it is around the relationship between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which was first revealed on screen two years earlier in the same director’s To Have and Have Not

Here Bogart’s hero, Philip Marlowe, is as hard-headed and hard-hearted as Sam Spade where necessary – towards the film’s climax, and without compunction, he sends the gambler Eddie Mars off to a certain death at the hands of his own gunmen – but he’s also portrayed as someone who can charm the birds out of the trees and, in the famouses bookstore scene, the glasses from Dorothy Malone’s nose. And the scenes between Bogart and Bacall are brilliant examples of sex by inference and innuendo – each one sparking back and forth against the other. Look, speak but don’t – quite – touch. At least, not until the director has called ‘Cut!”

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life