‘This Side of Paradise’

Sotheby’s newish gallery for showing contemporary art, S/2, rather than being in their main building, is discreetly across from their rear door on St. George Street; still Mayfair, but less obviously so – especially now that Hanover Square, at the head of the street, has been turned into a giant Crossrail excavation site. You can, though, should you wish, approach it from the decidedly posher New Bond Street side, traversing the building and enjoying the whiff of money rising up from prospective buyers seated in the café – vibrant and contemporary, offering superb service, light breakfasts, delicious lunches and traditional English afternoon tea.

The current show at S/2 – a selling exhibition as it notes on the door – is This Side of Paradise, a selection of contemporary European figuration painting curated by Jane Neal. Taking its title – as, presumably, did F. Scott Fitzgerald for his first novel - from Rupert Brooke, the artists whose work Neal has chosen “share”, she says, “a fascination for society and human nature in all its messy imperfection”, and a “paradoxical ‘double vision’” that, like Fitzgerald, takes them “into the very heart of society, while secretly assuming a detached position that allowed them to analyse and criticise those who sustained them.” Perfect for Sotheby’s, then.

Amongst the Germans, Czechs, Moldovans and Romanians – the New Leipzig School and Cluj School are well represented – is the Scottish artist, Caroline Walker, whom I’ve written about on this blog a couple of times before. Walker has three works in the show, two smaller paintings - ‘Between Mirrors’ and ‘The Dance’, and a far larger one, ‘Interval’, which takes its inspiration from Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’. Walker describes it thus …

A female subject, possibly a domestic employee, is standing in the dining room behind the bar. The opulence of the decoration is overwhelming, reducing her to another object, an effect repeated and fragmented through the mirrored surfaces surrounding her. As in the Manet painting, ‘Interva’l is really about looking and the relationship between the viewer and the subject. That’s also true of the other two works I have in the show.

'Interval' Caroline Walker

‘Interval’ Caroline Walker

Recently, Walker has been working from photographs, and had become involved in a project, which, as can be seen, made her a perfect fit for the show …

At the time Jane and I discussed what I would make for the show I was starting to work with photographs I had taken inside a multi-million pound London mansion. The house (complete with plasma screen TVs in every room) embodied the kind of lavish aspirational lifestyle my subjects seem uneasy inhabitants of, and one equally alien to me as an artist, but which could be the house of a potential collector.

'The Dance' Caroline Walker

‘The Dance’ Caroline Walker

It’s great to see the work of an artist whose career I’ve followed since she graduated from the Royal College of Art expand and develop and be a part of shows such as this, even though that means her work is now sadly, for me, priced out of this particular potential collector’s reach. The catalogue is great, though, and, if you ask nicely, it’s free, and the show, which is on till the 2nd of May, is very well worth seeing.

Caroline Walker’s statements are taken from a nice little interview on the Sotheby’s site, which you can find here …

Reading Matters, April 2014

Recently finished :

  • Middlemarch, George Eliot
  • The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer
  • The Black Echo, Michael Connelly
  • The Spinning Heart, Donal Ryan

Currently reading :

  • The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt
  • Y0u’re Looking Very Well – The Surprising Nature of Getting Old, Lewis Wolpert
  • The Fun Stuff & Other Essays, James Wood

Lined up & waiting :

  • Henry James, His Women & His Art, Lyndall Gordon
  • Bedouin Hornbook, Nathaniel Mackey
  • Patient, Ben Watt
  • Look Back in Anger – The Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire 30 Years On, Harry Paterson

New Resnick Story … ‘Going Down Slow’

Going Down Slow EPUB7

Ten years ago, when I was asked by my Finnish publisher for a story to appear in the magazine they were preparing for distribution at the Helsinki Book Fair. A Resnick story it had to be, as those were the books they were publishing, and if I could find room for a little jazz – maybe even a reference to cinnamon buns? The Fins are crazy for cinnamon buns. Oh, and one other thing, no more than 1,000 words. Which would make it a very short story indeed.

I’d thought before of a character called Peter Waites, a miner who had been active in the Miners’ Strike and with whom Resnick had struck up an unlikely friendship, and that friendship became the basis for the story. I managed to squeeze in some jazz, as requested – the story was called Well, You Needn’t, the title of a composition by the pianist, Thelonious Monk – and even the semblance of a plot. Sadly, no room for the cinnamon bun.

Only a little story, but it stuck with me: that friendship stuck with me; little more than a few lines of dialogue, but they rang true. And when, much later, I began exploring the possibility of writing a novel partly set during the Miners’ Strike, I knew Resnick and Peter Waites were going to be at the heart of it, somehow.

The novel, Darkness, Darkness, begins with them, with Resnick on his way to Peter Waites’ funeral, before tunneling back thirty years to when events placed them on diametrically opposite sides of the picket line, opposite sides of the fence. Of all the books I’ve written, I think it’s the one that means the most to me, the one that, to my eyes, comes out best. So when my publisher suggested I write a short story as a kind of prequel, my immediate response was no, sorry I can’t, it’s all there. All there is. But then, gradually, I thought, maybe yes, there is something more, something quite important to say – to show – about the relationship between the two men, and a new story would give me the chance to fill in a little of what had been happening in Resnick’s life, personally as well as professionally, since he last appeared in print.

Thus, Going Down Slow, which not only has references to the Strike and its aftermath, but looks also at one of the other themes of the novel, that of male violence directed towards women, often women with whom the aggressor has been emotionally linked. As an introduction to the novel, I think it works well, and I think – I hope – it’s worth reading in its own right; the pleasure of Charlie Resnick’s company aside, there’s room for more than a smidgeon of plot, even a brief mention of jazz, but sorry, still no cinnamon bun.

The story is available from 17th April and in ebook format only and can be ordered from Random House  or from Amazon UK .



Narrative on My Mind

I’ve been thinking about narrative lately. Partly because if you’ve still got author on your passport, you just do – from time to time, anyway – and more specifically as I’ve agreed to take part in a panel discussion at this year’s Bristol CrimeFest to be chaired by no less august a personage than the current Crime Writers’ Association chair, Alison Joseph, entitled ‘Narrative, Resolution and Crime Fiction’.

I’ve previously mentioned Geoff Dyer’s book on photography, The Ongoing Moment, and reading that alongside re-reading Middlemarch, has been interesting. George Eliot’s way of progressing the storyline, the novel being initially published in serial form, was, essentially, one of carrot and stick, carrot and stick; move one character or pair of characters just so far, bring them to what seems an impasse and leave them there while  you switch the attention elsewhere (leaving us worried about their fate, the meanwhile), then, when you return to them, find a way of moving them on another stage, each small resolution having within it a new problem to be negotiated. Do this with each major character or pair of characters and you have a multi-faceted narrative, complex and richly textured, and, at story level, satisfying.

I’m reminded of those Saturday Morning serials I used to watch as a kid: the hero or heroine left at the end of the episode in what seems to be an utterly hopeless situation; then, at the beginning of the next episode the following week, that scene is repeated with a slight difference, something that had been kept hidden is revealed, allowing the hero/heroine to be saved and the story to progress. It’s how most narrative works, I guess, Middlemarch or Eastenders and, perhaps, crime fiction most blatantly of all.

What Dyer does in his book, and what differentiates it from most discussions of photography I’ve read, is to look at it as a series of narratives in which photographers (knowingly or unknowingly, but mostly the former) converse with one another, constructing as they do so histories of subjects – the chair, the fence, the filling station, the road – that are simultaneously histories of photography and social histories, too.

Some photographers, Dyer suggests, are close to novelists in the narratives the body of their work creates. William Eggleston, for one.

Eggleston’s photographs look like they were taken by a Martian who lost the ticket for his flight home and ended up working at a gun shop in a small town near Memphis.

William Eggleston

William Eggleston

William Eggleston

William Eggleston

And Eggleston himself has said he regards his photos “as parts of a novel [he's] doing”.

William Eggleston

William Eggleston

Dyer makes a comparison between the effect of some of Eggleston’s photographs and the paintings of Edward Hopper, of whom he says:

Hopper could, with some justification, claim to be the most influential American photographer of the twentieth century – even though he didn’t take any photographs.

Hopper’s pictures …

 … tend not to be paintings at all; they are photographs in waiting. They are not only in waiting, they are also of waiting.

Edward Hopper

‘Excursion into Philosophy’ Edward Hopper

That’s why they generate such intense curiosity about what is happening either side of the moment depicted.

As he quotes the poet, Mark Strand, saying …

it is always just after and just before … just after the train has passed, just before the train will arrive.

Edward Hopper

‘ Automat’ Edward Hopper

And Wim Wenders – who knows a thing or two about narrative, to say nothing of photography …

An Edward Hoppper painting is like the opening paragraph of a story.

Edward Hopper

‘Morning Sun’ Edward Hopper

The moment on the cusp of something, some forward movement,  that can, and is, caught in fiction, too. Look at (I mean, of course, literally, read, but given the nature of the piece, the emphasis on light, look seems right) this paragraph from Middlemarch. A Hopper painting, surely, in words. (And, in its final sentence especially, anticipating D H Lawrence, but that’s another discussion, another blog.)

It had taken long for her to come to that question, and there was light piercing into the room. She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond, outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.





iPod Shuffle, April 2014

  1. Elmore James : Let’s Cut It
  2. Petula Clark : If You Think You Know How To Love Me
  3. Art Tatum/Ben Webster : Night & Day
  4. Lyle Lovett : This Old Porch
  5. Tom Rush : (Make Me) A Pallet on the Floor
  6. John Stewart : She Believes In Me
  7. Marin Alsop/Concordia Orchestra : Victory Stride (James P. Johnson)
  8. Lester Young : Afternoon of a Basie-ite
  9. Cilla Black : Anyone Who Had a Heart
  10. Billie Holiday : That’s Life I Guess
  11. The Staple Singers : Respect Yourself
  12. Ron Sexsmith : Broken Hearted People

‘A Taste of Honey’


What became clear, watching the new production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey at the National Theatre, was that most, if not all, of the reasons for reviving the play now are to be found in its past. It was very much a part of the move – in film and fiction, as well as theatre – away from London and the south-east towards the regions, away from upper- and middle-class scenarios towards the working class. And, of course, as Jeanette Winterson (who else?) argues in the programme, it was important that Delaney was not just a working-class writer, but a working-class woman who was also a woman. [A woman who was also a working-class writer? A woman writer who was also working class?]

And, as Winterson says,

Who else, in 1958, was writing about an unmarried pregnant teenager, her gay friend, a gentle sexy black sailor, and a single mother?

Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney

So, for schools and colleges – there in force the evening we went – and students of drama, this is a significant revival. But otherwise … ? God, it’s slow, acres of stage time when nothing much happens – nothing happens to much effect – the dialogue so repetitious, the development so laboured – and it’s hard not to be distracted by the insistent coughing from various parts of the auditorium, the brilliance of the set, the slow ticking of the watch upon your wrist. All of which, presumably, accounts, to some degree, for the nature of Lesley Sharp’s performance as Helen, the mother, a bizarre accumulation of physical ticks and artful poses, the lines delivered in an accent so broad it’s difficult not to get the impression that she’s sending the whole thing up. It’s less a performance than a turn, and the only thing that can be said in its favour, is that without out there would be nothing on stage to catch the attention at all.

Kate O’Flynn, as the teenage Jo, lacks presence – lacks, really, the ability to make us care for her in her situation; Dean Lennox Kelly, as Helen’s boy friend, impersonates a drunk with the finesse of a pantomime dame; and Harry Hepple as Geoffrey makes anyone who saw the movie wish for Murray Melvin.

Jazzin’ it up at The Oxford

Lazy bugger that I am, or am becoming, my visits to the Monday night jazz sessions just down the road at The Oxford are in danger of becoming less frequent than those taken fictionally by Jack Kiley, my north London private eye. Last night, however, prompted by crime fiction expert and jazz aficionado, Bob Cornwell, I prised myself out of my chair and strolled down to see and hear the Hans Koller Quartet with visiting New York saxophonist, John O’Gallagher, and was mighty pleased that I did.

Koller (left) O'Gallagher (right)

Koller (left) O’Gallagher (right)

Intense, thoughtful yet freewheeling, with O’Gallagher’s alto spiralling joyfully over the force field that is Jeff Williams’s drumming, this was, it seemed to me, close to contemporary jazz at its best. Williams – another partly displaced New Yorker – is one of the most exciting drummers I’ve ever heard at close quarters and this set up afforded him ample opportunities for a display of great drive and musicality. O’Gallagher, who has played with many of the major names in Europe and the US, bit down into the music with relish, showing sensitivity where needed, the acoustics of the small room allowing him to play unamplified and thus for the audience to enjoy his instrument’s natural tone.

Memo to self: get down there more often