Saturday 17th October 2015.
I watch a new Ted Hughes documentary made by the BBC, Stronger Than Death. Unusually for a TV documentary, there’s no celebrity presenters trampling their own uncalled-for views all over the material. Instead the film lets the poems, the archive footage and the interviewees do all the talking. There’s still omissions and bias, of course: Jonathan Bate appears, and it’s clearly timed to coincide with his major new Hughes biography.
Despite having 90 minutes to play with Hughes’s life, a lot of time is given to the shadow of Sylvia Plath. There’s a recital of a US feminist’s poem which openly dreams of Hughes’s murder, as revenge for Plath’s suicide. This is at the expense of even mentioning The Iron Man or Meet My Folks (both of which delighted me as a child). Hughes’s widow Carol is also noticeably absent – perhaps because she’s appeared in the news headlines lately, complaining about ‘damaging and offensive claims’ in Mr Bate’s book. Instead, one of TH’s extra-marital flings speaks about the poem she apparently inspired, with clear pride.
It’s tempting to say a lot of this is unfairly intrusive or even gossipy, but as Simon Armitage says early on in the film, Ted Hughes is one literary figure where the biography really is essential when considering the work. For my own part, I find myself reaching for my copy of Emma Tennant’s memoir Burnt Diaries, to look up her own contributions to the Tales of Ted. There’s much about Ms Tennant’s own affair with the poet in the 70s, but most memorably for me is the anecdote about his encounter with a mentally ill poet. This man had stalked Hughes for months and had even threatened him with a knife. Finally confronted by the man on a London street, Hughes shoves him into the passenger seat of his car, binds him with the seatbelt, and grabs a sheet of plain A4 paper from his satchel. Then he gets out his penknife, shouts, ‘Look at this!’ to the stalker, and slices the paper diagonally in two.
According to Ms Tennant, who witnessed all this from the back seat of the car, the stalker sat there looking at the paper, ‘as if a living creature had been sacrificed before his eyes – or his soul had been cut in two.’ He was then let out of the car and shambled off into the city. ‘He won’t trouble us again,’ said Hughes.
Bate’s new biography includes this story, and adds that the stalker in question may have been Henry Fainlight, troubled brother of Ruth, though he thinks the anecdoteÂ is ‘probably exaggerated in order to dramatise Ted’s quasi-occult powers.’ But Hughes was steeped in ideas of mythology himself, and what else is gossip but a form of mythology? From Leda and the Swan to Kim Kardashian, it’s all tale-telling of a kind.
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Wednesday 21st October 2015.
To the Tate Britain for the big Barbara Hepworth exhibition, Sculpture for a Modern World. It’s labelled as the first major Hepworth show for nearly 50 years. Perhaps the long gap is because people are used to Ms Hepworth’s work being part of the landscape – literally, given herÂ association with outdoors art. This large-scale indoor exhibition brings out the ambient, calming side of her sculptures: a world of humane and peaceful geometry. One room recreates a 1960s outdoor installation in the Netherlands, the Rietveld Pavilion. The pavilion’s concrete walls have been transplanted inside the Tate’s galleries, to show Hepworth’s works in the intended context, though without the grass and sky. I see more visitors sitting and sketching the exhibits than usual. Perhaps there’s something about Hepworth’s sculptures that particularly invites sketching. Carving away at the paper, joining in.
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Thursday 22nd October 2015.
I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of The Flood. A satisfying sequel to Oryx and Crake, focussing on two women caught up in a post-apocalyptic world, where a ‘waterless flood’ – a global pandemic plague – has destroyed most of humanity. A pull-quote for the cover praises the novel for being ‘as pacy as a thriller’. This is a very telling statement on the way genre is viewed by the British literary scene: it implies that literary novels aren’t meant to be pacy, and thrillers aren’t meant to be read. But it’s also accurate for The Year of the Flood: the book uses short chapters, cliffhangers, parallel viewpoints, and flashbacks. All are devices of thrillers. I wolf through its 500 pages in three days.
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Friday 23rd October 2015.
To the ICA cinema for The Lobster. A surreal black comedy, in the Absurdist tradition – shades of Ionesco and Bunuel. It’s by a Greek writer and director, but is filmed in English, and has an impressive cross-European cast (including Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman, Lea Seydoux). The dialogue has a stilted, almost robotic feel, as if translated by a computer program, but this is clearly part of the whole deadpan aesthetic. The plot concerns an alternative world where single people are forced to find a compatible partner in a month, while imprisoned in a rural hotel. If they fail, they are surgically transformed into an animal of their choice. Mr Farrell escapes one such hotel, only to find that the woods-dwelling ‘loners’ he joins have brutal rules of their own. It’s a very strange film indeed, but like the best Absurdist plays, the comedy balances out the alienation.
Then to Vout-o-Reenee’s to prop up the bar with Debbie Smith. I also bump into Hazel Barkworth, a friend I’ve not seen for years. We discuss how we’ve solidified our own looks – my blond hair and suits, her bob hair and black dresses. ‘Be your own cosplay’ is our decree. (cosplay being short for ‘costume play’, the practice of dressing up as a genre character).
Tonight the venue is hosting the launch of two new poetry pamphlets (I think ‘chapbooks’ is the proper term). Both are published by Annexe Magazine: Susie Campbell’s The Frock Enquiry and JT Welsch’s The Ruin. The former uses historical research into the plight of early 20th century British female workers, a kind of Suffragette in poetry form. Mr Welsch’s work is inspired by a visit to the ruined ancient temples of Tunisia, and makes some nice comments about the way Star Wars fans now make a similarly holy pilgrimage to this area, due to the landscape’s role as a Star Wars location. Certainly, the latest Star Wars sequel is generating anticipation on a level of religious rapture, and it’s not even out for another two months.
I also take a look at the latest exhibition in the venue’s Stash Gallery, Wilma Johnson’s Cat Amongst The Dogs. Ms Johnson lost her life’s work of paintings in a house fire last June, so this show represents something of a rebirth of her creative spirit. Some forty or fifty canvasses are here – not bad for four months. The theme is a playful and colourful celebration of film icons and pets, with a touch of the mythic about both. There’s also a little of a Pop Art Frida Kahlo in the mix. There’s Garbos and Hepburns and Taylors amongst marmalade cats and borzois. Perhaps proving the point about the British love of pets, about half the paintings have already been sold – and the cat paintings are going more than the dog paintings. Tonight, I chat to the artist and discover that she’s staying at her mother’s house in Highgate, which turns out to be the house opposite mine. We share an obvious cab home.
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Tags: annexe magazine, barbara hepworth, ICA, margaret atwood, tate britain, ted hughes, the lobster, vout-o-reenee's, wilma johnson