Treasures of the British Library

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Leonardo da Vinci – Codax Arundel notebook. (Photo Credit: British Library)

Over the years I’ve noticed that visiting large galleries or cultural sites doesn’t always work for me unless they can be done in bite sized chunks.  I don’t think that this is because of a short attention span but more that I get a bit punch drunk and desensitised to what’s in front of me.  It can be hard for example in an art gallery to grasp the sheer magnitude of what’s in front of you when there can be so much stuff to see.  There is often also a real difficulty in being able to stop and take it in as there is a constant stream of people wanting to stand in the same spot.

Smaller, well curated selections then I think is the best way to really take something in and it also gives greater time to reflect on what you have actually seen as you go through the rest of your day doing something else.

Yesterday I was down in London and had an hour or so to kill before meeting up with friends so I wandered the 5 mins or so from Kings Cross to the British Library.  Now despite having walked past it countless times it was only very recently that I realised that sections of the library are open to mere mortals like me, I was always under the impression that it was some sort of exclusive club the membership of which would not be open to me.

My first dalliance came just before Christmas when I went to see the Alice in Wonderland exhibition (which is still on and is ace by the way) but this second time I wanted to go and see what I’d call ‘The Greatest Hits of the Written Word”.  Now I was expecting the gallery to be rammed and not be able to see anything but late on a Monday afternoon when I visited there were maybe 6-8 people looking at the 200 or so exhibits and oh my what exhibits they were.  I genuinely felt moved being in this room surrounded by the evidence of the staggering intellectual and historical weight of The Word !

In well curated sections I was able to closely see The Magna Carta (and next to it the papal decree declaring it illegal), The Gutenberg Bible, The Lindisfarne Gospels, Codex Sinaiticus, Diamond Sutra (the world’s earliest dated printed book), Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, classics of British literature – Dickens, Bronte, Hardy, Wilde etc, A letter written by Nelson on the morning of the Battle of Trafalgar, Handel’s Messiah, handwritten lyrics by the Beatles and various maps and pictures, a celestial globe and many more astonishing rare pieces of print.

It really is a quite incredible room, that these treasures are freely on display should be celebrated and shouted from the rooftops.  Next time you are heading in or out of London from the North, just give yourself a bit more time for your train and pop along.  I can’t think of a more astonishing and mind boggling place to spend an hour.

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The Gutenberg Bible (Photo Credit: British Library)

 

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

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I’ve been fortunate to read some really good books during 2015 and certainly it’s been a good year for the boysbookclub.  Whilst I always focus my reading on whatever the book club selection is that month I do try to squeeze in other books and forms as well.  Graphic novels provide a perfect way to do this as they don’t necessarily take a long time and it’s a format that I’m really growing to appreciate.  Jared and Oliver at OK Comics have been guiding me into a world that I know very little about recommending titles and opening my eyes to the creativity and intelligence of the graphic novel.

The latest book they suggested to me was The Sculptor by Scott McCloud, which is undoubtedly one of the best things I’ve read this year.  It’s a 500 page turner of a graphic novel with real depth and emotion throughout that lived long in my memory and raises many fundamental questions on my (our) approach to life, the lives we lead and what we leave behind.  These hugely powerful themes are intertwined around a powerful love story, a Faustian pact, a portrait of young urban life, an artistic journey, mortality, aspiration, the commercial art world and mental health.

The Sculptor is brilliantly enjoyable as you are reading it but like the very best novels it seeps into the consciousness after you have finished, leaving little hooks in your mind that you find yourself musing and thinking about in moments of quite reflection long after you have turned the final page.

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The novel essentially centres on the life of David Smith, a young sculptor who found fame and patronage early in life but is now down on his luck, working in a fast food restaurant, creatively unproductive, frustrated that his life and art appears to be going nowhere.  Whilst drinking in a bar death (in the shape of his deceased uncle) sits with him and offers him a Faustian pact.  He will give David the ability to create and sculpt anything that he can imagine out of his bare hands but if he accepts the deal he will only have 200 days before death will take him.  Death also shows David an image of his life should he not choose to accept it, what he shows is a good life, working in a community college, teaching art, a wife and family, the type of life that most of us either want or settle for.

Here lies one of the first of the underlying themes of the book, almost all of us have dreams and aspirations, to create something, to leave our mark, to be remembered.  For most of us this does not happen and for David he is faced with a choice of essentially a good life or a short life that realises his creative ambitions.  David accepts the deal with Death but it still leaves him struggling with how to unleash his creativity and sculpt something that will realise his ambitions and leave a permanent legacy after he has gone.

What David has not considered is the strange twists that life can deliver and like all of us David never knows when love might strike.  A surreal chance encounter sees David falling madly in love with Meg, a jobbing actor and performance artist.  David is forbidden by death to tell anyone including Meg of the deal that he has made so he divides his time spending as much time as he can with Meg and then during the night working on his art trying harness his power to create his legacy.

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Meg and David’s fast developing relationship is beautifully captured and I really felt for the characters and had a powerful pang in my chest knowing what was going to happen to David.  Meg has a spontaneity to her which is instantly likeable compared to David’s intense over-worthiness but each character realises that together they are better people than they are apart.

The days pass and the David’s destiny is approaching, his art is still not the hit he wants and in his interaction with agents, galleries and patrons the book shines a light on the contemporary art world and makes you question who decides what is good art.  In the end David physically sculpts the world around him, eschewing the art world and leaving his work to be discovered in the mornings after night time creative sessions.  In doing so he brings the attention of the law enforcement agencies down on him as they try to uncover who is doing this.  Echoes here of graffiti artists and the question of whether it’s vandalism or art.

As I was reading the book I really wanted to know what was going to happen and was genuinely gripped.  Would David create his legacy, was Death going to insist on the pact, what was going to happen to David and Meg’s relationship, would David tell Meg about the pact.  I’m not going to reveal here what happens but the story is brought to it’s conclusion with a really powerful emotional twist.

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As I don’t really know much about the graphic medium I’m not familiar with the names of authors so Scott McCloud doesn’t mean anything to me but apparently he’s a bit of a big deal in the comic world, regarded as one of the smartest minds operating in the field and renowned as a theorist on all things comic.  Perhaps though as McCloud himself hits middle age he has been musing on his own legacy and in doing so it has driven him to create this masterpiece.  Does the protagonist of the novel reflect McCloud’s own artist journey in completing his first large fictional narrative ?

The Sculptor was five years in the making and it’s painstaking thoughtful creation left a profound mark on me.  It is often said that the best art is a mirror to your own life and experience and this brilliant page turner left me lingering on my own life, mortality and life’s purpose.  Powerful stuff, and I’d urge you to read it.

 

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#boysbookclub book of the year 2015

 

5. Falling out of time

So the crew met on Friday night to sup on some fine wine and food while arguing over our best book for this year and indeed whether or not it’s been a good, vintage or poor year for the books that we have read.  As always we had different opinions on this but for me it’s been a cracking year, there were a couple of books that I genuinely didn’t like but these were balanced by two or three that were simply astonishing and there was also Against Nature which although none of us really liked will live long in the memory.

We’ve covered different genres, countries, styles of writing and ages this year although we have only read one female author so we’ll need to redress that balance a bit perhaps in 2016.

Andrew our resident statto did some number crunching and we had five books that had an average combined score over over 7 out of 10 which is pretty high marks for us.  Our top three books when we went back over them were :

  1. Falling Out of Time by David Grossman
  2. A Dry White Season by Andre Brink
  3. Kafka on the Shore by Murakami

Falling Out Of Time was the overwhelming winner and it was one of the most incredible books I’ve read, part fable, part poem and a taut, heart rending piece of writing on grief from the Middle East reflecting on the regions families who have suffered too much for too long.  I’d urge you to read it if you have not come across it.

Although it didn’t make the top three I personally also loved Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, a beguiling swirling masterpiece and an honourable mention also for The Humans by Matt Haigh a far subtler book that it’s simplicity suggests and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

We are kicking off 2016 by doing something new for us reading two books in one, both of the Harper Lee books in a bit of a compare and contrast exercise.  I’d love to know what you think of our list this year, together with what your favourite books were and what would you recommend for us to read in 2016.

 

Malaga (again) with the Boys Book Club

Each year our boysbookclub heads to foreign climbs for a weekend in October, we try to head to southern Europe so that we can have that last weekend of the year where hopefully the weather is warm, we can sit outside and relax before returning to Britain and hunkering down for the winter.

Four years ago we went to Malaga which proved something of a revelation as a city.  I went with very low expectations but was amazingly surprised by a compact city with a great atmosphere, good culture and history.  It was something of a revelation and I’ve been back since so I was very happy to return again with the boys again this year.  Our membership has shifted a bit over the last few years so it was never going to be exactly the same.

Of course like our book club (and ourselves) the city does not stand still and Malaga has undergone something of a regeneration over the last four years with a completely redeveloped harbour area adding to the cultural attractions.

We did what we also do, wander, generally with no particular fixed objective.  We might for example say lets have lunch somewhere near the beach or lets go to an art gallery in the afternoon but they are loose goals.  In arriving at them we drift around streets, duck into markets, stop in squares etc all the time of course sampling the great bars and eateries across the city.

When we go away we always try to come up with something creative or our own.  We set a theme of Independence this year and you can interpret it as you want.  I’ve published some of the writing that we did on this blog if you want to check it out and one member did a fantastic mini graphic booklet of us all.  The Saturday night was reserved for the monthly book review which for October was ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’ by Richard Flanagan.  The book completely split the book club but for me it was one of the most difficult books to categorise I’ve read in a long time but I found it a brilliantly original a mind warping book.

The highlight as always of our weekends away was simply the spending of time together in complete relaxation.  When do you every really get the chance to do that with friends?  Our personalities are such that there is very little friction or tension and we just bumble along together, chatting over long lunches.  It’s hard to return to ‘normal’ life after the weekend away but I for one feel completely refreshed by it and am already plotting next years trip.  Any tips on where you think would be great for us do let me know.

Independence (by Nathan)

The clock ticked relentlessly and time passed. Some days it passed more quickly than others, but Betty’s routine stayed the same. It was twenty years since George had passed, they’d had a happy life, with kids and grandkids, and a caravan in Bridlington that, despite its size, held a lifetime of memories.

The kids had moved away, first to university, and then to jobs that took them overseas. She envied the other women of her age that she saw dragging toddlers around Tesco and treating them to a bun to keep them quiet. She longed for the chance to pick up her grandchildren, Harry and Molly must be at school now. She’d missed so many birthdays.

She filled her days with a routine. Breakfast at 9am was a slice of toast and jam with a cup of tea. She always made a pot and left it to mash. It tasted stewed when you make it in a mug. Later she would venture out to the shops. Sometimes to the corner shop or, if the weather was nice, she’d catch the number 14 into town. Although, it was getting harder these days, the bus was always late and sometimes she and to stand for the 15 minutes it took to reach the high street.

She would chat to the checkout girl, people didn’t think she noticed the tuts and long stares, but she did, she didn’t care, people should take more time to talk to each other rather than stare into those phones all day.

She’d sit in coffee shop and watch the world pass her by, and then get the bus home before the school emptied out and the kids made it too busy.

Sometimes she would chat to two or three people on her trips into town. The girl in the library always greeted her by name and asked how her grandkids were, she always lied and told them how well they are doing.

It was silly really, just a little slip from the step when she’d reached up to dust the cupboard, she’d fallen awkwardly and twisted her knee. A couple of weeks in hospital and she’d come home to an empty house. The kids had called but she’d told them not to worry.

Her leg was so stiff these days that she struggled to walk to the corner shop and couldn’t face the trip into town. Some days were worse that others, and she was extra careful around the house these days.

Anyway, enough of this rambling, she had to get settled for Countdown. She missed Richard Whiteley but still did the letter games, it kept her mind active.

And as long as she had her mind, she had her independence.

The Wonders of Pygmalion

Recently I’ve figured that it’s beneficial to read books as double features (that’s what I call them in my pseudo-English) meaning two books of the same topic or topos but from different authors. My double features so far:

Michael Frayn, Copenhagen – Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Physicists

George Orwell, 1984 – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther – Ulrich Plenzdorf, Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.

Then I realised I had another potential DF on my shelves: George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Educating Rita by Willy Russell. Shaw’s Pygmalion became famous as My Fair Lady and so a question sprang to my mind:

Why Pygmalion?

I googled it and came across one of the most fascinating little stories I’ve ever heard about. Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells us about a sculptor, Pygmalion, who despises women for their wickedness. He makes the sculpture of a woman so beautiful he falls in love with her. On Venus’ festival he asks of the goddess to give him a woman like the statue but Venus knows what Pygmalion really wants. Coming back home he kisses his sculpture and she turns into a real woman. (Pygmalion keeps testing her realness by repeatedly groping her breasts.) They get married and have a son.

Now isn’t that gender studies gold?! A man creates his own perfect woman and she is exactly what he wants her to be. It reminds me of this wonderful gothic novella, The Sandman (1816), by ETA Hoffmann. In it the male protagonist finds his nagging and self-determined wife to be a real pain in his behind. One day he catches sight of the most beautiful woman and falls for her. She never says a word, she’s patient, she’s gracious, and from time to time the sweetest sigh escapes her mouth. Turns out she’s a robot.

The whole thing works the other way around too, of course. In German there’s a saying according to which you can bake the man of your dreams (or Mr Right is yet to be baked in which case there’re baking sets available to bake oneself a man in a most literal sense).

Back to our Pygmalion. Shaw does what is a very plausible thing to do: in his play from 1913 he asks the question of what happens after the statue turns real. I mean, imagine this. Technically there’s a woman now with the knowledge and experience of a newborn. Shaw calls her Eliza (well, strictly speaking it was Johann Jakob Bodmer who did this in 1749), makes her a London flower girl and lets her ask Professor Higgins (Pygmalion) to teach her how to speak properly so she can work in a flower shop. The playwright makes it a story about gender and class and uses education as a vehicle for her emancipation – an emancipation he grants her in the play, but not in his epilogue. A love story between Higgins and Eliza would be utterly absurd, concludes Shaw: “Galatea [the name later given to Pygmalion’s sculpture] never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.”

Willy Russell’s Educating Rita (1980) is familiar to many as a modern version of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. Once again a male playwright tells us a story about a woman who wants more and once again it is about education and her relationship with her tutor. Frank educates Rita – and loses her.

This is not the place to analyse the plays in depth. You guys are smart enough to do it yourselves and I guarantee you there’s enough food for your thoughts to keep your minds busy in a fun and rewarding way for awhile.

I would, however, like to draw your attention to the fact that Pygmalion has inspired painters and sculptors alike to produce some great artwork. Edward Burne-Jones, a Pre-Raphaelite, painted a series of four pictures (click on the link for more information on them):

The Heart Desires

The Heart Desires

The Hand Refrains

The Hand Refrains

The Godhead Fires

The Godhead Fires

The Soul Attains

The Soul Attains

Last but not least I would like to tell you about the Pygmalion effect: an experiment showed that students performed better after their teachers had been told that their (actually average) students were particularly gifted.

Pygmalion, Pygmalion, you curious little thing you…

Psst! If you ever felt physically attracted to sculptures, you have Pygmalionism (aka Agalmatophilia).

Viv Albertine – Clothes, Music, Boys

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With the return of Sleater Kinney and renewed interest in the Riot Grrrl movement it seems rather prescient that two of the major influences on the movement, Viv Albertine of the Slits and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth both have books out.  I’ve not got round to Kim’s yet but having just finished Viv’s I feel like I’ve just emerged from a mosh pit, a big smile on my face at the sheer unabashed joyfulness of it all but also bruised, sweaty, scared and somewhat unsettled.

This is no vacuous ghost written PR pamphlet it’s Viv’s voice telling her own story from the birth of punk through to today and it’s a story that is raw, uncompromising, funny, courageous, visceral, shocking, unflinching, uplifting and inspirational.  A bit like the music she played and the bands that reference her, The Slits and others of that ilk, the individual notes may jar at times and appear discordant but the overall sound and message is impossible to ignore.

Viv splits the book into two ‘sides’; Side 1 effectively charting her upbringing, discovery of music, youth, the punk movement, sex, fashion becoming part of The Slits and through to their break up.  Side 2 takes you through more sex and fashion, marriage, illness, depression, blood, family, motherhood, career, middle age, and creative rebirth.  It is not a comfortable ride, the stories and anecdotes assault you in rapid fire fashion sharply written with no punches pulled mirroring the songs of the movement that she was part of.  The characters, music, clothes, boys swirl around in a dizzying kaleidoscope as Viv grows up in the white heat of the punk movement before settling into the seeming middle class rural idle of a designer house by the sea, but as the saying goes be careful what you wish for.

Viv’s writing is whip smart throughout and it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that is so unflinchingly honest, she does not hide from her own mistakes but throughout you get a sense of a woman constantly grappling with who she is and what her place is.  She is also laugh out loud funny and comes across as a warm person who you’d want to spend some time with.

A thought that remains with me after reading this book – what is punk ? and is it still relevant ? for me it’s not about what you wear, look or sound like, it’s about independence of thought the willingness to make your own mind up, go your own way and cut against the prevailing wind. Viv Albertine is the embodiment of this and this book is as punk a book as you could ever hope to read.  However what do I know about what punk is ?  Perhaps this extract from the book where Viv goes to see the Pistols and watches John Lydon gives the best interpretation of punk and it’s continuing relevance:

 All the things I’m so embarrassed about, John’s made into virtues.  He’s unapologetic about who his is and where he comes from.  Proud of it even.  He’s not taking the world’s lack of interest as confirmation that he’s wrong and worthless.  I look up at him twisting and yowling and realise it’s everyone else who’s wrong, not him.  How did he make that mental leap from musically untrained state school educated, council estate boy, to standing on stage in front of a band?  I think he’s brave.  A revolutionary.  He’s sending a very powerful message, the most powerful message anyone can ever transmit. Be yourself.

For me Viv’s fight to be herself IS the story and in telling it she asks the most pertinent question of all – What does it mean to be an independent, creative, intelligent woman and what has changed in society from 1976 through to today ?

 

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