The Rest Of What We Did On Holiday

So, I had a week to amuse myself while Mr Litlove made his chair. This year we both became members of the National Trust and I was keen to get some use out of my card, especially in order to visit more gardens. I am completely rubbish when it comes to identifying trees and plants and birds and I suppose I thought that visiting gardens would bring me the knowledge by a mysterious process of osmosis.

Getting in my car for my first visit, I realised it was a long time since I’d had to drive myself somewhere new, and I don’t have a satnav. Instead, I’d studied the maps and tried to commit the route to memory, something I was a little concerned about, given that these days I barely make it halfway up the stairs before realising I’ve forgotten what I’m going up them for. But I found my way just fine to Petworth House, an imposing stately home set in vast grounds designed by Capability Brown where the novelist John Wyndham lived (and his son, Max, still does).

What I didn’t realise was that I would undertake solo sightseeing as if I were a Marine commando on a mission against the clock. Memorise maps. Check! Drive to location. Check! Get map of house and grounds from National Trust lady. Check! Three times whilst said National Trust lady was trying to explain which path I should take to the house and what time the tea rooms closed, I rather thought she’d finished (prematurely) and made to take off on my mission. Eventually she asked me somewhat drily, ‘Are you in a hurry?’ and I said, no, no, sorry, just umm… And then I shot off into the grounds as if Big Chief I-Spy himself were in hot pursuit, waving his little tomahawk with menace.

After the glories of Parham, I found Petworth rather disappointing. It was a series of large, empty rooms, their walls thickly coated with paintings that were often hung too high or in strange shafts of light that made them hard to see properly. The paintwork in every room was in desperate need of refreshment and the whole place had a dingy aspect. There was plenty that was spectacular to see – you want a Turner? here’s five in a row. You like portraits of society beauties? Here’s a gallery entirely dedicated to them. You like wood carving? Here’s a room the size of a tennis court, with walls sprouting strange excrescences like a rampant if morbid form of fungi. The part of the house I admired most was the chapel, built in but sunk down a flight of steps, meaning you paused on the threshold at eye level with the scary pictures of saints and angels. It had a shivery power, inhabited by a vengeful god with a connoisseur’s eye for art.

At the end of the corridor that led past the great kitchen (where I doubtless slaved in a past life) and the shop and tea room, there was an entrance into the small town of Petworth itself, quaint and fairy tale-ish, its narrow cobbled streets built on a steep slope. And here I struck gold – the only book shop I found during the whole week, but the most delightful indie packed with excellent stock. I could have bought up the entire non-fiction section, but even I think I have a lot of books to read at the moment. So I made a concerted effort at restraint which I naturally regretted for the rest of the holiday. I bought Diana Souhami’s Murder at Wrotham Hill, a narrative non-fiction account of a crime that took place in the 40s, and James Wood’s short collection of literary essays, The Nearest Thing To Life. I spent longer in the shop than I did in the house and grounds.

The next day I had another stab at sightseeing, this time visiting Nymans and remembering to take the camera. It was a properly hot day and it took a while to get there, half an hour or so, a journey that began to seem to me like an awful lot of bother just to go look at a garden. I do realise I am not naturally gifted with the instincts of a tourist. Still it was a very pretty garden, and I saw it when the rhodedendrons (one of the few shrubs I can identify) were in flower.

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I have a photo of much bigger specimens but it came out blurry! This was obviously the rhodedendron nursery.

Nymans itself was a much smaller place than either Parham or Petworth, and not many rooms were open. As we entered the hallway, the sound of piano playing floated on the dusty air, and there in the main drawing room was a little old hunchbacked lady, surely in her 90s, playing her heart out. It was both atmospheric and disconcerting. Inside the house it was like visiting your posh Granny, rather lovely portraits and small sculptures in niches, great quantities of chintz, tartan curtains, piles of books and magazines, a little too much furniture, cold slate floors but cosy throws and cushions.

IMG_2403Part of the house was a ruin, destroyed by a fire in 1947.

IMG_2406Outside the gardens were amazing, even I could understand that much. There were all sorts of features, a sunken garden, a rock garden, a long pergola, a rose garden (not yet in bloom), all sorts of outdoor rooms created cleverly.

IMG_2398I speed-walked my way around lots and lots of plants. Goodness knows what they were.

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By judicious hanging around in the shop I managed to stretch my visit out to an hour and a half. I mean, I’d looked, it was lovely, what else was there to do? Mr Litlove asked me which parts of the houses I was most interested in and would most like to take home, and I said, the stories. The history of the houses does really interest me, but Nymans had to remain a mystery, as the guidebook the NT produces was out of print and they were trying to persuade the publisher to bring it back. I bought Patrick Barkham’s book Coastlines in lieu of it, even though there was no coastline in sight.

So Thursday it rained all day, and Friday was our last, and the one I had to vacate our cottage since it was a Friday-Friday let.  On our last holiday, I’d struggled under similar circumstances, waiting all day for our journey home and then too anxious to undertake it. So this year, we booked a hotel for Friday night, so I wouldn’t have to face the M25 on its worst time of the week. And yet, still I woke that morning full of anxiety. The owners of our cottage had kindly invited me to spend some of the day with them, which I did. And then late morning I drove out to Arundel for something to do (enormous castle on a hill, its petticoats full of tea rooms), and then I drove to Mr Litlove’s workshop for the afternoon. I was very tired and very anxious by now, though the workshop was fun in its way and I was glad to visit. Anyway, to cut a long story short I was pretty much gripped by anxiety until we were finally home early on Saturday (very early, I wasn’t sleeping anyhow so we thought we might as well do the drive).

What had gone wrong? I’d been fine all week. When I saw my reiki practitioner a few days later, she suggested it was a ‘safe place’ issue, and the light dawned. Most of you fortunate, normal people out there probably carry your safe place around inside you. Perhaps what distinguishes the phobic and the anxious is that our defences feel insufficient, and some other, physical, form of protection is required to reach basic safety levels. I was okay using the holiday home as a temporary base, but stuck in limbo on Friday my anxiety began to rise. And as anyone who suffers anxiety knows, it’s all too easy to reach the point of no return. Still, you live and learn, particularly when you have a preternaturally insightful reiki practitioner. And we did have a lovely week.

Dangerous Ambition

theblazingworldI’ve been wondering whether to ditch the idea of reviewing Siri Hustvedt’s novel, The Blazing World. Not because I didn’t enjoy it or admire it – I did both. But because it somehow seemed difficult to write about. Briefly, the novel concerns neglected artist, Harriet Burden, a woman of great ambition, great intelligence and fierce drive, whose work has been repeatedly overlooked and dismissed by the critics. It is structured as a posthumous collection of disparate writings by and about Burden that trace the development of her life and her last, desperate attempts to prove gender bias by creating three spectacular shows of work that are fronted by men, masquerading as the real artist. This isn’t some pc-driven whine: in the novel it’s noted how many actual women artists were blatantly sidelined, receiving no real recognition until their seventies (Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois) or their death (Eva Hesse, Joan Mitchell) or indeed not at all – like Lee Krasner who was only ever seen through the frame of her husband, Jackson Pollock. The art world does have a problem with women, preferring ‘their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.’

Harriet Burden is driven to the edge of her sanity by the lack of recognition her work has received, and her dangerous ploy, to create work that men agree to show, backfires in all sorts of ways. Her first chosen male artist, a newcomer to the scene, is hailed beatifically and then cannot deal with the fact that he is not the work’s creator. Her second, a gender-bending black man, is too close to the feminine to attract the serious attention of the art world, though Harriet enjoys their collaboration most of all. The last, an already-established rock star of the art world, pretentious Rune, betrays Harriet in the worst possible way. Harriet proves the sexism inherent in art criticism, but she is powerless to change anything, and remains deprived of the satisfaction she seeks.

I thought a lot about Harriet Burden while reading Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels. Fels’ argument is that ambition is useful to us – ‘coping skills, understanding of reality and sense of self-worth’ are all higher in women who have defined plans for their futures. Women who want to be ‘upwardly mobile via their own achievements’ turn out to be ‘the most psychologically well adjusted.’ But recognition – accurate, meaningful praise from the external world – is consistently withheld from women, and white middle-class women in particular are the group most loathe to go after it. Ambition is understood to be pushy, aggressive, non-feminine. Women will repeatedly say that they have nothing against ambition, that they understand it can be useful, but will stubbornly stick only to ambitions that involve nurturing others.

What I found most intriguing about this book is its insistence on the value and importance of recognition. It’s a tragic myth women tell themselves to try to come to terms with their lot that it’s all about the work for its own sake, Fels suggests. ‘[T]he recognition of one’s skills within a community creates a sense of identity, personal worth, and social inclusion – base cornerstones in any life’. The times we receive recognition are usually iconic moments we remember forever more. ‘Recognition by others defines us to ourselves, energises us, directs our efforts, and even alters mood.’ Fels argues that the times we are happiest and most engaged in our work are the times when we are most valued and validated – and alas for women, cultural validation only comes in the form of praise for selflessness, for stepping down, shutting up, putting their desires away and promoting others.

Honestly? I agree. There is so much of my own experience that resonantes here. Fels notes that: ‘When girls persist in being high achievers, they are subtly penalised by their teachers. They actually receive less attention from their teachers than any of the other student types.’ Yup, that was my experience at school. And the times I flew high and found my work easy and fulfilling were mostly during my graduate days when I had two mentors around me who encouraged me a great deal. When I began working for the university, there was no recognition to be had. In thirteen years teaching, I had two appraisals and only one sentence of praise which yes, I remember to this day (the then Senior Tutor said ‘no one can please all the people all the time, but you get pretty close to it’). The constant lack of recognition undoubtedly contributed to chronic fatigue – I paid out so much energy, and had so little re-energising sense of doing well in return. And I did indeed feel guilty and wrong for wanting recognition at all. Not least because I was aware that it’s so hard to come by. For instance, here’s an intriguing study from Fels’ book:

Two groups of people were asked to evaluate particular items, such as articles, paintings, resumes and the like. The names attached to the items given each group of evaluators were clearly either male or female, but reversed for each group – that is, what one group believed was originated by a man, the other believed was originated by a woman. Regardless of the items, when they were ascribed to a man, they were rated higher than when they were ascribed to a woman. In all of these studies, women evaluators were as likely as men to downgrade those items ascribed to women.’

Essentially, it’s the premise of Hustvedt’s book. Which of course puts women in a complicated position. What else IS there to do but try and find consolation in the practice of whatever work we do, in the full awareness that it’s the only reward we’re likely to get? Another interesting book that’s been holding my attention lately is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Approval and acceptance are hugely important, they agree, but to jump on the bandwagon and produce commercially successful art is often to lose your identity as an artist, whilst standing out for your own vision is always fraught with inevitable misunderstandings: ‘The problem is not absolute but temporal: by the time your reward arrives, you may not be around to collect it. Ask Schubert.’ It’s a great little book, actually, that has made me laugh a lot, and has some pithy advice.

The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process.’

Sensible words, but I doubt they would have helped Harriet Burden. Ambition is like a virus, I don’t think you can just will it away, but it is also a very high-risk strategy, particularly for women and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

 

On Not Being Able To Write

on not being able to paintAt the end of the 1940s, Marion Milner was a psychoanalyst who had been involved in a lengthy study of the ways in which children learn, and once the official report had been written up she decided to take time to consider a few private concerns of her own about the business of education. She decided to think about ‘one specific area in which I myself had failed to learn something that I wanted to learn’, and this was how to paint. Introspection was Milner’s preferred technique; she championed a state of ‘reverie’, or a kind of creative daydreaming, in which she let her mind off the reins to go where it pleased and made a careful note of the result. When she decided to tackle her inability to paint as she wished, she followed a similar sort of plan: ‘a way of letting hand and eye do exactly what pleased them without any conscious working to a preconceived intention.’ From these amateur sketches, she found she could deduce a great deal about the creative obstacles she was encountering, most of which seemed to indicate that we know very little indeed about ourselves – or at least the deep layer of the self from which creativity springs. And out of this experiment she wrote a fascinating book, On Not Being Able To Paint.

Marion Milner’s first discovery was that her stated intention to pursue what she found beautiful had nothing to do with the drawing she produced. Often the desire to capture an attractive woman on the underground or a beautiful, serene seascape, resulted in an odd caricature or an image of angry swirling clouds. Similarly she found that pictures drawn with correct perspective didn’t actually please her at all. There was, she realised, some upsurge of mood, some insistent and unknown desire at work infiltrating her creativity that would not be silenced, though she had no idea what to do with it.

Returning to her books about painting with these discoveries in mind, she chanced upon a highly significant phrase – that ‘painting is concerned with the feelings conveyed by space.’ Revelation ensued. Milner could see how ‘very intense feelings might be stirred’ when she stopped thinking about spatial relations in scientific terms and thought about what they meant for the way we organise both inner and outer worlds in our mind – how close or how separate things might be, how close or how separate we might want them to be: ‘the whole sensory foundation of the common sense world seemed to be threatened.’ As she looked at objects and their relation to one another with more honesty, she found that the outlines she had always considered the basic building block of her drawing were in fact false and overly simplistic. In reality, things were not so clear-cut. There were shadows and merging and blurring of edges, once ‘they were freed from this grimly practical business of enclosing an object and keeping it in its place.’

Thus the outline represented the world of fact, of separate touchable solid objects; to cling to it was therefore surely to protect oneself against the other world, the world of imagination…. I wondered, perhaps this was one reason why new experiments in painting can arouse such fierce opposition and anger. People must surely be afraid, without knowing it, that their hold upon reason and sanity is precarious, else they would not so resent being asked to look at visual experience in a new way, they would not be so afraid of not seeing the world as they have always seen it and in the general publicly agreed way of seeing it.’

She came to the conclusion that: ‘genuine vision as an artist needed a kind of courage that was willing to face all kinds of spiritual dangers.’

I found myself translating Milner’s adventures in painting into the experience of writing. I tend to think of writing as an exercise in extreme vulnerability; there’s nothing like showing something one has written to another person to know what it is to wince and cringe. Always, humiliation threatens, more so than is reasonable. But if painting is concerned with the feelings conveyed by space, then writing must be concerned with feelings about understanding – both how we understand the world, and how we ourselves are understood within it. The telling of any story is based on those foundations, and it cannot be avoided.Those moods that rose up and troubled Milner’s pictures, turning them into something quite different, infuse every sentence that we write. Something very private, and something that we might not always have agreed to put on public view, becomes nakedly visible.

How tempting it must be, then, to cling to the solid outlines Milner talks about, the ones that common sense agrees upon, the ones that are currently validated and approved of. How tempting to create a clear cut world and fill it with block colour that gives nothing away, and which creates not a piece of art but something childish and almost ugly. Art is nothing if it is not paradoxical – beauty is never where we might expect to find it. What risks we have to take to let the madness of reality in – the shadows and the blurred lines, the colours that do not seem to be there when we look, but which make the image spring to life on the page. And most risky of all, to allow ourselves to be seen, in our full messy humanity in a way that is perhaps truthful but not sanctioned by our vanity.

Milner talks about the necessary illusion of perception – the belief that what we see is an objective world, when it is determined by our inner lives and the dreams that populate it. If we want to be able to paint or write or create art of any kind, then it seems to be important to embrace the more difficult truths of subjectivity rather than run away from them.

Two DNFs

When you hate a book, it’s always personal, I think. By which I mean that the book cannot possibly be as bad as you think it is – the hatred and dislike arise from whichever personal nerve has been tweaked, and reading through the subsequent red mist is never going to be rewarding.

adam gopnik winterIt’s quite rare for me to hate a book, but when Adam Gopnik’s Winter; Five Windows on the Season came along, it very rapidly fell into that rare category. I did not even manage to make it to the very end of the first chapter. I had three attempts at reading that chapter and any number of refusals at picking it up. The book arose out of a series of lectures that Adam Gopnik gave. Knowing that publication would be simultaneous with the lectures, he actually prepared the material that formed the basis of the book well in advance, and delivered improvised speeches to friends and family in his living room. In the introduction he writes: ‘These chapters are meant to sound vocal, and I hope that some of the sound of a man who has boned up on a subject – in several cases, just boned up – and is sharing the afternoon’s enthusiasm with an evening’s friends is still in place.’

He really need not have worried: he meets his own criteria perfectly. But he would have done better to include a few enemies amongst his audience of friends. What follows is, to my mind, the exact replica of those 70s slide show evenings, when the neighbours would bore their hosts rigid with photos from trips abroad. It’s like Adam Gopnik came for a visit inside my head, saying ‘Hi, I’ve just taken a fabulous trip through the world of art and brought back a few pictures, poems and pieces of music I’d love to share with you.’ And then for what seems like forever, he witters on about each slide, roughly grouped together under a theme – in the case of the first chapter ‘Romantic Winter’ – though you learn nothing from this whistle-stop tour with an amateur tour guide. It’s such a lazy format, and the insights gleaned from skating lightly over the top of so much ground just aren’t worth it.

But let’s be fair here; on the grounds that it can’t possibly be as bad as I thought it was, I should state my personal investment. I’ve spent the past five years hearing from agents and editors that immense care must be taken when transferring academic-type writing on art and literature into the commercial arena. No one’s interested in the old school style any more, it’s got to be new, bright, fresh, different. Okay, fine – I quite agree. So why make me read through this kind of tedious McRomanticism which is, to my mind, gaspingly old and sterile? Oh but feel free to go ahead and read it – and enjoy it, too. The problem with ranting reviews is the same as for gushing ones – they’re written from extreme ends of the emotional spectrum, and it’s highly unlikely that subsequent readers will find themselves in the same place, particularly not if they’re expecting it. With my own thoughts on the book in mind, I picked it up and flicked through it, and it didn’t seem so bad. Though I do have a theory that it reads better backwards; that way you’re not waiting for an argument to be developed.

lessons in frenchThe next DNF was, thankfully, not dreadful, it was just a terminal case of the ‘meh’s’. Hilary Reyl’s Lessons in French is a coming of age story about Kate, an American student who bags herself the holiday job of her dreams with ‘difficult’ photo journalist, Lydia Schell. The Berlin wall is coming down, Salman Rushdie’s in hot water, and Lydia is rushing about trying to make serious art out of these situations, leaving Kate in charge at her apartment in Paris. There Kate finds Lydia’s husband, Clarence, who is an academic with writer’s block, and Olivier, who is the boyfriend of Lydia’s troubled daughter, Portia. Kate immediately falls for Olivier (who is headed back to America) and then spends a lot of time angsting about what she may have ‘done’. And angsting about the difficult/inappropriate jobs Lydia asks her to do.

I picked this up thinking it would be a fun, jolly sort of read and it began that way. The main problem is that it suffers from too many ‘first novel’ issues. The writing is very patchy – there are a lot of nice sentences, but also far too much awkward, implausible dialogue, and the whole thing never really coheres into a compelling story. Then, there are all sorts of issues with character, most of which fall under the banner of ‘determined to make her characters “sympathetic” they become dull and incoherent.’ Oh this sympathetic character thing! Somehow the word ‘sympathetic’ had become unhitched from its mooring and taken on a demonic half-life of its own. I think it has come to mean: ‘characters who behave with the kind of integrity and moral courage that the vast majority of us could never access in the moment.’ But much worse than that, I think it’s taken the word ‘interesting’ hostage. What we really want is interesting characters, not sympathetic ones. In Dorothy Whipple’s brilliant novels there is always one character I loathe with a virulent passion. It means I cannot put the book down, because the idea that this character’s schemes might dominate the outcome and ruin the lives of those around him/her is quite intolerable. I have to read on to see that awful person (hopefully) defeated.

What’s a book without a decent villain? Or without a situation that poses a truly stark or upsetting ethical conflict? These things are incompatible with a bunch of characters for whom we are obliged to feel ‘sympathy’ all the time. Kate ends up beige bland, and Lydia is not the demon boss I had hoped she might be, just self-absorbed and pretentious. I would probably have limped to the end of this one if I hadn’t had quite so many books I needed to read. But about halfway through I began to feel that life was very short.

In all fairness, these books had the misfortune to arrive in my hands when I wanted something specific from them – I wanted delicious enlightenment from Winter, and I wanted entertaining comfort from Lessons in French. I did not read them in the spirit of ‘don’t know much about this, but let’s see where it goes,’ which is by far and away the most productive attitude for reading. So they already had high hurdles to clear, and they should be viewed more gently because they had to suffer my demands.