Design At A Price

Design At A Price

     London’s Design Museum has long been a vagabond of the cultural world. Starting life in 1984 as the Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum, it moved five years later to a banana-ripening warehouse on the Thames near Tower Bridge. But the need for more space soon became clear, and last week it opened on new premises: the late lamented Commonwealth Institute off Kensington High Street. The museum’s founder, Sir Terence Conran, describes it as a ‘magnificent new cathedral of design’, and declares this to be the proudest moment of his long career.

The contrast with the collection’s previous home could hardly be greater. ‘Bauhaus-on-Thames’, as it was sometimes described, was a white-walled, flat-roofed, rectilinear building whose picture windows constantly led your gaze away from the exhibits and towards the river. The new museum, with its blue-grey exterior, is a symphony of curves – and although it overlooks Holland Park, the focus is inwards and upwards, towards its extraordinary roof. The architectural term for this structure is a hyperbolic parabola, which means that it manages to combine a convex axis with a concave one: from the outside it has often been compared to a tent, and from the inside to a manta ray.

John Pawson, who redesigned the interior, has a metaphor of his own for the atrium: ‘an open-cast mine’. Lined with pale oak and speckled beige marble, it gives an uninterrupted view of the concrete ceiling and its supporting stilts; access is via a series of glass-fronted terraces linked by high-sided staircases, so that as you ascend you are constantly seeing the curves above from a new angle.

It’s an extravagant use of space, but – unlike at Tate Modern – it doesn’t leave the galleries squeezed into poky, claustrophobic corners. The double-height basement (which opens with an exhibition of nominees for the Beazley Designs of the Year awards) is particularly generous. Another good-sized temporary exhibition can be housed on the ground floor, while at the top of the building is a permanent display aimed at visitors unfamiliar with the concept of design, encompassing everything from the first fitted kitchen – created in Germany in1926 – to an Anglepoise lamp and a AK47.  The museum also manages to fit in a 200-seater auditorium, a large events room, an educational centre, a shop, a coffee and juice bar, and a restaurant – which, if the chef knows his onions, could become as fashionable as its Thames-side predecessor, the Blueprint Café.

At the opening press conference, much emphasis was placed on the rescue of a great venue which had been on the verge of rack and ruin. Unveiled in 1961, the Commonwealth Institute was rated by English Heritage as the most important modernist building in London after the Royal Festival Hall (the two were designed by the same architect, Robert Matthew); but in 2002 the Institute closed and the structure was left to decay, with rain leaking in through the famous roof. The site was eventually bought by property developers, who welcomed the Design Museum in return for permission from Kensington and Chelsea Council to build three blocks of flats beside it.

We must be grateful that the building still exists and has been put to such good use. Aesthetically, however, the price has been appalling, because what made the Commonwealth Institute such an extraordinary experience for visitors was not just its futuristic, sky-blue façade and Thunderbirds-style interior walkways but the approach to it from Kensington High Street: a wonderfully imaginative piece of landscaping by Sylvia Crowe with lawns, trees, open water and a forest of flagpoles – one for every Commonwealth nation. Now almost all of that has gone to accommodate the unremarkable flats, leaving just enough room for a cramped little courtyard and a half-hearted fountain to remind us of a lost urban paradise. The museum, consequently, is like an elephant without its trunk and tusks: impressive, but not thrilling.

Inside, however, some of the original features have been preserved, such as the stained-glass windows framing photographs of life in different parts of the Commonwealth; and there are other, more surprising echoes of the past. The ‘Fear and Love’ exhibition, running until April, consists of eleven installations commissioned from leading international designers to explore ‘a spectrum of issues that define our time’ – among them the wastefulness of the fashion industry, the use of social media to search for love and sex, and the settlement of nomads in cities. But looking at Ma Ke’s selection of textiles woven on traditional wooden looms, André Jacques’ video about dating apps –   shot to look like old Technicolor stock – and Rural Urban Framework’s glorified yurt, you feel a strange sense of familiarity. Where might we have come across things like this before? That’s right – in the Commonwealth Institute half a century ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

Richard Ford’s Canada

Richard Ford’s Canada

     To most Europeans, the differences between the USA and Canada seem minimal. They occupy a single landmass; the inhabitants speak English with similar accents; they wear the same clothes and enjoy the same pursuits. If pressed, we might observe that Canada is emptier and (as Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine) its people are less likely to shoot each other – but that’s about it.

So it’s interesting, and educational, to read a novel in which Canada defines otherness. For the narrator, Dell Parsons, it’s a place of exile, a diversion from the life he was supposed to lead.

The book begins with Dell and his twin sister, Berner, living quietly with their parents in Montana. Their father has given up a career in the Air Force to become a car salesman, but proves ill-suited to the job; when he runs into financial trouble, he persuades their mother – a teacher – to help him rob a bank. The plan fails, and in the aftermath Dell finds himself driven across the border and given shelter of the most basic kind in a small town in the middle of nowhere. There he is taken up by another exile, Arthur Remlinger, who owns the main hotel; but before long Dell finds that he has jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

I have long believed Richard Ford to be the greatest living American novelist – an F. Scott Fitzgerald with lower social horizons but the same perfection of narrative tone and gift for wise generalisations about life and human nature. Canada, however, doesn’t find him at his best. Its main fault – oddly for an author who embraces a pared-down, low-key style – is that it gives us too much information, explaining and elaborating when this is completely unnecessary. Most obviously, Dell refers throughout the 400-odd pages to ‘Berner, my sister’, as if we could possibly have forgotten his relationship to this key character; and when, at an anxious moment, his mother passes the time by cleaning the bath tub, he adds as an aside ‘which Berner always left dirty’. Does this contribute to our understanding of Berner, or anything else? No.

The unfolding of the plot, meanwhile, is low-key to the point of perversity. It has dramatic – not to say sensational – elements aplenty: not just the robbery, but suicide, incest and a double murder. Ford chooses, however, to tell us far in advance what’s going to happen (whether the robbery will succeed, who’s going to die), so that the tension is minimal. Reading Canada, I wondered at times whether he was lapsing into self-parody, as Anthony Powell did at the end of his career in The Fisher King.

Having said that, the book gets better as it goes along. There’s an obvious change of gear halfway through, when Dell arrives in Canada: Ford’s evocation of the bleak, almost abandoned township in which he finds himself is mesmerising, and the enigmatic Arthur Ramlinger is a chilly, fascinating character. As for the final few chapters, which bring us up to date with Dell’s subsequent life, they are really excellent – above all in their brave and wise contemplation of death.

After putting the book down, I found myself wondering how many other novels had been given the name of a real country. Kafka’s America was the only one that came to mind. Curiously, he wrote it without having visited the place, and one can’t help wishing him alive to see its present state. Perhaps only he could do justice to Trumpland; or will Richard Ford’s next novel prove otherwise?

Stories To Die For

Stories To Die For

     The American publishing house Scribner recently announced that it planned to issue ‘the last complete unpublished stories’ of F. Scott Fitzgerald in April. To fans of Fitzgerald, such news would once have brought unalloyed excitement; but after the damage done to Harper Lee’s reputation by Go Set a Watchman, one can’t help feeling apprehensive. Will I’d Die for You (as the collection is to be called) remind the world that his stories are as entrancing as his novels, or will it expose unimagined shortcomings?

Scribner declares that the stories ‘provide new insight into the bold and uncompromising arc of Fitzgerald’s career’ and include pieces he could not sell because ‘their subject matter or style departed from what editors expected’. They deal with ‘controversial topics, depicting young men and women who actually spoke and thought more as young men and women did, without censorship’.

The key question is how Scribner defines ‘controversial’. It is not as if Fitzgerald presented a sanitised view of the world: though rightly celebrated as a great romantic writer, what gives strength and credibility to his work is that he never overlooks the mundane and seamy side of life. The most prevalent themes in the already published stories are disillusionment and the power of alcohol to wreck people’s lives: in The Rich Boy it comes between the protagonist and the girl he should have married, in May Day it leads to violent death. Nor does Fitzgerald shy away from sex: his unsparing dissections of married life, such as Two Wrongs and The Rough Crossing, have adultery as a central theme, while his most substantial novel, Tender Is the Night, hinges on the greatest taboo of all – incest.

But he was not entirely wedded to realism, and what is particularly interesting about the short stories is that they venture into a realm which has almost no place in his novels: the Gothic. His best-known story, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, is a case in point. As a portrait of a family rich enough to buy anything on earth, it is clearly the wealth-obsessed author’s ultimate fantasy, and he delights in cataloguing their extravagances, such as an ebony-roofed limousine upholstered in cloth of gold. But what seems at first a simple jeu d’esprit has a darker side: the family is served by slaves, and those who discover the source of their wealth must be silenced. The fantasy ends in mayhem and madness.

Some tales belong directly to the ghost- and horror-story tradition: The Cut-Glass Bowl focuses on a wedding present with a curse, while A Short Trip Home involves an encounter with a dead man. Where Fitzgerald makes the genre his own, however, is in stories which  combine the disturbing with exuberant comedy. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is remarkable not only for its inspired premise (Benjamin is born as an old man and grows younger as the years pass) but also for its hilarious satire: the hero is initially branded a cad for ignoring the laws of nature, but overcomes opposition to his marriage by financing his father-in-law’s pet project – ‘his History of the Civil War in twenty volumes, which had been refused by nine prominent publishers’. The brilliance of The Lees of  Happiness – the tale of a man and a woman bound together by their devotion to a stroke victim – lies in the way Fitzgerald gradually modulates the narrative tone in the course of its two dozen pages: opening with an almost Dickensian facetiousness, it turns first to more subtle comedy, then to sober realism, and finally to deep pathos.

His short stories are also remarkable for giving centre stage to seedy characters who would merit only walk-on parts in the high-society world of his novels – above all Pat Hobby, the roguish Hollywood screenwriter who appears in no fewer than seventeen tales.

But the cardinal reason for reading anything by Fitzgerald is the pure beauty of his prose, evoking the elusive and the evanescent, marrying the physical to the abstract, as in Winter Dreams:

‘Later in the afternoon the sun went down in a riotous swirl of gold and varying blues and scarlets, and left the dry, restless night of Western summer. Dexter watched from the veranda of the Golf Club, watched the even overlap of the waters in the little wind, silver molasses under the harvest-moon…It was a mood of intense appreciation, a sense that, for once, he was magnificently attuned to life and everything about him was radiating a brightness and glamour he might never know again.’

If anything in I’d Die for You comes close to that, it will have been worth the 80-year wait.

How Not To Write

Method not approved by Ardleevan Press

No, no, no!

I’ve just been sent a photo on Twitter of a 21st-century author at work. She’s standing upright in front of her desk, tapping away at a keyboard while staring at an enormous computer screen, with electric wires all around her. I can’t think of a less appealing way to work. I know that too much sitting is bad for us, but so is too much standing – Michael Morpurgo used to write in that position, and it played havoc with his feet, so now he writes in bed instead. (He is not alone in this: as a schoolboy I attended a talk by Michael Holroyd, who revealed that he did the same. It made a great impression on me.)

But more importantly, I see writing as an organic process which should have as little to do with machines as possible. Yes, I sometimes write on a computer, but never anything important: if it requires real thought, I reach for pen and paper. (The pen, since you ask, is a battered fountain pen filled with blue-black ink.)

Why? First, because I love the sound and feeling of nib on paper and the gleam of the ink before it dries. But I also believe that the computer is a temptation to laziness: because you know it’s easy to change a sentence or paragraph, you find yourself thinking whenever you run into difficulties, ‘I’ll come back and sort that out later.’ With pen and ink you’re much more likely to stick with it and try to get it right first time – though that doesn’t mean you can’t come back and do some polishing (at which point you can examine your crossings-out to see whether you really chose the right form or words).

Of course, you’ll have to type the whole thing out eventually, but I see this as a valuable part of the editing process: because it looks so different from your handwritten draft or drafts, you can look at it with fresh eyes.

Make sure, though, that you have a spare pen: if you only have one, and come to see it as invaluable, the consequences of losing it could be disastrous. I divide my loyalty between a battered blue Parker and a much newer bright red Lamy. And a final tip: photograph each page as you finish it, just in case your manuscript – or computer – goes up in smoke.

Carpe Diem

Carpe Diem

The cover of Anthony Gardner's novel Fox, published by Ardleevan Press

The cover of Anthony Gardner’s novel Fox, published by Ardleevan Press

When I started this website, it was with the intention of promoting other people’s books rather than my own. But now that a novel called Fox by Anthony Gardner has been published by Ardleevan Press (a beautiful illustrated hardback costing £17.99), it seems perverse not to say anything about it. Visiting http://www.ardleevanpress.com will give you a sense of it, but in the meantime here is the first review, by Simon Humphreys in the Mail on Sunday – and a wonderful one it is.

‘Christophe Hardy, a biochemist working in China, uncovers a plot to sell an invasive Chinese surveillance system, called the Mulberry Tree, to the British Government. Meanwhile, in Europe, fear of fox flu has led to a resurgence of foxhunting.

‘Set in the very near future, Anthony Gardner’s second novel is a gentle, engaging and topical satire on our surveillance society and on British subservience to the Oriental superpower. It involves many shady goings-on, chases and escapes, and an exciting denouement in the Northumbrian countryside. Gardner is a natural storyteller who writes with great skill, nuance and wry humour. Highly recommended.’

Alan Clark’s Diaries

When the London Library magazine asked me to contribute an article to their Bibliotherapy series, I thought long and hard before saying yes. Against the idea was the fact that they don’t pay their contributors, and I still resent the massive hike in the subscription which was enforced a couple of years ago; on the other hand, I like the editor, Mary Scott – and it was an opportunity to write about a book (or series of books) that I’ve thought about a good deal. In the end the ayes had it, and here is the piece:

     Recently I found myself explaining to a teenager why people become grumpy as they grow older. ‘When you’re young,’ I said, ‘you look around you and think, “The world is a mess – but never mind, one day our generation will be in charge, and we’ll do things better.” Then eventually the time comes when your generation is [italics] in charge – or at least, certain members of it are; and guess what? They make just as much as a mess of it as their predecessors – and the awful thing is that you can’t see any way of stopping them.’

It is in this frame of mind that I reach for Alan Clark’s Diaries – because they remind me, in the most entertaining way, that however frustrating and ridiculous the world of politics may seem to a layman, it is even worse for an insider.

The diaries’ cardinal virtues are their candour and self-awareness. I suspect that if I had met Clark, I would have dismissed him as a spoilt, arrogant womaniser with alarmingly right-wing views; but on the page his openness to his own faults makes him tolerable and even endearing. ‘Fool, Clark,’ is his habitual cry as he chronicles another error of judgement or lapse into temptation. His account of trying to give a House of Commons speech after attending a wine-tasting is a classic.

Clark has the rare gift of writing amusingly about tedium, and what comes across most strongly is the sheer dullness of the daily grind in ‘the bloody House of C, being yerr’d at the Box by a lot of spiteful drunks, on subjects that bore and muddle me’. A Minister’s lot is slightly better than a backbencher’s, but he is still ‘a zombie in invisible handcuffs’, at the mercy of civil servants who vie to fill every spare moment with unnecessary meetings.

Not that there is a shortage of intrigue: Clark’s record of Mrs Thatcher’s fall will endure for as long as there are daggers to be drawn. What is fascinating is that the habitual objects of his animosity are his fellow Conservatives, while Labour and SDP opponents are accorded grudging admiration. A political party is a monster that eats itself.

Of the three volumes, the first to be published – covering the years 1983 to 1992 – is the best. In its prequel, Into Politics, Clark is a bit too full of himself, while the posthumous Last Diaries suffer from self-consciousness. But together the trio describe a Faustian arc: seduced by the political world, he sees through its hollowness and eventually finds the courage to resign, only to find that he can’t live without it; he sets about getting re-elected, and succeeds, but by then it is too late – he is too old and ill to achieve anything. Ah, Mephistopheles!

The quintessential episode is that of the Fur Labelling Order. An ardent animal-lover, Clark puts his all into legislation which will highlight the cruelty of leg-trapping. But as luck would have it, Mrs Thatcher’s constituency is home to some influential furriers, and she is about to make an official visit to Canada. She asks him to drop the issue, and to his bitter shame he does.

Only when he escapes the fetid corridors of power and engages with the natural world does Clark feel fully himself. Flying over Canada, he meditates on the terror of the Northern Ice-cap, ‘So utterly lifeless and bleak. In the desert there would at least be foxes and insects and little roots waiting to be nurtured by the rain. But the Polar route is all ice cliffs, and pale chasms of depth unknown.’ The beauty of that final sentence flashes from the page, reminding us of what will endure long after Secretaries of State have been forgotten – and that poets are the true legislators of the world.

    

Keats’s Grave

I wrote this for the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association (which cares for the house in Rome where Keats died) in order to promote its new Young Romantics writing prize for teenagers:

Burying a Protestant in nineteenth-century Rome was a dangerous business. Such was the hostility to non-Catholics that the authorities insisted on their funerals taking place at night; sometimes the mourners had to be protected by soldiers. So it was before dawn on 26th February 1821 that John Keats’s body was taken through the city.

If you visit the Protestant Cemetery today, you won’t find Keats’s name on his gravestone. Despairing of recognition for his work, he asked for the simple inscription ‘Here lies one whose name was writ on water’ – though his friends added a reference to ‘a young English poet’ and his ill-treatment by his countrymen. You have to turn to the stone beside his, inscribed to Joseph Severn, ‘Devoted friend and deathbed companion of John Keats’, for a positive ID.

The grave isn’t even in the best part of the cemetery. While Shelley’s ashes are buried in a quiet, shady spot, Keats lies in an exposed corner with the noise of a main road in the background. But many of those who have visited it over the past two centuries have felt it to be – as Oscar Wilde did – ‘the holiest place in Rome’.

They’re still coming. Such is their eagerness to stand on the edge of the grave (though you can read the headstone easily enough from the path) that it has just had to be re-turfed and repaired. The dozen mourners who followed the 25-year-old poet’s coffin early on that February morning can hardly have imagined such a thing.

As for Keats, I wonder if anyone who wrote his own epitaph ever got it more completely wrong. Only, perhaps, Shelley’s Ozymandias.