I’m one of the judges on the New Angle Prize for Literature this year along with Carol Bundock and Jules Pretty. Even if we say so ourselves, it’s a good list!
Ronald Blythe, The Time by the Sea (Faber & Faber, Jun 2013)
Mark Cocker, Claxton. Field Notes from a Small Planet (Jonathan Cape, Oct 2014)
Esther Freud, Mr Mac and Me (Bloomsbury, May 2014)
David Gentleman, In The Country (Full Circle Editions, Sep 2014)
Jason Hewitt, The Dynamite Room (Simon & Schuster, Mar 2014)
Amanda Hodgkinson, Spilt Milk (Fig Tree, Penguin Books, Feb 2014)
Alex Monroe, Two Turtle Doves (Bloomsbury, Mar 2014)
Sarah Perry, After Me Comes the Flood (Profile Books, Jun 2014)
Jo Riccioni, The Italians at Cleats Corner Store (Scribe UK, Jun 2014)
James Runcie, Sydney Chambers and the Problem of Evil (Bloomsbury, May 2014)
Saskia Sarginson, Without You (Little Brown Book Group, Jul 2014)
Kate Worsley, She Rises (Bloomsbury, Mar 2014)
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You may be surprised to learn that I didn’t consider myself an artist until quite recently – long after publication, in fact – and I’ve been thinking a little about what it really takes to be an artist, and I’m going to share some of these thoughts with you.
Bear with me please because I’m going to start with Blackadder (we’ve all seen Blackadder, haven’t we?) and the final episode filmed for the millennium. This is when Baldrick invents a time machine which transports Blackadder to important moments in history. In so doing, he meets famous historical figures and gathers priceless artefacts to bring back with him to the present day, in order to win a bet. One of the items is a signed play by William Shakespeare: Blackadder time travels to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and runs into Shakespeare in a corridor (who looks suspiciously like Colin Firth) and in his hand he carries the original manuscript of Macbeth. Blackadder offers a pen for Shakespeare to sign his autograph, relieves him of the pages, then punches Shakespeare in the face. He tells him, that’s for all the misery he’s going to cause generations of school children in English lessons and exams hereafter – and how dreadful Kenneth Branagh’s 4-hour Hamlet is.
I know what you’re thinking and, honestly, I’m as shocked as you are. Macbeth is not an Elizabethan play, it’s a Jacobean play. I have no problem, actually, with Baldrick being the greatest genius who ever lived by virtue of the fact he invented a working time machine, but I have to take issue with the glaring inaccuracy; Macbeth was written during the reign of James I, not Elizabeth I. We’ll skip over that part.
Of course what happens is this: Blackadder inadvertently changes the course of human events. Shakespeare is so traumatised by the encounter, that he does not go on to become the greatest writer the world has ever seen. Instead he fades into obscurity, having made but one contribution of note: he becomes the inventor of the ballpoint pen.
Now, I like a ballpoint pen as much as anybody, but the thought of having lived a life without Shakespeare . . . having never seen a Shakespeare play at the theatre or read the words on the page . . . the thought of it I find genuinely upsetting. It would be a personal tragedy for me, never mind the rest of you, or the actors and scholars who’ve devoted their careers to him.
A life without having cried at Othello. A life without laughing at the lovers’ quarrel in Much Ado About Nothing. A life without seeing Mark Rylance play Hamlet at the Globe (he is better than Branagh) and without hearing Cleopatra described in this way,
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.”
No Romeo and Juliet either. The entire Wars of the Roses cycle, 8 plays – and I’ve see all of them more than once – gone, blinked out of existence. As is the Merchant of Venice, and all the controversy that perturbs us even now.
No Tempest! What? No one who thought or wrote,
“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life /Is rounded with a sleep.”
I would be poorer without this work. I wouldn’t know myself. The very language I speak, the idioms that are so familiar, would be obliterated.
The idea that Shakespeare doubted himself horrifies me. But I bet he did. He was the son of a glove maker, the grandson of a farmer. Based on his family history, there was no reason to suspect that this boy from Stratford-upon-Avon would become one of the greatest artists to draw breath. And I reckon those nobles at court didn’t let him to forget where he came from. Even now, there are people who believe that the man we call William Shakespeare could not possibly have written all those plays and sonnets – and they call their prejudice, ‘The Authorship Question’. It’s insulting.
But it is, perhaps, useful to remind ourselves that the artists we love and admire most have dark moments too, that they know fear and failure as much as any of us. There were times when things got so bad, that they just wanted to give up and throw it all away. What stops them? How do they carry on? And when we face difficulties in our work, our meagre offerings, how do we carry on?
What does it take to be an artist? Not a great artist. Not even a good one. Just being an artist.
I’ve wanted to write fiction since the age of 19, but it’s only recently that I began to have a sense of what the answer to this question could possibly be. So here goes.
Delight.I believe it’s imperative that you enjoy your work, every minute. You may’ve heard the saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” This is vital for the working artist, especially when things go wrong. I do not subscribe to the idea that it’s somehow necessary to suffer for your art. Yes, as artists, we tend to live a lot in our heads and we’re predisposed to having doubts. This is the challenge. At the very least the creative process can have a therapeutic effect and at its best we are elevated by it – we ourselves change and are made better. Delight in the effort. Delight in your work when it’s finished, including its flaws. If the creation and the outcome bring you pleasure, then that’s the achievement.
Bravery. Critical voices are everywhere, but be brave if you can – if you dare to. Work that pleases you because it’s strange and unusual is all to the good. If you play it safe and try to do what’s popular or conventional, you can’t unlock any real power. There’s no force behind it. Your work will be bland and fade quickly. You need bravery in the face of criticism and disappointment and, to be clear, these are coming. All artists have to face it some time or another, including the best. Sometimes it’s insulting; sometimes it’s motivated by jealousy or rooted in private pains. Worse still there are artists, even today, who endure intimidation, perhaps imprisonment for what they do. Those critical voices – don’t let them get to you. Whether they’re in your head, on your Twitter, or out there in the real world – they don’t deserve a moment of your time. When Blackadder punches you in the face, don’t give up your Macbeth in favour of the ballpoint pen. Show bravery in spite of everything.
Staying power. There are lots of ways to describe tenacity, determination, patience, practice . . . I think ‘staying power’ covers all of it. Because to have staying power is to acknowledge that this is a marathon, not a sprint. One theory holds that in order to be accomplished in anything – music, sport, chess, whatever – you have to practice for not less than 10,000 hours. This means that if you practice your art for 8 hours a day, 6 days per week, you would have to work for 4 solid years to reach your goal – without stopping to earn your living or take a day off, other than Sundays. And of course if you used that model, you wouldn’t have much life experience at the end. You’ll neglect your friends and family, compromise your wellbeing and you’ll not have time to enjoy the works of others. You’d be a hermit. Actually, you need life experiences to inform your work. If you’re an artist, you’re a long distance runner and you need take all this in your stride. Steep hills and rough terrain should be negotiated with care. Set a pace you personally can maintain (never mind anyone else and how fast they’re going). Recover and rest when you need to. This is the knack of staying power.
Allies.You have allies, believe it or not. They are the other artists who’ve been there. They are people who care about you, whether you succeed or fail. I think there’s no phrase in the English language as appealing (or as loaded) as the words, “I love you”. But to the ear of an artist there are sweeter, gentler words, a phrase which resists tarnish and that cannot be spun with ease. Because they’re spoken so rarely and by someone with nothing to gain, when the hearer is in most need: “I believe in you”. When your friend says this (your colleague, your partner, maybe) magic happens. The phrase “I believe in you” can make the difference between whether work gets made or it doesn’t. Take comfort from your allies and don’t forget to reciprocate from time to time.
Insight.Your art is informed by life experience, by the things you have discovered to be true. If in all your years on this planet you’ve gained one insight worth sharing, a single piece of wisdom that you can pass on to another human being, then do so through your art. Art without insight is merely decorative. Great works of literature, great paintings, great performance needs above all clarity of thought. Transmit your thought in the most direct and ingenious way possible, like a poet. The lessons you’ve learned may well have saved you; now is the time to put a message in a bottle because they may save somebody else one day.
So to recap: it takes 5 things to be an artist. Delight; Bravery; Staying power; Allies; and Insight. And of those 5 things, delight is the most important. Because even if you’re a bad artist – and I might include myself in that description – if you’ve delighted in the creation of your work, then you haven’t wasted a single minute of your time.
But 5 things are a lot to remember and I don’t expect anyone to be taking notes. So let me give you one word instead which captures all of these things, one word to imprint on your brain and keep on a post-it note above your desk. Integrity.You are an artist if you have integrity. Integrity will see you through the good times and the bad. People admire integrity, even if they can’t stand the work you’ve made. Hold on to it and everything falls into place. Integrity redeems your poorest effort. Integrity makes your best work fly. If you can keep your integrity, then I can honestly say, “I believe in you”.
And yet it might not be enough. That’s frightening, isn’t it? The fact is as artists we might never succeed in creating anything of worth. For instance, it has taken me two thousand words to express what has been said before – briefly and far more elegantly – by the avant-garde Irishman of letters, Samuel Beckett.
On page 67 of Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, Peter Stothard acknowledges what the reader knew some 60 pages earlier. ‘This is becoming a book about me. That is not what I intended.’
Based on the cover, one might assume this to be a conventional history of Cleopatra; born 69 or 70 BC, the last pharaoh of Egypt, the woman who murdered and seduced to advance her political ambitions. Theatrical motifs from her life are scored into our collective unconscious. It is said that at 21 years old, she was smuggled past Ptolemy’s guards in a carpet and unveiled to Julius Caesar, then over 50, and became his mistress. She dissolved a pearl in a cup of wine and drank it to vex her other famous lover, Mark Antony, in a bet over who could feast the most extravagantly. And her grand finale, a spectacular suicide involving (if Shakespeare and the Victorian painters are to be believed) a basket of figs and an asp. There have been countless depictions of her story rendered in art and print, and yet since the age of nine, Stothard has wanted to make his own version.
This book is partly about Cleopatra and partly about the author watching himself trying to write about her. For this is Cleopatra the eighth, as in, ‘precisely the eighth time’ Stothard has attempted this biography. ‘I never intended to write so much here about my own life,’ he reiterates later in the book, getting a twinge of writers’ doubt over past promises unfulfilled:
‘But I do select every memory by how much it connects to those promises. It seems random. But there is a reason, a pattern and, in the end maybe, a picture too.’
Yes. I can confirm there is a lucid and rewarding whole.
This is a history book because I now know more about Cleopatra’s life and times than I did before. It is also a writer’s journal, a record of false starts when one has a project in mind that eats away at you if don’t get it down on the page. It is travel writing, about Stothard’s days in Alexandria in January 2011 and the prelude to the Arab Spring. And it is memoir, recalling the author’s intellectual awakening and most especially two friends, Maurice and V, who, though not so very close to Stothard in the usual sense, both challenged, frustrated and inspired him.
Peter Stothard is the editor of the TLS. He was the editor of The Times from 1992 to 2002, chronicled Tony Blair’s war from inside the goldfish bowl, is a survivor of cancer and a classicist. These accomplishments make it difficult somehow to reconcile this as the author of Alexandria, an object which represents childhood wish fulfilment. The prose is as clear and elegant as you would expect, but the tone is surprising. Alexandria is meditative, sentimental, written from the heart, not from a journalistic imperative.
One of themes in this book is how written language, the most indelible method we have of recording human thought from one century to another, is fragile. Names of the ancient Egyptian dead, cut in stone to guarantee immortality, were later chiselled out by enemies to obliterate souls in the afterlife. The burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria is another motif Stothard evokes when he describes going to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a vast, modern complex built to recapture the spirit of the original. (Of course, Stothard does what any procrastinating author might be tempted to do: he looks himself up.) Even his writing, many hundreds of thousands of words over the course of a career, is vulnerable. ‘Most have sunk deservedly deep beneath the library sea,’ he says.
Words have permanence when they’re not lost or destroyed.
Sometimes a mere fragment survives from classical antiquity for scholars to pore over. There is, Stothard explains, one example of Cleopatra’s handwriting discovered recently on a papyrus used as post-mortem packing material. It is a tax exemption for one of Mark Antony’s generals drafted by a secretary upon which Cleopatra writes in Greek, ‘ginestho,’ meaning, ‘let it be done,’ ‘make it happen,’ a single queenly command passed down through the ages.
In Alexandria, Stothard concentrates on the ephemera of his Cleopatra, different incarnations rough-written, partially typed, bits copied or sellotaped together. He arranges them in his hotel room and his mind. He’s drawn into spaces of the past, schoolrooms, college bedrooms, red tents, drab offices, while giving the reader a sense of this as unfinished business as though the decades spent on news and politics were an interruption.
It is possible, perhaps, to read too much into a bereavement or health scare as the motivation for making work. Books have a spirit of their own. Sometimes authors don’t realise what they’re writing until they’ve written it, and this memoir is unusual because it lays that process bare. The people on the page, whether they lived long ago or are alive and well today, are captured as an impression – a reaction – a mood. It’s a way for the author to understand these relationships. Stothard has succeeded in writing his book about Cleopatra, yet her presence in our memories was already assured. It is the people history probably wouldn’t remember, his friends, his teachers, his colleagues, his guides, that he has done a real service to. This is writing from kindness.
During his book talk at Norwich Playhouse on Saturday 10 May 2014, Ray Davies says, ‘I didn’t use a ghostwriter, I could have done.’ This isn’t news to me because I’ve read it, and there’s no doubt in my mind he weighed and wrote every word.
There is nothing inherently wrong with rock stars using ghosts for their memoirs. These books, composed from hours of recorded interviews, are filled with pleasing anecdotes captured in the speaking voice of the ‘author’ and are often eminently readable. Keith Richards virtually shared credit with his ghost, James Fox. The problem with the ghost-written conceit is that when an artist comes along who actually does write their own book – and in doing so creates a work of dignity worthy of being read – there’s no way of telling the difference by looking at the cover.
In ‘Americana’, Davies tells two stories about his life and work in the United States. The first narrative spans three decades, beginning with the Kinks’ arrival as part of the British beat invasion in June 1965 and subsequently getting banned due to ‘bad management, bad luck and bad behaviour’. What follows is the slow rehabilitation of the Kinks’ credibility through years of touring and some 20+ studio albums until, in 1990, they are officially accepted back into the hearts and minds of America when they’re inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The second story is more recent, recalling the dramatic events surrounding a day in January 2004 when Davies was shot by a mugger in New Orleans. When news filtered back across the Atlantic that the lead singer and songwriter of one of the most influential bands of the twentieth century was hospitalised with a gunshot wound, the obituary writers must’ve been ebullient . . . but they were left unsatisfied because Ray Davies survived.
Enough is written in print and on the internet about Ray Davies’s accomplishments so I won’t repeat them here, except to say ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is a flawless masterpiece. In ‘Americana’, he calls his song-writing muscle the ‘doo-di-dum-dums’ and describes it as too personal to share, an explanation that will frustrate music theory scholars for years to come. Characters and their stories are the lifeblood of his songs, and his book introduces the reader to several characters of note over the Kinks’ career including loyal roadies, trusted security minders and foppish managers. By no means is this a tell-all autobiography. There are no insights into the cause of apparent bad feelings between himself and his guitarist brother, Dave Davies, merely an acknowledgment of them and a tenor of regret. Gossip here is limited, so readers looking for vicarious sex-and-drug fuelled experiences will have to go elsewhere (although the part when Dave Davies and Keith Moon are unable to throw a television out a hotel widow because the window was too small did make me laugh).
Instead Davies builds a picture of years of touring and recording, of a relentless pressure to deliver the next show and the next album, and how these obligations have taken their toll. The road is not conducive to a stable family existence, and he missed the court appearances of his shooter and, by an unkind twist of fate, the death of his mother due recording commitments he felt he had no choice but to fulfil.
The creative life once chosen does not always go according to plan. Anxiety comes with the effort of producing and perfecting work. There’s a lovely chapter set in March 1978 in New York when Davies admits to having writer’s block and struggles even to leave the apartment:
‘Who were music people, anyway? It’s just another business, after all, and I don’t have to put myself through all this. I wanted to cry out, “I am a successful songwriter with many songs to my credit. I am an artist. I deserve to be heard.” The reality was that I didn’t feel like a songwriter because I couldn’t produce at that time. Questions kept running through my head. What are you trying to prove, anyhow? You just got lucky a few years ago, so why should the world open up to you just because you wrote a few hits in the distant past? I thought about going home to get a trade and a day job. I was ready to quit the music industry altogether . . .’
In his talk as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival (a literary event, not a music one) Davies says that when he gives a bad performance, he walks the streets. It’s easy to imagine the stream of self-reproaches, the over analysis of each mistake, the resolutions to get it right next time. In the Q & A part of the evening, I ask how the creative process has changed over the years? He replies he is more refined and more critical now, that it’s important to get the bad ideas out as well as the good ones, that no matter what else has gone before, the writing still begins with a blank piece of paper. It is refreshingly honest. And this is the real thrill in ‘Americana’, the honesty with which he deals with the recent past.
Davies goes to New Orleans in search of inspiration, to soak up blues, jazz, the spirits of musicians living and dead. He stays at a house where he can hear a high school marching band practicing nearby and decides to facilitate a project with them.
Then he tells the story of being gunned down and it is astonishing.
After being circumspect about the history of the Kinks, the reader is taken fully into Ray Davies’s point of view: the weather on the day, the face of the attacker, the instinct to fight back that was later the source of victim-blaming in the press by New Orleans authorities. The wound, the shock, the miasma of pain relief. The fact that for a time in hospital, because all his cards had been stolen, the medical staff called one of England’s famous sons, ‘Unknown Purple’. These chapters are full of intimate detail and stark vulnerability. The author wears his heart on his sleeve and whatever can’t be said directly is illustrated through selected lyrics.
‘See the sun, the day has come, and the night is just a memory / Do you live in a dream or do you live in a reality?’
It is a sincerely attempted self-portrait and a revelation.
‘Americana’ is not Davies’s first memoir. ‘X-ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography’ was a playful experiment in semi-fiction published in 1994. Twenty years later he is using prose to tease out personal truths and as healing; the result is a piece of writing of rare and thoughtful quality. With perhaps one or two exceptions (‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith springs to mind) the vast majority of Davies’s musical peers are simply incapable of this much depth and self-awareness in book form.
In the audience in Norwich, I suspect I am the only person who has read ‘Americana’ in advance and is more excited about meeting Ray Davies, the author, rather than Ray Davies, bona fide rock god. I want the interviewer to ask about his literary influences, not his musical ones, but the questions put are predictable and crowd-pleasing. The crush in the book-signing queue after is not conducive to writerly confidences and I sense an opportunity slipping away. There are several things I wish to know from this author and only the length of a signature left to ask; so I take a leap of faith based on the person I’ve met on the page.
‘It’s a great book,’ I say. ‘Are you going to write another?’ Yes, he replies. ‘What are you going to write about?’ And he tells me.
Americana – The Kinks, The Road and The Perfect Riff by Ray Davies
Suffolk, July 1940 . . . In terms of choosing a place and time to set his debut novel, Jason Hewitt is off to a scintillating start. Suffolk is a county of diverse landscapes, rich in myth and fascinating histories that includes a wild man, green children, a buried Anglo-Saxon ship, UFOs and an abundance of rumours concerning thwarted German landings. The Second World War is of course much written about, but Hewitt’s angle is well chosen for this is Britain in the early throes of war with no end in sight and without a key ally, the United States, to tip the balance. The Channel Islands have just been occupied by the Nazis and an invasion of the British mainland seems entirely plausible, even imminent.
In ‘The Dynamite Room’, Hewitt tells the story of a Suffolk girl, the sole occupant of a house in an isolated village, who comes face to face with a Nazi soldier; the soldier takes her as his hostage. Whether this tale has any basis in fact whatsoever, whether it was propaganda designed to needle the conscience of our American cousins or just a product of wartime paranoia and too many pints of Adnams may never be known. But that doesn’t matter, because Hewitt’s version gives us a fleshed-out psychological drama between two extraordinary characters, Heiden, the first of a German invasion party to reach dry land, and Lydia, 11 years old and utterly alone.
Both Lydia and Heiden are resilient in their way. Both are afraid of – and dependent upon – one another. The book provides an explanation of how such a meeting may’ve occurred and plays out the intriguing consequences. Domestic challenges such as trying to get the water running, sharing a dinner with one’s captor or prisoner and procuring maps from hiding places are magnified into emotional battlegrounds. Each character probes the other for information while trying to conceal their troubled past and the anxieties of the present.
This is WWII fiction as apocrypha and alternative reality, as opposed to researched-to-the-nth-degree realism. Hewitt delves into his two lead characters’ points of view, in essence switching the protagonist/antagonist roles. Some of the flashback scenes are ambitious, and perhaps uneven as a result, because this writer is trying to explore human feeling in extremis. Not wishing to detract from the Nazi character whose conflicting motives drive the story forward, Lydia is the one who steals the show. She’s vulnerable without being passive and at a precarious age where innocence is ebbing away and full maturity has yet to blossom. Her thoughts and reactions are the soul of this novel.
It’s interesting to note that Hewitt is an actor and playwright because his work undoubtedly has the dramatic elements of a play. Claustrophobic, touching, character-driven and told in lovely prose, this novel has great crossover appeal. Readers who loved ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne and ‘The Separation’ by Christopher Priest will have a strong affinity with ‘The Dynamite Room’.
In The Hunger Trace, Edward Hogan’s second novel, we’re led through a landscape that feels simultaneously familiar, intimidating and astonishing. Derbyshire and falconry; a wildlife park and a love triangle that includes a deceased husband; a young man with special needs and a preoccupation with Robin Hood . . . Each of these themes has outward charms to be sure. But take a closer look, the way Hogan does, at these characters’ precarious existence, at their preoccupations and how they pit themselves against one another. Battles over territory, mating privileges and tests of strength pulse beneath the surface of seemingly mild personalities.
There are three characters we come to know intimately. Maggie, the young widow of David Bryant, pretty, placid and urban who inherits a languishing wildlife park. Christopher, her stepson, who is difficult and vulnerable, and at odds with his stepmother. Finally, Louisa, a woman who lives on the estate and who keeps no company except her hawks.
David is the centre of their world – and the void in it. Louisa in particular pines for him because she has the longest history with David though the true nature of her craving is obscured by the hold she had over him in life.
The natural world seeps into these relationships, literally and figuratively. There are practical problems to solve like when the herd of ibex are set free by persons unknown and tracked down to Morrison’s car park, or when the worst rains in a century come, flooding roads and endangering the raptors’ aviary. At times like these Maggie and Louisa have no choice but to work together, for whom else can they turn to?
Maggie is the warmer of the two women and sees better then Louisa does how much they have in common. Louisa, made bitter by experience, is unwilling to relinquish the comforts of isolation. They’re ostensibly rivals though the object of their mutual affection has died. The language and gestures are human; the forces moving them are animal.
Christopher is more than just a troubled teen, he is an abandoned child in a man’s body. His real mother is alive and well and has had nothing to do with him for years. He cannot accept the maternal overtures from Maggie for what they appear to be. What he would like most is to create his own family where he’s the man of the house or, alternatively, live the life of a noble outlaw in Sherwood Forrest. Neither dream is very realistic. Christopher is the physical embodiment of David, the new focus of Maggie and Louisa’s emotions, challenging and unpredictable. He requires no less patience than an injured animal who may attempt to bite you while you’re trying to save it.
The recurring image of falconry in this book is excellent. The delicate balance between care of the birds to keep them healthy, and the measured denial of food to keep them returning to the falconer’s fist works for numerous reasons, exposing the complexity of the human relationships that surround. This is but one example of Hogan’s creative brainpower, whose prose is crisp, the sounds and views of Derbyshire beautifully recreated. Equally impressive is the thorny friendship between Louisa and Maggie, how it deepens through the story, how each finds themselves influenced by the other.
Jealousy, hostility, helplessness and growth. The reader’s instincts constantly prickle. The Hunger Trace is accomplished and understated, a gem of a novel that manages to perturb and ultimately to reassure. For when we are consumed by terrible pain, what better therapy is there than to take care of a creature more fragile than ourselves?
In Lost, Stolen or Shredded, Rick Gekoski draws upon his expertise in antiquarian book dealing, academia and his proclivity for collecting to explore the hows and whys of missing art and literature. What unfolds is a collage of history, memoir, commentary and some truly fascinating stories – well known and obscure – of art heists, cultural vandalism, protected reputations and greed.
Each chapter covers a story or theme and Gekoski’s reflections on it. He tells, for instance, of Vincenzo Peruggia, an unprepossessing Italian picture framer working at the Louvre in 1911 who took the Mona Lisa off the wall, stuffed her up his smock, walked out with her unchallenged and kept her in his bedroom for two years. What’s intriguing, as Gekoski explains, is the public reaction to the theft. When the gallery opened a week later, thousands queued to look at the space the Mona Lisa left behind in an extraordinary convergence of crime scene curiosity and ritual mourning.
Another object, one never recovered, is a gaudy sounding edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a twelfth century Persian poet translated by Edward Fitzgerald) bound by Francis Sangorski with a peacock design in gold leaf and over 1,000 precious stones. It was commissioned in 1909, took two years to make, then sank with the Titanic in 1912. A further lesson, as if the Edwardians needed one, on the fallacy of decadence.
Some of the moments recounted by Gekoski are most poignant because they are deeply human. A striking example is the library of Guido Adler, a pioneer of modern musicology, whose collection included a personally inscribed manuscript of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (‘I am Lost to the World’) by Mahler. Adler, a Jew, died of natural causes in Vienna in 1941. His daughter, Melanie, inherited his library and unquestionably aware of its importance tried using it as bargaining chip with the Nazis in exchange for her life. An act of desperation assuredly and, with hindsight, naivety. Needless to say they procured the keys to her father’s library and its contents, and murdered her anyway.
Far less harrowing though no less interesting is a personal anecdote of Gekoski’s meeting with the Irish writer, Brian Coffey, in the 1980s regarding placing his papers with various institutions. In the 1920s Coffey was personal friend, golfing buddy and correspondent of Samuel Beckett. ‘How many letters would you say you had from Sam?’ Gekoski asked, book dealer antennae twitching. Coffey replied that he never counted but it was probably ‘thousands’ and that he threw them all away. Gekoski (presumably reeling from shock) asked him why?
‘At first, I just answered a letter, then chucked it in the bin. As you do. But after a few years, and Sam got well known, then I made sure to throw them away . . . because they were private.’
And this is the core of what Gekoski’s book is about, how we relate to works of cultural significance. Depending on our point of view art is personal property; a sellable commodity; of immeasurably greater historic than intrinsic value; damaging to individual reputations; a political firework waiting to go off; or rubbish getting in the way. Equally the loss and destruction of art and literature provokes different responses, emotional and real world.
As wide-ranging as this book is, there’s much material left for Gekoski to cover. Only as I was reading it (July 2013) a news report emerged of a mother in Romania who apparently burned paintings by Picasso, Monet, Matisse and Freud in her oven. The woman claims it was an attempt to ‘destroy the evidence’ following her son’s arrest for an art theft from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal Museum in October 2012. The work had a collective value of between 100m and 200m euros. This kind of story confirms what Gekoski explains: art thefts are not jaunty Thomas Crown style escapades by eccentric billionaire collectors, they are ham-fisted and motivated by money. And the more famous and highly valued a work, the more difficult it becomes to move it along the chain of dealers. Priceless paintings become virtually, even literally, worthless.
Paradoxically the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad during the Bush/Rumsfeld/Blair war in Iraq, the loss of thousands of ancient Mesopotamian pieces and the subsequent saturation of the antiquities marketplace in the West meant prices tumbled. Gekoski meditates on whether the appropriation of one culture’s treasures by another has any benefits? His juxtaposition of the case of the Elgin Marbles makes interesting reading. Still it’s a chilling thought that in the modern age, rather than taking an enlightened approach to artefacts, devastation is potentially systematic and the channels to sell merchandise superefficient.
Lost, Stolen or Shredded is based on the Radio 4 documentary of the same name. I didn’t hear it myself, but if Gekoski’s voice on the air is the same as it is on the page, then he’s witty, knowledgeable and engaging – someone I’d definitely want to be seated next to at a dinner party. Despite the big themes this is a hugely readable book about an intriguing subject.
In his afterword Gekoski reminds us with Buddhist-like reflection that even when it survives accident, political turmoil and bungling, art doesn’t last forever. Art is fragile and temporary. Its very impermanence is what we should cherish.
Hats off to Bath Literary Festival for running a slick operation and being very author-friendly, especially the volunteers who greet you, offer you tea and shepherd you about. Even more special is the number of readers turning out in force to hear talks, including ours.
Now I understand why it’s one of the top festivals in the country. K x
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