Sunday, 1 January 2017

Bennett, Boty and Aubade

I watched a short television programme about Alan Bennett over Christmas - how he constructs his diaries - and a little bit about his life. It was - for me at least - exceptional. Watching it, I realised I hadn’t actually seen a programme about him, and it’s been his work that’s spoken to me over the years. The art itself. The content of his work is the stuff that resonates with us all - day to day observations - but constructed so lyrically. The sort of thing we all think we could do, from our own observations - but we can’t. He’s a born writer.

It’s not just his quirky scrutiny of what it is to be human that appeals, it’s much, much more. All his work - every last scrap of it - is imbued with the political, but without the hectoring and ranting of those of us less well equipped to tell a story! Hearing him speak though - my respect for him deepened as his values shone right through, both in his work and the way in which he lives his life.

The other artist I’m trying to learn a little more about, is the Pop Artist, Pauline Boty, and I found a remarkable documentary online by Ken Russell called Pop Goes the Easel made in 1962. It reflects the period well, and though probably a tad misogynistic focusing on 4 artists, of which Boty is the only woman, she emerges as both a prolific artist and a relatively unsung feminist. Why don’t we know more about her? (I know the answer to this question)

Like many artists who die too young, (she was only 28) it would be easy to make the mistake of assuming she’s been canonised through her premature death. In the face of swinging-sixties and post-war sexist society, she carved her own unique furrow. If you’re happy to dig deeper, you’ll find that not only was she a central force in Pop Art, but she had sophisticated political nous. Her work offers something far deeper and politic, than the apparent superficiality of pop and by the mid 60’s Pauline Boty and her husband Clive Goodwin were two leading members in a new rebirth of left wing politics and at the heart of both the avant guard, and mass media. Both were politically outspoken and influential in the birth of Encore magazine, Black Dwarf newspaper and Spare Rib. You can read a wonderful short article by Adam Curtis and see some of Boty’s collaborative film work by clicking on the image below.

Bennett seems to be thriving in his 80’s, his work rich, nuanced and political - a breath of fresh air - and a moral compass. Boty died to early and deserves much more attention. She reminds me that in the face of easy, popular politics, the voice of art students don’t quite seem as radical, as they once vociferously were. Then again, as all aspects of our lives become privatised, and higher education becomes prohibitively expensive, perhaps fewer working class young people will make it to art schools, and it will be those who assume their comfortable futures in the ‘creative industries', that will populate the spaces and places once inhabited by those who believed that they could change the world. We can only hope that our unfolding political horrors might galvanise a revolutionary cultural counter-blast to all that’s building up on the horizon.
After a year of celebrity deaths and something far closer to home, and the rise of populist right wing politics - like many people - I’m left slightly winded by the past 12 months. But then, amongst all that grief there have thankfully, been small and beautiful moments of bliss.

Despite the swingeing cuts that the government continues to mete out, and our slowly unravelling European status, I hope that our community of arts/health grows this next year, and perhaps, using the examples of Bennett and Boty realise that its power lies is in its constituency, in its people and their values and a shared belief in social justice. If you don’t watch the Bennett programme, perhaps just the closing comments on his despair on hearing the unfolding Brexit results might pique your interest.

‘I imagine this must have been what Munich was like in 1938. Half a nation rejoicing at a supposed deliverance, the other half stunned by the counties self-serving cowardice. Well, we shall see.’

As the populist right make their incursions into arts/health through standardisation and worse, we should remain vigilant to the arrogant self-publicists who risk undermining the reach and potency of the arts, in their greed for fame and fortune. They are grotesquely unauthentic and manipulative. 

Here's a musical interlude.

Finally - and just to cheer you up even further - here’s the most profound meditation on death by Philip Larkin. I imagine I've blogged this before, but to be honest, it's worth more than a cursory glance.

I do hope that 2017 is better than any of us dare to imagine…Clive

. . .


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.   
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.   
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.   
Till then I see what’s really always there:   
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,   
Making all thought impossible but how   
And where and when I shall myself die.   
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse   
—The good not done, the love not given, time   
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because   
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;   
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,   
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being 
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,   
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill   
That slows each impulse down to indecision.   
Most things may never happen: this one will,   
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without   
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave   
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.   
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,   
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,   
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring   
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

( has just come in of John Berger's death, of which, more next week)


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