Sunday, November 19, 2017

The stiff-feathered pines shed their darkness


Six years ago I wrote about The Peregrine (1967) and its elusive author, J. A. Baker.  I was prompted in part by the airing of a radio play about him, written by Helen MacDonald.  The book she subsequently published, H is for Hawk, contrasts T. H. White's The Goshawk (1951) with Baker's bleaker vision, his 'awful desire for death' disguised as an elegy for the peregrine.  I also referred to a new edition of Baker's complete works, edited by John Fanshawe, which included the diaries used as source material for The Peregrine.  Fanshawe has been chiefly responsible for assembling the Baker archive at Essex University and in Robert Macfarlane's recent book, Landmarks, he describes the experience of encountering this collection of notebooks, manuscripts, annotated maps and binoculars.  One more thing I mentioned in that earlier post, an album by Lawrence English, is described in an appreciation of Baker, written earlier this year by Robert Macfarlane to mark the fiftieth anniversary of The Peregrine.  Apparently, English sent a copy of The Peregrine to Werner Herzog, who was gripped by it:
'Herzog describes The Peregrine as inducing “ecstasy” in the radical sense of the word: not just entranced or frenzied, but literally beside oneself. There are moments, he notes, “where you can tell that [Baker] has completely entered into the existence of a falcon. And this is what I do when I make a film: I step outside of myself into an ekstasis; in Greek, to step outside of your own body.”  ... The puzzle to me, for years, was why Herzog had not yet filmed The Peregrine. In 2015, I wrote to ask if he was planning to do so. “If anyone can, it should be you,” I said. I sent him a photograph of my local peregrine perched on a church spire, part-gargoyle. Herzog replied within a few hours, generous about my own writing on Baker, but adamant about the book’s adaptability: “A feature film would be very wrong. There are texts that should never be touched. Georg Büchner’s Lenz is one of these cases. In fact, whoever tries to make a feature film of The Peregrine should be shot without trial.”
This story got retold at an LRB Bookshop event last Wednesday.  The event was compèred by the sans pareil Gareth Evans and featured John Fanshawe, Robert Macfarlane and his former student, Hetty Saunders, who got inspired by Baker after taking a course on post-pastoral literature.  She has catalogued the Baker archive and written a fascinating short biography based on what can be gleaned from it.  This book, My House of Sky, includes an evocative selection of archive photographs that take you directly into Baker's world (these pages, incidentally, reminded me of Nick Drake: Remembered for a While, which also reproduced archival material on another intriguing cult figure from the late sixties).  Here is just one example of these pages, a bird watching diary from 1955, the year after J. A. Baker first saw a peregrine falcon.


The archive features a set of photographs that were taken of J. A. Baker's bookshelves.  Only one is included in the biography, along with a brief list of authors he is known to have read (J. G. Ballard is mentioned, but no specific titles).  However, the archive refers to a catalogue John Fanshawe made from the photographs and this can be found online at the Essex University Special Collections website.  His spreadsheet has gaps - for example, he lists as a blank what looks to me, from the indistinct image in My House of Sky, to be the spine of Arthur C. Clarke's Four Great SF Novels (I'm not certain of this identification, but I did spend my youth hunting for SF novels rather than goshawks and peregrines...)  The Ballard books are in the spreadsheet, although not all are named; there were quite a few, from The Drowned World through Crash to Empire of the Sun.  However, aside from these there aren't any startling titles that stand out and the collection is largely as you would expect.  I was slightly surprised in the LRB Bookshop talk when Robert Macfarlane likened Baker to H.D and the Objectivists - there's no evidence in this list of him reading these or any other post-Poundian poets.

My House of Sky also includes photographs of the annotations Baker made to proof-copies of his books, returning to them after they were published to study the effectiveness of his prose.  There are two pages from The Hill of Summer (the less-successful second and final book that he published), showing where he marked metaphors and similes and counted up the verbs and adjectives.  As these are landscape descriptions, it seems fitting to conclude a post on this blog with an example.  Here is the first paragraph of 'May: the Pine Wood', showing Baker's 'M's, 'S's and underlinings.
'The pine wood hides the sun, like a dark northernS god rising in menaceM above the white road that falls steeply to the west, and the small green hills beyond are recedingM into a grey autumnal haze.  The high town silvers in sunlight, and its sky is barbed with curvingM swifts.  But already the night's simplicity is settling uponM the valley.  Under the exoticM flowering of the early lights, a blue Venetian duskM laps at the windows of the shadowed houses.  As I watch, the high townM is extinguished, and its shiningM sky ascends.  The stiff-featheredM pines shed their darkness into the still air.'

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Clouds Rising from the Green Sea

Clouds Rising from the Green Sea

Ten Thousand Riplets on the Yangzi

The Waving Surface of the Autumn Flood

These beautiful images are from the Water Album, twelve studies made by the great Southern Song  painter Ma Yuan (c. 1160–65 – 1225).  They have always been admired and were adorned with admiring colophons by various Ming Dynasty connoisseurs from the late fifteenth century.  They were recently 're-made' by an artist, Zhang Hongtu, whose paintings question whether Ma Yuan would have been able to paint such views now, standing 'before today's rivers and lakes, fouled by chemical toxins and industrial waste.'  As Richard Edwards points out in The Heart of Ma Yuan: The Search for a Southern Song Aesthetic, Ma Yuan's calligraphic depictions of water are all based on a contradiction - lines alone are used to convey an ever changing, constantly moving element that seems impossible to describe in this way.  The titles of each one were added to the album by Empress Yang and dated 1222.  Edwards lists them in his book in a slightly different translation from the one used online for these images, but both sound good.  In sequence they resemble a poem on the properties of water as it forms pools and lakes, passes through rivers and enters the 'vast blue sea'.

Waves Weave Winds of Gold
Light Breeze over Lake Dongting
Layers of Waves, Towering Breakers
Winter Pool, Clear and Shoal
The Yangzi River - Boundless Expanse
The Yellow River - Churning Currents
Autumn Waters - Waves Ever Returning
Clouds Born of the Vast Blue Sea
Lake Glow, Rain Suffused
Clouds Unfurling, A Wave Breaking
A Rising Sun Warms the Mountains
Gossamer Waves - Drifting, Drifting


The Yellow River Breaches its Course

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament Sunlight Effect (Le Parlement effet de soleil), 1903

Tate Britain's new exhibition, Impressionists in London, has been criticised as misleading, including non-Impressionist French artists who were working in England at the same time.  Jonathan Jones called it 'a desiccated seminar in third-rate history', 'the worst show about the impressionists I have ever seen.'  Suitably forewarned, I nonetheless came away from this show feeling it was well worth a visit.  There are four whole rooms devoted to impressionist landscape paintings of London and its suburbs, including Monet's marvellous Thames Series.  And Londoners at least will find the scenes painted by Tissot and 'the mediocrities Alphonse Legros and Jules Dalou' of at least passing interest for what they show of the city and its history.  Jones concludes his review grudgingly admitting it is worth buying a ticket, if only to see the 'artist who does shine through this pea souper', Camille Pissarro.  Whilst it seems perverse not to consider the Monets the highlight of the show (Leicester Square at Night is astonishing), the works of Pissarro on display are indeed fascinating.  Here I'll focus briefly on one of them, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich.

Camille Pissarro, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich, 1871

I discussed Pissarro here only recently, referring to his early landscape paintings in the Dutch West Indies and Venezuela.  Perhaps it's the name, but Dulwich sounds a lot less exotic.  It is very familiar to me from all the train trips I've made down to the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Pissarro also painted views nearby, around Norwood and Sydenham, south London suburbs that had only recently been Surrey villages.  Many of these locations have barely changed since - the huge wave of late nineteenth century housebuilding left London with the streets we live in today.  My own home, where I'm writing this, is part of a terrace built in 1871-3, so would have been under construction when Pissarro was in England.  There are still train stations in Dulwich but not this one: Lordship Lane Station closed in 1954 (it had been heavily damaged in the Blitz).  In this painting it is only six years old and the railway looks freshly cut into green countryside.  The train heads towards us like the black engine in Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), its smoke polluting the pale sky.  But it looks rather insignificant and unthreatening, as if what had seemed extraordinary to Turner was now merely commonplace.

A few years ago Michael Glover wrote an article in The Independent's 'Great Works' series devoted to this painting.  Here is how he sums up the appeal of this modest but moving landscape. 
'The painting itself is rooted in its own sense of its ordinariness. No part of it is more important than any other part. It is a masterful act of casual deployment of unmatched skills. It is also a beautifully muted painting tonally, which perfectly seizes a certain kind of slightly melancholy, drizzle-blighted English atmosphere – muffled, slightly dingy, damp-feeling greens give way to rusty browns, greys. Everything feels a little like a part of everything else. It all feels and looks so unshocking, so anti-picturesque in the solidity of its there-ness, you might say ... It feels terribly truthful in the way that the ever onward, undemonstrative drabness of life is truthful.'