Alan Humm writes:
"Since Feeling is First" is a regular feature in which our contributors write about those things that inspire them. In this issue, we are lucky enough to have a whole host of people, all writing about the things – the books and music and art and gigs; even the journey – that they loved the most this year. Mine? Thanks for asking. The track above is only meant to be representative of the Mr Bongo record label. I don't know what tracks were played during their DJ set at the Love Supreme festival this year, but I do know that it included more than its fair share of belters, all with a Latin beat that managed to be both sinuous and furiously insistent at the same time. What with that and the beer and the smoke wafting over from other people's marijuana, it was the only time in my life that I have ever felt remotely like a hipster. Don't knock it 'til you've tried it.
With regard to books, I would have to choose Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux. Ernaux won this year's Nobel Prize and, although the book wasn't published in 2022, for me it was the year's most enlivening discovery. Ernaux is an expert at dialectic, especially when the subject of that dialectic is herself. Her book is passionate, sly, forensic and excruciatingly honest. I heartily recommend it.
E.O.W: Half-length Nude by Frank Auerbach
In 2022, I looked again at work I thought I knew. Return is always rediscovery; rediscovery is always renewal.
I went to the Frank Auerbach exhibition at the Newlands House gallery in Petworth. His cityscapes seem charged with the retained energy of the machines that made them: that cleared the land, dug footings, raised steel and glass. His portraits (I think, in particular, of Head of Leon Kossoff) find true form by means of distortion: of renewal, something re-made so rediscovered, energy of a different kind, that can construct the monumental from the fragmentary or, rather, by incorporating the fragmentary. You look into, not at, an Auerbach. I spent a long time with "E.O.W: Half-length Nude" (see above) where thoughtfulness hardens to depression the longer you stay with her.
I also went to Chichester to see Chagall's window in the cathedral. I read Jackie Wullschlager's fine and fascinating biography of the man, the shtetl khudozhnik, and realised that I had an apology to make. In the arrogance of youth I had (perhaps wilfully) mistaken soul-pain for whimsy. From Wullschlager I discovered, to my delight, that Chagall hated Fiddler on the Roof; I was also reminded that, like Chagall, most of his contemporaries lived under a pseudonym: or, perhaps, better say a nom de guerre. In Loss, I made reference (XI - lines 10/11) to Emmanuel Levy's Crucifixion, mistakenly supposing the crucified figure to be Judas (...his tallit spread / like wings to catch the wind). Seeing, again, Chagall's White Crucifixion, I realised that, in both paintings, it is Christ-the-Jew on the cross. "For me", Chagall said, "Christ was a great poet whose poetical teaching has been forgotten..." I am glad to have caught up with Chagall and grateful that he waited for me.
Last June, I co-read The Waste Land at the Turner Gallery in Margate (co-readers Richard Scott & Hannah Sullivan: curator Richard Skinner). Reading that modernist landmark to an audience, prepping for that, returned me to its subtleties, its intermittent lyric attack, its compositional decisions, its shadows and reflections, the borrowings that shaped its uniqueness. More recently, I read Matthew Hollis's account of the poem's seeding and growth (The Waste Land: A biography of a poem) – it's revelatory and unputdownable. The details of Pound's and Valerie Eliot's interventions, though known, are made more evident, more startling, in Hollis's account. I was (why?) taken aback to discover that Eliot had once grown a beard.
The Cezanne exhibition at Tate Modern... I read, years ago, Marie-Louise von Franz's explanation of what it is that impels us to pick up and handle a sea-washed pebble or a conker. It is, she said, their "just-so" qualities. For me, that was a window opening; an explanation of how the world is shaped, how it has shaped us. That highly complex notion has stayed with me for many years. I have used it in poetry. I have felt – still feel – that physical insistence and its power as metaphor. One visit is not enough. I'll return to Tate Mod and the "thingness" of things; to Cezanne's apples: just so...
"Figure Approaching the British Museum", Celia Paul (Pallant House Gallery, Chichester); Self-Portrait, Celia Paul (Vintage, p/b. 2022)
Figure Approaching the British Museum by Celia Paul
Among the big names and bold colours of this spring's Hockney to Himid: 60 Years Of British Printmaking at Chichester's always exceptional Pallant House Gallery, my eye was drawn instead to a small, black and white etching by Celia Paul, so delicate, so bleached, it seemed almost to be apologising for its presence there. Although Paul's Great Russell Street studio has a bird's-eye view of the building's imposing portico, her "Figure Approaching the British Museum" focuses solely on its fog-blurred entrance gates, beckoning us, like her muffled subject, further in. The rest of the landscape is hazy and blanched, leaving the viewer to fill its obscured spaces. The print immediately evoked memories of London late winter afternoons, first as a student in Bloomsbury and then the many times I had passed through those gates as a researcher and writer; the smell of roasting chestnuts on a stand outside, the Evening Standard vendors calling out the latest headlines, the chatter of tired school children piling into coaches to return home after a day's outing. Later, from Paul's beautifully illustrated memoir, Self-Portrait, published in paperback earlier this year, I learnt of her quiet, if fierce, determination to carve out a life as a woman artist (even having a child after an intense affair with Lucian Freud did not deflect her; she simply enlisted her mother to take care of her son). Her work teaches us the power of understated determination rather than bullish aggrandisement. That smaller is not weaker. And subtlety is strength.
"I Do This All The Time", Self Esteem, Glastonbury
Rather less self-effacing is singer Self Esteem a.k.a Rebecca Lucy Taylor. Her critically acclaimed single, "I Do This All The Time" from the 2021 album Prioritise Pleasure, quickly conquered all with its mix of melodic, uplifting hook ("Look up, lean back, be strong/You didn't think you'd live this long") and witty spoken monologues ("When I'm buried in the ground/I won't be able to make your birthday drinks/ But I will still feel guilty"). And her performance of the song on the John Peel stage was one of the highlights of this year's Glastonbury. Wearing a Madonna-esque corset bra, modelled on her home town Sheffield's Meadowhall shopping centre (her 2019 Glastonbury dress was made of Boots Advantage cards) – and with a backdrop reading: "There is a nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman that appears completely deranged" – she was accompanied on every word by a mostly female audience. Watching a tent full of young women gleefully screaming "you're a good, sturdy girl", as the song ironically mimics the attitudes of male photographers/ publicists/record company executives (delete as applicable) towards female artists who don't fit their norm of a desired body shape, was inspirational. Funny. Funky. Feminism you can dance to.
Frank Lloyd Wright - The Architecture of Defiance by Jonathan Adams
(Published by the University of Wales Press in cooperation with the Royal Society of Architects in Wales.)
This is no book to read in bed. It's a big, handsome hardback to be spread open on a table, and given time to take in the life story of Frank Lloyd Wright, to examine the plates, maps and portraits that record the journey of an immigrant Welsh family in Wisconsin, and the boy born there who became, possibly, the best known name in architecture. They were religious, literate people, Unitarians escaping the difficulties their religion encountered in rural Ceredigion. Frank's grandparents, monoglot Welsh speakers, and their daughter, Frank's mother, Hannah Lloyd Jones, emigrated to America from their farm, Blaenrallt Du. Along with a tribe of relatives, they would become known as the "God Almighty Jones's". I think of architecture as "poetry in stone", of which the work of Frank Lloyd Wright is the perfect example. His philosophy, learnt from the poet Iolo Morgannwg, (1794), was the Triad on Genius, which I quote here: "a man who has an eye to see nature….a heart to feel nature….a boldness to follow nature". Look at one of Frank's most famous houses. Fallingwater, and see what he made of such a philosophy.
Decision To Leave (헤어질 결심)
I loved Decision to Leave (the new film by Park Chan-wook) for its landscapes: a sheer shelf of rock where a murder is committed; an autumnal cityscape where the murderer might be hiding; a seaside town where old lovers, bound by a secret, meet again. The story – about a beautiful widow who may have killed her husband, and the policeman in love with her – is partly an excuse for the beauty of the images. As the film works its way to a disquieting conclusion, the close-up performances by Tang Wei and Park Hae-il remind us that faces can be landscapes too: epic, revealing and marked by history.
For poetry, I'd like to single out Another Way to Split Water by Alycia Pirmohamed. I first came across Pirmohamed's work via her richly imagistic pamphlet whose title poem "Hinge" also appears in this, her first full-length collection. It begins, "Tonight I am all joint and animal dark. My heel blots out the moon". In images and tropes that call out to each other across the pages, this book mines the powerful metaphor of water to explore questions of separation and connection, loss and longing, language, faith and above all where – or indeed what – exactly home is. I also want to put in a special mention for Zaffir Kunial's superb England’s Green, which has already garnered enough attention to ensure its presence on many a bookshelf for years to come. In the world of prose, my most exciting discoveries this year included Claire-Louise Bennett's Checkout 19 (unlike anything I've read before), Sean Hewitt's beautifully written All Down Darkness Wide and a couple of books not published so recently: Agota Kristov's The Notebook and Sigrid Nunez's gorgeous Mitz. A slice of fictionalised biography told via the presence of a marmoset monkey who belonged to Leonard Woolf, this little jewel of a book is about the unique, irreplaceable relationship that can exist between human and animal and bears good comparison with Nunez's prize-winning The Friend. Finally, I came late to French TV crime thriller Le Bureau, and was addicted by the end of the first episode. Luckily, there are 50 in all.
Althea McNish - Colour Is Mine, Exhibition, The Whitworth, Manchester, 21 October 2022 – 23 April 2023
To mis-quote John Denver, the designs of Althea McNish (1924-2020) fill up your senses like a night in the tropics. Her wonderfully vibrant, expressionistic patterns are still the highwater mark of modern fabric design. Originally from Trinidad, Althea moved to the UK in the late '50s, attending the London College of Printing and the Royal Academy. At her final year show she was spotted and immediately employed by Arthur Stewart-Liberty. In fact the head of the Liberty department store was so taken aback by her work that he also arranged for her to meet with the fashion house Dior, who likewise commissioned her on the spot. Curtains, tablecloths, furniture and clothing were soon flying out of stores sporting Althea's designs, which bridge mid-century modernism and the swinging sixties. The exhibition does her justice, with samples of all of her greatest designs, original art works and a sequence of short archive films featuring her as a young designer and in later life. If you have a chance to make it to the Whitworth before April 23 next year, make sure you do.
Traffic Bollard in the Snow, 2011 by Danny Markey
My chief aesthetic pleasures in any given year struggle to belong to that year, and 2022 has been no exception, although – in an effort to seem au courant – I should want to recommend, at the top of my list, the small but completely involving retrospective of the English painter Ken Kiff, Man, Bird, Tree, at the Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate, which has just opened (and is on until the end of February 2023). The other exhibition I enjoyed was the Redfern Gallery's display of new work by Danny Markey, a wonderful colourist whose love for the furniture of the modern landscape – pylons, swings, roadsides, streetlights and back gardens – somehow also comprehends the wider visions of the Impressionists and the classicism of the great Welsh artist Thomas Jones. Books: The Premonitions Bureau (non-fiction, Faber) by Sam Knight, Sovetica (poetry, CB Editions) by Caroline Clark, Grief Dialogue (poetry, Rack Press) by Eve Grubin, Mozart: A Life in Letters (Autobiography, Penguin Classics) and The Switch (fiction, Elmore Leonard) have all kept me wakefully entertained. Ruben Östlund's gruesomely choreographed film, Triangle of Sadness, is required viewing for anyone in the upper tax bracket or thinking of going there. It takes place on a luxury yacht. I suppose David Foster Wallace's essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" covers similar territory in print, but with less overall risk to the digestion. Peter Gill's play Something in the Air (Jermyn Street Theatre) is a brilliant allusive hymn to gay emergence, if not liberation, in post-war London. In treating the audience as active participants, capable of interpreting different views of the same story, with subtle variations in emphasis, it does what too few grown-up dramas will countenance doing on the contemporary stage. Lastly, I am looking forward, very much, to Thomas Adès's short cycle of seven Hungarian Songs for piano and sextet at the Wigmore Hall in a week's time.
Ships in Full Sail
What was described as Colm Tóibín's first lecture as Laureate of Fiction, was a delightful non-lecture. In "Ships in Full Sail: A life in Music" Tóibín shared music and artists as watershed moments from his arrival in Dublin for studies at Trinity, with a side trip or two along the way. Maighrread and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill launched the evening's sail with song before the Laureate himself stepped behind a podium at stage right. After Tóibín recounted his encounter with the Dhomhnaill sisters and the Bothy Band in Dublin, sean nós (old style) singer Iarla Ó Lionáird accompanied himself with a shruti box to sing in Irish. The programme closed with the final movement of Frederick May's String Quartet played by ConTempo Quartet. There wasn't a whiff of a lecture in the whole evening. Tóibín the author told us a memoir with music. It was personal; charming. We laughed, often. The music was spectacular.
Chris Killip: A Retrospective
The Chris Killip retrospective book, published by T&H, is my book of the year. A very comprehensive look at this recently departed photographer to coincide with his current show at the Photographers Gallery. His book In Flagrante is probably the best post-war photography book. Here he examines the last breath of the traditional industries of the North East with an empathy that is quite compelling.
Walking the Pennine Way
In 2020, after having completed nine long distance walks around the UK, I decided I would try the mother of them all – the Pennine Way. At 268 miles, it's a serious mental and physical challenge. I have climbed Mt Blanc, which was also mentally and physically challenging, but I knew the PW would be just as challenging, albeit in different ways. In the summer of 2021, I started prepping for real. I joined a Facebook group dedicated to walking the PW and that summer I followed the journeys of several people as they completed the walk. It was an invaluable way to pick up tips on route finding, way-marking, weather, terrain, what-to-dos and what-not-to-dos. Through following those journeys, I built up a detailed picture of each stage – a kind of mood board – which was something I wouldn't realise was of such immense value until I actually started the walk myself. Then, in the month before I started, I did several long training walks of two-three days in the north of England, including the first stage of the PW itself. Everyone told me how tough the first two days on the PW were – many people give up at that point – so I did the first stage as a test run to avoid any nasty surprises when I did it for real. The great day finally arrived on 8th June this year and I was all prepped and ready to start my three-week trek. I was extremely glad to have already done that first stage as it gave me real confidence on the first day. The second day was also as tough as they say – the tortuous path up Laddow Rocks in particular was gruelling. But I did it. The third day involves a lot of flat walking by the sides of reservoirs and, feeling relieved at having done the first two days, I thought for the first time really that I could do it, that it was within my grasp.
But it was on the ninth day that the really great moment struck. I was walking a stage along the banks of the beautiful River Tees when the thought struck me that my mind and my body were in complete "accordance" with the PW. It's a difficult feeling to describe, but I knew with clarity and certainty that I would be able to deal with whatever the PW threw at me. By this time, all blisters had healed and my body felt like a piece of well-oiled machinery that was functioning perfectly and working at its optimal level. But the meaning of the moment wasn't just about my physical fitness – anybody will get fit if they walk fifteen miles a day for nine days – it was mostly to do with my mind, which by that time had completely emptied itself of any thoughts whatsoever. Francis Bordeaux summed it up best when he said, "In pilgrimage, we have an opportunity to de-centre ourselves. The pilgrim goes out to the other and returns as another person. It is a 'detachment of the self', a self-emptying." By that ninth day, my mind and body were not just in accordance with each other, they were in accordance with the landscape around me. I was not just passing through the landscape, I was the landscape itself. At that transcendent moment, I had a supreme sense of self-confidence and a profound sense of gratitude. This was my world and I had entered into and immersed myself in it fully. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
Given recent events, the relevance of Johnny Depp singing the '71 Lennon classic "Isolation" in collaboration with legend Jeff Beck is powerful. "You're only human, you're not to blame / You're just a victim of the insane." Because of an accident I had had in March, I couldn't make it to the concerts but listened to the tracks day by day, and, with the title "My Personal Trainer, Johnny Depp", I wrote a drama.
Sanju Sahai, Matthew Barley, Nicki Wells and Adrian Freedman - Dartington Hall
I went to a concert at Dartington Hall at the end of April, (part of their Thrive Festival), featuring four internationally known artists: innovator, composer, and Tabla artist Sanju Sahai; cellist and improviser Matthew Barley; vocalist and composer Nicki Wells (who bowled me over with her voice and Indian prayers); and Shakuhachi (Japanese flute) master Adrian Freedman. They each performed individually, then as a quartet. The quality of their improvisation gave me a deep sense of inclusion into their wondrous music making. I felt the beauty of being alive, a mix of earthly richness and the stillness of transcendence. On his website Matthew Barley, who reminded me of a swan – drawing his bow across the cello's strings with wide open shoulders – writes: "if you are making up every note as it happens, there is nowhere to hide." And that's how it felt: the whole hall blown open.
Books, Ideas, Debate
Besides watching drag queen Fanny Quivers at Ventnor Fringe, my other 2022 cultural highlight was a three day Festival, Books, Ideas, Debate, at HMP Portland, Dorset's Cat C prison, home to over five hundred men. The idea was to engage inmates with words and language in a variety of formats by meeting and working with professional writers and artists. David Kendall, the festival organiser from Loud and Clear Productions, commissioned me to deliver some poetry workshops. Despite the shock of an early start for this hardened night owl, it was incredibly rewarding to witness how the groups soaked up the words. Afterwards I had the privilege of sitting in on a session with singer songwriter Scott Lavene. Listening to Scott's stories of love and craziness, you could feel the energy that music and honesty can bring to a space, and for a magical moment the walls came down. Other artists and writers taking part in the festival were Gary and Si from the Outsiders Project, Dr David Maquire, Paul Zanon, Shaun Attwood and Jason Wilson.
I spend a lot of my time in London going to experimental music events, art exhibitions and art house cinema. But my best cultural event of 2022 was a guided walk in Teesdale, a remote, empty Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in County Durham noted for being a botanical hotspot. This walk was run by the Upper Teesdale Special Flora Trust and led by Dr. Tom Gledhill, their chairperson. Now, I have been on many guided walks before but never have I experienced such a wealth of knowledge, history, archeology and natural history of the area, told with so much humour, charm and modesty by a truly brilliant mind. It was an honour to spend a day in his company. We tasted wild sorrel, noted the rare alpine flora, learned the history of lead mining, discovered traces of the ancient farmhouses in the open hillside, learned about the history of medieval farming in the area, the geology too, and climbed over the basalt rocks of the river Tees and High Force waterfall. It was a sunny day with a fresh breeze – and it was brilliant.
I am currently making a film about the botanist Margaret Bradshaw and the rare flora in Teesdale, and this trip was meant to be research. But it was the best day of 2022 for me.