Thursday, 25 July 2013

Ways With Words: Stuart Maconie, David Kynaston, Carol Ann Duffy and Others

The Dartington Ways With Words festival basked in sunshine for the entirety of its two weeks this year, where last it had remained soggy throughout. The beautiful gardens surrounding the medieval hall and its grey stone wings were scattered with lounging folk, recumbent in Penguin book cover deck chairs (a his and hers choice of The Garden Party and The Big Sleep) or sitting in the shade of the diverse trees bordering the greensward (we found the cool of a spreading mulberry tree). Dartington was never more idyllic.

We went on three days, beginning with the first Sunday, the 7th. In the morning, Emma Carter the Arts Programme Manager for High Cross House, now owned by the National Trust, and the photographer Carol Ballenger, who has taken a series of pictures there for the Design for Living exhibition, talked in the Dukes Room. This is a small hall in the west wing of the Hall quadrangle, which gave me the chance to briefly explore this part of the buildings for the first time. Pictures from the Dartington collection line the cool and shady corridors, and there was a large Indian painting hanging above the stairwell. High Cross House is the modernist residence above the gardens and just over the slope leading down to the village of Dartington and the Cider Press complex of increasingly tourist-oriented shops. High Cross was built in 1932 by the Swiss-born American architect William Lescaze for William Curry, the headmaster of the Dartington Hall school. Carter told us about its history, and about what she and others were doing to keep alive the old Dartington traditions of nurturing modern art within a local community, ideals which the Dartington Trust seems now to have abandoned. There have been residencies and events involving the visual arts, film, poetry, music and dance, and activities which aim to involve schools and the local community. Sadly, visitor numbers have been low, modernist houses losing out to Devon’s stately homes on a list of National Trust members’ priorities, I imagine. The partnership between the Dartington Hall Trust and the National Trust will be dissolved at the end of this year, and the house will be closed to the public once more, which is a crying shame.

Carol Ballenger is a photographer closely associated with Devon. She’s produced projects based around Dartmoor, black and white panoramas and studies of tors against wide-open skies which draw on the work of FJ Widgery (whose work is currently on display in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter); a series taken around Dartington Gardens, capturing the play of seasonal light over its many and varied lawns, glades and groves; and a survey of twelve Japanese gardens in Britain, including the Zen garden at Dartington (whose raked gravel had a guilty trail of footsteps ending in a two footed declivity marking the point at which a parental voice presumably brought this incursion to a sudden skidding halt). Ballenger cited three artists who have been a particular influence on her work. The photographer William Eggleston showed how colour could be used as part of a composition, black and white having been the default option for art photography up until that time. He also demonstrated that nothing was too insignificant to be used as subject matter, and that photography could take on some of the qualities of abstract art. Dan Flavin’s neon sculptures showed the play of coloured light within an interior space. And the land art and sculptural architecture of James Turrell, with its empty rooms acting as viewing spaces from which to gaze up at skies framed in open rectilinear roof windows, showed how interior and exterior spaces could be balanced in harmonious contrast.

My photo of Henry Moore's sculpture in Dartington Gardens
Ballenger’s work captures the quality of light playing within the various spaces within High Cross House, and in doing so illustrates how the house was designed to harness those very qualities. Both interior and exterior also interact with the surrounding landscape, the trees and the sky. The white surfaces of the curving walls are contrasted with one façade painted blue, and Ballenger shows how this is optimistically designed to be congruent with the cerulean of summer skies. Shots which combine interior detail with window vistas combine cool white spaces with the greens or browns (depending on the season) of the chestnut trees bordering the garden. Reflections are caught on the polished surface of Dorothy Elmhirst’s old piano, bringing the exterior inside, framed within its curved wooden lobe. A photograph taken upstairs views the green exterior through one of the porthole windows, which is set to one side of the composition, a circle at the edge of a blank white space. It’s reminiscent of one of Ben Nicholson’s abstract Construction reliefs from the 30s and 40s, which also seemed to draw on the play of light within white-walled modernist interiors. Ballenger also veers towards abstraction in a number of photographs which take a close-up view of wall spaces, the dividing lines of cornices, or wall and ceiling angles creating light-softened linear patterns which frame areas of glowing luminosity and blurred shadow. Elements of colour enter, with the yellow of in which some of the walls are painted forming patches of primary brightness which seem to distil the sunshine.

Later in the afternoon, we went to hear Stuart Maconie in the grand medieval hall. He was ostensibly there to talk about his new book The People’s Songs, whose subtitle, The Story of Britain in 50 Records, sums up its intent. This is post-war social history seen through the lens of popular music and culture. As he pointed out, it was very much not a top 50 hit singles selection. The songs included in the book are intended to reflect the changes in post-war culture, and people’s personal experience of the zeitgeist. These are songs which were popular because they spoke to that experience. Someone wrote to Maconie complaining about the lack of any Joy Division, which he politely pointed out was massively missing the point. Moody coolness is not an issue here. Some of the songs may indeed by excruciating, but they were genuinely popular beyond narrowly prescriptive tastes of a hip coterie, and the reason for that popularity provides the perfect opportunity for the construction of a patchwork social history.

Maconie used his PC tablet (or somesuch) to play extracts from some of the songs in the book as a preface to talking about the aspects of British life which they voiced, with whatever degree of sophisitication, emotiveness or simple singalong catchiness. This was probably the only time I’ll be likely to hear the opening strains of Y Viva Espania or Wannabe rising to the oak beamed ceiling, more accustomed to absorbing the esoteric or high cultural sounds of classical music and the likes of Ravi Shankar, Keith Tippet and the Dufay Collective. Those songs relate to the increased access to foreign travel and package holidays which the wider populace enjoyed in the 70s and the rise of a generation of young women in the 90s who wanted to have as much fun as the lads. Other songs we heard little snippets of spoke of other things. Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill, which felt a bit more at home in these environs, was a paean to getting together in the country which expressed the enduring British sense of the rural or wild landscape as a place in which to escape the pressures of the city and the daily grind and gain a greater sense of perspective on life. The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now was a rallying call to the outsiders on the other side of the divide of the affluent, acquisitive 80s, and marked a period in which indie music stood for a literate, witty, ironic and defiantly non-macho response to the times. Black Sabbath’s Paranoid was a manifestation of a different sort of rebellious subculture, the heavy metal of industrial cities like Birmingham and Sheffield which has remained resistant and indifferent to the tides of fashion and cool. It gave Maconie the opportunity to come out with some very funny Ozzy Osbourne stories (his innocent contretemps with outraged authorities at the Alamo and his crossdressing in the name of booze), which were well known but always worth the retelling. Other songs were more directly related to particular historical moments. The Beatles’ She Loves You symbolised the whole unfolding of a youthful, optimistic spirit full of the sense of new, expansive possibilities. Maconie saw this in the sheer happiness of Ringo Starr’s countenance as he sat behind his drumkit, which seemed to encapsulate the exhilaration of what seemed like a new dawn, some momentous generational shift.

Mention of the Beatles was the perfect excuse for Maconie to relate a passage from his first semi-autobiographical book Cider With Roadies in which he tries to glean information from his mother about the Beatles concert she took him to when he was a little boy, and which he can therefore proudly boast as his first gig. Her wandering divagations, taking in the state of health of various relatives and a precise itemisation of everything young Stuart ate before or after the show, and at which cafés (whose geographical locations are triangulated with pinpoint accuracy), are related in a hilarious, breathless rush. According to Maconie, this conversational orbiting around the point in question is a peculiarly Northern trait. He is still none the wiser about what The Beatles concert was like. Y Viva Espana leads to another such transcription (presumably printed with parental authorisation) of a comprehensively vague telephone description of everything but the requested memories of Blackpool holidays taken from Pies and Prejudice, his cultural travelogue of the North. These were perfect examples of the way in which author readings can really being written passages to life.

Rather less edifying than She Loves You, D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better served as an anthem marking what appeared at the time to be another moment at which the boundaries dividing epochs were crossed, as new Labour swept into power after 18 years of new Conservative rule. Nobody in the hall was able to identify the intro to the song, since the chorus is everything here, the mantra which was endlessly repeated like an irritating advertising slogan which gets stuck in your head. Maconie had a delicious anecdote about an encounter with Peter Mandelson in which a telephone call aside, dealt with swift and commanding efficiency, served to affirm the dark lord of total media control he had just been assiduously refuting. You can find out what Mandelson said in the Things Can Only Get Better section of The People’s Songs, as well as in his previous book Hope and Glory (well, a good anecdote’s worth repeating). Hope and Glory is another excellent survey of British culture, this time spanning the twentieth century and focussing on significant events and the places in which they took place, or which best embody their spirit.

Maconie’s experience as a broadcaster was evident throughout in his effortless and relaxed command of his audience. It must have been enjoyable for him to have a direct and enthusiastic response from people who were immediately present, as opposed to the invisible and geographically scattered listenership of his radio shows, whether alone or with Mark Radcliffe (whose name he affected to forget at the start and finish of his talk).

On Wednesday evening, David Kynaston and Rupert Davenport-Hines shared the stage to discuss British society, politics and history in the late 50s and early 60s. Kynaston’s grand, ongoing post-war history which will span the period from 1945-1979 has now reached the last years of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s (the MacMillan era, essentially) in the latest volume, Modernity Britain. He told us that this was intended as a people’s history (to use that devalued possessive noun), told from the bottom up using diaries and mass observation records to give an impression of historical events and aspects of society as experienced by ordinary citizens. Kynaston used the dispiriting language of market economics, describing it as a history seen from the perspective of the ‘consumers’ rather than the ‘producers’. There was a sense of connection between his project and Maconie’s cultural history told through the lens (or speaker) of the people’s songs. This comes through to an even greater extent in the People’s Songs radio series on Radio 4, which he narrates from a discrete distance, allowing those for whom the music had particular meaning to tell their own stories.

I know Rupert Davenport-Hines through his book on Gothic, whose subtitle, Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin displays a relish for the sensational and scandalous, and suggests he is writing for a popular readership beyond the sober walls of the academy. His latest book, An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, looks at the archetypal scandal of the 60s, and the social milieu from which it emerged and grew in emblematic significance. Like She Loves You, the Profumo affair seemed to embody the changing values which would categorise the ensuing decade – the greater openness about sex and the breaking down of old class divisions. The convergence of politics and pop culture is cleverly captured in the refrain from the Pet Shop Boys’ song Scandal, which pinpoints the spirit of the times by reminding us ‘Please Please Me’s number 1’. The Profumo affair brought all levels of society into contact, either directly or indirectly. Political and diplomatic classes found themselves linked (or sought that link) with working class women, aristocrats, West Indian immigrants, doctors and performers, all under the watchful scrutiny of the secret services and the press. Davenport-Hines emphasised the key role of the police and the newly emergent tabloid press in stoking up controversy and inventing crimes where none really existed. He was particularly insistent upon the fact that Christine Keeler never had an affair with the Russian naval attaché and Soviet spy Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, an inconvenient fact which would reduce the entire affair to complete redundancy. He exhibits particular sympathy for Christine Keeler, whom he sees as being a victim of social and sexual hypocrisy. Indeed, the view of society which is refracted through the growth and nurture of the scandal is a bleak one, with individuals such as Keeler, Stephen Ward, John Profumo and even Harold Macmillan at the mercy of venal, puritanical and corrupt forces.

Davenport-Hines gives the impression of being an old-fashioned aristocratic conservative, who has great sympathy with outsiders and those who are different, but regrets the dismantling of the old order, with its ties of ancestry and tradition. Clearly someone who relishes blue-blooded eccentricity, he expressed sadness over the democratisation of the Conservative selection process for parliamentary candidates in the 50s, claiming that it ushered in a new generation who were unremarkable and ‘dull’. Kynaston also seemed to share something of an anti-modernist stance, particularly as regarded the architecture and planning of the time, which sought to build the new modernity Britain. He singled out Basil Spence’s Hutchestown C tower blocks in Glasgow, which were commissioned by the Glasgow Corporation in 1959 and completed in 1965, when the first residents moved in. They weren’t adequately maintained, however, and swiftly deteriorated. In 1993, the entire development was razed to the ground, meaning that this symbol of a new rationally planned age lasted a mere 28 years. Presented in such stark terms, modernist mass housing does appear to have been an unmitigated disaster, rejected by public and governing bodies alike. But the reality is, as ever, more complex, and with blocks of ‘luxury’ flats rising from every empty space alongside city railways, rivers and old industrial sites, it’s clear that the old solutions have not entirely been discredited (although the architecture is now determinedly and unthreateningly nondescript). They’re just better marketed now. And for the big money buildings, high-rise modernism never went away, as the Gherkin and the Shard amply demonstrate.

Both Kynaston and Davenport-Hines were wary of an uncritically nostalgic view of the late 50s and early 60s as being a time of greater community. Whilst there was an element of truth to this commonly outlined picture, they conceded, they pointed to a less idyllic undercurrent of violence and coercive conformity, a suspicion of conspicuous difference, which also existed in such closeknit neighbourhoods. They both had memories from their respective public schools (thus not necessarily directly relevant to the matter at hand) of regular floggings, which Davenport-Hines claimed to have not really minded, possibly giving an insight into his reasons for writing a book called Vice. They also both suggested that the gulf between sexes was as significant a social division as that between the classes. Davenport-Hines recalled that the women he knew at that time were all really interesting, whilst the men were generally ‘pigs’. For all Kynaston’s dedication to a democratic historical perspective, and Davenport-Hines’ interest in the marginalized and non-conformist elements of society, the discussion kept getting drawn back within the reassuringly familiar walls of Westminster village (this partly due to the direction of the host’s questioning). It seems that historians are naturally more comfortable within this standard framework of history – the story of the ‘producers’.

The gothic strain continued on the following Sunday at 2.45 in the Dukes Roon, where Nick Groon, professor of English literature at Exeter University, gave an overview of the movement in all its intertwining historical, political and cultural aspects. On a dazzlingly bright day, the curtains were drawn to create as much gloom as possible within the old medieval room (powerpoint slides were involved), which had taken some finding via a labyrinth of stone corridors. Indeed, at one point I almost strode through the artist’s entrance into a full and anticipatory Great Hall. On the wall beside us was John Piper painting of a ruined abbey, which set the mood perfectly. Davenport-Hines’ book on the subject is cited in Groom’s book on the Gothic, part of the compact ‘A Very Short Introduction to…’ series. Groom strained at the limits of his short given time-span, trying to race through a fascinating history which took us from the Visigoths and the sack of Rome through to the Fields of Nephilim. He placed the term within a tradition of opposition and outsider status, changing in emphasis over the years, often introduced by others in a derogatory sense. It was used in this regard to retrospectively dismiss medieval architectural styles in an age when ordered classicism, allied with a rationalist worldview, was in vogue. In Britain, this also raised Catholic spectres in the post-Reformation and Civil War periods.

Gothic literature went hand in hand with the revival in and picturesque reinvention of gothic architecture, the ruination and disorder of time and history now incorporated to give an impression of a re-emergent past. Horace Walpole built his Strawberry Hill mansion in the style, complete with hidden grottoes, and wrote The Castle of Otranto using its spaces as an imaginary locus for fevered, violent and supernatural happenings. This established the classic template for the gothic novel, the elements of which Groom clearly itemised (disorder and ruin, excess in style and plotting, the incursion of the supernatural, a concern with blood and ancestry and so on). Dracula was the apotheosis of 19th century British gothic (although it was, of course, written by an Irishman) and became the ur-text for further revivals in the twentieth century. We rushed through the re-emergence of gothic in the twentieth century in the cinema, fostered to a great extent by German film-makers and technicians fleeing the rise of Nazism. There was a perfect illustrative still of Murnau’s Nosferatu framed within the pointed arch of a gothic doorway which indicated the continuity of the form. Groom finished with a picture of Sophie Lancaster, the young goth girl who was kicked to death by a brutish mob of morlocks whilst trying to protect her boyfriend from their blows. The gothic was still an outlook and style associated with outsiders and those who self-consciously opposed the accepted norm, he suggested, and thus challenged us to choose where our sympathies lay.

The festival reached its climax on Sunday night with Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson reading and playing to a packed Great Hall. Sampson began proceedings, playing the first of a number of early music instruments which ranged from tiny sopranino recorders, through crumhorns and baroque fanfare trumpets to a Chinese wind instrument which produced delicate and sinuous lines echoing the intonations of the language. An amiable, bearded Scotsman, he imbued everything with an affable humour, making light of his offhand virtuosity. Elizabethan songs were followed by baroque outbursts, which led on to Scottish folk tunes and comically absurd compressions of Mozart symphonies. For the latter, he donned an appropriate period wig, the more fully to channel the spirit of Wolfgang Amadeus. At one point, he played harmonised lines on two recorders at once, a little like a Renaissance version of Roland Kirk’s similar feats on his saxophones. Sampson’s delightfully playful selections acted as interludes between Duffy’s readings. ‘The Queen gave him to me’, she remarked after his opening salvo. ‘She didn’t want him any more’.

Carol Ann Duffy read poems from her three most recent collections, progressing through them in chronological order. Each was neatly bookended by Sampson’s musical interventions. The poems of The World’s Wife present the imaginary perspectives of the spouses of the ‘great men’ whose deeds and philosophies fill the pages of history and literature. These are female (and often feminist) recastings of familiar stories and myths, many drawing on or influenced by the knowing manipulation of old mythic material in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. By adopting the silent viewpoints of the unnoticed, unremarked and unwritten (and still unnamed) other halves, Duffy also gains an ironic and reflective distance from the subject in question and all that he stands for. Duffy is a poet who has always made efforts to reach out to a broad audience, dispelling the form’s image as an esoteric and elitist pursuit by engaging in many and various educational endeavours (in addition to the children’s books which she writes). She didn’t assume familiarity with the myths these poems invert and cast in a newly refracted light. She set the scene for each by giving us a brief précis of the relevant parts of the story, the key elements of the plot. These are in fact twice told tales in verse form, and thus benefit immensely from a dramatic reading. The poems all have a first person perspective, allowing Duffy to inhabit the roles in the old bardic fashion.

In Mrs Faust, the alchemist becomes a latterday embodiment of the relentless pursuit of wealth, status and power – a scholar become yuppy. It’s a story with a sting in the tail, Faust’s wife providing an arch punchline which allows him a last laugh, albeit a hollow one, as he is dragged through the expensively tiled floor. Darwin’s Wife is little but a set up and punchline, as Duffy admitted, but it’s a good one, and won a big laugh. Mrs Tiresias is based around the Greek myth of the man who accidentally came across Athena bathing in the woods, and was subsequently ‘cursed’ to live for seven years as a woman. It’s a complex reflection on the experience of being a woman in the world, perspectives folding in upon each other as a we hear the voice of a woman who observes a man she knows intimately discovering his new female form whilst retaining his male mindset. His loud complaints about his first period, and insistence on having ‘full-paid menstrual leave’, raised an uproariously affirmative roll of laughter from the women in the audience – a more diluted, chagrined one from the men. The ambiguous ending, with its lack of definite resolution, left everybody in suspense, and was greeted with a murmur of puzzlement rather than applause. It was as if they were all waiting for the story to be continued. The poem’s full title is in fact ‘from Mrs Tiresias’, suggesting that it is intended to be seen as a fragment. The ambiguity is that of the unanswered and unanswerable question. Mrs Midas is forced to assiduously avoid her husbands touch once his golden wish has been granted. She rebuffs his advances and keeps him at a distance, remaining ever warily vigilant in his presence. The story could be read as a metaphor for domestic abuse. Mrs Midas tries to avoid becoming a literal trophy wife, the gilded sculptural possession of a wealthy man, drained of spirit and identity.

Duffy’s next collection, Rapture, was much more concise in form, a concision extending to the (mostly) one word titles. If the poems of The World’s Wife carried a mythic charge and were filled with storytelling verve, those from Rapture try to convey a direct emotional expression of particular moments in the course of a deep and all-consuming love affair. After imagining the feelings of remote characters, this is the personal, heartstone stuff. Duffy read her selections in the chronological order in which they were published, this chronology charting the progression from initial intoxication through settled devotion to final disillusionment. The poem Text conveys both the intimacy and inadequacy of communicating real feeling via mobiles, whilst Row lends a lovers’ rift the subjective sense of universe shattering catastrophe. Tea evokes the simple contentment found in comforting domestic ritual, and Syntax summons up the classical language of love, the rounded diction of thees and thous seen as better suited to the sound of the heart’s desires.

The most recent collection, The Bees, is a more diverse selection, with no obvious unifying theme. Bees act as a central metaphor, and there is an underlying sense of political and ecological urgency. Politics becomes a soul-shrivelling curse word in one poem, although that wasn’t read out tonight (it would have been good to have heard spat out with the required bitterness and contempt). Shakespeare is an abiding presence, with allusions to his work scattered throughout, his poetic language providing the foundations on which to build. Duffy referred to him on several occasions, underlining what an inspiration he remains for her. ‘Mrs Schofield’s GCSE’ names the exam invigilator whose wandering gaze fell on one of Duffy’s poems included on the paper. With too much time to let alarmist thoughts propagate and grow in her idle mind, she came to the conclusion that it amounted to an incentive to knife crime. I’m guessing that the offending poem was Education for Leisure from Duffy’s debut 1985 collection Standing Female Nude. Shakespeare’s unassailable (particularly at GCSE level) authority is summoned, creating a fast cut edit of scenes involving blades or stabbings, all posed in the form of exam questions. It’s a spirited riposte which demands that poetry (even, and in particular, that read in schools) should be allowed to make humanity, in all its guises, its subject; even if that subject is not always pretty or easy to understand.

My window seat view for Carol Ann Duffy
Virgil’s Bees introduced the theme of the bee as a symbolic embodiment of a lost Arcadia, and of humanity’s disconnection from the natural world of which it’s a part. Cast in the form of a blessing, St Francis style, this fulfils Duffy’s oft-posited equation of poetry with prayer. She ended with the firmly stated admonition ‘guard them’, an amen as commandment. The Human Bee extended the metaphor to the human drones of the global marketplace, labouring from dawn to dusk until their lives are spent. She told us that this poem was inspired by stories of Chinese workers pollinating fruit trees by hand, the population of bees no longer being sufficient to accomplish this by natural means. The Counties was a nostalgic ‘list’ poem, whose antecedents, such as Edward Thomas’ Adlestrop and WH Auden’s Night Mail, Duffy acknowledged in her introduction. The poem was a response to the post office’s ‘rationalising’ intent to dispense with counties from the standardised address, making do with little more than a name, street and postcode. Her litany of Essex girls, Shropshire lads, Lancashire lasses and Bedfordshire aunts underlined the importance of place and the distinctive, associative character of locality to the national psyche. Like Night Mail, it has irresistible, incantatory rhythm which demands to be read out.

Two poems reflecting on the death of her mother were almost unbearably personal, but also distilled universal truths of great emotional power from painful experience. Water recalls her mother’s last word and turns its simple, thirsty request into a symbol of sacred maternity, making a connection with her own bearing of a glass of water to her daughter in the depths of the night. Premonitions reverses the arrow of time so that the final impression of a hollowed out stranger left by the decline into death is erased, life and vitality is returned, and a portrait of a loving, vivacious mother restored. During this final poem of the evening, which would have been difficult to follow on from, John Sampson introduced a discrete and restrained counterpoint on tenor recorder, words and music gently converging in the end. A poem about death might seem like a gloomy choice with which to end a performance, and indeed a festival. But it is really an affirmation of life, and of a mother’s love, and left us with a feeling of exhilaration. The diverse age range of the audience in the hall testified to the broad appeal of Duffy’s verse, and the direct connection with the heart that this poem makes, its communication of universal experience through resonant, powerful and particular images, symbols and metaphors makes it clear why she is so popular with so many.

1 comment:

Keith Seatman said...

Great post. Have read a couple of Stuart Maconie's books (Hope and Glory and Adventures on the High Teas) and have been following The Peoples Songs.
Would love to have attended this talk. Thanks for posting this.