Saturday, 28 November 2009


I'd never thought of the relation between magic and politics before. Perhaps that's because I still have an idealistic notion of politics. I believe it's the shared responsibility of everyone, not just a way in which professional politicians (horrible phrase) can achieve power, fame and personal advancement.

By a series of lucky coincidences, I found myself at the preview opening of the touring Magic Show exhibition whcih has just opened at Derby's QUAD Gallery. Gallery openings can be a bit dull. There's often free wine but there are also speeches and sometimes crowds so dense it's hard to see any of the work.

This was a bit different. There were still crowds, free wine and speeches but, after the necessary thanks - and people should be thanked - the speakers were so enthusiastic about the exhibition that even the children in the audience gazed in awed fascination.

The exhibition isn't aimed at children but there was sufficient for children to enjoy: posters, magically moving exhibits, a 3-D display that looked as if it were performed by miniature humans in a Lilliputian theatre. We gazed at the two plain sheets of A4 paper that danced together on a low wooden table.

Other exhibits reminded viewers of more sinister uses of magic. There was John Mulholland's booklet on magic for CIA operatives in a cabinet which also held Tommy Cooper's duck, as well as and pro- and anti-Hitler magic tricks. There was reference to the way the techniques of stage magicians had been used for one of George W. Bush's appearances at a Republican Convention. I was suddenly reminded of Tony Blair's words, "Trust me." "I'm a pretty straight sort of guy." This was disconcertingly like the magician's display of the empty box, the empty hat and the empty hands before handkerchiefs knot and separate, money vanishes and multiplies, and rabbits jump. The connection between magic and politics was perhaps clearest in Annika Lundgren's slide-show, though I never managed to watch it straight through from the beginning - I'll have to go back and see it all.

It set me reflecting about the way we see politicians now: the way journalists praise them for clever use of spin, a convincing image and successful stage management of party conferences. It's as though smoke and mirrors matter more than justice, truth, equality, liberty or any of the big abstractions I care about. There's a moment in one of Jasper fforde's Thursday Next books when she attends the live broadcast of a popular TV programme called Evade the Question Time, in which politicians win points for their success in spouting meaningless platitudes in response to questions from the public. Sometimes this seems so close to the truth that it is barely satire.

The evening also included a performance by Ian Saville, socialist magician and ventriloquist. The connection between politics and magic was overt, funny and self-mocking. The small children in the audience may not have understood jokes about hegemony and alienated labour, but they knew a good trick when they saw one and watched with wide eyes and delighted smiles.

Note: I was half-way through this post - just commenting on Tony Blair's words and looking for useful links - when a virus invaded my laptop. It felt like a particularly malevolent brand of political magic. I'm finishing the post on a borrowed computer.

Monday, 23 November 2009

After the murder

Murders always draw crowds. People hang around the site. These days little offerings of flowers in cellophane appear, sometimes with childish mementos - teddy bears and consciously cute toy animals.

The murder of an archbishop in his cathedral just after Christmas created a sensation. He was stabbed to death in a tussle for power between church and state. His death was a victory for the church over the English crown. Sometimes states and their rulers go to far and have to retreat.

The archbishop was Thomas Becket, Henry II's worldly chancellor who shifted his loyalty to the church when he was ordained priest and, the next day, created Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas was murdered at the end of 1170. Two years later he was declared a saint. Four years after the murder, Henry II walked barefoot in penance through the streets of Canterbury while monks flogged him. I bet the tourists loved it.

They weren't tourists in the modern sense, of course. Mediaeval pilgrims got more than souvenirs, though there were plenty of those - every site of pilgrimage had special badges for sale. It's easier to understand that now than the religious impulse, especially since the religious element was so much taken for granted that it's hardly discussed, except by people who mock it or disapprove. I can just about understand the attraction of a partial or plenary indulgence, which offers time off Purgatory, although my protestant upbringing taught me that Purgatory was a fable. But the urge to go on pilgrimage seems more complex that the simple exchange of hardship now (with a bit of tourism thrown in) for the relief of suffering later.

These ideas have whirled round my mind since I visited Canterbury at the weekend. It was a brief trip to see my daughter but she needed to dye her hair and I liked the idea of a couple of hours of solitary tourism. I thought I'd go to Evensong in the cathedral. I like Evensong, especially when it's sung by a good choir, although I fear my motives were more secular than religious.

I didn't make it. Arriving at a quarter to four, I discovered that Evensong had begun half an hour earlier and, if I wanted to enter the cathedral, I would have to pay the £7.50 admission charge. I decided against it and wandered off, looking for somewhere else to visit.

I must have walked past the Eastbridge Pilgrims' Hospital on my last visit to Canterbury but this time I glanced inside, saw that the admission charge was a mere £1 and decided to look round. The man on the desk talked about the history of the hospital and then I was left to wander round the hospital itself - now below street level - and the refectory and chapel outside.

I was glad I went in. According to the notice, the building was for poor pilgrims - people whose pilgrimage involved sleeping in fields and under bushes on the way. At the hospital they would receive a place to sleep - not a bed but shelter and a shared rush-strewn alcove. Then there would be a meal upstairs and opportunities to pray.

It hadn't occurred to me that there were poor pilgrims. I've read Chaucer, writing a couple of centuries after Becket's murder. He left me with the impression that pilgrimage was an amusing Spring excursion for the rich. But this twelfth century foundation offered shelter to those who couldn't afford a night's bed and breakfast in one of Canterbury's expensive inns. I began to think about the nobleman who founded the hospital. All the notices gave was a name - and the suggestion that the money he gave ran out quite soon. I wondered what had prompted him to found the hospital and what he thought of the poor pilgrims who stayed there. I read that another early donor was Roesia, Becket's sister. I'd never thought about Becket having a sister or how his family might have felt about his murder.

The hospital seemed a warm, friendly place and I was sorry to leave. There was a chill in the dark street outside. On the bridge a young man was bedding down with his dog, wrapping a sleeping bag and blanket around them both. He drew an old black bottle from his backpack, removed the stopper and took a swig. I hurried on to the station.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Between downpours

There were ten minutes to go when I got off the train at Nottingham station. I took the exit by the tramway, then headed up Middle Street to Weekday Cross. It didn't take me long to distinguish the art gallery. It glowed pale gold and dull green in the unexpected sun. I still wasn't sure about it - it looked like corrugated metal and slightly out of place among the older, weathered buildings.

During the past few months, I gradually became aware that the new gallery was planned. A stall in the Old Market Square gave me a badge saying "nottingham contemporary" in mirror writing. I wore it for a while and people were puzzled. Then there were complaints in the newspaper - how could anyone spend so much money on something so pretentious and unnecessary as art?

Suddenly there were stories about the opening - in the national press. Critics praised the building and visited the opening show: works by David Hockney and Frances Stark. I realised that today was the opening day and wanted to be there at the very beginning. So I climbed Middle Street and joined the queue penned in crash barriers.

I had only five minutes to wait. It gave me time to look at the unobtrusive details which recall the lace which was made by big, noisy machines in this part of Nottingham. Then a few ragged voices round the corner shouted "Nottingham Contemporary" and we shuffled in past cameras, microphones and a pair of fluffy zebras posing for photos in the gift shop.

Once in the gallery, I forgot about the building and started to look at the work. It's the opposite to the Guggenheim in New York. I was there nearly thirty years ago and I've forgotten the paintings - I just remember the long curving slope that led me past them. It's a beautiful building and I'm glad to have visited but if I were an artist I woudln't want my work displayed there.

The first two rooms showed work by the Californian artist, Frances Stark. At first I couldn't appreciate the flimsy collages with tiny writing and then, suddenly, I began to smile. I was looking at a drawing in which trees were made of words - the letters of the words separated into leaves, turned into birds and flew away. The first works had acclimatised me to the artist's humour and delight. I saw that around me other people were smiling too.

Frances Stark's work is full of transformations. I began to pick up themes: birds, telephones, dresses, words. In the largest exhibit three women I saw them as women - were both telephones and performers. I stopped trying to explain the work to myself and settled down to enjoy the resonances. I thought I'd like to go round again but could see the queue outside. It wouldn't be fair to go round twice while other people were waiting. "I can come back another day," I thought, "- several other days." It was a cheering thought.

Because of the crush, we were asked to take the simplest route through the museum. I saw the David Hockney exhibition backwards. It focussed on his work in the 1960s and the first thing I noticed was the huge, familiar canvas (borrowed from the Tate) of A Bigger Splash. This was Hockney newly sure of himself in California, painting sprinklers and swimming pools. In the next room Hockney was less secure. Although he drew himself beside Gandhi and Walt Whitman, he didn't claim equality with them. Each of the two famous men has a brief descriptive phrase summing up his influence. The unknown Hockney is tagged only with the words "I am 23 years old and wear glasses."

I thought I knew Hockney but much of the work on display was new to me. The drawings were a delight, especially the series illustrating poems by Cavafy and the reworking of Hogarth's Rake's Progress with Hockney as the rake arriving in California. Hockney's life unspooled further to his art school days when his work clearly came from the same tradition as Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland. Now, of course, his small rebellions - his insistance that life painting was not merely an objective organisation of shapes, his declared preference for male models, his startling obsession with the beauty of Cliff Richard - seem to anticipate his later works. But there was also the possibility of other paths - directions Hockney didn't take.

I spent an hour and a half in the four main galleries - not enough to take it all in. Then I wandered into The Space, a performance and display area where children and adults were encouraged to respond to the exhibition by making card models in gold, green and black. I picked up some card, wrote on it, and eventually fumbled my pieces together. One of the assistants optimistically assured me that my bulging box-like shape was "good - it looks like a building." She took it with several others and addded it to the display. I wandered into the café-bar.

I was in the mood for self-indulgence and ordered an espresso. I was sitting in a draught. There was no more sunlight outside. Rain battered against the door. Two bronzed young men wearing brief swimming trunks and carrying towels wandered in confidently from outside. Had Hockney known, perhaps he would have been at the opening - though I suppose there's plenty of tanned male beauty elsewhere.

I drank my espresso and shivered out into the street. I could hear music - "The Bare Necessities" from Disney's film of The Jungle Book. The zebras were dancing under a canopy. A waitress gave cake to the people queuing in the rain. I read the slogan on the window of Nottingham Contemporary: "International art. For everyone. For free."

I'll be back.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Derby revisited

I went back to Derby. I was determined to see L'Armee du Crime. This time I'd checked with QUAD that the film had been properly ingested. My cold was a bit better. Something at the back of my mind warned me that I wasn't quite well enough but I was fed up with limitations and headed back to the cinema.

I think this is only the second French film about the Resistance I've seen. The first, L'Armée des Ombres (Army of Shadows), shook me with its darkness. It began and ended during the occupation and showed members of a Resistance cell punishing their own members - always with execution - when any disobedience made the group vulnerable to betrayal. Although I knew that the Occupation ended, there was no happy ending of Liberation.

The title of L'Armée du Crime suggested a dialogue with the earlier film. There are other similarities. The film is similar in shape: it begins and ends during the Occupation, shows a key character being captured early in the film and ends by explaining what happened to the surviving characters. But there are key differences.

In L'Armée des Ombres, the main characters are members of mainstream French society who therefore seem to represent French opposition to Nazi occupation. I may be misrembering, but the film seemed to me as shadowy as its title. Shades were sombre as though brightness had been leached from the film-maker's palette.

L'Armée du Crime, like the recently-released photographs by André Zucca, has sequences of light. There are moments of happiness when Paris is, as one of the characters says, "beautiful". Ordinary Parisiens get on with their lives in technicolor. They - like the Resistance members and Nazi occupiers - have picnics, enjoy food, sing and make love. The Nazi occupiers who are killed and blown up by the Resistance are not deeply characterised but - perhaps more disturbingly - are shown enjoying life in Paris. The stroll in the sunshine, look at the Eiffel Tower, attend a book launch, chat with laughing young women in the doorway of a brothel. Neither they nor the Resistance members have lost their capacity for happiness.

Inevitably the light and happiness is in tension with darker events. Communist prisoners are executed in revenge for every Nazi killed. First ten are executed for every one Nazi, then twenty. A policeman who seems as kindly and anxious as every hero of a police procedural sighs as he reports a woman's anxieties about her neighbour - and sighs again when he watched the neighbour being tortured. Jews, trusting the French commitment to the "rights of man" stitch yellow stars onto their clothes. Then they obey the French policemen who cram them into ordinary buses on their way to the internment camp at Drancy. The buses roll past ordinary Parisiens who are unconcerned.

As the film proceeds, the contrast between everyday happiness and the cruelties that ordinary people would rather ignore becomes sharper. A soundtrack of Charles Trenet singing "Je chante" plays as a Jewish restaurant is smashed. Human beings are tortured in a cellar and no-one - not even the victims - questions that this is how things are. Outside is familiar Paris. There is still sunlight and beauty.

This isn't a film about typical French heroes defending their country from an external invader. Its focus is the cell led by the Armenian poet Missak Manouchian. Almost all the cell members are immigrants or stateless refugees. Manouchian's father was killed in the Armenian genocide and the group included Poles, Hungarians, Italians, Romanians and Spaniards. Some were Spanish Civil War veterans. Several were Jewish. Most were Communists and the story begins with news of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, which brought the Nazi-Soviet pact to an end, heightening the vulnerability of communist exiles in France.

The decision to resist violently is not treated lightly in this film. Manouchian in particular, chooses to abandon his ethical principles. But there are no easy choices for the members of this Resistance cell. Most of them risk death merely by being "untermensch." But the official poster - l'affiche rouge - issued after their death failed in its attempt to show the cell members as criminals rather than liberators. Its description of the activities of the Manouchian group led to the accolade "morts pour la France" (died for France).

It's a long, complex and gripping film. I walked away from the cinema reflecting on French response to the film. Although it was shown out of competition at Cannes - and despite the director's reputation - the film did badly in reviews and at the box office. I wondered whether this was caused by the film's implicit response to L'Armée des Ombres. It's an uncomfortable film, given the way the Liberation of Paris is currently perceived: achieved by the Resistance with the support of the people of Paris. I wondered uncomfortably how current anti-immigrant feeling had worked against the film. Imprisonment and deportation of refugees take place regularly - in England too - to widespread silence from the safe, passport-holding citizens of Europe.

I was nervous on the dark, damp and empty streets that led to the station. After all the violence of the film, I was alert to the risk of attack. I glanced ahead and tried to check no-one was lurking in the shadowy spaces behind bollards or advertisements. Gradually, as the few strangers on the roads failed to attack me - I think they were more concerned with getting home or to the pub - I became calmer.

There was some time to wait before my train. I took up the recommendation of a commenter on my previous post and enjoyed a swift half in the Brunswick, a restored Georgian pub with micro-brewery. It's very convenient for the station and I hope to go there again when I'm next in Derby. A £1 cone of chips from the Station Fish Bar provided a warming supper as I headed home.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Station approaches

I'm never quite sure if I like Derby. Of the triangle of East Midlands cities, it's the one I know least. I'm more often there to change trains than to visit. But on impulse I decided to catch the train. There was a film I wanted to see at the Quad - the recent French film, The Army of Crime - and, after five weeks of overwork combined with a succession of viruses, it seemed splendid to be heading out for a treat on a Friday afternoon.

I found to my delight that I was once more able to run for the train - it was a very last-minute decision - and, once on the train, reflected that my life was suddenly becoming quite self-indulgent. I'd been to a bonfire, firework and pizza party the night before and now I was off to the cinema. By the time I arrived in Derby, I'd decided I liked the city. Perhaps I could even move there, one day. I considered the advantages: good train services, easier access to the Peak District, the Joseph Wright paintings in the museum, the Victorian market hall. Above all, it would be a new place and I would feel as though I were starting life again. I started to think about small, manageable houses without gardens and in good repair. I tried not to think about the horror of moving or getting a house in sufficiently good order to be shown to buyers.

I can never remember the quickest way from Derby station to the city centre. I took a slightly complicated route, past small modern factories and the huge Westfield shopping centre. It all seemed slightly dull in the November drizzle but I reminded myself that this was my afternoon out and determined to enjoy myself.

I'd never been in the Quad before and this wasn't a good start. I'd just got my money out when I saw the sign "An Army of Crime - cancelled, replaced by Casablanca." I asked what had happened but didn't exactly follow the answer: something about the equipment failing to "ingest" the film. "Is it digital?" I asked, in an attempt to understand. I didn't understand at all. Apparently digital films have to be ingested at least two hours before the screening. However a new copy was on its way. I bought a ticket, with cash, for the early evening screening and headed out in the rain to explore Derby.

I must have spent two and a half hours wandering, mainly gazing in shop windows in the hope that I'd feel inspired about birthday and Christmas presents. Then I thought I'd return to check that the replacement copy of the film had arrived and was being ingested safely.

The courier, due at two, hadn't arrived and it was nearly four. I decided to wait in the faint hope that the film would arrive and sat in the foyer, leafing through the film programme. The woman running the box office was suddenly concerned about my wasted afternoon and offered me a complimentary drink from the bar. I asked for a pot of chai so I was at least warmer when the news came that the film had been cancelled. The box office woman gave me my money back and offered me a complimentary ticket for any film in November. I accepted, though I'm not sure I'll make it to Derby again. But the kindness began to make up for my disappointment. I finished my tea and headed along the damp, dreary route past the overhang of the Westfield centre and bleak garages toward the railway station.

This time I managed the quick route and noticed the attractive railwaymen's cottages close the station. There were a couple of promising pubs too and an excellent chip shop. I began to fantasise about moving into one of the railwaymen's cottages. I thought I'd like being near the station. I always enjoy the possibility of easy escape. And I liked the idea of living in a railwayman's cottage. My dad was a railwayman - he worked as a fitter on the London Underground for 39 years and still takes an interest in trains.

I was unexpectedly tired when I reached home. I should have picked up some work but felt unable. I went to bed with a couple of books and decided I'd have a lie in on Saturday. But in the morning I felt the after-effects of the Derby drizzle. I had a bad cold and was aching too much to go anywhere. I coughed, spluttered and slept.

I have stopped dreaming of a move to Derby.