Wednesday, 11 May 2011

FICTIONAL ENCOUNTERS: Dissident Girl meets Dissident Poet
Blog 23

· Dissident Girl Meets Dissident Poet
· Notes in Passing: Miro, another perspective
· Five Haikus for Istanbul
· Correspondence: a regretful cancellation



The Power of a Good Book
Number 3 in a series on ENCOUNTERS

An edited selection from
(Gollancz, Penguin, Collins)

Since her parents were killed in a motorway car crash Amy Douglas has been at war with the world. She has been expelled from school, she has been involved in a violent streetfight which has led to her boyfriend being put behind bars while she has been issued with a controlling order. She has ended up as a part-time carer in a home for men who have either rejected society or been rejected by it.

Josef is a Czech poet. Almost a generation ago he had been permitted to join a group of poets and other writers on a cultural visit to Britain. He absconded, but the decision was so traumatic that the poet, along with all the evidence of who Josef actually was, vanished into silence. All he does, from week to week, month to month, year to year, is stare at an empty television screen.

Neither Amy nor Josef realise on their first meeting that their period of isolation, their seemingly pointless and directionless lives, are about to change. The key that unlocks the door to silence is a shared love – of literature, the enriching power of reading.

From a distance, High Lawns does a passable imitation of a stately home. It stands on a pleasant incline among acres of meadow and woodland, all encompassed by high stone walls. Ancient beech trees escort the main drive which stretches through rough pasture to a sunken wall.

Beyond this are lovingly tended gardens, smooth-cropped lawns, a tennis court and an open-air pool…

'Whatever you do,' senior nurse Sylvia Benson, had advised Amy, 'never call the place a loony bin. Never use such words as "lunatic", "mad", "round the bend" or "round the twist". These unfortunates are our family. Now they're your family.'

'And this gentleman, said Mrs. Benson on Amy’s first morning on duty, ‘is Josef, spelt with an "f", one of our longest-serving customers.'
'Oh yes, that is what we have to call them these days. It sounds more business-like. Josef is foreign. He smokes too much and hates taking exercise. A lazy old scruff, really – aren't you, Josef?’
Still in pyjamas and slippers though it is past eleven, Josef makes no response to Mrs. Benson. He is around sixty, Amy guesses. He is short, scrawny but still with a generous head of grey hair.
He spares one glance at the tall, handsome girl with blonde hair. There is the dart of a smile from watchful green eyes that seem to say, 'I know secrets but I'm not telling'.
'Josef won't give you any bother, Amy. There is little point, by the way, in trying to engage him in conversation. He's foreign and doesn't seem to have bothered to learn our language beyond "I want", "No" and "Football!" He is what Dr. Parrish calls homo mollusca, someone trapped for ever in a shell of almost absolute silence.'
Amy is wondering, should Mrs. Benson be saying all this in front of Josef?
'Don't worry, he never listens to what anybody says. We call him Sir Stubborn.'
Amy takes to Josef instantly: Sir Stubborn, meet Lady Stubborn.
'Shall I turn the telly on for him?'
'No, he prefers it off.'
'He looks as though he is watching it.'
'Oh yes. If he's watching it, or looks as though he's watching it, and it's off, don't wheel it away or he'll become quite agitated.'
'And if I turn the telly on?'
'He'll walk away.'
Amy grins. 'That means he's got good taste. I'm not struck on telly myself.'
Mrs. Benson isn't used to considering the opinions of young people sent up on Community Service or from the Youth Training, but Amy seems different; brighter, more full of herself. 'You've got a point. All that violence and suffering before your very eyes, well it's enough to make you feel suicidal...'
'Like you want asylum?'
'Yes, I guess that's what we are at High Lawns, a refuge from all the horror and carnage.' Ms. Benson explains that Josef, as a special privilege, is allowed to stay up to watch the late-night football. 'Otherwise he retreats into his shell completely.'
Amy contemplates Josef. 'He looks so intelligent.'
Mrs. Benson drops her voice. 'There's absolutely nothing wrong with Sir Stubborn that a good kick up the backside wouldn't cure. Private opinion, mind.'

After settling a nocturnal fracas between two ‘customers’, Josef and a Mr. Dodds over a packet of fags, Amy is curious to draw Josef out of his shell.

There is this terrible silence. Amy recognises it because somewhere in the building, far off, somebody is crying – a child, a grown-up, it is difficult to say. And the crying goes on and on and it makes the silence in this room and the silence outside so clear; like a frost…
…'You've got a real reputation, Josef. Your friend Mr. Dodds says you killed your kids. I don't believe that... though you were pretty violent just now. He says that's why you never tell anybody about yourself. Because of your guilt.
'I don't believe that either...Do you know what I think? You're afraid. If you just stick with Please and Thank You, nobody will report you: am I right?'
Why did I say that? Guesswork. But it's pressed something in his head. Josef's gaze for a second shifts from the empty TV screen. 'Still, don't think you're the only one. Everybody's afraid – I mean everybody who's ever lost anyone. Or lost themselves, you know what I mean?'
Another flicker of the eye; a recognition. 'Yes, I think you do. I hope you don't mind me talking to you like this. I lost my parents, you know. They were passengers in this car going along the M25. Heard of that? It's the most dangerous stretch of road since the First World War. Then I went to live with my Auntie, who's not actually my real auntie at all. She was kind – so long as I didn't bring home any “darkies”.'
The mournful weeping from a distant ward has continued, and until it slips into silence, Amy keeps on talking.... 'I quite like it here, actually. It's a sanctuary. I think you like it too, Josef. It's a horrible world out there, do you agree?
'I get my meals, same as you. And Mrs. Benson thinks they might take me on, as a temp. Pay me, even...Mind you, I've only got GCSEs. Though I can swim. I used to race. And when I did, when I competed and left others ten metres behind, I was somebody. When I didn't, I was nobody.
'You're very trim, Josef. I bet you did sport when you were a boy. Football? They're very keen on it in Czechoslovakia, am I right? Course, personally I'm more into books these days.’
She dangles a juicy literary worm. 'Now Czechoslovakia – that's where Franz Kafka lived.' A pause; a flicker of recognition, no, more than that. 'A bit morbid, though – that story about a man turning into a beetle. Poor Gregor Samsa!'
Something is happening. Josef's face seems suddenly to melt in the glare from the strip light above; melt, go out of shape, and then re-form, almost into a new face.
'One of your favourites, is he, Josef – Franz Kafka? We could sort of read him together. The Castle, what about that? No? Okay, The Trial then. My English teacher Mrs. Ambler was very keen on him.'
Josef suddenly emits one word. Amy does not recognise it, fears it might be a curse. 'What was that, Josef?'
'Sveyk? Right.' A long pause. Baffled. Sveyk – doesn't sound like a swearword. Josef is reaching out his hand.
'Come. Please!'
Three words! This must have exhausted Josef's usual tally for the year.
Upstairs, to his room, head nodding now, vigorously. Josef switches on the light, goes to a set of drawers, opens the top one.
Amy waits by the door. 'Sveyk.' She practices it aloud. Does it mean 'bedroom' or 'drawer' or perhaps even a 'secret case' that Mr. Dodds accused him of hiding away?
Josef produces a fat paperback with a flash of yellow on the cover. He holds it up. 'Sveyk.'
At last.
'He's the author?' She receives the book. She reads out the title. 'The Good Soldier Sveyk by Jaroslav Hasek.'
'Hashek!' replies Josef, correcting Amy's pronunciation.
Eyes meeting, eyes aglow now.
On the cover, an officer in a blue uniform is sitting down and smoking a fag. Coming through the door, saluting, is a plump soldier with a stubble beard and a big grin.
Amy points, Josef nods. She turns to the back cover and reads: The Good Soldier Sveyk and His Fortunes in the World says here that it's the "classic novel of the 'little man' fighting officialdom and bureaucracy with the only weapons available to him – passive resistance, subterfuge, native wit and dumb insolence".'
Dumb insolence, eh? Amy gazes across at her new friend. All she says is, 'Sveyk!'
Josef nods again, and now he smiles. 'Sveyk!'
'And you want me to read this to you?' She examines the volume which has suddenly brought her close to this old man full of dumb insolence. '752 pages, Josef, that'll take us a lifetime!'
Another nod. No sweat. She flicks through the pages, pauses at Chapter 4: Sveyk Thrown out of the Lunatic Asylum. She looks up but does not speak, then turns to the opening page.
She reads out the first few lines:

'And so they've killed Grand Duke Ferdinand,' said
the charwoman to Mr. Sveyk, who had left military
service years before, after being finally certified
by an army medical board as an imbecile, and now
lived by selling dogs – ugly, mongrel monstrosities,
whose pedegrees he forged. Apart from this occupation he
suffered from rheumatism and was at this very moment

rubbing his knees with Elliman's embrocation...

Amy's turn to nod. 'It looks as though it might give us a laugh or two.'
Josef is beaming. All at once Amy begins to feel good. She closes the book.
'Sveyk!' says the old man.
'Sveyk!' repeats Amy Douglas, little realising how this one word will change her life.

Amy and Josef become friends and she discovers that far from being the murdererof his kids, Josef is a poet of distinction, almost but not quite forgotten in his own country. Her aim becomes to reconnect him with his past and bring him fully and creatively into the present. In doing so, she comes to terms with her own past and present.


Notes in passing…

Unless you’re an expert it’s so easy to get art wrong, specifically to have an idea about an artist which prevails in the absence of certain significant information. When this becomes known a sort of revelation takes place. You look at the same painting but with new eyes.
This happened to me at Tate Modern’s current Miro exhibition, Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape. My previous experience of the artist’s work was always when it was hung alongside the paintings of others, and my impression was of verbal wit, fun in a world of surrealist elements; a sort of play theory on canvas.

Pain in Spain
Reading of Miro’s Spanish upbringing and background, of the historical contexts in which his art was created forced an engagement, a link between painting and history which drew me away from former impressions. This history included Miguel Primo Rivera’s military coup in 1923, the suppression of the Catalan language and customs, not long to be followed by Franco’s overthrow of the short-lived republic.

Such events impacted powerfully on Miro, eventually driving him and his family out of his homeland, to settle in Paris where he was soon to witness the Nazi occupation of France. The paintings as seen, not in the memory but on the walls of Tate Modern, studied in the light of history, demand a re-view and reconsideration.

Encoding the serious
Miro does not translate his reaction to repression by becoming a realist, rather he turns reality into a powerful iconography in which the abstract or semi-abstract images are dramatically encoded. What I’d previous read as visual jesting now revealed themselves as charged with a deep seriousness. The passion lies, as it were, beneath the paint’s surface, controlled by Miro’s fidelity to the act of painting itself. Yet even here there is a paradox: what we see on the canvas is exact and painstaking. Its strives after, and achieves, considerable aesthetic satisfaction; but one gets the impression that it was in the act of painting that Miro’s passionate response to events going on around him, is to be found.

Deceived by titles
Perhaps in the first place my take on Miro was over-influenced by his idiosyncratic titling – Dog Barking at the Moon (1926) or Woman With Blonde Armpits Combing Her Hair By the Light of the Stars (1940). Such titles actually belie the paintings’ content and the act of creation, as does the sheer mastery of colour and design. Inside these formalities is an astonishing degree of savagery.

In referring to one of Miro’s series, the Tate Modern guide, written by Marko David and Matthew Gale, refers to ‘heavy encrustation of paint often laden with sand, accompanied by hacking, stretching and nailing – urgent, frustrated action’. No joker here!

Influenced by the American Abstract Expressionists, Miro stepped out of his precise iconography to produce large canvases some of which he set alight, leaving the viewer to scan both burnt painting and exposed canvas, communicating anger, even outrage, perhaps prompted by events beyond the act of painting or just as likely recording the inevitable pain and frustration when vision rides ahead of application. Burning canvases but still exhibiting them is an apt comment on the creative process.

Miro’s better known (less inflammatory) works may serve as symbolic concealments of his reaction to the world, but they are never wholly hidden. At the same time, as we enjoy Miro as painter, we acknowledge his own pleasure in the creative process; something that took him away from the horror of contemporary events. The title of the exhibition and of a 1940 painting, The Escape Ladder seems to speak for Miro’s art generally.

American dreamer?
Art is escape, the making of marks, the application of colour, but it is the process, not the subject-matter which constitutes the escape. Yet the one does not necessarily work without the other. In paintings done towards the end of his life, content seems to have taken something of a back-seat, somehow losing substance (in the triptychs The Hope of a Condemned Man and the paint-splattered Fireworks) simultaneously with the loss of the iconography that had stood the artist in good stead from his student days.

They are brave canvases, but seem to indicate that Miro, in those final days of success, riches and celebrity, might have been looking over the wrong shoulder. It’s a moot point whether the American art that so impressed him hasn’t something to answer for.


February 2011, when it never stopped raining


Fingers frozen, brolly soaked
Finding it hard
To warm to Istanbul.


Muezzin for breakfast
Muezzin for lunch; grant us
A peal of bells for tea.


No sink plugs our guide
Points out is down to the Turks’
Fear of still water.


No sun in Istanbul
Nor promise of it
In Constantinople.


Sinan: four hundred and more
Buildings later; what was
His name again?

An urgent notification from Ned Baslow, secretary of the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven Grand Summer Festival Committee.

Dear Jim
I’m desperate to get this letter to you prior to the publication of your Blog No.23 on account of the fact that we have had to postpone our summer festival till the autumn or beyond. Following my letter to you last month, introducing such items as the Tableau of Womanly Beauty and the Battle of the Titans, I’ve received several inquiries for tickets from your readers.

Very regrettably Gilbert Stokoe (‘Lord Gilbert’) is booked for a hip operation and a carthage operation during what were to be rehearsals for his starring role as Don Quixote in The Spectacles of the Man from La Salamanca. Bearing in mind that he was also lead singer in our Tribute to Wolfy (vocals from the light operas of Mozart) we have decided to cancel rather than let the festivities go off at half-cock.

This has been a disappointment for the scores of actors and musicians who have been rehearsing round the clock for a range of festival events, but also for the local athletic and body-builders clubs. They volunteered their services as Ancient Greeks and Robin Hood’s Merry Men only for us to cancel the Battle of the Titans as a result of the local recreation ground being bought up by a national supermarket (whose name I can’t mention at the moment pending a legal enquiry).

As my wife Betty said – she is studying hard for an Open University degree –
finding time to catch up her on studies is poor compensation for losing out on her chance to play opposite Don Quixote as the Fair Dulcy-Naya, a part she has really got her teeth in to.

We are not disheartened. I know the whole district of Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven is resolute in its determination to put our show back on the road once Lord Gilbert can turn his limp in to a leap following surgery (this of course being dependent on whether recent government cuts won’t extend his waiting time till the next millennium!).

Please reassure any of your readers who feel let down as a result of our festival postponement: their application for tickets will be kept on record; indeed for those who contacted me so promptly, via your good offices, there will be a number of complimentary tickets available for performances by the Under-Sevens Choir and the Garland of Poetry Evening performed by members of the Fernhaven Women’s Insitute, always memorable occasions.

Councillor Stokoe asked me to mention that while for the moment his mobility is restricted, he remains in excellent voice, promising a special solo-event singing a medley of areas from The Magic Flute and Cosy Fran Tootie. He will be accompanied on the piano by his good wife Beryl, though her own health has not been of the best lately.
Kindest regards,


A real pity, Ned, but knowing the people of Derbyshire we at
Watsonworks feel confident that the festival will be back on course soon.
We had applied for tickets for the ELVIS RESURRECTED gig
under canvas and were on the waiting list. Keep in touch.


PREVIOUS Blog topics:

Politics and Fiction (Blog 17)
Fiction and History (Blog 16)
Aspects of Storytelling
Triggers (7)
Props propel (8)
Frames, Codes & Character (9)
Fiction & News (10)
Tale Power (11)

Thanks for reading Blog 23. Watsonworksblog
will be taking a summer break. Back in the Autumn
with more in the ENCOUNTERS series.