Book review: Weatherland

9780500292655I like English weather, on the whole. I’m not one for too much sun, and providing it isn’t catastrophic (and I don’t have to drive in it), I enjoy the drama of mist, heavy rain, snow, and the occasional sunny day. I like seeing the effects the changeable weather has on the garden and on my moods. But for me as for most people, the weather is a backdrop to our daily lives, and one which, travelling by car, living in centrally-heated homes and working in air-conditioned, often windowless offices, we can increasingly ignore. This, as Alexandra Harris’s book suggests, is a shame.
Weather is important. The landscape is shaped by it, and many writers and artists believe that national character and temperament are shaped by the climate. Harris’s book, subtitled ‘Writers and Artists under English Skies’, explores how the English weather has been depicted from Beowulf onwards. Along the way, she considers how the weather affects people, and how and crucially why it is included in literature and art. Is it just a backdrop, or used for pathetic fallacy? It’s often much more significant than we think, it seems: human insistence on relating the weather to ourselves (writers who write better in Spring weather, for example), or anthropomorphising it, trying to make sense, find patterns, using faith, science, myth or art to explain it: we can’t ignore the weather. This determination to make something which is impervious to us make sense on our terms is fascinating, because it tells us more about the human condition than it does about the weather, even if it is simply in the recording of daily weather.
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‘The Rain it Raineth Every Day’, Norman Garstin (1889, Penlee House)

Harris explores an enormous and impressive range of works, drawing on social thought, history, science and the arts to explore how our relationship with the weather has changed over the centuries. Swift’s hatred of hot weather, Shelley’s desire to be a cloud, Ruskin’s concern that the skies were being spoiled for us by science: these are things I’d not really considered before. Harris’s gift is for writing in a manner both erudite and entertaining, which I thoroughly enjoyed in her last book, Romantic Moderns, and this is no less fascinating, making obvious things which are all too easily overlooked.

Harris’s deepest interest seems to be in Virginia Woolf, whose work is constantly preoccupied with weather conditions, and the book returns frequently to Orlando, in which the action takes place over four centuries, and the weather is observed (satirically): the Victorians are dark and damp, for example, while the twentieth century is bright and dry. Apparently Wyndham Lewis disliked English weather, suggesting in his Vorticist manifesto that it should be ‘Blasted’, because it was inappropriately dull and changeable for a modern machine age.
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Reading Weatherland has made me want to return to books I know well, including several of Woolf’s, both to consider the ways in which the weather is important in them, and because ‘the weather in which we read affects our understanding of a book’ (p.349). The recent spell of hot weather prompted me to think that the English do become a little mad in our brief spells of sunshine, and this is borne out by Harris’s reading of The Go-Between, for example, but, of course, ‘significant weather is suspect when it gets into fiction’, as she notes when discussing Julian Barnes’s work: weather in books can be made to produce certain effects, to resonate with the characters’ feelings, to cause certain events to happen, and though these things might happen in real life, they seem improbable in fiction. But weather does do surprising things in real life, of course, because our lives are still, in so many ways, bound up in the climate, as the powerful and disturbing conclusion of Weatherland emphasises.

Ravilious, Dulwich Picture GalleryFOR REVIEW USE ONLY

‘Wet Afternoon’ by Eric Ravilious (1928)

As our changing planet forces us to consider a future of increasingly extreme weather conditions, in an anthropocene age where humankind has, finally and disastrously, affected the weather, this is a book which explores the literary and artistic memorialising of the weather of the past, and invites us to consider our own experiences of weather. As Richard Mabey says, we all experience weather differently, and it affects us in diverse ways, which is, of course, the essence of why it has proved such a significant aspect of literary and artistic inspiration, but after finishing this book, I feel that our experience of the weather is part of being human, of living on this planet. It is a cliche to say that the cycle of the seasons reflects the cycle of our lives – one more way in which we try to tame nature, perhaps – but the elemental experience of Lear’s battle with the storm on the heath, for example, reduces humankind to its most vulnerable, and asks us to consider life in a very different way:
Lear.  Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!         runciman_lear_heath_ngs
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
[…]
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then, let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high-engender’d battles ’gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul.

 

There’s a great review here by A S Byatt (someone whose work I admire and whose judgement I trust!)

Clouds

Clouds fascinate me. Their infinite variety and beauty appeals, and every evening I watch the sunset from my house and marvel at the cloud formations which surround it. Sky spaces, where the scudding clouds are framed as works of art, are a delight. Recently, I lay in bed looking out of the window and wondering what clouds mean – prompted by reading Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland, which discusses the importance of clouds for Shelley and the Romantic poets, in particular. Of course clouds are impervious to us, and our desire to find shapes in them is simply a way of trying to make them conform to human understanding, but somehow I wanted to know more; now, I do. At the Port Eliot festival, I was delighted to hear Gavin Pretor-Pinney, author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, talk about the science of clouds, and why they are important.

The CAS has a manifesto:
We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that they are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

And so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

JMW Turner, ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’ (Tate Gallery)

I learned about what the shapes of clouds mean, and why they form in certain ways, which was explained using some entertaining experiments. They are not simply something which gets in the way of the sun, but the face of the atmosphere, which allow us to read its moods. Clouds, we were told, are ‘beautiful, dynamic, evocative aspects of nature’, an egalitarian display available to all, and also practical: we can read the weather through them. (Well, I can’t, not yet, but I hope to learn!) Cloud-watching is the sport of dreamers throughout history, from scientists to poets to artists (just look at Turner’s clouds, for example), and they are – I think – inspiring.

Shelley’s poem ‘The Cloud’ is a masterpiece of cloud art – read it here, and here is the last stanza:
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Rene Magritte, ‘The Empire of Light’, 1950-4, MOMA

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
 There is a lovely article about this poem by poet Sarah Doyle here, on the Wordsworth’s Trust blog.

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‘Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea’

Penlee House Gallery in Penzance never fails to offer fascinating exhibitions, and their current one is no exception. ‘Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea’: Marine Painting in Cornwall from Turner to Wallis takes its title from Tennyson’s poem ‘Dedication to the Queen’, and indicates the breadth and depth of sea-painting over the period, with a focus – though not exclusively – on paintings of the Cornish coast. The quotation indicates the position of Britain as an island, suggestive of the strength and impassivity of the sea, though in fact it comes from one of Tennyson’s Laureate poems written in praise of Queen Victoria, and the line, which closes the poem, refers to the impregnability of her throne because of the peace and stability of her reign (you can read the poem here).

Turner

Turner’s ‘St Michael’s Mount’ (1834) is one of several paintings of that particular view, and one of the best, though looking much steeper and more impregnable than it does now. Turner’s composition shows wrecked ships overshadowed by the Mount and surrounded by the sea; like many of the pictures in the first room, this is not a chocolate-box view, but rather one which demonstrates the sea as a force ‘inviolate’ indeed, uncaring of the lives it takes. The works on display are more than local scenes, then: some are realist while others more representative, and indicate the huge number of ways in which artists engage with the sea, in working harbours, landscapes, even narrative paintings. Thomas Creswick’s ‘The Land’s End’ is strikingly realist, with carefully detailed geological strata of rock appearing in a style reminiscent of Dyce’s Pre-Raphaelite-inspired works, while Henry Moore’s ‘Seascape’ almost gestures towards abstraction in its focussed colour and vigour.

Creswick

There are three striking images hung together: James Millar’s ‘Cornish Solitude’, Samuel ‘Lamorna’ Birch’s ‘Tol-Pedn’, and Richard Carter’s ‘The Rising Moon and the Day’s Departure’, all depict rocks, sea, and seagulls: no human figure is present, and none could get there (one wonders where the artist was sitting) – the sea is untouchable, inviolate indeed. The threat of the sea is palpable in all: these may be beautiful, picturesque scenes but this is the untamed sea, not simply a decorative image. Those images which do include figures often refer to disasters, past or potential, and again imply the dangers of the sea-faring life more than the tamer appeal of the seaside, though there are a few of these, too.

Millar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The later rooms of the exhibition are a little more tranquil, with more concession to the human figure, and it is interesting to note the shift; as the exhibition guide points out, the approach to sea-painting changed in the twentieth century, away from narrative Victorian approaches of Wallis and Birch, for example, towards an abstraction where form is sometimes dominated by colour. One of Birch’s later paintings, ‘Morning at Lamorna Cove’ (1930s) provides an interesting example of how his work becomes more ‘modern’ in its approach.

Morning at Lamorna Cove

Meanwhile Robert Borlase Smart’s wonderful ‘Moonlit Sea’ of the same period shows how much further other artists had gone: the sea becomes a very different beast in Smart’s hands – an abstract surface of the sea, with colours, angles and patterns appearing on the waves.

Smart moonlit sea

John Mogford’s painting ‘Crossing the Bar – A Break in the Clouds, St Ives’ (1873) reminded me how important the sea was as a metaphor in the nineteenth century. There are several paintings here which reference Victorian writing, but no sea-poem was as powerful in the nineteenth century as Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’ (not even Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, sadly). The ‘bar’ in fact refers (in the painting) to the old wooden pier at St Ives, but the link is clearly made with the sea as a stormy place (life) which must be crossed before we reach Heaven. Numerous hymns and songs of the nineteenth century draw on similar imagery, and the paintings owe something to this poetic history.

A spectacular finale to the exhibition is Albert Julius Olsson’s ‘Stormy Evening on the Cornish Coast’, in which the waves seem visibly and audibly to crash on the shore; again, this work is moving towards abstraction, providing the very essence of the sea. The Penwith Peninsula is one of the most treacherous coastlines in Britain, and the dangers it holds have been felt in the communities here for centuries. This exhibition does justice to this coastline in all its wild beauty.

Jamming with Shakespeare

This week at BCU we had a visit from the Sonnet Man, aka Devon Glover, a New York based rapper who performs Shakespeare in his own unique way. Sonnet Man’s approach is to perform some of Shakespeare’s sonnets as hip hop, with backing tracks, to demonstrate how amazingly flexible the sonnets are, and how well they work in performance; he uses Shakespeare’s own words, but follows this with a ‘breakdown’, which summarises the sonnet in his own words, perhaps picking up particular relevance – to emotions, to everyday lives – which might appeal to his audience. It’s fascinating: Sonnet Man’s performance really is Shakespeare as you’ve never heard him; the brilliance of the simple iambic pentameter, the punch of the alliteration and rhyme, really comes out in this approach. The way in which music, rhythm, poetry and emotions work in the sonnets is very clear. (I have to confess, though, that I’m probably not his target audience, and probably didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of our students!)

I was interested by the way Devon Glover weaves in his life story – from Brooklyn, looking for a way to better his life through education – as a way to tell the stories of the sonnets. Initially he struggled with Shakespeare, he says, until suddenly it all came to him – through rapping. (Apparently he also teaches maths this way). The way he meshes the apparently opposing cultures of hip hop and Shakespeare is inspiring, and I can see how this would appeal to a lot of people who might not ‘get’ Shakespeare otherwise (though I’m afraid it hasn’t really worked the other way round and converted me to rap), but the performance of Sonnet 17, for example, as a spur to believing in yourself and your own abilities, is bound to inspire. From unsuccessful love affairs to death to academic achievement, Sonnet Man covers it all, and very well; it feels real, somehow, not contrived (‘updated’ performances of Shakespeare can often be rather embarrassing), and I saw its appeal even if I didn’t really feel it myself. Devon Glover makes a great case for the universality of Shakespeare, ripping it away from its middle-class, middle-aged, white British, RP-speaking enclave, and I liked that.

One of my favourite pieces was Hip Hop Hamlet – watch it here:

Book Review: Hold Your Own

I haven’t heard Kate Tempest perform her poetry live (though there is a great video of her reading ‘Hold Your Own’ at Glastonbury) but I’ve just booked to go and hear her in Birmingham in April. 

Tempest is very much known as a performance poet, to the extent that she has been known as reluctant to put words on the page in the conventional way. Watching the video from Glastonbury, you can see why; she’s a great performer, and not all poets are. Her meaning comes across best, you sense, when she tells you her poem, herself, directly; the video makes you feel she’s addressing everyone in the crowd. Now I am someone who mostly reads poetry by long-dead poets, and I quite empathise with whichever critic it was that said that TS Eliot’s punctuation could move him to tears. So you might think that performance poetry, by a poet who is also a rapper, is unlikely to appeal to me. Actually, I liked Hold Your Own, her collection of poems edited by Don Paterson, much more than I expected to. Even on the page, this is clearly performance poetry; perhaps that’s because it is so conversational, so direct. The first and longest poem in the collection, ‘Tiresias’, Hold your ownconcludes:

While we assemble selves online
And stare into our phones,
You are bright and terrifying,
Breath and flesh and bone.

In these few lines we are moved at high speed from the mundane to the terrifyingly ecstatic. The fear of being something sublime, beyond understanding, is conveyed here memorably. Tempest’s poems are in simple forms, on the whole; she doesn’t seem to be a poet who would play with form in the conventional sense, churning out villanelles or terza rima, but she plays with ideas, and with language, in a way which is meaningful as well as immediately accessible. Language in particular seems to be her drug; when she writes ‘Language lives when you speak it. Let it be heard’ she really means it, and her work is peppered with assonance, misrhymes and echoes which work well both in performance and on the page. Steady beats are suddenly interrupted, making the reader (or listener) pay closer attention. These prosodic attributes can, occasionally, become predictable, but Tempest manages this well, on the whole.

The line above is taken from ‘These things I know’. The book is threaded through with the Kate Tempestmyths of Tiresias, blind prophet of ancient myth, who was both man and woman during his lifetime (inspiring Virginia Woolf’s Orlando). Tiresias, known for his aphorisms in Greek plays and his wisdom in all situations, speaks in this poem through pithy sayings, such as ‘Poetry trembles alone, only picked up to be taken apart’ as well as other more universal comments. The character of Tiresias reflects, along with a number of other voices in the poems (including, one suspects, Tempest’s own), the complexities and confusions of gender, sexuality, identity, love – but he is more than just a vehicle for reflecting on gender fluidity; he brings the ideas and poems together.

Tempest’s interest in the classics is manifest in Brand New Ancients, her previous book locating the ancient gods in families in London, for which she won the Ted Hughes poetry prize. The universality of these ancient stories is paramount in her work, and in this – a more conventional volume than her previous work – she nicely treads the line between ancient and modern. Tiresias is painted as a living, breathing figure, from a grubby boyhood to an unexpected womanhood, through lovers, prostitution, and old age. But this Tiresias has the wisdom of the age in which he is written: he is predicting not the downfall of ancient cities, but the tragedy of the modern world, godless, obsessed with image:

Before

you were damned for the things that you did,
or if you didn’t live how the villagers lived.

Now

You’re handed the mould and told – fit in to this.
And maybe one day you could be really big.

In many ways, Tiresias/Tempest’s condemnation of a shallow life reminds me of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, in which the psychiatrist, Dysart, says:

The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes:-alright. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills-like a god. It is the Ordinary made beautiful: it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his priest.

Tempest uses the figure of Tiresias, along with other nameless voices, to indicate that a difficult, complex, painful, fragmented life, which makes no sense, can still have a beauty, a structure, and is still a life capable of holding joy, love and intensity. This isn’t a perfect book, by any means, and some of it begins to tire one’s patience a little, and the final section is both right (in a moral sense) and a bit too tub-thumping. But overall, it’s good; I want to read it again.

There’s a great, nuanced review of the book by Dave Coates here – do read it if you’re interested in Tempest’s work.

 

‘This Green Earth’: Bridget Macdonald

img_2759Bridget Macdonald’s work seems strangely, immediately familiar, even if you haven’t seen it before. This, I realised after spending time in Worcester City Art Gallery, is because she is painting in a clearly-defined tradition of landscape painting (and, perhaps, because some of her Worcestershire and Herefordshire scenes are local). ‘This Green Earth‘, the exhibition’s title taken from Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey‘,explicitly links Macdonald’s work with Claude Lorrain, Samuel Palmer and Peter Paul Rubens, as creators of a tradition consciously inherited by Macdonald. The effect of this is to indicate not only the significance of this tradition of depicting and celebrating landscape, which is perhaps more vital than ever at a time when we need to be focusing on how to preserve our precious green spaces, but also to demonstrate that landscape painting is not a parochial art: its significance is not limited to its locale. All the paintings in this exhibition tell us eternal truths, about humanity’s relationship to the land, about the changing environment, about the emotional and physical need we have for open spaces, and about the universal appeal of natural beauty.

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‘Snowy Woods’ (2012)

The works on display cover five centuries of painting, but there are clear connections, and Macdonald has clearly drawn intentionally on these. Though she lives in Malvern, and describes this as an ‘Arcadian idyll’, she doesn’t ignore modernity: her work incorporates cars and pylons, and a political dimension too, and her work offers ‘a feeling of landscape’ rather than ‘exact representation’. This isn’t about a photographic approach, then: it’s about exploring emotion and thought as well as painterly skill – as all the best art does.

'Ewes' (2012)

‘Ewes’ (2012)

Many of her paintings return to her childhood home on the Isle of Wight, drawing on memory to layer the representation in a different way. Macdonald’s residency at the Barber Institute, University of Birmingham in the 1990s began her interest in exploring landscape art, as she worked directly from landscapes by Claude in particular, transforming them into works with personal meaning for her; some of these are on display here.

The choice of quotation for the exhibition’s title can hardly be coincidence; Macdonald is interested in the interplay between literature and art, notably having produced drawings inspired by Sylvia Plath’s beekeeping poems. ‘Tintern Abbey’ intertwines the self with the landscape, suggesting the communion between the two as a panacea for the ills of the world, and as a way of reconnecting oneself to the world and, ultimately, each other.

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‘September Flood’, 2015

The works are oils and charcoals (some of the largest charcoals I’ve seen), ranging from landscapes in snow (in charcoal) to huge bulls, as well as a wonderful pair of scenes from train windows, complete with raindrops. The beauty and immediacy of all the works here really struck me, and the inclusion of Claude, Palmer and Rubens (chosen by the artist from the Ashmolean and the Manchester Art Gallery) is illuminating. The exhibition is inspiring and refreshing, as landscape painting should be, and it’s free, too – go and see it!

 

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‘Farm’ (2005)

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Samuel Palmer, ‘The White Cloud’ (1831-2)