Walking Towards Vermeer

Even the marble was warm to the touch. As I struggled up two long flights of pure marble, white steps without blemish, I thought of poor  Cardinal O’Fiaich, come to plead for the hunger strikers, struggling up a similar flight of stairs, as Margaret Thatcher stood at the top, looking down, waiting, watching him struggle but never forfeiting her prestige to come down to the landing and meet him halfway. Marble stairs have that effect on some people.

The Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna ? What was I doing there in this heat?

Looking for Jan Vermeer’s The Studio, after years of reproductions.

But there were obstacles, other paintings hung on the way there. Primarily Wolf Huber (1485 -1553) Erlosungsallegorie, (after 1543,)  or The Allegory of Salvation.

It was everything at once. Right there was the same grey snake that swished past the window here last month (a hot day in Suffolk)  at the left, hung over its own wooden cross. No trace of the Good or Bad thieves; not essential for this story. The donor of the painting, a Prince Bishop no less, Wolfgang Graf von Salm, was  ‘depicted kneeling in the foreground as patron.’ He took up nearly a quarter of the painting and anyone from De Valera’s Ireland would have felt the psychological truth here; priests were more important than the religion they were supposed to be about, or propping up.

However, the really shocking thing, once you had got over that, was the loin-cloth wound round Christ’s nether regions. Usually just a bind of white cloth, this one furled across the painting like sheets hung in a gale. It fluttered and spun, there was almost an entire white cherub flying away from him, like sperm taking shape, a white baby without any need of a female.

The baby’s head, foremost, and its hands, hovered over a castle, where, at the entrance, St Peter was busy healing a lame man. Moses was somewhere, apostles were somewhere. No Mother Mary or Magdalene girlfriend; no puzzled young St John. Only the Prince Bishop and an almost dancing Christ, his ballooning banner, and the gigantic priest, kneeling, looking right at you, dressed in virgin white. God the Father, already an old man in 1543, sat in the sky on a glass world globe, a film director absolute, a TV symbol , a logo so far unused.

The religious rooms filled with writhing bodies, fig leaves falling diplomatically on men and sudden chiffon wisps around the women’s groins. Only cherubs were allowed to have real penises and even they were rationed out, with most of the babes left in strange contortions to solve the modesty problem.

A wonderful sado-masochistic portrait, by Peter Paul Rubens, The Lamentation of Christ, of Mary and St John mourning the dead Christ showed a delectably-torsoed Christ, bruised face, eyes akimbo, lusciously lying in their arms. The young John, loyal as ever, looked embarrassed, a puzzled and sad teenager. Mary, however hard she tried to be like a distraught mother looked, instead, that she could have been John’s girlfriend, as she was apparently  younger than her own son.

I had forgotten that special tint of green that is used wherever any part of skin needs moulding towards the shadows. It was everywhere; it was the only proper way out of hot flesh tints; it was Terre Verte.

It was a relief to enter a room of landscapes for a rest, with skies, sailing-boats and trees. Nearby, the still lifes were still eatable after several centuries, the zing of lemon-peel still gave out its acid spurt. the silver also had not tarnished nor the blue and white china or the glass been cracked or broken. Here was Abraham van Beyeren 1620-1696 inviting you to lunch. The raised-crust pie (blackberry? surely not?) had a good slice cut, making your mouth water. Accompanied by white wine or cider; a good midday break for any painter or patron. As these was food not flowers, the usual Dutch ladybird was not present.

And there was Vermeer, as always. And, like INXS, you were there.

After all the centuries, the studio was still quiet, he was still painting, the girl was still not quite sure if she had the right pose. Other things showed up better here – the sharp line of the curtain at the left, its cascade of dark colours. Most of all what came through was the painter’s intent, his concentration. He is just at the beginning of the portrait, the euphoric part, where nothing has gone wrong yet. His dynamic black outfit, black velvet beret and the straggling spaghetti blacks streaming down his back were like sharp stabs of music, breaking (or expressing?) that tension. Filling in all his back with black would have deadened it all into one gigantic silhouette, plonk, black.

People drifted, strode up to it and took photos. If, as native Indians and other sensible tribes believed, in taking someone’s photograph you stole part of their soul, then somehow Jan Vermeer’s soul kept giving and giving and giving. I had come here especially to see him. Love would not be the right word ; it was more specific than that. His black and white floor-tiles zoomed out at us, saying ‘ binnenkomen’ and though even a friend had the same black and white lino tiles in her kitchen, it was not the same. This perspective was perfect, magical.

We could never get in. He would never turn round and the girl would never shift from one foot to the other. The prancing gold chandelier would never be lit. But I was here, eyes filled with tears.

After that the walls of worthy burghers and their apple-cheeked wives, the writhing fleshy allegories, obsessive compulsive disorder flower-paintings and the straitened religious tracts said very little. For all their stated energy, they were more concerned with the onlooker, the patron. There was only Rembrandt to counterbalance him, with his strange mixture of arrogance and humility. Siennas and umbers, the low warmths.

But the space Vermeer gave us stretched further, even as far as into these words written with a Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien pencil, Sunday 21st July 2014.





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Utrillo and the Riots

Utrillo and the Riots

(Maurice Utrillo, 1883 –1955)

Rich ghettoes are patrolled or gated, with electric coded pads, ironwork that can be seen through but not entered. Poor areas cannot afford gates; their barriers are invisible psychological ones. Keep out or we will stare at you, follow and probably mug you. Don’t pretend to be walking down these streets on the way to do anything. These streets belong to us.
The paintings of Maurice Utrillo are, for the most part, of empty Paris streets. There are few passers-by. No churchgoers for the Petite Communiante ( also known as Église de Torcy-en-Valois 1912), the Église des Blancs-Manteaux 1911, the Église de Clichy 1911, the Ėglise de Châtillon-sur-Seine and even the towering Église Saint Pierre et le Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre 1918 – these are all set in deserted streets, without parishoners.
The snow-bound Notre Dame de Clignancourt has one solitary wanderer outside the railings; the other few people are all going off into the distance. This is another constant in his paintings – the few people who do feature are usually going away from the spectator. This leaves the picture free to be entered by any viewer. I have read analyses of this aspect which thought that this symbolised his mother walking away from him; hardly likely, as he and his mother were still sharing a studio with André Utter in Rue Cortot until Utrillo’s marriage to Lucie Pauwels in 1935.
Maurice Utrillo was encouraged to paint by his artist-mother, Suzanne Valadon. He was a drunkard at the age of thirteen and was admitted to the Asylum of St Anne for alcoholism when he was under twenty years old. By his first year on Montmartre, in 1901, he did about 150 canvases. There are over two thousand paintings by him, almost all of Paris streets.
So there we have it- the artist sitting, painting in the city streets, annoyed by youngsters but otherwise left to his day’s painting.
These days the equivalent would be a photographer, snatching records of the protesters in a crowded city centre. The ghost of Utrillo lingers over any Parisian demonstration or riot; as the mayhem and destruction and casualties mount up, the walls and streets can still remind us of his paintings. But now they can be full of burning tyres and thrown fireworks, with crowds of disaffected youngsters facing off an increasingly militarised police.
The white-plastered walls, churches and deserted streets are from another era, like a dream.

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John Keats Investigated

A Poet in Love by Peter Davey, Arthur Stockwell Ltd, ISBN 978-0-7223-3957-2 £9.99
Books written by enthusiasts can bring fresh ides to a hackneyed subject. So, next after Jane Austen in that hierarchy, comes John Keats. They are both examples of fractured love and its influence on their writings.
For years Peter Davey has mined the details of Keats’ life, going over the physical terrain as well as the paper archives. The book is illustrated by paintings by Mari Davey of Hampstead and Piazza di Spagna and other places that feature in the life-story.
Detail after detail is hunted down – there is a list of events from 1795 (John Keats’ birth) to 1822 and the drowning of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Italy. The information is so complete that it would be useful for anyone wanting to have some research already neatly packaged and transformed into an entertaining read. The information is presented in a different way from an academic paper, which often has a particular agenda to follow, including rivalry with other academics and institutions.
In “A Poet in Love” the story is presented clearly and with telling focus. There are always unexpected gems in the work of enthusiasts like this..
While most people know the trajectory of John Keats’ destiny, this book takes us deeper into the personal life with the correspondence between John and Fanny Brawne. It also manages to re-establish the good name of Fanny Brawne – too often easily depicted as a fickle hussy who let him down, leading to his quick downfall and that fateful trip to Italy.
An early photograph (ambrotype) from Keats House Museum shows a dark, Spanish-looking young woman, with a strong frame, totally unlike the usual delicate nineteenth century maiden. The letters between John and Fanny show that she had a gifted turn of phrase and her writing complements his own. It is a compliment to the educational standards at the time that her letters sow a precise and fluent use of words.
Given future years together, the combination of Fanny and John would have been an enrichment of John Keats’ poetry output.
As well as Fanny Brawne, other people are brought out of the shadows and given a definite shape. This, too, is the result of careful research.
The poems (27 are mentioned here) remain as the structure of that relationship too. Other poems depict the natural setting of Hampstead at the time as they wove their daily life around the lane that now bears his name.
This is a book that both academics and the general reader will find valuable, as it approaches the life of John Keats in a fresh manner with a carefully selected range of illustrations.

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The Latest …Snippets and Excuses

1 What am I working on?

Well, apart from painting for the next exhibition, there is an accumulation (it can’t be called anything else) of a memoirish-novel which is at present a pile of papers that keeps slithering to the floor. All extremely valuable stuff, you realise; straw that is waiting to be spun into gold, or at least fed through the computer.

2 How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Because I come at things from a painter’s stance, although that is enlivened by my mother’s lively Liverpool-Irish voice, her humour and love of talking in its own right. I also like breaking rules, like the current embargo on adverbs, (sadly, annoyingly.) I also can’t stand The Hero’s Quest format and would like him to stay at home instead.

3 Why do I write what I do?

Because no one else will do it like this and it will lay neglected otherwise. Plus, it begins like an itch and I have to attend to it now and again. Ignoring the impulse is no use -it does not go away. Paper and biro is the only cure.

4  How does your writing process work?

There is no ‘process.’ It goes by the phases of the moon , or some other unknown timetable. Weeks without and then all day and biro under the pillow – and then an exhausted stop. I am not one for the formal 1,000 words a day grind. You can feel those parts of a novel where the writer has just gritted their teeth and soldiered on, to fulfil their allotted daily stint. They reach 300 + pages of unneeded words. It shows in poems where the lines are slack, just to fill the page, but have no oomph.

The process mimics pregnancy, the itch, the nausea, the quickening, the ballooning, the removal of interest in everything else, the strain, the release and then the  surprised looking at the ‘how did I do that?’ result. And then,  showing  it, book or baby, to the world!


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Jane Austen, the perennial puzzle.

Love & Loyalty by Jay Margrave,
Goldenford Publishers, ISBN 978-0-9559415-4-2
Price £7.99
Jane Austen is the patron saint of unrequited love. In the new book ‘Love and Loyalty’, Jay Margrave assembles a believable account, piecing together a possible love-affair which was used as the well-spring of the six completed novels.
In 1799 in the midst of England’s war with Napoleonic France, a young Jane Austen becomes involved with an injured French sea-captain, Tomas Priedeux. Her sea-going brother Frank has smuggled the injured man back to the house at Steventon. The story picks up energy as we are flung into the crisis of the war at sea and on land.
Taken behind the scenes at Steventon (“She was never sure how much the servants knew”) and privy to Jane’s thoughts -for once- this is history livened up with impeccable research. Snippets from the era are dropped in niftily. ‘A family tradition was recorded…. that on one of the summer holidays a mutual attraction had arisen between Jane and some unnamed gentleman who was visiting the sea coast, but that he had died suddenly before
he could return to become an accepted suitor.’ ( Jane Austen,The World of Her Novels, Deirdre Le Faye p29.)
Observing the complex minuet of early nineteenth century relations between middle-class men and women, Tomas manages to deliver a proposal by page 61. Jane, on the other hand is already weighing up marriage and the problem of moving to live in France by page 47.
But from there on, Tomas and Jane are star-crossed lovers. However, this is not another claustrophobic drawing room-enclosed novel; there are vivid filmic scenes of shipwrecks and the tragic results of warfare. This is the men’s world that Jane knew from letters and newspaper accounts, as well as her own family’s involvement. Her favourite brother,Frank, also a captain, had left home to join the navy at the age of 12. Other men, however, were press-ganged into going to sea.
Sometimes a character has a great load of exposition to do as Mrs Austen, for instance, in: ‘Nor did I, descended from aristocracy as I am, expect to be assisting the housemaids.’ The romantic figure of Eliza de Feuillide, Jane’s cousin, swirls into the drama and threatens to run away with the entire plot, but her background intrigue smooths over some of the social difficulties.
Of course, this being the ‘life’ of Jane Austen and not the novel, Tomas dies at sea as the English raid his ship. Her mourning becomes the foundation of the written heroes she constructed – ‘they would propose and the couple would live happily ever after.’ This is the inner world that Jane Austen distilled in her works – ‘I believe she sits in the folly at the bottom of the garden, secretly writing. Although of course we all know she does it, but we pretend we don’t,’p57
‘Love and Loyalty’ gives anyone hungering for more the excuse to enter that world again and wander round, opening doors and watching people arrive, adding more complications.

(Taken from an October review in Link, the National Association of Writing Groups’ magazine)

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Reviews Ahoy!

I thought it was time that the books that pass through the house should have their own reviews; here is the first selection.


Love Song        Kathleen O’ Driscoll    Marram Press

Writers of poetry, especially those who go in for the new purple-prose hybrid, expect the reader to impose some form or order on the deluge of misplaced words. The reader as winnower and thresher, on duty, working away to find some sense; or even better, some mystical uplift –but it’s hard work scavenging amongst the dross.

In contrast, Kathleen  O’Driscoll’s poems are narrow and look sparse indeed, but this is because the writer has distilled them down, refining, sorting, changing and placing each word with precision. (I’ve used the analogy of a jeweller before, but it bears repetition here.) No changes are necessary, there are no doubts, this is as fine and infinitesimal as meaning can get. No subterfuge and no laziness. In these narrow lines there is more than other poems that rattle on with bombast.

The writer as witness and recorder, trying to be as pure and impartial as possible; it is almost as though there is no one here, just a pane of glass and the clear air between you and the experience presented. The writer has crept away, almost untraceable, leaving these signs like marks on Ogham stones.

And here is a far better review, from Diodorus in the first century B.C. on the Celts-

“In conversation they use few words and speak in riddles, for the most part hinting at things and leaving a great deal to be understood”

In Between Angels and Animals    Emily Cullen

Arlen House

This second collection marks a change, as “Cocoon” points out,               “fledgling wings

jostling with hardening time.”

The subject matter has widened to include marriage, birth, parenting; the gigantic steps that need a new vocabulary. No more reflective or witty bright young thingy-ness –this is the real thing, a transition into the fully fledged adult. And it’s a long time since we visited Eavan Boland’s kitchen at night, and heard about night-feeding ( in The Gorgon Child) ; here is the next step.

Emily Cullen is part of the new face of Ireland, where it is accepted that mothers can be academics and academics can be mothers (it has to be equal.) The result is a further exploration into private territory, gradually giving it shape and carving, smoothing, so that it can make sense to others. The world invades the kitchen –ah, but, the kitchen then invades the world, which is as it should be.

She also looks back, from child to forbears – in Grandmother

“I bear witness to your transmission

of faith, folklore, tradition.

May we hear your voice at the threshold again,

bidding us ‘Welcome, Welcome,


Somewhere in Minnesota,     Short Stories

Órfhlaith Foyle    Arlen House

Well, Maeve Binchy it ain’t. Contained violent incidents are scattered through most of these nineteen stories. The important thing is what they are contained in  – and that is carefully chosen and carefully constructed sentences. The reader is led through, like a trusting child, holding on to that smooth adult hand.

The shock is gently delivered, bit by bit – you’ll find yourself reading right to the end, being manipulated perfectly. Skilful craft lets you skitter across the surface. Only later does the shock come through.

On second reading, the careful build-up, the tension that we try to dismiss is shown up to be lying in wait. And that is Órfhlaith Foyle’s gift – the doling out of shock, gift-wrapped in flawless cool prose. There’s nothing twee here. The few written in the first person are not from a female point of view.

There’s a seething undertow that the writer (and so, the reader) manages to skitter over, the word-skill covering the danger, ice skating personified.

Borderlines    Short Stories

John Walsh   Doire Press

The young man who is frequently the subject or narrator of these stories is often tempted, pulled in many directions at once. Just as often he is bemused by the tensions around him – especially in the New Year’s Day hitch hiker version.

“Something in Ian still cared, but not enough to silence the fear that had crawled under his skin. ‘Thanks for the lift,’ he said and got out.”

Set on both sides of the Irish border, the changing characters weave through threats and their ramifications.

The collection ends with a duet of a story written by a man and a woman who arrange to meet in a pub. Rounding all the mishaps and the troubles (with or without capital letters) it has an uplifting ending. A type of innocence pervades these stories, an innocence which has guarded the young man throughout and which remains even as he is writing them down.

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The Trials of a Local Writer

Having waited the best part of 2012 for answers from several agents since December 2011, I went off to CreateSpace and produced a paperback book via computer.

We are told never to annoy agents by writing or phoning to enquire what is going on, but I did phone the favourite one in July 2012 and the receptionist said, yes, it was a long time without an answer. She said the same in September. One did send a phone message via their Accounts Dept that she liked it but that with the state of publishing these days… the sentence was unfinished.

After putting the book together, well, CreateSpace is over in America and you have to pay postage from there.This is the only snag, their website formats the book and its cover easily. So everyone I knew got a copy as a Christmas present (as well as other presents, of course.)

Then I had to pay someone to format it for Smashwords- the only part of outside assistance so far.

Next, I went off to Facebook and LinkedIn and started a blog here and then triangulated this, trying to drum up, not trade, but reviews. Ha! Facebook people all liked the cover ( one of my paintings) and, just like Groucho Marx  intended to read it at some time.

So, off to review sites, Goodreads etc.

Site one. Called ‘Ask David’ free book promotion. Silence.

Site two. Review thebook.com $25 books listed and their reviewers choose one to look at. Nothing.

Site three. Readersfavourite.com. Nothing.

Site four. Irish-interest site. I sent a free Smashwords version. Silence. Enquiry. Doesn’t do Smashwords. Am I on Kindle? Risking the wrath of Smashwords (and perhaps supping with the devil) I put the book up on Kindle and send a giftcard so they can access it. Amazon.com does not accept ‘gifting’ from Amazon.co.uk, so I have to cancel that and rejig to an Amazon.com giftcard so they can access …. this all takes three months. The book came out in October 2012.

After asking various writing friends in real life and on Facebook to review it, I asked the entire lot –240 friends – to review it – nothing to date. This includes people who I have given free copies to on the understanding they would gallop off to Amazon at least and strew a couple of stars over the book.

As ‘A Small Inheritance’ is set in Ireland, what about their radio programme, Book on One? I phone RTE and ask the name of the producer (always get it right, we are advised.) Receptionist puts me through to arts dept. Phone rings itself out over there in Dublin.Try again the next morning. Same result, five minutes of ring-a-ling. Next day, try again and a new receptionist says, “Oh, the producer is XXX, I can’t think why no one told you that at the desk.” Posted book in November. No answer.

In November – what about local newspaper! Phoned the East Anglian but their phones cut off after 5 p.m. precisely. The first bit of efficiency –  she deserves a prize – the receptionist phoned back at 9 a.m. Local writers are the province of X & X. Phoned X & X and left message. Nothing. Phoned X & X next day. Two days later X, quite friendly, phoned that Z back at East Anglian was the right person to contact. The idea was ‘what about an article listing local books for Christmas presents?’, which X thought was a good idea. Z did not phone back , it was nearing Christmas anyway,and I went off to write Christmas cards and wrap presents.

Ah! The local shops! Just what writers are supposed to do! Phoned in advance, made an appointment and went in, feeling most awkward. Two books accepted in the  town bookshop and two in another bookshop nearby. “We’ll take two. They won’t sell, of course” and the boss went back to his office, directing me to the assistant to deal with the details. The other bookshop took two also, after half an hour on their shop computer   “A new programme we don’t know how to use yet.” Too embarassed now to go in and ask what’s happened.

And – bright idea, though it conflicts with the above – what about the library? Donate a copy! Trying to do it properly I phone the Library HQ at County Offices. (My previous novel ‘Finding Out,’ given in at the local library counter, has disappeared from sight.) Library HQ, surprisingly only has a blurred recorded message about overdue books, so I phoned the main library. Donating a book is  not doing them any favours at all. The woman sounds rather agonised about the suggestion.

Apparently it costs them £2 to enter it onto their catalogue, so they are rather apprehensive about a tide of books approaching. And I can’t just waltz in with a copy – it has to go before The Stock Team.  “And write a letter with it, to explain who you are.” It sounded like going before the Star Chamber.

Ages ago –seven years, as a new resident, I sent all my poetry and prose collections to the local arts organisation as an introduction, enquiring about being part of the local festivals and promotion of local writers (other than the frantic three-minute mic slots in the Festival.) Answer was the four books being returned with a polite but curt “we already know who we are going to invite, don’t annoy us like this” type of reply. I had not enclosed return postage, meaning them to keep the books for reference, or something like that, so they wasted money on the return postage.

There’s far more, but you get the gist. And in spite of all of the above, the next collection of short stories and the next novel are on their way.

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