Read The World: new country shock!

I’m actually surprised that I’ve spent three years trying to read a book from every country in the world without any new countries being created… but it looks like that’s about to change. Kosovo seemed like the favourite to join the list, but it looks like South Sudan have beaten them to it.

They’re not quite members of the UN yet, but they’ve been recognised by Sudan and the UN, so presumably it’ll be a relatively quick process.

Given the appallingly brutal recent history of Sudan, I’m not about to begrudge them a peaceful separation, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy to find a South Sudanese author to read. Ho hum.

» The flag of South Sudan is taken from Wikipedia.

‘The Cult of Beauty’ at the V&A

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. I’m tempted to sum up the exhibition as ‘The Pre-Raphaelites and their furniture’, given my recent post about how much I dislike the Pre-Raphaelites. But actually the exhibition is rather broader than than that. The Pre-Raphs do feature heavily, but it’s also the Arts and Crafts movement, Japonisme and so on; lots of Whistler, William Morris, a bit of Aubrey Beardsley, and designers like Christopher Dresser and Edward William Godwin.

And although most of this stuff is not to my taste, the V&A does this kind of exhibition superbly well. The quality of the exhibits is extremely high (I would expect nothing less), and it is always interesting to see fine art and decorative art from the same cultural moment displayed together; so often we see paintings hanging in plain, austere galleries, with no context but each other.

All the things that annoy me about the Pre-Raphaelites annoy me much less when it comes to furniture and ceramics and wallpaper. My problem with them, essentially, is that they are superficial: flashy, decorative, overly obvious. And the way that the paintings tend to pick other ancient or exotic cultures and reduce them to a stylistic quirk actually offers a clear parallel with the ‘Japanese’ furniture of the time. But it doesn’t bother me because after all, the decorative arts are, well, decorative. The moment you make a table which tries to do anything other than provide a stable flat surface, or a pot which does anything other than hold water, you are in the world of decoration and surface. Which isn’t intended to belittle those things: I’m fascinated by design, I love beautiful objects and I think that anyone who works to make sure that the objects around us give us pleasure is doing something very important.

But it says something about my different relationship with ‘fine art’ that I actually find Pre-Raphaelite paintings almost offensive. They irritate me in a way I can’t say I’ve often been irritated by a wardrobe or a candlestick, however ugly or ill-conceived I might think it is. I might be similarly annoyed by an object which doesn’t work properly because of bad design, but not usually by simple ugliness. What exactly that says about me… I’m not sure.

The figure who sits slightly oddly at the centre of this exhibition is Whistler. He seems stylistically apart the other artists; his paintings are exercises in understatement and control, and instead of scenes from myth and legend, he mainly paints people in houses. There’s a painting in the show (no doubt called something like Symphony in White) of a girl in a white dress. Apparently, when other people offered ingenious interpretations he insisted that, on the contrary, it was just what it looked like: a girl in a white dress standing in front of a white curtain.

So it’s tempting to see him as out of place in this exhibition, to think that really he should be over in some other gallery, maybe with the Impressionists. But clearly he is part of the same movement. There’s a room he designed for someone’s house (or at least a projection of it you can walk into) and it is full of the typical aesthetic motifs: peacocks, sunflowers, bamboo, blue and white porcelain. In his hands it’s rather lovely, I think; a lot of the interiors in the exhibition look like they would be claustrophobically busy — decorative knickknacks arranged on decorative furniture in front of elaborately patterned wallpapers and richly coloured patterned fabrics. Whistler uses the same motifs and while the result is still pretty full-on, with lots of strong colours and decoration everywhere, it is relatively cohesive and elegant. Even so, it’s hard to reconcile the richly decorative style with the simplicity of his paintings.

Although, having said all that, the exhibition did provide a good example of why the whole concept of ‘good taste’ should be treated with suspicion. In about the second or third room there was a group of paintings by Albert Joseph Moore. In some ways they are fairly typically Pre-Raphaelite: blank-eyed women with indistinguishable faces lounging around wearing ‘classical’ robes in a generically exotic interior. But the palette is all restrained pastels, and composition is carefully balanced and designed around a strict grid system. And I found myself thinking that’s a bit more like it, because they were more ‘tasteful’. But that seem like a pretty dismal way of thinking. To prefer the anaemic, milquetoast, decaffeinated version because it’s more restful: well, it’s not exactly going to produce art which is ambitious and interesting.

It is a fascinating conflict: I do think our lives would be hugely improved if more of the things around us showed evidence of good taste. Buildings, household appliances, packaging, signage, clothes, websites, books, posters, furniture… we are surrounded by things which are ugly or just mediocre. Which make our lives just slightly worse rather than better. But I also think that good taste is the great enemy of creativity and individuality, a stifling force that needs to be continually pushed back against. Especially since it is very difficult to separate an even somewhat objective idea of ‘good taste’ from simple social conformity.

» The vase is designed by Walter Crane, the sideboard by E.W. Godwin, the sconce by Thomas Jekyll, the wallpaper by William Morris, and the teapot by Christopher Dresser. The two paintings are Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle by Whistler, and Reading Aloud by Albert Joseph Moore.

Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s

I went along to the viewing of a sale of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s in London.

It’s always quite interesting going to see paintings at auction houses rather than the big public art galleries where I see most of my art. For a start, there’s the fact that everything has a price on it; of course they’re only estimates, but they give you a general sense of what’s hot and what isn’t.  The trends are somewhat predictable, of course; a large, stylistically distinctive painting by a Very Famous Artist goes for a lot more than a small, sketchy painting by a someone slightly less famous. The painting above,Les pins, bord de mer by Pierre Bonnard, is estimated at £150,000 – £250,000.* Which is quite a lot of money by most standards, but seems pretty modest compared to the £17,000,000 – £24,000,000 for some Monet waterlilies.

Actually, though, it’s not surprising that a large painting by Monet of his most iconic subjects is worth a fuck of a lot of money. If you’re a Russian oligarch and you put that on your wall, people are going to walk into the room and know you’ve spent shitloads of money on it.

In some ways it’s the lesser paintings which say more about the madness of art prices. Not even great artists produce masterpieces every time they pick up a brush, and there’s a plentiful supply of little sketchy paintings and ones which don’t quite work; paintings which look like they could have been done by any random weekend painter, but which go for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

A couple of other thoughts about the auction house experience. I quite like the fact that people feel free to talk, to have normal conversations at a fairly normal volume; and indeed to use their mobile phones. The sanctified hush of public art galleries, with everyone whispering to each other, can be a bit deadening.

And however artistically radical a painting may have been when it was new, seeing it surrounded by the sheen of money in an upmarket auctioneers really does strip away any last hint of anti-establishment.

* Update: it actually went for £337,250, fwiw.

The Maltese Baron… and I Lucian by Francis Ebejer

The Maltese Baron… and I Lucian is my book from Malta for the Read The World challenge. It’s a novel narrated by an old man called Lucian which begins with the return after decades of his childhood friend, the Baron. It is the story of their fractious relationship, and Lucian’s relationship with a woman called Katarina, cutting back and forth between the present and their youth.

It has quite a successful unreliable narrator thing going on — Lucian portrays himself as an upright, moral, dignified man in contrast to the Baron’s promiscuity and vulgarity, whereas we can see that he’s a pompous selfish prick, and that the Baron, despite a few flaws, is practically heroic in comparison.

Otherwise, though, it doesn’t have much going for it. The opening chapter has some prose which is so convoluted that it was practically incomprehensible, and I initially couldn’t tell whether this was supposed to be a way of characterising the narrator, some kind of advanced literary technique that I just wasn’t grokking, or just very badly written. In the end I decided it was a combination: Ebejer was trying to characterise Lucian as stuffy and self-important, but just wasn’t quite good enough to pull it off. The main narrative is more readable, most of the time, but it’s never any better than ordinary.

» Good Friday 2007 – Malta is © Antonio Caselli and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

The Devil That Danced on the Water by Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna’s father was a doctor, then activist and politician in Sierra Leone, rising to be Minister of Finance for a while before resigning in public protest at corruption in the government. But she was born in Scotland to a Scottish mother while her father was studying medicine there.

Unfortunately politics in Sierra Leone was a dangerous business. We learn at the very start of the book that, when she was ten, her father was arrested and she never saw him again, but exactly what happened to him emerges over the course of the book, so even though it is in fact a matter of historical record, I suppose the polite thing to do is to issue a MILD SPOILER ALERT before I go on to talk about it.

So, as I was saying, her father (along with fourteen other men) was arrested and charged on trumped-up charges of treason, inevitably found guilty, and hanged. They had supposedly been conspiring to blow up a government minister — an explosion at his house did take place but appears to have been staged for the purpose.

After that Forna moved to the UK permanently, but even before that she had moved frequently between Sierra Leone and the UK according to her father’s fluctuating political fortunes. That in itself would be an interesting subject for a memoir, of course, a mixed race girl with a childhood split between the UK and Africa in the 60s and 70s; but inevitably her father’s story dominates the book, and the second half is the story of her return to Sierra Leone decades later to learn as much as she can about the details of her father’s trial.

I’ve actually been putting off reading this book because it sounded a bit depressing. But once again it reinforces the basic truth: my enjoyment in books is much more dependent on the quality of the writing than the subject matter. I got pleasure from reading this book, despite everything, because it is very well written. The childhood stuff particularly; she’s good at capturing the limited understanding of a small child caught up in a complicated, adult situation.

I thought the second part, her return to Sierra Leone as an adult to investigate her father’s trial, was less interesting. Just because it’s incredibly predictable, really. It was a political show trial organised by a dictator, and it followed the familiar pattern: forced confessions, a jury stuffed with political partisans, a cowed judiciary, ‘witnesses’ motivated by self-interest or fear, the accused denied access to a lawyer. Of course I can understand why Forna felt driven to find answers, but whereas her account of her childhood is full of individual, unique details, the second part just feels weirdly like you’ve read it before. Still interesting, still worth reading, but not as engaging as the first part.

Anyway, here’s a  little extract, from a period when her father is in prison and she is living in London with her stepmother and her siblings.

I used to walk down a road, any road, and say to myself: If I can just hold my breath until I get to the end of this street Daddy will be released from prison. Or, if I was crossing a bridge and a train went underneath, I wished my father would be freed. Sometimes I’d stand there until train after train had gone by, eyes closed, amassing wishes. Three times over three years, as I cut the first slice of cake, I used my special birthday wish so I could have him back. I wished on the full moon and the new moon, and then any moon at all. At Christmas, if I found the silver sixpence Mum hid in the pudding, I wished for my father’s freedom. I wished for nothing else.

As time went on I increased my challenges: to reach the end of the road with my eyes closed without bumping into anyone or anything; to leap every other paving stone, dancing between them, promising myself that if I could make it ten yards, or twelve, or fifteen, I would somehow, miraculously earn his freedom. gradually I upped the ante: I’d work my bike up to speed then aim the front wheel at a pothole or a speed bump. If I don’t fall off, if I can stay in the saddle, then they’ll let him out of prison. Alone in the flat one afternoon I stood in the galley kitchen passing my hand as slowly as I dared across the ice-blue flame of the gas ring, once, twice, thrice, until the smell, like burnt bacon rinds, rose from the scorched ends of my fingernails.

[…]

There’s a good reason exile was once used as a punishment. It is life apart, life on hold, life in waiting. You may begin full of strength and hope, or just ignorance, but it is time, nothing more than the unending passage of time that wears down your resilience, like the drip of a tap that carves a groove in the granite below. Exile is a war of attrition on the soul, it’s a slow punishment, and it works.

The Devil That Danced on the Water is my book from Sierra Leone for the Read The World challenge. Incidentally, although this book is clearly about the politics of a particular country, the name of that country doesn’t appear on the cover once: there are four references to ‘Africa’ and none to Sierra Leone. I know that we have an unfortunate tendency to lump all of sub-Saharan Africa into one entity, but you might hope that the publisher would make some sort of effort even if no-one else does.

» BP Gas Station in West Africa, 1967 and Lansana Kamara (centre) at his store/pub in Kabala, Sierra Leone (West Africa), 1968 are both © John Atherton and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

This book apparently started as an attempt to get to the bottom of a particular news story which went around the world but turned out to be, broadly speaking, a load of cobblers: the Millennium Bug. Davies wanted to trace the process by which a story could start with such limited foundations and keep going round the world, gaining in momentum, and result in governments spending a fortune on what turned out to be a non-problem — as proved by countries like Italy, who didn’t bother to do anything about it and were just fine.

But the book ended up being a much broader condemnation of the news media’s systemic failure to do its their job properly: assuming you think its job is to tell us the truth about what is happening in the world.

Interestingly, the most common accusation — political bias in the interest of newspaper proprietors — actually comes fairly low on his list of worries. The Millennium Bug story is a good example from that point of view; it would take an exceptionally conspiratorial mindset to claim that it was whipped up because Rupert Murdoch had some kind of financial interest in it.

He suggests instead that the biggest single problem is more prosaic and more fundamental: that news organisations are understaffed. The logic of commercial efficiency has led to newspapers employing less people to produce the same amount of content: not just reducing the total number, but shedding particular categories like regional reporters and court reporters. Meanwhile the same process has happened at the local newspapers and wire services that were another source of stories to the national press. And something has to give. Forget real investigative journalism: simple fact-checking becomes a luxury.

And of course journalists don’t need to be malevolent or deceitful to produce bad journalism. They don’t need to actively choose to tell untruths; simply not caring whether something is true is bad enough.

So if the newspapers aren’t employing enough people to gather news properly, how do they find enough stuff to fill their pages? Well, the first source is wire services (the Press Association, AP, Reuters etc). At least those are real journalists, although they are overstretched themselves and only claim to offer accurate quotes rather than true fact-checking. But all the news outlets are getting their stories from the same wire services, so it doesn’t exactly produce variety. The whole system becomes one big echo-chamber.

And the other huge source of content is PR. A huge percentage of so-called ‘news’ is directly reproduced from someone’s press release. Isn’t that reassuring.

The book also gets into the world of government propaganda, including the truly staggering scale of CIA spending on media and propaganda during the Cold War (did you know the the CIA owned loads of foreign newspapers? I mean, seriously, what the fuck?) and the suggestion that the War on Terror has given them an opportunity to ramp up their activity again. It looks into the ‘Dark Arts’; i.e. illegal news-gathering activities by British newspapers, including but not limited to the phone-hacking which has been in the news lately. And there are some case studies of bad practice: the decline of the Sunday Times Insight team (key quote: ‘there are some journalists who would rather inhale vomit than work for Andrew Neil’), the failure of the Observer in the build up to the Iraq War (inexperienced editors seduced by their cosy relationship with Number 10 end up just parroting the government line), and the Daily Mail (for being the Daily Mail, basically, except that the racism of the paper is even more overt than I appreciated).

Anyway, it’s thought-provoking, interesting stuff. I’ve no idea how fair it is, but it all has the dismal ring of truth to me.

Miró at Tate Modern

Without knowing a lot about Joan Miró, I’ve always liked his work when I’ve seen it. It’s interesting the way that the work of one artist will speak to you and another won’t… so I’ve aways liked Miró, never liked Chagall.

Or at least I say the work ‘speaks to you’ but that’s not the right metaphor; I don’t think it’s because the paintings are making some sort of intellectual or emotional connection. Or at least I don’t think that’s primarily what it is; it’s more to do with a basic visual aesthetic. I tend to like controlled, precise, carefully composed paintings with strong clear colours: so I like Vermeer, but find it hard to like Rubens. It’s suppose it’s a graphic design sensibility, really.

Articulating it like that does make me feel a bit shallow; taking great painters and sorting them into sheep and goats according to the most superficial and basic elements of their visual style, well, it doesn’t exactly make me a sophisticated judge. But there you go. It’s not the only factor which decides which work I like, but it certainly makes a difference.

So I was predisposed to like this exhibition. Which I did. I thought it was fabulous. Mainly because I liked all paintings, of course; but also because I didn’t know much about Miró, so it was interesting to see the chronological development of work. There was also quite a lot of biographical context, much of it related to Spanish politics — Miró’s Catalan identity, the Spanish civil war, WWII and so on. So that was all quite interesting.

But mainly I just love the paintings. I want to own all of them and have them on my walls.

» Women, Birds, and a Star, 1949. Which is in the Met, although I got the image from RMN.

Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell

Ragamuffin is my book from Grenada for the Read The World challenge. It’s a science fiction novel about a universe where humans share space with various other species and can travel from world to world via wormholes. Some of them come from a world which was settled by people from the Caribbean, hence the title and a certain amount of West Indian-inflected dialogue.

It was quite entertaining, I guess; I’m not really much of an SF fan. I read a lot at one stage because my brother used to read them, but since we don’t live in the same house anymore, I’ve largely stopped. I think the most interesting thing about SF is when it’s used to explore ideas: so for example, Iain M Banks’s Culture novels are in a sense a contribution to the Utopian tradition, and among other things, they raise the question of what human society would be like in a situation with limitless material wealth.

Ragamuffin is not really a novel of ideas in that way; it’s inventive enough, but it’s inventive within the standard tropes of science fiction. In a way this kind of space opera is really futuristic fantasy; swords and sorcery, with bionic implants taking the place of magical powers. I always thought it was interesting, incidentally, that two of the most popular works of C20th narrative, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, have such a medieval shape to them. But maybe that’s too much of a detour for this post.

Anyway, sub-genres of SF aside, what really makes the difference between good novels and bad ones is not the genre, it’s always the quality of the writing. Which in this book was perfectly reasonable but nothing remarkable. Even though it’s not the kind of book I usually read, I picked it up thinking it might be a bit of treat to read some escapist fiction. But it never really grabbed me.

» The Aztec figurine of Mictlantecuhtli is from the British Museum. As well as the Caribbean theme in the novel, there’s an Aztec-inspired culture, weirdly enough.

Shadows of your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo

As part of my ongoing quest to read a book from every country, I picked up Shadows of your Black Memory as a book from Equatorial Guinea. It is a childhood/coming of age novel that sets up the conflict between traditional and western cultures: particularly in this case between traditional religion and Catholicism.

Which, at this point in the exercise, is not a description that fills me with excitement; because nearly all the literature of the post-colonial world seems to be about the conflict between tradition and western culture and/or modernity. Certainly the stuff which makes it into English translation. And it’s also pretty common to tell it as the story of a young person growing up caught between two worlds.

So I didn’t pick it up with much enthusiasm, but actually it’s a really good novel. It is simply very well written: vivid, fresh and engaging.

Here’s one of the Catholic bits:

When I was eight, I knew Father Claret’s catechism by heart, and my favourite book was his Straight and Sure Path to Heaven. The horror of eternal condemnation didn’t allow me to be a child. I didn’t go to the Wele River with Ba any more, I couldn’t learn how to make those bamboo toy cars that I loved so much even though cousin Asumu offered to teach me many times. I didn’t carve arrows to shoot at birds anymore, I didn’t go swimming in the Nganga River with my friend Otunga or my cousins Anton and Mbo. Even today I don’t know how to swim. I didn’t have a hunting dog, and I didn’t know how to make a cage for trapping fish. All this was for other children now, for the ones who weren’t fortunate enough to be touched by the grace of God. What’s the use of all that fun and idleness if in the end your soul is damned forever? Father Claret, the saintly one, asked me this as I read his book, and I had no choice; I had to acknowledge that the most important part of my life was my soul, and to be saved I had to avoid useless amusements, the silly games of my friends, my cousins, the brothers in my tribe. It was shortly before I was nine when I got into the habit of saying Mass from a little altar I made for myself in my room in front of the crucifix Father Ortiz had given me and under the religious things I had on the wall: the Eye-of-God triangle and some prints that were brought to me by my father’s white friends; the Little Prayer Book served as missal. Alone in my room, when no one was looking, when my little brothers succumbed to the midday sun, I got all dressed up in a bed sheet and pretended it was a priest’s chasuble and started to say Mass, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spritus Sancti, and I made the sign of the cross: I, a sinner, confess to Almighty God and the Blessed Mary Ever Virgin, Saint Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, and to Apostles Peter and Paul and all the saints, and I beat my little breast in contrition, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, and I almost forgot the kyrie eleison kyrie eleison Christe eleison Christe eleison, then the intraito, oremus, and I turned my head ceremoniously; then in silent fervor I genuflected, gloria in excelsis Deo, and I recited it all without knowing what I said in a Latin I learned from listening to Father Ortiz so much.

So, yup, I really enjoyed this one. Well worth picking up. I’d be quite interested in reading the sequel if it was available in English. And I often forget to mention translators, but credit is certainly due in this case, so: the translation is by Michael Ugarte.

» The photo is of a Reliquary Guardian Figure (Eyema-o-Byeri) in the Brooklyn Museum. It is actually from Gabon rather than Equatorial Guinea, but it’s the right ethnic group (Fang).

The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahman A. Waberi

The Land Without Shadows is my book from Djibouti for the Read The World challenge. There are a few options available in French, but Waberi seems to be the only choice in English. Having read a few underwhelmed reviews of his novel, In The United States of Africa, I thought I’d try this collection of short pieces.

It seems to be broadly true that Francophone literature from Africa is much more overtly ‘literary’ than the English-language stuff; more playful, more given to formal and stylistic flourishes. Which says something about the influence of French culture and French academia.

Some of these are fairly conventional short stories, others are more like essays or parables or long prose poems. They add up to a sort of portrait of Djibouti — the land without shadows — both in the present and historically.

It’s quite inventive and well-written, but the plain truth is that it never really held my attention. Shrug.

» Djibouti is © Stéphane Pouyllau and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Why I hate the Pre-Raphaelites*

When I was at university I overheard a conversation when someone said:

I just don’t understand how you can say you like both the Pre-Raphaelites and Vermeer.

It has stuck with me ever since. It’s just a perfect one-line bit of art criticism. It always seemed like it ought to make a great parlour game†: ‘I just don’t understand how you can say you like both x and y… fill in the blanks.’ But actually I’ve never been able to find a pair which seems as perfect as Vermeer and the Pre-Raphs.

Vermeer basically painted accurate pictures of his own time and place; carefully composed, tidied up and idealised, perhaps, but realistic, small scale, domestic. The Pre-Raphaelites‡ chose to retire to a silly fantasy world of knights and maidens which avoided the difficult complex reality of the nineteenth century — but avoided the difficult complex reality of the medieval world as well.

And Vermeer is sensual but austere; sensual in his representation of surfaces, textures, light and shadow, but stylistically austere in his classically perfect compositions and controlled, precise brushwork. While the Pre-Raphaelites are the opposite: stylistically they are lush and decorative, but the result is bloodless. Their paintings are full of decorative young men and women posturing and looking glamorous, but it’s all surface. There’s no flesh to it, not a whiff of filth.

In one of Aldous Huxley’s early novels, which are satirical portraits of London bohemia, there’s a character called Casimir Lypiatt who sees himself in the Renaissance tradition of painter-poet-thinkers, full of bombastic rhetoric about Art and Beauty and moral significance. Not everyone is as impressed with him as he is:

‘Number seventeen,’ said Mrs Viveash, ‘is called “Woman on a Cosmic Background.”’  A female figure stood leaning against a pillar on a hilltop, and beyond was a blue night with stars.  ‘Underneath is written: “For one at least, she is more than the starry universe.”’  Mrs Viveash remembered that Lypiatt had once said very much that sort of thing to her.  ‘So many of Casimir’s things remind me,’ she said, ‘of those Italian vermouth advertisements.  You know – Cinzano, Bonomelli and all those.  I wish they didn’t.  This woman in white with her head in the Great Bear….’ She shook her head.  ‘Poor Casimir.’

Presumably Huxley, writing in 1923, was not thinking of the pre-Raphaelites. But that description is brutally spot on.

Vermeer took the small and mundane and made it something hypnotic; the Pre-Raphaelites took a grand mixture of ideas, ideals, myth and history, and made a lot of pretty posters.

* OK, maybe ‘hate’ is a bit strong. But, you know, linkbait innit.

† Actually, thinking about it, a truly dreadful parlour game. A mildly interesting intellectual exercise, maybe.

‡ Yes, I know, I’m lumping them all together in a rather lazy way. But although the exact details varied from painter to painter, and some were better than others, I think the broad argument applies to all of them.

Watercolour at Tate Britain

I actually went to see this exhibition about a week or so ago, but I’ll just jot down some belated impressions. It is, as the title suggests, a historical survey of watercolour painting, from the medieval to the present.

There are only a handful of medieval pieces, bits of illuminated manuscript, which just serve as a reminder that, although they are not what we usually think of as ‘watercolour’, that is technically what they are.

The exhibition makes the interesting point that originally watercolour was mainly seen as an adjunct to drawing: a work would be drawn in pencil or ink and then effectively coloured in, sometimes just with a few hint of colour to liven the drawing and sometimes in a more thorough way. So many of the early pieces are technical works of one kind or another: costume designs for Elizabethan masques, maps, plans of fortifications, as well as a few specific uses like portrait miniatures.

That technical aspect leads on to what is probably my favourite room of the exhibition, a room of scientific illustrations; especially botanical illustrations but also birds and mammals. Many of these were lent by the Natural History Museum or Kew, which is a clear sign that they were not originally created as Art, but they are gorgeous things. It even included some lovely C19th paintings of rock types — each one is a lump of rock on a plain white background, and they look like an elegantly minimalist conceptual art project.

After that we get into watercolour as an artistic medium in its own right. This includes plenty of ‘typical’ watercolours — landscapes, basically — but also a variety of paintings chosen at least partially to challenge that stereotype. So we have a room of war paintings, a room of ‘visionary’ paintings, a room of exhibition watercolours (i.e. large-scale C19th narrative paintings designed to compete with oil paintings for gravitas), and a room of contemporary work using watercolour.

My single biggest problem with the exhibition is that C19th British painting is not something I particularly enjoy. And that was the golden age of watercolour. So the aesthetic of the paintings was more off-putting than anything to do with watercolour as a medium. The exhibition watercolours seemed particularly pointless. I don’t like Victorian narrative painting and find the Pre-Raphaelites exceptionally noxious; seeing them painted in watercolour instead of oils didn’t make them any more likeable. Especially since there was no obvious attempt to make a virtue of the different medium: rather they seemed to be straining to make watercolours look as much like oil as possible.

And some of the paintings had clearly faded, which is the great technical problem of watercolour as a medium. There’s nothing much you can do about that, but it is a pity. There was a painting of some sun-drenched imperial outpost (Egypt? India?) which just didn’t look very hot, and I think it had probably faded a bit. So the shadows weren’t as dark, and the tones weren’t as warm.

As you can tell, I wasn’t blown away. But every room had something of interest and something covetable. And every so often there was a painting which was gorgeous and which could only have been done with watercolour: liquid and light and translucent. So it’s well worth a visit.

» The painting of the Lion-haired macaque, Macaca silenus, is by an unknown Chinese artist working for John Reeves, who employed locals to paint the specimens he was collecting while working in Canton from 1812-1831. That particular work is not in the Tate, though they do have a different monkey from the Reeves collection, lent by the NHM.

Warrior King by Sahle Sellassie

Warrior King is one of several books in English by Sahle Sellassie, all now apparently out of print. It wasn’t easy to find much information about them so I just went for the one which was available cheapest second-hand.

It is a historical novel, telling the story of the rise of Kassa Hailu, who starts as an outlaw but eventually conquers the whole of Ethiopia and establishes himself as Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia.

The obvious comparison for me is with the brilliant Chaka by Thomas Mofolo, also a historical novel about the rise of an African emperor. Mofolo captured something of the brutality and darkness inherent in a man’s rise to power through conquest, and the novel has a real literary heft to it.

Warrior King is a much less interesting book. It’s not a complete whitewashing of history — Kassa Hailu is presented as a ruthless figure, even if he is rebelling against an even more brutal regime. If anything, though, it just doesn’t see that interested in engaging with the morality of it, or the psychology. It reminds me of the kind of history books parodied by 1066 And All That: history as a sequence of memorable anecdotes strung together into a basic narrative. It’s certainly not very interesting as literature, but it’s not really very interesting as history either; their just isn’t enough context or detail to make it come to life. There’s surely enough material in the rise of Tewodros II to make either a really interesting history book or a rattling good yarn. This is neither.

Warrior King is my book from Ethiopia for the Read The World challenge.

» The shield decorated with filigree and a lion’s mane is the royal shield of Tewodros II which, like quite a lot of his stuff, ended up in the British Museum.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D

This is the Werner Herzog documentary about the Chauvet cave paintings in France. It was definitely worth seeing, but mainly, I think, for the incredible paintings themselves, rather than anything Werner Herzog brought to the project.

It is probably the best use of 3D I’ve seen, because although I’ve seen photos of the paintings at Chauvet and Lascaux, the photos tend to flatten out the image; you get very little sense of the highly irregular shape of the cave walls and the way that the paintings are shaped around the contours of the rock. The 3D film really did make all the difference and was very effective.

Which is an unusual view for me, because I basically think that 3D is a rubbish technology. In most circumstances it’s little more than a gimmick, and it seems to be technically rather bad anyway: I find that it looks unnatural and exaggerated, it’s often slightly shimmery or glitchy, it doesn’t work properly if you tilt your head to one side, and it tends to give me a headache. I don’t know if the problem is that I’m wearing prescription glasses under the 3D ones, but that seems to be a lot of downside for very little upside.

Even in this film, I think it would have been better to save the 3D for the places where it really mattered — i.e. looking at the cave paintings. An interview with a paleontologist sitting in an office does NOT need to be in 3D, thank you very much.

And even in the scenes inside the cave, it became clear that some of the film had not been filmed in 3D, but faked up as 3D in post-production. This was particularly egregious in a scene where two scientists were standing in front of a cave painting and talking about it, and something looked very weird; I suddenly realised that when they had faked the 3D, they had cut out the two figures rather carelessly and cut out a big chuck of the surrounding wall as well; so there was a big blob of cave wall which was in completely the wrong visual plane, floating in front of the wall around it.

Such technical gripes aside, the paintings were beautiful and fascinating. And there were all sorts of snippets of fascinating information, like the great scratches on the walls which had been left by cave bears sharpening their claws. Or the two stags painted on top of each other which carbon dating revealed were painted 5000 years apart. I mean, really, 5000 years! What does it mean that there was such staggering cultural continuity?

I was also interested that there was no sign of human habitation in the cave; presumably they used it as a ritual site, or something. It’s all guesswork, of course. There also no humans among the paintings, apart from one image apparently of a woman’s pubic triangle and legs, similar to the famous ‘Venus’ figurines. And no pictures of birds, incidentally; it’s all big game: cave bears, cave lions, horses, antelope, woolly rhino, mammoth, hyena, aurochs.

Of course we have so little of their lives to draw on, so what does survive gains enormous, inflated importance. The paintings are the most vivid connection we have to those people 35,000 years ago, and so we can’t help having them as central to our idea of their lives; but we don’t know whether they were similarly important to the people who painted them. The film did show a few objects found at other sites of the same period that provide a few hints at a broader life; Venus figurines, animal carvings, and most extraordinarily a flute which had been meticulously reconstructed from over 30 tiny fragments of ivory. But mainly we are left with a lot of stone tools and the cave paintings. Anything made of wood, or gut, or hide is long gone, let alone the stories they told, the music they played, the food they cooked.

Jan Gossaert at the National Gallery

I went along to this with little knowledge and few preconceptions and on the whole was pleasantly surprised. I’ve said before I particularly like the Northern Renaissance for its more medieval aesthetic compared to the Italians. That’s actually less true of Gossaert; a lot of his figures have that contorted quality that I associate with, say, Michelangelo; of being posed in rather uncomfortable-looking positions with pronounced foreshortening. They also have a kind of fleshiness which relates to the Italians but also seems to make him a precursor of painters like Rubens and Jacob Jordaens.

The portraits stood out for me; which, come to think of it, is often the case in these exhibitions. I guess that’s partially because of their human interest — they are the most gossipy kind of painting — and partially because the relatively constrained format strips away many of the things modern audience find off-putting about older paintings. I think there are various reasons why religious paintings and history paintings are not to modern taste, some of it to do with the subject matter, but also the style. Whereas a straightforward head-and-shoulders portrait, the subject looking out of the canvas, is probably the single genre of painting which carries through most directly from the Renaissance to now.

So there was certainly stuff to enjoy — not least some fantastic Dürer engravings and woodcuts which were in there for context — but I can see why Gossaert’s not as well known as some of his contemporaries. He was clearly a wonderful painter, but he just lacks the extra something to make him stand out. And the ways in which he is different from his contemporaries probably make him less to modern taste rather than more. Certainly less to my taste.

The Hooligan Nights by Clarence Rook

Interesting one, this. Lee Jackson of victorianlondon.org decided to use some of his archive of digitised Victoriana to raise a bit of money to help support the site and put this for sale as a Kindle book for the minimum price of 86p. So I thought I’d give it a try.

Rook was apparently a Victorian journalist and this book claims to be a true account of his conversations with a young Lambeth criminal called Alf — a ‘hooligan’ when that word was new. It is what you might expect from a journalist writing about a colourful lowlife for a popular audience; that sensationalism makes it a genuine page-turner, but it comes with the usual scepticism about writers who seem more interested in a good story than accuracy. It seems pretty safe to say that it’s not actually ‘true’; it’s harder to judge whether it’s a realistic portrayal of that way of life.

However, read as a novel, it’s entertaining stuff. Alf is a classic anti-hero, charismatic and largely amoral, displayed for the prurient pleasure of the reader. It must have been fairly racy stuff in 1899; sex is only really hinted at with references to the number of Alf’s romantic entanglements, but there’s a plentiful supply of violence, crime, colourful slang and a general lively seediness.

It’s also fun for me personally that it’s all south London: the action all takes place in Clapham, Vauxhall, Elephant and Castle, Peckham Rye. The centre of this particular universe is Lambeth Walk, which was then a street market and is presented as a place where all human life is present — his descriptions of it read like a tourist visiting a middle eastern souk. The road called Lambeth Walk is still there, but the market is gone, and judging by Google street view, what is left is a very quiet and undistinguished local street. You can still see the Victorian buildings along one side, but thanks to some combination of the Luftwaffe and Lambeth planning department, the other side of the road is all large housing developments and so the feel of the street is quite gone.

It’s odd to think about how some of these places have changed. I was surprised to learn once that earlier in the C19th the roughest, most dangerous ghetto in London, where the police would only go in groups, was… Seven Dials. Which is now part of the overflow of Covent Garden, mainly consisting of quirky little fashion outlets, cafes and the like.

Anyway, at this point I’m just rambling. So I will stop.

» The image, from the British Library, is only loosely relevant, but I chose it in honour of a greengrocer I used to see from the 37 bus somewhere between Brixton and Clapham. It had a nice, swirly hand-painted sign saying ‘Mr Cheap Potatoe’. It used to cheer me up every time I saw it; sadly it doesn’t exist any more.

Bad Google! Naughty Google!

This is interesting; apparently The Complete Review has fallen foul of Google’s revised search algorithm:

Apparently the complete review is exactly the kind of “low-quality site” that is “just not very useful” they were targeting, as search result positions have plummeted for most of the review-pages at the site.

I do have some sympathy with Google; providing good search results would be a very difficult problem even if there weren’t a lot of people trying to game the system. But The Complete Review, far from being a content farm, is one of the best literary resources on the web, particularly for translated literature. So the system is not working properly in this case.

The problem is that Google provides such a huge chunk of all traffic around the web, so anyone who runs a website is at their mercy. And while they don’t seem to abuse their position too much — they seem to approach the business of providing search results in an honest and well-meaning way — they still have a great deal of power and no accountability.

The King of Kahel by Tierno Monénembo

The King of Kahel is my book from Guinea for the Read The World challenge. It is the first book printed by AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s own publishing imprint specialising in translated literature. They say ‘AmazonCrossing uses customer feedback and other data from Amazon sites to identify exceptional works that deserve a wider, global audience.’ So this book was presumably picked up because it was a big hit in French.

It’s rather unusual among all the post-colonial literature I’ve read for the Read The World challenge, because the hero is a European colonialist. Specifically, it’s about Olivier de Sanderval, a real person, a man from a wealthy family of provincial French industrialists who did some exploring in what is now Guinea and wanted to set himself up as an African king.

And he’s not just the hero in the narrow sense of being the central character; it is very much his story and he is presented as a sympathetic character.

It’s always interesting to have your expectations confounded, if only because it reveals what those expectations are. Because there’s nothing terribly radical about this novel. If it had been written by a white French novelist I wouldn’t have thought anything of it; Monénembo has lived in France for nearly 40 years; and yet I was in fact surprised.

That aside, this is an enjoyable if unexceptional literary novel. It is light and cheery in tone; the back cover claims that ‘Monénembo has created nothing short of a jovial Heart of Darkness‘, which is about as baffling a description as I’ve ever encountered. The book reads to me like a playful re-imagining of history, so I assumed it was only based lightly on the historical Sanderval. Apparently, though, Monénembo did a lot of research and had access to the Sanderval family archives, so there may be more history in it than I realised… perhaps if I’d realised that I would have enjoyed it more. Or maybe I’d rather have read a straight biography.

As an example the book being unexpectedly accurate, Google found me these pictures: the two sides of a real coin produced by the real Olivier de Sanderval to serve as currency for his kingdom of Kahel. The Arabic script reads ‘Sanderval’. Which is sort of amazing, actually.

The Sands of Oxus by Sadriddin Aini

The Sands of Oxus is my book from Tajikistan for the Read The World challenge. Which is a bit of a cheat, in fact. Aini’s Tajikistan credentials would seem to be impeccable: according to Wikipedia, he is ‘regarded as Tajikistan’s national poet’. He wrote the first Tajik novels and a Tajik dictionary. He was a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Tajik SSR, the president of the Writer’s Union of Tajikistan, and the president of the Tajikistan Academy of Sciences. However, rather annoyingly for my purposes, he didn’t actually live there. He was born, and spent his whole life, in what is now Uzbekistan. He was ethnically Tajik, but not geographically.

This seems rather typical of Central Asia; my book from Uzbekistan, The Railway, was written by someone who was actually born in Kyrgyzstan. The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is my book from Kyrgyzstan, but it’s set in Kazakhstan. I guess it’s partially because the Silk Road historically created a mixed, mobile population; and more recently because it was all part of the Soviet Union, and people moved from one SSR to another for all kinds of reasons, sometimes by choice and sometimes under duress.

If I come across a book which is a more perfect fit for Tajikistan, I might read that as well, I suppose. But The Sands of Oxus will do for now. It is the first volume of Aini’s autobiography; it covers his childhood in rural Uzbekistan — in what was then (1878-90) the Emirate of Bukhara. The book ends with him leaving to study at a madrasa at the age of twelve.

It’s a straightforward chronological autobiography told, at least in this translation, in fairly plain prose, but I found it very interesting; mainly for what you might call historical/ethnological reasons. It’s a vivid portrayal of life in a small village in Central Asia in the 1880s; the farming, the food, the customs. It’s occasionally a bit didactic — there are a few incidents which carry a suspiciously neat message — but not annoyingly so. The broadly political stuff, about venal magistrates, ignorant village mullahs, ruthless tax collectors and the arrogant aristocracy, might I suppose be influenced by his revolutionary politics as an adult and indeed the fact he was writing in Stalin’s USSR. Not that any of it is inherently implausible.

Reading it, it seems like an incredibly timeless world: the cycle of planting and harvest, Ramadan, a summer festival, circumcisions, marriages, funerals. There is no mention of any modern technology at all, not even the telegraph or the steam engine. It must have already seemed ancient by the time this book was written in 1949.

Here’s a fairly random sample:

Each year when the mulberries began to ripen, my father used to move us from Mahallayi Bolo to Soktaré. The year that the Shofirkom canal was choked with sand and Mahallayi Bolo was left without water, we moved to Soktaré early, even before the mulberries began to fruit.

In Soktaré my brother and Sayid-Akbar Khoka began to study with the village khatib, and I played in the many streams and canals with other boys my age. My father decided not to move back to Mahallayi Bolo that winter, since drinking water was scarce there and had to be drawn from a village well and carried to the house. Accordingly, he demolished our tumbledown living quarters and built a new house of mud brick, with a storeroom, a kitchen porch, a cattle stall and a barn for hay. Usto Khoja assisted him with the construction, and Ikrom Khoja and Muhyiddin helped as far as they could in mixing the mud; but despite his father’s pestering, Sayid-Akbar refused to help, claiming that he wanted to be a calligrapher and if he soiled his hands with mud and bricks they would be spoiled for the pen.

That year I and my playmates Haid Khoja, the nephew of Ibrohim Khoja, and the daughters of Usto Khoja, spent most of our spare time with Tūto-posho, who would tell us strange and wonderful tales. She knew by heart the stories of Rustam, Isfandiyar, Siyavush, and Abu Muslim, and would repeat them for us endlessly. We would each bring her bread, mulberry raisins, or some other delicacy to entice her to talk. She would lie back with pillows under her head and legs, and tell us stories.

Certainly worth a read.

» The images are two sides of a 5000 tenga note from Bukhara in 1920. So the period isn’t quite right, but I like the pictures, so why not. From the British Museum.

Qatari Voices

Qatari Voices is an anthology edited by two people — Carol Henderson and Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar — who organise a writing workshop at a Qatar university, supported by a grant from the US State Department. And the book is essentially a result of that project.

So it is not a book put together by someone who, seeing a vibrant natural growth of Qatari writing, was excited enough to organise an anthology. It is a collection of undergraduate essays written by students who are actually studying engineering, or law, or medicine, or whatever. And I guess there’s no reason why an engineering student shouldn’t have a glittering prose style and a penetrating social insight… but, as it turns out, these ones don’t.

To be fair, whatever the purpose of this book is — which isn’t clear to me — it’s not something they were expecting random people halfway round the world to buy and read for pleasure. It’s not really appropriate to judge it by fierce literary standards.

And it isn’t completely without interest; you do get some sense of the whiplash speed of change in Qatar over the past 60 years, from a poor desert country of fishermen and pearl divers, where girls were expected to get married at about 14, to a fabulously oil-rich nation where women can study to be doctors. But although those changes make Qatar and the other Gulf states one of the most fascinating parts of the world at the moment, these essays do not have the kind of insight necessary to go beyond the obvious.

But it serves as a book from Qatar for the Read The World challenge, so it meets my requirements at least.

» WCMC-Q is a photo of West Cornell Medical College in Qatar. © vobios and used under a CC-by licence.

Reading on my phone

Life of Pi by Yann Martel was a free download from Apple as part of a Christmas promotion, and as such it’s the first full-length novel I have read on my iPhone. I’m almost as interested in the reading experience as the book itself.

The major conclusion is that the experience is at least good enough. The high-resolution display of the iPhone 4 makes a difference, I think, not least because you can set the type size as small as your eyesight can stand without compromising the readability.

Perhaps it’s not as immersive as a book; I find I need quiet to read these days more than I used to, but it’s especially true with the iPhone, I think, that I need good reading conditions to concentrate. I noticed a slightly increased tendency to find myself skipping a bit, a slight tendency to anticipate the end of the ‘page’ and go ahead without fully processing the last few words. It may be that I do that anyway, but that it’s more obvious when the pages are shorter. I think a bigger screen would be better as a reading experience, but it’s a great advantage not having to carry an extra device; the phone is ideal for snatching a few minutes of reading during the day.

As for the novel itself: I enjoyed it, but I can see why some people find it quite annoying. It is very high-concept and I don’t know that its cleverness manages to avoid being glib.

Black Swan

I have been looking forward to seeing Black Swan for months; I don’t think I’ve ever been so certain I wanted to see something based solely on the trailer. If I’m sure I want to see a film, I try not to read any reviews beforehand, and it was getting difficult to avoid encountering people’s reactions, so I went to see it yesterday.

I think it might be the campest movie ever made. It’s not just the themes — it’s a film about ballet, and mummy issues, and suffering for your art, and the grubby reality behind the glamorous surface, and jealousy and fear of ageing — it’s the fact that it is a trashy melodrama acted and filmed as though it was the Most Serious Thing In The World. It is played absolutely straight, as high drama; I don’t think there’s a single joke in the whole film. Natalie Portman acts the central role with a high-strung intensity that actors normally reserve for films about genocide. It’s a great performance.

I assume that everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing, but because there is never a knowing wink to the audience, the bizarre possibility is just about left open that they really meant it. That they really thought they were making a serious, penetrating psychological drama.

Either way, it is completely bonkers. In the end, as it reached a feverish climax, it didn’t quite take me with it, it didn’t quite pull it off, but I still enjoyed it. It was the perfect antidote to The King’s Speech.

The Running Man by Gilbert Tuhabonye

I bought The Running Man* as my book from Burundi for the Read The World challenge. I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to reading it, though, because the blurb on the cover — How the voice in my heart helped me survive genocide and realise my Olympic dream — just sounds a bit TV movie of the week. Clearly there’s an interesting story there, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that it will be a well-told story.

I’ve read enough boring sporting autobiographies that I approach the genre with scepticism. Admittedly, it should be pretty hard to make genocide boring, but then you might think the same about playing in the World Cup, and plenty of footballers have managed that.

But I was pleasantly surprised. It is interesting and engagingly written (with the help of ghost writer Gary Brozek); and not just the more dramatic stuff, but about growing up in rural Burundi. It’s not a literary masterpiece, and I don’t think it offers any startling insights into either genocide or elite middle-distance running, but it’s a good story simply and well told.

The blurb is slightly misleading, in that Tuhabonye never actually competed in the Olympics, although he came attended an Olympic development training camp in Atlanta prior to the 1996 games and came very close to qualifying. On the other hand, if the Olympic part is slightly overplayed, the genocide bit is even more remarkable than you might imagine; he was the only survivor of a particularly brutal massacre and the details of his experience are just staggering.

* US title: This Voice in My Heart: A Runner’s Memoir of Genocide, Faith, and Forgiveness. I assume it’s the same book otherwise despite the different emphasis, although I suppose they may have toned down the religious content for the UK edition.

» The photo of Gilbert Tuhabonye meeting Chuck Norris is from his own website. Because, well, why not.