David Kynaston’s Family Britain: different times, but no nostalgia

David Kynaston’s <em>Family Britain</em>: different times, but no nostalgia

In his brilliant social history of Britain David Kynaston doesn’t deal in nostalgia. Nevertheless, I can’t resist recording this moment in Family Britain when he interrupts his account of the country between 1951 and 1956 to devote a whole page simply to a list of products whose names will instantly cause time to run backwards for anyone who lived through those years: Continue reading “David Kynaston’s Family Britain: different times, but no nostalgia”


Stories Only Exist When Remembered: a film of exquisite beauty

<em>Stories Only Exist When Remembered</em>: a film of exquisite beauty

One of the pleasures of blogging comes with the responses you sometimes get from a person you have never met, who may live on the other side of the world, yet who has read and appreciated something you have written. One instance was last week, when Victor wrote from Brazil in appreciation of a post I had written some time ago about the Korean film Poetry.

As a token of his appreciation Victor recommended a Brazilian film of which I’d never heard, viewable on YouTube. Stories Only Exist When Remembered, a first feature directed by Julia Murat in 2011, proved to be an exquisite film, a meditation on memory, time and ageing in which few words are spoken but much is implied. Continue reading Stories Only Exist When Remembered: a film of exquisite beauty”

The Beauty and the Sorrow: a wonderful summer, then an abyss of horror

The Beauty and the Sorrow: a wonderful summer, then an abyss of horror

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and wife Sophie in car before assassination

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie moments before before the assassination

The summer was more wonderful than ever and promised to become even more so, and we all looked out on the world without any cares. That last day in Baden I remember walking over the vine-clad hills with a friend and an old vine-grower saying to us: ‘We haven’t had a summer like this for a long time. If this weather continues this year’s wine is going to be beyond compare. People will always remember the summer of 1914.
– Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, 1942

Yesterday marked, as we have been reminded across the media: one hundred years since the assassination in Sarajevo that proved to be the trigger for the First World War.  Recently I finished reading The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund: if you only read one book on the war in this centennial season, I would recommend this one.  Subtitled ‘an intimate history’, The Beauty and the Sorrow tracks the progress of the war through the experiences of twenty unknown eyewitnesses whose letters and journals Englund has drawn upon to create a work that is novelistic in structure and sensibility, elegantly written, deeply humane and gripping.

For Englund’s protagonists, the war begins in an explosion of optimistic patriotism but descends inexorably into cynicism, horror, suffering, privation and exhaustion. Through it all their words reveal how they endured, trying to make sense of it all whilst preserving their humanity.  Among Englund’s interesting cast of characters is Elfriede  Kuhr, a German schoolgirl, twelve years old at the outbreak of war.  On 10 October 1914 Elfriede records in her diary the mood of intense patriotism in her school. Although Englund will sometimes quote selected passages from his sources, more often he paraphrases, as here:

This loud roar whenever another German triumph is announced has become a ritual in her school. Elfriede believes that many of them scream simply because they are hoping that victory will be celebrated with a holiday. Or that the headmaster, a tall, strict gentleman with pince-nez and a pointed white beard, will be so affected by their youthful patriotism that he will at least let them off the last lessons. (When the outbreak ofwar was announced to the school the headmaster was so moved that he wept and found it difficult to speak at times. He is the man behind the ban on using foreign words in school and sinners have to pay a five-pfennig fine: the word is ‘Mutter’ not ‘Mama’, ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ not ‘Adieu’, ‘Kladde’ not ‘Diarium’, ‘fesselnd’ not ‘interessant’ and so on.) Elfriede, too, joins in the shouting about the fall Of Fort Breendonck, not so much because she thinks that they will be excused classes but just because she thinks it is fun: ‘I think it’s wonderful to be allowed to shout and scream for all we’re worth in a place we normally have to keep quiet all the time.’ In the classroom they have a map on which all the victories of the German army are recorded by pinning up small black, white and red flags.  The mood in the school and in Germany as a whole is aggressive, arrogant, chauvinistic and and exultant.

Reading that reminded me of the scene in the schoolroom at the beginning of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front:

Kantorek was our form-master at school, a short, strict man who wore a grey frock-coat and had a shrewish face…Kontorek kept on lecturing at us in the PT lessons until the entire class marched under his leadership down to the local recruiting office and enlisted […]

One of our class was reluctant, and didn’t really want to go with us. That was Josef Behm, a tubby, cheerful chap. But in the end he let himself be persuaded, because he would have made things impossible for himself by not going. Maybe others felt the same way he did; but it wasn’t easy to stay out of it because at that time even our parents used the word ‘coward’ at the drop of a hat. People simply didn’t have the slightest idea what was coming […]

Oddly enough, Behm was one of the first to be killed. He was shot in the eye during an attack, and we left him for dead. We couldn’t take him with us because we had to get back in a great rush ourselves. That afternoon we suddenly heard him shout out and saw him crawling around in no man’s land. He had only been knocked unconscious. Because he couldn’t see and was mad with pain he didn’t take cover, so he was shot down from the other side before anyone could get out to fetch him.

That can’t be linked directly with Kantorek, of course – where would we be if that counted as actual guilt?  Anyway there were thousands of Kantoreks, all of them convinced that they were acting for the best [… ]

But as far as we were concerned, that is the very root of their moral bankruptcy. […] We were forced to recognise that our generation was more honourable than [Kantorek’s]. While they went on writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying: while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater. This didn’t make us into rebels or deserters, or turn us into cowards – and they were more than ready to use all of those words – because we loved our country just as much as they did, and so we went bravely into every attack. But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, all at once our eyes had been opened. And we saw that there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone – and we had to come to terms with it alone as well.

German soldiers on way to front, 1914

German soldiers on their way to the front, summer 1914

But it wasn’t just patriotic-minded schoolmasters who were swept along by the wave of patriotic fervour. ‘How the hearts of all poets were on fire when war came!’ Thomas Mann wrote that summer. ‘It was a cleansing, a release that we experienced, and an incredible sense of hope.’  When the call-up came the poet Ernst Toller rejoiced, ‘We live in an ecstasy of feeling.’  At the beginning of the war, patriotic sentiment was widespread in Germany, and extended to many German and Austrian Jews – such as Stefan Zweig,whose memory of the glorious summer of 1914 at the top of this post forms an epigraph to Peter Englund’s book.

In August 1914, war fervour swept all the belligerent countries, not just Germany. In Britain two million volunteered in the first six months. Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV captured this mood looking back from the 1960s with a sense of nostalgia for a world that was about to be swept away:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheats’ restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

There were those who felt differently.  The German poet Alfred Lichtenstein wrote Leaving for the Front on 7 August 1914.  Seven weeks later Lichtenstein was dead, fatally wounded in an attack at Vermandovillers on the Somme on the 24 September. Ironically, Vermandovillers was retaken from the Germans four years later (nearly to the day) by Wilfred Owen’s regiment.

Before I die I must just find this rhyme.
Be quiet, my friends, and do not waste my time.
We’re marching off in company with death.
I only wish my girl would hold her breath.
There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m glad to leave.
Now mother’s crying too. There’s no reprieve.
And now look how the sun’s begun to set.
A nice mass-grave is all that I shall get.
Once more the good old sunset’s glowing red.
In thirteen days I’ll probably be dead.

Few suspected what was to come. ‘It is not to be supposed,’ wrote a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian on 29 June 1914 analysing the significance of the assassination in Sarajevo, ‘that the death of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand will have any immediate or salient effect on the politics of Europe.’ Thirty-seven days later, Britain declared war on Germany and Europe was plunged into a worldwide conflict in which more than 16 million people died in four years.  In another book read recently, The Sleepwalkers, historian Christopher Clark shows how all the key players were sleepwalkers, ‘watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring in the world’.

Sunday, 2 August 1914

Laura de Turczynowicz is woken early one morning in Augustów

What is the worst thing she can imagine? That her husband is ill, injured or even dead? That he has been unfaithful?

It has been a perfect summer. Not only has the weather been perfect- hot, sunny, wonderful sunsets-but they have also moved into a newly built summer villa, tucked away by the lakes in the beautiful Augustów Forest. The children have played for days on end. She and her husband have often rowed out on the lake during the short, white nights of June to greet the rising sun. “All was peace and beauty…a quiet life full of simple pleasure.”

It has to be said that the simplicity of her life is relative. The large villa is superbly furnished. She is surrounded the whole time by servants and domestics, who live in a special annexe. (Each of the five-year-old boys has a nanny and the six-year-old girl has her own governess. The children are taken round in a special pony-trap.) They move in the society of the best noble families in the region. They have spent the winter on the French Riviera. (The journey home was fast and simple: European borders are easy to cross and there is still no need for passports.) They have a number of residences: as well as the summer villa and the big house in Suwalki, they have an apartment in Warsaw. Laura de Turczynowicz, née Blackwell, has a sheltered, comfortable existence. She screams at the sight of a mouse. She is frightened of thunder. She is modest and rather shy. She scarcely knows how to cook.

In a photograph taken a summer or so earlier we can see a happy, proud and contented woman, dark blonde, wearing a wide skirt, a white blouse and a large summer hat. We see someone used to a privileged and tranquil life, and a life that gets steadily better. She is by no means alone in that. Though there have been rumours of unrest and distant misdeeds, she has chosen to ignore them. And she is not alone in that, either.

So it really has been a perfect summer and it is still far from over. This evening they are supposed to be holding a lavish dinner party. But where is her husband? He has been working in Suwalki for several days and should have been back yesterday, in time for the party. They held back dinner for him but he did not arrive. This is not like him at all and she is growing more and more concerned. Where can he be? She waits, watches. Still no sign. She has not been this worried for a long time. What can have happened? She does not fall asleep until it is almost morning.

Laura is woken by a violent banging on the window.

It is four o’clock in the morning.

She leaps up to quieten the noise as quickly as possible, before it wakes the children. She can see a figure down below the window. Her first, confused thought is that it is one of the servants on the way to the market and in need of something-money or instructions, perhaps. To her amazement she is greeted by the pale and earnest face of Jan, her husband’s manservant. He passes her a card. The handwriting is her husband’s.

She reads: “War is declared. Come immediately with the children. Let the servants pack up what you wish to bring and come on later in the day.”

This is the passage which opens The Beauty and the Sorrow. One of the great achievements of Peter Englund’s book is to give a substantial jolt to what is perhaps a British preoccupation with the western front. By carefully selecting the stories of twenty men and women of a dozen nationalities Englund provides a vivid impression of the war’s geographical scope, taking in Mesopotamia, east Africa, the Dolomites, the Balkans and Russia as well the more familiar locations of Flanders and Verdun.

Among those whose wartime experiences Englund follows is Laura de Turczynowicz,the American wife of a Polish aristocrat, whose experience of war arriving at her doorstep opens the book. Soon her home is wrecked and then turned into a hospital for typhus victims by the occupying Germans. Among the rest are: an Australian woman who drives ambulances for the Serbian army; a Venezuelan soldier of fortune in the Ottoman cavalry; a French civil servant; a Scotsman fighting Germans in East Africa; a Belgian air force pilot, a fighter ace who wins medals but is finally shot down and badly wonded just days before the war’s end; and Elfriede Kuhr, the German schoolgirl diarist who lives near the eastern Prussian border in Schneidemühl (now Pila in Poland). She remains one contributor whose vivid observations of life on the home front begin with her descriptions of the mood of swaggering confidence at the outset of war, but soon shift to recording the daily hardships and increasing mood of pessimism. By the summer of 1917 she is writing in her diary: ‘This war is a ghost in grey rags, a skull with maggots crawling out of it.’

In 1918 she starts volunteering at a children’s hospital and describes the privations that war has brought; Englund narrates:

They do what they can. When the babies cannot get any milk they give them boiled rice or porridge or just tea. […] Ersatz, everywhere ersatz. Substitute coffee, fake aluminium, imitation rubber, paper bandages, wooden buttons. The inventiveness may be impressive but the same cannot be said for the resulting products: cloth made from nettle fibres and cellulose; bread made from flour mixed with potatoes, beans, peas, buckwheat and horse chestnuts (which only becomes palatable a few days after being baked); cocoa made from roasted peas and rye with the addition of some chemical flavouring; meat made of pressed rice boiled in mutton fat (and finished off with a fake bone made of wood); tobacco made of dried roots and dried potato peel; shoes soled with wood.

Elfriede Kuhr

Elfriede Kuhr

It took Elfriede Kuhr some time to get used to work in the hospital, to suppress her feelings of nausea at the sight of blood or pus or bedsores. Almost all the children are suffering from malnutrition or have a disease, many of them handed in by their mothers, young soldiers’ wives who have reached the end of their tether. Elfriede senses that these children are just as much war victims as the men killed at the front. Child mortality in Germany has doubled in the last fewyears. She writes:

Oh, these babies! Just skin and bone. Little starving bodies. And how big their eyes are! When they cry it is no louder than a weak little whimper. ‘Ihere is a little boy who is bound to die soon. He has a face like a dried-up mummy. The doctor is giving him injections of cooking salt. When I bend over his bed the little one looks at me with those big eyes that remind me of the eyes of a wise old man, but he is only six months old. There is clearly a question in those eyes, a reproach really.

A few weeks later a little boy of six months dies in Elfriede’s arms:

He simply laid his head, which seemed much too big for his skeletal body, on my arm and died without as much as a rattle or a sigh.

Several hours later she goes back to look at the body, and thinks she hears a noise coming from the dead boy’s half-open mouth, as if he is trying to breathe.  Plucking up her courage, she takes hold and forces the boy’s jaws open to give him more air. She recoils in shock as a large blowfly crawls out of the boy’s mouth.

Elfriede Kuhr (right) with sisters and children at the Municipal Children's hospital, Pila, 1918

Elfriede Kuhr (right) with sisters and children at the Municipal Children’s hospital, Schneidemühl, 1918

Englund is a Swedish historian and journalist, and now permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. What he has written here is, in the words of the New York Times, ‘an unusual book:

It contains few big names, major treaties or famous battles; there are almost no ambassadors, dashing journalists or discussions of tactics and materiel. It’s not so much a book about what happened, he explains, as “a book about what it was like.” It’s about “feelings, impressions, experiences and moods.”

There are many First World War books which are collations from letters, diaries and journals, but none are like Englund’s.  What Englund does here is to allow his twenty protagonists to tell their stories, whilst quoting only sparingly from their own words. Instead he paraphrases them, in elegant and elegiac passages that skilfully condense his source materials that remain faithful to the experiences and emotional states of his subjects. Largely written in the present tense to maintain the sense of immediacy, Englund unobtrusively includes helpful background information within the text or in footnotes as the threaded narratives progress chronologically through the war years.  Occasionally, Englund makes his own sharp observations, writing, for example, that ‘the conflict has increasingly become an economic competition, a war between factories.’ He notes the arrival of what he calls ‘a new species in the bestiary of the young century: the articulate and ideologically convinced mass murderer in well-cut clothes who performs his butchery while sitting behind a desk.’

On his personal website, Peter Englund writes that the most difficult part of the project was finding the form of the book:

I have written several shorter pieces on WW1, I have taught on that subject at my old University in Uppsala, and so I was familiar with the subject. But I was also quite determined that I didn’t want to write a book following the standard format, i.e. with an over-arching grand narrative that contains snippets of individual experiences, mainly because that has already been done, and often quite well. Instead I was interested in the war as an individual experience, to give some kind of sense on how it was (and is) to experience history from below and within, without the hindsight and the rationalisations that inevitably comes afterwards.

There he also explains what it is about the First World War that fascinates him:

What made me interested in World War One in the first place, and still has a grip on me is not just that it is THE big disaster of the 20th century, the one that started all the other ones (without WW1 no Hitler or Stalin, no WW2, no Cold War even), actually the single most important historical event in European history after the Fall of Western Rome 476AD. It is also that this war can’t be reduced to a story with a simple moral, like WW2. In 1939-45 everything was much more clear cut: light against darkness, good against evil, democracy against fascism, etc, and even the story itself is so exciting, almost archetypal in its narrative curve: at first the monster rises, sets out to conquer to world, but after much hardship is forced back into his lair and eventually defeated…

Asked whether there are any lessons from the war that we can reflect on at the 100th anniversary, he responds:

One important lesson is about how easy it can be to start a war, especially in a frenzy of emotion, and how terribly difficult it can be to end it. Because the horrible logic of human conflict makes men lose control over it: wars follow their own, supremely unpredictable course, almost never achieving those goals that they set out to achieve originally. And sometimes war even destroys those very things people originally set out to defend.

Some of the most interesting personalities in Englund’s book are women. One such is Olive King, an energetic and restless Australian who drives the ambulance she has paid for herself, and placed at the disposal of the Scottish Women’s Hospital, one of many private medical units started in the first wave of enthusiasm in 1914.  Unusually, this one was founded by radical suffragettes and is staffed exclusively by women. In October 1915 King sailed with the unit to Salonika, where their role was to provide medical assistance to the Serbs in their fight against the Austro-Hungarians, Germans and Bulgarians. King maintained and repaired the unit’s three ambulances herself, something highly unusual for a woman at the time.

Sarah Macnaughton is a Scottish aid worker who experiences hardship, first in Russia and then in Persia.  There, in April 1916, seriously ill, weak and disheartened, she writes in her diary:

It is such an odd jump I have taken. At home I drifted on, never feeling older, hardly counting birthdays – always brisk, and getting through a heap of work – beginning my day early and ending it late. And now there is a great gulf dividing me from youth and old times, and it is filled with dead people whom I can’t forget. In the matter of dying one doesn’t interfere with Providence, but it seems to me that now would rather an appropriate time to depart.

Florence Farmborough is a 27-year old English nurse in the Russian army, a woman who until the war had lived a fairly sheltered life.  She came to Russia in 1908 to work as a governess to the daughters of a well-known Russian heart surgeon in Moscow. She serves on the Russian western front and experiences battles as the front line shifts between German and Russian forces. In March 1916 she is in Chortkov, a town which at the beginning of the war lay in Austrian Galicia (and is now in Ukraine).  A year ago, Russian forces occupied the town and set fire to many buildings before being driven out.  Now they are back and, as Florence observes in her diary, life has taken a turn for the worse for the substantial Jewish population of Chortkov:

The position of the Hebrews living in Chortkov is most pitiful.  They are being treated with vindictive animosity.  As Austrian subjects they enjoyed almost complete liberty, experiencing none of the cruel oppression poured out on to the Russian Jew.  But under the new Government their rights and freedom have disappeared and it is obvious they resent the change keenly.

In January 1918, she returns to Moscow, a city which she records has changed enormously in the two months since she was last there.  In Englund’s words:

The darkened streets are patrolled by all-powerful and trigger-happy soldiers wearing red armbands. (Many of the people she knows intentionally dress in shabby clothes so as not to bring themselves to the attention of these patrols.) Gunfire can often be heard at night and her host family sleeps fully dressed so that they might leave the house quickly if necessary. Food shortages have grown much more severe and have reached famine proportions. The guaranteed daily ration consists of three and a half ounces of bread or two potatoes. It is now impossible to obtain even a simple basic like salt. There are still restaurants open but their prices are astronomical and the meat is usually horse flesh. The atmosphere is one of fear and uncertainty.

Famine, lawlessness and imminent civil war force Florence to leave Moscow on a dangerous 27-day trek by railway to Vladivostock, from where she sails home.

The Beauty and the Sorrow is dedicated to ‘Carl Englund, private in the Australian Army [who] died in the fighting outside Amiens, 13 September, 1918. His place of burial is unknown.’ His relationship to the author is not specified. The book’s odd title may be explained by the words of one of the individuals whose stories form Englund’s narrative.  ‘War is beautiful – to the eyes of generals,’ writes French infantryman René Arnaud as he marches away from the front line at Verdun with 30 survivors out of his unit of one hundred who had marched towards the trenches.

In an online discussion of The Beauty and the Sorrow Geoff Dyer praises the book, but notes something strange about it:

He has uncovered and found out about the lives of 20 different people from different parts of the world – some are combatants, one is a doctor, there’s this cast of characters – and he narrates the war chronologically through their experiences of particular days. This gives a real sense both of people being at the mercy of history – they’re not major actors in what’s going on – but they’re also completely shaping our view of what’s going on. I should say also that each person’s experiences are narrated with novelist-like techniques. The prose is very like that which we encounter in fiction. He also quotes a lot from their diaries.

But then quite an interesting thing happens. We have in our heads a pretty well-defined narrative of the First World War, and there are certain events that are obviously key. But one of the interesting things about this book, and perhaps one of its shortcomings, is that for us the absolutely key day of the First World War is the 1st of July 1916 – the first day of the Somme, 60,000 casualties – and in the context of this narrative it never happens, because coincidentally none of the people he’s chosen are there.

Englund’s book has a devastating ending. On the very last page a new character emerges – a young soldier recovering in hospital. A priest comes to the ward with news that the Kaiser has abdicated, and a republic has been declared.  The soldier, who has served as a runner of messages for the Austrian forces, laments the defeat of his homeland. He writes:

The days that followed were horrible, and the nights worse. […] My hatred grew during these nights, my hatred for those responsible for this evil deed.  During the days that followed I recognised what my mission was to be. […] I decided to become a politician.

The soldier was Adolf Hitler.  The words are from Mein Kampf, published in 1925.

All the suffering and torment wrought at places of execution, in torture chambers, madhouses, operating theatres, under the arches of bridges in late autumn – all these are stubbornly imperishable, all these persist, are inaccessible but cling on, envious of everything that is, stuck in their own terrible reality. People would like to be allowed to forget much of it, their sleep gliding softly over these furrows in the brain, but dreams come and push sleep aside and fill in the picture again. And so they wake up breathless, let the light of a candle dissolve the darkness as they drink the comforting half-light as if it was sugared water. But, alas, the edge on which this security is balancing is a narrow one. Given the slightest little turn and their gaze slips away from the familiar and the friendly and the contours that had so recently been comforting take the sharp outlines of an abyss of horror.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, 1910 (epigraph to The Beauty and the Sorrow)

History and war in the 20th century: a storm blowing from Paradise

History and war in the 20th century: a storm blowing from Paradise

Angelus Ovus, Paul Klee and photo of Walter Benjamin

Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Ovus’, and photograph of Walter Benjamin

With the centenary of the onset of World War One approaching (as we are reminded daily), I’m thinking a great deal and reading about the war. Michael Gove knows what he is doing when he sets his sights on ‘left-wing academics … happy to feed myths’ about the war. I’m from the generation that came to maturity half a century after the war had ended –  a generation for whom the Great War seemed as relevant as the war then raging in Vietnam. What Gove is attempting to do is refashion the collective memory of the war and its interpretation so that it can be read as being simply about (in his words) ‘patriotism, honour and courage’.

But for a great many of those who experienced the war – whether painters, poets or the common foot-soldiers who met their end, Blackadder-style, in a fusillade of machine-gun bullets going over the top – the war was endured, with a courage and bravery we can only imagine, as the bloodiest conflagration in human history up to that time: as pointless and horrible carnage.  In those four years a great many people ceased to believe in the idea of progress – or in the verities of patriotism and the glory of dying for one’s country.

Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish literary critic and philosopher writing in 1940, gave expression to this sense of historical progress being a cruel illusion in a much-quoted passage. Benjamin, then aged 48, had lived through World War I and its aftermath – economic collapse, failed revolution and the rise of fascism – and saw it as a ‘catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin’.

In 1921, Benjamin had purchased a Paul Klee drawing, The Angel of History. It was his most prized possession and continued to obsess him as the Nazi regime closed in.  In 1940, a few months before his death, Benjamin penned a very personal interpretation of the drawing, not obvious to most viewers I would guess, but a powerful statement nonetheless of how the events of the 20th century – world war and Holocaust – shattered the 19th century certainty that history represented human progress:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940

Benjamin was destined, only months after he had written these words, to become one more lifeless body among the  millions of those lost in the catastrophe of the 20th century.  In 1940, seized by the fascist authorities in Spain as he attempted to escape across the Pyrenees from France, he committed suicide.

Spencer Gore, From a Window in Cambrian Road, Richmond, 1913

Spencer Gore, From a Window in Cambrian Road, Richmond, 1913

For this post, I thought I would offer a sequence of poems in which the authors give voice to their premonition of impending conflagration, or of the onset of war marking a turning point, a catastrophe that would transform everything.  Beginning with an extract from TS Eliot’s Preludes, written in 1910-11:


The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.


The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed + Sound, 1913–1914
Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed + Sound, 1913–1914

‘Prophecy’ was written by the German Expressionist poet Alfred Lichtenstein in 1913:

Soon there’ll come — the signs are fair —
A death-storm from the distant north.
Stink of corpses everywhere,
Mass assassins marching forth.The lump of sky in dark eclipse,
Storm-death lifts his clawpaws first.
All the scallywags collapse.
Mimics split and virgins burst.With a crash a stable falls.
Insects vainly duck their heads.
Handsome homosexuals
Tumble rolling from their beds.Walls in houses crack and bend.
Fishes rot in every burn.
All things reach a sticky end.
Buses, screeching overturn. 

—translated from German by Christopher Middleton

Volunteers queuing in front of a recruitment office in London, 1914

Volunteers queuing in front of a recruitment office in London, 1914

No doubt ‘MCMXIV’, written in 1964 by Phillip Larkin will be anthologised endlessly during this centennial year.  It’s a great poem that, filtering impressions from old photographs and newsreels, has almost single-handedly come to define our image of those August days in 1914:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day—

And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Alfred Lichtenstein

Alfred Lichtenstein

The mood of enthusiastic patriotism swept across Europe, and it was during those days that Alfred Lichtenstein wrote ‘Leaving for the Front’ with its deep sense of foreboding:

Before I die I must just find this rhyme.
Be quiet, my friends, and do not waste my time.
We’re marching off in company with death.
I only wish my girl would hold her breath.
There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m glad to leave.
Now mother’s crying too. There’s no reprieve.
And now look how the sun’s begun to set.
A nice mass-grave is all that I shall get.
Once more the good old sunset’s glowing red.
In thirteen days I’ll probably be dead.

The poem was penned on 7 August 1914: seven weeks later Lichtenstein was dead.

German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914

German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914

Tom Paulin has suggested that Ted Hughes, born in 1930, belonged to ‘that slightly different species’ – a generation ‘who took in the blood of the First World War with their mother’s milk, and who up to their middle age knew Britain only as a country always at war, or inwardly expecting and preparing for war.’

Hughes’s father had come through the First World War, psychologically scarred by his ordeal and the trauma of witnessing the slaughter of nearly all his friends and fellow soldiers at Gallipoli in 1915. He was one of just two per cent of his regiment to survive. Hughes’ poem ‘Six Young Men’ articulates a sense of the futility of war, but also of mortality in general: one day all that will be left of us will be a face in a photograph.

The celluloid of a photograph holds them well –
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride –
Six months after this picture they were all dead.

All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed; From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer in the bottom and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground.

This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin-cans in no-man’s-land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows what they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed.

Here see a man’s photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk weight:
And on this one place which keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) see fall war’s worst
Thinkable flash and rending, onto his smile
Forty years rotting into soil.

That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.

George Grosz, Explosion, 1917

George Grosz, Explosion, 1917

Yvan Goll was a German citizen with Jewish antecedents, born in 1891 in Alsace-Lorraine – the borderland disputed between France and Germany. His wandering life as an exile was to reflect the turmoil in Europe in the first half of the century. Goll identified himself with the new wave of German expressionism that flourished in Berlin before the First World War.  Like Kathe Kollwitz, he was a socialist pacifist and in 1914, to escape conscription into the German army, he took refuge in Switzerland. There he published poems and articles critical of the war – including, in 1915, ‘Requiem for the Dead of Europe’. In 1939, to escape Nazi persecution, he emigrated to the USA, where he continued to write.  In 1947, dying from leukaemia, he returned to Paris. Despite sixteen poets from countries across the world giving him their blood, he died there in February 1950.

Let me lament the exodus of so many men from their time;
Let me lament the women whose warbling hearts now scream;
Every lament let me note and add to the list,
When young widows sit by lamplight mourning for husbands lost;
I hear the blonde-voiced children crying for God their father at bedtime;
On every mantelpiece stand photographs wreathed with ivy, smiling, true to the past;
At every window stand lonely girls whose burning eyes are bright with tears;
In every garden lilies are growing, as though there’s a grave to prepare;
In every street the cars are moving more slowly, as though to a funeral;
In every city of every land you can hear the passing-bell;
In every heart there’s a single plaint,
I hear it more clearly every day.

Paul Nash, Ruined Country, 1917

Paul Nash, Ruined Country. Old battlefield, Vimy, near La Folie wood, 1917

American poet Carl Sandburg, the son of migrants from Sweden, was born in the Mid West, drove a milk wagon and later worked as a bricklayer and a farm labourer on the wheat plains of Kansas.  He became an active socialist, involved in working class struggles and the civil rights movement.  In 1898, he had volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War. ‘Grass’ was published in a 1918 collection of Sandburg’s poetry, and is a timeless meditation on war in the ageless voice of nature:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –

I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.


CWR Nevinson, The Harvest of Battle, 1921

‘The Second Coming’ by William Butler Yeats was written after the war was over, in 1919. It gives powerful expression to Benjamin’s later vision of a storm blowing from Paradise, rousing a ‘rough beast’ from slumber – an apocalyptic vision of 20th century horrors yet to come:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight; somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Photography: the accident that pricks and bruises

Photography: the accident that pricks and bruises

Me Mum and Sylvia

There’s a feature on the Guardian website (The power of photography: time, mortality and memory) which questions whether, now that digital technology allows us to take innumerable pictures, we still cherish them as much as we did when film was precious. The Guardian asked asked writers, artists and critics to pick a shot they treasure, and that set me thinking about the special meaning, the particular resonance, possessed by certain photographs in my own collection.

Most mysterious are those photographs in which I seem to be both present and not present; that evoke memories, but not of the particular place or moment represented within them.  There must be a narrative here, but the only one I can now conjure is, most probably, entirely fictional.

Pedal car

It’s high summer and very hot.  The dolly tub has been dragged out into the yard behind our house, one of four in a terrace that stands in isolation facing what might once have been a village green bordered by fields but where now (it’s 1952 or thereabouts) a cinema (later to be turned into a church for local Catholics) and a post-1944 Education Act school now face our front door.  I sit on the edge of the tub naked, drying my crotch with a towel while my dad, wearing what looks like a natty one-piece swimsuit sits in my pedal car.  The sun beats down on the York stone flags, shirts dry on the washing line, and the coal house door is shut.

Mum tries on her wedding dress again

I think this one must have been taken that same summer.  If I’m right about the year, I’m four years old and my mum and dad have been married for five years.  There are material things I can recognise in these images – the backyard, the coal shed, those motley window-panes that hide what we called ‘the back place’, a leaky glassed-in extension (where the dolly tub lived, along with the mangle) that meant that you didn’t have to get wet going to the outside toilet.  But, though I am present in these images, I have no memory of the moment.  So what I can’t explain is why, on that hot afternoon, my mum decided to wear her wedding dress again and my dad sat in my pedal car.


It must have been on the same afternoon that my dad decided it would be a laugh to photograph me in the dolly tub.  In this one I seem to be experiencing some awful premonition of the sentiment contained in Larkin’s poem, ‘Reference Back’, quoted by Blake Morrison in the Guardian feature.

Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently, we could have kept it so.

Morrison wrote that for him, the chief feeling evoked by looking at old photos is one of sadness:

That most of the people in them are now dead; that the times they commemorate can’t be retrieved. It’s sentimental, I know: time passes; the moment goes even as the shutter clicks. … 
Worse, though, would be to have none at all.

For me there is a certain melancholy derived from seeing my parents happy and relaxed in these photos: in most of my memories of them they are neither.  But it’s not sadness so much as mystery that pervades these photos when I look at them: they’re such familiar images now that it seems as if they record a specific memory of my own, and yet they do not. If these are memories, my parents might have recognised them as moments from their own.

Looking at these photos now is as if we are in Plato’s cave, ‘revelling in mere images of the truth’, as Susan Sontag observed in On Photography.  We are ‘like slaves in a cave chained to a bench who see only the shadows of puppets and other objects projected from behind our backs and without our knowledge’. For Sontag, photography was an elegiac art:

Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. … All photographs are memento mori…by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

In the Guardian feature, the art critic Adrian Searle observes that ‘there are years and years of my life, places I have been … rooms I have lived in, for which I have few visual records’. For those of us born mid-century or earlier, this is bound to be true.  For much of the last half-century cameras were not as omnipresent as they are now in the age of pocketable digital cameras and smartphones. I did not possess a camera when I was a student at university: me and my fellow students did not snap each other at every opportunity and share photos the way they do today. The cost of film militated against the digital Tourette’s that nowadays has us firing off endless shots of the same scene.


Now, though, we record every moment of our relationships and family history.  Over the years, like most families, we have accumulated many photos of each of us, but this image of my wife which has a special meaning for me.  I was a thousand miles away when it was taken, in the summer of 1982.  We had gone our separate ways, the result of an action taken in haste and error, and a failure of understanding on my part. This photo offers more than a likeness: it reveals the soul, as Jackson Browne sings in ‘Fountain of Sorrow’:

Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true

The reason this photo moves me, why it stands apart from most of the photos collected in our shoebox of family snaps, is that it possesses what Roland Barthes called in Camera Lucida (coining a term of his own) punctum.  A photograph’s punctum is the object or detail that jumps out at the viewer – ‘that accident which pricks, bruises me … is poignant to me’.  The punctum creates a disturbance ‘which rises from the scene’ and unintentionally fills the whole image.  Basically it could be anything – something that reminds you of your childhood, a sense of deja vu, or an object of sentimental value. Punctum is very personal and will vary for each individual.  (Barthes distinguished the punctum from a photograph’s studium – the element that creates a more general interest in a photographic image. The studium here might consist of a fascinating fashion note: that in 1982 young women wore bright red dungarees!)


A year later our paths had entwined once more, and we had found a cottage up a country lane near Clun, standing on its own in a fold of the hill on a bend in the road.  Windows with diamond leads looked out over golden fields of ripening grain and the gentle wooded hills of the Shropshire landscape.  One evening, walking up the lane, a badger blundered out of the undergrowth, crossing our path only feet away from us.  It was a magical encounter – the only time either of us has seen a badger – and there is no photo, though a handful of images remain of that place, each one bathed in a golden glow (a trick of the exposure or the print process no doubt, but really derived from the sensuality I read back into them).

Reading Mandelstam Clun

All that week Rita was reading Mandelstam, a fact I captured in a chance shot.  And so, always and forever, a breeze riffles the pages of the book as the heat of the afternoon lifts from the garden, and we close the gate behind us to turn up the lane through the copse  for that magical encounter, at the end of a golden summer when we met our badger.

Moving in

Naturally, there had to be consequences and nine months later our daughter was born.  So a house was bought and a concreted-over garden was sledgehammered back to green.


Here’s another photo with punctum; it speaks, not just of our daughter’s spirit, but of the perfect happiness of childhood.  I’m annoyed that it wasn’t me that made it; this beautiful image was shot on her nan’s inexpensive point-and-shoot film camera.  Which just goes to show.

Beach with dog

In the Guardian feature, their photography critic Sean O’Hagan worries that he’s never printed a digital photograph: ‘They are stored on my hard disk in their hundreds, maybe thousands. This fills me with a vague anxiety’.  I know the feeling, and it is a strange fact that now, when we can (and we do) take as many photos as we like, they so quickly disappear into the cyber-vaults of Facebook or Picasa, or sit similarly unseen on hard drives. The number of images of our three-year old dog alone on this PC hard drive must be in the hundreds.

I think Jemima Kiss, the Guardian’s digital media correspondent, is onto something when she writes:

Photo storage needs to be more automated, and photo-viewing software should also help us more. It can learn which photos we view most often, and let the poor photos recede automatically. Software could summarise the 10 best photos we’ve taken that month, and put them somewhere special. It could identify duplicate photos and suggest the one to keep. Don’t back up all 3,000, just the 30 you really treasure. All we need is some bright spark to fix the problem.

Then, truly, we could sift through our photos and say, ‘I saw this miracle’.

Lillian at Kalinova

(My aunt Lilian, Hazel Grove, Cheshire, nineteen-thirty-something, taken by my dad; studium with added punctum.)

Haneke’s Amour: ‘nothing more terrible, nothing more true’


I finally got up the courage to go and see Michael Haneke’s new film Amour after it returned to our local Picturehouse for a brief run this week. It’s about an elderly married couple who are suddenly forced to confront the imminence of bodily decay and death. George (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers in their eighties living in an elegant Parisian apartment. One day Anne has a brief blackout that turns out to be a stroke which leaves her partially paralysed.  As Anne’s physical incapacity increases she develops dementia and becomes increasingly reliant on her elderly husband. I watched the film at a Silver Screen presentation for the over-60s, and I guess every member of the audience was thinking: this is what lies in wait down the road in ten, twenty, thirty years if we’re lucky.

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

Haneke has built a reputation for directing bleak and disturbing films with a distinctly austere style. His films include The Piano Teacher, The Hour of the Wolf, Hidden, and The White Ribbon  – all of them intense, challenging and deeply serious works.  Haneke has been quoted as saying:

My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.

So in Amour, it would seem, he has set out to challenge the Hollywood consensus that prefers to avoid the difficult subject of ageing and death. He told the New York Times earlier this year that the film flowed from his belief that it is ‘a task of dramatic art to confront us with things that in the entertainment industry are usually swept under the carpet’.

Well, that ambition has certainly been met here.  Old age remains the great taboo of cinema, with only a very few films daring to tackle the topic seriously, among them Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Kurosawa’s Living, and Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.  Haneke’s film doesn’t have the warmth and humanity of those great films, but is, nevertheless, a remarkable work.  In the words of Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw this is film-making ‘at the highest pitch of intelligence and insight’, raised out of the ordinary by the breathtaking, utterly convincing performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.  The latter gives an unflinching portrayal of Anne’s loss of physical and mental competence, and her rage at her increasing incapacity and dependence on her husband.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

After a period of hospitalization after her first stroke Anne extracts from George a promise that he will never allow her to return to hospital.  From a life of comfortable retirement – happy, affectionate, active and content – they both must adapt to transformed circumstances.  Haneke portrays Anne’s deterioration with a neutral, blank gaze as she steadily loses control of her limbs, her bladder, and her mind.  As Anne becomes increasingly difficult to manage – refusing to eat or drink – her husband’s patience is tested to the limit.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

But the love that has bound this couple to one another – the amour of the film’s title –  is never in doubt: we sense it in gestures, glances, shared memories and music.  As several critics have noted, after a post-credits scene at a music concert, the film  never leaves the couple’s apartment, and this has the effect of intensifying the sense of two people whose love for one another draws them ever more tightly into the physical and emotional space of rooms that, holding their books, photographs, music and paintings, contain their shared lives. This sense of isolated personal space is heightened by Darius Khondji’s cinematography which echoes interiors by Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi.

This is sharply reinforced by the fact that the film begins with the police breaking down the door to their apartment, a scene shot from inside the apartment that evokes a powerful sense of intrusion on private and personal space.  The couple’s withdrawal into their own shared agony is underlined by awkward encounters with visitors from the outside – their daughter (Isabelle Huppert), the building concierge, one of Anne’s former music students, and an uncaring nurse.

In all of this there is no trace of overstatement or sentiment.  George keeps his promise not to allow Anne to return to hospital or a nursing home. Anne becomes increasingly unwilling to receive visitors, to let them see her in her worsening condition. This story of love, face to face with death, is also a story of existential isolation.

Haneke seems to be exploring the nature of the love which George and Anne have for each other.  While George’s love for Anne means that he accedes to her wish to remain at home, he slowly becomes painfully aware that living is becoming, for her, an unbearable burden. As it draws to a close and George takes sudden, shocking action, the film forces us to think about the nature of love and how love might be expressed in these circumstances.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

There are shocking moments in Haneke’s film.  When Anne, seemingly intent on ending her own life, refuses food and water and George manages to force some water past her lips, she spits the water back into his face and George slaps her in the face, hard.  And finally, in a moment of love, pity and despair, he kills her in her bed, suffocating her with a pillow.

There is a mystery, too.  At the start of the film, when the police break into the apartment and find Anne laid out on her bed surrounded by flowers, there is no sign of George. But a window is open.  Earlier we have seen how he prepared his wife’s body, and we have seen him capture a pigeon that flies in through the open window.  He writes a letter in which he says he let the pigeon go, though we never see him do it. Alone in the apartment, from his bed he hears the sound of running water.  He gets up and finds Anne is there, washing dishes in the kitchen.  She puts on her coat and reminds him to take his as she opens the door of the apartment and they leave the apartment together.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

[Philip Larkin, ‘Aubade’]

George Shaw: a sense of our time, acute and troubled

George Shaw

Back in February my attention was drawn by a Guardian feature on the paintings made by George Shaw of the Tile Hill  neighbourhood in Coventry where he grew up.  Below is a repost of my response to these paintings – to mark the occasion of the Turner Prize not being awarded to Shaw, sadly in my view.

As Adrian Searle notes in The Guardian today, George Shaw’s paintings of the dilapidated, nondescript landscapes of our inner cities and edgelands demonstrate a ‘sense of our time [that] is … acute and troubled’.  In October, I encountered one of Shaw’s paintings, The End of Time, in an exhibition at the Turnpike Gallery in Leigh.

On the Channel 4 News website, Culture Editor Matthew Cain writes:

George Shaw was born in Coventry in 1966. He studied at Sheffield before later doing an MA at the Royal College of Art in London. He now lives and works in Ilfracombe, North Devon. … Shaw is a painter whose subject matter is the council estate in Coventry where he grew up – and often the mundane everyday objects within it. He paints exclusively in the Humbrol enamel paint used by young model-makers, which again gives his work a unique, instantly recognisable quality.

This unconventional choice could be understood on many levels; it gives the work a child-like, humble quality while on the other hand could be read as a defiant rejection of the history of art and, in particular, oil painting.  There is also a haunting quality to the work and much of it suggests a passage of time and even hints at the inevitability of death. Shaw told me while looking around the show that he identifies with writers more than artists, which makes a lot of sense; for me, his paintings constitute fragments or even pages in a personal and very moving memoir.

According to the judges, Shaw’s work lies at the very edge of tradition. This is because he gives the traditional form of painting his own unique twist; he works exclusively in Humbrol enamel paint, the kind of paint used by children on Airfix model planes.  As one critic said: “The Humbrol sheen lifts the paintings out of the realm of the purely representational, the ultra-realist, and takes it somewhere else, somewhere both old-fashioned and timeless, conservative yet contemporary.”

George Shaw: Ash Wednesday

In March, Michael Glover wrote this appreciation of Shaw’s Tile Hill paintings, then being exhibited at the Baltic, Gateshead:

For almost two decades, George Shaw has been painting, doggedly and systematically, the unprepossessing, post-war housing estate in Coventry where he grew up. The means he uses – Humbrol household paints – are as modest in their workadayness and as limited in their tonal range as the subject matter itself. It is as if Shaw has positively wanted to strait-jacket himself in this way.

Almost everything that we see in these paintings is face-on and centred within the picture frame, as if shamelessly gawping back at us: groups of garages; the end wall of a house; the local bus stop or the cop shop. He often favours nooks and crannies, odd twists in a road, locked doors and gates. Everything is past its best. The very idea of these places having had a best in the first place is almost laughable. There is a curious absence of humanity. Occasionally, the lights will be on in an upstairs room, but that is as much of a human presence as these paintings ever register. The light is often uniformly dull and subdued, almost sourly so, edging off to evening. There is frequent evidence of the aftermath of rain – the wet sheen on flag stones, making them look uneven, drab, a clichéd reminder of a culture blighted by chill and damp.

Dead End shows us a view of a garages, with a pitted approach road. The garages face a wall. There is no way out. As usual, nothing is happening. The very bleakness of the scene gives it a mild air of menace, as if it has been singled out for attention because it looks so troublingly unremarkable. Locked gates, boarded-up windows, graffitied walls feel like sad calls for attention. It could be a crime scene. In general, the subject matter seems to be talking itself down. The mood is anti-heroic, bleak, Larkinesque. By contrast, the titles talk up the paintings, as if giving them a gravitas they have no right to possess. An entire sequence takes Christ’s Passion as its collective title – a nod in the direction of Shaw’s sometime Catholicism. It is as if he is recording a time between times, not only when nothing actually happens, but when nothing deserves to happen. Occasionally, symbolism is brought into play, a touch heavy-handedly. A painting entitled Ash Wednesday shows us a distant church behind a stout fence, bathed in a dying orange light. This is almost a poem written by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, about the slow, melancholy withering away of organised religion. And, come to think of it, quite a lot of these paintings – and especially the ones that capture the moods of snatches of woodlands and park – seem positively pre-Raphaelite in their fastidious attention to flowers and leaves.

And yet, for all their unremarkableness, these paintings are utterly remarkable. They seem to have captured, quite uncannily, the quidditas of the humdrum, and to be raising it up in front of our eyes as if inviting us to look behind and beyond what we see. They are not so much their banal subject matter as the products of a painter who is haunted by that subject matter. They are not so much the depiction of a circumscribed world as a view of England, dying into itself, unloved, unregarded.

There’s an extensive gallery of George Shaw paintings here.

The Guardian has a video of George Shaw’s exhibition at the Baltic earlier this year here.

Here’s my own post written at the time:

George Shaw: Nothing happens anywhere

George Shaw: The Time Machine, 2010

These look interesting: paintings by George Shaw (featured in a Guardian gallery here) of  scenes of typical urban desolation on Tile Hill housing estate in Coventry, where he grew up.  I think they speak  expressively of the landscapes through which we hurry each day, their elements so familiar that they become almost invisible to us.  Look at the metal fencing in the painting above – it’s of a type seen everywhere, like the squat brick block it protects.  Look at the way the brickwork at the corner of the fenced area has collapsed, how the sycamore saplings are thrusting through the bars, and the scrubby, worn grass and sinking flags of the path in the foreground.  It’s all around us, a nothingness that’s everywhere.

Writing about Shaw’s paintings in The Observer, Sean O’Hagan recalled the poem by Philip Larkin, in which memories of his own childhood in Coventry are triggered by his northbound train unexpectedly halting there.  ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’, concludes Larkin. It’s that sense of nothingness that is captured in Shaw’s work.

George Shaw: Landscape with Dog Shit Bin, 2010

As Sean O’Hagan writes, ‘Shaw… records the mundane, the quotidian and the overlooked. In doing so, he somehow renders the everyday mysterious’.  In ‘Landscape with Dog Shit Bin’ (above) we see this clearly, the lingering signs of municipal projects, abandoned or forgotten.  Was this a car park? What happens here now?  Amid the natural browns and greens and the grey of the tarmac, there’s the bright, red flag of the dog shit bin.

Sean O’Hagan again:

Here is a drab lane of graffitied garages ending in an ominous-looking wood. Here is a redbrick wall rising up flat and imposing before a row of council houses. Here is a single tall tree standing solitary amid an expanse of scrubby parkland. All are alive with possibility, aglow with resonance and suggestion. These are paintings that prove Larkin’s point that “nothing, like something, happens anywhere”, while simultaneously suggesting that Tile Hill is one of those places where nothing happening is the norm.

George Shaw grew up on the Tile Hill estate in the early 1970s. The estate his family had moved to in 1968 was built after the war, as part of the nationwide programme to create modern housing for working class families. The estate is cut across by long paths and roads, and edged with woods, a remnant of what was once the Forest of Arden. Shaw has used this suburban environment as the inspiration to paint his highly detailed, photo-realistic works whose vividness derives from his use of Humbrol model paint (the kind used by generations of kids to coat Airfix model planes).  This gives the paintings a surface sheen:  ‘It’s that glow that you only see when you’re walking home from the pub alone,’  says Shaw.  ‘That solitary glow, the glow of a telly though a window or streetlights reflected on rain on the streets’.


George Shaw, The Back that Used to be the Front, 2008

He paints the back of the social club in Tile Hill with all the seriousness of Monet painting Rouen Cathedral.
– Gordon Burns

Looking at Shaw’s paintings reminded me of Thomas Jones’ painting – remarkable for 1782 – ‘A Wall in Naples’, about which the late Tom Lubbock commented:

A wall is nothing to look at.  As far as a representational picture can be, this is a picture of nothing. As such, it also faces an important fact – the fact that we spend quite a lot of time looking at not much. It’s a side of our visual lives that the art of painting generally overlooks. ‘A Wall in Naples’ is a tribute to all those non-focal moments, when our gaze does not settle on anything in particular. The glimpse of the world that this painting preserves is one of those occasions, when sight grasps nothing, when sight is simply stopped – comes up against a brick wall.

Thomas Jones, A Wall in Naples, 1782

Sean O’Hagan’s article not only introduced me to the work of George Shaw, but also that of photographer Jem Southam.  There is, writes Hagan, ‘a similar kind of almost eerie atmosphere about British photographer Jem Southam’s series, The Pond at Upton Pyne, which captures the ordinary beauty of a neglected village pond’.

Jem Southam, The Pond at Upton Pyne, January 1999

I Remember, I Remember
by Philip Larkin

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
‘Why, Coventry!’ I exclaimed. “I was born here.’

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been ‘mine’
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
‘Was that,’ my friend smiled, ‘where you “have your roots”?’
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:

By now I’ve got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
‘Really myself’. I’ll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,

Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and ‘all became a burning mist’.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,

Who didn’t call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead –
‘You look as though you wished the place in Hell,’
My friend said, ‘judging from your face.’ ‘Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.

‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

Also raised in Coventry (though not Tile Hill, as far as I’m aware) were Jerry Dammers and Terry Hall of The Specials.  Their song, ‘Ghost Town’, about the decline of the town during the recession of the early 1980s,  spent three weeks at number one in 1981 at the same time as the riots in Toxteth and Brixton.  The lyrics seem germane once again:

This town, is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place, is coming like a ghost town
Bands won’t play no more
too much fighting on the dance floor

Do you remember the good old days
Before the ghost town?
We danced and sang,
And the music played inna de boomtown

This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry