Sunday, February 11, 2018

Recent Reads - February 2018

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

I do like a blue-stocking and Claire Tomalin is a blue-stocking par excellence. This is the highly readable autobiography of the writer who made the transition from literary journalist to successful biographer of Dickens and Jane Austen. Tomalin doesn’t spare herself unpleasant truths: we hear about her womanizing husband Nicholas Tomalin who was killed while on assignment in Israel, her handicapped son, and the tragedy of her talented daughter who committed suicide. Tomalin was ambitious and a high achiever from university days and made sure she moved in the right circles. There is a certain smugness in her harping on about the intellectual and artistic heft of the area she chose to live in in London.  She bought a house with Nicholas in Gloucester Crescent and her neighbors we are told included Jonathan Miller, Vaughan Williams’ widow Ursula, George and Diana Melly, Beryl Banbridge and Alan Bennett. It seems like a L’Age D’Or for Guardian readers. She ultimately ended up married to Michael Frayn, the playwright, who also happened to be a neighbor in her increasingly gentrified area. She left the Sunday Times on principle at the time of its move to Wapping, and found her true vocation afterwards when she began to write biography. The only weakness in this entertaining read is the way it peters out at the end when she moves from her own life to her explorations of the lives of others. The last 50 pages or so seem rushed and cobbled together.

Form - My Autobiography by Kieran Fallon

This is mainly for those interested in the world of horse-racing. It’s hardly a master-piece of silver-lined prose but unlike most sports biographies it errs on the side of frankness and honesty. Fallon freely admits his cocaine use, his drinking problems and one memorable incident where he dragged a fellow-jockey off a horse (after the winning post it should be said). However, his sincere affection for horses comes across. Retired now, rather than sipping rum in the Bahamas, he still rides out every morning for the sheer love of it. For those who know their racing the best bit are his affectionate pen pictures of characters like Jimmy Fitzgerald, Sir Michael Stoute, and Aidan O’Brien. Of the latter he describes how well O’Brien treats even the most lowly member of staff at Coolmore. He never got close to Henry Cecil (nor, despite tabloid gossip, to his wife)  but nonetheless gives us some respectful insights into that withdrawn and austere figure. The book also contains a tactical master-class on riding in the Derby - a race he won three times.

Wounds - A memoir of War and Love by Fergal Keane

Dark doings down south during the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed. Keane is the son of Abbey actor Eamon Keane who theatre goers in the 60s and 70s will remember - I do. His family came from Listowel and the story centers on the doings of his grandmother’s brother Mick Purtill and his friend Con Brosnan. The murder of an RIC man, Tobias O’Sullivan, and the reverberations within the community in which both the victim and killers lived form the backdrop to an account of those troubled times. It’s a chilling book not least for the implacable righteousness with which the IRA went about their business despite their awareness of the vicious and random brutality from the Tans and the Auxiliaries that would follow. The detailed description of how James Kane was kidnapped and executed by the IRA for being a spy is an intimate account of how these things happened. He was allowed make a will, write letters to his family, and then knelt down with his captors to say a decade of the rosary before they shot the still kneeling man. Hard times.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Dog Shit Debate

There’s been a spate of hysterical outbursts in the media lately about the mortal dangers of dog shit. Some Meath backwoods man, a councillor French, has called for drone surveillance and DNA testing to counter the imminent plague. Environment minister Denis Naughten has got in on the act describing it as “a danger to public health”. Even our ostensibly enlightened local council (DLR) have been placing melodramatic notices (see above) around Killiney suggesting that our children will be blinded unless you pick up after your pooch. The same council might do better by supplying more rubbish bins. There are whole swathes of public walking areas in the borough with no bins at all. Check, for example, the fields and football pitches around Shanganagh.

Now we’re all agreed that dog shit is disgusting and stepping on it is an aesthetic disaster and a practical nuisance. So people should pick it up, especially if it’s on a footpath or in a public area. I’m not sure it’s such a problem in the middle of a field or on a deserted beach where tide and rain will take care of it. But I daren’t say that out loud. However, to suggest that that it’s a health danger is just plain alarmist and untrue. It’s an aesthetic issue and an inconvenience. Good citizens should remove it to make the environment more pleasant for all.

You have as much chance of getting seriously sick from contact with dog shit as you have of being hit by a meteorite. The incidence of toxoplasmosis from uncooked meats is quite high but acquiring it from dogs is extremely uncommon. In the UK and the USA Toxocariasis (acquired from dog faeces), is described as “a rare disease”. It affects 0.00% of the population in the USA. We in Ireland of course don’t keep any statistics.

Anyone who has a dog knows that its favorite indoor pastime is excavating its arse with its tongue. One of its next favorite pastimes is licking its owner on the face with the self same tongue. If dog shit was as toxic as this tribe of ignorant alarmists claim we would be seeing vast numbers of dog owners walking around blind. Their pets replaced, poignantly, by seeing dogs.

It’s disgusting, it’s inconvenient, it’s distasteful but it’s not dangerous. Stop pretending it is.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Gilbert and George at the MAC

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times on 4 February 2018

Gilbert and George’s monumental show at the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in Belfast, is dominated by whippets. Not, alas for dog lovers, the canine kind.These whippets are the small steel containers used for nitrous oxide – a popular recreational drug, especially in the gay community. In the blood-red apocalyptic world depicted in this exhibition, these bomb-shaped objects serve as a metaphor for both the violence and the careless hedonism of our blighted times. Gilbert and George themselves appear in the large pictures in a variety of guises: bemused everyman, appalled witness, shattered victim, or dead-eyed killer. “We are the centre of the art, we are always the centre of the vision”. The show is meant to be provocative. According to curator Hugh Mulholland its aim is: “To force us to examine our complicity in all that is wrong with society”. This is a thread in art that goes back to Goya’s Disasters of War and embraces the likes of Hogarth and Otto Dix.

Gilbert and George have been around as an artistic duo for a remarkable 50 years. Notwithstanding their outsider claims they have slowly morphed into national treasures in the UK. All the signs are there. They won the Turner Prize for their photo montages in 1986. In 2007 they had a retrospective at the Tate Modern that was the largest in that institution’s history. An hour-long interview with Mark Lawson on the BBC in 2011 further confirmed their place in the cultural life of their country. George is the Philip Larkinesque one with the glasses and Gilbert is the shorter one. They met at St. Martin’s College of Art in London in 1967 and have been partners in art and in life ever since. From their base near Brick Lane in East London they issue forth in character every day to pursue their inordinately ordered and well documented lives. “We are the living walking sculptures, walking through London.” It’s amusing to see them slipping into sculpture mode when our photographer began taking photographs. Like well-trained soldiers their arms go down by their sides and they assume the formal position.

When I met them in Belfast a couple of weeks ago I was expecting to encounter them in living sculpture mode – but they seemed perfectly normal and chatty. There was a distinct absence of preciousness or self-importance. But of course back in their early days they published the Laws of Sculptors that promised that they would be “always smartly-dressed, well-groomed, friendly, polite and in complete control”. The latter became evident when I tried unsuccessfully to steer the conversation away from their well-rehearsed beliefs towards more personal matters, such as Gilbert’s background in the South Tyrol. They were dressed in very smart tweed suits, one dark green, the other rust red. When I remarked on them George told me they were Donegal Tweed. “We’ve given up on Harris Tweed since the split.” This cryptic remark was aimed at Scotland and its import became clear later when they aired their views on Brexit.

Their dedication and persistence over 50 years clearly springs from a profound belief in what they do. It has always been thus. Back in 1969 after they left art college they were miffed to find themselves excluded from a major contemporary sculpture show When Attitudes Become Form at the ICA. “We felt outsiders at the beginning.” They proceeded to crash the opening and perform their Singing Sculpture routine for the delectation of the throng. The event was attended by the hugely influential German gallerist Konrad Fischer who invited them to show in his gallery in D├╝sseldorf (alongside such luminaries as Sol LeWitt and Bruce Nauman) and so their career was launched. They remain grateful to Fischer “everybody said no and he said yes”. Given that you can’t sell a singing sculpture, their early shows also included charcoal drawings and eventually they began to use photography and build their large-scale photo-montages.

The images in Scapegoating are bizarre, violent, and sinister. The predominance of women in burqas and bearded men in robes infers an Islamic source for the violence and mayhem. But they claim to have many Moslem friends around Brick Lane which has a large mosque. They also referred to the late Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh as “a liberal and a bigot” because “he spoke against Islam”. When it comes to sexual matters both are ardent libertarians. A triptych containing multiple slogans urges us to:  “Keep a catamite – Snog in the synagogue – Caress a constable” and other more arcane sexual acts. Their tolerance does not extend to loving religion which they pretty much blame for all the ills of the world. Hence: “Beat up a bishop, Piss on a priest, Infibulate an iman”. Contradictions occur here also. We are urged confusingly to: “Masturbate a monk” and “Fuck the vicar”.

When asked what brought them to Northern Ireland their simple response was “Hugh just asked us.” Mulholland sees Northern Ireland “as a divided and fractured society at times unable to confront uncomfortable truths.” He maintains that Gilbert and George place themselves “and by extension us” within their work. Their concerns are universal – these pictures could be shown in any Western capital. They have no issues with Northern Ireland politics specifically or its conservative stance on social issues. When I mentioned that gay marriage was still banned there, they were unmoved. “It’s not relevant for our generation”, George maintained, “it’s too much like copying straight people.” He went on to express admiration for cult writer John Rechy, the author of gay classics such as City of Night and Sexual Outlaw. They have a civil partnership which presumably takes care of inheritance issues. Rather surprisingly, considering one is Italian and one is English, they are ardently pro-Brexit. George seemed to do most of the talking on political matters:  “We’re pro-Brexit of course. Who is running the whole show”, he asks rhetorically, “Germany and France of course”. He mentions that he was bombed out of his childhood home in Plymouth by German planes, so this animosity may have long roots..

For artists whose work sells for substantial six-figure sums they have a refreshingly democratic attitude towards the product, encouraging versions that can be distributed widely and cheaply. Gilbert boasted that “In London we signed 4,000 posters at £10”. In 2007 they allowed access to one of their posters on the Guardian and BBC web sites for 48 hours. They were delighted that subsequently, wherever they went, they were approached by people to sign them. “Do you know that lovely young actor Luke Evans, he’s unconventionally good-looking ?” George asked me. “He downloaded one and asked us to sign it in a New York hotel”. On the Friday after the opening in Belfast, they sat in the gallery for three hours signing catalogues.

When I queried them about their own tastes the surprised me with their enthusiasm for AE (George Russell) – whose mystical visions seem far from their hard-edged realism. They recently discovered pictures by him in a theosophical library in London and professed themselves beguiled by them. “We think he’s a great artist. You should have an AE Museum”. They were bemused at his seemingly lowly rating at home. “Why are his paintings so inexpensive. He’s madly underpriced.”

Although Gilbert was born a Catholic and George a Protestant, they eschew all religion, while claiming to be “more Christian than most of our detractors”. A barb aimed at the Rev. David McIlveen (father of the serving DUP MP) amongst others. Their previous show in Belfast in 1999 was described as "an assault upon decency and morality". As we walked out to get some photographs I asked George about McIlveen’s attack on their work. That doesn’t bother us he maintained. “Did you notice that his name has EVIL in it and our name has GOD in it. True?”

Mon-Sun: 10am-7pm

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Jaundiced View of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing

I am loth to criticise anything associated with the late great Townes Van Zandt and a film that includes both his own version of Buckskin Stallion Blues at the beginning and Amy Anelle’s version at the end is bound to engage my sympathy – initially. However, the more I think about this film the less I like it. It’s entertaining and constantly engrossing but I still left the cinema with a bad taste in my mouth. Fargo it ain’t although it’s set in the same kind of quirky small-town location and has the same actress as main character. It’s a cold confection, lacking the charm of the latter movie. It wasn’t Frances McDorman’s fault – she was superb in the main role as was Sam Rockwell as the red-neck deputy. And Woody Harrelson did his thing as the sheriff – all folksy authenticity. Mind you I don’t know how he came to be married to a young Australian (Abbie Cornish) in Missouri but maybe I missed something. I suppose my major gripe was the whole farcical nature of the enterprise and the lack of reality in the seemingly realistic scenario.  I have no problem with farce or black comedy per se, but too many elements in the film didn’t convince me.  No mere deputy would be allowed to carry on as Rockwell did without censure from his seemingly decent boss and colleagues. Why were there no repercussions when McDormand assaulted two schoolchildren, attacked the dentist and burnt down the police station. At the very least she would have been held under suspicion for the latter. And to be a little petty, would such a small town have its own advertising agency?

The ostensible cause of the whole ruckus, the rape and murder of McDormand’s daughter, was only briefly and unsympathetically attended to – and never resolved. And why, oh why, expose Peter Dinklage (the dwarf in Game of Thrones) to a cruel and dwarfist vignette where his amatory ambitions were cruelly sneered at and dismissed. I think the bottom line for me is that the film was a series of visually spectacular and dramatic set pieces that didn’t coalesce into a convincing creation. It entertained briefly but irritated long-term. A bit like my relationship with plum pudding – I like the initial taste, the fruity bits and the brandy hit but then it lies leadenly in my stomach for hours.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Recent Reads - January 2018

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson
Patricia Highsmith was a fascinating character right down to the snails she carried around in her handbag and her voracious sexual appetite. She became an active and predatory lesbian while still a school girl – at a time (the late 1930s) when it was very much a love that dare not speak its name. No married woman or visiting journalist was spared her advances and she had a hit rate that would put Don Juan to shame. She was also a decent writer of entertaining novels – usually with a dark flavour. However, her biographer spends way to much time analyzing her books in detail – she was no Dostoyevsky. Her life, especially her tortured relationship with her mother, was more interesting than her work and this book would have been better if it were a third shorter than its 500 pages.

The Rub of Time by Martin Amis
I prefer Amis’s non-fiction to his fiction – especially in recent years. Earlier in his career I enjoyed Money and London Fields. But The Moronic Inferno, The War Against Clich├ę and Koba the Dread worked better for me. His latest entertaining collection throws its net wide embracing poker, porn, politics and literature. There’s even a piece on the Tangerine Terror across the Atlantic. There are very few duds and I especially liked his two essays on Philip Larkin where his ongoing admiration is tinged with some recent reservations. There’s also a very astute piece on Nabokov and of course something on his hero Saul Bellow. It’s not all high art – there’s a very good piece on the renaissance of John Travolta and a rather sad piece on his fading tennis skills.

Sticky Fingers – the Life and Times of Jann Wenner by Joe Hagan
I expected to enjoy this a lot more than I actually did. Maybe I grew weary of the relentless confirmation of what a prick the founder of Rolling Stone actually is. He had the gumption to realize that he could monetize the whole sex, drugs, and rock and roll scene that developed in San Francisco in the Sixties and didn’t much care who he stepped over to accomplish this. His interaction with people like John Lennon and Mick Jagger are occasionally interesting – the Stones were not amused that he called his magazine after them and threatened legal action. He pointed out that they had in turn taken their name from a Muddy Waters’ song and in the end there was a compromise whereby he let Jagger control a UK edition (which quickly foundered). There’s plenty of entertaining tittle tattle about sex and drugs and who was sleeping with who – everybody with everybody it seems. The early drug-fueled chaos of producing the magazine is amusing but it’s now a corporate advertising platform that not many people care about. I gave up about half-way through its 550 pages. I may dip in again if I’m stuck.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This is a stone masterpiece. I avoided it for a long time because I felt queasy about the basic premise – uneasy spirits chatting in a grave yard while Abraham Lincoln mourns his recently deceased young son. But it works. The chatty corpses in Limbo are in denial about their state and look back towards their unfinished business on earth. They also take a keen interest in whether Lincoln’s son will linger restlessly with them or pass over fully. Their conversations are punctuated by contemporary accounts of Lincoln and his son, how he died and how the family dealt with the tragedy. It came as the American Civil War was in full spate and many thousands of families were mourning their dead. It’s a sophisticated and thought-provoking novel and it has sent me off to discover Saunders’ earlier works (all short story collections).

Midwinter Break by Bernard McLaverty

This is hardly the classic I was expecting from all the laudatory reviews I read over the past 6 months. It was a reasonably convincing portrait of a marriage stuck together by old custom that endured despite the yearning of the female partner for something more spiritually satisfying. She had survived a shooting in Northern Ireland and also felt the need to keep a promise to God. The husband’s relentless drinking (morning, noon and night) seemed unconvincing to me. The ice metaphor was a trifle crass also I felt – a bit too obvious. It kept me mildly entertained – no more.