Book Review: The Power

9780670919963The Power is Naomi Alderman’s fourth novel, and it won the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction.  Science fiction novels don’t normally appeal to me, but the complex gender dynamics and dystopian vision of a gender-switched future sounded interesting, so I read it on holiday and found it a fascinating read. Firstly, it’s well-written, which is obviously what you’d expect from a Professor of Creative Writing; but more than that, it’s able to switch between subtle and tub-thumping, creating a web of complicated and unexpected threads of a speculative future. Other dystopias by feminist writers (Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercey and The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter spring to mind) are more of a blunt instrument, I think; The Power responds to some of the concerns of the twenty-first century in a way which is not fixed but shifts throughout the novel. Entertainingly, the novel is framed by letters from a (fictional) male author to ‘Naomi Alderman’ asking what she thinks of this novel which purports to tell a ‘new’ version of women’s rise to power; her advice, at the end, is that it’s hard to believe men were ever that strong, and that perhaps, to avoid being pigeonholed as ‘men’s literature’, he might consider using a female pseudonym.

Power corrupts. We are all increasingly aware of this, and politics, social and cultural structures,and everything that builds up most societies is based on patriarchal power, 4000the understanding from time immemorial that men are stronger physically and therefore men have the power; the threat of violence towards women, if not actually violence, underlies the patriarchy. What happens if women have a power which makes them more of a threat? At first, it’s a few teenage girls realising that they have a tingling sensation which becomes greater as they become angry (at men who attack them or their family): there is a direct correlation in the novel between the development of women’s power and their ill-treatment at the hands of men. These pubescent girls begin to realise they can do harm with this power, and from there it grows. The novel traces the development of this female power across the world, as women learn to fight back.

Like all good sci-fi, The Power gives a reason for this electricity (a liquid called Guardian Angel which was put in drinking water during WW2, and became part of the water cycle, intended to protect humans from gas attacks, but with an unintended consequence for women only), but the reason is almost irrelevant (though it does indicate the potential dangers of chemical alterations to the human body). The point is that young women develop a ‘skein’ across their collarbones which is the source of their electrical power which can maim or kill (or light candles, or tickle). Older women’s power can be ignited by younger women, and it becomes clear that ‘the power’ is metaphorical: in the early stages of the book, it seems a feminist trope, an indication of a much needed redress of the balance of power. The growth of female power is accompanied by the development Power-190x300of other social structures, however: despite attempts by masculine powers to repress or control it, women slowly gain political power, in one case setting up a women-only state, or developing a matriarchal religion. These developments are told through the stories of particular figures in different situations across the world, and thrown into relief by the story of a young man, Tunde, whose videos of early electrical attacks go viral and make him a sought-after reporter. At first the women see him as on their side; later, as his fear grows, it becomes startlingly clear to the reader how the balance of power has shifted completely, with men in fear of their lives.

The three main female characters indicate the ways in which individual situations contribute to a global reversal of power, building up slowly until it is an unstoppable tide. Allie has escaped (and killed) her abusive foster-father when the power came upon her, and she reinvents herself as a female prophet, with her own religion of female power. Margot is an American mayor looking for ways to advance her career in a male-dominated, inhospitable political environment, and Roxy is the daughter of a London gangland leader whose mother is murdered in front of her. They s-a3152730912b99a5f04ff88260dbb596194430deall have reasons for using power to their own ends, and at first it’s easy to sympathise when girls who have been victims of male power find their own strength and fight back. Quickly, though, it becomes extreme; and although little here has not been seen in the world before with the gender roles reversed – men are afraid to go out at night, men are considered to be dependent on women, men are inferior, etc – nonetheless it is shocking. And what is perhaps most shocking is the way that this approach explodes myths. Women have to be strong because they need to protect their children, the new argument goes; men aren’t really necessary. Men aren’t built for strength and speed, women are: the ultimate message of the novel is not that men and women are different, but that they are, ultimately, the same – they are corruptible. Power goes to women’s heads in the novel, just as men have been drunk on it for millennia, abusing and repressing women simply because they can.

William Morris and Kelmscott Manor

20170518_142652It is surprising that I’ve never been to Kelmscott Manor before, but this week I went with a group from the Birmingham Midland Institute. I gave a lecture about William Morris while we were travelling, so I spent the preceding week deeply immersed in Morris’s life and work, and it has increased my passion for him. Visiting Kelmscott consequently felt like something of a pilgrimage. The Manor has an interesting history anyway, dating from 1600, and Morris felt that it was “the loveliest haunt of ancient peace”, which seemed to be rooted in the soil and the people who had lived there. The image of Kelmscott is particularly famous for its appearance as the frontispiece for Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere, and it was wonderful to see it in the stone, as it were, and to feel the deep peace which the place exudes.'Kelmscott Manor' 1893  (Frontispiece from 'News from Nowhere')

Morris was fascinated by the medieval period, ideas and ideals as well as aesthetics, since his childhood when he rode around on a pony in his suit of miniature armour and made up stories in the woods about knights, ladies and fairies. As he grew up, rejecting the Church as a profession in favour of architecture while he was at Oxford, his thoughts and ideas all seem to stem from this childhood interest. Books influenced him deeply; he’d apparently read all of Walter Scott’s novels by the age of nine, and at University he discovered Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe. What these books all share, I think, is dissatisfaction with the industrial, self-seeking present, and a desire to revisit the past which is more than nostalgia, but a genuine desire to put right what they felt was wrong with the world. Like the modern-day knight of Yonge’s novel, Guy Morville, Morris’s life demonstrates how he lived out the ideals he developed as a young man.

Morris is mostly remembered as a designer, now, and of course there are many of his designs at Kelmscott Manor, which is perhaps more simply furnished than one might 20170518_144830expect, but in a distinctive style (I’ve now discovered why my parents painted all their furniture dark green) with natural, clear colours. Many of the fabrics and objects there were brought there after his death, but it’s wonderful to see his bed, with the poem he wrote for it embroidered by Jane around it, which begins:

The wind’s on the wold
And the night is a-cold,
And Thames runs chill
‘Twixt mead and hill.

Morris’s poetry, his Norse tales, his Socialist work and his designs all demonstrate a remarkable sense of unity. Though his Socialism developed after he encountered Marx’s Das Kapital, he was always anxious for opportunities for all, and for a fairer system to be achieved in Britain, for which he was quite prepared for violent anarchy – indeed, he felt it was probably the only way, and in News from Nowhere it is apparent that such a revolution had occurred. His desire was 20170518_144819not only for equality but for dignity and respect for all, and that comes in a very Marxist form in News from Nowhere, where all receive the same pay and love their work. The guiding principal of ‘The Firm’ which Morris set up to produce useful and beautiful household objects was that art should be handmade, using the skill of the craftspeople, and that all should have access to it. Of course these things may seem improbable or even impossible, and Morris is nothing if not an idealist, but there is something incredibly appealing about his beautiful, medievalized utopia in which all can share in the beauty of life through art, nature and love. The environment was an important part of this, too: how we connect to what is around us – buildings, places, the natural world – indicates who were are, and it is very clear what he thought of the pollution and destruction of the natural environment in the nineteenth century:

Is money to be gathered? cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse, and it’s nobody’s business to see to it or mend it: that is all that modern commerce, the counting-house forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein.

He is remarkably prescient, I believe: I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate recently, and Morris’s views that we have lost connection with the environment, that we are wreaking havoc on the wo20170518_144014rld and there will be ecological payback, and that capitalism in the form of industrialised society is the main driver of climate destruction are echoed vividly in Klein’s arguments. Wandering the beautiful gardens at Kelmscott, and walking beside the Thames where Rossetti and Morris wandered, one can see why he felt so strongly about this, leaving behind the polluted rivers and skies of London.

Morris said that ‘History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.’ To be creative was the source of life for Morris, and Kelmscott Manor provided the peace that he needed for this. He wrote in the late 1870s of sitting in the tapestry room one evening, watching the sun set over the fields and hearing the cows lowing in the pasture; there are still cows there, and it is possible to feel very close to the past here.

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The Wisdom of Trees

Book Review: John Fowles, The Tree (Little, Toller 2016)

61g+LIn61VLJohn Fowles’ book The Tree is unlike any other book on trees I’ve read (and I’ve read quite a few recently). It is also a very beautiful book, with beautiful illustrations throughout by Ed Kluz, and an insightful foreword by William Fiennes. There is little scientific jargon here, attempts to describe trees are hedged with awareness of the limitations of language, and really, trees are just a starting point for what is really a long essay on human nature, society, art, and many other things. Trees, Fowles implies, can tell us everything we need to know – and nothing. That is why they are worth paying attention to. The book opens with the well-tended, domestic trees of Fowles’ father’s orchard, and moves through many wonderful digressions to conclude with the otherness and wildness of Wistman’s Wood:

fairy-like… teeming, jewel-like, self-involved, rich in secrets just below the threshold of our adult human senses. … all words miss, I know I cannot describe it.

Fowles makes some fairly contentious statements along the way, but the more I turn them over in my mind, the more sense they seem to make. He discusses how the Linnaean system of classifying organisms may have damaged our relationship with nature: the desire to own something, tame it and control it by naming, has deadened us to the thrill of not-knowing, the just-being.

These question-boundaries (where do I file that?) are ours, not of reality. We are led to them, caged by them not only culturally and intellectually, but quite physically, by the restlessness of our eyes and their limited field and acuity of vision.

20160402_110433He describes later in the book the finding of a coveted plant specimen, and realising that he has measured and noted and photographed it, but was so much the collector that he couldn’t really see it. There is a smug pleasure in identifying every tree on a stroll, of course, but Fowles has made me wonder whether we should think less about facts, and more about our relationship with trees. How we respond to nature tells us more about ourselves, then, than it does about nature: all the research in the world won’t change the oak, but your silent contemplation of the tree might just change you. There is a mystery in nature which is, Fowles suggests, particularly significant in trees:

I cherish trees because of their natural correspondence with the greener, more mysterious processes of mind – and because they seem to me the best, most revealing messengers to us from all nature, the nearest to its heart.

Likewise, he strongly states that to look for measurable benefits in our relationship with nature is to misunderstand the world around us. It has become ingrained in our society to look for measurable, tangible benefits in everything: what is the financial value of the bumblebee? What is the social significance of dandelions? Such approaches are 20160402_110833becoming necessary as we try to find ways to protect our natural world, but the monetised, jargonistic language used is off-putting. For example, there is no doubt in my mind that trees are good for us, and that time spent in their company has many health benefits, both physical and emotional. Recent research supports this, indicating that mental health can be improved by time spent outside. An article entitled ‘What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis’ in Environmental Science & Technology (2010) argues that:

Ecosystems provide important services driven by provisioning, regulation, and support functions. It is clear they also provide a health service arising from direct activities in contact with nature. Recognition of the potential contribution of natural ecosystems to human population health may contribute to addressing problems associated with inactivity, obesity, mental ill-health, and other chronic diseases.

Evidence shows that exposure to natural places can lead to positive mental health outcomes, whether a view of nature from a window, being within natural places, or exercising in these environments.

I don’t disagree, exactly, but I find the language of this and many other similar articles anachronistic. Of course, the authors are using the language of those who need to be convinced of the benefits, because if nature isn’t worthwhile to humans, it risks being eradicated (as if we could!) Fowles is well aware of the inability of language – even in the hands of a novelist like himself – to truly describe encounters with nature, but it is the language of utility which seems to destroy something:

To see woods and forests merely scientifically, economically, topographically or aesthetically, not to understand that their greatest utility lies not in the facts derivable from them, or in their timber and fruit, or their landscape charm, or their utility as subject matter for the artist, all this proves the gathering speed with which we are retreating into outer space from all other life on this planet.

20170325_114220_1493756467417_resizedNature is not there for our benefit, nor us for nature: it is a matter of peacefully co-existing and for humans, as sentient beings, to learn from trees – and they have wisdom to impart, as Fowles suggests. What we should do is retreat to the forest, the ‘green chaos’, not in expectation of any personal gain, but for the sake of the trees themselves, and this is something we can only experience individually. Fowles concludes:

It, this namelessness, is beyond our science and our arts because its secret is being, not saying. Its greatest value to us is that it cannot be reproduced, that this being can be apprehended only by other present being, only by the living senses and consciousness. All experience of it through surrogate and replica, through selected image, gardened world, through other eyes and minds, betrays or banishes its reality.

Collecting tree stories for the Tree Charter, I’ve seen so many people’s stories of what 20170402_115122_1493756020795_resizedtrees mean to them, and few of them are about classifying, or explicitly about what they ‘expect’ from trees. Rather, people write in their own way about how the beauty of a tree moves them, how trees console them in grief, or entertained them in childhood. Language may be imperfect for describing trees – we have no real arboreal terms of reference – but the experiences mediated through people’s own words are moving and genuine. And we do have a duty to protect trees, I think, from those whose sights are set more on profit than on wilderness, so please consider reading the Tree Charter Principles and signing the Charter.

The Wind & Trees by John Clare

I love the song of tree and wind
How beautiful they sing
The licken on the beach tree rind
E’en beats the flowers of spring

From the southwest sugh sugh it comes
Then whizes round in pleasant hums

It sings the spirit of the storm
The trees with dancing waxes warm
They dance and bow, and dance again
The very trunks, each branch and grain

Shake and dance and wave and bow
In every form no matter how

In every storm they dance on high
The semblance of a stormy sky
Then sob and roar and bend and swee
The semblance of a stormy sea

I love the song of wood and wind
The sobs before its roar behind

I love the stir of flood and tree
‘Tis all of natures melody
I love the roaring of the wind
The calm that follows cheers the mind

‘Tis like the good mans end of peace
When joys begin and troubles cease

Visiting Kilpeck

img_3593Over the last year I keep coming across references to the Church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck in Herefordshire, so I felt I was meant to visit it. It’s a fascinating place: built on an ancient site (and who knows what lies beneath the current building?), the church as it now stands is thought to have been built about 1140. It’s in an egg-shaped graveyard, because an old superstition indicates that this prevents the Devil from hiding in corners, and the area is likely to have been considered sacred due to its pure springs as well as other more obscure phenomena. You can read more about the church on its excellent and informative website, which also has an app (the app is basically an audio guide, which is a good idea but as we had children with us we didn’t get to use it!)

The church is Romanesque, the 10th century precursor to Gothic style, which as I understand means that churches described as Romanesque have a lot of arches and circular parts (apologies here to the more knowledgeable)! It’s also wonderfully carved, by craftsmen of the Hereford School, whose work appears all over the county and is remarkable for its vivid detail. The south door is wonderfully carved, with designs which look vaguely Celtic to me, including a (disputed) Green Man at the top of the right hand pillar, along with birds and foliage. The church is particularly famous for its 85 corbels (these are what I would have called gargoyles, but the technical difference, the guidebook tells me, is that gargoyles have a purely decorative purpose, while corbels actually support some part of the building). These include a famously rude sheela-na-gig, a female figure who may be intended to ward off evil spirits, or might be a Celtic fertility symbol, or indeed a warning to the lustful – but no doubt she is the most frequently photographed part of the building!

The church is also situated on in the ley lines identified by Alfred Watkins in his book The Old Straight Track, so Kilpeck has become a site for the curious, be they Christian, pagan or somewhere in between, because of the church’s reputation for being a site where differing approaches to the spiritual merge – in the building itself, at least.

There is a castle behind the church, somewhat earlier (though by less than a century) than the church, which was probably once the administrative centre for the area. There is little of it left, but with the spectacular views of Herefordshire one can see that it was a perfect spot to defend an area. It was captured by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War and demolished, hence the very few remaining walls.

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A tour of Glasgow School of Art

20170318_114646_resizedRecently I had a weekend in Glasgow, and visited the School of Art for a Rennie Mackintosh tour and talk. In 2014, the wonderful building caught fire, and consequently the building is under restoration; I was impressed by how the student who led the tour (who did an amazing job) explained both how tragic the fire was, given that many original pieces designed by Mackintosh were lost, but also how GSA is seeing this as an opportunity to move on, to create something new which continues the spirit of Mackintosh’s work (you can read about the new works of art being created here). Consequently the tour took place in the Reid building opposite the original School; the Reid building was completed shortly before the fire, and like the original building was designed by an architect who won a competition to design the building, Stephen Hall, which is very much in the spirit of the original building, echoing and complementing Mackintosh with its “language of light”. Like Mackintosh’s building, it has three columns of light, and the building plays with light in reflections, use of shadow on white paint, and strategically placed windows and light wells.

MackintoshThe tour begins with a detailed model of the Mackintosh building, correct down to the smallest detail, which gives a sense of the features: obviously it’s not the same as being inside the building, but perhaps I know more about the outside of it because I’ve seen the model, and I’ll remember that when I go back in 2019 when the restored School building opens. The model allows us to see the blossoming Mackintosh roses on the outside of the building, a metaphor for art and especially for the blossoming of the creative minds of the students who enter the School, closer than would be possible on the original. The tour guide discussed the famous Mackintosh rose, as ‘nature in the service of art’, both a beautiful design and one which has creative significance in its transformation of the fragile flower into enduring art. The Mackintosh building was unusual for its time, begun in 1897: it was not symmetrical, was quite plain in its design, especially on the side which faced Sauchiehall Street, yet with Scottish baronial influences which add an “element of poetry”, the guide suggested.Margaret_MacDonald_-_The_Heart_Of_The_Rose

The Reid building contains a room of Mackintosh furniture, which is a delight: it also indicates the extent to which he controlled every aspect of the design of GSA, from clocks to easels, cupboards to drainpipes. It was also a pleasure to see his wife, Margaret MacDonald’s The Heart of the Rose (read more about this and its restoration here). This golden, glowing panel which was criticised by contemporaries (though apparently Klimt liked it) indicates fertility, female sexuality and the cycles of life and birth; it’s wonderful to see it in person.

There is also some furniture on display from Glasgow’s Willow Tea Rooms, one of which we visited later that day. The stylised furniture was designed by Mackintosh and MacDonald along with the waitresses’ uniforms and every other detail; the manager’s chair is on display at GSA, and our guide pointed out the significance of the tea rooms not only for their aesthetic appeal but because they offered a respectable alternative to the pub for women, as well as providing employment for women, making them a significant part of female history in Glasgow.

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Exhibition review: Vanessa Bell

a-conversationI first encountered Vanessa Bell’s work when I was a student at the Courtauld, where I saw A Conversation and Arum Lilies, and fell in love with them. In fact, I haven’t seen that much more of her work since, so went to Dulwich Picture Gallery‘s new exhibition of Bell’s work as soon as I could. Bell is primarily known today as part of the Bloomsbury group – sister to the more famous Virginia (Woolf), muse and lover to several men including Duncan Grant – and only incidentally a painter in her own right. Critics speculate that in fact history might have treated her more favourably had she not been associated with such a notorious group.

This exhibition contains only works by Bell, and the explicit aim is to refocus on her as an artist – and one who is deeply engaged with Continental art, who is ‘one of the leading artists of her day’, according to the exhibition notes, who has an irresistible ‘energy and forthrightness’ in her work as well as her life. The first room, ‘Among Friends’, does slightly undermine this concept, though, since the portraits are familiar Bloomsbury faces, including herself and Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant and others. However, I particularly appreciated The Red Dress, a Madonna-esque portrait of her mother based on a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron and worked up in oils by Bell after her mother’s death. Lady Strachey is also appealing: a slightly grand but rather practical-looking woman, passionately feminist, unconventional and given to reciting poetry aloud. Bell’s portraits move sharply away from the conventions of Victorian portraiture, capturing their subjects in a way which does not rely on a realist depiction but rather uses unexpected colours and brushstrokes to draw out some deeper energy which she saw in them. In the portrait of Lytton Strachey we can see his spontenaity as well as hers; in the portrait of Woolf in an armchair we are conscious both of her inscrutability and also of the portrait as a depiction of the writer’s complex inner life.

lady-strachey

The designs for the Omega Workshop which appear in the exhibition are full of life and colour, the clashing bold designs both of their time and timeless, which is also true of her still lifes; while Bell clearly knows and subtly references earlier still lifes with their flowers and fruit, hers are quite her own, though Iceland Poppies demonstrates what she learned from Sargent, but paintings such as Arum Lilies, with its slightly awkward angle and apparently haphazard positioning is appealing in a unique way because of its original approach to form and colour. I’ve always wondered how the vase remains upright.

While she noted that ‘one isn’t meant to paint what one thinks beautiful’, happily she was able to ignore such rigorous tastes, painting things that clearly are beautiful but in a way which creates her own view of such beauty. The Other Room, a painting intended as an overmantel, in Studland Beach. Verso: Group of Male Nudes by Duncan Grant circa 1912 by Vanessa Bell 1879-1961which we see out of a window across a room; the effect would have been cleverly to suggest that one was looking in a mirror, transforming the room in which the painting was hung, but also implying that there are hidden, other places we can glimpse through paintings, round corners, out of windows. Paintings such as this remind me that Bell’s art is all about art – about colour and form and design, about living it, about painting other artists. Everything she paints says something about her artistic theories and integrity – a conclusion I probably couldn’t have reached without this exhibition.

ahsham

Other paintings indicate her awareness of Impressionism and other movements, from the Cubist portrait of Molly McCarthy to landscape paintings which reference Cezanne and Monet. I never really thought of Bell as a landscape painter, but the exhibition has corrected me in this, and points out that she loved to paint as she explored the countryside around her home. There are also many Continental landscapes, full of light and colour, capturing the spirit of place wonderfully and evocatively.

Her portraits of women, with which the exhibition closes, are amazing: the opening panel points out that her ‘portraits of women offer us bracing encounters with female subjects given startling new agency and force’. After all, this is a time when women were beginning to gain some power – the vote, for instance, and to have more possibilities for establishing themselves as artists, writers and intellectuals independently of the men in their lives. This is apparent in her portraits, yet she does not shy away from depicting alienated women in Studland Beach, and in her self-portrait she shows herself as a painter, yet with her face blurred, absenting herself from her own work. There is much to reflect on here, and though the arrangement of the works by theme rather than period can be obscuring of her development as an artist, it also offers an insight into the ideas that preoccupied her across her life, as well as indicating the breadth of styles and approaches, as well as subjects, she explored. I must add that the exhibition labels were extremely good – detailed and informative, which is all too rare these days, and the catalogue is a delight!