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Entries in writers (10)


Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova Museum, the Sheremetev Palace, St Petersburg.

A beautiful room, the Anna Akhmatova Museum in Petrograd/Leningrad/St Petersburg.  It was her apartment in the Sheremetev Palace, a 1750 palace that included a hospital, a theatre and orchestra and a formal, fountained estate.  Akhmatova's apartment was in the south wing, and she lived in it from 1925-1966. 

Akhmatova's second husband was a tutor to the Sheremetev family; they stayed on in the north wing after the family fled during the revolution.  Her third husband was assigned an apartment in the south wing and there she stayed.  

There is Akhmatova's history, her poetry, her modernism; there are her intellectual husbands – poets, art historians, artists; there is the trajectory of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union: all was well with her poems and her affairs until 1921 when her then first husband was shot as part of the Kronstadt rebellion.  With the loss of Lenin and the ascendance of Stalin that hardened the Russian commune, all the promise of the Russian avant-garde was turned: the Suprematists, Malevich, el Lissitsky slid into a perceived counter-revolutionary bourgeois activity.  She lived through it all, biographies list her countless affairs – intellectual, political and physical.  She wrote, sometimes published, often not, she wrote against Stalinism, confusingly she was deemed a soviet poet with czarist leanings, a promiscuous classicist in revolutionary times; she lived on in her beautiful apartment.

Please, just give me a room with these proportions. I'd take out the fluorescent unit in the ceiling.


Elizabeth Jane Howard: 1923-2014

Elizabeth Jane Howard and Robert Aickman, ca 1950A photo of the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard with Robert Aickman in 1950 or so, co-writing a book of  stories, We Are For the Dark, published in 1951.  

Elizabeth Jane Howard, who died on the 2nd of January at 90, was known for her precise delineation of English domesticity during WWII, and secondarily for her middle career marriage to Kingsley Amis whose loud reputation completely swamped hers.  Hilary Mantel said last week that Howard had been unreasonably sidelined as a writer of small domestic dramas – after all, even Hamlet is about families.  
The twentieth century was alternatively liberating and repressive for women: suffrage achieved, access to education allowed, professions opened (a very tiny bit); one could get there, but one couldn't get ahead.  

I thought I'd re-read the Cazalet books, four published in the 1990s, and one published last year; the Calgary Public Library, one of the largest in the country, has just two of the series, not the new one and many versions in large print, indicating that someone has deemed Elizabeth Jane Howard as reading for elderly ladies.  How can one break into such an obdurate mindset?  And why, I ask, in 2014 should we have to?


Steven Holl, Knut Hamsun Centre, 2009

Steven Holl, The Knut Hamsun Centre. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway 1994-2009A slightly tilted box, sheathed in tarred wood, based, according to Holl on Norwegian vernacular of wood stave churches, sod roofs and windows placed to receive low sun.  Conceptually, the skin peels back in places for staircases, windows, tiny decks: tiny lesions that humanise an uncompromised, black three-storey building.

There is, of course, controversy.  Hamsun (1859-1952) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920; he is known as the father of the modern novel for his use of such things as flashbacks and fragmentation, his plain prose, his love of nature and beauty.  He gave his Nobel medal to Goebbels and was a member of Quisling's National Unity Party.  Quisling delivered Norway to Germany, more or less.  This has compromised Hamsun's literary legacy.  

The Hamsun Centre opened on the 150th anniversary of his birth.  He had a hard childhood, much poverty, little schooling; his first book was Hunger in 1890, written in straitened, but for Hamsun, normal circumstances after he returned from an itinerant turn around the American midwest in the 1880s.  With the success of his novels he bought a farm in Nordland, married, had a family and continued to write.  As Jonathan Glancy wrote in his review of the Hamsun Centre 'The Nazi episode poisoned this well of beauty.'
Although Holl claims that a museum dedicated to a single writer should contain everything, good and bad, just the existence of a Hamsun Centre enrages many Norwegians and particularly the Simon Wiesenthal Centre which, evidently, has been fierce in its attack on Norway for validating Hamsun's life.  

Glancey found the building beautiful, complex and unsettling, appropriate to the contradictory life that was Knut Hamsun's.  The site is beautiful, the story both tragic and frustrating.  How, we think, can anyone have gone so terribly wrong as to support Hitler.  Yet the Germany of Hamsun's youth was the European centre of culture: of music, literature, history, philosophy; he was a germanophile, Norway was a colony, Nordland was a distant periphery.   Not only did the Nazi episode poison Nordland's well of beauty, it poisoned Germany. This is a terrible narrative to try to encompass with architecture if architecture is supposed to take sides, which if it did, would no longer be architecture but some form of 3-d propaganda.

I can't speak about the building as I haven't seen it, other than in drawings, models and photos.  It seems brave: the little details that cling to the black box are like flies: fragile, annoying, but also clean.  I'm interested in black buildings right now, and this was one of them.  The more I look at it, the more necessary it is that it is black, not because this is some sort of Norwegian barn vernacular, but because it is a building that holds great social and political tension, and has to bear the weight of twenty-first century vengeance.  The blackness will be re-inscribed when Hamsun is taken up by Brevik and his ilk.

Steven Holl, The Knut Hamsun Centre. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway 1994-2009


not safe, not suburban

Suzanne Moore wrote a good piece in the Guardian about how postmodernism put paid to the avant-garde which can perhaps only exist within modernist certainties.  She writes:   Reed's death has hit my generation because his presence anchored us into a time and a place when the avant garde was still meaningful. .. His death made us remember the music that made us want to leave our small towns and our small lives, a time when transgression was not simply a marketing technique.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side was all over ordinary radio in 1973, when I remember listening to it, in Nanaimo, during my year out from the AA.  It didn't shock, it seemed right, I got it, as did we all.  

It was reportage.

sorry, I didn't ad the ads, they just all of a sudden have started to appear.  damn. 

Marketing, the bane of contemporary life. 


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. 


Tim Buckley: Dolphins, 1974

This song was written by Fred Neil in 1966.  Neil spent much of his life in dolphin preservation, but there is another layer in the lyrics about war, which would have been Vietnam. 

The early 1970s were an agonized time, a war had gone on too long for unsupportable reasons, the environmental movement realised just how quickly species were being lost and saw climate change rushing towards us like a dust storm. And poets picked up guitars.


Adrian Mitchell: tell me lies

The earliest filmed version of Adrian Mitchell performing his poem, To Whom It May Concern (tell me lies about Vietnam) at the Albert Hall, June 11, 1965:

And a film by Pamela Robertson-Pearce of Mitchell reciting Tell Me Lies just before his death in 2008.  He constantly adapted the last verse to pull the poem into the continual present, for about war some things never change. 


Gerard Hoffnung: the bricklayer's lament

Hoffnung was born in Berlin, 1925, went to London as a refugee in 1939, became a writer, a composer and a cartoonist of a particularly gentle kind:

Gerard Hoffnung, cartoon.

From 1958:

And how dreadful, he died in 1959 of a cerebral haemorhage, just 34. 


Edith Sitwell: poet, brick

The extremely generous Edith Sitwell, modernist poet, interviewed by the BBC in 1959:

And a younger version, in 1928:

Dame Edith Sitwell, 1928. National Portrait Gallery, London


Evelyn Waugh: 1960

A most interesting look at Evelyn Waugh in a 1960 BBC interview.  Curiously, Joan Bakewell's later introduction and John Freeman's comments seem to indicate that this interview is some sort of failure as Waugh was so bored, nervous, unforthcoming.  Curious, because it seems to me that Waugh answered some very strange questions very straightforwardly.  No, he doesn't get all chummy with the interviewer who soldiers on with what could be seen as dreadfully provocative questions, often a thinly-veiled prurient interest in a supposedly idle, well-upholstered, squirarchic life.  Clearly Waugh was on his way to being deeply unfashionable in the early 1960s, and actually still is.  

I quite respect Waugh in this interview and his resistance to the psychologising impulse that so dominates contemporary interviewing.  And yet, he does reveal so much.  For example, his self-indulgent sloth at Oxford where he was on an open scholarship and where he said he grew up, or public schools after WWI, bleak, terrible food, cold, shell-shocked and/or sadistic teachers: the basis of a terrific body of literature.  He wants to be seen as a wordsmith, a trade at which he labours.  The interviewer flounders, Waugh is implacable, he simply won't deliver what the interviewer wants.

Having recently been interviewed myself (a brief five minutes) and finding myself led completely off-track into fields I strenuously try to avoid, I wish I had the intelligence and sang-froid of Waugh, plus his patience.