Monday, February 26, 2007
Sunday, February 25, 2007
It is a place inextricably linked in my mind with growing, painfully through puberty. Here I saw and handled another boy's cock for the first time. Here were dens in the straw so hot and torrid that puberty smelt like bailing twine. Here I first heard filthy gossip about the horsy girl who came everyday: ‘she wanked off her horse you know’. Here I saw a tiny scrap of a boy hurled in his t-shirt and tight shorts into a patch of stinging nettles by an older girl, for what crime I don’t know, but his pain was both horrifying and delicious to me then. Here I…
Back then there was no one living on the site and from dusk till dawn it was deserted. Some nights I would climb over the lower sections of one of the empty stable doors and huddle, breathless in the dark, listening to the soft noises of the horses shifting in the straw on the other side of the walls and to the thumping of my own heart which raced at the sense of secret and mystery and the thrill of being caught. I would then undress, leaving my clothes in a small pile in the corner of the empty stable and climb, with difficulty and with knees scuffed to bleeding, on top of the wall which ran down the centre of the building, dividing the stables in half. The wall was only one brick wide but once on top, it was possible to walk carefully along it using the slanting roof beams on either side as hand-holds. In the play, Equus, the boy, the psychiatrist and Equus himself are the moving presences on stage but there is another, unmoving and ever-present; the stage, which is both stable and temple. At roughly the same time as these events I started attending church.
This is not the strange ritualised psychopathology of Alan Strang in Equus, nor is it, I believe, any more abnormal than any of the thousand secret acts of exploration that thousands of people undertake as children and would likely never speak of again - you are free to disagree. And the wonder of it was the horses. To a twelve year old a horse is a massive and violently ‘different’ kind of creature. Walking the top of the wall took me into a realm of half-darkness where the steam of the straw and the haze of the horses, their waxy hair, their piss, their shit and their sweat, rose and hung like a miasma - and in the middle of it, I stood far above (or so it seemed) their vast and solid bulk: skinny, nimble, frail and naked, breathing in the risk and the animals. I have not thought about these night time moments for years until, several experiences recently came together at once: a play, a memory, an artists work and some forgotten pieces of poetry.
“The Mari Lwyd was a mid-winter tradition popular especially in the villages of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. A horse’s skull, decked with ribbons and carried on a pole by a man hidden beneath a sheet, was taken from house to house by a group of revellers. The skull’s jaw could be manipulated to make snapping movements as the Mari Lwyd demanded payment at each house.”
By John Barnie
It is possible to be haunted by other people’s ghosts. I got the ghost of my never-known grandfather from my mother: a dark and sinister presence whose malign influence reaches from the past without the need of supernatural mechanisms to rake dead fingernails down a number of lives. Alan Strang found a mutilated Christ and a looming horse-head and worshipped where they joined. The Mari Lwyd, a much more tangible thing, something which can be delineated in line and paint, is the ghost that haunts every one of these phenomenal pictures by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. It is a ghost of Wales, it has the bitterness of a poem by R. S. Thomas, it was the nightmare of his father and is both ghost and god in these pictures.
To a twelve year old a horse is indeed a massive thing. It is a masculine thing. It is tacitly acknowledged but never aloud, that girls find a pleasure in riding which is to do with maturing, with sexual awakening, with the first feel of firm flesh under the hand and between the legs. Perhaps in Equus, and in these pictures of the Mari Lwyd, and in my night times in the stables there is a male equivalent. There is an unmistakeable sexuality about a horse and, mare or stallion, it is a masculine energy. To touch a horse is to feel dense, hard-packed muscle, it is to feel the heat of something so powerful as to be overwhelming, it is to feel vulnerable and small against the power of a creature on the outside edge of domesticity. To walk above horses on a precarious wall is an act of initiation and trembling. Here is death and sex and worship and sacrifice.
The psychiatrist in Equus muses that some things come ‘before’. To Alan’s mother this thing which comes ‘before’ is the devil. Although the word is never used, they both feel the active power of an archetype at work in themselves and in the boy. The active power of an archetype is not to be trifled with and whether it comes ‘before’ or is placed in our psyche by parents or trauma, what are archetypes but other people’s ghosts? and what is its active power but a haunting or a possession?
These pictures are, to me, a set of stations. Stations of the Cross they may not be but there is a journey here. Stations of the Cross are the points at which one stops on a journey towards death. The Mari Lwyd was a dead thing on a journey round a village, pausing like a religious procession round a church, or through the streets of Jerusalem, or on its way to a crucifixion.
Clive Hicks-Jenkins writes: “One of the last services I was able to perform for my father in the final stages of his illness, before he became unconscious, was to shave him. It was the first and the last time in our lives together that he was unable to do it for himself. We were both silent, and although I had to concentrate on the task, I was aware of his eyes locked on mine throughout”
I. Jesus is condemned to death
Man and man
are standing in the
white stone and high
columns of palaces.
Silence and frustration
hanging as the dust in
warm air circulates.
Questions about truth
are soft curls of
sunlight and silence,
and somewhere in the years
beyond this room and this judgement,
a million voices speak
in a blinding white silence.
From Stations of the Cross
By Callum James
II. Jesus is given his cross
Cracked grain and tight knot
to be worked and eased
like a muscle strung in pain
and butting against rough wood.
Rough hewn it will weigh down
a line of vertebrae
and twist through years
into precious metals,
mother of pearl, soft
engraving and small pendant.
Dead wood will flower
and flow like the water
drawn on its grain.
From Stations of the Cross
By Callum James
IX. Jesus falls for the third time
Down and down
to where toenails
are hard yellow
and breath is an intake of dirt
and where the gutters
run damp and stinking at noon.
Where the sun has gone:
an eclipse of legs and hem
Even the fascinated wince,
even their intake of breath
stutters as body and bloodied
wood crack heavy to the grit.
Light twists and heaven is,
for only a moment, dark.
And the moment stretches
and it will always be there
in the memory of angels.
VII. Jesus falls for the second time
Is it the world tips
or the pitch of liquid
in a dizzied ear?
The sickening spin
and the sudden
There must be tears
down here where the view
and calloused toes
and dog's paws and
tall, tall people
who rise above and seem complete.
God has crumpled
to a bag of stick limbs
and is empty as dust.
There must be tears down here.
This is a fall
that will shake the world.
From Stations of the Cross
By Callum James
XIII. Jesus is taken down from the cross
Hard to hold for lightness,
floating to the ground in the
care of arms; guided like a feather
Free from all weight, finally,
laid like a soft rag on the ground
here is the final proof
Monday, February 19, 2007
Saturday, February 17, 2007
The window had a difficult birth. There were delays in design and production. His original pencil draft was for a series of scenes from contemporary Irish literature in eight square panels of glass. But Clarke fell ill with TB and the panels were only just completed at the point when he had to be transported to the Swiss sanatorium where he eventually died. The window was, at that point unglazed. The family firm completed the work and billed the Ministry but the window was never transported to Geneva. It was bought back by Clarke's family and exhibited on loan at The Dublin Municipal Gallery until 1988 when it was bought and restored by the Wolfsonian Institute in Miami where it still resides today.
The images below show the window as it is now and then six watercolour and pencil sketches for some of the panels which were sold at Southeby's in 1996 with estimate ranging from £8,000-£20,000 each.
I'm fairly sure that this is the first appearence of these images on the Internet - which, to be honest, gives me a little frisson of pleasure! How camp is that"
PS. John C., I have to say that comparisons between the film and the play (or at least this production) could take me twice as long to write about as the comment on the play below. Suprisingly they didn't update the jingles and equally surprisingly, it didn't seem to matter much. The program notes say that the text was only updated in a very very few insignificant places. The whole had no feel of being dated. The other significant difference for me between stage and screen is that on the stage, there are some laughs! Obviously there can't be any of that straight-to-camera agonising by Dysart on stage and Griffiths certainly played it a lot less fiercely. The banter he has with his magistrate friend actually relieves the tension at points on the stage in a way it doesn't during the film. Anonymous, thank you for the information on the Delany bookcover - do feel free to introduce yourself if you want to... Macdowells, you can lecture me all day long about spacing, type, typography and the placing of the 'small stone' on the page and I will listen and learn.
It's 2.30am and I've just travelled back from the first night of previews of Equus at The Gielgud theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue in London. Walking through the streets of London afterwards with a friend I realised I was in a state of stunned shock, quite profoundly upset and distressed. I have known the play for many years, read it a number of times and ditto the film but never seen it on stage. I was 2 years old when the original 1973 version was on at The National Theatre and provoked a storm of controversy... but I should start at the beginning, as the psychiatrist Martin Dysart says, at the beginning of the play.
The set for this production was designed by John Napier who designed the 1972 original. It was, in many respects an updating of that design. A sparse set of four black blocks (the whole set is black) on a revolving central dais with two ranks of seating high up above the stage like an old 'anatomy theatre'. Six huge black doors around the rear, under the 'stage seating' open to become stable doors from which the much updated 'horses' emerge at various points.
The story is familiar to most but if you do not know it and want to learn it by going to see the play then stop reading now. Alan Strang (Daniel Radcliffe), a 17 year old boy blinds six horses with a metal spike and is sent to the care of psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Richard Griffiths); the play is the story of his treatment, told by Dysart who is, at the same time, feeling a crisis of vocation, agonising over the sense of wonder, passion and worship that he has to remove from his child patients in order to also remove their pain.
Strang comes from a dysfunctional family but not more than most (perhaps a little more than would have been admitted in the 1970s) a religious mother, an emotially cold and atheist father (those performances are wonderful precisely for their depiction of the ordinary-wierdness of families) who becomes obssessed with horses from a very young age. The obssession becomes a form of worship and he develops a fairly structured form of worship muddling up the violent images of Christianity with an Equine archetype he names Equus - both a slave and a master to humans (ie to Strang himself). With puberty the obssession becomes sexual and the when Strang has his first fumbling sexual encounter with a girl - in the barn attached to the stables, all he can see is Equus, and in a psychotic moment takes the metal spike to the stable and blinds the horses so they can no longer look at him, so Equus can no longer watch him. In Mythical terms he is trying to blind his god to his sins...
This is an intense play. It follows the destruction and rebuilding of a young soul and although there is healing, there is also loss because of the healing. Sitting six row back in the stalls, behind Radcliffe's family, there was a real immediacy to the experience. There's no denying that this production has been about Daniel Radcliffe from the beginning, heavily trailed with near-nude promotional shots and of course, his worldwide fame through the Harry Potter movies has made this an event that it otherwise wouldn't have been. That said, as a bit of a Daniel Radcliffe fan in my dizzy moments, he put in an astonishing performance. The nudity was far less shocking than seeing him smoking and swearing violenty, and when the clothes did come off, for all the talk of 'Dan the Man' and tabloid prurience about 'How Harry has Grown', it was quite clear that Alan Strang is a boy. Radcliffe may have been buffing up at the gym but he is still a slight and vulnerable-looking (and though he doesn't like it much - short) boy. All of which was only enhanced his characterisation.
I can't provide a 'theatre review' as such, I'm too tired and drained. The play has always been popular among gay men. The eroticism of the male horse and the disturbed teenage boy is a very 'masculine' experience in many ways (this production opens with a shirtless Strang pressed against the chest of his favourite horse 'Nugget'). The play is also about the conflict of teenage boy with adult world particularly as it revolves around sexuality. This, plus the fact that Alan Strang is normally played by a cutie in the nude (one has to be honest about this) has made for something of a gay following for the play. What I didn't realise was how much this tragic examination of mental illness was going to affect me. Far more than when reading the play or watching the film. Everything about me which has ever felt vulnerable, everything which is not quite right in my head and every unresolved issue of adolescence (and who doesn't have those), every pained desire for human contact and every imaginary emotional world I have ever created were presented back to me and torn apart on the stage. I'm not claiming this as a unique experience, when the play was written the 'generation conflict' and the notion of what it means to be a teenager were just as hot topics as they are today and form a central theme of the play and we all loose something of our sense of 'worship' to survive in an adult world. I am just stating my personal response. I feel as though I have been through a family tragedy, in my own family, impotent to do anything about it, as if the tragedy was, in some way, me.
I do not mind feeling like this. I am not about to fall into a pit of despair from which I will never rise. This is what good theatre, really good theatre should do to you... and Equus did.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
...and why the Porcelain Porn? just a shameless plug for R's occasional blog about the wonders of Victorian Porcelain....
Monday, February 12, 2007
It is perhaps partly this experience that prompted one of Delany's later academic themes in the study of science fiction which has been to place the physical object, the book, its economics and production within the sphere of literary criticism.
The point can be well made with reference to the Harry Potter books of all things. Imagine J K Rowling going to her publisher with Harry Potter number one, and an outline of the way the story would develop through seven novels. No matter how enthusiastic they may have been, no publisher in their right mind would have alowed the first Harry Potter book (HP and the Philosopher's Stone) to be the doorstep size of the fourth, fifth and sixth books. It's not until the fourth book that Rowling has economic power enough to produce what she wants and to know it will be published and find an audience. Imagine what might have happened to the Harry Potter series is Rowling had been in a position to write the first three books as fully as the (currently) last three? Hence, the economics of book production have had a literary effect.
Such is the same with Ace Books. It was very often the first UK publication (normally in paperback) which saw the first publication of the 'full text' of Delany's early novels.
The Jewels of Aptor
Ace Books (Ace Double F-173), New York, 1962
This little novel is your basic quest story and as such it has, I think, been unfairly underestimated in the Delany canon, even by Delany's fans. Its a real treat to read even forty plus years on. Perhaps expecially forty years on, as it sparkles with all the themes SRD later came to explore more fully and with the beginnings of a very individual style. The cover isn't credited but I wouldn't be surprised if it were Jack Gaughan.
The Towers of Toron
Ace Books (Ace Double F-261), New York, 1964
Now how's this for whacky! The artist is uncredited and to be honest, it's such a long time since I've read this one that I couldn't tell you what kind of justice s/he might or might not be doing to the story - but does it really matter with graphics like that!
The Ballad of Beta-2
Ace Books (Ace Double M-121), New York, 1965
So many of Delany's short (because of Ace Books word limits) early novels are small masterpieces in their own right. This one follows a PhD student in ethnography out into space looking for the origin of a song. Something as simple as this becomes an involved tale of culture, language and isolation which has such a level of sophistication that it is difficult to see what the cover artist was thinking. This cover is credited to Ed Valigursky. One can see where he was going with it on reading the story but it does seem a little dated even for 1965. Perhaps it would have been more at home on the cover of the SF of the decade before. One can't say the same of the typographical choices on the cover! Could that font be any more 'sixties'?
Ace Books (F-388), New York, 1966
This is one of Delany's most enduring tales, certainly if the number of reprints and translations is to be taken as any indication. Also, one of the couple of SRD novels which made it into the recent, and acclaimed, SF Masterworks Series by Gollancz. A tale about the use of language set in what might now be regarded as an almost cyber-punk style universe. How very few SF novels have a female poet as the protagonist. No artist credited with the cover. I should also just take a moment to boast that my copy of this, along with The Einstein Intersection below are two of those most rare things - near mint copies of an 1960s Ace Paperback!
Ace Books (Ace Double M-139), New York, 1966
One of Delany's most complex and satisfying short works which should not be confused with the graphic novel Empire. This novel is exceptionally difficult to illustrate given that it was a time-travel story of great convolutions. This cover which is attributed to Jack Gaughan (see below for the reliability of Ace Books attributions although in this case at least the style looks right) has some reference to the story but any illustrator would have struggled with producing one image for the cover. There are some beautiful illustrations for the story by John Jude Palencar in the 1981 Bantam collection of short Delany fiction Distant Stars. In fact now I have thought of them I may have to include them in a later post. But Palencar had the advantage of being able to produce multiple images which follow the story closely - not an option open to the cover illustrator.
The Einstein Intersection
Ace Books (F-427), New York, 1967
Delany's breakthrough novel and perhaps one of the most evocative of the Ace covers for his work, this one by Jack Gaughan. Elsewhere on the blog I have noted that there is another cover in white with an orange minotaur's head which is also credited to Jack Gaughan. This would appear to be a later printing in which Ace Books, with its usual cavalier attitude to such things, simply forgot to change the attribution to a different artist. The artists daughter was in touch with me at the time of the previous post to say that she agreed that second cover did not look much like her father's work. This cover, the genuine Gaughan not only respects the contents of the story but also, and it is rare to be able to say this about Ace Book covers, the typography is rather nicely done.