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Saturday 30 July 2011

The Perils of Research

One of the perils – or attractions of research – is being led off into something I did not know that has its own intrinsic interest.

Recently, purely for background, that may end up as a sentence in a finished book, I was looking into those who were not evacuated at Dunkirk but left ‘in the bag’ as the phrase was. This refers to the many thousands in the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) who spent the rest of the war in prisoner of war camps.

There is a youtube clip of the 51st Highland Division’s victory march in Bremerhaven in May 1945, (click here) all drums and skirling bagpipes as they parade past Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks. Many of these men had been prisoners of war only a short time before.

They have been overshadowed by what was made of Dunkirk, of course. What has been made of them – the forced winter march in early 1945 – has always stressed the heroic side of war.

These men deserved and deserve more.

Part of the reason I say this because I have only just learnt – perhaps I should have known before – that, according to my source, about 2,000 of the BEF ‘went over’ to the Germans in 1940. Naturally, this is not widely advertised.

I wonder however if any readers of this blog can point me towards more information on these men. What happened to them? Did any leave any accounts or diaries? I’d be grateful for any information on this.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Readers Get More Say.

Some of the pleasures of a) writing of a past just within living memory and b) growing old and/or being a grandmother are the cross-checks available – things and attitudes do change. Whether they improve or not is part of the fun.

For example, I bought a second hand edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s letters in the Tottenham Court Road some years ago.

Among them is a short but indignant protest demanding that his name be removed from those advertised to appear at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

I don’t know who was responsible for publicizing that Nabokov would appear without first consulting him – the impression remains, however, that over fifty years ago, one author at least thought that the notion of a Book Festival in itself was an absurd imposition on an ideally intimate relationship between reader and text. The text mattered more than the writer.

To pretend otherwise, I suspect, struck Nabokov as a sop to ‘human interest’ and all kinds of horrors like gossip and gawking. Nabokov’s opinion of ‘human interest’ was not high; whose is right now? He was also rather down on those he considered ‘hacks’. The meaning of words moves on too, in some cases, from noun to verb.

Of a similar age but different temperament, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges put his attitude to the book-buying public another way. He claimed to find it difficult to conceive of a readership beyond the number 25. After that, things and faces started to blur and he was not sure who exactly was reading what he wrote.

These two writers have been dead for 34 and 25 years respectively. Hearing them speak now the time elapsed can seem longer. The surprise comes, I suppose, in their foreign but decidedly plummy English, and their confidence. Both only achieved fame relatively late in their lives.

We live in less confident times. Recently I spoke to a present-day writer, very shy but also very sharp-tongued, who complained that ‘These days we are all so wretchedly chummy. Writers have become votaries to very entitled consumers.’ He was really complaining that he spent so long ‘going to book festivals and pretending to be nice.’

I didn’t start publishing – I am certainly not famous – until late in my life. I am perhaps more grateful than confident as a consequence. And since my publicist, Lyndsey Ng of John Murray is presently trying to fix up some book festivals for me to attend around the publication of Icelight in October, I have to admit I have failed the Nabokov test. Abjectly.

There is something else however. The great Spanish painter Goya is famous for saying ‘Aún aprendo’ – I am still learning – when he was a very old exile in Bordeaux. I am not so old but I do like the feedback, even when it is not so complimentary, that book festivals provide. There is something quick and spontaneous about face to face meetings with people who have actually bought the words you have written. It’s something I find very helpful – and enjoyable.

Thursday 7 July 2011

The Passage of Time: Picasso and Cy Twombly

The first time I actually heard someone say ‘my five year old could do that’ was in Cadiz, at an exhibition of Picasso etchings. At the time Picasso was, to some degree, being reintroduced into Spain. He had after all refused to allow his Guernica painting to return while Franco was still alive and the Franco regime had responded as might be expected, roughly ‘Great painter, Bad Spaniard.’

There was some interest to see what had been missed. Evidently some visitors to that exhibition thought not a lot. Intrigued I looked at what they thought a five year old could do.

The etching was from a small group done in 1951 called La Partida, according to the notes inspired by a comic strip of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. It is a medieval off to war and shows a knight on a horse, both in armour, accompanied by a page. Indeed the knight is more armour than person and the armour is vigorously rearranged into an absurd clank of pride and heraldry. The bit in the horse’s mouth imposes a kind of equine grin.

I could go on, but hope I have indicated enough to say I have never met a five year old, however delightful, who could do anything even remotely similar.

Of course, children change. I note from the many comments made on the late Cy Twombly’s work, that the phrase is now ‘Any six year old could do that.’

Leda and the Swan (at the top of this post) and Cycnus (above) both by Cy Twombly