Archive for November, 2010

‘Look at me’ v ‘Here it is’

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Yesterday I read a fascinating review of the Cézanne Card Players exhibition presently showing at the Courtauld Gallery in London. (The review is by Alex Danchev in the Times Educational Supplement: you can read it here.) It makes you want to drop everything and go straight to the Courtauld without delay.

What especially intrigued me in the review was this quote from Rilke about Cézanne:

‘Rilke said of Cézanne that he did not paint “Look at me” but “Here it is”.’

And thus the article has inspired a great new game – to decide which painters are “Look at me” painters, and which of them are saying, “Here it is”.

Here are a few first thoughts -

Gauguin? Definitely a ‘Look at me’ painter, I’d say.

Vuillard? I’d say he was a ‘Here it is’ painter, although perhaps Bonnard is more of a ‘Look at me’ artist.

Magritte? Has to be ‘Look at me’, surely?

Picasso? I’d say probably both.

Anyone want to join in the game? And while you’re thinking, here’s another painting of card players from the greatest of the ‘Here it is’ artists.

It’s not only men in uniform …

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Today’s Remembrance Day in Britain: the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The big services will be held this coming Sunday but today’s the real day, and there was two minutes’ silence at 11.00 this morning (the eleventh hour). I was on a bus at the time but I did remember, and while I was thinking about it all I was suddenly reminded of a song I loved many years ago, and haven’t heard since – well, since cassette tapes unravelled and cassette players died, whenever that was. In the next ten minutes I also managed to remember the name of the singer-songwriter (Judy Small) and most of the words for two of her war-and-peace-related songs. (Well, that’s probably the best use of a bus journey – remembering stuff in comparative tranquility.)  And when I got home again I googled her, as you do, and – oh joy! – I found her website and I’ve now downloaded the original album, the one which was lost in the mists of cassette meltdown.

The two songs I remembered are ‘Mothers, Daughters, Wives’ and ‘Lest We’: it’s the latter that contains the line “It’s not only men in uniform who pay the price of war”, but here are the lyrics for the first one.

Mothers, Daughters, Wives: lyrics by Judy Small

The first time it was fathers,

The last time it was sons

And in between your husbands

Marched away with drums and guns.

And you never thought to question.

You just went on with your lives.

Cause all they taught you who to be,

Was mothers, daughters, wives.

You can only just remember

The tears your mother shed

As they sat and read their papers

Through the lists and lists of dead.

And the gold frames held the photographs

That mothers kissed each night.

And the door frames held the shocked

And silent strangers from the fight.

It was twenty-one years later,

With children of your own.

The trumpets sounded once again,

And the soldier boys were gone.

And you drove their trucks and made their guns

And tended to their wounds.

And at night you kissed their photographs

And prayed for safe returns.

And after it was over

You had to learn again

To be just wives and mothers,

When you’d done the work of men.

So you worked to help the needy

And you never trod on toes.

And the photos on the pianos

Struck a happy family pose.

Then your daughters grew to women

And your little boys to men.

And you prayed that you were dreaming

When the call came up again.

But you proudly smiled and held your tears

As they bravely waved goodbye.

And the photos on the mantel pieces

Always made you cry.

And now you’re getting older

And in time the photos fade.

And in widowhood you sit back

And reflect on the parade.

Of the passing of your memories

As your daughters change their lives.

Seeing more to our existence

Than just mothers, daughters, wives…

I haven’t been able to find video of Judy Small herself singing this, but here’s a group who do it well, and if you’re going to watch this you might, I warn you, need a hanky to hand, it’s a very moving song and even more so when it’s sung than when you read the lyrics.

And iTunes will sell you her individual songs, so you could also download “Lest We” if you want to. I hope you might – she’s a truly terrific singer of unusually powerful songs. Think Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, only more so. This is the link to the album, Natural Selection.

Tuesday Poem: The Voice

Monday, November 8th, 2010

THE VOICE, Thomas Hardy

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,

Saying that now you are not as you were

When you had changed from the one who was all to me,

But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear?  Let me view you, then,

Standing as when I drew near to the town

Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,

Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze in its listlessness

Travelling across the wet mead to me here,

You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,

Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,

Leaves around me falling,

Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,

And the woman calling.

Yesterday afternoon I caught part of a programme about Claire Tomalin’s wonderful biography of Thomas Hardy and was reminded of this poem, which he wrote after Emma, his first wife, died. They had been living separate lives for years and Hardy was in love with another woman, but Emma’s unexpected death was – Tomalin asserts – the moment when Hardy became a great poet. Overcome with sorrow and remorse, he began a series of poems of which ‘The Voice’ is one. It’s such a wail of grief and regret, freighted with painful memory. I love it, especially on a cold, dark autumn afternoon here in London.

If you’d like to look at other poems in the hopes they’ll be more cheery than this one, and with any luck at least some of the New Zealand entries will reflect the lightness of spring,  check out The Tuesday Poem blog.


Disclaimers & Acknowledgements, Part One

Thursday, November 4th, 2010


Isn’t this a pretentious delight? I stole it from The Bedside Crow which blogs from a south London bookshop; the disclaimer is from “Driving on the Rim” by Thomas McGuane. I haven’t read one that made me laugh out loud for a long time.

And that reminded me of the mean-spirited joy you can have, reading the overblown and embarrassingly fulsome acknowledgement pages which have become a sort of norm in recent years and which bear an uncomfortable similarity to Academy Award acceptance speeches. Some years ago I read a brilliantly funny short story which was plotted as an absurdly extended acknowledgement of the circumstances surrounding the writing of a book – I can’t remember who wrote it but I’ll try to track it down. (T.C. Boyle, maybe?)

My favourite acknowledgement is a perfect antidote to those gushing overblown pages in too many books. It’s by Eugene Genovese and appears at the end of his academic acknowledgements in “Roll, Jordan, Roll”, his classic book about American slavery. This is what he says.

“My wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, to whom this book is dedicated, did not type the manuscript, do my research, darn my socks, or do those other wonderful things one reads about in acknowledgements to someone ‘without whom this book could not have been written’. Nor did she work so hard on this book that she deserves to be listed as co-author; if she had, she would be listed as co-author. She did however take time from writing her own doctoral dissertation to criticize each draft, review painstakingly the materials, help me rewrite awkward sections and rethink awkward formulations, and offer countless suggestions, corrections and revisions. And while under the pressure that anyone who has written a dissertation will readily appreciate, she made an immeasurable if intangible contribution to the writing of this book by living it with me.”

How’s that for true style?

Tuesday Poem – NOT EVEN

Monday, November 1st, 2010

NOT EVEN, by Ben Ziman-Bright

the wet rustle of rain

can dampen today.   Your letter

buoys me above oil-rainbow puddles

like a paper boat, so that even

soaked to the skin,

I am grinning.


I discovered a great new organisation (well, new to me) in the doctor’s waiting room a few months ago. It’s called “Poems in the Waiting Room” which produces piles of folding poetry leaflets for distribution in medical waiting rooms. The edition I found has nine really good poems on it, and the leaflet’s yours to take away with you, which I did. I like this poem very much, so I decided to share it today. You don’t have to be ill to enjoy it!

Poems in the Waiting Room is a delightful discovery – the most extensive arts in health charity in the NHS – and they’ll be my Christmas donation this year. So have a look at their website, and of course, as always, have a look at the other Tuesday Poems as well.