Fertile Neglect.

I have a memory which is tough to shake. It’s an earlyish one, probably from my late teens – a time when I was developing the political-philosophical anger that still rages. I was also in many senses finding a voice.

Simply cannot remember where or why or how I finished up listening to Dylan Thomas reading some of his poems… but I did. This was waaay pre-internet so could it have been radio? Who knows. I had found the man’s work prior to this event (and loved it) but never heard him read or speak. I was – and I know these two words don’t fit together – I was relatively shocked.

To a spiky youff from Grimsby he sounded like a posh English public schoolboy. Inflated. Pompous. Weird. But not Welsh. So un-believable.

A similar thing happened the first time I heard Kyffin Williams speak – only more so. Another toff, another fake Welshman; another medium-shocking disappointment.

Of course this is prejudicial nonsense… but it is also true. To this English-born now long, long-term resident of Wales, conscious of his own fraudulence, it hurt a little that class, that privilege had intruded so jarringly into *even this* – the sacred world of art and of the heart.

And yet Thomas (in particular) and Williams remain profound icons: in the writer’s case partly because he plainly was in some senses a big-hearted radical – at least in terms of style – and, frankly, his background wasn’t that posh. He just performed like that; believing, I imagine, that the booming suited the pomp and circumstance and mischief around the great themes of his work. But it was weird, hearing him, back then. It was a blow to my punky idealism and to the notion that hopefully, despite Thatcher *and everything* the Home Counties/Great Families domination of the universe might be vulnerable to our Northern, fraternal surge.

I still hope that what we might call The Creative Spirit can come from anywhere and be recognised: that Ordinary Folk, as well as those with time and privilege, can turn out art that is visible and moves and reflects us. However, the times again may be conspiring against this.

The author David N Thomas will probably never read this: if he does, I hope he takes the trouble to get beyond the title and the sense (that may rise in him) of liberties being taken at his expense. They are not. His book Fatal Neglect, which cuts away the sleazy distractions and outright porkies around Dylan Thomas’s death, is gripping, bold and mildly revelatory. I am bastardising his title to hint a little at the unsavoury richness he uncovers.

I say mildly revelatory because, let’s face it, many of us knew that the ultimately frail but often monstrous, boozed-up genius who gifted us Under Milk Wood had been ill-served by his inadequate compadres and the criminally arrogant doctor who oversaw his death in New York. We just didn’t have the evidence. David N proves we were denied it.

Dylan remains the co-author of his own rather grisly end – naturally – having been a drinker and a slob who mixed with or was surrounded by drinkers, drug-takers, neurotics, hypochondriacs, the privileged and the indulgent. He was in bad shape before the bronchopneumonia (obvious but undiagnosed by Feltenstein, the doctor who took charge) tipped him towards coma and death. There were *factors* – used erroneously as fact by that same doctor – which seemed to suit the romantic view of a soul destined to self-destruct: chiefly alcohol and that lack of restraint and self-care. Feltenstein was myopic enough and cheap enough to build his flimsy diagnosis and his fatally shabby treatment entirely around this most readily-available construct; something that went on to symbolise and/or haunt the extinguished poet for fifty years and more. Dylan Thomas became the extravagant drunk who killed himself with booze.

The book unravels that convenience and in doing so exposes the various inadequacies of Brinnin – the agent – and Reitell – the lover, nurse and editor. The wider group that I may with ironic klaxons a-hooting choose to call American Friends are also skilfully, damningly implicated. Fatal Neglect is about shallowness, selfishness and self-interest as much as it is a comprehensive gathering and disassembling of medical fact and half-truth.

These shitty people get skewered, for their ‘lack of anchorage’ and whilst contriving their cover-up.

Brinnin, the agent, arguably more than anyone. He failed utterly on his duty of care towards a plainly unhealthy man. He worked him, even when Thomas was visibly ill or barely able to speak, to fund his own, appallingly glitzy lifestyle. (To be fair, the Welshman had a penchant for robbing or de-frauding the chancers, suckers and sponsors around him but his Canadian-born American agent was different level). Annual European tours, first class travel, cruises: all on other people’s money. He proved to be similarly profligate in respect of his responsibilities towards scheduling: D N Thomas reveals the extent to which Brinnin needed Dylan to graft and set him to it.

Liz Reitell shares some of the same disconnect from common decencies. She thinks she is Everything, as though Caitlin doesn’t exist or have rights and she, too, drives the dangerously exhausted writer on, carelessly or callously. She shares a good deal of responsibility for the years of edited truth, too; notably overseeing the travesty that was Brinnin’s book about those last days. Reitell is a talent, a shrew, a liar… but going through this, who isn’t?

I like that a sharp wee tome about medical minutiae becomes a scrupulously fair but fierce judgement upon people who barely need to care. Because they have stuff covered. Life, money, travel, expectation. Even the honourable medical men who were horrified at what Feltenstein did closed ranks to protect the hospital and staff who capitulated to the invading, overpowering Doc.

Everything is both material and context. For me Fatal Neglect has travelled well, crossing almost seventy years of myth and mischief around the relatively public demise of one of the great figures of modern literature. (If I have sounded belligerent towards Dylan Thomas that too, has been a fraction of the whole. The opening to Under Milk Wood still strikes me as one of the great, sustained moments in musical prose. The man was flawed, oh yes but by god he was something special).

Which is way it feels satisfying, feels right, that we now know he did not simply drink himself to death. Indeed he should not and would not have died, back in ’53, had he received prompt and professional medical attention. He had pneumonia before he was admitted to hospital. He was given shots of the wrong stuff. Nobody dare tell the fella Feltenstein – who had no authority – that this wasn’t just about the hooch. ‘Friends’ mostly failed him, too – as did those who came to tell the story. Some were duped, some criminally covered-up. Class, money, appearances, disappearances. Editing. Protection.

Fatal Neglect made me feel angry, in a good way. It shines a light into both the petty, alcohol-fuelled drama-queendom of Dylan and Caitlin and the uglier, truly privileged ease of some of the Thomas Groupies. In doing this, it may have found another moment; when more chancers, toffs and tossers – Johnsons and Goves and Hancocks? – are serving up incompetence and worse, safe in the knowledge that they can wallow. Because some folks still don’t really need to care.

‘On Bear Ridge’: Sherman Theatre. A view.

Did that thing again where you try not to learn or know anything about the event, beforehand; with some success. Wanting to look – really look – and listen without too much intelligence or baggage, or prejudice.

Wasn’t sure, for example if the ‘Bear Ridge’ of the title was in Wyoming or the Black Mountains or Beacons of Wales. Wasn’t sure  if this might be a one-man jobber, in fact, having just heard, yaknow,  ‘Rhys Ifans’.

Have been absent from the Sherman for too long, so interested in the vibe, the thrum around the foyer and the feel of the place. In truth both the foyer/bar/lounge-upon-laptop space and the auditorium are pret-ty ordinary, eh? (No offence). They function, rather than lift the soul. But hey – deep breath, glass of water, focus… and in.

Into an atmospheric world. Snowy, non-specific somehow, despite the occasional name and the constant flow of memory. Bleak uplands; rocks that shadow and maybe fore-shadow; a homestead almost abandoned.

Ifans is lying in the snow, stirring then into something stirring. Words. Sure there is some drama here and a brooding, evocative set but this (we soon learn) is utterly about words performed.

John Daniels and his wife Non and their home, farm, shop: their source. Rich with their own history but poverty-stricken, isolated or struck down by unspecified change. A murderous, bi-polar world, with wintry-but-noble John and Non beset by a creeping, catastrophic now.

We hear planes, we hear tell of the City by the Sea. We learn that old ways and the Old Language are being throttled by something new and hostile.

Indeed there ‘really is’ a war going on: witness the arrival of a Captain, complete with great-coat and gun and his own, enervating torment. A Captain who nearly wastes the Slaughterman, emerging from the cellar.

All sounding bit ‘stagey’, bit ‘symbolic?’ Fear not. The cast of four are strong – Ifans and Rakie Ayola particularly so – and the lyricism and wit and and angularity of the piece places it substantially beyond the ordinary, the predictably-familiar. This is absolutely about the spirit of something but Ed Thomas conjures plenty of real life: convincingly so via his *Kollwitzian (and therefore universal?) couple.

John Daniels is that daft Welsh butcher from up on the hill, with the lived-in beard and shoulders bearing against tragedy and loss – of son, of memory, of tongue. He is that… but he is more. Nonnie, his steadfast wife is with him, always (and therefore always against the grain of the times); stoic on the one-hand, strong-willed and hearty on the other.

In truth I found the Captain a tad less convincing: not sure if this was through less crystalline writing or by dint of the performance on the night. (Something about the mix of threat, near-affability, body-language, direction, maybe, that didn’t ring entirely true? Maybe I need to see again.)

Ironically but hardly accidentally, the apprentice/slaughterman (listening to “White Riot, if I am not mistaken, when emerging from the butcher’s cellar?) was a full participant in the weaving of stories rather than the cleaving of meat or ‘action’. He pours tea and/but he too, has poetry. Local, individual-but-communal richnesses are suggested: the central ‘act’ (the brutal overwhelming of Twm) is described.

‘On Bear Ridge’ felt like a significant piece of theatre – some stood to applaud.

It is poignant love song and it is protest song. The piece bears witness to the betrayals, insidious and unseen and to the malevolent ‘othering’ all around us. These humble, magnificent characters are invested in The Biggest of Things – seeking out poetry and meaning both in their language and in material life. Tragically, change, history, progress and/or cruel inertia is burying them.

Thomas’s first play for fifteen years reiterates his conviction that a) our words must be sung, from the ridge-top to the City by the Sea and b) that traditional theatre – that is theatre predicated on words not tricks, pyrotechnics or that which would be original – defies and endures.

(I say this having been conflicted about whether drama this word-centric conciliates too much, is too dry, too easy, too necrophiliac, even?)

But no – and this may be another of the play’s triumphs – Ifans and Ayola make dynamic once more the notion that in live performance phrases carved with care, well-acted, can transport, can question, can impact upon us. The writer’s contribution is made.

 

 

*As in Käthe Kollwitz, the great socialist artist. (Do not John and Non have something of the Beautiful Beleaguered Peasant about them? In a wonderful way?!?

Playing to the Gallery (the book!) – Grayson Perry.

As I write that mixture of shock, anger and frankly depressive disquiet prevails. In an extraordinary week for world affairs – I’m thinking Paris and Nigeria here – my own daft orbit has swung wildly between healthy titillation and Appalled of Pembs.

Before the irreligious scumbags from Boko Haram and (who knows? Al Qhaeda?) did their work in Africa and North West Europe, I’d been enjoying that simple pleasure of reading something upful. Despite being conflicted about that book’s place or relevance in a) my head and b) the Universe right now, I intend to go on abard it anyway. Because whilst this book is not remotely about the means by which we oppose radical Islam, it does contain truths about making meaning which I believe powerfully relevant – always – and maybe particularly when homo sapiens lurches back towards the swamp.

Please listen while I say this: there are rich and beautiful things (that I am happy to call invincible) which can represent us humans with a kind of defiant grace. We need these things – let’s use these things.

The book is Grayson Perry – Playing to the Gallery.

MAKING MEANING.
Grayson Perry is a funny old bloke. Maybe that’s not an appropriate start – not for a kosher look at yer average book on Art Theory. Except that this book, unsurprisingly, is like him, Grayson, an engaging mixture of colourful parries and friendly fends around what’s real or profound or material in life and in contemporary art. It’s an antidote to cynicism, full of good-natured one-liners aimed at the various intellectual stratospheres we space-hop through together. It’s therefore not (al-ley-luyah!) any of the following; arid, dull or impenetrably dense. In fact there’s a kind of juvenile (and I think I do mean that in a good way) zeal running through; playful, yes, but defiant about the integrity of most contemporary artists and the nobility of that calling.

So the essence of ‘Playing to the Gallery’ is lightly campaigning, de-mystifying, educational veering-to-populist rather than cerebral. The cover spiel makes plain that this baby is certainly not
sucking up to an Academic Elite.

No. It ain’t. ‘Playing to the Gallery’ is anti-pomp and anti cobblers. It’s full of friendly exclamation marks (marked down, I know, by the intelligentsia) and arguments deflowered where possible of their museum-speak to welcome in – indeed to really encourage in – the or’nary human.

Some facts. This book is lifted from or sculpted out of the Reith Lectures that Perry gave in 2013. If you listen to the first of them on the BBC Radio Four website then once you’ve have cringed your way through Sue Lawley’s prolonged itemisation of his clobber, you will be immediately immersed in a whole lot of love for the man. There are cheers and gales of laughter. He rips it up as well as reveals, or proffers insights. It’s a hoot.

The book isn’t a word-for-word re-run of those gorgeously garrulous lectures but that’s absolutely where it’s centred. Containing chapters named for the four performances at the lectern, ideas fleshed out a little or trimmed of the live banter. The book could be either a souvenir for those who loved the lectures or a touchstone (perhaps) independently.

Perry immediately (in a prelude called How much?!) de-Ivory Towers the scene by relating the epiphanic tale of how The Archers revealed to him the profound integration of contemporary art into general life. But, typically, this is the springboard for a declaration of faith –
If there’s one message I want you to take away it’s that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts – even me! For even I – an Essex transvestite potter, have been let in by the art world mafia.

Sure, he’s saying, the art world may seem to want to exclude us normal folks, to sieve us out via the intimidating glamour or bewildering language or obscure purpose of its protagonists but it’s possible – and indeed necessary and nourishing – to get the fuck in there(!)

Democracy Has Bad Taste concerns that thorny-delicious debate over judgements on quality –
what are the criteria… and who tells us it’s good?

I suspect elite level academics may disagree but it is my contention that Perry is no mug. He appreciates well here, the conditioning and the self-consciousness of the novice viewer and the uppity, sometimes excluding brilliance of the Art Circle.

(Nowadays) To judge a work on its aesthetic merit is to buy into some discredited, fusty, hierarchy tainted with sexism, racism, colonialism and class privilege. It’s loaded, this idea of beauty, because where does our idea of beauty come from?

We are thus rallied towards rather profound questions on validity and – dare we say it? – truth.

In Beating the Bounds, Marcel’s Duchamp’s position at the very birthplace of much of our angst is considered. The magnificent subversion-of-all-things that was Duchamp’s urinal – his declaration that anything was art that an artist chose to be so – is revisited repeatedly to ask questions about where modern(ist?) notions of legitimacy have come to us from… and where they have travelled. Ultimately, Perry’s wonderfully circular story of how Duchamp’s urinal was effectively lost (and its significance almost wasted) before a potter was commissioned to re-make one from grainy photographs is one of the highlights of the book.

In this second chapter our quirky pal Grayson cracks the whip – and I do mean that – so we have a bitoffalarf as we are bundled round the problems or undiscovered joys of the parish. Perry offers further ways in to the arguments around where art is at… and how we might recognise it.

Refreshingly, there are few conclusions anywhere in this mini-tome; the artist does suggest, however – in Nice Rebellion, Welcome In! (Chapter Three) – that

I don’t believe there is an avant-garde anymore…
He goes on

But if we are at the final state of art then I’d like to end on a positive note and quote the philosopher of art Arthur C Danto. He said ‘If the age of manifestos had a political parallel in ethnic cleansing, then in the age of pluralism we have a model of tolerant multi-culturalism.’

Whoa. The Age of Pluralism – multi-culturalism. I can see in the art world this may be or this may seem how things are moving. Wow.

This may be an appropriate moment for me to close the book and gaze wistfully into the middle distance. Then say something unwisely woolly and positive. So, being positive, I will.

I believe in Grayson Perry, the Essex trannie/good bloke/artist. I rate his work more now than before – because I am understanding better. I have always shared his conviction – expressed in these lectures – that we the audience might have to put a little work into appreciating art. That there is value in that effort, in part because what is revealed includes the life-affirming notion that most artists are genuine, committed people looking to share meanings with us and, who knows maybe offer leadership, sustenance or hope in a mad, mad world.

I for one hold up my fist, my torch, my pencil for that aspiration against the horrors of un-love, of intolerance and extreme bigotry.