Category Archives: Reflections

It’s ALIVE… poetry festival

Coming up next week! The Wee Gatherin, an ‘in real life’ poetry mini-festival organised by The Poet’s Republic in venues around Stonehaven in the North East of Scotland.

Poets are coming in from Scotland, Ireland and England for an opportunity to read, share, laugh…and probably drink.

First event in the bill will be a world premiere reading of poems from the new collection, Pibroch, which will be published by Red Squirrel Press in September…but I can’t wait to share work I’ve been focussed on for the last 2 years.

Pibroch explores parallels between the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 and the unfolding climate catastrophe driving the extreme weather events occuring with increasing frequence and fatal consequences. The title alludes to the pibroch Lament for the Children (Padraig Mor McCrimmon c1640).

The poems in Pibroch have been created as a mix of found poems and imaginative voicings based on :

  • The extant official enquiry and documentation associated with the disaster (e.g. the Cullen Report, Cabinet Papers, newspaper articles);
  • Interviews in the public domain from survivors and relatives;
  • Emotional, behavioural and scientific parallels between the disaster and the current climate crisis as documented in various intergovernmental reports and scientific papers.

As a former oil worker, a scientist and a climate activist, I feel the tensions between my responsibility for the situation, my empathy for the working men and women involved in the fossil fuels industry over the past century and my fears for the future of my children, grandchildren and the sustainability of most of the life on the planet.  It is widely recognised that swift action is needed to mitigate and adapt-to the evolving ecological crisis.  Pibroch is my attempt to engage with the lived experience of the last three generations in both the global North and South in promoting the need for a genuinely Just Transition.

For me, the parallels between the unfolding climate crisis and the events around the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster are striking. It’s a common place to say radical change demands a ‘burning platform’.  In Piper Alpha there is a well-documented concrete metaphor for the emerging catastrophe which requires critical reflection and vivid, accessible expression. On the night of 6th July,1988, 167 men died and 47 survived.  Two weeks ago, around 500 people died on the West Coast of North America. This week, over 150 lost their lives & livelihoods in extreme flooding in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Every year, thousands are forced to flee in the face of environmental degradation and the conflicts provoked by hunger, thirst and poverty arising from the climate emergency.

Perhaps the work can best be summarised by the poem Teach Your Child to Swim. One of a number which will be featured in the Wee Gatherin reading.

22.01

Thirty-three years ago a disaster occurred 120 miles North East of Aberdeen.  An Occidental oil & gas facility, Piper Alpha, was destroyed by explosion, fire and, ultimately, human negligence.  In the hours after 10 pm on 6th July, 167 men died.

I wasn’t there.

I knew men who were…some of whom survived.  I had, for a time, ‘moved South’ after the oil price slump of 1986.  I returned to Aberdeen in the aftermath of Piper Alpha and was involved, for a time, in the oil & gas industry’s response to the events of that night – ‘improved’ permit to work systems, drop down firewalls, emergency shutdown valves, safety cases and ‘STEP change’. Earnest endeavours to keep the fossil fuel industry intact in the face of an atrocious negligence arising out of arrogance and greed.

The Tory government, led by Margaret Thatcher, expressed sympathy whilst taking measures to limit trades union reaction and suppress calls for improved safety standards offshore.  Cabinet papers released in recent years reveal that these measures were encouraged by oil company representatives embedded in UK government and that Margaret Thatcher clearly had a great deal more sympathy and empathy with Armand Hammer, then president of Occidental, than with the families of those killed or injured as a consequence of Occidental’s negligence.

Over the last two years I have been working on a project – Pibroch – reflecting upon the events of that night – and their aftermath – as they parallel our current global situation in this time of Climate Emergency.  The parallels, for me, are stark and compelling.

“The Tory government, led by Boris Johnson, expresses sympathy whilst taking measures to limit societal reaction and suppress calls for improved environmental standards.  Cabinet papers will be released in future decades (if we’re lucky) revealing that these measures were encouraged by oil company representatives and their investors embedded in UK government and that Johnson clearly had a great deal more sympathy and empathy with fossil fuel interests than with the families of those killed or injured as a consequence of his negligence.”

Somewhere about 1998 I was offshore on one of BP’s Forties installations.  About 6.30 a.m., long before it was light, the platform shutdown and the flare lifted.  I, and others in the crew, waited in the dark of a portacabin on deck, awaiting instructions to go to muster, receiving no further instruction or update on the ‘situation’.  Waiting. Hoping.  And yes…complying, obeying.

Most of the men who died that night 33 years ago lost their lives following instructions and procedures, hoping rescue would come.  Some of them, I suspect, knew the installation was unsafe.  That was certainly what I was told by some of their colleagues in the years after.  But you’re on this platform together.  There is solidarity and a certain (misplaced) trust.

Most of those who survived chose to abandon ‘business as usual’ and take responsibility for their own lives.  The parallels with the current Climate Emergency seem to me compelling.

Please reflect on that as we drift into an ever more hazardous climate.

Rolling…

Busy weeks and getting busier. 

Elsewhere to Be, a collection of creative writing – fiction and non-fiction – I’ve been editing for the WORD Centre at University of Aberdeen has (finally) gone to the printers.  The writing was inspired by the lives and experiences of landless families displaced by the effects of agricultural expansion in the early to mid-nineteenth century.  Together they reflect on experiences of displacement, loss and recovery, of living on the margins and striving for better things, using the personal experience and imagination of present-day writers to explore the lives of those who made Bennachie their home during this period.  Written in English, Polish and Scots and skillfully translated by Beata Tschirch, the project was a great experience.  More information on a launch and where to get your copy as soon as things firm up!

Privileged to have my three-poem sequence, Lament for the Children, published in NorthWords Now Issue 41 in such good company.  The poems were written as part of the Pibroch project and inspired by Padraig Mor MacCrimmon’s pìobaireachd – Cumha na Cloinne.  The pibroch, Lament for the Children, was, indeed, central to the development of the show and collection – both of which are structured around the four ‘movements’ of that piece – urlar, dithis, suibhal and taorluth.

Poetry @ Books and Beans: Thursday 27th May

In the meantime, I’m actively looking for venues for Pibroch starting from July this year – and hoping we’re not driven back into lock-down.  An abridged version will feature as part of The Gathering in Stonehaven 23rd-25th July and I’ll be sharing some of the poems online later this month at Poetry @ Books and Beans: Thursday 27th May at 6.30 pm UTC+01.  Free and online.  Check out the Poetry @ Books and Beans facebook page for more information and links.  Will be joined by Sheila Templeton reading from her new collection – Clyack – and the usual enthusiastic line-up for the Open Mic.

And in the meantime2 , there’s still time to register for the online launch of Pushing Out the Boat 16 on Sunday 16th. Writing from around the world though with a North East flavour and a fine line-up of readers.

Time to get this show back on the road…

Well, I’m sure it has been an extraordinary year for most of us, and for many of us a year of loss and sadness.  For me, it has been, mostly, a year of isolation – wait and see, restricted for much of it to my home due to my high vulnerability to COVID-19.  Unlike many of friends in the global South, I have had the benefit of vaccination and the support of a government (in Scotland, at least) somewhat more concerned with the lives and health of their population than others seem to have been in countries like Brazil and, until recently, the USA.

A year of isolation and retreat has, however, provided an opportunity to focus fairly on writing projects and some associated music and film-making ideas.  It has also provided the opportunity to provide some online mentoring and editorial support for other writers and projects.

So, as we come out of lock-down (again and at least temporarily), it’s time to get the show on the road again on so many levels.

The Asphalt City

Over the last 12 months, with the help and support, in particular, of Mary Armour, I’ve produced (and re-produced and finally produced) Threads, a novel set in Angola, Scotland, the USA and South Korea between 2005 and 2011.

It is the product of first-hand experience, deep research and, perhaps most challenging of all, a determined empathy for all its diverse characters.  

Working in Angolan oil & gas operations in 2005, I was struck by the fact that the ‘pilgrims’ depicted in Heart of Darkness (1899) were alive and well in the 21st Century.  But any reprise of Conrad’s novella of the present age, has to offer a polyphonous, multivalent account, giving voice, especially, to indigenous perspectives.  In Threads, Caliban’s much-maligned mother, Sycorax, confronts Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz with the consequences of his actions and demands a compensation greater than his death. 

Adopting terms from Portuguese, Kimbundu, Calão and Scots, the tale challenges reader-expectations as the point-of-view switches between colonised and colonist, woman and man, living and ‘dead’, unfolding in a shatter-zone of experience and memory.

I’ll be posting more thoughts on the development of this really challenging project over the next few weeks.

Remains of Piper Alpha 7th July 1988
Remains of Piper Alpha 7th July 1988

Also ready to roll is Pibroch – my spoken word show and poetry collection exploring parallels between the Climate Emergency and the Piper Alpha disaster which occurred in the North Sea in 1988.

Pibroch was originally conceived a one-person spoken word performance with accompanying music and visuals.  And it still is and can be!   The pressures of the last year have, however, driven the piece to be far more digital that might otherwise have been the case and it will be suitable for streaming as an installation as well as a performance.  This has been a great opportunity to learn new skills in film making and music production which have been integrated into my practice. 

There is a complementary collection currently in preparation. Publication of Pibroch by Red Squirrel Press is expected in 2021.

More information on some of the themes and practical issues with the development of Pibroch will be appearing on A View from the Long Grass over the next few weeks.  So watch this space!

Climate Science & Climate Change Poetry

Thwaites Glacier – West Antarctica, 28th Dec. 2019 – NASA Earth Observatory

Tomorrow night – 11th February 2020 – sees the inaugural event in STEM Poets programme of workshops and readings aimed at developing a coherent and effective body of poetry and other writing which can engage with and influence the outcomes of the ongoing Climate Emergency.

STEM Poets as a group was initiated by Eveline Pye in 2019 engaging a range of poets with a background, or special interest in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics. They support STEAM, a global initiative to introduce the arts within STEM education in order to encourage creativity and break down barriers between the arts and sciences. STEM poets believe it is important that readers are presented with factually correct and truthful STEM knowledge in works of imagination, specifically poems and short fiction, and wish to promote informed writing on climate change. They want to encourage more people to write about STEM subjects and will offer support and review of STEM content.  I am very pleased to count myself as one of their number.

Tomorrow night’s event will involve a discussion between Eveline and Colin Will, exploring some of the ideas and issues around Climate Change poetry, many of which have been outlined in Eveline’s recent essay published by Glasgow Review of Books.

The issues around STEM poetry and climate are, at even a cursory exploration, complex and fascinating.  How is the complexity of biophysical processes communicated clearly and coherently in ‘verse’ – as opposed to their natural vernacular of algebra and algorithms?  How do we as poets and scientists avoid bowdlerising reality in order to get an essentially political point across?

Eveline’s essay explores guidance of ‘effective communication’ on Climate Change from a number of government and academic sources which, in summary, propose that effective climate change poetry ‘should’:

i) be clear, relevant and coherent avoiding references which are unlikely to be understood by the general public;

ii) not rely on evoking fear either for the reader or the next generation but should evoke positive emotions which support people’s internal sense of agency – the feeling that their actions are meaningful;

iii) not be overly strident as this increases the likelihood that the message will be discounted or ignored, and should avoid highlighting the difference between the reader’s attitude and actions since this is more likely to change their attitude than their actions;

iv) focus on past loss and the restoration of what has been lost, near-term benefits and opportunities to avoid future losses rather than apocalyptic scenarios;

v) help overcome negative associations and poverty attributions associated with actions we want to encourage such as buying second-hand furniture and clothes, drinking tap water and using public transport.

Talk about squaring the circle!

Having been active and interested in this area over the last decade, I find these criteria challenging in the extreme in the context of a single poem or even collection.

How to express the complexity – and often counter-intuitive nature – of processes avoiding references ‘unlikely to be understood’?

How to avoid frightening or shaming individuals into apathy or denial?

How to avoid advocacy in a literature which is, no matter your perspective – whether a denier, a mitigator or an adaptor –  partial and political?

And how to present positive inducements in a situation which, ‘scientifically’, seems to forecast few upsides for human societies or the majority of other critters currently on the planet?

In this context, this project does not need individual poets but a community of poets – with diverse (precise but necessarily limited) STEM knowledge and a range of  political and aesthetic perspectives on this process.  There are those who see rewilding as a ‘good’…others, perhaps, the preservation of a material ‘civilisation’ (for some) at great cost to other creatures and fellow-human beings.  Some, in workshops and discussions, have been sanguine and of the view that a world without people would be a ‘good thing’…bring on the next mass extinction!  Let us start again.  The planet will recover…and it will (whatever that means?). (And who are ‘we’ in that ambition?)

All of the above are essentially political perspectives – not scientific – and should be expressed and explored clearly and coherently in an accessible literature – doing what poetry and fiction do best – exploring alternative personal perspectives and trajectories – but staying close to the topic.  That the climate IS changing and will have many complex ramifications for all living things and their social connection.

One of the areas I am working on, at the moment, concerns the Thwaites Glacier, part of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf which extends ‘into’ the Amundsen Sea.  Thwaites Glacier is melting AND calving at an accelerating pace due to complex hydrological and physical processes which, though perfectly ‘logical’ confound the simple notion that ‘ice melts’. 

https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146247/thwaites-glacier-transformed

Essentially, studies suggest, warm water (well… 1.5 degC) is being hosed towards the grounding line of the ice shelf by canyons in the seabed (themselves relics of earlier glaciation).  The warm water (Circumpolar Deep Water), which ‘flows’ out of the Northern hemisphere, undercuts and destabilises the ice, which is NOT floating but grounded on the sea bed hundreds, sometimes thousands of metres down.  Melting from below and subject to bending stresses it calves, releasing fragments to the open ocean which float north (and melt).

So…make a poem out of that (working on it!)  The episode highlights the gap between school-child physics (ice melts at 0 degC in some slow dripping process – like an ice-cube in a glass – as the global temperature inches up through 1.5 degC to 3 degC above pre-industrial levels) and the complexity of geophysical processes in the ‘real world’.  In fact, local geophysical processes are directing jets of warm water at the grounding line and the thinning ice is collapsing.  Think of a high-powered water jet rather than dripping meltwater.

It is estimated that Thwaites Glacier could account for 0.4m of mean sea-level rise.

So,

  1. What does 0.4m sea level rise mean?  And when might that happen?
  2. How do I have agency in addressing this issue – reduce my GHG footprint? Throw up sea-defences? Both?

Does the poet addresses the consequences or the process – a nostalgic grieving over things I’ve never seen or experienced but are about to be ‘lost’?

I am drawn back to one of my creative touch-stones in this, advice attributed to the Chinese Song Dynasty poet and scholar, Wei T’ai.

‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing but reticent about the feeling. ‘

I am very much looking forward to tomorrow night’s event at the CCA in Glasgow and an ongoing collaboration with fellow writers and artists in this vital area.  Hope to see you there.

5-4-3-2-1…

Launch day.

A beautiful morning here in St. Andrews. Cloudless sky and the wind that was promised seems to have taken itself elsewhere (for now at least).

Perfect conditions then.

Launch day. What am I…an astronaut?

And I notice the coincidence. My first publication…on the wall of Mrs. Thompson’s class in St. Paul’s Primary – a story about pyramids. I was 11. It was 1969. They hadn’t quite landed on the moon yet.

Launch day. I never wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be a writer – a poet, a novelists, a fabulator : (yes…a clype).

Archaeologist, explorer, big-game hunter even…before the blush came off that peach. Astronaut…not so much. Who takes a golf club to another planet? A man…I suppose. (Yes…I know…satellite! Words and meanings matter.)

Yuri Gagarin had a better label. And all those earnest statues, plaques, memorials in Russia still there when I visited…up there with Vladmir Ilych…up there and beyond. Even Pixar knew Buzz was a made-up name.

Launch day. I have waited 50 years for this. There are other books…still born or waiting – books in limbo : but that’s a whole other (meta)physics. But this one…now…on the table in J & G Innes window on South St., St. Andrews.

Yes…you can always write. You can! I’ve been a writer since I was at least 11 years old & Maurice Lindsay (bless him) published me and paid (handsomely) when was just 18. I have always written, scrievit, flyted, fabulated, clyped.

But no matter how much math and simulator hours and pretending to be weightless while your jumbo jet plummets thousands of feet and rehearsals and sleepless nights and number one haircuts…are you really an astronaut till blast off?

Launch day. My thanks to everyone in Mission Control and all the vast hinterland of Fallen Stock – a circumfusa half a century deep. Now…

5-4-3-2-1…we have ignition…


Imagining the Late Anthropocene

In a previous post, A New Realism about the Anthropocene, I reflected on recent scientific and academic speculation on the inception date of the Anthropocene – the period of our planet’s history which is visibly dominated and effected by human social practices such as
• burning,
• selective breeding and species elimination,
• terraforming,
• trans-oceanic migration,
• mining
• the release of synthetic compounds and man-made (transuranic) elements.

Some might view this characterisation of what might conventionally be called agriculture, manufacturing, travel – civilisation, progress – as unduly critical and damning. We have burgeoned haven’t we? We thrive. We have created complex social structures within which most of us live longer and less stressful lives that our remote ancestors. For the majority of us more of our children live and live longer, reproduce in turn. This is what life does after all. It reproduces itself. It persists.

It could be argued that we have transcended the ‘natural’ barriers to growth – the limitations of terrain, of topographic obstacles, of seasonal patterns. Our ingenuity has enabled us to cover the earth, colonise every advantageous niche, eliminate competitors and biological threats. Why, in the debate around the Anthropocene, should there be a tone of dread and pessimism?

Perhaps it is that the limitations that we now conceive and have the scientific tools to interpret and imagine not biological but physical. Climate. Toxicity. And that the breakdown of temporal and spatial barriers our ingenuity has realised may result in a rate of change in these factors which is likely to be unprecedented in human history.

I have exchanged with sceptics who insist, of course, it’s all a con – it’s all about the sun and nothing we can do…a comforting fatalism diluted with a dash of Micawberism (something will turn up). This wilful irresponsibility, often revealing a fundamental lack of understanding of the difference between energy and heat, ignores the fact that, even if it’s not our fault, we are the only species in any position to address the issue…and if we don’t, in either case, it is we who will suffer.

Of course, the biosphere will respond – some species by dying out, others by multiplying. Productive land will become arid. Dry land will be submerged. Storms will intensify. Plants will not be pollinated. Harvests fail. Patterns will be disrupted.

I believe the human species will survive – among others.

The question which I believe is unique to us is – how? In what social form? And in what numbers? We count. It’s is one of our foibles.

Megadeaths?

Dystopias in art are comforting. More comfortable, perhaps, than Utopias to which we don’t feel quite adequate. Better a final reckoning then – apocalyptic and definitive – or the thrill of sordid and heroic ‘post-apocalyptic’ struggle – a new Dark Age of zombies, brigands, tyrants. We came through the Dark Ages didn’t we? So Dark Ages are survivable. That’s known.

Well yes….and a lot of people died.

Survivalism is romantic escapism. Individualistic. Mock-heroic. It ignores kith and kin, that which is precious to us in our social fabric. It ignores our humanity.

In contrast to the comforting wallow of fatalism and machismo, others attempt to imagine a ‘sustainable’ world beyond ‘our’ civilisation. A world in which we have come to terms with the pathological aspects of our behaviour – the uncontained appetite for meat, speed, distance, things – a world which recognises limits – boundaries – and the vital productivity of edges where cultures and ecosystems abut, overlap, intermingle.

Some, like Paul Kingsnorth in his recent book ‘Beast’ and Em Strang in her stunning poem ‘Stone’ seem to exhort us to reconnect with the animal in us – the panther, the horse – creatures which flow with and through ‘the natural world’ channelled by its barriers and limitations – hedgerows, rills, its seasons. These texts portray solitary human protagonists who have, to some extent, stepped free of kith, are finding a new way to be in straightened circumstances and closer to an animal simplicity.

I suspect most of us will find ourselves in ‘straightened circumstances’ in the decades to come and there may be a need for greater self-sufficiency, self-reliance and self-discipline. But we are human. Our humanity is as natural as any pantherness or equine nature (horses themselves an artefact of human interventions). Our humanity is social. Communitarian. Linguistic.

What persists over the longue duree is not technology or social organisation but stories, music, dancing, systems of belief, cooking, painting, carvings, trade routes, pathways – things we share. In imagining the Late Anthropocene, I believe we must imagine a social world, perhaps a world defined by the re-instatement of boundaries, a mosaic of social and ecological experiments but a world in which the protagonists are human and animal – not zombies, not orcs – social not solitary – and where the challenges are to eat, to love, to reproduce, to trade, to sing, to celebrate. Life as normal in an abnormal world – for us – the world beyond the bump. I offer up that challenge.

A New Realism about the Anthropocene

Andrew Wyeth : Is this still life?

What do you write about? Or…sometimes…What do you write?
This followed by a frantic pause (sic).
What do I write? What has been published? What do I write about?
What do I paint? Where can they be viewed? What do I paint about?
The second set of questions seems, to me, more obtuse and that quality throws light, for me, on the precariousness of the first.
What do I write (about)?
I have been ‘writing’ – consciously, compulsively ‘making up stories’ whether as prose or plays or poetry – since I was at least 11 years old – 47 years.
But what was I writing about?

In Andrew Wyeth : A Secret Life, Richard Meryman’s biography of A.N.Wyeth, the American 20th Century realist painter, he asserts that Wyeth’s painting ‘Spring Fed’ has ‘in the back-ground’ – in its emotional and aesthetic hinterland – the death of Robin Hood. The tempera – in Wyeth’s characteristically austere cold tones – depicts a water trough in a byre, fed by a trickle of clear water ‘spring fed’. A bucket hangs on the wall to the right. Through the window above and beyond the trough, cattle graze the middle ground before a gently sloping hill in the distance. Reading more deeply into Wyeth’s biography, the cattle are Swiss-Brown. The byre, trough and hill belonged to Karl Kuerner, a first-generation German immigrant who farmed near Wyeth’s home in Pennsylvania. Wyeth was a 3rd generation immigrant to the US on his father’s side (German-Swiss). Kuerner had been a machine gunner in the German Army during World War One.
These are, of course, the details I select. What resonates for me amidst what resonated for Meryman (and Wyeth). Robin Hood, dying in the hospitable seclusion of a convent gathers his men, shoots a final arrow through the open casement and wills that where that arrow falls will be his final resting place. My heart is in the Highlands, my heart is not here etcetera.
Windows, and people looking out of windows, are a regular feature in Wyeth’s work. Even, paradoxically, in a painting such as Christina’s World there is a sense of the protagonist being on the inside looking out. So too is the device of painting a portrait of an individual, a deep and emotional, biographical representation of a lived life through the depiction of a lived in yet presently vacant interior (as in Groundhog Day for example) or of implements or clothing by which/in which the individual has lived (as in Sea Boots or Willard’s Coat). Like Kuerner’s trough and Kuerner’s bucket. Like the spring water that flows from the hill into the byre and the viewer who gazes back from the byre towards the hill and Wyeth’s childhood romance of the aging hero longing to be again. Cattle apart, this is a still life. Nature morte. And yet, with interpretation, each element orbits mood and meaning.
Once again, I think, we are in the territory of still life as innuendo rather than eye-candy but not, simply, the wistful-moralistic mood of Dutch ondbitjes – ‘all flesh is grass’, ‘there’s always the morning after’ – but rather an entire life-theme, not a whole life but strand of it, a sustained emotional strain.
So what do you write about? And – what do you write?
Life.
Really? Whose life?
Aye, there’s the rub.
For a while now I have been very interested in (auto)biographical writing – Life Writing in the current parlance. How do you earnestly and honestly engage with lived experience and attempt to excavate – the only verb I feel that fits – some sort of narrative ‘explanation’ for ‘what happened’? I’ve been aware for many years that a great part of the motivation to write – to fabulate and to confect fictions – is, in me, to clype – to point out that that’s not really (quite) how it is or was and that some of us (at least) don’t experience life that way and mothering can be an ambiguous experience and the apple pie may well be laced with strychnine.
One’s self-confidence, in this, is, of course, undermined by shame and, in my case at least, the suspicion of a certain psychological ‘volatility’. Is that really what happened? I know you think that happened but…? So one creeps into the undergrowth – the long grass I suppose – and conceals oneself amidst the ‘make it that’. And ‘make it that’ becomes the laboratory in which our personal Mr. & Mrs. Hydes can be conjured, cultured, trained.
The Arvon Book of Life Writing edited by Sally Cline and Carole Angier makes, in this context, salutary reading. It makes it clear, I think, that ‘Life Writing’ is a dodgy pastime, that autobiography is (always) morally reprehensible and biography problematic unless all of the protagonists, their children and their childrens’ children have shuffled off. It might be OK to write a biography of Sappho or Prester John – otherwise the author is on thin-ice frankly. One of the charms and virtues of the book, and there are several, is that the authors and contributors are so upfront about this aspect whilst encouraging wannabe life-writers (like me?) to ‘have a go’. Running a crack-house may result in socially questionable outcomes but think of the upsides why-don’t-you?
But what does a writer write about if not his or her lived experience? Fantasy alter-egos living a life of crime, historical importance, sentimental overload, sexual disinhibition or super-empowerment? I know that is what stories are ‘for’…but what do you write about?
In response to which, I return to a figure (on the viewer’s side of the picture plane) gazing out through a life, through a window – alone and reticent in his telling and remembering – observing a life, his own or another’s, and constructing an evocation in the present of how it is and how it was that everyone can (sort of) live with. An evocation constructed of trompe d’oeil make-it-that’s and a perfect command of tone.
Is that what I write about? Is that what I paint about? Well, it’s something to aim for.

Emin to Heda: Bed and Breakfast

In the autumn of 2015, I participated in one of the University of Iowa’s excellent creative writing MOOCs – How Writers Write Fiction. Among the varied and interesting (and occasionally exasperating) advice and insights offered by a variety of authors in the course material, I was particularly struck by a comment by the Salvadorean author Horacio Castellanos Moya that the voice of a character in fiction, whether a protagonist or a narrator, reveals the ‘mentality’ of that character.

In Castellano-Moja’s view, what a character notices and comments upon, the world and experience the author imagines the character deems worthy of remark, paints the picture, for the reader, of what kind of person this imaginary being ‘is’.

For me it was one of those key-stone clicks. ‘Well obviously! Of course!…And I never thought of that!’

I encountered the idea again recently in Norbert Schneider’s commentary on Still Life in the Taschen edition of that title. That the objects selected by the painter reflect the mentality of both the painter and his milieu. The objects are deemed worthy of remark and record. The painter makes some kind of calculation that his target ‘market’ will find a representation of THOSE objects desirable (even if that ‘market’ is only the artist himself or herself).

Schneider’s book, in fact, focusses exclusively on the still lifes of the ‘Early Modern’ period – the Dutch Golden Age, the work of Velasquez and Cotan, Caravaggio and their contemporaries. Chardin is not touched upon. The dislocations of Braque and Picasso are far in the future – though Archimboldo gets to mess with our senses. No Cezanne.

For myself, in this period, I am particularly attracted to the early to mid-17th century breakfast pieces – ondbijtjes – of Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz. Heda. Almost monochrome in subdued greenish -grey and warm earthy-golds, these pieces do not represent opulent display, conspicuous consumption or fanciful connection as in other still lifes of the period – by Kalf or de Heem for example. Despite the fabulous and sudden wealth of the Dutch Republic, in these subdued ondbijtjes what is represented is ‘the morning after’ – the half eaten pie, the flat, left over beer in the tumbler, the cowped goblet, the broken wine-glass, as for example in Heda’s Breakfast Still Life with Blackberry Pie. What a night we had last night! We set the world to rights and broke that lovely glass that Marten liked so much.

As Norman Bryson comments in the BBC documentary Apples, Pears and Paint, this is ‘consumption as destruction’ – in contrast to other ‘banquet pieces’ which celebrate accumulation with their lobster, nautilus goblets, Chinese porcelain. These are vanitas. Heda even includes a pocket watch, abandoned on the table’s edge to remind us that time is ticking by.

There is a beautiful melancholy about these pieces. They are not (quite) representations of a hang-over – there is a wistful sense a good time was had by all…and yet?

Someone bought this stuff, displayed this stuff, over the centuries cherished and curated these images…for their meaning and their artistry.

On the internet, it seems, there is a thriving interest in and market for pastiches of Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes including a sub-genre of beautifully realised photographs replicating composition, lighting, mood but not involving ‘paint’ (or painting).

In 1999 Tracey Emin installed her piece My Bed in the Tate.

The piece provoked comment, outrage perhaps – stained sheets and underwear, condoms, vodka bottles, ashtray, ‘detritus’ – fewer pundits remarking on the fluffy toy, her slippers.

I admire the reckless autobiographical quality in much of Tracey Emin’s work. I know, and have disagreed, with, others who feel she is ‘taking the piss’ but her response to the accusation that ‘anyone can exhibit an unmade bed’ was, allegedly, ‘Well, they didn’t, did they?’ And the impact of the piece was, unquestionably, greater than a painting of her unmade bed – no less ‘confessional’ – might have been.

The ‘found object’ was fair game in 20th century art from Duchamp onwards. Emin found the left over trace of herself (an inadvertent pun) …staged and unstaged…and presented it – just as Heda found and staged the broken glass, the half-eaten pie…did he eat it? An assistant? The difference is he transposed and encapsulated it in the two-dimensional ‘wrapper’ of a painting. But what do you do with an unmade bed? Saatchi allegedly kept it in a special room in his house. What can the ‘person’ who purchased it for £2,546,500 in 2014 ‘do’ with it…apart from ‘own’ it.

Yet for me they sit ‘together’ – Heda’s ondbijt and Emin’s bed – as representations of the aftermath of experience and consumption…consumption as destruction. And, in some sense, in Emin’s case the object of consumption was her self even as it made her reputation as an artist.

It is a common-place that we are said to live in a ‘consumer society’. The economics of late-capitalism (what a hopeful touch that word ‘late’ is!) demand continuous consumption and exorbitant waste. Durability is anathema. The evanescent is paradigmatic. The dematerialised – streaming video and audio and one-click digital downloads – replace the painted, the sculpted, the printed, performed and the real – recording, replication and dissemination are privileged over creation and performance – unique creations become asset-categories or events – bankably particular. This blog, of course, exploits the same evanescent facility…if you want to see Heda’s painting, it’s in Dresden.

But if consumption is destruction doesn’t that make a consumer society a destructive society? And if this is so, isn’t there more need for the vanitas as a genre in our art…to remind us, gently, of the cost of that ‘good night in’? Shouldn’t we value that reminder?

Capital:On Growth and its Discontents

In Capital, Thomas Piketty argues, based on analysis of available historical records, that global growth rates prior to the 18th Century CE were probably in the order of 0%-0.2% GDP per annum. Between 1700 and 2012, he calculates, global growth rates were, on average, 0.8% GDP with significantly higher rates (up to 3.5%) in the middle of the 20th Century.

Picketty argues that a growth rate in the order of 1% ‘implies major social change’ since material circumstances – and therewith power and property relations – shift dramatically from generation to generation at these rates of growth.

He, moreover, argues that the spectacularly high growth rates of the 20th century are associated with two phenomena – the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed in the two world wars and the technological catch-up of formerly colonised areas previously asset stripped for resources (agricultural products, minerals, slave labour). He questions, with I think good reason,that such growth can be sustained outwith periods of regeneration and with a level technological playing field.

Given his focus on income and wealth, he is less engaged, I think, with the enormous injection of ‘low cost’ energy which fossil fuel exploitation enabled this growth, the ultimate ecological costs of which have never been incorporated into the ‘pricing model’. We have grown ‘wealthy’ by accumulating debts, not to banks or sovereign funds, but to future generations and vulnerable populations – debts which, given our mortality, cannot be foreclosed on and on which we will probably default.

Piketty fractionates growth into two components – population growth and productivity growth. The material and technological benefits of the latter enable the former. For a while, in the 19th and 20th centuries, more and more of us produced faster and faster. As a consequence, each generation lived in a different world, with different expectations, from that of their parents. Coal, oil and gas drove massive social change and the dominant market mechanism, capitalism, required constant innovation and repackaging to attract the interest and appetite of each succeeding generation. Instability and change is the essence of modernity and was fuelled almost exclusively by burning fossil hydrocarbons which cannot be renewed in ‘human’ timescales.

I was interested, reading John Berger’s essays on Durer, Caravaggio and others in Portraits, to reflect the shifts in emphasis in European art in the early modern period just preceding the take-off in growth rates. Artists like Durer and Michelangelo looked backwards to the world of their fathers or to classical ideals – were mannerist and idealist – modelling the present on the past whilst incorporating technological and craft development (including a burgeoning self-awareness) into their practice.

Later or more Northern (proto-capitalist?) artists focus on the real person and his or her material possessions – Caravaggio’s Madonna del Palafreniere really is/ is really Maddalena di Paolo Antognetti in contemporary (17th century) clothes, Mrs. Arnolfini’s green woollen dress is state-of-the-art and Willem Claesz. Heda’s ondbijtjes are straight from the kitchen the night before – it’s now stuff, it’s new stuff – and from there it picks up the pace.

Art and ideas about individual autonomy and material prosperity (and their associated political institutions) in Europe precede the invention of the steam engine, maybe inform the desire to build such a device which decouples the proprietor from the vagaries of climate, location, weather – but it is not until we start burning coal on an industrial scale that the inter-generational upheaval which we call ‘growth’ takes off.

Still – we are here today. We know what we know. We have created what we have created, discovered what we have discovered, dug up (and burned or smelted) what we have dug up. Murdered, maimed, exploited and enslaved. We are where we are. It is what it is. Unjust. Unfair. Unwise.

Sometimes we have thought it magnificent (sometimes I have) – though perhaps that is no more than youthful boastfulness after an outrageous party. “Man, I was SO drunk last night! We trashed the place!”

There are issues, for me, of climate justice, of inter-generational justice, of personal responsibility – all of which, understandably, I’d like to avoid if I could. Who wouldn’t…faced with the scale of the problem, faced with the magnitude of the debts and the ease with which some can evade our creditors?

Art and economics. Sustainability.

I make marks. I have a sense that I should be doing more to sustain us. I desperately want to type ‘we’ rather than ‘I’…’we should be doing more’…but I have no right to. And more to the point I am not sure who/what ‘us’ is in the sentence – mark-making creatures, the conversation, the human race, life on earth? The cockroaches will outlive us here no matter what. I have no desire to live on Mars (or for my grandchildren to)…so it must be something to do with the conversation here on earth, which includes, in the marks, in the notation: all of us, cockroaches, unicorns, the duck-billed platypus, the great auk. As science elucidates the probable physical but not the cultural or ecological effects of the fossil-fuel bubble, I have ceased to believe the conversation can be sustained with growth rates in excess of 1%. The ecological damage is too great, the inter-generational churn too excessive. We need to slow down, stop changing so fast, growing so fast. Just be. And the fossil fuels need to stay in the ground.

Ed Miliband, former leader of the UK Labour Party, penned an article for a recent London Review of Books (Vol. 38, No.3). He too quoted Piketty, and a number of other sources, to argue that increasing inequality – the economic dynamic, ongoing since 1980, whereby the rich get richer and the poor get progressively poorer – is not only ‘unfair’ (which he correctly says is a bad thing) but that it is also ‘bad for growth’ This is a short-sighted political argument pandering, still, to what is believed to be acceptable to the ‘electorate’. It is a junkie’s argument.

In the individualistic culture which has cascaded (rather than evolved) through the inter-generational chaos of the last 300 years, it is hard to say unfair is ‘unfair’. ‘Life isn’t fair’ – etcetera, etcetera. But, unless community, cohesion, fairness, collective and inter-generational responsibility dominates the discourse, the mechanics of growth will tear us apart, atomise us, first socially and then, perhaps, physically.

The question is – therefore – what marks will best sustain ‘us’?