Thursday, 21 March 2019

Spring Thing - A Playlist

The inside of my head as spring rocks up. Full of Hannibal Lecter offering the pitchiest black black comedy (I'm three years late to this party. If you came here for the cutting edge, you've certainly taken a wrong turn.) I am also newly obsessed with the My Favourite Murder podcast, and I'm so grateful to live in a world where Kilgariff and Hardstark are able to teach me how to use my powers of anxiety for good and not evil. (Again, three fucking years off the mark. But I'm still in love with them both, except Karen is my fave. Hideously, I binge listen to MFM and end up talking like I was raised in, like, California. Lots of apologising to my fam for being a nerd and general embarrassment.)

With all this murderous imagery trickling in, you'd think I'd be losing sleep and at least having grizzly dreams, but my worst nightmares have been banal images.

Do you wake up in a cold sweat with your heart trying to escape your ribcage after imaginary repetitive hours at an office desk with the clock going round the wrong way and talking back?

How about the wrong people turning up to after work drinks, saying they enjoyed the yoga last night? Well, that is what has been unnerving me recently.

Happily, though, I was told a good story this week, about a genius person arriving on stage at a gig sometime in the late seventies and setting to work hitting sheet metal with objects, displaying only childlike curiosity and abandon. I don't know the name of the act. But I consider this to be not an altogether bad way to live your life. It made me feel a bit better about the dysfunctional ways I chose to express my obsessions, if nothing else.

This should all quite logically explain this list of songs? You're very welcome.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Aglow Like Rayon

Panting, immobile, pierced starry with so much wonder and yet a "whatever for?" feeling. Your libraries lullabies offer as much comfort as abysses. In the desert and on the open highway you get chased down by cop cars glittering like beetles, eyes read heat haze as permanence disintegrating. Roy Orbison says there's a secret whispered on the wind. I turn up the radio.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Ralph Steadman - Between the Eyes.

I had the good luck to be made a Library Assistant in August last year. The main thing I think about is why it has taken me until the age of 30 to realise that this is my dream day job. Aside from being a full time artist or writer, which is a daydream that I can't shed, working in the library is perfect. I say it's taken me this long to "realise". But really it's more about feeling capable, and that I'm in charge of my own life. Did you know: you can do things that you like in your life? I'm getting to grips with that. Anyway, as a Library Assistant, you don't read all day, or keep the building silent, but you do get to touch, organise, repair, order, research, and catagorise resources. Most of these are books. Books are niiiiiiiiiice. 

I'm enjoying getting my hands on rare and weird art books that I might not have made the effort to find otherwise. Worthing, in West Sussex is the County Store. They have a huge archive both on the shelf and in the stacks behind the scenes. Skimming the catalogue returns titles you can get on Amazon, but to save money, to get the dopamine hit of a 'haul', to honour the service, I'm making reservations and picking them up in branch by the ton.

Recently I picked up Between the Eyes by the original gangster, ink artist, and all around complete legend Ralph Steadman. It's from 1984 and was published by Jonothan Cape, London.

between the eyes by ralph steadman library book
Sometimes I feel like giving up when I look at Steadman's stuff. We already have a Steadman so what else is there to do?
Between the Eyes begins with a sketch of early years, or early fears as Steadman calls them. Ralph attended a grammar school in Abergele, North Wales. After a previous headmaster retires in "a cloud of genuine affection", a more sinister mood filled the empty space behind him. Steadman writes: 

"Morning assembly became a public hanging place where children were taught to enjoy the sight of a schoolmate less holy then themselves suffering their downfall in public". (p.9)

To Steadman, schools are places where public spectacle and shame are manipulated to control young minds.
"Authority prevails and quashes any doubt before it even emerges. The boss is enjoying himself and displaying an unswerving belief that the law is fear and pain is duty and shame is necessary to grind the edge off the spirit and blunt it into submission. This is humiliation of a darker kind. The real world perhaps." (p.10) So maybe this sadism has a larger implication. As a child he could recognise it as relevant to the rest of life and present in wider society. Little Ralph clearly wanted to do something about it.

He considers what art means to him and what drives him. So much of his work is satirical, grotesque and even cruel. But only to people who deserve it. "What need provokes my drawing apart from the serious one of making money?" (Hats off to him for acknowledging the monetary component which so many artists pretend is not a consideration.) "If that were the only reason I would have tried to please people, so maybe I'm a crusader of some kind, hell bent on changing the world for good or ill. A pompous thing to say, but you need people like me." (p.11) Pompous, obviously. Although, in light of his experiences of authority and the value placed on public ridicule in his early years, we can see the need for subversion. To Steadman provocation, and basic questioning of the merit of an authority can come from an outsider.

Steadman writes often of the danger and power in art. He describes certain ideas as a kind of cultural tyranny. "...We are still the victims of cultural tyranny just as we are the victims of the bomb. Once thought of and created it cannot be obliterated." (p.14) This relates to Richard Dawkins' Meme theory, where ideas infect culture like a virus, and they can't simply be brushed off. Now we have Ralph Steadman's art, now his satire has split the atom and pulled the rug out from under politicians, who has power now?

Maybe it's artists? "Negative attitudes to art begin in school. Art is not taken seriously because it has no apparent rules. We are declaring ourselves non-rational beings, ie. people who intuitively act upon impulses without rhyme or reason." Some value can be found in art but only if, as artists, "we can be seen to be exploiting an intangible flair in a way that brings gainful employment." Anything that strays from that is considered by the authorities of society as devious and wasteful. So is rebellion threatening?

For Steadman art is "dangerous, in societies eyes, useless". (p.21) Both powerful and seismic, but also spoken of and taught as if it is an idle occupation and impotent.

How do you become an artist, then, if you want to defy society and move outside of it? Steadman has the answer. Art school is not necessary, as Steadman points out they too often fail to teach even how "to draw a circle around a plant pot" (p.21) and providing you can focus the mind, you can do it yourself in three or four years

"A discipline achieved early on should become as automatic as breathing or talking. And the discipline of drawing is the finest. A savage two or three years is imperative. No creativity. Drawing forces you to look and an artist needs to do that more than anything short of thinking. But drawing will stimulate that too. Then give yourself a break and waste a year in total anarchy. Vent that precious creativity you have nurtured for so long and find out what you might have to offer - bearing in mind that the unsuspecting world does not give a rats flash." (p.21)

Not so impossible or mysterious, really. Work on a skill with single-minded and obsessive discipline. Then smash it open to see what creativity you have brewed underneath it all. You could do what Steadman did and take mushrooms and meet Hunter S. Thompson in America of all the God forsaken places on this earth. Ralph met Hunter at the races. They were working on an article for Rolling Stone magazine. "I had been watching someone chalk racing results on a black board whilst I finished my beer, and was about to turn and get another when a voice like nothing I'd ever heard before cut into my thoughts, sank its teeth into my brain. It was a cross between a slurred karate shop and gritty molasses." (p.65). This meeting, of course iconic, would stimulate. ..."an inactive nerve in me. He exposed me to the screaming lifestyle of America. The raw violence. My drawing became stronger, less flacid. He helped me to recognise my real targets - the Nixons of this word, the natural caricatures of life." (p.142).

He loves poetry, as all rebels do. Although poetry must be controlled. It's power is undeniable. "I have watched poems stand about, waiting to pounce. It is worse then mugging. A horrible sight. An attacked person will run out into the street and shout. He may even curse the system and leave home taking your daughter with them."

The poetry revolution should be televised. Maybe the BBC should take to broadcasting poems regularly. Steadman imagines a blissful world:
"The confusion would be indescribable. A nation would stop in it's tracks and pick flowers for neighbours. Cars would jam in thick traffic and their drivers disgorge and shake hands. Strikes would be unnecessary for nobody would work. Life would be too good to miss. Each day would be lived without a plan and each moment savoured like new wine. Each sunset would be a revelation and a promise for tomorrow. Everybody would make love. Even the sick." (p.156)

So after Steadman, where can we go? Once thought of and created his work cannot be obliterated. I know I can't unsee these lines, unfeel their violence. So what should I do? In 1984, Steadman imagines the future. "We live in a time when the world needs a powerful injection of hope and personal achievement. Nothing cynical will serve purpose now. Nothing smart-arsed or gross will do. It must seem real, weird, extraordinary, but within our reach." (p.236)

I can't help but think of Hunter's old adage, from 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' (1971) that when the going get weird, the weird turn pro. 'Between the Eyes' collects some of Steadman's beautiful draughtsmanship, his most grotesque assaults on the charlatans at the top who were (and always are) out for themselves, and some of the incredible stories he collected from travelling across the world for work and play. In it, he rallies the rebels and outsiders to work harder, to push further, to get weirder and, if the chemistry of single-minded obsession and happy happenstance are balanced just so, turn pro.