Reading Matters: Rocking Hemingway’s Boat

Ever since I started writing with any degree of seriousness, or even a little before, I’ve been fascinated by interviews with writers about their work – hence the pile of Paris Review single issues and anthologies ever-growing on the shelf. In a few cases, not many, this has spilled over into an interest in their wider lives – biographies, collections of letters, diaries – F. Scott Fitzgerald, D. H. Lawrence, Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf. But, although Hemingway was one of those writers I began reading in my late teens and have continued to do so ever since, I had read very little – A Moveable Feast, his account of the years in Paris, aside – about his life. Not that I was totally lacking in interest, rather I’d presumed the life – the most interesting parts, at least – were there in the work, barely disguised. And, of course, the myth of the man – the macho big game hunter who ended his own life at the end of a shotgun – loomed so large it seemed to rule out the necessity for anything else.

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But then I began to hear good things about a book called Hemingway’s Boat by a former journalist, Paul Hendrickson, who had spent twenty years or more with the Washington Post. Friends whose judgement I trusted – and who were no neophytes when it came to Hemingway – told me what a terrific book it was. And yet … and yet I still hesitated. Some 500-plus pages about a boat?

Except, as I discovered when I finally got around to reading it on a recent holiday in Cornwall, it isn’t really about the boat at all. The sub-title tells it more accurately – Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961. And, in truth, he loved a great deal, often in ways that must have been difficult to withstand, and lost almost everything, including, desperately, agonisingly, his true talent as a writer, the thing that had kept him most afloat.

What Hendrickson does brilliantly – it is a beautifully written, brilliantly crafted book – is to use Hemingway’s undoubted passion for the Pilar – the boat’s name – as a structuring device on which to thread the story – the stories – of Hemingway’s relationships – powerful and all too often powerfully destructive – with those close to him, his wives and sons – especially the sons –  but also those whose contact with him was of a different order: Arnold Samuelson, the aspiring writer who hitched hundreds of miles to present himself at Hemingway’s door and found himself, surprisingly, taken under his wing, and Walter Houk, whose own story is one of the saddest yet most admirable of all.

I hope I’ve made it clear how much I loved this book, from grudgingly setting it aside at night, to the prospect of reopening it with my first cup of coffee the following morning.  It’s led me to begin reading other accounts of Hemingway’s life – currently How it Was, by Mary Welsh Hemingway, the last of his wives – and to order second-hand copies of Hendrickson’s earlier books, including one about the life and work of New Deal photographer, Marion Post Wolcott.

Finally, let me draw your attention to a fine review of Hemingway’s Boat, by Peter Messent, formerly of the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham.

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Reading Matters: The Good Soldiers

I want to say a word to our troops and civilians in Iraq. You’ve performed with incredible skill under demanding circumstances. The turnaround you have made possible in Iraq is a brilliant achievement in American history. And while this war is difficult, it is not endless. And we expect that as conditions on the ground continue to improve, they will permit us to continue the policy of return on success. The day will come when Iraq is a capable partner of the United States. The day will come when Iraq is a stable democracy that helps fight our common enemies and promote our common interests in the Middle East. And when that day arrives, you’ll come home with pride in your success and the gratitude of your whole nation. God bless you.

– George W. Bush, April 10, 2008

Each of the chapters in David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, the account of the fifteen months he spent in Iraq with the 2 – 16 battalion on the outskirts of Baghdad, begins with a quote from the then President of the United States; and, without editorial comment, Finkel shows us, in each chapter,  the changing attitudes and growing incomprehension of the officers and men, their fraying hopes and dogged aspirations, as what is happening on the ground increasingly contrasts with the President’s words. And it only takes a glance in the direction of the evening news to set those remarks into a wider context.

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Geoff Dyer said recently that it was non-fiction books that had made the strongest impression upon him of late, rather than fiction. And it’s the case that many of the qualities we expect from fiction – characterisation, narrative development, tension, surprise – the opening up of a world that is both familiar and strange – are here, but with the added knowledge that what we are reading in these pages does not have its wellspring in the writer’s imagination – though there are times when we might wish that were the case – but from his observation. All right, he has made choices, as any writer does, what to report, what to omit, which conversations to include, which to set aside, but the bedrock here is fact rather than fiction and as such, to my reading at least, it hits all the harder.

And what shines through all of Finkel’s writing, alongside a growing bewilderment of the task these men have been set, is his respect for them, no matter what they say or do – no matter how far their views might stray from what we might presume to be his own – and the respect, the love, they have for one another. So, as you read on, each injury becomes an injury shared; each death, lingering or sudden, a loss that is strongly felt.

I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.

A US Humvee in Iraq. Photo: Jewel Samad

A US Humvee in Iraq. Photo: Jewel Samad

Harvey & Billingham x 2

Those who were at Harrogate recently for the Theakstons’ International Crime Festival and lucky enough (?) to have been in the audience for the final session of the weekend, in which I was interviewed by Mark Billingham about my crime writing career and why I’m bringing it towards an end, seem to reckon, most of them anyway, that it was a pretty okay occasion.

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For those who missed it, I can offer up, via YouTube,  an earlier interview – conversation, really – with Mark, conducted in the old New Cross police station …

And for those who prefer the written word, here’s an interview conducted with Graham Smith of The Crime Squad earlier on that Sunday morning at Harrogate …

Just a word of warning about the latter – it was early in the morning and I probably had enjoyed one (or two) too many Jameson the night before, so my usual off-the-cuff coherence is not always in evidence.

 

Art Chronicles: Mooching Around Tate Britain

Back down in London after a pleasant, eventful and stormy weekend amongst the nation’s crime writers at Theakston’s International Crime Festival in Harrogate – (Sorry, Val McDermid and doubtless others – I should move that apostrophe to the other side of the final S) – and what was I going to with my first morning back in the capital? As it happened, other matters took me out Pimlico way and thus it was more or less decided for me … a visit, far from unusual, to Tate Britain. I was there close enough to opening time to be the first one up the spiral staircase to the newly elevated Members’ Room and the barista’s first flat white of the day, which I enjoyed in peace and tranquility until a fellow member chose to park herself near me and conduct a mobile phone conversation with a presumably deaf friend, detailing the problems, that morning, of changing trains at Wimbledon.

Stopping only to pick up a complaints form, I hightailed it down to the main floor where my eye was caught, quite by chance, by the elongated and superbly controlled explosion of red that is Anthony Caro’s Early One Morning from 1962.

Early One Morning 1962 by Sir Anthony Caro born 1924

‘Early One Morning’ Anthony Caro

Made from steel and aluminium and marking a shift in Caro’s work away from more realistic forms towards abstraction and the strong, flat single colours favoured by the American Abstract Expressionists, it carries with it, nonetheless, echoes of Henry Moore and his sculptures of mother and child.

And this, of course, is one of  the marvels of Tate Britain as it is now hung, step into one of the rooms and an area of British art at a particular period surrounds you; one piece of work leads painlessly, pointedly to another. Beyond the Caro, on the left hand wall, are two of the more famous David Hockneys  – A Bigger Splash and Mr & Mrs Clark and Percy – bisected by a beautiful – joyous, even – John Hoyland, in thrall also to the Abstract Expressionists but none the worse for that, it’s Rothko-like, maybe more Elsworth Kelly-like reverberating red offset by strips of dark green and paler grey.

28. 5. 66 1966 by John Hoyland 1934-2011

’28. 5. 66′ John Hoyland

Continue along the wall and at the furthest end, beyond the arch, is one of Frank Auerbach’s paintings of Primrose Hill – accompanied, it seems, by a persistent bird song that first of all has me looking up at the ceiling to see if one has somehow sneaked in and then draws me through the arch and into the adjoining room, where, beside Michael Andrews’ marvellous Melanie and Me Swimming, a small and old-fashioned looking television screen is showing Gilbert and George’s In the Bush, a blurry piece of video focussed vaguely on said bush, in front of which a figure (or are they figures?) of someone (or ones) seems to be moving. George, perhaps? Or Gilbert? Possibly both. And what are they up to in there? No doubt about the bird though, which, while I can’t identify it’s particular call, just keeps on singing.

'Melanie and Me Swimming'  Michael Andrews

‘Melanie and Me Swimming’ Michael Andrews

Placed just a little further along is Tony Cragg’s Stack, a rectangle of compressed materials – wood, concrete, brick, metal, plastic, textiles, cardboard and paper – which instantly calls to mind  Phyllida Barlow’s gargantuan many-part sculpture, dock, which is currently clambering all over the inside of  the Duveen Galleries – the high-ceilinged, classically proportioned central corridor of Tate Britain – with its wonderfully messy assemblages of timber, card, plasterboard, fabric and polystyrene.

'Stack'  Tony Cragg

‘Stack’ Tony Cragg

Turn away from the Cragg, in fact, step back through the arch and look up past Hoyland and the Hockneys and the Caro and there are the pink, orange and red panels that form one section of Barlows’ work filling the frame and echoing back into the room. Turn again and proceed through the opposite arch,  passing between Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking and Roger Hilton’s exuberant and de Kooning-like (those Abstract Expressionists again) Oi Yoi You and a visual corridor of magnificent earlier sculptures stretches away – from Henry Moore’s Working Model for Unesco Reclining Figure and Barbara Hepworth’s Corinthos to Epstein’s monumental alabaster Jacob and the Angel.

There. An hour, give or take, mooching about Tate Britain. And what delights, what wonders it contains.

 

Art Chronicles: Matisse – The Cut-Outs

Matisse: Icarus

Matisse: Icarus

Back at Tate Modern this weekend for the second look at the Matisse Cut-Outs and yes, they’re glorious, especially when viewed in the sparsely populated first hour allocated to members; glorious in their exultation of colour and rhythm, their understanding of form and space, and yet … yet why do I come away each time harbouring some small but irrepressible feeling of dissatisfaction?

T. J. Clark, in his piece about the show in the June 5th issue of the London Review of Books, points, perhaps, towards the answer when he quotes a letter from Matisse to his daughter, Margueritte, written to her in 1945 when she was recovering from her time in a Gestapo prison in Rennes.

Paintings seem to be finished for me now … I’m for decoration – there I give everything I can – I put into it all the acquisitions of my life. In pictures I can only go back over the same ground.

And going over the same ground, as Matisse explained in a letter to his son, meant pain …

A man who makes pictures … is an unhappy creature, tormented day and night. He relieves himself of his passion in his pictures, but also in spite of himself on the people round him. That is what normal people never understand.

And, after the war, older, infirm, why put yourself through that again? Why not use those skills which, as he says, he has accumulated over a lifetime and put them to lighter, less threatening, more obviously pleasing use? So decorate the walls of your house and studio; the walls and windows and clerical garments of your local church; accept the commission from some rich American to provide artistic decoration for his house and when he rejects it as unsuitable – perhaps the colour ways clashed with the cushions, who knows? – as he does not once but twice, bite your tongue and do it again until finally he’s satisfied. What does it matter, after all? It’s work like much other … not highly personal … not art but decoration …

As Clark says, “only a killjoy … could resist the splendour on the walls,” but with a few exceptions … Zulma, Creole Dancer, Memory of Oceania …there is little that take us beyond our initial pleasure – brilliant, yes, and joyous – and each time we see them it will be the same.

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Matisse: Zulma

Is this something to do with the material used? Paper or card instead of paint? What are the cut-outs, after all, but coloured shapes pretending to be paint because the artist can’t – physically, emotionally – paint any more.

I was thinking of the recent show of paintings by Helen Frankenthaler at Turner Contemporary, where the viewer’s initial response is to colour and form, and the recognition here and there of aspects of landscape and the natural world, but always, I think, beyond that something more, out of reach of our understanding, something that no matter how hard, how often we look, refuses to be pinned down in the way that Matisse’s cut-outs are pinned down.

Paint on canvas doing what paint does, is that all it is?

Amongst the other work on display, there are two paintings … Interior with Black Fern from 1948 and Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table, 1947 … which suggest that might be so. That and the willingness to engage … but after so much challenging work, so long a life, who can blame him for relinquishing the pain while still using those skills he has learned to such formidable effect as this?

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Matisse: Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table

 

Memoir: Back to Schooldays …

… as Graham Parker used to sing, back in ’76, around about the time I exchanged chalk and a metaphorical mortar board for an electronic typewriter and an equally metaphorical Colt .45. A decade earlier, it was late night listening to John Peel, the Beatles and Otis Blue, and I was living in the centre of Nottingham – Castle Boulevard – and driving out each day across the Erewash to teach in Heanor. To be more precise, Langley Mill. The post in which  I describe meeting up again with two former pupils from that school and that time has aroused more interest than most.

Since that meeting, one of the pair, Mel Cox, has written about his memories of those days and, with his permission, I’d like to quote from his letter here:

Although lots of us in 216 were ordinary young adolescent kids at the time, just becoming aware of the opposite sex, pop culture, and the swinging 60’s we were undoubtedly still products of the austere 1950’s.

But then along comes this brilliant teacher, whose class is a safe place to be, and who listens to our opinions. He gives us a confidence and self-esteem. He introduces us to modern poems and stories in understandable language. He gets us to want to act in class dramas, and puts on ‘Androcles and the Lion’ and ‘The Business of Good Government’ as whole school plays. He publishes school magazines with our creative work in them. He organises poetry evenings, and sends off for us for copies of the class bible ‘The Mersey Sound’. He takes us on trips to the theatre, and marks our folders in enviable green-ink calligraphy.

Not only that, he plays us ’Lovely Rita’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘A day in the Life’ and ‘Silence is Golden’ in form time. To parochial working class Derbyshire kids, whose parents all shopped at the Co-op, here was someone who looked like something out of Carnaby Street (or the Bird Cage at least). Corduroy Jacket, PVC mac, flowered shirt, knitted tie and Chelsea boots. We sort of revered him, though we’d never have admitted it. And he was ours you see, and that was really the coolest thing.

I still remember the day almost all of the class left Aldercar in July’67 to go to Heanor Grammar School, and I know that he was leaving that day too. The very last night of term a busload of us went to see ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Nottingham Playhouse. Back at school everyone was saying their goodbyes, some for the summer, some for good. I was choked. The whole 216 adventure had ended, and as form captain he gave me this bitter-sweet memento, ‘Paroles’, by Jacques Prévert.

I felt that the clocks should have been stopped, and that school would never be any fun again.