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Stan Barstow

Stan Barstow, 1928-2011. author

I came across this photo of Stan Barstow  whilst tracking down something else.  Looking like a young Orwell, he actually was the author of A Kind of Loving, published in 1960.  He was born in 1928, thus the officer's moustache which he was too young to qualify for.  This is, perhaps, one of the things that made that generation angry.  They couldn't help being born in 1928 and so being only 17 when WWII ended – they'd missed it all.  And angry they were, John Osborne, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, Britain's 'angry young men' writing in the late 1950s, gritty portrayals of postwar northern urban life that cracked the tin ceiling of the working class.  

I'd read these books, because my father was a librarian and they were all around the house, and then in the early 1960s they were all made into films – black and white, wonderfully bleak, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Room at the Top, A Taste of Honey – all seen in grade 8 or 9 at the Capitol Theatre in Nanaimo.  I fell for it all like a ton of bricks, as they say.  Profoundly passionate, hopelessly romantic within the tough strictures of working class morés; clearly I wasn't reading Virginia Woolf – that came in grade 10, nonetheless I absorbed it all, as a 14 year-old will do.  It didn't have anything to do with a life in Canada, but that's the thing about reading books, one is transported. Completely.

Thinking of re-reading Barstow, I find the Calgary Public Library which lauds itself for being the most active in the country, has none of his books. 


Plinth, book

cover to Music for Smalls Lighthouse, Plinth, 2010

Plinth 'Music For Smalls Lighthouse.' Limited edition of 150. Hand-bound, cloth cover, hardback book tied with printed silk ribbon. Booklet pages consist of sugar paper, braille bible, pianola sheet.


the veteran's charter

The bungled demobilization of Canadians returning from the First World War contributed to a period of intense political, social, and economic upheaval. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Ottawa - having learned from the previous domestic turmoil - immediately began planning for the return of veterans, who ultimately numbered more than one million, to civilian life. On to Civvy Street tells the story of the development and administration of the resulting program, which shaped an entire generation.

This came in a McGill-Queen's University Press notice yesterday. I'm pleased to see it.

It has always disturbed me that the WWII veterans, as a group, were such Liberal-hating Conservatives when it was the Liberal government under McKenzie King that put the Veteran's Charter together.  One of the provisions was paid tuition at university for veterans, allowing tens of thousands to get professional degrees that without the DVA grants would have been impossible.  Others were given the downpayment on a mortgage, allowing hundreds of thousands entry into home-ownership.  Both these things, the resultant baby boom (couples could afford to have children and they had a house for them) and the twenty-year economic boom of the 50s and 60s shot several generations into almost unaccountable prosperity. 

However, the veterans never forgave the unification of the forces or the changing of the flag.  Now that we have the RCN and the RCAF back, will we be going back to the Red Ensign?  The gutting of the Veteran's Charter is the real issue, not the names.  Pat Stogran has been vociferous about this. And he was fired, by the Conservatives that all the veterans vote for. 

Oh well, we haven't got any Liberals anymore, veterans of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia are living in tents on Vancouver Island according to yesterday's documentary on The Current, and photographs of the Queen are replacing Canadian art in government buildings.  We seem to be going backwards, but not to the right things.



oh Canada

covers all the angles I think. 


books on holiday

R. de Salis, photographer. London Library book on vacation. August 2007, Morea, Greece.

Now here is a nice project.  This enigmatic photo is of a book from the London Library, written by Patrick Leigh Fermor who recently died.  The book is his 2003 Words of Mercury, which I gather in 2007 Fermor took on holiday to Morea in Greece.

In 1933 Fermor walked to Constantinople, carrying Horace's Odes and the Oxford Book of English Verse.  During WWII and in the SOE he was posted to Crete and conducted wholly novelistic underground operations eventually made into a movie starring Dirk Bogarde.  This is a kind of British life I'm not sure exists much any more – or at least isn't heroised in quite the same way as it was throughout the twentieth century.  

Books on holidays: a chance to fade in the sun for a bit, a break from the dim stacks.  And books do travel: a friend who had done his three year sentence at the University of Manitoba for his BES took a year out working on a fishing boat off the west coast.  He arrived in London to start at the AA, carrying with him a Laurence Durrell book borrowed from the Vancouver Island Regional Library branch in Tofino.  As my father was the director of this regional library system and used an honour-based borrowing system for all 30 branches (you didn't have a library card, you just signed your name; he came from a Patrick Leigh Fermor world) the arrival of this book in my one-up one-down in South Kensington was completely magical.  I doubt it left London, Tony certainly didn't. 

The book had returned to its site of publication, better travelled than most people.


Gareth Long and Derek Sullivan: the illustrated dictionary of received ideas

Gareth Long and Derek Sullivan. The Illustrated Dictionary of Received Ideas.

Gustave Flaubert. Dictionnaire des Idees Reçues
A dictionary of received wisdom: misguided, banal, what everyone thinks and never questions.  In 1852 Flaubert wrote 'It would be the justification of Whatever is, is right'.

Jorn Barger in 2002 did an analytic reorganisation of the dictionary into broad categories such as 'things to make fun of' (Philosophy: always snigger at it), things to thunder against' (Whitewash (on church walls) Thunder against it.  This aesthetic anger is extremely becoming). 'Things to pretend (Illusions: Pretend to have had a great many, and complain that you have lost them all).

The kind of person, or people, defined by this dictionary of admirable philistinism is familiar to anyone who has ever read a British novel about the class system but to find it so sharply defined in France is surprising when most of what we know of France is Proust (one must claim to have read it, a long time ago though), Sartre (did him in university – brilliant), de Beauvoir (unrequited lover/feminist – really responsible for Sartre's success) — this is catching, this received wisdom stuff. The clichés come so easily, they must be just below the surface.

Anyway, wouldn't have known about Flaubert's dictionnaire if I hadn't heard about Gareth Long and Derek Sullivan's ongoing project to illustrate the dictionary.   They hold public drawing sessions, one of which was at Artexte last October and another is today, June 1 at the Art Gallery of York University.   They've built a special desk to do these drawings on, taken from Flaubert's last and incomplete book, Bouvard and Pécuchet, so we are looking at a large project, part performance, part book making, for there are books, small, that come out of this – one is published by Artexte (edition of 150, $40), others in smaller editions from other venues

Flaubert on what everyone knows about architects: Architectes --- tous imbéciles.
--- oublient toujours l'escalier des maisons.

Gareth Long and Derek Sullivan. Illustrated Dictionary of Received ideas. here- Antiques: Are always of modern fabrication. Antiquities: Commonplace, boring.


Andrew Piper on lists

Dimitri Nabokov, note included in The Original of Laura (Knopf 2008)Andrew Piper's essay 'Media and Metamorphosis: on notes and books' in the new everyday, a media commons project  talks about the notes made by writers as they organise a novel, or a poem cycle – anything complex that moves from idea to what is eventually published.  The fact that marginalia is a genre, that the notes themselves are a significant narrative, changes the way one thinks of the book.  It isn't just the narrative between two covers, but a book is just one piece of a much larger story that occurs in many forms, not least the act of writing itself.

Nabokov's list, above, of synonyms for removing something has one phrase completely scribbled out as if it offended him.  This isn't a list of possibles, a to-do list, rather it is a list of rejections.  Above all, it takes the words that moil around in the brain and makes them visual.  And once they are visual, they can be considered.

Goethe's list of keywords, the framework for Novella, is a map, with each country crossed off as he passed through it.

Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv, collection number 25, signature W 1990


problem-solving genres

Wallander. Yellow Bird, Left Bank Pictures and TKBC for BBC ScotlandJust finished reading Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled.  There is always so much more in the books than in the television versions, good that they are.  It is interesting, the huge number of detective books and dramas on offer right now, from the ongoing popularity of Agatha Christie to the relatively newly discovered Stig Larsson.  What they all share is that the narrative, no matter how complex, is sorted out by the end of the book.  In fact solving a conundrum is the end of the narrative.  In Mankell most of the police wander about in a Swedish fog, pursuing dead ends, being sad, working to overcome personal difficulties, not being able to work because of personal difficulties, generally going nowhere other than collecting a lot of disconnected material and then at the 11th hour the focus sharpens and it all falls together.  In real life things rarely fall together.  Narratives drift, like dreams, into new stories, none of which ever really end.  Perhaps this is why detective fiction is so popular: the genre guarantees that the story will end.  How attractive.  There is retribution, there is payback,  I like it.  It doesn't often happen

Early detectives - Holmes, Poirot, Whimsy - shot straight through all the clues. The story was complex, but logical.  New detectives are plagued by personal demons, nothing is as it seems.  This too is attractive.  Life is very confusing.  They bring order to it.

Thinking about architecture and how by its very nature it solves problems, whether those problems are program, density, image, brand, materiality or energy consumption.  There is an end point, the building is done and its post-occupation narrative is not allowed to wander too far off expectations.  Compared to other arts where difficulty and inconclusiveness have long been the norm, architecture is like a tightly plotted detective novel with no surprises.  Should this be a measure of its success -- that it responds to our desire for the tidy ending in a sloppy uncontrollable world?  Or, should architecture lean towards the fluid accommodation of extremely fluid and migratory life in the world today?


Paul Nash: the surrealist eye

Paul Nash. Boat on the Shore, South of France, 1933/4

Last week the Guardian had this photo on their website from an exhibition of Paul Nash's photographs currently on view in Sheffield.  Coincidentally, I just finished reading Pat Barker's novel about the Slade, WWI, war artists and the purpose of war art, Life Class, published in 2007. This appears to have been loosely based on the WWI experience of both Paul Nash (1889-1946) and his brother,  John Nash (1893-1977) who also enlisted in the Artists Rifles. Both might be called meticulous and passionate landscape draughtsmen, rendering complex landscapes into simpler sheets and planes that record an ancient topology usually scarred by some form of modernity.

Between 1931 and 1946 when he died, Paul Nash had a No. 1A pocket Kodak camera with which he photographed landscapes, objects, rocks and rubbish with a slightly crooked surrealist eye.   The exhibition mounted by Abbott and Holder shows a few of these photographs, from the White Horse at Uffington to an Avebury standing stone.  Tree trunks and fence posts become sculptural, ploughed fields become pattern, a topiary garden with a large looming house on the other side of a hedge becomes comically Gothic. 

The Guardian blurb mentions a pathetic fallacy at play in these photographs.  I must say I'd forgotten what the pathetic fallacy was for a moment, but I don't think this is what it is.  One might project all sorts of social preoccupations on the subject matter, but if one was a visual artist, a surrealist and insisted on using your pathetic little pocket Kodak for everything, I would take the cue from surrealism instead.  These are photographs of curious, inexplicable things. 

Paul Nash. The Box Garden, Beckley Park, Oxfordshire. 1943


pocket books

Victorian books were often very small, soft-covered and portable.  The original pocket books, for the pocket.  I once read that Leslie Stephen sometimes walked 40 miles in a day, books in his pockets, reading while he walked.  I had a grandfather who would walk out with gun, dog and book across the prairie from the last street in Calgary, 18A SW, where he lived.  He was born in 1875, came to Canada in 1908 bringing with him his violin, his patent-leather dance slippers, his school blazer and his Hardy fishing rod.  Things were different then.

Books were one's companions in one's solitary pursuits.  Books of poetry were high on the list, perhaps because poems then often had a walking rhythm, were episodic, compressed, gave one lots to think about.  Wilfred Owen took his Keats to the Front in WWI.

We resist, today, being left alone with our thoughts – there is certainly a lot of stuff that rushes into the void, sort of as if we don't have any thoughts of our own really.   Maybe we don't, but if my head is an empty desert I would prefer it be filled with Yeats or Heaney or Hughes.  personally.  Unfortunately I hardly have the time to stroll about, book in hand.


the lower case reading room

the lower case reading room. 3934 Main Street, Vancouver BCThe Regional Assembly of Text is a stationery story in Vancouver with a one-person at a time zine library and reading room in the back. 

We have an article about it by Grey Hernandez for the next issue of On Site: small things.  In his proposal he said: The 'smallness' is not just the space itself, is also the relationship between zine culture and the emphasis on the individual.  Making zines, reading them, distributing them, blogging about them and now housing them are all done at the scale of the single person. 

the lower case reading room is run by Brandy Fedoruk and Rebecca Dolen, Emily Car graduates who used the 3 square metre space previously as an art gallery.  If one considers reading, looking at art, being human as an individual act, then small spaces are completely logical.  If one considers reading as a group activity (can't image who does this), looking at art as a social event, being human as a collectivity, then yes, we would need large spaces for everything, which is what we have. 

Perhaps we have a surfeit of space that forces everyone into group activities.  Spaces too small to contain 60 diners used to be considered too small to make a viable restaurant: was that based on some sort of profit margin worked out in an economist's office somewhere?  Where one finds such small venues, such cabines, is increasingly in the marginal spaces of gentrifying areas where preciousness is a commodity.  It doesn't last for long, this attachment to small things, this relationship between having little money but large ideas, this desire to colonise the uninhabitable with something interesting. 

Quality of life is not dependent on money, it is dependent on being creative.


Karen Wirth

Karen Wirth. Staircase at the Open Book Center, Minneapolis, in conjunction with MSR ArchitectsThe Open Book is a Minneapolis centre for reading, writing and book arts, founded by three independent non-profits – the Loft Literary Centre, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and Milkweed Editions.  What a neat thing this must be.  Minneapolis is a city of about 400,000 with a catchment area of 3.5 million.

The Open Book has a staircase designed by Karen Wirth, who is doing a workshop this week at the Alberta College of Art and Design.  The press release includes this lovely statement:  
How is a staircase like a book or a wall like a page? Karen Wirth explores the relationships between books and architecture through artist’s books, sculpture and public art. Through analogy, she examines space and experience, presence and absence, revelation and concealment, public and private.

Sounds good.  How is a wall like a page?  It is the difference between a trade paperback, printed as inexpensively as possible with stingy margins, and an art book.  or an artists' book.  Between industrial production and craft.  One too boring to consider aesthetically, and one too precious to take seriously.  

As designers haven't we always striven to produce the illusion of careful craft using industrial materials and techniques?  This after all was what the Eames house set out to prove.  Maybe I just live in a backwater city of a mere million people with a catchment area of a few thousand more, but I simply do not see any evidence of the craft of architecture, either in intent or in fact.  It pains me.  We don't have a book centre either.


Marilyn Bowering

Marilyn Bowering. Visible Worlds.  Harper Collins 1997
Paterson Ewen.  Halley's Comet as seen by Giotto, 1979.

Most memorable image of this book is of a woman skiing over the North Pole from Russia to Canada.There are twins, in a Winnipeg immigrant family, one joins the Nazis in Germany, the other is locked in a struggle with something – I'm not sure – but he does think a lot.  And then there is Nathaniel Bone.  This is a book in the wide-ranging tradition of Canadian literature where the story covers an enormously complex world of multiply connected and layered stories.
Bowering is a poet, first, and her writing although prose is a long, beautiful extended poem where time and narrative are endlessly fluid.  Meanwhile Fika checks her bearings and moves on after chipping ice from her skis.  She is the background, her epic journey, to everyone else's complex histories of emigration, loss and displacement.
Richard Bingham, the cover designer, but a Paterson Ewen painting on the cover.  Ewen is a strange fellow, most of his very large paintings are made by grinding lines in sheets of plywood with a router, then painting over the sheet, routing a few more lines, adding some paint.  They are like huge wood blocks after much printing.  The work is passionate and muscular, magical and haunting.  It is a good tough accompaniment to Bowering's poetic, detailed complexity.


Paul Sahre

Paul Sahre. cover, Couplings, for Farrer Strauss & Giroux, 1996

Peter SchneiderCouplings. translated by Philip Boehm.  Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1996
Originally published in German as Paarungen, 1992.

I think I bought this book for its cover; amazingly the designer of the cover appears to have read the book– a discursion on divided Berlin written a couple of years after unification.  Nominally about affairs of the heart and the heart's inconstancy, it is also a Bildungsroman, the narrative the metaphor for Berlin's partition, separate development and clumsy re-acquaintance.

Twins: one brother all black leather and jeans, believes in western science (nature), the other in socialist society (nurture).  Everyone in the city is as internally conflicted and divided as the city itself.  The east has all the privacy of a refuge, the west is racked with profligate self-exposure.  Relationships founder on convention; are deflected by desire.  Yes, it's all about love, circumstantial and determined, love in a city and how Berlin maps relationships that crash into walls both physical and emotional. 

If all the characters in the book were merely ciphers for East and West Germany it couldn't sustain itself the way it does, with side conversations about buildings, the city, the compromises made by the aging '68 generation, the omnipresence of surveillance with the Stazi and a kind of inadvertant stazi of the mind.
Paul Sahre did the cover — a NY graphic designer who is often brilliant.  None of the sentimentality of Schneider: a different generation – Schneider born in 1940, Sahre probably in the late 60s.  Where Schneider can be bathetic, Sahre is funny. 

I liked this book when I read it, I kept it for the cover. 


W J Turner's Miss America

W J Turner. Miss America. London: Mandrake Press, 1930About 15 years ago I built twelve feet of glass fronted bookshelves, floor to ceiling, in the back room.  These unfortunately cover the only socket in the room, so I have to pull a handful of books out each time to plug and unplug lamps.  The handful I pulled out yesterday included W J Turner's Miss America from 1930, sandwiched between The Razor's Edge and Reading English Silver Hallmarks.  I don't ever remember seeing it before, which is a problem with libraries – one forgets what one has.

Today if someone wants to rant about something they blog it.  This book is 169 septets about the daughter of an architect who, dismayed at how his skyscrapers last only twenty years before being replaced, travels to Europe and comes up against a kind of decadence that really depresses him.  Meanwhile his daughter glimpses another kind of life, of freedom, gender ambiguity, equality, but returns to the US for a conventional marriage which ends in a Reno divorce.
Miss America is a long meditation on the gaucheness of all new world cultures compared to Europe.  Turner was Australian and in the 20s and 30s was on the edge of the Bloomsbury group and Ottoline Morell's Garsington parties.  They loved tall handsome colonials, especially those who wrote poetry.  They were seen as a kind of curiosity – the same attitude they had to Mark Gertler, the painter who was  beautiful, Jewish and from East London. 

Here, the evanescence of the American city and its buildings means that in the US nothing need last, nothing is important enough for any kind of commitment.  There is no longue durée.  Strangely, this is not liberating at all, everything becomes measured and rote, fulfilling functional requirements only. 

But Time to his employers was more real
To be amortized duly to a dime—
"In twenty years we pull the damn thing down
Two decades is too long for one old town!"

Those words 'the damn thing' sank into his brain,
What a description for each fair creation
With which he laboured to adorn his city!
Upon each site and prospect lay this stain—
Most durable of arts (life can be witty!)
To flourish so conspicuously in a nation
That builds for change and never for duration!

I live in a city which, like 1920s Philadelphia in the long poem, is in a continual process of tearing itself down in response to development pressure, to make room for the bigger and the newer.  In theory this ought to give architects and their clients great scope for innovation and invention, but instead it seems to entrench a conservatism that is unwarranted.  Turner was writing about this in 1930.  


Marion Bataille's ABC3D

the original YouTube posting here


Story House. Timothy Taylor

Timothy Taylor.  Story House.
Knopf Canada 2006  ISBN 978-0-676-97764-6

It is quite exciting to read a newish Canadian novel and to find it's about Vancouver and gosh, it's even about architects.  Rare, and strangely flattering. 
The core of the book is a three-storey International Style building: two wings connected by an open stairwell with a big skylight on the top.  It is described as a diagram of returning, from sophisticated 'international' materials and surfaces at the top, at the interface with the sky which in this book usually has an airplane in it, and at the bottom, shaggy fir beams still with bark on the edges as the building hits the earth.  Great diagram.

There is a father, a famous Erickson-type architect who may or may not have designed this building, whose personal life is full of anger, women and recalcitrant needy sons.  There is a son, a famous Rashid-type architect, unusually sensitive to his women who generally look after things, being, unusually, both brilliant engineers (a reference to Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda here) and unsentimental multicultural new Canadians who are lucid, clear, piercing, rational.
Architects: all about men, their obsessions and preoccupations with their manliness – within the family, within their relationships but never in their architecture where they are canny and decisive, with conceptual complexity tossed off as glib invention in client meetings.  Well, this is probably true to form.  Romantics all, with dark visions of unsolvable conundrums.  The reader is seduced by the details here, the materiality of being an architect.  The men are brilliant, so sensitive to land and site, so hopelessly in love with despair.

Like Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park, Vancouver's sense of its complex, sophisticated and grounded self scents these pages with spotty rain, mud flats, the easy access to the North Shore, the hot grit of East Hastings.  Each sentence is dense with place. Taylor's sentences are also dense with architectural reference: our young hero's new second-hand Boxter is Lubetkin blue – a reference so obscure and yet so delicate, encapsulating all that nostalgic heroism of 1940s British modernism that influenced a generation of immediate postwar British-Canadian architects in Vancouver, a post-colonial dot on Pevsner's map of modernism, a page in Donat's survey of the outposts of Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry sensibilities. 
Vancouver has this effect on one.

The Story House is also about the difference between making statements and asking questions.  The novelist is evident here — a plot, a situation about two sons of a fairly unpleasant genius-y father gets decorated with a million things from the Big Bang, to Haida Gwaii, to Gordon Matta-Clark, to boxing, to Rock Paper Scissors, to architecture school projects, to counterfeiting, to reality TV — the plot is the centre.  It holds, but only for the patient reader.  Although nominally about architecture, it is a slice through complex contemporary existence, but only a novelist would be so hyper-aware of the complexity of each and every character.  In ordinary life one simply couldn't function with this degree of knowledge.

Nobody in this whole book is shallow, stupid or unthinking.  Everyone thinks to absolute distraction.  Elliot, the marginally older son, is a con with a bourgeois heart of gold.  Graham, the other son, is a typical Martha, cross because he tries so hard and is sooo boring.  When the problem of how to restore or even to shore up their old modern building with inadequate foundations (one brother thinks Matta-Clark, the other brother Haida long houses), the plan is described for the first time as a building, not just the provocative fragments we have so far been allowed, that still, by page 360, have not made a definitive object.  And it is all the more powerful for this, for architecture is fragmentary, buildings aren't.  Buildings stand, they can be photographed, etc, but their architecture is not material.  Anyway, on page 360 we get the strategy: cut the building in half, pivot one side away and fill in the new void with glass. 

Boy, am I disappointed.  How 80s.

When the building is wrapped up with plastic on page 373 we are back in magical space again.  Whatever, it falls down in the end.  Just as well, its metaphorical value had overwhelmed all the protagonists, the reader and the author.


the Berlin Wall 2

the trailer for The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

This film came out in 1965.  The Berlin Wall had been up for only four years.  Clearly they weren't filming at the wall itself, it was actually shot in Dublin, however this film indelibly established the 'look' of the Cold War in the west for a generation: black and white, winter, rain, night, raincoats and absolute despair.  The wall was a space: a GDR-controlled zone that 5000 people successfully crossed between 1961 and 1989.  Officially, 171 were unsuccessful.  This view of the wall was the only one I was ever given, so the function of the segments of the wall that still stand as an instructive memorial to the partition of Germany and Berlin, gaily covered with not very good art, I find completely trivial. 

This film, and other films of the 1960s when the Cold War wasn't that cold – it was a state of high tension and fear – these are the best Cold War memorials.  John Le Carré's moral dilemmas, his cynicism, his inheritance from Orwell: these are the memorials. In a line from Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, through Orson Welles, the dark espionage genre of Le Carré, and Len Deighton, and then all the films made from the books: this source material shocks us into the 1960s again.