THIS is the beginning . . . Because somewhere between not knowing . . . and knowing . . . there lies imagination . . . THIS, THAT and THE OTHER . . . Book 1 . . . OUT NOW . . . THIS is the beginning . . . Because somewhere between not knowing . . . and knowing . . . there lies imagination . . . THIS, THAT and THE OTHER . . . Book 1 . . . CLICK HERE . . .
CURRENT : 'THIS' - new epic fantasy novel : Part One and Part Two : OUT NOW

FUTURE : 'THIS' Part Three : Summer 2017
Appearing at WORD & IMAGE, The Second Modernist Network Cymru Conference : National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth : 12 - 13 September 2017
Writer in Residence : Plas Tan y Bwlch, Maentwrog : September 2017
Solo exhibition at Oriel Maenofferen, Blaenau Ffestiniog : Winter 2017


Sunday, 22 February 2015

A Sunday in London: A Study in Sherlock

“Enter through the bookcase…” thus begins your adventure into the realm of Sherlock Holmes. One of the main missions of the weekend was to visit the major Sherlock Holmes exhibition currently at the Museum of London

The exhibition is divided into several sub-sections but is broadly divided in two, with the first half setting the scene and focussing on the Victorian London of Sherlock Holmes, the London in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived and made authentically present in the stories. The London of the era is so well evoked in - and integral to - many of the stories that this has led many (particularly Americans, it seems) to believe that Holmes was indeed a real historical personage and not a fictitious character. Here you can see paintings and photographs depicting various aspects of Victorian London, often with a quote from a specific story next to it, highlighting the relevance of the artwork and the authenticity of the text.

Views of Victorian London - photogravure prints by Alvin Langdon Coburn
Amongst the well-selected works, which include Whistlers and Monets, I particularly enoyed a row of photogravure prints by Alvin Langdon Coburn, the American photographer who was a huge influence on the Futurist. He is one of the first photographers to make bold, balanced compositions of light and dark with the ‘modern’ city as his source material. The Futurists believed that he showed cities in a positive way and managed to capture their light and abundant energy (both physical and cultural). Futurists believed that cities were machines for living and were necessary to build the future, by facilitating cultural and technological changes at an accelerated rate due to the density of population enabling a rapid exchange of ideas. The images in the exhibition are beautiful examples of Langdon’s work and of the photogravure etching technique, with a very distinctive atmosphere. I have seen some of these images before, but looking at the real things closely is a different experience. The surfaces have a certain quality that cannot be captured through modern glossy printing and certainly not conveyed over a screen.

The immortal Sherlock Holmes
(click image for reviews or to purcahse catalog on-line)
The second half of the exhibition is about Sherlock Holmes, the character, and how he has changed and developed significantly, whilst remaining essentially the same. There is a filmed interview with Conan Doyle in which he explains much of his thinking and intentions behind the character and his motivations for creating the character in the first place: He enjoyed the genre of whodunit detective stories, but was frustrated because the crime scenario was always set up and then the detective, or inspector, would solve the case either without explanation - he would just know whodunit - or else there would be a torrent of clues right at the end as the case was solved that the reader had not been privy to. He would rather have had the challenge of ‘role-playing’ the detective character and working out the clues throughout the story, hoping to solve the case before the denouement and then waiting in suspense to see if he had it right. So this is what he always tried to achieve with a good Sherlock Holmes story.

On display are a few ‘holy relics’ of Serlockania, such as the original, hand-written manuscript for The Tangled Skein, with that title struck out and A Study in Scarlet added instead. In a cabinet opposite this, there are also some pages from Edgar Allan Poe’s original manuscript for Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring the detective, C Auguste Dupin, said to have been the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. So the story of Sherlock begins with the stories, then the exhibition explores how different illustrators have contributed to the enduring visual identity of Sherlock and Watson. It is obvious from portraits of Conan Doyle on display that, from the start, the appearance of Dr Watson was based very closely on the author. The visual identity of Sherlock Holmes developed quickly, though tentatively, until the illustrations for the stories appearing in The Strand magazine were commissioned to Sidney Paget who consolidated the aquiline features and accessories we still associate with the character.

Watson and Holmes as visualised by Sidney Paget for The Strand
After establishing the origins of Holmes, the exhibition climaxes with a chamber showing items form the Museum of London’s collection that would be identical to items mentioned in the stories: coats hats, shoes, canes, chemistry supplies, smoking paraphernalia, a violin, medical equipment, make-up and wigs worn by actors of the era that would have been useful for the master of disguises... There are also authentic props from some of the film and television production, including Benedict Cumberbatch’s unique coat.

There is also a very interesting ‘thread’ to this section of the expo demonstrating, with the use of actual artefacts of the time, some of the observations and deductions made by Sherlock Holmes. Such as the spatters on the cuffs of a typist’s blouse made when re-inking a ribbon for the, then new, writing machine. The cuts and cracks in the sole of a shoe which could be matched to a cast of a footprint left in mud at a crime scene. The discovery of finger-printing techniques placed in context with the contemporary, and the now debunked, concept of the physiognomy of criminal types.

Numerous screens showed the many and varied actors who have portrayed Homes and Watson, including some of my favourite versions - Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, Christopher Plummer and James Mason, and for me the definitive pairing of Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke… The whole exhibition brought back poignant memories of seeing them both perform in the two-man play The Secret Of Sherlock Holmes at the Wyndam’s Theatre back in 1989(!?). I had interviewed Jeremy Brett over his pre-performance steak dinner and he had made a note of my party’s seat numbers… and during the performance he delivered a key line directly to us… a lovely gift and a treasured memory.

(An extract of this interview first appeared in Outlook Magazine and here you can read the fuller interview with Jeremy Brett as it later appeared in The Scrawl.)

A fascinating exhibition that manages to stay focussed on meaningful content and examines the many elements that have contributed to making a man that never lived into an immortal. Elementary, of course!

Tom Hunter's photography beautifully showcased on this scale model
of Ellingfort Road in the early 1990s
We then had some time to spend in the main collections of the Museum, so we started in the Twentieth Century and I was particularly impressed with the beautiful fusion of model-making and photography that forms the piece titled The Ghetto. This 3D artwork authentically documents Ellingfort Road in the early 1990s when it was scheduled for demolition. It is a collaboration between photographer Tom Hunter and model-maker, James MacKinnon. The walls and doors and shop-fronts of the model, along with interiors glimpsed through windows, are surfaced with photographs of the actual doors, walls and wallpapers. Look in through some of the windows and you see back-lit miniature transparencies showing some of the people who lived there at the time, in situ. This is a loving personal monument - Hunter was, and still is, one of the street’s residents - to what could have become a forgotten part of London life.

From the 1900s, we then travelled back in time via the Victorian Walk, to before that era of Holmes and Watson, exploring the London of the past… the Great Fire, the Globe Theatre and the Great Bard, the Great Plague, the Danelaw, the Romans… we finished with artefacts excavated from the Temple of Mithras discovered in the City. The cult of Mithras was an early Roman religion with many elements inherited from Ancient Egypt, it was a dominant cult at the time of Jesus and there are many parallels with Christianity. All very interesting, though Mithras' traditional Phrygian cap does make him look rather like he was balancing a guinea pig on his head …and did Serapis, the god of the Mithran underworld, balance a pot of yogurt on his? No that is his modius - a corn measure representing the fertility of the earth above him...

Mithras and Serapis - once you see the guinea pig... 
As we were leaving the museum, there was an added writer-related bonus: a mini Paddington exhibition with his famous hat, case and duffle coat as realised for props in the recent film adaptation. The attention to detail was impressive, with the toggles bearing (sic) the scratch marks cause by little fumbling claws. What thrilled me the most was seeing the typewriter used by Michael Bond to write some of the early books. I was born in the year of its manufacture and some of my earliest bookish memories are going to the children’s section of our local library, with my brother, to borrow the latest Paddington adventure. We read them as they were published and then had to wait impatiently for the next.  The first few were out before I could read, so I have cherished memories of listening to my older brother read them to me – oh, how we laughed and laughed at the antics and adventures of the funny little bear... He was as real to me as Sherlock Holmes!

Michael Bond's 1965 Olympia typewriter
A hugely enjoyable and educational weekend in London rounded off with a Sunday spent at the Museum of London before heading back up north, stopping for a welcome KFC at Oxford Services, minutes before they shut down for the night… much needed coffee was consumed.

A Saturday in London: Dickens and the Dawn of the Modern Age

After an excellent full-English breakfast, courtesy of the Goodenough College taken in its grand Georgian dining hall, it seemed fitting to venture on into the Victorian era. Just a five minute stroll from our well-appointed rooms in Mecklenburgh Square we found the understated façade of 48 Doughty Street, former residence of a certain Mr Charles Dickens – an author of some repute…

Despite the busyness of the half-term holidays, the Dickens Museum was an oasis of calm. The townhouse has been mostly restored to how it was when the Dickens family lived there and is also partly a museum-style exhibition, laid out over five floors with shop and small café. The set-up is very evocative and aids the visitor in imaging that they may be a guest at one of Charles Dickens’ famous dinner parties, perhaps rubbing shoulders with the ‘literary lions’ of their time, and to be treated to one of the after-dinner readings in the second floor drawing room, hearing the great writer practice the recitals from his work that he would later take on a theatre tour.

We spent a good hour in the modest museum and learnt more about Dickens than most of his friends and family knew of him in his day. He was very secretive about his early years and his workhouse childhood due to his father being in debtors’ prison. He also concealed the fact that he wore spectacles, though here you will find an intimate portrait of him wearing them. The story of his own early years is told through a selection of artefacts displayed in the nursery, where his own children were stored during social functions.  Here you will also see a glass cabinet displaying a rather handsome stuffed raven, presumably one of Dickens’ series of pet ravens (or representing them) but not the famed raven named Grip who was the inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Raven (according to Poe, he had originally considered using a parrot before the 'Dickens Intervention', though this would never have had the same Gothick import as the big black wound-grouse).

The writing desk those famous words flowed across... (and a waste paper basket where other words ended up)
Although I would not consider myself a ‘huge fan’ of Dickens, or any kind of aficionado, it was a thrill to stand before the actual writing desk of the great author and consider the worn leather surface with its contours that may have diverted his pen strokes. Not sure of the historic accuracy of detail, but the waste paper basket at the side of the desk was filled to overflowing with discarded drafts…

Before visiting this charming museum, with its intimate atmosphere and very helpful staff, I did recognise Dickens as an important author and particularly admired A Christmas Carol and The Signalman, though now have a deeper understanding and admiration of the man. Amongst the many things I learnt during the visit, one of the most memorable was that hedgehogs were often employed in Victorian households as kitchen maids…

Hedgehogs were sometimes kept in Victorian kitchens
to help control the slugs and bugs...
Then a tube journey to South Kensington and a long underground walk via the tiled, Victorian underpass, past the ‘secret entrance’ to the Victoria and Albert (next time!) and on to the heart of the museum district, emerging right outside an entrance to the Science Museum, where we would spend the rest of the afternoon.

It was too busy to really engage with many of the exhibits, but so many of the items on display are of such historical importance than any engagement is rewarding. After leaving the evocation of the Victorian era at the Dickens Museum, we stayed with this narrative and tracked the Industrial Revolution, Watt's Rotary Steam engine, Stevenson’s Rocket, Babbage’s Difference Engine, an original Daguerreotype camera, lovingly detailed models of ocean going steam ships… then suddenly we saw the modern age come into being and above us were rockets and communication satellites… Dickens was alive during a period of great change and political upheaval in the world, he saw steam power and the dawning of the modern age, but in less than a century after his death we had satellites!

This particular visit was of great personal benefit because we discovered the 'flight' room on level 3 - which we had never seen before - packed with huge antique aeroplanes including the Hawker Hurricane and the even more beautiful Spitfire: an engine of death, but also a symbol of hope, and a rare example - along with the Dazzleships - of creative art having a tangible, quantitative effect in the real world. Apparently, the curve of the wings and their rounded tips were added by a concept artist for aesthetic reasons in some sketches and only then did the engineers realise that this would allow the wings to be shorter whilst retaining their structural integrity, enabling the Spitfire to execute its famous tight turns and increase its manoeuvrability at speed… There was also a cabinet displaying lovely detailed scale models of First World War planes and this helped me correct a potential error in one of the current stories I am developing. Time spent in the Science Museum sparks many creative ideas.

An inspiring detailed model of the DeHavilland DH4 (1917)
After taking in a 3D Imax film of the wonders to be found under the sea – including fantastic, shimmering cuttlefish and close up grey seals that you feel you could have kissed – we reluctantly left the building with an extended list of what to spend more time with next visit.

So, it was time for dinner and we had a table booked at the legendary Mr Kong’s in Soho’s Chinatown. We received the usual warm, friendly welcome from Edwin and the staff and enjoyed the best Cantonese food to be had outside of Canton! It was a table of five, so we were able to sample a good variety befitting a celebration of the new Year of the Goat.

We started with the house special of steamed scallops, served on a half-shell with glass noodles and a fantastic sweet and hot chilli-garlic-coriander sauce that changes every time, adjusted to balance the character of the shellfish according to their seasonal variations – if I had to name a favourite food… The plain fried noodles were a fantastic culinary backdrop to the sizzling king prawns in garlic sauce which cook on an iron skillet as they are brought to the table. The fried, shredded, roast pork with garlic sprouts is another recommended order – the pork delivers the salty satisfaction of good bacon and the garlic sprouts have a fresh sweetness similar to green beans in garlic butter. The duck with mango and spring onion was a balancing act of richness, tang and fresh sweetness… The old standard of sweet and sour chicken is anything but standard… The Chinese tea and Tsingtao beer tasted much better than they should! Perhaps it was relaxing and chatting with friends after a busy and fulfilling full day out in London, in a great restaurant serving world-class cuisine at very reasonable prices – what better way to round off the Year of the Horse and a Saturday in London?

Happy New Year!

Next: A Sunday in London

Saturday, 21 February 2015

A Friday Evening in London: The State of Tate

By mid-afternoon, the bookish business was done with, so we looked for somewhere that would stay open late and, with very little discussion, quickly decided to visit one of our regular London destinations: Tate Modern. Recently, it has been the special temporary exhibitions that have attracted us - Matisse followed by Malevich - so this time we decided to have a good look at some of the permanent collection that we had either overlooked or not seen for many years.

We entered through the 'side doors', stepping directly into the famous Turbine Hall - the biggest art space in the world – that is not including… the world and the large scale earthworks that exist elsewhere, constructed by artists like James Turrell and the founder of eARTh, Robert Smithson …and not forgetting the original Norse Danavirki - but it is a huge space and was once a main attraction of the gallery. Some spectacular, huge, challenging work would welcome visitors and really make a statement that you had arrived at a Modern Art Museum with a BIG difference.

I’m getting nostalgic now, recalling earlier visits when we experienced Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas that filled the space, while leaving much of it empty, Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Projectaka 'the indoor sun', that had people basking on the concrete beach of the hall, Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth that truly used the structure of the building and influenced people's movement through the vast emptiness (short video below, courtesy of The Guadian). All impressive, innovative works that really engaged the audience and used the space to best effect. Since those early days, when the Tate was obviously rising to the challenge and making a real effort to utilise the huge void, the Turbine Hall has been repeatedly disappointing.



This time, Richard Tuttle’s huge structure of exotic fabric and marine ply was suspended at the far end of the hall. The sculpture itself was intriguing and a good conversation point - making use of the two viewing angles, from the ground and the mezzanine, but had no harmony with the space it occupied. Perhaps the awkwardness was the point, as it tried to fly yet remained contained? Or was it the aerofoil forms in opposition to the Brutalist, earthbound squareness of the old power station architecture? It did not seem like a sculpture that used this unique space, just one that would not fit anywhere else. For such a monumental work, its dialogue with the surroundings seemed surface and slight. I suppose the difference is that this was a sculpture, not an installation... Perhaps Tuttle was not so sure himself, he did title the work, I Don’t Know. (If the Tate curators are stuck for works that can fill the space effectively, I would be very happy to negotiate! Ohh, get him! The arrogance of the lad!)

Tate Modern houses a truly world-class collection of the Modern that will never disappoint. This time, highlights included re-discovering Giuseppe Penone’s Tree of 12 Metres - the elegant form of a tree reclaimed from within an industrial wooden beam, by carving back from the surface following the knot-patterns in the grain to reveal the branch pattern of a younger version of the original tree. Most sculptors visualise a form within a mass and carve away material to reveal that imagined form. Penone has used a very similar approach, but here the form he has revealed did actually exist within the mass and the materials guided his carving. This reflects his interest in materials and processes: the natural process of growth, followed by the industrial process of the saw-mill and then the artistic process of wood carving, serving here as a sort of time travel. This focus on Process Art led Penone to be linked with the Italian Arte Povera movement of the 1960s and also aligns him with the approaches of other important artists including Yves Klein and Joseph Beuys.

My favourite room in Tate Modern would be the Joseph Beuys set-up including the installation Lightning with Stag in its Glare, but on this visit I discovered what may well be a new favourite room: Level 4: Room 7 - here you can surround yourself with Cy Twombly’s monumental series of paintings celebrating Bacchus. The energetic and enigmatic, brush-on-long-stick gestures of running red paint evoke the blood and wine of a Bacchanalian orgy and the Romantic Peak Experience.

Cy Twombly's invigorating Bacchus paintings (2008) dominate the room.
These huge paintings form a vivid backdrop to the more subdued sculptural work that look as if they have been unearthed from some archaeological dig. They seem both solid and fragile, ancient and modern, very personal and of a wider culture. Twombly’s art often explores an individual response to mythic themes, ancient archaetypes re-appropriated as personal talismans. This Twombly room is filled with the joy and energy of the hugely expressive paintings, and this is tempered by the sculptural pieces with their invitation to calmly contemplate – emotion and intellect in conversation. I can see a very strong correlation between Beuys and Twombly.

The small Nam June Paik room was also worth some time. I particularly enjoyed the twin television set playback of Nixon talking as electro-magnetic tori alternated their power, causing the screen images to distort and split into rainbow interference patterns, fascinating to watch and a poetic representation of media distortions of the ‘truth’.

Nam June Paik's radio assemblage, Bakelite Robot (2002).
Do we see ourselves in our technology?
The ‘centre piece’ was Paik’s robot built of defunct radios that had been gutted and then had small TV screens installed inside them, showing films of toy robots. It has a sense of fun and fascinated the child in us all whilst commenting on our relationship with technology and how we tend to (now more than ever) anthropomorphise the mechanised. Then, the perspicacity problem of the egg and the image of the egg on a screen and a model of the egg placed in place of a second monitor screen, along with the flickering of analogue tellies in the dimly lit space reminded us that it was getting late…

Just off Russell Square in the Neo-Brutalist Brunswick Centre we dined at Carluccio’s. As always, great atmosphere with lots of people chatting to create an informal, noisy ambience that makes your own un-guarded conversation easier – fine for relaxing with friends and for family gatherings. The food is traditional Italian, as you may expect, prepared quickly to a good standard… great value for great quality. There is a good children’s menu that comes with a generous fun-activity pack while you wait. We started with the chicken liver pâté, possibly the best I have tasted! Then there is a variety of pastas and sauces on offer as well as alternatives to pasta… I went for Milanese-style (flattened bread-crumbed and fried) chicken breast, sided with rocket and baby gem lettuce and accompanied by the crisply refreshing draught Peroni in its trade-mark tall glass... a small piece of Italy.

Next: A Saturday in London