Saturday, 21 November 2009

Back from... Brighton

Couldn't post yesterday as I was in Brighton, doing two readings one straight after the other, the first at the university, the second at The Red Roaster Cafe - both very attended the cafe bursting at the seams. Reading on both occasions with Bernadette Cremin - who has Brighton in the palm of her hand, who says her poems, which sound to me good poems - and with open mic. Tom Cunliffe,artist and poet, who organised the events, has done marvels to build such enthusiastic audiences. Two different sets from me, twenty minutes each. All books sold so must be doing something right.

Part of the train journey back with Polish born poet Maria Jastrzębska talking about memory and fiction. Last leg of journey from Cambridge to Norwich packed solid. The train stops unexpectedly at a tiny station. Conductor explains that one passenger has no money for the fare. All he has is a Lithuanian ID and two bottles of vodka. Can't speak English. Meanwhile, man opposite is chatty to the elderly couple sharing the four seats round the table. He is a railway obsessive and lists precise times and types of trains on his journey to Scotland. The woman next to me listens politely. I am too tired to recount my experiences of train timetables and diesel engines. Do I have any experiences? I carry on reading the book, I have brought for the journey - as well as marking! there being no day free of university though I am supposed to be two days a week only - of which, the book that is, a fascinating book, maybe more another time.


Once home I rush straight to the Castle Museum where I take part in The Great British Art Debate?. Interesting playing bad cop on this, but I cannot find it in me to be good cop on the exhibition. It's not my role anyway. There may well be a great debate involved but it's not about art, nor is it about Great Britain, let alone British Art or - heaven forfend! - 'Great' British Art. It is about identity and stresses the usual worthy liberal values, values I fully support but which in this case entails British Art (whatever that is) effectively prostrating itself and apologising for its past, indeed for its very being. Post-colonial cringe in full swing. Or so I think. Scots don't suffer from this though they practically ran India. They are Proud Scots.

So there is at least a debate about Englishness (no Scots, Welsh or Irish artists in the show, which naturally enough concentrates on the museum's own collection from the Norwich School of Cotman, Crome etc), with art as evidence about what might define it, but a sort of doctored evidence, and in any case we don't even begin to define it. How can one begin to talk about this taboo subject without reference to the Wilton Diptych, Gothic architecture, Nicholas Hilliard, William Hogarth, George Stubbs, and William Blake, without a top class Turner or Constable. I really don't know. Maybe these people are too good, and we wouldn't want to claim that. We do have Emin, and Gilbert & George and Tony Cragg and Yinka Shonibare - all of whom, of course, critique Englishness (sorry, Britishness). But what are they critiquing? That we are not fated to see. As Howard Jacobson asked in one of his Independent pieces about the vigour of marginal art , What is it we are marginal to?

Embarrassment. Distance. But maybe something good will come of it, whispers my good cop. I always keep a little good cop in reserve.


Suhayl Saadi said...

George, I hope you're well. Enjoying your excellent website, as always!

It was suggested by one of my (Asian Scots) co-panellists during a public discussion in which I was involved in the summer in Edinburgh that I ought perhaps to experience the hairs on the back of my neck rise, as his did, on hearing 'Flower of Scotland'. My reply was that this was a Pavlovian response. Dogs, saliva and all that. Personally, I don't know about you, but the hairs on the back of my neck rise when I see a ghost. Or a guy with a knife, coming towards me. Or a national flag - any national flag - being hoisted in the breeze to the pounding of drums. For a more pleasant, endorphin-rich, experience, I could listen to 'Strawbery Fields Forever'. But 'Flower of Scotland'? Nah, pass the herbicide.

George S said...

Good to hear from you Suhayl. Nationalism seems to me - and always has - a particularly bad focus for shows of comradely, familiar, religious, class, regional or tribal communality. When I think of national states as we understand them I think of a period between two and three hundred years ago, in other words of something fairly recent in human history, something rather artfully constructed. The flag stuff is, I feel, a kind of lie - the true subject is always something else, a group loyalty that has genuine virtues and genuine vices, but tends to binge more on the vices.

Marriages, children, sharing of conditions, the taking of joy in the success of those you are associated with, and a certain satisfaction in the failures of those who oppose you are natural enough, but we can govern the tendency to overindulge in them most of the time.

There are genuine virtues there too. I think it is good that groups of people should take pride in what they do and have done well. A symbolic endeavour, like sport, is a proper human endeavour embodying some admirable human qualities.

Rivalry and teasing are a kind of pleasure to many and, as symbolic containers of more visceral, atavistic fears and hatreds, they are tolerable up to a point.

Nevertheless, I prefer, on the basis of a certain amount of historical experience, something that treats of humankind in general, a humankind that takes full account of difference and values it - values it intensely - where it is possible to value it.

It is too easy to talk of universal brotherhood, but I don't see very much choice, or rather I can't really see anything much better in view as an ideal.

Flower of Scotland - nice song doing what song does, plucking away at those visceral strings for those who are particularly tuned, or pre-tuned to them. The Hungarian national anthem is rather lovely too. But it's a form of intoxication, isn't it?

Nationalists are alcoholics of the spirit. I like my whiskey but it's not my life and I could well live without it.

Suhayl Saadi said...