David Hockney, once again, with feeling

I’ve just been to see the David Hockney show at the Royal Academy, which is amazing. Some of the (more idiotic) reviwers are praising with faint damns, I think because he’s popular, therefore they’d better look austere and elite. Tuh. (Noise of contempt.)

An iPad drawing, 'The arrival of spring in Woldgate, 2 January', courtesy the artist/RA

I am slow to praise, and my friends tell me I carp too much. Yet my considered response yesterday was ‘The man is a fucking genius.’ The work on show at the Royal Academy is almost entirely work from the last few years, but in 2006 the National Portrait Gallery had a retrospective which was a revelation. My review from that, and from a concurrent gallery show, from the Times Literary Supplement, below:

David Hockney

A Year in Yorkshire: Annely Juda Fine Art (to 28 October)

Portraits: National Portrait Gallery (to 21 January 2007)

 There are three David Hockneys, I think, and only one of them matters. The first one, and the least important, although the most intrusive, is the public David Hockney, the 1960s owl-bespectacled mop-top turned 21st-century curmudgeon, the one who writes letters to the newspapers and fusses about what the modern world is coming to. He is amusing or irritating, depending on one’s own personality, but he is also easily pushed aside. The second David Hockney is more difficult to overlook. This is the David Hockney of reproductions, the Hockney of A Bigger Splash and Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy – not the paintings themselves, but of postcard and poster reproductions. This David Hockney is troublesome, because he stands in the way of the real David Hockney – and more worryingly, he stands in the way of a clear view of the real David Hockney’s work.

For the surprising fact is, David Hockney’s work does not reproduce well, does not give a good idea of the real thing. This is the case with many artists – Francis Bacon springs most readily to mind. But reproductions of Bacon’s work look just plain bad: unclear, muddy and fussy. Unless one is of the ‘all modern art is a scam’ school, the paintings look so bad in reproduction that it is always immediately clear that they must be poor facsimiles. Reproductions of Hockney’s works, however, look sensational. They are vibrant, clear, and full of Pop-y joie de vivre. They are slick and cheery, picking up and even intensifying Hockney’s great graphic strengths. Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71) is not just an iconic image of the 60s and 70s. It is also one of the Tate’s best-selling postcards, and it was number 5 in the BBC’s poll of ‘The Greatest Painting in Britain’ (as well as being the only 20th-century image to make the list). The image, almost certainly, is far more often seen in reproduction than it is in reality.

Without access to the actual artwork, therefore, one can easily lose sight of the fact that the reproduction is only a pale reflection of the reality. Even when one knows Mr and Mrs Clark well, and knows how reduced it becomes in reproduction – how the whites, from Clark’s cigarette, forward to the cat, back to the balcony railing, forward to the white table and lilies, back again to the white line on the wall, how these whites, that in the painting hold the composition in a tension of combatative planes, vanish and flatten completely in a photograph. Then there are the fluctuating proportions (a telephone nearly half the size of a lamp, and the same size Read more of this post

Goodness, what a fuss

The Booker shortlist is announced, to predictable screaming and whining. What, no Hollinghurst? What, no Barry, no Ali Smith, no this no that no the other? Boyd Tonkin in the Independent writes that we need to ‘fix’ the prize, which has apparently gone woefully astray, in order to ‘issue a final, authoritative verdict on the year’ (that is a quote from someone, possibly Julian Barnes, although it’s not quite clear).

Oh yeah? And how do we do that? Who does that? Whose finality? Whose authority? They’re books. It’s a matter of taste, for God’s sake, I want to scream (and sometimes do, but quietly, so as not to frighten the horses).

Hollinghurst wasn’t chosen. Well, the earth has obviously tilted on its axis. Even if you think The Stranger’s Child was perfection (and I didn’t – the opening section was astonishing, and then it just faded away to a series of random encounters) – even if you did think it was perfection, it was one of hundreds of books, and there were only six slots. It’s like the annual newspaper story of the student with umpty-eleven starred A-levels who doesn’t get into Cambridge. Well, no, says rationality; s/he didn’t, because there were another couple of hundred students with umpty-eleven starred A-levels too. It doesn’t mean the student’s no good, or the novel’s no good, just that there are a finite number of places and a combination of taste, circumstance and sheer bloody random chance selected others for the slot.

We can’t ‘fix’ the prize, because it’s perfectly obvious (or it is if you’re not required to churn out the annual newspaper column of angst) that this is the deal: this bunch of people chose that bunch of books; another bunch would chose something else.

There is no final, no independent authority. Much like life, really. Which may be what people really object to.

Update on boy-scout reviewing: Amazon drummed out of the corps

I posted yesterday on Amazon’s policy of promoting ‘helpful’ reviews – positive reviews for books get their reviewers freebies, while negative reviews don’t. Today’s Amazon gem is that they are offering a horsetrade on what in the publishing industry are known as blurbs – those sentences on the cover that say ‘I couldn’t put it down – Leo Tolstoy’. Amazon it has been revealed (here) is sending Amazon-published books to authors, and asking for blurbs, offering to promote the blurbing author’s work in exchange. So now, every time Leo T. sends in a puff, War and Peace and any other books he has written (I believe there were some) get promotional pushes from Amazon.

As with the reviewing, it’s a question of who benefits, and as with all monopolies and single supply-chains, it is not the consumer. When consumers receive promotional material saying Leo T. is the best thing since Fyodor D.’s book about sibling rivalry, there is no way for them to know it is because Leo wrote a puff saying Amazon’s self-published book on the Siege of Leningrad was tops.

It doesn’t really matter if it is tops or not. It’s the lack of information. When a publisher asks Leo to blurb a book, the publisher doesn’t do it by sending a letter saying ‘We’ll push your book harder’ – apart from anything else, because the publisher has no real way of doing that: publishers don’t own bookstores, don’t have control over reviews. It may be that Leo supplies blurbs because he wants to be ‘in’ with that publisher/editor; it may be that he does it because he wants his name connected with that particular book or author; it may even be that he does it because he likes the book. But there is no tangible reward, no kick-back.

The editor/publisher may think more kindly of him. (That and a dime will get him a cup of coffee, in my experience.) It may do him some good if the book does well, as more people will see his name. But there is no secret pay-off: it’s all there, open, on the cover of the book in front of the consumer.

Certainly, if there is secret backscratching going on, I’ve never been offered any. Which is, of course, outrageous.

Points for ‘helpfulness’: Boy-scout reviewing?

OK, we’re back on reviewing. Everyone has (rightly) been wary of Amazon’s ‘reviews’ — an agent highlighted one review a few weeks ago where the ‘reviewer’ gave a dismissive one-star review to a book that s/he admitted to not having read. (S/he didn’t like the idea of it, apparently.) But on the whole, many people still skim down a line of reviews, looking at the overall positive/negative feedback, even while accepting that many of the reviews are negative ‘because I couldn’t identify with any of the characters’ or similar reasons that will have no effect on any other reader.

However, it is also worth remembering that the ‘top’ Amazon reviewers are also receiving free books and merchandise, and their position as ‘top’ reviewers is contingent not merely on the number of reviews that they write, as I had previously thought, but on the positive nature of their reviews. Amazon says quite straightforwardly that ‘overall helpfulness’ should be the focus of the reviews. And, not surprisingly from a retailer who makes its substantial pile from selling books, ‘helpfulness’ does not equate to a review that says ‘Save your pennies, this book is a steaming pile of shite.’

So instead, the reviewers, who not unreasonably since they are unpaid, want their free books, beaver away as some sort of literary version of P. G. Wodehouse’s Edwin the Boy-Scout, performing last week but one’s Daily Act of Kindness. The problem is, they are being kind to Amazon, not to the users of the site. Those people are being suckered into spending money on things that the reviewer doesn’t actually like: not kind at all.

I have a suggestion, although it’s an odd one. Why don’t readers rely on reviewers who get paid, and whose reviews appear in independent forums? I know, we could call them ‘book review sections’, and they could be printed in, mmm, perhaps newspapers and magazines? Just an idea.

Nah, probably won’t work.

 

Slutwalks? You (haven’t) come a long way, baby!

Three thousand women turned out in London this weekend for a ‘Slutwalk’. This movement to assign responsibility for rape to its perpetrators, not to its victims, was triggered originally by a Canadian policeman, whose primary advice to women on how to avoid being raped was, ‘Don’t dress like sluts’. As one of the signs so pithily pointed out on Saturday, ‘A Dress is Not a Yes.’

But the policeman was only one in a long line who blamed women and how they appeared, how they presented themselves, for the violence and ‘unwanted attentions’, as it used to be called, inflicted on them, simply for being in a public place.

I have been reading 19th-century books on prostitution in London (well, a job’s a job), and one of the sanest (which isn’t saying much) authors says that he and a friend had ‘counted 185 [prostitutes] in the course of a walk home from the Opera to Portland-place’. Short of accosting each one, it is hard to know how he knew the 185 he counted were in fact sex-workers. Some, perhaps many, of the women may have spoken to him, offering their services. It is just as likely, though, that he was making his judgments based on the women’s dress, manner, whether or not they met his eye: in other words, the woman who dressed or behaved in a way he and other men considered inappropriate were by definition whores. The men got to judge.

Even more closely resembling the ‘slutwalk’ campaigners’ complaints was the story that played out in the pages of the Times in the 1860s. ‘Paterfamilias’ wrote to the editor (letters from members of the public were often signed with only a sobriquet, frequently in Latin, such as ‘Pro Bono Publico’) to complain that on a trip to London his daughters had been followed down Oxford Street by ‘scoundrels’ who stared at them and passed comments. ‘Puella’ replied that she frequently walked down the same street and was never accosted; perhaps, she said, the girls’ country dress or outgoing rural manners had encouraged these men? ‘Paterfamilias’, by return, was indignant: his daughters were not in bright clothing, still being in mourning for Prince Albert. He was backed up by ‘M’, a day-governess (one who went from pupil’s house to pupil’s house). She too was frequently accosted by ‘middle-aged and older men’.

Others joined in, on both sides of the question. So much interest was aroused by this correspondence that the following month the Saturday Review carried an article: because prostitutes frequented fashionable shopping-streets, if women dress nicely, they must expect to be looked at, but nonetheless, ‘the remedy is in their own hands…If they will be seen in the well-preserved coverts, it is for them to be careful that they do not look like game…Let them dress thoroughly unbecomingly. Let them procure poke bonnets, stint their skirts to a moderate circumference, and cultivate sad-looking underclothing. Any woman thus armed, and walking on without sauntering or looking about her, is perfectly safe even from amorous glances.’ (Note that even badly dressed women still needed to keep their eyes down and walk briskly.)

So then as now, unwanted attention is all our fault, ladies — we just need to put on our poke bonnets, take up as little space in the world as possible, keep our mouths shut, our eyes on the ground, and if we’re very lucky, we can go about our daily business. Oh brave new world!

A curator, my kingdom for a curator

OK, can someone please explain to me (in words of one syllable, for the hard-of-thinking) this passion for the words ‘curator’ and ‘curating’? I mean, when did this happen? One minute, everyone is editing, or selecting, or choosing, or programming. I turn my back for a second, and they’re all curators.

In the Guardian (here) yesterday, Luke Jennings posted a piece about the Dave St-Pierre Dance Company (or, as they’ve become known, The Naked Canadians). There were lots of very silly responses, and a few thoughtful ones. One of the most intelligent and measured was by ‘riversutra’, who is clearly involved in the professional dance world. I know this, because in his/her very sensible comments s/he used the phrase ‘as someone who both produces and curates dance’. So, s/he programmes (a word s/he also used) — and? And what?

‘Curator’ seems to have evolved from ‘curate’, a clergyman who has the care of souls in his keeping. (It also, much to my surprise and pleasure, appears to be a tiered cake-stand, also known as a ‘curate’s comfort’, or ‘curate’s friend’, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here.)

Instead, it is clear that the verb to curate is being used as a back-formation from the function of a museum curator, ‘The officer in charge of a museum, gallery of art, library, or the like; a keeper, custodian’.

But this is not what ‘riversutra’ meant — that s/he was in charge. Nor does Mike Shatzkin, in his interesting book blog (here). He talks about ‘The core challenge of bookselling’ being (horrible neologism alert!)  ‘curation’.

In a shop, that curation begins with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwhelming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? [Spined? Oh my God: this is worse than curation!] Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

‘Curation’ (ick) here means ‘display’, or, if we want to stretch it, ‘looking after stuff’. But where do we stop? If ‘looking after’ is ‘curation’ (really ick), do people curate their stamp collections? Their dogs? When your socks need darning, do you ‘curate’ them?

I realize I’m being grumpily pedantic: if you want to curate your dog, why should old bossy-boots over here stop you? Now I mention it, I can’t actually come up with a reason why my own instinctive protest against the distortion of a word should count. So I’m registering it here, quietly; when you say you’re a curator, and you don’t work in a museum, I’ll try not to flinch.

Help write Victorian history

What fun. The British Library (here) is calling all budding Victorianists to join them on 4 June for a massive edit-in. The idea from the library’s point of view is to help spread the word about the depth and breadth of the various Victorian collections quietly waiting for readers at the BL, by adding new Wikipedia entries, or updating and expanding already existing ones, and particularly focusing on their special collections: Dickens, boys’-own stories, penny-dreadfuls, the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

‘Access’ is changing. When I first started to write, if I needed a date, I checked it in an encyclopaedia, on the shelves across the room. Spelling, a dictionary, on the other side. A page reference? It was jotted down on a ‘to check when I’m next in the library’ list.

And now? Dates are online, either Wikipedia for the biggies, the Dictionary of National Biography for the UK figures, accessed via the London Library (blessings on your head, LL!) or a dozen other websites. Spelling, OED via the Westminster Public Library. Page reference? Google books. Checking citations, Project Gutenberg. And every day it still seems like a miracle. My ‘to check in the library list’ is now vanishingly small.

One of the greatest developments is also the BL’s, its digitization of hundreds of complete runs of 19th-century newspapers. This has opened up huge new research areas, and is quickly changing our views of British history, turning it from a London, Times-centric research base, as has been the default, to a broader view, geographically, politically and socially.

The one caveat is that it is only free if you are physically in the BL, which strikes me as very peculiar. If you have a reader’s ticket, and can key in your number, why not free to any registered BL reader, as with so many libraries?

A girl can dream…

‘Where does I go in?’ she cried

The Guardian, supposedly a left-of-centre, republican-leaning (that’s non-monarchist to you USA-ers, not Republican with a capital ‘r’) newspaper, has joined in the royal wedding media barf-fest.

Truly. Yesterday they had a double-page spread on Kate Middleton, who has, as far as anyone can tell, done nothing of any significance in her life, apart from being about to marry well: no job (no, three weeks working for a clothing chain and a nominal job with mummy and daddy do not count), no career, no apparent aspirations beyond marriage and (we assume) children.

All fine and good — these are acceptable aspirations, if of interest only to the holder of them and her family. But as they are not being kept private, it is worth noting their, um, shall we say, scantiness.

So, back to the Guardian. Two pages on someone with her attainments is a tough ask. But the heroic Patrick Barkham proved worthy. ‘Middleton dresses herself’, according to ‘one royal source’. Hold the back page! (And her sippy cup: there is no evidence that, although she is obviously a whizz with buttons, she can manage a glass yet.)

When I was two or three my mother decided I was old enough to dress myself. She left me sitting on the floor surrounded by my clothes. Ten minutes later she came back to check progress. She found me, still naked, turning my vest round and round in my hands, fretting, ‘Where does I go in?’

Kate Middleton’s found where she goes — and that’s fine. I’m just not sure why the Guardian followed.

When the Telegraph was really a crime-sheet

A shopkeeper named Frederick Gold, who lived near Brighton, travelled up to London once a week to collect his share of the shop’s takings. On 27 June 1881, he took his £38 and returned to Brighton via London Bridge station, with a man named Percy Lefroy buying one of the few other first-class tickets (all of the others were later found to be purchased by women). As the train passed Croydon, a passenger heard ‘four explosions’, and soon after, the residents of cottages fronting the railway saw two people struggling in one of the compartments.

When the train arrived at Brighton station a man named Percy Lefroy, dishevelled, with his collar ripped off, and ‘smothered with gore’, was stopped.

He claimed that as the train entered a tunnel, the two other people in his compartment had jumped him, and he had been knocked unconscious, remaining in that condition almost until the train reached Brighton. When asked why he had a watch-chain in his shoe, he said he had put it there for safekeeping. Nothing was known against him, and he was allowed to go.

That afternoon, however, a railway worker found the body of Mr Gold lying near the line, shot, and with knife wounds; a collar, not his, was found lying nearby, as was a hat and umbrella, which were his, and another hat, in a different size. And his watch was missing.

By the time all of this had been discovered, the only other first-class railway passenger, Lefroy, had vanished from his cousin’s in Croydon. The search for him intensified as it was discovered he had redeemed a pistol from the pawnshop that same day.

The Telegraph published his photograph, and a landladyin Stepney recognized him as her new lodger, who claimed to be an engineer from LIverpool. She notified the police, and Lefroy was arrested.

His trial told a very routine story: he was poor, he was planning to rob someone, and unforunately for him (and for Mr Gold), Gold put up a fight, and was killed. Lefroy was convicted, and in the short-term found fame in cartoons and comic songs. Greyhounds were named for him, as was ‘a black gelding, a good wheeler…a very fine goer’.

In the long run, however, Lefroy has come down to posterity as the first-ever criminal caught through the publication of a ‘wanted’ photograph.

How to Murder your Wife, in 2 easy steps

In his novel Armadale, Wilkie Collins seemed to share the generally low view of professional detectives, as working-class men sticking their noses where they weren’t wanted. And the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act added to the general perception.

Divorce was now possible without getting a special act passed in parliament, but to obtain a divorce, a woman had to prove adultery with either bigamy, incest or cruelty; a man could divorce for adultery alone. In either case, the need to prove adultery greatly increased the number of private detectives. In Armadale the detective James Bashwood operates out of an office on ‘Shadyside Place’, and in case that hint isn’t heavy enough, he is described as a ‘vile creature…a man professionally ready on the merest suspicion (if the merest suspicion paid him) to get under our beds, and to look through gimlet-holes in our doors.’ Allan Armadale, headstrong and naive, initially rejects the idea of hiring a detective, calling it ‘meddling in…private affairs’.

Not meddling in others’ private affairs, it was thought, had much to recommend it.  It took Dr Edward Pritchard to change some minds. Pritchard was the third of four high-profile doctor-murderers in a quarter-century. Perhaps familiarity was breeding contempt, but people were becoming progressively less shocked with the idea that a middle-class, outwardly respectable professional man might commit murder. Pritchard himself aroused only local interest, not national. For that, it took a discussion on the merits or demerits of professional busybodies vs. professional detachment.

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