Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Patrick Gale, A Place Called Winter and Gay Writing with a Chill.

The usual line taken towards Patrick Gale as a gay UK author is that he is one of those UK novelists who has risen above genre fiction, meaning that his writing has aspired higher than works exemplified by titles such as Wet with My Servant or Coming Out then Coming In (erotic trash fiction written by female writers for an undiscerning gay audience). In truth, Gale has, in his own words, been an author that has dealt largely with orthodox issues, such as family, in his novels. His works have included gay characters, well-drawn gay characters, but have followed the mainstream concerns of fiction. Gale has been accepted as a confident, social novelist suitable for the masses: Notes from an Exhibition and A Perfect Man made the hallowed walls of The Richard and Judy Bookclub in 2008 and 2012--- a good indication that respectability (if not literary worth) has been achieved. (Both novels were selected because they featured Cornwall and Judy and Richard like to holiday there). Gale’s latest novel, A place Called Winter (2015), just released in paperback, is one that would not make The Richard and Judy List and one that qualifies as a serious work of gay fiction.

A Place Called Winter began as an imagined biography of Gale’s great-grandfather Harry Cane. Gaps in the family history became areas for speculation: Why did he suddenly disappear to Canada before The First World War? Why was his return to England after The Second World War so unwelcome? What could have been the skeleton in the cupboard? The result is an intriguing story that investigates fictional sexual identity within the context of real history.

The novel’s central action takes place somewhere in 1908. After a sexual scandal with Hector Browning, Harry Cane is forced to leave wife and child for an isolated life in Canada. The Cane family’s working-class fortune was built on selling horse dung. Harry was educated among the “fllthy” idle and rich. The sexual scandal erupts as sexual dirt that contaminates and can only be dealt with by exile. For Gale, Harry’s quest for a new life and a more honest identity is a kind of alchemical freezing, a putrefaction that Jung once termed “the sentimental winter”. Harry must survive the bitter, outer cold of a desolate outpost called Winter and the sharp, inner chill of his own love for men.

Structurally, the novel is split between Harry’s present in a  therapeutic community and a past that leads up to the present’s turmoil. Chapter One, Bethel, ends with a telling dialogue:

“Do you understand?”
“Good. Harry?”
“Tell me who you love.”

It suggests a first person narrative and confession is about to begin. In fact what follows is what begins the novel: a third person narrative in which the author dominates. There is a dilemma at the centre of this novel for Gale. This he alludes to in a sort-of Q and A essay at the close of the book:

“The great challenge in this novel was to write about sexuality while inhabiting the head of a man who realistically would not have had anything like the psycho-sexual vocabulary that we take fro granted now. (APCW, p.364).

Harry is a reserved character, true to the Edwardian period in which he reaches maturity. More was known at the time about homosexuality than reached public ears. Strangely, in an interview, Gale claims that there was no name for male-to-male feelings at the time in which this novel is based. There was: Urning or Uranian, terms adopted by the radical thinker and socialist, Edward Carpenter. In the Bethel episodes that date around 1918-19, Gideon Ormshaw quotes from the revolutionary work of Edward Carpenter. The therapist’s attitudes to Harry and the “compulsive transvestitism” of James/Little Bear/Ursula are based on Carpenter’s Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk and given that Gideon reads from a pamphlet, not a book, from the American Journal of Religious Psychology (1911) in which Chapter 1 was published. But much understanding remained underground as a result of the 1895 Wilde trial. In his writings, Carpenter cursed the damage done by the gushing, effete behaviour of Wilde, and Harry is very much in keeping with the historical times. He is, like the preferred Uranian portrayed by Carpenter, emotionally reserved, yet physically unrepressed; and unaware of the supportive arguments for homogenic love. Gale draws his version of Harry Cane with great skill and truthfulness. The strong narrative voice captures the pressure and restraint of Harry Cane expertly. It exerts the necessary control. It tells a story that Harry could not really tell. But there is a price to pay for this: conversations are often bleak (which fits) and brief (frustratingly so) and the plotting becomes forced because events cannot emerge out of dialogue and interaction. The romance sections at Strawberry Vale seem like Austen without the verbal wit and the tragic moments resemble Hardy at his heaviest.

A Place Called Winter is an ambitious novel By Gale and a risky one for him as an author. The reception on Amazon indicates a certain amount of perplexity. The many 5 Star Reviews have a lot to say about technique and not much about the gay theme. The lower Star Reviews have nothing much to say about technical aspects and a lot about the shocking gay content! This is a forcefully narrated novel with a sensitive gay theme. Gale should be applauded for taking a risk and placing a gay novel at the heart of his novelistic output. If it has upset the Richard and Judy readers who have liked his ”gay-ish” novels, so much the better. The novel is well-researched and imagined with only a few jarring elements. It is unlikely that The Giggler, at Bethel, would have casually pulled out a pack of Tarot cards, in post-war times, unless this was London and the Modernist circles of W.B.Yeats. Harry visits the Gaiety Theatre to see Gladys Cooper's star-turn when, in fact, she had only a minor role in the gaiety scene and her critical acclaim came after A Place Called Winter finishes. Even so, this novel is highly readable and in the conflict between Harry Cane and Troels Munk, Gale has created a provocative study of masculinity and the intimidation that thrives where self-identity is fragile.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at British Art Show 8

British Art Show 8 recently premiered in Leeds. This quinquennial touring exhibition includes 42 artists this year and its purpose, as ever, is to bring up- and-coming artists into the public eye. By intention, the exhibition curated by Anna Colin and Lydia Yee is a mixed-bag. "A central concern of British Art Show 8 is the changing role and status of the object at a time of increasing convergence between the real and the virtual." One exhibit that clearly shows this focal point is by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: an octave of 8 "portraits"

Yiadom-Boakye was born in London, in 1977. She studied at Falmouth and the Royal Academy Schools. In 2013, she was short-listed for the Turner Prize. Her heritage links to the UK and Ghana and her work draws upon French Impressionism (Degas and Manet). Though she does not see her work as political, it is almost impossible not to read it as such: here is a female painter defining herself in relation to a male tradition of portraiture and painting Black male and female figures within a history of painting that largely excludes Blackness. The revolutionary act for Yiadom-Boakye, however, is her approach to painting and portraiture. A portrait, by definition, is a representation of a person within a period in time, but the portraits of Yiadom-Boakye are not copies of real people or contexts. Just as history fixes the Black image by race or class--consider the title "Negro slave" and recent desires to re-name such paintings-- Yiadom-Boakye gives her work imaginative titles that "suggest a narrative" and free her work from specificity. Also, portraits are linked to time and sittings and laborious corrections, yet the octave of portraits assembled in British Art Show 8 reveal speed and lightness of touch. A "portrait" for Yiadom-Boakye is a representation of many people, physical details are selected from reality and combined into a virtual portrait at speed (no more than a day of painting) with emphasis falling on elements of technique, such that the result is a deliberate fabrication. The canvases are confidently flat, not built in layers, and representations of what exists in the artist's mind and the mind's eye.

A Radical Under Beechwood, BAS8

The Twice Done, BAS8

There is a paradox at work in the "portraits". A portrait is usually linked to a person. The purpose of a portrait is to preserve that person in paint and memorialise a likeness. The history of portraiture is bound up with celebrity and continuity. But what does a viewer do with a portrait of someone known to the artist, though unknown to the viewer, like this? What is a reality for the artist, here, is make-believe for the viewer. How do you read an unknown?

For a viewer, this can only be a composite of people they have known. The person represented means nothing to them. In a sense, Yiadom-Boakye paints like a minor artist creating images of ordinariness. Yet, the moment those images appear on art gallery walls, they are lifted into a different conversation, claiming space and debating about the history of Black imagery and the fictional lives that have been led or might be led...

The "portraits" of Yiadom-Boakye endow their Black representations with vivacity and this is done through incredible skill. By not being studied masterpieces, they liberate their subjects rather than enslave them to single interpretations.

Leave a Brick under The Maple.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Art of Plagiarism.

In 2005, cases of plagiarism in UK University courses were around 8,000. These increased in 2009-2010 to 17,000. There wasn't much of a change in subsequent years: figures from 2009-2012 showed that 45,000 cases of plagiarism (the main example of misconduct) had occurred. The most up-to-date investigation by The Times newspaper claims an "epidemic" is present with 50,000 cases from from 2013-2016. In fact, that figure is more-or-less consistent with the previous figures of 17,000 per year. There is a significant change, however, according to university sources with a major shift from Type 1 plagiarism (copying work) to Type 2 plagiarism (buying essays and theses over the internet). These figures are deeply concerning, showing the extent to which academic enquiry is being devalued. 

Originality seems to be less important than merely answering a question and getting a good grade. Perhaps, I ought to be shocked at these figures and the trends they show, but I am not. It is the curse of education. Courses for training continuously plagiarise: a course isn't about original thought, it's about the re-cycling of someone else's ideas and stitching together as much second-hand material together as possible. Only this week, a colleague of mine attended a course on "growth mind-sets" in the classroom. The advisor leading the training day cribbed all her illustrations from YouTube, Google Images and psychological research more than a decade old. 

The word "plagiarism" has an interesting history, one that I didn't know much about until I started thinking through this post. The word comes comes from the Latin "to kidnap" and in some contexts "to enslave/chain". It is the forceful taking of someone else's ideas and enslaving them to your own purposes. A few years ago, I remember editing a Nigerian poetry manuscript. One poem ended beautifully with "I sang in my chains like the sea." Clearly, the line had not been recognised by other African writers who had read the poem. To an English or Welsh reader, it is immediately recognisable as the last line in Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill". Ironically, the "poet" had plagiarised a perfect image of plagiarism (and thought he could get away with it). Every poet is bound to the flux of the mind just as the sea is linked to the pull of the moon and the poet sings against the chains of creativity and what had been written before.

One of my favourite poems in Jee Leong Koh's Steep Tea, is the key-note poem "Attributions". The poem reflects the whole of the volume which takes its roots in other poems, but never plagiarises the originals. "Attributions" raises a question that clearly fascinates Jee Leong Koh: where do words come from and how do we know what it ours (especially in a country where Colonialism and State censorship dictated what you knew as you struggled for individualism)? Is all writing a struggle against plagiarism--the chains that bind us--and a fight to attribute what is ours and what belongs to others. As he puts is, so finely:

Sometimes I cannot find out who first wrote the words I wrote.
(ST, p.36).

In 2013, a major scandal hit the poetry world, in the UK, when poet Christian Ward won the Bourne Poetry Prize with a poem copied from Helen Mort. He attempted to talk his way out of an embarrassing situation by saying, like other poets, he had built his poem out of the skeleton of Mort's poem and never meant to plagiarise it. Apparently, he had submitted a draft (to the competition) that wasn't entirely his work, something of an understatement since only a few words in the winning poem were his own! The controversy generated a discussion on the Write Out Loud blog about what was permissible when using other works as sources. 

When it comes to plagiarism and poetry, there does seem to be a fair degree of hypocrisy. Ward is clearly a fake, yet Hart Crane's copying of an early published poem from the work of Samuel Greenberg is taken as a tribute! The copy of Crane's poem below shows exactly how much was copied from Greenberg (including part of the title). In what sense is this a tribute? Each colour indicates a different Greenberg poem, so Crane's version of Greenberg isn't a lazy attempt at copying, like Ward's, but a deliberate attempt to build a poem out of seven separate poems-- a hiding of sources by burying a poem in copied allusions. 

Emblems of Conduct (1926).

By a peninsula the wanderer sat and sketched
The uneven valley graves. While the apostle gave
Alms to the meek the volcano burst
sulphur and aureate rocks
For joy rides in stupendous coverings
Luring the living into
spiritual gates.
Orators follow the universe
And radio the complete
laws to the people.
The apostle conveys thought through discipline.
Bowls and cups fill historians with adorations
Dull lips commemorating
spiritual gates.

The wanderer later chose this spot of rest
marble clouds support the sea
And where was finally born a
chosen hero.
By that time summer and smoke were past.
Dolphins still played, arching the horizons,
But only to build memories of spiritual gates.

When a minor poem cheats, it is plagiarism; when a major poet deceives, it is an hommage

Plagiarism is a complex issue in the Arts. Are found poems plagiarism? What about a cento? What about the practices of Robert Duncan, the Romantic genius, who built a poem out of phrases from Milton's The Reason of Church Government? What about the translations of Pound, which are not translations, but creative mistranslations out of the Latin. What about Homage to Sextus Propertius? Etc. Are all modern poems (written by poets) in exile, as Harold Bloom would argue, stuck in hermetical, kabbalistic ratios with previous works. Perhaps, that's an extreme view, but originality has become a difficult term in modern practices. And what about the visual world of Tumblr where site rips of site, where one site stealing from another site is seen as a "liking" and to be encouraged. Nothing original, just re-cycling of ideas. I recall my annoyance when a Tumblr account lifted examples of my artwork and of other friends. I expected uniform condemnation, but the responses split us. One camp wanted the Tumblr site taken down for plagiarism and breach of copyright. Another camp where flattered and saw it as good publicity.