Tuesday, 16 April 2013

A book lover suffers

Just a quick report from the London Book Fair today. I go every year and every year I feel more alienated, more sad at the hellish vision of the book industry. I absolutely love books, they're my oxygen, but I don't love the spectacle of the book business, the countless recycled ideas, the sheer excess of books being churned out in the hope of keeping too many businesses afloat. Having said all that (which I haven't thought about carefully enough, I suspect -- just splurging after a long tiring day), the freedom to publish another six thousand cookbooks is the same freedom that we (happily) extend to pretty much anyone who wants to write a book in this country, so I wouldn't have it any other way, however dispiriting it may be to see the massed ranks of erotica and poorly illustrated children's books on the stands at Earls Court.
It was hard to take photos as people are mostly in meetings on their stands and it's business as usual. However, there are side events which are more public. Above is the extraordinary sight of the actress Fenella Fielding, who is 86 and in some strange state of preservation which makes her resemble one of those very expensive Japanese surrogate humans made of silicon. I assure you she smiled and spoke, in spite of appearances to the contrary. She was giving an inaudible talk about correct pronunciation of English. Surreal.
Turkey was the 'special guest' at the Fair this year and there were lots of Turkish publishers with stands. Above is the Turkish author Elif Shafak who was very beautiful.
Some books, like this one, were unbelievably expensive. Some not so pricey. I picked up the catalogue of Shire Books who publish the marvellous short guides to thousands of lovely old things, from Airfix kits to Wrought Iron, all priced between £4.99 and £6.99. I would like to own almost every single one of them -- their lovely illustrations and businesslike texts usually match the depth of my interest in, say, village shops or shell grottoes perfectly. I can't believe how many volumes they've racked up now -- and all with great covers. I covet them. I was particularly taken with this one, below.
And now to sleep.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

A day trip to Brighton

This was the (slightly 'Shopped) view at my feet as I waited for the 9.20am train from Luton yesterday morning. I had had to give in to an insistent voice in my head telling me to go back to Brighton again. Brighton looms nearer because there's a wonderful direct train from Luton that takes you there in two hours, right through the heart of London. Unfortunately, I only discovered after I'd bought my ticket that the 'through' part wasn't working this weekend so I had to cross London by Tube. Still, by noon I was in the North Laine (and the rain). 
It didn't matter. I wasn't there to sit on the beach (unlike this lovely pair, found yesterday). I was there to feed a terrible hunger that's been raging in me for getting on for two months now. You may remember that, last half term, I went to Brighton with my family and got to indulge my love of old photos with an hour in Snoopers' Paradise. I think I bought five photos that time. One was of Lionel and Ethel Long and I managed to find out a little about the Longs, as reported in this post. Two of the other photos I bought that day turned out to be related to each other. I started to research the family in them and it exploded into an almost full-time project. I haven't been so absorbed by something for a very long time. I'm not quite ready to tell of my discoveries -- I'm waiting for a book to come from the National Library of Australia! Luckily I can arrange international loans through the Uni where I work. The book is going to be the culmination of the whole thing (I hope) but meanwhile I thought I remembered that there had been other photos from the same set that I'd left behind in Snoopers' Paradise.
There had been about 2000 photos in three or four boxes at the stall where I got the first ones and I had only had an hour. Now that I had got so intensely engaged with the family in the photos, I just couldn't bear the thought that there were more photos of them left behind. I had to go and see if I could get them.
     I went straight to Snoopers' Paradise and made for the stall where I remembered standing to look through the boxes of pictures. Nothing. There were no photos at all! I can't describe how desolate I felt. I thought some of them might have gone, but surely not all of them. I hunted all over the stall, in drawers, behind old fire screens, in cash boxes. Gone. Then I rallied myself and thought I should at least check around the rest of the flea market -- perhaps people own more than one stall and move their stock around. At the very least there would be other stalls with photos, even if they weren't my special ones. I couldn't leave empty handed. So I spent an hour or so going round the whole place. I didn't find 'my' photos but I found a few other nice ones, including the beach scene at the top. I went to pay and to interrogate the people on the till. 'Can I contact one of the stallholders, please? I came specially to get some photos and I can't believe they've all been sold.' They rolled their eyes and said, 'No.' The woman said, 'There are lots of other stalls with old photos, I'm sure you'll find something you like.' I couldn't explain how I felt that my 'photo family' needed to be kept together and that those photos were saturated with meaning now. They'd come to life.
I went back out into the rain and got some lunch -- the £6 special at Soup-Urb -- pretty nice. The piece of rocky road I had for pudding was the best I've ever had. I sat looking out of the window at the rain and I thought, 'I can't just go home. I'll go back to Snoopers' Paradise and I'll look round with my "kitsch" eyes on instead of my "old photos" eyes. There must be something cool in there.'
     Back I went. It was more like a fun house in there than a flea market -- everyone was trying on wigs and hats and taking photos of each other: 'Try this coat on, you'll look just like a pimp!' I wandered round and within a couple of minutes, I have no idea how, I'd found the stall with the boxes of photos! There they were, still thousands and thousands of them, all jumbled up. What with misremembering which stall it was and then missing it on my first trawl, it's a miracle I found it at all. I was so happy. I hunkered down on the floor and went through each box systematically to sort out the ones I needed. Very thoughtfully, 'my' chap had numbered and dated all his photos so it was easy to tell which ones were his. And I know his handwriting so well now -- I've matched it to his 1911 census return. If anyone had been watching me (I'm sure no one was remotely interested) they'd have seen me going through box after box of photos looking only at the backs. I found TWENTY more of 'my' photos. Some of them are very blurry or don't have any people in them, but I bought them just the same. I had to reunite them as much as possible. What's hard to bear is that the highest number on the ones I've now got is 'No. 442' and I only own 22 in total, so I don't like to think about where the other 420 have got to. I wonder if I'll ever find any more of them? Probably not.
     I was in Snoopers' Paradise until almost 5pm, just sorting through photos. By the time I left I was so stiff I was reeling. I just went back to the station and caught the next train to London. It was the strangest day out I've ever had but I have assuaged the need I had to see what was still to be found.
I'm keeping schtum for now on the story I've managed to find out, but will just show one of the photos I got yesterday, of the daughter of the family -- blurry but lovely, I think. More -- much much more -- to come...

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Asking awkward questions

So sorry for the intermittent blogging of late. Lots going on including a mini car crash (a literal not metaphorical one) which took up far too much time to sort out, but you don't want to hear about that (I've just deleted a whiny paragraphy about it...) -- no one was hurt and it wasn't my fault, and it's sorted now.
     More interesting (hopefully) was a great day out in London with my son. As I was wearing my pedometer (part of a project at work to motivate staff to be healthier), I know I walked 14,500 steps, all told. Not bad, seeing as we took the tube everywhere, so the walking must have been mostly inside the three galleries we managed to fit in.
First up was the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at Tate Modern. I had more or less decided to give this a miss, but my son wanted to see it. I'm glad we went as it was worth it to see Lichtenstein's works at their real size: reproduced in books and magazines, they shrink back down to the scale of the images they are based on and thus lose one important aspect of their 'difference' from those originals. It was great to be able to examine the canvases up close and to see the tiny blobs and flaws that are another of the signifiers of the artist's hand at work (rather than a printing press). I particularly liked the black-and-white scaled-up images of objects from adverts (a glass of Alka Seltzer, a ring, a tyre, a radio...). However, I found myself thinking heretical thoughts.
     Firstly, was there no issue with copyright when Lichtenstein lifted the work of comic book and other graphic artists and made derivative works from it? As far as I've been able to find out, none of the artists whose work was 'borrowed' ever sued Lichtenstein. I think the early Sixties must have been a more innocent era when thoughts of copyright infringement perhaps simply didn't occur to people. Since visiting the exhibition, I've looked into this issue online and found David Barsalou's website dedicated to tracking down the originals on which Lichtenstein's works are based and also this article from the Chicago Herald Tribune. Do click on the links (specially the Barsalou -- it's fascinating). I'm afraid my feeling is that the originals are often better than Lichtenstein's versions: they're almost bound to be, because they were drawn freely, from imagination, unfettered by the constraint of having to copy someone else's drawing, which I know from experience can cause the hand to stiffen and become over-controlled. The originals are more alive, somehow, although I realise that's not really the point of Lichtenstein's work, which was precisely to elevate 'cheap' art to the level of 'high' art. In the exhibition, the funny thing was that whenever Lichtenstein dared to wield a paintbrush freely the marks he made seemed so weak and hesitant, completely different from his incredibly confident reproduction-work. Try this one, for example: Washington Crossing the Delaware. Actually, that's not the best example because it's so far removed from RL's signature style. It was the paintings where a stray bit of 'free' painting straggled across a more graphic background that I found more unsettling, and that may very well be the whole point -- to disturb and alienate us.
Next it was Tate Britain (but, sadly, we didn't take the spotty river boat to get there) and Kurt Schwitters. It was fascinating to find out that so many German and Austrian emigres had been interned in Douglas on the Isle of Man, including Schwitters who was there for sixteen months. It was ironic, really, (and wrong, I think) that he was denied his freedom in Britain as he had fled Germany in 1937 after the Nazis included his art in their sneering exhibitions of 'degenerate art'. He went first to Norway but the Nazis invaded there, so he fled to Scotland on an icebreaker. The internment camp in Douglas contained many artists and academics and there seems to have been a rather lively atmosphere, with lectures, a camp newspaper and art made with whatever could be put to use: Schwitters made sculptures out of porridge which went mouldy. They ripped the lino off the floors to make lino cuts and scratched drawings into the windows. More on the Schwitters page on Wikipedia. My son found Kurt's endless rather repetitive collages a bit dull and dated. I thought it was a shame they chose the most colourful and cheery one by far for the tantalising poster -- the overall impression in the exhibition was of  brownness (this sounds as though I didn't like them either, but I did -- they quietly told his life story in train tickets and chocolate wrappers). I enjoyed hearing Schwitters performing his Dadaist sound poem, Ursonate ("beeeee bö fümms bö wö tää...") -- see (and hear!) here. One of the most extraordinary elements of the exhibition was a room that had been created by Laure Prouvost, in response to Schwitters' installation in the Lake District, Merzbarn ('merz' was his made-up word for the raw materials of his collages and montages). Prouvost created a surreal tea room with misshapen cups and teapots, and chairs customized with Schwitters-style agglomerations of wood. A film she had made was showing -- she narrated the story of her imaginary grandfather who, we were told, had been a great friend of Kurt's and had received many of his artworks which he had put to more practical use -- as a draining board or a candlestick. It was very mad and funny.
For our lunch we made a pilgrimage to Benito's Hat on Goodge St, a Mexican place my son discovered when he did a week's work experience nearby. I took a photo of our EPIC burritos but they just looked like doughy canisters, completely belying the deliciousness within -- who would have thought so much could be packed inside a tortilla? Amazingly good value too.
Finally to the Royal Academy to see the George Bellows exhibition. Bellows is not such a well-known artist (not here, anyway) and he's interesting because he seems to bridge the schism between late nineteenth century figurative art and modernism. He died terribly young, in 1925, aged only 37. His paintings of the Lower East Side of New York and, particularly, his visceral scenes at boxing matches show both fantastic draughtsmanship and a feeling for alienated and excluded people in an urban context that reaches towards Edward Hopper (born in the same year but lived 30 years longer).