Review – Kekee Manzil: House of Art

Kekee Manzil House of Art film poster show Kekoo Gandhy seated on a chair on Kekee Manzil, the family home

First Impression – Kekee Manzil

So, I watched an interesting film last night: Kekee Manzil, House of Art. It tells the true story of an Indian tobacco business owner’s son from an upper class family with a privileged background, loaded with money, being instrumental in creating the Indian Modern Art movement in Mumbai in order to help him sell picture frames.

This, I think, was not the narrative intended by its narrator, his daughter Behroze Gandhy, but it was the first impression the movie gave that I had to get beyond to really understand it.

The film is half a documentary about Kekoo Gandhy, a genuinely important figure in Indian art history, and half an homage to the man as the narrator-and-producer’s father, who lived in a rather plush house in Mumbai – the Kekee Manzil of the title.

Its problem is that it doesn’t work out which of these two things it is. At times, too, Behroze’s narration can feel like it is not quite conveying the message she is trying to make, partially, I think, because of her sense of propriety and modesty.

At other times she repeats herself. For example, I counted being told that the Artist’s Centre where much of the Progressive Arts community met was at Rampart Row, Bombay – 4 times. Weirdly, the last time she announced its location, her tone was one of surprise, as if she’d only just found out it was there.

But these are first impressions. And up to now, this review feels overly negative. Which doesn’t convey what I really want to say, either. So, mea culpa for also not getting my point across.

Kekee Manzil On Second Reflection

Screen capture from Kekee Manzil showing painting detail: Bapu at Rene block Gallery, New York-1974, by Atul Dodiya

Let’s be clear, throughout this movie a fascinating art movement in Bombay reveals itself to the viewer: extraordinary powerful images from a newly unleashed 1950s artists’ group producing brilliant works of art – and all underpinned and supported by Kekoo Gandhy’s entrepreneurialism and big-heartedness.

Kekoo himself was partly Oxford-educated, and fully Westernised, wearing a suit when he arrived home to Bombay in the summer of 1939, much to the amusement of his family. Trapped in Bombay by the outbreak of war and thus unable to return to his studies, he helps a Belgian businessman move his car that is stuck in the sand at Juhu Beach. A friendship and business relationship forms that leads Kekoo to the ownership of Chemould, and the founding of Asia’s only moulded picture-frame maker. Through other friendships he learns about art and meets a burgeoning community of artists, whom he promotes by selling their work through his picture framing business. His influence is very real as he and his wife, Khorshed support these artists. This is a genuinely interesting story.

That the world-renowned artist Anish Kapoor speaks so warmly of Kekoo certainly adds to the case for his importance, as does Salman Rushdie’s explanation that two characters in his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh are inspired by this fascinating figure.

So, what to make of his influence and legacy? I would have loved to see more of the extraordinary art Kekoo supported in the ’50s. In fact, though plenty is shown, the context and stories around them are not filled out; nor are the stories of the artists themselves. In almost every case, the focus turns from the art to Kekoo. Observations of his eccentric behaviour, like picking flowers from neighbours’ gardens as an old man, or film of him smoking a whole cigarette in one breath, while amusing, aren’t enough in themselves to carry the film.

That said, it really does make a point about the direction of travel of India’s increased authoritarianism and Hindu nationalism, and the usual bigotry and violence you see from nationalist, racist movements. It is sobering to think that the country with the world’s largest population is heading towards nationalistic fascism, and that message definitely came across.

My Own Confusion And Ignorance

Kekee Manzil screen capture: Detail from painted by TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009) - "Mahishasura"

As a Westerner who likes to think of myself as liberal and who has thus noted with detached approval the name changes going on in India as it sloughs off its imperial past, it is sobering to be confronted with the notion that the renaming of Bombay to Mumbai is actually the product of an increasingly nationalistic consciousness under the BJP, India’s leading Hindu-nationalist party. How I square that with my own sense of what is right is something I haven’t yet decided. Thus the ambiguities of the modern world, which I think Bezohre herself navigates more deftly than I do.

As a British viewer with a fair amount of education, various assumptions about knowledge of Indian history did jar with me. I certainly do think anyone with a knowledge of colonial history should be aware of the horrors of Partition and the bloodletting that came with Britain’s botched withdrawal from the country. But there were times when the cultural distance between narrator and me as audience member felt very wide. For example, being told that an artist was “none other than Tayib Mehta” as if I should know him as a household name was confusing, as was being told of the effects of the 1975 Emergency in India, with absolutely no context as to what caused it.

This made me wonder who the intended audience was? It was filmed in English. Behroze now lives in England. She has worked in film production since 1982 and teamed up with long-standing professionals in the industry to produce this project. I wondered then, how much Kekee Manzil was designed to be a small, internal conversation among select Indian expats and how much a film telling the rest of the world about the importance of the Progressive Art Movement in Bombay and Kekoo’s role in it?

Painting feature in Kekee Manzil, Untitled (Woman at Work), 1958 by M.F. Husain.

During her in-person introduction before Kekee Manzil began, Bezohre said she does not intend to show the film at film festivals in India because it might inflame political sensibilities ready to ignite at any moment. So, what is the film’s purpose? To tell her personal story of her father to a tiny group? And at the same time to make passing mention of political problems in India to a converted audience that already agrees with her? Is this what it is, then? A kind of comfort blanket for a dwindling minority?

I feel the same ambivalence about the nostalgia Bezohre obviously feels for the vanished world of “old Bombay”. Bezohre is from a Parsi family, a group extremely useful to the administration of India under the British Empire which in return gained considerable mercantile, administrative and financial influence thanks to colonialism. One thus cannot help wondering if the embrace of Western values by the privileged family group the film features also colours Bezohre’s view of India today? To be frank, I don’t know enough about India to even come close to forming an opinion on that one, but the question seems a fair one to ask.

I did have the opportunity to meet Bezohre after the film, but my questions and thoughts hadn’t fully formed by then, and in my confusion I was concerned I would appear overly negative when actually I was trying to grapple with my ambivalence to a film that shines a light on a side of India many in the West will know nothing about. I respectfully bowed out – and I regret that, now.

To Finish

In all, Kekee Manzil – House of Art is worth watching. Yes, I found it occasionally frustrating and at times diffuse, but there is still much to learn. Its budget was an estimated £40,000, and if this extraordinarily low sum is correct, then it does give plenty of bang for its buck. If you see it showing near you, it’s worth a watch.

Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman – the Endless depths, the epic reach

Neil Gaiman's The Sandman

As Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman tv series premieres on Netflix, Matt Wingett reflects on the sprawling comic books containing Neil Gaiman’s modern-day myth cycle, and the deep roots of Neil’s mythic story-telling.

The Absolute Sandman Number 1
one of many entry points for the committed reader

When I first showed The Sandman trailer to a friend a few days ago, he shrugged and told me: “I’ve had it with superhero movies…”

“But it isn’t a superhero movie,” I shot back. “Don’t let the comic book format fool you. This is something far stranger and more wonderful.”

The Sandman, Number 1, first published Jan 10th 1989

Perhaps my friend’s confusion came from knowing there was a DC Comics crime-fighting Sandman in the 1940s who was part of the Justice Society of America… but, as I told my friend, this is not that Sandman.

Neil’s Sandman is The Sandman: the mysterious otherworldly being who leaves dust in the eyes of the newly awake. Neil’s Sandman is richer, deeper and in many, many ways far scarier than even the darkest of superheroes – or supervillains, come to that – though it’s true that both genres have shared roots in the myths and legends of distant and not-so-distant past.

Neil’s stories are born from the night monsters and daytime horrors whispered to children to keep them in check; from the instructive folk wisdom told by forest mothers to protect their wards; from the awe-filled wonder of ancient humans when they first contemplated the nature of death and dreams and destiny; from the shuddering terror felt when encountering the deeply uncanny, from the shamanic trance and the psychoactive delirium of the visionary – and from the despair born of attempts to shed light on the dread unknown.

Gods meet – Morpheus and Bast

It is from this branch of storytelling born of ancient fears and awe at a world-beyond-reason that Gaiman’s Sandman derives. Also known as Dream or Morpheus among other names, The Sandman is the God-King who presides over unbridled imagination-set-free – and whose presence is at times morally ambiguous.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman cycle is not a conventional hero narrative. It is more a vast labyrinth chattering and rumbling with unknown yet half-familiar entities. Here, a human hero or superhero rising to a type of godhood is not the central business of the stories as per many other comics. Instead it is those eternal entities that were always gods, or who were always above and beyond the gods. Yes, human beings become embroiled in their business, but the focus is far different from the hero / superhero story.

Instead, what Neil Gaiman offers the explorer who enters his Sandman story-maze is a long walk through the myth-making potentials of the human psyche. It is a tour de force in different types and modes of storytelling, a journey through history, an epic collection of modern-made legends. It is deep and broad and profound.

The Sandman gives powerful insights into the human condition. It reawakens the superstitious dread that prehistoric humanity once felt at the uncanny nature of the real world and of imagination (which at the time were, and perhaps still are, the same thing). It speaks this truth loudly: the world we live in now is shaped not by rational people doing rational things, but by the creatures of the imagination who lurk in the shadowlands of fable and dream. Some are controlled by a reasoning mind, some wreak havoc in the world, unseen and unrecognised.

Not to overstate things (I hope) but what I found in The Sandman was an epic overview of humanity that I sometimes find in the great religious texts.

The Old Testament (that roughly patched-together mix of secret origin story, histories, supernatural horror, love poetry, tragedy, battles, laments and individual sufferings) is one comparison, though the myth cycle of The Old Testament has at its centre a bulldozing god-monoculture.

Other myth cycles and collections also find their echoes in The Sandman. The strange and wonderful Mabinogion, with its transformations and wild tales is one. The brooding beauty of the Kalevala with its epic of creation, the Greek myths, the Nordic sagas – echoes and memories of these story worlds swirl in the dark pages of Neil’s magical book.

Mythic family feuds are big in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

The Sandman thus becomes a massive collection of different types of tale and writing, from fairytales in the style of the Arabian Nights, through revenge set-pieces, hero narratives, quests, whimsical alternative realities to much more beyond.

While the books include in early parts an eponymous god-hero on a quest to recover his lost helm and realm, it also includes ordinary people, their lives and deaths – sometimes pointless, sometimes heroic, sometimes tragic.

It’s when the focus shifts from the Endless and other supernatural entities to humanity that a central quality at the very heart of this collection of tales is revealed: compassion.

I admit when I first read The Sandman I did not know what to make of the taciturn Morpheus – a Robert Smith look-alike wandering the realm of the Unconscious delivering and managing the ever-shifting world of dreams. (And if that is not a metaphor for the author, then I don’t know what is.)

But as each story unfolded and took its own course, I was increasingly overawed by something else: by the massive God’s-eye-view of the author, and also by his fellow-feeling.

Stories are told of countless people mainstream society would have considered misfits when it was written: lesbians and gays, bisexuals and transexuals, black women seeking to make a living, a once-beautiful white woman inexplicably deformed, attendees at a sex party, travelling actors bewildered at why they are acting to a strange, fay audience.

Deeply human dilemmas play out in The Sandman

What is really noteworthy is this: rather than the caricatures the popular media at the time liked to make – screaming queens and diesel dykes, freaks and outsiders – in The Sandman, they are shown as exactly what they are: real people. There are homosexuals in loving, stable relationships, a lesbian couple muddling through dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, a transwoman rejected by her home community who (like Holly in Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side) “shaved her legs then he was a she” and moved to New York City, and so many others besides. This collection of tales is something far bigger than a comic book. Somehow, these dreams on the page reveal more about real life than the real life we see before our eyes.

From A Game of You in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

The Sandman is an extraordinary, sprawling work, of which it is possible, perhaps, to say: “All of humanity is here.”

Some of the stories are uncomfortable. Some are nasty. Some are the experiments of a young man learning his craft. Sometimes you get the feeling that Neil read something about a character from history (e.g: an ancient Roman emperor) and in order to internalise what he read, he thought he would simply do a story about it. Sometimes a moment of inspiration, perhaps waking in the night to realise the extraordinary otherness of cats was enough to fire off a whimsical tale – but there is an overall pattern in the stories – a flow to the eccentric byeways and dead-ends, to the loops and reprises of characters and ideas that is genuinely monumental.

Indeed, the leather-style black bindings of my books are no less than that. 3,000 pages of coloured paper – each black slab standing as the doorway to countless possibilities, to infinite worlds.

The Sandman is Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus. Had it been written 4000 years ago, Gaiman would be the visionary God-king of his own realm, adored by his worshippers who look on at him with that mixture of wonder and fear known as awe.

Or perhaps that isn’t then, but that’s what’s happening now.

The Gramophone Player – an exercise in Magical Realism

Gramophone player

On Thursday 12th May I was invited by Maggie Bowers of the University of Portsmouth to join her, Belinda Mitchell and Peter Vincent-Jones to join in a seminar / workshop on Magical Realism at Wymering Manor, just north of Portsmouth. It was a fun evening in which we explored the idea of layers by using LiDAR images of the house taken by Belinda as a starting point to consider what layers could exist in a magical realist context…

The second part of the session was dedicated to getting people writing their own responses to the room through a short workshop we put together. We searched the building for something that fired off our imaginations that we could respond to in a quick ten minute writing session. Here’s what I came up with:

The Gramophone Player

How many voices has that trumpet on the gramphone player played over the years?

Starting in the early years, it played the charity recording Be British – a disc made to raise funds for families of the victims of the Titanic disaster. The performer’s disembodied voice staunchly recited a patriotic poem about the Anglo-Saxon race that stirred the blood of its listeners – delivering the necessary cold compress to the bruised national psyche.

Then there was the voice of Richard Tauber, singing Schumann’s Winterreise that moved listeners to tears. And Al Bowly sang of how Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall one wistful day in 1933 as the sunlight came in through an open door allowing summer to flood in.

The Gramophone Player at Wymering Manor.

These are just some of the voices the gramophone has spoken with over the years. But what voices has the horn – that giant ear-trumpet – listened to in that room?

If one could play those voices back, it would tell of the lives of the people here. Those in anguish at the declaration of the Great War and of World War 2. The delights of a wedding party on a bright spring day, perhaps? – A photograph still hangs in that room with a garden full of august guests from that very day.

Playing those and many other voices back, we hear in the shadows of the gramophone player’s metal trumpet live accounts of woe and heartbreak, of joy and excitement. We hear the sounds that tell us of England over a period of 80 years. Simple sounds, like the fire burning in the grate or the scolding of the kitchen skivvy by the housekeeper for those dropped plates, voices raised, subdued, loud and secret.

A wheel of voices, circling, spinning round, playing back the life that was here, and somehow as we hear them, making the world anew – a world created from moments of lives not seen, but once heard.

So we come to you – the most recent person this gramophone player has heard. Now, as you stand before it, be careful what you think of when you turn that handle. For time, too, is a circle spinning the universe – and if you don’t clear your mind, you can’t know where you may end up, or when you may arrive, as the voice-rich cogs and springs transport you to that newmade world.

Review: Patterns In Prehistory by Robert J Wenke

Patterns in Prehistory Cover, by Robert J Wenke

Patterns in Prehistory by Robert J Wenke is a wonderful book. I started reading it to find descriptions of earlier cultures as part of the research for a novel I’m writing, and I was not disappointed. It’s a masterpiece in explaining and exploring the development of human beings as they adapt to the environment, and what particular stages of development mean in terms of cultural practice, agriculture, population growth, and much more.

Wenke starts the book by asking the question “what is culture?”, among other things, and the answers are challenging. Wenke’s approach to the whole book is revealed in that first chapter. He is not there to promulgate his own definite theory of human development, but to do a survey across numerous experts in archaeology, palaeo-anthropology, palaeontology and much more besides. The breadth and detail and the sheer level of research is deeply impressive.

There are surprises along the way. One of the answers to that question about culture is to define it as a means of using energy more efficiently. That is: that when you learn how to do something (make pots, grow crops, build spaceships, etc), the next generation isn’t then forced to discover it again. They are taught how to do what the previous generation learned through culture. “On the shoulders of giants…” etc. That’s only one definition, but it shows you how you’re going to have to think around things and entertain fresh perspectives.

The first part of the book is dedicated to the fossil record of the earliest hominids, right back to australopithecus and earlier, then reconstructs the life of early humans through the findings of experts. This is not a speculative psychological book – it tells you what evidence has been found and what that points to. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely gripping to see human traits begin to reveal themselves early on, and to follow the development of a recognisable human life even among early hominid primates by studying the fossil record.

The survey is of the whole world, with Wenke looking at whatever archaeological evidence is available and comparing how different humans developed in Africa, China, Indonesia, Europe, the Americas and so on. This is the format for each section of the book.

So it is that we follow human development through Homo Erectus, Homo Sapiens Neanderthelensis to Homo Sapiens Sapiens. It’s not a straight line, though, as Wenke makes clear. There are overlaps in the species coexisting at times, with some interbreeding, or huge gaps in the fossil record. Yet there are startling moments when a completely different species shows itself to be recognisably like us. It’s brilliant.

Thus we go on through the development of hunter-gatherer cultures, fisherfolk and others of the Pliocene and Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, until suddenly, maybe 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, there’s a step-change in culture as the great civilizations arise. Sumeria, Babylonia, Egypt, China – all apparently reliant on the new invention of agriculture which appears to have happened spontaneously across the world, leading to a rise in population and technology – and the building (in most cases) of massive monumental architecture. Or so one might think… but what is interesting is that the monumental architecture and rise in population occurs just before the agricultural innovations begin to show in the archaeological record… That, in itself, is a puzzle!

What’s also strange to contemplate is how humans took literally millions of years to get to that point, but from there to the modern day was only a few thousand years. It’s giddying to consider how the gallop of cultural development accelerated so fast in that brief time, that we are now able to destroy the world with the technology of our cultural “advances”. It’s quite a thought: that nuclear weapons are in the hands of people not so different in outlook and potentials from those who knapped stones in the Middle East and created the cultures of the New Stone Age.

This extraordinary book invites you to contemplate the roots of our humanity, to ask how the world we live in now grew from the minds of humans and pre-humans at the very dawn of consciousness – and sheds light on the very nature of being. Highly recommended.

Susanna Clarke – Piranesi – A Review


Piranesi… an extraordinary journey deep into the labyrinth…

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi offers us a scintillating glimpse into a world of strange magic, with its own rules and internal logic. From its outset it drips with mystery. What is this bewildering world which gives us no clues to its meaning? Is it a metaphor? Are we in some strange psychodrama? Is it simply the hallucination of a madman? And if not, what, exactly? The early sections of the book circumscribe what we know to the limited experience of the narrator, the strange hermit-like Piranesi who believes himself to be a child of the great sprawling and impossible mansion that is The House. And that enigma drives the reader on to find some sort of answer, following the central character’s methodical hunt for the truth about his world and himself.

The great enigma set up at the start of the book has two really strong resonances for me.

Firstly, it feels like the written counterpart to an immersive theatre production – something like the disorienting alternative world of The Drowned Man that sprawled through the massive Paddington Post Office sorting office in 2013 – a series of unexplained vistas and art installations with scenes unfolding that had their own internal logic from which explanation was withheld. As with The Drowned Man, in Clarke’s Piranesi, we strive toward a gestalt that will make the whole bewildering thing make sense.

The second resonance is far older. Symbolised by Clarke’s narrator when he is in the Hall of the Minotaurs, we too must follow a thread of logic and empirical observation to work out exactly what this enigma might signify. Clarke is calling back to the legend of Theseus on Minos, and we too must find our way out of the bewildering labyrinth as we explore it through the journals of Piranesi.

The eponymous narrator himself guides us methodically through his observations of The House, and as he does so, slowly the interactions he has, along with his own prior observations, begin to unfold what and where this place is. Along the way, we explore the history of human knowledge. From early burial rights and the prehistoric world view, through the Platonic cave whose inhabitants see images from the real world as shadows on a wall but never see the truth, via the Theseus story, Narnian dimension-hopping and Jungian myths of anima and animus, along with Colin Wilson and Outsider Theory, we experience an extraordinary, rich journey through a multitude of modes of thinking, all set against the background of the mysterious ruins of The House, which is clearly inspired by the evocative architectural art of 18th Century engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

The book is beautiful. There are moments within it when the imagery is so strong it is almost eidetic. I gasped at the sheer baroqueness of the visuals I was invited to enjoy. Vast echoing halls in the house are lined with thousands of statues, each an archetype of some sort, each representing in some way discarded or forgotten knowledge from the whole sweeping history of humanity, as well as symbols of growing self-consciousness. The place, then, is made of – or by – magic. This provides much of the wonder of the book, against which the story unfolds.

Along the way, questions of religion, of magic and of personal identity are subtly, delicately threaded and explored, at each turn leaving one unsure where the story will go next.

And all the while, the compelling and essentially simple story, which is at heart the solving of a mystery, adds deeper levels to the book. This story of life in The House mirrors another modern phenomenon: the Escape Room, in which the player must work out how to leave. Another comparison is that of the classic video games Myst and Riven, in which the player must gather pages of a book to solve a series of puzzles and divine where the truth lies, while wandering through a mysterious world whose origins are hidden from the player.

All these analogues are in themselves addictive. And it is no surprise that with Clarke’s brilliantly lucid and balanced prose, with her meticulous and exquisite descriptions that amaze, amuse and bewilder, the book is proving an instant classic.

In some reviews, the writing has been described as experimental. When I read this, I prepared myself for broken sentences, rhyme, playing with form, fracturing of meaning and much more – but the description is misleading. The prose throughout is the friendly, thoughtful prose of a confiding and likeable writer of a journal. There is nothing experimental in the form, while the content is essentially that catch-all genre: weird fiction, one in which I’m very much at home.

I read it in just a few sittings, and I am by no means a fast reader. This is one of those books that is genuinely difficult to put down. When I did, I found myself lying awake wondering where the narrative might go next, and being genuinely concerned for the gentle narrator at its heart.

Be ready then, to explore a new world with this book. It is utterly delightful, deeply seductive, completely beguiling and will greet the reader with the enigmatic smile of the Sphinx.

Take a ball of wool and be ready to chalk the walls when you enter this magical realm.

Work In Progress – Section: The House of Grain – an extract

Grain in a basket

Here’s the latest from the strange pagan novel I’m writing:

The sun is already climbing by the time we set out along the rough track from the fields. It is not long before heat combines with beer and my head is a hot ball of discomfort, jostled and jolted on rutted roads. I sit up to peek out over the raised sides of the cart, my head swimming. Broad fields in strips, those already furrowed are lines of bare wounds open to sky. Between each strip earth baulks strewn with weeds and low hedges. And the ox teams work on.

The alewife sees me looking out – a sharp admonition – back down, blanket pulled over face.

I think I must doze. Awake again, sweat is soaking rough cloth. I uncover to gulp air, head aspin, staring up. Not a cloud, clear blue. The oppressive air makes my is head flush with heat, and my skull develops a steady throb like the slow grinding of a quern on oats. Spots of rain fall. Surprised, I look up and around. Still no clouds. Am I drunk, then? Wherever the rain is from, I am grateful for its washing over the cart. It builds to a sudden squall, clearing my head and soothing its pain. A rainbow arches across the clear sky. The alewife huddles against the rain and stares down at me a moment, thoughtful.

The squall passes as quickly as it came, followed by the fresh nose of persichor, deep pungency of clean green: scent of spirits imbuing every bush and watching from every plant. I feel them huddling around me, growing living things. I know they sense me.

I sit up again. Ahead, in the middle distance on a low flat plain by a winding river, a low settlement squatting behind an encircling moat and palisade. Others dotted away into the distance behind it. The track we are on skirts its edge. At four points around the circumference, a tall white pole, each adorned with its own emblems. Passing the first, I see animals carved along its full length – wolf chases bull chases dog chases cat chases mouse. The next is populous with carved insect life – bee, fly, moth, wasp, ant, beetle in thousands of iterations. The third is luxuriant with carvings of wheat and barley, the fourth with sheep, cattle, goats, swine, oxen and horses. From the tops of each, blue and white cloth streamers – aflutter in the wind.

The alewife turns to me and tells me once more: “Cover up, girl”. We enter beneath a high gateway. Inside, through a crack in the cart’s side I slice the village into stolen glances: low thatched cruck houses made with arching beams rising from the ground. A woman stooping over a sheep pinned helpless between her knees beside a pile of yellow fleeces brandishes shears in sunlight. Elsewhere, a group of women gently drawing wool onto drop spindles, another leaning over a large barrel filled with red dye, holding a bolt of cloth under the water..

As we grind through, the air is thick with greetings to the alewife. Neighbours call and hail, the women asking after their menfolk in the fields and for news from other steads. It is a bright and cheery scene, far different from the sombre village of my distant boyhood that seems now only to come to me in flashes and feels as if it were never mine.

At one moment, a shadow falls and we travel in a silent place at the heart of the village. I am cold and I pull in under my blanket. A presence here, dark, brooding. Something vibrating in the air that my gossamer sense can read. Rage and repression waiting to break and destroy if it can. I quiver in my skin until the shadow that falls over me passes, and the cart continues on its way. But even though the malevolent presence dies away, the air around me vibrates my nails and hair, teeth and skin with the residue of anger.

I steal another glance. At the farther edge of the village stands a place unlike the low cruck houses we have passed. A two-storey building, dun-coloured daub over wattle walls hung between thick oak uprights, some of the ground floor panels infilled with rough clay brick. A tall lean-to barn built onto one side. Painted in black on the brown daub above the oak door: a sheaf of barley.

“Here it is then,” the alewife says cheerily under her breath. “The House of Grain. You just stay tucked away, and you’ll see.”

She drives the cart through the barn door. Here, the air is rich with the smell of malt and the dry presence of grain that sits high in the nose and at the back of the throat. She closes the door and comes to me.

“Come,” she says, helping me climb down from the cart with a gentle hand on my arms, then guiding me through the grain store loaded with sacks and guarded by three black cats who stare down at me with green, unblinking eyes. We step through a low door to another room, where a copper vat as wide as my outstretched arms is set in a rough brick block, a blackened opening below revealing its purpose for heating the copper. In the vat, a sweet-smelling liquid with a thick foamy crust and the acid smell of fermentation. I resist a strong desire to plunge my hands into that creamy surface.

The vat room is tall stretching up through both storeys. On a network of beams sits a a life-size doll, resting in a place of honour high on one beam, where it presides over the room. She is a woman of corn, braided hair winding over her head in long plaits that give the illusion of a glow like the rising sun. Her arms are outstretched towards me, palms upward, in a gesture of welcome. She is enthroned on a seat carved with ears of corn and overlooks a raised vegetable kingdom: the beams across the ceiling hung with green nature – herbs and leaves, dried or quick, some still curling and drawing sap through their stalks that wind around upright beams, growing up from where they are rooted beneath the earthen floor. Other plants are cut and hung to dry – a vista of living and once-living things: broad leaved and narrow, thick-stalked and slender. One plant has roots in the shape of a man, arms and legs splayed, head set back as if ready to shriek. Among this hanging garden, pairs of eyes of mice tremble, docile, wide eyed. Throughout all, the strong nose of grainy sweetness, and a coolness here that raises goosebumps on my arms.

Then I see her. In the shadows at one side of the room frozen in the act of cutting herb stalks is a frail young woman of the most startling beauty. White as the snow of my home, she has platinum hair and the most piercing blue eyes that settle on me with an unreadable expression…

Sherlock In The Records Office? – Get Real!

Sherlock Artwork

The recent attempt to place the Richard Lancelyn Green Bequest in the demolition-threatened Public Records Office, Portsmouth is a sad indictment of the lack of vision and desperation of protesters – and the incoherent cultural strategy of Portsmouth City Council. I’m glad to say that little piece of fantasy town planning has at least been rejected.

Don’t get me wrong. I am sympathetic to attempts to stop development of the Records Office Site.

Indeed, I can imagine the outrage of the good citizens of Old Portsmouth and its environs when they were told they were going to get a block of flats built on the obviously knackered Records Office in the Portsmouth Museum’s grounds.

And rightly so. After all, with the arrival of the revolting, steroid-bulked and vomit-inducingly ugly sport complex across the road in Ravelin Park, we see yet more of the few pieces of open space and open sky in this part of the city lost forever. Soon, I am sure, Ravelin Park will be reduced to a few square metres of lawn edged with University cafes, bars and dorms infilling the open space wherever possible and closing out yet more Pompey sky with the UoP’s specialism: badly-scaled and oppressive architecture.

On that level, the thought of yet more flats going up on the old Clarence Barracks grounds is, indeed, horrible. Let’s face it, over the wall at the back of the Museum stands an estate of faceless suburban infill. Dull little houses and non-descript blocks of flats. The residents in that little slice of suburbia grafted onto one of the most historic parts of Portsmouth are right to make a fuss. “We don’t need more homes like ours! After all, when we’re indoors, we don’t have to look at the ones already here!”

And so, in desperation, they cast around for a reason to save one of the few Victorian heritage buildings left in the area. I can imagine the concerned denizens of Old Portsmouth seeking a saviour, and hoping that none other than the great sleuth himself, Sherlock Holmes might don his deerstalker and save the day. And so the idea was born:

“The council has been promising us a museum dedicated to Sherlock Holmes for nearly two decades now, let’s put it in the Records Office and kill two birds with one stone!”

It probably appeared like a sure-fire winner to put pressure on the council, especially with the addition of celebrity endorsement…

…Or maybe not. Stephen Fry has been known to get behind such attempts in the past with mixed results. He brought his influence to bear ineffectively at Hindhead – failing to save Undershaw, Conan Doyle’s old gaff, from developers who converted the site into a special needs school.

But let’s be clear, putting Conan Doyle in the Records Office was just… well… silly. Though I do have strong support for preventing yet more urban infill in the grounds of the former Clarence Barracks, you need to find a way to both stop that happening – AND keep your hands off Sherlock at the same time.

Yes, a Conan Doyle / Sherlock Holmes Museum in Portsmouth is a great idea. No, putting it in that Records Office was not. The building is knackered and will cost a fortune to underpin. But more importantly, stuffing what should be a world-class exhibition in a building so badly suited for the purpose would betray the people of Portsmouth and the Conan Doyle legacy. It would be like stuffing the Crown Jewels into Milton Village Community Association hall. – Sure, it’s a good building. But not for that.

I mean how mean and low have our sights here in Portsmouth fallen?

This brings us to the question of what Portsmouth should expect from a Conan Doyle Museum. Definitely not a few cramped rooms in the Records Office to show off the 40,000 documents and 18,000 further artefacts, that’s for sure! Where’s the sense of scale in Portmuthians? Where’s the understanding of the bloody goldmine we’re sitting on?

Sherlock Holmes remains one of the most enduring icons of the 19th and 20th Centuries. His fame now is as big as it has ever been. Conan Doyle’s characters have spawned countless films, plays, games… the list goes on. A look at PCC’s Arthur Conan Doyle Collection will show you just what the massive appeal is. Similarly, a visit to Northumberland Avenue off Trafalgar Square will show you some of the potential. Stand outside the Sherlock Holmes pub – a site that is totally manufactured and has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes – and in normal times you will see busloads of tourists swing by, take a few snaps, then go inside to buy a pint and a meal. It’s a completely invented site with no links to Holmes and Doyle and it might as well be printing its own money.

The main failing in Portsmouth’s view of the potential a Conan Doyle Museum presents is embodied by the idea that the Records Office will be good enough for a world-class exhibition. It won’t. The Sherlock Holmes Museum, when it comes, needs to be a conference centre, a place where theatrical performances and arts groups can be supported, and it needs to be in an area where the massive crowds of fans, scholars, sightseers, conference-goers and more besides can relax and enjoy their visit.

Sadly, one of the great potential venues for such a site appears to have been lost. Southsea Debenhams is set to be converted to yet more residential property, although there has recently been some talk about using part of that space by using one floor. But, really, is one floor enough for a world class draw? Think about how good it could be were it a really large scale venue providing far more than an exhibition. Stepping out from the Museum, tourists would be surrounded by shops and cafes. It was in many ways perfect… but neither the money nor the will to do it has yet been found.

So, my own view, is – yes, by all means save the Records Office. Woohoo! We don’t want to lose more Victoriana in Portsmouth.

But don’t insult Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes with such a stupid idea as putting them in that tiny, unworkable space.

Portsmouth deserves better.

Justice League: The Snyder Cut – Review

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a sucker for a great superhero movie, but I’ve always had mixed feelings about Zack Snyder. I loved the dark brooding of Watchmen, found it worked fairly well with Man Of Steel, but by the time we got to the bizarrely cut and overwrought Batman Versus Superman, I was very much in two minds about his films.

The counterpoint to that dark, brooding DC Universe of Snyder, and of the nihilistic and frankly depressing Batman trilogy was Wonder Woman, which pointed the whole franchise in a new direction. It succeeded in being a critical success and a box office hit, which the strangely cut deeply flawed Suicide Squad managed only half of.

Snyder has a habit of making grandiose gestures. His notes and techniques include the extreme macro lensed close-up shot, the focusing on the apparently inconsequential detail to stand for the whole scene, the dark and contrasty action sequence shot in slow motion and a few other trademarks which make parody of his style all too easy.

With this in mind – the grinding grimness of the DC franchise and the success of Wonder Woman, the executives at DC used personal tragedy in Snyder’s private life to take his final movie in the Superman trilogy away from him and hand it over to Joss Whedon to give it a more Avengersy, quirky sensibility.

Now I look back on it, I can see that the resulting 2017 Justice League was a disaster. My review at the time tried to be upbeat, because the film was at least an attempt at being upbeat – yet the fact that I focused less on the movie and more on people talking in the theatre is telling. Neither fish nor fowl, it doesn’t stand comparison with the Snyder Cut. The movie didn’t allow enough space or time for its characters to evolve and peppered the story with inappropriate notes – stupid petty arguments between Diana Prince and Bruce Wayne. The villain, Steppenwolf, was a 2D cipher whose motives and inner life were as solid as the CGI code he was obviously made from, and the resurrection of Superman was rushed and unconvincing. This knocked on to the final action sequence which was essentially the Avengers rehashed, but with less panache. Overall, the academically recognised word for it is Yeuk.

In fact, it was so far removed from the trailers, with nearly all the previewed key scenes absent that I nearly asked for my money back for misselling.

And so I had both high and low hopes for The Snyder Cut that fans had called for with their social media campaign #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. Surely, it had to be better than the Whedon version… but really, that wasn’t saying much. And would it have the weird haste of BvS or the downbeat feel of Man Of Steel?

With this movie it’s clear that Snyder has been given free rein to do exactly what he wants and to realise his vision fully. And his vision is grand indeed.

Some have called the long slow build-up to this movie boring. And let’s face it, at 4 hours long, it could be a valid point. But that only comes from not committing to the movie in its entirety. When you settle in, knowing you’re getting a full four hours to unwind an emotionally rich and varied story, then it’s allowed to have moments of brooding.

And brooding it has in spades. But unlike the Snyder Cut’s predecessors, it also has great moments of humour. Barry Allen is a treat: whacky, brilliantly nerdy and at times hilarious. Occasional scenes between Gal Gadot’s Diana and Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne imply embarrassment at Bruce’s awkwardness – and humour at it. Alfred, played by Jeremy Irons is hilarious in his grim primness and his desire to control everything under his purview, down to the brewing of a cup of tea by the Themysciran goddess. Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman is genuinely funny in his ribbing of Wayne.

The reality is, the pace of the first section is the same sort of set-up you get in a film like The Longest Day (3 hours), as war preparations are made. And it is not short of action by any means – it’s simply that Snyder’s style uses the rhythm of the story-telling to allow the viewer to take breaths between action scenes and to build tension. It is most definitely not boring.

Some of my complaints about the Whedon Justice League are resolved in this movie. Observations that the Amazons are too weak against Steppenwolf are answered by a much extended Themyscira scene that sees the immortal women fighters putting up a much greater resistance to the alien encroachment. And but for the arrival of the cavalry three seconds too late, it literally could have gone either way. This is also true of Superman, who sits out most of this film, while the balance of powers between the heroes in the final sequence is much better done in this version.

The movie has its peculiarities. The oddest thing to get used to is the 4:3 aspect, which makes it reminiscent of old 1920s movies in some ways, or like watching an old 1970s tv show, rather than the widescreen one associates with these grand over-the-top, almost operatic films. It’s still something that seems strange – especially to someone who has gone to the bother of setting up a cinema in his office to get the full widescreen big sound experience.

Yes, the movie is dark. But it isn’t oppressive and portentous in the way Man of Steel was. And the back story of Ray Fisher’s Cyborg and the time the film takes to unwind it makes it clear how pivotal he is to the entire story, something entirely missed in the Whedon version.

The film is occasionally unintentionally funny. Steppenwolf does not come across as menacing, rather he is a bit of a sad case with a lisp. The framing of his face in his armour makes him look a little bit nerdy and hypersensitive – something of a failure – and not quite the evil supervillain one expects him to be.

My only real complaint is the tedious Epilogue scene, which speaks of a much longer project with all of Snyder’s problems as a director seeming to be concentrated in its grim post-Apocalyptic and drawn-out dialogue between Batman and The Joker. For anyone now calling to #RestoreTheSnyderVerse, that tedious scene should be enough on its own to waylay any thoughts of that happening. In many ways the triumph of the Snyder Cut is exactly why we should not #RestoreTheSnyderVerse. It’s done. It’s over. Get used to it.

But these are minor quibbles. The Snyder Cut is more than a simple improvement on the 2017 Whedon Justice League – it is a fully realised artistic vision, and as such, it makes me appreciate that actually, Snyder is a visionary involved in the same struggle so many artists are in: fighting market expectations to deliver what is in his heart. Here, with his Justice League, he gets closer to doing that than ever before.

Revisiting Songs from the Big Chair – A Cold War Vision?

Tears For Fears - Songs from the big chair

I think one of the big emotions I didn’t consciously notice in 1980s music which I’ve only really just started to appreciate on relistening, is an incredible sense of melancholy and anxiety.

Today, for example, I’ve been listening to the Tears for Fears album Songs From The Big Chair, and there is a lot of sadness and foreboding right through it – not just in the lyrics, which are often about confusion at being alive or being in the grip of events beyond your control – but also a sadness in the very structure of the melodies.

Even that classic tune Everybody Wants To Rule The World is essentially a warning to a newborn or newly conscious person about the madness s/he is about to encounter and the transient and ever-changing nature of existence.

If you consider the period it was written, the world was in the grip of a nuclear arms build-up, lyrics such as:

Help me make the most
Of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world

take on a dark meaning.

And do these lines below echo the run for the nuclear shelter…

There’s a room where the light won’t find you
Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down
When they do I’ll be right behind you
So glad we’ve almost made it
So sad they had to fade it
Everybody wants to rule the world

…or are they about escaping to a new freedom from a dark space where the confining walls are at last knocked down? If so, is there an Orphean resonance? Is the singer’s attempt to save Eurydice who says she is right behind you doomed to failure?

The fact is, the lyrics are vague enough to be ambiguous, and for this reason there remains something in them that is deeply unsettling. It is a far cry from a love song, or even a song of grief or joy. It’s something else, darker and more confusing, despite its assured and steady, if not eaxctly upbeat tune.

For me, this is one of the realities of much of the popular music from this era. Beneath the surface there is much that is unsettled, uncertain and lost.

The album Songs From The Big Chair viewed in its entirety contains more of that uncertainty. From the experimental sampling tracks such as The Big Chair, with its child’s voice and what sounds like a knife being whetted or a sword drawn, to tunes with titles such as Broken, Shout, Everybody Wants To Rule the World and Empire Building, the whole album is far more unsettling than you might expect from what is usually regarded as a pop album.

Now I consider it anew, Songs From The Big Chair is a lightning rod for the fears and indeed tears that for me were always bubbling below the surface as a teen growing up in the 1980s.

It’s taken me this long to realise.

Thirty Year Copyright? Come off it.

There has been some nonsense written about reducing the length of time of copyright for authors, down to, say, 30 years.

Many have already written about what this would mean for authors and other creators who produced something in their youth which was a steady seller, and then later in life struggled – thus relying on older work to carry them through a difficult patch. Beyond the fortunate few who have made millions from their work, there are many writers who work every day in a jobbing role, producing a body of work that they hope will see them through the leaner years.

The argument comes from a right wing Libertarian idea about State regulation. But this disruption of the conception of property would lead to results the Right would not be happy with.

The main argument those who want to drop copyright offer is a simple one: since it is now easy to reproduce works of art digitally, there’s no point trying to enforce against or discourage copying of work – and indeed, there would be a bonanza for other creators wishing to use the work of another writer and pay no fee.

Counter-arguments have included the idea that “a landlord of an apartment building wouldn’t expect to have his ownership curtailed after 30 years, nor should a writer.”

The reply is that a building and a book are different things. A building only has one owner.

And this is where that argument falls down. Because of course there is only one owner of the idea behind the written work, and that is the author.

“Ah,” comes the reply. “But the legal structures needed to support the idea of intellectual property amounts to a handout from the State.”

Let’s look at that. If one is opposed to State intervention when it comes to ownership of intellectual property, why stop there? Surely ALL State intervention in property matters is essentially supporting a legal fiction.

If you take the Libertarian argument to its logical conclusion, anyone who has acquired property through their labour is in the same position as the writer:

A house or a car can equally be said only to be in someone’s possession because the State upholds property laws.

If you can take away from the owner an idea they worked for, why can you not take away a physical object they have also worked for? Is it only because you can hold it in your hands or touch it? Surely, the point of principle about ownership is that the owner asserts the moral right to have earned it, whatever that property may consist of?

If we suddenly have a State intervening to strip people’s property rights, right wing Libertarians might consider whether this sits comfortably with their intellectual tradition. It is in fact half way towards socialism.

But it is only half way, because the State is only intervening to take away the property rights people now enjoy, yet providing no support for them after having done so.

As we saw with the massive handouts to business in the US during the pandemic, right wingers as ever support socialism when they see their own group will make a buck from it.

The fact is: intellectual property is property.

If right-wingers are going to ask people to hand theirs over, they’ll need to provide a fully socialised society to support those people they make destitute just because they happen to want to exploit a resource they neither wish to pay for nor want to put in the work to create themselves.

And as many a right winger will tell you: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Not even a publisher’s one.