Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Ingrid Pitt

I was sad to read of the passing of Ingrid Pitt last week. Headline writers no doubt reached for the nearest cliché on the shelf and posthumously crowned her Hammer’s Scream Queen. In fact, she only appeared in two Hammer films, and didn’t scream, unless it was in horror at glimpsing a reflection of her own instantaneously aging visage in Countess Dracula. Her brief membership of the Hammer family came after its golden period, when it was beginning to enter its decadent phase (in both senses of the word). Neither of her films could be said to be amongst the studio’s finest, but they are far from being its worst. I’ve not seen The Vampire Lovers, Hammer’s take on Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, although I have had the misfortune of watching tis follow up, Lust For A Vampire. Pitt’s portrayal of the female vampire did much to earn the former film its generally accepted place in the canon of creditable later Hammer films, whereas her absence in the latter was just one of the elements which made it one of the studio’s biggest embarrassments.

Ingrid Imperious
Her Hammer roles cast her as the seductive monster, who somehow retained an element of audience sympathy despite the trail of pallid young innocents she left drained and lifeless in her wake. Her performance in Countess Dracula certainly turned what could have been an inadvertently absurd farce (complete with disguises which have to be rapidly changed behind the scenes) into a dark fairy tale which carries a powerful archetypal charge. The story was based on the figure of the Hungarian Countess Elisabeth Bathory, a bloodbathing aristocratic monster whose name became a blend of history and myth. For some reason, her name is here changed to Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy. The rejuvenating qualities of virginal blood which the Countess discovers create an ever accelerating rate of decrepitude once the effects wear off, resulting in a progressively grotesque appearance which maps the stages of the character’s moral disintegration in a manner akin to Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Her assumption of her daughter’s persona (her unfortunate offspring’s incarceration in a gurning peasant’s hut is a recurrent piece of narrative dead weight which the film could have done without) is a transposition into female form of the oedipal drama played out between kings and male heirs, the ruler’s fear of losing power and potency and being usurped by their progeny. It’s the kind of story which Angela Carter would have relished. Indeed, her radio play Vampira made reference to Elisabeth Bathory. Pitt was very enthusiastic about the part, and lobbied Hammer head James Carreras to get it, winning out over director Peter Sasdy’s first choice, Diana Rigg. She put particular effort into getting her accent right, drawing on her mother’s East European inflections. She was therefore absolutely furious (‘post-apocalyptic’, as she put it) when Sasdy (himself of Hungarian descent) replaced her dialogue with a dubbed recording by another actress (conveniently ‘losing’ her original voice track). He apparently had decided that the Countess, being royalty, should speak the queen’s English.

Pitt doesn’t say an awful lot about her Hammer films in her autobiography, even though its title, Life’s A Scream, plays on her reputation as one of the studio’s defining figures. It’s a tribute to her talents that she should have created such a lasting impact with just those two films. Her anecdote about repeatedly losing her loose-fitting fangs down Kate O’Mara’s capacious cleavage whilst filming an intimate moment in The Vampire Lovers, and having to cadge a stick of chewing gum from one of the studio crew in order to fix them in is very amusing, and indicative of her refusal to take herself too seriously. She was always very proud of her horror films, however, and was only too pleased to attend conventions and answer fans’ questions. You can see some great footage of her at one such event over at this Guardian collection of clips. Her website is entitled Pitt of Horror, which hardly suggests that she was chary of her reputation as a genre figure. It’s a good site, too, and contains some of her writing on horror, including a lengthy piece on Hammer.

Ingrid in The House That Dripped Blood
The picture of her which is used most frequently in articles comes not from either Hammer film, but from her Amicus outing, The House That Dripped Blood. It’s a publicity shot which shows her projecting a buxom, full-fanged vampire hiss at the camera. I watched the story from this portmanteau film in which she appears the other night. It’s a diverting and enjoyable comic squib, with Pitt having no trouble playing the cool actress opposite Jon Pertwee’s pompous and self-important horror star, whose insistence on authenticity might be a little dig at Christopher Lee’s repeated pleas to return to the source material of Bram Stoker’s novel for the next Dracula script. Pertwee’s character, in stating his preference for classic horror, mentions Dracula, but adds that he is referring, of course, to Lugosi, ‘not this new fellow’. The new fellow, Lee, appears in an earlier story in the film. Pertwee digs up a real vampire’s cloak in one of those ill-frequented antique shops, generally open only after dark and cluttered with grotesque and occult artefacts, which feature in Amicus films. He finds the authenticity he was seeking, but at a price. Pitt, who playfully dons the cloak at the end, turns out to have been indulging in an advanced form of method acting herself, having been a vampire all along. She clearly has a lot of fun, rising and flapping towards the petrified Pertwee, who mugs and gurns in comical terror for all he’s worth. Pitt looks fabulous throughout in a series of seventies outfits topped off with large floppy brimmed hats, taking languorous puffs on cigarettes attached to the end of a holder which rivals Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for absurd length.

Pitt went on to work with Jon Pertwee in the Doctor Who episode The Time Monster, broadcast in 1972. She played the extravagantly coiffured queen of Atlantis, who is wooed, for his own nefarious ends, by the Master. This was Roger Delgado’s last appearance in the role before his untimely death in a car crash. She appeared in a later Who story from the Peter Davison era, Warriors of the Deep (broadcast in 1984), in which she, along with the rest of the supporting cast, adopt a post New Romantic look. Unfortunately, this is Doctor Who at its very worst, a woeful attempt to revive both the Silurians and the Sea Devils, who had been dormant since the early Pertwee period. Ingrid does get to show off her karate chops, however (she was a black belt). It’s as good a way as any to tackle a would-be sea leviathan, the Sea Devil’s purportedly deadly pet the Myrka. It’s a monster which would shame a parish hall pantomime (or an episode from the William Hartnell years), and makes the giant rat hand puppet in The Talons of Weng-Chiang look like a masterpiece of terrifyingly authentic design. She went on to write a Who script herself, in collaboration with her husband. It used the mystery surrounding the supposed ‘Philadelphia Experiment’ carried out by the US Navy as its background. It never made it into production at the time, but has now emerged as an audio adventure, The Macros, in the Lost Stories series. Having made her Hammer and Amicus films, and appeared in The Wicker Man, Pitt went off to Switzerland to make the children’s TV series Ski Boy, a complete contrast to her previous roles. She also wrote a children’s book herself, Bertie the Bus, which falls squarely into the anthropomorphised vehicle category.

I also listened to Pitt’s audiobook recording of her autobiography Life’s A Scream. It’s an extraordinary story and a hugely affecting reading, in which she relives painful and horrific events from her wartime childhood. It must have been hard enough to write about these things, let alone to speak them aloud. The turbulent currents of emotion stirred up by such recollections are quite audible in her voice. The book opens with a trip to LA for a publicity event to promote the opening of the film Where Eagles Dare, in which she played the subsidiary (and this being an Alistair Maclean adaptation, all women’s roles would be subsidiary) but significant part of Heidi. Her description of the tawdry daylit world of LA, disguised I the neon-lit glamour of its nightside, and her clear-eyed appraisal of the movie industry’s sexism, as embodied in the new MGM head Bo Poke’s view of women as objects paraded to sell product, indicate from the outset that she’s not out to write a starstruck showbiz memoir. When the stereotypically crass Poke comes out with a crack about the Nazis being the biggest source of entertainment since Nero burned down Rome, a comment which turns out to be the cue for a ‘comedy’ Nazi in SS uniform and Hitler moustache to burst in and march about the room, Pitt stands up and walks out. The story of her childhood which follows shows just why (aside from her temperamental inability to defer to the power of moronic moguls or boneheaded bullies of any description) she was not prepared to put up with such a dismally distasteful display.

She had been born Ingrid Petrov in 1937 on a train which had crossed over the German border into Germany. Her parents were trying to flee the Nazi regime and make their way to England, where her father had lived for many years. Her father was German, of Russian descent, and a scientist wanted by the government to assist with work on military projects. Her mother was Polish, of Lithuanian Jewish descent, and therefore in considerable danger. Ingrid’s arrival was ill-timed, and meant that they were unable to get out of the country. They stayed with her mother’s parents in Bialystock, but the Nazis caught up with them in the end. They were herded into the trucks of a train bound for the concentration camp at Stutthof, where Ingrid and her mother were parted from her father. They were to spend the next three years in the camp, until the war came to an end in Poland with the advance of the Russian army. Ingrid’s detailing of the constant immediacy of death and abuse which they witnessed and suffered makes for a harrowing documentation of the experience of the camps. It is both personal and particular, and stands in for the suffering of so many which went unrecorded. Her reading in the audiobook adds a reference (absent from the book) to Primo Levi’s quote about the good ones having died in the camps, with the survivors being left with their guilt. She makes it clear at the end of the book that her survival was a matter of sheer chance. ‘I survived the hell,’ she wrote, ‘but hardly any one else did. Surviving doesn’t make one special – but it does make one extraordinarily lucky’. Her account of life in the camp comes partly from her own childhood recollections, but also from the memories which came pouring from her mother’s mind as it became dislocated from the present at the end of her (thankfully long-lived) life. She had never liked to talk about her experiences beforehand.

Ingrid spent a good deal of time in the kinderschuppen, or children’s hut. SS officers would come in from time to time and round up potential candidates for being raised in good Nazi households. She would appear to have been an ideal choice, being a pretty blonde-haired girl. But there had been an infestation of lice in the dormitory hut where she and her mother slept, and she had scratched her head until it was a tectonic landscape of scabs. The SS inspectors, noting such imperfection on closer inspection, turned to someone else instead. Ingrid came very close to death having caught an infection which caused a swelling on the side of her neck. Of course, no medical treatment was on offer in the camp. She was saved by a man named Peter Steiner, who had been a shoemaker before the war. He kept a knife hidden about his person, and used it to lance her wound. He later carved her a wooden Cossack doll with the knife. He was one of those unsung heroes of the war, who did their best to preserve life where they could. Such acts of selfless kindness would unquestionably have led to his death had they been discovered by the camp authorities. Later in the war, as reports of the Red Army’s advance began to filter through, the SS began to systematically round up the prisoners, hut by hut, to take to the gas chambers. Steiner once again rescued Ingrid, smuggling her out of the children’s hut when he received information that it was going to be the next to be ‘cleared’. Of course, very few had such brave and resourceful guardians to watch over them.

Eventually, the SS came to the hut where Ingrid and her mother awaited their fate. But instead of pushing them towards the gas chamber they marched them out of the camp and along the road outside. Those exhausted souls who were unable to keep up and fell by the wayside were shot where they lay. After a while, a plane flew low overhead and strafed this straggling line of guards and prisoners. Ingrid’s mother fell into a ditch by the side of the road, dragging her daughter down with her and lying atop her. She played dead, convincingly enough to persuade the SS guard who nudged her with the side of his boot that she had fallen victim to the plane’s bullets. They lay there for some time before escaping into the forest. Here, they came upon a couple of foraging partisans who agreed, reluctantly at first, to allow them to join their encampment, which was hidden in the heart of the woods. Ingrid recalls this period with a great deal of fondness as a time of romantic adventure, the woodland setting allowing her imagination to roam free. She became inseparable from a boy called Yuri, who joined her in her games and came to play a willing part in her imaginary world. ‘Forests for me will always mean Yuri and the partisans’, she later recalled. ‘Surely it was the best part of my childhood. The only time I remember without pain’. She had recently been working on an animated impression of her life in the forest with Bill Plympton, which hopefully should see the light next year, as you can see above.

After the war ended, Ingrid and her mother trudged across Europe on foot, from one displaced persons camp to another, trying to find any news of her father’s fate. They discovered that her grandparents, with whom they had found shelter in Bialystock, had perished in the camp at Treblinka. Finally, after much tribulation and near fatal illness, they made it to Berlin and the remains of their old house. They did have an emotional reunion with Ingrid’s father, whom they tracked down to an old college friend’s place. He too had spent the war in a camp, having refused to assist in developing new weapon systems. He had made his way back to Berlin at the end of the war, but had collapsed and found himself unable to remember his address. Worn out and physically diminished, he lived on for a further five years before passing away. During this precious remaining time, he took the young Ingrid to the cinema on many occasions, and she got it into her head that she wanted to be an actress.

Having been rejected at every turn and corner in her initial attempts to reach the stage, she decided to try the prestigious Berliner Ensemble, which had been set up after the war by Bertolt Brecht, and was now run by his widow, Helene Weigel. To her surprise, she was accepted. Weigel was perhaps won over by her brazen chutzpah, or maybe by her personal interpretation of Chekhov (she had grown up reading the Russian classics). Never one to keep her opinions to herself, Ingrid found herself in trouble with the volkspolizei, the East German police force which doubled as an ideological enforcement army. Having narrowly escaped their clutches once, thanks to Weigel’s timely intervention and plea of mental instability on her behalf, she was informed that they were after her once more. She was waiting to go on stage for her first major role with the Ensemble at the time, playing Kattrin in Brecht’s Mother Courage. The police were sitting in the front row to enjoy her performance before arresting her. Casting aside her big moment, she fled in full-skirted theatrical costume. She was soon cornered by the police in the streets outside, and made a desperate dive through an adjacent hedge. This turned out to be bordering a steep slope which sent her tumbling down into the icy waters of the River Spree. She was swept along by the currents and struggled to stay afloat, managing to summon a last surge of energy and kick her way to the concrete shore. She lacked the strength to pull herself out of the river, but an American GI happened upon her and reached down to pull her out. He and a friend took her to recuperate in a local brothel, where the prostitutes treated her with great solicitude. A few days later, her rescuer came to visit her at her mother’s flat, and not long thereafter, they were married. He was lieutenant Pitt, and so she became Ingrid Pitt.

There is much further incident in the book, all of it involving and well-observed. Pitt writes well, and did indeed publish a number of novels in her lifetime. She also wrote scripts, articles and magazine columns. Her East European Jewish roots show through in her fondness for the Yiddish word ‘schlep’ (as in ‘I schlepped my suitcase up the stairs’). Her familiarity with English idioms (she lived in England for the greater part of her adult life) comes through in her use of such phrases as ‘shanks’ pony’. The earlier half of the book is undoubtedly the most powerful, however. As, given the events it relates, it could hardly fail to be.

Ingrid and the boys (and Mary Ure)
There are small passages of film star anecdotage scattered throughout. Richard Burton comes on to her, arousing the catty ire of Elizabeth Taylor. John Wayne irritates her by calling her ‘little lady’, making her mad enough to join the poker game in which he is engaged with some buddies. This is a particularly ill-informed decision since she has very little money and even less expertise in a game whose rules she has only been shown a few weeks before. Orson Welles proves to be a huge disappointment, treating her with contemptuous rudeness after she has expressed her genuine admiration for his work, and making a slobbering, drunken advance. She learns karate with the teacher who is instructing Elvis, and has a few practice bouts with the King. Peter Cushing provides the most touching story, dating from the time when he was starring alongside her in The Vampire Lovers. He had discovered that it would have been her father’s 100th birthday (she had brought champagne onto the set to toast him). He and his wife Helen invited her out for an evening meal. After they had finished, a cake was brought out with the words ‘For Ingrid’s Papa’ written on top. Such a lovely gesture of simple kindness. Ingrid found out that Helen knew Russian, and they used to write short letters to each other in the language. Alas, their friendship was cut short by Helen’s premature death, which so utterly devastated poor Peter.

Ingrid also fell into an ill-starred relationship with George Pinches, a very powerful man in the British film industry. He was the booker for the Rank cinema chain, which was then dominant in the country. Finding herself in trouble over obtaining a work permit, and facing possible deportation in the near future, she accepted his apparently sincere offer of a marriage of convenience. This would allow her to stay in the country, and him to have a companion to accompany him to film premieres and other gala events which a man in his position was expected to attend. Outside of these obligations, they would lead entirely separate lives. He proved to be considerably less amenable once the certificates were signed, and became extremely possessive. He seems to have been one of those people who embodied the overlapping of the networks of the post war British film industry and the criminal underworld. They were close in more terms than just their physical proximity along the narrow alleyways of Soho. He appears to have been a genuinely unpleasant man (although admittedly Pitt may not be the most objective of judges here), who nobody liked but all feared. He made good on his promise to wreck her career should she stand up to him. She lost many film roles as a result.

But the book is not about showbiz stories, and indeed, most of these are comfortably excised from the audiobook abridgement. At its heart are her enduring love for her mother (and father, in the brief time she was able to spend with him), her daughter Steffanie (or Steffka), and later, her husband Anthony Rudkin (whom she insists on Latinizing as Tonio). The rest is just set dressing. It is through them, and through her own fortitude, that she is able to partially overcome the mental scars of a childhood in which she was classed as one of the untermenschen, or non-people. The book ends, after she has come through a second bout of cancer (her attitude to which was ‘the Nazi’s didn’t get me and a bunch of fucking cancer cells wouldn’t either’), with an uplifting affirmation of life as constant blessing. ‘I love every day’, she wrote. ‘But then I always have done. The sun or the rain, cold or stifling heat. I love the moon and the stars, the dark nights with wind blowing around the house, telling tales of goblins and gnomes and demons and elves rushing through the park – just like that Polish forest, lifetimes ago’. I hope that she sustained such a feeling of joy until the end.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Lee Miller

Part Two - The War and After

n.b. Lee Miller's photographs are under copyright, but many of those discussed here can be found online at the Lee Miller Archive

After the invasion of Normandy, Withers sent an eager Miller to report for Vogue on the progress of the war on the continent (she had been accredited as an US army war correspondent in 1942). Her war coverage would prove to be an apotheosis for Lee, both professionally and personally. Her photos act both as documentation and as a revealing view of the effect of conflict on the individual. The camera is not a shield, so these images marked her as they passed through the lens and were developed and magnified in the mind’s eye. She also accompanied her photos with her own reportage, writing from the frontline, which combined her sharp eye for detail with a good deal of highly perceptive analysis of what she saw around her. This included a frank account of her own emotional responses, which gave her pieces an intense and personally revealing charge. She began in the field hospitals of Normandy, focussing on the work of nurses and doctors in the medical tents, and the patients whom they were treating. One of the earliest pictures is of a soldier how had suffered extensive burn injuries. He looks strangely and inappropriately jolly, black slits for eyes and nose, and a cartoon smile for a mouth in the round balloon of bandages which inflates his head, and which turns his hands into soft boxing paws. She reported that ‘a bad burns case asked me to take his picture as he wanted to see how funny he looked’. She added ‘it was pretty grim and I didn’t focus too good’. He died shortly thereafter. The blurred focus acts as an expression of her shock, of the sudden sense of dizzy disjuncture felt upon being plunged into a zone of conflict.

Lee then moved on to join the battalion HQ of the 83rd Infantry at St Malo, which had reportedly been liberated. This proved not to be the case. There were still pockets of German soldiers defending the town. She was now reporting from the frontline of a war in progress. With her photograph of billowing masses of smoke enveloping the town across the bay like a volcanic ash cloud, darkly framed through an upstairs window, she had inadvertently captured an image of one of the first ever uses of napalm bombs. In St Malo, she met up with David Scherman, who was there as a photographer for Life Magazine. They would continue to meet and journey together across the chaos of Europe throughout the rest of the war. As they progressed through Rennes, she witnessed the humiliation meted out to those judged to have been collaborators. Her picture and description of the event display a pitiless distance from the young women involved and a ruthless objectivity in pursuit of capturing the image. ‘In Rennes today’, she wrote in a letter to Audrey Withers, ‘I went to a chastisement of French collaborators – the girls had their hair shaved although the interrogation had merely confirmed that there was evidence enough for their trial later on. They were stupid little girls – not intelligent enough to feel ashamed’. Her photo of them shows their faces fixed in blank masks of stoical endurance as the crowds hustle and jeer them along. It’s difficult not to feel some pity for them. Even if Miller, caught up in the heightened (or deadened) emotional responses of wartime, would deny them any compassion, her objective eye offers the possibility of such a response from the viewer, even with the knowledge of their actions.

Lee arrived in Paris to record scenes of wild celebration following its liberation. She looked up old friends to check that they were still alive and well, and took their pictures to testify to their endurance. Jean Cocteau looks dapper and relaxed, leaning against the wall amongst the barred shadows of the Palais Royal Arcade. In another picture, Jean Marais leans out of the window of the apartment he shared with Cocteau, flashing a winning smile at a cluster of young female admirers. Miller visited Colette in a neighbouring apartment in the Palais Royal and wrote a characterful profile to accompany her pictures. She also photographed Maurice Chevalier, elegant and unruffled on the balcony of Louis Aragon’s flat, freshly cleared of all accusations of collaboration. She had an emotional re-union with Picasso, who was portrayed standing amongst his paintings in his studio. Marlene Dietrich is shown seated on the floor, her stylish evening coat pooled in artfully disarrayed folds around her. Miller also took a series of pictures for an article entitled Paris Under Snow. These brought her surrealist eye into focus once more, showing statues given new contours and features by their mantles of snow. Her bawdy sense of humour comes out in her picture of an outdoor lavatory, with offputting public information posters about syphilis posted to its entrance. There’s also a shot of her own balcony outside the room at the Hotel Scribe in which she was based. Champagne bottles and jerry cans are stood in incongruous juxtaposition against the iron grillwork. There is a jerry can shaped declivity in the snow. Lee may have taken command of the one which she kept filled with a try-it-and-see cocktail of whatever alcohol had been ‘liberated’ from cellars along the way. Fuel for the road.

Her impressions and feelings whilst travelling through Luxembourg go towards making up one of her most profoundly insightful Vogue articles on the psychology of war, which was published under the title Patterns of Liberation. In this piece she attempts to describe the difficulties of adjusting to liberty, of starting the shift away from what had become ingrained patterns of thought and behaviour. She wrote to Audrey Withers, describing her assessment of the mental state of those she came across. Her conclusions might indicate that the shock of war was causing her to delve into her own psyche and conjure up some long dormant demons. ‘There were no visible signs or changes in manner’, she wrote, ‘but none the less they are ill – some kind of hidden and devitalizing microbe. The mental malnutrition of the last four years has sapped their strength’. In her article, she makes the point that liberation does not provide an instant solution to ongoing problems, and may indeed resurrect old, or create entirely new ones. ‘The pattern of liberation is not decorative’, she observes. ‘There are the gay squiggles of wine and song. There is the beautiful overall colour of freedom but there is ruin and destruction. There are problems and mistakes, disappointed hopes and broken promises. There is wishful thinking and inefficiency. There is Military Expediency. There is grogginess like after a siesta, a sleeping-beauty lethargy’. She notices the way in which language becomes expedient and adaptable during such inbetween times, hearing one of the American soldiers, upon seeing a medieval ruin, ask ‘well, I wonder who liberated that!’ This leads her to the realisation that ‘the word was bound to degenerate. Now we liberate a church when we wreck it, we liberate a bottle of brandy when we beat down a mercenary publican, we liberate a girl when we detach her from her chaperon. We liberate like we win or swipe a packet of cigarettes, or my field glasses, for instance. I got liberated last night, means I went on a particularly super drunk’.

The photograph Young Evacuee perfectly sums up the stunned confusion following the ending of occupation and the sudden cessation of conflict. A small boy with a satchel on his back sits on a pile of sacks and packing cases, as if he is just another piece of luggage. Temporary signs, quickly knocked up, point in each direction behind him. This makes him look even more lost, stuck at a junction with no idea of which way to go. His face wears an expression of weary anxiety which has a look of habitual fixity. Miller moved on from this area of uneasy liberated stasis awaiting new signs towards a more certain future. She marched with the army through the bleak wintry landscape of Alsace, icy, snow-slushed roads winding through bare woodland and the wreckage of towns. A picture of the bombed out ruins of a church, amongst the rubbled mounds of which ‘a small group of nuns clawed…searching for their padre’, is a particularly powerful depiction of the fresh destruction and accompanying human loss and confusion which she came across.

Lee received clearance to continue into Germany. From here on, her reports began to become increasingly anti-German in tone. As the Life photographer John Phillips, whom she met later in Hungary put it, ‘she hated the fascists – we were all anti-Nazi, but the strength of her hatred was unusual’. There is a barely suppressed fury, a violent rage expressed through visceral loathing (and no doubt voiced at the time with the wider vocabulary of profanity in which she was well versed and with which she could let loose outside the constraints of magazine publishing), which makes her pieces convey a powerful sense of immediacy to this day. She begins her first article from Germany by describing it as ‘a beautiful landscape dotted with jewel-like villages, blotched with ruined cities, and inhabited by schizophrenics’. As she travelled through the ruins of Cologne and Frankfurt, she continued to frame startling images of ruin. The iron grillwork of the Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne forms a pattern of geometrical order which belies the fact that its central span lies in a collapsed tangle in the river beyond. In the bombed chemical plant of Ludwigshaven, the dislodged storage tanks lie cradled amongst the jagged tangle of pipes and gantries as if they themselves were the missiles which had wrought such destruction.

But it is Miller’s pictures of people from this period which are some of the defining images of the end days of the war. She records the suicides of the family of the Burgomaster of Leipzig, all looking peaceful, as if they had posed themselves for just such a post-mortem photo. These portraits of easeful, almost ecstatic death represent a perversion of German Romanticism. The soul has turned inwards and become infected with a corrupting morbidity, more in love with death than life. Miller’s fascination with the ruins of gothic churches and cathedrals make up a further composite allegorical portrait of the wreckage of the German romantic soul. In her article accompanying this tableau of death, Lee memorably describes the daughter: ‘leaning back on the sofa is a girl with extraordinarily pretty teeth, waxen and dusty. Her nurse’s uniform is sprinkled with plaster from the battle for the city hall which raged outside after their deaths’. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of some of Man Ray’s photographs of Lee herself sleeping. She arrived in Buchenwald some days after it had been liberated. The inmates here had been granted no such decorous and pictorial ends. She photographed an SS guard who had tried to disguise himself as a prisoner. He had been recognised and beaten. He stares directly into Lee’s lense, his face bloody, wide-eyed and blank with animal fear. You almost feel as if she has added a few blows herself. Another guard is shown hanging from a radiator. She remarks that ‘he was taken out on a stretcher, stripped and thrown on a heap of bony cadavers where he looked shockingly big, the well fed bastard’. Such savage feelings, no matter how immediate, honest and well justified, feel like they might also be reaching back into the past, to memories of abuse, and spitting out long accumulated reserves of bile. It’s invidious to think of war in terms of personal therapy, but any extreme experience is liable to shake the elements of an individual’s psyche into new kaleidoscopic configurations.

Miller joined up with David Scherman again as US forces met with the Red Army at Torgau. They travelled together to Dachau, where Miller confronted the full horrors of the camp there, which were more evident than they had been at Buchenwald since it had been liberated only the previous day. She pictured the bodies piled up in the long stationary train stretching towards the camp with an artistic, ordering eye which some have found inappropriate. But these were the first time many people were confronted with these images, and such an imposition of visual order and language made them more readily comprehensible. Her carefully composed shots have nothing of the blurred sense of shock found in her earlier picture of the burns victim. These pictures place soldiers as witnesses to these appalling scenes of amassed dead bodies, standing in for the stunned viewer. Miller realised the importance of creating an indisputable record of scenes which would be scarcely believable back in the USA. The article in the US edition of Vogue in which they appeared featured her subtitle, in bold lettering, Believe It! The UK edition, focussed on victory, didn’t publish these pictures, including only one close-up of skeletal bodies stacked atop one another in Buchenwald, filling the entire frame as if part of a mountainous slope.

Lee and David went on to Munich, where Hitler’s former home was now the command post of a US regiment. It was here that Scherman took an astonishing and genuinely iconic picture which is filled with immense symbolic power, Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub. She sits looking wearily out, to the side rather than directly at the camera, looking lost in thought. A small portrait of Hitler rests on the rim of the tub, and a commonplace nude statuette on the bathside table opposite. Its pose echoes her own in a photo Man Ray had taken of her a decade or so previously. She looks at it as if realising this and contemplating its meaning. She represents the life force set against the death impulse which has infected the German soul. Sitting in the bath in Hitler’s house (and water is traditionally viewed as an archetypally female element), she has occupied the inner sanctum of the country, its hidden core. Here she sits, a female presence at the heart of the masculine endeavour of war. The picture, taken by her sometime lover David Scherman, is a celebration of the body in the face of its desecration and systematic decimation. Lee’s presence, exhausted but unbowed, is a symbolic gesture of defiance in the face of the repression and self-hatred inherent in the urge towards fascism. Such conventional notions of femininity represented by the nude are counterbalanced by the heavy combat boots, in which Lee had trudged across Europe, standing on the bath mat beneath her bare arched back. The mat is filthy, as if she had wiped them thoroughly on it before taking them off. As she put it in a later interview, ‘I even washed the dirt of Dachau off in his tub’. Lee also looked around Eva Braun’s apartment, noting the objects and décor which reflected a life ended in suicide mere days previously. They both went to Berchtesharden, where they witnessed the burning of Hitler’s cabin, set aflame by SS guards who then fled into the surrounding mountains. They both took their pick of memorabilia, the personal effects which she referred to in her article as Hitleriana. Lee took a fancy silver tray etched with the initials AH.

Miller continued to travel through Europe after the war was over, observing the continuing chaos, the course of justice, and the opportunistic profiteering and political manoeuvring which was played out amongst the ruins. She was present for the trial of Marshal Petain, the head of Vichy France, in Paris. Her picture of an emaciated child, a tiny figure amongst the white folds of a Viennese hospital bed, is a heartwrenching image, a depiction of the true effects of war. As she wrote to Audrey Withers, ‘there was nothing to do. In this beautiful children’s hospital with its nursery-rhymed walls and screenless windows, with its clean white beds, its brilliant surgical instruments and empty drug cupboards there was nothing to do but watch him die’. Her photograph of the dying child inspired (if that’s the right word) Graham Greene as he was writing the screenplay for The Third Man. This is the human face of the tiny dots which the blackmarket profiteer Harry Lime points out from the top of the carousel, the face from which he and those whom he represents found it all too easy to distance themselves. Miller’s picture of the soprano Irmgard Seefried posed in dramatic silhouette against the wreckage of the Vienna Opera House as she sings an aria from Madame Butterfly is an image of the human spirit continuing to find a voice. Art offering some hope for renewal.

Miller travelled on through Hungary and Romania, photographing peasants and nobility alike. She took a dramatic picture of the execution of Laszlo Bardossy, the ex-prime minister of Hungary. He stands up straight against a neatly stacked wall of sandbags on a roadside pavement, the rifles of the four man firing squad pointing in at him just a few feet away. To the side, a priest and a small crowd of craning faces bear witness to his death in the early dawn light. She also visited King Michael of Romania, who had acted as the head of the anti-Nazi coalition which had ousted General Antonescu’s fascist government in 1944. She photographed his mother, Helen, leaning on the balcony of the summer palace. With its dark and mysterious spaces, twisting wrough-iron starircases, baroque weaves of balconies and balustrades, and sculpted heads looking on from all directions, this could be the interior of the beast’s castle from Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, a timeless world unto itself. It was a huge place, expansive enough for King Michael, no respecter of hallowed tradition, to drive his jeep down the stairs. Naturally, Lee got on with him, and with his resourceful mother too.

In Bucharest, she met once again with Maritza Lataretu, a Gypsy singer whom she had met on previous travels. The gypsies had returned to the cities once more, now that the fascists were no longer in power. Lee availed herself of one of their unique services, a bear massage. As she wrote, ‘the bear knew her business. She walked up and down my back on all fours as gently as if on eggs’. It was a mark of the fearlessness of this bold adventuress that she actively sought out a form of relaxation which involved being sat upon by a bear. The adventures were about to be brought to a halt, however, as she received a letter from Roland Penrose which was couched in the form of an ultimatum. Having given her the freedom to do as she wished within their relationship, he had now decided that enough was enough. He was currently living with a young art restorer by the name of Gigi, and intimated that this might be turning into a permanent arrangement in her continued absence. Needing some sense of underlying stability, she decided to return to England and attempt to patch things up. For a time, this involved living alongside Gigi in the house at Hampstead. Penrose seemed to find this an amenable set up, but Gigi eventually decided that it would be better if she left.

The work for Vogue continued, but Miller no longer felt any real involvement in it. The resumption of fashion and celebrity shots couldn’t seem like anything other than an anti-climax, a retreat into distracting triviality. She continued to produce some fine personal portraits of artistic friends however, such as those of Max Ernst and his wife, the surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning, and Man Ray and his wife, the dancer Juliet Browner, in their new homes in America. In 1947 she became pregnant, and she and Penrose married, Aziz having granted her an instant and unquestioning divorce. Before she went into hospital to have a caesarean birth, she wrote a letter which amounted to summation of her attitude to life, set down in the event of her death. ‘I keep saying to everyone, I didn’t waste a minute, all my life – I had a wonderful time, but I know, myself, now, that if I had it over again I’d be even more free with my ideas, with my body and my affection. Above all, I’d try to find some way of breaking down, through the silence which imposes itself on me in matters of sentiment’. She gave birth to a boy, Antony. It couldn’t be said that she was a natural mother. It wasn’t a role to which she was ideally suited. When she fell pregnant, she had written in no uncertain terms ‘my work room is not going to be a nursery’. Antony would remember his nanny Patsy Murray as a closer presence during his childhood than his mother (or, for that matter, his father).

Roland Penrose, meanwhile, was busy making a steady ascent towards the pinnacle of the art world hierarchy. He established the ICA (the Institute for Contemporary Arts) in Fitzroy Street (it would move to its current premises in The Mall at a later date) in 1948. The following year, he realised another dream, that of becoming a gentleman farmer, moving to a big country house from which he could take on a leading role in the local squirearchy. He chose a place called Farley Farm, near the village of Chiddingly in Sussex, a short drive from Lewes and therefore within easy reach of London. Lee’s attitude to the prospect of a rural lifestyle was pithily summed up in her remark ‘fuck living in the country’. She went along with him, nevertheless. In the years to come, she would appear to many to be little more than an adjunct to his ambitions. A lot of the fight seemed to have gone out of her. Not that she wasn’t capable of raising sheer hell at home.

She found work increasingly difficult and felt aimless and depressed, a state of mind which led to her taking solace in the bottle. Penrose didn’t seem to care. She never told him about her experiences at Buchenwald or Dachau, just as she never told him about her childhood abuse. Perhaps he just never took the trouble to find out. He was frequently more occupied with a series of young lovers. He was a post-war art world Ronnie Wood or Rod Stewart, clinging on to an endlessly prolonged bohemian adolescence, refusing to accept any personal responsibility. A high culture sugar daddy inviting a succession of impressionable young women to come up and see his Picassos. At one point, he fell for a Parisian trapeze artist named Diane Deriaz (you really couldn’t make it up) and tried to get her to marry him, but she was having none of it. Farley Farm was thrown open to all their artistic friends, with Lee expected to play host. Penrose had no patience with her mood swings, and no notion that there might be serious emotional troubles causing such turbulent behaviour. He even wrote to Audrey Withers at Vogue asking her not to offer her any more work. ‘I implore you’, he implored, ‘please do not ask Lee to write again. The suffering it causes her and those around her is unbearable’. He was effectively trying to draw the curtain down on her career. His surreptitious intervention also effectively put an end to a close and long-lasting personal and professional relationship. Withers let Miller know that there would always be an opening for her at the magazine whilst she was in charge, however. Unsurprisingly, Miller was absolutely furious when she discovered what her husband had done. She realised that she was effectively being put in her place. But she no longer had the energy to resist with anything more permanent than a display of foul temper. Her last article for Vogue was published in July 1953. Entitled Working Guests, it showcased photographs she had taken of various renowned artists and prominent figures in the artistic establishment, all of whom had been put to work doing tasks of manual labour around the farm. Lee made no distinction between the visitors to the farm as regarded their social status, treating all as equals, whether they were the local gardeners or the head of some national artistic institution. In the last photo, she herself was shown enjoying a nap inside on the sofa.

Roland Penrose rose steadily in the ranks of the English establishment, as befitted the scion of a rich banking family, dalliance with revolutionary artistic credos notwithstanding. He was awarded a CBE in 1961, and in 1966 became a knight of the realm. Miller therefore became a lady to his sir. She viewed the whole thing with great amusement and refused to take it seriously, insisting that she be known as Lady Lee. In 1960, Penrose curated a Picasso exhibition at the Tate Gallery, for which a fund-raising Picasso Party was held at the ICA. Miller wrote an article for the accompanying brochure entitled Picasso Himself, which drew on personal insights gained from her longstanding friendship with the artist. She sat next to Prince Philip at the party, with whom she apparently got on very well. Blunt speakers both. She wasn’t invited to the Tate opening, however, since it was feared she might say something inappropriate to Her Majesty. A shame, since she could have given her a showing to really remember.

Back at the farm, Penrose filled the house with his art collection and works of his own, with sculptures scattered around the garden. Lee’s pictures and negatives gathered dust in boxes in the attic. Denied artistic outlets, she threw herself into the running of the house, and in particular to the creative environs of the kitchen. Her highly individual dishes sometimes displayed a provocative side which expressed her irrepressible character. She reacted to one guest’s snobbery about everyday American food by whipping up a marsmallow and coca-cola ice-cream, the ingredients of which she revealed to him after he had declared how much he’d enjoyed it (a generous apportionment of rum may have helped). You can find the recipe for it at the back of Carolyn Burke’s biography of Miller. Another dish was known as Muddle Green Green Chicken, which was indeed green, thanks to its heavy concentrations of celery, parsley and leeks. The kitchen became a warm haven for some of the genuinely unconventional guests at Farley Farm, such as the artist John Craxton. He joined her in her culinary explorations, and became a good friend. She still took photographs ofv visitors for personal pleasure. Her picture of the New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg seeming to have just finished sketching the Long Man of Wilmington on the Sussex Downs is especially witty and inventive. She always got her camera out when Picasso was visiting, and her pictures of him form a fine informal record of this most famous of twentieth century artists through the years.

Lee conquered her dependence on alcohol and continued to travel the world in her later years, although she resolutely refused to explore the countryside around the farm, sticking firmly to her initial dictum. She always favoured more exotic climes, and was more a creature of the city. It seems strange that she became stranded in the confines of the Sussex Downs, in damp and chilly England, for the latter part of her life. She died in 1977. Her son, Antony, discovered more about her after her death than he had known during her lifetime. He sorted through her long-unseen photographs and worked towards producing the biographical volume The Live of Lee Miller, enjoying the benefits of a close consultation with David Scherman. Antony Penrose did much to resurrect his mother’s reputation. It could be said that this now eclipses that of her husband, Roland Penrose, much as Gwen John’s reputation posthumously eclipsed that of her brother Augustus John. Penrose now regularly conducts tours of Farley Farm, which now features Miller’s work hanging prominently alongside her husband’s, and holding its own amongst the illustrious company of his collection of twentieth century art. David Scherman wrote the introduction to the volume of war photography and reportage which Antony Penrose edited, Lee Miller’s War. His final sentence provides his own personal and heartfelt summation of a life well-lived: ‘She was the nearest thing I knew to a mid-20th century renaissance woman. In the less grandiose but perhaps more appropriate pop culture patois of her native land, she was a mensch’.

There are a number of good books about Lee Miller which are available in Exeter library, if you happen to live in Devon (and remember, you can always use the inter-library loan system). Or maybe they’re in your own libraries if you live elsewhere.
I’ve got out (but will soon be returning):
The Live of Lee Miller by Antony Penrose
Lee Miller: Portraits From a Life by Richard Calvocoressi
Lee Miller by Carolyn Burke
Lee Miller’s War edited by Antony Penrose with a foreword by David Scherman
The Home of the Surrealists: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose and their Circle at Farley Farm by Antony Penrose

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Lee Miller

Part One - Model, Muse and Artist

Blood of a Poet - card playing Fate
I went to see Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet a couple of weeks ago with a live score by Steve Severi. It was great to see the film on the big screen and I was particularly struck by the literally statuesque presence of Lee Miller. She appears as an armless classical statue who goads the poet protagonist into passing through the mirror (one of several characteristic Cocteau images in the film which recur throughout his work) and into the world of the imagination beyond. Scenes are played out behind the doors which stretch along the corridor (which, as with the underworld reached through mirrors in Orphee, seems subject to a weight of gravity and spatial laws all of its own) of the Hotel des Folies Dramatiques. Miller later appears, freed from her plaster carapace and more recognisably herself, as a card playing Fate, her restored arms now holding the hand which will determine whether the artist sitting opposite her at the table will triumph or face ruin. She warns him, with chilling intimacy, ‘without the ace of hearts, my dear, you are lost’. Lacking such a card, her prophecy proves accurate, and his blood is spilt on the snow in the midst of which their wintry al fresco game of death has been played out. Miller is then transfigured back into the statuesque goddess, her arms concealed by long black evening gloves to simulate their previous truncation. She moves slowly offscreen, relying on the inner vision of eyes painted over closed lids. She leads a bull alongside her, its hide a map to some unknown territory, and whose horns metamorphose into the frame of a lyre, the muse’s emblematic instrument. The film has often been categorised as a surrealist work, perhaps because it was made shortly after L’Age D’or (and indeed, funded by the same wealthy and unsuspecting patrons). But its symbolism is highly personal, and it aspires to the status of a poetic dream rather than a surrealist provocation. Besides, the surrealists weren’t at all keen on Cocteau, peevishly accusing him of stealing their ideas. Which seems rather rich, since these had supposedly arisen unbidden from the unconscious and were therefore symbolic archetypes which presumably had a certain common currency.

Blood of a Poet - statuesque muse
Miller talked about how she came to be involved with Blood of a Poet, and the tribulations and privations on set in a 1967 conversation with Francis Steegmuller, included in his 1970 biography of Cocteau. ‘One night Cocteau stopped at the table where I was sitting with Man Ray at the Boeuf sur le Toit’, she begins. ‘Do you know anybody who wants to be tested tomorrow? (Cocteau asked) I did, and told Man so when Cocteau had moved on. Man disliked the idea, but told Cocteau anyway. The tests were marvellous: I fitted Cocteau’s idea of a face. The script was constantly altered. Feral Benga, the black jazz dancer who played the angel, sprained his ankle and had to be a limping angel – Cocteau liked it better that way, but people have read all kinds of things into it. The star on Enrique Rivero’s back was put there by Cocteau to cover a scar – he’d been shot by his mistress’s husband. After nineteen retakes of the card-playing scene Rivero tore up the cards so there wouldn’t be a twentieth – there was a party he wanted to go to. The chandelier was delivered in 3822 pieces, each wrapped in tissue paper, the very day shooting was to begin. The studio was lined with mattresses to keep out sound – the mattresses were full of fleas and bedbugs that kept falling out. My armour – when I was the statue – didn’t fit very well: they plastered the joints with butter and flour that turned rancid and stank. They covered me with Nujol to make the costume cling: it cooked under the lights. The bull (really an ox) was supplied by an abattoir and had only one horn: time and money were running out, so Cocteau made a second horn himself’.

I was vaguely aware of Lee Miller’s name; that she was a photographer and had been associated with Man Ray. The common, reductive summation of her reputation is that she was a ‘surrealist muse’, a description which Angela Carter, oddly enough, repeats in a couple of her essays and reviews (collected in Shaking A Leg). A trip to the library unearthed a few books about her, and I discovered that she was an extraordinary woman for whom such a passive designation is wholly inapt. She was born Elizabeth Miller in 1907, in the (at the time) quiet and gentile city of Poughskeepie, in New York state. At the age of 7, she suffered the horrific trauma of being raped by a family acquaintance into whose care she had been left. The ordeal was made all the more terrible by the fact that it left a legacy of VD which she had to deal with for years afterwards. Shortly thereafter, her father, Theodore, began taking photographs of her which revealed a level of intimacy which seems deeply uncomfortable. She was very close to him throughout his life (and it was a long one) but these pictures suggest a fundamental betrayal of the bond which exists between a father and his daughter. Such unsettling childhood experiences may have contributed to the sense of restlessness, and the resultant wild and impulsive behaviour, which characterised her adult life.

Lee on the cover of Vogue - March 1927
She first travelled to Europe in 1925 to study set design at a school run by the Hungarian artist Ladislas Medgyes, which he had immodestly given the name of L’Ecole Medgyes Pour La Technique du Theatre. A noted Lothario, it’s likely he had an affair with his young student. At any rate, Elizabeth’s parents, possibly alerted to such goings on, travelled to Paris and escorted her back to the States in early 1926. That year, she took dancing lessons and found brief employment in the chorus of George White’s Scandals, a slightly more daring variant on the Ziegfield’s Follies style of Broadway show. One of her predecessors in the chorus line had been Louise Brooks, whose short, bobbed hair and liberated persona was very much akin to Miller’s. Both would go on to embody the spirit of the age. Miller didn’t last long in the Scandals. She moved on once more, this time to study painting at the Art Students League of New York. But she didn’t find her metier here, either. Legend has it (and with Miller, the legend is seldom at great variance with the truth) that she was dreamily wandering out into the street one day, and was pulled back from the path of an oncoming car by a passing stranger. He happened to be Conde Nast, the owner of Vogue magazine, and he was immediately struck by her looks. She had the short haircut and boyish look of ‘moderne’ fashionability, and was stylishly attired in clothes she’s bought in Paris. He asked her back to his office and invited her to model for Vogue. She was soon greatly in demand, and was shot by some of the most famous photographers of the age, principal amongst them being Edward Steichen. He was an artist who was almost as feted as those whom he portrayed, and he had the attendant wealth to prove it. He created an aura of unassailable glamour around his subjects, a look which became part and parcel of the elevated world of celebrity. He essentially created a new pantheon of demi-gods and goddesses. Miller would later credit him with giving her the idea of taking up photography. She was certainly absorbing some of the techniques being employed on the other side of the camera lens, remaining always at a slight remove from the fantasies of which she was the object (a distance which she would maintain later in her career, both as model and photographer). This merely enhanced her mystery, of course. She had always had an interest in technical matters, something which she no doubt inherited from her father, who worked in engineering and was an inveterate tinkerer. The possibilities of photography, which could harness technological means to express an artistic view of the world, seemed like it just might be the medium she had been searching for.

It was while modelling for Vogue that Miller changed her Christian name, Elizabeth becoming Lee. It seemed more suited to the boyish style which she had first gleaned from Anita Loos, and to her modern outlook. It was a self-willed transformation which seemed to indicate a distancing from her path, and attempt at rebirth and the beginning of a completely new life. In a reversal of the general pattern of the early 20th century, she left the new world for the old in order to be reborn. She returned to Paris in 1929, determined to find her way to the other side of the camera, or ‘to enter photography by the back end’, as she later put it with characteristic fruitiness. She looked up Man Ray at his Montparnasse studio. He wasn’t in, so she retired to the neighbouring café, where she bumped into him and announced that she was his new student. She was obviously persuasive, as she was soon much more; his lover, his model, his muse, his studio assistant and eventually (whether acknowledged or not) his collaborator. Madame Man Ray, as she became known. She learnt a lot from him, and really became a serious photographer from this point on. She can lay claim to be the true inventor of his famous solarization technique. Her discovery of it occurred when she accidentally exposed some negatives which she had been developing to light. She went on processing them anyway. The results were striking, surrounding the main subject with a dark outline which separated it sharply from the background, and highlighted black and white contrasts, lending the whole thing a texture of haze and dapple. Further experimentation refined the accidental discovery and subjected the technique to greater control, although a chance element always remained, which lent the process an element of the magical. The best of the solarized portraits by both Man Ray and Miller have a visionary, hyper-real (or surreal, if you wish) air, as if some essence of the subject has been drawn through the lens and filtered onto film.

Man Ray made many photographic portraits of Lee. One, in which she raises her arm and rests her hand on the back of her head, revealing her armpit in a pose of axillary eroticism, was to be echoed in the small plaster-cast piece of faux classical statuary which stands on the bathroom cabinet in the famous wartime photograph of her sitting in Hitler's bath. It's also reminiscent of the pose which Patti Smith strikes in a rather more assertive fashion on the cover of her Easter LP. As was the case with the surrealists in general, Man Ray's pictures often express a violent and misogynistic sexuality. A photograph in which she turns away from the camera and looks upward, exposing her neck, was later slashed, red ink poured onto the gash in murderous anger. He encases her head and arm in wire mesh, crops her naked body so that its head and legs are truncated, crosses her torso with jagged lines of electricity, reduces what is probably her to a ball of back and buttocks (a photograph which he titles The Prayer, as if it’s expressing her desires) and generally divides her body into its component parts. His Object of Destruction, a personalised refinement of the earlier Object To Be Destroyed, attaches a cut out of one of her eyes onto the spike of a metronome, there to be set into blinking motion, adding the instruction that the whole should be smashed with a single hammer blow once the limits of endurance have been reached. He would later paint her lips floating huge and disembodied in a cloud-speckled sky above a mountain-bordered lake.

Her full, sensual mouth obviously exerted a certain fascination. It is the first part of her which appears in Blood of a Poet. The poet wipes it off the canvas on which he is painting a portrait after it starts to move, only for it to appear on the palm of his hand. After kissing it and allowing it to kiss his body, he smears it onto the head of a statue which appears in the corner of his room, Lee in truncated form once more. Cocteau was never part of surrealist movement, which was, paradoxically for a group supposedly valuing the free expression of the unconscious, fiercely prescriptive in its decisions as to who was or was not allowed into its hallowed circles. Neverthleless, he followed in their stead by having the poet smash Lees static form into pieces. He does, however, face retribution for this act of violent desecration. He himself becomes a statue, and centuries later, warring schoolboys denude his body for use in their snowball battle, subjecting it to an instant process of erosion. Miller’s insistence on sharing the libidinous release which the surrealist painters and poets claimed for themselves as an essential adjunct to their art exposed the inherent conservatism which lay underneath their loud declarations of revolutionary intent and expressions of contempt for bourgeois values. This emerged in the sadism which was such a prevalent feature of their art (and was enshrined in their elevation of de Sade to their cultural pantheon), particularly when it came to depicting women. The muse was there to inspire the unbounded and violent expression of their sexual energy (and was even interchangeable amongst their number for that purpose), but she was herself supposed to remain a passive and submissive object. This was a role which Lee Miller was never likely to conform to.

Miller set up her own studios in Paris in 1930, nearby to Man Ray’s. She began to take portrait pictures, some of them for French Vogue (known informally by its crashed name Frogue). She also walked the Paris streets, taking pictures of incongruous details which her eye, versed in surrealism, detected around her; eruptions of the strange onto the surface of the everyday. This seems almost literally the case in her photograph A Strange Encounter, in which the edge of a wave of viscous asphalt seems to be reaching out towards the shiny surfaces of a bystander’s black shoes; The Blob hits 1930s Paris years before lowering its sights to small town USA. Exploding Hand shows the said appendage, draped in an impressively angular sleeve, reaching for a door handle behind a pane of glass and seemingly sparking a sizzling discharge of electrical energy. They are in fact merely scratches on the window, appearing more luminous against the darkness of the trees reflected in the background. But they are transformed by the eye of the imagination which has captured them. Miller returned to New York in 1932, her apprenticeship and affair with Man Ray over. She set up her own studios in Manhattan and became a very successful freelance portrait photographer, shooting some of the most renowned celebrities and artists of the day. These were mostly conventional, professional jobs, expertly executed. She did occasionally experiment which solarization, as with her 1935 portrait of Lilian Harvey. In 1933, she held her first one woman show in the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. She had established herself in her chosen art form and was respected and successful. Which made her decision to marry an Egptian industrialist, Aziz Eloui Bey, in 1934 and go and live with him in Cairo all the more surprising. Perhaps it was the lure of the exotic, the air of mystery which the Near and Middle East held at the time, perhaps the attraction of a wealthy father figure. Anyway, as Carolyn Burke puts it in her biography of Miller, ‘Lee embarked on marriage as if it were a holiday’. It was one which lasted 3 years.

She was utterly unsuited to life in Egypt. Women were expected to remain sequestered from men in their household harem, having no contact with those beyond their immediate family. Bey was a liberal modern Egyptian, and essentially let Lee do whatever she pleased (perhaps recognising that she would do it whether he wished it or not), but she was surrounded by those for whom such liberties were not afforded. She hated the climate, too. She stuck it for as long as she could, making several trips out into the desert. One of her best pictures emerges from these excursions. Portrait of Space from 1937 looks out at the vast empty expanses of the desert through a ragged hole torn through the gauze veil of a tent window. It is a mysterious, almost mystical image, and inspired Magritte, whose 1938 painting The Kiss (Le Baiser) draws directly from it. She stuck it in Egypt for as long as she could, and then headed back for Paris, to the bohemian artistic milieu in which she was more comfortable.

She attended a fancy dress ball with Julien Levy (the gallery owner who had staged her New York show) and there met the English artist Roland Penrose, who had come along with Max Ernst. Penrose had been instrumental in staging the first major exhibition of surrealism in England in the previous year. It had created something of a stir, principally on account of Salvador Dali’s attempts to deliver a speech from within a deep sea diving suit, from which he had to be unscrewed after he began to suffocate. Penrose immediately fell for Miller, and thus began a golden summer and a lifelong relationship. She joined him in Cornwall, where she met up with Man Ray again, there with his new girlfriend Ady Fidelin. Also there were Max Ernst , the artists Leonora Carrington and Eileen Agar, the surrealist poet Paul Eluard and his wife Nusch, and, on a short visit, Henry Moore and his wife Irina. Lee and Roland then went to the continent and called on Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux in Brussels. They stopped off to have a look around the Palais Ideal, the concrete castle of the imagination built by the postman Cheval in his spare time. It’s a classic work of so-called outsider art, which means the kind of creative endeavours made by people who neither know nor care about art history or art markets. They then joined up with some of the others to spend the rest of the summer with Picasso and Dora Maar, one of his two alternating mistresses and muses. Picasso painted six ‘Portraits of Lee Miller as an Arlesienne’ during this period, the same year in which he had also produced Guenica and The Weeping Woman, two of the most famous pictures of his entire career. Lee later said of him ‘you do not sit for Picasso, he just brought it to me one day having painted it from memory’. Lee Miller’s photographs from this summer sojourn capture the dreamy spirit of their sun-kissed idyll. The best known is Picnic, in which the participants (the Eluards, Man Ray and Ady Fidelin, and Roland Penrose) seem to have their mind on other things than sandwiches and ginger beer.

Miller returned to Egypt and Aziz, whilst remaining in frequent contact with Penrose and agreeing to meet again as soon as possible. She travelled through Egypt and surrounding countries before finally conceding the inevitable and deciding to leave the country, and Aziz, for good. As she wrote to him, she had seen ‘as many changes of scenery and weather here as there are kinds of religions and races of people… (but) all of them (were) vaguely disappointing because of my own state of mind’. She moved in with Penrose in his house at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead in 1939. You’ll find a blue plaque on its wall now to identify it. London was bracing itself for German assault, in whatever form it might take. Miller joined the staff of British edition of Vogue (Brogue, naturally) and formed a close relationship with its editor Audrey Withers, a woman in whom she felt she could confide and who encouraged her to develop her work. Withers, a strong-minded socialist, was interested in the changing nature of women’s role in society brought about by war. Miller photographed women at work or in uniform, some of which were published in Vogue, others collected in a book called Wrens In Camera. Many of the shots of working women show them mastering the kinds of mechanical and technical tasks in which Miller herself took an interest. Some are characterised by a poignant absence, such as A Canadian Wren’s Cabin from May 1944. This frames a cluster of personal belongings adjacent to the iron frame of a functional bed frame. A stuffed toy dog leans against the rim of a tin hat, jewellery and family photos and a small stack of books sit on the bedside table and sporting pennants form a descending flight on the wall. These are traces which sketch the barest outline of the person who is the invisible subject of the picture. Effects which are all the more precious given the possibility that this absence may become permanent. In US Army Nurses’ Billet from 1943, the white uniform hanging against the darkness of the interior and the crumpled shapes of underwear outlined against the light, draped in front of the window, seem presentiments of potential hauntings, awaiting the return of bodies which is no longer as assured as once it was. Her shots of ATS searchlight operators offer the perfect opportunity for the contrast of light and darkness, with the profiles of the women clearly etched against the powerful beam.

Miller’s surrealist eye came in to play on her pictures taken in London as it prepared for whatever was to come. Particularly striking is Fire Masks, taken at the entrance to the shelter in the garden in Hampstead. These masks, made to protect those who were on the watch for incendiary bombs, look like a modernist version of the sinister carnivelesque masks worn by figures in Goya’s paintings. They resemble the simplified rendering of the human face in a few bold curves and lines found in the African and Polynesian masks which had so inspired Picasso and the cubists. The grotesque distortion of the human head created by the gas mask is also represented in her photograph of her friend David Scherman, a young photographer from Life magazine who had joined her and Penrose for a time in their Hampstead home. Miller’s shots of the aftermath of raids during the blitz also focus on the surrealist disruptions of the cityscape, the odd inversions of the normal order. Her 1940 picture Nonconformist Chapel shows the solid porticoed door framing a torrent of rubble pouring out onto the street, as if the bricks of the building have themselves become the congregation and are rushing to exit into the open air.

She photographed portraits of many of the artists, musicians and actors in London at the time, as well. Hein Heckroth, the set and costume designer who was to work with Powell and Pressburger on films such as A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, looks nervous and guarded, his face half in shadow, half in the light shining through the window through which he is casting a sideways glance. His downturned mouth is largely concealed by the hand which holds the cigarette he is taking a drag from. This picture was taken shortly after his release in 1942 from his internment as an enemy alien. Humphrey Jennings, the film-maker who produced such landmark wartime films as Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy, and who had also been a surrealist painter, leans back and looks pensively into the distance to one side of the frame. A cloud of cigarette smoke, illuminated against the inky black background, hangs before him like a comic book thought bubble. It's a picture which is used on the cover of Kevin Jackson's biography of Jennings. Miller shot Henry Moore sketching the huddled bodies sheltering in the London underground at Holborn station during a documentary called Out of Chaos, which focussed on the work of Official War Artists. There’s also a very glamorous shot of Charles Hawtrey in full evening dress drag; he’s almost unrecognisable from the cheerfully weedy characters he would become known for in the Carry On films after the war. Her informal portrait of the journalist Martha Gellhorn pictures her sitting cross-legged on her chair having a fag break, her typewriter awaiting her on the dressing table turned work desk behind, pictures of her husband Ernest Hemingway clipped to the mirror. She looks like she has been captured turning around in a momentary pause from work to which she will soon feverishly return.

As the war moved into its final phases and armies began to do battle in the heart of Europe, Miller was given the opportunity to witness events at first hand. She took it and threw herself into her work with fierce fearlessness and wholly committed dedication. There was something very personal and revealing about her series of war reports for Vogue. The war shook up elements of her psyche which had been held at a distance. It was to be the making of Lee Miller.

n.b. Miller's photographs are under copyright, but you can find many of the pictures discussed here at the Lee Miller Archive

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Angels and Demons of the City

I recently read William Heaney’s Memoirs of a Master Forger and David Almond’s Skellig one after the other. They proved, by chance rather than design, to be a perfect pairing, the literary equivalent of a cinematic double bill. Both feature angels and demons in an urban setting; and both invoke William Blake as a tutelary spirit. Almond’s short novel has become something a modern children’s classic since its publication in 1998. It is a story about a young boy called Michael, who has moved with his parents into a dilapidated house which still carries the imprint of the run down life of its previous occupant, a solitary old man. Michael uncovers a seedy, decrepit creature half-buried amongst the hoarded junk in the tumbledown garage at the back of the house’s weed-choked garden. This mysterious, unfriendly yet strangely unthreatening figure is covered in flies and dust and barely alive. It seems to aspire to the condition of a statue, an ossification of mind and body. Or it might be that it just wishes moulder away along with the old man’s accumulated strata of useless detritus. It is a supernatural being that has become a part of the world of decaying matter. It might even be a fallen angel. Michael nurtures his reluctant and moodily taciturn patient back to life with the congealed remains of numbers 27 and 53 from the local Chinese, washed down with brown ale (‘nectar’, as the creature declares it with undisguised relish). If it is an angel, it is one with particularly uncelestial tastes. At the same time that he is preoccupied with this cranky creature, who seems to have inherited the spirit and physical condition of the old man who used to live in the house, his baby sister struggles to hold on to the fragile thread of its newborn life. It is a time of intense uncertainty, which puts a strain on Michael and his parents. This, together with his discovery of the creature in the garage, leads him to confront the fundamental reality of death and life, a keen awareness of presence in the world which generally goes unexamined beneath the surface pleasures and routines of the daily round.

William Blake - The Schoolboy
Michael meets and becomes friendly with Mina, a precocious young girl who lives a few doors away from his new house with her artistic mother, who educates her at home. They are fond of quoting William Blake, and occasionally sing some of his Songs of Innocence and Experience as the poet himself used to. Blake, for them, is an exemplar and champion of imaginative freedom. Mina introduces him to Michael, with a few broad biographical strokes, as a man who ‘painted pictures and wrote poems. Much of the time he wore no clothes. He saw angels in the garden’. She is disparaging about Michael’s more conventional schooling, and to some extent his outlook on life in general. Indeed, when he first meets her, she is literally looking down on him, since she is sitting in a tree. She quotes from Blake’s poem The Schoolboy, which was originally intended to be part of Songs of Innocence, but was eventually moved over to the Songs of Experience. ‘How can a bird that is born for joy,/ Sit in a cage and sing?’ she asks, rhetorically, and later states that ‘to go to school in a summer morn/ O! it drives all joy away’. Blake’s illuminated plate for his poem is framed on the right by a sturdy, intertwining helix of vines up which children climb. Atop its branches is a child reading a book, just as Mina is in her tree when Michael first encounters her. Mina further mocks Michael’s school education and the standardised stages of learning through which he is expected to progress via set tests. When he talks of fitting into a particular reading stream, she quotes Blake’s Tyger, and asks ‘does that need a good reading age’. It is a good analogy for the novel itself, which has become a very popular school reading book. Like Blake’s poems in the Songs of Innocence and Experience, it has a surface simplicity which disguises great and profound depths.

Mina assumes the mantle of Blake’s experience, and exhibits a preciousness about her knowledge which borders on arrogance, and leads her to an assumption of superiority over Michael at times. When she meets Michael’s schoolfriends, there is a mutual lack of understanding, and a failure to connect on any level. Mina is arty and Michael’s friends sporty. They stand on either side of the mind/body divide which Blake sought to disavow. Where Mina expresses herself through Blake’s words, Michael’s friends express themselves through football. When they want to display their friendship, they do so by commenting on a great tackle or a good header. Michael is caught between the two worlds, as he is between his widely divergent friends. He is both embarrassed by his mates’ larking about and teasing over Mina, and annoyed at her lofty dismissal of them. He sees that she thinks herself above their games, and through his association with them, him as well. ‘You might know about William Blake’, he admonishes her, ‘but you know nothing about what ordinary people do’. She doesn’t know Blake as well as she might, otherwise she would be aware that he saw the mind (or soul) and body as being indivisible, the one expressed through the other. As he clearly puts it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (speaking through ‘the voice of the devil’): ‘Man has no Body distinct from the Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age’. As the similarity in their names suggests, Michael and Mina are in some ways the embodiment of the ‘contrary states of the human soul’ which Blake aims to display in the Songs of Innocence and Experience, and indeed in his work as a whole. Both bring their own particular mix of innocence and experience, although they have yet to fall prey to the negative associations with which Blake imbues the latter state. Together they balance one another and create a complementary whole.

William Blake - The Angel
Michael shares his discovery of the sick angel in the garage with Mina, whose acquaintance with Blake makes her the perfect person to understand its nature. It reveals its name to be Skellig, an act of implicit trust in both of them. When the garage is due to be demolished, they move him to an empty and derelict house in nearby Crow Road. This is a real piece of back alley gothic, a detached ruin set in an overgrown wilderness of garden. Owls roost beneath the roof, whose eaves are partly open to the sky. The Crow Road, in Iain Banks’ novel of the same name, is the path to the other side, the world beyond death. Away from the decaying clutter of a life which had become worn and weary, the angel comes back to life. He is fed by the owls, with which he has an evident affinity. His revivification occurs in tandem with Michael’s imaginative awakening, for which it also acts as a metaphor. Mrs Mckee, his art teacher at school, comments on his picture of Skellig that it is ‘the kind of thing William Blake saw. He said we were surrounded by angels and spirits. We must just open our eyes a little wider, look a little harder’. The childrens’ active imaginations allow them to soar. Michael’s mum tells him ‘they say that shoulder blades are where your wings were, when you were an angel’. Beneath the holed roof of the house on Crow Road, Skellig manifests Michael and Mina’s wings once more. They hover in a circle dance which spins them into a brief instant of weightless flight. It is a moment of pure joy. They talk about their experience later, and Mina says that Blake sometimes felt his soul leave his body. She says that he believed ‘it was possible to be overwhelmed by the presence of so much beauty in the world’. It was such a moment of transcendent connection with the essential beauty of the world which Skellig helped them to experience. When they next go to the house, he is gone. They must now learn to fly on their own. Mina sings lines from The Angel, Blake’s poem from Songs of Experience: ‘I dreamt a Dream! What can it mean?/ And that I was a maiden Queen,/ Guarded by and Angel mild:/ Witless woe was ne’er beguil’d!’ The poem goes on to tell how the dreamer ‘hid from him my heart’s delight’ and armed himself against the angel’s return, so that when ‘my Angel came again:/ I was arm’d, he came in vain’. The children have yet to reach such a state of experience, in which they reject the wonder of the world in favour of a strictly delimited set of perceptions and preconceptions. Their state of innocence remains intact. Incidentally, there is a beautiful musical setting of The Angel on The North Sea Radio Orchestra’s LP Birds.

William Blake - Songs of Experience frontspiece
Michael’s baby sister has her crisis night of life or death struggle after a heart operation. His mother has a dream in which a dishevelled angel comes to her and picks up the baby, lifting it above his shoulders where it grows its own tiny pair of wings. It’s a dream image which echoes Blake’s frontspiece for the Songs of Experience, on which a shepherd carries his own infant angel over his head. The baby survives and grows stronger after this dream visitation. Michael joins Mina in singing lines from Blake’s Night, from Songs of Innocence, in what amounts to a prayer of thanksgiving: ‘The sun descending in the west,/ The evening star does shine;/ The birds are silent in their nest,/ And I must seek for mine’. The poem continues, beyond the lines which they sing: ‘the moon like a flower/ In heaven’s high bower,/ With silent delight/ Sits and smiles on the night. / Farewell, green fields and happy groves,/ Where flocks have took delight./ Where lambs have nibbled, silent moves/ the feet of angels bright; / Unseen they pour blessing/ And joy without ceasing,/ On each bud and blossom,/ And each sleeping bosom’. In Blake’s illumination of the poem, angelic figures to the left of the text soar upwards, making for the branches of the tree which sinuously frames the poem from the right before curving above its opening verse. Some are already resting in its branches. It’s a picture which resembles the children climbing the vines in The Schoolboy, and reminds us once more of Mina sitting in her tree. After their shared experience with Skellig, Michael will be able to join her in his awakened state. When it comes to naming the baby which now joins them in their new home, Michael and his parents cannot agree on anything which seems fitting. Whether consciously or not, they draw on Blake again, this time taking from his brief poem Infant Joy, one of the Songs of Innocence. They simply call her Joy.

William Heaney’s Memoirs of a Master Forger is also haunted by the presence of Blake. The protagonist and putative author is a man who claims to be able to see demons. He feels a natural affinity with Blake, with whom he shares a Christian name. As he puts it, ‘I liked William Blake because he saw angels and demons everywhere too’. Although William Heaney tends just to see the demons. His insight into the hidden (or occult) nature of the world is, as it was with Blake, both blessing and curse. It stems from a night in the teacher training college he attended in Derby. He had tried to clear up the mess made by his hallmate and semi-friend Fraser, who had involved himself in amateur occult studies. His blundering attempts at putting these to practical application appears to have a terrifying effect on William’s life and that of his college girlfriends, whose images the seedy and solitary Fraser has used in his invocations. William feels compelled to repeat Fraser’s ritual and make an irrevocable personal sacrifice, making a deal with the demon whom he seems to summon in order (as he perceives it) to save the life of Mandy, the girl with whom he is deeply in love at the time. We learn the details of this personal history in a series of retrospective episodes which intercut the main narrative. In the present, William sees demons everywhere, hovering and waiting for people to attach themselves to. It is apparent that William still carries the demon which he invited in on that night in Derby, and which has affected his outlook on life ever since. He is very clear that the demons he sees are distinct from the biblical variety, and is precise in his taxonomical categorization and enumeration of their manifold nature (there are exactly 1,567 types). He has been a book dealer in the past, and portrays the trade in much the same grubby, fly-by-night light as Iain Sinclair does (drawing on personal experience) in novels such as White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings and Landor’s Tower. William observes that ‘demons do tend to cluster around the yellowing pages and cracked spines of second hand books’. He makes a considerable amount from selling forged books, made with the help of his brilliant but unstable artistic friend Ian. Ian’s reliability ebbs and flows in accordance with the state of his grand romantic passion for a woman who is not prepared to put up with his manifest demons.

William Blake - The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The money they make goes to the homeless shelter of GoPoint, presumably a variant of the shelter which used to be housed in Centre Point, the modernist monument which towers above the intersection of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street, and which straddles the hellish entrance to the underworld which is Tottenham Court Road tube station. William’s friend Antonia runs the shelter with unswerving dedication. She is always quoting ‘Billy Blake’ at him. When we first encounter her, she greets him with the line ‘he whose face gives no light shall never become a star’. This is one of the Proverbs of Hell, part of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, his own piece of provocative demonology. In Blake’s personal mythology, demonic figures such as his semi-divine characters Los and Orc are embodiments of the fire of creativity and the unfettered imagination, which by its nature is not bound by rules or restrictions. These creative energies arise from the body, which is not distinct from the soul in Blake’s view, and ‘energy is Eternal Delight’. In a section of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell entitled The Voice of the Devil, Blake puts forward his contrary view. He outlines the ‘Errors’ of ‘all Bibles or sacred codes’, in particular ‘that Man has two real existing principles: Viz: a Body and a Soul’, and that the one is good (the soul) and the other evil (the body). Blake’s demons are morally neutral and are not imbued with the taint of inherent evil with which they have been infected over the ages by the more Manichean aspects of Christianity. Blake, still in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, notes of Milton, in relation to Paradise Lost, that ‘the reason (he) wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. William’s demons are also emanations of human energies. As he says of Blake’s angels and demons, ‘some of them were the same ones I was seeing’. His demons of the modern age attach themselves to energies which have turned in on themselves or are misdirected. Thus they are associated with addictions and obsessions, manias and insatiable appetites.

William Heaney’s personal demonology, which has been largely framed by his experiences as a young man at college, casts love as form of possession. An infestation by a particularly virulent and hardy demon which is devilishly difficult to dislodge. He finds himself avoiding it as a result. But there is no doubt that he has a deep love for Antonia. He describes her thus: ‘she stared at me with the eyes of William Blake looking at a seven year old chimney sweep. She is on fire with love. Sometimes I can’t even stand to look at her’. The chimney sweep refers to the two Blake poems called The Chimney Sweeper which appear in contrast to one another in The Songs of Innocence and Experience. In the first, Tom, a benighted child labourer, has a vision of thousands like him who are ‘lock’d up in coffins of black’. He is then visited by ‘an Angel who had a bright key,/ And he open’d the coffins and set them all free’. Antonia is, for William, an angel, a shining beacon of purity and burning integrity in an otherwise grubby world. That he supports her integrity through forgery and deceit is his own skewed way of expiating the evils of the world, along with his own perceived sins. It is an alchemical transformation of sorts. The true demons, in a biblical rather than Blakean sense, are those of greed and power, and the lies and wars which feed them. In a story within the story, we hear the tale of Seamus, a homeless Gulf War veteran who encounters a Middle Eastern dervish in the desert. A local demon. He makes a deal with it to save himself from being blown up by the mine which he has stepped on, and which will kill him if he raises his foot. The demon is permanently with him as a result, and he can never rid himself of its presence. It can manifest itself at any time through any person. He ends up chaining himself to the railings of Buckingham Palace with a home-made bomb, demanding to see the Queen, in whose name he has served his country. All he wants is to make sense of his experience, to be allowed to take his foot off the mine at last; to rid himself of his demon once and for all.

'Los howled in a dismal stupor' - plate 6 of the Book of Urizen
Seamus’ story is part of the strong current of political anger which courses through the novel. At one point, William unleashes a fierce Jeremiad against the corruption and gross inequality of the modern world. He rails against the moral vacuum he sees all around him, the venal behaviour and self-serving ideology of leaders (both temporal and spiritual), media figures, athletes and artists in a passage which burns with disgusted contempt. Government ministers, captains of commerce, religions, football heroes, movie stars and poets are all found woefully wanting. He continues with what reads like a passionate speech, couched in the high rhetorical style of Blake’s prophetic books (such as Milton and Jerusalem), which themselves drew on the language of the Bible. This passage, punctuated with the exclamation of a pulpit thumping preacher, amounts to William’s own Blakean declaration of beliefs. ‘I rage!’ he declares. ‘I do! I rage when I see the lives of ordinary people squandered. The lives of young men and women, weak like me, going under the tidal sludge of drugs spilling across the sink-estates of the nation; the homeless drifting like wraiths; people eating themselves to oblivion and doping themselves with bad television; brave boy soldiers sacrificed in deserts for the ambitions of the insanely rich. I do rage! I weep! To see life held so cheap! And all I have as antidote as I stand lost in the middle of these leaders who are not leaders, these demons hidden in the souls of men and women, are my humanity and my rage’. William eventually discovers that his belief in the veracity of Fraser’s invocation of a demonic force and its terrible effect on those close to him was completely unfounded. He has effectively been living a false existence based on someone else’s story. Similarly, Seamus has been living in a story fabricated by his nation’s governing powers, and simply wishes for it to reach its end. Blake’s exhortation to let loose the creative imagination would have us create our own stories, as well as allowing us to see through those forged by others and sold to us as the truth.

William can’t evade the demon of love forever. It stalks him down in the form of a beautiful young woman who calls herself Yasmin. Antonia has known all along that his view of the world and its demons is a partial one, coloured by his own experience. If the demons which he sees everywhere are aspects of the tormented human soul, then they have their counterparts; angels who perceive that torment and endeavour to alleviate it as best they can. Yasmin had been a resident at the GoPoint shelter, where she had been told of William’s benefactions. Antonia described him to her as their angel. When he had arrived one day, she had said to him ‘you don’t look much like an angel’. Nevertheless, and despite (or perhaps as an unexpected result of) his constant self-excoriation, this is what he is for Antonia, and then for Yasmin too. Blake would probably make no essential distinction between angels and demons. They are emanations of the contrary states of the human soul, and could easily shade from into the other. William has believed himself possessed of a powerful demon, but has acted like an angel (albeit a wayward one who uses demonic means). Antonia had told Yasmin that William ‘sees other people’s suffering. And his own. He sees it as demons. Real demons’. For all her frequent quotations of Blake, she doesn’t share this vision. Perhaps William is mad. If so, it may be a useful madness, an illusory way of seeing the world which nevertheless drives him to do good (some of the milder-mannered atheists might make an analogous apologia for the more beneficent forms of religion).

William Blake - Ancient of Days
Antonia herself is a weary angel, worn down by her tireless work. She becomes very ill, and as she approaches death, she tells Will that she loves him ‘because for you life has never stopped taking your breath away. Because you are generous to all its creatures. You give them a home. But sometimes they don’t want one’. He has never lost the basic state of innocence celebrated by Blake in his Songs. He retains an imaginative openness to the beauty inherent in life, which also serves to power his bitter rage at the forces which would fence it off or pave it over, or poison it with the pretty persuasions of wealth and power. They are the forces which Blake embodies in the form of Urizen, the false demi-god of iron rules which divide and subdivide the unity of creation. He is the Gnostic demiurge, who imprisons us in a deformed subworld forged in his own image. Blake depicts him with the full sweep of Old Testament beard, most famously in the plate Ancient of Days, the frontspiece of his book Europe: A Prophecy. Here, he divides the heavens with his compass, imposing his own rules on this corner of the universe.

William sees demons as parasitical, hovering in wait for a suitable host. Antonia offers a reversed perspective, suggesting that they are actually longing to be allowed to leave the troubled souls who have drawn them in. Angels such as Antonia will help to administer such an exorcism. Yasmin is inspired by William to rebuild her life after she has met him at the shelter. She renames herself to mark her slow rebirth. The near eastern origins of the name she chooses gives a hint of a notional link with the djinn which Seamus had met in the desert. For a while she leads a phantom life, as if watching herself from the outside, acting out another person’s story. She is a ghost of the living, a refutation of Will’s speculation that ‘ghosts are the spirits of the dead…demons, on the other hand, are the spirits of the living’. Yasmin finds meaning and purpose when she meets up with William again. She won’t let him go, no matter how hard he tries to evade her (which is often not all that hard). As she says, ‘you were my angel. Now I’m yours’. And she is a persistent and tenacious angel. Unlike the angel of Blake’s eponymous poem, she is not put of by the ‘ten thousand shields and spears’ with which William ‘arm’d (his) fears’. She keeps returning until finally he lays them to one side and lets her in. Yasmin takes over Antonia’s position at the shelter, with William on hand to support her, financially and emotionally. On Christmas Eve, he sits with the disparate ‘family’ which he has gathered around him and watches the ‘ascent of demons’, a communal letting go which fills the sky with a joyful spiritual firework display which can easily be imagined as a Blake print. Indeed, we can perhaps also imagine a musical accompaniment of the alternative national anthem, which suggests a different vision of national unity than the obeisance to inherited wealth and power and celebration of the established order offered by the official version. Blake’s Jerusalem, from his originally intended introduction to his epic prophetic poem Milton, set to Parry’s stirring music, pledges a personal oath to ceaselessly strive to create an earthly paradise, an utopia which is planned with the boundless energy of the imagination and whose spirit is seeded in the human heart. It is a revolutionary rallying cry for a better world. ‘I will not cease from Mental Fight,/ Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand/ Till we have built Jerusalem/ In England’s green and pleasant land’.

The Windsor Castle
One of the incidental pleasures of the novel is the trawl of its protagonist around some of the more characterful alehouses of the capital. This offers the opportunity for a literary London pub crawl, with each stop having its own accumulation of stories, tall or true. William’s criterion for a good pub is that it should have ‘a shadow’, a sense of a lived past, told through a backlog of tales which layer the locality. Marina Warner wrote an article a while back about the way that inn names used to be markers of hidden local history (you can find it in Iain Sinclair’s anthology London: City of Disappearances). These have been eradicated by the trend towards chain branding, which impose irritating and meaningless quirk of the slug and lettuce variety over the old names which were the key to the genuinely strange and peculiar particularity of place. Michael Moorcock’s Mother London marks the decades of the city through pub name chapter headings. The first pub we follow William into is the Museum Tavern in Bloomsbury. This was apparently frequented by Karl Marx, presumably after a hard day’s work spent craning over books in the British Library which was over the road. We are told that he smashed a mirror on one particularly wild night. The Pineapple in Kentish Town, where William and his fellow losers in love form their ‘Candlelight Club’, ‘attracts an odd mix of trade’, according to the author. It is in fact a grade II listed building, and the Good Beer Guide notes that ‘eccentrics, children and dogs (are) welcome, if kept on a lead’. William doesn’t tell any tales of the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden, which is strange since, according to the Good Pub Guide, it has a particularly colourful store of them. It was known in Regency times as the Bucket of Blood, on account of the bare knuckle fights which took place inside, and the blood and teeth flew outside too, since it is said (and as a plaque now attests) that Dryden was nearly beaten to death in 1679 by thugs hired by the Earl of Rochester as he walked down the alleyway leading to the pub. The Plumber’s Arms in Lower Belgrave Street, Victoria is supposed to have played host to Lord Lucan just before he vanished from the face of the earth. The Viaduct Tavern is ‘an original gin palace’ of the sort which Hogarth, who depicted beer as the patriotic drink of the Englishman, would have regarded as a palace of sin. William says it was ‘built on the site of the old Newgate hanging prison’ with ‘the cellars…former prison cells for the cut-throats and scum of Victorian London’. The French House in Dean Street, Soho comes with a scabrous story involving Dylan Thomas and a pet monkey, whose dubious provenance stands in for the endemic spread of apocryphal mythmaking associated with the bohemian life of this quarter. The Windsor Castle, in the quiet back roads linking Notting Hill and Kensington High Streets, is said to house the bones of Tom Paine, buried in the cellar. The Good Pub Guide adds that they were sold to the landlord by Paine’s son to pay off drinking debts. An ignoble end for a towering figure in the history of English radicalism. I can vouch for the place’s charm. It’s shadowy interior, oak dividing walls with inserted doors which you have to duck to pass through, and high-backed benches facing one another to provide closed off nooks make for a cosy and secret place, shut off from the world outside, in which to enjoy a beer or two. I had a tasty pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord accompanying a delicious plate of sausages and mash topped with leek and onion gravy.

The Cittie of York
The Crown, near 7 Dials in Monmouth Street was formerly known as The Clock House, a criminal haunt of the 1820s when the area was a notorious rookery. William tells us it was home to ‘the worst kinds of pimps and murderers. Here the king of the pickpockets held court and they divided the spoils of any lunatic stupid enough to enter the district after dusk’. The Dove is a 17th century riverside pub which William notes was frequented by Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway. The Good Pub Guide confirms Greene’s fondness for the place, and adds that it is supposedly where Rule Britannia was composed. It was also a favourite haunt of Turner, who painted a view of the Thames from its terrace. Members of the Arts and Crafts movement met there in the Victorian era, too, since William Morris’ house was just a short stroll away. William begins to tell the stories attached to the Cittie of York in High Holborn (just opposite Chancery Lane tube station) but cuts himself short, wearying of his pub guide spiel. He does note that it is ‘one of London’s oldest inn sites’, and describes the ‘gloom of the great hall bar and …the back where there are intimate drinking booths’. It’s been here since 1430, although it became a coffee house in 1695 and was reconstructed by the Victorians using 17th century materials. The Coal Hole in the Strand, near Waterloo Bridge, is said to have been the ‘19th century meeting place of the Wolf Club, an actor’s den of drunks, orgies and loose women’. William also claims that Blake used to live in rooms above. This would presumably be the lodgings in Fountain Court, above what used to be the Fountain Tavern, where he and his wife Catherine moved in 1820. Blake liked to take a pot of porter from one of the neighbouring pubs. After Yasmin has revealed herself to be his redeeming angel, she and William go to the Jugged Hare on Victoria Bridge Road. He describes it thus: ‘We sat under one grand painting depicting old-timers slouched in that very alehouse 100 years ago. The pub was in every sense a fine old historical London ale house. Except that it wasn’t; it was a fake old pub, like so many of them. It was a bank that had recently been converted into a pub. The old timers loafing in the pictures were fakers’. It’s a revelation which reflects on the inauthenticity of so much of modern life, which exists alongside a yearning for that very sense of authentic belonging, of being part of an ongoing story in which you are an active participant.

Gordon's Wine Bar
After such a long time living in an inauthentic hell of which he is the author, William has now been offered, and accepted release. In a book full of fakes and fabrications, who knows how many of the above stories are tall and how many true. William has frequented alehouses throughout the story, but only ever drinks wine. Finally, he ends up in a place which is far more suited to his true character: Gordon’s Wine Bar, where the ‘only serve wine’. Here, ‘the light from the candles doesn’t even penetrate to the dark corners and everyone in the place seems to be engaged in either a tryst or a conspiracy. Samuel Pepys lived in the building in the 17th century; Rudyard Kipling wrote The Light That Never Failed in the parlour above the bar’. One should never mix the hop and grape, but it’s seems like a good place to end a London pub crawl, particularly with Charing Cross station or the Embankment tube but a brief stagger away. It’s appropriate that it takes its place as the last drinking establishment in the book, too. It is run by a family with the surname Gordon, but they are entirely unrelated to the Arthur Gordon who set the bar up in 1890. It is one more piece of forgery and misdirection (although not on the owners’ part, I hasten to add). Of course, the greatest fakery contained in the book is the fact that it is not written by William Heaney at all. It’s author is Graham Joyce (who wrote the wonderful novels The Limits of Enchantment and Facts of Life under his own name) hiding behind the persona of the character which he has created. So William is living in someone else’s story after all. But it is a good story, written by someone who understands him, who is able to inhabit his soul. An alter ego, perhaps. Thanks to Neil for recommending both of these fabulous books, and for providing me with a copy of Memoirs of a Master Forger (a nice new one too!) from his bookshop.