Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: May 2011

The failure of self-image

We all parade around with a picture inside our heads of how we think we look. It’s amusing to sit people-watching, and mind-read by decoding appearances, working backwards from the less impressive reality of the optimistic haircut and the too-young clothes. Amusing, that is, until you catch sight of yourself in the mirror …

The failure of self-image. We slip seamlessly from lamb to mutton, from Promethean to Quixotic, from the aspirational to the absurd.

On the other hand, it takes balls to wear skinny leggings, six inch heels and a plastic flower in your hair when you’re well over seventy, like the lady who has just walked into the supermarket café as I write. Respect, madam! Failures of self-image, we salute you! The absurd is always absurd, but it can take on a heroic dignity. At least we’re trying, even if our efforts fall short, as we know in our hearts that they will.

The gap between aspiration and absurdity: this is the space in which we all live.

(from 101 Unrealised Projects, a work possibly in progress)

Advertisements

The Expertiser Speaks

We enter the study by an oak door, solid with quality, fitted in brass, and lined by a heavy crimson velvet
curtain. The lighting is low but warm, giving the discreet suggestion of candlelight. The walls are mostly in shadow,
but a desk lamp casts a central pool of reflected yellow, streaked with smoke. The overall impression is of good
furniture polished to a rich patina, dark curtains, modest watercolours or engravings of traditional subjects but of
indisputable quality, heavy rugs on dark parquet, walls lined with leather-spined books, and a great deal of oak
panelling.

As we move hesitantly towards the softly lit desk, the seated figure of the Expertiser leans forward out of the
shadow and looks up to greet us with a slight but knowing smile. With an economical gesture of his right hand,
surprisingly heavy with rings, he proffers a chair, and we sit to face him across the desk. With a well manicured left
hand he lowers his briar pipe, setting it down gently into a hefty marble ashtray as a sign of deference. Of
indeterminate but patrician late middle age, his greyed hair is brushed neatly back, and shrewd but cruel eyes
look out over tortoiseshell rims. A modest russet-flecked tie is worn with a good but soft shirt (perhaps Austin
Reed), which, together with the Barbour cardigan, signal that he is at leisure. He might pass for a retired
politician, a senior civil servant, or the chairman of some established corporate concern, and indeed in his
other life he may be any or all of these. But here in the warm, chocolatey seclusion of the study, the proper
pursuit is philately, and other things are not spoken of.

Besides the lamp, ashtray and pipe, the broad desk top bears an array of items in more or less orderly confusion,
comprising a wallet of dark tobacco with a Bond Street imprint; a number of brass-rimmed magnifying glasses of
various strengths; philatelic handbooks, reference volumes and ancient auction catalogues, open awkwardly at
pertinent pages; a spiral-bound notebook; a little boxy gizmo that we recognise as an electric watermark detector;
three pairs of well sprung silver tweezers with spade or rounded ends; an antique Parker fountain pen; scattered
envelopes and transparent wallets; a well-thumbed “Instanta” perforation gauge; a Thirkell Position Finder (a
square slip of transparent plastic printed with a grid, half enclosed in its printed brown card case); an expensive
ultra violet light box, and a small paper bag containing a few mint imperials.

For the moment, the Expertiser says nothing. It would not be at all proper for him to voice his deepest thoughts,
but in any case, as we sit in silence to meet the scrutiny of his expert gaze, we know that we can
understand without the need for conversation. We can read it all in his eyes.

We understand that his signature on a committee’s certificate of genuineness can add tens of thousands to the
value of a disputed scrap of paper. Alternatively, we know that with a stroke of his pen he can eliminate the
equivalent of a small man’s lifetime savings, and not infrequently does. It is true that the Expertiser’s immediate
concern is with money, but it would be unworthy of us to assume that this is the limit of his interest. At heart
his concern is with that for which money is merely leverage – namely, power. But not personal power, for the
expertiser is driven by duty, and the power he is able to exert is entirely at the service of his paramount principle,
which is Order.

And what is that Order?

Any tuppeny-ha’penny stamp collector who strays beyond the tidy taxonomies of his familiar catalogue pages
inevitably finds himself staring into the formless void of swirling phenomena that is philatelic reality. Confronted by
this chaotic flux of paper scraps that defy proper pattern and category, of postmarks that aren’t what the book
says they are, of things-that-don’t-quite-fit and things-that-shouldn’t-be, he knows that he is peering into the pit
of hell, and that this is his punishment for the pigmy arrogance that led him to consider, in an unguarded moment,
that he might like to conduct a little “original research” of his own.

At this moment the tuppeny-ha’penny stamp collector passes painfully from innocence into experience, and
becomes – a philatelist. But if it is the function of the philatelist to create order from the chaos that he uncovers,
he is no different in that respect to all those who, in their own various ways, regulate their own various corners
of the Great Chaos with their own various theories, ideologies or scientific models. And among the fraternity of
philatelists, the Expertiser is simply the final arbiter. The Expertiser believes sincerely that because there is no God,
it is necessary to act for Him.

However, the methods of scientific enquiry that he employs can prove ambiguous, and it is therefore his axiom
that their results must never be allowed to damage the coherence of the current totality of philatelic
knowledge, which may be enlarged, reordered or otherwise modified, but must never be put in a position of
self-contradiction. So it is the Expertiser’s role to consider judiciously which particular slivers of an uncooperative
reality should be permitted to re-shape the whole. And it follows that on certain occasions, he is obliged, for
reasons of ethics, to leave a particular boat unrocked. There exists, for example, a “forgery”, declared as such by
the Expertiser’s considered signature, that, unknown to its disappointed owner, could have halved the market
price of its “unique” and undoubtedly genuine counterpart, creating a chain-effect of disturbance, had not the
Expertiser, with moral heroism, set aside his initial verdict in favour of the greater good. All quite different to
the simple notions of his work entertained by ignorant layfolk. But we may forgive the layfolk their ignorance,
for the Expertiser’s judgements are always made invisibly, in the oaken privacy of this study. He is, absolutely,
a wheel within wheels.

In everything his conscience is entirely clear. And, in this regard also, he might pass for a senior statesman, a
Whitehall mandarin, an organised crime boss or a captain of industry.

All this is understood between us in the space, at most, of a few seconds, in a pause between gestures. At last,
the Expertiser settles back, with a faintly audible scrunch of leather upholstery, poises his fingertips artfully but
without effort in a neat steeple just below his chin, raises his gaze a little above our eye level, as if in fond recall,
and starts to speak:

“Of course, I’m flattered by your interest. But you know, if truth be told, the actual details of my work are
technical 
and tedious to an extreme, and I doubt that they would be of interest to any save a minority of fellow
fanatics, those 
of us who spend our spare time embroidering our anoraks, so to speak …”

He chuckles. We join in, politely.

“But I imagine that you are primarily concerned with what they call ‘the human angle’, and on reflection I suppose
that a good many cases worthy of examination in this respect have come to my knowledge over the years,
though in 
some of them my personal involvement has been considerably, ah um, oblique. But I shall be more than
happy to
share them with you.

Where shall we begin?”


From Perforations. Tales from the dark side of philately, a never-to-be-finished novel.

Perforations is a portmanteau novel, a collection of intertwined short stories.
It is about: addiction, death, karma, metaphysical dread, redemption, Third World development, revolution, forgery and stamps.”

second hand danger

photos taken in Wolverhampton in 2001

rescuing Lawrence Atkinson

Lawrence Atkinson is one of the forgotten Vorticists. In particular, his sculptures should be rescued from an undeserved neglect. Some time ago I started a study of the painter Merlyn Evans (1910-73), with a view to showing the extent of his debt to Wyndham Lewis. In the process, I found that the young Evans had been particularly motivated by his encounter with Atkinson’s sculpture, extending the thread of Vorticist influence to the mid-twentieth century. Consideration of Atkinson in this context grew into a piece in its own right, which I have posted on a page here: “Lawrence Atkinson – Vorticist after Vorticism”. Find the tab above or click here.

There’s a box of stuff on Atkinson in the Tate Britain archives, which I have yet to trawl through. Meanwhile, this will have to do.

Roundabout safari

Roundabouts. Small but perfect islands, still jewels set in hostile, rushing rivers of metal and tarmac noise. Islands of silence, uninhabited, unvisited. How often, as you have swept off at the second exit, cursing the poor lane management of the driver in front, while catching momentary, parting glimpses of your sidewards fellow voyagers, each, like yourself, tight lipped and frozen darkly behind glass – how often have you not longed to explore, at your leisure, the strange topography of that grassy Eden, planted with two silver birches, a few shrubs like tired mounds of pubic hair, and a small placard sponsored by a local haulier – a topography of which you have been aware, as of an unsatisfactory vision in a dream, only from the corner of your eye?

Cease your motion, says the vision. Stop a while. Visit me. Find refuge here.

But there are no visitors. These are deserted islands. Cousins, in fact, to the desert islands in that peculiar genre of single column, quick gag cartoons, now probably encountered only in the cartoon museum, that are set on gentle, circular mounds with a single palm tree, against the horizon of a sea that is featureless, save for the occasional circling shark fin. But cartoon islands sustain, miraculously, two or three shipwrecked characters. (Seated woman glowering at edge of island, her back to standing man who leans casually against the palm tree as he addresses second woman: “My wife thinks I’m having an affair.”) So where are the Robinson Crusoes of our roundabouts, the astronauts who will land upon these inverted craters? Where are the actors to create situations in these open air theatres in the round, these amphitheatres of turf?

Their absence has been noted. The official mind has considered the emptiness of these spaces and has logged it as a source of social anxiety. And it has offered an improving solution: roundabout sculpture. As a genre, this has been properly neglected by the critics. It is produced, like much civic outdoor art, by artists you have never heard of, usually references some local industrial heritage in which the community is to be encouraged to take pride now that it is long and entirely gone, and is often financed by a distant European Union fund. As art pops up across the panoramas of the planning departments, our roundabouts now sprout industrial abstractions, spangled Pegasi, or rusting piles of steel that resemble abandoned rockets. Most of this is regrettable. None of it begins to compensate for the human absence.

For three decades until his death from pneumonia in 2007 at the age of 86, Josef Stawinoga, generally known as “Fred the Ring Road Tramp”, lived under canvas on a stretch of the grassy central reservation of the Wolverhampton ring road, where he busied himself each day sweeping up the leaves into neat piles under the overlooking trees. There are some interesting aspects to his story, not least his veneration as a holy man by the local Hindu and Sikh communities, and the urban legends that attached to him – had he been a guard in Hitler’s SS? Did he really have a huge stash of untouched pension money? And so on. But the essential point here is that Fred had colonised, if not a roundabout, at least a sizeable piece of virgin urban no man’s land, untrodden by any human boot since that of the engineers and landscapers who laid it out, and had claimed it as his habitation.

That this was setting a dangerous precedent was recognised shortly after Fred’s funeral by District Judge Shamim Quereshi, in imposing an exclusion order on Christopher Phillips, aged 26, who had been living in a tent on another section of the ring road with his partner whom he had assaulted while drunk and disorderly. Judge Quereshi defined the limit of the exclusion order as the outer edge of the road. “This is not going to be a tented ring road for people who have nowhere else to live,” he declared. “Only one tramp was allowed to do that, and he is now dead.” He added helpfully: “This will effectively make you homeless but you are homeless anyway.”

But these are only the pioneers, the first to hear the call of the last wild places on earth. Our roundabouts demand their explorers, their settlers, their dramatis personae. Had I the time, energy and sponsorship (which I have not), I would take steps immediately to organise a well equipped and substantial expedition, that would traverse England by foot from Newquay to Norfolk, planting its tents on each roundabout within its route. Photos would evidence these small triumphs, an enormously popular blog would record the team’s progress, and documentary rights would be sold to Channel Four.

So be brave, my imaginary crew, and take back the roundabouts of Albion! Carve your pathway through the mosaic of KFC wrappers and cracked plastic wheel trim, the flotsam and jetsam of a tired civilisation that decorate the outer shores of the chosen ground that will host your tents. Ascend the gentle but significant dome of turf that marks this as a real place, a locus that requires your genius – your mound, your castle, your keep, your finders keepers. Brush apart the corporate daffodils and plant firmly at their centre the flag of your new republic. The world will applaud.

(from 101 Unrealised Projects, a work still in progress)

upstand inside me

And one about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Upstand inside me

Upstand inside me, most insidious ghost;
conform to the axis of my spine.
Unfold those features that are fully yours
and mould them mine.

Fasten your face behind my hollowed eyes
and over a while inform my flesh,
so that our likenesses be all the more
and none the less.

Into my walk accommodate your step,
and hold to your bone my alien glove;
be overly familiar to me,
but under love.

So we are molten, met in a mirrored gazing,
life of my being, end of my death.
Into my brain your seeings, out of my mouthing
jumps your breath.

Only for sake of the splicing we had been splintered,
purely for holiest meeting born.
In two, for mysterious purposes of collage,
we were torn.

Erase my errors; reconstruct my judgements.
So may we know for what things are.
Let charity, in me, now penetrate all things,
near and far.

copyright 2011 Richard Warren

break another biro

Talking of which, here’s a poem about how it feels (sometimes) to try to write a poem.

Break another biro

Into the dread of your disordered table
bend your head, and weep for what you heard.
Stretch your bones until the skin is paper.
Pull out your penknife; cut the wretched word.

Horror of the vacuum makes enemies of pages.
All across the table top the stutterings spread.
Chicken scratch letterings scrabble for attention.
The length of your forearm the tracks run red.

Outside your window indifference is waiting.
Under the doorframe sits nothing much.
Lines in the half light are tumbling into paragraphs.
Break another biro, and scribble up your guts.

copyright 2011 Richard Warren

a history of my short life as a poet (so far)

No one who stumbles across this post is likely to be interested (feel free to skip on), but for me it seems a good time to take stock of my career as a fledgling poet so far. It’s been an odd combination of exhilaration and frustration.

Three and a half years ago I went to the launch of Black Country poet Brendan Hawthorne‘s collection Slide, and was ambushed vigorously by the Muse on the way out. A few months later, having served a brief apprenticeship at monthly readings of Poetry Wednesbury – thank you, Brendan – I started to self-publish pamphlet collections of my work, which Wolverhampton Literature Development Officer Simon Fletcher advised me was a premature step. It turned out that his judgement (at least in this instance) was spot on. These pamphlets have a few decent bits, but they also contain much that I no longer care for. (Actually the drawings are pretty good, though I say it myself.) Even so, Dead Cat Bounce made number 15 in Geoff StevensPurple Patch 2009 Best Individual Collections of the Year, and Science & Magic made 20th equal in the same list. Blimey. Thank you, Geoff. Also, you’re still the only small mag editor who will publish me. So far, I’ve sold one copy of one of these pamphlets, and given away half a dozen more. Email me at rwarren99@yahoo.com, anyone, and I’ll post you one of each for free. There’s a box of them attracting dust in the corner.

Simon Fletcher gave me, very decently, some other pieces of advice as we mulled over a civilised coffee one day in the City Bar in Wolverhampton, happily chattering about Eliot, Auden and George Barker. (Though he didn’t seem to like Barker very much.) He advised me to punctuate my verse properly. (Have done.) He advised me to avoid the topic of religion. (Haven’t done.) He advised me to read Simon Armitage. (Have done, but I still don’t like most of it.) He advised me that my poems were not yet fit for the ears of his elderly audience at City Voices, though I pointed out that at least I was in the right age range myself. We shook hands, and I left.

Still undeveloped but not entirely discouraged, I found my way to Tony Stringfellow‘s monthly Wolverhampton open mic, then at the Lighthouse, but now moved to the Britannia Hotel. Simon had advised me that open mic’s were liable to turn into “car crashes”. He’d seen too many of those, he had added, reaching for the smelling salts. It seemed to me that a car crash or two might at least provide some excitement. And so they did. Thank you, Tony. You have unselfishly provided a welcome and welcoming venue for many of us with nowhere else to read. Ditto Richard Bruce Clay‘s splendid monthly do at the Holly Bush, Cradley Heath. Tony even gave me a slot on his poetry radio show at Wolverhampton Community Radio. That was before the show came off the air for a while, of course; shame – I kind of miss Wordy Worm and Bobby Binder …

Meanwhile I found that I had achieved third prize in the revived Jack Clemo Poetry Competition for 2009, held by the Arts Centre Group, London. That’s me, at the bottom of the link, receiving a certificate from a retired bishop. I was pleased about this, as Clemo was a blistering poet, whose uncompromising Calvinist mysticism I much admire:

“The Christian nightmare holds me darling
Creatively, as I hold you.”

Whoa! Not bad for one who was deaf and blind for most of his adult life!

After the presentation, a very nice elderly man in some official position whose name I have since forgotten sat me down and offered some advice on my writing. He advised me to establish the metre firmly in the first line. (My first line was “I am my beloved’s. My beloved he is mine.” Privately, I felt that the metre was already pretty firm there. To the point of being lead-lined, actually. But never mind.) He also advised me against the use of half rhymes, which he considered did not belong in true poetry. (That would disqualify most of the big names, then.) I thanked him graciously. We didn’t shake hands.

More recently I tried my first slam, at the faintly prestigious Much Wenlock Poetry Festival 2011, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself among the four semi-finalists. Me and the excellent Dotty Bluebell were beaten only by Theo and by Emma Purshouse, the eventual winner. Gggrrrr. How many slam trophies do you need, Emma?

It’s been an uphill curve. Still is. Seems to me that it’s disproportionately hard to get your voice heard in all the competitive clamour. At the height of Eliot’s Criterion, its circulation was something in the hundreds. Today there are tens of thousands of us out here, all scribbling, all shouting, all stamping our feet, all demanding publication.

Some aspects of this seem odd. For instance, why has “performance poetry” lately veered off into a self-contained genre that is somewhere between stand-up and traditional “light verse”, with laughter the only desired audience reaction?  And what’s all this celebrity based performance stuff about, mentioning no names? I really don’t get that … Don’t you people have anything better to write about?

A number of friendly advisors have suggested that I may not yet have “found my voice”. But have reassured me that I will. I think I have. But then, I thought that before, and I hadn’t.

And anyway, what triggers this compulsion to write? Whatever it is, it may require treatment. I do know that in the last three years writing has almost obliterated my ability to draw or paint. It seems that I can’t fire up both brain hemispheres at the same time. What’s going on?

Soddit.

“I must tackle my dreadful table
And go on the hide and seeking hill.”

(W S Graham)

to Kieran Warren Hay, on the day of his birth, 7 May 2011

Clutch at the air, you tiny exile.
You show more dexterity than need.
Your extras make you special. Grab the life you’ve come to get to know,
but don’t be slow; God give you speed.

In relation to your mum and dad, you’re in between.
You have your mother’s features, father’s face.
From worlds apart you take the best of both, so by all means be average,
but don’t be mean; God give you grace.

Sudden angel, space invader, proper person, embryonic little man,
you’re fresh from the future, hand-me-down from heavens above.
Though things feel soft, life may look rough, and you’ll need all the luck you can,
but don’t be glum; we give you love.

copyright 2011 Richard Warren

Slackerdom

The school at which I work boasts a Student News Broadcast (SNB) group. Its remit is to put together some little news films, or, failing that, at least to produce the occasional newsletter. It has been running for almost two years, and so far has managed neither. The sixth formers in charge admit that they have “underestimated” the time and skill needed to translate their great ideas –which have been legion – into any kind of outcome. This hasn’t prevented them from entering their SNB responsibilities prominently in their CV’s for Uni application.

I blame Thinking Skills. De Bono (that’s Edward, not U2) and his coloured thinking hats, that sort of stuff. Our school promoted it for a while. Kids were given the impression that all they needed to do to succeed in life was fill in a bubble map with great ideas. After a year or two, our enthusiasm for thinking skills dwindled, and the initiative, like so many others, was long forgotten before it ever amounted to much. (Or, in education-speak, it was “embedded in the curriculum”.) But in the process, the kids all turned slackers. I set a treasure hunt for my form one summer when they were bored. Some were non-plussed by the notion that you had to go somewhere physically to look for the answers. They felt they should be able to do it by sitting in the classroom and staring at the clues on the paper.

The Boy Blagger, his smart new MacBook under one arm (though he has nothing worthwhile to show on it), is the heroic type of the slacker culture. In a world of spectacle where all that was once directly lived has receded into representation, he knows that appearances count for everything, and that his own are probably in his favour. Educators and government have told him that he can become anything he wants to be, provided he believes in himself sufficiently. He has no use for results. He has ideas.

(from 101 Unrealised Projects, a work in progress)