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.

Memoir: Thomas Harvey 1906 – 1984

My dad died thirty years ago today …

Early JBH.IMG

Sunsets

“Grandad looks like John Wayne,”
my daughter said, pirouetting away.

In the westerns I wrote he filled in corners –
the stage coach driver, the friendly sheriff
with spreading paunch and bowed back,
his holstered gun never drawn in anger,
yet stubborn as a mule when the chips were down.

In photographs he holds me high above
his head like a talisman: pride bright
in his blue eyes I could never fulfil.

Writing, he stands between my sentences:
bits of a life that catch like grit in the mouth.
Once I ran, sobbing, after him until, reaching
down, he swung me, safe, in his arms.

He stands in all the doorways of my childhood.
Stands for my meanness, my grudging thanks,
those shifts of direction which push him
further and further behind.

Driving home to visit I’d passed him
on the road before I realised, stooped
and suddenly slow, one leg turned sideways,
an old man I’d failed to recognise.

Laughter and meaning clogged thick in his lungs:
they moved him to a private room and fitted
a green mask fast over his face; each breath
rattled dry stones along the bed of his throat,
his mouth peeled back and back
until it disappeared.

Yet a week or so before he died,
the old smile alive for a moment in his eyes,
he beckoned the prettiest nurse and as
she bent to catch his words,
nuzzled the hard plastic of his mask
against her face to steal a kiss:
an act of imagination great
as any John Wayne ever made.

Early JBH.IMG_0005 2

Apples

My father is dying.
Scent of apples from the night stand.
I reach out my hand and rest one
hard against my face; he taught me
to tell the real thing from the fake:
hold it close beside the ear and shake.
A genuine Cox, the seeds will rattle
loose inside their case.
You see. He told me
and I swallowed every word by rote.
Five cotton towns of Lancashire,
five woollen towns, four rivers
that flow into the Wash – Witham,
Welland, Nen and Great Ouse.
Once learned, never forgotten.

My father is dying.
He died nine years ago this June.
They phoned from the hospital with the news.
His face a cask once used
for storing living things.
A cup of tea, grown cold and orange,
on the stand beside the bed.
Fingernails like horn, unclipped.
Though dead, my father is still dying.
Oh, slowly, sure and slow as the long fall of rain.
I reach out again for the apple
bright and sharp,
safe inside the hollow of my mouth.

Hopper Poems

I took this photograph earlier this year, wandering around the area behind Old Street Station, and something about the colour, the angle, the light and shadow – the ‘blindness’ of it – reminded me of the paintings of Edward Hopper …

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… which, in turn, reminded me of this pair of poems, based on Hopper paintings, which appear in my New & Selected Poems, Out of Silence, now available from Smith/Doorstop Books or InPress Books.

COUPLES

1. Edward Hopper: “Room in New York”, 1932

With one finger she picks out the tune
the way her mother showed her,
slow afternoons when the dogs lay aside
their indifferent barking and moths
hung sleeping from the inside of the blinds;
distant rattle of ice inside her mother’s glass
and whatever burned inside her
cold water and calamine could not touch.
In the close air of the apartment she has been
thinking more and more of those times.
The newspaper rustles behind her, whatever
her husband is reading commands his attention.
Although he has loosened neither
waistcoat nor tie, the yellow distemper
of the walls has begun to sweat.
The red dress she is wearing
has a bow bunched high at its back,
like a flower that once, petal by petal,
he would have reached out and unfastened
before her mirrored eyes.
His shirt so white that to turn and look
at it would be to be blinded by the moon.

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2. Edward Hopper: “Excursion into Philosophy”, 1959

He has been reading the Tractatus, Wittgenstein,
the footnotes make him laugh; the book open
on the bed, the blue divan. How to explain
the duality of grief and joy, relief and guilt.
The way her breathing, as she lies behind him,
legs drawn up, exposed, her back
not quite touching his, touches his heart.
They have been together fifteen years
and he believes that is enough.
The sun burns low along the ripening wheat
that looks like the wheat in the painting by Van Gogh,
the postcard she bought him that day in Portland, Maine,
and told him if he ever left her she would truly die.
He picks up his book and begins again to read,
but sets it back down, drawn to the window by the sun,
the sound of a meadow lark in the field.
The only signs in the morning they were there
will be her red hair, snagged at one corner
of the pillow; the slight impression, fading,
on the mattress where they lay.

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Five Best Resnicks

Not content with writing a lengthy appreciation of the Charlie Resnick series and my work in general, Michael Carlson has also chosen, for the Good Reads web site, his favourites from the 12 novels. Here they are …

If you’re coming to Darkness, Darkness as your first Resnick, I envy you, because you have the whole series to work through. I’d go beginning to end, without waiting a year at a time for the first ten, then ten years for the next, but if you insist on the highlights, try these five:

1. Lonely Hearts (1989)

The first, and still one of the best. Introduces and establishes his unique character in a novel that the Times called one of the 100 best crime novels of the century. It’s the book where Harvey finally relaxed from his feverish pace of writing, and gave his characters and setting more depth, and the result was stunning.

2. Wasted Years (1993)

In which a series of brutal robberies for Charlie to face events from ten years before: an incident he’d tried to forget, and a marriage he’d lost.

3. Still Water (1997)

Perhaps the best illustration of the way Harvey uses the criminal investigation to mirror the lives of his characters. A woman’s body found floating in a Nottingham canal reminds Resnick of a similar killing that dragged him from a Milt Jackson concert many years before. And the nature of the sex crimes reflects the relationship problems of some of the detectives involved.

4. Last Rites (1998)

In its own way more elegiac than Darkness, Darkness, as Resnick deals with two drug gangs involved in a turf war, and pursues an escaped murderer, and tries to protect his sister. It’s a novel about the things love forces us to do, and about the loss of such love.

5. Darkness, Darkness (2014)

Alone after the death of his partner Lynn, Resnick is presented with a thirty-year old murder which took place in the midst of the violent chaos of the miner’s strike, forcing him to revisit those times while trying to solve the murder today

And if you have already read Darkness, Darkness, then treat yourself to at least one non-Resnick novel: In A True Light (2001), the story of Sloane, an art forger, which encompasses abstract expressionism, jazz, family relations, and a man finding himself all in one perfectly formed novel.

 

 

Memoir: Looking Back

After a couple of more crowded, slightly hectic sessions, last Friday night at Derby Waterstone’s was a relaxed affair; twenty, twenty-five or so people seated in a curve of chairs three or four rows deep; I’d read a couple of extracts from the new novel, a poem too, taking questions and talking as it went along. How come, one of the men at the back asked, you came to Nottingham, and I explained that having just trained as a teacher, along with some friends I was looking for a cheaper city to live and work in than London. This was back in the mid-60s: some things don’t change all that much. We found somewhere to live in Nottingham, I explained, but not jobs, so we all ended up teaching outside the city. Well, the questioner said, you taught me. Where, I asked, knocked out of my stride. Heanor Aldercar, he said – you taught both of us – indicating the man sitting next to him.

Heanor Aldercar Secondary School, Langley Mill, Notts. I taught there for three years, leaving in the summer of 1967.

I’m struggling a little to come to terms with this while Mel – that’s who they are, Mel and Dave – while Mel is telling everyone of the time I came into their English class with the record player and got them to listen to this new album by the Beatles, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And now he’s holding up a small square book that I recognise straight off as the City Lights edition of Prevért’s little sequence of poems called Paroles. ‘You gave me this,’ Mel says. ‘Look, your name’s in it.’

Forty seven years ago.

When the more formal part of the evening is done with they come over for a chat. As soon as he gets close I can recognise Mel’s boyhood face not quite hidden in the middle-aged one he has now: Mel is Melvyn  Cox – I can’t place Dave, and I apologise for this, but Melvyn, yes. And he’s brought another book with him, Penguin Modern Poets No. 10: The Mersey Sound. You got us all to buy these, you remember? It’s his name he shows me inside the cover this time, along with the date.

We talk for another five or ten minutes, no more: the shop staff are waiting to clear up and I have a train to catch. Time enough to learn that in what they describe as a pretty rough school I did all right – and to learn my nickname at the time – Slim Jim – it could have been a lot worse. I tell them when I’m next reading in the area and Mel says he might just come along. We shake hands and they’re on their way. That book, I think, that little book of poems, he’s kept it forty seven years. I’m moved almost beyond words; moved in a way that, beyond the facts of what’s happened, I’m finding difficult to explain.The shop manageress offers me a glass of wine. And then I’m thinking about it all the way back down to London on the train.

What I was able to do, once home, was dig out some photographs, just a few, of one of the classes I taught at Heanor Aldercar – and, although I can’t be absolutely certain, I think that’s Melvyn Cox in the bottom one, the lad in the back row, sitting up straight and staring straight ahead.

Heanor Aldercar School

Heanor Aldercar School

Heanor Aldercar School

Heanor Aldercar School

Heanor

Heanor Aldercar School

Before writing this post, I dug out a message I had from another former pupil at the same school who contacted me in 2008. I hope he won’t mind me quoting some of what he said :

Dear John

You turned my life around … At the time we met I was off the rails (but) you put me back on them. Tom Cooke (the headmaster) had me down as a loser which I was before you.  … I am now retired from the Fire Brigade after 34 years, reaching the post of Divisional Officer … As well as teaching me English you believed in me and taught me about social history and so much more. I have a lot to thank you for. Hope you are OK.

One of the particular things he remembered from those English classes was a 19th century folk song, Blackleg Miner, and I’m thinking of the appropriateness that finds that song and its sentiments near the beginning of my working life and how I’m ending another line of work with a book about the Miners’ Strike.

Thinking also that if I were beginning my career as a teacher of English and Drama now I would never have the freedom I had then to choose what we would read and listen to, study and enjoy, and to choose it  a way that merged my students’ developing interests and enthusiasms with my own.

 

The Downbeat Beauty of John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick

Michael Carlson – writer, critic, sports journalist and cultural commentator – has written a generous piece about the Resnick books and my work more generally. This is his introduction, from his blog, Irresistible Targets. It is, without doubt, one of the most pleasing considerations of my work that I’ve seen and I’m grateful to Michael for it. I’d urge anyone interested in the Resnick books, or the wider aspects of my writing, to give it a little time.

I’ve written a heartfelt appreciation of John Harvey, and his best-known character, Charlie Resnick on the occasion of the publication of the 12th, and apparently last, Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness. You can find the piece at the Windmill Books website, here, and I’d suggest reading all the way to the end, and following the link to the wonderful John Coltrane version of Tadd Dameron’s ‘Good Bait’, to which I refer in the text (Resnick prefers Eric Dolphy’s version, by the way). Ave et vale, Resnick.

Art Chronicles: Nottingham Contemporary

 

Saturday morning, with the sun shining despite forecasts of day-long rain, I went along to Nottingham Contemporary to see their current exhibition, Somewhat Abstract, a selection of work from the Arts Council Collection, which, to my pleasant surprise, included, in the words of curator Alex Farquharson …

… many examples of figurative art on the verge of abstraction, as well as art that isn’t abstract but that could not have been made without knowledge of it.

So, in Gallery 2, for instance, alongside the casts of Rachel Whiteread and the abstract canvasses of Prunella Clough, there is work by Sickert and Bomberg, as well as Frank Auerbach – one of his marvellous Primrose Hill paintings – and a beautiful – and truthful – little etching of Lucien Freud.

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And also in this gallery is the most moving and disturbing work in the whole exhibition, Gustav Metzger’s To Crawl Into – Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938. One of Metzger’s Historic Photographs series, in which photographs of historic events, often connected to the Holocaust, are greatly enlarged and then covered, usually by a cloth, which the viewer is encouraged to remove or crawl beneath, slowly revealing the image underneath.

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The principal component of this work is a press photograph, taken shortly after Austria’s annexation to Nazi Germany in March 1938, that depicts Jewish men, women and children being forced to wash the streets of Vienna as their fellow citizens look on. The photograph has been enlarged to over thirteen square metres – rendering the figures larger than life-size – and is displayed on the floor, covered with a cotton sheet. In order to see it, the viewer is required to crawl on their hands and knees beneath the sheet, mimicking the actions of the Jewish subjects, while the size and proximity of the image makes it impossible to apprehend as a whole.

Feeling too venerable to get down on my belly and crawl, with the help of one of attendants I slowly peeled the cloth down and away.