What a summer

I made up my mind when i came back from Turkey in April that i was going to make the most of this summer and not let it ebb away the way most of those before it have done. I set myself to searching online to find out what was happening in London over the next few months, particularly things that were free or cheap.

Many adventures followed – far too numerous to list, but two events, both exhibitions, stand out:

The first featured sea paintings, etchings and sculptures by Maggi Hambling. I hesitated to attend it, unsure of the welcome i would get at the posh private gallery where it was being held, but decided to stick to my promise to myself and not be deflected by nervousness. I’m glad i did. The sculptures (bronze reliefs) i wasn’t keen on, the etchings were nice but forgettable – but the paintings! There were only three but they were spellbinding. It was as though she’d trapped the Sea itself in her whirls of paint. Looking at one of the paintings I noted:

Shades of white, blue and navy – sometimes so dark it almost looks black. No edges. Utterly still and silent yet full of movement and you’d swear you can hear it roar. It makes me feel drenched.

The other exhibition was very different. It featured the work of not one but many artists whose names however are long since lost. They lived in a state which falls within the boundaries of modern Nigeria and were contemporaries of the European Renaissance artists – and every bit as marvellous.

This was the exhibition of sculptures from the Kingdom of Ife.  Held at the British Museum it was visibly playing second fiddle to the exhibition of Renaissance drawings – including some by Leonardo da Vinci – that was showing at the same time. It saddened me that so few of those queuing up to see the sketches of the great Italian Masters would bother to see the works of their African near-contemporaries, but in truth i nearly didn’t go and see them myself. The ticket was bought on a moment’s impulse.

Inside i wrote:

Incredible! Some exhibitions are interesting; this is mesmerising.

About the sculptures themselves i noted:

Each figure is subtly unique, to the extent that you feel they contain real people, present with you in the rooms of the British Museum. And they’re old: some date to the 800s it seems (the Anglo-Saxon period in England).

The one that has made the greatest impact on me so far: a seated figure (one leg crossed) made from copper which has been dated to the 13th Century. Eyes closed, lips slightly parted, as though drifting into sleep. One arm is missing as is the lower half of the other arm, but the round, narrow shoulders are beautiful. Interestingly androgynous: I think it’s a plump, slightly built male but it could be a boyish small-breasted girl. Revered as a fertility symbol it seems. Naturalism is exquisite: tiny folds of fat above the hips.

Other figures are more stylised/monstrous: one from the 14th Century has bulging eyes, tiny clenched fists & an elongated torso.

They still haunt me those long-dead Africans immortalised, albeit anonymously, in copper. It haunts me too how close i came to not going. Even once i’d bought the ticket i wasn’t sure – would it just be an endless array of near-identical, earnestly exhibited antiquities? Then on the day itself i had transport problems and almost turned around and went home.

Not everything i’ve been to this summer has been that good; indeed some of the events have fallen rather flat. But those moments of wonder make the rest of it worthwhile. How glad i am that i stuck to my guns and made the effort to do, see, hear and go this year.

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Polish poetry & me

I discovered the poetry of Poland via the work of Ewa Lipska. I remember reading her poem Instruction Manual, with its insistent refrain “The nation’s dead”, when i was twenty or so. At that time i was at home with a young son, trying to keep my mind alive by reaching out to a world beyond the small commuter town in which i was trapped. Poetry more than anything was my lifeline: language distilled to perfection. Lipska’s work spoke to me despite, rather than because of, its focus on politics; I sought out more and – naturally? inevitably? – discovered her compatriots Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. For some reason lost in the mist of time however their work didn’t stick, at least not then.

Soon afterwards i came across another Polish poet whose work did stick: Anna Swir (or Świrszczyńska). I’ve long since forgotten the name of the anthology in which i found her poems and only remember that it was a book showcasing women poets. More frustrating is the fact that i have no idea who did the translations; they (and presumably the original poems) are marvellous – deft, sensual, acerbic, poignant. Three of them i copied out and cherish to this day: A Spring, She Doesn’t Remember and Her Hand. The third of those is short enough to quote in full:

When my mother was dying
I held her hand.
When she died i burnt everything
her hand had touched.
Only my own hands
I couldn’t burn.

A few more years passed and i found myself unemployed and back in my hometown. Up on the city walls there was a little second-hand bookshop and whenever i had a bit of money i’d go up there and spend it on poetry books. Actually, i went up there whenever i got the chance, not just when i had money; but the rest of the time i had to come away empty handed. One of the books i found there was by Tadeusz Różewicz: Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems*, a bilingual selection of his work translated by Adam Czerniawski. This is dark stuff. Forever marked, it seems, by his experience of the Second World War, Różewicz makes lists; he mistrusts beauty. The typewriter-like font (green for the Polish and black for the English) and the delicate paper only emphasises the feeling of austerity. One poem in particular haunts me. It’s called Beyond Words (in Polish: Nad Wyraz) and begins:

What are you doing
emerged from darkness
Why don’t you want
to live in full light

Its final words are even more powerful:

One tear
inexpressible
beyond words

After that – a long while after that – came Zbigniew Herbert, ‘a spiritual leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland’ according to the brief biography which prefaces his Collected Poems 1956-1998**. Herbert’s work is thrilling – comic and grave – yet curiously difficult to quote from; the poems work beautifully, yet if you try to pull out lines to show to people they fall apart. I do like this stanza from I Would Like To Describe, however:

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

(Translation: Alissa Valles)

I too would like to be free of that dusty lion.

Finally, we come to a poet who arrived in my life just a month ago, courtesy of yet another anthology: Anna Piwkowska. The anthology is called Six Polish Poets*** and I found it in the same second-hand bookshop where many years previously i discovered Snow and Summers by Solveig von Schoultz. There is one poem in particular, about the sudden death of young woman as she is getting out the bath, which i think is incredible. It’s called Lament Of That Summer (or in Polish: Tren Tamtego Lata):

She stepped onto the side of death.
Here, one wet foot on the floor,
hair dryer, towel around her hips,
the other foot into the water,
into death, straight from the summer bath.
She managed just once more to run
the wet hand through her tangled hair.
The tea was cooling in the room;
she planned to hang the lingerie,
the light blue nothing, woven
out of fine silk threads.
Summer. Hot quivering morning.
The day had promised joy, and haste;
behind the wall her son called out
about the puppy’s nose in milk.
The dress hurriedly thrown
across the chair, cinnabar, absorbed
the drops of sunshine. The organ
music of Johann Sebastian
flowed across the room, a woman
or some strange furry animal.
The day brought joy. She managed
nothing. Not even a single shout.
Fear or a contraction
as if before a battle or
a trip. But why with no preparing
or good-byes did she let out
this tiny drop of oxygen
like laughter? A small wooden cross
above the mirror. Brief lapse
of attention. Behind the wall
The boy was playing with the dog.

(Translation: Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese).

There you have it: the story so far, spanning two decades, of Polish poetry and me.

* Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems: ISBN 83-08-01777-0;  Tadeusz Różewicz; trans. Adam Czerniawski; pub. Wydawnictwo Literackie (1991)
** Collected Poems 1956-1998: ISBN 978-1-84354-833-6; Zbigniew Herbert; trans. Alissa Valles; pub. Atlantic Books (2008)
*** Six Polish Poets: ISBN 978-1-904614-50-0; ed. Jacek Dehnel; pub. Arc Publications (2008)

The beige years

What do you remember about the Seventies? I remember they were beige. The bank in which we used to queue for hours for example: beige carpets, beige wallpaper, beige uniforms – I swear, even the wood of the counters was beige. I could be misremembering this of course, not least because beige is contagious: once it gets into one of your memories it spreads until it contaminates them all.

So my school too was beige: the headmaster’s suit, his shoes, his hair. Actually, I lie: his shoes weren’t beige, they were tan (even worse!). And they squeaked. My main memory of the school, apart from the headmaster’s feet, was the odour of “posh” instant coffee. Does anyone remember when there was such a thing as posh instant? Douwe Egberts for instance, such a step above Nescafé – though even Nescafé was better than that stuff made of chicory which came in a bottle. What on earth was that called? The teachers drank posh coffee. Their staff room, that mysterious place strictly forbidden to us, stank of it when the door opened. But then they were middle class and that meant something then.

Looking back, the Seventies is all about school for me. When weren’t at school we were on holiday from school. The summer break (six weeks!) was heaven. In my memory every summer was hot and sunny. Health & Safety hadn’t yet been invented so we ran wild “down the meadows” and in “the woods”. We swam with our dog in a river full of whirlpools. We dared one another to walk along a high wall of crumbling brick – with concrete on either side. We played football. We got into fights.

Easter i’m a bit vague about but Christmas was “ace”: suddenly beige was no more! The ceiling would be covered with crêpe streamers: pink, orange, green, red and blue. There would be balloons, there would be cards, a real Christmas tree (always huge in my memories) which we’d cover with tinsel and shiny balls, and then top with a star. Of course there were presents, almost all of them from Woolworth’s and only a few of which i can recall: a blue bike, a Monopoly set, two Tell Me Why books. Food: brazil nuts and tangerines. Television: Morecambe and Wise.

All too soon though it was Twelfth Night and time to take the bright colours down. Back to beige and back to school.

— For “M” —