Tuesday, 19 November 2013


A Writer’s Notebook

No. 44, November 2013

 James Watson
Friends and contributors

Notes in passing: double-click on Klee
Feedback: what's in a title?
Poems of place (20) Alien presence, Gunwalloe
Ned to Inspector Morse
Kindle editions (3) Ticket to Prague

 NOTES IN PASSING: Double-click on Klee

Always thought that Paul Klee was best sampled in small doses; but not a bit of it. The show at Tate Modern stokes up an appetite for Klee in plenty. Some major exhibitions of artists have a stretching effect, quality and inventiveness flag; though it could also be eye-wearout on the part of visitors; that and the crowds.

  Klee sustains interest despite the fact that his work, in the main, is small-scale. One could run off with most of his works tucked under the arm, and the temptation offered by so many of them, like the 10”x 5” Translucancies: Orange, Blue, a tiny poem of colour composition, tempts one to furtively check the CCTV cameras. The artist wrote about his art, taught it (at the Bauhaus) and was a ceaseless experimenter. This exhibition focuses on his work from 1913 to his death in 1940.

Boosted by Blue Rider
Klee’s confidence as an artist was contributed to by the other artists he met, in particular the Blue Rider group which included Kandinsky, Marc and Macke, the latter two killed during World War 1. Klee too was called up, but someone with a vision of his future had him employed as a clerk.
    We are all the beneficiaries of that decision. Klee was also lucky in those who admired and wrote about him. In his book Flight Out of Time published in 1917, Hugo Ball wrote that Klee in ‘an age of the colossus…falls in love with a green leaf, a star, a butterfly’s wing.’ Louis Arragon commended his ‘lightness, grace, spirit, charm and finesse’, while Jankel Adler referred to his ‘creative quiet’.

What we get in equal measure in Klee is craftsman and artist. In this sense he was an exemplar for the Bauhaus at Weimar, then Dessau, that championed both. Klee was not, however, a slave to craft, to exactitude.
    He wrote, ‘We construct and keep on constructing, yet intuition is a good thing. You can do a good deal without it, but not everything. Exactitude winged by intuition is at times best’.  

Art ‘makes visible’
Tate Modern gives emphasis to what Klee said or wrote in his diaries about his art, leading off with a classic: art, he believed, ‘does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible’. His pictures are processes in making, assembling colours, lines, shapes – some representative, some semi-abstract, some wholly abstract – on meticulously prepared surfaces. They are the fruit of constant experiments employing what he called an ‘oil transfer method’ and ‘gradation’, approaches he encouraged his Bauhaus students to follow.

In fact, though one is intrigued and entertained by the foreground images, the juxtaposed squares of colour, the rhythmic shapes, the fish (that have swum out of his personal aquarium); despite the effects, the fabric-like pointillism, the fishing rods, the exclamation marks, the stars, the crescent moons, one’s attention keeps returning to the surface treatment that makes all possible, renders all magical.

The Klee favourites are here: They’re Biting (1920), The Seafarer (1923), Portrait of an Equilibrist (1927), Jumper (1930) and Memory of a Bird (1932). The last picture in the exhibition, Twilight Flowers illustrates Klee’s pact with harmony, his preference for pastel colours combined with effecting colour radiance; odes to quiet joy.
   Such radiance Klee encountered on a trip to Tunisia early in his career. The impact of it seems to be a constant in his work. After his visit, Klee wrote in his dairy, ‘Colour possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always. I know it...Colour and I are one. I am a painter’. (1914).
   Klee is famous for his memorable observation that in his art he is ‘taking a line for a walk’; however, it is colour that does the talking. Catch the Tate Modern show before it closes on 9 March next year. It’s worth every (expensive) penny.

FEEDBACK: what’s in a title?
Issue 43, looked at the ways titles enhanced or risked undermining their texts, whether novels, plays or films. Eye-catching, informative, evocative, mystifying or simply over-obvious, off-putting, dry-as-dust, uninspiring, misleading? Thanks to the readers who responded to the Good, Bad and Ugly challenge, serving up some humdingers and some dot-balls.

From Carl Briggs: My all-time favourite is a seven-worder: Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author. It suggests dramatic innovation, a process about to take place, an exploration. It hints at an uncertain outcome. I guess what I’m getting, as much an experiment as the telling of a story.

Like you, I’d find the film Misery a turn-off, but then the reputation of the director, John Huston, would suffice for me to give it a try; and that goes for authors generally and as far as films and plays are concerned, who’s in them counts for as much as the allure of the title.

From Helen Chan: It’s true, a good title can mask a bad film, and a good film can suffer from abad title. There are more of the second than the first. It would be interesting to talk to creative people and ask why, when it comes to titling, inspiration  deserts them. It’s not easy: I’ve just seen Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra. I tried to think of a better title for this excellent movie. Not easy, unless you rename it The Liberace Story, or Liberace and his Lover.

For me, good: The Mad Woman off Chaillot, derived from the Jean Giradoux play, which could suggest that the best film titles earn their keep from the stories they adapt. Same thing goes for The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Irving Lerner’s film version of the Peter Shaffer play, The Looking Glass War from the Le Carre novel and Laughter in the Dark Tony Richardson’s film version of the Nabakov novel. Lastly, as a promise of fun, There’s as Girl in My Soup Roy Boulting’s take on a Terence Frisby play.

Thanks, Helen. Sometimes the film title improves on the original. Get Carter has more oomph than the title of Ted Lewis’s story Jack’s Return Home.

From JP: For me, Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell and the recent movie, Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow; challenging because its meaning isn’t obvious, but suggests something menacing. Or, talking in numbers, how about a 12-worder from 1922, I’d Love to Fall Asleep and Wake Up in My Mammy’s Arms. Beat that?

From Bron O’B: The sixties produced some great film titles: Where Eagles Dare, Carve Her Name With Pride, The Lion in Winter, Nobody Runs For Ever and the daddy of them all, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

 From Gwen R: I checked a list of recommended Goodreads and picked out those book titles that caught my eye straight away: The First Phone-call from Heaven by Mitch Albom got my prize. I liked This Wicked Game by Michelle Zinc, but wouldn’t want to take it forward on reading that it’s about voodoo. One-word titles? I liked Wil S.Hylton’s Vanished because it is intriguing and aided by a cover that hints at the book’s content – an enquiry into a US bomber that went missing in World War 11.

I decided to pass on another one-worder, Foreplay. A four-worder The Cute Girl Network wasn’t for me. Toltanica left me bemused, though Code of Darkness was perhaps the best of the three-worders. What matters, of course, is the meat in the sandwich of title and cover; but unless you’re drawn in in the first place, you’re unlikely to give the meat a chance.

From LRC: Can’t remember details, but there’s wit in the following: I’ll Never Forget What’s His Name, Charity Covers a Multitude of Sins and Never Complain to Your Laundress. One of my all-time favourites is Kind Hearts and Coronets, but having seen this wonderful British comedy it would be my favourite even if it had been called The Hell of It.

A quick vox pop produced the following favourite titles: Knife in the Water, Riddle of the Sands, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Ship That Died of Shame, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, The Missouri Breaks, They Crawl (a horror movie) and the English title of a French film, The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun (1970).

 It seems that you can’t go wrong if you put ‘Great’ in the title: The Great Imposter, The Great Muppet Caper, The Great Dictator, The Great Gatsby, The Greatest Show on Earth and The Greatest Story Ever Told all got a mention.

 How about the 8 best films to take to a desert island (equipment and blackout provided)?

Poems of place (20)

His eyes would seem to be closed
In contemplation, as on long arms
He extends in one hand a bell,
In the other a fist for nestling snails.

The lids resemble less the visage
Of an early saint, than a storm-smoothed Buddha,
The jetsam perhaps of a shipwreck
Washed ashore on barbarous rock,
Resurrected here by the church
To shiver in a graveyard, washed
By cold tides, and far from home.

Walk close, and suddenly the eyes watch
And follow with seeming malice
As if each wanderer to the sea is held
To blame for this exile among Christian bones.

The Ned Baslow Letters (cont)
Theatre, opera and poetry lovers from Land’s End to John O’Groats are emailing ticket requests for ‘The Greatest Arts Festival’ ever to be mounted in the west midlands during July 2014 at Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven; and this is in no small way due to the marketing genius of our regular correspondent, Ned Baslow.

 Over the past few months he has harnessed the talents of not only geniuses of the worlds of art and music but the contributions of some of history’s most iconic names. This month we see Ned replying to Inspector Morse, whose sergeant, Lewis (a man after Ned’s own heart), has applied for tickets on behalf of his senior officer.

 Dear Inspector Morse
What a a pleasant surprise to hear from your Sergeant Lewis that you are interested in attending our Summer Festival production of The Spectacles of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the Sights of La Mancha, followed by the Epic Battle of the Titans, though at the moment there are no plans to allow your second favourite composer, Herr Mozart, to, as your Sergeant picturesquely put it, ‘wield the baton’. We are not even certain that Wolfy as we call him is prepared to play ball over writing the incidental music.

You will understand that our conductor of many years, Mr Entwistle, who incidentally taught my boy Benjie the piano (until he gave this up for the trombone – Benjie, that is, not Mr Entwistle), will be supervising Wolfy and leading both the Women’s Union Chorus and the Lower Fernhaven Brass Ensemble, with interval music from the Gilbert Stokoe Jazz Quintet, featuring Lord Gilbert’s sons Julius, Hadrian and Octavian and his daughters Penthesilea (Penny for short) and Cybille.

We are hoping that Lord G will be able to entertain us with a medley of ballads on the theme of Robin Hood, composed by himself (Lord Gilbert, that is, not Robin Hood), though his main task will, of course, be in the starring role of Don Quixote and, by honoured tradition, leading the National Anthem at the conclusion of the performances.

It’s my opinion, Inspector, that we in Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven are on the way to matching any cultural event available in your native Oxford; and while the village hall theatre is smaller in area than your famous Playhouse (I saw the panto Dick Whittington there, or was it Dick Turpin?), it at least has more comfortable seats than the Sheldonian which, if you don’t mind me saying, is the most uncomfortable venue I’ve ever had to plonk my bottom in.

My only visit was a disaster. Having been forced to sit through a piece of music forty-five minutes long, I suffered chronic back pain from which I fear I shall only slowly recover. Also. I shall remember to my dying day the looks I got from others in the audience when I dared to clap during what only turned out to be a pause in the music.

I would never have gone to the concert at all had I known that my wife Betty had misheard the lady in the box-office, and dragged me to hear music by Steve Reich rather than Steve Race, always one of our favourites on Radio 2.

  Reich ought to be ashamed of himself – forty-five minutes, I ask you, and he scarcely used 45 notes, relying on repetition, reminding me of somebody opening and shutting a squeaky cupboard: it was sheer torture:  if they’d used this technique at the Guantanamo prison camps, they’d have got confessions soon enough.

Course, everybody around me thought this Reich rubbish was wonderful: I guess your Sergeant Lewis will appreciate how I felt, a real fish out of water.

 Unfortunately our VIP tickets have had to be curtailed owing to pressure of demand, as relatives of ‘Lord Gilbert’, Chair of the Panto and Light Opera Society, are coming in droves from far and wide, including cousins from Nova Scotia while my Betty’s godmother Bernadette and her Spanish husband Antonio (no relation to the famous tap-dancer) are due to fly in from Benidorm where, incidentally, they had a lovely bungalow overlooking the sea, until Spanish bureaucracy force them to evacuate before bulldozers came in at dawn.

They are now slumming it in Gibraltar, but are determined to make the Festival as they have a soft spot for Sancho Panzer, personal servant to Don Q, and source of considerable comedy throughout. I am happy to say, incidentally, that the part has been awarded to your correspondent, though it was auditioned by at least three others (including a current spear carrier at the Royal Shakespeare Company).

Another candidate for the part was my Betty’s tutor at the Open University, Dr. Ivan Arbuthnot, who I might have mentioned in my previous letter is an expert in 18th and 19th century corantos and chapbooks. As compensation he has been given the part, appropriately, of a wandering tinker and will be rendering one of Wolfie’s arias though this may have to be curtailed or cut altogether if Jill, our next-door neighbour, gets her voice back so she can, as the fair Dulcy Naya, the heroine, render her three duets with the Don Quixote.

 Tickets are available in sterling or euros, but I’d advise Sergeant Lewis (who usually seems to pay your bills, at least the cost of your ‘food for thought’ as you call it) not to leave things till the last minute. If you’ve managed to hold on to one of your stylish lady-friends from one instalment to another, she will be welcome. As my Betty always says, ‘Morse, he may not be successful with women, but he’s got taste’.

 Yours ever

Ned Baslow


Kindle editions (3)  Ticket to Prague
In trouble with the law, talented swimmer Amy Douglas is put to voluntary work in a small home for mental patients. Josef, a middle-aged Czech stares all day at a blank TV screen. Amy learns that he was once a poet who, on a visit to England from Communist Czechoslovakia too refuge here.
 Her love of reading ignites the poet’s interest. A friendship develops followed by the invitation, as the Velvet Curtain is drawn back from decades of Soviet oppression, for Josef to receive a literary prize in Prague. Amy accompanies him, and finds fresh challenges and a new love.

Shortlisted for the Lancashire County Council Book of the Year.

‘A very enjoyable way of researching Eastern European history in a fascinating story laced with risqué language and rich vocabulary.  Ann Fisher, Carousel.

‘Although it is often funny, Ticket to Prague is also a very serious novel, and it shirks none of the tragic implications which it puts forward. [The novel] is deeply thought-provoking, dealing as it does with real personal and political problems and wisely leaving most of the answers to the individual reader.’ Junior Bookshelf.

‘I just finished reading your book Ticket to Prague for the third time, and I wanted to tell you how much I love it. You described Prague in such vivid language, I want to get my own ticket to Prague!! I won the book quiz at my local library last year and like I mentioned before, have read it several times. I'm a young writer myself, and books like Ticket to Prague give me something to aspire to. I'm waiting for school to start again, so I can hunt down some of your books in my school library, and I can’t wait!! I suppose you might get this a lot but you are a brilliant writer Mr. Watson and I love your work.’ Young teenager, emailing the author from New Zealand.
Further information: http://tinyurl.com/nwlr59f

Thanks for reading Blog 44.

In Blog 45 there will be a review piece on IMITATION OF LIFE by Laura Solomon; two small extracts from the novel were published in Blogs 42 & 43.